18 May 2023
How Do I Break Free from Patterns of Unbelief?
How can I believe that my heavenly Father truly loves me when he won’t take away my insomnia or chronic pain? How can I trust God with my future when my whole world has exploded at the revelation of my spouse’s infidelity? How can I possibly believe that God knows what’s best for me when he calls me to turn from desires that feel completely natural? How can I entrust my child to the Lord when they’re about to inflict irreversible damage on their body?
Living by faith is difficult. We all struggle every day to remember, believe, and make choices based on God’s Word and his promises to us in Christ. Words on a page can feel meaningless when painful circumstances don’t change. What helps us nurture belief in these hard moments, days, and years?
Unbelief Is a Matter of the Heart
Our flesh looks at these situations and says that God hasn’t given us sufficient evidence that he’s worthy of our trust. But faith is not a matter of evidence. Scripture gives us testimony after testimony of people who had abundant evidence to trust God but still chose unbelief. The Israelites saw God perform over a dozen miracles rescuing them from Egypt, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea. And yet, in a matter of days, they doubted God’s ability or desire to keep them alive in the wilderness. Jesus fed over 5,000 men with nothing more than five loaves and two fish. But later, the crowd refused to believe his explanation of the miracle. His followers drastically decreased after this incredible display of his power and sustaining kindness.
Faith is a matter of the heart, not the eyes. Apart from God’s grace, all of us are born with dead hearts that cannot believe what is evident in all creation (Rom. 1:19–20). But in the new birth, God makes our hearts alive, and we believe. This is saving faith. And yet, this heart transplant does not guarantee an easy road of faith. We still struggle, and so much of our struggle with sexual sin comes down to unbelief.
Every time we give way to temptation, we’re believing those deceitful arguments and choosing to live in a world that’s fundamentally untrue.
Lies about God, ourselves, and others become powerful arguments for giving in to sin. After all, our heart says, God doesn’t care, God won’t deliver me, God can’t meet me in this moment—but sex can. Sex always delivers, sex has never let me down, and unlike God, sex doesn’t ask me to believe, just feel. Every time we give way to temptation, we’re believing those deceitful arguments and choosing to live in a world that’s fundamentally untrue.
Where Does Unbelief Grow?
I’m convinced there’s one primary behavior that keeps us stuck in patterns of unbelief: isolation. A man in one of our biblical support groups worked in the mold remediation business, and he compared sexual sin with mold. It grows in the dark, in hidden places, where nobody sees it, and before you know it, it’s infected the entire house.
Why does sin love darkness? Because in the darkness, no one can challenge your unbelief. Over time, that unbelief has a compounding effect. You don’t only believe all the lies that keep you going back to your sin, you also believe the lies that keep you from confessing your sin to others: My sin is too heinous, too dirty to tell others. I won’t survive the consequences of my actions. I can live a double life without anyone ever knowing.
Where Does Faith Grow?
At Harvest USA, I’ve asked dozens of men what the most helpful thing about their experience with us was. They almost always say the same thing: “Having other brothers to walk with me in this battle.” The most helpful thing wasn’t our staff’s expertise or our profound materials, but other group members, week-in and week-out, hearing their struggles and reminding them of the truths of the gospel.
I just finished a 20-month group with 12 men. At the end, I gave them one specific warning: Don’t go back to hiding. Don’t isolate yourself after this group finishes. That is the fastest way to guarantee going right back to old patterns of unbelief and sin. Hebrews 3:12–13 says,
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Notice the two words accompanying “evil” and “sin”: “unbelieving” and “deceitfulness.” Sin deceives us, leading to unbelief, which causes us to turn away from God—his precepts and his promises.
Isolation is the soil in which unbelief grows. But the body of Christ is the good soil through which our Father causes our faith to go from strength to strength.
One of the most powerful weapons to guard against unbelief is genuine fellowship with the body of Christ. This is where we’re known, exhorted, comforted, and pointed back to the truth over and over again. This passage assumes that even going one day without other Christians reminding us of the truth leaves us vulnerable to sin’s hardening effects on our hearts. Do we give other Christians that level of importance in our lives? You will if you remember that this life is a spiritual battle, and lone rangers are the first to get picked off.
Ultimately, Jesus is your closest friend. He’s the one who never stops praying for you that your faith may not fail (Luke 22:32). He sympathizes with how excruciatingly difficult it is to trust in our heavenly Father (Luke 22:44, Heb. 12:4). And he uses his people as his mouthpiece to remind you of his love, care, goodness, and power over your life. Isolation is the soil in which unbelief grows. But the body of Christ is not only an effective spiritual weed killer, it’s also the good soil through which our Father causes our faith to go from strength to strength (Ps. 84:5–7).
02 Mar 2023
Celibacy, Marriage, or Surrender?
If you or anyone close to you has struggled with exclusive same-sex attraction, you know that this is a particularly heavy burden to bear. I’ve heard painful story after story of men and women who wrestled in silence during most of their adolescence with confusion, shame, guilt, and increasing despair over the unrelenting experience of attraction to the same sex. No matter how many prayers they offered up, not only did their same-sex desires not go away, but desires for someone of the opposite sex never came.
More than ever before, we’re wrestling with questions of identity, sexuality, and what repentance and faithful living looks like for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Many churches and denominations have completely rejected a biblical sexual ethic and have embraced our God-denying culture’s definitions of love, identity, and sexuality.
But even within conservative biblical understandings of sexuality, there is still confusion and division over how to minister to our brothers and sisters wrestling in these ways.
I want to briefly address two common approaches to discipleship when it comes to the question of marriage, and then offer a third way that I believe is most helpful and most faithful to Scripture.
Most people who see life-long celibacy as the best or only option for Christians wrestling with exclusive same-sex attraction often explicitly or implicitly embrace a theology that sees same-sex desires as a core aspect of identity. Thus, many have no problem identifying as “gay Christians.” They’re not equating a gay identity with same-sex behavior—they still hold to the Bible’s design for sexuality when it comes to what is permissible sexual activity. But they also see exclusive same-sex desires as a largely unchangeable, life-long experience until the resurrection. Thus, the only option for the vast majority of these brothers and sisters is celibacy.
Pros of the Celibacy Solution
It’s commendable to see our brothers and sisters testify to the reality that Christ is all-satisfying. If following Christ means they’ll never experience sexual satisfaction, they willingly take up that cross. This choice of celibacy also points the entire church to what is eternal. Human marriage was designed by God to be a temporary sign that gives way to the reality of the church’s eternal union with our bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The celibacy solution also recognizes the reality that there are many sin struggles in this life that God may allow to remain a formidable foe until we see Jesus face to face.
Lastly, the celibacy solution reminds us that while marriage is a blessing for many, it’s not a requirement for all. We can’t escape Paul’s provocative words when he states that “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Cons of the Celibacy Solution
The celibacy solution typically comes from an unbiblical premise, spoken or unspoken, which states: “My exclusive same-sex attraction is immutable, unchangeable, and God almost certainly will do nothing about it.” It would seem that this theology places same-sex desires in a unique category from other sins. When Jesus does a radical work of bringing dead hearts to life, making someone a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), this particular area remains unreachable from God’s grace.
This belief goes hand-in-hand with another unbiblical supposition: same-sex desire, if not consciously acted upon, is morally neutral. As long as you don’t allow the attraction to give birth to lust, there’s no need for change because this is not an area in need of repentance. But the church has historically rejected this premise which only identifies sin in the realm of conscious choice. The Bible makes it clear that the fall has corrupted not only our choices but our desires as well (James 1:14–15, Jer. 17:9).
While it’s important to maintain a distinction between “indwelling sin” and what we could call “willful sin,” both need redemption. When we limit the scope of sin’s reach, we also limit the scope of the gospel’s reach. To dive deeper on the topic of whether same-sex desires can be properly labeled sin, see my previous blog, “Is it Sin or Temptation?”
The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
Some see same-sex attraction as morally neutral because they often see their attractions as integral to their identity. To lose this desire would be to lose a part of themselves that they don’t want to lose. Whether it be their creativity, their cultural tastes, or the way they interact with friends, they see their desires as foundational to their being. But to whatever degree repentance changes our preferences or the ways we interact with others, that can only be a good thing. The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
In response to the celibacy solution, some conservative Christian thought leaders and pastors have advocated that many Christians wrestling with same-sex desires should place a high emphasis on seeking marriage with someone of the opposite sex. While they would not go so far as to say that it’s sinful for every Christian to remain single, they would say that in many (if not most) cases, true repentance of same-sex desires would eventually give way to new desires for biblical marriage.
They would also propose that the ethical opposite of same-sex desire is heterosexual desire within marriage. They would argue that Paul’s description of the call to singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 was not describing someone wrestling with exclusive same-sex desires but instead refers to those Christians who’ve been given the gift of great contentment in singleness. Therefore, it is not tied to a sense of inability to marry according to God’s design.
Pros of the Marriage Solution
The marriage solution fundamentally rejects the idea that exclusive same-sex attraction is tied to identity and therefore immutable. It also sees same-sex attraction as part of indwelling sin and therefore in need of redemption. It’s an aspect of the Christian’s experience that the gospel has the power to change. These pastors want believers who struggle with same-sex attraction to believe God is powerful enough to bring about incredible change even at the level of our desires. The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The marriage solution also rightly pushes back against an unhelpful feedback loop in the celibacy solution in which the belief that heterosexual marriage is impossible prevents the possibility of it. Our beliefs impact our desires, and vice versa. The more we believe a specific narrative, the more our expectations, hopes, and desires will be shaped by that narrative. If the narrative says someone should abandon realistic expectations of developing godly desires for marriage, then hope has no place to root itself. That desire will have no fertile soil to feed upon.
Cons of the Marriage Solution
The biggest problem with the marriage solution is that it turns the good opportunity of marriage into a command that Scripture does not warrant. There is no biblical backing to make a one-to-one correspondence between repentance and romantic desires.
Sexual desire is never commanded for a single Christian. If a Christian is already married, they’re called to cherish, love, and pursue their spouse—including, when appropriate, fanning the flames of desire so their attractions are devoted to their spouse alone. It’s also true that there may be a correlation between repentance of same-sex desires and a desire for marriage. As someone repents, the Lord may open their heart to an opportunity for marriage that he presents. If someone is convinced that their exclusive same-sex attraction is core to their identity, their unwillingness to consider marriage may indicate a lack of repentance. But that is a case-by-case area of wisdom and discernment.
But this gets to the question of the goal of repentance. The ethical opposite of same-sex lust is not heterosexual desire, but love (see The Opposite of Sexual Sin). The ethical opposite of lust is love for God and love for neighbor—in these two the entire law is summed up.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 138, asks, “What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?” The answer focuses on chastity as the main way we positively fulfill the seventh commandment. It says that marriage is a duty if someone does not have the “gift of continency”— “the exercise of self-constraint in sexual matters.” Self-constraint implies that there is something in need of restraining! Therefore, continency is not the absence of any sexual desire (whether hetero- or homosexual), but the ability to live a life of faithful obedience to God while lacking the proper context for sexual expression. This reflects Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:9 when he says that those who cannot exercise self-control should marry. We cannot conclude that the Bible requires marriage for someone who is faithfully repenting of sinful sexual desires with increasing self-control.
The marriage solution ties a heavy burden upon the necks of our brothers and sisters. It has too many similarities to the extra-biblical requirements of pharisaical laws. Just as forbidding marriage goes beyond the testimony of Scripture, so does requiring it.
I’ve sought to be accurate and charitable in my assessments of the first two solutions. Both views highlight some important truths and make fair criticisms of the opposite perspective. But their conclusions fall short of God’s wisdom.
Instead, if a brother or sister wrestling with same-sex attraction asks you if they should pursue marriage, see this as an opportunity to encourage them to bring their desires with open hands before the Lord.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life.
Sometimes marriage seems to be the direction God is pointing them. They largely experience exclusive same-sex attraction but are open to marriage and desire to raise a family. If God calls them to marriage, there will be struggles (as in every marriage)—but it will also be an ongoing means of their sanctification and blessing. For others, their hesitancy to pursue marriage may be a lack of trust in their heavenly Father, revealing an idolatrous desire for control. The issue is not marriage itself, but what marriage is revealing about their hearts. For still others, they may not desire to pursue marriage because they are living contentedly with self-restraint as a single believer.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life. We should hold up everything to God with open hands, including marriage, singleness, our career, where we live, how we spend our time and money, and especially including our desires. If you surrender to our Lord’s perfect will in this area, he will lead you. Perhaps God has a long, thriving season of service in the Kingdom that is only accomplished through singleness. That season of singleness may give way to marriage one day. The key is that your entire life is fully surrendered to him.
This is the standard for all followers of Christ! Jesus demands we give him everything (Luke 14:26). The only proper response to God’s amazing grace in salvation is to “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). Our plans and our desires no longer have control, but “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Our flesh naturally fights against this type of radical surrender, but the Spirit gently, patiently, sweetly, and convincingly continues to draw us into it.
My former colleague Dave White used to say that legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin. They’re both sinful attempts to avoid a relationship with God. In a similar way, forcing or forbidding marriage cuts off the life of prayer that is required when considering such weighty decisions. For some of my single brothers and sisters struggling with same-sex attraction, God may be calling you to the scary work of praying about marriage. For others, you’ve been praying about this, you have submitted this to the Lord, and he has given you contentment in his call of singleness for your life.
A brief word to my married brothers and sisters who continue to battle against same-sex desires. You’re not alone in the fight to keep your desires singularly focused on your spouse. This is a battle every married person must faithfully fight. Remember, Jesus is Lord of your desires (Phil. 2:13)! Keep offering them to him. You may find it difficult at times to fan the flame of desire for your spouse, but this is an area that you can proactively cultivate by God’s grace. He wants to bless your Spirit-driven efforts at fostering a deeper longing for your spouse, as those efforts are the fruit of a singular and intentional longing for Christ.
Your heavenly Father can be trusted. He will not give you a scorpion when you ask for an egg, or a serpent when you ask for a fish (Luke 12:11–12). He loves you. He purchased you for his prized possession. He wants to lavish you with good things that result in praise and thanksgiving to his name. You can trust him with your desires, your future, and your entire life.
12 Jan 2023
Exiting the Highway to Porn
Brother in Christ, do you ever feel there’s a switch in your brain that gets turned on, and once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself back in the gutter of pornography? Does porn feel inevitable? Sister in Christ, do you experience triggers, such as suggestive posts on social media, that lead you onto a highway to porn with only one exit: “Give In to Temptation”?
Many people fall into the belief that once desire has been awakened, the only way to silence that nagging voice is to give it what it wants. They believe the porn interstate has one way off, and that’s to give in.
But before you reach “Giving In,” you’ve flown past earlier exits that don’t involve sinning. The sooner you get off this highway, the stronger you’ll become next time you make a wrong turn back onto it.
Use Strategic Speed Bumps to Slow Down
While many people feel they “fall into” porn, there were dozens of decision points along the way that led to that destination. Slowing down is critical to seeing those earlier exit ramps. To do this, we need to place speed bumps on the highway to porn.
Speed bumps include anything that makes pornography difficult to access. If porn is right in your pocket on your phone, you’re flying down the highway at 150 mph. No wonder you missed all the other exits! Speed bumps force you to slow down. These may include filters and accountability software on all internet-enabled devices, removing all social media, or perhaps getting rid of a smart phone altogether. It sounds painful to limit your access to many good things, but I hear testimony after testimony of the peace and freedom many people experience when they couldn’t look at porn due to lack of access.
Before you reach “Giving In,” you’ve flown past earlier exits that don’t involve sinning. The sooner you get off this highway, the stronger you’ll become next time you make a wrong turn back onto it.
The reason these measures are speed bumps and not brick walls is because there’s ultimately no guaranteed way to restrict access to someone who truly wants to find pornography. People will go to great lengths and spend incredible amounts of time and money just to get their next fix. Where there is a will, there typically is a way.
But the fatal flaw I hear from so many is that because speed bumps don’t guarantee success, they don’t even try them. This is a lie from the depths of hell. Any distance you can create between yourself and access to sin is to your advantage. It gives time for the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and turn you from sin. Putting speed bumps up also shows you’re sober minded about what’s at stake in the battle against sin. Scripture explicitly commands us not to make any provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14). Your willingness to limit your access to porn shows you take sin seriously.
Earlier Exits Off the Highway to Porn
Believe it or not, this highway is chock-full of exits that don’t involve sinning. Once you slow down, you’ll see they’re everywhere! What are some of these earlier exits?
- Switch locations. Pornography prefers privacy. An obvious exit is to leave your private room and find a place with other people. If you’re the only person at home, go for a walk or study at the library. For those who work remotely, take your work to a café, remove all curtains and blinds from your home office, and maybe take the door off.
- Reach out for help. Don’t expect one person to be everything you need when it comes to reinforcements. As soon as tempting thoughts enter your mind, out yourself. Text six friends and then systematically call each one until one of them picks up. Fight the lie that says you’re annoying them. The sooner you bring those tempting thoughts into the light, the less power they have over you. James wasn’t lying when he promised, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
- Access truth. The most obvious decision here is to open your Bible and flood your mind with truth (Phil. 4:8). But there’s a plethora of creative ways to do this if you’re hesitant to pick up your Bible in those moments. Always have an audio Bible on-hand and fill your airwaves with God’s precious promises. Turn on Christian music or listen to a sermon or Christian podcast. Perhaps you have “Fighter Verses” in your wallet or posted on your wall—these are specific verses you’ve found particularly strategic when you’re tempted to sin.
- Reach up to God. According to Hebrews 4:16, we’re called to enter God’s throne room of grace in time of need to receive mercy and find grace to help. You know temptation to look at porn is not just any old “time of need,” this is DEFCON 1—imminent nuclear war! You also know your resources to fight this temptation are limited and ineffective on their own. You need divine help. Grace is not only God’s gift of forgiveness, it’s also his power that he freely gives you in Christ to battle temptation. But you need to come to him for it. You need to get on your knees and pray for his help. Pray to God for eyes to see him in his glory, so the “things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” Ask God to make you sober-minded to the devastating consequences of pornography. Ask him to meet you in your trials that so often underlie the temptation to escape them.
Brother, sister, you can always get off the highway to porn, even when you feel you’ve gone too far.
- Find someone to serve. Pornography is the epitome of selfishness. It’s exploiting someone else for your own pleasure. A powerful weapon against selfishness is to proactively find ways to serve. Serving others is much more fulfilling and doesn’t leave you with guilt and shame. Looking at pornography in the morning can ruin your whole day, sometimes your whole week. But serving someone else in the morning can brighten your day and become the highlight of your week. This doesn’t have to be extravagant. It can be as simple and powerful as praying for people in need, calling a friend who struggles with loneliness, or doing the leftover dishes in the sink.
Brother, sister, you can always get off the highway to porn, even when you feel you’ve gone too far. Remember, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). As you grow in sanctification, you may still find yourself back on that highway—but the early exit signs will become much clearer. The more you take those early exits, you’ll find yourself less frequently on the highway at all, instead opting for the scenic route of God’s glory, beauty, and grace.
06 Oct 2022
The Opposite of Sexual Sin
Anyone who’s experienced being enslaved by a life-dominating sin knows how easy it is to let that struggle become the lens through which you see all of life. You know how deadly the sin is. You know the power it possesses, and how powerless you feel to resist it.
Many people wrestling with addiction see their entire moral responsibility resting on a single prohibition: Thou shalt not. . .
They start to measure the strength of their relationship with God based on whether they looked at pornography that day. It doesn’t matter what else happened, good or bad—refraining from sexual sin becomes the sole gauge of spiritual health.
Living with Blinders
There are two pitfalls with this type of thinking. First, you become uninterested in any other area of sanctification in your life. Lying, stealing, idolatry, and unrighteous anger don’t even register as areas of needed growth because sexual sin has given you tunnel vision to any other problems. Your day may have been filled with selfish and self-indulgent pursuits, but, in your mind, it was a great day because you didn’t look at porn.
The second pitfall is just as soul-damaging. Letting your entire day rest upon your ability to perfectly resist sexual temptation also blinds you to the good work God may be doing in your life in other areas. Sexual sin is usually the fruition of many other, deeper heart issues that God is slowly and surgically redeeming. There may be much groundwork being done in your life even while you continue to lose many battles against temptation. Blindness to this good work that God is doing can co-opt a trajectory of growth through discouragement and despair.
Take off the Blinders
It’s time to take off the blinders. It’s time to embrace the full panorama of God’s redemptive purposes for your life. On the day of judgment, God is not only interested in what sins you refrained from. He’s equally interested in what good fruit your life produced. This is why theologians have developed two categories for sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are the sins we commit. We lust, we steal, we lie, we covet. We focus most of our repentant energy on sins of commission. And that’s understandable. The Ten Commandments are largely addressing sins we commit. That is why eight out of the ten are stated in the negative: Thou shalt not. . .
But it was paradigm-shifting for me to read the Westminster Larger Catechism and realize that with every prohibitive commandment is an implied command to do its opposite instead. Not taking the Lord’s name in vain implies the command to revere his name in honor. Not killing implies the command to actively preserve and promote life in others. Not lying implies the command to speak the truth in love to build up your neighbor. Failure to do the opposite of these prohibitions is also sin. Sins of omission are the failure to do the good which God commands. Sin is not just what we have done, but also what we have left undone.
The Opposite of Sexual Sin
If I’m honest, I used to think that all God cared about was that I didn’t lust after other people. If that’s God’s standard, then my tactic was simply to avoid others. If I didn’t have to interact with them, then I was honoring God. But I failed to see that the opposite of lust is not avoidance, but love. There may still be people you need to avoid, especially if they’ve been a snare to you. That is wisdom. But what I’m addressing is a much broader issue of seeing other people not as objects of temptation, but as image-bearers to love.
We fail our brothers and sisters who struggle with sexual sin if we don’t help them to humanize others. God wants so much more than avoidance of sin. He wants the love of Christ to shine forth from our lives.
So what does a life of repentance from sexual sin look like?
Putting off Coveting and Putting on Christ-Centered Contentment
God gives a husband and wife to each other so that, in body and soul, they belong to one another. There’s a sense of co-ownership in marriage. Adultery is so damaging because it’s an outsider stealing what does not belong to them. God has designed sexual desire to be expressed and satisfied solely within the confines of biblical marriage.
This means true repentance for a married man and woman will lead to increasing contentment and delight in their spouse. The positive command we are to obey is to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). It’s not enough to only guard your heart against coveting your neighbor’s wife, you are also commanded by God to actively cultivate a growing love and desire for your spouse. How many Christian husbands believe their apathy toward pursuing their wives romantically is a sin of omission? Contentment must never be confused with complacency. Contentment is proactive; complacency is passive.
For my single brothers and sisters, contentment does not mean it’s wrong to desire marriage. Contentment means that, while you pursue this good thing, your heart is guarded against despair, bitterness, or anger toward the Lord when his timing seems delayed. Your contentment is grounded in what is best: belonging to Christ.
Spirit-gifted contentment flows from the same source for both married and singles. It is not found in any other person than Jesus Christ.
Putting off Idolatry and Putting on True Worship
Idolatry is always at the root of sexual sin. Sex is seen as the means of providing something that feels like life itself. That idol may be pleasure, comfort, control, security, or affirmation. But all of these desires are vanity of vanities when they are separated from the Giver of all true life.
True repentance from sexual sin is not a stoic experience. It’s a life of increasing joy and zeal for God’s glory. It’s a life of growing anticipation and expectation to see your Savior face to face. It’s a life of worshipping our triune God in spirit and in truth.
I’m always amazed by our Savior’s words in John 4:23 when he says, “the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” We were created for this very purpose. Our Father longs to find such people! Sexual sin is not only idolatry, but a failure to do the most fundamental thing we were created for—it’s a failure to delight in the Lord.
Putting off Lust and Putting on Love
We see very clearly in 1 Corinthians 13 that any attempt at repentance not grounded in love is pointless. Repentant love must be directed both vertically and horizontally. This means that God is not pleased with us swapping out sexual sin for some other, less damaging pleasure. Many people try to simply replace lust with social media, video games, exercise, or food, all the while continuing to neglect spiritual nourishment. Paul would tell you, if you’re doing this, you gain nothing.
But even if your rejection of lust is the result of deeper fellowship with Christ, it must not stop there. For John warns us that you cannot love God and hate your brother. True love for God will lead to true love for your neighbor.
It’s a frightening thing to see husbands who are turning from pornography but still abusing their wives. This is a false repentance that brings no pleasure to God.
God is not only calling you to turn from lustful thoughts, he’s calling you to see and treat others as his image-bearers in all purity, dignity, and honor. Lust selfishly steals from others. Love selflessly serves others. Lust devotes our thoughts to sexual fantasy. Love devotes our thoughts to prayerful intercession.
God is after so much more than removing sin from your life. He is committed to making you more like Christ, who not only turned from sin, but actively loved his Father and his neighbor perfectly.
07 Jul 2022
Help! I’m in a Sexless Marriage (Part Two)
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
Help! I’m in a Sexless Marriage (Part One)
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
Don’t Look at Porn Because Jesus Is Coming Back
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
Foxholes, Field Goals, and False Worship
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
Zelensky, Courage, and Cowardice
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
Avoid Unnecessary Suffering
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!