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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.

When my car breaks down, I take it to the mechanic. When my computer has a virus, I take it to the computer people. Problems. Turn on any news station and you will see and hear an endless stream of news stories of problems that need fixing and multiple opinions on what needs to be done to fix them.

If we’re not careful in our ministry, we can start looking at the people we serve as problems to be fixed. But people are not problems. Those you serve in ministry are more than merely the problems and issues they present.

It’s quite easy to slip into this mindset when doing ministry with high-maintenance teens or young adults.(Confession: I, too, was a high-maintenance kid!) There are a number for reasons for doing this. Here are just three of them. Do you see yourself here?

  1. I like fixing things. Men are really good at this. We think we know what someone needs, and we are really good at telling them what to do. We love to give advice all the time.
  2. I hate chaos and disorder. I need to fix it—fast. Get control quickly.
  3. I feel pressure from parents, pastors/leaders, etc. to fix things. I need to show them that I know what I’m doing and can do it well. Otherwise, it’s curtains for me.

Ministry leaders can especially find themselves here when the problems that a particular student has involves sexual issues. What if John comes to you and says, “I’ve been struggling with looking at porn,” or Sue opens up and says, “I struggle with lust”? Sexual issues can be complicated, hard to talk about, and unpredictable. They can dominate a person’s life (and oftentimes they do!). And, what’s more, they don’t tend to be fixed quickly or easily. So, after a while, we let their issues become the “face” we see rather than the whole person whom we are trying to help.

How might this play out in our ministry? Here are five litmus tests to see if we view students as problems to be fixed rather than people to love and walk alongside of, showing them how Christ is their helper.

  1. We get involved when an issue arises, but once we feel they have “conquered” their sin, we then move on to others with their new problems.
  2. We think of students only in terms of their sin. “That” becomes their identity and how we think of them all the time.
  3. We don’t recognize the good and godly things that are also going on in their lives.
  4. All we ask students about are their particular struggles and sins when we talk with them.
  5. We focus on their behavior, and fail to see that their struggles spring from so many other desires, beliefs, and fears within them.

Please don’t misread me. The problems and sins we face are serious things. They should be addressed, and God is clearly interested in addressing our sin—look at practically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians as an example.

But to miss the person because we are centrally focused on the problem is to miss really knowing them as the Lord knows them. This is the beauty of relational ministry.

One of the most relational passages of the Scriptures is Psalm 139. The entire Psalm is an exploration of the ways in which the Lord intimately knows David—you know, the guy who led Israel, whom God anointed as the archetypal leader of his people and the foreshadow of Christ, and the one who committed adultery and murder, as well.

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” (Psalm 139: 1-6, ESV)

Our God is a personal God. He delights to know us intimately, through and through, and David is equally enraptured by being known this way (“such knowledge is too wonderful for me”). It’s obvious that God would know all these things about David. He’s God. He knows these things about all of us!

But the main point is this: He doesn’t relate to us solely on the basis of our issues and problems. No! He really loves his people (Psalm 149:4: “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people”), and as the prophet Zephaniah exclaims, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

The LORD rejoices over his people? The LORD sings as he delights in us? YES! Our God doesn’t simply see us as problems; he sees us as people to be known and loved. He has loved us with a greater love than we could hope for, having purchased us and adopted us into his family. This isn’t simply about fixing us. This is about family.

How are you doing at reflecting this quality of God to the students you serve? Do you desire to know and love your students as children of the living God? Do you rejoice over the good fruit that is also there in their life? Do you desire to plumb the depths of their hearts, to know their fears, beliefs, and hopes instead of just responding to the issues you see on the surface? Do you desire to know them for who they are?

Here are five ways, mirroring the five litmus tests above, that help us relate more in-depth to the students we minister to:

  1. Pray that the Lord would help you to see students as unique individuals and not as problems you need to fix. Prayer for the Lord to reshape your vision is the first step to take.
  2. See your students not simply in terms of their struggles and sin, but as a mixture of sin, beliefs, desires, fears, hopes, dreams—the light and the dark of their lives. Recognize that they live in a messed up world, and, coupled with their youth and immaturity, let that guide your approach to them.
  3. Rejoice in the good you see in your students’ lives. Rejoice with them in their successes, and let them know that you praise God for the work you see.
  4. Ask students about the good things that are happening in their lives. Be intentional here, and in doing so, help them to give thanks to God for his goodness in their life.
  5. Recognize that you are more like your students than you realize. You don’t have it all together, either. As you cry out to God in your own weakness and struggles and sin, and as you embrace Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and as you then walk forward in faith after you have stumbled and fallen—this is the same life you want to model for them as well.

It’s an astonishing thing that the Lord takes our problems and sins seriously while simultaneously treating us as the sons and daughters in whom he delights. The Lord help us to mirror this in our relationships with our students.

Updated 4.13.17

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4 (ESV)

In my last post, “Living a Life That Becomes a Life Well-Lived,” I was sharing my thoughts on how to live now in such a way that our lives will have been lived well. David’s words here in Psalm 27 give us (me!) more clues about what this means: knowing what your “one thing” is going to be. David said that his “one thing” was to dwell in the house of the Lord, or as we might say now from our vantage place of being in Christ, to faithfully abide in the Lord Jesus. David said that he wanted to dwell in the Lord’s house so that he could:

  • Gaze upon the Lord’s beauty
  • Inquire of the Lord

I like the way that Pastor John Piper has often said in his teaching ministry, “Let your passions be single!” He’s speaking of a devoted and undistracted life, for and towards Jesus Christ, of making sure that our “one thing” is faithfulness to Jesus—abiding in Jesus as we love, know, and seek to obey his Word. When our “one thing” becomes a part of many things, or when our “one thing” is self, comfort, pleasure, or the affection and/or sexual attentions of other people, then we find ourselves living an anti-Psalm 27:4 that goes something like this:

One thing I have sought after and asked of the Lord, and that is,
‘Please leave me alone God!’ I mean, I want your attention but not now, okay?!
I want to build and nestle inside a home of my own making, where it feels good,
and no one bothers me about what I’m gazing at.
I’ll inquire of you, Lord, but later—okay?
I don’t mean to offend you, Lord, but I just need (fill in the blank) right now and you…
well, you just don’t seem as real as him/her/it/this.
I love you Lord, but I need him/her/it/this.

Sexual sin and disordered relational entanglements can be “one thing” that offers to us an instant payback of sexual and/or emotional pleasure, a comforting distraction that dulls and temporarily erases our inner pain and heartache. When our “one thing” isn’t Jesus, so many other things will rush in to fill the void, and entice, tantalize, seduce, woo, and offer to us a form of life. But it will be death in the end.

How do you focus on the true “one thing” of living fully for Jesus amid all the struggles of this life? I’d love to know what helps you do this.

Updated 5.16.2017

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