Dr. Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling and Psychology, and the Director of the MA Counseling Program at Biblical Seminary. He is a long-time friend of Harvest USA (our own “Dr. Phil!”), and his popular blog, Musings of a Christian Psychologist, can be reached at http://wisecounsel.wordpress.com.
Desire in its best forms
God is a jealous, desiring God. How does one describe the unseen, all-knowing, omnipotent, ever-present God? Words and human experience can never do him justice. And yet, God uses words to teach us about himself. He is just, benevolent, holy, and sovereign. These descriptions evoke images of power, of needing nothing. God does not need anything, for in him everything obtains its life.
But notice, he does not only describe himself with terms of power and strength, but also with words that suggest desire and longing. God is not merely patient with us. No, he longs for us and would gather us to him as a hen would gather her chicks (Matthew 23:37). He pursues his wife (Israel) and hems her in even when she runs after other lovers (Hosea 2). He “burns” with jealousy for Zion so much so that he returns her to an honor she does not deserve (Zechariah 8:2-7), even paying the price himself for remarriage. If God desires us, longing for the glory he deserves from his creatures, then desire is not just something that we should resist.
God cares about and fulfills our desires
You cannot accuse God of being an ascetic or uncaring of your desires. We see numerous references to God’s attention to our desires. The Psalmist reminds God that he hears the desires of suffering people (10:17). He not only hears; he also acts. In Psalm 20 and 21, David sings of God’s hand in bringing about the desires of his heart. In Psalm 37, David clarifies the relationship between human desires and God’s response. When we delight in God, he delights to give us our desires (see also Matthew 5:6). He is a father who dotes on his children. He gives good things that satisfy (Psalm 103:5). Jesus picks up on this theme and reminds us that if we, who are evil, give good gifts to each other, then will not God, the creator of the universe, give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11)? Are you not yet convinced that God delights to fulfill your desires? Then listen to David as he bursts forth in song, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (Psalm 145:16,19).
I can hear your objection. “But wait,” you say, “There are many desires that God never fulfilled for me. If he longs to fulfill our desires, why didn’t he fulfill mine? Why do I feel so empty? I want to be healthy, married, a parent, happy, content, but my prayers seem to hit the ceiling and return to me.” I do not dispute that living in the wilderness leaves much to be desired. The misery of living in this sin-sick world multiplies daily. Yet, did not God provide for your desires today? Did you not eat? Did you not find momentary rest for your weary body? Did you not see his beauty reflected in something or someone? Ah, we are exposed. We grow complacent with God’s good gifts. They aren’t gifts in our minds, just something that everybody gets. We are far too often like the Israelites in the desert. We overlook the good things God gives us and obsess on what he did not give. God’s good gifts are no accident or afterthought—some sympathetic gesture to a waif. Rather he gives them out of the overflowing desire for his own glory and for the completion of all that he has willed. Every good gift you have received has come because God has ordained your existence in an abundantly provided world (see Psalm 65). He supplies you with your food and with whatever joy, peace, laughter, and righteousness you have experienced.
Fulfilled desires are sweet
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life… a desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:12,19a). These brief proverbs remind us of what we already know. When our desires are fulfilled, it is a satisfying moment. Even illicit gratification is satisfying, though deadly. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Why else would we go back for more? When our desires are filled, we are comforted and secure. God comforts the brokenhearted and satisfies them with his bounty (Jeremiah 31:13-14). Satisfaction also brings joy and gladness. Moses supplicates, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Satisfaction brings knowledge. The children of Israel, once filled with manna, know that the Lord is their God (Exodus 16:12).
Sexual desire is complex, compelling, and good
Why would God put the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to tell us more about himself? What purpose does an erotic book detailing the urges and orgasms of an anonymous couple serve the kingdom of God? The man spends numerous lines waxing poetic about her genitalia and how he wants to play with her. She shivers and aches for her climax. No, this is not a harlequin romance novel. In fact, it is probably more erotic and explicit about sexual desire than our English translations will admit. Those who try to spiritualize the text to mean only something of how God feels towards his church surely do God an injustice. And what of the mysterious phrase that appears in the book on three occasions, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)? These would seem to indicate that one must be careful with love and the power it wields. If you are not careful, your appetites may overwhelm you.
No, really, its best form
As good as sexual desire is, it pales next to desire for God and being united with Christ. The Psalms are full of descriptions of longings for God. David cries out for God, for his ways, his wisdom, and his presence. How are these depicted? There are numerous depictions of this desire as the cries of one who is thirsty and longing for water (e.g., Psalm 42:1; 63:1, 143:6.). In the New Testament, Paul records a similar sentiment. We groan while we are in this “tent” of a body and long for our guaranteed inheritance (II Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice that your good desires for God will bring upon yourself more pain! Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? “Come to Jesus,” we say, “and your life (as you have imagined it) will go well.” Instead, as we draw closer to God, our desire for him enlarges. Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? Satisfaction increases, but certainly so does agony as we develop an increasing awareness of our desperate need for God.
Yet do not be discouraged; our desires for God do not end in only pain. We do find satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, joy, and peace. Psalm 131 depicts satisfaction with God as a baby on his mother’s lap whose stomach is filled, who no longer needs to grab at her breasts for more. When we take worship as our food, Isaiah records that we will delight “in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). These satisfactions are not just spiritual. Rather they reach out into the far corners of our lives. Solomon, who contemplated the search for satisfaction reminds his readers that any satisfaction we achieve has been a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
04 Nov 2015
This is the third of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here, and the second post is here.
As pornography becomes increasingly accepted as a part of cultural life today, we will continue to hear more stories about the impact of sexual brokenness in the lives of individuals, families, and even in the wider society. Christians will not be exempt from this brokenness. The church needs to begin moving along four fronts in order to stop the drift and to begin healing the damage.
One: Acknowledge that the problem exists—in the church
As stated repeatedly, take action about the porn usage epidemic in your church. It exists. Remember, it’s a secret sin, so it won’t come easily to the surface. By admitting that Christians struggle with sex (it’s not just a problem “out there”), we give people hope that God’s gift of sexuality can be used for good. Acknowledge that we all struggle with this powerful gift, and that help is readily available for strugglers.
Teach about biblical sexuality to all age groups of people in the church. Don’t just focus on the negatives—teach about sexuality in a positive way, because Christians today especially need to hear a compelling apologetic about why God’s design for sexual expression is for our good. Pray for and seek out men and women leaders to start and lead support groups for sexual strugglers. Contact us at [email protected] and we can help you get started on all of this.
Two: Begin to take action on injustice issues
The evangelical church can no longer be silent on social issues like the commercialization of sex and sex trafficking. Scripture repeatedly talks about God as a God of justice and mercy, and that his people should reflect to the world what God is passionate about. Isaiah 1:16-17 is only one of countless passages that direct us as God’s people to actively do justice and bring restoration to the broken.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (ESV)
Consider organizing a church committee or team that explores and teaches on justice and mercy issues. Ask God to develop in you and your church a heart of mercy to those who have been abused, mistreated, and manipulated into sexual sin. The scope of the problem is enormous, but don’t get overwhelmed. Start small; start locally. Look for local resources to get involved in rescuing those who are abused and trapped. Shared Hope International is a good, national resource to start. VAST (thevast.org; Valley Against Sex Trafficking) is an excellent local resource in the Philadelphia region.
Three: Start talking to youth—especially to boys and young men
Of all the demographics in the church, none is more critical to reach than our youth—but especially boys and young men. Why? Because our youth are almost universally immersed in looking at porn today, and they are being frightfully impacted by it. New research is showing how porn usage is shaping the minds and hearts of young men, “rewiring” their brains toward aggressive and dysfunctional sexual behavior and addiction. We need to reach this generation of boys and young men in particular in order to stop the demand for sexual trafficking that is growing around the world.
But don’t forget young women, as well! They, too, are buying into the lies of the world when it comes to sexuality. The youth in our churches today know little about God’s design for sex and are increasingly abandoning the Bible’s teaching on sexuality morality. And the major reason for that is the church’s failure to talk openly and give a compelling reason for following God in this area of life.
Four: Learn how to help by focusing on the heart—not just stopping behavior
Finally, it’s not enough to simply talk about the dangers and the personal/social implications of pornography and sexual brokenness. There are reasons why men and women get hopelessly ensnared in sexual sin, as both offenders and victims. All of our biblical teaching on sexuality must aim for the heart, where sinful behavior starts (Matthew 15:18-20).
Helping a sexual struggler means learning the unique contours of his or her heart. When we see the broken idols that we live for, the idols that promise life but deliver destruction, and when we see them in the light of God’s mercy toward us in Christ, then deep repentance and transformation begin to take shape—moving outward from the individual to family, church, neighborhood, and even to the far reaches of society itself.
28 Oct 2015
This is the second of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here.
Pornography is the vehicle that drives lust forward, and porn spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies, and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in its production. It does so in three primary ways.
- Porn disconnects sex from relationships—Its subjects, usually women, become mere objects for sexual pleasure and/or a commodity for sale.
- Porn disconnects sex from love and respect—This especially has been shown to lead to aggression and violence toward women; many point to a “rape culture” on college campuses that some say is connected to the widespread usage of pornography among male students.
- Porn disconnects sex from human dignity—Today, perversity knows no bounds when it comes to pornography.
While this is admittedly an extreme example, Ariel Castro, who imprisoned and sexually abused three women in his house in Cleveland for more than a decade, said at his sentencing, “I believe I’m addicted to porn. . . to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”¹ As James Conley mentioned in his analysis on how pornography is reshaping the mind of American men, he says, “Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.”
Nowhere do we see more of the destructive and dehumanizing effects that pornography produces than in prostitution and sex trafficking. The image of the happy hooker, as seen in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, is a Hollywood lie. The vast majority enter prostitution—and other commercial sex enterprises like strip clubs, erotic massage, escort services, the production of porn movies, etc.—because of complex social, emotional, and economic reasons. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, drugs, mental illness, and poverty have long been the broken social fabric that propels women into such activities. And sex trafficking is even more damaging, where through the use of manipulation or force, a person—frequently a minor—is trafficked for sex, oftentimes kidnapped, and transported for such acts far from their home environment.
It is imperative that Christians look below the surface of sexual sin to what may be driving its use in the lives of those in it. So many porn actresses and actors, prostitutes, and others who work in the sex industry are there because of other major brokenness issues in their lives. It is inaccurate, unhelpful, and judgmental to merely condemn those in it apart from seeing and understanding the numerous factors that contribute to it. On the Shared Hope International website (sharedhope.org), which is a Christian organization working to help victims of sex trafficking and eradicate the demand for it, a young girl named Robin tells her story about her descent into prostitution, a story that is not uncommon:
I became alcoholic after my first drink at 14 years old. Gradually through my adolescence, I began experimenting with other substances, and they became more important to me than school. After miserably failing almost two years of college, I dropped out. I had just turned 21 before I met the man who sold me a dream. The dream turned into a nightmare, and the nightmare lasted six years. In those six years I was prostituted up and down the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, Hawaii. . . I was 21 years old when my pimp walked into my life and, because I was an “adult,” I always carried the guilt and shame for “choosing” this lifestyle. . . Telling my story and backing it up with truths, rather than misconceptions about prostitution, allowed me to heal. (Survivor Story: Robin’s Journey to Redemption and Restoration,” March 7, 2013, http://sharedhope.org/2013/03/07/survivor-story-robin/.)
Pornography also fuels the demand for such sexual services. Far from quenching lust and reducing sexual exploitation (as many proponents of pornography contend), it radically distorts sexuality and relationships. Pornography feeds the mindset that contributes to abuse, exploitation, oppression, and victimization.
True, not everyone goes from viewing pornography to buying sex. But we must see the deeper connections that viewing pornography facilitates. Participating in the “business” of just looking at pornography keeps the industry going. Whether the pornography is free, paid, professional, or amateur, people are being used. As prostitution was once erroneously called a victimless crime, pornography is equally not a victimless activity. Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers, the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced. Viewing it, engaging in it, contributes to the entire system of broken sexuality throughout the world. Those looking at porn are “served” through the oppression of many.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced.
While it is beyond the scale of this article to lay out everything that ought to be done, there are a few steps you and your church can take to do justice, and to bring healing to those caught in the fabric of sexual brokenness. We’ll look at this in the next post.
¹ James D. Conley, “Ariel Castro’s Addiction,” First Things, August 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/08/ariel-castros-addiction.
14 Oct 2015
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.
With the Ashley Madison scandal of 2015, and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood, who lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage, gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and hopefully grow, these first few steps will be critical.
In my first two blogs (Part 1 and Part 2), I mentioned two initial steps you need to take to bring healing to your marriage: Fully own the damage you caused, and let your wife heal at her own pace. Now, for the third initial step you must take.
You have to move toward your wife as a forgiven man. Not forgiven by her; you can’t control that or make that happen. No, forgiven by God. If you have given your life to him, then hear the good news of the gospel: God has taken your sin upon himself and given you his perfect, flawless life-record as your own. It’s this new foundation that you need to begin to grasp. God sees you as clean, washed, even when all the pieces of your life are still scattered all around you—even when the pain of your sin is still vividly in your mind and heart.
Why is this so important? Because you really can’t do the first two steps I mentioned apart from this one. You will not be able to fully face the truth of what you did, nor will you be able to let your wife heal at her own pace (with or without you), unless you begin to see that no matter your sin, Christ has paid the ultimate penalty for it. This alone is the foundation for your own healing.
This healing is not being accomplished by your sorrow, nor by your newfound good intentions or works, nor by the hope you have in wanting to heal your marriage. It’s because Jesus was willing, on one gruesome day, to die in your place—in order to give you life, to set you free, to place upon you a love so deep that you now belong to him as a cherished child.
You see, your sin exposed the lovelessness of your own heart. But by grasping God’s love for those with broken hearts with an open, empty hand (that’s faith), you will now be able to learn to love as you never have before.
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
This is what living by faith looks like. Not a cheap grace, but a substantial grace that now gives you the love you need to move forward in total transparency, hiding nothing, admitting to everything. I don’t know your wife. I don’t know how she is going to respond. What I do know is that you need to know that God loves you and that his promises never change. This should help you with my next point.
And this is what your wife needs—she needs to see you growing in this grace. You will still fail. You will still stumble and fall at times. Your wife is going to need her measure of grace from God to survive the destructive self-centeredness that brought you both to where you are now.
Remember that your sin is against God first! He felt it first! It was his law you broke! It was his grace that you trampled underfoot. To me, that is what God is trying to communicate to us from the cross. “This is how your self-indulgence has impacted me,” he is saying. “You broke my heart!” That is deep! That is love at a whole new level! He made an open display of your sin so that you don’t have to hide anymore. If you can honestly face the cross, you can honestly face your wife, hear whatever she needs to say, own all the damage you have caused, and patiently wait for whatever healing she needs to experience before she can even think of getting close again.
Finally, I would say, with Paul, “Love… hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV). You don’t want to give up hope. You want to continue to believe that God will do a work. And he will do a work in your life and in your marriage. It just might not look like the way you want it to look! You have to trust him no matter what the outcome.
With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
I mentioned in my last post (here) that one of the most devastating things that impacted your wife when your sexual sin finally came out in the open was this fact: You were living a double life. You lived one way in front of her, and you lived another way behind her back. That type of secrecy in a marriage causes great damage.
One of the first things you need to do to rebuild your marriage is to learn—carefully and with sincerity—how to rebuild the trust that you broke. I’ve already said a few things about the first step you need to take: Take a hard and honest inventory of the damage you have caused to your wife and marriage.
And if your wife is still willing to stay in the marriage, here’s a second big step you must take:
Give your wife space to walk her road of healing, at her pace
Don’t expect that trying to do all the right things and doing lots of good activity this time is going to fix everything. If this is your new focus, you will put a crushing weight of pressure on your wife. How? Because most likely, underneath all your “good” activity, is an unspoken demand that she should respond and accept your earnest steps to change.
When you do this, you are shifting the dynamic of the relationship off of you and onto her. Now the future of the marriage depends on how she responds to the “new” you. Oh, this is subtle! You may not even be aware of it. But if this is happening, and if your wife is having big problems accepting the new you, then you attempt to justify that, whatever happens, at least you really tried. After all, marriage involves two people working at it, right?
Yes, start changing your behavior, and begin relating to your wife as a man of honesty and transparency. But you have got to disconnect your behavior from expecting a particular response to it. You must.
The most important thing she needs from you right now is to give her all the space she wants to heal at her own pace, not yours. She is disoriented from living with a man who lived two lives. Jesus said sexual sins were legitimate grounds for divorce. You need to face the reality that you crossed that line—whether your sexual sin involved a physical encounter or “just” a virtual one.
Your wife will be struggling with the reality that you crossed sexual boundaries, that you took your heart and your body outside of your marriage. That’s bad enough. But she will also be struggling—perhaps more so—with your deception. Your wife can’t fix that. You’ll have to give her emotional space as she struggles with how to move on. How to learn, slowly, whether she can begin to trust the person you are now showing her.
One thing that God will work on in your heart is this: your desire to control things and make them work out your way. That’s what your sexual sin was about. Your desire for control is what plunged you into porn or whatever you did to seek emotional or physical intimacy outside of your promise to your wife. Control, to be in charge, to make sure you got what you wanted—and avoid whatever it was that you hated—is what kept your deception going.
Your idolatry to control your life is one giant lie that God cannot satisfy you. Your refusal to seek him led you to seek something else that promised no disappointment, no pain, no struggle, no problems.
But now you need to learn from God that your control was an illusion. You thought being in control would give you what you needed. And now your continued desire for control will also lead you to think that you need to—and can—fix this relationship and get it back on its feet. But that’s not going to work this time.
This time, you are going to have to deeply rely on God to fix this. You can’t fix this on your own. At this point, your promises, your new intentions, your new behavior are going to have to be seen to be believed. Over time. Over a lot of time.
You must now learn not to depend on yourself—your “wisdom,” your schemes, your manipulations. You can’t make this thing work. It’s in the mess that you have made of things that God is trying to make himself real to both you and your wife. It’s in the brokenness that God slowly brings new life.
Don’t push this, don’t rush this, don’t expect things from your wife. Don’t pressure her to heal faster than she can. Love is a long road. It’s worth the trip. She needs to go at her pace, and you will need to learn to love her at that pace.
God is in the business of redeeming lives, but he also insists on doing it his way. You’ve got to learn this yourself. Are you willing to be a disciple, willing to walk with her at his pace? Then realize that his pace for you includes the time your wife needs to heal. When you give her space, you walk at your master’s pace.
With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what some of the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
You’ve been found out. You’ve messed up and you’ve messed up big time. You have violated the boundary lines of sexual activity that God has put in place, and you have crushed your wife. You think you know how bad it is. But chances are good you still aren’t thinking clearly right now. You haven’t a clue how deep sexual betrayal runs. You can feel the pain you caused, but you still don’t know all the ins and outs of your sin.
The real issue right now for you is this: Will you honestly look at the damage you have done to your wife, and to your marriage? Will you name it and own it?
The worst first step you can make is to say “I’m sorry” and plead that you won’t ever do it again. Sorry is not going to be enough this time, even if you think it will ease the pain. But whose pain are you trying to heal at this point? If your goal is to get rid of the pain and move on, then you are just doing what your sexual sin was trying to accomplish in the first place: rid yourself of pain.
As much as you might want to put your marriage back together, I believe the real issue is not about how couples move forward again or how they are going to pick up the pieces.
The real issue right now for you is this: Will you honestly look at the damage you have done to your wife, and to your marriage? Will you name it and own it?
You have to own up to the fact that your behavior has crossed lines that bring death to a relationship. We can speculate about what Adam and Eve were thinking about before they ate the fruit. But it was when they ate the fruit that death occurred. They crossed the line, and everything changed.
By doing what you did, you crossed the line; you’ve eaten the forbidden fruit. Everything has changed now. The fallout is deeper than you think. Maybe Adam and Eve wouldn’t have eaten the fruit if they could have seen the possibility that their one action would eventually lead, through uncountable years of human history, to a world overrun with violence and suffering. But that doesn’t really matter right now. We are living in a world that they created, and we keep sustaining. So you must face your own self-made catastrophe because you didn’t consider the consequences.
No matter how your wife found out about your sexual sin (whether you got caught or you confessed), she now needs to process the fact that she doesn’t really know who you are. A whole chunk of your life has been lived in secrecy from her. Now she feels like she has been living with a stranger all these years. You may think this isn’t so big a deal, but it is. Can you imagine what the wife of Dennis Rader felt after finding out that she was married to a serial killer for 30 years? For three decades she related to a man who lied to her every minute of every day. I know that sounds like an over-the-top example, but do you get the point? How can your wife easily trust you again, when (for how long? how many years?) you presented a part of yourself to her, every minute of every day, that was a lie?
You shouldn’t be surprised that she is now asking herself questions like, “Does this mean that every time he walked out the door and said he was just going to the store he was really going somewhere else?” She may feel like she has to turn into some sort of private investigator or detective. This wasn’t her calling when God asked her to be your wife. She is wondering what these women on the Internet have that she doesn’t have. She struggles with wondering what is wrong with her, even when she isn’t to blame at all for what you did. She wonders if her husband ever really loved her at all, or if that just another lie.
I know I’ve been very negative up to this point. But one thing I’ve learned in my own journey is that God works in real time. He does his work in reality. It does us no good to paint the picture different than it really is. The corner we’ve painted ourselves into looks bleak.
But there is hope! And it can only start when we get real with what our behavior has done—how it has deeply hurt—our spouse and honestly face up to the damage we have inflicted. It can’t start any other place. Start naming the damage—to God and to her.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
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.
“I never realized how frivolously I have treated what sex is. I never saw it as something magnificently created. I know that sex is something that God wants us to control, but it’s out of control in my life. How did I get to the point that I both want it and loathe it at the same time?”
Matt (name changed) voiced this opinion following our presentation of “God’s Design for Sex,” which is one of our teaching segments of our Finding Sexual Sanity seminars. In that section, we try to get across the biblical view of sex and sexuality. So many Christians think that the biblical view of sex is predominantly negative: “Don’t do that until you’re married.” And then, if or when you are married, keep it under control, and don’t get too caught up in its pleasures.
How in the world did we, in the church (and not to mention those outside of the church), get to this pathetic conclusion?
Lots of reasons, but I think one thing we continue to miss: We are not doing a good job of proclaiming the wondrous gift that sex is, and so, too many Christians are falling into sexual sin and disorder as they wrestle with strong sexual desires and relational desires.
In Matt’s case, it was pornography. He knew that engaging and looking at pornography was wrong, but its pull on his mind and body was overwhelming to the point of addiction. Saying “no” to his desires, asking God for forgiveness, and forcing himself to stay away from the computer were failed strategies. His marriage was suffering, too.
It was important for Matt—and it’s crucial for anyone finding themselves caught in an obsessive (if not addictive) downward spiral of looking at porn—to discover what the underlying “idols of his heart” are that fuel all this. Sexual sin is a sign of deeper issues. And those deeper issues use sex as a means to gain what the struggler feels he or she must have in life. (Look at our blog postings on 1 Thessalonians 4 for a quick overview of the power of idols and desires. You can click here.)
Matt needed, and continues to keep needing, to pinpoint those non-sexual wants, desires, and longings that set him up to turn to pornography. Success is never measured by what we have stopped doing in our lives that brings harm. Looking at our failures is never enough to give us a desire to want to change. We need to know what is ahead—what will really give us freedom and joy. In other words, what is the thing to replace what we want to stop?
Listening to his support group talk about the beauty of God’s design for sex struck a chord of hope in Matt. He never considered that grasping a high view of sex might cause him to see sexuality as a gift from God, that God wanted him to use to its fullest delight, that God was not prudish about sex. That God had good reasons for designing its rules and boundaries, and they were not so that we would fail to enjoy it. As one writer recently described the Christian view of sex, “Not to mention the core Christian idea that sexuality is, itself, a necessary evil, and something that must be repressed.”
Really? Where do you find that in Scripture?
Matt left the support group that night encouraged that his struggle with sex had a new angle which could help him. While he still needed to actively repent of his deeper idols and engage in effective accountability with others to overcome his sin, he could now learn to look at the good reasons for God’s design for sex and begin to desire to protect something so good. Then he could begin to experience the goodness, beauty and wonder of sex with the person God gave him to do so with: his wife.