27 Nov 2019
Ten, twenty, thirty years of consistent patterns of giving into sin are hard to overcome. Decades of sinful responses to life will produce ingrained ways of thinking and acting that are not easily changed.
At Harvest USA, I find that men who struggle the most to find consistent victory over sin are not those who have suffered significant losses as a consequence of severe sin. Instead, the men who struggle the most to gain traction in their repentance are those who consistently make small compromises with sin, which leads to minor consequences in life.
They don’t lose their jobs; they don’t lose their families. But what they are in danger of losing is hope!
When someone starts to take repentance and accountability seriously, it’s initially a very encouraging endeavor. They feel a high degree of acceptance among others who struggle in similar ways. They experience a clean conscience from confessing sin to others. They feel hope that they are not alone in their struggles, and have real avenues of support and encouragement. All of this momentum gives many people a record-breaking initial season of freedom from sinful behaviors. Victory appears to be on the horizon!
But then they fall back into old patterns. After two months of a clean record, they cross that line and indulge in pornography again, or hook up with someone again. At this point, most people are tempted to question everything that they’ve been doing so far. Was it all a sham? Have they really made any progress if they are back at this place again? To make matters worse, that initial act of sin leads to more acting out. This is when they feel like they are now in a worse place than when they began this journey.
It is not uncommon to put forth unprecedented degrees of effort and resolve into battling sexual sin and still experience regular failure in this area. If this description matches your experience or the experience of someone you are helping, how are we to interpret and understand what God is doing?
First of all, I want to dispel two opposite yet companion false expectations of repentance. These are two lies to guard your heart against:
- The first lie: No matter what you do, you are doomed to eventually act out again, it’s only a matter of time.
- The second lie: All you need is the golden key of a specific insight, technique, or experience to be completely free from this sin.
Both of these lies give false expectations for what repentance looks like. The first lie I confront quickly. I boldly tell new groups of men at Harvest USA, that in Christ, nothing is forcing them to go home that night and act out in their well-worn behaviors. Sin is no longer their master; they’ve died to sin when Christ died to sin on the cross. It is a lie from Satan to believe that you are always doomed to eventually go back to your enslaving patterns of sin. God always provides a way of escape.
Yet the opposite lie is also very tempting and prevalent. Those enslaved to addiction want complete freedom, and they want it as quickly as possible. It’s tempting to believe that this will be an easy fix when there is often powerful momentum in the beginning stages of truly fighting sin. But this expectation of a quick, simple fix, only to be discovered by some insight or a new technique, both misunderstands the power of indwelling sin and also the scope of transformation that God is truly after.
I find it common for men to flip-flop between these two false expectations. One week, they are in the pit of despair that this sin will always enslave them; another week, they feel invincible, believing they’ve crossed a threshold where they’ll never be severely tempted again. But what if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
What if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
It is certainly a good thing to want complete freedom from destructive behaviors. But it is not good if that is the only thing you care about in your repentance.
God is doing so much more in you than merely stopping behaviors. He’s doing a comprehensive renovation of your heart. And for many people, that transformative process involves a much longer season of prolonged failure than they initially expected.
While there are many things God may be doing in allowing people to experience slow growth, I believe there is one fundamental lesson he wants everyone to learn in their repentance.
If God gave us immediate victory over sin, so many of us would be left with immeasurable amounts of deadly pride. We would look at others with judgmental hearts and have little room for patience or compassion as they continued to struggle and fail.
C.S. Lewis captures this deadly exchange when he describes Satan’s delight over prideful law-keeping. He writes, “He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your [blister] cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. (p. 125).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
It’s important that we qualify what humility looks like in the battle against sin. Despair is a form of pride; you are looking to yourself as the answer to your problems, and when you can’t find the strength from within, your pride keeps you from looking to God.
Humility, on the other hand, leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin. The humble person accepts that reality and does not shake their fist at God for allowing them to experience weakness.
Humility leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin.
Instead, the humble person comes to God in trust and faith, continuing to believe that God is good, God is strong, God is mighty to save. The humble person acknowledges God’s goodness in calling them into a dependent relationship with him. That it is eternally better to be weak and experience God’s strength than to be strong in yourself and be separated from God for all of eternity.
God’s highest goal in your battle against sexual sin is growing your dependence, trust, and reliance upon him in ever-increasing intimacy and fellowship. People entrenched in sexual sin are not marked by this kind of relationship with God. This kind of relationship is not quickly grown. And thus your slow progress in fighting sexual sin is directly connected to the progress of your humble reliance upon God.
The more you give in to the temptation to despair over your lack of progress, the harder it is to find hope in a humble relationship with God.
If you are struggling today to make progress in your battle against sexual sin, focus your attention on cultivating a humble relationship of trust and reliance upon God. Fight to hope not in yourself, but in God. Fight against laziness and presumption that you can go a single day without a vital connection with him. Fight to believe that this depth of relationship with God is what you’re ultimately fighting for, and it is what God has promised to accomplish in your life.
Learn more by watching Mark Sanders’ accompanying video: Why Isn’t God Answering My Prayers for Deliverance?
Many issues need to be addressed to effectively battle against sexual sin, but perhaps the most pervasive and overarching battle is a battle to kill pride and cultivate humility.
To learn more from Mark Sanders, read his accompanying blog: Hope vs. Despair
16 Oct 2019
“How do I know whether I’ve crossed the line in my mind between temptation and sin?”
This is a frequent question I get asked at our Harvest USA groups. While there could be mixed motivations for asking such a question, I believe the most common reason Christians ask this stems from a very legitimate desire to please their heavenly Father. At the core of our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ, we have been given hearts that long to hear our Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We know that sin displeases our Father. So how does God look upon us, when we wrestle daily, and frequently throughout the day, with desires, thoughts, and temptations that we know are not pure, good, or pleasing to God? Is God, at all times, frustrated and dishonored by our lives?
This is an extremely important question for the believer who wants to repent well of ongoing patterns of sin. Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
But if we think that all of our sincere efforts are only met with perpetual disappointment from our Father, then it will only be a matter of time before despair sets in. And eventually, we give up.
This is an especially significant question for men and women wrestling with same-sex attraction. They can struggle with great discouragement if every experience of same-sex attraction is classified as sin. But no matter what form temptation presents itself, these deep questions concern everyone.
We all know the pain of never measuring up to someone’s standards. It may be a child whose parents aren’t pleased with any grade below an A+, or an employee whose boss never gives them a compliment, or someone who never experiences their spouse’s delight in them. This hurts, and over time, it can be a crushing experience. So too, brothers and sisters wrestling with ongoing temptation want to know that God is pleased by their sincere efforts.
In light of these good desires to please God, how should we understand the nature of temptation and sin? This is the topic of much current discussion. My purpose here is not to throw my two cents into the conversation, since I believe a historic, reformed anthropology adequately reflects the biblical teaching on sin and temptation. My concern is more with the pastoral implications of this anthropology.
So, I will briefly summarize my understanding of sin and temptation, and then explain how this does not lead to despair in the Christian’s life, but hope!
It’s helpful to consider three categories when conceptualizing sin and temptation. This is our starting point to get to the place in answering the question I raised.
Temptation from without
This is temptation to sin that comes at you that has no genesis in sinful desires. Adam and Eve were tempted from without by the serpent. Jesus was tempted from without by the devil. When someone entices you to engage in sinful activity, this is temptation from without. It does not come from your heart but is seeking to tempt your heart to sin.
Temptation from within (indwelling sin)
This is temptation that arises from corrupt desires in your heart. James says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). How are we to understand the moral quality of these desires? Are they neutral?
I don’t believe the Bible allows that interpretation. These desires are sinful desires, arising from the fallen, corrupted, sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. Another term for temptation from within is “indwelling sin.” A very important feature of indwelling sin is that it is not something consciously chosen or something that we willfully summon. And yet, it is still sin.
Voluntary (willful) sin
If temptation from within is not something we consciously choose, then voluntary sin is what we willingly engage in. This is what most people think of when they think of sin. They think of something that is willfully chosen. And indeed, much sin is of this variety.
We are presented an opportunity to sin that our hearts desire. Now we are left with a choice. Will we turn to Christ, or give in to our sinful desires? This is what James means when he says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:15). James is not saying the desire itself was not sin, but that sinful desires, often unbidden, give birth to willful sin.
At first, this might sound crushing to someone wrestling with sinful desires on a daily basis. Indeed, it should sober us to think of the overwhelming weight and pervasiveness of our sin. That sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives. Consider the call of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t believe there is a single moment of my life where I can say this was perfectly true of me. Pride and selfishness always infect even the purest motivations of my heart.
Sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives.
This must mean God is constantly disappointed in you, right? Wrong! It is for these very reasons that Christ came not only to die in my place for the sins that I continue to commit, but also to live the perfect life that I never could. We can never merit favor with God by our own righteousness—our own good intentions or efforts. This is why Christ’s active and passive obedience are required to earn our full salvation. Because no one will be accepted into God’s presence unless they have a record of proven, perfect righteousness. Christ alone has accomplished this, and by Spirit-wrought faith we are united to Christ in all of his benefits, including his justification becoming our own.
So, instead of crushing the believer’s heart, it should first of all greatly deepen our appreciation of the gospel—the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us! The more we come to grips with how bad the bad news really is, the more we come to worship, delight in, and love our Savior.
This understanding of Jesus-for-us is the answer to our concern that we can never please God even though we are saved, because indwelling sin stains everything we do. But the Bible gives us so many declarations that God delights in his people and is pleased by their obedience (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Is it perfect, sinless obedience, worthy of salvation? No. But every Christian can and does obey in ways that delight our heavenly Father.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this possibility of pleasing God so well in section 16.6:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
This is so crucial to understand! How are our sincere efforts to please God acceptable in his sight if they are not perfect? They are accepted by God “through Christ,” as God looks upon our imperfect works “in His Son.”
Here’s the answer, then, to the question: How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between temptation and sin? We are always crossing over the line between temptation and sin because we are fallen. We don’t just need the gospel to save us from God’s wrath, we need the gospel in order to do anything that pleases the Father.
This means, when you are wrestling with indwelling sin, temptations from within, you have the opportunity to please God! When you turn from corrupt desires that rise up from within your own heart, and you make war with your flesh, and submit to the Spirit leading you into the throne room of grace, you are met there by your high priest with sympathy and with delight!
Every Christian will battle with indwelling sin until they see Jesus face to face. This will be a daily, moment by moment battle. God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin. The ones who meet God and hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” are those who endured to the end. Who didn’t make peace with their sin, but continued to take up their weapons of warfare that we see so beautifully outlined in Ephesians 6.
God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin.
Brothers and sisters, you aren’t laboring in vain. Not only are your sincere, Spirit-dependent efforts accepted and rewarded in Christ, but they are also sowing seeds into greater and greater righteousness. You don’t “box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead, you are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To learn more, watch Mark Sanders’ accompanying video, Can I Please God When I’m Not Perfect?
18 Apr 2019
When we think of lust, we think of sexual temptation and desire gone too far. While in one sense that’s true, lust has more to do, not with the person you are looking at, but what you value in your heart. That beautiful person who has captured your eye? That’s not the object that really matters. Lust has to do with what we covet, and what we covet has to do with what we feel we lack in life. We covet those things that our heart feels like we must have in life. Emptiness is what can cause us to lust. Listen to what Mark has to say, and read his blog, “The Insecurity of Lust.”
18 Apr 2019
Every day we are tempted to lust after people. It can be discouraging to feel overwhelmed by attractive people who pull your heart in unhealthy directions. But is there more going on with lust than just what we see with our eyes? Lust always has a hook of some kind. It has to latch onto something in our heart. That hook can sometimes be the insecurities we feel in the recesses of our heart.
Am I good enough? Do I measure up? Will others notice me? Do I really matter? In a world of celebrities, social media, and unrealistic expectations for success and beauty, we all wrestle with deep insecurities about our worth and identity. Our enemy knows that we have profound desires to be cherished, adored, accepted, and significant in the eyes of others; and he knows how to lead us to false means of finding security and fulfillment for these longings.
I believe that sexual lust is one of the most powerful ways that Satan capitalizes on our deep insecurities about our identity and worth. The problem with lust is not that some people are just too attractive or seductive for you to resist. It’s about using other people to build up your own sense of significance and worth.
Consider this scenario. You’re walking down a city street, and every five seconds you feel bombarded with temptation to lust after the people you pass by. Ask yourself this question, “Who are the people I’m tempted by? By what criteria do I judge the significance of those people?”
For many, I would expect they are tempted by people who are confident in their identity and their appearance. They might flaunt their body because they know people like what they see. They could be wearing expensive clothing, designer sunglasses, and have accessories that cost more than your used car. The details of what people find attractive will vary from person to person. What’s important to note here is this: what attracts you is what you value most.
Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart.
Now ask yourself another question: When I encounter attractive people, how am I experiencing my own sense of worth and significance? Do you start to entertain thoughts of what it’d be like if that person were attracted to you? Do you wonder whether they noticed you and are even thinking about you? Perhaps you feel intimidated by attractive people, but with that intimidation comes a desperate desire to belong and be accepted by them.
Lust in the Bible is deeply connected to the sin of covetousness. In the tenth commandment, we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s wife. The Greek word translated there and elsewhere in the New Testament can be translated as “desire, lust, or coveting.” Depending on the context, this word can even have positive meanings, like when Jesus earnestly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15.
But in many contexts, this is a sinful desire for something that God has forbidden. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 5:28 when he says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s important to talk about covetousness because lust is often talked about in a way that is disconnected from our hearts. Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart. Coveting, on the other hand, is connected to deeper desires. We covet what we don’t have. And while we can covet things because we want the pleasure they give us, I believe the deeper reason we covet things is that we believe those things will provide us with a sense of security and worth that we feel is lacking.
This can be a powerful factor in who you find attractive and who you are tempted to lust after. You desire to have that person because they will build up your own sense of value and worth. If that person were to affirm you sexually, even if it’s only fantasy, it is meeting a felt need to be admired, adored, wanted, or needed. In this sense, lust’s main focus isn’t on the object of your lust—the larger focus is on yourself and the insecurity you experience in your identity.
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us!
So if this explanation is true (and this is only one way to understand lust), that your struggle with lust lies with your own insecurities, how can you begin to fight against lust by addressing where you find your identity, worth, and value?
Insecurities about our worth and value come from a variety of places. They may be connected to a lack of affirmation in your upbringing. You might have been bullied by peers at school, or even demeaned and abused by your family. Much of our insecurities come from living in a culture that prizes success and making a name for yourself. But whatever our circumstances have been, all human beings share one powerful, foundational struggle.
We aren’t good enough. We don’t measure up. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. It is only in reconciliation with our Maker that any true security is found. We are reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He took our punishment and has given us his perfect record of righteousness. By faith, we are united to Christ, and all of his benefits now become ours. So presently we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph.2:6); we are co-heirs of the Kingdom with him as God’s adopted children (Romans 8:17); we are ambassadors of the King of the Universe (2 Corinthians 5:20); we are God’s royal priests and his special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and we are loved with the same love that God the Father has for God the Son (John 17:23).
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us! The next time you are out and about, and tempted to find your validation in the attractive people around you, pray that God would help you to believe Galatians 2:20 at that moment, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
There is no greater validation of who you are than to be united to the King. Christ is not ashamed to call you his brother. He is pleased to show himself to the world through you! He wants to make his love manifest to others through your love. He delights in allowing you to represent Him. What greater dignity can we possibly ask for?
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Is Lust a Form of Coveting? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
For men and women coming out of sexual addiction, they must pass through the post-sexual addiction wilderness (for a fuller explanation of what this wilderness is like, see my previous blog).
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is a particularly treacherous and painful section of the larger wilderness of the Christian life. The author of Hebrews sees the entire Christian life as a trek through the wilderness. In Christ, we have been delivered from slavery to sin, but until Jesus returns, we are called to strive to enter into His rest. The Promised Land is coming for all who endure to the end.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
You could be suffering with the consequences of your sin. You might have lost everything in your pursuit of pleasure. Your wilderness might be a litany of sufferings that you sought to escape through sex. But without that numbing agent, the pain is back, and it could feel unbearable.
Or you might be in the wilderness of idolatry. Sex was a means for you to experience the satisfaction of your deepest longings: to be loved, comforted, affirmed, safe, connected. Without sex, the idolatrous desires you have lived for are still crying out for satisfaction, and you don’t have any quick solutions to silence them. In this wilderness, you feel disappointed, scared, and frustrated.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
Here is a hard truth: There is no turning back! You either enter into God’s rest, or you die in the wilderness. Those are your only options.
But here’s the good news! The wilderness is not endless. There is a destination you’re moving towards. That destination is perfect Shalom with God and His people in a perfected world. But that perfect existence often doesn’t seem worth it, because, at this moment, you feel like you’re about to die in this wilderness.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Let me offer three encouragements for those who are struggling in the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
Learn to Wait in the Wilderness
Like any addiction, sexual sin’s biggest enticement is the instant gratification it offers. The biggest lie sexual temptation tells you is that if you don’t give in now, it’s only a matter of time before you do, so why continue to suffer when you can feel better now? But God wants to use the wilderness to train you to think differently. He wants you to give control of your life back to him, and wait for his hand to feed you.
God’s delay in your relief always has good purposes. He wants to train you to trust Him, to abide in His presence in the midst of your suffering. He wants to conform you to the pattern of 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
This is the pattern of our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death, until the proper time when the Father exalted him in his resurrection and ascension. Waiting on the Lord requires a humble acknowledgment of his good purposes in your suffering. We worship and follow a Savior who trusted his Father even when he became the object of his Father’s wrath. Christ was alone on the cross, but we are never alone in the wilderness.
Let the Wilderness Shape Your Priorities
When life is easy, we give little concern to the basic necessities. I don’t wake up concerned about food, water, or shelter. My attention goes to many things that are not necessities in sustaining my life. But if you’re stranded on a desert island, every day you are consumed with survival. Your priorities are all connected to avoiding death.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground.
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is an opportunity to reprioritize your life. I have been amazed to see the lengths men will go to save their marriages from the destruction of their sexual betrayal. Time, money, and energy are poured into their marriage in ways that for most people would seem excessive. But that’s what you do when your marriage is collapsing. You don’t count the cost, because anything is worth saving it. Just imagine how healthy our marriages would be if we invested in them in times of stability, and not only in moments of crisis.
The same is true for your relationship with God. We don’t prioritize prayer and his Word because we don’t feel our need of him. But in the wilderness you can taste your desperation. You know you can’t go one day without Jesus. I’ve seen men who are on the brink of losing everything, they’ve been kicked out of their house, and they turn to God. That lonely, dreary hotel room is transformed into holy ground. Their suffering brought them to their knees, but this is where God meets them, on their knees. And over time, it’s His love and presence that keeps them on their knees.
Lastly, the wilderness should reshape your priorities for fellowship. We so often live isolated lives because we believe we can do the Christian life on our own. We don’t feel our need for accountability or true discipleship. But in the post-sexual addiction wilderness, you know you’re in a battle for your life, and you must prioritize finding others who will fight alongside you. You’ve seen the dangers of isolation; you see how predators love to pick off ones who have strayed from the pack. So now you’re not just looking for a few friends to hang out with, you’re looking for comrades in war who will fight for you!
Jesus Went Through the Wilderness for You¹
Hebrews 6:19-20 tells us that Jesus is our forerunner, who has gone on ahead of us into the Holy of Holies as our high priest. Jesus intercedes for us now in the wilderness because he first made it through the wilderness himself. Jesus was on the brink of physical starvation, and Satan tempted him to abandon trust in his heavenly Father by turning a stone into bread. Then in a greater way, this same temptation to abandon the Father’s mission came on the cross, when he was given the opportunity to come down and save himself. Jesus survived the wilderness without a single misstep. He received the victor’s crown and has entered into His Father’s rest.
This is important for your wilderness wanderings for two reasons. First, Jesus succeeded where we all have failed. None of us make it through the wilderness perfectly. We all have moments of turning stones into bread. The only reason we have any hope of making it through the wilderness is because we are united to the only One who did. Our acceptance and standing with God is solely based on what Jesus accomplished in the wilderness on our behalf.
Secondly, because we are united to our forerunner, we can have every confidence that he will lead us safely home. We must make it through the wilderness, but we are also given amazing promises that we will make it because he will bring us through it. He has already blazed the trail for us. And by his indwelling Spirit, we can walk in step with him (Gal. 5:25), day by day, until we finally enter into our eternal Sabbath rest.
¹This section, and the application that Jesus went through the wilderness on our behalf, and succeeded where Adam, Israel, and we have failed, is taught by Dr. Lane Tipton in his lecture, “Covenant History and the Tale of Three Sons.” Listen to this lecture here: https://reformedforum.org/rf14_03/
28 Feb 2019
There are legitimate reasons why people find themselves ensnared in a sexual addiction. It is a mistake to overlook the suffering in an addict’s life and only focus on their moral failings. Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain. Whether it’s the pain of loneliness, broken relationships, physical suffering, trauma, or the daily stressors of life, a downward descent into habitual sin patterns is often accompanied by a decreased ability to handle life apart from the numbing power of sinful relief.
Unfiltered life becomes too difficult to bear. Whatever that suffering is, it is something that an addict cannot face or put up with, and life feels more manageable with a sinful numbing agent.
The men and women who struggle over and over with sexual sin may get to a point where they are ready to seek help. They have grown disillusioned with the empty promises that sin offers. Like the prodigal son, God in his mercy brings them to their senses, so that they can taste and smell the foulness of their behavior. They see the chains they have willingly shackled themselves with, and they finally desire a life of freedom.
The men I work with at Harvest USA are desperately longing for freedom. When they think about a life free from the destructive behaviors they are engaged in, they are filled with hope and anticipation. This hope for a new life is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power beginning to renew their minds.
But since addictions are usually a means of escaping or numbing painful experiences, what happens when the numbing agent is removed?
This is the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
When God rescued Israel out of slavery from Egypt, they weren’t teleported to the Promised Land. They had to pass through the wilderness first. God’s people were terrified of the wilderness. They were unsatisfied in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt, back into slavery, because it offered a predictable life and more food than manna. They pined for false security rather than exercise faith in their true security, Jehovah Jireh!
Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain.
Israel had a say in how long their wilderness wanderings lasted. 40 years was not the original course for Israel. Their extended stay was a result of their own unbelief. The same is true for those coming out of sexual addictions. It will not be a simple re-entry into reality. Everyone must pass through the wilderness.
But the choices we make in that wilderness impact the length and quality of our stay there.
I want to talk about three different kinds of wilderness experiences for people coming out of sexual addiction.
The wilderness of consequences
Sinful behavior has cost some of you deeply. You may have lost family, homes, jobs, and your circle of friends, almost everything you hold dear. It is these tragedies that have finally brought you to your senses. Even the thought of going back gives you nightmares because of how real the consequences are now. This is a wilderness where God does amazing heart transformation and literally brings life into dry bones.
The wilderness of consequences was God’s severe mercy for you, losing so much. You needed this wake-up call. But now, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of your own making. In this wilderness, you are wrestling with intense feelings of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness for your future. You know you dare not go back to your sin, but you also don’t know what moving forward looks like.
This is the wilderness described in Psalm 6, where David cries out, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.”
The wilderness of suffering
For others, the wilderness of post-sexual addiction is not the direct consequence for their sin, but the wilderness they sought to initially escape through their sin. Fleeing sexual sin and turning to the Lord does not mean the circumstances people sought to numb through sin have gone away. God calls us to face and experience this kind of suffering, too. In this wilderness, there are two very real struggles simultaneously happening.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain.
On the one hand, you have the painful struggle of sexual withdrawal. Your body is used to getting sexual satisfaction, and denying yourself will be accompanied by a sense of real anguish. But along with that pain, you are now also experiencing the unfiltered pain of whatever circumstance you were using sex to escape from.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain. It could be alcohol or drugs, but it could also be more socially acceptable things, like binge-watching TV shows or over-eating. This seems harmless by comparison, but it can be a dangerous, insidious temptation. Why? Because it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have made deep heart progress, while you have only swapped one addiction for another. The goal in the wilderness of this suffering is to seek God in such a way where you are acknowledging that he must become your deepest source of comfort. For God to truly comfort you as the God of all comfort, you must by faith wait on him, and resist the temptation to quickly numb your pain through false means which usually deadens your desire to go to God with your suffering.
The wilderness of idolatry
The last wilderness is similar to the wilderness of suffering but with one key difference. Both are places of pain and suffering, but in the wilderness of suffering, your suffering is not the result of your sin. For example, God is not calling you to repent of your physical suffering or trauma that you experienced. But in this last wilderness, the wilderness of idolatry, you suffer because there is an idol in your heart that is not being satisfied.
For example, often pornography is a false means of feeling affirmed by others. In a fantasy world, everyone affirms you. This is what many people live for. If a false means of affirmation is taken away, the idolatrous desire in your heart will still cry out for satisfaction. This can result in feeling miserable and depressed. You weren’t happy in your addiction, but now you feel God isn’t coming through for you now that you’ve cut out that sinful behavior.
If this is where you are, you haven’t grasped the depths that your repentance needs to reach. This is often the wilderness that is most difficult to endure. Not because the suffering in this wilderness is more painful than the others, but because it’s only white-knuckling behavior modification. You haven’t yet forsaken the idols that still remain in your heart.
If you believe that life is found in the satisfaction of your idolatrous desires, then you will only hold out in repentance for so long until you turn back to the only source that you know to give you that sense of life, which means turning yet again to your addiction.
Post-sexual addiction living is not a simple, smooth transition from slavery to freedom. It’s a journey that often leads people into a wilderness. But this journey is all part of God’s loving transformative purposes. It is in the wilderness where God abides with his people, where they learn to trust him, and where they experience his provision of life!
With addiction being the verbal currency of just about any human struggle nowadays, pastors and church leaders will find themselves helping men and women who are trapped in addictive pornography struggles. In this video, Mark Sanders speaks to pastors and church leaders on ways that they can help.
To learn more, read Mark’s accompanying blog: “Is Porn Addiction Just a Medical Problem?” You can also read Mark’s first blog in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, where he discusses how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.