The need to address sexual sin in our churches has never been more important. Check out our main article from our Spring 2016 magazine newsletter (“Living Faithfully with our Bodies: It Still Matters, But the Church Must Help”). It makes a persuasive case for why a whole church commitment is needed to help sexual strugglers. To be effective and powerful, good theology must always move into people’s lives. As was said in the main article, “Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.” What is needed are brothers and sisters to come alongside, partner with, and help strugglers walk in God’s truth.
This is why Harvest USA has developed a program called Partner Ministries. Increasing freedom from sexual sin cannot happen outside the body of Christ, and we want to equip and train churches to be that body that graciously and compassionately comes alongside strugglers with the mercy and truth of Jesus Christ.
Our Partner Ministries team seeks to do exactly what our name describes. We want to partner with churches in ministry to sexual strugglers. We recognize this is a hard area of ministry and that more specific training is often necessary—and that is what we can provide.
What does a Partner Ministry with Harvest USA look like?
Unlike our other seminars and training events, establishing a Partner Ministries connection with Harvest USA is an ongoing relationship. We want to be a resource for your church that you can access to continually improve your own ministry to sexual strugglers. How does this relationship develop?
- We meet with your key pastors and leaders to discuss what your church needs for establishing a ministry to sexual strugglers and develop with you a ministry plan.
- Before we come to your church for training, we’ll prime the pump with your key volunteers by sending you some of our resources to help get them thinking.
- We come out to your church and do an intensive weekend training where we will equip your people on how to do sexual brokenness ministry, from understanding how sexual brokenness develops all the way through how to set up and run biblical support groups for men and women.
- After that training, your church has ongoing access to our latest resources, including print and video resources, along with quick access to one of our ministry staff if your church needs a quick answer or is dealing with a crisis situation.
- We’ll also keep in touch with you periodically to see how things are going, provide feedback, and be available to come back to your church for further teaching and training.
Interested? Got questions? Email Brooke Delaney at [email protected], and she will send you our Partner Ministries booklet to get you and your church started.
Standing in front of a crowd of young Christians at an urban church, John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, talked about the need for faithful believers to live with sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. A young man interrupted him with, “You must be kidding! You can’t expect us to live like that today! It’s not possible! ”
While taken aback by the interruption, John thanked him for his honesty and proceeded to tell the crowd, “Yes, God expects that from you. He will give you what you need to live like that. Your life will be much richer for it.”
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul stood before a group of believers and delivered much the same message. His letter to the church in Thessalonica hints that Paul received similar pushback.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, ESV)
If the church today is going to help her people live faithfully, we need to follow Paul’s example in two ways. First, we must not retreat from proclaiming the importance of living within God’s design for sexuality. Second, we must go beyond proclamation to actively teach people how to walk in sexual integrity. Both of these must go together, or the church will fail in her duty to be a redemptive community where men and women grow into the character of Christ.
Paul proclaimed that how we live with our bodies matters, and our struggle to live faithfully in these bodies is a battle God wants us to fight.
The importance of living with sexual integrity is stressed seven times by Paul. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live sexually is a barometer of our faith.
Verse 2: For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. Here Paul reminds the church of his past instruction to them, instruction that was not mere personal opinion.
Verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . Here Paul links personal growth in faith with sexual integrity.
Verse 4: . . . that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness . . . Paul hints here at how hard this can be, and that we need to learn to do so.
Verse 5: . . . not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles . . . Paul exhorts them to not live like those who base their relationships and life on fleeting and changeable desires and emotions.
Verse 6: . . . that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . Sexual sin can deeply harm another person, and the Lord will not ignore selfishness and injustice.
Verse 7: “For God has called us . . . in holiness . . .” Sexual integrity is a specific call for all believers.
Verse 8: . . . whoever disregards this, disregards . . . God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Again, Paul says this is not his personal opinion and that God has given us help, the Holy Spirit, to enable and empower us to live faithfully.
“No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it alone.”
Paul’s emphasis counters cultural messages we hear about sex today. We hear that sex equals life, that a life lived without sex is tragic, and that our sexual identities define the core of who we are as human beings. But even for those who resist this cultural siren song, just living in this sexually-saturated world makes sexual integrity incredibly difficult.
Does it encourage you to know that this was difficult for first-century Christians also?
The situation in Thessaloniki existed at other churches as well. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addressed incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, sexual promiscuity, distorted views of sex within marriage, and same-sex attraction. But in the face of stark cultural differences (and, yes, probably protests from newcomers to the faith), Paul upheld the gospel on this matter. He didn’t flinch in saying how important sexual integrity was, even as he saw them struggle to attain it.
But Paul was not merely reinforcing the Old Testament moral law about sexual behavior, nor adding new rules to the early church. Yes, God’s moral law was not overturned in the new covenant, but now there is a far bigger picture to comprehend in Christ: Jesus has brought about a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection. Living in increasing holiness demonstrates that we are a part of this new life; we are part of a new creation bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. Therefore, God wants us to see something in this struggle for sexual integrity. He wants us to depend upon the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to us, to empower us to fight this battle, and he wants us to know that he embraces us even as we struggle.
The New Testament tells us there is no ideal, pure church. A faithful church will be one where strugglers are present, because Jesus came to save sinners. The church is where Jesus invites us to take his yoke and learn from him (Matthew 11:29). Learning takes time, progressing through stages of growth and maturation, with numerous detours of struggle and failure. But change and growth will come as we more fully grasp in our hearts the message of the grace and truth of the gospel.
But we will never get beyond this reality: A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.
Today, some use ever-present sexual struggles as evidence that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. God is still calling his people to holiness with their sexuality, according to his design. We are to pursue obedience even when we struggle—especially as we struggle. It has always been a fight worth fighting. To ignore this part of shepherding God’s people is to ignore what the entire New Testament thought was important—that how we live with our bodies matters.
But Paul goes beyond merely telling us that this is important. We need more than just words of expectation and exhortation.
So, beyond just telling believers that they need to live in a certain way, we see Paul willing to step into their struggles. Growing in sexual integrity requires the church’s involvement with strugglers.
Paul hints at this in the first verse when he introduces the subject of fighting for sexual integrity: Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you. . . that as you received from us. . .
Do you notice something in Paul’s appeal? This is not the language of command or a rebuke that says “Just stop it!” He does not simply tell people to do the right thing. Instead, he uses relational language. Paul addresses them as brothers and then appeals to them, We ask you and urge you. Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12)
You see, Paul knew these people. He loved them like a parent (like a mother and a father!). He knew his children because he spent time with them. He knew the fight was not easy, so he was willing to share his life with them. His presence with them went beyond just talking; his presence patiently walked with them as they learned to control their sexuality in order to honor their Savior.
The way to fight is in relationship. No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by fighting this battle alone. Sexual struggles and sin live in secrecy; they are killed by openness. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it dies when we are honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
“Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.”
The church becomes a presence with strugglers when she acknowledges that no one has it all together. The church becomes a place of safety and hope when it is honest about the struggles Christians face and about the love and tenderness that Jesus has toward broken people. There are four ways a church can cultivate and live out that truth.
One, we need to be real about all of our struggles with sex and sexuality
Let’s get honest. The church, like all of us, works hard to look good on the outside. When church leadership doesn’t specifically name the struggles people wrestle with, then people stay hidden, and no one receives the crucial help they need.
A woman once told a Harvest USA staff person that she was visiting a church where everyone dressed up and looked good. They weren’t a bit like her; she came from a tough background. She had struggled for a long time with addictions, both sexual and substance abuse. But just as she began feeling like she was wasting her time attending this church, she came across a notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with these struggles. Call _______ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captivated her. She decided to stay at that church, because their honesty about the Christian life displayed their dependency upon God for the grace to live openly.
Two, we need to become un-shockable about our struggles
The attitude a church takes either invites or hinders openness. Steve Brown of KeyLife Network says this beautifully: “I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the Internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us (this) ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. ” 1
Being un-shockable means that we don’t shame people to motivate change. That doesn’t work anyway. Being un-shockable means that we aren’t surprised by the depth of people’s sin either. If Jesus called Paul to himself, a man who decades after his conversion still called himself “the worst of sinners,” then we can also call men and women, no matter the depth of their sin, to find grace in Jesus as they live in our churches.
Three, we need to speak more of the “why” than of the “what” of sexual faithfulness
We need to go beyond merely saying what Scripture says: we also need to clearly articulate why God’s design for sex is good, why it makes sense, why it really is good for individuals, families, and for society. Simply knowing what the sexual boundary lines are is not enough—we need to articulate why we should live within these boundary lines.
This is the way to answer the young man who said sexual integrity was impossible. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we are saying learning to live within God’s gracious boundary lines—even when that might mean a celibate life—produces profoundly good fruit and, yes, even joys in that kind of life.
Four, we need to be lavish givers of mercy
Sexual struggles can go deep and persist for a long time. I love the story in Luke 7, in which Jesus eats at the house of a religious leader who is shocked when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute) stands behind Jesus, weeping, then covers his feet with her tears and pours a jar of expensive perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him because she was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. He did something that shocked the Pharisees even more—he forgave her and honored her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace came as a result of her experiencing forgiveness, of being shown undeserved mercy.
Only when the church ministers out of brokenness and forgiveness can we love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field. Helping one another toward sexual integrity then becomes a shared experience of grace.
One more thing about this story. Jesus was honest about this woman’s struggles: “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to the church. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with people who have a long history of sexual struggles. But if we increasingly love like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches and we’ll love them well.
When the church is real about sexual struggles, when she calls people to biblical faithfulness, and when she steps into the battle with strugglers, then the gospel will shine even brighter to a world which so needs it.
- Steve Brown, Foreword to Hide or Seek, When Men Get Real with God About Sex, by John Freeman (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), xii.
Feel free to comment on this article. You can also contact Nicholas at [email protected].
Robert Lynn, Associate Pastor, Knox Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Part of Harvest USA’s mission is to encourage and equip churches to reach out to individuals struggling with sexual brokenness and sin. Several years ago, two Harvest USA staff members traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to meet with the pastoral staff and present a seminar at Knox Presbyterian Church. Pastor Robert Lynn spearheaded this cooperative effort. He writes how God has since used him in the lives of strugglers and how he has reaped personal benefits. Here’s another blog post that will encourage you to lead a support group for men; you can read it here.
I recall some years ago, one of the pastors I serve with stopped me as we left a bi-weekly meeting. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “that you’ve really changed over the past eight months or so. You seem so much more relaxed and at ease. You’re taking things in stride in ways you didn’t use to…” The conversation went on a few minutes as he articulated the differences he noticed. I was taken by surprise, but it didn’t take long to see the significance of the eight-month time frame.
A bit of background might be helpful to understand this small tale of pastoral transformation. Eight years ago, I found myself in a difficult season of ministry for me. It was difficult to the point of me thinking, “I don’t want a new church. I want a new career!” The last half of 2007 was a time of tending to wounds, so if you had asked me at the beginning of 2008 how I was doing, my answer no doubt would have been, “Great.” And on many levels, God had done some wonderful heart work, but clearly the work wasn’t finished.
What happened in my life that took my healing to new depths. Quite literally, God opened a door, and one by one a string of men struggling with sexual sin entered my life. They’re still coming. I look back now and see that God was preparing me for all this—understandably, I couldn’t see that then.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new. It seems that I’m always talking about the gospel!
Second, there is growth and strengthening of my own faith—my own understanding of how Jesus is sufficient for the men and for me. When I begin to grasp that and stake my life on it, things begin to change. Jesus will meet all my needs; therefore, I do not need to trust in worldly things to find meaning or peace.
Third, there is an overflow of deep, deep joy. As I read the Psalms, David provides words that say it best, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7, ESV). How can fellow sinners get together with the Gospel at the center and not see an explosion of joy? If anything brings new vitality and passion for ministry, it’s Gospel-promised, cross-purchased, and resurrection-guaranteed joy.
Fourth, I have a new love for my fellow strugglers. In 401 AD, Saint Augustine wrote his friend Pammachius, “I have seen your inner being… Seeing this has made me know you, and knowing you has made me love you.” I have experienced this same truth. These men have all let me into their hearts to see their needs. I have seen Christ at work in them as we engage the Gospel. Seeing has made me know them and knowing them has made me love them.
Finally, I now realize how much a pastor needs strugglers. My personal struggles have been ministry wounds and anger, while theirs has been sex, but we each need Jesus desperately. To my surprise, I find that the one who points them to Jesus needs Jesus as much as any of them.
03 Feb 2016
I was camping out in Hebrews 11 recently. That’s the chapter where many of the heroes of the faith are listed. Three names immediately stuck out for me. First there is Abraham. Not once but twice, Abraham offers his wife, Sarah, to other men to sleep with to save himself. And when it seems the covenant promise of an heir won’t ever come true because of old age, Sarah suggests he sleep with her bondservant. He immediately says “okay.”
David is listed there—a man after God’s own heart. But we know he was also hotheaded and impetuous at times, often acting first and thinking later. He was a deceiver, murderer, and adulterer. He had at least six wives and several concubines.
Then there’s Sampson. What!? God, you’ve got to be kidding! Sampson? He was the Charlie Sheen of his day! His life was ruled by scandal. When he saw a beautiful Philistine girl, he told his parents, “Go get her for me.” They put up a little fight because God had forbidden the intermarriage of heathen people with the Israelites. Sampson basically said to them, “I don’t care—go get her for me.” Then we see that he visited houses of ill-repute. His love (lust?) for Delilah was almost the downfall of the emergent nation and was his ruin.
These are the kind of men counted among the great men of faith. It doesn’t make sense. How can it be when each was involved in sexual sin or approved of sexual misconduct? How could these men be those in whom God took pleasure?
The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too.
I think it means this. The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too. Yet God blesses men like this (like us) because he mixes his grace with our corruptions—as a rule, not an exception! It’s not about our sin, although he takes that extremely seriously; it’s about his grace.
In one of my favorite books, The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson, written in 1666, there is a chapter entitled, “Comfort to the Godly.” Honestly, I think it should have been entitled, “Comfort to the Scoundrels.” Watson says this,
“There are in the best of saints, interweavings of sin and grace; a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with much humility; much earthliness mixes with much heavenly-ness. Even in the regenerate there is often more corruption than grace. There’s so much bad passion that you can hardly see any good. A Christian in this life is like a glass of beer that has more froth (foam) than beer. Christ will never quench remnants of grace, because a little grace is as precious as much grace. As a fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of the soul.”
It’s true—this side of heaven, grace and holiness are always mixed with our corrupt hearts. But experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness should move us towards a growing desire to be holy. I find many men who come for help to our ministry erroneously thinking there will be a day when they won’t desire or want things that would take them down dark roads. They think their hearts are, one day, not going to want bad things—therefore, they spiral down into depression and hopelessness when they do! Our hope is not in perfection here, or even in freedom from temptation, but in the realization that faith and obedience is a real possibility, because of God’s grace.
In his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, John expands on this encouraging point that God takes us as we are and that even while he transforms our lives, he continues to work in us while we remain a mess of both corruptions and grace. Click this link to get the book.
At Harvest USA, we minister to people who know that their lives just aren’t working well. We don’t have to labor at convincing those who come here that they’re a mess, spiritually and sexually speaking! Men and women come in, so often with their spirits crushed, either from a lifetime of failed attempts to manage their own lives and struggles, or as someone whose family member struggles. The joy in their lives has gone out a long time ago.
Yet, I believe—and it’s what’s kept us ministering here these 30-odd years—that Jesus longs to meet us in our despair, in our deepest pits. I’m convinced that only the broken receive the gospel. When that happens, when we are most aware of our deepest need of Christ, is when he often shows up.
People have often asked us to tell them the one key thing we do to help others. There’s no secret. God brings people to the end of themselves and then into our office. For those who get serious about their situation, it’s always a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s here that they sit with everything that brought them here—the entire mess of their hearts and lives—and talk it through with our staff, those in their support groups, and particularly with the Lord himself. For however long it takes.
It’s in the setting of a caring, confidential, Christ-centered, supportive environment that God begins a process of growth and healing. It’s also the place where the love of Christ begins to capture hearts and where the other loves—the idols that capture our hearts—begin to dull in comparison!
What I’m talking about here is the unconditional acceptance of a community that doesn’t hold back, but that speaks encouraging, life-giving, and, at times, hard and serious words. Of course, the local church is God’s ordained place that this can and should take place. Our mission is to see that churches establish these groups, so email me and I’ll show you how it can be done!
If you were to ask me what central thing most indicates that a person’s life is beginning to change, I would say it’s the presence of a renewed sense of joy. For the sexual struggler, that often comes as a surprise. It doesn’t, however, just appear suddenly, without context. It’s not even just the result of getting a handle on one’s sexual struggle.
It’s the result of something else. It’s a by-product of something greater.
Tim Keller said, in a sermon on Galatians, “When we obey God, out of a grateful joy, that comes from a deep awareness of our status as children of God . . . then the idols which control our lives can be disempowered and we’re free to live for Christ.” This is an amazing statement in two ways.
First, it demonstrates that true obedience comes out of an awareness of joy-filled gratitude. But about what?
Our deep awareness of our status! He is talking here about our union with Christ. Our positional and legal status to God have changed because Jesus lived the totally obedient life we couldn’t ever live, and he paid the price for our sin with his own blood. We are now part of a new reality where everything is changed about us—who we are presently, and even, especially, where we will be in the future. In being united with Christ in his life and death, our standing and eternity are secure because of what he has accomplished.
Of course, the Holy Spirit initiates, joins, and administers this new standing, taking up residence in us, bringing a new vitality to us. This is true even as we learn to struggle against sin. The driving force of any new vigor for Christ is this union between Christ and our souls, which the Holy Spirit both starts and continues.
Second, it’s not just our union with Christ, which produces joy, but our ongoing communion with him. Union and communion go hand in hand. Our communion with Christ comes out of our faith-driven striving to grow in grace, based on our knowledge of and our union with him. In other words, we want to change because he has loved us and given us the power to change. This energizes us to put off sin and to walk in godliness. It’s a constant looking to Jesus for all things.
Pastor J.C. Ryle, in seeking to describe the relationship between union and communion, said this: “Union is the bud, but communion is the flower. He that has union with Christ does well; but he that enjoys communion with him does far better. . . both place a heavenly seed in our hearts, that enable us to draw out of him every hour.”
May this be so in your life as you look to him, who first looked at you and mercifully loved you.
16 Dec 2015
“I know in my head what Scripture says about homosexuality, but in my heart I sometimes struggle with that because I see students who are quite happy being gay. How do I reconcile these two?”
At the end of talking to 140 ministry interns, that’s the question someone asked me. It was June, in hot Atlanta, where the Student Outreach of Harvest USA spoke to Reformed University Fellowship interns about how to help college students with sexual struggles. They had all participated in RUF ministry while they were students and were now working with RUF as graduate interns. Ahead of them was a ministry with a student population in the thousands. These kinds of questions were the ones they needed to know how to answer.
The struggle this intern had is the same that many in the church face today, especially among our youth. Our society has normalized same-sex relationships, and it’s becoming easier to accept it and go with the flow. The biblical position on sexuality is now the one that looks out of place. RUF is a solid, evangelical student ministry organization, and yet as we travel to speak to lots of student ministers we see how they are wrestling with the impact of today’s swiftly-changing sexual mores. Their struggle shows how much they care about trying to connect the power of the gospel to the lives of those who are embracing our post-Christian culture.
The entire day was designed to address big questions like the one I got. Here’s another one: Why do we, as Christians, struggle with sexuality so much? Aren’t Christians supposed to be different?
Good question. The answer is that sexual struggles and sin don’t just happen by themselves; they’re connected to something deeper. We must look to the underlying factors that drive our behavior—the hidden motives of the heart. Even Christians struggle with a multitude of idols, good things we want in life that become things we feel we cannot live without. At some level we begin to believe God cannot meet the desires of our heart, and we turn to find life outside of God. We all need to know our own idols in order to effectively turn from them.
Another question these student interns will face: How can I help a student who keeps falling into sexual sin? Here we advised the interns to move towards sexual strugglers with empathy and compassion, in the same way that Jesus moves toward us. Good accountability relationships will be important for the struggler but ought to be grounded in grace and not legalism. Real change is not just about behavior, working hard to live differently; it’s finding life in Christ, where turning from sin is a response to God’s amazing grace to sinners.
Here’s the final question the RUF interns must answer today: What’s wrong with sexual behavior that is consensual and doesn’t hurt anyone? This is the post-modern justification for any and all sexual behavior (and is, frankly, what causes the struggle the student intern was talking to me about).
Here we tried to help the interns understand the worldviews that drive this postmodern understanding of sex, where truth is found only in your own personal life experience, and your sexual desires define the core of your identity. In contrast, the Christian worldview is that personal experience is not objective truth, but God’s Word is, and that Word tells us about our broken condition and of our desperate need for God. God has designed our sexuality for purposes greater than our own appetites, and love, without a moral standard, is too easily twisted into self-centeredness, even when two people want the same thing. Mutual self-centeredness as a core principle is brokenness, not health. But God’s love, when lived out in a marriage relationship between a husband and wife, displays a growing other-centered love that finds life in giving, as Christ demonstrated for us on the cross.
Cooper, my Student Outreach colleague, and I walked away from our time with RUF with a deepened sense of how today’s students are bombarded with an anything-goes sexuality that looks appealing but does not bring about the life God has for his creation. This necessity of our mission to equip churches to proclaim the goodness of Christ and his design for sexuality to emerging generations was only strengthened during our time with them.
Interested in getting Dan and Cooper and the Student Outreach staff to speak to your student leaders or parents? They can do that! Email [email protected].
To see what the Student Outreach is up to, click here for their webpage.
With the legalization of gay marriage, Christians more often find themselves invited to same-sex wedding ceremonies. This poses a dilemma for believers of whether to attend an event that celebrates a life-union that God nowhere approves of in Scripture.
Declining to attend seems like an easy solution. But because it involves friendships or family connections, the matter can be quite complex. The issue is more difficult if the wedding involves a child or other close family member. (For additional insights, read our mini book, Your Gay Child Says “I Do.”)
Reaching a decision will involve careful theological reflection, an understanding of your relationship with the one(s) getting married, and earnest prayer. Here are some things to think about that we hope can help you make a wise decision.
The space for this article is not sufficient to adequately examine the scope of Scripture on this matter, but here are three scriptural principles that should guide you.
Reaching a decision will involve careful theological reflection, an understanding of your relationship with the
one(s) getting married, and earnest prayer
- Be in the world but not of it. Knowing how to engage with the world is important for Christians. Being set apart from the world (who we are and how our lives reflect who we live for) is demonstrated by our living in the world. Loving and investing [time] in our neighbor is the means by which the world comes to know God.
- Freedom in Christ. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14 are key passages where Paul argues for the freedom of the believer to engage with others in society, centered around the contentious issue of that day: eating meat from an idol’s temple. For Paul, (Christian) freedom involves examining issues of motivation, concern for the impact on other believers, and the context of the situation (see 1 Corinthians 10: 23-33 and Romans 14:20-23). Freedom in Christ enables us to think through how our actions affect others.
- Faith/conscience. Paul’s conclusion in Romans 14 is that we decide on issues such as these based on conscience, and that if one remains unsettled, then it is wiser to not participate because it “is not from faith.” Christians can stand on both sides of difficult issues, so the freedom we have in Christ to discern how to live strategically in the world should move us to extend grace to those who decide differently.
After examining Scripture, which must be the basis for all decisions, here are some relationship issues that can guide you in making a decision.
- What is your current relationship to the person getting married?
Are they a casual co-worker, friend, distant relative, or someone with whom you have a closer relationship (like a family member)? Has the invitation been given to everyone in your office, department, or family? Or, has it been given to you because you have a closer relationship? These factors can help you determine how best to respond. For example, if the person is someone with whom you have a good friendship, then you are in a position to speak directly to him or her about the issue of attending. If your friend knows you are a Christian, then this becomes another opportunity (or maybe the first!) to discuss your faith and how that influences your decision.
- What would you be trying to convey by your attendance?
Some people make the distinction between supporting the person, whom they love and care about, and supporting the event, of which they don’t approve. In making this distinction, it can communicate that attendance is not an implicit approval of their marriage. This is a meaningful distinction. We do this constantly in our other relationships, communicating our differences but remaining involved in each other’s lives.
This distinction may depend on how vocal you have been about your faith. What kinds of conversations have you had? Do they know you are a Christian? Do they know your views about homosexuality? If so, your presence could actually “stun” them or really mess up the categories they may have about Christians like you? Christians, living intentionally by the gospel, can sometimes be confusing to people, causing them to rethink their positions and perhaps see new and bigger realities. That’s a good thing.
If you feel that attending would lend weight to your Christian witness, then you might go. Your attendance would be in line with your desire to pursue a relationship because you care for them, and you want to keep the relationship open to have further opportunities to share the gospel with them.
- What are you concerned about if you decide to attend?
Are you afraid that your attendance would communicate your approval? Or, are you afraid of explaining why you feel you cannot attend? Are you afraid you would not know how to act or how to talk with other guests, most who would support the marriage? There can be lots of fear involved in making this decision. Ask the Lord to guide you regarding all these issues. Fear or anxiety about disappointing someone is never a good motivator to make a decision. A better question is this: What response might cause further openness to the gospel?
- If you decide you cannot attend, could you substitute something else?
If you reach the conclusion that you cannot attend, you might consider an alternative response. For instance, giving a card or gift would still show your care for them and acknowledge that this was an important day for them (it was, but you don’t necessarily have to join in on the celebration).
If you are close to the person or couple, but still conclude that you cannot attend, then consider taking them out to lunch or dinner. Of course, this may be an uncomfortable get-together, especially if the person will feel hurt by your absence. But a quick follow-up may go a long way toward bringing understanding and another opportunity for you to share your faith. Another decision some people make is to not attend the wedding (because of the nature of wedding vows) but to attend the reception (if this is, of course, agreed upon by the wedding couple).
- Do one or both parties claim to be Christians?
Someone once said, “We shouldn’t expect Christian behavior from non-Christian people.” If the person or persons getting married are unbelievers, this doesn’t mean you have an unhindered green light to attend—but if someone claims to be a Christian and yet is in rebellion to God’s design and intention for how his people should live, and is celebrating it and inviting others to join in, then that is another matter.
Many would argue that even if one of the parties is a confessing Christian, attending would be entering into their delusion that the marriage union is fine with God and is sanctioned by him. But some will make the distinction that attending is not the same as approving.
As you can see, these are hard issues! Your decision must come from wrestling with Scripture, drenched in prayer, and discussed with close friends or family members. But know this: Your wrestling with this is itself evidence of your heart wanting to do the right thing to honor Christ and to open doors for the gospel. Realize that there is no ONE answer to this, but there is one thing you can count on: Like Jesus, you’ll probably be misunderstood regarding the implications of any choice you make. So, when you make your decision, know that you have made it on the basis of what will honor God, and be at peace on that basis.
Dr. Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling and Psychology, and the Director of the MA Counseling Program at Biblical Seminary. He is a long-time friend of Harvest USA (our own “Dr. Phil!”), and his popular blog, Musings of a Christian Psychologist, can be reached at http://wisecounsel.wordpress.com.
Desire in its best forms
God is a jealous, desiring God. How does one describe the unseen, all-knowing, omnipotent, ever-present God? Words and human experience can never do him justice. And yet, God uses words to teach us about himself. He is just, benevolent, holy, and sovereign. These descriptions evoke images of power, of needing nothing. God does not need anything, for in him everything obtains its life.
But notice, he does not only describe himself with terms of power and strength, but also with words that suggest desire and longing. God is not merely patient with us. No, he longs for us and would gather us to him as a hen would gather her chicks (Matthew 23:37). He pursues his wife (Israel) and hems her in even when she runs after other lovers (Hosea 2). He “burns” with jealousy for Zion so much so that he returns her to an honor she does not deserve (Zechariah 8:2-7), even paying the price himself for remarriage. If God desires us, longing for the glory he deserves from his creatures, then desire is not just something that we should resist.
God cares about and fulfills our desires
You cannot accuse God of being an ascetic or uncaring of your desires. We see numerous references to God’s attention to our desires. The Psalmist reminds God that he hears the desires of suffering people (10:17). He not only hears; he also acts. In Psalm 20 and 21, David sings of God’s hand in bringing about the desires of his heart. In Psalm 37, David clarifies the relationship between human desires and God’s response. When we delight in God, he delights to give us our desires (see also Matthew 5:6). He is a father who dotes on his children. He gives good things that satisfy (Psalm 103:5). Jesus picks up on this theme and reminds us that if we, who are evil, give good gifts to each other, then will not God, the creator of the universe, give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11)? Are you not yet convinced that God delights to fulfill your desires? Then listen to David as he bursts forth in song, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (Psalm 145:16,19).
I can hear your objection. “But wait,” you say, “There are many desires that God never fulfilled for me. If he longs to fulfill our desires, why didn’t he fulfill mine? Why do I feel so empty? I want to be healthy, married, a parent, happy, content, but my prayers seem to hit the ceiling and return to me.” I do not dispute that living in the wilderness leaves much to be desired. The misery of living in this sin-sick world multiplies daily. Yet, did not God provide for your desires today? Did you not eat? Did you not find momentary rest for your weary body? Did you not see his beauty reflected in something or someone? Ah, we are exposed. We grow complacent with God’s good gifts. They aren’t gifts in our minds, just something that everybody gets. We are far too often like the Israelites in the desert. We overlook the good things God gives us and obsess on what he did not give. God’s good gifts are no accident or afterthought—some sympathetic gesture to a waif. Rather he gives them out of the overflowing desire for his own glory and for the completion of all that he has willed. Every good gift you have received has come because God has ordained your existence in an abundantly provided world (see Psalm 65). He supplies you with your food and with whatever joy, peace, laughter, and righteousness you have experienced.
Fulfilled desires are sweet
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life… a desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:12,19a). These brief proverbs remind us of what we already know. When our desires are fulfilled, it is a satisfying moment. Even illicit gratification is satisfying, though deadly. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Why else would we go back for more? When our desires are filled, we are comforted and secure. God comforts the brokenhearted and satisfies them with his bounty (Jeremiah 31:13-14). Satisfaction also brings joy and gladness. Moses supplicates, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Satisfaction brings knowledge. The children of Israel, once filled with manna, know that the Lord is their God (Exodus 16:12).
Sexual desire is complex, compelling, and good
Why would God put the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to tell us more about himself? What purpose does an erotic book detailing the urges and orgasms of an anonymous couple serve the kingdom of God? The man spends numerous lines waxing poetic about her genitalia and how he wants to play with her. She shivers and aches for her climax. No, this is not a harlequin romance novel. In fact, it is probably more erotic and explicit about sexual desire than our English translations will admit. Those who try to spiritualize the text to mean only something of how God feels towards his church surely do God an injustice. And what of the mysterious phrase that appears in the book on three occasions, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)? These would seem to indicate that one must be careful with love and the power it wields. If you are not careful, your appetites may overwhelm you.
No, really, its best form
As good as sexual desire is, it pales next to desire for God and being united with Christ. The Psalms are full of descriptions of longings for God. David cries out for God, for his ways, his wisdom, and his presence. How are these depicted? There are numerous depictions of this desire as the cries of one who is thirsty and longing for water (e.g., Psalm 42:1; 63:1, 143:6.). In the New Testament, Paul records a similar sentiment. We groan while we are in this “tent” of a body and long for our guaranteed inheritance (II Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice that your good desires for God will bring upon yourself more pain! Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? “Come to Jesus,” we say, “and your life (as you have imagined it) will go well.” Instead, as we draw closer to God, our desire for him enlarges. Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? Satisfaction increases, but certainly so does agony as we develop an increasing awareness of our desperate need for God.
Yet do not be discouraged; our desires for God do not end in only pain. We do find satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, joy, and peace. Psalm 131 depicts satisfaction with God as a baby on his mother’s lap whose stomach is filled, who no longer needs to grab at her breasts for more. When we take worship as our food, Isaiah records that we will delight “in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). These satisfactions are not just spiritual. Rather they reach out into the far corners of our lives. Solomon, who contemplated the search for satisfaction reminds his readers that any satisfaction we achieve has been a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
04 Nov 2015
This is the third of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here, and the second post is here.
As pornography becomes increasingly accepted as a part of cultural life today, we will continue to hear more stories about the impact of sexual brokenness in the lives of individuals, families, and even in the wider society. Christians will not be exempt from this brokenness. The church needs to begin moving along four fronts in order to stop the drift and to begin healing the damage.
One: Acknowledge that the problem exists—in the church
As stated repeatedly, take action about the porn usage epidemic in your church. It exists. Remember, it’s a secret sin, so it won’t come easily to the surface. By admitting that Christians struggle with sex (it’s not just a problem “out there”), we give people hope that God’s gift of sexuality can be used for good. Acknowledge that we all struggle with this powerful gift, and that help is readily available for strugglers.
Teach about biblical sexuality to all age groups of people in the church. Don’t just focus on the negatives—teach about sexuality in a positive way, because Christians today especially need to hear a compelling apologetic about why God’s design for sexual expression is for our good. Pray for and seek out men and women leaders to start and lead support groups for sexual strugglers. Contact us at [email protected] and we can help you get started on all of this.
Two: Begin to take action on injustice issues
The evangelical church can no longer be silent on social issues like the commercialization of sex and sex trafficking. Scripture repeatedly talks about God as a God of justice and mercy, and that his people should reflect to the world what God is passionate about. Isaiah 1:16-17 is only one of countless passages that direct us as God’s people to actively do justice and bring restoration to the broken.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (ESV)
Consider organizing a church committee or team that explores and teaches on justice and mercy issues. Ask God to develop in you and your church a heart of mercy to those who have been abused, mistreated, and manipulated into sexual sin. The scope of the problem is enormous, but don’t get overwhelmed. Start small; start locally. Look for local resources to get involved in rescuing those who are abused and trapped. Shared Hope International is a good, national resource to start. VAST (thevast.org; Valley Against Sex Trafficking) is an excellent local resource in the Philadelphia region.
Three: Start talking to youth—especially to boys and young men
Of all the demographics in the church, none is more critical to reach than our youth—but especially boys and young men. Why? Because our youth are almost universally immersed in looking at porn today, and they are being frightfully impacted by it. New research is showing how porn usage is shaping the minds and hearts of young men, “rewiring” their brains toward aggressive and dysfunctional sexual behavior and addiction. We need to reach this generation of boys and young men in particular in order to stop the demand for sexual trafficking that is growing around the world.
But don’t forget young women, as well! They, too, are buying into the lies of the world when it comes to sexuality. The youth in our churches today know little about God’s design for sex and are increasingly abandoning the Bible’s teaching on sexuality morality. And the major reason for that is the church’s failure to talk openly and give a compelling reason for following God in this area of life.
Four: Learn how to help by focusing on the heart—not just stopping behavior
Finally, it’s not enough to simply talk about the dangers and the personal/social implications of pornography and sexual brokenness. There are reasons why men and women get hopelessly ensnared in sexual sin, as both offenders and victims. All of our biblical teaching on sexuality must aim for the heart, where sinful behavior starts (Matthew 15:18-20).
Helping a sexual struggler means learning the unique contours of his or her heart. When we see the broken idols that we live for, the idols that promise life but deliver destruction, and when we see them in the light of God’s mercy toward us in Christ, then deep repentance and transformation begin to take shape—moving outward from the individual to family, church, neighborhood, and even to the far reaches of society itself.
28 Oct 2015
This is the second of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here.
Pornography is the vehicle that drives lust forward, and porn spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies, and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in its production. It does so in three primary ways.
- Porn disconnects sex from relationships—Its subjects, usually women, become mere objects for sexual pleasure and/or a commodity for sale.
- Porn disconnects sex from love and respect—This especially has been shown to lead to aggression and violence toward women; many point to a “rape culture” on college campuses that some say is connected to the widespread usage of pornography among male students.
- Porn disconnects sex from human dignity—Today, perversity knows no bounds when it comes to pornography.
While this is admittedly an extreme example, Ariel Castro, who imprisoned and sexually abused three women in his house in Cleveland for more than a decade, said at his sentencing, “I believe I’m addicted to porn. . . to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”¹ As James Conley mentioned in his analysis on how pornography is reshaping the mind of American men, he says, “Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.”
Nowhere do we see more of the destructive and dehumanizing effects that pornography produces than in prostitution and sex trafficking. The image of the happy hooker, as seen in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, is a Hollywood lie. The vast majority enter prostitution—and other commercial sex enterprises like strip clubs, erotic massage, escort services, the production of porn movies, etc.—because of complex social, emotional, and economic reasons. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, drugs, mental illness, and poverty have long been the broken social fabric that propels women into such activities. And sex trafficking is even more damaging, where through the use of manipulation or force, a person—frequently a minor—is trafficked for sex, oftentimes kidnapped, and transported for such acts far from their home environment.
It is imperative that Christians look below the surface of sexual sin to what may be driving its use in the lives of those in it. So many porn actresses and actors, prostitutes, and others who work in the sex industry are there because of other major brokenness issues in their lives. It is inaccurate, unhelpful, and judgmental to merely condemn those in it apart from seeing and understanding the numerous factors that contribute to it. On the Shared Hope International website (sharedhope.org), which is a Christian organization working to help victims of sex trafficking and eradicate the demand for it, a young girl named Robin tells her story about her descent into prostitution, a story that is not uncommon:
I became alcoholic after my first drink at 14 years old. Gradually through my adolescence, I began experimenting with other substances, and they became more important to me than school. After miserably failing almost two years of college, I dropped out. I had just turned 21 before I met the man who sold me a dream. The dream turned into a nightmare, and the nightmare lasted six years. In those six years I was prostituted up and down the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, Hawaii. . . I was 21 years old when my pimp walked into my life and, because I was an “adult,” I always carried the guilt and shame for “choosing” this lifestyle. . . Telling my story and backing it up with truths, rather than misconceptions about prostitution, allowed me to heal. (Survivor Story: Robin’s Journey to Redemption and Restoration,” March 7, 2013, http://sharedhope.org/2013/03/07/survivor-story-robin/.)
Pornography also fuels the demand for such sexual services. Far from quenching lust and reducing sexual exploitation (as many proponents of pornography contend), it radically distorts sexuality and relationships. Pornography feeds the mindset that contributes to abuse, exploitation, oppression, and victimization.
True, not everyone goes from viewing pornography to buying sex. But we must see the deeper connections that viewing pornography facilitates. Participating in the “business” of just looking at pornography keeps the industry going. Whether the pornography is free, paid, professional, or amateur, people are being used. As prostitution was once erroneously called a victimless crime, pornography is equally not a victimless activity. Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers, the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced. Viewing it, engaging in it, contributes to the entire system of broken sexuality throughout the world. Those looking at porn are “served” through the oppression of many.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced.
While it is beyond the scale of this article to lay out everything that ought to be done, there are a few steps you and your church can take to do justice, and to bring healing to those caught in the fabric of sexual brokenness. We’ll look at this in the next post.
¹ James D. Conley, “Ariel Castro’s Addiction,” First Things, August 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/08/ariel-castros-addiction.