07 Jul 2022
In part one, I outlined some major reasons why your spouse may be avoiding sexual intimacy in your marriage. You might still feel the reason behind this distance remains a mystery. On one level, it’s important to lovingly seek to understand why your spouse refuses sexual intimacy because their reasons will influence how you respond. But even if your spouse can’t or is unwilling to articulate why, there is still a way forward in your marriage.
(This blog assumes the reason your spouse is sexually unavailable is not due to present sexual sin. The way forward in that situation is vastly different than what I outline below. You can find resources for responding to and battling sexual sin here.)
Pray for Your Marriage
God cares about the sexual health of your marriage—it’s part of his glorious design. But he doesn’t care about sex for its own sake. He cares about sex because it’s an important piece of your entire marriage. While it’s good to pray for the Lord’s blessing on your sexual intimacy with your spouse, it’s even better to pray for his blessing on your marriage holistically. God wants your marriage to display the “manifold wisdom of God. . . to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Your marriage is designed to reveal the mystery of the gospel. Whenever you’re praying for your marriage to be strengthened, you’re praying according to God’s will.
A Good Marriage without Sex?
It’s not a foregone conclusion that if a couple is not regularly engaging in sexual activity, their marriage is struggling. If a spouse gets in a car accident and is paralyzed, sex is done. But that couple can still show sacrificial love, affection, affirmation, and unity in many other ways. The same is true for older couples. A couple’s sexual relationship has a life cycle to it, and while that cycle may look different for each couple, statistically the frequency of sex greatly decreases as couples reach their twilight years. This is simple biology, and it says nothing about the health of their marriage. Sex is a very important part of marriage, but the absence of it does not nullify the marriage.
Patiently Seek Conversations
Most couples struggle to talk about their sexual relationship. It feels awkward and intimidating. And if your spouse is avoiding sex altogether, they’ll probably avoid conversations about it as well. It requires great discernment and courage to engage your spouse. Hopefully you know your spouse well enough to understand what makes them feel comfortable and when they’re likely to be willing to have difficult conversations. But if your marriage is only sustained by avoiding conflict, you may need outside help from a marriage counselor to learn how to constructively have harder conversations. Good communication in your marriage is the foundation for building sexual intimacy. You can’t skip this step. There may be a lot of groundwork to be laid before any conversations about sex can happen.
Show Interest in Your Spouse
It’s no coincidence that the Bible uses the word “know” to speak euphemistically about sex. Adam “knew” Eve. This is why our culture’s obsession with one-night stands is completely antithetical to God’s design. Sex with a stranger only leads to loneliness, isolation, and insecurity. If sex is the consummative act of knowing your spouse, the more you know them in all facets of your relationship, the more natural it is for that knowledge to culminate in a celebration of knowing one another sexually.
Seek to know what makes them laugh, and what makes them cry. Show them daily that your own hobbies and interests are always subordinate to their needs. And, whenever possible, help them to connect your interest in them with God’s interest in them. Encourage them to see through you to their Savior. Seek daily to represent Christ in your home.
Weep with Them
If the Lord allows you to know the deeper reasons behind your spouse’s avoidance of sex, you have an opportunity to selflessly minister to your spouse—for their sake. If their reason is physical or personal, show them deep compassion and sorrow over the ways they’ve suffered through this alone. You’ll need wisdom for how and when to present potential solutions such as counseling or medical intervention; don’t rush to “fix them” to remove a barrier to sex. Again, selfless service is the goal—which is also the goal in sex. You must strive to communicate that you care more for their health and healing than you do your sexual fulfillment. Your spouse will be able to tell if your efforts to help them are truly motivated by a concern for them or simply a concern for yourself.
Be Courageous and Patient
If it’s clear there aren’t physical or personal reasons that would make it wrong to pursue your spouse sexually, then I encourage you to take an investment approach to romancing your spouse. This will look different for men and women, so for this situation I’ll use a husband as the example.
Husband, see every act of love as a deposit into your relationship. Pray for wisdom to discern what your wife is comfortable with in different moments. Perhaps a kiss on the cheek or a gentle hug will not be rejected. But you have to be courageous and committed to continual investments. Just like any kind of wise investment plan, you should place greater emphasis on future results, not present rewards. This mindset will guard you against easily giving up when your initial efforts to woo your wife fall flat. It’s also important that you have support from people who can encourage you when you start to get discouraged. In appropriate ways (making sure to avoid embarrassing or shaming your wife) it can be helpful to share with trusted friends how you’re feeling about your relational investments. They can prop you up and pray for you in seasons when you feel like giving up.
Christ Pursues His Bride
While husbands have a unique role in representing Christ in their marriage, both husband and wife need to lean on Christ with their sexual disappointments and show his love to one another.
It’s important to reckon with the reality that you cannot love your spouse well unless you love Christ more. If Christ is not your wellspring of life, you will be seeking that life from your spouse, but they can never provide it. Sex can’t give you what only Christ can. Your romantic pursuit of your spouse will only be sustained and honoring to God if it’s coming from a place of growing contentment in the Lord.
Wrestle with God through the pain of your unmet longings. It’s okay to wrestle. It’s okay to feel pain. You don’t need to pretend it doesn’t affect you. But the aim of that wrestling should be increasing rest in our Lord’s promises, purposes, and power. God wants you to love your spouse from a place of freedom. He doesn’t want you to be in bondage to your desires. But that freedom is costly—it’s not an easy road, but Christ has already blazed the path for you as your forerunner.
As you wrestle with God about feeling rejected, my hope is that you will come to see that Christ knows your experience intimately. The entire story of the Bible is one epoch after another of God’s people rejecting him. Your spouse’s sexual unavailability may not be a rejection of you, but that probably doesn’t remove the sting. And this is where Christ comes as your sympathetic high priest. He wants you to know that you’re sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings, that even this trial is a tool to refine your faith and glorify God.
Even though God’s people have a long history of rejecting their Husband, he doesn’t stop pursuing them. He doesn’t stop loving them. He doesn’t stop wooing them. “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:14). God pursues his bride and tenderly draws her in. He’s done that for you and for me. Just as Hosea’s pursuit of Gomer was a picture of God’s pursuit of Israel, your faithful, tender, patient, long-suffering pursuit of your spouse is a picture of the loving pursuit of God for his church. Whether or not sex is the culmination of this pursuit, it’s still a pursuit that honors God, conforms you into the image of Christ, and conveys his love for your spouse.
30 Jun 2022
I want to speak to a husband or a wife who has remained faithful to their marriage vows but is experiencing the pain and unfulfilled longings of a sexless marriage. Perhaps you’ve tried to talk with someone about this, only to come away feeling misunderstood or even accused of things that may not be true. I hope this post will be a balm to your soul, and an encouragement to seek Christ in this trial.
God Is Glorified in Your Faithfulness
First, I want you to know that God is greatly glorified by your faithfulness to your spouse. Amid loneliness, confusion, unsatisfied desires, and painful feelings of rejection, you have resisted the easy escape of masturbation, pornography, and adultery. What a testimony to the sufficiency of God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9)! If only we could pull back the curtain to see a glimmer of the eternal weight of glory that this momentary trial is producing. It’s no easy pill to swallow, but we all know the utter gravity of being in the presence of a brother or sister in Christ who has experienced profound suffering without blaming God or giving in to unbelief. Your faith is being tested but, as Peter says, it is more precious than gold and its genuineness results in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
God Is Near to the Brokenhearted
Sex was designed by God to be one of the most intimate, affirming, life-giving experiences two humans can know. It’s one of the fundamental glues that holds a marriage together. We all long to be fully known and fully loved. And holy sex is one of the most tangible ways we experience the unconditional love of God for us, through our spouse. For that to be withheld can bring a flood of doubts and concerns. “Is my spouse tired of me?” “Did they find someone else?” “I guess I really am unlovable.” “I can never compete with my spouse’s ideal standard.”
God hears your heart and invites you to draw near to him. He can be trusted with your heart and your longings. Well did Isaiah say of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).
Questions to Consider
By design, sex is not a solo activity. It requires cooperation, trust, love, respect, and a mutual willingness to enter into a moment of unrivaled vulnerability. Because this act is so sacred, it’s understandable why many feel intimidated by it. I’d like to walk you through a few possible reasons why your spouse may not want to engage with you on this level. This is not meant to point the finger at any one person, but it is important to soberly assess how sexual intimacy is typically hindered in a fallen world.
- Life’s busyness. This is perhaps the most common scenario that leads healthy marriages into a sexual desert. The demands and pressures of work, kids, church, social activities, and school all crowd out time and energy for any kind of marital investment. Life is just about survival. While all marriages will likely go through seasons like this, busyness is typically not the only—or even the main—factor why one spouse may be completely avoiding any opportunity for sexual intimacy.
- Hidden sexual sin. Sadly, there are scenarios where your spouse may be avoiding sex with you because they’re satisfying their sexual desires outside of their covenant vows. Whether it be compulsive use of pornography or a secret affair, some spouses treat sex as an appetite, not an act of selfless love. If they’re getting their appetite satisfied elsewhere, they may feel zero responsibility within their marriage. This may be what you fear is happening in your marriage, and perhaps you have compounding evidence to back that up. You’ll need wisdom to know what confrontation should look like. But please don’t let fear and shame keep you from getting help.
- Physical brokenness. Sex is a powerful bodily experience. In many ways it is a whole-bodied experience. When I consider just how many ways our bodies could break down, I often think it’s a miracle that any of us walk around in a state of good health. Engaging in sex requires a relative degree of health. The fall affects some people’s sexual organs, making sex a painful, fearful experience. Men may struggle with erectile dysfunction and could be too scared to admit it to their wives. Heart conditions, motor diseases, and paralysis may restrict sexual activity. The list of health-related reasons to refrain from sex is probably longer than we even imagine. It’s important to consider this because your spouse’s refusal to have sex may be related to their health and not a rejection of you. It may be just as painful and lonely for them to refrain as it is for you, but perhaps they’re too scared to tell you what’s really going on.
- Relational brokenness. Marriage is a covenant established by God. Covenants are accompanied by signs. In our covenant relationship with Jesus, we are given the signs of baptism and communion. In marriage, a couple is given sex as the sign of their covenant union. Just as the sacraments are meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen our union with Christ, so too sex in marriage is meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen the union of husband and wife. Scripture instructs believers not to partake of the Lord’s supper when there is unrepentant sin or unresolved strife with another believer. The covenant sign should be forgone until those issues are resolved. To partake of the sign unworthily is a matter the Lord takes very seriously.So, too, in marriage: we cannot separate the act of sex from the quality of the marriage relationship. Paul Tripp says, “You always drag the character and quality of your marriage relationship into the marriage bed.” This means that if there is relational distance in your marriage, sexual distance may be a result of that. It’s not right to act harshly toward your spouse in the kitchen but then seek to act tenderly toward them in the bedroom. Sex is meant to be a celebration of all the love expressed outside the bedroom. How you love your spouse at the dinner table, in the car, in public, with your children, when you’re tired, when you’re sad, when you’re frustrated—it’s all making deposits into your relationship. If your marital account is running on a deficit of love and not a surplus, it may say a lot about why your spouse is so distant from you sexually.
- Personal brokenness. We all go into marriage carrying many things from our past. Past traumas or regrets may continue to haunt you to this day. God imbued sex with incredible power but, in a fallen world, that power has the ability to create destruction like few other experiences can. Past sexual abuse can make sex feel like the most dangerous experience imaginable. Shame about past sexual experiences could make your spouse feel like sex is only a dirty act. Some people wrestle with crippling anxiety disorders, and sex may be a trigger for those anxieties. For example, there is a condition called homosexual obsessive-compulsive disorder, or HOCD. This person does not struggle with same sex attraction. But they’re so fearful about having a homo-erotic thought that they’ll avoid situations that could trigger them. These types of anxieties are more common than you may realize.
Hope in Christ
Life in a fallen world is not how it was meant to be. But praise be to God that, as Margaret Clarkson wrote, one day he will transmute every earthly sorrow into gold of heavenly gain.
In my next blog, I will look at how you can walk this painful path with your Savior and your spouse. Jesus cares about this aspect of your marriage. He has marked out a way forward for you to honor and love your spouse as you entrust your longings to him.
02 Jun 2022
I believe God designed our hearts on earth to be motivated by future realities. We don’t eat ice cream at 4:00 p.m. because a delicious dinner is on the horizon. We don’t spend all our money on present desires because we need to save for the future. We accept painful physical exercise for short- and long-term health benefits. In our best moments, we’re always keeping the future in view.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the apostles are so fixated upon the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. They repeatedly use the imminent and certain Day of the Lord as motivation for our present obedience:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24–25)
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet.1:13)
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (James 5:7–8)
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:9–10)
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)
The apostles wrote this way because Jesus taught them to focus on his return. Jesus spoke in many parables about his second coming and the great need to be prepared: we must have oil in our lamps, the proper wedding attire, wise investments of our talents, and faithfulness in God’s house.
Denying Christ’s Return
But what does this have to do with pornography?
Sin is a denial of Christ’s return. Looking at pornography is a tacit agreement with the skeptics who say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). If we don’t believe Jesus is coming back, why bother with obedience? Our motivation matters! And this is where we need to be careful to understand Scripture correctly.
Our obedience does not earn our salvation—that’s impossible. Anyone seeking salvation through their own righteousness will be greatly disappointed when Jesus returns. Our motivation is not, “Don’t look at porn so that Jesus will accept you.”
No, faith in Jesus’s person and work is the only way of salvation and true obedience is only possible because of our secure acceptance in Christ. The gospel powers our motivation to obey: “Don’t look at porn because, in his abundant mercy, Jesus has accepted you.”
Fixing Our Hearts on Christ’s Return
So then, how does Christ’s coming return motivate our present obedience? There are at least five ways:
- The crown of righteousness is for those who love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).
To be a Christian is to love Jesus—because he first loved us. Every true Christian can and must say, “Jesus, I love you.” Not only must we love him, but we must also love him above all others. What greater desire could we have than to see our Savior face to face? Fellow Christian, turn from pornography today because you love Jesus. May the thought of seeing him, as he is, turn your eyes from worthless things (Ps. 119:37).
- Jesus will repay us for what we have done (Revelation 22:12).
Jesus teaches us to store up treasures in heaven that will last for eternity. He wants us to think like eternal investors. It’s exciting to think about small, frequent investments compounding over time into something much greater. I can’t overstate how much bigger the scale of compound interest is for eternal investments! Looking at pornography is the worst eternal investment policy.
- There is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
This holiness is not referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ but the holiness of a believer’s sanctification. Our union with Christ deals with our guilt and defeats its power and corrupting influence in us. This doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect in this life, but we will be growing in holiness. Beware the lie that our present Christian life ever involves coasting. No, it is a constant striving! “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “Strive to enter” God’s eternal rest (Heb. 4:11). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
- Our holy living today is the future adornment of Christ’s bride (Revelation 19:8).
When Jesus returns, there’s going to be a wedding with Jesus the bridegroom and the church his bride. This is a corporate reality, but our individual lives matter. John speaks of this bride adorned with “fine linen, bright and pure,” representing “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19). All Christians are in wedding preparation mode. Weeks—months—before the wedding, a bride is making meticulous preparations. But no matter how glorious she may look, there can be no comparison to the bride of Christ at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
- Christ’s return will consummate our union and communion with God.
Every time we think of Christ’s return, we should be reminded of what life is all about—communion with God. We have that communion now, through Christ, but it’s by faith. It’s not yet consummated. But when Jesus returns—then and only then will the dwelling place of God be with man (Rev. 21:3). Until that day, all creation groans with longing and expectation (Rom. 8:22). Meditating on Christ’s return brings us back to the heart and center of all meaning and existence.
It’s hard to dwell on such weighty realities and then run to pornography. In the words of John Ross Macduff:
“Earth can now but tell the story of thy bitter cross and pain;
she shall yet behold the glory, when thou comest back to reign:
Christ is coming! Christ is coming!
Let each heart repeat the strain.”
21 Apr 2022
You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” We’ve all seen movies where someone is faced with the imminence of death, and, with no previous evidence of genuine faith, they fall to their knees and plead to God for mercy. Or perhaps less extreme, but more common, is the astronomical uptick in prayers on one Sunday out of the year: Super Bowl Sunday.
Why do foxholes and field goals turn otherwise non-religious skeptics into faith-filled believers? Of course, only God truly knows someone’s heart, and true approaching-death conversions—as in the thief on the cross!—do happen and are to be celebrated. Sometimes the Spirit uses the reality of death to awaken true faith. However, I think it’s safe to say that many of these prayers are not the result of genuine spiritual renewal. Instead, they both have in common an attitude towards God that is just as offensive as not believing in him at all. These prayers treat God as nothing more than a tool.
Geerhardus Vos gives great insight into the function and appeal of idolatry when he writes, “Magic is that paganistic reversal of the process of religion, in which man, instead of letting himself be used by God for the divine purpose, drags down his god to the level of a tool, which he uses for his own selfish purpose.”¹
Vos exposes a struggle that is all too common in my own heart: In my flesh, I don’t want someone else’s agenda forced on me, even if it’s God’s. I’d rather have the freedom to set my own agenda and the autonomy to pursue my own goals. But, by virtue of being a creature, I am inescapably bound to the agenda and purposes of my Creator. Not one day of my life has known the absence of God’s calling to love, worship, and serve him with all my being.
When God’s agenda clashes with my own
If I’m honest, I too am guilty of treating God as a mere tool for my own agenda. I wake up with an attitude that says, “My will be done.” I find myself strolling into the throne room of grace like an ungrateful child asking to borrow $20 from his father, with little intention of actually engaging in relationship with him.
This heart posture toward God is fertile ground for idolatry to spring up. If we functionally treat God as a means to an end, then, when he no longer seems to be on board with our agendas, we’ll start rummaging through our tool kits for something else that will do a better job.
One reason that so many Christians find themselves turning to sexual sin is because God is not serving their agendas. He’s not giving them the sexual satisfaction they expected in marriage, or he’s not giving them marriage at all. But it goes deeper than merely our agenda for sex. We want love, comfort, affirmation, affection, control, intimacy, security, and escape from pain and suffering. Sex delivers on all of those fronts, to varying degrees. It’s easier to avoid sexual sin when life is comfortable, relationships are fulfilling, and ventures are successful. But, when life gets hard, and God isn’t delivering us from those hardships, it becomes very tempting to stop praying and find another tool that you know will get the job done, at least temporarily.
If you find yourself turning to any kind of sinful comfort when life gets hard, there’s a good chance you have reversed your religion, as Vos said, treating God as a tool for your own agenda that can be discarded when his plans veer away from yours.
This is especially difficult for brothers and sisters who are battling same-sex attraction. To begin with, I’ve never heard someone say that same-sex attraction was part of their plans from the beginning. Typically from an early age, they are already wrestling with desires and feelings that were not included in their original agendas. To make matters worse, when they pray and ask God to take these desires away, it feels like God is absent and unwilling to help them. This can bring great confusion about God’s agenda for their lives.
“Does God want me to live a life of forced loneliness?”
“If he hasn’t taken away this desire, does that mean he’s okay with it?”
“Does God hate me?”
“Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”
These are deep, profound questions that are usually drenched in tears. It can feel like God’s agenda for our brothers and sisters is cruel, which is the growing consensus in the wider culture about biblical sexuality.
The essence of true worship
These painful questions are not limited to a select group of Christians; we all ask these questions. We ask them when we get cancer, when a loved one dies tragically, when we are betrayed by close friends, or when we suddenly lose our jobs. We are all confronted with God’s painful purposes for our lives, and these moments force us to ask a question posed to humanity since the Garden of Eden.
Will you worship God for his sake alone?²
Satan believed that no one does that. In fact, he dared to say that Job, God’s beloved servant, only worshipped God because of the gifts he gave him. He believed that if God took all of those gifts away, Job would curse him.
While there are many applications of that story to our subject matter, what is particularly relevant is the end of Job’s story. Job doesn’t ask God to give back all the things that were taken from him; he simply wants an explanation: Why did God allow this to happen? But God never tells Job why, even though we as the readers know why. Instead, God reminds Job of who he is as the Creator, and of who Job is as the creature. And that was sufficient for Job. He needed no other answer.
Why was this sufficient for Job?
The reality is that God has no need to explain himself to us. The very fact that he is God is more than sufficient for his creatures to be completely submitted to his agenda. Job rested not in his understanding of his situation, but in the character of God.
Thus, true worship can be characterized in at least two ways:
- True worship is not dependent upon our own judgments of God’s agenda, but on complete trust in his character and purposes.
- True worship does not worship God for what he does for us first and foremost, but for who he is.
Jesus is the only true worshipper
If you’re like me, it’s sobering to consider how much my worship is often tethered to my own understanding and approval of God’s purposes for my life. But this is why I need Jesus, because he is the only true worshipper, through whom I offer my worship to God.
Jesus is the only person who ever lived his entire life fully submitted to the will of his heavenly Father. Consider his own testimony about himself in John 4–5:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19).
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
I confess that my mind is often baffled by these statements. If there is anyone who would have the right to act according to his own will, it’s the second person of the Trinity come in the flesh. But Jesus, in his humanity, shows us what a life of true worship and submission to the Father actually looks like.
Jesus not only testified that this was true, but he also showed us this heart posture during his most agonizing trial, in the garden of Gethsemane. No other human will ever know the depths of suffering that occurred on the cross of Calvary, and no other human could have born the weight of submitting to the Father under those circumstances.
Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father’s agenda because none of us could. We often fall into the temptation of using God as a tool to find satisfaction outside of him. The epicenter of satisfaction for Jesus was in doing the Father’s will. He graciously gives us his righteous robes that cover our imperfect worship so that, in Christ, our worship is acceptable and pleasing to the Father. And as we worship and submit to God through Christ, the Holy Spirit gradually grants us greater strength to say with Jesus, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
¹ Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 137.
² Olinger, Danny. “You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos.” Reformed Theology and Faith. 11/9/2019. https://blog.daum.net/byk2739/727
17 Mar 2022
What does it mean to be a man? I find it’s much easier to answer that question by harping on what a man isn’t, or by pointing out the flaws of our culturally distorted views of masculinity. We can see right through the empty vanity of figures like James Bond with his embodiment of rugged individualism and promiscuous sex. But what does a real man look like?
The recent situation in Ukraine has touched all of our lives on many levels. It is an absolute tragedy of unspeakable proportions. The horrors of war are beyond description. It is in these moments of travail and trial that image bearers of God are revealed in their splendor and glory. I might not be able to give a concise definition of what a man is, but I know one when I see him. And I saw a man of incredible courage and bravery on February 25, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with four other government officials, declared that they were staying with the people of Ukraine to fight for their country.
For weeks, I haven’t been able to get that 30-second video clip out of my head. It touched something deep in my soul that not only shows me what a real man is, but also ultimately points me to the truest man, Jesus Christ!
Jesus is the ultimate leader to follow
At the time of writing this blog, millions of Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms and laying down their lives for their country. Many men who have never even held a gun before are being given last-minute training on how to use a firearm. An out-manned, out-gunned people are defying all expectations for what this invasion was going to look like.
Would events be unfolding this way if Ukraine’s leaders had snuck out the back door with bags of cash in each hand? I highly doubt it. As the leader goes, so go his followers. Just as Zelensky is willing to lay down his life for Ukraine’s independence, so too are the Ukrainian people!
Zelensky’s sacrificial leadership is a glorious, albeit imperfect, reflection of our Savior Jesus Christ. We follow a leader who left the perfection of heaven to enter into the lowliest of estates in a fallen world. Born in poverty, in danger of Herod’s slaughter of all newborn males in Bethlehem, scorned, rejected, beaten, and ultimately put to death—all in order to set his people free. Jesus came on a mission to liberate his people from bondage and slavery to sin, Satan, and death. He laid down his own life, taking on the sins of his people, dying the death that should have been ours, so that we might be free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
What does this freedom look in the lives of Christ’s followers? Ultimately, it is the freedom to lay down our lives in service to our King. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a free people who would rather die than give up their freedom. What we see in the book of Acts are apostles and believers who have been set free in such a way that no one can place a yoke of slavery on them again. In Acts 4–5, the apostles are threatened, arrested, and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, but these threats have no power over free men. Instead, they all the more boldly proclaim that salvation is found in no other name than Jesus alone!
What is particularly powerful is that the council of elders and scribes in Jerusalem noticed that these followers of Jesus were not trained scholars. Instead, they were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). This is the impact of sacrificial leadership. True leaders empower and embolden ordinary men to do extraordinary things.
We don’t follow a coward
Jesus is calling his freed brethren to courage, bravery, and an understanding that to follow him is to lay down their lives. I’ve always been struck by Revelations 21:8. The very first category of people who will be cast into the lake of fire are the “cowardly.” Why is cowardice so antithetical to God’s people? Well, Jesus was the exact opposite of a coward. You will never see one hint of cowardice in the life of Christ. Even in the moments when Jesus escaped an angry mob, he did so not because he was afraid, but because he was being strategic. His time had not yet come.
Ultimately, a coward lacks love. He cares not for the lives of others, but only about saving himself. Zelensky has been quoted as saying, “As for my life: I am the president of the country, and I simply do not have the right to it.”¹ A coward fights tooth and nail to maintain the right to his own life, no matter the cost. A hero willingly lays down the right to his life so that others may live. Zelensky once again points us to our Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). He’s not a hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger but instead protects his people at the cost of his own life.
Sexual sin and cowardice
Sexual sin in men is especially connected to cowardice. How can I say that? It is true that Jesus is the standard of righteousness in every way for all of his followers, both men and women. Nevertheless, in Ephesians 5, husbands in particular are given specific instruction on how to relate to their wives—and that has everything to do with sexuality! That specific instruction is to love one’s wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her! Men are specifically called to the opposite of cowardice in their sexuality.
Sexual sin often reveals the cowardice that lurks in each of our hearts. Men often turn to sexual sin because we are too scared to face the hard things in our lives. Many husbands feel rejected in the marriage bed, and, instead of doing the difficult, scary work of addressing the topic honestly with their wives, they’re willing to take the easy road of “taking care of themselves” through self-stimulation. The same is true for many single men. Pursuing marriage and the blessing of sexual intimacy in marriage requires courage. Courage to court and woo a maiden. Courage to face potential rejection. Courage to step into a lifelong commitment. But the ubiquitous proliferation of internet pornography and virtual reality allows many single men to feel a false sense of all the perks of sexual pleasure without any of the courage required in pursuing and committing to marriage.
The heart of a coward is also revealed in the secrecy of sexual sin. Many husbands are too scared to let their wives know what’s really going on. Many single men are too scared to let another brother or pastor know about their struggles. Even when their sin is revealed, many husbands are too scared to sacrificially love and pursue a wife who is wrestling with deep anger, fear, frustration, and doubt. Instead of laying down their lives for their wives in their greatest moment of need and pain, they turn back to the very sin that put their wives in this state. What is so damning about cowardly actions is the way they reveal a willingness to let others die so that they can save their own lives. This is the exact antithesis of our Savior.
Jesus died to redeem cowards
That might sound really harsh, but let me be clear: I still wrestle with having the heart of a coward. I see it in the some of the ways I treat my wife. I see it in some of the safe decisions I’ve made in life. Apart from God’s grace, I am a coward deserving the lake of fire.
But praise the Lord that Christ’s work of salvation gives hope to cowards like me! Jesus knew when he called Peter to follow him that Peter would eventually take the coward’s way out in Jesus’ greatest moment of need. Peter chose to protect his life by denying Christ. Left in unrepentance, this denial of his friend, Savior, and King would’ve led to Christ’s denial of Peter himself before the Father. But Jesus had other plans for Peter, and he has other plans for you and me as his beloved brothers! Jesus restored Peter graciously, and that led Peter to a transformed life of courageous, bold, sacrificial witness for Christ, which would eventually cost him his life. Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times, but he also foretold the death that Peter would face for his proclamation of the gospel (John 21:18–19).
If you are a man in Christ, at the core of your being is a man who is willing to lay down your life as you follow your courageous Savior. We take our cues as men not from the world, but from the One who has already conquered and who has granted access to the tree of life. Where are you tempted towards cowardice in life? When are you tempted let others die so that you can live? How will you look to Jesus for strength so that you can confidently say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?
10 Feb 2022
A few months ago, I wrote a blog about the role of suffering in Christian sanctification. There’s no way to escape the reality that God uses trials in our lives to make us more like Christ. If I’m honest, more of my suffering than I’d prefer to admit is the result of my own unwise, sinful choices.
The Bible gives us clear categories for righteous and unrighteous suffering. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Later, in 1 Peter 4:15, he says, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”
God does not want us to suffer as a result of our sinful, foolish choices. His commands are meant for our flourishing. Living according to God’s will in more situations than not will actually lead to much prosperity in this life. In our appropriate resolve to kill any hint of a false prosperity gospel, we can’t throw out large swaths of the Bible, like Proverbs, that would show us how righteous living has many present benefits.
One common form of avoidable suffering
Suffering on some level is usually the context for sexual temptation. While God can and does use that suffering to point us to him in our time of need, what if God also wants to show us a better way to live our lives that frees us from much of our avoidable suffering? Let me give you a few examples.
Perhaps the most common form of suffering that leads to sexual temptation is boredom. That might sound petty to some of you, but the most obvious danger zone for many adult men is time alone at home with no one else around and nothing to do. Boredom is almost always an avoidable form of suffering. There are countless productive things we can be engaged in at any moment, even if we’re immobilized due to injury or COVID quarantines. But a combination of laziness, love of comfort, lack of zeal for Christ’s Kingdom, and the conditioning of modern technology, which has us (myself included) often mindlessly scrolling our lives away, keeps us from pursuing a truly full and rich life. A free afternoon home alone can be a wonderful gift from God that can lead to endless possibilities for your own and others’ enrichment!
Simple steps to reduce avoidable suffering
But many people will complain that they are too tired to really invest their lives into anything more than simply surviving, and there may be legitimacy to your exhaustion. Certain seasons of life are going to leave little to no margin, especially if you have young children. But consider how much of our exhaustion and lethargy is avoidable:
- Learn the value of saying NO. Have you committed to too many things that are keeping you from doing the most important things well?
- Are you exercising? Exercise not only increases physical energy, but it’s also a natural anti-depressant. So many people lack the motivation to get off the couch because they aren’t taking advantage of God’s natural means of physical and emotional boosts through exercise.
- Are you getting enough sleep? I know all too well that many of us struggle with sleep for a variety of legitimate reasons, and there may be no easy answer for you. But have you at least tried the recommended options for getting optimal sleep? Have you tried being disciplined at going to bed and waking up at the same time each day? Have you tried cutting back exposure to blue light before bed? Perhaps much of our sleep issues are really lifestyle issues.
- Are you eating a healthy diet? I know there are many different schools of thought regarding what a healthy diet is. Is fat good or bad? Vegan or carnivore? Intermittent fasting or five small meals per day? My concern is whether you are being proactive at seeking a healthy diet. All nutritionists can at least agree that that second or third piece of cheesecake will probably lead to avoidable suffering.
I could go on to list many other types of unhealthy lifestyles that add to our suffering, but my point is that we are often hindered in our Christian walk not because we aren’t spiritual enough, but because we have neglected the reality that God made us as physical beings. He created us to need exercise, good sleep, and healthy food. Just as sexual sin goes against God’s design for humanity, so too does unhealthy ways of living. Yet we rarely talk about these as issues of sanctification.
I believe that our silence as the Church on these matters can lead many to give up hope that life can ever be better. They’ve capitulated to always feeling tired, lacking energy and motivation, and scraping by at work just to make it to the weekend. No wonder sexual sin looks so appealing! Many of our brothers and sisters gave up a long time ago in believing that this earthly life could bring many blessings and benefits outside of sinful pleasure.
Avoidable suffering and unbelief
Consider Adam and Eve as you listen to the description of the Garden in Genesis 2.
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east… And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:8, 9, 16–17).
God gave Adam and Eve a paradise of rich food and enjoyment. He was not stingy with them. But the serpent was able to cast doubt on God’s lavish provision. He tempted Adam and Eve to focus only on what God prohibited, to the neglect of all that he permitted. They could’ve spent their lives enjoying so many good gifts from God’s hands, but instead they spurned his generosity in unbelief and doubt.
In the same way, I would ask you to consider how much of your avoidable suffering is an issue of unbelief. Do you fundamentally see God as a stingy taskmaster who doesn’t know how to give good gifts to his children? Do you see him as a bully who loves to pull the rug out from underneath you?
Or do you view him as a loving Father who delights in seeing his children enjoy his good gifts? Do you see how those gifts are meant to nourish our relationship with him?
For some of you, God may allow you to suffer physically in significant, chronic ways. Much of what I’ve shared in this blog may not apply to your particular situation. But, for most of you, I would challenge you to consider how God wants you to steward your body, your finances, and your time for greater Kingdom impact. God wants you to be healthy so that you have strength to serve him and others. He wants you to flourish because he’s your heavenly Father, and he loves you and wants what is best for you!
21 Jan 2022
It may or may not surprise you that the majority of men seeking help from Harvest USA are married. The majority of these husbands are not coming to us because of their own conviction over sin but because they were caught. They were living, often for decades, in darkness, and now they’ve finally been forced into the light. They usually come to us with a mixture of pain and relief—the pain of the consequences of their sexual sin and its accompanying deception, and also the relief of no longer living as hypocrites.
This initial exposure is freeing and provides with it real opportunities for change and transformation. While there are many dangers and snares along the path towards marital restoration, none is more common and more deadly than going back into the darkness.
For any of you familiar with twentieth-century American poetry or Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Interstellar, you probably know the poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In his poem about death, Thomas provides incredible wisdom for a husband tempted to go back into hiding. He writes,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Husbands who are battling sexual addictions are not only wrestling against the allure of sexual sin. They are also facing the constant temptation of lying about it to their wives. I’ve heard all of the major excuses for going back into the darkness:
“I love her too much to hurt her by telling her.”
“I know how she’ll react; she just can’t handle this.”
“She’s not supposed to be my accountability partner; I have men in my life I confess to.”
“Confessing to her doesn’t help me; she’ll just use that as fuel to punish me later.”
“I’ve already confessed it to the Lord.”
While we recognize that there are rare and extreme situations where it may not always be prudent or loving for husbands to confess their sexual sins to their wives, the general rule we find to be most beneficial for marriages is called “the 24-hour rule.”
What is the 24-hour rule?
The 24-hour rule is when a husband promises that he will confess, within 24 hours, any time that he engages in behavioral sexual sin—including masturbation, pornography, fantasy indulgence that lasts for minutes at a time, and anything worse than these behaviors. This includes any active pursuit of these behaviors, even if he is unsuccessful, such as seeking ways around internet filters to find pornography.
What the 24-hour rule is not
The 24-hour rule, misapplied, has the potential to become very detrimental to a marriage, which is why clear, objective expectations are essential. It is unhelpful for a wife to be privy to every single battle a husband faces with sexual temptation. We believe she deserves to know the battles he clearly loses, but not every battle he faces.
While every couple requires a nuanced approach, we generally try to steer couples away from certain scrupulous standards of confession. We generally do not encourage couples to adopt the following types of confession as a rule:
- Every time a husband takes a second look
- A sexually suggestive image appears on his device apart from his active pursuit of it, and he immediately flees from it.
- Tempting thoughts that come into his mind but against which he has fought and upon which he does linger for minutes at a time.
It’s important that couples understand the difference between a “rule” and Spirit-led confession. The purpose of the 24-hour rule is to build trust, as I will explain later. Understandably, breaking the rule has devastating consequences in breaking trust, but a husband can also freely confess as the Spirit leads. So, while it is not a rule that a husband confesses every battle with temptation, he may share about specific temptations with his wife from time to time, which can have very positive results for both of them. She can encourage and pray for him, and he can continue to learn how to trust his wife and be more vulnerable with her.
Expecting a husband to confess every temptation or lustful thought is often a grasping for control and only leads to a further breakdown of the fragile trust they are seeking to rebuild.
Why the 24-hour rule?
An entire book could and probably should be written on why this kind of rule is so helpful in marriages seeking restoration after sexual betrayal, but here are just a few reasons why we find this guidance so crucial:
- Often in these situations, the greatest damage done to the marriage is the loss of trust and the difficulty of earning it back. Succumbing yet again to the snare of pornography does great harm to a recovering marriage, but the difference between confessing openly and being caught in covering up sin is worlds apart.
- Wives usually want to know when their husbands have been unfaithful with pornography. It hurts them to know, but they still would rather know than be left in the dark. The most common response I hear from wives to their husbands is, “I’m hurt that you did this, but I’m grateful that you told me.”
- Committing and being faithful to a 24-hour rule takes the burden off of a wife to be a detective. Wives often feel scared when weeks or months have gone by without hearing from their husbands how they’re doing. In this scenario, no news is sadly often not good news. Faithfulness to the 24-hour rule guards wives against fretfully wondering what is true.
- The 24-hour rule forces husbands to live in the realty of their decisions. One of pornography’s greatest lies is, “This isn’t hurting anyone.” Needing to confess each instance kills that lie very quickly. I’ve heard many husbands talk about how great their marriages are apart from this one issue. Men have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and downplay the impact of their sin on their marriages. Hiding this sin and never talking about it creates a very powerful illusion that things are great, but this backfires in the end. The more a wife believes her husband is being faithful, the greater the disappointment, hurt, and sense of betrayal once she finds out that’s not true.
- Confession creates opportunities for genuine relationship. Whether a husband knows it or not, keeping this sin hidden forces him to put up his defenses. He can’t be his true self around her. He’ll need to hold some of himself back from her. The two of them can’t truly be naked and unashamed, but being open with his wife provides the foundation for truly knowing one another.
- Confession gives his wife an opportunity to forgive him and for him to receive her forgiveness. This is a beautiful display of the gospel, reminding them both that we only have a saving relationship with Jesus because of his grace! Our marriages should point us to the gospel every day, and living in the darkness kills that opportunity.
- The 24-hour rule upholds the great responsibility, dignity, and honor of the marriage covenant. Most couples take vows at their weddings, and many will vow to “forsake all others.” Pornography breaks this marriage vow and tramples upon it. The offended party not only has the right to know but also needs to be involved for proper restoration to occur. A commitment to the 24-hour rule is an outworking of your commitment to your vows.
- Willing confession of sexual betrayal in a marriage is scary for a husband to do. Confession takes all of the control out of his hands, forcing him to entrust himself to the Lord. This is such a critical step in repentance. He must lose his life in order to save it. Sin so often seeks to make life work on our own terms. Hiding your sin is a prime example of a refusal to let God be the Lord of your life.
On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with wives in tears as they come to realize their husbands have been hiding their sin. Their faces show their embarrassment, shock, disappointment, and confusion. But what is perhaps most heartbreaking is watching them plead with their husbands to come back into the light. They aren’t asking their husbands to be perfect, only honest! These women are willing to forgive, to help, to pray, but they feel completely shut out, disregarded, and unsafe when they realize they’ve been deceived. Deception virtually wipes out any growth a marriage has made, leaving wives feeling like they are back at square one. But the enemy is so crafty in telling husbands the very opposite lie—that confession will take them back to square one. Deception, not confession, is your enemy, brothers! Fight it; put it to death. Entrust yourself to Christ because he will never forsake you! Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
04 Nov 2021
This might sound strange, even contradictory, but I’m convinced it’s true: Most people, if not all, watch pornography with their eyes closed.
No, this does not mean that their eyes are physically shut. Of course they’re watching with eyes glued to the screen. But, as they watch, they are deliberately refusing to look at what’s actually happening in a pornographic picture or video. Why? Because acknowledging the truth about pornography is difficult, shame-inducing, horrifying, and even nauseating—but the truth could be just what the Spirit uses to break the spell that porn has on you. So let’s actually take a look at what pornography is.
We’ll start with the most extreme cases. Because so much of pornography is free and hosted by sites that take content from various sources, there is no way to know whether the acts committed onscreen are consensual or not. Many women and minors are being trafficked in the sex industry against their will. Much of this is caught on camera and released onto the internet, and some even finds its way onto mainstream sites. The next video you watch may be a criminal act that you took pleasure in.
This does not mean all pornography can be legally defined as non-consensual, but let’s consider for a moment who ends up on a pornographic website. Were these men and women cherished as sons and daughters in their families? Were they told and shown from a young age the dignity inherent to them as image bearers of God? Do they have a loving community with friends they can turn to when life gets hard?
No, this is not the typical profile of someone in a pornographic video. Instead, these people usually come from abusive backgrounds of all kinds. Drugs and alcohol are ubiquitous in the porn industry, for understandable reasons: It’s hard to imagine living that life without copious amounts of numbing agents. Sometimes, actors’ managers are not upfront with them about what a scene will actually entail until the last minute, and, if they refuse, coercive threats are employed.¹
This is only skimming the surface of pornography’s true, sinister nature, but it doesn’t take long to see that pornography is an exploitative, dehumanizing, slave-recruiting, demonic industry. Christians who view porn are active participants in its oppression. This is the conclusion you will come to if you look at pornography with eyes wide open.
It’s saddening, and even infuriating, that the victims of pornography are so rarely taken into account in our battle against it. Yes, first and foremost, pornography is a sin against God. Pornography is so offensive to God that we can say with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). Let us never forget that reality! We must also acknowledge the great sin that pornography is against a current or future spouse. Sexual betrayal is so devastating that many betrayed spouses experience trauma and PTSD as a result. It is in recognizing the great damage they have done to their marriages that many people will start to fight pornography as if their very lives depend on it.
Sadly, I rarely hear people utterly broken and grieving over their sin against the people on the screen, which is perhaps indicative of just how dehumanizing pornography is. Even in their repentance, many people still don’t see these men and women as real human beings. They’re still less-than-human objects. They used to be objects of pleasure; now they’re seen only as objects of temptation to avoid, not image bearers to love and protect.
But God sees them. God cares infinitely for them. God takes up their plight. He is their avenger.
God created sex to elevate human dignity, not smear it. Godly sex is meant to be one of the most honor-giving, safe, intimate, protecting experiences a human being can know. Satan takes that amazing humanity-celebrating gift and uses it to destroy our dignity. God hates that! His holy wrath cannot let that stand, and we shouldn’t either. Pornography should stir up in you a holy, righteous anger. The people being treated as less than dirt are image bearers that God intricately spent nine months knitting together in their mothers’ wombs. You can’t be consistently pro-life and consume pornography. You can’t defend a human being’s dignity while in the womb and then, once out of the womb, strip him or her of it for your sexual pleasure.
This should be painful to read. It is a grave indictment, and one that I can’t escape from either. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4–5).
God is so rich in mercy and kindness that he seeks out lost oppressors of his image bearers. He takes those who trampled on human dignity and crowns them with glory and honor in Christ. He does this all without forgetting the victims. He executes justice perfectly for your sin and mine by taking the punishment we so rightly deserve and placing it on his Son on the cross.
Many people struggle to believe that God can love them because of their pornography use. The way forward isn’t to minimize our sin; instead, we need to heed the words of Jack Miller when he said, “Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.” Or, to quote from our Savior, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
As we refuse to pretend about the realities of porn while keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, we are guaranteed a greater appreciation and gratitude for how deep the Father’s love is for us in Christ. The weight of our sin quickly becomes overwhelmed by the torrent of his love for us. This leaves no room for pride or judgment of others. Instead, Christ calls us to be warriors against injustice and sin while, at the same time, showing and embodying the forgiving love of Christ towards sinners, of whom we are the foremost.
The Church of Jesus Christ is being called to acknowledge and restore the dignity of every image bearer of God. This is your role, and mine.²
² I deeply thank Ray Ortlund for his book, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility. My blog was inspired by his compelling, winsome, fatherly call to Christian men to take a stand in a world saturated by the oppression of pornography. I encourage you to take up his book and read!
07 Oct 2021
Think about the last time you gave into a vice that you had been trying to avoid. Maybe it was sexual sin, drunkenness, gluttony, or binging on entertainment. While there are many complex reasons for turning to our sins of choice, the most common one involves some kind of suffering that we are trying to escape or numb.
The men in our biblical support groups at Harvest USA have voiced the most common scenarios that precipitate running to sexual sin:
- An argument with a spouse or some other relational turmoil
- Struggling to fall asleep
- Stress or anxiety related to work or school performance
- General feelings of dissatisfaction in life
All of these situations involve some form of suffering. And how do we respond to suffering? We want to mitigate it in some way—quickly. Our first responses will often involve trying to change, fix, or resolve whatever situation is causing us suffering. If our efforts work, great! The suffering is relieved. But what if your spouse is still angry with you? What if you can’t fall asleep and it’s four o’clock in the morning? What if you get fired from your job for losing the sale? What if your efforts to form relationships continue to fall flat? What if the suffering doesn’t go away?
This is a crucial fork-in-the road moment! You can’t remove the suffering, so now what? How you respond in this scenario determines whether you will see growth in Christian maturity or whether you will remain in patterns of unbelief and sin.
We all know the classic cartoon when the character is presented with two paths. One path is sunny, with birds chirping, flowers blooming, and hope just over the horizon. The other is dark and stormy, with crows squawking and danger lurking. It’s obvious which path is more appealing.
Spiritually speaking, in times of suffering, sin often masquerades as the safe, enticing, bliss-filled answer to our suffering, while following Jesus looks like the path of despair. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before sin’s charade falls apart. Our enemy is more than happy to give us a moment of reprieve from our pain if, in the long run, he can add to our suffering through our sinful responses to it.
So, while sexual pleasure, alcohol, or double chocolate mousse cake may give a hit of dopamine that brings temporary relief, our sin is never the answer to our suffering.
But here’s the problem: Anyone struggling with habitual sin knows that truth, and yet it doesn’t stop them from going back to it anyway. Why is that? Simply put, we struggle to walk by faith, not by sight. Walking by faith is often painful, while walking by sight is quick and easy in the moment of suffering.
There is a simple yet difficult gospel truth that you must embrace in order to mature in faith: Suffering is how we grow. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself what Scripture has to say (Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–4, 1 Peter 1:6–7, John 15:2). Suffering is always part of God’s means to conform us more into the image of our Savior, who was known during his earthly ministry as the suffering servant. Jesus himself “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8) because a savior who never suffered could not save us. While Jesus suffered under the Father’s wrath so that we would never have to, he didn’t suffer on earth so that we could avoid all earthly suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. Being united to Jesus means that suffering is a marker of our lives on this earth as we “fill up what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
That is a really difficult pill for all of us to swallow. How can we possibly accept that truth? What makes that pill go down is the reality that God uses our suffering, in love, to conform us into the image of our Savior (which is the deepest reality of Romans 8:28–29).
But how does this work? How does God use suffering to shape us?
My favorite hymn is probably William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Take some time to slowly meditate on these three stanzas. If you know the music, sing them!
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow’r.¹
What is Cowper saying here? He’s saying that God has good for you in your suffering. He has loving purposes behind it all. The most immediate purpose, the most obvious good that God intends in your pain, is that your suffering would draw you into humble, dependent relationship with him.
One of the greatest tragedies of turning to sin in our suffering is that we rob ourselves of the comfort that God is offering. In what context does Paul call the Father the God of all comfort? It’s in the context of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4). God has a special comfort reserved specifically for your moments of suffering. There is nothing sweeter than his comfort in the midst of bitter affliction.
But here’s the rub: That comfort is not something we can control or demand in our timing or liking. God often calls us to wait upon him. That comfort may be come on the far side many tears, great anguish, desperation, and even feeling abandoned by God at times. This comfort is laid hold of by faith, not by sight, but it is a comfort that God has purchased for you and guarantees for all of his children in Christ who will look to and wait upon him.
Vaneetha Risner proposes a great way to think about suffering. She observes that we often ask the question, “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” But a better, faith-filled question asks, “Because God loves me, why is this happening to me?”² This does not mean that all suffering has easy answers if we just trust God—some suffering may never make sense this side of eternity—but your heart’s posture in trusting the Lord’s loving purposes is what matters.
While we’re not called to enjoy or invite suffering into our lives, see it as an opportunity when it comes and listen for your sympathetic High Priest’s loving invitation to come to him as your refuge, your strength, your high tower. As you come to him, he promises to use the fire of affliction not to destroy you, but to refine you.
As you trust God and turn to him in your suffering, you will find that your faith grows. At every turn, his promises remain true and become even more meaningful and significant as God lovingly forces you to cling to them for your life. A faith that is never practiced, never relied upon, never needed is a very weak faith. God wants to strengthen your faith in him; he wants you to experience how strong he really is. And there’s no better way to know God’s strength than in our weakness
¹Cowper, William. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Trinity Hymnal (Rev. Ed.), No. 128.
²Risner, Vaneetha. “If God Is with Me, Why Did This Happen?,” Desiring God. August 4, 2018. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/if-god-is-with-me-why-did-this-happen.
26 Aug 2021
It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’m sitting with a man who has given in to sexual sin for the majority of his life. He’s tried many things to stop, but he keeps failing to say “no” to temptation. He’s fighting to believe that victory is possible, but he feels weary and scared. Teetering on the edge of hope and despair, he asks me a simple question: “Does the battle ever get any easier?”
While simple questions rarely have simple answers, David Powlison was fond of saying, “[There is a] simplicity on the far side of every complexity.”¹ So the simple answer to this question is, “Yes, the battle does get easier.” However, in order to understand what that really looks like, we need to wade through the complex depths of the human experience.
The battle has a context
In humility, we always need to treat each person as a unique individual, and that requires great attention to the details of their lives. I always want err on being slow to speak and quick to listen. I want to assume that I don’t know what this person needs unless I first get to know them. I want a holy curiosity about his or her life. I don’t just want to know about his sexual sin. I want to know about his family, his childhood, his hopes, his disappointments, his suffering, and his understanding of the world, God, and himself.
As I get to know someone more intimately, I begin to understand in greater ways the functionality of sexual sin in his life. I see more and more the specific false promises that sin has tailor-made to fit someone’s particular desires and weaknesses. Consider the complex algorithms employed by modern social media giants. How is it that Facebook knows exactly what advertisement will hook you? It’s because Facebook has studied you. Facebook knows your heart based on what you click on and how long you stay. Sin operates in the same way. The battle is so difficult partly because you have an enemy who knows exactly where you are weak. Sin preys on its knowledge of your life, your sufferings, your heart, and your desires, and it exploits them.
Growth in the battle against sexual sin requires an increasing self-awareness of your own life experiences and how they have shaped you. Your enemy knows your weaknesses. Do you?
The battle has a past
If we’re honest, we often live our lives thinking only about the present, and sin capitalizes on this short-sightedness. If I only think of life in 24-hour chunks, then what’s the big deal about eating one or two donuts? No problem, right? But what if I eat two donuts every day for a whole week? That’s 14 donuts. What if I eat that same amount for an entire month? Now you’re looking at close to 60 donuts! It’s not hard to see that this kind of lifestyle will lead to major health problems down the road. The problem is that you can’t simply stop eating donuts one day and then pretend like you didn’t eat donuts every day for the past 10 years. The effects of those 10 years will linger and perhaps have lasting, lifelong consequences.
We reap what we sow. In Galatians 6, Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the impact of years of sowing into fleshly desires. He writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:7–8). Sin has a corrupting impact on our hearts and minds. Every time you give in to sexual temptation, you are sowing seeds of corruption. Think of it like an investment. Sexual sin isn’t just an isolated event. Giving into temptation today makes it harder to resist tomorrow. And science has now definitively shown how habitual pornography use in particular actually rewires your brain to make you that much more prone to return again and again to your sin.
Someone who has sown into sexual sin for decades has a difficult battle ahead of him because he has invested into corruption. Even if in the present he does all the right things to avoid temptation, he will still be reaping the consequences of sowing into a corrupt mind for so long. This is why it’s so difficult to not automatically lust after others. This is why people feel like they lose all self-control when triggered by specific circumstances that lead them right back to their well-worn paths of sin.
That’s the bad news. Most people wait far too long to stop investing into sin and corruption. Just like you can’t erase years of unhealthy eating, you can’t erase years of sinful seed sowing either.
The battle has a future
But the good news of the gospel is far better than being given a do-over. Jesus is greater than our sin, he’s greater than our pasts, and he’s promised us a future that is bright with biblical hope.
First, we must acknowledge that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more powerful than decades of sinful sowing to the flesh. Jesus, by the Spirit, raises the dead to life. There is no one who is too far gone from the free offer of the gospel. Our hope is not simply in being cleaned up; our hope is that we have been made new creations who are definitively alive to God in Christ.
But while the new birth does a definitive, eternity-shifting work in our lives, the working out of our sanctification is a much slower and more painful process—and here is where we return to the idea of investing.
The principle of sowing and reaping works both ways. Not only does sowing to the flesh reap corruption, but Paul also goes onto say, “…but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us no grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8–9).
When you turn from sin to Jesus, you are not only repenting today, but you are also investing into repentance for tomorrow, and next week, and a year from now. Saying “no” to sin today makes it easier to say “no” to sin tomorrow.
But, as Paul warns, we can grow weary of saying “no.” We can feel like giving up at times because we aren’t reaping as much as we expected in the short-term. This is why the battle must be fought through faith in the promises of God that are all “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
If you have just started investing in your retirement fund, you know how futile it feels to make such a slow crawl towards your retirement goals. You faithfully sow paycheck after paycheck into this fund, expecting to see a great return on your investment. In those beginning years, checking your balance might tempt you to cut back on your monthly payments or stop all together and instead save up for a nice vacation next summer. You look at other people who have been investing faithfully for 10 years longer than you have, and you think it’s impossible to ever get to their level—but that is short-sighted thinking. Just as you are called to trust in the promises of your financial advisor (promises that have less-than-perfect guarantees), so we are called all the more to trust in the promises of our heavenly Father!
So when someone asks me, “Does the battle ever get any easier?,” my response is, “Are you ready to invest for the long haul?” While I can’t go into everything that investing entails, I want to highlight a few simple, God-ordained means by which we can sow to the Spirit.
Negatively speaking, we sow to the Spirit by removing all hindrances and sin that weaken our endurance in the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). The battle won’t get easier if we continue to keep temptation close at hand. No one struggling with alcohol hangs out at the bars, and yet we often do very little to truly cut off access to sexual temptation, especially through technology.
We also sow to the Spirit by acknowledging our weaknesses and making wise arrangements that will helps us in those areas. A weakness may be a time, a place, a circumstance, or an experience. You need to know where you’re weak and plan accordingly. So often we lose the battle because we fail to plan, and we don’t take our failures as opportunities to learn.
Positively, we sow to the Spirit through the ordinary means of grace, including, but not limited to, prayer, the reading of Scripture, hearing the Word preached, and genuine fellowship with believers. It is rare to meet a man ensnared in sexual sin who also has vibrant fellowship with God through daily prayer and Bible reading.
You may have never thought about it this way, but I’m convinced that fighting sexual sin is a “good work.” In fact, I would go so far as to say it is Kingdom work. And when no one else in the world sees or cares about your resistance to temptation, God sees you, along with innumerable angels who fall down in worship before him who is worthy of your obedience, even when it requires great pain and endurance.
If you will faithfully sow into this Kingdom work, not giving Satan a foothold, you will find that the battle gets easier. As my former colleague David White liked to say, “Faithfully sowing to the Spirit makes temptation go from being a lion that will devour you every time to becoming a mosquito in your life. Mosquitos can be annoying and pesky, but they don’t devour you. But if you continue to sow to the flesh, you are feeding the lion.”
Where will you invest your heart and time today? What you do in the present is an investment into your future.
¹David Powlison, “Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2001: 49.