31 Dec 2014
The call came from a PCA pastor’s wife. “John, an elder’s wife asked me a question recently which I thought I knew how to answer. However, the more we talked the more I realized, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ I soon realized it was more complicated than I thought at first.”
The elder’s wife had asked, “Now that gay marriage is legal in our state, if a gay couple begins to attend our church and if one or both of them claimed faith in Christ, would we encourage them to separate? How can we stand against something which is now legal?” She went on to say, “And we certainly wouldn’t encourage them to separate if there were children involved, would we? I mean, would we want their children’s experience of Christianity to be: ‘My mom became a Christian, and it destroyed our family’”?
I heard a similar dilemma in another pastor’s phone call. In his church’s membership class, the issue of homosexuality came up, and several people who desired to join the church expressed support both of homosexuality and gay marriage. While they themselves were not gay, they nevertheless supported and agreed with those who were.
These situations are happening in conservative churches right now. How do we think about these things? First, we need to remember that people coming into our churches today come out of a culture inundated with post-modern, totally secularistic beliefs. And while we all bring our faulty and fallen thinking into our relationship with Christ, it must be our job, as leaders in the church, to offer venues to openly discuss these things and offer sound biblical teaching.
As I result, I encourage all pastors and church leadership to begin addressing these issues in membership classes (and other venues as well). It is naïve of us to believe our people are on the same page in how they think about sex and sexuality. Please consider spending an hour or so in membership classes talking about God’s intention for sex and sexuality and why God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. If God’s very first words to man and woman were about sex (Genesis 1:28), why are we so afraid to talk about it?
One PCA church recently contacted us because several people in the congregation had come out in one year. As the Session moved to enter into these situations with gospel mercy and truth, several families ended up leaving the church, having felt victim to a “bait and switch” framework. In other words, the church prided itself in being known as a church of love and mercy, yet when members found out that the church saw homosexuality as sin, they felt betrayed. A lot of turmoil resulted which, now several years down the line, is still being felt in the church. Much of this could have been avoided had the leadership spoken directly about biblical sexuality. Our church community is always impacted by the culture more than we realize regarding these issues. Even those with a more solid grasp of the Scriptures are being impacted.
Much of the turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided had the leadership addressed these issues in some of the “entry points” in the church, like small groups, membership classes, etc.
Harvest USA is here to help your church leadership in this area. Please contact us if we can be of help. We’d love to talk with your church staff and elder boards/leadership teams about this. If you’re within a few hours of the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh area, we can do this in person. If you’re farther away, we can do this with a Skype or WebEx meeting. We’re here to serve God’s church and leaders.
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).
This verse gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles. The first step is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having acknowledged your sin before God and a trusted person (see previous blog post), now Jesus commands and enables you to “stand up and walk” by faith. What does it mean to “put on Christ?” It means three things:
- Seek consistent fellowship with God through his word and in prayer. This seems so basic that often we overlook it. Nothing, however, can replace cultivating our relationship with Jesus. When sexual sin has been a secret, shame-provoking part of a person’s life, often the heart has been dulled in devotion to Christ. Living water and fresh nourishment must be feasted upon regularly to fill and satisfy a hungry heart.
- Cultivate authentic relationships with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationship with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7, which connects one’s walk with God to one’s walk with other believers.) God has designed our faith to be personal and intimate with him, but not apart from rich involvement in the life of other believers in the church. Do you have at least two people in your life with whom you can allow yourself to be fully known and prayed for? To be encouraged and discipled by? If you don’t, begin asking the Lord for such friends as these. It’s that important!
- Seek opportunities to love and serve others. There is grace, comfort, and joy to be poured into us and through us. We were not designed by God to be receptacles but conduits of his love and mercy. Look for opportunities to reach out to someone and show them love and care. For this you were made:“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Did you notice that I’ve said nothing regarding sexual sin in the advice I’ve given? That’s intentional! Most women who have struggled sexually have spent so much time focusing on “sin management” or battling against temptation, that they have neglected cultivating their relationships—with Jesus and with other sisters in the Lord.
Jesus, not the sin itself, must be the one upon whom you fix your gaze as you seek to walk away from sin!
The second step is to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While cultivating and building up relationships is crucial, especially as a first step, you still need to know how to fight the battle! Overcoming sin patterns, including sexual sin, is never something we “happen upon” or coast into. No, sin must be intentionally fought as we flee temptations and deal directly with the heart issues from which they are triggered.
- Identify and then avoid and flee triggers and temptations. What are the situations, influences, people, and emotions which seem to weaken your resolve to obey God? Is it being alone? Watching certain types of entertainment? Anger, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and fear can push us to crumble in the face of temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 instructs believers to flee temptation as we receive the escape path he provides. To run on that path of escape increasingly means we must learn to discern when we are creeping near to sin. Ask yourself, “What helps me to sin, and how can I avoid these influences?”
- Fast from good gifts which are not good for you. One common struggle we all have is taking good things from God and then worshipping them—allowing them to mean more to your heart than God himself. Are there things that you use or have that, while either enjoyable or useful, are increasingly pulling you into temptation and sin? Your smartphone? Your laptop? Places you are visiting or people you are hanging around with? Will fasting from these things be difficult or inconvenient? Sure. I challenge you to try this. Hard as it might be, this may be a necessary step in order to focus your time and attention on Christ and recapture your thought life.
- Refuse to isolate or hide. It’s been said that the power of secret sin is in the secret. To “walk in the light” (1 John 1: 1-9) and to “renounce secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I said above about cultivating authentic relationships.
These initial steps, walked out day by day, little by little, over a lifetime, will lead you increasingly into the spacious freedom which is ours through Jesus Christ. All of this is waiting for you. May you find in Jesus the humility to run to him—or be carried to him by others who know you—in order to discover the life you really want.
A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)
Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.
Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.
Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.
How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?
If you’re stuck on a mat . . .
Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.
First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.
Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.
Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!
Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.
18 Nov 2014
Atlantic Monthly has a distressing but highly informative article on teen sexting, “Why Kids Sext:” http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/why-kids-sext/380798/
It’s a great read. But, be prepared to be distressed and a bit unnerved.
It’s not just distressing because teens are taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to others (usually boyfriends), but what appears to be a “so what” attitude about doing this by these same kids. While the majority of teens who sext do so consensually, there are still terrible unintended consequences that can occur, and the article points out several. More disturbing are those situations where some teen girls cave in to relentless pressure to send photos to boys. That’s not only manipulative; it can turn criminal when the naked photo of a minor is distributed online.
But in spite of attitudes changing about this activity, one thing also remains: the double-standard of girls losing out and being shamed, while boys are seemingly immune from consequences. In the ongoing descent into sexual chaos which our culture pushes, some things never change.
It’s an article worth reading by every parent. But what should a parent do once they’ve read it? Let me suggest four ways to respond.
One, I suggest you don’t react in fear and grab your child’s cell phone and demand to look at what’s in it (though you might very much want to do that!). And, don’t rush to punish your teen if he or she has done something like this. You won’t win your child’s heart by over reacting, and that’s the key here. Behavior is important (because behavior has real-world consequences), but character is paramount, and helping your child understand her heart is what will ultimately help her to shape her behavior to do what is right (and honor God in the process).
Two, don’t shut down access to technology, either. Taking away the cellphone or restricting Internet use won’t really work in the long run. Technology is too embedded in our kids’ lives (and ours), and trying to shut down what is ubiquitous, and what society is increasingly relying on, will only drive your teen underground. Trying to control our kids’ lives will only train them to be deceptive. It’s not control you want over your child’s life; it’s involvement in their life.
Three, parents need to wisely interact with their teens regarding their use of technology. Yes, they need monitoring. They need supervision and guidance. Think long and hard before giving your young child a smartphone. They are fun, informative, fascinating—and potentially dangerous They can be portals to some of the darkest corners of life. Are your children using smartphones, tablets, laptops, video game devices? Unless you oversee their usage and know where they are going on the web, they WILL access bad sites and maybe engage with people who can seriously harm them. And you won’t know about any of this, because web browsers are now almost universally private when it comes to concealing the history of accessed websites. Effective filters and accountability software should be as mandatory in homes as smoke-detectors. Seriously.
Four, start talking to your children about sex and their sexuality. The silence of parents is driving our kids to the most broken places on the planet to learn about sex: from the Internet, and increasingly they are emulating the practices and standards of pornography as being normative for sex. But God’s message on sex is that it is a gift to be given in a committed, covenantal union between a husband and wife, and that protecting it until such time comes is not only ideal, but it is also realistic. Not easy in today’s over-sexualized culture, but not unattainable, either. Honoring God with our sexuality is worth pursuing—for ourselves, and for our children.
We can help our children navigate this journey. But they need us to speak up. They need us to be involved, helping them to see and understand what God has said about using his gift of sex, and how their hearts need continual direction to align their sexuality with sound, wise, life-affirming biblical practices.
The benefits and blessings of managing their sexuality are life-long. When you show them the way, you’ll be learning how to live with this awesome gift, too.
To learn more how to talk to your kids about sex and how to oversee their use of technology, go to http://harvest-usa-store.com/ and check out Harvest USA’s mini books, like iSnooping on your Kid: Parenting in an Internet Age and What’s Wrong with a Little Porn when You’re Single?
11 Nov 2014
Below is a brief excerpt from John Freeman’s book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, from New Growth Press.
Men struggling with sexual sin are, at deeper levels in their lives, God-haters and idol-makers. A third element that goes on under the surface in the men who come into our office is that they are accomplished game–players, juggling all the seen and unseen parts of their lives. I see this game-player category in virtually everyone who struggles with sexual sin, but more so with believers. Why? Because in the church, struggles are kept secret from others as the pressure of appearances takes over. You are accepted if you have it all together, but you are viewed differently if you admit you have problems or difficulties. This is especially so when the struggle involves sex, with its attendant shame and guilt. In other words, Christians believe they should not have these problems. The church should not be this way, but oftentimes the “culture” of a church creates this relational dysfunction.
This was made clear to me a number of years ago when our ministry placed carefully-worded ads in local newspapers and magazines, aimed at those who might be questioning what was going in their lives. The short ads would say something like, “Porn Struggle? Help Is Available” or . . . “Does Porn Have a Grip on You? There’s Hope for You.” When we ran those ads, we could get up to forty calls a day.
As I talked with people who responded to these ads, I noticed something: A good number who called were non-Christians, but the ad spoke to them with some kind of clarity and hope anyway. One of the verses that has always been foundation for our outreach is Proverbs 14:13, “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” No matter how much people’s lives look put together as they bask in their sexual freedom, there can still be a lot of pain and hurt underneath—even in an unbeliever!
I realized something else about those who initially came to us as unbelievers. If men came into our ministry, joined one of our Bible study/support groups, and then eventually came to a first-time, saving knowledge and faith in Christ, they often had a much better prognosis for dealing with their sexual sin biblically and sincerely. They had a healthier journey of growing in Christ and “putting off” their sexual sin than did believers who came to us after living disjointed, compartmentalized lives for many years.
How could that be? First, you’ve got to realize that, if you are a believer dealing with struggles. . . no one may know about your hidden struggles because you’ve designed it that way! Maybe no one even suspects the deep waters of your heart in this area and the efforts you make to keep it all working. People can go on for years with these heart-crushing, life-devastating behaviors. No one in your life may ever catch on, and you’re worse off because of it. If you are ever going to deal with your heart with integrity, you will have to unlearn all the coping mechanisms you’ve developed to function in both worlds—your sin-oriented, secret world as well as your “Christian” world.
We have a wonderful man named Bob Heywood on staff in our national office in Philadelphia. He disciples men and works with some of our small groups. His is an amazing story of how the Lord broke into his heart over a dozen years ago, as he lived one of these game-playing, compartmentalized lives. Bob talks about the way his half-hearted Christian life was able to co-exist for so long with his sexual addiction. Bob was an active elder at his church. . . But he had hidden problems that were compounded by the fact that he was able to get away with living a double life. Bob says, “As I began giving in to this temptation, I realized I was getting in way over my head. I felt like I couldn’t stop. I’ll never forget when I came to what I now consider the worst soul-deadening conclusion ever in my life. And that was, ‘Maybe I can do both. Maybe I can be a leader in the church and look at porn at the same time.’”
When Bob teaches and shares his testimony now, he often uses Proverbs 7:13-18 to describe his experience. In that passage, Solomon describes the way a prostitute seduces a young man.
She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.”
Bob uses this vivid picture to say that he was more like the prostitute than the seemingly innocent victim of someone’s charms and seduction. Bob will tell you that for years he did what the prostitute did—he “offered sacrifices and paid vows,” thinking this would take care of his spiritual problem and relieve him of guilt and shame. In other words, he did all the Christian stuff—went to church, read his Bible, prayed, put money in the offering basket, etc.—just as the woman in the passage carried out her religious activities. At the same time, he spent twenty years viewing adult videos. Bob’s Christian life had become a works-oriented, graceless world where doing was more important than being. His carefully crafted façade allowed him to function in two worlds and fool everyone because he looked really good—at least, on the outside.
When it comes to sexual sin. . . men can live for years without anyone knowing how they’re misusing sex. The secret nature of sexual sin allows it to go on for years without anyone ever knowing. Therein lies its deepest power to do soul and heart damage. It can lead to dozens of years of being a game-player, even as a Christian man. How does it happen? Easy. We learn to compartmentalize, that is, to wall off many parts of our lives early on. . . We can be this person over here, that person over there. And the person, even as a Christian, who learns to do that at age fifteen is soon the person doing that at twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, or fifty-five. . .
Being a game-player can be exhausting. But one of the most deadly consequences of learning how to live with a pornified heart is the inevitable corrosion that takes place in our hearts over years. The problem, though, is that you won’t know that your own heart is decaying! You may be the last to know. . .
The real effects of a corroded heart
Our sexual sins not only cause our hearts to go dead, but they also keep us from being who and what we should be as men, husbands, and fathers. Due to years of sexual temptations and unforsaken sins, our neglected hearts will rob everyone in our lives of something! There are at least three ways that this happens.
First, a continued history of failures, a commitment to playing games with these issues and with the Lord, and a commitment to silence will rob you of your effectiveness as a man of God, as a husband, and as a father. It will rob you of the gospel words you’re called to speak on a regular basis to your own heart and to the hearts of those closest to you. You can no longer preach the gospel to yourself with authority. It falls on deaf ears. You cease to believe it for yourself, even though you may go through the motions of acting like you believe it. This can be true even if you are in ministry.
Think about it. You lose your bout with Internet porn on a regular basis. You’re filled with guilt and shame most of the time, with the harsh realization that you’re living in defeat all the time. Now, are you going to be engaged emotionally and practically the way you should be with your wife? Are you going to be proactive in speaking into her life and your children’s lives the way you know Gods wants? Probably not. You know the reality of your record, and it’s zapped your relational strength, vitality, and integrity. You’ve come to see yourself as a fake, a phony, a sham. . .
Second, this heart-neglect robs men of their confidence in, love for, and excitement about things of God, especially about the gospel. How could it not? When you know deep down what’s going on in your heart, how you’ve been taken captive by your own untamed desires—and when you know your own record of defeat—it robs you of the love for the gospel you once had.
Third, our unaddressed struggles, our sexual idols and compulsions also rob God! How do they do that? . . . The counterfeit sexual idols we bow to vie for a deep place in our hearts, a place where only God was meant to dwell.
So, does your continual inaction, resignation, and inattention to your heart rob God? You bet. Do they rob you and those around you? Absolutely. They keep you from being fully available to God and others. They rob the body of Christ in a very real way. Your secret sexual idolatries, your addictions, and your compulsions keep you from being who you were called to be. In our addictions, our hearts seek attachments that cripple our image-bearing capabilities and the exercise of our gifts to bless others. This is one of the saddest, most damaging consequences of our hidden sin—everyone loses out. . .
Real change isn’t measured just by what we stop doing. It’s always measured in character change; whereas your former preoccupation with yourself robbed others, now you begin to be more interested in others than yourself. You see yourself wanting to bless others, desiring their good and not just your own. You no longer hide what you are doing; instead, you are increasingly open with others about your struggles and faults. As one man said to me about his decades of hidden sexual struggles: “I’ve been a liar all my life.” But now, he is learning how to be a truth-teller, to his wife and to everyone he knows. Character grows when we live for God and serve others. One of the ways God starts to change us is to move us to start dealing with our sexual idols.
What does it take to want to start walking in repentance and find the help you know you desperately need? How do you get there? What is the path to freedom? How do you start to live with sexual integrity when you know you don’t have the human resources to do so? You have to be willing for God to do something new and to begin to see yourself as you’ve never done before.
John’s intent in this chapter is to give hope to sexual strugglers who feel the pain and pressure of their hiding (from God and others), yet feel either hopeless to do anything about it or falsely believe that they can battle it on their own. The book lays out a way to go forward into freedom from sexual sin. Check out the testimony that follows for one man’s story of hope and change.
You can take a look at John’s book by clicking the following link – here
Stepping into the Light after a Lifetime of Shadow Living: One man’s testimony of transformation
When does the healing from a life time of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? How many days must I make it without giving in yet again to temptation? These are questions I struggled with for years before finding any answers.
At ten I found a hidden stash of pornographic magazines that proved irresistible to my young mind. I began a life long journey of living life in the shadows, one foot in the world of my family, church, and jobs; the other foot hiding in the darkness of fantasy and sin and increasing despair.
The first thirty years I was successful in hiding my sin from everyone, but like most men enslaved to pornography, I got caught. More than just my sin was exposed; my whole life crumbled. My wife discovered not only that I looked at porn, but also that I was not the man, husband, and father I pretended to be. For the next twenty years, I struggled to be the man I was supposed to be while wresting with the man I actually was.
Years of disappointing and isolated self-effort got me nowhere. I would go for as long as six months before falling. Then the hiding cycle, with its lies and deception, began all over again. Even when I had some success from engaging with porn, my heart and mind remained trapped in the lies I was living. The biggest lie I believed was that no one could possibly love me if they really knew me. That drove me to believe that I had to fight this battle on my own. I could stop doing this, and no one had to know the real me, especially the ugly parts that I carefully kept hidden.
But this also meant that I was cutting God out of all this. You see, if God was a part of my change, I knew things would be really messy. While I had prayed for decades for God to rescue me from my sin, I also was dimly aware that I was terrified he would answer that prayer. Did I want to be clean? Yes! But I knew God wanted more of me than just being a man of sexual integrity. He wanted all of me, not just that part of me that needed fixing. I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships. With God in the mix, I would be completely exposed for who I was, and in my mind I was unlovable.
Did I want to test the limits of everyone’s love? No! I’m not a stupid guy. I’d rather remain hidden. But to change, that would mean no more hiding. I would need to live fully in the open. No more lies, half-lies, rationalizations, excuses; I would need to confess, admit failure, acknowledge how I hurt people, be a truth-teller, and learn to live fully in the present without escaping into my fantasy world.
Only the last few years has that elusive healing finally begun. What happened?
I joined a community of men who also struggled.
When I started to meet with other men I found out I was not alone. I was pushed to examine my life in a safe environment. There is no judgment on Monday nights when we meet. I found I could confess my lies and struggles, while also helping other men who also struggled. In this group I learned to trust Jesus. I learned that I was not unlovable, but loved beyond anything I could imagine. I knew all along that Jesus died for my sin, but I didn’t know it deep in my bones, deep in my heart. The reality of Jesus and his love for me is now being woven into the tapestry of my life; it is becoming a part of who I am.
I discovered that I cannot learn, much less know, of the love of Jesus by myself. I need men, sinners like myself, to remind me of Jesus and how his costly love pursued and embraced me. Do we hold each other accountable for our sin? Absolutely, but even more important we hold each other accountable for seeing Jesus at work in our lives. The question we ask over and over of each other is this: Is Jesus enough for us?
For far too many years the answer was no. Fleeing to porn to escape was my instinctive reaction to pain and difficulties. Now when asked that question, I stop and think and step out in faith, knowing that he is. When I attend a service in my church and look around the sanctuary and see those men whom I meet with, I am reminded of Jesus, because these men know the real me and love me anyway. When I come home now, it is not in fear, but in relief, knowing that my long-suffering wife knows who I am and like Jesus loves me anyway.
Is Jesus enough for you?
14 Jan 2014
Temptation is suffering
“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.
Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.
“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?
In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.
Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)
What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure. James teaches, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14, ESV).
God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure. But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.
God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.
1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!
2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle. The Christian life is a fight. We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Temptation trains us in obedience. The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” There is no growth in holiness without a fight. If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls! We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.
It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials. Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!
Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.
3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 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.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.
This is not abstract theology Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically! “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.
Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees. That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!
There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!
The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.
The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?
Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
In another excellent article, “God Gives the Best Sex,” Dan Wilson explains that God’s grace for the unmarried is the key to true joy as well as living out a godly sexuality. Because the idea of sexuality is often equated with sexual activity, those of us who are unmarried often miss the rich blessings God can pour out upon us as sons and daughters and as sexual beings. Godly unmarried sexuality is more than a call to abstain from sexual activity. Christ offers treasures to all who seek to live in a way that is pleasing to God as image bearers who are also sexual beings, including the unmarried.
Let us consider godly unmarried sexuality with three questions: What is it? How do we live it out? Why would we want to live it out?
WHAT is godly unmarried sexuality?
When it comes to discussions of sexuality, singles (from the never-married teen, to the senior-something single-again, and all those in-between) are often counseled in these sorts of ways: “Don’t! Be pure! Wait! Hands off!” “Guard your heart!” “It’s really not that great anyway!” “It’s great, but it’s not for you, unless you’re ‘burning’…then get married!”
To a degree, these words ring true. The unmarried are to strive to be sexually pure and chaste—but then so are married folks. Chastity is sexually lived out in a pure way; it is a commitment to keep sex in its proper place. Author Lauren Winner explains in Real Sex that, “…chastity is the free choice to live one’s sexual life in accord with Christian values—therefore everyone is called to live chastely” (p. 134). For the unmarried person, this means a life of purity through abstinence. For the married person, it means a life of purity through faithfulness. All who live in God’s world belong to him (Psalm 24:1, 2) and are designed and called to live a life of purity.
However, there is a profound reality of what godly unmarried sexuality is not. It is not merely about what we are doing or not doing with our genitals! Sadly, sexuality is often reduced to a definition along these lines, but it is crucial to have a fuller understanding of it while also being honest that we are embodied souls. To be an embodied soul means we are image bearers that live on earth in bodies which are created with the capacity for sexual expression. Sexuality involves our whole being—body and soul—and refers to how we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings.
Godly sexuality is something that is pleasing to God, acknowledging the value of God as the giver of sex, while keeping Christ central. While there is much overlap between married and unmarried sexuality, singles’ sexuality has unique features. Here are five basic principles that govern godly sexuality and which we will apply to the unmarried person:
1. It is Jesus-centric and Jesus exalting. In God’s world, Jesus is central to all aspects of life. Life is about valuing God at all times and in all ways. This means that the way we live out our sexuality as unmarried persons will find power and joy as Jesus is the focus of our deepest desires and affections. This does not mean we deny that we have sexual desires or that we struggle to be chaste; nor does it mean that we are condemned if we fall. The core blessings of the gospel are Jesus himself and the cross. As we run to him and cling to him in a radical way for enabling power to live purely and for forgiveness and cleansing when we fail, we are living as godly, unmarried sexual beings!
2. Godly sexuality loves my neighbor as I put others before myself. The second of Jesus’ two great commands—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—is core to godly sexuality inside and outside of marriage. This leads us to not sin against others through participating in sexual sin. This includes our thought lives, our affections, and seemingly “private” sins such as solo sex and pornography. No sin is truly private; others areas are always impacted. I never have the right to honor, esteem, and love myself more than my neighbor, and this includes the how and why of expressing my sexuality. This other-centeredness in sexuality can only be faithfully lived out though radical, self-sacrificing dependence upon Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Romans 14:7, 8)
3. Godly sexuality is concerned not only with physical relationships, but also mental and emotional attachments. As image bearers we are created for relationship. Holy relationships happen as the vertical (God and us) connects with the horizontal (people loving each other). Our relational connecting and attaching with one another was never designed by God to push him aside, but rather to deepen our love for him as we make much of him together. This means that our relationships are not to be all about striving to make each other feel good, but are to focus on pointing one another to Christ. This “shared love” encourages our hearts and spills out into loving others as well. When a person or relationship becomes the basis of our life, the Creator is pushed aside, and a worship disorder is taking place. This is ungodliness in our express of our sexuality.
4. Godly sexuality involves worship through discipline. In Real Sex, Lauren Winner brings out the rarely discussed concept of chastity as a spiritual discipline meant to align our wills with God’s (p. 124). Here, too, there is an overlap between godly unmarried and married sexuality. Faithfulness to one’s spouse (in thoughts, affections and actions) is not easy! Married or not, walking in holiness requires radical dependence upon Christ. It is a battle! It means a fight against the flesh which Paul explained was always “right there” in him, around him, and beside him (Romans 7:21). As singles seek to express their sexuality without physically engaging in sexual activity, there will be a battle that feels intense on some days, easy on others, perhaps pointless on many. Regardless, in God’s world, godly unmarried sexuality is good!
5. Godly sexuality is not only possible, but good in God’s design. Godly unmarried sexuality is not “Plan B.” It is not an elementary level of sexuality that is graduated from into advanced married sexuality. If that were the case, then Jesus himself was lacking, since he never attained a married level of sexuality. The expression of our sexuality may differ if we become married, but that does not mean that it is somehow “better.” Singles embody their particular gender, and sexuality in godly ways just as married individuals do. Single sexuality is not a deficient sexuality. If God has commanded the unmarried to be sexually abstinent, we can know that without a doubt that this abstinence is good and possible.
HOW is godly unmarried sexuality lived out?
Biblical wisdom is practical, but unfortunately teaching singles regarding sexuality is often given in sterile, bullet-point lists that focus on the externals of what to do and not do. Singles are normally just given boundary lines of what is not permissible or told what types of relationships are not acceptable. Yet there are many unanswered questions because many activities can be shifted into “gray areas” not addressed by this type of behavior-oriented teaching. For example:
- Do we label it dating, courting, or ‘hanging out’?
- What about the types of physical contact that are considered “sex?” Most people know genital sexual intercourse is off-limits for the unmarried, but what about solo sex, mutual stimulation, or oral sex?
- And how does this relate to relationships with our same gender? Is it permissible for two women to snuggle up while sharing a bed, experiencing sexual arousal from the physical affection, but not going any further? And what of two men who have no genital contact, but sexually arouse one another? There is no intercourse going on, but how can we tell if these kinds of things are permissible for the unmarried person?
To address these thoughts, we need to go back to what godly unmarried sexuality is: Godly unmarried sexuality exalts Jesus, puts others before self, is good, and reveals Christ to others.
To discern biblical wisdom regarding any of the above questions, the key issues become: “Is Jesus and worship of him central or is the self-ruling? Is Christ and love for him ruling, or am I more concerned with how far I can go? Is this action or thought leading me to love this person as a daughter or son of God, or is it a means to feel good?”
In Christ’s world, God gives the best sex. Sexual intercourse is meant to be experienced only within the context of a one-man, one-woman married union. Any actions or thoughts that lead toward sexual arousal (which God intended to be fulfilled through sexual intercourse) are not to be participated in outside the context of marriage. Does that mean a hands-off, no-touch guideline unless you are married? For singles it may mean exactly that! Radical devotion to Christ requires radical obedience because we want Christ and not our sexual pleasures to be exalted most of all.
Singles might say, “But we don’t have a ‘legal outlet’ for our sexual desires or for the powers that rage in these human bodies! What are we to do?!” This is an excellent question and needs to be addressed with biblical wisdom that is Christ-centric and shared with a compassionate tone of heart. It is true that those of us who are unmarried embodied souls still have sexual desires.
A gospel-drenched, Christ-centric view of our sexuality, however, gives great enabling hope on this point! We are not held captive to our bodies or to our sexual desires. Godly unmarried chastity, like many spiritual disciplines of abstinence, involves something normal and natural being abstained from. Chastity for the unmarried person is a kind of fast, and it may be a very looong fast. Winner’s thoughts here are encouraging: “…the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will. With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one’s spouse for the sake of union with Christ’s body. That union is the fruit of chastity” (Real Sex, p. 129).
What of our emotional desires? Do singles need to also be wise about the emotional intimacy they extend and pursue with others? Yes, but again this is an area where the married also need to practice wisdom and caution in their relationships (including some gender ones!) with those who are not their spouse. What I am not saying is that we shy away from revealing ourselves emotionally to each other. What I am saying is that the way we reveal, express, and share our emotional selves is also to be guarded. Ask if the goal of the particular relationship is oriented toward the self or love of God and others. I have found that a top “Jesus replacement” in my life is emotional comfort and feeling good about myself. This aspect of my own heart’s being prone to wander has led to some very unholy, emotional attachments with women and a few men, too.
It is actually good news that what God commands and says is good is possible through the blessings of the gospel. Godly unmarried sexuality is “Plan A” for those of us who do not have a spouse.
More on the “HOW”: Sober promises and specific wisdom
Galatians 6:7-8 speaks of God’s harvest principle: We inevitably reap what we sow. Despite this, God’s grace and mercy often give us harvests of blessing that we do not deserve. It would be an abuse of his grace, however, to not heed Scripture’s many sober promises. Consider two in light of godly unmarried sexuality:
- To pursue sexual expression outside of God’s design will lead to sorrow! (Psalm 16:4)
- Blessings will be missed and grace will be forfeited when we seek to trust in ourselves and our own strategies for dealing with our sexuality. (Jeremiah 17:5-9, Jonah 2:8)
God’s Word teaches that when we live life outside of his guidelines, including our sexuality, there is a harvest that we reap. Sexual desires, once stoked and given into, will be much easier to be given into again. Our thought lives record experiences, and it is not easy to forget past sins—especially if they were pleasurable. Regaining the mind for Christ is a battle. It is a winnable battle for sure, but the renewing process requires a radical approach. Living a chaste life sexually diminishes the negative harvest of sin. Does this sound like a tactic to “scare you” into unmarried chastity? It is not meant to be, but it is a sober warning! It is what God’s Word teaches us will happen when we put on SELF to the neglect of putting on Christ.
As a former co-worker used to say, Christ our Savior is a specific Savior! He enters into our journey as unmarried sexual beings with very specific help and wisdom. To live a pure life, we need him to be our specific Savior for our specific struggles. Consider what he offers us as we seek to live a godly life sexually. As you read this list and ponder these verses, honestly bring your specific points of temptation or consistent sexual struggle before him.
- Gives you himself (John 14:18).
- Knows and loves you in your temptation (Matthew 26:34, 35).
- Names you: mine, loved, forgiven, one who receives new beginnings from my hand.
- Enables and empowers you with an escape to resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Gives wisdom and discernment (Colossians 2:3).
- Gives you brothers and sisters to help and shepherd you. These brothers and sisters are his kingdom community for you on earth that he gives to teach, counsel, comfort, guide, and love you (Hebrews 3:12, 13; 10:24, 25).
- Gives you a kingdom calling to be lived out this side of heaven that will bear much fruit for his glory. This has everything to do with living in godly unmarried sexuality! We abstain from certain things, but also fully participate in others—like his holy work in this world (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 15:5).
Actually, point number one above summarizes the entire list: Jesus gives us himself, and he is the path and provision for us to live godly lives.
How can we respond to Jesus with wisdom? We each need to have a specific battle plan. Again, as you ponder the following list, bring your specific areas of struggle, temptation and/or consistent areas of entangling sexual sin before him.
You need to be:
- Growing in a love for God and others that abounds in knowledge and insight (Philippians 1:9-11).
- Learning how to starve the flesh and feed the Spirit as you seek to understand what a “radical approach” will look like in your circumstances. For example, analyze the kinds of music, movies, and TV shows you engage in, taking note of their influence on you (Galatians 6:7-8).
- Aware of your body, since we are embodied souls. For example: Women, you need to know your hormonal cycle and be aware of what times of the month you may be more prone toward sexual desires being stirred up. Men, you need to know as well how your bodies react to certain visual, tactile, and audio stimuli. Reflect on how God is calling you to love him through the use of your body.
- Willing to NOT PLAY GAMES with sexual temptation and call it “grace.” This is an abuse of grace, and it is not worth it.
- Giving others “meddling rights” into your life. Invite friends to ask you the tough questions (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:15).
- Studying, savoring and praying God’s Word (Ephesians 6:18).
WHY would we want to live it?
Godly unmarried sexuality is lived out as a person seeks to live life fully given over to Jesus and his kingdom purposes, while also living a chaste lifestyle as a female or male image bearer. Through this beautiful calling, the unmarried person reveals Jesus and draws others to Jesus. At the most practical level, the sexuality of an unmarried person should be expressed in such a way that it is a signpost to Jesus. While godly married sexuality is a unique signpost to Jesus and his relationship with the church, the unmarried person also has a unique opportunity to reveal Jesus’ power and purity and to draw others to him.
The unmarried person is called to depend upon Christ, not enjoying the sexual pleasures of marriage, but finding pleasure in abstaining that aligns his or her will with that of God. This 24/7 fast draws attention to the enabling grace of Jesus to live a godly life as a single person. It involves resisting and refusing the loud voices of the flesh and our culture that screams, “Make much of me and run full force toward whatever feels good!” The unmarried person seeks to proclaim Jesus by living a life that is radically other-centered and committed to his kingdom purposes. This kind of obedience can only be faithfully lived out through radical self-sacrificing, dependence upon Christ—as such it is a life lived solely by grace!
Today, the church is facing a major crisis, and few alarms are going off. It is a silent crisis, one that is spreading in the shadows of secrecy, and yet is doing great damage to the lives of those inside her walls.
I’m talking about the normalization of porn within the church. Pornography, which is now so widespread and accessible, seems to have become almost a non-issue for so many churches. Occasionally there are sermons which mention in passing the danger of it. A few bold churches have begun to set up support groups for those who have found themselves addicted to it. But mostly, silence.
No rousing alarms. No calls to action. No warnings that already the flood waters are inside the house and that bold, quick action is needed to save the very house itself. There seems to be a disquieting casualness to this issue, almost like a calm before the storm. But the storm is already raging.
The growing epidemic
“Wait! I need to talk to you!” a woman’s voice called out as I crossed the lobby following a church presentation. Her eyes revealed her distress, and she blurted out, “I just found out my 11-year-old daughter’s been watching online porn for months. What should I do?”
Many Christians assume that they are insulated from problems such as these. Sadly, this mother’s situation is far from unique. Parents call us regularly because they’ve discovered their children’s exposure to Internet pornography. This is not the pornography of yesteryear; rather, the kind that exists today is a cornucopia of increasing depravity. The Internet offers a depth of degradation that wouldn’t have been available even in adult bookstores 20 years ago. Tragically, I received a call from parents after catching their eight-year-old watching bestiality videos on his iPod Touch.
But the problem goes from beyond the impact it is having on our children. Young adults in their twenties can’t remember a day when porn wasn’t free and easily accessible at their fingertips. Young Christian men and women are grievously impacted by its accessibility and, coupled with the vacuum left by the church’s silence on sexuality, are becoming ensnared.
Many singles, committed to chastity in their relationships with the opposite sex, succumb to the lure of porn and self-stimulation as a “less destructive” alternative to sexual temptation. We are now learning that this is a destructive fallacy. Growing numbers of singles don’t know how to move toward real members of the opposite sex because they’ve lived so long in a porn fantasy world.
And a new phenomenon identified by secular researchers is also affecting young men in the church. The fastest-growing segment of the population struggling with erectile dysfunction is men in their twenties and thirties who have been conditioned by online porn to respond only to never-ending novelty with increasing depravity. One man in his twenties likened his experience with online porn to ordering from an a la carte menu: “Tonight I’ll have a little of this and some of that,” lamenting that he is now incapable of sexual intimacy with his wife. Despite entering marriage as a virgin, his sexuality has been maimed by years of porn use.
Older adults in the church aren’t immune to the scourge. I’ve lost count of the people in their forties, fifties, and sixties who describe viewing porn magazines occasionally as a young adult, making a break from the behavior as they entered marriage and family life, only to later confess, “And then we got the Internet…” The result: estranged or broken marriages, shipwrecked careers, and the profound loss of spiritual vitality and faith. And these are men and women in the church.
Nothing robs God’s people of contentment and the joy of following Christ than hidden sexual sin. 2 Peter 1:5-8 is a passage where Peter challenges believers to add to their faith virtues like self-control, knowledge, steadfastness, godliness, and love, and then says that failure to do so will cripple one’s faith: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). I would contend that one of the reasons for the weak and wavering faith of much of the church today may very well be how its people are capitulating to the sexualized culture and are immersed in sexual struggles and sin.
Every demographic in the body of Christ is impacted by this issue, but the most heartbreaking group is our children. Porn usage is so pervasive, especially among youth, college students, and young adults that many have lost any hope that they will find victory over this struggle. If leadership is aware of these struggles, then their overall silence communicates that the gospel is powerless or irrelevant to help them in their sexual struggles.
I recently attended worship at a large urban church. The pastor challenged the church with the danger of fornication and described the wrecked lives of young people having sex outside marriage…and then moved on. As I surveyed the hundreds of people in the sanctuary, most of them married, I wanted to shout from my pew, “What about porn?!” Sex outside marriage is indeed a huge problem, especially among Christian singles, but the pastor’s omission of pornography missed the mark of where the majority of his congregation struggles. They struggle, daily, with the relentless temptation, virtually everywhere, to give in to sexual sin and keep it hidden from others, guaranteeing that the problem will not go away on its own.
What the church needs to do now
The church can’t afford to continue in silence and ignore this growing epidemic. We must shun the casual attitudes and face the reality that the consequences of our inaction are already severe and becoming ruinous. How can the church be so relatively blasé about this, while some countries, like Iceland and England, are proposing outright restrictions on Internet porn being piped into homes? If even secular governments are raising the alarms about how destructive pornography is, then surely the church should be doing that and more for its own people!
How can the church begin to take pro-active steps to address this in a comprehensive way?
Sound the alarm
Like the old heresies facing the church in the early centuries of her existence, there is a new “Gnosticism” on the rise that says what we do sexually no longer matters. The younger generation has been raised on what I refer to as a “Clintonian” definition of sex. The boundary lines for acceptable behavior have been redrawn, and all manner of sexual activity is now seen as not really being sex at all.
The church must reclaim and teach what Paul preached two millennia ago: that what we do with our body matters. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Ephesians 4:17-19, and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 make clear that God cares passionately about our sexuality. According to these passages, what we do with our bodies demonstrates the allegiance of our hearts. We either look like those controlled by the Spirit of the living God, or we look like those in the world ruled by their sensual desires. Rather than displaying a casual attitude toward sexual sin, Ephesians 5:3 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Our sexuality is a litmus test for our spirituality!
The time for the church to sound a very loud alarm is now. The church can do so much more!
The body of Christ needs to hear dedicated sermons on sexuality and faith and have real-life illustrations and strategies woven into sermon messages on an ongoing basis.
We need adult Sunday school classes where we teach practical strategies on how to live lives of sexual integrity, not an easy task in this overly-sexualized culture.
- Youth groups need safe places to talk about this, and continual messages from youth pastors and adult volunteers that it’s okay to seek help when they feel overwhelmed, because silence and secrecy wreak havoc on hearts and lives.
- Pastors, elders, and Christian counselors need to equip youth pastors and youth volunteers to know how to help youth who are already finding themselves ensnared in sexual struggles and sin.
- Men’s and women’s groups need to learn, in a gender-specific context, to talk openly about real-life struggles in this area. If adults and parents can begin to talk about this, then they will lead the way for youth to do so also.
- Parents must be equipped to learn how to talk about sexuality to their kids and given tools to protect their children from the dangers of unfiltered and unaccountable Internet usage that children and youth now see on tablets and smartphones.
- Groups for men and women strugglers need to be up and running, along with groups for affected spouses (usually wives).
We must speak up. We must speak directly and relevantly. We must name the problem, proclaim that there is freedom and hope in the gospel, and patiently show our people how to manage their sexuality well. We need to talk about all this in a whole new way.
Talk about sexuality differently
There is a massive hole in the teaching of sexuality in the church. If the topic is broached at all, it is almost always negative. Yet the church must go beyond a negative message, especially in order to speak cogently into the culture in which we find ourselves. We know that the world doesn’t like to hear the Christian message on human sexuality; they find it too restrictive. Even C.S.Lewis said, decades ago in Mere Christianity, that the most offensive and unpalatable teaching of Christianity is its sexual ethic. When the church merely focuses on the negative, the world (and even a lot of our own people) just turn off and move further away.
Now, we need to proclaim a positive sexual apologetic, one that articulates the goodness of God’s design and develops a positive theology of sexuality to counteract the increasingly alluring false worldview that has captured so many. We need to speak a different narrative, one that tells of the good reasons for God’s design for our sexuality. We need to persuasively declare the beauty of God’s intentions, and how living within God’s boundaries affirms our human dignity and contributes to a healthy society. We need a better narrative to help singles shepherd their sexuality so that they do not feel like they are the ones being left out. We need a compelling argument for how God’s design for sexuality is the best argument against the many and growing forms of sexual brokenness, inside and outside the church. For example, the best argument that homosexuality is not within God’s created design for sex is not Leviticus 18 and 20, but rather Genesis 1 and 2!
Acknowledge the fact that Christians are sexually broken too
At Harvest USA we teach that sexual brokenness is a universal human problem. This simply means that the fall of humanity into sin has touched every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. All of us need a supernatural intervention to bring redemption to our sexuality. But it goes deeper. A significant percentage of men and women in the body of Christ are living in bondage to their sexual desires. Pastors, next time you’re in front of your congregation, look around at your flock, and realize that, according to one survey, as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% of women report being addicted to or ensnared at some level to porn. Add to that the number of youth looking at easily accessible porn online, and the situation is frightening.
Church leadership has been slow to admit that the problem is so widespread among its people. It is time to vocalize this issue and take the necessary steps to minister to the individuals and families scarred by sexual sin.
What would you do if, instead of sexual sin, they had a terminal illness and were glibly going through the motions every Sunday as if all was well? What steps will you take to snatch them from the flames (Jude 1:23)? The mission of Harvest USA is to equip churches to minister to sexually broken people. We’d love to help train your people to mentor and disciple sexual strugglers, so that they can find freedom from this enslavement. We’ve developed material to equip laity to facilitate biblically-based support groups for men and women. But first the church has to publicly admit that the problem exists.
Partner with parents to teach their children about sexuality
Now, I’m not advocating that parents forsake their God-given calling to raise their children and address sexuality with them, but the church must work together with parents in this endeavor. No longer can churches just assume parents are talking about this stuff. They aren’t. I frequently ask audiences how many of them were raised in a Christian home and, out of those, how many had parents that talked about sex. Most of the hands go down!
The failure of parents and the church to shepherd their children’s sexuality (except maybe to say, “Don’t do it until you’re married!”) has resulted in hordes of young people exiting the church and the faith because they have embraced the cultural narrative of sexuality. The next generation of the church is being lost because this generation failed to honestly talk about sexuality in terms both practical and biblical.
It’s time for the church to actively assist parents, via classes, workshops, and outside speakers, and through the power of “one-anothering” to stop the drifting of our kids falling into sexual entrapment and loss of faith. There’s a reason why churches often ask all their members to take vows at infant baptisms or dedications: Raising sexually-faithful kids is the work of the whole body of Christ!
This is much bigger than personal piety
There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. Dealing with this issue forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization.
The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continuing to be abused on multiple levels while performing. Human trafficking, the deepest scourge of all, is embedded in this porn and broken sexuality epidemic.
The bottom line is that our silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where the drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice.
But God’s people should be the vanguard of justice, dedicated to undoing this horrific expression of the curse in this world and serving as Christ’s hands and feet to bind up the brokenhearted and heal their wounds. Will you be the one to start doing this in your church? We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.
At Harvest USA, we watch God do this glorious work of “undoing” every day. The gospel is God’s power for salvation, and he is committed to radical change in the lives of his people. But we have a choice: Are we willing to get our hands dirty and enter into this glorious, redemptive work, or continue keeping our heads in the sand, waiting for the storm to clear? One pastor commented that he knew sexual sin was at epidemic levels among his men, but he was scared to take the lid off.
None of us likes to deal with messy situations, but we have a Redeemer who has blazed this path before us. Rather than maintain his glory in the heavens, Jesus was stripped of everything, entering this world as a baby. At the cross, he left it in the same way. But he conquered sin and death—including pornography!—and rose victoriously, so that we can be empowered by his Spirit to face these giants. And that is the key: It is impossible for us to face this challenge alone, but Jesus’ promise is to be with us to the end of the age. He is offering us deeper communion with himself as we face this challenge. It’s worth raising the alarm and rolling up our sleeves for this!
The title of this article presupposes two things: First, your children are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding—even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss aside this article with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed,