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Michael kept insisting that his viewing pornography wasn’t hurting anybody. “I’m divorced, and what else am I going to do with my sex drive? This isn’t hurting me; it’s actually helping me.”

This was a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago. Not long after that, he remarried, but the years of porn usage poisoned his second marriage, and it failed. The messages and attitudes of porn distorted his view of sex and relationships. But Michael’s porn usage didn’t just impact himself and his marriage. He failed to realize that his porn usage hurt far more people than he was willing to see or admit.

When people think of pornography and those who look at it, they usually respond in one or two ways. Either, “Look, it’s a personal, private activity; it’s not harmful,” or, “That’s terrible. Looking at that stuff messes up the viewer’s life.”

Both of these responses are inaccurate. The first one ignores the growing evidence that pornography is, in fact, harmful to the viewer. Those who engage in it absorb an insidious message about sex, relationships, and life that can lead to serious emotional, relational, behavioral, and spiritual consequences. That’s what happened to my friend.

The second response, while true, doesn’t capture the total picture. It ignores the fact that viewing pornography impacts more than just the one who uses it—it hurts and victimizes scores of people, seen and unseen.

The reality is that the making and viewing of pornography has deep, worldwide social effects. In the main article of our Fall 2013 newsletter (“The Normalization of Porn in the Church: What the Church Needs to do Now“), we highlighted the fact that pornography usage by Christians is a much bigger issue than merely that of personal piety.

There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. . . The bottom line is that our (the church’s) silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice… We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.

Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin… has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone.

Many people have an erroneous view of ministries like Harvest USA. They think we are only about helping individuals break out of sexually addictive behaviors that are impairing their personal lives. But that is only partially correct. Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin as a result of pornography or other out-of-control sexual behaviors has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone. The sin of one person always impacts others, and when the struggler begins to confront the issue and start changing, it also brings healing to more than himself. When even one person is no longer enslaved to deeply rooted patterns of sexual brokenness, the impact is substantial, something that we again noted in our Fall 2013 newsletter:

Dealing with this issue (pornography) forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization. The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continue to be abused on multiple levels while performing.

Pornography has become increasingly “normalized” in our culture and is just accepted as being a fact of life today. Even with that, we are finally hearing reports that show a connection between the production and usage of pornography and the explosion of commercial sex enterprises, like prostitution and sex trafficking. Covenant Eyes, a ministry offering accountability software for computers and mobile devices, has a number of excellent articles on its website (covenanteyes.com) that show a link between pornography and sex trafficking. One article, “The Connections between Pornography and Sex Trafficking,” refers to a report that states, “Pornography is the primary gateway to the purchase of humans for commercial sex.”

In a compelling Newsweek article that describes how pornography usage increases men’s aggression and fuels the demand for commercial sex enterprises, the author writes:

Many experts believe the digital age has spawned an enormous increase in sexual exploitation; today anyone with access to the Internet can easily make a “date” through online postings, escort agencies, and other suppliers who cater to virtually any sexual predilection. The burgeoning demand has led to a dizzying proliferation of services so commonplace that many men don’t see erotic massages, strip clubs, or lap dances as forms of prostitution. (Leslie Bennetts, “The Growing Demand for Prostitution,” Newsweek, September 1, 2011, http://www.newsweek.com/growing-demand-prostitution-68493.)

Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and hear, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires.

Regardless of the studies, research, and individual stories, the connection between pornography and sexual exploitation is just common sense, biblically speaking. Lust and pornography are mutually destructive partners. Pornography ignites sexual lust, but rather than being satisfied, lust demands more and more. No wonder Jesus spoke metaphorically of the need to take extreme measures to combat sexual lust (Matthew 5:27-30). Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and heart, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires. That’s because sexual lust is more than just sexual desire and its temporary fulfillment. Lust is the strong desire to possess something or someone that is not yours to have. Lust isn’t satisfied until it owns or controls what it wants. Lust refuses to look at the object of lust as anything other than a “thing” for its own pleasure. Pornography takes that basic aspect of lust (“I want!” “I need!” “I must have!”) and spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in it. It does so in three primary ways.

And that’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

Who you are sexually is who you are spiritually. They are inseparable. Dave White talks about why it’s so important that one’s inner life, the one lived privately, matches one’s life on the outside. (From a Harvest USA Seminar, Discipleship Leader Training.)

 

Who is a safe person to share, or confess, your deepest struggles with? Ellen Dykas, our Women’s Ministry Coordinator, gives a good suggestion. (From a Harvest USA Seminar, Discipleship Leader Training.)

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Five

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. (ESV)

I mentioned two other ways of living that are crucial for us as believers and as the church to live honestly in dealing with sexual struggles and sin. You can read about these here.

Three, we need to be truth sayers

Our churches must speak the truth. I mean two things here regarding speaking truthfully.

One, of course I mean speak the truth about sex and sexuality as the Scriptures teach it. We do not need to be ashamed of what God’s Word says here. The gospel offers something good to us and to the world. God, as the Creator, knows how the world and all of life should work. Today, we need to have the backbone to speak what it says.

But in speaking truthfully, we need to go beyond merely saying what it says: we also need to articulate clearly why God’s design for sex is good; that it makes sense; that it really is good for individuals and for society. It is not enough to simply know what the sexual boundary lines are—we need to articulate why these boundary lines should be in place and that good things come in our lives from honoring God with our bodies.

In just the past month, I’ve talked to two parents whose college-age children, raised in the church, are sexually active, and they were unable to engage them in a conversation about the goodness of God’s design for sex, why it matters, and why it’s best for relationships. On the one hand, they were grateful for the honesty of their child; but on the other hand, they had no words other than to say to their children, “You shouldn’t do that; it’s not what God wants.”

Two, the second way to speak truthfully is to present information that isn’t distorted or wrong. On the issue of sex and sexuality, it’s easy to for us to do that.

I might step on some toes here, but some of the abstinence education I’ve heard presents inaccurate information. In our zeal to protect our kids from early sexualization, we’ve said that pre-marital sex will bring lifelong guilt and that if you only wait for your wedding night, sex is going to be great!

No, that’s not true in all cases, and it certainly isn’t accurate.

And on the issue of homosexuality, the church has said some misleading and incorrect information about gays and lesbians. Christians have made derogatory statements about their character and labeled all gays and lesbians as being people whose sexuality is out of control.

No, that’s not true in all cases. If you go to Florida during spring break, you’ll see a whole lot of straight people whose sexuality is out of control. Are heterosexuals all the same?

When we speak falsely, we contribute to the confusion our people have today about sexuality. This is especially so with our youth—when they hear the church say one thing but the reality is something different and more nuanced, no wonder they begin to doubt what the Bible says is true or not.

Four, we need to be mercy givers

What do I mean here?

Loving mercifully invites help. The sexual brokenness of our culture is everywhere. It’s not easy to resist the pull and temptations of our culture and our sinful nature. Our sexual natures are powerful, and living in this broken world hurts. That is a powerful combination! All of us are sinners—and all of us frequently slip and fall.

Loving mercifully says, “We are in this together; let me help you get back on your feet. I’ll be patient with you as you learn and grow.”

Eighteen years ago, I went to a counselor because I needed help. It took me more than a year to make that appointment, because I kept trying to figure things out on my own. And when I sat down in my counselor’s office, she leaned over and simply said, “How can I help you?”

I wanted to reply with a well thought-out answer, but instead I started to feel overwhelmed with emotion. I felt so shamed that I had a reached a point in my life that I couldn’t figure out how to help myself.

Her response was full of mercy: “Tell me what you think the problem is, and together we’ll find a way to help you.” Her answer gave me hope. I wasn’t a problem to be fixed and therefore needed someone smarter than me to figure it out. Instead, I now had someone who would walk with me to help me find a way through the problem.

Secondly, loving mercifully means forgiving and restoring. What sexual strugglers need is God’s forgiveness, communicated through your love for them. Forgiveness surprises us. We expect judgment and condemnation for our sins and failures, but sexual strugglers feel that way even more so.

I love the story of Jesus and the “woman sinner” in Luke 7. Jesus ate at the house of a religious leader. The leader was shocked when a woman, described as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute), knelt behind Jesus at his feet and wept. She covered his feet with her tears and poured a jar of perfume over his feet.

The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him. She was so defiled.

Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. But then he shocked the Pharisees even more—by forgiving her and honoring her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace of him came as a result of her experience of being forgiven.

It is only when we minister out of our own brokenness and forgiveness that we will love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field.

One more thing about the story in Luke 7: I particularly like that Jesus said of the woman, “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to us. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with messy people; people who have a long history of sins. But if we increasingly live like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches, and we’ll love them well. And God will set them on the road to healing and freedom from enslavement. Forgiveness both cleanses and empowers.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Four

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.

Up to now, we have seen Paul saying very clearly in this passage that how we live our lives sexually matters. God’s will for his people is that we learn to manage our sexual desires and channel them in the direction of his design. Sexuality and holiness go together (v. 7), and God wants us to use these amazing gifts in the way he created them.

But we have also seen Paul admit that doing this is difficult. (To read the prior posts, click here.) But Paul gives us a hint in this passage about how we can navigate our sexual desires, our wants, and the intrusions of a culture that prods us to live any way we want, in a way that honors God and gives health to our bodies and minds.

Where do we find this in the above passage?

Go back to verse one. “Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you…”

Do you notice something? This is not the language of command. This is not a rebuke that says, “Stop it!” This is not a final warning to shape up or else.

This is relational language. There is a tenderness to what Paul is saying, an appeal to our minds and hearts. “Brothers. . . we ask you and urge you.” Why is Paul speaking this way?

We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier in this same letter, in chapter 2:11: “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.”

Paul knows these people. He has loved them like a caring father. He knows this is not easy, and he wants to help them learn to control their sexuality so that they might live in freedom and honor their Savior.

The way forward is in relationship. You will not escape sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it by all by yourself. We say at Harvest USA that the way to ensure you will never find freedom from sexual sin and its slavery is to privately pray and ask that God will take this away from you. This is not blasphemy; God can do whatever he wants, in whatever way he wants.

But the way he generally works is through his people, the church, the body of Christ. Sexual sin lives in secrecy; it is killed out in the open. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it is banished when we begin to be honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.

For those who struggle with this, you need to believe that the deepest relationship is the one you have with Jesus Christ.

Paul could be tender because he himself knew the mercy and grace of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You can go to Jesus with this sin because he has already made you clean in his eyes. God’s wrath for your sin is over; he poured it all out on his Son.

The more you grasp the truth of Hebrews 4:16, that you can approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need, the more you will freedom to move toward Christ and others for help.

Our new life in Christ must be lived out with others. The road to sexual integrity begins out in the open.

So, what do we need to do to live this way, as individual believers and as a church community? There are four ways to live this way. I’ll show you two of them now, and two at the next blog post.

One, we need to be real about life

By real, I mean being honest about ourselves and our struggles. The church too often plays an “I’m OK, you’re OK” game of pretend, where we all look good on the outside and show people that this is a good place to join.

Some of us, and some churches, do this every Sunday for years and years. We are so afraid to talk about what is really killing us inside.

But remember what I said about the church in 1 Corinthians. We do not have it all together. We are all messes at one stage or another.

I like the way one pastor, speaking about sexual issues, describes the kind of people who sit in church on Sunday morning:

“When these people sit in our pews, they are in various stages of dealing with their problems. Some are denying that they have a problem. Some know they are sinning against God’s law, but have secretly rebelled and live lives of hypocrisy and deception. Some are struggling with various degrees of success and failure in making the changes God requires. Most of them are desperately struggling in silence and feel increasingly hopeless and powerless. . . The challenge for the church today is to welcome sinners, but not be content to leave them where they are. The challenge of the church is to assist sinners at all of these stages. The church must invite in and hold the attention of those who would not have dared (or desired) to look to the church for either hope or help.”

I recall talking to a woman who told me that when she was looking for a church, she visited one where everyone there was dressed up and looking real good. Not a bit like her; she came from a tough background, and she dealt for a long time with addictions and sexual brokenness. But as she sat in the pew feeling like she was wasting her time coming to this church, she came across this 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 our struggles. No one has it all together. Call ________ to speak in confidence.”

The simple honesty of those words captured her. She decided to stay at that church, because they were honest about the people of God and that God loves broken people.

Two, we need to become un-shockable

By un-shockable, I mean we need to have a “God can handle this” attitude. Paul said gospel is the “power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Salvation is not just about conversion; it’s also about how coming to Christ leads to growth and change in our lives.

Steve Brown of Keylife Network referred to a poem he once read titled, “Jet Sex Engine,” that poses this question: “Why did God put a jet sex engine in my Volkswagen body?” What a great line!

What Steve Brown was saying is that we need to stop being shocked at the sexual struggles that Christians have. They exist in the lives of Christians, too.

Harvest USA’s Founder, John Freeman, wrote a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. (You can get it here.) In the foreword, Steve Brown summed up what it means for the church to be un-shockable:

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 the ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. Jack Miller used to say that the entire Bible could be summed up in two sentences: “Cheer up, you’re a lot worse than you think you are. And cheer up, God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”

Do you hear what Steve is saying? God is not shocked by our struggles. He sees us, he sees right through our masks, and he still desires to draw near to us and set us free.

When we stop being shocked that these things can happen to us, we can then walk with one another, helping each other take steps of faith toward sexual wholeness.

Our next post will examine two more ways of living that bring honesty and healing.

Dr. Clair Davis, retired church history professor from Westminster Theological Seminary, writes on church and gospel issues. When he writes on sex and sexuality, he has a lot of good things to say, so we thought you’d like to read it also. Dr. Davis wrote in respomse to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2015 that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court’s decision enabling same-sex marriage in all states has gotten much attention, positively and negatively. It will facilitate unbiblical marriages everywhere, and God and his law will be massively mocked. Of course that is very serious. Going ahead, will those opposing this decision be convicted of hate-crime? It is very possible.

But how is this anything new? Some of us can remember when states followed biblical norms, permitting divorce only in cases of adultery. That was when people went to Reno, Nevada, to live for six weeks until they could obtain a “no-fault” divorce there. Those finding that inconvenient were able to enlist private detectives to help them set up a phony adultery in raids on hotel rooms. I can’t remember how believers responded to Reno, but wasn’t that just as serious then as the Court’s decision today?

No doubt there are legal and social advantages to “marriage,” but in a hook-up culture, that has little to do with sexual activity. Puberty comes earlier and marriage much later; do the math yourself. No one says “common-law marriage” any more, but what could be more common? Has the evangelical Christian church, along with Catholic and Orthodox churches, been consistently clear?

This has nothing to do with our welcoming people. Jesus welcomed all us sinners, and we are so glad. But along with our trusting Jesus Christ comes repentance for our sin, and that is what we know ourselves and seek to tell others. I tell this story, one that I actually experienced, about getting drainage pipe for a plot of ground and asking for a much bigger pipe than the clerk suggested, prompting his response as he sold me the really big one, “You do have a drainage problem.” That the Beloved Son of the Father should give up his life for us sinners, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—that wasn’t to show off, that was because of our sin.

We are called to welcome all to Jesus, but clearly turning to him means turning away from whatever idol you worship, including same-sex relations. We need to show and tell that this means us too. We are not called to be Pharisees, to look down on those not as holy as we are. In no way are we worthy.

Were we sloppy about Reno? Hook-ups? It is time for us to repent of that and our own respectable sins too. The Court has gotten everyone’s attention right now, so why should we delay our own repentance? And along with that, calling the world around us to Jesus the Savior? Not just same-sex people—that suggests their sin is greater than ours, and it isn’t. That suggests cultural narrowness, and our calling is to the whole world. The Court has people awake. Now is the time to talk—more clearly and consistently than ever before.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Three

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.

If you are just picking up this post now, click here and here for parts one and two.

Paul’s plea to the Thessalonians is that they not live sexually as though they are free to do whatever they want. As he said in another letter: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

And his point in verses 4-5 is this: If you are not serving God by living for him, learning to control your body’s powerful sexual desires, you will be a slave to desires you will be unable to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually anyway you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

Here is what we need to know about desires and wants and how they are closely connected to our sexuality. Our sexuality is fed by desires that often are not sexual at all, like loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, inadequacy, power, control, wanting to be loved, known or valued, fear of missing out, peer pressure—there are an unlimited number of wants and desires that become excessive desires and rule over us. They become things we think we absolutely need in life; they become ultimate things; they become idols that we live for—to have or to avoid.

And if we use our sexuality to erase our loneliness, combat our anxiety or fears, or to convince ourselves that somebody now loves and wants us, then we will keep doing so in order that life gives us what we think we need.

But what these desires give us is an illusion of control when in fact they give us slavery; they control us.

And when we find ourselves at that place in life, Paul’s description of non-believers becomes true even for believers: We become like “the Gentiles who do not know God.” When our hearts are given over to something or someone else, Jesus is pushed aside. He simply is not enough for us to give us what we need in life. So, we begin worshiping a false god of our own making.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality; it reveals the allegiance of our hearts.

Today, pornography is a clear example of how sexual freedom is really sexual slavery.

Let me show you four ways our struggles with sexuality brings slavery—and how it hurts us and others.

One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation

Many Christians live defeated lives of fear and self-loathing. Their struggles with sex drives them away from God. They hide from him and from others. When they look to God all they see is a judge, not a Savior who came to rescue them from the very slavery that binds them.

A man from a support group wrote this for one of our newsletters: “When does the healing from a lifetime of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? These are questions I struggled with for years. . . I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships.”

People like my friend here think, “If I struggle here, I must not be a Christian.”

Two, sexual strugglers live double lives

I’m talking here about compartmentalizing, about splitting your life into separate parts. I can be a Christian at church and be someone else at school, at my workplace, etc. Sexual strugglers live double lives. Our organization’s founder, John Freeman, just published a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. He uses the phrase “game-players” about sexual strugglers. They put their game face on when they are in public with other believers, but underneath the mask there is tremendous fear and shame and guilt.

Compartmentalizing, however, slowly bleeds into every area of your life. Another man in my support group said he’s been a liar all his life. Now in his 50s, his early encounter with porn as a child led him for decades to hide his sexual addiction, first from his parents and then from his wife and children.

He got so used to lying to cover up his porn addiction. He soon didn’t realize that he unconsciously lied to cover up all his behavior, no matter what it was. He could never relax and just be himself. His constant fear was being found out.

Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness

Crippling doubt about salvation and living a fear-driven double life ultimately brings hopelessness about ever being free. Many men and women give up. They either give up outwardly and leave the church or they give up silently and just go through the motions of living their Christian faith. But they distance themselves from church, from family relationships, and from those closest to them who sense that something is amiss, but they can’t put their finger on it.

Slavery gives you the feeling that the gospel has no power. It is utterly useless to help you with the problems and struggles you face once you leave church on Sunday. And if you feel God himself can’t help you, you are indeed hopeless.

Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others

In verse 6 Paul slips this in: “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.”

Paul is referring to the relational damage of sexual sin. He connects it with sexuality: “in this matter.”

Here’s the point: Sexual sin is not a private matter. It is not a harmless, private activity. When our desires control us, we become intensely self-centered. Sex was designed by God as a means to bless our spouse. But when our focus is only on ourselves and what we can get out of it, we hurt people and relationships.

A husband who looks at pornography hurts his wife, as he prefers a fantasy life over his real one. At best, his wife becomes merely an object of his own pleasure like all the women he sees on the screen. He uses people.

Someone who engages in porn contributes to the sexual exploitation of the performers and the widespread damage to the minds and hearts of others who are in slavery to this. Increasingly the evidence is growing that sex trafficking is embedded in this porn epidemic.

And then there is sexual abuse. Child porn, and the awful tragedy of church leaders abusing men and women under their pastoral care, is the extreme display of all this sexual slavery.

Lust is not something that is easily contained. There is a reason Jesus said, in exaggerated language, in order to make a point: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Matthew 5:30).

When we feed our lusts, they will control us and consume us.

Can you hear Paul’s plea? “Don’t live by your desires, now that you know something of what this slavery looks like!”

But if that warning is not enough, Paul gives a stronger one: “the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”

(Looking ahead: Is there a way forward through all this, a way for us individually, and for us as a church, to live our lives in sexual integrity before God?)

Link to Part 4.

This article first appeared, in edited form, in Haven Today’s web blog, www.haventoday.org.

UPDATE: 

In the summer of 2013, a Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage moved the historic, orthodox Christian view of traditional marriage further to the sidelines. Then, in June 2015, that view was completely taken off the field. Marriage was redefined in our country. Two years ago John Freeman wrote the following, and what he said then remains highly relevant today. Then, as now, we remain firm in our belief that our Sovereign Lord will still use what feels like (and is) a defeat for his glory, as he continues to draw all peoples to himself. 

As the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the referendum of Proposition 8 in California, it certainly seemed that the tide of our culture would continue to steadily move in the direction of the acceptance of gay marriage. So, what now? How are followers of Jesus Christ, and the church, to think about and respond to the recent decision by the Supreme Court? It is crucial that the church as an institution and individual believers respond well. John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, thinks that the best response of the church now is to do the following six things:

1. We should not lash out in anger or be afraid

A fight-or-flight response is normal when overwhelming events occur. But both of these instinctual responses are unhelpful and unproductive. My wife has often told me, “John, when you speak or react out of fear or anger . . . bad things come out of your mouth.” She is usually right. Admittedly, we may legitimately fear where this decision will next take our nation; and we may legitimately be angry over how God’s design for the institution and function of marriage as it has historically benefited society is being hijacked. But we need to keep this in mind: As believers, our true citizenship is in heaven. We must think and act like those whose world has been impacted but not devastated.

I think a more productive response would be that of grief. We need to be grieved at what happened, grieved at the state of the culture, and grieved at how blind people are to the truth of God’s Word and its continuing relevancy for all of human society. We see in the New Testament two ways in which God responds to those who resolutely turn away from his Word. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and her refusal to turn to him as their shepherd (Matthew 23:37-39), and we see in Romans 1 that God, at times, “gives over” (allows) people and society to do what they want to do. Both these pictures are poignant displays of what is wrong with the world: that mankind has torn itself away from God’s shepherding hand and rebelliously set out on its own path. The prodigal son is in all of us.

But just grieve? Doesn’t seem very productive or helpful. It feels so powerless! Yes, it can feel that way, but we need to remind ourselves that the “weakness” of the church is how the power of God is best displayed. It is in that weakness, the weakness of grieving over those who refuse to be shepherded by Christ, that compassion is worked out in our hearts, leading us to love the shepherd-less and for the world to see that we love them.

One way we do this is by not lashing out at the LGBT community. They are not our enemy. The tendency is to see significant political and legal changes such as this as coming from a monolithic force bent on overturning everything. The reality is a bit more complicated. The LGBT community is wide and diverse, and includes those who are secular and those who are religious (even those who claim to be evangelical). It is when the church fails to see this complexity that it has responded to change in terrible and hurtful ways, from when Jerry Falwell twisted Ellen Degeneres’ name to when the church mischaracterizes the gay community in order to have a recognizable “target” to oppose.

For the church to live out the gospel, for it to be the witness to the truth and mercy of Christ, we must not see “them” as the enemy, but rather as men and women who, while throwing off God’s law and calling it freedom, nevertheless are made in God’s image and need to know the real freedom of submitting to God’s will. We need to recognize that there are names and faces attached to this issue, real people, many of them our neighbors or colleagues. An “us” vs. “them” mentality is fear-based; it does violence to the gospel and to us, and it refuses to recognize the humanity that must shape this issue. When we think like this, we fail to recognize that, at one time, we, too, were “them,” people who did not follow the gospel, living for self and following the ways of the world (take note of Ephesians 2).

But we were shown mercy, not because there was anything intrinsically good inside of us, but because God in Christ loved us and showed us mercy.

Another reason not to be angry or afraid is because. . .

2. We need to remind ourselves that God is still on the throne . . . neither slumbering nor sleeping

Although decided in the private chambers of the Supreme Court, this has not happened out of God’s sight. He is the God who knows all and sees all. This is beyond our rational understanding, but by faith we believe that God remains in control over all things, even over the decisions made by man and society that veer away from his wisdom. To respond with anger or abject fear is to forget this.

Why God has allowed the societal acceptance of homosexuality and the (increasing) legalization of same-sex marriage to be so prominent today will remain a mystery at some level. Why he has allowed it to split churches, denominations, and families must also be trusted to his providence. We only know what Scripture does tell us: that this is a broken world, a world where his image-bearers are in rebellion against him and his intentional design for creation. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised. There is nothing new under the sun here. Has there ever been a human society outside of the garden that has not trended in this direction?

We must, as his followers, trust in him at all times, especially when it seems that ungodliness has the upper hand in our society. The courage of faith is when we trust him, especially so in turbulent and darkened times. To continue to follow God when the world thinks we are foolish and it would just be easier to capitulate is to ask God for more faith! He will give it. Remember that faith, even as small as that of a mustard seed, can withstand much adversity and be a force for change (see Luke 17:5-6, in the context of vs. 3-4).

It is by that courage, a courage rooted in God still being a control, and faith that refuses to bend to the latest worldly trends, which moves us to. . .

3. Boldly and gently proclaim the ultimate destructiveness of ungodly actions

While many will celebrate this decision as the advancement of an enlightened society and a triumph of inclusiveness and tolerance, the reality is that actions made in opposition to God’s design carry with them significant consequences. Several years ago noted pastor, teacher, and author James Boice said, “It’s God’s world, not our world. Although we may want to rewrite the rules, we can’t, because it’s God’s world. And sin is destructive, whether or not we admit or agree, it’s still destructive.” In other words, behavior has consequences, even if we don’t fully know now what that will look like.
By removing the definition of marriage from its historical and God-designed nature as being between one man and one woman, how long will it be before other forms of “marriage” will become acceptable and even legal? Many groups deride such speculation as being a consequence of this decision, but history has shown time and again how boundaries are burst open once critical lines have been crossed. And what about the impact on children as we move into social territory that is completely new to human society? To say that there will be no negative consequences when the most stabilizing force for society continues to be upended—that of an intact family of a husband and wife and children—is naïve.

These are important matters that society must wrestle with as it moves further in this uncharted direction. Christians must not shrink from engaging these issues. But we, as Christians, must be careful how we talk about these things. It is one thing to say that actions and behavior that move away from God’s design for human flourishing are ultimately destructive; it is another thing to say that every action and every behavior apart from God’s design will end poorly. We have seen this in the liberalization of divorce laws over the past few decades and in the rise of children born out of wedlock. These two social happenings are tearing families apart. We are learning more and more about the widespread destructiveness to society and to children of such broken family structures. But that does not translate into every single-parent family being an ongoing catastrophe. Many children have grown up with only one parent and have grown up well. But overall, society has suffered when people tear themselves away from the anchor of God’s wise counsel.

What this means is this: We have already—and this will rapidly continue as same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted—embarked on something that is historically very new to human society: children being raised in same-sex families as an acceptable norm. We do not know the cumulative effects of such a new family design. We must wait for evidence of its effect on society and children. But we must also avoid simplistic and sweeping generalizations that erroneously paint distorted and false pictures. We will continue to insist that gender matters in families, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, and in that context a child grows up and learns what it means to be male or female, a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother; but saying this does not mean that good parenting is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals. The fact that God is the one who created marriage and defined it as the establishment of a new family structure (Genesis 2:24) where mothers and fathers are fully engaged in the raising of the next generation is not something to simply discard and say that the gender of a particular parent is irrelevant.

In short, the issues we raise—both within the church and in the marketplace of society—and the ways we speak about them, based on our belief that God’s design for marriage and family is best for society, must be intelligent and complex. We must not be afraid to see the evidence unfold as marriage morphs into newer forms or wrestle with that evidence as we continue to argue for the ways of God over the ways of man.

We live in a broken world, but it still remains a world that God so loved that he sent his only Son, so . . .

4. We must not avoid our calling: to engage the culture and all people with the truth and mercy of the gospel

Even as culture goes off the rails, and we seem powerless to stop it, we’re not off the hook from engaging the culture and actively loving people. Although we may want to retreat and go into self-protective mode, we must not. The church did not do so as the Roman culture descended into greater ungodliness and injustice. The downward spiral of our society and the increasing celebration of what is explicitly forbidden in God’s word make our sharing the gospel more important than ever! The gospel is the only hope for a broken world and fallen hearts. As I already noted, for this reason the church must not attack and demean gays and lesbians because of this issue. The gospel is a message of hope for everyone; not a platform for condemnation and ridicule. The gospel will only be heard through the words and deeds of his people. People are loved into faith and belief, not argued into it.

This will translate into major challenges for the church as society legalizes same-sex marriage. Church leadership must now begin to think through what would be wise and practical ministry to people who, for example, come into the church as a same-sex couple with children. What are the ways the church needs to welcome them while maintaining biblical fidelity? And what if a couple comes to faith and begins to wrestle with what Scripture says about their relationship? In what direction does the church counsel them—and their children? Divorce? Splitting the family apart? Or something else that tries to maintain the integrity of God’s Word while practical gospel ministry unfolds with the family? The truth and mercy of the gospel—a tension that must always be held in dynamic balance—will need to be fleshed out in these types of situations, and we will be undoubtedly stretched. But we need to start thinking about this now.

We must also begin discussing a subject about which we have been much too silent on. . .

5. We must begin relevant and effective preaching and teaching about why God’s design for sexuality is best

The silence of the church on many issues has contributed to the emergence of movements that have been detrimental to mankind. It can be argued that the church’s failure to preach and teach about why God’s design for sexuality is good, relevant, and functional (even in a broken world) has created a vacuum for the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The church has said “No!” for too long as its main message on sexuality and now needs to say “Here’s how,” or “Here’s how God’s design for sexuality remains the best venue for people and society to flourish.”

The church also needs to get honest. Honest about its people who struggle with their sexuality. For the sake of appearances, or because of the fear of not knowing what to do, churches have ignored those in her midst that are falling deeper and deeper into the morass of sexual sin. The church can no longer condemn sexual sin “out there” while at the same time not admitting or helping those who are struggling believers. After all, aren’t redeemed lives the best testimony of the power and love of God—redeemed lives that are honest about continuing struggles but display a relentless gospel grace to follow Christ where ever he leads?

God is always at work, always, so. . .

6. “Keep calm and carry on” as God’s people and his church

During the bombings of World War II, people in Britain felt that the world was falling apart. “Keep calm and carry on” became a common phrase on billboards and posters as a way to encourage the British people. We need to follow this advice as well. How do we “keep calm and carry on” when we see everything around us in a downward spiral and decay? We lean on and trust in the Rock of our salvation, who is still with his people while we continue to carry out his kingdom work.

We must not let these things have more power over us than they really do. And, thankfully, we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak and make our concerns known. We must not be cowed into silence in speaking about further societal consequences and about the future of religious liberty, two major issues embedded in this controversy. But, again, we should not place our faith in any human political or legal structure as our ultimate protector or savior. Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world”—neither is ours. The mission of the church continues. The church cannot be either dismissed or destroyed. It remains God’s vehicle of redemption, worked out through his people. That mission will endure until he returns. So let’s keep calm and keep carrying on with the mission and the message that remains the hope for every person in the world.

To hear more about how to think pastorally in communicating the gospel with gays and lesbians, John has a chapter, “A Missional Response to Homosexual Strugglers in the Church and the Gay Community,” in Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World, published by New Growth Press. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for a copy.

Updated 4.11.2017

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Two

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.

In my first post on this amazing passage by Paul, I pointed out how God places a high value on how we live before him in these bodies we have. You can read that first post here.

Again, Paul’s intent in this passage is to make it very clear that those who name themselves as followers of Christ could not engage in whatever sexual behavior they wish like the behavior that the surrounding culture promoted and permitted. But he also understood the struggle they were having in reining in attractions, desires, and behaviors which were socially OK for them.

So, after he tells them that what we do with our bodies matters to God, he gives them another compelling reason for fighting sexual sin:

How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery

There are two powerful cultural forces in play regarding sexuality in our world today.

The first one is that we no longer agree on what is right and wrong. The old rules and boundaries regarding sexual behavior are now considered repressive, confining, antiquated. What matters is love, however it is expressed. As long as there is agreement between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, everything is OK.

The second cultural force is that since there is no standard of truth, we all make our own truth. Personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We won’t look outside of ourselves to God or some sort of external standard to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own feelings and experiences. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” No one has the right to say that my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.

The combination of these two cultural forces—that there is no right or wrong other than what I say is right or wrong—is reshaping sexuality today. Sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual rights—it’s an “anything goes” sexuality culture. This is what is called sexual freedom.

But Paul—and indeed the entire Bible—calls this kind of life, not freedom, but slavery.

Look at verses 4 and 5, where Paul says, “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.”

What is Paul saying here? He is making clear that believers must not live lives of uncontrolled sexuality the way unbelievers do. Now, Paul is making a worldview statement here. He is not saying that all unbelievers live licentious sexual lives. Rather, he is saying that the world outside of God’s influence promotes living according to one’s passions.

He is saying to the young believers in this new church community, that though this is the world you came out of, and though you may still struggle with your sexuality, don’t give in to those desires as if it doesn’t matter what you do with your bodies.

Because it does matter.

Why? Because when you give your body over to your desires, you will find out what slavery is.

Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word that Paul uses: “lust.” Verse 5 reads, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Lust is an interesting word. It’s typically a word used in a sexual context, but it’s not limited to that. The Greek word that we translate lust, epithumia, simply means “over-desire” or “strong desire.” The general meaning in the NT when it is used in a sexual context is that of a “ruling desire” or an “inordinate desire.” A “controlling desire.” A desire that enslaves.

In other words, our desires, which arise from what entices us and what we ourselves want, eventually come to enslave us. And Paul is pleading: Don’t go there! Don’t give in to those over-desires. Don’t let yourself be a slave, controlled by something that brings destruction to your life. Don’t live as if God doesn’t matter to you.

We see this idea of behavior and slavery in another passage, James 1:13-15, which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Now what is James saying here?

James is answering the question, “What causes us to sin?” His answer is that everyone is tempted from within—“by his own desire”—and that our desires, when we cultivate them and focus on them, they eventually give birth to sin.

The word that is translated as desire is the same word Paul uses, epithumia. And James is clearly using this word in a sexual context, also. In fact, James uses a sexual term that is translated as “lured and enticed.”

Now what does this all mean?

It means that we want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time, our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (v. 14).

Do you see? Behavior always has this ongoing dynamic of being my free choice while, at the same time, I’m being dragged toward it or controlled by it. A modern interpretation of this was penned best by Bob Dylan: “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

You are free to do what you want—but you will be serving somebody. And if you are not serving God, living for him, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually any way you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my ruling desires have on me and others?)

Link to Part 3

This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.

I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.

The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.

As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.

She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.

As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.

Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.

A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.

Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.

Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.

This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at [email protected].

Updated 5.23.2017

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