“There just isn’t anything else I can say.” My counselor looked at me kindly, but with a very serious face. “If you continue in this pattern, I will still be your friend. But there isn’t anything new I can say to help you other than what I’ve already said.”
Many of us know how hard it is to work up the courage to tell someone for the very first time about a secret sin habit. We’ll often be encouraged to “get help.” But what are we supposed to do when we’ve repeatedly received help yet are still enslaved to habitual sin?
For almost two years, I was stuck in an addictive pattern of sin. Two women spent countless hours giving me biblical counsel, I talked to Ellen Dykas more than once and worked through the entirety of Sexual Sanity for Women. Over time, I became aware that what I was doing was truly wrong and took practical steps to resist temptation. But I kept returning to the same sin despite the wealth of love and biblical teaching that had been poured into me. I felt more and more hopeless about ever breaking free. Nobody, including me, could make me stop.
“You Need a Word from God”
After my counselor told me she didn’t have anything new to say to me, she said I needed “a word from God.” She did not mean hearing God’s voice audibly but having God himself teach me through his Word by impressing it deep into my heart. I needed more than simply being convicted by a specific verse or passage. I needed a word from God that would be life changing—something I would never forget.
Both of us began to pray that the Lord would do this special work in me. Some days I prayed for it very earnestly. Other times, though I prayed, I did so in a rather weak, hopeless way. It was getting harder and harder to believe that something like this could actually happen.
An Endless Pattern of Sin
From the age of 13, through college, and well into my 30s, I had sexual struggles that I kept hidden. At times, I would confess specific sins to the Lord. But for many years I didn’t realize I had a much bigger problem than individual times of giving in to temptation. Heart attitudes that I didn’t think about were driving my actions, and I didn’t realize how enslaved I was to certain habits until I tried to give them up.
One day I was in a very bad mood and went online deliberately looking for what could best be described as the “counsel of the ungodly.” I chose to follow that counsel, and to this day I regret it greatly. That was the beginning of the two-year period of a terribly addictive habit.
Those two years were characterized by a repeating pattern of sin, confession, avoiding sin, drifting spiritually, experiencing intense temptation, and yielding to it once again. I would be like a sane, spiritually-minded Christian one moment and a selfish, stubborn, confused person the next, bringing the reality of my relationship with God into question.
As a child, I professed faith in Christ, and certain things in my life seemed to be evidence of true belief. However, I repeatedly questioned the reality of my salvation because of the power of this sin habit and my seeming inability to break free from it. I knew that, though believers will sin, true believers are no longer mastered by sin because they have died to sin and are alive in Christ (Romans 6).
Even when I was not questioning my salvation, I often wondered if God was truly forgiving me for specific sins when I would confess them to him, and worried about whether I had genuinely repented—or repented well enough.
The intense stress of all these spiritual battles affected me physically, causing, or at least exacerbating, significant digestive issues. I also experienced symptoms of physical withdrawal when I tried to resist temptation. Much of what Psalms 32 and 38 say about sin’s effects on the body describes my experience during this time.
At one point, I became strongly convicted about “loving pleasure more than God.” It was extremely sobering to realize that I loved feeling good far more than I loved God. Nevertheless, I kept going back. Having a sense of conviction about sin was not enough to keep me from returning to it.
Confess the Sin of Unbelief
My confusion and hopelessness increased over time. I could not completely give myself over to my own desires and turn my back on my faith. But it felt as though the biblical truths I knew so well did not work in my case. Would God ever completely deliver me from this enslavement?
One day, one of my counselors said, “I think you need to confess the sin of unbelief.” Something in me thought maybe she was right, but I did not fully understand what that specifically meant for me. Several days later, I would remember her words, and the Lord used them to bring me to a major turning point.
I was alone one evening, wrestling with despair, temptation, and a whole array of ugly thoughts, hopeless about ever breaking free from this pattern of sin. But then I realized that my despair and hopelessness were “the sin of unbelief”—I was not believing and trusting God. Hopelessness reflects on God himself, as though he were not able and willing to deliver.
Suddenly, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5) took on a new meaning. The Lord pressed that verse deep into my heart, giving me a strong conviction that it was describing me personally. Outwardly I looked like a good person. But inwardly, not everything lined up with what I professed to be. I desperately needed God to use the same power he used to raise Jesus from the dead to bring about genuine change in my heart (Eph. 1:18–20; Heb. 13:20–21).
Stepping Out in Faith
The Lord mercifully did not simply give me a deep sense of conviction and then leave me! He just as strongly impressed on my heart, “the one who comes to me I certainly will not cast out” (John 6:37). This verse gave me confidence that when I come to him for forgiveness, he really will forgive. He will not turn me away.
That evening, the Lord helped me trust him in a way I never had before. I surrendered everything, confessing many wrong actions, thinking, and attitudes. More than anything else, I was ashamed that I had treated Jesus terribly, loving pleasure more than him, even in light of all he sacrificed for me.
This kind of surrender meant stepping out in faith when I felt exposed and vulnerable. I was extremely conscious of all the times I’d “repented” then repeatedly turned back to the same sin. But the Lord helped me trust him for complete deliverance from this addictive habit. Despite how I felt, trusting him was the safest thing I could possibly do! He is the most trustworthy Being in the universe, with an immeasurable resource of power available for resisting even the most difficult kinds of temptation.
Everything Is Different
So much has changed since that night. My relationship with the Lord is now characterized by an overwhelming love for him. Learning more about my own sinfulness and experiencing deliverance and forgiveness have made God’s grace indescribably precious to me. If sin were no big deal, God’s grace would not mean that much!
Surprisingly, the overwhelming power of temptation has been broken. Now there is strength for resisting temptation that I did not have before. But if I do choose to sin, I am so grieved about it that I run quickly to the Lord, seeking and trusting in his forgiveness. How could I hurt the One I love after all he has done for me? Being completely confident that I’m forgiven motivates me to pursue holiness now more than ever before.
Are you stuck in sin? The Lord is able and willing to deliver you! Ask him to convict you of the sin of unbelief and to impress his Word deep into your heart. Only in Heaven will there be complete freedom from the possibility of sinning. But even in this life, Jesus, who paid the penalty for our sin, will break the enslaving power of canceled sin!
Now may the God of peace—
who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great Shepherd of the sheep,
and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—
may he equip you with all you need
for doing his will.
May he produce in you,
through the power of Jesus Christ,
every good thing that is pleasing to him.
All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. (Heb. 13:20–21, NLT)
12 May 2022
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
The parents sitting before me had tears streaming down both their faces. Their 22-year-old daughter was now married to another woman. These Christian parents experienced understandable grief and heartache.
“It’s not just the pain over our daughter that’s so difficult—it’s the fact that grandparents and many of our friends have embraced it all. They all see us as the problem; we’re what’s wrong in the whole situation.” Though they believed that God’s Word was their guiding principle, they feared that they, too, might cave under the mounting pressure.
This couples’ fear is not unusual when facing these kinds of challenges. Siblings, grandparents, and friends of someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or adopts LGBTQ+ theology all face similar trials when they are called to reflect both the truth and mercy of the gospel. How do we walk through this minefield, pursue humility in our own hearts, and yet remain firm in God’s Word? Here are a few things to consider.
Expect misunderstanding and persecution. Our culture’s man-centered theology is based on the heart’s desires, where there are no absolutes and everything is relative. When we take a contrary position, we become a threat and affront to others. Nowhere is this more evident today than in the debate about sexuality and the Bible. Believing that God speaks clearly and authoritatively about sex and sexuality is supposedly bigoted, unloving, and socially incorrect. You may be viewed as the problem or the enemy. Don’t let that shipwreck you! Expecting these responses and believing on Scripture’s reliability guards you from dismay when people react against your lack of approval or enthusiasm.
Engage and ask good questions. As others voice their disagreement with you, realize that all worldviews—how people see themselves, the world, and God—stem from past experiences, wounds, and powerful emotions wrapped around sinful and twisted hearts. While we cannot correct others’ views and convictions—which is the work of the Holy Spirit—we can try to better understand them by diving more into their story, who they are, and why they believe what they believe. This usually happens through genuine listening and asking good questions, which often helps people drop their defenses, leading to more productive, non-combative conversations.
Also, consider sharing your testimony, particularly highlighting your need of God’s grace. Admittedly, being able to do this is a supernatural work, especially when it comes to our families, where emotions can run high and quickly escalate. But taking initiative in conversations like this can actually strengthen your faith and make you feel less defensive yourself.
Embrace the hurt and suffering that come with being misunderstood or seen as the bad guy. Even though you may attempt the first two points above with sincerity, you may still experience real, ongoing pain and heartache. When we see family or friends pursuing a destructive path contrary to God’s will and his Word, we often feel powerless and hopeless. I’ve found that many Christians who eventually adopt the mentality of “gay is okay with me and with God” usually do so because they simply feel worn down and want to be thought well of by others. You may feel like you are alone in a desert, barely holding your own with your beliefs about God’s Word—but know that Jesus is with you. He too was in those desert places as he obeyed the Father and stood on Scripture.
Remember that these are spiritual issues. Ephesians chapter six reminds us that there are often forces, behind the scenes, invested in keeping those we love in confusion and error. Ultimately, only God can address the spiritual issues of family and friends’ blindness and rebellion. If you constantly feel pressured to change others’ views or make them see the light, you will likely end up frustrated and perhaps even begin to question your own beliefs.
Those who walk in blindness need what Tim Keller calls a “self quake” and a “God quake.”1 God is the one who must intervene to change hearts. Can you relinquish (not abandon) your family, friends, or loved one to the Lord? Can you trust God to write his story in their hearts and lives in his way and in his timing? The gospel is the greatest need for those who pursue sexuality on their own terms—along with those who agree with them and buy into worldly sexuality.
Bathe everything in prayer. Pray for those who disagree with you. This is pretty self-explanatory! Prayer both softens our hearts and allows us to seek the best in and for those who we love. You may feel incapable of doing anything about what others believe—or believe about you; for the most part, you are! However, we can pour out all of our troubles, fears, confusion, and hopes at the throne of grace, as well as gain the courage to boldly persevere.
Remain grounded in the Word yourself and seek the support of others. You are vulnerable to outside voices tempting you to give in, but the best remedy for standing firm for the long haul is to remain in God’s Word, continually steeping yourself in his perspective and truth. When I speak about how the Bible should inform our sexuality, someone invariably comes up to me and says, “Thank you. I needed to hear that and be reminded of the real truth again.” We always need to be reminded of the truths of Scripture. But we also need the help and encouragement of others who will walk with us, shoulder our fears and burdens, and hear our pain and confusion—people who will always point us to the Savior and the truths of God’s Word.
1 Keller, Tim. “The Gospel and Your Self.” The Vision of Redeemer Series on Isaiah 6, November 13, 2005. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York.
28 Apr 2022
One of the most tender expressions of humble faith was shared with me by a woman in my wives group years ago. She said,
“I thought marriage would be the place where I would finally come to understand God’s love for me in a deeper way through the example of my husband’s love. Instead, God has chosen to teach me about his love by putting me in a place where I had to study his love so I could show it rather than receive it. I found myself running to the Lord, pouring out my pain to him about my unfaithful spouse and fellowshipping in his suffering. As I meditated on how God understood the pain of an unfaithful spouse (his people) and studied his response to their unfaithfulness, I learned about his longsuffering, pursuing love for me and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.”
Sister, are you hurting, disappointed, alone, and confused because of painful marriage dynamics? You may have realized when you married that, as great of a guy as your husband seemed to be, he couldn’t replace Jesus. You probably knew that your issues would also impact the marriage, but you were (and maybe still are!) eager to journey together with your man towards Christ, holiness, togetherness.
But sexual sin isn’t what you signed up for. This is an unwanted chapter in your story, and you wonder how you got here. Where can you turn?
Turn to Jesus. He’s near, and he cares.
Jesus is your steadfast refuge and tender comforter
“I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).
David wrote these words after being chased by enemies and betrayed by people he trusted and loved. (You can read more of that story in 2 Samuel 21–22 if you’re interested). His words guide us when we are in the throes of suffering. When we forget who we are and who God is, it’s easy to drown in our feelings rather than seek refuge in Jesus and tell him “each rising grief, for Thou alone can heal; Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”¹ In the mystery of your suffering, you can know one thing for sure: God wants you to draw more closely to himself as your God.
In the last hours before Jesus was arrested, he assured his friends with these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–2).
Jesus is always with you, not merely by your side but within you as your very life (Colossians 1:27 and 3:3). He is the only one who is capable of sharing this kind of intimacy with you. Even on your husband’s best days—walking in obedience to God, faithfully loving you, sharing moments of sweet sexual intimacy with you—he cannot dwell within your heart. Christ alone is there with you in your broken heart and will not leave.
Jesus is your faithful Bridegroom forever
When your husband fails you, it’s an invitation to turn towards the Bridegroom who never will. One woman shared with me,
“After I found evidence of my husband’s affair, I took off my wedding ring and told my husband in anger and pain, ‘You left me, and God is my husband now.’ True, but a bit dramatic. Then, as I was working through a book with a friend for spouses facing sexual betrayal, we read through Hosea, and I realized I had something ‘special’ in common with God: We are both betrayed spouses! Then my mind quickly went to the realization that I have also been unfaithful—not with my husband, but with God.
Throughout our eight-month separation and long, bumpy road toward marriage reconciliation, I found great comfort in picturing Christ as my Bridegroom, who loves me with an everlasting, perfect love. Who comforts me when I’m down, always listens to me, and cares for me deeply. And will never betray me.”
In the Old Testament, we learn of a beautiful theme that runs throughout Scripture: God’s plan for pursuing an eternal marriage relationship with his people. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19–20). These verses show us that God’s desire is to be more than just a refuge, friend, king with servants, and even a father with his children. He pursues, loves, and offers us eternal marriage with himself.
The concept of being married to God may be a new one for you. God’s spousal love is different from human marriage but no less intimate. We have an eternally secure, forever-together relationship bought for us by the blood of Jesus, our Bridegroom.
The love that Jesus offers to his people, his Bride, is so much more than that of the most devoted husband. No, those “best day” experiences you’ve had with your man are only a glimpse of what it’s like to be loved by Jesus. What you and your husband can offer each other is but a dim reflection of the faithful, eternal, intimate love that Jesus shared with his people—with you.
For all the mystery of why you are suffering in marriage, you can know that Jesus is longing to show himself to you in new ways as your true Bridegroom, the One who never misses you, will not seek another bride, and will never, ever deceive or abandon you. You may not feel excited about this eternal truth right now, and that’s okay. Jesus isn’t put off by the honest recognition in your heart that you may desire a husband’s love more than his.
Jesus is your eternal true home
In John 15, Jesus beautifully explains a new type of intimacy between himself and his followers: He is the true Vine, the source of all life, and we are his branches, created and commanded to abide (or make a home) in him and his words. A vital union with Jesus is now possible because his Spirit is sent to live in all believers.
As amazing as it is to consider that God no longer dwells near us but in us, we won’t experience being at home with God perfectly in this life. Our bruised and sinful hearts and the fallen world around us prevent a purely joyful, peaceful, and comfortable experience. However, when we honestly acknowledge this rather than demand a life with no suffering, it can actually draw us closer to Christ and the joy he offers. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful, for these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others do the same.”²
Your true country, your home, is Christ. He’s your safe place and gentle Shepherd, who will never tell you to “just get over it” and move on. He won’t run from you or awkwardly back away in silence because he doesn’t know what to say to you. He is yours, his love is yours, his comfort is yours. Regardless of what you feel, think, and believe in this moment, he is drawn to you with deep compassion. Turn to him sister; he is near.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in the soon-to-be-released resource from Harvest USA, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July 2022.
¹Steele, Anne. “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.” https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/dear-refuge-of-my-weary-soul.
²C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1952), 121.
21 Apr 2022
You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” We’ve all seen movies where someone is faced with the imminence of death, and, with no previous evidence of genuine faith, they fall to their knees and plead to God for mercy. Or perhaps less extreme, but more common, is the astronomical uptick in prayers on one Sunday out of the year: Super Bowl Sunday.
Why do foxholes and field goals turn otherwise non-religious skeptics into faith-filled believers? Of course, only God truly knows someone’s heart, and true approaching-death conversions—as in the thief on the cross!—do happen and are to be celebrated. Sometimes the Spirit uses the reality of death to awaken true faith. However, I think it’s safe to say that many of these prayers are not the result of genuine spiritual renewal. Instead, they both have in common an attitude towards God that is just as offensive as not believing in him at all. These prayers treat God as nothing more than a tool.
Geerhardus Vos gives great insight into the function and appeal of idolatry when he writes, “Magic is that paganistic reversal of the process of religion, in which man, instead of letting himself be used by God for the divine purpose, drags down his god to the level of a tool, which he uses for his own selfish purpose.”¹
Vos exposes a struggle that is all too common in my own heart: In my flesh, I don’t want someone else’s agenda forced on me, even if it’s God’s. I’d rather have the freedom to set my own agenda and the autonomy to pursue my own goals. But, by virtue of being a creature, I am inescapably bound to the agenda and purposes of my Creator. Not one day of my life has known the absence of God’s calling to love, worship, and serve him with all my being.
When God’s agenda clashes with my own
If I’m honest, I too am guilty of treating God as a mere tool for my own agenda. I wake up with an attitude that says, “My will be done.” I find myself strolling into the throne room of grace like an ungrateful child asking to borrow $20 from his father, with little intention of actually engaging in relationship with him.
This heart posture toward God is fertile ground for idolatry to spring up. If we functionally treat God as a means to an end, then, when he no longer seems to be on board with our agendas, we’ll start rummaging through our tool kits for something else that will do a better job.
One reason that so many Christians find themselves turning to sexual sin is because God is not serving their agendas. He’s not giving them the sexual satisfaction they expected in marriage, or he’s not giving them marriage at all. But it goes deeper than merely our agenda for sex. We want love, comfort, affirmation, affection, control, intimacy, security, and escape from pain and suffering. Sex delivers on all of those fronts, to varying degrees. It’s easier to avoid sexual sin when life is comfortable, relationships are fulfilling, and ventures are successful. But, when life gets hard, and God isn’t delivering us from those hardships, it becomes very tempting to stop praying and find another tool that you know will get the job done, at least temporarily.
If you find yourself turning to any kind of sinful comfort when life gets hard, there’s a good chance you have reversed your religion, as Vos said, treating God as a tool for your own agenda that can be discarded when his plans veer away from yours.
This is especially difficult for brothers and sisters who are battling same-sex attraction. To begin with, I’ve never heard someone say that same-sex attraction was part of their plans from the beginning. Typically from an early age, they are already wrestling with desires and feelings that were not included in their original agendas. To make matters worse, when they pray and ask God to take these desires away, it feels like God is absent and unwilling to help them. This can bring great confusion about God’s agenda for their lives.
“Does God want me to live a life of forced loneliness?”
“If he hasn’t taken away this desire, does that mean he’s okay with it?”
“Does God hate me?”
“Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”
These are deep, profound questions that are usually drenched in tears. It can feel like God’s agenda for our brothers and sisters is cruel, which is the growing consensus in the wider culture about biblical sexuality.
The essence of true worship
These painful questions are not limited to a select group of Christians; we all ask these questions. We ask them when we get cancer, when a loved one dies tragically, when we are betrayed by close friends, or when we suddenly lose our jobs. We are all confronted with God’s painful purposes for our lives, and these moments force us to ask a question posed to humanity since the Garden of Eden.
Will you worship God for his sake alone?²
Satan believed that no one does that. In fact, he dared to say that Job, God’s beloved servant, only worshipped God because of the gifts he gave him. He believed that if God took all of those gifts away, Job would curse him.
While there are many applications of that story to our subject matter, what is particularly relevant is the end of Job’s story. Job doesn’t ask God to give back all the things that were taken from him; he simply wants an explanation: Why did God allow this to happen? But God never tells Job why, even though we as the readers know why. Instead, God reminds Job of who he is as the Creator, and of who Job is as the creature. And that was sufficient for Job. He needed no other answer.
Why was this sufficient for Job?
The reality is that God has no need to explain himself to us. The very fact that he is God is more than sufficient for his creatures to be completely submitted to his agenda. Job rested not in his understanding of his situation, but in the character of God.
Thus, true worship can be characterized in at least two ways:
- True worship is not dependent upon our own judgments of God’s agenda, but on complete trust in his character and purposes.
- True worship does not worship God for what he does for us first and foremost, but for who he is.
Jesus is the only true worshipper
If you’re like me, it’s sobering to consider how much my worship is often tethered to my own understanding and approval of God’s purposes for my life. But this is why I need Jesus, because he is the only true worshipper, through whom I offer my worship to God.
Jesus is the only person who ever lived his entire life fully submitted to the will of his heavenly Father. Consider his own testimony about himself in John 4–5:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19).
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
I confess that my mind is often baffled by these statements. If there is anyone who would have the right to act according to his own will, it’s the second person of the Trinity come in the flesh. But Jesus, in his humanity, shows us what a life of true worship and submission to the Father actually looks like.
Jesus not only testified that this was true, but he also showed us this heart posture during his most agonizing trial, in the garden of Gethsemane. No other human will ever know the depths of suffering that occurred on the cross of Calvary, and no other human could have born the weight of submitting to the Father under those circumstances.
Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father’s agenda because none of us could. We often fall into the temptation of using God as a tool to find satisfaction outside of him. The epicenter of satisfaction for Jesus was in doing the Father’s will. He graciously gives us his righteous robes that cover our imperfect worship so that, in Christ, our worship is acceptable and pleasing to the Father. And as we worship and submit to God through Christ, the Holy Spirit gradually grants us greater strength to say with Jesus, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
¹ Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 137.
² Olinger, Danny. “You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos.” Reformed Theology and Faith. 11/9/2019. https://blog.daum.net/byk2739/727
14 Apr 2022
Johnny and Hannah (names changed) had twelve years of marriage behind them when his secrets came out. He’d humbly told Hannah when they were dating that porn had been a struggle since his teens. She took the news in and faithfully tried to learn how to help him, and their relationship moved forward to marriage. What Johnny hadn’t disclosed was that in high school, he’d fathered a baby and had caught an STD from his girlfriend. He brought that STD into his marriage. And there was more. Johnny then committed adultery with two women early in their marriage.
Fast forward twelve years. Johnny and Hannah had two kids and a busy life of parenting, jobs, and financial stress due to the pandemic. Hannah’s mysterious health problems and a trip to the doctor forced Johnny’s hand to come clean about his past, including how it had brought sickness into Hannah’s body.
Yet Hannah’s heart was sick, too. She was devastated to learn that her husband had kept so much history a secret from her. Even worse, it crushed her spirit to come to grips that her husband had endangered not only their marriage but her very life by giving himself sexually to others. To top it all off, he had another child out there somewhere!
An initial, helpful pastoral response is not enough
Hannah insisted that Johnny call their pastor when she learned all this heavy news, and, thankfully, the pastor responded quickly and compassionately. Within two days, the three of them met in his office, and out tumbled a sad, painful story of sin, suffering, and secrets. He wept with them and acknowledged the severity of their situation.
This is good news, right? Wouldn’t we want a pastor, church leader, counselor, or friend to respond this way? Yes! I celebrate when hurting wives share with me that their pastors respond with empathy, loving engagement, and personal availability. There are so many hurting couples in our churches who are alone and silent in their pain, so when I hear of a pastor’s office providing a warm and safe landing place for a couple, I truly am encouraged.
However, it’s what happened next that is sadly common for wives in particular when a husband’s infidelity comes out into the light. Don’t get me wrong: Wives can be sexually unfaithful, too, but, in my fifteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I’d say the calls from wives who have been hurt compared to husbands responding to their wives’ sexual sin is roughly 90 to 1.
An unfortunate yet typical scenario
Hannah and Johnny left the pastor’s office exhausted, brokenhearted (her), and ashamed and angry (him). But they did have a plan. Johnny would meet with the pastor weekly for the next month for some initial accountability, prayer, and encouragement. The pastor offered to try to find a mature woman in the church to connect with Hannah. Hannah was hopeful about having at least one person to open her heart to, even if she was deeply embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Counseling wasn’t an option, as there just weren’t finances for it, and, anyway, they lived in a community “where everybody knows your name,” so Hannah was terrified of others finding out. She arrived back home, got dinner on the table for her kids, and waited to hear from her pastor.
And she continued to wait. He emailed her three weeks later, apologizing that he hadn’t gotten back to her; he’d been so busy with trying to help Johnny, not to mention sermon prep, urgent church business, and caring for a congregant who was on hospice. He said he’d keep praying and working to find a woman she could meet with. Hannah read the email, wept, and then got up to attend to her kids.
Hannah was very thankful for her pastor’s care for her husband. Johnny had always been the gregarious kind of guy who everybody loved, but he really had no true friends. He’d come home upbeat, hopeful, encouraged from his meetings with the pastor and the spontaneously set-up support group for other guys in the church who were battling porn addiction. And he’d actually resisted the temptation to look at porn for three weeks—a first!
Johnny said, “Hannah, I finally feel like I’m beginning to change! The guys in this group just totally get me, and I’m sharing things with them that I’ve never told anyone. It is amazing… I love this church!”
But what about Hannah? Sure, she’s not the one battling sexual sin, but she has needs, too. She needs to be seen, known, loved, comforted, and journeyed with, too. What about Hannah?
Bring the gospel of love, comfort, and healing to the “other” spouse, too
Friends, Hannah’s situation is actually a good case study to depict the many wives who reach out to Harvest USA for help. As I’ve written before, I recognize that so many church leaders are busy and pulled in many directions. However, something is off when a repentant or unrepentant husband receives 90% of the pastoral energy, care, and attention, while a devastated, often traumatized wife is left on her own to navigate world-rocking circumstances.
Let me offer several ways you can live out the gospel with hurting wives without sacrificing the worthy time and energy that husbands need in their battle against sexual sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say again that women, whether single or married, are also in need of gospel care for their sexual sin struggles and infidelities. I am writing primarily out of my experience of walking with wives and coaching pastors regarding how to care for them in these circumstances.
First, learn how sexual betrayal affects a wife. The devastation is usually multilayered, and one of the most important things to understand is that many wives experience PTSD symptoms after the disclosure of their husbands’ secret sexual sin. CCEF helpfully explains, “PTSD identifies painful experiences that don’t seem to fade but intrude into daily life. This kind of trauma often leads to someone feeling numb, depressed, and hopeless, or feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”¹
When Hannah showed up at her pastor’s office, she was tearful, then angry, then too paralyzed to speak… all in the course of a two-hour appointment! Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
Next, remember that for every married man who battles sexual sin, there is a wife and perhaps kids who are impacted. It’s beautiful when churches uphold God’s good, biblical design for marriage, discipling their people that husbands and wives are to love each other as unto the Lord, to serve one another selflessly as a way to show devotion to Jesus through faithfulness in all areas.
However, we must also uphold God’s compassion for wives when marriage vows are broken. This is what Paul is speaking about, in part, when he exhorts husbands to “…love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33). When husbands need help loving their wives, the Body of Christ steps in to counsel, correct, and provide compassionate care. The gospel urges us to walk intentionally with husbands who need help repenting and wives who are broken because of their husbands’ sin.
Finally, equip your saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 has everything to do with gospel care for hurting wives. A ministry of mercy, counsel, and, yes, exhortation—because all of us respond sinfully to the sin done against us—to wives impacted by sexual betrayal is in view here as Paul explains how churches are meant to function.
Brothers and sisters, God loves his Bride, so I commend you to the worthy, faithful ministry of compassionate care for wives devastated by broken marriage vows. These brides are seen, loved, and defended by our gracious Father, and he has shared this ministry with us, his people.
This blog is inspired by our new Harvest USA resource which will release in July 2022. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort in Christ is a discipleship resource with participant’s and leader’s guides that will be offered as a no-charge digital download from www.harvestusa.org.
¹https://www.ccef.org/ptsd-and-trauma/. Last accessed March 15, 2022.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
— 2 Corinthians 4:7–10
Christian parents of LGBTQ+-identified children endure a unique kind of hardship, one that is hard to put into words. Over the years, I have seen countless mothers and fathers overcome with excessive sorrow for their children while feeling isolated and alone, confused about the opposition they are receiving from their children, and desperate for understanding and encouragement from others as they attempt to navigate this path. The picture that Paul paints in 2 Corinthians 4:8 captures the experience of hurting parents perhaps more than any other passage. Just like the Christians in Corinth, these parents feel crushed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
Mothers and fathers are often desperate to show their children the truth of who God is. They want to be strong and hold unswervingly to the faith, and they are willing to take any means necessary to rescue their sons or daughters. Yet, despite these aspirations, they may find themselves barely holding on. Rather than a place of strength and effective witness, they are in a place of weakness, undone by their children’s situation and at a loss for how to convince them of the truth.
What do we do with all this? How do parents make sense of their experience of weakness and the suffering that has come upon them? How can they be of any use for showing their son or daughter the beauty of who Jesus is? If you are a hurting parent of an LGBTQ+ child, have you ever found yourself wrestling with questions like these?
My hope is to bring some encouragement to you through our exploration of Paul’s words to the church of Corinth, but, to get there, we must first consider how Scripture frames these unique issues in the broader context of suffering and the trials of the Christian life.
Suffering is the Christian experience
Throughout every page of Scripture, we see trials and hardship as commonplace for God’s people. When writing to encourage and strengthen the persecuted church, Peter says plainly, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13). Peter is expressing the uncomfortable truth that fiery trials and suffering are to be expected in the Christian life. This is certainly not an easy pill to swallow, especially when these trials come by means of your own son or daughter. For many parents of an LBGTQ+-identified child, it is normal to want it to all just go away, hoping that somehow this can be a passing phase. Others might simply want a different set of struggles than what they have right now, resentful that their family is dealing with this issue. When we are surprised by the fact that we are experiencing trials, it adds to our grief. Yet Peter challenges us to consider the providence of God in telling us to expect hardship. Then, Peter exhorts us even further: Rejoice because you share in the sufferings of Christ and will be glad when his glory is revealed! In this, we have the invitation to believe something different about the fiery trials and hardship that will surely come our way. We should expect adversity to come and rejoice as we share in Christ sufferings!
Take some time to consider the following questions:
- Are you tempted to be resentful and bitter towards your circumstances, perhaps asking why you must have this particular issue in your family?
- How might you be challenged to grow in your affection for Christ through your suffering? Reflect on Christ as a suffering servant and high priest (Isaiah 53; Hebrews 4:14–5:10).
- What do you think it means to see his glory revealed in your struggle?
Jars of clay
Returning to 2 Corinthians, we find a strange image of treasure in jars of clay. Paul exclaims that we hold within us the invaluable treasure of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Believers are radiant with the light of Christ! Yet this treasure is held in a fragile, weak, finite jar of clay that cracks and break, destined to waste away. What a unique image!
Why would God choose to hold such glorious, invaluable treasure in temporal, fragile vessels? “…To show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Here is a central purpose of God in the life of Christian parents enduring fiery trials with their child: God is displaying his power and glory through your weakness!
He illustrates further, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (4:8–10). You may feel weak and utterly helpless as you endure this journey with your child, inadequate for convincing your child of the truth. But take heart! This is the context in which the life of Jesus will be manifested in you. You are a jar of clay, just as God has purposed it. His grace is sufficient for you, and he delights in making his power perfect through your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Ask yourself the following questions:
- In what ways have you felt inadequate to invoke change in your child?
- How have you seen the power of God sustain you in this season?
- How might others, including your son or daughter, see Christ in you as you walk with him through your weakness and struggles?
Therefore, do not lose heart
In response to these things, Paul leaves us with a beautiful encouragement:
”So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 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” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
If you are feeling like a cracked and feeble jar of clay, I encourage you to take heart. The afflictions you are enduring are light and momentary compared to the weight of eternal glory that is to come! We are not promised life without afflictions and trials, but we are promised the strength and power to persist through them. Though you feel weak, God is faithful and will reveal his power and glory through you. I pray that your child might see Christ most clearly in your perseverance through the race marked out for you.
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.
24 Mar 2022
Name: Karen Robinson
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Staff position: Executive Assistant
Description of work at Harvest USA: My main goal is to assist the Harvest USA’s Founder, John Freeman, in any way I can. I find the job fulfilling because John is a visionary. Doing administrative tasks frees up my co-workers to focus on the vision and mission of Harvest USA. Also, if there is any way to boost employee morale, I’m on it!
How did you get to Harvest USA? I’m so glad you asked! A leader from my former church gave me a Harvest USA brochure. She had it at the bottom of her drawer and dusted it off for me. “Wow,” I thought because of the dust, “I am the only female in the congregation struggling sexually.” I went through the Harvest USA’s Journeyer’s group for women struggling with same-sex attraction. Walking through the Harvest USA’s Tree Model together, God showed me patterns of my sin. Without condemnation, he lovingly walked alongside me as I wrestled to yield to his will regarding sex. It was a blessing to see God work in the lives of the group members. We are not identified by past actions; we are identified as God’s beloved daughters. (As a side note, we had the joy of being in the first Journeyer’s group to use the resource Sexual Sanity for Women.) To give back in some way, I volunteered weekly at Harvest USA. Volunteering led to being on staff. Who knew that dusting off a brochure would lead to me having my dream job!
What is your favorite Scripture? I love Philippians 4:8. It keeps my mind focused on what God says instead of what man says. It also helps me determine which thoughts are sweet whispers from my heavenly Father to his beloved daughter. God is not quiet. He has a lot of true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things to say to us! Meditating on these things allows us to hear him.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? I am West Philadelphia born and raised! I love Philly’s history, as well as the architecture. It’s easy to feel spoiled with everything in your backyard. Let’s not forget cheesesteaks, pretzels, and Tastykake!
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? Yup, I’ve jumped out of a plane twice! I also enjoy playing hymns on the piano (both my mother and her mother were organists), driving a stick-shift (no worries about anyone asking to borrow your car), and playing spider solitaire (I’m on the Grandmaster level).
17 Mar 2022
What does it mean to be a man? I find it’s much easier to answer that question by harping on what a man isn’t, or by pointing out the flaws of our culturally distorted views of masculinity. We can see right through the empty vanity of figures like James Bond with his embodiment of rugged individualism and promiscuous sex. But what does a real man look like?
The recent situation in Ukraine has touched all of our lives on many levels. It is an absolute tragedy of unspeakable proportions. The horrors of war are beyond description. It is in these moments of travail and trial that image bearers of God are revealed in their splendor and glory. I might not be able to give a concise definition of what a man is, but I know one when I see him. And I saw a man of incredible courage and bravery on February 25, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with four other government officials, declared that they were staying with the people of Ukraine to fight for their country.
For weeks, I haven’t been able to get that 30-second video clip out of my head. It touched something deep in my soul that not only shows me what a real man is, but also ultimately points me to the truest man, Jesus Christ!
Jesus is the ultimate leader to follow
At the time of writing this blog, millions of Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms and laying down their lives for their country. Many men who have never even held a gun before are being given last-minute training on how to use a firearm. An out-manned, out-gunned people are defying all expectations for what this invasion was going to look like.
Would events be unfolding this way if Ukraine’s leaders had snuck out the back door with bags of cash in each hand? I highly doubt it. As the leader goes, so go his followers. Just as Zelensky is willing to lay down his life for Ukraine’s independence, so too are the Ukrainian people!
Zelensky’s sacrificial leadership is a glorious, albeit imperfect, reflection of our Savior Jesus Christ. We follow a leader who left the perfection of heaven to enter into the lowliest of estates in a fallen world. Born in poverty, in danger of Herod’s slaughter of all newborn males in Bethlehem, scorned, rejected, beaten, and ultimately put to death—all in order to set his people free. Jesus came on a mission to liberate his people from bondage and slavery to sin, Satan, and death. He laid down his own life, taking on the sins of his people, dying the death that should have been ours, so that we might be free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
What does this freedom look in the lives of Christ’s followers? Ultimately, it is the freedom to lay down our lives in service to our King. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a free people who would rather die than give up their freedom. What we see in the book of Acts are apostles and believers who have been set free in such a way that no one can place a yoke of slavery on them again. In Acts 4–5, the apostles are threatened, arrested, and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, but these threats have no power over free men. Instead, they all the more boldly proclaim that salvation is found in no other name than Jesus alone!
What is particularly powerful is that the council of elders and scribes in Jerusalem noticed that these followers of Jesus were not trained scholars. Instead, they were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). This is the impact of sacrificial leadership. True leaders empower and embolden ordinary men to do extraordinary things.
We don’t follow a coward
Jesus is calling his freed brethren to courage, bravery, and an understanding that to follow him is to lay down their lives. I’ve always been struck by Revelations 21:8. The very first category of people who will be cast into the lake of fire are the “cowardly.” Why is cowardice so antithetical to God’s people? Well, Jesus was the exact opposite of a coward. You will never see one hint of cowardice in the life of Christ. Even in the moments when Jesus escaped an angry mob, he did so not because he was afraid, but because he was being strategic. His time had not yet come.
Ultimately, a coward lacks love. He cares not for the lives of others, but only about saving himself. Zelensky has been quoted as saying, “As for my life: I am the president of the country, and I simply do not have the right to it.”¹ A coward fights tooth and nail to maintain the right to his own life, no matter the cost. A hero willingly lays down the right to his life so that others may live. Zelensky once again points us to our Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). He’s not a hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger but instead protects his people at the cost of his own life.
Sexual sin and cowardice
Sexual sin in men is especially connected to cowardice. How can I say that? It is true that Jesus is the standard of righteousness in every way for all of his followers, both men and women. Nevertheless, in Ephesians 5, husbands in particular are given specific instruction on how to relate to their wives—and that has everything to do with sexuality! That specific instruction is to love one’s wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her! Men are specifically called to the opposite of cowardice in their sexuality.
Sexual sin often reveals the cowardice that lurks in each of our hearts. Men often turn to sexual sin because we are too scared to face the hard things in our lives. Many husbands feel rejected in the marriage bed, and, instead of doing the difficult, scary work of addressing the topic honestly with their wives, they’re willing to take the easy road of “taking care of themselves” through self-stimulation. The same is true for many single men. Pursuing marriage and the blessing of sexual intimacy in marriage requires courage. Courage to court and woo a maiden. Courage to face potential rejection. Courage to step into a lifelong commitment. But the ubiquitous proliferation of internet pornography and virtual reality allows many single men to feel a false sense of all the perks of sexual pleasure without any of the courage required in pursuing and committing to marriage.
The heart of a coward is also revealed in the secrecy of sexual sin. Many husbands are too scared to let their wives know what’s really going on. Many single men are too scared to let another brother or pastor know about their struggles. Even when their sin is revealed, many husbands are too scared to sacrificially love and pursue a wife who is wrestling with deep anger, fear, frustration, and doubt. Instead of laying down their lives for their wives in their greatest moment of need and pain, they turn back to the very sin that put their wives in this state. What is so damning about cowardly actions is the way they reveal a willingness to let others die so that they can save their own lives. This is the exact antithesis of our Savior.
Jesus died to redeem cowards
That might sound really harsh, but let me be clear: I still wrestle with having the heart of a coward. I see it in the some of the ways I treat my wife. I see it in some of the safe decisions I’ve made in life. Apart from God’s grace, I am a coward deserving the lake of fire.
But praise the Lord that Christ’s work of salvation gives hope to cowards like me! Jesus knew when he called Peter to follow him that Peter would eventually take the coward’s way out in Jesus’ greatest moment of need. Peter chose to protect his life by denying Christ. Left in unrepentance, this denial of his friend, Savior, and King would’ve led to Christ’s denial of Peter himself before the Father. But Jesus had other plans for Peter, and he has other plans for you and me as his beloved brothers! Jesus restored Peter graciously, and that led Peter to a transformed life of courageous, bold, sacrificial witness for Christ, which would eventually cost him his life. Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times, but he also foretold the death that Peter would face for his proclamation of the gospel (John 21:18–19).
If you are a man in Christ, at the core of your being is a man who is willing to lay down your life as you follow your courageous Savior. We take our cues as men not from the world, but from the One who has already conquered and who has granted access to the tree of life. Where are you tempted towards cowardice in life? When are you tempted let others die so that you can live? How will you look to Jesus for strength so that you can confidently say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?