Several years ago, a ‘worship’ song went viral with two million hits. With a beautiful melody and poetic words, it caught the hearts of many.

You’re the first thing I know I can believe in,

You’re holy, holy, holy, holy, I’m high on loving you

You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt,

You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church,

You’re holy.

This, however, is not a song about the Lord Jesus Christ, but a romantic relationship. H.O.L.Y., the song’s title, refers to someone being “high on loving you.” The words of devotion and ecstasy are about a person providing healing and saving grace. This person is even described as a “church” within which to worship.

We all desire the security of feeling loved—and we’re all tempted to find that security not in God our Creator but in unhealthy relationships with people around us. Through books, songs, and movies we have stories of people craving and searching for an experience of love and security that can only truly—and in a healthy way—be met by Jesus.

Worshipping a Person or Loving Them

As H.O.L.Y. illustrates, romantic love is one way the worship of a person can displace Jesus as the worthy focus of our hearts. However, idolatry of people happens between parents and kids, in friendships and mentoring relationships. Wherever there are two hearts unanchored from worshipping and depending upon Christ, there is fertile soil for relational idols to grow.

Tim Keller describes idols as “anything more important to us than God, anything that absorbs our heart and imagination, anything we seek to give us only what God can give” (xix). When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, to have your life fixed, your heart healed, or an empty heart made whole through a person, it’s false worship. Often this is called codependency, but it’s really idolatry.

God’s word is clear that he alone is to be worshipped, rather than any created thing—including people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)

God is to have no rivals or replacements in our lives, hearts, and affections. Often, relationships with people can intrude upon our intimacy with God as our hearts’ devotion is easily hijacked by the human element that people, a good gift, offer to us.

“Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:11–13)

I’ve struggled over the years to keep people in their proper place in my life; I’m not alone! I’ve walked with so many women who have become consumed with a best friend, boyfriend, or mentor in their lives. What God may have provided as a gift has become ultimate, displacing God and resulting in an entangled mess of codependency. Paul says it this way: “. . . they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25).

This exchange of the created thing for our loving Creator is one of the most common sins. If you see yourself in this article, have hope! You are not alone. And let’s be clear: desires for unfailing love, to be deeply known, needed, pursued—even just to matter to someone—are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God who loves us deeply, knows us completely, and exists Himself in a holy, relational Trinity.

The problem is that our image bearing capability has been distorted by sin. Our desires have become disordered. What is “natural” to us rises from our sinful hearts. All of us struggle in one way or another in our relationships. We crave and work at getting things from people that can truly only be found in our union with Christ.

Engage Some Diagnostic Questions 

Is there a person in your life who:

  • . . . you depend on for your sense of identity and value?
  • . . . you obsess about in your thoughts?
  • . . . you feel addicted to being in touch with throughout the day? Not having contact prompts you to feel threatened and insecure?
  • . . . is needy for you to be a parent/counselor/surrogate-spouse for them, and you are happy and secure in this role of being a ‘need-meeter’ and rescuer?
  • . . . has been a friend or counselee but has become someone for whom you have romantic feelings and / or have gotten involved with physically, perhaps even sexually?

Friend, did you answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions? If so, I plead with you to pause. You may be playing with fire, or you may be in the flames already. Displacing Christ with people may happen intentionally from a hard heart; it also happens when we are naïve. Regardless of how you got here, Jesus has a way out for you.

Steps to Take If You’re Entangled in a Relational Mess

  1. If this person is a family member, you’ll need to get help to understand what healthy boundaries are and what godly love looks and feels like. God is not calling you to abandon this relationship but to have your affections and the relational dynamics radically reoriented and transformed. Seek help from someone outside your family.
  2. For other relationships:
    • If there has been sexual involvement, confess your sin to a trusted person, end the relationship, and commit to no contact with this person for an indefinite length of time.
    • Seek Christ! You probably won’t feel like it, but fleeing to him and his Word is a must.*
    • Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s comfort. In one of his letters, John Newton said, “He wounds—in order to heal. He kills—that he may make alive. He casts down—when he designs to raise. He brings a death upon our feelings, wishes and prospects—when he is about to give us the desire of our hearts.”
    • Pursue discipleship regarding the underlying heart issues that made you vulnerable to idolizing people.
    • Hope! One day, the pain of this costly obedience will subside. Jesus is with you and he will never stop loving you.
    • Believe! God Himself does battle with our idols as he transforms us into Christlikeness.

God has brought me a long way in my journey into relational wholeness and holiness. What was once a pattern in my life isn’t anymore. What felt necessary, life-giving, and beautiful (but was none of these), has faded from my heart and been replaced with a desire for Christ that fuels godly love rather than grasping relational lust. God wants to delight you with healthy, rich relationships, and my prayer for you as I post this article is that today you will have hope and courage to take the steps you need to be free.

*You might consider working through my 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.

It may be glib, but it rings true: the only thing that never changes is change. I’ve got change happening in almost every area of life right now. You too? Consider this list of what I’m facing and see if it connects with your life.

  • Change through death. My dad died several months ago, and family relationships have shifted since then. Not only have I joined the parentless club, but my relationships with my siblings and their families are growing into something different. In the last few years of his life, a lot of our interactions revolved around how Dad was doing. We texted, emailed, and talked about what kind of care he needed, who could do what, and then the dreaded end-of-life decisions. Over the past months, we’ve grown into new ways of connecting that don’t orbit around Dad’s care.
  • Change through aging. Umm, I’ll just leave that, at that! But you can guess—bodies age and with that comes a changed appearance, different limitations, new dreams emerging, and a revitalized commitment to make the most of the time given to me in this life.
  • Change through new relational landscapes. Our Harvest USA staff family has lost several beloved brothers and sisters to new callings and changed life circumstances; we’ve gained several new coworkers too. There have also been several significant changes in my personal life: my close friend and sister moved overseas with her family, another friend has grown more limited due to chronic illness, and still another moved out of the area.
  • Change through spiritual pruning and soul surgery. God has been doing so much in my own heart over the past season. He’s been growing me through challenges, joys, grief, and a long awaited ‘birth’ of a book I’ve wanted to write for years. Writing Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey brought more tears than any other writing project I’ve worked on for Harvest USA. The excruciating stories that women have shared with me have changed and humbled me.

What about you? Do any of those categories hit home, my friend? Perhaps your marriage has suffered the painful blow of abandonment, death, or divorce. Maybe one of your kids just left for college and you aren’t so sure that the emptier nest season is as fabulous as you’ve heard. Or perhaps a friend has moved on, seeking connections elsewhere, and you feel lost and abandoned. You might even be facing the disorienting reality of someone ending their relationship with you because it had become sinful, and your friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/secret lover heard and heeded the loving call of Jesus to return home from the far country.

When the pain of change hits hard, we have a choice in front of us. We can cry out to Jesus for help, comfort, wisdom, and guidance or we can cry out elsewhere for temporary comfort, distraction, rescue, or a sense of stability. Where do you tend to turn?

Everything Will Shift—Except God’s Promises

When you’re hit with pain due to changed circumstances, it’s important to cry out for comfort in the right direction. The enemy of our souls and our weak and easily deceived sin nature crave and seize any opportunity to pursue people, experiences, and feelings that may temporarily numb or relieve our anguish but, in the end, land us in a pit. God alone is the source of unchanging, unfailing love and comfort. He is your steadfast companion when the terrain of your life shifts, whether slightly and subtly or like a wave crashing over you.

Consider these promises from God’s Word:

 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

For I the Lord do not change. (Mal. 3:6)

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb. 13:8)

But people? Your best friend? The person you’re dating? Your spouse if you marry? Your health, financial portfolio, church? All will change and shift. Some of these changes will be sweet and feel good, while others may break your heart.

 Painful Change Leads You to Your Steadfast Savior

 Only through our relationship with Jesus do we have a relationship with someone who will never:

  • Stop loving or change his desires for us. Jesus won’t ever say, “I just don’t have the feels for you anymore.”
  • Abandon, break up with us, or join a new friend group, leaving us in the dust by saying, “You know…I just need to do me now…sorry.”
  • Take back the forgiveness that has covered all our sins—past, present and future!
  • Betray us or not come through on the promises he’s made. His words are trustworthy. God will never stop loving us deeply, even as he knows all the worst things about us and has experienced our sin against him every day. He’ll never stop offering to comfort us when our hearts are broken, lonely, or disappointed. He’ll never grow tired or give up on helping us grow and become more like him. He’ll never go back on his promise to give us strength to live for him and not ourselves. He’ll never grow tired of helping us and carrying our burdens.
  • Change his plan to bring all his children into heaven at the time of his choosing.
  • Die on us. We will never, ever, have to stand looking over a grave and then turn away to live the rest of our life feeling the empty hole of him not being here, of feeling how silent or quiet the world feels without him.

 God’s Unchanging Love Brings Healing Change to You

God is not only unchangeable, he’s also full of holy, compassionate love for you, and he alone has the power to heal and change your broken heart. You may feel devastated today, hopeless and drowning in a sea of painful circumstances. Perhaps you’ve made choices you’re ashamed of, or now enslaved to certain behaviors, or completely consumed with a person—you might even say you’re addicted to this person.

Friend, because God is steadfast and unchanging, and you are in process of being made to be like Jesus, you have hope. Behaviors can be changed, relationships can lose their sinful grip on your heart, addictions can subside, and the pull of your desires diminish as you turn toward God with humble dependence. He is faithful and he will never stop loving you or being with you. That will never, ever change.

If your husband has sinned sexually, you might be surprised at how deeply you feel ashamed. Shame can be a vague, haunting, smothering feeling in our hearts. It may hover the way a low-grade physical ache emerges with the flu. Or it can suddenly fall over us, collapsing our hearts inward as if a heavy, water-soaked blanket was dropped on us.

The Bible connects shame and guilt, yet also distinguishes between them. Guilt communicates, “I’ve done something wrong.” Shame communicates, “Something is wrong with me.” Ed Welch, a biblical counselor, makes the distinction in his book Shame Interrupted:

Shame lives in the community, though the community can feel like a courtroom. It says, “You don’t belong—you are unacceptable, unclean and disgraced” because “You are wrong, you have sinned” (guilt), or “Wrong has been done to you” or “You are associated with those who are disgraced or outcast.” The shamed person feels worthless, expects rejection, and needs cleansing, fellowship [community], love, and acceptance. (11)

Note what Welch says about shame coming not only from our own sin but also from association with those who are disgraced. Just as you’ve perhaps been troubled by your troubles or anxious about your anxiety, maybe you’ve been carrying the shame of your husband’s sin as your own.

But your husband is guilty of sexual sin, not you. Regardless of how either of you (as sinners and sufferers) may have contributed to brokenness in your marriage, your husband chose to act on desires and pursue his own sexually sinful behaviors. Yet the intimacy of the marriage covenant does closely associate you with his guilt and the shame that comes with rebellion against our holy God. Why is this, and how does it happen?

Marriage, Sexual Sin, and Shame

Marriage creates a powerful opportunity for a husband and wife, in covenant before God and witnesses, to enter into a oneness-of-life relationship. Traditional Christian wedding vows usually include the following components.

Will you have this woman/man to be your wife/husband, to live together in holy marriage?

Will you love, comfort, honor, and keep her/him in sickness and in health?

Will you forsake all others, being faithful (relationally, mentally, sexually, emotionally, physically) to her/him as long as you both shall live?

 In response to all of these questions, the man and woman both promise, “I will.”

The marriage covenant is unique, in part, because it’s the only God-blessed context for sharing sexual intimacy. The lifelong, exclusive, loving relationship provides a protected context for spouses to share themselves completely with another. Both spouses commit to do this in dependence upon and out of love for Christ. When experienced according to God’s design and intent, shared sexual love is indeed a beautiful gift that keeps on giving.

Sexual sin doesn’t merely intrude into a marriage as a physical act of betrayal; it brings destruction to the very foundation. This relationship of intimate oneness was built on trust and a mutual commitment to viewing yourselves as “we” rather than “I. Wives experience covenant treason from the one man they promised to love, cherish, and faithfully honor, and from whom they were promised the same.

Sin in any relationship is serious, but since marriage is a unique covenant that represents Christ and the church, betrayal from a spouse is particularly devastating. Sexual unfaithfulness can shatter a wife’s sense of identity and worth. Her husband has not only gone outside the marriage but has actually brought pollution and idolatry into their union. Wives feel this intensely, even when they’re not the ones who pursued sexual unfaithfulness.¹

Jesus Brings Freedom from Shame

Sister, is shame a coat you’re wearing or a tattoo on your soul you can’t wash off? You may say, “Yes, but it’s not my fault. . . . I didn’t choose it; it was put on me!” Or maybe you’re convinced you caused the sin and deserve to bear this shame until your husband gets his act together, even just a little. If that’s the case, you need to hear this again: your husband’s sexual betrayal came out of his heart, desires, and beliefs—you did not cause it!

Jesus sympathizes with the shame you may carry in response to your husband’s sin and the condition of your marriage. Your Savior understands the ugliness of sin and the shame it brings; he’s experienced the painful betrayal of his bride, the church. Jesus, your loving, gracious, sovereign Lord, knows what it’s like to experience the “dirtiness” of someone else’s sin becoming his.

And there is hope in what Jesus achieved for us through his death and resurrection. As Heather Nelson explains, “In place of shame, [Jesus] gives honor, beauty, joy, comfort, justice, favor, and freedom—what our hearts long for most when shame rules our emotions, thoughts, and desires” (31).

Sister, only through faith in Jesus can you truly be free from the shame you carry, whether it’s due to your own sin or sin done against you by others, including your husband. The way we access Christ’s healing and cleansing from shame is by faith in him alone, believing that through him and by union with him we are forgiven of sin, cleansed from unrighteousness, and kept safe in his mercy.

These beautiful truths are good news for you and your husband. You are both holy, chosen, beloved saints if your faith is placed in Jesus alone (Col. 3:12). You are both sinners who continue to wrong God, each other, and other people (1 John 1:10) and sufferers who daily experience life in a broken, sin-filled world (John 16:33). Christ alone covers the guilt and shame of your husband’s sin, so neither of you has to carry it any longer.

This article is an excerpt from Harvest USA’s new resource, “Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal,” launching August 31 at Harvest USA.


¹Women, including wives, do pursue sexual sin! Harvest USA is committed to ministering the gospel of grace to women who are sexual strugglers. Here I address the audience of the workbook from which this article is extracted: wives of husbands who struggle with sexual sin.

“I just don’t understand why God won’t allow me to have the two things I desire most: to serve him and to be in a romantic relationship.” The college student’s pained, confused question gave me pause as I grappled with how to respond. Though attending a conservative Christian university, romance, for this young woman, could only be found in the arms of another woman.

How would you have answered her sincere question that arose from her heartache within? I don’t remember what I said, but, years later, I discovered that she had in fact embraced a gay identity. Her faith had faded into the gray background of her life while she fully engaged in what felt like vivid-color freedom, following her desires to her “true” self.

Sexual Attractions and Following Jesus: No Private Real Estate

Recently, I’ve had many conversations about a freeing, gracious aspect of the gospel that isn’t popular these days: the lordship of Christ. Jesus explained that life in him means death to self in exchange for a glorious, new life lived under his loving care and ownership. Luke 9:23–24 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

To be sure, Christianity isn’t only about denying ourselves! However, what my young friend didn’t want to face is that life in Christ requires humbly surrendering to God as Lord, Creator, and Savior over all areas of our lives. There is no part of our being on which we can plant a flag that says “Mine!”—including our relational desires and sexuality.[1] There is no private real estate for followers of Jesus.

Christians are caving to the worldly pressure to latch onto a false gospel of self-fulfillment, which includes the destructive heresy that sexual and romantic desires do not need the radical redemption of Christ. This is seductive and enticing because it promotes the idea that I can take up my cross and follow Jesus, denying myself here and there, but not in my sexuality and identity. It whispers that I can love and follow him on my own terms, having whatever kinds of romantic and sexual relationships I desire. However, the loving lordship of Jesus confronts us to daily die to self—and comforts us in the pain of daily surrender.

Jesus’ Holy Lordship Confronts Lovingly

There is no private real estate for the child of God. Being born again means being born into his family. We’re given citizenship into his kingdom with its accompanying commandments; we’re bound to a holy, heavenly Bridegroom through an eternal marriage union. In every aspect of belonging to God, devotion is meant to be complete and all-encompassing. The world, our sin nature, and the kingdom of darkness attack any full-orbed devotion with daily onslaughts that are sometimes frontal attacks, sometimes more subtle.

Paul’s awareness of false teachers compelled him to plead with believers, For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2–3). The movement among some Christians to affirm LGBTQ+ identities and sex outside of God’s design is, in part, fueled by the idea that Christ’s lordship does not need to change our sexual and romantic desires. He may be holy, but my sexuality doesn’t need his sanctification because it’s mine, and it’s fine just the way it is.

Christ our Lord never backs off from confronting the mindset of private real estate that is natural to all of us—but he is also loving! He doesn’t shame or manipulate us into surrender and trust; he invites, compels, and compassionately calls us first to relationship with himself and then moves on to transform what we most want in this life. Christ, our incarnate Savior, faithfully transforms our priorities, beliefs, and desires while also growing our hearts’ willingness to obey him in all things. Jesus claims lordship over our sexual desires and romantic attractions (or lack thereof) and invites us toward himself with compassion and compelling love, enabling us to surrender to him. Romans 12:1–2 offers us the same challenge and encouragement.

Jesus’ Holy Lordship Comforts Personally  

The comfort and companionship of Jesus seemed far away and detached from the street-level longings of my young college friend. She wanted to be with a real, live person. Like many Christians, she struggled to reconcile a holy Lord, who could tell her what to do and not do, with the real comfort of unmet desires for which she longed.

Christ’s comfort increasingly can permeate our hearts when we rest in his care and take on the yoke of obedience, faith, and surrender. His yoke can’t be embraced, nor his comfort received, unless we are willing to turn from running our lives as private real estate owners. We aren’t created to own ourselves and bear the burden of creating a life built independently of God, brick by brick, with our plans, desires, and dreams. That kind of “building”—whether relationships, identity, sexual orientation, or attractions—is built on sand. It will eventually come crashing down to reveal the fractured foundation of selfishness and independence. Jesus offers us a different way.

Jesus is holy and demands our full allegiance while graciously giving us his full protection and provision. No matter what form of suffering, temptation, or failure we have personally experienced, we increasingly experience life rightly ordered when we surrender our desires to him—even desires concerning sexuality and relationships: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22–23).

 

This article originally posted for the Biblical Counseling Coalition, for which Ellen serves on the Leadership Council.

[1] Abraham Kuyper said, “. . . there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!” Quoted in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. by James D. Bratt.

The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,

but a man of understanding will draw it out.

Proverbs 20:5

As my fifteenth anniversary of serving as Harvest USA’s Director of Women’s Ministry approaches, I’m moved to remember the deep waters that have spilled, poured, even gushed out in my office. These stories of traumatic pain, heavy shame, and piercing heartache from courageously humble women are transforming my faith and heart. Believers participate in God’s transformative power in each other’s lives by sharing and witnessing to his resurrection life amid trials and temptations. How could I not be changed by having a front row seat to this, week after week?!

One young seminarian came to my office and confessed aloud, for the first time in her life, a secret struggle with pornography. It was a tender, sacred moment. Immediately after her last word, she burst into tears; deep ache and shame were released as light broke into darkness.

A wife had her reality broken apart. Her husband had been adulterous for their entire marriage, giving way to same-sex temptations over and over with thousands of sexual partners. This dear woman said, “I always thought we had a great marriage, and so did everyone else.”

Another young wife and mom finally opened up to her friend about her same-sex desires. Though she had not acted upon them, her fears, shame, and confusion finally became too much. The safety of a good friend allowed those deep waters to be drawn out. Then she and I journeyed together for several months exploring what had been happening in her heart, thoughts, and life and how her SSA had impacted her. She’s fought hard, repeatedly humbled herself, and courageously kept herself in the light with trusted friends. She wrote the following poem when she was considering taking that scary, heart-pounding step of entrusting her secret to a trusted friend.

Behind the Veil

What will you see behind the veil
when I reveal deep waters of my soul—
scars from struggles of days gone by
still tender when exposed to love’s invite.

Will you enter this uncovered sacred space?
Will you stand speechless at the door?
Will you turn away and say no more?
I’m fearful to step from behind the veil
that conceals a battleground of tireless wars elapsed;
where anguished cries echo between dark and light.

Tattered heart laid bare, veil pulled back,
my face shines bright in victory of light—
weak and frail yet I stand in His might.
Will you meet me with those who face their fears
and linger here behind the veil?

Come, pause and discover the One who remains ever near beyond the veil.
His radiance brings light to the darkest night.
With tender care for his child, He absorbs every assault and gives victory of life.

Does one recover from living on the brink of death?
Lord, rescue me from its murderous threats.
Empty, cold nights haunt my bones
As I run in the dark, a child alone.
Jesus, you entered death’s threat in my stead.
Ominous cliffs crumbled into a rubble pile.
Threatening slopes made flat when you descended through the brink of death.
What casualties lie in its heap?
Lord rescue me from death’s residual sting.
His empty threats hold no power.
Whisper, Lord, and bring silence to death’s refrain.

Deep Waters Don’t Have to Drown Us!

Deep waters cover secrets—shipwrecks, otherworldly creatures, and dark, hidden caverns. We tuck our deepest sin, shame, and fear—as well as our secret dreams and hopes—into the hidden places of our souls. But our compassionate Savior sees all, and he calls us to walk in the light.

So, this week, I encourage you to pray two things:

First, ask the Lord to give you courage and humility to share your deep waters with someone. Are you a ministry leader bound up in pornography and terrified to let anyone know? Has a relationship become sexual or emotionally entangled to such a degree that you feel enslaved to this other person’s affections and demands upon you? Friend, Jesus sees and loves you; he knows! He cares too much to let you stay in the dark with those deep waters. Pray and ask him to give you the resolve to not stay hidden.

Second, pray that you will grow in courageous humility to be a ‘water drawer’—to have a patient, gentle, tenderhearted posture before the Lord and others who might need someone to help them and hear their confessions.

Reflect on the poet’s lament, above. Will you, by God’s grace, provide the opposite of what she and so many brothers and sisters fear?

Will you enter this uncovered sacred space? Yes, I will. I’m here to listen. I will hold your story of deep waters and help you find the healing and wisdom of the Living Water found only in Christ.

Will you stand speechless at the door? No, I will allow your story to invite me toward you. Though I may not know your path, I’ll help light your way with the Word we both need.

Will you turn away and say no more? I’m here. I will pray, listen, and stand with you, walking forward in the grace, hope, and forgiveness of Jesus.

I am fearful to step from behind the veil. I’ve been there too, my friend; you are not alone. But take one step and be known so that I can encourage you—not vaguely, but specifically.

There are deep waters all around us and in us. This week, ask Jesus to draw them out from you and through you. As we trust one another with our deep waters, we’re trusting Jesus, our crucified and risen Savior who is always faithful. His boundless grace covers and absorbs our darkness. May we enjoy him and walk daily in his light.

One of the most tender expressions of humble faith was shared with me by a woman in my wives group years ago. She said,

 “I thought marriage would be the place where I would finally come to understand God’s love for me in a deeper way through the example of my husband’s love. Instead, God has chosen to teach me about his love by putting me in a place where I had to study his love so I could show it rather than receive it. I found myself running to the Lord, pouring out my pain to him about my unfaithful spouse and fellowshipping in his suffering. As I meditated on how God understood the pain of an unfaithful spouse (his people) and studied his response to their unfaithfulness, I learned about his longsuffering, pursuing love for me and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.”

Sister, are you hurting, disappointed, alone, and confused because of painful marriage dynamics? You may have realized when you married that, as great of a guy as your husband seemed to be, he couldn’t replace Jesus. You probably knew that your issues would also impact the marriage, but you were (and maybe still are!) eager to journey together with your man towards Christ, holiness, togetherness.

But sexual sin isn’t what you signed up for. This is an unwanted chapter in your story, and you wonder how you got here. Where can you turn?

Turn to Jesus. He’s near, and he cares.

Jesus is your steadfast refuge and tender comforter

“I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).

David wrote these words after being chased by enemies and betrayed by people he trusted and loved. (You can read more of that story in 2 Samuel 21–22 if you’re interested). His words guide us when we are in the throes of suffering. When we forget who we are and who God is, it’s easy to drown in our feelings rather than seek refuge in Jesus and tell him “each rising grief, for Thou alone can heal; Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”¹ In the mystery of your suffering, you can know one thing for sure: God wants you to draw more closely to himself as your God.

In the last hours before Jesus was arrested, he assured his friends with these words:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–2).

 Jesus is always with you, not merely by your side but within you as your very life (Colossians 1:27 and 3:3). He is the only one who is capable of sharing this kind of intimacy with you. Even on your husband’s best days—walking in obedience to God, faithfully loving you, sharing moments of sweet sexual intimacy with you—he cannot dwell within your heart. Christ alone is there with you in your broken heart and will not leave.

Jesus is your faithful Bridegroom forever

When your husband fails you, it’s an invitation to turn towards the Bridegroom who never will. One woman shared with me,

“After I found evidence of my husband’s affair, I took off my wedding ring and told my husband in anger and pain, ‘You left me, and God is my husband now.’ True, but a bit dramatic. Then, as I was working through a book with a friend for spouses facing sexual betrayal, we read through Hosea, and I realized I had something ‘special’ in common with God: We are both betrayed spouses! Then my mind quickly went to the realization that I have also been unfaithful—not with my husband, but with God.

Throughout our eight-month separation and long, bumpy road toward marriage reconciliation, I found great comfort in picturing Christ as my Bridegroom, who loves me with an everlasting, perfect love. Who comforts me when I’m down, always listens to me, and cares for me deeply. And will never betray me.”

In the Old Testament, we learn of a beautiful theme that runs throughout Scripture: God’s plan for pursuing an eternal marriage relationship with his people. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19–20). These verses show us that God’s desire is to be more than just a refuge, friend, king with servants, and even a father with his children. He pursues, loves, and offers us eternal marriage with himself.

The concept of being married to God may be a new one for you. God’s spousal love is different from human marriage but no less intimate. We have an eternally secure, forever-together relationship bought for us by the blood of Jesus, our Bridegroom.

The love that Jesus offers to his people, his Bride, is so much more than that of the most devoted husband. No, those “best day” experiences you’ve had with your man are only a glimpse of what it’s like to be loved by Jesus. What you and your husband can offer each other is but a dim reflection of the faithful, eternal, intimate love that Jesus shared with his people—with you.

For all the mystery of why you are suffering in marriage, you can know that Jesus is longing to show himself to you in new ways as your true Bridegroom, the One who never misses you, will not seek another bride, and will never, ever deceive or abandon you. You may not feel excited about this eternal truth right now, and that’s okay. Jesus isn’t put off by the honest recognition in your heart that you may desire a husband’s love more than his.

Jesus is your eternal true home

In John 15, Jesus beautifully explains a new type of intimacy between himself and his followers: He is the true Vine, the source of all life, and we are his branches, created and commanded to abide (or make a home) in him and his words. A vital union with Jesus is now possible because his Spirit is sent to live in all believers.

As amazing as it is to consider that God no longer dwells near us but in us, we won’t experience being at home with God perfectly in this life. Our bruised and sinful hearts and the fallen world around us prevent a purely joyful, peaceful, and comfortable experience. However, when we honestly acknowledge this rather than demand a life with no suffering, it can actually draw us closer to Christ and the joy he offers. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful, for these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others do the same.”²

Your true country, your home, is Christ. He’s your safe place and gentle Shepherd, who will never tell you to “just get over it” and move on. He won’t run from you or awkwardly back away in silence because he doesn’t know what to say to you. He is yours, his love is yours, his comfort is yours. Regardless of what you feel, think, and believe in this moment, he is drawn to you with deep compassion. Turn to him sister; he is near.


This blog is adapted from a chapter in the soon-to-be-released resource from Harvest USA, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July 2022.

¹Steele, Anne. “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.” https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/dear-refuge-of-my-weary-soul.

²C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1952), 121.

Johnny and Hannah (names changed) had twelve years of marriage behind them when his secrets came out. He’d humbly told Hannah when they were dating that porn had been a struggle since his teens. She took the news in and faithfully tried to learn how to help him, and their relationship moved forward to marriage. What Johnny hadn’t disclosed was that in high school, he’d fathered a baby and had caught an STD from his girlfriend. He brought that STD into his marriage. And there was more. Johnny then committed adultery with two women early in their marriage.

Fast forward twelve years. Johnny and Hannah had two kids and a busy life of parenting, jobs, and financial stress due to the pandemic. Hannah’s mysterious health problems and a trip to the doctor forced Johnny’s hand to come clean about his past, including how it had brought sickness into Hannah’s body.

Yet Hannah’s heart was sick, too. She was devastated to learn that her husband had kept so much history a secret from her. Even worse, it crushed her spirit to come to grips that her husband had endangered not only their marriage but her very life by giving himself sexually to others. To top it all off, he had another child out there somewhere!

An initial, helpful pastoral response is not enough

Hannah insisted that Johnny call their pastor when she learned all this heavy news, and, thankfully, the pastor responded quickly and compassionately. Within two days, the three of them met in his office, and out tumbled a sad, painful story of sin, suffering, and secrets. He wept with them and acknowledged the severity of their situation.

This is good news, right? Wouldn’t we want a pastor, church leader, counselor, or friend to respond this way? Yes! I celebrate when hurting wives share with me that their pastors respond with empathy, loving engagement, and personal availability. There are so many hurting couples in our churches who are alone and silent in their pain, so when I hear of a pastor’s office providing a warm and safe landing place for a couple, I truly am encouraged.

However, it’s what happened next that is sadly common for wives in particular when a husband’s infidelity comes out into the light. Don’t get me wrong: Wives can be sexually unfaithful, too, but, in my fifteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I’d say the calls from wives who have been hurt compared to husbands responding to their wives’ sexual sin is roughly 90 to 1.

An unfortunate yet typical scenario

Hannah and Johnny left the pastor’s office exhausted, brokenhearted (her), and ashamed and angry (him). But they did have a plan. Johnny would meet with the pastor weekly for the next month for some initial accountability, prayer, and encouragement. The pastor offered to try to find a mature woman in the church to connect with Hannah. Hannah was hopeful about having at least one person to open her heart to, even if she was deeply embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Counseling wasn’t an option, as there just weren’t finances for it, and, anyway, they lived in a community “where everybody knows your name,” so Hannah was terrified of others finding out. She arrived back home, got dinner on the table for her kids, and waited to hear from her pastor.

And she continued to wait. He emailed her three weeks later, apologizing that he hadn’t gotten back to her; he’d been so busy with trying to help Johnny, not to mention sermon prep, urgent church business, and caring for a congregant who was on hospice. He said he’d keep praying and working to find a woman she could meet with. Hannah read the email, wept, and then got up to attend to her kids.

Hannah was very thankful for her pastor’s care for her husband. Johnny had always been the gregarious kind of guy who everybody loved, but he really had no true friends. He’d come home upbeat, hopeful, encouraged from his meetings with the pastor and the spontaneously set-up support group for other guys in the church who were battling porn addiction. And he’d actually resisted the temptation to look at porn for three weeks—a first!

Johnny said, “Hannah, I finally feel like I’m beginning to change! The guys in this group just totally get me, and I’m sharing things with them that I’ve never told anyone. It is amazing… I love this church!”

But what about Hannah? Sure, she’s not the one battling sexual sin, but she has needs, too. She needs to be seen, known, loved, comforted, and journeyed with, too. What about Hannah?

Bring the gospel of love, comfort, and healing to the “other” spouse, too

Friends, Hannah’s situation is actually a good case study to depict the many wives who reach out to Harvest USA for help. As I’ve written before, I recognize that so many church leaders are busy and pulled in many directions. However, something is off when a repentant or unrepentant husband receives 90% of the pastoral energy, care, and attention, while a devastated, often traumatized wife is left on her own to navigate world-rocking circumstances.

Let me offer several ways you can live out the gospel with hurting wives without sacrificing the worthy time and energy that husbands need in their battle against sexual sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say again that women, whether single or married, are also in need of gospel care for their sexual sin struggles and infidelities. I am writing primarily out of my experience of walking with wives and coaching pastors regarding how to care for them in these circumstances.

First, learn how sexual betrayal affects a wife. The devastation is usually multilayered, and one of the most important things to understand is that many wives experience PTSD symptoms after the disclosure of their husbands’ secret sexual sin. CCEF helpfully explains, “PTSD identifies painful experiences that don’t seem to fade but intrude into daily life. This kind of trauma often leads to someone feeling numb, depressed, and hopeless, or feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”¹

When Hannah showed up at her pastor’s office, she was tearful, then angry, then too paralyzed to speak… all in the course of a two-hour appointment! Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.

Next, remember that for every married man who battles sexual sin, there is a wife and perhaps kids who are impacted. It’s beautiful when churches uphold God’s good, biblical design for marriage, discipling their people that husbands and wives are to love each other as unto the Lord, to serve one another selflessly as a way to show devotion to Jesus through faithfulness in all areas.

However, we must also uphold God’s compassion for wives when marriage vows are broken. This is what Paul is speaking about, in part, when he exhorts husbands to “…love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33). When husbands need help loving their wives, the Body of Christ steps in to counsel, correct, and provide compassionate care. The gospel urges us to walk intentionally with husbands who need help repenting and wives who are broken because of their husbands’ sin.

Finally, equip your saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 has everything to do with gospel care for hurting wives. A ministry of mercy, counsel, and, yes, exhortation—because all of us respond sinfully to the sin done against us—to wives impacted by sexual betrayal is in view here as Paul explains how churches are meant to function.

Brothers and sisters, God loves his Bride, so I commend you to the worthy, faithful ministry of compassionate care for wives devastated by broken marriage vows. These brides are seen, loved, and defended by our gracious Father, and he has shared this ministry with us, his people.

This blog is inspired by our new Harvest USA resource which will release in July 2022. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort in Christ is a discipleship resource with participant’s and leader’s guides that will be offered as a no-charge digital download from www.harvestusa.org.


¹https://www.ccef.org/ptsd-and-trauma/. Last accessed March 15, 2022.

What is your hometown? I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 16 years, but my hometown is St. Louis, MO! I have enjoyed living on the East Coast, but I remain a Midwesterner at heart!

What is your position at Harvest USA? Since 2007, I’ve served as the Director of Women’s Ministry.

Describe your work at Harvest USA. I have the joy and privilege of overseeing all of Harvest USA’s ministry to two populations: women who need help living sexually faithful lives and wives of men who have battled with sexual sin. Similar to our Men’s and Parent’s Ministries, our Women’s Ministry team engages in short-term, one-to-one discipleship with hurting women, and we also lead biblical support groups for these two populations of women.

Another aspect of what I do at Harvest is serving as a writer and teacher, both of which are ministries I love to do! I’ve gotten to write for our blog for fourteen years now, and it has been a steady process of God maturing of me. In addition, I have been able to travel all across the United States, as well as Colombia, Ecuador, Taiwan, and East Asia, on behalf of Harvest USA. This international teaching ministry has been one of the most unexpected and delightful surprises of being on staff.

How did you get to Harvest USA? Well, I’m limited with my word count, so I need to be brief! I moved to Philly in 2005 to study biblical counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). I was introduced to CCEF through my struggles with relational idolatry and the painful mess of codependent relationships. As a counseling student, I became acquainted with Harvest USA when I saw their info table at a CCEF national Conference.

Now, let me give a full disclosure: the first time I saw the Harvest USA info table and signs about sexual sin, I was uncomfortable and nervous; suffice it to say I steered clear of that table! Little did I know that, through a simple inquiry about what I understood to be a part-time discipleship position, the Lord would connect me with Mr. John Freeman, who said, “Oh, no, Ellen. We’re looking for a full-time Women‘s Ministry director!” To which I replied, “Oh! I had no idea. I am definitely not your girl and certainly not qualified.”

Lovingly and enthusiastically—which won’t surprise anyone who knows this dear brother—John persisted, and, after a few months of prayer, conversations, guidance, and counsel, I accepted the position. Though the topics that Harvest USA focuses on, like sexuality and gender, were intimidating to me, the heart of Harvest USA excited me and drew me in. The focus on Christ, teaching God’s Word, and discipleship were a great fit for what I have committed my life to.

What is your favorite Scripture? I don’t really have one, though I often quote Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (ESV). I’ve experienced the Lord’s rescuing, delighting love for me over and over, including the ways he has brought me out of sin and shepherded me into spacious, broad places. The shame, insecurity, and emotional pain that so many messy relationships gave to me were a primary way that God brought me to the end of myself and led me to humble myself in asking for help. Those struggles, and the process of repentance, heart-healing, and growth that God has allowed me to experience, are a significant foundation for every aspect of my ministry with Harvest USA.

What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? Besides being in the epicenter of cheesesteaks, I love that the world of biblical counseling is wide, deep, and rich in Philly. I’ve already mentioned CCEF, and there are many others ministries—not to mention churches—that are passionate about counseling and discipling people from a rich foundation of Christ and the Word. We’re a family—ministry-siblings, if you will—who encourage, support, and help each other to faithfully serve God.

Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? Most of my adult life has been in vocational ministry, and, prior to Harvest USA, I was focused on missionary care and cross-cultural church planting. I love traveling internationally and experiencing the beauty of the peoples, tribes, nations, and languages that God has created.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of online chatter and debate about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. I have a burden on my heart for how our brothers and sisters who wrestle in this way are faring in the midst of these debates. I recently reconnected with a dear sister who we’ll call Danae. I hope our conversation encourages you!

All of us have a unique story of faith, growth, and working out our salvation. How has same-sex attraction been a part of yours?

Danae: I first realized I was attracted to women when I developed an emotional connection with a friend after college. Eventually, our relationship turned sexual. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t aware of romantic or sexual attractions to women; this relationship was purely emotional to begin with. Yet, looking back, I became aware that I didn’t experience the boy-crazy phase that excited my peers. I dated men but never felt emotionally connected to them, which didn’t raise any alarm bells until I experienced emotionally intoxicating feelings with my female friend. I finally understood what friends had been talking about earlier in life. I felt excited and ashamed at the same time that these feelings came through relationship with a woman.

After dating guys, what was it like for you to be in a relationship with that friend? 

Danae: Well, like I said, it was intoxicating to finally be in a romantic relationship that felt like love! The reality is that we slowly grew into a very entangled, emotional enmeshment, but the path into it seemed so life-giving: Our schedules revolved around each other; she just understood me in ways that guys never did; it seemed like I was finally home in a mutually loving relationship. The guys I dated were nice enough, but I never really felt that I truly liked them.

What kind of faith battles did you have once getting involved in same-sex relationships? 

Danae: It was tough! I knew that this newfound joy was at odds with my Christian faith, and it created a whirlwind of confusion. How could what felt so good and right to me with this woman be so bad? I’d seen so many dysfunctional heterosexual relationships, and yet my girlfriend and I shared respect, care, and love for each other. There was a massive amount of heartache and confusion that began swirling in my life as I processed what felt natural to me but what the Bible calls not only sinful but also unnatural. My feelings won out, and, after that first relationship ended, I was pursued by other women and had several secret girlfriends over the next few years.

So what led to your willingness to re-surrender to Christ’s loving Lordship over this part of your life?

Danae: It was a gut-wrenching process for me, and, honestly, it still is at times. I felt love in these relationships with women, so to choose to let go and pursue obedience to God not only meant leaving someone I loved but also facing my fear that I might be single for the remainder of life. The cost of losing love, of not knowing what God would give in its place, was terrifying. Another layer of pain for me was that when I began sharing my story with other believers, they celebrated my obedience but offered very little understanding of the deep grief I was experiencing. Even if same-sex relationships are sinful, the loss of them still included heartache, pain, and confusion for me.

I know you suffered in silence for quite awhile, unknown and unsupported. What gave you the courage to eventually open up to someone?

Danae: Desperation! The pain and confusion I was experiencing eventually became greater than my fear of others finding out. I was desperate for help, for answers, for Jesus, and for hope that I could live a different way. A ministry leader moved towards me with compassion, patience, and an amazing gift of listening and drawing me out. She created the first safe place for me to be totally honest. It was scary but so worth it. She discipled me through Sexual Sanity for Women, and, while it wasn’t easy, lightbulbs came on as I began to understand, for the first time, how hurt and angry I was. There were deep layers of unbelief that emerged, and my mentor gently walked with me (and still does today!) as I faced the reality that I wanted to run my own life, and, in fact, thought I deserved to have what I wanted—what felt good to me. It’s been a slow journey that continues to this day, requiring me to trust God and his Word more than I trust myself, my feelings, and the way I think my life should work.

What is it like for you, with all the online debate among God’s people about homosexuality and how to talk about same-sex attraction? Does it help or hinder you? 

Danae: To be honest, it depends. It can be heartbreaking and confusing on one hand, encouraging and inspiring on the other. It all depends on what the motivation of these discussions are. God’s Word has become precious to me, and knowing that his design is for our good has changed the way I view this struggle. To know that some Christians have gone soft on what the Bible clearly says is so deflating. When believers promote “gay Christianity,” it’s so disheartening because I’m seeking to be faithful to Jesus! My own brothers and sisters are forsaking the God who I’ve turned towards when turning away from sinful relationships! And yet I want to mention as well that it can be demotivating to hear leaders fighting about this stuff online as only an issue that needs to be clarified biblically. We absolutely need to have biblical faithfulness about this topic, but I also plead with leaders to not forget the people who are in the throes of working out their faith and repentance because of personal battles with same-sex desires. I’m grateful that Harvest USA seems to keep a helpful balance of biblical clarity and truth woven with compassionate, ground-level discipleship.

One final question for you: What would you say to the woman or man who is reading this and who is where you were so many years ago—hurting, wrestling in secret, and scared to reach out for help? 

Danae: You’re not alone! I understand how scary it might seem to open up to someone about your same-sex relationships, inclinations, and what you really believe about all this. I get it—I really do! Jesus is not only inviting you, but also calling you, out of hiding and shame into himself, towards his love. That’s the true “outing” that all of us need, not to identify with our desires but to bring all of it to God. He’s promised to provide comfort and courage for the road in front of you—a road that will be hard and painful to some degree. Like I said earlier, I have grieved my sin and grieved what I lost when I gave up my sinful relationships. Yet living for and through Christ is the only true path towards the deep love we all want. Don’t give up; just take one step at a time.

Please pray for Danae and the many Christian women and men who are following Jesus faithfully, daring to push back on shifting convictions among God’s people.

Do the Ten Commandments intimidate you? I grew up hearing about them, and every so often they came up in the church services I attended. What were they anyway: Ten things that get us in trouble? Ten ways to keep people from enjoying life?

As I’ve grown in the Lord and studied the Scriptures, I’ve realized that these commands are God’s way of loving us by putting guardrails around our desires, thoughts, and behaviors. When God commands one thing, he is at the same time protecting us from what disobedience to that command brings.

The First Commandment: Keep God as our hearts’ priority

In my fourteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I have probably discipled women with the First Commandment more prominently in view than any other. Women whose marriages have been devastated by a spouse’s sexual sin, or those who are battling to overcome pornography, emotionally entangled relationships with other women, sexual fantasies, and promiscuity, have all been helped by honest conversation about the First Commandment. It says, “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1–3).

In other words, God loves us too much to allow other things to displace him in our desires, priorities, and hopes. When he is in his rightful place as loving Lord, Savior, and healer of our hearts, our relationships with people and our sex lives are protected.

Elevating people over God never ends well

Women and men alike wrestle with turning to created things, including God’s sweet gifts of people and the blessing of sexual joy, over relationship with him. Whether you call it codependency or idolatry of people, the heart’s motivation is the same: You need to make me feel good about myself, and if you don’t, I’m sunk.

Have you ever thought or said something like the following?

  • Why hasn’t he texted me today?! Is he spending time with someone else? Why wasn’t I invited? Am I being replaced?
  • I love her so much—I need her! If this relationship ends, I don’t want to live anymore; life has no meaning without it.
  • You make my day, and you have the power to break my day. My heart, stability, and sense of being valuable and lovable rise and fall with how much attention you give me. You are me, and I am you. Don’t leave me!
  • I know I’m a bit over the top in how involved I am in my kids’ lives, but they need me—I’m their mother! If my marriage is suffering, so what? God gave me these children, and they are my reason for being alive. If they don’t need me, I won’t exist anymore.
  • I just can’t understand why my marriage isn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the one relationship in my life that meets all my needs? Isn’t my spouse supposed to complete me?

It’s good to desire satisfying and loving relationships

God is the Creator of relationships, whether in the context of friendships, family, ministry, work, neighborhoods, and, of course, spiritual siblings in the Body of Christ. However, God never intended for us to turn other people into our primary refuge or home. God wants us to depend on him, to live under his authority and care, and to grow in satisfaction with his love for us. When we are secure in Christ, our love for the people in our lives can be healthy, holy, and honoring to God. But when love for Christ and obedience to him become secondary to our relationships or aren’t a part of them at all, friendships, romantic relationships, mentoring relationships, and family relationships can all slide into idolatry.

According to the Bible, whenever something or someone sidelines God from our thoughts, desires, and focus, our lives have gotten off track. The toxic nature of these kinds of relationships can be difficult to diagnose because they can feel so intoxicating! The emotional buzz or euphoria that often accompanies intense conversations, physical affection, or someone’s adoration of us can be addictive. However, a dynamic of “I need your need of me, and you need my need of your neediness” is messy at best and destructive at worst. Instead of helping us to grow and flourish, sinful dynamics in our relationships imprison us.

I’ve had my share of relationships in which my love for and dependency upon God was displaced by my love for a person’s need of me or my role in that person’s life. I know what it’s like to be anxious, fearful, jealous, and insecure when relational terrain suddenly changes, and you’re left feeling ousted, left behind, and brokenhearted. God has me on a trajectory of growing freedom from interpersonal patterns that were mired down for years in toxic, unholy dependency.

No matter where you are, God is compassionately aware of the circumstances you’re in and knows, really knows, what you are feeling. If you are in relational turmoil, are you willing to have the eyes of your heart and mind reoriented toward him? To gaze upon who he is and then begin to diagnose why there is toxicity in one or more of your relationships? To consider who Jesus is and then move toward humbly understanding that people will be in their rightful places in our lives when he is in his rightful place?

We need faith-fueled realism

You may struggle to believe that God can change your codependent patterns, and perhaps you don’t feel desirous of change. Are you, however, willing to ask God to work “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)? Your first step in pursuing spiritual growth is to believe God’s Word and to surrender control of your life to him.

Your next step is to have realistic expectations. Most of us want quick, pain-free solutions to our problems, and problematic relationships are no exception! But your desires, interpersonal patterns, and relationships won’t change overnight. Instead, repentance brings about directional change—a slow, steady upward trajectory of growth, transformation, and healthiness.

What might growth look like?

  • Honestly examining your relationships and asking others to give you feedback on how they see it.
  • Putting space between yourself and a person upon whom you are too dependent, especially if you’ve been involved with each other outside of marriage. If you are married and involved in an affair, this relationship needs to be severed immediately!
  • Initiating time with a new friend or an acquaintance, which shows a growth in your willingness to engage with other people relationally.
  • Engaging with a community of believers through a Christ-centered, biblically faithful local church. God’s people are your “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and local churches provide a unique opportunity to cultivate a variety of types and depths of healthy relationships.
  • Reading God’s Word as a way to know him, love him, and cultivate your relationship with him.
  • Longing for God more and more, loving him, and seeking him out as your primary relationship.

Jesus frees us from toxic relational dynamics

People problems have been around as long as people have existed outside the Garden of Eden! You’re not alone in this struggle. Many are familiar with the fear, anger, anxiety, discontentment, jealousy, and pain that come when others don’t seem to like, love, or respond to them in the way they desire—in the way they’re convinced they need. Women and men alike have experienced what it’s like to feel trapped, even imprisoned, in a relationship that is obsessive and consuming.

That’s why, of all the prayers and songs David uttered from his heart as a shepherd, king, military commander, sinner, and chosen one of God, the cry that resonates with me the most is, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7). God has indeed brought me out of relational prisons and allowed me to have healthy, Christ-honoring relationships in my life. Even though I am surrounded by the righteous, I’ll never outgrow the need for God to be my refuge, first love, and source of security—and neither will you!


This post is based on Ellen’s 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.


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