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Testimony: By “Ben”

Read the first post to this testimony here. The power and hope to overcome pornography and other sexual struggles is not found in resisting impulses, changing one’s habits, or even in religious practices. It’s found in the power of relationship—specifically the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. One of our former support group members, who wishes to be anonymous, shares his story.

The turning point finally came through tragedy. My wife died, having suffered twenty years with a disabling illness. My horrible grief magnified the pain of my guilt. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I loved my wife. I thought that God was punishing me by taking her. I know now this was not true. Perhaps he was protecting her from the potential consequences of my sin. In any case, God was demonstrating a “severe mercy.” It was severe and painful, but merciful because he was using these horrific circumstances to draw me to himself. I was finally reaching the point where I had had enough of the struggle.

Over the next twenty months, the Lord continued to draw me to himself as I began to regularly call out for him to reveal himself to me and take away the pain. For a long time, my behaviors did not change. Still trying to self-medicate, I engaged in sex more frequently and took more sexual risks. But I did not stop praying.

Two years after my wife’s death, I learned from my church’s new pastor that my spiritual condition was far worse than I thought. I had always thought that homosexuality and pornography were the roots of my sin problem. However, even before he knew my secret, my pastor told me that I did not need to merely stop sinning but also find rest from struggling. Such rest could only be found in the love of Jesus Christ.

One Sunday, my pastor preached on the man who came to Jesus with his demon-possessed son (Mark 9:14-29) for healing. When Jesus asked him if he believed Jesus could do the healing, the man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, ESV).

I needed help to believe that God could love me in spite of my sin

I was that man! I had believed in Jesus since I was five years old but still thought that God’s love was contingent on my behavior. I needed help to accept that I could never make myself righteous in God’s eyes. I needed help to believe that God could love me in spite of my sin. I needed to believe that not only did Jesus suffer the punishment for sin that I deserved, but that God had also credited Jesus’ sinless life to me. I needed help to believe that I was no longer an object of God’s wrath, but a son in whom he delighted. I prayed for another nine months, meditating on various scriptures, and tearfully crying out, “Help me overcome my unbelief.”

Finally, my desire to know God’s love was so great that nothing else mattered. I lost all fear of rejection. A friendship had been growing between my pastor and me. I told him that I wanted to share something I had never revealed to anyone. After my confession, to my amazement, he did not turn from me in disgust but told me that God loved me and he loved me. He showed me Romans 2:4 where Paul writes that God’s kindness leads us to repent. Through my friend, I felt God’s pleasure for the first time. I repented.

When I confessed to my pastor, I was waiting for the stones. Instead, my friend told me there was no more condemnation. Jesus, my Savior, had set me free at last.

Spiritual change doesn’t take place in secret. Only when sins come to light are the lies of Satan exposed. Satan had told me that no one, even Jesus, could love me. But he lied. In addition to caring brothers and sisters at Harvest USA, Jesus proved his love to me through many other Christians who encouraged me with the gospel. Among these were my children, my siblings, and my best friend of thirty years, who is like a brother. Satan told me that if any of them knew my heart, they would desert me. Instead—praise God—our relationships have grown deeper. I know I don’t deserve any of this. I deserve everything that Satan told me. All I can say is that it is God’s grace!

Although I am thrilled to share how God has worked in my life, it has been a painful exercise to recall many of the events. At times I just want to forget the past; I want it to have never happened. Thankfully God is redeeming even the way I view the past. He is teaching me that my past is not about what I have done, but is part of a larger story revealing what he has done for all of us. He is not asking me to share my story, but to share Christ’s story.

Christ’s story is simple. He has changed places with me. On the cross, he received the full punishment from God that I truly deserved, then gave me his perfect record. I am learning to share this story with joy because I’m beginning to believe the Bible. It tells me I am not the man that I used to be. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Testimony: By “Ben”

The power and hope to overcome pornography and other sexual struggles is not found in resisting impulses, changing one’s habits or, even in religious practices. It’s found in the power of relationship—specifically the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. One of our former support group members, who wishes to be anonymous, shares his story.

I was reared in a family with one brother and two sisters—all older than me. In our home, my mother was the nurturing one, and although I loved her dearly, I craved my father’s love. He worked hard to provide for us and so was absent much of the time. When he was around, he was busy, tired, and easily angered. He rarely had time for me. His favorite saying was, “Go peddle your papers!” We shared no interests. Talking with him was always awkward. I’m not sure I ever really pleased him or made him proud.

I viewed my relationship with God in the same way. Although I desired him, I had little hope of having a relationship with him. He was unattainable. I tried to convince myself that if I was good and worked hard, one day I would be worthy of his love.

I don’t remember how young I was when I was first exposed to pornography. I doubt that it was very graphic, but I do remember it had a strong attraction. Then, as a teenager, one of my neighborhood friends showed me a hard-core porn magazine that he had stolen from his uncle’s bedroom. This was the first time I had viewed sexual acts between men and women. I was instantly hooked. The images burned into my brain and ignited my fantasies. However, instead of imagining myself with women, I wanted to sexually please the men who used them.

Other than some curiosity-based sexual exploration in my early teen years, I never physically acted on my fantasies with men until after graduation from high school. I had opportunity but feared crossing the line from thoughts to actions.

When I turned eighteen, I started to cruise adult movie theater restrooms and interstate rest areas. Sometimes I was a voyeur, sometimes a participant. More than once on the news, I saw the places I frequented raided by police. But that never stopped me from going back.

At twenty-one, I was arrested for engaging in homosexual sex in an adult theater restroom. During the night I spent in jail, I prayed for forgiveness and swore I would never act out again. But it wasn’t long until I took the same chances, and my desire for men grew stronger. I no longer just wanted to experience sex with a man; I wanted him to tell me that I was the best he had ever had. I didn’t merely want to please him; I wanted him to worship me.

Oddly enough, I rarely had sex with the same man twice. I knew that what I was secretly doing was not pleasing to God. It was more than homosexuality; it was idolatry. I tried to stop repeatedly. I did not want this life for myself. I wanted real relationships with real people and with God. I wanted to be married and have a family. So I compartmentalized my same-sex struggles and lived the illusion of the socially acceptable Christian life.

I attended a Christian college in South Carolina. Upon graduation, I taught in a Christian school for four years. I married a Christian woman, and we served the Lord in our church. Together, we raised a son in a home where we tried to actively live out our faith.

On the outside my life appeared normal and fulfilled, but on the inside there was not one minute of rest from my struggle with sin and my frustrated desire for God’s approval. For forty years I hid this part of my life from everyone, including my wife.

Before we were married, I tried to share my secret sin with my fiancée. Not being totally honest, I told her that I had sex with a man one time and assured her that this was in the past, never to be repeated.

I wanted to believe that what I told her was true, but it wasn’t. I sneaked away to have anonymous sex in an adult bookstore just three weeks after we were married. Realizing that determination alone would not bring me victory, I became all the more unwavering in hiding the truth. I feared that being honest would cost me my wife, my family, my friends, my job, and any hope of having what I perceived to be a “normal” Christian life. Pornography and same-sex encounters continued to be very much part of my life throughout twenty-one years of marriage.

Realizing that determination alone would not bring me victory, I became all the more unwavering in hiding the truth. I feared that being honest would cost me my wife, my family, my friends, my job, and any hope of having what I perceived to be a “normal” Christian life.

Over the years, I sat in Sunday school classes that discussed relevant topics like sinful addictions. I wanted to be honest about my struggles and free of them. I longed for others to walk along side of me and encourage me. But I didn’t see anyone else struggling. Instead of facing my sin, I sat silently in pain, telling myself I just had to try harder. Loneliness and despair, however, drove me deeper into my sin patterns. I continued to hide the truth because I was convinced that no one would love me if they knew the truth. I feared rejection from other Christians more than I feared hell.

I did seek help during those years. Twice I paid psychologists to hear my confession. Both were Christians. Neither were helpful. One told me that if I wore a rubber band around my wrist and snapped it every time I had a lustful thought, I would eventually associate pain with the thought. That would lead me to eventually stop acting out. It failed to produce the promised result.

The turning point finally came through tragedy.

You can continue reading Part Two by clicking here.

I was camping out in Hebrews 11 recently. That’s the chapter where many of the heroes of the faith are listed. Three names immediately stuck out for me. First there is Abraham. Not once but twice, Abraham offers his wife, Sarah, to other men to sleep with to save himself. And when it seems the covenant promise of an heir won’t ever come true because of old age, Sarah suggests he sleep with her bondservant. He immediately says “okay.”

David is listed there—a man after God’s own heart. But we know he was also hotheaded and impetuous at times, often acting first and thinking later. He was a deceiver, murderer, and adulterer. He had at least six wives and several concubines.

Then there’s Sampson. What!? God, you’ve got to be kidding! Sampson? He was the Charlie Sheen of his day! His life was ruled by scandal. When he saw a beautiful Philistine girl, he told his parents, “Go get her for me.” They put up a little fight because God had forbidden the intermarriage of heathen people with the Israelites. Sampson basically said to them, “I don’t care—go get her for me.” Then we see that he visited houses of ill-repute. His love (lust?) for Delilah was almost the downfall of the emergent nation and was his ruin.

These are the kind of men counted among the great men of faith. It doesn’t make sense. How can it be when each was involved in sexual sin or approved of sexual misconduct? How could these men be those in whom God took pleasure?

The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one.  They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too.

I think it means this. The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too. Yet God blesses men like this (like us) because he mixes his grace with our corruptions—as a rule, not an exception! It’s not about our sin, although he takes that extremely seriously; it’s about his grace.

In one of my favorite books, The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson, written in 1666, there is a chapter entitled, “Comfort to the Godly.” Honestly, I think it should have been entitled, “Comfort to the Scoundrels.” Watson says this,

“There are in the best of saints, interweavings of sin and grace; a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with much humility; much earthliness mixes with much heavenly-ness. Even in the regenerate there is often more corruption than grace. There’s so much bad passion that you can hardly see any good. A Christian in this life is like a glass of beer that has more froth (foam) than beer. Christ will never quench remnants of grace, because a little grace is as precious as much grace. As a fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of the soul.”

It’s true—this side of heaven, grace and holiness are always mixed with our corrupt hearts. But experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness should move us towards a growing desire to be holy. I find many men who come for help to our ministry erroneously thinking there will be a day when they won’t desire or want things that would take them down dark roads. They think their hearts are, one day, not going to want bad things—therefore, they spiral down into depression and hopelessness when they do! Our hope is not in perfection here, or even in freedom from temptation, but in the realization that faith and obedience is a real possibility, because of God’s grace.

In his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, John expands on this encouraging point that God takes us as we are and that even while he transforms our lives, he continues to work in us while we remain a mess of both corruptions and grace. Click this link to get the book.

Updated 5.12.2017

Check out the companion video blog of Bob Heywood, where he talks about his struggle with pornography. Then, look at the steps in this blog on how to address your own struggle with pornography.

Acknowledge the reality of your sexual struggles and sin
Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (ESV). When we conceal our sins from others, our struggles become harder and deeper. In denial, we often hide our sin even from ourselves because we do not want to admit we are weak or in need. The first step out of an addictive sinful behavior is to stop denying it and admit to yourself you caught in an enslaving sin pattern (see Galatians 6:1).

Confess your sin to God
In addition to Proverbs 28:13, I John 1:9 says much the same thing: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s hard to admit your brokenness, so focus closely on what this passage says: God is faithful to forgive us, and in Christ we are not just shown mercy, we are also made clean from the very stain of sin.

Confess your sin to someone else
Isn’t confessing to God enough? No, because faith in Christ is not just about me and him, it includes those whom he has also called to follow him, his body, the church. Recall one of the most powerful things Bob said in the video: He needed friends in the church to gently and lovingly pursue him, and he needed to be honest with them about his struggles. Reflect on James 5:14-15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Repent of your sin—which means turning from it and rejecting it
Repentance is more than feeling sorry for yourself because of your struggles. To repent means you will seek to do “whatever it takes” to turn from your sin, even if it is costly to do so. Repentance depends on being honest before God and crying out for his power to change, and then actively “putting to death” the idol of sin—again and again, no matter how long it takes—that is enslaving you. Read the whole chapter of Colossians 3 for Paul’s argument on what repentance looks like.

Seek assistance through accountability
The power of secret sin is its secrecy. Confessing to someone else dispels that power. The Bible encourages us to confess to others and to both help and be helped by others in the body of Christ (again, Galatians 6:1-2; James 5:16). Find someone of the same gender as you with whom to be fully honest with and who will keep you accountable for what you think, say, and do. Do this often, even daily if necessary.

Destroy all pornography in your possession, limit and/or remove your Internet access, and eliminate access to people, places, and things which tempt you
Romans 13:14 states we dare not “make provision for the flesh.” Do not keep open any option to sin. Don’t toy around with anything that keeps this temptation right in front of you. Sin is serious because, as Jesus said, it is an enslaving master; it will control you (look at John 8:34). Be honest with your accountability partner(s) and let them help you close off any and all access to pornography and other sexual sin temptations.

Put yourself under the spiritual direction of a mature Christian
Find someone of the same gender as you who is more mature in the faith to meet with you regularly and discuss your struggles. A more mature Christian may be able to help you see the deeper dynamics of your heart and how you are responding to circumstances and to the deeper desires and longings of your own heart. For a more thorough overview of how our internal heart desires impact us, read the blog series on 1 Thessalonians 4.

Make amends—where possible—with individuals you have harmed
We are called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Do this wherever possible, unless contacting the person would cause more harm—such as in cases of sexual abuse. In those situations, seek professional assistance.

Focus on learning more about Christ and his character, love, and sacrifice
Only a growing love for Christ will eventually push out your love for sin; therefore, you need to focus on him. Too much focus on your struggle will only serve to increase your self-centeredness. Balance self-reflection with learning more of Jesus.

Find ways to serve others instead of yourself
Crowd out sin by occupying yourself with serving others. Serve where your gifts are, but avoid situations that might actually increase temptation.

Continually repent of your deeper sins
The older the Apostle Paul became, the more aware he was of his sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:15). As you grow in Christ, you will see deeper areas of your heart that give energy and power to sin. Keep repenting and thank Christ that his sacrifice is sufficient for even the deeper sins of your heart!

Bob Heywood shares his story about his battle with pornography and what it took for him to change.

 

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).

Update 5.23.2017

In an earlier post (below), Dave White talks about whether it is ever appropriate to tell you children about your own sexual struggles and sin from the past. In the video above, Dave gives a number of options on how to do this.

Do you have sexual skeletons in your closet? Many Christian parents do, and as their kids edge toward the teen years, they begin to dread the questions that may come and begin to ask their own: How can I expect my kids to hold the line sexually when I failed at their age? Isn’t disclosing my own failures giving them license to do whatever they want?

In light of these concerns, does it ever make sense to open the closet door and let your kids see your past?

It depends. There are some kids in a place of rebellion, looking for any excuse to act out. The parent/child relationship may be so contentious that any vulnerability will be exploited and used later to lash out and possibly wound when you seek to address your child’s behavior. Were you a Christian while you were sexually active? This could cause your Christian teen to think they can sin now and repent later. All of us should pause and seek the Spirit’s guidance in broaching these issues with our kids.

That said, in the vast majority of cases, I believe it can be wise and helpful to let your kids see into the closet. Here are three good reasons why.

First, your story can provide a cautionary tale. Even if you were spared the harsh consequences of STDs or an unplanned pregnancy, you can discuss the soul damage that can occur when we don’t follow God. Our “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt someone” culture tells us we can indulge sexually with impunity, but God says it is a sin against our very selves (1 Corinthians 6:18). Our kids need to hear that there are unseen consequences in carelessly squandering God’s great gift in this area of life. There can be some real losses later in life. Even if the sin was only with your spouse prior to marriage, you can share the challenges this may have caused early in marriage, the way it impacted the joy of your honeymoon, etc.

Listen: I’m not big on scare tactics. Graphic STD photos aren’t helpful to show to your teen. But there is a benefit to hearing that this is God’s world and following him is the only path to true blessing and joy.

Second, it gives glory to the God who redeems. My past is extremely messy, and my kids have known it for a long time, getting more details at age-appropriate stages. Why do they know this about me? I want them to know that my life is a testament of God’s grace! The Spirit of God has radically changed me from the inside out. They need to know that God forgives sinners and there is no one beyond his grasp. I praise God that the man I was 20 years ago would be unrecognizable to my kids (and not just because of the Afro!).

Real honesty removes you from any pedestal that would cause you to eclipse Jesus. He alone is the righteous one, and your kids should know that you’re as needy as they are for his grace—and that means today, not just in your distant past! One of the most crucial things we do in passing on the Christian faith to our kids is to model authentic faith, which revolves around confession and repentance.

During a season often marked by growing distance between parents and teens, this is a way for you to build a bridge relationally. Being vulnerable, inviting your kids to know the “real” you, invites a reciprocal response. True, they may not be willing to open up, but at the very least it lets them know you want a deeper relationship. The essence of relationship is to be “known,” so we should be striving to let our kids really know us in age-appropriate ways. And it is always huge for teens to be treated as the budding adults they are.

Finally, your kids need to know that the gospel speaks to their sexuality, affected by the Fall, as is everything. “Youthful lusts” are a powerful force at this age. All teens enter these turbulent years wrestling with physical desires they’ve never experienced before, and to make matters more difficult for them, parents generally are not asking them about this stage of development. So, kids are wrestling with strong physical and emotional feelings and desires, and the real-life guidance they need is sadly lacking from their own parents. If no one speaks about these struggles, then, to them, neither does the gospel. But it does!

This is a crucial time for them—and you, as their shepherding parents—to apply the gospel in deeper ways! Our sexual struggles (and failures) are often a significant place of learning our utter dependence on God’s Spirit and the body of Christ to grow and live in the way we are called to live in Christ. And the best way for your kids to learn these things is for you to be vulnerable about your own neediness, and encourage them with how Christ and his people have met you in your own struggles with sexual sin.

For further thoughts look for our mini book, Raising Sexually Healthy Kids, published by New Growth Press, available at harvest-usa-store.com/minibooks/.

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

“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).

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click here to read Part 2.

Updated 5.12.2017

The call came from a PCA pastor’s wife. “John, an elder’s wife asked me a question recently which I thought I knew how to answer. However, the more we talked the more I realized, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ I soon realized it was more complicated than I thought at first.”

The elder’s wife had asked, “Now that gay marriage is legal in our state, if a gay couple begins to attend our church and if one or both of them claimed faith in Christ, would we encourage them to separate? How can we stand against something which is now legal?” She went on to say, “And we certainly wouldn’t encourage them to separate if there were children involved, would we? I mean, would we want their children’s experience of Christianity to be: ‘My mom became a Christian, and it destroyed our family’”?

I heard a similar dilemma in another pastor’s phone call. In his church’s membership class, the issue of homosexuality came up, and several people who desired to join the church expressed support both of homosexuality and gay marriage. While they themselves were not gay, they nevertheless supported and agreed with those who were.

These situations are happening in conservative churches right now. How do we think about these things? First, we need to remember that people coming into our churches today come out of a culture inundated with post-modern, totally secularistic beliefs. And while we all bring our faulty and fallen thinking into our relationship with Christ, it must be our job, as leaders in the church, to offer venues to openly discuss these things and offer sound biblical teaching.

As I result, I encourage all pastors and church leadership to begin addressing these issues in membership classes (and other venues as well). It is naïve of us to believe our people are on the same page in how they think about sex and sexuality. Please consider spending an hour or so in membership classes talking about God’s intention for sex and sexuality and why God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. If God’s very first words to man and woman were about sex (Genesis 1:28), why are we so afraid to talk about it?

One PCA church recently contacted us because several people in the congregation had come out in one year. As the Session moved to enter into these situations with gospel mercy and truth, several families ended up leaving the church, having felt victim to a “bait and switch” framework. In other words, the church prided itself in being known as a church of love and mercy, yet when members found out that the church saw homosexuality as sin, they felt betrayed. A lot of turmoil resulted which, now several years down the line, is still being felt in the church. Much of this could have been avoided had the leadership spoken directly about biblical sexuality. Our church community is always impacted by the culture more than we realize regarding these issues. Even those with a more solid grasp of the Scriptures are being impacted.

Much of the turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided had the leadership addressed these issues in some of the “entry points” in the church, like small groups, membership classes, etc.

Harvest USA is here to help your church leadership in this area. Please contact us if we can be of help. We’d love to talk with your church staff and elder boards/leadership teams about this. If you’re within a few hours of the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh area, we can do this in person. If you’re farther away, we can do this with a Skype or WebEx meeting. We’re here to serve God’s church and leaders.

Updated 5.25.2017

Read the article below in Leadership Magazine.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/summer/uncleantouch.html?paging=off

It’s a story by a pastor who struggles, along with his leadership team, with allowing a lesbian couple and family into his church. His reflections on what it means to reach out to those who do not follow Christ, but show evidence of perhaps wanting to do so, is excellent. Read his four convictions; they should be guidelines for every church, every follower of Christ, who is serious about introducing people to Jesus Christ.

I love his first conviction: God is here. In other words, if someone like this couple shows up in church, we should think first that God is up to something in the matter, regardless of where the situation ends up eventually. In other words, don’t let your initial thought be, “Why is this (type of) person here?” Believe that God is still drawing people to himself, and those (types of) people will challenge you to act like Jesus did to “sinners and tax collectors.”

At Harvest USA, we have developed some guidelines for youth groups to approach a same-sex attracted youth either coming out or wanting to come to youth group at church. If the church is the place where God is, then accepting the mess of people’s lives is par for our gospel work. So let them in, in whatever stage of “uncleanness” they are, and see what God is up to. It may be very confusing at first, and for some time, but we need to allow God to bring clarity along the way. This doesn’t mean we abandon biblical standards and doctrine, but if we allow our minds to first go to all the potential difficulties that might (will?) ensue if this couple, for example, wants to join the church, then we will hold back from loving them at the beginning of their entry. We will allow our fear to control our welcome.

Isn’t that how he wooed us into his arms? Weren’t we all messes at one time? Don’t we still have some mess still sticking to us?

Updated 5.4.2017

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