Trees Planted by Water: What Can We Learn from Josh Harris?

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The tree in the cover photo may not look like anything special, but in certain circles it’s actually pretty famous. It all started when a young man buried a box of love letters in his girlfriend’s front yard. Years later, he used planting this tree as his excuse to dig up the same plot of ground, reveal the box of letters, and ask the girl to marry him. That girl was my older sister, that tree was in the front yard of my childhood house, and that story was made famous by appearing in a certain book: Joshua Harris’s Boy Meets Girl.

Josh Harris has been an influential figure in the world of Christian romance for the past couple of decades. He is best known for his first book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which he critiqued the concept of casual dating and advocated for a more traditional “courtship” model instead. About a year ago, however, Josh co-produced a documentary called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which he re-evaluated the ideas he once put forward in his books. He explored many of the things he now believes his book got wrong, interviewed individuals who were hurt by it, and ended with an apology to these people. In more surprising news, this former relationship guru recently announced his impending divorce, followed by a confession that he no longer considers himself a Christian.

This can all be very confusing to those of us who were once fans of Josh’s work. While I’ve certainly come to see flaws in the so-called “purity culture” that Josh’s books helped to foster, I must admit I didn’t foresee him making such a complete 180. What happened? Were Josh’s ideas about romantic relationships all wrong? Was he off base from the beginning if his own marriage—and now, apparently, even his faith—couldn’t stand the test of time?

Shortly after Josh’s announcement came out, I visited my childhood house and found myself gazing at that “famous” tree, pondering the whole situation. As I did, a thought came to my mind. There is one detail about that tree that most people don’t know: the original tree from that story actually died many years ago. Soon after my sister and her now-husband planted it, a drought struck the area; despite their best efforts to keep it watered, the young tree did not survive. They replanted on the same spot, and this is the tree that stands there today. As I considered this little-known fact, it struck me as somewhat metaphorical that just as the original tree had died—breaking some of the romance of its storyline—the romantic appeal of Josh’s seemingly great marriage was now being shattered as well, perhaps along with all the relationship ideals he once espoused.

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And yet, another metaphor seemed to fit even better: the story of my own marriage. My husband and I were both familiar with Josh’s books when we started our relationship, and we followed his advice to a T. My husband asked my dad about courting me before I even knew he was interested. He kept a safe relational distance from me until our interactions were officially sanctioned, and we didn’t go anywhere one-on-one until we had full approval for courtship. We took our time before we used the words “I love you,” and we did not have our first kiss until our wedding day.

In the eyes of the purity culture, we did pretty much everything right. And our resulting marriage was great . . . at first. A few years and a few children down the road, however, it became increasingly apparent how much our relationship—and we as individuals—needed work. Despite our seemingly ideal courtship, we brought many sins and character flaws into our marriage: selfishness, pride, impatience, laziness, legalism, and others. We found areas of our beliefs that didn’t make sense anymore, including a few regarding courtship. At times, we felt a bit like that young tree—weary, disillusioned, and struggling for survival.

And yet, by God’s grace, we persevered. We uprooted the beliefs that didn’t seem to line up with Scripture. We dug more of our ugliness out of the darkness and brought it into the light. Over time, we set down new roots together, learning to accept one another for who we were rather than who we wished each other to be. And in an ever-ongoing process, we strive to allow God to prune us, to snip away at those areas of sin in our lives.

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We don’t say all this to pat ourselves on the back or to compare ourselves to Josh and his wife. We have no way to know all the things they’ve been through or all the reasons why they’ve come to this place in their relationship and beliefs. Rather, we hope our story illustrates a few general points.

First, our story shows that following a particular plan for a premarital relationship does not guarantee a happy, healthy marriage. Many former fans of Josh Harris believed his advice would inevitably lead to wedded bliss; now they blame him for their disappointment (in divorce, singleness, etc.). But I don’t think his advice itself was necessarily at fault; I still believe his ideas had an overall positive effect on my early relationship with my husband. Yet those guidelines could not, in themselves, lay a solid foundation for our marriage; they were an inadequate source. Unfortunately, many people relied too heavily on such sources: Josh and other leaders, a set of rules, or the hope of marriage itself. When we follow any sort of guide in place of Scripture and the Holy Spirit, we are bound for disappointment. Extra-biblical advice will fall short; leaders will make mistakes and sometimes fall into disaster. And if we place our hope in anything other than Christ, we will eventually shrivel up and die, like that tree searching in vain for water during a drought.

Secondly, I see that God is more than willing to give us a second chance (Lam. 3:22-23). I think one reason the purity movement was so popular was that parents saw the relationship mistakes made in our culture—mistakes they had often made in the past—and wanted to protect their children from the pain and consequences of those bad choices. Unfortunately, they tended to rely on external boundaries rather than dealing with the root issues (our sinful nature, lack of self-control, etc.) and placed too much emphasis on external performance. The result, then, was a great fear and heavy judgment of failures. What the purity movement often neglected was the fact that no matter when, where, or how badly we fail, God’s grace can redeem our mess and give us a fresh start. No, we never want to “keep sinning so that grace may abound,” and yes, there will often be consequences for our actions. But God is always able to help us replant—to bring beauty from our ashes.

Finally, what matters most in any relationship (and life in general!) is that we have a solid system of roots drawing strength from the right Source. Again, leaders and guidelines will fail, but “the man who trusts in the Lord […] is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, […] and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8). When the difficult days (or months, or years) set in, whether in marriage or elsewhere, the only way to survive is with a solid foundation beneath us. We must drink deeply from the Scriptures by asking the Spirit to guide our understanding and, like the Bereans, test the words of spiritual leaders against Scripture to see if what they say is accurate (Acts 17:11). I have no doubt that my marriage would not be what it is today if not for the roots that have kept us grounded in Christ during times of struggle.

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What does this mean for Josh Harris and his ideals? I believe there is a fair amount of his relationship advice that can still be considered wise. But I do think he was right in many of the critiques in his documentary, and I believe it is always dangerous to take words such as his as Gospel. As for his marriage and his faith, I can only hope and pray that he can dig up any roots in his life that have proved fruitless and allow God to grow his faith anew.


Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of author.

5 thoughts on “Trees Planted by Water: What Can We Learn from Josh Harris?

  1. I was never wound up in the “purity” culture, but surely folks understand the alternative is not compelling either. Suppose you meet someone in college that you are smitten with, you are immediately intimate, and even move in together. Can you seriously say that you had a sufficient glimpse of what an entire life with someone would be like in that period, that you will have the practical wisdom after those experiences to *know* whether you could survive the long haul or not? Nope. My husband always says that the secret to a durable relationship is falling in love with someone over and over again. You can’t do that without grace. If you can’t live with someone you have spent over two decades with, that has nothing to do with how far you went before your vows and everything to do with what you’ve let into your life since then.

    Frankly, I have developed a strong distaste for all of these Christian “self-help” authors. I don’t understand why Christians don’t understand that they have become a marketplace and that self-promotion is not ministry. Many of the strongholds of evangelical culture have been colonized by nihilists, and the vapidness of Christian self-help books reflects that. Rule number one of following Christ is that it’s not about you. People need to stop throwing money at these people, stop making religion be about their feelings. Heck, there is Christian dieting advice now. You don’t need anyone to tell you what a proper relationship with God is about. You have Scripture. To me, that is where the sin and vulnerabilities in the Christian community begin. No Christian needs a guru for anything.


  2. We had the same result after a fairly ideal courtship: we got a few years in and hit rough waters. We had to learn to grow up and communicate and forge our own beliefs. I personally don’t think that the purity culture prepared its devotees for this reality; but in the end, nothing except experience really can. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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