James Sutton, Associate Pastor, Christ the King PCA in Raleigh, NC, shares his church’s experience of partnering with Harvest USA.
We’ve long known sexual brokenness was an issue in our church, even though nobody talked about it. We’re happy to confess pride, fundamental forms of idolatry, destructive anger, jealousy, etc. However, invite us to shine a light onto our experience of sexual brokenness and we get a little sheepish. Doesn’t everyone?
But the Bible reminds us that it’s pretty clear those struggles are going to be there. It even anticipates that we’re going to do our best job of convincing each other and ourselves that they aren’t there. In general, we lived up to that prediction. For a long time, our church’s culture was like a mutually agreed-upon conspiracy of silence.
But something amazing happened a few years ago. Some of our members began pointing flashlights in the direction of their hearts and, in particular, the scary sections hiding their sexual struggles. Some of them just didn’t have a choice, but many did. Some of them were doing it because they actually believed the gospel that their pastors were preaching.
At first, it was as difficult as you might imagine. As we were shepherding our church, we kept running into all kinds of fallout from porn addictions. Then, we’d start developing leaders in our church only to discover they were engaged in some disqualifying sexual sin or another. There were things that we wanted to do, but so many of our potential leaders were being taken out by these sins.
Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. . . They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
But even though it was hard and frustrating at times, it was also beautiful. Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. They were eager to apply the gospel to each other’s hearts, to brainstorm about how to help each other, and to pray for one another because they trusted that Christ could do miracles. They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
God provided for us by introducing us to Harvest USA. A group of men began to go through Dave White’s workbook, Sexual Sanity for Men: Re-Creating Your Mind in a Crazy World. We had a biblical counselor in our church who volunteered to meet with these guys on a weekly basis. This counselor also took the time to meet with the guys one on one. All kinds of fruit began popping up in their lives.
Not long after, we had a men’s retreat, led by Harvest USA. At that retreat, another group of guys started to open up about their sexual struggles. Encouraged by the fruitfulness of the first group, we started discussing the need to have something similar to the book study on an on-going basis. The trouble was, the counselor who had been working with them moved and was living on the other side of the country.
We decided that the fruit we were seeing wasn’t just the work of this counselor. We decided to operate like it was the Holy Spirit at work, bringing the gospel through the body of Christ.
So we stepped up our game, so to speak. We needed additional help, and that meant training for the men who were already leading. We contacted Harvest USA and were delighted when they informed us of their Partner Ministries training.
They sent us some basic materials, and then we set up a time for their staff to video teleconference with our group to talk through a suggested model for how to set up a standing group. A lot of their practical suggestions were soaked in wisdom and would’ve taken us years to figure out on our own. They were incredibly encouraging, and we organized a weekend for one of their staff to meet with our core group.
The training experience included a full complement of helpful tools as well as some great tailor-made advice on how to apply those tools. Like us, they believed the beautiful fruit we were seeing was the work of the Spirit, and so they taught in a way that drew us to seek him more.
It’s encouraging for our group to have an experienced staff “on call” whose wisdom they can draw from when they encounter particularly challenging situations. God uses their experience, their humility, and their training to help empower our church to continue to shine the Spirit’s light on the dark places we all have in our souls. Overall, it’s one of the most exciting things God has done in our church.
Silence—something the church in general does rather well. The effects of this were brought home to me recently. I was speaking to a group of students from the Reformed University Fellowship at Yale. The topic was “Gay and the Gospel.” I talked about our duty to love others by bringing both the truth and the mercy of the gospel to those self-identifying as gay or lesbian. I stressed that homosexuality wasn’t the real issue. Beneath all struggles and sin and ways of living that are outside of God’s design is a human heart that says, “I have a wonderful plan for my life, and don’t you (that is, anyone) or you (that is, God) get in my way.”
Afterwards, a student came to talk with me. Through her tears, she shared that she had been raised at a large evangelical church. She asked, “Why didn’t my church prepare me for what I was going to face at college? Why didn’t my church talk about sex and homosexuality? I feel like I have no biblical basis from which I can talk intelligently about it.”
I remembered talking to a church’s prayer team years earlier. They had been praying with people for more than ten years at a weekly intercessory healing prayer meeting. One leader said to me, “John, we’ve prayed with people about marriage issues, problems with children, job losses, interpersonal conflicts, crises of faith, and other personal problems, but never has someone come for prayer about anything of a sexual nature. Not once.”
I was shocked. The numbers of those struggling with pornography, same-sex attractions, and sexual addictions are increasing daily. Add in family members affected and impacted by someone they love dealing with sexual brokenness, and it is clear this is a huge problem in the church today.
I responded to this leader’s comment by saying, “You know, I’d be asking, why not? I’d be asking, how has our church communicated that it’s OK to talk about everything else, but not about ‘that?’ Somehow you’ve conveyed this isn’t a safe place to talk about sex and sexual issues. And in doing that, you’ve become part of a collusion of silence.”
Several years ago when our Board began thinking about expanding our mission focus at Harvest USA, one that would focus on educating and equipping the church, I remember what Board member, Steve Brown, said: “What Harvest USA does is the work of the church, work which the church has neglected out of fear and shame, out of not knowing what to do. We’ve got to help the church recapture the calling to rescue and redeem those struggling with sexual sin in the church. But, if we do this, it will be the most difficult thing that we’ve done.”
Prophetic words! As we’ve begun helping churches address these issues, we’ve run into all kinds of roadblocks. You’d think that churches would eagerly desire to help people, to bring the light of the gospel into these difficult places. The reality is quite different.
This resistance and hesitancy got me thinking. I’ve been trying to better understand why we—members of the church, the church as a whole and church leadership in particular—are so reluctant to proactively talk about these crucial matters with our people. I came up with 10 reasons why the church is so silent. Which of these describe you, or your church, or your church leadership? The silence of the church is crippling our people. But it doesn’t have to be this way any longer. Believing in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than enough to move us from hesitancy to redemptive action.
1. The church is silent because it’s in our nature to pretend—to pretend that, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
The truth is, in today’s highly-charged sexual culture, almost no one is OK in this area. The reality of Genesis 4:7, that, “sin is crouching at the door and its desire is to have you,” has never been truer when it comes to ways our hearts seek comfort, relief, and life in things of a sexual nature. We don’t have to go looking for ways to stain our hearts; they come looking for us! The pathways to dark and destructive places abound: Internet, cable TV, hotel room adult video offerings, movies, and mobile dating apps are part of a culture that beckons us to give in to our feelings and desires, to escape lives of loneliness, routine and stress. Even if you aren’t personally struggling with sexual integrity, there are dozens of people sitting in the same church service as you who are struggling.
I’ve learned that we’ll go to any lengths to keep from being honest about all this. Why? Fear, shame, hatred of self, not believing the gospel has any practical answer, guilt, giving up—you name it.
I was having lunch with a businessman from my church, and halfway through he brought up his Internet pornography usage. What happened next was a microcosm of what is happening throughout the church. I asked him when it started. When he was 10 years old. How often do he look at porn? Several times a week, for a couple of hours at a time. Anyone know about this? No. Was he in a men’s group at church? Yes. Does this topic ever come up for discussion? No. Would he be willing to bring it up? No way!
Then he began to backpedal, saying it’s not really that big a problem nor is it that damaging. I’m not usually blunt with someone, but I had no choice this time. “You know, what I hear coming from your mouth is addict-speak. You’re far worse off than you can possibly imagine. Can you believe that Jesus longs to enter this area of life with you?” He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights. I don’t think we’ll be having lunch again anytime soon.
You see, we all like to pretend we’re OK or that whatever struggle we have will get better on its own. It won’t, and it never will—apart from our willingness to die to self, to discard our investment in our reputation and image, and to open up and walk in honesty and in the light of transparency and vulnerability. That’s a supernatural thing to even want to do. Yes, we all need to stop pretending.
2. The church is silent because we really don’t believe that the gospel can transform deep sexual struggles.
In other words, when we admit the depth of struggle among our people, it messes up our categories of what we think the “victorious” Christian life is or should be! You know, the kind of life we hear TV evangelists talking about, those peddling the prosperity gospel of “you shouldn’t have problems with sin kind of stuff.”
Don’t be fooled! It is a false gospel that proclaims, “You can be free of pain, fighting and struggling with sin; you should be free from that type of suffering—now that you’re a Christian.” It’s a message that we can too easily buy into, that something must be very wrong with our faith if we struggle so much.
Nonsense! If you’re fighting against sin in your life, then it may indicate that something might be very right! Throughout the New Testament we read its call to godly living, to redefine our lives, sexually speaking, by the meaning and implication of the cross in our lives. Scripture isn’t shy when talking about sex and sexual brokenness. In fact, if you were to take out of the Bible all the places where it speaks to the reality of sexual sin, struggle, and temptation among God’s people, you’d be taking out large portions of Scripture.
Our sexual temptations and struggles don’t take God by surprise, nor do they shock him. Rather, he expects it. He knows our nature is to seek out and fall for false worship, that we give our hearts to “false gods” and pursue them as having ultimate purpose and meaning in our lives, rather than seek out him and his purposes. The results of what happens when people live for themselves, following their own fallen sexual desires, are well-documented in Scripture and in countless personal lives.
What happens, then, when we begin to call Jesus “boss” over all our desires and longings? World War III breaks out in our lives and hearts. Conflict. Adversity. Suffering. Struggle.
I love what noted Bible teacher and author Martyn-Lloyd Jones said about all this. He wrote in his classic work, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6, The New Man, “There is a teaching today which says that sanctification is quite simple, that the mistake we’ve been making is that you’ve been trying to fight the sin in you. It says that what you have to do is to give up struggling, to give up fighting; just hand yourself and your whole problem to Jesus. He’ll do it all for you. But any teaching which tells us that sanctification and holiness are really quite simple (and don’t involve struggle and fighting) is clearly not in accord with Scripture” (p. 164, italics mine).
This is what happened early on in my own life when I sought to follow Jesus. I had many a major knock-down, drag-out fight with God in my small attic apartment. Why are you calling me to a new way of living? Why are you asking me to stop practices and walk away from relationships that fill the empty void in my heart? Why are you giving me new desires, desires that are different than those that seem so natural in my heart? What am I to do when I want to look at porn or frequent hang-outs where I might meet someone for a brief encounter that will take away my relational pain?
How did change happen in my life? When I began to hear him speak into my struggle with a heart of compassion and love—for me! He wooed me to himself, to a relationship with him rather than something else on which to set my heart. When this happened, and when conflict over desires and sin surfaced, I learned to repent. Although it began slowly, and moved forward in small steps, repentance became my new response to sin and temptation. What is repentance? Tim Keller says that repentance is “killing that which is killing me—without killing myself.” Repentance is liberating, not limiting.
Here is the point about whether the gospel has power to transform our sexual struggles. The desire to obey God, no matter how small and weak it may feel in the moment, is the proof of spiritual life. Repenting is what fans that spark into flame. Whether it’s repentance with a capital “R” when we first begin to follow Christ, or repentance with a small “r,” the ongoing, daily repentance to repeatedly turn away from that which you felt gave life and turn instead toward Christ who really gives life—this is the true Christian life and walk. It’s an ongoing battle.
What’s the bottom line here? We avoid talking about sex or sexual sin because we have a faulty, unbiblical theology of struggle and suffering. Regaining a right view of struggle with sin in the Christian life will lead us to say to the members of our churches, “We are not surprised that you are struggling with some type of sexual temptation and sin. Let us know about it; tell us what is going on; let us help you.” This is the exact opposite of being dismayed or shocked over the struggles every Christian experiences.
A flipside to having a bad theology of sin and struggle is that we often just stop calling sin, sin! We soften our response to it. We become dismayed over the enormity of the struggle. I’ve seen this happen with pornography usage. Too often I hear a response of compromise: everyone’s doing it; it’s no bi -deal; it’s private and it’s not really hurting anyone.
I have heard the same in dealing with the issue of homosexuality. I had an elder in a church recently tell me, “I like what Harvest USA does with the pornography issue—but I don’t believe that homosexuality is wrong in every situation.” I asked him to tell me more. He said, “Well, I’ve just seen too many people struggle too deeply and too long. Christianity seems to have no ability to solve the dilemma of their faith versus their feelings.” He had given up hope that anyone can experience any type of transformative change, because his theology was faulty. He put sociology over theology; that is, he placed the experiences of people and their subjective assessment as the norm of what is acceptable, rather than allow the Bible to set the norm of what is true and right and acceptable to God. Giving in and giving up is not compassionate to strugglers.
3. The church is silent because we feel that the answers we find in the Bible seem trite, passé, and outdated in today’s culture.
For many, the answers they think the Bible has for broken sexuality are: Stop it. Don’t do it. Just wait until marriage. That’s bad. Homosexuality is an abomination. Being gay is a choice. These are all one-dimensional reactions, and they are unhelpful. They don’t bring much weight to the discussion or issue. So, how does the Bible help us?
I’ve never met a ten-year-old who said, “I think I’ll be gay when I grow up.” No. Youth most often became aware, over time, of unexplained feelings and “pulls” towards their same sex; these attractions feel strange and shameful but exciting, and in an odd way, they meet a perceived need of the heart, all at the same time. What often follows, though, is a pursuit of these feelings with many small choices and decisions along the way, and it is this process which makes it all seem like it was their core nature to begin with.
That’s why, even though the Scriptures speak to many of the underpinnings of same-sex attraction and homosexual desire and practice, an exhortation to just not feel that way, or not be bothered by it, is unloving and unrealistic. Unfortunately, many in the Christian community are very confused on these issues today. We either settle for biblical error on the one hand (“it’s a choice”) or cultural compromise on the other hand (“if you profess Christ and you feel sincerely that it’s OK, then it’s OK for you”). We fall for what I hear in more Christian circles today: that the Bible doesn’t speak to homosexuality of the kind we see today (i.e. monogamous same-sex relationships).
Truthfully, Scripture does speak with clarity to all this, with both truth and grace. That’s also the way we must approach it. When we over-simplify the issue, or vilify it, or even make it more than it is, we fail to speak with Scripture’s authority into it.
A pastor recently told me that he went to a counselor for several weeks, seeking to deal with his pornography struggle. Week after week, the counselor naively just kept telling him, “Oh, that’s bad—you shouldn’t want to do that. You shouldn’t be doing that—it’ll get you in trouble.” He gave him some verses to memorize. There were no attempts to connect this man to the deeper gospel themes about this own life and heart. The result? The pastor walked away more discouraged and feeling more shame, guilt, and hopelessness than ever.
You see, we are complicated beings with complicated hearts. We need to see the Scriptures not as a magic pill or a cure-all to life’s dilemmas or confusion, but as God’s heart toward us about real human struggles and issues of the heart. Heart change takes time. Repentance that is lasting and deep takes time. We have to see the larger-themed sin areas in our hearts, see how they grieve God and the damage they cause us and others around us before true repentance can happen. That’s why, when I’ve taught a course at a local seminary for future pastors and counselors, I’ve often warned them about leading people into repentance too quickly. We must see the depth of the hurt we have caused, to ourselves, to others, and to God, or our repentance will be shallow and temporary. Jesus yearns to enter the struggle of our hearts in deeper ways than just getting us to ‘stop this’ or ‘do that.’ As a man in one of our Biblical Support Groups put it one time, “Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program.”
When we look at Jesus or the Scriptures as a way to improve ourselves and our situation—well, that just isn’t gospel transformation. As the church, we have to be careful not to lead people in a superficial, shallow manner which makes Scripture seem archaic or obsolete. God says that his word is “active, living, sharper than a double-edge sword” (Hebrews 4:12). We must help people apply the gospel to the deeper issues of the heart, which God has gifted believers to be able to do as we seek to minister to the body.
Sometimes, we feel that the Bible is no longer reliable when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality. We often feel the Bible isn’t adequate because of science or pseudo-science. We must remember that science does not pull a surprise on God. The “new discoveries” that media, culture, and academia proclaim about sex and sexuality must be brought into submission to God’s word. Obviously, there will be tension when we hear, for instance, that sexual orientation is fixed and irreversible from each of these three sources. How does that relate to God’s Word and his call for obedience for followers of Jesus? How do these cultural mantras come in line with Scripture? For believers, God’s Word cannot be negated or pushed aside, just because all of culture says it should. We must learn to speak intelligently and compassionately about these crucial issues, recognizing and admitting their complexities, yet at the same time seeing no contradiction in how God calls his people to live.
4. The church is silent because many of us still struggle with unresolved sexual baggage in our own history, and it continues to plague us and bring us shame.
Failures from our past, especially ones that involve such powerful experiences like sex, can haunt us for years. When those failures continue into the present, even if they are not so large as they once were, they can hinder us from being available to those closest to us who are also struggling. Our ongoing struggles fill us with a pervasive gloom of shame, and our conscience freezes us into inaction. “Who are you kidding? You can’t speak with truth or authority into anyone’s life. Just look at your own heart and record of failure.” This cripples us and those around us, because we are unable to speak the truth of the gospel into our own hearts first, and then to others.
I find this the biggest deterrent to speaking to our kids and young people about sex in a redemptive way. Many parents carry around unresolved sexual sin struggles in their hearts and lives, either issues from long ago or current struggles.
The rule of thumb for parents here is to do what flight attendants say to do just before takeoff. What do they say about that mask? In case of emergency, if that mask falls, place it first over your face and then place it over the face of your child. In other words, you need to be okay first, able to function in order to bring safety measures to your child!
The same is true with our sexual baggage as adults and parents. We need to seek help for our own issues; we need to follow the desires of our hearts as parents to shepherd our children by having the courage to deal with our own baggage and sins. Until we do so, we will remain silent, wanting to talk with our kids about these critical issues but feeling shamed into silence by our own lack of resolution or progress. We either speak simplistically to them, “Wait until you’re married”—good advice, but our kids need a more coherent sexual message, grounded in Scripture, that can compel them to swim against the sexual tide that is washing away so many youth into chaotic and destructive sexuality. Or, worse, we practice denial about what our kids are facing today and passively allow the culture (TV, movies, Internet, social media) to evangelize our kids, sexually speaking. (We have a mini book that teaches parents how to protect their kids from the dangers of technology as well as how to approach them on issues of sexuality: iSnooping on Your Kid: Parenting in an Internet World. Click on the title to link to the bookstore.)
Church leaders are not exempt from this struggle either. We like to put our pastors and church leaders on a pedestal, thinking they are more saintly than us. Why we think this way astounds me at times. The culture of the church reinforces this image in a way that is ultimately harmful to leaders as well as the entire church community. We must remember that they are just as fallen and in need of the grace and power of the gospel as anyone else. Tragically, the church culture “forces” pastors and leaders to project an inflated image, and so they are reluctant to speak on these topics or to move their congregation to engage in redemptive ministry to those who struggle because they cannot admit issues or struggles in their own lives. The result? They don’t get help, and their people don’t get help, as well. Men, women, and youth are left to continue struggling in silence and shame, wrestling with a faith that they feel is unable to help them with the real issues of life.
What’s the answer for our church leaders? We need to help them to first deal with their own hearts, just as parents need to do. We need to encourage them to be real and to find a place of safety where they can go and get help. The silence, stress, and, often, just the intoxication of ministry keeps leaders from both gospel self-awareness and from seeking and getting help. This is the reason Harvest USA has Sexual Integrity Groups for pastors only, because they often have no place to go to be honest about the struggles of their heart in this area of sexual integrity. For more info about this or to get a brochure, email me at [email protected].
5. The church is silent because we can’t see how our brokenness in sexuality can be redeemed in and through our brokenness. Our brokenness feels hopeless.
Sin has so tainted everything, even our sexuality, that everything that exists is as it should not be. No part of our persons, hearts, or affections has been left untouched by the Fall. All efforts at self-repair don’t work; even our deepest, most sincere vows to try to do right next time always come up short. An awareness of this deep brokenness should give us compassion for those who struggle. While not lowering God’s standards for holy living, we must realize that the ability to obey, out of a heart of joy, just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s both supernatural and interpersonal. God’s people help God’s people walk in holiness! That means we have to own up to what a mess it all is and be willing to jump down into the trenches with others.
I love how Pastor Scotty Smith describes brokenness in his book, Restoring Broken Things. He says that there are two types of brokenness. In Brokenness “A,” something is broken to the degree that it ceases to or no longer reveals God’s glory or serves his purposes. Smith says that the main language the Scriptures use to demonstrate Brokenness “A” is that of idolatry or false worship. False worship happens when we ascribe to or give anything or anyone the adoration, attention, allegiance, or affection of which Jesus alone is worthy. Therefore Brokenness “A” is a worship disorder (p.73).
But there is also a different kind of brokenness of which the Scriptures speak. Brokenness “B” is what results when God begins to do his refining, redeeming, and rescuing work in our lives. It is characterized by a heart attitude of contrition, humility, and repentance in response to the specific ways we haven’t or have ceased to reveal God’s glory (p. 74). In other words, Brokenness “A” is set right or redefined by Brokenness “B.”
The truth is, for most of the people sitting in our pews, whose lives, histories, and hearts are increasingly marked by some kind of long-term sexual sin and/or continual temptation, their lives cannot ever be lived as if Brokenness “A” had never happened. But they can, with the Holy Spirit and the help of the body of Christ, the church, turn around what they and the evil one meant for harm and damage, and bring God glory out of it all. But the remnants of brokenness remain, and that is what both drives us to the cross and gives us a heart for others.
If we understand our brokenness from this perspective, we are filled with hope for what God is accomplishing in us, while we still “toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within (us)” (Colossians 1:29).
6. The church is silent because we don’t understand or see how ministry to those who are a sexual “mess” is the average, ordinary work of the church.
This reason is related to the former point. We not only keep silent because of our own secret struggles; we do so because we think we need another kind of gospel in order with these problems. The issues seem so big, so complicated, and so pervasive that we can’t begin to see how ordinary, gospel-centered ministry can help at all.
In his book, Homosexuality: Laying the Axe to the Roots, (unfortunately, it’s out of print), Ed Hurst points out how we’ve failed to see just how the Scriptures speak to sexual sin, especially homosexuality. He writes at the beginning of the book, “The homosexual problem presents itself as one more complex and more deeply rooted than any other. The power of homosexuality lies in the fact that it masquerades as a problem that is larger than life. It begs new answers, new remedies, and special treatment. It invites us to lose heart, give up hope, and to expect failure. It has caused some to reject the Word of God and others to reinterpret it—and still others to doubt that the remedy of Jesus Christ is sufficient for sin. As Christians, our ability to minister or deal with the problem has become weak, ineffective, and, often, non-existent” (p.1).
Actually, I think we can expand Hurst’s comments to encompass all the various sexual struggles people in our church are experiencing today. Pornography and sexual addictions, along with homosexuality, often seem larger than life and too frightening and complicated to tackle. The result is that we either neglect ministry to those dealing with these altogether, or we offload them to professionals (Christian counselors are an excellent resource of help, but if the church’s only response is referral, then they have abandoned their rightful place of help to the struggler).
I once had a seminar professor tell me 30 years ago that one of the reasons the gay community was one of the fastest growing people-groups in America was due to this hands-off approach by the church. We have either relegated these problems to a category all their own, apart from the Scriptures or the ordinary avenues of help in the church; or we have assigned them to those possessing exceptional or special training.
Church leadership can also allow fear or be overly concerned about what others in the church will think about all this. I once had a meeting with a small church staff that was strongly hesitant about having an adult Sunday school class devoted to different areas of sexual sin and how to address it. One staff member said, “We’ll have to poll the church to see if they want something like this.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I asked,” Did you poll the people to see if they wanted a study on Romans, on the Old Testament, or on Lifestyle Evangelism?” Of course the answer was no. So I continued, “Why then would you do that just because it’s sex or sex gone wrong we’re talking about? Aren’t you in charge of the spiritual health and shepherding of your people?” We ended up having the class, and about 75 people attended each session.
In speaking to people, I often get a response something along the lines of, “I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, but I could never do that.” Really? Why not? Someone once said that the Bible can be summed up in three points. It’s a book about how we got in the situation we’re in. It’s about what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ, as Savior, Redeemer, Mediator, and Advocate to deal with it all. And, it’s about how it’s all going to turn out because of what he has done for us. In an analogous way, ministry to those scarred by and struggling with sexual issues is the same. We must provide a place and context where people can have a framework for discovering those three points: 1) how they got there and what’s gone into the problem or situation they’re in; 2) how God in Jesus longs to meet them in the midst of it all in order to bring wholeness, healing and growth; and 3) how walking with Christ relates to their history and future in learning how to love and serve God and others well. That’s the ordinary, gospel-centered ministry of the church that for 2,000 years continue to help transform broken lives into living objects of grace and change.
The interesting thing here is that this biblical framework applies for those struggling with pornography, sexual addictions, same-sex attractions—and even for spouses, parents, and family members seeking to better relate to loved-ones who live in such brokenness. We have to create safe places in our churches; that is, create contexts and environments where people can begin to look at and apply the gospel to the deeper recesses of the heart, where idols (false gods) as well as pain, chaos, confusion, and hopelessness figure in deeply to the person’s struggle.
Frankly, this kind of ministry isn’t rocket science! But we treat it like it is. Our fears about engaging in ministry of this sort must be named, faced, and worked through. We must answer the question of why we wouldn’t want our churches to be engaged in this kind of ministry. Why wouldn’t we want our people—our men, women, and youth—to be freed up from all this? What would it require from the church and leadership to begin, and stay committed to, this kind of ministry? When we begin to face these questions, we often find that fear and issues of unbelief of all kinds, especially on the part of leadership, will surface. Like I said at the beginning of this article, no wonder Steve Brown, one of our Board members, said this would be one of the most difficult things our ministry would ever do!
There is a way and a foundation from which to do this much-needed ministry. It’s been my experience that believers who know how much they’ve been forgiven and what it cost God to forgive them are the people who most seek out those who struggle.
One of the lessons of Luke 7:36-50, when Jesus receives the anointing tears of the sinful woman at his feet, is that, “he who is forgiven much, loves much.” In other words, our appreciation for the cross and our joy for what the gospel of Jesus has done for us leads us to seek out and be available to minister to others, even if their struggles, sins, or temptations are different than our own.
This is an important thing to see! You do not need to have struggled with the same issues that someone else has in order to be powerfully helpful to them. I’ve seen people so moved and transformed by grace, without any personal experience of sexually addictive behavior, be the very best support group leaders, accountability partners, mentors, disciplers, and just plain friends to those desiring help with their own sexual struggles. It often just takes stepping out in faith. Equipping comes later, as ministry will compel one to seek training to better help and support.
We’ve got to believe the Lord longs to meet our people in the midst of their problems and dilemmas, to bring to them life and wholeness. We also have to believe that we have all we need (yes, with a little help and encouragement) to effectively minister to people. We need to reclaim this fact: that the church (the body, the people of God) has historically been, and continues to be, God’s chosen instrument for the transformation of people, nations, and culture!
7. Since sexual issues seem like such an overwhelming topic to tackle, the church is silent because there is fear that to do so will open up Pandora ’s Box.
Again, our own personal history and the scars we bear often forge the path here. When Adam and Eve were faced with the reality of their nakedness and shame, what was their reaction? They hid! It was all too overwhelming and too much to face. Better to hide than to tackle something that we fear may be too difficult or too complicated or too messy to deal with. Just keep the lid on the box and go on with ordinary church business. It’s a lot safer.
But the church can and must take the lead in speaking on these issues in every facet of church life. We can be proactive and not have to feel powerless about the moral decay all around us, adopting a passivity characterized by an, “Oh well—what can we do?” attitude. Will there be messes that will be hard to clean up? Will church leaders and members feel at times like they are in over their heads? Sure. But those situations are where we tend to most see God at work, because transformation is a work of the Spirit, not technique. By stepping into a struggler’s life with humility and boldness, we are faced with a dependency upon Christ that can transform not just the struggler, but us as well.
Last year I preached at a church in Norfolk, VA. We had copies of our men’s workbook, Crossroads: Choosing The Path To Moral Purity, on our literature display table. A man, identifying himself as an elder, walked over to the table. He picked up the book and said to me, “Oh, we’ve been using this for the last three years with all our teenage boys in a special Sunday School class.” Wow! We hadn’t even thought of having churches use this resource in this way. Now here was a church being creative and bold, taking the lead in shepherding the hearts of the young men in their church community.
Again, if we don’t do this with our people, there will be ample avenues for them to walk further into darkness and lose hope every step of the way. I find that especially those involved in youth ministry seem to be the most hesitant here. We really do want 13-year-old Johnny to be able to say, “I’m doing things on the computer I shouldn’t be doing,” or 15-year-old Jenny admitting, “I think I’m a lesbian.” Most youth workers are horror-stricken when this happens (or more likely never to bring up the subject of sexuality so that the problems never surface). But they should welcome such confessions and see them as desperate calls for help. What would it look like for those in youth ministries to say to Johnny or Jenny, “I’m so glad you told me that. Can we talk about it? In fact, would you meet with me every week for a while to talk about it?” Our youth are desperate to talk about sex, to know what is healthy sexuality, and to know why God’s design for our sexuality is the best way to manage it and enjoy it.
This is what needs to happen as we deal with teens and every other age group in our churches. If we did this, I think many would be led away from deeper falls into sin and darker life paths down the line. But if we see all this as too complicated and overwhelming—too messy and uncomfortable—we’ll be failing our people and missing rich opportunities to see the glory of Christ begin to shine through broken lives and broken families. Remember that God has “in his divine power given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who has called us” (2 Peter 1:3). We can talk about these things and don’t have to be afraid of what we will find there.
This means that nothing is too complicated or too overwhelming for us to face, or help other’s face in their own lives. Here we must again believe that the gospel (look at Point 5 again) has substance and power to address any problem and change any life. It’s also why our first response to men, women, and youth who do openup and get honest about these life-crippling problems is so very important. Again, while we don’t have to be experts about every problem, we must believe we have, by virtue of His Holy Spirit and access to God’s Word, the ability to bring hope and help to strugglers of all types. In this sense, nothing is too complicated for us as God’s people to handle!
Not long ago, my wife and I were privileged to teach a one-day seminar at Fellowship Church in Knoxville, TN. Over 3,000 people attend this church on any given Sunday. Fellowship Church is a community which works hard to minister God’s Word faithfully to its people. They are aware that many people struggle with all kinds of problems there. On this particular Saturday over 125 of the church’s small group leaders (men, women, and couples who lead any type of home-based group) came to learn about how the gospel addresses sexual sin. Why was it important to train these church leaders? Because most people struggling deeply with sexual issues will not go to the pastor for help. But, they will be more willing to go to a trusted small group leader with whom they can confide. Fellowship Church felt that anyone leading a group in the church needed to know how to respond in hope and help to someone who walks into the light of confession. That’s a scary place to be for a struggler! Would that more churches have this attitude to educate all those in any helping or leadership positions in the church! Here again, the emphasis is not on anyone having “the” answer or having to know everything about all the issues, but to realize that, as a body, we’re all in this together.
8. The church is silent because pastors and leaders, so busy with other agenda items, neglect the need for leadership to intentionally invite strugglers to come into the light and ask for help.
Pastors, elders, and other church leaders have a whole lot on their plates. They often have good intentions to deal with the sexual problems they see in their church community. Some day. Then that day never comes, because it’s crowded out by other, incoming problems. Here is what churches have to face regarding this matter: That day will never come unless we plan and strategize for it!
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality is deadly. Left unaddressed, the sexual sin struggles among our people will only fester and cause untold damages to hearts, relationships, and marriages. There is a tragic collusion of silence in our churches: pastors and leaders who don’t intentionally address these issues, who don’t invite people to come for help, and the congregation whodoesn’t come to them for help because no one is talking about it.
Pastors often tell me that no one in their church seems to be coming for help with problems of a sexual nature. Why is that, especially because we all know that there are a large number of people in our congregations overwhelmed with sexual struggles? One answer may be this: Church leadership may not be seen by their people as being approachable on these sensitive matters.
Sometimes my grown children have come to me, as adults, not with confessions of hideous sin but to reveal things they didn’t want me to know about when they were 15, 18, or 22 years old. When I inquired why they didn’t come to me at the time of their struggles, they replied, “Dad, you were so busy. I didn’t want to upset you, or for you to think poorly of me. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Do you see the point? They didn’t want my view of them to diminish; they wanted to preserve their reputation, no matter how small the problem or offense was.
Embarrassment and shame kept them from going to me for help. The same principle is operative in our churches. Leadership needs to understand that this often keeps people from coming to them with their sexual struggles. They don’t want to disappoint us. They don’t want our view of them discredited or tarnished. After all, they have to face us each week, as we stand in the pulpit or shake their hands at the door!
Being available to help a sexual struggler when, as a church leader, you are not proactively addressing these issues is a recipe for continued silence and denial. Church leaders must cultivate approachability by initiating talk about these matters, and doing so in a manner that really and truly invites people to step into the open for help. The church must give messages, both verbal and non-verbal, that “we can handle these issues around here”—because Jesus can handle them. If we don’t do that, we abandon our people to work out their problems on their own, and that is a highway to disaster for a sexual struggler. The best way to increase sexually addictive behavior in a struggler’s life is for the struggler to try to deal with the problem on his own!
Neglecting to proactively invite our youth to come for help is even more tragic today because of the sexual chaos that exists and is promoted on the Internet, where most of them live. A profound lack of initiative, by leaders and parents, leaves them open to and receptive of many, many other voices “out there” which are more than willing to evangelize them to embrace a destructive sexuality outside of God’s design. Today, more kids than ever, even at nine or ten years old are getting hooked on pornography. They are viewing it with their friends at sleepovers, campouts, even with other kids from church. Also, churched youth are increasingly very sympathetic to the gay movement and supportive of gay marriage—due to the silence of the church. How could they not be, when the culture bombards them daily with messages that it’s okay and even a good option? So there is much to lose when the church never seems to get around to dealing with these matters. Silence, in the form of not taking a proactive initiative, is playing Russian Roulette with our people.
9. The church is silent because our people are increasingly unaware of the depths to which the Bible speaks about sexuality and the way God designed it.
I remember being at a conference for churched youth when a teenager came over to our exhibit table. Obviously influenced by the culture, he said to one of our staff, “I don’t see how you people can say that homosexuality is wrong. Jesus never mentioned it.” Our staff member was able to guide this young man, in just a few minutes, into the Scriptures to look at some texts on what Jesus did say about sex, and how Christ’s view of God’s original design for sex did in fact speak about the issue of homosexuality. His next words stunned us. He said, “Well, I guess I should read the Bible for myself to see what else is in it.” We encouraged him to do so.
It’s not just our teens who need to be taught about the content of Scripture. Many of our people, especially those who come to faith as adults, are pretty much in the dark about Scripture. The emerging church and missional church movements have, in some cases, contributed to this phenomenon, with their de-emphasis on education and doctrine. Unfortunately, many churches today think that doctrine divides, and so they settle for a short Sunday morning sermon heavy on illustrations and emotionally-laden content—hoping that it will hook people into wanting more—but then they have no venues in place to offer more. The result is a growing illiteracy of the very foundation of Christian faith; that is, the Bible and its story of creation, Fall, redemption, and restoration.
In many of today’s evangelical churches, there are few places for people to really become educated in content of the Bible. We just kind of hope they will find their way. Is it any wonder many of God’s people are “tossed here and there” by every kind of teaching they hear? If the media speak of the latest scientific or sociological/psychological discovery that is contrary to or contradicts the Bible—guess what wins? More people in the last twenty years have gotten teaching on crucial issues from Oprah, 20/20, Dateline, and the host of daytime talk shows that proliferate like weeds, rather than from biblical teaching coming from their churches. This is especially true when it comes to sex, sexuality, and homosexuality.
I find that people are often shocked when they begin to understand the extent to which the Scriptures speak on sex and sexual issues. When it comes to sex, I have often said that, “If God talks about it, then we should be talking about it.” The Bible is full of teaching about sex and sexual relationships. Since sex is a major issue or problem for most believers, God hasn’t left us alone to try to figure it out. He’s lovingly and proactively spoken to us about it. We should be doing the same with our people. Sex has become a cultural battleground upon which the Christian faith is losing, so there is no greater need in the church today than to find multiple ways to talk about sex in the profound ways that Scripture does. We need to be doing that in Sunday school classes, men’s and women’s groups, small groups, youth groups, and so on.
A few years ago, Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia held a weekend Urban Missions Conference entitled “Sex in the City.” Over 400 people attended, primarily between the ages of 20 and 35. I was one of the main speakers, and the Harvest USA staff presented workshops all day on various subjects.
After the Sunday service, as I was walking down the sidewalk after leaving the church, I felt a brush of air as a bicyclist rushed by me. As I turned to look, I saw the cyclist throw on the brakes and turn around. The young woman said to me, “Weren’t you the Friday-night speaker at the conference?” I affirmed that I was. “Well, I went to this church when I was young, but have been away from it all throughout college. But I think I’m going to be coming back here now. Any church that speaks about these things this boldly and opens up the Scriptures to teach us like this is someplace I want to be.”
10. The church is silent because we are not just ignorant of God’s design for sex; we don’t believe that he designed it for our good!
There is so much around us that presents sex in a negative and broken sense that we’ve ceased to believe it was all meant for good, or that God wants us to experience it as something good and noble!
Several years ago I was on a short-term missions’ trip to Amsterdam to work with a church-planting team. Amsterdam is a very dark city, sexually speaking. Its reputation for sexual freedoms and debauchery is well known. We’ve all seen pictures of those prostitutes sitting in windows, offering their wares. Pornography shops and prostitution are, literally, on almost every corner in the city-central area. I remember asking my church-planter friend, “How does anyone here ever have a healthy or godly view of sex or sexuality?” His response surprised me. He said, “I don’t know, and I don’t know if I do anymore either.”
Today, Amsterdam as a metaphor for sexual chaos is in our own backyard. The Internet has turned every computer and every mobile device into an adult bookstore. Like my friend, I now wonder if the average believer has any kind of healthy appreciation for sex as God designed it anymore. As fallen creatures we either make way too much of it, using it in a selfish and demanding way to meet our own needs, or we think much too little of it, forgetting that it is one of God’s good gifts. The evil one is often behind these extremes. He is certainly pleased when God’s good gifts are twisted or neglected.
Christians need to reclaim the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality and of sex. We need to affirm God’s good intention for it and for it as being a soul-uniting force between a husband and a wife, as something so pleasurable that it is, in the right context, wonderfully intoxicating. Think “The Song of Songs,” a book in the Old Testament that boldly proclaims on its every page the beauty of God-designed sexuality.
This message that God is pro-sex is often lost and marred by our own broken histories and struggles with it. We unwittingly transfer our own attitudes about sex to those around us, especially our children. We spend more time talking, when we do talk about sex in the church, about all the ways it’s gone wrong. I know when we’re asked to come to speak in churches, it’s rarely to talk about the goodness of sex. It’s usually about sex gone wrong.
You’d be surprised the frequency we’re asked to speak to youth groups, often for the first time, about all this (and they often want us to say everything we can possibly say about it in one meeting). Yet the leaders often want us to warn (scare?) kids into obedience and doing the right thing. When we’re asked to speak to teens, leaders often have little motivation for us to speak about it in larger gospel-oriented themes or in a way which might wake them up to the mysteries, goodness, and holiness that God designed sex to be. In wanting to protect our young people from the many destructive ways that they can use sex to derail their lives, we have failed them when we have not taught well from the Bible about the glorious design for sex that God has given to us. All of us, but especially our youth, need a coherent, persuasive and solidly biblical apologetic that can capture our imaginations and enable us to want to live lives of sexual integrity and enjoyment, all for his glory.
Obviously, this list of reasons I’ve shared for the church’s silence is not exhaustive. Most churches can find themselves somewhere in this list. If your church has been committed to silence for the reasons I’ve talked about, what’s the answer? Isn’t it coming into the light? Isn’t it an awareness and admission that this is what has characterized us as a church or as leadership? We’ve let our people just find their own way in all this. We’ve mistakenly—out of fear, our own insecurities, or just not knowing what to do—did nothing, naively thinking, “no one here struggles with ‘that.’”
The next step, then, may need to be repentance as leaders: imploring God to change our minds about our role to help make our churches biblically healthy places, places where we can both talk about all this and provide our people with much needed help. That always becomes a win-win situation. We have everything to gain if we’ll just do that—but everything to lose if we don’t.
Harvest USA wants to help your church develop a strategy to begin dealing with this to the glory of God. Let us know how we can help you. The Harvest USA website (www.harvestusa.org) is a good place to discover resources. Where possible, our staff is available to help, at your local church, in education and in equipping your leaders. We are also available to speak, via Skype or web to your leadership or board of elders, etc. We would love to help. May the Lord bless you in your desire to build his kingdom.
25 May 2016
As a seminary student, the influence of two professors changed the course of my life. Jack Miller, Professor of Practical Theology and Evangelism at Westminster Theological Seminary, was one of them. The other was Harvie Conn, Professor of Missions. Along with Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, they led me to begin what is now Harvest USA. One day in 1983, Harvie said to our Missions class, “We’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field today. We’re going to talk about ‘unreached people’ and ‘hidden people.’”
Harvie explained that the largest ‘unreached people’ in our culture was the gay and lesbian community, at the time the fastest-growing people group in America. He talked about how their numbers, influence, and impact was only going to grow. Wow—how prophetic! It seemed that the organized church wanted nothing to do with this community and kept an arm’s-length attitude—basically, the church didn’t know what to do with “them.” Instead of a “we can handle this” approach to sexual strugglers, the church adopted a “we can’t handle this” mentality.
Harvie then defined an even larger ‘hidden people’ group. This group brought all the shame, baggage, unresolved conflicts, sexual temptations, struggles, and sin into their walk with Christ and into the church. But because the ethos in most churches was silence and an outlook of “we don’t talk about that around here,” many men and women sat in our pews paralyzed, isolated, and often in despair, not knowing how the gospel applied to their struggles.
Boy, the culture has changed a lot since then—and not for the better! The impact of both the gay movement, especially the “gay Christian” movement, and the availability of Internet pornography has deeply and severely impacted many men, women, teens, and families who sit in evangelical, conservative pews today. How could it not, when you realize that carrying around a cell phone or laptop is like having an adult bookstore right in your home or pocket. Saying “no” to looking at that is a challenge! You could take the truth of what Harvie said in that class and multiply it by one hundred to describe what is impacting people today.
So, reader, how is your church set up to deal redemptively with the mess of sex and sexuality in the lives of people today? And how are you going to declare the glory of sex as God intended it to be?
Think about it. Is yours a church where the hope and help of the gospel is readily available to the multitude who feel stuck, isolated, wounded, and defeated by sexual brokenness? What messages do your leadership give about the ability, not only of God, but of your church, to help with such problems? How are you conveying “Yeah, we can handle that around here,” so that people can get the gospel help they so need?
Many churches either don’t know what to do or convey a judgmental attitude when it comes to the struggles that men and women have with sex and sexuality. The church is often the last place these people feel they can be honest and genuine about sexual matters that are impacting their own hearts and lives. This simply ought not be!
Do you have a simplistic fairy tale view of the gospel when it comes to sexual brokenness? The gospel is powerful and effective, but it isn’t magical. We often fail to see struggles as an ongoing part of the Christian life, dispensing Bible verses without walking with people through their suffering. (Check out my post on the impact of the church’s silence in talking about sexuality, “Sex and the Silence of the Church: How It’s Crippling God’s People.”)
We must work hard to shape our churches into places of hope and help—places that readily seek to assist people and recognize their struggle with sin. But making our churches visible vehicles of truth and mercy in this area—well, it doesn’t come naturally. It must be intentional and calculated.
But it’s never too late! Every church has to begin somewhere. As we call others to faith and repentance and jump into the trenches with them, part of our own repentance as leaders may be admitting our oversimplification of deep spiritual issues and strongholds, as well as our hesitancy to get involved in the [messy] healing process of our people.
In my early days of reading the Bible as a new believer, I was struck by the amount of time, attention, and affection that Jesus had for the sexually broken and the sexual ‘outcasts’—those either labeled as such by others or who thought of themselves that way. Ask the Lord to give you that same heart for the broken and begin to think of ways your church can become unafraid and boldly willing to move into the scuffle of ministry. This is where we help the local church excel. The staff at Harvest USA stands ready to help! Take a look at our Partner Ministries program for ways we can assist your church community to get ministry to sexual strugglers started and keep it ongoing.
The good boy-who-would-be-pastor, so respectable and humble, was living a double life. Struggling with same-sex attraction and dealing with it in ungodly ways, he didn’t care what anyone thought. What mattered most was finding what he felt he needed. But deep inside he feared greatly what those in the church might think.
What did he fear from the church? From his family? Mainly, he feared their anger and rejection. He had so few relational anchors that he didn’t dare risk these. It would be devastating if he failed in their eyes. So, he was careful to live a flawless life, at least the part they could see. But the pain just kept increasing.
The person above was me, more than 20 years ago, before I sought help at Harvest USA. It took a long time to make that decision. But what might have made me seek help sooner was if my church had said that the body of Christ was a safe place to get help.
I didn’t hear that message. What I heard spoken about sexual sin was that it was the worst kind of sin. That made me more determined not to confess to anyone how desperate and despairing I was, how trapped and hopeless I felt, living in constant fear of exposure.
One major passion we have at Harvest USA is to partner with churches to help sexual strugglers, to help churches become safe places for sexual strugglers. One way to do that is by speaking openly about the reality that everyone struggles to live faithfully in these sin-broken bodies. To say that God is not shocked by our sins, but that he sent his Son to cover our shame, forgive us of our guilt, and begin the amazing grace-fueled process of growing and changing. As the psalmist says, “God is. . . a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
When church leaders admit the truth that Christians struggle with sex, then the church starts the journey toward helping strugglers. It becomes a “one-anothering, we’re in this together” community. As the main article in our Spring 2016 issue of the Harvest USA magazine (“Living Faithfully with our Bodies: It Still Matters, But the Church Must Help”) says, “A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.”
The Lord has put us together to walk with one another in learning how to obey him and live lives worthy of him. Not to look good, but rather to be honest about our struggles and sin, while believing the gospel that God loves us in spite of who we are. When we live this way, experiencing his power that works in and through our weaknesses, we grow, we change, and we find increasing freedom to live joyfully.
Harvest USA can help your church learn how to help sexual strugglers. We have developed a great program to help churches do ministry to sexual strugglers. We’d love to partner with your church to do so. Here is a brief description of our Partner Ministries, and how we can help get your church up and running for this kind of vital ministry.
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 website.