14 Jan 2014
Look for the signs
In a broken world, we all must face the consequences of sin—our own sin as well as the sin of others. For a woman whose husband is addicted to pornography or sexual sin, this dual battle of facing both her husband’s betrayal and her own struggle to respond appropriately can be excruciating. How can she best love her husband during his gradual, often lengthy, journey of growth, maturity, and change?
And how can she endure if he refuses to work on restoring their marital unity? These are important questions for wives whose husbands struggle with any form of sex addiction.
The shock of discovery and his initial pursuit for help often give way to an unsettling sadness and real confusion about how to move on down the road. Fortunately, some women married to sex addicts eventually find that their husbands’ movement into change and accountability has actually strengthened their marriages. Spouses who choose the path of ongoing honesty and repentance can enjoy the reward of a more satisfying union. However, many wives find themselves facing an ambiguous husband, a husband not committed to working hard on his issues, a husband who promised faithfulness but won’t sever ties with his idolatry of lust. How is such a woman supposed to live as God’s daughter in that kind of circumstance?
There are, of course, no easy answers. Wives of sex addicts are on a path that is both frightening and largely uncharted. But there are signposts that mark this path of marital disappointment, landmarks that identify for travelers that they are on the road that will bring them to their destination. When the way to a destination is new, it is comforting to know what to expect. What signposts can a disappointed wife expect to see along her journey toward renewal in her life and marriage?
Signpost #1: Anger, shock, and numbness
When the issue of sexual unfaithfulness comes out into the light and a wife finally is confronted with the reality of her husband’s struggle, it is common for her to react with shock. There will likely be much anger and crying, which may not be pleasant but is healthy and normal. However, within a few weeks it isn’t uncommon for the wife to then feel numb. The initial adrenaline of discovery and the burst of energy to find help wear off as the realities of daily living settle in.This is a crucial time during which a woman needs support and guidance. Her overwhelming pain will surely tempt her to shut down emotionally or to build walls, protecting herself from more hurt. Under the layer of shock and numbness are her broken dreams about marriage and life. She rightly expected marital faithfulness but found betrayal, and it is enough to stagger even the most pragmatic wife. Having discovered her husband’s addiction to pornography or sexual sin, her life has been profoundly altered. Certainly no wife is foolish enough to think she has married a perfect man. But living with a husband who has deeply failed her at the core of their intimate relationship plunges a woman into huge ambivalence. She longs for the intimacy of marriage, but how can she go on giving her heart to her wayward husband? This part of her journey is neither pretty nor simple, but it is, in fact, God’s invitation to the redemptive process of grief.
Signpost #2: Good grief—mourning the loss
Grieving is not a popular experience, but it is absolutely necessary for the restoration of a marriage in which a spouse has crossed moral boundaries. Grief is a deep, emotional reaction to a loss. Our culture legitimizes mourning the death of a person who is important to us. Less supported, however, is grief when something less tangible “dies.” Moreover, the shame attached to sexual sin and the fear of exposure to others (especially in the church) makes this experience of loss even more isolating.
Scripture, of course, is not silent about grief. In fact, mourning is often spoken of as a normal part of living in a fallen world. Did not Jesus say in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (ESV)? Comfort comes to those who mourn, and Jesus was speaking to a very large audience when he said those words. The psalmist reinforces this concept by reminding us, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God seems to expect that our hearts will be broken relationally, and when we experience this, he intends that we bring our crushed and broken hearts to him for his comfort. Nor does God expect our expressions of sorrow to look pretty or to be worded in calm and logical prose. David’s psalms were anything but serene. He often began by complaining or beseeching God to pay attention to his circumstances and to punish those who were harming him. Of course he usually made a shift from distress to worship and from anger to gratitude for God’s love. But never does he pretend that life is not difficult.
Many other men and women in Scripture struggled with painful relationships and disappointing events, and they did not hesitate to bring their grieving hearts to God in earnest prayer, telling their Creator how they felt. Consider Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1, or Job’s many lamentations, especially in Job 23. Even Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” as he faced his imminent death (Hebrews 5:7). God’s people do not run from grief. Rather, they boldly enter it, for there they find the waiting arms of their heavenly Father.
Our culture, unfortunately, seldom teaches us how to handle our emotions when our world is shaken. People today don’t often share the Scriptural perspective that sin has altered the experience of life and all of creation groans in waiting for the finality of redemption. But we can take God’s word for it: It is normal to groan about damage to one’s heart and marriage. Naturally we want to know how long this grieving stage will last, but there is no perfect timetable. Grief must run its course. We will know when our grief has crossed the line from healthy mourning to entrenched self-pity. God will surely show us (even while we’re still grieving) how to move toward loving others who have hurt us. And be prepared: God always starts with the person whose attention he has at the moment—which may be the offended one, not the offender.
One winter’s day while journaling about my own heartache at having been disappointed by someone I trusted, I (Penny) felt entitled to list for God all the reasons I should never trust my heart to anyone again. Tired of being hurt, I was on a roll. My litany of mistreatment went back to childhood, including such sorrows as sexual abuse, being stood up for two proms in a row, and several experiences of being betrayed by close friends. I ended up feeling justified for never letting my heart be mishandled again. “It just isn’t safe!” I self-righteously concluded. Quietly I waited in the sun-drenched warmth of my room, confident that God would comfort me by affirming my self-protection. Instead he gently guided me to this question: “And just whose definition of ‘safe’ shall we use—yours or mine?”
I was caught; the sin of my own heart exposed. My view of safety had been entirely self-focused: I wanted to never be hurt again. Furthermore, my commitment to safety meant I would never love deeply again, and thus I would cease to reflect the Father I was called to imitate. My own self-consumed heart was juxtaposed to my Father’s long-suffering heart, he who had not spared his own Son to insure my eternal safety. In repentance I saw once again God’s commitment to love the unlovely, which of course included me. How could I not show to others the same love I had myself received? Grief does not nullify our obligation to love others. Rather it reinforces it.
Signpost #3: Accepting the risk of loving the unlovely
Any woman married to a sex addict wonders how to move from the anguish of betrayal to the risk of trusting her husband again, knowing she is likely to be re-disappointed because sensual gratification is such an easy-to-obtain commodity. If she understands that her husband’s sin is to seek refuge from stress and to sexualize his disappointment with life, she knows there will probably be further failures. But a wise woman becomes a helpmate ever better suited to her husband if she will remember that she no less than he is tempted to handle the pain of life in sinful ways.
The ground is always level at the foot of the cross, each of us carrying our dignity and depravity in ways unique to our own particular history and temperament. And because of the hope of the gospel, a marriage can be rebuilt when both husband and wife enter together the humility of being sinners who need grace. The process may be long and painful, but the rewards are sweet. One major part of loving the unlovely, therefore, is the risk of offering forgiveness, which essentially means not “holding on to wrongs suffered,” as described in 1 Corinthians 13:5. My pastor says it like this: “Forgiveness means taking the snapshot you have of this person (a snapshot that may have been at one time accurate) and shredding it.” How can a wife begin to shred this picture of her husband as infidel? This is the work of warfare praying.
Signpost #4: Prayer warfare
A wife begins to risk her heart as she prays for God to change her so she can love her spouse as God himself loves him. Inviting God to show her his view of her husband will allow her to see him not only as a sinner, but also as a man designed to reflect God’s purpose in a dark world. How would her husband be if he no longer were in bondage to sexual sin? What kind of man would he be if he understood the depth of God’s love? What would it look like if he became the protector to her that he was designed to be? How might their marriage change if his heart was captivated by the beauty of God ‘s gift of sexual unity in marriage and he cherished his wife as he found himself cherished by his Holy Suitor?
Seeing her husband from God’s perspective can rejuvenate a wife’s respect and passion for him. As a woman reflects on how her husband is caught in the foolish web of illicit sexual gratification, she can begin to pray for his soul in ways that honor him as the image bearer he is called to be. In prayer she can re-commit herself to her marriage, longing for her husband’s restoration and allowing God to bring his grace to her so she can in turn offer it to her fallen husband. Such a wife cannot stay hard or bitter. When she aligns herself with God’s purposes, offering her heart to God to soften and fill, she will be able to love well the man who has caused her much sorrow. What a reflection this is of God’s own love, which ever extends toward those who have caused him sorrow.
Signpost #5: Facing an ambiguous outcome
There are times, however, when in spite of a wife’s perseverance in warfare praying, her husband remains in bondage to sexual sin. Despite her seasoned prayer on his behalf he refuses to become the man God and she are inviting him to be. What can a wife do in the face of his hard-heartedness? Such was the plight of Abigail, as described in 1 Samuel 25.
She was married to a foolish and rude man, Nabal, and though we know little about her, surely her life with a boorish man occasioned many moments of intense prayer between her and God. And out of the wisdom and faith nurtured in Abigail’s walk with God, she took an amazing risk, jeopardizing her life to save her household and to protect David’s reputation as God’s man. This she did by literally standing in David’s way as he marched to take revenge on Nabal for disrespecting him. Abigail’s intervention not only saved the lives of many, but it also changed the course of David’s personal history. Then, when Abigail went home to her drunken husband, she shrewdly timed her intervention of truth telling for when he was sober, at which time Nabal appears to have had a stroke. Scripture then says, “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died” (v. 38, emphasis mine).
For ten days, God let Abigail live in a situation that had gone from bad to worse with no guarantee of a positive outcome. If I had been Abigail, I would have been furious. “Oh, great! This is how I’m rewarded for following you? Now I have to take care of an abusive stroke victim?!” How could Abigail have gone on? I am convinced it was only because of her connection with God. Only by his grace could she have lived without allowing her circumstances to harden her heart toward God. For wives whose husbands are in bondage to pornography or other sexual sin, it will take much prayer and shrewdness—which only come from hours spent in prayer, asking the hard questions about what the next step should be. It also will involve at times a willingness to fight with her husband as well as for her husband’s soul.
Signpost #6: Productive fighting—hard consequences for hard hearts
How can a wife engage in productive fighting on behalf of her marriage? For one thing, she must choose her battles carefully, discerning which issues are worth being addressed and which must be overlooked. Nor should she struggle by herself. She may need a mentor to come alongside her, helping her to see her situation with “new eyes.” Also, if her husband is a believer, she may be able to bring her situation to the attention of the elders of their church. The discipline outlined in Scripture is designed to reach a soul dulled by sin to matters of conscience. Moreover, the hardest consequence a wife may face because of her husband’s continued disobedience could include divorce, and she will need the support of good men from her church to pursue this difficult step if it becomes necessary.
In the meantime, keeping a soft heart but a hard line is a difficult balancing act. A godly wife’s tone and mood should be firm, winsome, and brave. She must require what God requires of her husband: faithfulness and holiness. A wife can say hard things to her husband if her words communicate her sorrow if he persists in sin. For example, in order to protect her health, she may need to require that her husband be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before she can receive him again sexually. She might say something like, “It grieves me to enforce this, but it is necessary for our future relationship. I will be deeply sorry if you refuse, but I will also celebrate your repentance as I see the steps you make toward restoration in our marriage.” A hard line need not be drawn with a hard fist. Being available to fight with her husband for her marriage will require much strength.
A wife focused on challenging her husband in these ways will need support. Talking with a counselor, being involved in a support group and coming to her pastor with her concerns will be an important practice to keep her from feeling isolated. She also needs a wise ear to help her discern her own motives as she plans how to respond to her spouse.This work will be exhausting.
To love another this well will cost her dearly. She must compensate for the sorrow she embraces by seeking rest in her Heavenly Father, who promises his presence to “those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Allowing mature friends to walk along side her as she does this work will also provide her with strength and refreshment.
These then are six signposts along a wife’s path toward wholeness when her husband’s sex addiction has been exposed. Recognizing the signposts is not always simple, nor is the journey linear or clean. But it is a journey of hope for any woman who will allow her heart to be broken by the effects of her husband’s sin, and yet be softened toward God and toward her husband. Only as she commits herself to spend time with her heavenly Father can she love from a heart that longs to see her husband restored and conformed to the image God has for all his men. On such a journey, no woman is ever alone, for Christ himself will companion with her and bring her finally Home.
14 Jan 2014
The discovery of sexual sin in a marriage is usually a devastating experience for the faithful spouse. In an instant, everything is forever changed by the disclosure. The marriage you thought you had does not exist. Maybe it never did. Your whole world is turned upside down.
You might not be able to think straight, sleep, or eat. Your emotions may feel out of control. All these are typical responses you might have to the relational betrayal of sexual infidelity.
Sexual infidelity is clearly contrary to biblical teaching (Matthew 5:27 –28). As the reality of sexual betrayal sets in, the first question that you may begin to ask yourself is, “What do I do now? Do I stay in this marriage or do I leave?” This is never an easy question to ask or answer. Leaving a marriage is clearly an option in the aftermath of sexual sin (Matthew 5:31-32). However, there is no biblical mandate that requires leaving the marriage after sexual sin.
As difficult as it may sound, waiting a while before making this important decision is often the best option. The betrayal of infidelity triggers a trauma-like response that can last from six to eight weeks. During this period of time, it is often difficult to think clearly, making it unwise to make important life decisions. Only after the initial trauma response has subsided can difficult decisions be addressed. Inviting wise counsel and resources to join you in the process of making those decisions may be profitable to you and your marriage. This is not a decision that should be made alone or impulsively.
So how do you decide whether to stay or go? Wrestling with this issue after sexual betrayal is normal. It is natural to look for ways to eliminate and reduce pain. If your goal is to feel better or lessen your pain, leaving might do that, but it probably will not bring you the relief that you desire. Unfortunately, broken hearts are painful, whether you remain in the relationship or not. Leaving the marriage will cause separation, but not necessarily pain relief.
Remember that while the marital covenant between you and your spouse has been breached, the relational covenant between you and God is still intact. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are called to fulfill the commandment to love God and others well (Matthew 22:37-39). As difficult and insurmountable as the issues in your life seem, God can make a way through the current difficulties for you and your spouse, if you choose to pursue that path. Your goal then should always be to do what loves your spouse and points him or her towards God. Whether you choose to stay or not, you need to first answer the question, “What loves my spouse best by pointing him or her to God?”
There are three issues that might be helpful to think through as you wrestle with your decision: safety, repentance, and reconciliation.
If it is unsafe for you or your children to live in the same house with your spouse, then separation is recommended. Safety is not simply related to dealing with a violent or threatening spouse. Safety issues include how the spouse is responding to concerns about medical testing. If physical sexual contact has been made with someone else or is suspected, issues like testing for STD’s and HIV need to be addressed immediately, regardless of any decisions about the future of the relationship.
A marriage that feels unsafe to a betrayed spouse can be made safer by the assurance that comes from knowing that the sin is being addressed through appropriate accountability, church discipline, and counseling. No one can promise that the infidelity will never happen again, but strong stop-gap measures can be put in place as some insurance that it will not. Sufficient attention to stop-gap measures that address the sinful behaviors and relational patterns that accompanied them can make a distressed marriage feel safer. Restoring trust in your spouse is going to take a long time, but you can feel a certain level of safety when such measures are invested in for positive changes in your marriage.
Repentance is turning away from sin and towards holiness. Nothing can give you more hope than watching your spouse actively pursue repentance by deepening his or her personal relationship with Christ. Failure to see this, on the other hand, may be a sign that repentance is not really taking place. Sometimes when there is a long history of the sexual sin, what loves a spouse best and points him or her towards God is the exact opposite of what has been tried in the past. Old sin patterns often need new interventions, and sometimes this might include separation or divorce.
Reconciliation requires a decision from both you and your spouse to re-enter the marital relationship. Reconciliation is an emotional process that will include many difficult ups and downs. God will invite each of you to reconciliation with him and then with one another. Invariably, the marriage at the end of this process will be stronger than the marriage was when it entered the process. In the midst of this, there will probably be times that you will question your decision to stay all over again. If there is a focus on reconciliation by both partners, then there can be perseverance through the hard times.
Finally, there is nothing more that you can do than attempt to fulfill the law of love that Jesus has given to each of us. Whatever your decision, to stay or to go, you will have loved well if your goal is to bless your spouse by pointing her or him to God.
14 Jan 2014
My long journey to Harvest USA began more than 10 years ago. It was then that my husband confessed to me that he had a problem with pornography. He told me that it had started when he was twelve years old.
Married for five years then, I had sensed that something was amiss in our relationship. Something was drastically impacting our ability to relate to each other, both emotionally and physically. His confession made sense to me, but it also devastated me.
I had been raised in an evangelical Christian home. I had no previous exposure to issues of this nature. My husband was resistant to counseling. This was extremely painful to me. He took the attitude that, “We’ll solve our own problems.” What little counseling we did receive was harmful, especially to me. I was basically told that I must be sure to keep having sex with him and this would, eventually, solve his problem. This further exacerbated my feelings of blame and shame.
Along the way, many unanswered questions lurked in my mind. What was the matter with me? Why did my husband need to look at other naked women? Why hadn’t just getting married cured him of the pornography problem as he had thought it would? What if my husband got involved with or decided to leave me for one of these other kind of beautiful women?
There seemed to be nowhere for me to find solace. I felt obligated to protect my husband’s reputation, so I hid our problems and his for years. I didn’t feel that I could walk up to a girlfriend at church and say, “My husband struggles with pornography; what does yours struggle with?”
I felt that this was one of the church’s unacceptable, politically incorrect sins. I also didn’t share this situation with my own parents or friends. Nor did I feel that I could actually talk with my husband about it at all. He had rejected the idea that he might actually have a sexual addiction. To my husband, the pornography wouldn’t really be a problem—unless I let it be—unless it bothered me. More blame. I was also angry that God had allowed me to marry a man with this addiction, although I had prayerfully sought his will in seeking a marriage partner.
It was as if I was in a car being driven along the interstate. My husband was driving. I kept asking him to stop—to get off at the next exit, or the next, or the next. Yet he was committed to traveling on the same dangerous route, unabated. This left me feeling unprotected and insecure.
The loneliness, together with his refusal to seek help, led me into a state of denial for years. I always knew the problem was there, but felt paralyzed to effect any change. My motto became to make the best of my marriage and family life and continue trying to keep it together with my three daughters. I lived in this place for over ten years!
Then, three years ago, I discovered that the problem exceeded just pornography. My husband was also having an affair. It was at this time that I was at a conference at another church where I saw a brochure for a Harvest USA seminar. I was astounded that there was actually a ministry to those struggling with these kinds of things. I called to find out if there was something available for wives. There was.
I began to attend the Wives Support Group. I felt immediate love, acceptance, and understanding for where I was. Talk about a shelter in a time of storm! There’s an old hymn that says, “There is a balm in Gilead that heals the wounded soul.” This group became my Gilead, where God used other sweet sisters in Christ to lovingly begin the process of helping and healing.
You see, there are no words to express the relief the first time I heard one of my sisters in the group share her gut feelings—and tears—over how her own husband’s problem with pornography affected her. I was able to say, “That’s me! She knows all about what it’s like. I’m not crazy!”
But it wasn’t just the comfort of having others there who were walking the same road. No. I was often challenged to see my own sin as well. Others confronted me about my own self-protection strategies throughout these years. I came to see that my determined self-sufficiency was sin as well—a basic lack of trust of God. In my own attempt to control my reaction and response to this situation over the years, I discovered the harm I also had been doing.
In my own anger, in hiding my pain throughout the years, and in not being candid or honest with my husband, I had basically bought into protecting him from the consequences. Years ago I had made a commitment not to convey to him how wounded I was by what he or the pornography was doing to our marriage. I, too, had been pretending. God began to show me how much I had become enmeshed in my husband’s issues—and the damage I had done in my own commitment to protect his secret.
I had participated in much false pretense. My silence had also served me well.
I began to learn that I did have a voice in the relationship. I did not have to keep silent. Most importantly, I could trust God to be all I needed him to be for me in the times when my words to my husband would not be well-received. Many times they were not. I realized that for years I had been using my husband and my family for my own personal comfort and happiness; these things had become idols in my life. Over the past two years, I have also discovered that God is not so much concerned with my own personal happiness as he is in enabling me to find him in the midst of every trouble and circumstance.
Despite my desire to see my marriage healed, I now walk through the dreadful valley of divorce. Grieving the loss, right now I know that divorce is God’s way of protection for me and my daughters. Looking back over it, I now realize that we were a family that needed to be disrupted. God, in his goodness, has allowed my family’s world to be turned upside-down. Once I would have been very fearful of this kind of disruption—done anything to prevent it—and hated the idea of brokenness. Although I still don’t relish it, the Lord has allowed me to be broken, and I realize that it’s in this place where I am the most teachable. I have realized that he and his promises will never forsake me—as a soon-to-be single mom with three children.
Through all this process, the Wives Support Group has been a lifeline which God blended with my own personal counseling. He has used all this both to redirect my life and to give me hope in God, especially when things appear hopeless. A Puritan prayer says it best.
“Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter your stars shine;
Let me find your light in my darkness,
your life in my death,
your joy in my sorrow,
your grace in my sin,
your riches in my poverty,
your glory in my valley.” 1
1 Puritan Prayer from The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, Editor, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975.
* This is a guest post by ‘Sharon,’ a pseudonym.
14 Jan 2014
It was halftime during the 2011 Super Bowl. We were with extended family at our home. During the second quarter, my brother-in-law logged onto our family computer to catch up on business emails. When logging out, it’s his custom to clear the history from the computer so his company’s passwords are not saved. In doing so, he brought up the recent history and found some websites that troubled him.
He alerted my wife (his sister), and they both viewed several extremely graphic pornographic websites that had been saved in the computer’s history. They discussed it for a few moments and decided to pull me away from the game to confront me about what they had found.
I am in my mid-forties, a father of four children. Based on the ages of our kids and the graphic nature of the websites, they assumed the websites were connected to me. After we settled that it was not me, I proceeded to view the websites and knew we had a big problem. These sites were not just topless women or partially nude couples, but included images with violent sex, orgies, and graphic sexual positions. Although I was shaken up by the content, I was determined to find out who in our family was drowning in this stuff. I don’t really know why, but I suspected that it was my youngest, my ten-year-old son.
During the rest of the game, I was in and out of the family-filled TV room, pacing, praying and thinking of words to say—words that would both confront and also leave the door open for honesty. Near the end of the game, families began to pack up and head out. It was a school night, and our family was starting to fade. My ten-year-old son poked his head into the office where we keep our computer. He said, “Goodnight,” and I said the same back. Before he hit the stairs, I got up and said to him, “Hey, have you been looking at anything you shouldn’t be looking at on the computer?” He quickly, and with confidence, replied, “Me? No, I haven’t at all.” I said, “Okay, good.” He then started upstairs, but I gently stopped him and asked him to come back down into the office. He did. I said to him, “I’m going to ask you one more time; think before you answer. Have you looked at anything you shouldn’t have looked at on that (pointing to the desktop computer)?” He paused, looked away from me, then to the floor and said, “Yes.”
When I tell you I have never seen a look of shame and guilt so clearly, I am being totally honest. I did not feel anger or disappointment. I reached out and embraced my boy, whom I later learned had been sucked in by the power of Internet pornography for a long time. I embraced him; he wept, I wept, and we rocked as we had done so often when he was an infant. During the next several hours, he confessed his daily habit of viewing pornography at certain “safe” hours (when our daily family pattern would allow him time on the computer while others were out of sight). Other times were with friends at sleepovers, where they would use their iPod Touches, Internet-capable game consoles, or smart phones to surf pornography websites. Through his tears, he described how bad he felt about himself and how powerless he felt in trying to stop.
The hour was now 2 am. We were both beat, and we were still embracing. Instead of disappointment and anger, I felt relief and a deeper love for my son who was almost asleep in my arms. As I carried him to bed, I thought about God’s yearning to have us in the same place every night: After a day of messing up, if we only felt the “ease” to relax in his arms, tell it all as it really is, and then find the peace to collapse in his arms…that’s exactly where he wants us. He does not want us living a lie, running up the stairs, brushing our teeth, burying our secrets, and going it alone.
Once I placed my son in his bed, he fell asleep and subsequently woke several times during the next hour calling out my name to discuss and confess some more. Eventually he got everything off his chest and finally fell asleep.
I did not sleep that night, nor did my wife. We talked. We cried. We prayed. We argued. The weight on us was heavy. The next day was long. I was desperate to help my son, and I felt incompetent to do it myself. I reached out to several close friends, one of whom was John Freeman from Harvest USA. I told him everything. There were long pauses, as I could not speak through the tears. John was patient. When I was done, all I could do was ask him, “Will my son be all right?”
John didn’t take the role of an expert, but rather a deep and close friend. He did not at this time encourage me to seek outside help, as he thought we had everything we needed within our family. He did not blithely point to Bible verses or books but instead reminded me of my close relationship with a God who loves me and would never turn his back on me. John comforted me and gave me the courage to be a loving father to a hurting and scared son who was full of shame. He encouraged me to be a safe place for my son, someone to talk to and help interpret what he had seen and what he was feeling. He suggested that a remedy would not come instantly, but would come over a long period of time as I grew into being a safe and loving place for my son to come and rest.
John’s words, along with those of other men who know me well, helped me rise up to become the place where my son could find grace, forgiveness, and “ease” so he could move beyond the trap he found himself in.
Now that my son had felt the healing and cleansing power of confession and forgiveness, the days ahead became darker for me.
The subsequent days were filled with despair and discouragement in thinking about what my child had been exposed to for a long time. Conversations between my wife and I were nonstop about what to do now and how this could have happened. For one of the first times in our 24-year marriage, the conversations were starting to dramatically break down and anger crept in. I did not know it at first, but I was slowly coming to terms with my guilt of removing our home Internet filter years ago (because it was a nuisance). I started to admit to myself that we had been lax in forming our daily schedule, which allowed for consistent unsupervised time after school, and our naïveté of allowing him full access to Internet-capable devices for his personal use at a very young age. I have been through dark seasons in my life, and I rank this as one of the most difficult.
The weight that was on our hearts that Super Bowl Sunday lightened as time passed. In the weeks that, followed the opportunities to speak to my son, my wife, and my girls about these topics and about God’s unwavering love for us no matter what we do, think, feel, or see were many.
We now have a top-rated content filter on our computer, are clear with our kids about the dangers of web-enabled devices, have set up “house rules” for our family and friends regarding those devices, and have kept this topic in the forefront of family discussion. This was a wake-up call, but instead of being a start to an ugly, downward cycle, it has opened our family to a better way of dealing with the ever-present world of pornography and, more than that, the relentless and never-ending love that God has for each of us. Through this I am reminded that there is nothing we can do that will cause God to withhold his love and affection for us. All he wants is for us to collapse in his arms; give him all of our troubles, shame, guilt, and secrets; and then to find rest in him.
The following was written by Brad Currie, who led the LifeLine Group at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, PA.
1. I would never say that I am the leader. I am a facilitator in a group of fellow strugglers. I am a fellow struggler in a battle that every man faces: a battle for sexual integrity and purity in a culture that is saturated by sexual content grossly out of perspective from what God intended for us. I cannot face this battle alone. I need the men in this group as much as they need me, even though I am the facilitator. Even though being a facilitator is a scary position, the Lord meets us as we step out in our own weakness.
2. A fellow struggler is someone who has been on the road of recovery for several years and, despite falling, is able to get up and keep going. A fellow struggler knows that, regardless of temptations and setbacks, he continues on the path and is headed in the right direction toward progressive victory over lust and sexual impurity. A fellow struggler is one who has empathy and compassion for other men who are entangled in similar patterns. A fellow struggler is not someone who thinks they have all the answers, telling other men what to do. A fellow struggler is someone who knows what it is like to be trapped down in that pit of sexual bondage, and since he knows how to climb out, he is willing to help others start their climb.
3. In our groups, we use a rock-climbing analogy to illustrate how the members of the group are connected to each other. Rock climbers are connected to one another from above and below by safety ropes and carabiners. Every man who comes to the group gets his own carabiner to remind him of his connection to the others. We bring the carabiners to our meetings and hook them together as a symbol of our connection with one another. The message is, “You may fall, but you are connected to others who will pull you back up and continue your climb.” This is a powerful, visual reminder of our need of one another. In group, we learn that what heals us is being engaged in strong, connected, and honest relationships with other men. Men become men in the presence of other good men.
4. The connection that is created among men belonging to a group that is safe, confidential, and supportive is immeasurably valuable. Most men are alone in their sexual struggles, believing that they are the only one grappling with their particular issue. Seeing the openness that develops among men as they begin to share their stories in a support group is astonishing. Their self-imposed barriers come down, and the honesty and intimacy that is developed with other men in the group is often the foundation for establishing honesty and non-sexual intimacy in their relationship with their wives. A Christ-centered group provides the essential framework of safety where there is no condemnation or judgment. Most men do not know how to be open, honest, and vulnerable, but in that safe atmosphere, we begin to experience true forgiveness, healing and repentance. As Christ’s love surrounds and permeates these men, they are delivered from their guilt and shame, and their spiritual vigor is restored.
5. Perhaps the best reason to be involved as a facilitator in a men’s group is the need to carry the message of hope and recovery, found in the gospel, to those who are sick and suffering. Comforting others with the comfort that you have received (II Corinthians 1:4) forces you to live out what you know to be true. You can’t effectively encourage other men in their pursuit of their sexual integrity while you are still acting out yourself. Being a facilitator in a group of fellow strugglers keeps you sharp, like iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).
When Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant, it was buried in a tomb and covered with snakes. Being deathly afraid of snakes, he cries out, “Why does it have to be snakes?” thereby revealing his worst fear. But he faced his worst fear and was able to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. In the same way, the Lord uses men who, even while they face their greatest weakness and fear, are willing to make themselves vulnerable and available to “hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11, ESV).
14 Jan 2014
We routinely approach churches to request they add Harvest USA to their missions budget, as we rely on God’s people for all our support needs. Many churches reply with a response I hear often: “We really love Harvest USA, but you‘re just not missions; you don’t fit into any of our giving categories.”
That’s ironic! Years ago I was deeply impacted by a seminary professor named Dr. Harvie Conn. Harvie was the missions professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, when I was a student. He walked with a limp, literally. That’s because Harvie, prior to being a professor, had been a missionary for years in Korea—to prostitutes! There, he was grabbed several times by a gang of men while walking down a street, dragged to an alleyway, held down, and had his feet beaten and broken with two-by-fours. He was told, “Quit telling these women about Jesus.” It turned out that the pimp’s income was being affected as these women came to Christ and left prostitution.
So, when Harvie spoke—well, you just listened a little more closely. He had earned his stripes, suffering for Christ. One day he told the class, “Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about an unreached people group—a hidden people group.”
Harvie then talked about the need for mission work in the homosexual community. The church, historically, had a totally “hands off” approach to the gay community. At the time, in 1983, it was becoming the fastest-growing group in the country. He went on to define a people group as any group of people who had a self-perceived identity which bonded that group together and facilitated their growth as a specific community. Harvie explained how the gay community was cemented by common political, social, economic, philosophic, and psychological identities.
But Harvie didn’t stop there. He said the real hidden people were men and women who became believers, bringing into the church all their sexual baggage, confusion, and histories, along with the pain of scarred hearts and souls from sexual abuse, pornography, etc. Then they sit there in silence, because these things aren’t talked about in the church. Often paralyzed by the guilt and shame that sexual sin uniquely produces, most have given up hope that anyone cares whether they find forgiveness or freedom. Harvie explained that the gospel, if it truly is the gospel, must meet these people where they are at, with the hope of a cleared conscience and a changed life. This, he told us, was impossible for them to experience without the love, intervention, and assistance of others in the church.
This intrigued me. Here I was, sitting in this class, hearing someone I respected saying, “These are the unreached, the hidden, the disenfranchised moral discards of our day. The church must be about this kind of ministry, both outside and within the church.” I was also personally interested, due to the work God had done in my own sexually-scarred heart and life. After much prayer and discussion with others, several people caught the vision for such a ministry. Harvest USA was soon formed, and I became the first staff member.
So when a church says, “You’re not missions,” I want to laugh and cry at the same time! Not missions? You’ve got to be kidding. Just consider these recent ministry opportunities we had.
- I once did a half-day seminar at a very poor Jamaican church in The Bronx, NY. They began ministering to the sexually broken in their community and wanted more training. We did this as part of our mission work. They couldn’t afford to pay, not even our travel expenses up there and back for the day, as we ministered the gospel and trained them. At the end of the day, the pastor told everyone, “I asked them to come help us, and they sent the head guy.” Then he began to cry.
- A month after that, I met with the staff and lay-leaders of an inner-city Portuguese church in Newark, NJ. The church is in a community of 30,000 Brazilian immigrants. Five young people had “come out” at the church within the past six months. The elders know this is the state of the church today and needed help. In early 2012, we are working toward providing them a whole day’s training seminar.
- A Muslim professor asks us to lunch after our presentation to his university class, telling the staff he has a PhD and has published books but doesn’t have a relationship with God like they had described. He then begins to ask how to get that.
- At a nearby university, I spoke to a group of 250 students on “The Gospel And The Gay”—95% of the students are Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese).
- Recently we’ve received requests to translate Harvest USA materials into Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and Punjabi.
Wow! This all sounds pretty much like missions to me! If you’re on a missions committee, or know someone in your church who is, please advocate for us. Encourage the church to become partners in ministry with us. Since the economy has taken a nosedive, we have lost over a dozen supporting churches and about 150 individual donors. We really need more of God’s churches to help us. If that’s not possible, we also encourage churches to consider an annual “love offering. “Thank you for partnering with us, and praying along with us in this Kingdom missions’ work!
Ed LeClair, the Development Director for Harvest USA, attended a denominational conference at the invitation of the moderator and another pastor within the denomination’s more conservative contingent. We wanted to tell you about his journey so that you get a sense of how we proclaim a truth-and-mercy response to the divergent views that many within the church proclaim today.
We attended one denomination’s conference at the request of the conference moderator and the pastor of a church in the denomination’s “conservative camp.” They knew that the LGBT organization which exists within the denomination would be represented and would be presenting some workshops. Some more conservative pastors wanted to see a biblical witness to sexual issues also represented.
Prior to attending, a post appeared on our Harvest USA Facebook page. A member of the denomination expressed his opposition to our presence at the conference and urged the moderator to disinvite us. He saw us as an organization engaging in “spiritual and emotional violence” toward gays and lesbians because our biblical position on homosexuality was not affirming. We responded to his letter, replying that we are not hateful toward gays and lesbians, but rather call all people (not just gays and lesbians) to live within God’s design for sexuality, affirming that there is no place for violence and hatred within or surrounding this subject. Following this post, we began to notice on the web that some others within the denomination were upset at our attending.
So, I went to the conference with some trepidation. Frankly, we are used to this at Harvest USA, but it is never easy to be disliked, attacked, or have our message distorted and maligned. We have come to expect this in an age of “tolerance,” when anything short of total affirmation is chalked up as bigoted and hateful. How did we get to the point in our culture, in which the mere expression of different positions is considered completely unacceptable and, in the name of “tolerance,” virulently shut down and dismissed?
Having all this hanging over me, it was a wonderful relief on the first day to engage with many people who stopped by my exhibit table to say they were happy to have us there representing God’s Word. Many expressed concern for my well-being and said they would be looking out for me. Looking out for me? Someone reported to me that, at a previous conference when the issue of homosexuality came up, fights broke out. During this year’s conference, there was a team of “Reconciliation Ministers” who roamed the convention floor in pairs, on the alert for any signs of trouble developing. They all made it a point to assure me of their immediate support if I should need it. It’s always good to be looked out for!
Shortly after the conference began, the leader of the LGBTQ organization approached me to talk. The exchange was tense at first. She explained her reasons why she did not want our representation here. She cited instances of people, particularly young people, being “harmed” by ministries such as ours, which in some cases led to depression and even suicides. She expressed her concerns about “reparative therapy,” in which she believed we engaged, and also a concern about how we counsel parents whose children self-identify as gay.
As I listened, it became clear that her perception of our ministry is typical. I clarified our position on reparative therapy—we never engage in it, primarily because the gospel is not a foundational part of this therapy. We never advise parents to shun their children who profess same-sex attractions or identify as gay. I spoke about the countless number of men and women who have come to Harvest USA over the past 30 years, who desired to follow the long-held, orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures regarding their sexuality, and they needed help. Far from harming them, we gave them hope! I stressed that our mission and our methods are steeped in the mercy and truth of Jesus Christ, and that we have long been advocates of opposing disrespectful or hateful intent towards gays and lesbians.
As we talked, I shared about my own long struggle with homosexuality and the hope I encountered when I first came to Harvest USA. Gradually, the tension began to subside, replaced by a growing trust and respect between us. She even invited me for dinner with some of her friends, and I gladly accepted!
For the remainder of the conference, there were cordial and pleasant exchanges coming from most of the people aligned with the LGBTQ group, while a very small number of them chose to ignore me altogether. Over breakfast one morning with a pastor who firmly aligned himself with their position, we ended our meeting with an appreciation for one another, in spite of the differences between us. But I also encountered angry people who were upset by our very presence and our scriptural position. I was told several times that I should pack up and disappear, that the world and the church were moving in a different direction, and that our message was no longer relevant. These were sad and painful encounters. I could only silently pray for them as they quickly moved away from me after their short outburst. Standing for scriptural truth and authority is not a walk in the park!
Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to attend the conference, for several reasons. Chief among them were the dialogues I had with a number of people who had held a narrow view of Harvest USA and a great dislike for us. While the dividing issues are still there, I believe some of the hostility and misconceptions in these encounters were diminished by respectful words and acts of kindness, which I strove to display—and so did many on the other side as well. I was also appreciative of the opportunity I had to meet many fine people, have good conversations, and, in particular, directly minister to a number of people wanting to share stories of their own pain and struggles with sexuality. To God be the glory!
We asked some men and women who have come for help to Harvest USA if they would write a brief testimony on how the church helped (or didn’t help) them. Stories are powerful narratives that can help us learn how we can minister to others more effectively. These brief stories are not meant to cast guilt or blame, but show how struggling people need others to help them in specific ways.
The heart of darkness and the Father of lights
My story doesn’t start in darkness. I was raised by Christian parents, attended church, and made a profession of faith at the age of nine. I was the “good girl” who volunteered, memorized Bible verses, and could answer any question in Sunday school. Yet none of these things kept me from becoming addicted to solo sex and pornography.
Sex was a taboo subject at home and church, so I came to believe that sexual sin was the worst kind of sin. The first time I engaged in solo sex, I assumed I had lost God’s love. I had attended True Love Waits weekends, but they only discussed purity. They didn’t mention redemption or grace for those who weren’t pure. This only strengthened my belief that God no longer loved me.
My addiction to solo sex became a persistent coping mechanism I used to deal with life. As is the nature of addiction, eventually I needed more to achieve the same emotional release. Pornography was perfect for feeding the addiction.
After ten years of failing to find freedom, I finally decided to talk with someone. Twice I talked with elders from my church. These conversations increased my sense of shame and despair. I was told I was sinning, was given practical suggestions, even a referral for professional help. But I didn’t hear what I most needed: how the gospel—the good news that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a present hope and power—could be applied to the very real struggles I was facing in life.
The next year, God began moving in my heart. I attended a group Bible study and listened as another elder spoke of God’s steadfast love for his children. I desperately longed for that kind of love but believed I could never have it. That kind of love was too good to be true for someone like me. Yet God was determined to hunt me down. This elder took time to get to know me. To him, I wasn’t a problem to be solved or fixed. I was a scared human being in need of the gospel. In that study, I continued to hear of God’s love and grace each week, even while I continued to disbelieve it.
January 16, 2012, is a day I will never forget. On that day, the truth of John 1:5 came alive to me. I shared my story, and the light of the gospel shone into the darkest corners of my heart. I wept as this same elder spoke words of love, peace, restoration, and forgiveness to me. Over and over again, he showed me the love of God in Christ. Did he talk about my sins and struggles? Yes, but he didn’t focus on them. Instead, he led me gently back into the arms of the Good Shepherd.
Two days later, I shared my story with my pastor, and he, too, applied the truth of the gospel to my heart. He showed me the heart of the Father in Jesus. One thing that has made it easier to talk with my pastor is his willingness to bring up these struggles from the pulpit. He doesn’t treat them like a taboo subject or some delicate topic we have to tiptoe around. He is comfortable talking about them the same way he does any other temptation or struggle. Because of his approach, I am not scared of shocking or surprising him.
In the last five years, I have learned more about God as Father and his steadfast love than at any other time in my life. I have started to believe the truth that his love and grace knows no bounds. Our Father loves to lavish his grace on sinners like me.
Two years ago, I heard about Harvest USA and met Ellen Dykas at a PCA Women’s Leadership Training conference. I was encouraged to learn that an organization existed with staff who are trained to help people dealing with sexual sins and addictions. In many ways, it was a relief to learn I was not the only woman struggling in this area. Ellen reminded me that God could, and would, redeem this part of my story. She was gracious and kind as she listened to my story and my struggles, reminding me many times of God’s love and grace to me.
The temptations are still a struggle—and may always be so. I’ve stopped praying for God to take them away. Instead, my prayer is to love him more than I desire the addictions. I am so thankful that my life in him doesn’t depend on how tightly I hold his hand; it’s all about how tightly he’s holding mine. According to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” God’s grace is meant to go somewhere, and I cannot wait to see how he uses this part of my story to help other women.
Rebuilding my life
I was raised in a loving Christian home. In spite of that, however, my sexuality was deeply impacted by two sexual experiences I had with other kids in churches I attended over the years. The first encounter occurred when I was about 11, with another boy, and the second one was with a girl, three years later. Both those relationships left me boundary-less when it came to trying to live within God’s design for sex. I was exposed to porn as young boy, and that fueled a reckless and unforgiving idol in my life.
When I first realized that I had participated in a homosexual act, I panicked inside. I struggled to reconcile what I knew to be wrong with how my body felt. Then, when I had my second relationship with a girl, I felt relief. But that wasn’t the way to ‘fix’ my broken sexuality either. Instead of being focused on how I should manage my sexuality before God, I was obsessed with not being ‘that.’ I knew and felt the shame of being defined as gay by others.
As I matured into my teen and college years, sexual relationships then became very easy. It was my ‘social currency.’ I began to take more sexual risks, crossing every boundary, desperately trying to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of my sexual idolatry. The details don’t matter, but this point does: I was a good Christian boy raised in a good Christian home and community, but my life didn’t look any different from the world and what it promotes sexually. I wasn’t the only Christian who found himself in this place.
I am exceedingly thankful for the folks at Harvest USA and how God continues to work in my life. As I reflect on where I have been and where I am now, there are several things I wish my church would have spoken about and taught. I think it might have made a big difference in the life of a young boy who was scarred early on.
I wish the church spoke about the gift of sex that God created and how it was to be used positively. Instead, I only heard about what was wrong with sex. I wish I heard the church talk about how to deal with one’s sexual feelings and desires—because the world did, and it filled the void of knowledge, confusion, curiosity, and lust that lived inside of me. I knew all the Christian doctrines, but in my heart I was helpless to resist, a slave to my desires—for the next 25 years!
Like so many, I had been living in secrecy and shame, not knowing how the Scriptures could actually be applied to these issues. My hope is that the church will learn to love its children enough to move past the social awkwardness associated with discussions on sexuality and instead teach them that sexuality is a tremendous gift from God. May the church practically teach how Satan and a broken world seek to confuse and distort God’s design for sexuality, while at the same time reaching out to those who suffer from sexual brokenness, telling them that the power of God’s love does indeed set one free.
Honestly facing the facts
I am a woman in my late twenties. After college, I stumbled across pornography following a broken relationship. I was crushed and lonely. Looking at porn began as a curiosity, and I rationalized that even while looking at it, I wasn’t really ensnared—I was still in control. When I did look at it, it was only a moment of weakness. But a nagging voice kept saying something else. I was allowing sin to run rampant in my life, fueling lust, and fleeing to a false refuge for relief and comfort.
The more I ran to it, the less comfort and relief it brought. It became a vicious cycle that I hid from everyone. After every fall, I would be crushed with guilt and shame; I would ask for forgiveness; I would feel better; and then shortly thereafter fall again. Frightening questions rose in my mind: “Am I really a Christian if I struggle with these particularly dark sins? How do I stop this? Is there any hope of this ever changing? What must God think of me?”
During this time, I went to seminary, and God brought into my life a few good female friends who were honest about their own similar struggles. As they were transparent with me, I was freed up to confess too. I found out that as a Christian woman, I was not the only one struggling with pornography and masturbation! After sharing my own struggles, a weight lifted off of me. I see the gracious hand of God in bringing these friends into my life.
Harvest USA has been a huge light to me in all this. A few of my friends and I joined a Harvest USA Biblical Support Group to walk through the Sexual Sanity for Women workbook material. There we found a place to be honest about our sin. We learned humility as well, as we lifted one another up in encouragement and prayer. We learned the freedom of confession, the need for accountability, and the power of God’s grace and love. We sensed the Spirit moving in each of us to desire real change. We wondered, “Why are these healing and life-giving groups happening at Harvest USA and not in our own churches?”
As for my church, I never heard the subject of pornography and masturbation brought up as something with which women struggled. There’s a whisper here and there about a men’s group, and that’s all. But now I know that women do struggle in this area, so there must be other women who were like me, alone, caught in the same vicious cycle in which I was once trapped. I fear that they, too, are overwhelmed with guilt and shame, since no one is talking about this. I’m praying that God will open up this subject for discussion and that a community of women would rise up and shepherd one another. As Jesus went outside and brought in the bruised lambs, so we can, in his power, go and find those who are hiding and bring them to the Shepherd who heals our souls.
I deal with lives that have been devastated by sexual sin every day. Just the other day, I talked with a young man facing the painful exposure of having sexually fallen. This man was distraught and repentant. He shared with me his lifelong struggle of being raised in a solid, fundamentalist church, and yet feeling like there was no one he felt safe talking to.
He went on to speak of the years of loneliness he felt struggling with his schizophrenic-like existence in his church. On one hand, he was an active member of the church. On the other hand, he struggled with the guilt and shame of his secret double life, struggling with pornography, and occasionally acting out sexually.
Few sins carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. They are dealing with something that touches the very core of how they feel about themselves. People who struggle with sexual sin are not just struggling with out of control desires, but also with issues that deeply connect to their sexual identity and self-esteem. The guilt and shame that are associated with these issues are enormous. The result is the pressure to “hide” in their churches out of fear of being exposed.
I once spoke to a men’s church group about the issues of sexual sin and temptation. After I finished speaking, I opened the meeting up for a time of discussion. I was amazed by the men’s uncomfortable shifting in their seats, and the silence of the group. As I looked upon these men, many sat with heads lowered as if to avoid any eye contact. It was as if everyone was terrified to enter into the discussion for fear of being identified.
Many of us would like to think that serious struggles with sexual sin are problems that occur mainly outside the church. However, it has been my experience that whatever sin you see outside the church can, sadly, be found in the lives of those within the church. It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul, in his letters to various churches, was not embarrassed to acknowledge and address issues of sexual sin in the church (e.g. I Corinthians 5-6).
All of us are aware of well-known church leaders who have fallen sexually. However, there are alarming indicators that serious sexual struggles are not limited to a few fallen leaders. This is a growing problem in the church today, and this reality certainly has been borne out in my experience. Every week I spend time with pastors, missionaries, and well-respected church leaders who come to me seeking help to deal with the bondage of sexual sin in their own lives. As I talk with other pastors and counselors, I also hear feedback about their own concern about the growing numbers of Christians coming to them for help.
In addition, recent church surveys report some alarming statistics. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth did a survey on “How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion?” The results were shocking. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents confessed to having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in their church. Another survey of 300 pastors by Leadership magazine indicated that 23% admitted to having been sexually involved with someone other than their spouse. Some large hotel chains report that their largest revenues for adult TV channels have occurred during Christian conventions.
My worry is that if this high rate of moral failure exists with Christian leaders, what is going on in the lives of the “average,” respectable looking men and women sitting in our church pews? My concern is that if struggles with sexual sin are this serious in the lives of men and women in our churches, then what is to be the church’s response to this? Can we say that our churches are safe places for the sexual struggler to open up about their sin, so as to seek spiritual help and restoration?
The reality is that the whole issue of sexual sin in the church is an emotionally charged issue. It is a problem that engenders much fear and prejudice. Many in the church would put sexual sin at the top of their list of “worst sins.” This contributes in part to the deep sense of shameful stigma that sexual strugglers feel in their church. But the fact is that such a perspective is not biblical and is a denial of the grace of the gospel.
In I Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul lists the sins of greed and gossip in the same list with the “sexually immoral” and “homosexual offenders.” The truth is, sin is sin. When we sin, we sin against a holy God and expose our deep need for Christ’s forgiveness. Of course, some sins have greater consequences than others (I Corinthians 6:18). The real issue is that, in God’s eyes, all sins are the same and must be confessed openly to Christ for forgiveness. All sin, whether it is greed, gossip, or homosexuality, equally needs the grace of God.
The danger in viewing sexual sin in a harsher light than gossip, or greed, is that the sexual struggler feels a pressure to hide and keep his sin in the closet. It is no wonder then that so many sexual strugglers choose to avoid confession and carry their painful conflict alone. This in turn leads so often to a person living in two worlds, one existing in the fellowship of believers, and the other being the secret dark world of their sin. It is in this kind of isolation that the bondage of sexual sin entrenches itself. Sexual bondage thrives in the darkness of denial and deception that is fostered by such isolation. As long as there is hiding, there is little hope for freedom.
Another concern that sexual strugglers have in coming out and asking for help is the fear that simplistic solutions will be offered. Many a sexual struggler has shared with me the illustration of having finally opened up about his problem with someone from the church, only to hear the moralistic response, “Just turn to God and repent.” This unsympathetic response amounts to being heard as, “Just shape up and act the way God wants you to act.”
Too often, the well-meaning but misguided persons who offer this advice are Christians who have not wrestled with the depth of their own sin and the complexities of the bondage of serious sexual sin. These people tend to understand the bondage of serious sexual sin as simply “yielding to the flesh” and think that the cure is exhortation and rebuke.
Occasionally this type of approach may seem to work. But in the long haul, it fails to address the depth and deceitfulness of the human heart that empowers ongoing bondage. In addition, this kind of self-righteous approach ignores and puts salt into the struggler’s deep wounds. This in turn often drives him or her away from God and the supportive fellowship of their churches, rather than toward the redemptive mercy and love of God and his people.
One of the sad consequences of this is that many sexual strugglers have had to turn to secular recovery groups for help. Many have felt there was little else available that offered a “safe place” to honestly deal with their struggles. The truth is that many sexual strugglers report to me that they experienced more love and compassion in their secular recovery groups than in the fellowship of their church.
No doubt such recovery groups have helped some Christians. However, my burden is to see the church become a redemptive and safe place where men and women can honestly deal with their sexual sin. Given the fact that the roots of sexual bondage are profoundly spiritual and moral in nature, it is crucial that the church see its opportunity to become a refuge where the healing balm of God’s truth and grace can be offered. I believe this is why so many men and women have sought out the ministry of Harvest. They come to Harvest because they see it as a safe place where they can begin to honestly face their sexual bondages in the light of God’s truth.
Because the root issues of sexual bondage are spiritual in nature, the church must also avoid becoming simplistic, moralistic, or uncompassionate in its approach to the problem. As Christians, we must acknowledge that there are deep and complex issues of the human heart with which we must grapple. Sexual bondage is never about simple lust or external behavior. It is in response to the deep wounds of life that sexual strugglers develop self-protective, relational walls to insulate themselves from further hurt. However, the sad irony is that the very walls they have cultivated to “protect” themselves now have become the “prison” that keeps them in bondage. There are both deep hurts and deeply rooted sin patterns of deceitful thinking and responding that must be exposed and lovingly confronted.
The church as a redemptive community
In responding to the challenge and need of ministering to individuals struggling with sexual sin, I would suggest that there are three important areas to consider. These are all suggestions that will encourage the church to become a place where people will feel encouraged to honestly open up their lives for help within the context of the local church.
1. Cultivate an atmosphere of grace
The church must cultivate an atmosphere of grace through its teaching, preaching, and body life. This is a crucial dimension for the church to become an effective, redemptive community to the sexually broken. What I mean by this is that a church must clearly communicate through its ministry the truth of God’s grace. It is the message of grace that invites every one of us to see ourselves as sinners who deeply need forgiveness. Whether our sins are gossip, greed, or homosexuality, all of us stand in deep need of God’s ongoing work of grace in our lives. The truth is that the sin issues which plague the heart of a man or woman struggling with serious sexual sin are the same sin issues with which any one of us struggle. At the core of all our sinful struggles are hearts that battle with pride, demandingness, and unbelief.
In my own life, I have recently struggled with the battle of being overweight. In dealing with this problem, I have come to see the sinful energy behind my overeating is no different from the energy behind my own past struggles with sexual addiction. The challenge for me has been not to minimize the sinfulness of my late-night “excursions” into the refrigerator as being less sinful than past indulgences into pornography.
As every one of us allows God’s truth to humble us with this perspective we will have a new, growing compassion for the sexual struggler. No longer will there be any room for a pharisaical attitude that says, “I thank God I am not like those other perverted people who struggle with sexual sin” (Luke 18:11). It is interesting to note that Jesus saved his harshest rebukes for self-righteous Pharisees (Cf. Matthew 15:1-9, 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-52). The message of grace humbles the heart and invites everyone in the church to see themselves as needy beggars who are trying to show each other where to find the ongoing “Bread of life” that Jesus offers.
In a practical way, I believe cultivating this kind of atmosphere begins with the consistent and clear preaching of grace from the pulpit. It will be the teaching and preaching on Sunday that will foster an atmosphere of grace in the ministry of a congregation. However, I also believe attention needs to be paid to what is being encouraged in the small group structure of a church. It is important that the body life of a church reflect the graciousness and acceptance of the gospel.
2. Make a commitment to confidentiality
Another necessary element to encouraging the church to become a redemptive community is the need to maintain careful commitment to confidentiality. As stated before, there are few sins which carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. The subsequent fears of exposure and rejection are what keep many sexual strugglers from opening up to people in their churches to get help.
I can tell horror story upon horror story of situations where individuals finally opened up with someone in their church, only to find the news of their problem painfully being spread to others within the fellowship without their permission. One such man reported sharing his struggles about homosexual feelings with a church deacon he had come to trust. Shortly thereafter, he was removed as a Sunday school teacher, without church leadership coming to him to discuss the nature of his struggle. The result was a painful sense of betrayal and rejection by God’s people, just for taking off a mask and becoming honest.
Other situations I have seen involve sexual strugglers experiencing the pain and embarrassment of finding out that they have been the topic of church gossip in the church. It only takes one such painful experience of broken confidentiality to shut a sexual struggler down from ever opening up in the church again. Those who gossip and slander reveal their own sinfulness and demonstrate they are not fit to be involved in such a delicate ministry of restoration.
In working with individuals who struggle with sexual sin, it is imperative that serious attention be given to the subject of confidentiality. One must imagine how devastating a violation of trust must feel in order to appreciate the vulnerable position of the sexual struggler.
In a practical way, there are a couple of key principles to keep in mind to guard confidentiality. First, is the importance of keeping the circle as small as possible. The more people who know, the greater the chance of some sort of breach of confidentiality. Disclosure should only be given on a need-to know” basis. Secondly, the simple rule of thumb to follow about who needs to know is only those individuals who are part of the problem (e.g. individuals who have been directly affected by the person’s sin) or those who are part of the solution (e.g. the pastors, elders, or accountability partners who are directly involved with the person).
3. Practice loving confrontation and accountability
A final important area to consider is the need for the church to provide a context for loving confrontation and accountability for individuals struggling with sexual sin. One of the greatest needs a sexual struggler has is the need to develop new relationships. The struggle with sexual sin is characterized by withdrawal, hiding, and isolation. However, this approach to relationships only leaves the person extremely vulnerable to pursue sinful avenues to relieve their emptiness and loneliness. It is also all too easy to fall prey, time and time again, to the “old, deceitful” way of thinking that keeps them trapped in the bondage of their sexual sin.
What are needed are relationships and other contexts where the individual can honestly share their lives and open up about their struggles. This includes relationships where someone not only listens and loves unconditionally, but also confronts in a loving manner. We all need others “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) because ultimately it is in “knowing and living out the truth of God that we are set free” (John 8:32).
However, the relationships that the sexual struggler experiences in the church must be those that reflect the gracious heart of God. Those who are involved with helping or discipling the sexually broken must be willing to love them through the power of Christ’s love, surprising them with what they do not deserve, and offering them a taste of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy. It is in offering them a loving relationship that is not deserved, that they begin the process of being restored to the Lord and others.
Remember the story of the immoral woman weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7? Here is a picture of a woman’s heart being so captured by the glory and tenderness of Jesus’ mercy, that the shackles of her shame and guilt are dispelled to free her to boldly embrace him. When Christ’s love is given to those held in the bondage of sexual sin, it brings forth the power to astound them and dissipate the power of sexual sin over their lives. The trust of the entire story is this woman’s new freedom came out of the profound experience of forgiveness and mercy she tasted from Jesus’ interaction with her.
In a practical way, cultivating loving, confrontative relationships can be done in the context of pastoral counseling, one-on-one discipling, mentoring relationships, and small accountability groups. Consideration must also be made to utilize resources outside the church to further support and help the sexual struggler. This might include referring to a local Christian counselor and any Christian support groups. This is the role that Harvest has attempted to offer to local churches. Harvest had been a sort of spiritual MASH unit, seeking to help and restore sexual strugglers so that they might be able to effectively “mainstream” back into their churches. Harvest has done this by offering support groups for sexual addiction, homosexuality, and individual counseling.
I must say that I cannot overemphasize the importance of the church in the process of restoration of sexual strugglers’ lives. In my seven years of experience of working with sexual addicts and homosexual strugglers, I have never seen anyone fully experience freedom and restoration without being strongly connected to the life and fellowship of a solid Christian community.
It is my burden to see the church of Jesus Christ grow in its vision and effectiveness in reaching out to the sexually broken men and women who struggle secretly and silently in our churches. I long for the church to become a more redemptive place that reflects the graciousness of God. It will not be by pressure of Pharisaical exhortation that sexual strugglers will be invited to open up their lives and be restored. This kind of restoration and freedom will only take place in the context of a ministry that invites sinners to have their hearts captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel.
Dr. Dan Allender captures this truth powerfully with this concluding quotation:
“Paul says that deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of freedom from God’s wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire to love (Luke 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and privilege to encounter.” (Dan Allender, “Lust, Can We Overcome Its Power?” Discipleship Journal, No. 64, p. 28)
May God give us grace for his church to increasingly reflect the glory of his grace as it reaches out to sexually broken men and women!
By Barney Swihart, M.A., M. Div.
The title of this article presupposes two things: First, your children are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding—even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss aside this article with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed,