Join Ellen and Shalee as they discuss Ellen’s new 31-day devotional, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.

Ellen unpacks the phrase “toxic relationship”, defines the term “codependency”, explains how you can identify a broken relationship, and shares her hopes for this new resource.

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, take heart. There is hope for change. Transformation and healing is possible through the person of Jesus Christ.

When you purchase Toxic Relationships from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase supports our ministry.

Our world today is obsessed with self-concept and “identity.” We have never been more encouraged to form thoughts about ourselves and to shape our lives by those thoughts. But what our culture lacks is an objective truth beyond ourselves by which our self-assessments might be shown to be false and harmful.

The Bible is full of stories of people just like us—people who are blind to who they really are and blind to their own blindness! Since Adam and Eve, we humans have tried to understand ourselves under the guidance of our autonomous hearts. The result is that we alternate between thinking too highly of ourselves and thinking too lowly of ourselves. We are either building ourselves up in pride, arrogance, and entitlement or descending into self-defeating despair and depression. The lies we believe about ourselves have contributed to the power of sin over us.

Consider some of the characters whom we know from Scripture. Let’s try to straightforwardly state the things they believed about themselves.

  • First, Adam and Eve thought, “I am like God.” Then, “I am more able to discern good and evil than God.” And finally, “I am a doomed rebel. My only hope is to flee God.”
  • How about Lamech, Cain’s descendant who thunders menacingly at his wives, “…listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24). How does Lamech define himself? “I am powerful; I am entitled to fear and respect.” Or, could it be, “I am unsafe and vulnerable, and I must protect myself by controlling others with violence and fear?”
  • How about the son in Jesus’ parable who has come to be known as the “prodigal” (Luke 15:11–13)? What does he believe about himself as he asks for “what is coming to me” and then goes off to squander it in “reckless living?” “I am entitled to ease and prosperity. I flourish because I am true to myself.” And, after he came to his senses, returning with his rehearsed speech to his father, perhaps he thought, “I am an unlovable failure.”
  • How about Saul, after having been anointed by Samuel as God’s choice to be king, cowering and hiding among the baggage (1 Samuel 10:20–22)? “I am doomed to failure.” “I must rely on my own resources and strength to succeed.” “I am a fraud; if people ever saw me truly, they would reject me.”

Do you recognize any of those thoughts in yourself? Do you cling to self-thoughts that are both exaggeratedly autonomous, independent, and selfish, as well as fearful, condemning, and self-loathing? Are you the one whom David describes, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:1–2)? Or does your heart speak with the voice of Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people?” Those with sexual sin in their past and present know both sides of these thoughts about self, often simultaneously.

What can be done? How does one find freedom from such destructive thoughts?

The answer lies outside of yourself. The supreme lie of our current world may be the ever-present message that you must define yourself, that you find your identity within, whether in your experience or in your heart (defined in the Disney way). That is the oldest lie humans were ever told. But the truth is that you do not have the authority to define yourself. None of us do. So who does?

If we do look outside of ourselves, our first tendency is to look to other people. Their praise or their abuse weighs heavily in our self-identification. Of course, the psalmist thinks he is “a worm and not a man,” for he is “scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” If you have been bullied or abused, you may find it easy to think of yourself as “as a worm and not a man.” Also, many of our relational and sexual choices have the aim of surrounding ourselves with the society of those who (we think) will rescue our broken sense of self or reinforce our chosen identity. But other people do not have authority to define you.

The authority to define you lies outside of yourself, not merely in the sense of being outside of your individuality. It is outside of your nature. Only your Creator defines you. And if you have spent your lifetime defining yourself, the identity your Creator gives you will surprise you. Remember that prodigal son? Even when he returned to his father’s house, he only brought with him his self-plausible ideas about who and what he was. The father completely surprised him with love, life, and glory that he could not have anticipated. It turned out he was not a worm, not a failure, not a slave—neither a slave to his own desires and choices nor a slave to his father’s anger and justice. He was a beloved son. What a surprise.

Will you stop defining yourself and let God begin to surprise you?

Ellen has often heard this phrase from both single and married women, young and old. When life is painful and we are face to face with our expectations crumbling, it’s common to pursue sexual sin—we “sign up for” it, if you will—as a way to avoid the pain of other circumstances. But it’s crucial for us to face life as it really is, with faith-fueled realism rather than a demand that it be something it is not and to trust God when life is not what we expected. Jesus actually chose you and signed you up to share in his life, and Jesus has also appointed, or signed us up, to bear fruit while also intimately sharing in his suffering.

The content in this video was adapted from “I Didn’t Sign Up for This!,” a blog that Ellen wrote for the PCA Women’s enCourage website.

 

This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 6 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.

“What are you thinking?” We ask this of each other often, don’t we? When our minds are troubled, and our thoughts seem filled with unholy and disturbing ideas or images, we need outside help. Christ does not leave us to fend for ourselves but rescues us out of our distress to produce peace in our thought lives.

God’s Word makes a startling statement about a believer’s thought life. 1 Corinthians 2:16 tells us that, through our union with Jesus, we now have the mind of Christ. This gives us the ability to distinguish good from evil and truth from lies. Believers can think as Christ thinks. Throughout this lifetime, we will battle to keep our thoughts set on him and the truths of Scripture, but, no matter what you have been through, it is possible to have your mind renewed so that you experience thought patterns that line up with the gospel and an increasingly Christ-centered emotional life.

Women who have pursued pornography, sexual fantasy, sinful sexual experiences, and other expressions of sexual sin increase their likelihood of experiencing troubled thought lives. Sadly, women who have been sinned against with sexual trauma can have troubled thought lives, through no fault of their own. Some say that an image or memory can pop into their minds in an instant, even though they have not looked at porn or been involved sexually with someone for years. Others’ patterns of thought are entangled with troubling emotions that seem deeply engrained in their responses; prayer, Bible reading, and listening to Christian music push away these thoughts for a time, but they still return. Distressing, scary, shame-provoking memories about themselves, their bodies, men, women, relationships, and more flood their minds like an incoming wave or an unexpected hurricane that threatens to undo them.

The Bible teaches that all things are the servants of God (Psalm 119:91) and that all things are in subjection to and under the authority of Jesus (Ephesians 1:22–23). Yet many of us struggle to come anywhere close to clean and holy thought lives that serve Jesus. Present and past experiences have formed pathways in our minds that produce dark thoughts—and usually result in sinful behaviors too. Maybe we have absorbed sexual images through pornography, movies that normalize and celebrate sin, or books that feed sensual ideas and fantasies. Maybe the memories that currently trouble you aren’t primarily sexual in focus, but they are connected to messy relational dynamics in which you were ensnared, like codependency and emotional enmeshment. Perhaps fear triggers a moving sidewalk in your thoughts that carries you from distraction to distress to destructive patterns of thinking.

We have thoughts; we feel different things; we make behavioral choices and decisions. Trying to untangle and tease out all the components can be complicated. Whether this process occurs over a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, or days, we eventually arrive at conclusions. Many women describe the result of this moving sidewalk as a painful, hopeless place in their minds that eventually leads them to respond with less-than-helpful choices and actions.

Do you relate to this at all? If so, how? If this does not resonate with you, what has helped you to keep your thoughts off the moving sidewalk?

2 Corinthians 10:3–5 is one of the most quoted passages regarding our thought lives. Paul is defending his ministry against false teachers and the unbiblical ideas contained in their teachings. Just a few verses later in 11:1–3, we gain more insight into the unseen forces: Satan used false teaching to deceive and seduce the Corinthians’ minds away from devotion to Jesus. In addition to outside influences, our personal unbelief has effectively served as “false teachers” in our lives.

It’s important to recognize this so that we can learn how to take “every thought captive” to God’s truth in order to obey Christ. Rather than allowing our thinking to control us and lead to sin, we must let God’s Word control us and transform our thinking.

Sisters, sometimes we can be tempted to just want an easy, comfortable Christianity, can’t we? We often don’t want to do the hard work that results in a Christ-honoring, Bible-aligned thought life. Rather, we want to simply roll up to a drive-through, place an order through prayer, get what we want, and move on down the highway with a no-effort, no-cost faith. Here’s the problem with that: Such a highway doesn’t exist! As Romans 8:5–8 warns us, there is so much at stake when it comes to the posture of our thoughts.

For believers, over time, our belief systems and thought patterns are conformed more and more to God’s Word. Triggers will lose their power to tempt us towards sin and self as God’s Word becomes more real to us. Christ will be honored in our lives and relationships. Memories of certain images, stories, and experiences will fade over time, maybe completely, maybe not. But we will experience a huge change in how we respond to those memories and what choices we make when we’re triggered by them. The result will be a slow, steady transformation of our thoughts and lives becoming more and more like Jesus. This is what we have been created for!

Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application

  1. What do you learn from Psalm 139:1–2 and 23–24 about why God is so important when it comes to our thoughts? What does he do and provide that no one else, including ourselves, can do or provide?
  2. Isaiah 26:3 offers this amazing promise: “You will keep [her] in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because [she] trusts in you.” Does this promise comfort you or taunt you? Does it provoke hope or shame in your heart? Explain your answer as much as you are able.

This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 4 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.

Nobody wants to suffer, right? We know from experience how this broken world overwhelms us, and we know the suffering that our sinful choices bring. Yet the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are called to participate in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), along with the pain that accompanies “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12–13). Though we all experience trials and sufferings differently, the pain, heartache, and struggle on this side of heaven can feel wearisome and lead us to question God.

When we hear the word “suffering,” we think of things like broken relationships, chronic illness, cancer, or the loss of a loved one, but have you ever thought about struggling with temptations and sexual sin as a form of suffering? Many of us tend to dismiss our own experiences and minimize our suffering as we look at others who have what we perceive to be real suffering.

Sexual sin is one of the primary ways we seek comfort or escape in response to suffering. We give way to beliefs influenced by mistaken expectations of the Christian life. But to choose false comforts is to miss out on what delights God.

It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at our culture to realize that we love and crave comfort! Products, social media, and ads offer a life of ease, free of pain, with fulfilling romantic match-ups, financial security, appliances, and technology that do all the things we don’t want to do. Goods and services are daily marketed to us with the promise of relieving our suffering: Apps that allow you to filter your selfies, hook-up sites, online videos, streaming entertainment that consumes you for hours, day spas, plastic surgery, magic cures, and the latest, most successful dating site or marriage therapy technique all vie for our attention as we continually seek ease, comfort, and escape from suffering. The reality is that we can pursue these things for many reasons, but wanting to escape from the pain of life is frequently a significant driving force.

Sadly, the Christian life is too often presented as consistent with and affirming of this kind of comfortable lifestyle, but this understanding of the Christian life did not come from the Bible! Rather, the Bible is clear that living out our union with Christ means glory in the next life and suffering in this one. However, whether we suffer from life circumstances, persecution, or the costly battle against sin itself, we are promised great meaning, hope, and comfort, both in this life and in the one to come, in transforming into Christlikeness.

Of course, there is a sense in which it is natural and good to want to avoid suffering. It’s healthy to avoid someone’s betrayal, an illness, or living in the anguish of depression day after day. The Bible, though, never says that we are to attempt a pain-free life! In contrast, the world shouts loudly and persuasively that if we have the money, beauty, power, and will, we can escape suffering.

The world around us and our own sinful nature seek to dissuade us from this life of faith. In response to just about any suffering, sin offers an immediate, though deceptive, alternative to communion with Christ. Because of its drug-like pleasure and easy availability, sexual sin is one of the most powerful alternatives to gospel faith and comfort. Relational sin, which often accompanies sexual sin, also gives emotional highs and endorphin rushes that feel good now.

But faith in Christ and faith in sin are mutually exclusive; growth in one weakens the other. Just as habitually returning to sex to escape present suffering makes it harder for us to grasp the joy and hope of the gospel, so too will growing in love for Christ and in confidence in his promises give us strength and comfort to endure suffering for his sake

Romans 8:16–17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:13—Scripture abounds with statements that suffering is a basic component of the Christian life. Through these verses, God teaches us about proper expectations for the Christian life. Further, we often think of comfort as an absence of suffering, but one of God’s purposes of Christians experiencing suffering is that we would receive direct, personal comfort from God and, in turn, be able to use that experience to minister God’s comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).

The comforts of this life can be both addictive and deceptive. They tend to give us easy, immediate relief. What effect do you think sexual fantasy, sexual hookups, pornography, and other escapes have on your faith and hope in the gospel promises of resurrection and glory?

There are sweet blessings for God’s daughters as we courageously resist the temptation to rush towards the supposed comforts of sin. For example, Galatians 6:7–8 and Romans 8:5–8 spell out the benefits for “sowing to the Spirit” and the promises of God that can impact our lives in the present.

Although we would not choose to endure suffering, nothing is wasted in God’s economy; he uses our suffering to produce endurance, character, and hope, which transform us into being more like Christ. As believers, we have a strong assurance of hope.


Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application

  1. What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
  2. How do you typically respond to pain and suffering? Why do you think you choose those specific escapes? How well do those escapes, sexual or otherwise, offer relief to you in both the short run and the long run?

On April 9, 2021, Ellen Mary Dykas will be speaking at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference (TGCW21) in Indianapolis, IN. To access her recommended resource lists and speaker’s notes for the following breakout sessions, see the hyperlinks below with attached PDFs.

Breakout Session Round 1: Sexual Issues Women Face

When: April 9 at 1:00 PM

Description: When was the last time you attended a women’s brunch addressing sexual issues? Most likely, you haven’t! This breakout will address a variety of struggles that women face when it comes to sexuality. We’ll discuss sexual temptations and the pursuit of sin, and the trauma of being sinned against sexually. Come listen in as our panel shares honestly about these tough topics, keeping our focus on Jesus and the hope we have in him for transformation.

Breakout Session Round 2: Compassionate Care in a #MeToo World

When: April 9 at 2:30 PM

Description: The #Metoo movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment and brought accountability to those who have misused power and authority. This breakout will provide guidance on how to love our friends as they share with us about past (or current) sexual abuse. We’ll explore how to create redemptive communities where women can share their stories of abuse and trauma, and be compassionately helped in the process of healing and transformation available through Christ.


Recommended Resource Lists

Speaker Notes for Compassionate Care in a MeToo World

A few years ago, I made my first journey to Niagara Falls. I had seen pictures and videos and heard stories about this iconic landmark, but nothing could prepare me for the awe and wonder of seeing the falls up close. The sound was overwhelming. The mist spilled over into the parking lot. The sheer magnitude of this mammoth waterfall took my breath away.

For the first hour, I couldn’t get enough of viewing the falls from every angle possible, taking in the joy of feeling so small in comparison to something so glorious. But after three, four, then eight hours of being there, the dopamine rush in my brain dissipated. I no longer saw the falls with the same excitement or awe. They were just waterfalls—beautiful, yes, but I was ready to leave. I didn’t care to stay any longer.

The same could be said about sex. Sex is a wonderful gift from God to humanity, and every good feeling that accompanies sex is something God takes delight in, because he created it that way. He created our bodies to experience such soaring pleasure and excitement. He created husband and wife to know a depth of intimacy in sex that has no equal in other human relationships. He created sex to be a physically enthralling and intensely loving experience that makes husband and wife want to be nowhere else in the world except united to one another in those moments.

But then, it’s over. While the joy and intimacy of sex should last well beyond the moment, eventually, it’s time to move on to other good things. Holy, godly, loving sex is a wonderful experience, but it can’t fully satisfy our hearts, because God never designed it that way. God created Niagara Falls and sex, and both point beyond themselves to our Creator, who invites us into pleasures that are forevermore at his right hand.

All good, earthly experiences only satisfy to a certain point. Whether it is your favorite song, your favorite food, your favorite vacation spot, or your favorite person, they all have their limitations. C.S. Lewis put it best in Mere Christianity when he said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”¹

We’ve come to expect that every good experience has an expiration date. We all know the phrase, “Nothing good lasts forever.” But that’s not true, and it’s not the language of our hearts. Even though we find in this life that nothing fully satisfies, we still keep looking, hoping that eventually we’ll find what our hearts were made for. For all of those in Christ, we have found the One for whom our hearts were made.

God created our hearts to be satisfied fully in him alone. I know that some of you reading this might start to tune out because your experience of God doesn’t compare to the pleasures you find in this world. Your experience of worship, Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship often pales in comparison to food, sex, entertainment, and what the world holds up as “the good life.” If you balk at the idea that God alone can satisfy your heart, consider these two realities.

First, the life we live in the flesh, we live by faith. Faith is the instrument through which we delight in God in this life. Just as taste buds are required to enjoy food, so too faith is required to enjoy God. If you have found our triune God to be boring, unsatisfying, and a weak offering compared to the world’s delights, it is because you are coming to him on the basis of sight, not faith.

But if, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, you walk by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you, you will find that our God has no comparison, that he alone has the words of life. Every promise you’ll find in Scripture of life, delight, joy, and pleasure in the Lord are all eschatological realities that Christ himself has already entered into in his resurrection and ascension and freely gives to you through Spirit-wrought union with him. We must lay hold of these realities by faith, as they are not fully consummated realities yet.

Think of it this way. Jesus has already entered into heaven. Right now, he sits at the right hand of Father with every spiritual blessing. He is living in the fullness of resurrection life. If you are united to Christ by faith, Paul is so bold as to tell you that you are presently seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). The Father has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places through Christ (Ephesians 1:3). You not only died with Christ to sin, but you have also been raised with him as well! This present resurrection is only a spiritual resurrection, which is why we must walk by faith in “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Second, I want to challenge you to meditate on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Whatever you imagine heaven to be, it’s far better! Your mind has no capacity to even begin to comprehend what God has in store for you. While that should keep us humble about speculating what heaven will be like, it shouldn’t stop us from getting excited. To whet your appetite, let’s return to Niagara Falls.

Imagine going to Niagara Falls, and, instead of experiencing a slow diminishment of wonder and delight, your awe at the falls is not only sustained but also increases over time. This is what fellowship and communion with God will be like for all of eternity. Or, for you music lovers, just imagine listening to the same song on repeat thousands of times, and, each time you hear it, it’s sweeter than before! Worshipping the Lord for all of eternity will never get old. There will never come a point when we’ve had enough, when we’ll want to move on to something else.

Knowing God for all of eternity will be like climbing a mountain range. Hiking towards the peak, you expect to reach the end of the range, but, as you come to the summit, you look out ahead to see a dozen more peaks in the distance.² Even in eternity, God will still be the infinite Creator, and we will still be finite creatures. We’ll never exhaust the deepest mysteries of our God. There will always be secret things that only belong to the Lord, but what he will reveal to his people will sustain us for all of eternity and will only get sweeter over time!

Sex is a wonderful gift that God wants married couples to delight in, but, as my former colleague David White liked to say, “In eternity, it will be laughable to think about someone bemoaning a lack of sex here on this earth.” Why will it be laughable? Because we will have everything that sex was pointing towards. Both the delight and the unsatisfied longings that accompany sex should point us towards heaven!

I can think of no better way to end this short reflection than the final stanza of “Amazing Grace.”

When we’ve been there ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Then when we first begun.³

 


¹ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 136–137.

² This analogy of the mountain range did not originate with me, but, at this time, I am unaware of any other original source.

³ John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in Trinity Hymnal (Rev. ed.), no. 460. It is commonly known that Newton did not write this stanza in the original hymn. All that is known is that this version of the hymn was arranged by Edwin O. Excell in 1900.

Awhile back, when I led a discipleship group for women seeking to overcome sexual sin, I was amazed at how prevalent abuse was in the stories of these dear sisters in Christ. It’s not that abuse is an unusual part of the backstory of women who come to us; sadly, most who reach out to us for help have experienced sexual abuse in one form or another. What made this group different, though, was the depth of trauma that was so common across the board among group members. I took in their courageous sharing with sobriety, heartbreak, anger, and confusion.

The very questions that many of them asked were now flooding my thoughts: “Why, God? Why did you allow this? What good could possibly come from this? How are they supposed to trust you when you didn’t stop this from happening?”

These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. It is too much for me to sort through why God allows what he does. It is too great for me to discern whether sin is to blame or if it is just a result of the fallenness of this world—or both. I admit that I have given in to demanding answers from God as I have attempted to sort through confusion created by others’ suffering.

In those times, I turn to Isaiah 55:8–9, which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than yours and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There are answers that my finite mind can’t understand, and it lies in the character of who God is and the fact that he knows all of the things I don’t.

But, as helpers, what are we to do when God allows us to come face to face with what seem like “splashes of hell”?¹

If we’re going to truly identify with Jesus in this world, it’s important to realize a few things as a helper. First, hearing traumatic stories is hard, but it is a part of our calling as believers to bear with one another, and Jesus is compassionate to us in this process. Second, we can hear, hold, and steward these stories wisely.

Hearing Traumatic Stories Is Difficult

In Genesis 34, we read about Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was horrifically raped by a man named Shechem. This chapter largely focuses on her brother’s response to the rape, which resulted in his anger boiling over into murder as a form of retaliation. But consider for a moment what it would be like to sit with Dinah. What anguish would you hear her heart express? What fears did this experience cause to rise up in her? What questions is she struggling to find answers to? It would be an understatement to say that her answers would be hard to hear and, most likely, grieve our hearts.

Now let’s consider Jesus: We see him entering into these broken spaces with people. He knew the story of the Samaritan woman who had slept with and married many men (John 4) and the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1–11). We don’t know the details of those actual relationships and what exactly those women endured leading up to the moment they encountered Jesus; we only get a glimpse at where they ended up. Yet Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by their sin or suffering. He saw them and engaged them through his questions, listened to them, offered hope, and even offered himself.

We can do this too, but we need to be prepared: Hearing traumatic stories is difficult. We need to be aware of a few possible temptations for us helpers.

  1. Dependence on self. Many of us can rely on ourselves to heal, fix, and come up with answers for pain that often doesn’t have easy solutions.
  2. Pride. Our desire to help can get mixed in with pride that convinces us, “Look at what a great helper I am by hearing such traumatic stories!” Or we can begin to think someone needs us in order to get better.
  3. Avoidance. In many ways, it is easier to ignore hard things. We put our heads in the sand and pretend it away, or we even run away all together.

We need to remember that we aren’t entrusted with abuse stories unless they have first been heard, seen, and known by Jesus. He cares for the sufferer and for us, the one called alongside those who have endured horrific pain.

Dane Ortlund says in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress. His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain.”²

Holding Difficult Stories Can Be Done Wisely

So what should we do when someone comes to us and wants to open up, to share a painful experience of abuse with us? What about childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment at work? This is a wide and deep topic with lots of necessary detail that would need to be explored in each situation.

Let me offer four key starting points to keep in mind.

  1. Pray. Prayer must be utilized often as we confront this type of evil. Pray for wisdom to know what God is inviting you into as a helper, for God to guard your own heart as you listen, and for heart healing and comfort for the person sharing.
  2. Listen and learn. Don’t worry about having the perfect theological answer or the right thing to say. Intentional listening and seeking to understand the person in front of you will help eliminate your responses that lean towards, “I don’t know what to do with what I’m hearing.” Jesus was the ultimate question asker, and he already knows the ins and outs of a person’s heart and situation.
  3. Get the help you need. As we have talked about, being a helper in these situations can take its own toll on you. Hold the person’s story with honesty and integrity, but invite others to know you in this so they can pray specifically for you. In addition, seek safe spaces to talk about how the weight of these stories is impacting your heart.
  4. Help the person connect with someone trained in trauma care if needed. Often, the most helpful and loving thing we can do is to acknowledge that we care yet aren’t equipped to address certain experiences of trauma. So, seek to help this person connect with someone who is trained to help in these areas. Practical ways to do this are offering to research professionals in your region, making a phone call to learn more about their specific areas of focus, and providing contact information to the person in need. This doesn’t mean we eliminate ourselves from the situation, though, because God gives us the Body of Christ, and there is wisdom in coming alongside hurting people together.

People who are willing to begin facing abuse and trauma are courageous. To invite someone else to know about that truth is even braver. So, while it is an honor to be entrusted with such stories, we, as helpers, need to be prepared for how those stories will impact our hearts. We also need to be prepared that removing the blinders of the depth of evil and suffering around us is often painfully uncomfortable.

When my co-leader and I finished the group I mentioned earlier, we marveled, with tears, at what we had witnessed in the lives of the group members. They had grown forward, healing had gone a bit deeper, and the pull of sin was lessening. Their stories of trauma had changed us as we bore witness to Jesus, the One who draws near to the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1–3).

Jesus was moved to compassion when he saw the needs of those around him (Matthew 9:36 and 14:14). As we sit with those who have experienced abuse and trauma, may we be moved to compassion, knowing that, although it is hard to hear such stories, Jesus is the one who redeems, restores, and enables us to hold challenging stories wisely.


¹ Joni E. Tada described suffering this way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU6q1r1Z9jg&t=2s, last accessed 2/24/21.

² Dane Ortlund. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton: IL, Crossway, 2020. 46.

Join Chris and Shalee as they talk about how to help parents whose children self-identify as LGBTQ+. They discuss common struggles and challenges that Christian parents face as they process the initial discovery, hold on to the truth of God’s Word, and walk forward in a loving relationship with their children. 

What parents need most when they first discover that their children identify as LGBTQ+: Someone who can listen to parents’ experience of shock, grief, pain, and confusion is what they most need in these initial stages.

Specific challenges that parents now face in their relationships with their children: Parents need support in figuring out how to navigate their relationships with their sons and daughters, love them with integrity before God, and trust the Lord’s sovereign purposes.

Unexpected findings on this journey: Parents can learn how God works to draw parents to himself, making them more like Christ as they persevere through this trial.

Impact on the helper: It is a great privilege to walk with hurting parents, to be trusted with the most sensitive matters, and to witness strong faith and courage in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

“What will I do if they make me sign something that goes against my biblical beliefs?”

“How will I feed my family if I lose my job?”

“If we lose federal funding by staying faithful to our convictions, how will our organization survive?”

No doubt many of you have already been asking these very questions in light of bills like the Equality Act, which pose genuine threats to expressions of religious freedom in the United States. To be clear, very real injustices, violence, and hatred of people claiming an LGBTQ+ identity should be abhorrent to all Christians who honor God. Harvest USA is passionate that all people are made in the image of God and deserve to be cared for, respected, and treated with honor and dignity. But Christians are right to be concerned about the government forcing individual Christians or Christian organizations to do things that would go against their beliefs.

While the Equality Act may or may not dramatically change the limits of religious freedom in America, it is hard to deny the general direction that our country is headed in. The Church must face the reality that it is no longer advantageous to be a Christian in the larger culture. For a long time, it was considered a boost to your job resume to attend church regularly, and, to this day, it still seems a prerequisite for the highest public offices in our nation.

But, more and more, we are feeling and experiencing the liabilities that come with faithfully identifying with Jesus Christ. The cross is not only foolish to our culture; it is increasingly seen as dangerous. Faithfully holding to a biblical sexual ethic in the years to come will become even more costly for the church of Jesus Christ. So I ask you, as I need to ask myself, “Have you counted the cost of following Christ?”

Jesus told a great crowd in Luke 14:26–27, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

This passage, and many others like it, shares words that the Church in America has always needed to hear. But often, to our spiritual detriment, these warnings have felt largely inapplicable in our lives. Our expectations for life in America have often shown a blatant denial of Paul’s words that, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

But every believer, every church, every Christian organization in America is being called at this moment to do some spiritual accounting and boldly face the real cost of following Jesus. While I know that I still have much to pray through and many fears that need to be continually submitted to my high priest, I thank the Lord that he has already given me countless examples of men and women at Harvest USA who are showing me what it means to count that cost!

What do I mean by this?

Much of the work we do with men and women seeking out help for sexual struggles revolves around one central question: “Is Jesus worthy of your trust and complete submission?” One of the biggest reasons we often go back to our sins of choice is that we don’t believe that God will take care of us. As Isaiah described it, instead of trusting God to be our light in the darkness, we light our own torches, which results in torment (Isaiah 50:10–11).

The husband who is unwilling to confess his sexual sin to his wife doesn’t believe that God will bring him through the relational pain that would inevitably follow. And so he continues to play the role of the perfect husband, all the while sinking deeper into hidden shame and misery.

The single woman who desperately wants to be known, loved, cherished, and cared for seems to have found what she’s looking for in another woman. She is faced with the gut-wrenching choice of being offered two antithetical paths, wishing she could hold onto Christ while also pursuing what she feels would make her happy.

The young man who, from an early age, has struggled to fit in with his peers finds himself more drawn to his mother than his father, his sisters than his brothers, and even female clothing and makeup. Now he feels the daily pressure from the wider culture to embrace the narrative that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body and that to deny this reality would be to live a lie.

The wife whose husband has gravely sinned against her in committing adultery is now faced with the excruciating call to forgive her husband, and pray for him, while her own world is collapsing all around her.

The parents whose child tells them that she is transgender threatens to cut off all relational connection with them if they do not embrace her choice to transition. They desperately want to maintain relationship with their child, but they feel stuck about how to do that.

Each of these men and women are, in their own ways, being forced to count the cost of following Christ. For most of them, this cost is not financial, but relational. It is a sobering reality to sit with a man and call him to do something that may change his life forever. It is heart-wrenching to have to tell him that his obedience may not result in the outcome that he wants. I’ve felt my body shake as I imagine the very real possibility of a future wrought with loneliness, rejection, and difficult consequences as a result of his obedience.

But there are few moments in my life as precious as seeing these men and women count that cost and do so with genuine hope and joy. When someone decides to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death, I’ve never seen them do so despairingly. Without exception, I always see a measure of hope, peace, and even joy as they follow their good Shepherd. If only we could see what is happening spiritually when the Holy Spirit brings that conviction and hope. I firmly believe that I have witnessed miracles in our office that exceed the wonder of walking on water. I have seen brothers and sisters boldly and courageously step out into the storm with their eyes fixed upon Christ! I have seen young men struggling with same-sex attraction, never knowing if God will grant them a spouse, boldly testify that God is their portion, both in this life and in the next. I have seen husbands resolve to confess their sin of adultery to their wives, knowing that it may lead to the end of their marriages. I have seen wives graciously extend costly forgiveness to their husbands, even when their churches and their own families were opposed it.

We get regular front-row seats into the stories of fellow saints carrying heavy crosses. But here’s the key: They don’t carry them alone. None of them do this in their own strength. They do so through abiding in Christ and through genuine fellowship with his Body. The Church in America will not survive if our relationships with one another only stay on the surface. We will not bear up under the pressure if Jesus is not our life and deepest satisfaction.

You may be reading this and asking yourself, “Will I have the strength to lose anything in order to follow Christ?” If you’re concerned with your response, ask yourself these four vital questions:

  1. Have I learned the secret of having plenty, and being full, through Christ who strengthens me? If you haven’t learned Christian contentment in seasons of plenty, you won’t be ready for a season of hunger and want.
  2. Have I been getting through life as a functional lone ranger, or do I have brothers and sisters who truly know me? In times of peace and ease, our sense of need for one another can go numb. But when the true cost of following Christ is put before you, you shouldn’t expect to make the right decision on your own.
  3. Is Jesus my portion in this life and the next? God describes himself in Scripture as a generous Father who knows not only how to provide for his children’s needs but who also loves to give us an abundance of good gifts that show his lavish character. But more than the gifts he gives, God wants us to ultimately rejoice in him, the greatest gift to his people. If you don’t love Jesus more than anything right now, you won’t be ready to lose whatever is required of you for his sake and the gospel.
  4. Am I seeking first his Kingdom and righteousness? Jesus knows that we are prone to anxiety about our earthly needs, and, as our good Shepherd, he doesn’t merely chastise us for our concerns. Instead, he shows us how to live a life of genuine peace and hope. To paraphrase Matthew 6:33, Jesus basically says to his people, “Focus your energy on the Kingdom, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Working at Harvest USA has shown me that it is possible to hate even my own life as a faithful disciple of Christ. I’ve seen so many men and women do so in our offices to the glory of God. And our Lord’s promise to us is that, if we lose our life for his sake and the gospel’s, then we will save it (Mark 8:35).


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