You broke up with your unbelieving boyfriend. You pressed pause on an unhealthy relationship. You confessed your porn addiction to your boss, and now you’re out of a job. You admitted your emotional affair, and not only is your spouse a tornado of emotions, but you’re in excruciating pain from cutting ties with your “secret person.” You decided to leave your church because they’ve wavered on a commitment to God’s truth regarding same-sex marriage. Now you’re discouraged, lonely, and weary about starting over with building Christ-centered, biblically faithful community.

Brother, sister, your obedience is beautiful in God’s sight. He knows how painful it is to honestly face losses which come through his pruning; he removes things from our lives in the process of sanctification.

The Father cuts things away from our lives so that we may bear more fruit, not less.

Tim Keller’s sermon on John 15:1–2, The Vinedresser, is full of comfort for you. He addresses the ministry God our Father has as the Master Gardener and how his pruning of us is essential for growth. Our Father examines us—the branches—looking for a few things. Are we abiding in Christ, the true vine? Are we drawing love and life from him or from something else? Are we bearing supernatural fruit, testimony that we’re vitally connected to Christ and his fragrant, fruitful life? Are we stagnant in our faith or resting in circumstances which threaten our devotion to Jesus?

Two verses into this beautiful chapter of Scripture, Jesus says something startling: the Father wounds, cuts, and prunes fruitful, abiding branches! Does he prune to punish? Shame? Sideline from the good life? NO! The Father cuts things away from our lives so that we may bear more fruit, not less.

When Loss Equals Gain

Keller says that our Father never cuts or prunes something out of life unless there is a loving purpose behind it. “The skillful eye knows that there are no random strokes of the [Father’s] pruning shears; nothing is cut off that wasn’t a gain to lose because it would be a loss to keep.”[1]

Let those words soak in. The Lord will take his pruning shears and cut things out of our lives, even leafy branches and clusters of tasty grapes we’ve grown fond of. God may take good things, remove not so great things, or outright cut off influences leading us to sin. The purpose in every situation is that we become more like Jesus, bearing more fruit as his life surges, unhindered, through us.

Sometimes good things become ultimate things that distract us from what is best. Friendships, marriages, jobs, ministry opportunities, bank accounts, houses can be good gifts. Good gifts, however, can become more important to us than the Giver. That includes our relationships, use of technology, money, and so much more.

Ever-so-subtly, our focus shifts from Christ to this person, this thing, this feeling. Before we know it, we’re attempting to abide—draw life from, find our meaning in—that gift. We’re in a sinful mess and need rescue! Our Father loves us so much that he will tenderly draw near with his pruning shears to remove things for a time or maybe permanently. He may rearrange our life so that this gift returns to its right place “under the feet” of Jesus (see Eph. 1:22–23).

Turning from sin will mean loss, yet God never initiates the removal of anything in our lives unless he will use it for good—for growth in our lives and glory to his name.

When God’s purposes are mysterious to us, we can find refuge in who he is: a loving, purposeful Father.

No Random Strokes

When I had cancer surgery, I trusted the surgeon to wound me with precision and remove only the diseased tissue. Praise God that the surgery was successful; while my scar reminds me of the pain I endured, I am healthy and cancer free.

Friends, our Father is precise, purposeful, and effective in the surgery he does in our lives. There are no random, haphazard, out-of-his-control acts of pruning. Are you experiencing the Master Gardener’s pruning in:

  • A relationship? Perhaps your relational terrain has been plowed and bulldozed, leaving an unfamiliar landscape that seems lonely and barren.
  • A “not a big deal” temptation or sin struggle that is now in the light and your life is turned upside down?
  • Finances, health, family? These important aspects of life aren’t flourishing anymore but floundering, perhaps failing.

“When You Feel the Steel, Cling to the Vine”[2]

Jesus was cut, wounded, and put to death so that our experiences of pruning are temporary. Our Savior, slain and pierced on the cross for our sins, died and conquered death so that “by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). When you feel the Father’s pruning, look away from your painful losses and fix your eyes upon Jesus. Grieve, cry, and pour out your heart to God with raw honesty—yet, in your grief, be careful not to push God away. Turning from sin will mean loss, yet he never initiates the removal of anything in our lives unless he will use it for good—for growth in our lives and glory to his name.

When you feel the cost of your obedience, don’t look back! Look to Jesus and cling to him. Jesus is with you in the changed landscape of your life, and he promises not to leave you. “He wounds,” wrote John Newton, “in order to heal, kills that he may make alive, casts down when he designs to raise, brings a death upon our feelings, wishes, and prospects, when he is about to give us the desires of our hearts.”[3]

Father, for any who are walking out a beautiful and costly obedience to you, please pour out your comfort and strength upon them, that they may cling to Jesus by faith—and not turn back to sin.

[1] Keller, “The Vinedresser,” Jan. 12, 1992. https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/the-vinedresser-5769/, accessed Nov. 16, 2023
[2] Ibid., Keller.
[3]  John Newton, Letter VII, November 6, 1777, The Works of the Rev. John Newton. … Published by Direction of His Executors. United Kingdom: n.p., 1821, 201.

A version of this article was originally published here: https://women.pcacdm.org/when-loss-comes-hold-on-to-jesus-wisdom-from-the-sermon-i-quote-most.

Recently I taught Romans 1:18–32 for the women’s Bible study at my church. This passage shows God’s response to those who persist in rejecting him as Creator, Savior, and loving Lord. There’s no way to faithfully deal with this passage without explaining that all forms of sexual immorality are displeasing to our Creator. When we refuse to live under his design and instead invent our own “truth” about how we want to live sexually, we shake a defiant fist in his face.

Paul goes on in this passage to soberly proclaim that God’s holy hostility towards evil, what the Bible describes as his wrath, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). God takes it seriously when the image-bearers he created push down his truth and choose lies. Our determination to pursue man-made rules for life—including all we do with our bodies—is dangerous.

God’s Holy Hostility and Lavish Love

Romans 1 is surely a passage our secular society would like to “cancel.” Why? Paul refuses to spin God’s truth to make it tickle his audience’s ears. He boldly names several expressions of ungodliness which provoke God’s holy hostility against evil: sexual immorality (any behavior outside the covenantal marriage of one man and one woman) and thinking that is unmoored from biblical truth. In fact, I wonder if the “giving up” to a “debased mind” (v. 28) is the most severe example of God giving people over to sinful desires. Courtney Doctor points out that Paul lists twenty-two fruits of God’s wrath (ESV) because “in response to continued rebellion and open idolatry, [God] will release people to the misery of who we are apart from him.” (38)

I don’t promote the shaming, angry, call-down-God’s-fire kind of preaching that is sometimes the caricature of Christian Bible teaching. Yet the Scriptures do present our God as holy and righteously angry toward sin, even as they reveal him as the loving Father and Rescuer of brokenhearted, hopeless sinners. Ephesians 2 is a clarifying and comforting complement to Romans 1:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body  and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:2–7)

In Christ Jesus, God takes us from death to life, from following the adversary to being seated with Christ in heaven, from being children of wrath to eternally loved children with access to heavenly riches. THIS is the truth we must cling to, believe in, and live out. Why would we choose something or someone else? Surely our Savior is worthy of being savored—not pushed away or suppressed.

Savor Jesus as the Good Creator and Lord 

My favorite passage when I teach about biblical sexuality doesn’t include the word sex! Colossians 1:15–16 clearly and beautifully explains that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”

I appreciate how Jackie Hill Perry comments on the impact it makes to realize that we have been made by and for Jesus. When she faced her Savior and Lord, then glanced at her attractions towards women, she grew to know that there was only one godly way to respond:

“My hands, head, face, legs, hips, hormones, private parts, voice, feet, fingers, feelings, were all made by Him and for Him. Apparently, this body was never mine to begin with—it was given to me from Somebody for Somebody. Somebody who’d made it for glory and not shame.” (51–52)

Making peace with what God calls sin is dangerous, to say the least; suppressing his truth to please our SELF never ends well. I’ve grown in faith through witnessing the beautiful savoring of Christ in the lives of many women who echo Jackie’s convictions. These sisters in Christ whom I’ve discipled have been tempted in same-sex directions, perhaps were in sinful relationships, and may have identified as gay for a time. I asked them how it impacts them when believers suppress God’s truth regarding sexuality.

  • “It hurts and grieves my heart to see someone buying into a lie, being tossed and shipwrecked by false ‘winds and waves’ of doctrine…by feelings and emotions.”
  • “The most frustrating and hurtful temptations come from my own brothers and sisters in Christ who are waving the rainbow flag on social media.”
  • “It makes me sad, and I feel betrayed. At one moment, we’re fighting together against sin and the enemy, and then they give up the fight—it’s like I feel keenly the weakness that comes in losing a battle partner—and I am more vulnerable in their departure.”

Sexuality and gender are good gifts, but they were never meant to replace Jesus in our lives. For all the talk on attractions, orientation, and desires, how might we answer the earnest plea which one curious spiritual seeker asked Philip?

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21)

Let’s show Jesus as the One greater than all. As good and beautiful as his creation is, Jesus is more worthy of our desires than anything!

Recently I caught up with one of the women who gave a personal testimony for our wives’ workbook, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey. I hope this portion of our conversation encourages others who need reminders and evidence of God’s faithfulness amid the slow, painful process of pursuing marital restoration after sexual betrayal.

This is the original testimony of our ministry recipient, known as “C.C.” in the workbook:

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 long-suffering, pursuing love for me, and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.

Ellen: Hello, my dear sister! What’s been happening in your journey with Jesus since you wrote that testimony for our wives’ workbook a few years ago? 

C.C.: In the last few years, my journey has continued to be painful. I needed to take a step which I’d begged God to never let happen; I separated from my husband with no guarantee of reconciliation. It required more courage than anything I’ve ever done. During this separation, God continues to deepen my understanding and appreciation for his character and love. How thankful I am that he won’t forsake me, even if my husband does—that he is always faithful, and his love is predictable. I don’t have to worry from day to day, moment to moment, if he is suddenly going to change!

“How thankful I am that God won’t forsake me, even if my husband does—that he is always faithful, and his love is predictable.”

After separating, we went through a few months where every time we met, my husband was acknowledging how he had sinned against me as he worked toward formally asking for forgiveness. I found myself anxious to tell him I had forgiven him, because I had already forgiven him in my heart before he asked. Once again, God used this journey to show me how his heart anxiously awaits my confession because he has already forgiven me, and he rejoices to tell me so!

Ellen: Can you share more about how you have experienced a lot of “undoing” in your understanding of God, faith, grace, and holiness, and how this impacted you as a wife? 

C.C.: One area God has been untangling for me is personal responsibility. I thought that if I played any part in a scenario where a person reacted sinfully, then God viewed my “influence” as essentially “making” the other person sin. For example, if I didn’t agree with everything my husband said and this angered him, instigating a spiral into sexual sin as an escape, then it was my fault. I was constantly fearful, playing out each scenario in my head, trying to determine if I would be causing my husband to sin.

“Don’t run away from the hard work of pouring out your pain to God.”

As God has been untangling this for me, I have come to understand that, while surrounding factors may play a part in the context, sin comes out of a person’s heart because the sin was already there. In other words, I didn’t create the sin in my husband’s heart, he reacted sinfully because that was what was already in his heart. If I have acted in an unloving way, then I need to humbly repent before the Lord, but God never says that I can make someone sin.

Ellen: Imagine yourself back in the place you were when you first came to Harvest USA—the fear, grief, disillusionment, sense of overwhelm. Can you share some words of comfort and hope for wives who are in those excruciating early days after sexual sin comes to light?

C.C.: Regardless of what happens in your spouse’s journey, God has something for you! He will use this suffering to form Christ in you and it will be a beautiful thing. Don’t run away from the hard work of pouring out your pain to God. He will give you courage to do what you never thought you could do, and in the process, he will never leave you or forsake you. Keep asking God what it looks like to love wisely and well and think through the examples we see in the Bible of how Christ responded in similar sufferings. Ask God for community. It’s OK to need other people to pray when you can’t and to hope when you’re too afraid to hope. Make a playlist of songs that help you pour your heart out to God.

My song during this separation has been “Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me,” which speaks to my deepest hope:

The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour He will stay
I labor on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, His power is displayed

To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me
Through the deepest valley He will lead
Oh the night has been won, and I shall overcome!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

If you have suffered the painful experience of sexual betrayal, our Harvest USA Direct Ministry is here to help. To reach out for help click either of the following links: Women’s Ministry or Men’s Ministry 

Yes, that’s the question I invite you to ponder, sisters and brothers. I’m not asking if you believe in God or if you pray and go to church together. My question aims at your heart: is Christ central in your marriage, or is he a friendly neighbor? Do you push Jesus aside, expecting your spouse to meet all your needs, give you an identity, complete you?

Well, friend, if you do, you’re not alone. In my sixteen years of journeying with wives who’ve faced their husbands’ sexual infidelity, I consistently heard three humbling realizations come out of their hearts:

  • I knew I depended on my husband too much, but I had no idea how I made him (and our marriage) an idol. 
  • I’ve been a Christian for so long, yet the pain of this situation has revealed that my relationship with Jesus isn’t as deep as I thought.
  • Facing my husband’s sin is devastating, yet God is using this trial to draw me into a closeness with Jesus and a depth of faith that I didn’t know was possible.

When Jesus isn’t in his rightful place, marriages (and all relationships!) will struggle. No person can fill his shoes as our eternal bridegroom, friend, heart-healer, and so much more; Christ alone is our loving Creator, Lord, and Savior.

Three Views of Marriage

I’ve heard three prominent views of marriage over the years from Christians. For all of them, Christ and two believing spouses are in the mix; the difference lies in the place each one occupies. Look at the chart below and see if one seems to describe your marriage or serious dating relationship.

No spouse would choose the pain of sexual betrayal; it was never God’s intent for you. However, from the ashes of devastated trust, I’ve watched wives receive the Lord’s healing and transforming discipleship through this pain. Christ invites and shepherds wives (and husbands, too) to allow their disappointment in marriage to lead them to re-place Jesus as their priority relational focus, putting him back where he should be, in the very center.

The Three Legged-Stool Marriage welcomes Jesus as the third leg holding up the marriage. The problem is that he’s understood to be one of three equal partners: wife, husband, and Jesus. But the Bible says Jesus is to have supremacy—the first place (Col. 1:18)—in all things, including your marriage.

Over time, a new kind of spiritual and relational intimacy grows as two spouses prioritize loving and trusting Jesus as their source of life, security, meaning, and unfailing love.

The Spouse-Centered Marriage displaces Jesus as central in the relationship and demands that your spouse provide what can only be found in Jesus: unfailing love, identity, and value. Marriage is a gift, but it was never intended to displace the Giver of that gift. When God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3–5), he means it!

As common as these two views are among believers, God has something better for you: a Christ-Centered Marriage. Over time, a new kind of spiritual and relational intimacy grows as two spouses prioritize loving and trusting Jesus as their source of life, security, meaning, and unfailing love.

Repenting of Spouse Idolatry by Re-Placing Jesus 

“Re-placing Jesus” refers to at least two steps of obedience. First, a humble acknowledgement that, somewhere along the way, other people or things have displaced Jesus as Lord over your heart and marriage. The Scriptures clearly point to the beauty of marriage and the gift of shared, committed love over a lifetime. Though sin pollutes and erodes marital intimacy, friendship, and mutual enjoyment, God gave marriage as a gift for his people and ultimately as a signpost to his eternal, selfless, steadfast love for us (see Isa. 54:5, 62:5; Eph. 5:31-32; Rev. 19:7, 21:9–11).

A Christ-centered marriage will exhibit two spouses as needy saints who continue to sin yet look to the gospel for help.

Second, God calls you to proactively, consistently cultivate your relationship with Jesus and receive discipleship about how he created marriage to work. After all, all things were created by, through, and for him (Col. 1:16), including your marriage. Reach out to mature Christians and ask for prayer and encouragement. Look for singles and married people who honor Christ in their lives and couples who don’t present as having it all together. A Christ-centered marriage will exhibit two spouses as needy saints who continue to sin yet look to the gospel for help. Ask how they weather the hard times, how they’ve kept Christ as their priority, and what they do to grow as lovers of Jesus together as a couple.

Your view of marriage may not be what God wants it to be right now, yet Jesus never runs away—not even when we displace him with gifts. Friend, are you married? Look to Christ! Are you dating someone special? Look to Christ! Cry out to him as your only worthy Lord and the only source of unfailing, unwavering love.

This morning, I again read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. And as always, I wanted to shout, “David! Get off that roof and cry to God to rescue you from temptation! Don’t let curiosity lead you down a road you ultimately don’t want to travel!” What unfolds in the remainder of 2 Samuel is a sad, sobering, cautionary tale of how curiosity can entice weak people toward foolishness and destruction.

David wasn’t the first person in the Bible to see, take, sin, and attempt to cover it up. Adam and Eve did the same, as did Achan. Read his words and see if you can identify choices you’ve made:

Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:19–21)

Achan saw, wanted, took, and tried to hide the evidence. His curiosity and desire sparked temptation, leading to sin, leading to death (James 1:14–16).

Unchecked hearts, hidden motivations, and enticing opportunities so easily lead to the next curious step that may stir desires, unbelief, and sin.

David saw Bathsheba and was curious enough to inquire about her, take her from her home, and (probably) coerce her to have sex with him. Nathan’s parable of a selfish and manipulative man taking a vulnerable ewe lamb implies that this encounter was not consensual. David’s abuse of power—his initiative toward adultery, deception, and sinful scheming that led to murder—started where? In his heart, of course, as he “was walking on the roof of the king’s house,” and “saw from the roof a woman bathing” (2 Sam. 11:2).

Curiosity and Sin: Seeing, Wondering, Wanting, Taking, Hiding

I’ve had my share of seeing and wondering about things that watered my desires to know more, leading to temptation and sinful choices. It can start as simply as a random idea coming to mind and then typing those words in a search bar online. I’ve heard of others who, like Achan, David, and me, allowed unwise curiosity to open the door to temptation’s seduction. In many cases, this leads to entanglement in sin.

  • What’s my ex doing now? I’ll just take a quick scan of her social media.
  • Anything good in the fridge?
  • What’s on that website anyway?! 
  • I wonder what an LGBTQ+-friendly bar really is? I’ll look it up online.
  • What’s the big deal with a quick text? I just want to say hello.
  • That new start up is hot. . . my buddy has tripled his investment in three months. How much could I invest if I pulled it out of savings?
  • That influencer doesn’t mention Jesus much, but she’s so popular! Maybe I’ll take a listen to see for myself.
  • What would that feel like? I’ll just do it for a quick minute. . . that won’t hurt!

Often, curiosity about something or someone starts innocently. We don’t intend to get into an affair, or an addiction, or tangled up in a messy relationship or business dealing. But we see or think something, and—without stopping to check our hearts’ motivation or consider where that ‘innocent’ click, text, or encounter might lead—we pursue and take.

Curiosity is not evil. We must, however, learn how to steward it toward that which honors God and grows love for him in our hearts.

Achan saw a beautiful cloak, David saw a beautiful woman, and I’ve seen advertisements for movies, books, podcasts, ministry conferences, and photos and posts of what other ministry leaders are up to. Unchecked hearts, hidden motivations, and enticing opportunities so easily lead to the next curious step that may stir desires, unbelief, and sin.

Curiosity and Holiness: Beholding Christ

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Curiosity and the ability to imagine and desire are amazing gifts our Creator has entrusted to us. Consider the sermon, book, podcast interview, or Bible study that further opened your understanding of an aspect of the Christian life, character of God, or beauty of the gospel. Or the question you asked (or received) that led to a conversation which grew a relationship into greater intimacy centered on Jesus. Curiosity about creation—learning about the natural sciences, enjoying music, art, and literature—helps us delight in the great God who made all these things. Curiosity is not evil. We must, however, learn how to steward it toward that which honors God and grows love for him in our hearts.

Consider the five questions below for personal growth and talk to a friend in Christ this week about how to avoid unhelpful curiosity as you cultivate wise wondering.

  1. How are you tempted toward sin when feeling bored, angry, distressed, or happy?
  2. What sights, sounds, and sensations tempt you to look away from Christ?
  3. What circumstances trigger temptation for you to spin the truth, deceive, and manipulate the facts?
  4. What did you learn from God the last time you saw, took, and hid?
  5. Do you have one to two people in your life who help you seek, love, and enjoy Jesus? If not, why not? Pray and ask him to provide what you need to establish relationships with spiritual journey companions.

Friends, I doubt that Achan or David realized, when they saw a beautiful part of God’s creation, that their curiosity and desires would lead to the devastation—for generations—that came from them sinfully taking it. Their Escape was near, ready to receive their cries for help and rescue them from sin! Our Savior is near to us today, as well. He promises to not only provide wonderfully satisfying gifts for our Christ-fueled curiosity, but also to rescue us when temptations are hovering behind the doors we curiously prod when our eyes are distracted from him.

Friend, are you caught in a sticky relational concoction? Intoxication, entrapment, love, hate, fear, romance, addiction—it’s a garbled mess that once felt wonderful, like life itself. But now this friendship, “bromance,” or “you’re my person” connection isn’t feeling so great. You’re neck-deep, attached, and dependent on someone’s affection, attention, touch, and need for you. You want out, yet you can’t let go. Maybe this relationship started with Jesus in the mix, but he’s not the one filling, fueling, or guiding it anymore.

Jesus knows what’s happening and isn’t backing off or going anywhere, though I would guess he may seem distant right now. That’s one of the costly consequences of displacing him with something else; our desires slowly orient toward and are reshaped by the object of our hope. You know, deep down, that this relationship isn’t right, yet you’re scared to surrender it. Your heart has been hijacked from devotion to Jesus.

Still, he loves you. Your Savior is on a rescue mission through your dissatisfaction with the creation you’ve displaced him with.

I’ve been here before and have journeyed with others who are where you are today. I hope these words will guide you to pause, cry out to God, and take a step toward true freedom, healing, and wholeness. Please, don’t stay stuck by refusing his rescue. There’s a lot at stake!

A Prayer to Help You Face a New Direction

Father in heaven, I pray for my sister or brother reading this who knows deeply that this describes them. The bestie, the dating relationship, the coworker, counselor, counselee. . . someone has become like the air they breathe; how do you live without air? But God, this person isn’t essential. That’s a lie, yet it feels so real. So, Lord, I want to start by asking you to bring your comfort and hope to their heart through your Spirit. Flood their mind with the merciful assurance that they aren’t the first person to be in a relationship that enslaved rather than nurtured wholeness, joy, security, and holiness. It’s good to know that even sinful relational addictions are common to all of us and your truth really can set us free.

Your Savior is on a rescue mission through your dissatisfaction with the creation you’ve displaced him with.

Lord Jesus, it helps to know that, in our weakness, you are praying for us. You always live to intercede for your beloved children! Cause my sister to know that what seems to be a ‘mini-marriage’ with her girlfriend isn’t marriage nor a true friendship. Help my brother to know that you’re sympathetic to his desire for someone with whom to go deep, to have a safe emotional connection—but no mentor can be a replacement for you, our Good Shepherd, who has a unique and irreplaceable voice. Please, Lord, counsel the spouse who’s terrified of being found out; they didn’t mean to get tangled up in this emotional affair. Convince her, persuade him, that this relationship will lead to devastation rippling out in many directions. Obedience through letting go will be costly, but our repentance awakens our hearts afresh to your love and goodness.

I cry out to you, God, on behalf of those resonating with my prayer that your Spirit will convict unbelief and energize faith today. Forgive us for recreating love into something of our own making. You know that to disentangle from a sinful relationship will hurt and is frightening. And yet also, Lord God, you know it’s supremely worth it because you’ve not created us to be addicted to creation. You want us to love and be loved in human relationships as we look to you as our true Friend—you are Love incarnate. Please be a sun, shining light on the next step, and a shield to protect from the enemy who would deceive and destroy. Give courage, humility, and a will to want your holy pleasure. I pray through Jesus for my brother and sister who need your help. Amen.

Three Steps in the Right Direction

Recognizing you’re in a relational mess is humbling, yet it’s a sign of God’s love. He is rescuing you through self-awareness. But awareness isn’t enough; there are steps to take.

  1. You can’t do this alone. And that does not mean you should text or meet up with the person you’re involved with! That mistake is like two people caught in quicksand grabbing at each other, only to sink deeper. Wise humility leads you to reach out to another mature Christ-follower.
  2. Intentionally put space between yourself and the person you’re involved with. This distance may need to be permanent and comprehensive. Your helper will guide you in this but, like most addictions, unholy and unhealthy dependency needs to be starved out. This is what it means to love and follow Jesus: letting go through faith and repentance of any sinful attachment. It will hurt and the grief will be deep, but Jesus is an expert in healing broken hearts. He uses the pain of repentance for beautiful purposes.
  3. Seek out a discipleship or counseling relationship that can help you understand how you got into the mess and help you grow in the richness of God’s beautiful way of doing relationships. This is our inheritance in Christ as resurrection people! Jesus didn’t call you to himself only to give you bland, superficial, disconnected relationships with people. Of course, we’ll have relational conflicts, disappointments, and losses in this lifetime. But when you absorb the commands and promises of God’s Word, it’s evident that our Father has created his family to love one another deeply.

This is what it means to love and follow Jesus: letting go through faith and repentance of any sinful attachment.

Brother, sister, friend: you’re not alone. Jesus knows what you need. He is not pointing a shaming finger at you but invites you to come to him, step away from this person, and collapse before him for the help you need. Then, take the next step!

Ellen’s 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ, will guide you in relational growth centered on Jesus.

I began ministry with Harvest USA in 2007 with little idea of all the adventures God had in store for me. My heart for missions never would have dreamed I’d be sent on five international trips. My childhood dream to be a writer came true, though little-girl-me would have been shocked to read the titles attached to the articles, books, and discipleship curricula I helped produce. Truly, in Christ, the faith journey is filled with unexpected grace! The good works prepared for me (Eph. 2:10) and the specific race lanes he marked out for me (Heb. 12:2) have been rich gifts for which I am thankful.

On July 1, 2023—my 16th anniversary as the Harvest USA Director of Women’s Ministry! —I will transition into a new leadership role: Director of Equipping for Ministry to Women.

This slight word change represents a significant shift. I will exit the trenches of our direct ministry to women to be fully devoted to our equipping mission: writing new resources, supporting our president, Mark Sanders, and his vision to expand our reach, and training others to do what I’ve been doing all these years.

“Aging Out” of Obedience?

I’ve sensed the winds of change blowing in my heart for the past few years. I wasn’t sure what the Lord had for me, so I prayed, waited, sought counsel, and dreamed. I wondered if God had something for me outside of Harvest USA and sought wisdom from trusted ministry leaders. One asked me pointedly, “Ellen, do you think you’ll age out of sexuality ministry?”

Her words humbled me and stirred some doubts. As I’ve grown older and as unbiblical ideology regarding sexuality has gained traction (including in the church), I’ve felt the challenge to stay on top of cultural trends while remaining committed to actively serving women who need help. Along with many other ministry leaders, I’ve been in the bullseye of the sexual and gender revolution that continues to sweep across a world increasingly detached from God’s Word and his design for humanity.

God’s Spirit met me in those wrestlings. I realized we never age out of obedience to Christ. We’ll never become too old to be ambassadors of hope, kindness, truth, and the beauty of God’s gospel. How I long to flourish through serving Jesus until my last breath, bearing fruit (see Ps. 92:12–15) and remaining steadfast in faith as I run the race in the lane marked out for me. We never age out of God’s will for our lives.

Discipling and Equipping the Next Generation

Over the years, I’ve trained and mentored over 25 women who’ve served as Harvest USA interns or staff and trained hundreds more for ministry through webinars, online mentoring groups, and equipping events. It’s been a joy and an honor.

My new position will allow me to invest more strategically in the next generation of leaders to engage the vital ministry of applying the gospel to women who need help living in relational and sexual integrity and the hurting wives of men struggling with the same. Harvest USA is committed to taking what we’ve learned as practitioners and training God’s people to help others. For me, it’s a way to live out Paul’s loving affirmation to the Thessalonians: “So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

In this way, I’ve shared my life and the gospel with Caitlin McCaffrey, whom God has raised up to be the next Director of Women’s Ministry.

A New Director of Women’s Ministry

I’ve known Caitlin for several years as a sister in Christ and, for the past year, as a Harvest USA colleague. She moved cross-country to join Harvest USA, motivated by love for Christ and a passion to help hurting women. Talk about surprises! Despite knowing that change was coming for me, Caitlin didn’t anticipate moving into the Director of Women’s Ministry role so soon. Yet, with affirmation from our team and trusted friends, she accepted the call.

Caitlin brings a fresh voice that I sensed we needed. I’m eager to see how God will use her to reshape and grow our care for women bound up in sexual addictions, unholy relationships, and wives in painful marriage circumstances. Caitlin’s humility, theological depth, wisdom, and ability to bring God’s Word to practical application are just a few reasons why I esteem her so greatly. She is zealous for Christ’s glory and seeks Jesus in a sincere, daily way. And we laugh a good bit together, too!

Caitlin and I will develop new Christ-centered resources together, including books, discipleship curricula, and webinars to address topics like relational idolatry, overcoming habitual sin patterns, same-sex struggles, gender dissonance, and more.

Our goal is to provide resources for those who struggle and training to assist helpers and local churches engage in this gospel work. I mean—it’s exciting, right?!

Join Us or Send Us!

We’re hoping to see God raise up another full-time woman to join Caitlin in our direct ministry to women. Might that be you or someone you know? Click here for more information.

As always, Harvest USA never charges a fee for our discipleship ministry. We rely on a team of financial partners to support us in this essential kingdom work. Might God be leading you to invest resources to help us? Join Caitlin’s or Ellen’s Team.

When our first discipleship workbook, Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness, was published in January 2013, I was thankful and expectant. Thankful because producing this resource had been a long, somewhat challenging process and finally, after more than three years of book “pregnancy,” the workbook had been birthed. I waited expectantly to see the response and impact on women’s lives.

One message came in on publishing day from a woman: “You do know, right, that 99% of women in the church will never engage [with] this? Most churches won’t even consider this!” 

I admit my response wasn’t, initially, fueled by one drop of compassion. I didn’t wonder what sort of backstory would lead someone to express this. No. Instead, I felt frustrated and angry. I didn’t want balloons and accolades—but perhaps a little encouragement and thankfulness!

But GOD.

Yes, but God rescued me from myself and I sensed his gentle, truthful wisdom. “Ellen, are the one percent worth it? Maybe she’s right. But that still leaves many hurting, gospel-desperate women who have expressed the need for this resource.” My heart changed in that moment.

God’s Stories from God’s Daughters

Praise be to God that the Spirit of comfort and counsel radically flipped my anger and frustration into tears of not just joy, but also tenderness. I’d had so many discipleship conversations with beautiful women who were the humble, needy, one percent.

Now, ten years later, I’ve had the priceless gift of hearing stories from all over the country and world of how God has used Sexual Sanity for Women to help women grow into Christlikeness as they pursued sexual and relational integrity.

From a biblical counselor:    

Sexual Sanity for Women has been the most helpful, profound, and influential book I have ever used in women’s programs. For the past four years I have been using it regularly to walk with women of all ages in discipleship, as a chaplain teaching life skills in a shelter, and to my surprise to heal from my own history with sexual brokenness that I never realized permeated into every thought and behavioral pattern of my life. With the grace of the Lord, I have seen this study transform hearts and minds to grasp the beautiful rest, shalom, and freedom that only King Jesus can give. I am deeply appreciative to the Harvest USA Tree Model and the SSFW study for taking a sensitive and incredibly complex topic such as this and making it relatable, reliable, and redemptive. Thank you, Ellen Dykas & Harvest USA for such a wonderful and accessible study!

Valentine Curiel (MA), Counseling Director, Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA    

From a former ministry recipient of Harvest USA:

Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness (SSFW) has been a life changing resource for me. I learned what I knew about sexuality through my own experience of sexual abuse, as well as being exposed to my father’s pornography from a young age. On top of that, I attended church and even pursued a Bible and seminary degree with little to no training or discipleship in the area of sexuality from those experiences, nor did I have any meaningful teaching or discipleship on these topics in the church. This ought not to be! By my 20’s I was confused, ashamed, and stuck in deep patterns of relational brokenness, as well as dabbling in my own pornography use. As a woman, I was confronted by silence from the church on these street-level issues that I was facing to an increasing degree. I reached out to Harvest USA as a broken and hopeless woman. I remember saying, “I don’t feel like I am in control of my own life anymore.” When I bought a copy of SSFW, I kept it hidden under my bed, and only read it in secret. Through God’s kindness, this resource was a significant part of how the Lord set me free. Topics like how our past informs our present struggles, temptation, and how to embrace God as our true Father, comforter, and home set me on a totally new trajectory in my Christian life. The Lord has shown his kindness to me in many ways, and I can’t speak of his work in my life without mentioning this life-changing resource. 

An Exciting Future for Women’s Ministry

And the woman who sent that message to me on publishing day in 2013? After the Lord comforted and corrected me, I reached out to her to find out why she thought the way she did. It turned out that this dear sister in Christ had shame and painful experiences with the church in her background. She had felt missed, silenced, and utterly un-helped. 

Wow. She was herself in the 1% but didn’t know where to find caring, Christ-centered help. Our interchange began a relationship that continues today. In fact, this very dear woman became a faithful financial supporter to me. She became an advocate for Harvest USA to women’s ministry leaders, pastors, and churches—several joined my support team!

Harvest USA is committed to a vision for ministry that includes robust, Christ-centered, gospel-driven discipleship for women. Thank you to every woman who has entrusted your story to our team. Thank you to every woman who has journeyed through SSFW with college students, singles, married women, women in prison, and hurting women forced into shelters. Thank you to every male church leader who has trained others up for this essential work. 

Truly—as Jesus regularly and boldly sought, loved, touched, forgave, healed, and set free so many women during his earthly ministry, may the church continue to grow in extending this vital kingdom work to women of all ages.

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.


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