28 Apr 2022
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.
14 Apr 2022
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.
11 Nov 2021
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.
01 Jul 2021
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.
Ellen has often heard this phrase from both single and married women, young and old. When life is painful and we are face to face with our expectations crumbling, it’s common to pursue sexual sin—we “sign up for” it, if you will—as a way to avoid the pain of other circumstances. But it’s crucial for us to face life as it really is, with faith-fueled realism rather than a demand that it be something it is not and to trust God when life is not what we expected. Jesus actually chose you and signed you up to share in his life, and Jesus has also appointed, or signed us up, to bear fruit while also intimately sharing in his suffering.
The content in this video was adapted from “I Didn’t Sign Up for This!,” a blog that Ellen wrote for the PCA Women’s enCourage website.
15 Apr 2021
This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 4 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.
Nobody wants to suffer, right? We know from experience how this broken world overwhelms us, and we know the suffering that our sinful choices bring. Yet the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are called to participate in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), along with the pain that accompanies “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12–13). Though we all experience trials and sufferings differently, the pain, heartache, and struggle on this side of heaven can feel wearisome and lead us to question God.
When we hear the word “suffering,” we think of things like broken relationships, chronic illness, cancer, or the loss of a loved one, but have you ever thought about struggling with temptations and sexual sin as a form of suffering? Many of us tend to dismiss our own experiences and minimize our suffering as we look at others who have what we perceive to be real suffering.
Sexual sin is one of the primary ways we seek comfort or escape in response to suffering. We give way to beliefs influenced by mistaken expectations of the Christian life. But to choose false comforts is to miss out on what delights God.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at our culture to realize that we love and crave comfort! Products, social media, and ads offer a life of ease, free of pain, with fulfilling romantic match-ups, financial security, appliances, and technology that do all the things we don’t want to do. Goods and services are daily marketed to us with the promise of relieving our suffering: Apps that allow you to filter your selfies, hook-up sites, online videos, streaming entertainment that consumes you for hours, day spas, plastic surgery, magic cures, and the latest, most successful dating site or marriage therapy technique all vie for our attention as we continually seek ease, comfort, and escape from suffering. The reality is that we can pursue these things for many reasons, but wanting to escape from the pain of life is frequently a significant driving force.
Sadly, the Christian life is too often presented as consistent with and affirming of this kind of comfortable lifestyle, but this understanding of the Christian life did not come from the Bible! Rather, the Bible is clear that living out our union with Christ means glory in the next life and suffering in this one. However, whether we suffer from life circumstances, persecution, or the costly battle against sin itself, we are promised great meaning, hope, and comfort, both in this life and in the one to come, in transforming into Christlikeness.
Of course, there is a sense in which it is natural and good to want to avoid suffering. It’s healthy to avoid someone’s betrayal, an illness, or living in the anguish of depression day after day. The Bible, though, never says that we are to attempt a pain-free life! In contrast, the world shouts loudly and persuasively that if we have the money, beauty, power, and will, we can escape suffering.
The world around us and our own sinful nature seek to dissuade us from this life of faith. In response to just about any suffering, sin offers an immediate, though deceptive, alternative to communion with Christ. Because of its drug-like pleasure and easy availability, sexual sin is one of the most powerful alternatives to gospel faith and comfort. Relational sin, which often accompanies sexual sin, also gives emotional highs and endorphin rushes that feel good now.
But faith in Christ and faith in sin are mutually exclusive; growth in one weakens the other. Just as habitually returning to sex to escape present suffering makes it harder for us to grasp the joy and hope of the gospel, so too will growing in love for Christ and in confidence in his promises give us strength and comfort to endure suffering for his sake
Romans 8:16–17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:13—Scripture abounds with statements that suffering is a basic component of the Christian life. Through these verses, God teaches us about proper expectations for the Christian life. Further, we often think of comfort as an absence of suffering, but one of God’s purposes of Christians experiencing suffering is that we would receive direct, personal comfort from God and, in turn, be able to use that experience to minister God’s comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).
The comforts of this life can be both addictive and deceptive. They tend to give us easy, immediate relief. What effect do you think sexual fantasy, sexual hookups, pornography, and other escapes have on your faith and hope in the gospel promises of resurrection and glory?
There are sweet blessings for God’s daughters as we courageously resist the temptation to rush towards the supposed comforts of sin. For example, Galatians 6:7–8 and Romans 8:5–8 spell out the benefits for “sowing to the Spirit” and the promises of God that can impact our lives in the present.
Although we would not choose to endure suffering, nothing is wasted in God’s economy; he uses our suffering to produce endurance, character, and hope, which transform us into being more like Christ. As believers, we have a strong assurance of hope.
Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application
- What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
- How do you typically respond to pain and suffering? Why do you think you choose those specific escapes? How well do those escapes, sexual or otherwise, offer relief to you in both the short run and the long run?
08 Apr 2021
On April 9, 2021, Ellen Mary Dykas will be speaking at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference (TGCW21) in Indianapolis, IN. To access her recommended resource lists and speaker’s notes for the following breakout sessions, see the hyperlinks below with attached PDFs.
Breakout Session Round 1: Sexual Issues Women Face
When: April 9 at 1:00 PM
Description: When was the last time you attended a women’s brunch addressing sexual issues? Most likely, you haven’t! This breakout will address a variety of struggles that women face when it comes to sexuality. We’ll discuss sexual temptations and the pursuit of sin, and the trauma of being sinned against sexually. Come listen in as our panel shares honestly about these tough topics, keeping our focus on Jesus and the hope we have in him for transformation.
Breakout Session Round 2: Compassionate Care in a #MeToo World
When: April 9 at 2:30 PM
Description: The #Metoo movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment and brought accountability to those who have misused power and authority. This breakout will provide guidance on how to love our friends as they share with us about past (or current) sexual abuse. We’ll explore how to create redemptive communities where women can share their stories of abuse and trauma, and be compassionately helped in the process of healing and transformation available through Christ.
Our Direct Ministry Team—which encompasses our Women’s, Men’s, and Parents and Family Ministries—delights to receive questions about the how, why, and what of our discipleship. Over many years, we have met with women and men from all over the United States and many countries. It has been our joy to share the hope of Christ with people from all backgrounds and many ethnicities, which brings me to a question that was sent to us recently.
“How are you equipping your staff to help people of color (non-whites) who struggle with sexual issues?”
Let me say that I love that someone asked us this! Harvest USA is committed to remaining firmly planted in a biblical view of a) people, b) sexual struggles, and c) the gospel’s hope for real transformation, which is extravagantly and indiscriminately available for all people. Let me answer our reader with two foundational commitments that our staff team lives out and to which we hold each other accountable.
We listen to our ministry recipients and seek to understand their stories
Our team anchors our discipleship ministry in asking questions and engaged listening. We equip ourselves through learning from the men and women who come to us for help. We sit at their feet, if you will, even as they have reached out due to personal pain and addictions. We ask many questions to understand their stories, backgrounds, cultural messages to which they have ascribed, and how the specifics of unbiblical values became accepted as they grew up.
Our ministry team of staff and interns represents a variety of ethnicities, but we are mostly white. The individuals who come to us, however, truly span the beautiful array of God’s image bearers. As I shared earlier, my discipleship to women has included those who are African-American, Latina, Asian, S. Asian, and white sisters who come from so many backgrounds. The same is true for the staff in our Men’s and Parents and Family Ministries. I’ve had my cultural blind spots exposed by asking questions, inviting feedback, asking more clarifying questions, and—can I mention it one more time?—listening.
If Christ came to heal the brokenhearted and to set the captives free (Isaiah 61:1–3 and Luke 4:18–20), then it’s crucial for our staff team to know how people have been uniquely bruised, broken, and wounded because of their histories. Cultural and racial influences can shape our thinking to be anti-biblical at worst and confusing at best.
Below are a few of the stories that trained me, opening my understanding to how culturally-specific experiences of pain can shape a person. The insights I’ve gained from women’s stories have helped me grow in knowing how to apply the gospel in specific ways for women of color.
- One woman grew up in a community where it was just expected and understood that married men have mistresses. What this hurting woman needed was the same message that most of the wives who reach out need, but understanding the cultural message from her upbringing guided me in delving into her beliefs about marriage and sex, which included a lot of distortion.
- A dear sister shared that, in her church, homosexuality was named publicly as “the most disgusting” sin, yet other expressions of sexual sin, which were definitely happening in that church, were not condemned. Tragically, many majority-white churches operate in the same way, but, in this woman’s cultural world, it was completely unacceptable to wrestle with same-sex temptations. She came to our women’s ministry carrying the burden of so much shame due to her attractions towards women. She needed grace, mercy, and truth to soothe and reorient her heart back to Jesus—just like all of us do. Knowing her cultural lens and how she had been shaped by growing up in her particular religious environment helped me know how to understand the shame and fear that burdened her.
- Finally, a young single woman fearfully confided in me about her secret struggle with pornography and masturbation. She could barely lift her eyes as she slowly let these words come out of her heart and mouth for the first time. She was a non-English speaker, so another Christian woman needed to translate this conversation…can you imagine what this was like for her?! I had previously learned, thankfully, how shame shackled many sexual strugglers in this culture, keeping them in isolation and fear. So, I didn’t go deep with questions about her sexual struggle in that first conversation. I listened, sought to pour hope and mercy over her, and sorrowed with her as she shared about a painful, lonely life. That first conversation opened the door for her to engage with other Christians about her sin.
Our staff team stands on Scripture not only to understand the stories we hear from people of color but also to show us how we ought to love, disciple, and come alongside them, as well as white people. Believe me: I’ve been trained by my mistakes and cultural blunders too many times to count, but, by God’s kindness, I am growing! As 2 Corinthians 5:14–15 says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
We anchor our understanding of people and sexuality in the Bible
Over the fourteen years that I’ve served with Harvest USA, a highlight has been five international trips to Asia and South America. As a former missionary, something in my ministry DNA comes alive in cross-cultural situations. My international teaching travels, as well as discipleship calls from all over the globe, have given me many opportunities to have honest, real conversations with sexual strugglers from many parts of the world.
My interactions in Asia, South America, and Latin America, along with women from the U.S. who are Latina, African American, and Asian-American, have proven to me what the Bible says: We are all more alike than different! People were created in the image of God, yet we all experience the brokenness of sin and the need of forgiveness, healing, and transformation. We each have unique experiences regarding cultural values, family histories, peer and religious influences, and more that have exerted powerful shaping influence on our hearts. However, the Bible is clear on several points.
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come”
(2 Corinthians 5:17).
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16–17).
These three biblical touchpoints teach us that all people need the radical intervention of God through new life in Christ and the power of the Spirit. We all need the Spirit’s help to turn away from sinful thoughts, actions, and desires, including pornography, sexual fantasy, adultery, promiscuity, and any sexual struggle. The Bible does not discriminate in its bold and clear proclamation that we all need our Lord Jesus’ salvation, grace, and mercy to live faithfully in regards to our sexuality.
I could share many more details, but these two commitments lay the foundation upon which we seek to love and care for the men and women of color who reach out for help. Our staff listens to learn about each person’s unique story and beliefs, and we read, study, and meditate on the Bible’s teaching about people and sexual struggles, which keeps us anchored to a biblical worldview.
Jesus sent his people out to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18–20), a commission which Harvest USA takes to heart! Please continue to send any questions you have about the how, why, what, and when of our commitment to live this out.
07 Jan 2021
The following is meant to help those who are weary in their battle to overcome sin and need help knowing how to pray and cry out to God for a fresh start.
Two thousand twenty one. 2021. Lord, I’m not sure what to think or how to feel as this year begins. There has been so much upheaval, loss, and pain around me. The turmoil of 2020 stirs fear in my heart and anxiety for what may be in front of me this upcoming year, but here I am, coming to you for help, for hope, for comfort.
Lord, I say with David that I do love you, that you are my strength. You say that you will be my rock and my fortress, my Savior, my God, in whom I take refuge. So I call to you now, Lord Jesus, and ask for you to give me a fresh start this year with my battle.
My longtime struggle with sexual sin. I have done this before so many times, God—making a resolution every January: This year, I’m going to beat this thing. This year, I’ll get help. This year, I will have the courage to actually tell _______ about this. O God, help me! I’m scared, weary, and so tired of the shame and sinking down into despair. Can this year be different? I need a fresh start; I need you! My prayers echo Psalm 18:1–3 and 40:1.
You are my only hope, Lord Jesus. As Peter says to Jesus in John 6:68, where else can I really go anyway?! You alone have the words of life, truth, and rescue that I need so desperately. Help me to hear you, to believe you. Help me to obey you with a fresh start for this longtime sin. I name it again before you now: ______________. Thank you, Lord, that there is no shame for those who look to you and honestly tell you their real, raw thoughts in anguish and suffering (Psalm 34:4–5).
I bring my heart to you, Lord, because I know that I’m proud and stubborn. And as much as I hate the consequences of this sin, I don’t want to give it up. So, there…I said it. I hate it, and I love it. I hate feeling guilty, like a bad Christian. The mental assault of all that I’ve stockpiled in my mind from having this sin control me for so long is torment. However, I love escaping the stress of my life for a few minutes or hours; I like the intoxicating pleasure I get. I know it’s wrong, but it feels good. Why does it have to be that way, Lord? That sin feels good and life-giving, while obedience can feel boring, painful, and deathly? Why?! (Psalm 51:1–2)
God, your Word says that my heart is the source for all of this, the choices I’ve made, what I’ve pursued and run away from. So, I’m asking you today for fresh faith to believe that you can change my heart, including my desires, to long for what you long for and to will what you will. Will you change the appetites of my heart, calm my cravings, and bring peace into the turmoil of my thoughts, please?! It all seems like an uncontrollable monster inside of me—can it be different? Change my heart, O God…change my life! (Luke 6:43–45, Psalm 34:8, Philippians 2:13, Psalm 51:10)
Father, I need your comfort for all of the mess and pain that this sin has brought into my life and others’ lives. Even if _________ doesn’t know about it specifically, I know they have felt my detachment, disinterest, and distraction. I haven’t been involved in relationships with honesty, engagement, or love. I know I’ve hurt so many people, and, honestly, Lord, I know I should care more about their pain than mine, but I’m hurting, too. Please, Father, will you let me feel and believe in your mercy again? (Psalm 139:23–24 and 2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
And I do ask you to comfort _________ and __________. Wow, Lord, I guess you are at work already! I’ve not prayed for them for so long, so thank you, Father. As you help me to bring my feelings to you now, I can sense that you are softening my heart—a heart that has felt so hard, so cold towards these same people. Yes, God, cause your work in me to go deep, cut through my self-deception and self-preoccupation, and break my heart over this sin! You’re kind, not mean-hearted, and I need you to lead me into repentance one step at a time. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 and 7:10, as well as Romans 2:4)
Lord, I’m not sure what steps I need to take first. Do I read that book? Call that friend? Should I try to find a counselor? You call yourself the good Shepherd, so if you’re willing to guide a weak sheep like me, please lead me; show me who to reach out to for help. Who do I need to confess this to first? Give me courage, Lord. Even as I pray about this, I’m so scared of what ______ will think about me. Help me believe what you say about me more than anything else, that I am holy, loved, and chosen by you and that, even with this mess of sin in my life, none of these things change. I’m yours, Lord. Period. (Ephesians 5:1–2 and Colossians 3:12)
God, help me to trust that you can do in my life what David said you did in his: You sent help to him from heaven; you took him and drew him out of many waters. I’m drowning, Lord; draw me out of this place! This sin is too strong for me, and I finally am willing to admit that to you, Lord. This sin isn’t a friend; it’s an enemy, my enemy and yours, so please, be my strength! Rescue me and bring me into a place of freedom, of spaciousness, rather than this prison I’m stuck in now. Yes, God, because you love me, and your Word says that you not only love me but also delight in me. You love me, are with me—you’ll never let go. O God, thank you. (Psalm 18:16–19 and Matthew 28:20)
Lord, I’m in. I commit to walking forward in this obedience. I rest in your power that enables me to obey. To obey just one step at a time. Today, then again tomorrow. So, before you now, I want to commit to taking these steps in the coming week. I know that I need your Word, Lord, so this is my first step: to read the Bible and to pray it, to really take in your truth again as I’ve been so lazy—just going through the motions if I even bothered to open it. No more! Just one step at a time. Truly, Lord Jesus, help me to seek to please you in these steps. Encourage me and help me to not grow weary or give up. I want to trust you! (Galatians 5:13, Colossians 3:16–17, Galatians 6:7–9, and Proverbs 3:5–6)
I put my trust in you, Lord, even in the midst of my fears and weakness. You are worthy of my praise, worthy to be trusted. You will be merciful to me and will care for me as I take refuge in you. You are holding onto me and will never let go. Rain down your faithful love over me, over my feeble faith, and fulfill all your purposes for me. Thank you, Lord Jesus. (Psalm 56:1–4, 10–11 and 57:1–3)
The Harvest USA Direct Ministry staff are available to help you take steps of faith in overcoming your struggle with sexual sin. Please reach out for help if we can serve you in this way by emailing email@example.com.