21 Jan 2022
It may or may not surprise you that the majority of men seeking help from Harvest USA are married. The majority of these husbands are not coming to us because of their own conviction over sin but because they were caught. They were living, often for decades, in darkness, and now they’ve finally been forced into the light. They usually come to us with a mixture of pain and relief—the pain of the consequences of their sexual sin and its accompanying deception, and also the relief of no longer living as hypocrites.
This initial exposure is freeing and provides with it real opportunities for change and transformation. While there are many dangers and snares along the path towards marital restoration, none is more common and more deadly than going back into the darkness.
For any of you familiar with twentieth-century American poetry or Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Interstellar, you probably know the poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In his poem about death, Thomas provides incredible wisdom for a husband tempted to go back into hiding. He writes,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Husbands who are battling sexual addictions are not only wrestling against the allure of sexual sin. They are also facing the constant temptation of lying about it to their wives. I’ve heard all of the major excuses for going back into the darkness:
“I love her too much to hurt her by telling her.”
“I know how she’ll react; she just can’t handle this.”
“She’s not supposed to be my accountability partner; I have men in my life I confess to.”
“Confessing to her doesn’t help me; she’ll just use that as fuel to punish me later.”
“I’ve already confessed it to the Lord.”
While we recognize that there are rare and extreme situations where it may not always be prudent or loving for husbands to confess their sexual sins to their wives, the general rule we find to be most beneficial for marriages is called “the 24-hour rule.”
What is the 24-hour rule?
The 24-hour rule is when a husband promises that he will confess, within 24 hours, any time that he engages in behavioral sexual sin—including masturbation, pornography, fantasy indulgence that lasts for minutes at a time, and anything worse than these behaviors. This includes any active pursuit of these behaviors, even if he is unsuccessful, such as seeking ways around internet filters to find pornography.
What the 24-hour rule is not
The 24-hour rule, misapplied, has the potential to become very detrimental to a marriage, which is why clear, objective expectations are essential. It is unhelpful for a wife to be privy to every single battle a husband faces with sexual temptation. We believe she deserves to know the battles he clearly loses, but not every battle he faces.
While every couple requires a nuanced approach, we generally try to steer couples away from certain scrupulous standards of confession. We generally do not encourage couples to adopt the following types of confession as a rule:
- Every time a husband takes a second look
- A sexually suggestive image appears on his device apart from his active pursuit of it, and he immediately flees from it.
- Tempting thoughts that come into his mind but against which he has fought and upon which he does linger for minutes at a time.
It’s important that couples understand the difference between a “rule” and Spirit-led confession. The purpose of the 24-hour rule is to build trust, as I will explain later. Understandably, breaking the rule has devastating consequences in breaking trust, but a husband can also freely confess as the Spirit leads. So, while it is not a rule that a husband confesses every battle with temptation, he may share about specific temptations with his wife from time to time, which can have very positive results for both of them. She can encourage and pray for him, and he can continue to learn how to trust his wife and be more vulnerable with her.
Expecting a husband to confess every temptation or lustful thought is often a grasping for control and only leads to a further breakdown of the fragile trust they are seeking to rebuild.
Why the 24-hour rule?
An entire book could and probably should be written on why this kind of rule is so helpful in marriages seeking restoration after sexual betrayal, but here are just a few reasons why we find this guidance so crucial:
- Often in these situations, the greatest damage done to the marriage is the loss of trust and the difficulty of earning it back. Succumbing yet again to the snare of pornography does great harm to a recovering marriage, but the difference between confessing openly and being caught in covering up sin is worlds apart.
- Wives usually want to know when their husbands have been unfaithful with pornography. It hurts them to know, but they still would rather know than be left in the dark. The most common response I hear from wives to their husbands is, “I’m hurt that you did this, but I’m grateful that you told me.”
- Committing and being faithful to a 24-hour rule takes the burden off of a wife to be a detective. Wives often feel scared when weeks or months have gone by without hearing from their husbands how they’re doing. In this scenario, no news is sadly often not good news. Faithfulness to the 24-hour rule guards wives against fretfully wondering what is true.
- The 24-hour rule forces husbands to live in the realty of their decisions. One of pornography’s greatest lies is, “This isn’t hurting anyone.” Needing to confess each instance kills that lie very quickly. I’ve heard many husbands talk about how great their marriages are apart from this one issue. Men have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and downplay the impact of their sin on their marriages. Hiding this sin and never talking about it creates a very powerful illusion that things are great, but this backfires in the end. The more a wife believes her husband is being faithful, the greater the disappointment, hurt, and sense of betrayal once she finds out that’s not true.
- Confession creates opportunities for genuine relationship. Whether a husband knows it or not, keeping this sin hidden forces him to put up his defenses. He can’t be his true self around her. He’ll need to hold some of himself back from her. The two of them can’t truly be naked and unashamed, but being open with his wife provides the foundation for truly knowing one another.
- Confession gives his wife an opportunity to forgive him and for him to receive her forgiveness. This is a beautiful display of the gospel, reminding them both that we only have a saving relationship with Jesus because of his grace! Our marriages should point us to the gospel every day, and living in the darkness kills that opportunity.
- The 24-hour rule upholds the great responsibility, dignity, and honor of the marriage covenant. Most couples take vows at their weddings, and many will vow to “forsake all others.” Pornography breaks this marriage vow and tramples upon it. The offended party not only has the right to know but also needs to be involved for proper restoration to occur. A commitment to the 24-hour rule is an outworking of your commitment to your vows.
- Willing confession of sexual betrayal in a marriage is scary for a husband to do. Confession takes all of the control out of his hands, forcing him to entrust himself to the Lord. This is such a critical step in repentance. He must lose his life in order to save it. Sin so often seeks to make life work on our own terms. Hiding your sin is a prime example of a refusal to let God be the Lord of your life.
On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with wives in tears as they come to realize their husbands have been hiding their sin. Their faces show their embarrassment, shock, disappointment, and confusion. But what is perhaps most heartbreaking is watching them plead with their husbands to come back into the light. They aren’t asking their husbands to be perfect, only honest! These women are willing to forgive, to help, to pray, but they feel completely shut out, disregarded, and unsafe when they realize they’ve been deceived. Deception virtually wipes out any growth a marriage has made, leaving wives feeling like they are back at square one. But the enemy is so crafty in telling husbands the very opposite lie—that confession will take them back to square one. Deception, not confession, is your enemy, brothers! Fight it; put it to death. Entrust yourself to Christ because he will never forsake you! Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The following blog is an article from our 2021 Harvest USA Magazine entitled Standing Firm for His Glory. To read more articles from this issue, simply click here or visit www.harvestusa.org/magazines/.
“Godly husband, godly father, godly leader in the Church.” That was how I so wanted to be perceived by others, but it was a lie, and I hated myself because of it. The truth was that, for decades, I had struggled with sexually addictive behaviors: masturbation, pornography, and—eventually—binges of phone sex with other men. This was a secret that I was once convinced I would take to my grave because, if anyone knew the truth of who I was, I was sure I’d be despised, rejected, and abandoned by all, including my wife and children.
The fact that I struggled with sexual brokenness isn’t surprising, especially in light of my story and the fact that I have a sinful nature and live in a fallen world. I grew up in a Christian home with godly parents, but I carried a deep wound. My dad excelled in whatever he did, and others fully expected me to follow in his footsteps, but what he excelled in was not what I wanted to pursue. Indeed, I avoided his world because I feared that I might fail and be rejected by him and others. And so any deep connection with my dad was absent. He didn’t give me the physical touch, the play, the frequent affirmation that I so desperately wanted and needed.
A therapist said to me decades later, “You were a nine- or ten-year-old boy, walking across an emotional desert, desperate for a drink of water, and you found one. It just happened to be from a polluted well.” The polluted well was the attention of an older neighborhood boy who introduced me to sexual activity. This would set in motion a decades-long history of struggle with same-sex attraction and sexual acting out. While I was still attracted to women, there was always the pull of the other that produced overwhelming guilt, toxic shame, and repeated, desperate calls to God to remove this despised thorn.
My early sexualization was punctuated by two other traumatic events during adolescence. When I was 14, my dad invited a 24-year-old man with whom he had a professional relationship to spend the night—to share my room—when this man was in town for a special event. Little did my dad or I know that the conversation this man engaged me in after the lights were out would quickly turn sexual and would lead to sexual activity that left me devastated with guilt and shame. Similarly, a sexual encounter with a predatory college professor at age 18 would also reinforce the extent of the brokenness I felt.
During my time in professional school, I fell in love with a wonderful Christian woman, and we married soon after. Finally, I thought; surely marriage would fix me. Marriage was what I needed in order to quit doing the things that brought so much pain. And it did work, for a while. But, gradually, the same old sexually addictive behaviors crept back into my life. I told myself that I was only trying to reduce the stress resulting from my job.
I thought that once we had children, I would stop. I would have to stop. But the children came, and my sin didn’t stop. Against a backdrop of frequent masturbation and binging on pornography, I kept trying to find a way to stop, believing that God and I could sort this out, that no one else needed to know.
When I was in my mid-30s, my family and I were members of a small, reformed church in the Midwest. I was approached about serving as an elder. I resisted at first, feeling like a hypocrite, but after repeated overtures from the pastor and a godly man on the church’s session, I agreed to have my name placed before the congregation. I told myself that if I were elected to the office of ruling elder, I would have to stop doing what brought so much guilt and shame. I was elected to the office of ruling elder and ordained, but, much to my disappointment, the miraculous healing I was seeking did not materialize. It was not long before I was engaging in the same old addictive patterns, at times contemplating whether suicide wouldn’t be a better alternative.
And so the pattern was set, and the decades passed. Where was God in all of this? Why wouldn’t he remove this thorn? I became more and more convinced that there might not be any hope for me, disregarding all that I had been taught throughout my life about God’s faithfulness. In my early 40s, my wife and I were in a new city as a result of my work, and the evidence of God’s faithfulness to me began to take form, although I would not see that until years later. My wife, while serving on the missions committee of the church in which I was also serving as a ruling elder, came across a request for support from Harvest USA. I can remember her saying while she was reading the literature, “This is the most grace-filled, redemptive approach to helping individuals escape their bondage to sexual sin that I have ever seen.” I was intrigued and began reading it myself. I found a modicum of hope, but I was still too prideful to confess my sin to my pastor or my wife.
I see much more clearly now how God was at work in my heart even in those dark times. I would eventually confess my sexual brokenness and the details of how I acted out sexually to my pastor in a moment of desperation. He met me in my brokenness; he held me, he wept with me, he repeated the truth of the gospel to me, and he encouraged me to tell my wife about my sexual struggle. It was a proper suggestion but one that I had too much fear to pursue at that time, but, in that moment, I was met with the goodness and grace of the gospel by my pastor, and it gave me hope.
I told myself that this is what it would take—confession of sexual sin to my pastor—to break the hold that my sin had on me. Once again, I received short-term relief, but my sinful, addictive patterns soon grabbed hold of me again.
So I continued to struggle until, several years later, God gave me a desire to pursue bi-weekly telephone counseling with David White, who was Harvest USA’s Men’s Ministry Coordinator at the time. David kindly and patiently worked with me to help me see my profound brokenness. He too encouraged me to confess my sin to my wife. When I finally did so in a moment of great guilt and shame following a binge of acting out, we were thrown into a major crisis that led to intense marital counseling and a sexual sobriety contract in which I promised to disclose to my wife within 24 hours any sexual acting out. Finally, I thought to myself, this is what it would take to enable me to stop. But it didn’t. Fourteen months later, I binged again while my wife was out of town and continued my deceit by failing to confess to her as I had promised. I was convinced that if I kept my promise to confess to her, I would lose my marriage and my family.
The truth always comes out, and I am grateful now that that was true in my case. Two months later, my wife confronted me, and I knew that I had to answer her pointed question honestly, confessing to what had happened months earlier. We were immediately thrown into another crisis, but, in retrospect, this moment was God’s gift, for God used my desperation to save myself and my marriage to get me to a twelve-step fellowship meeting with other men, many of whom were Christians, and the missing piece to my decades-long search was found.
After God created Adam, he pronounced, “It is not good that man should be alone.” Yes, God gave Eve to Adam as a helpmeet, but he also designed Adam for deep connection with others. Man was created for real intimacy, something I had never experienced because I was too fearful that I would be completely rejected and abandoned if anyone knew what I had done.
As I began attending twelve-step meetings and experiencing an honesty from others that I had never before experienced, I slowly discovered that God used my deepest fear of others knowing my most shameful secrets to bring true repentance and healing. As I began to let go of my secrets and discover anew God’s goodness, kindness, and unfathomable grace, the transformation of my heart began.
While this transformation would occur slowly over the next few years, I discovered real intimacy, not only with these other men who loved me and encouraged me to walk in obedience, but also real intimacy with my wife and my children. I developed deep friendships with other men that were transformative. I gradually came to realize that this was what God designed me for, that there was no way I could have ever been freed from my addiction to lust without the community of other broken but redeemed brothers in Christ.
My wife and I have done a lot of therapeutic work over the past twelve years. There have been some rough times along the path of healing, but now, more than ever, we both see God’s merciful hand in our lives, confirming again and again the good news of the gospel. For that, we are both grateful. And the pastor to whom I had confessed my sin years earlier has walked with us through many rough times; I am grateful that he is still my pastor today. He loved me, and he showed up as the hands and feet of Christ when I did not think myself worthy of God’s love.
Today, my life is much different than it was for those many decades during which I attempted, in my pride, to live life alone in order to protect my secrets. I have a much more profound intimacy with Jesus, who makes me and all things new. I have the great honor and privilege of sponsoring and mentoring six amazing young men, ranging in age from 27 to 40 who, like me, struggle with sexual brokenness but, by God’s grace, are living in freedom and seeking to walk in obedience before God one day at a time. God gives me a front-row seat to watch the Holy Spirit at work in these men’s hearts and minds.
I will always be grateful for Harvest USA. Its ministry of hope, healing, and forgiveness rooted in the reality of the gospel touched my life during a dark time of my soul and led surely and amazingly to the reality of knowing God and others in a way I never thought was possible. And I am grateful that I have a church today where my pastors know my story and have often sent other men to me—to share my story and to sit with them in their brokenness, offering the hope of the gospel and of deep friendships with other men who struggle as I do. I no longer have to live life as the hypocrite who desperately wanted to be affirmed by others as “godly husband, godly father, godly leader in the Church.” Today, I have a fresh realization of the truth of the gospel and my desperate need for true intimacy with God and with other men.
In this article, we do not disclose our ministry recipient’s real name because he has requested to remain anonymous.
02 Dec 2021
Name: Chris Torchia
Hometown: Lancaster, PA
Position: Director of Parents and Family Ministry
Description of work at Harvest USA: I am primarily responsible for overseeing all the direct ministry to parents and families, as well as contributing to our equipping ministry through creating resources to educate the church in these specific areas. Although I often meet individually with parents and family members, the majority of my ministry is conducted through facilitating biblical support groups for parents whose child has embraced an LGBTQ+ identity. These groups aim to provide parents with a safe and supportive community to share their struggles, understand their child better, and explore the role God is calling them to have in their child’s life. My equipping efforts seek to educate the Church in how to properly understand and care for hurting parents dealing with these challenging issues.
How did you get to Harvest USA? I first heard about Harvest USA while I was in my last semester of seminary, at a men’s breakfast for my church. I remember being struck by how theologically sound and surprisingly practical the teaching was. I spoke with the former president of Harvest USA, and he shared with me some potential job opportunities to consider. Because I was about to finish my counseling degree and didn’t know what was next, the timing was perfect. I began my career with Harvest USA in the Men’s Ministry and shortly after was asked to get involved in our ministry to parents. Unmarried with no kids at the time, I thought, “Why not?!,” and jumped in. By God’s grace and many long hours spent with parents, I found my niche there and eventually ended up overseeing all our ministry to parents and families.
What is your favorite Scripture? One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (ESV)
I have always been the kind of person with more questions than answers, which has given me a strong desire for wisdom and understanding. This is especially true as I wrestle with the complexities of my own heart and the lives of people I care for. I love this simple verse because I have witnessed how it proves true over and over again. I have found that true knowledge and understanding begins and ends with fearing the Lord and not being right in your own eyes. This passage has several implications, not least of which is the guidance, protection, and life that come from writing God’s words on your heart and treasuring his commands within you.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? I actually just moved with my family back to the Lancaster area after living in Philadelphia for 10 years, but what I love most about Philly is that it has so much character. From the rich history of Old City, the Italian market, and the Rocky Steps (yo, Rocko!) to the scenery of Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon Trail, the foodie scene, and, of course, the infamous northeastern hospitality; you can find a lot of flavor in this city. I also appreciate that Philly is a city of neighborhoods and small enough to get to know people—if you can stick around long enough to get past the seemingly tough exterior.
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? Before my Harvest USA days, I had a pretty illustrious career as a breakdancer. For more than 12 years, I was part of a Christian breakdance crew that performed for various venues and taught workshops and classes for kids and adults. Through this art form, the Lord allowed us to have a flourishing outreach and discipleship ministry, which led me to discover my strengths in ministry and pursue counseling as a career. Providentially, the Lord also opened the door for me to teach dance workshops in the Dominican Republic, where I met my now wife of five years!
25 Nov 2021
Harvest USA is a ministry focused on issues of sexuality and gender. It’s not surprising, then, that people often ask us for advice on how to respond to our current culture. How do I get beyond complaints and diatribes about non-Christian ideas in the world around us? Should I engage in political action? What must I do when my neighbors and colleagues push non-Christian views? How do I raise kids in this environment? How do we keep the Church from capitulating in the area of sexuality?
These are urgent and complicated questions. I believe the beginning of an answer to them is one of perspective: It’s not really about sex.
How we address those outside the Church
Throughout the Bible, concern for sexual morality is directed inward, to God’s people, not outward to the world. It is most often associated with expressing holiness, by which is meant being set apart to belong to the LORD. It is always assumed that the people and cultures of the world will be sexually immoral, and, even when that fact is mentioned, it is usually in the context of calling Christians to self-consciously differentiate themselves in that respect. So, for instance, the lists of sexuality rules in Leviticus are framed by, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3). Sexuality was one significant area of application of the principal of having been set apart to belong to God: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
This is exactly the way sexual morality is framed in the New Testament as well, but with the added expectation that even while our beliefs and practices will be radically different from those outside the Church, we will be living and working in close association with them every day. Paul writes, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world…since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10). Peter also says, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). Significantly, the Church is not told to go out and scold the world, or even to try to reform their practices. Instead, we are to focus on being distinctly different.
One implication of this is that we need to be soberly realistic about the sexual practices and views of the non-Christian world we live in. I suspect that we have spent too much time and emotional energy processing shock and disappointment at every major step of cultural decline into sexual license, but this should never surprise us. In fact, in the Scriptures, the reaction of surprise is expected from the other direction: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). It is the world that should be shocked at what we don’t do! If moral decline in the culture around us seems like our biggest concern, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are really hoping for—a world outside the Church that approximates godliness just enough that we can comfortably and respectably partake in its benefits? That is never promised to us by our Lord; it is a counterfeit gospel.
Am I suggesting that God’s rules for sex don’t apply to unbelievers? Of course not. But God has not given us the job of being his morality enforcers. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And listen to how Peter continues: “…but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Notice to whom they are to give account—“to him,” to Christ. They are not accountable to us, nor are we their judges.
However, we do have some responsibility to those who are outside the Church. How does Peter express this? He concludes, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” (1 Peter 4:6). What is our role when they are shocked at our views on sexuality? We are to proclaim the gospel. When it comes to sexuality, our focus is primarily inward; when it comes to evangelism, our focus is primarily outward. This has the potential to give great freedom in how we respond to developments in our culture. In our interactions, our priority is not how we can inform or convince them that their sexual views and practices are wrong. Our priority is to show and tell them about the plan and promise of God to give eternal life and joy in Jesus.
How we address those inside the Church
If, in speaking to the world, we can err by focusing on sexuality rather than the gospel, there is a similar error we can make in speaking to our own—and I’m thinking especially here of our young. Whether we like it or not, our children are hearing persuasive messages from our culture about sex every day. We absolutely must counter those sexual messages. However, just as it is true that our response toward the world is not really focused on sex, but the gospel, so also in our counter-persuasion toward our kids our main point is not about sex, but the gospel.
Why is this? Because we need to make clear to our kids that the real issues are infinitely bigger than sex. In biblical Christianity, sex is a picture of the gospel, but it is not the gospel; in the unbelieving world, sex is salvation. So, the question to answer in refuting the world’s messages about sex is not, “What is sex?,” but “What is salvation?” Where do we turn to find that which is of highest value? What provides goodness and life to the fullest extent? What brings ultimate joy and human flourishing? The world’s answer is, “Sex, unhindered by any outside inhibition and guided by individual internal impulse.” Notice here that our message to our children cannot merely compare and contrast the world’s and God’s rules for sex. The equation is not, “The world says that X, Y, and Z are okay when it comes to sex, but the Church says that only A, B, and C are okay when it comes to sex.” That framing of the question may involve true statements of the Christian do’s and don’ts, but it misses the main point. We ought to frame it this way: “The world says that the highest life is attained by your expressing yourself—especially your sex and gender—according to your impulses and desires, but the Church says that true, abundant, and eternal life is only found by trusting and loving Jesus.” Do you see the difference? That answer does not even mention sex, and it also answers the fundamental error of the world’s messages about sex.
One thing that is implicated here is the temptation to try to convince our young people to choose Christian sexual rules based on an experiential comparison with the world’s prodigality. This is the message that, “Christian sex is the best sex. If you will only keep yourself pure until marriage and then commit to sexuality confined to marriage, your sex life—and you—will be happier.” Granted, there may be some truths contained in that sentiment that are worth saying. Many of the promises that the world makes of the unlimited pleasure and personal fulfillment to be found in freeform sexual expression are, at best, exaggerations and, at worst, outright lies. There are experiential benefits in a lifelong, faithfully monogamous marriage that are impossible in a less committed relationship. Nevertheless, if this is our only or most important argument, it will be largely unconvincing. It will be unconvincing because it concedes the terms of the discussion to the world. In the world’s framing of the discussion, the question of sexuality is a cost-benefit equation limited to the time between birth and death. On these terms, Christian sexuality is a hard sell. Sure, we can name a few benefits, but, if we are honest, we must admit the significant costs of repeated self-denial, deferred hopes, a radical restriction of options, and, for some, lifelong loss and loneliness. Put bluntly, in a world without resurrection, Christian sexual morality is nonsense. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
That is exactly why we cannot accept the world’s terms of discussion. This issue is not as small as this current life; it is infinitely bigger. Why in the world would we make such restrictive—in the world’s view, repressive—commitments in regard to sexuality? Because we have found something of infinitely greater value. We have found Jesus, the Creator himself become one of us, the source and giver of all that is good, giving us intimacy with God and the promise of an indestructible, unending, glorious life in a recreated universe. Everything good in this life is but a dim hint of the eternal joy promised to us in Christ. And sex? Sex is just one of those dim hints of the life to come. What about the standards that define our sexuality? They are not mere restrictions, mere arbitrary deprivations to enforce an other-worldly mindedness. They are meant to cause sexuality to mirror and display our Savior’s faithful, covenantal, lavish, and costly love for us. Do we simplistically give our kids an alternate set of rules about sex we hope they will choose over the world’s views? Or do we show and tell them about something and someone who is worth every ounce of our love and allegiance?
So, whichever direction we face—outward to the world or inward toward our own—it isn’t really about sex. It’s about the gospel.
11 Nov 2021
What is your hometown? I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 16 years, but my hometown is St. Louis, MO! I have enjoyed living on the East Coast, but I remain a Midwesterner at heart!
What is your position at Harvest USA? Since 2007, I’ve served as the Director of Women’s Ministry.
Describe your work at Harvest USA. I have the joy and privilege of overseeing all of Harvest USA’s ministry to two populations: women who need help living sexually faithful lives and wives of men who have battled with sexual sin. Similar to our Men’s and Parent’s Ministries, our Women’s Ministry team engages in short-term, one-to-one discipleship with hurting women, and we also lead biblical support groups for these two populations of women.
Another aspect of what I do at Harvest is serving as a writer and teacher, both of which are ministries I love to do! I’ve gotten to write for our blog for fourteen years now, and it has been a steady process of God maturing of me. In addition, I have been able to travel all across the United States, as well as Colombia, Ecuador, Taiwan, and East Asia, on behalf of Harvest USA. This international teaching ministry has been one of the most unexpected and delightful surprises of being on staff.
How did you get to Harvest USA? Well, I’m limited with my word count, so I need to be brief! I moved to Philly in 2005 to study biblical counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). I was introduced to CCEF through my struggles with relational idolatry and the painful mess of codependent relationships. As a counseling student, I became acquainted with Harvest USA when I saw their info table at a CCEF national Conference.
Now, let me give a full disclosure: the first time I saw the Harvest USA info table and signs about sexual sin, I was uncomfortable and nervous; suffice it to say I steered clear of that table! Little did I know that, through a simple inquiry about what I understood to be a part-time discipleship position, the Lord would connect me with Mr. John Freeman, who said, “Oh, no, Ellen. We’re looking for a full-time Women‘s Ministry director!” To which I replied, “Oh! I had no idea. I am definitely not your girl and certainly not qualified.”
Lovingly and enthusiastically—which won’t surprise anyone who knows this dear brother—John persisted, and, after a few months of prayer, conversations, guidance, and counsel, I accepted the position. Though the topics that Harvest USA focuses on, like sexuality and gender, were intimidating to me, the heart of Harvest USA excited me and drew me in. The focus on Christ, teaching God’s Word, and discipleship were a great fit for what I have committed my life to.
What is your favorite Scripture? I don’t really have one, though I often quote Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (ESV). I’ve experienced the Lord’s rescuing, delighting love for me over and over, including the ways he has brought me out of sin and shepherded me into spacious, broad places. The shame, insecurity, and emotional pain that so many messy relationships gave to me were a primary way that God brought me to the end of myself and led me to humble myself in asking for help. Those struggles, and the process of repentance, heart-healing, and growth that God has allowed me to experience, are a significant foundation for every aspect of my ministry with Harvest USA.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? Besides being in the epicenter of cheesesteaks, I love that the world of biblical counseling is wide, deep, and rich in Philly. I’ve already mentioned CCEF, and there are many others ministries—not to mention churches—that are passionate about counseling and discipling people from a rich foundation of Christ and the Word. We’re a family—ministry-siblings, if you will—who encourage, support, and help each other to faithfully serve God.
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? Most of my adult life has been in vocational ministry, and, prior to Harvest USA, I was focused on missionary care and cross-cultural church planting. I love traveling internationally and experiencing the beauty of the peoples, tribes, nations, and languages that God has created.
28 Oct 2021
The following is meant to help those who are weary in their battle to overcome sin and need to know how to pray and cry out to God for help.
Father, help…help, God. I don’t know what else to do to get rid of this thing—why won’t you take this away?!
Sexual obedience? Integrity? How is that possible when the temptation chases, hounds, calls out to me day after day? Why do you allow me to feel these things and not have them satisfied? Will it ever get easier? Will I ever be free from this? Is this the cross to bear that people talk about, something that dominates every day of my life? How is this fair? These questions haunt me.
My feelings seem to have the loudest voice right now, so I’ll start there. Looking at porn last night felt good! Sure, it was horrible two hours later, but even though I know that stuff is evil, somehow it does help me forget about the rest of my broken life… so much that I can’t find the words to pray. I earnestly desire to fix my eyes on Jesus, but how do I do that when my feelings are just a swirl of inner turmoil? I feel like the man in Mark’s gospel who cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). I admit that it feels so hard to believe right now. Oh please, help me to feel differently, to think with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and to trust you. Help, God! My unbelief is wrecking me.
I resonate with the words of the Psalmist when he says, “My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me” (Psalm 38:10). My attempts to help myself have failed. All I want to do is run away. I keep hearing thoughts in my head telling me to hide, saying that other people can’t handle my truth. They tell me I’m not good enough. I might as well quit because I’m too far gone. Where are you, my God? Is this all worth it?
Father, have mercy on me and cause my heart to long for you, even in this minute. Change my desires to truly want you, to want to taste and see that you are good (Psalm 34:8). I’m helpless and need you to save and rescue me from hopelessness and help me get outside myself. I don’t have the words to say right now, but your Word says “to draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” I resist the enemy, who is whispering all these lies to me, and I turn to you, crying out for your help (James 4:7–8). O God, help me!
Even though I am distressed, I am not broken. Even though I am overwhelmed and all I feel is despair, there is hope. Keep me from losing heart. Paul says that though my outer self is wasting away, my inner self is being renewed every day. Help me to see this. Help me to look not at the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. Give me grace to lift my eyes off my here and now and know that the battle I’m fighting in this moment isn’t pointless; it carries eternal weight (2 Corinthians 4:8, 16–18).
I know the verses about your grace being sufficient for me by heart. I want to believe that in my weakness, you are strong. But, if I’m honest, I don’t like how it feels to be so weak. I feel so exposed and out of control. I am not remotely close to being able to boast in my weakness, nor can I say that I am content in hardships and persecutions like Paul. Even so, help me believe that in my weakness, I am strong because of Jesus, even though it doesn’t feel that way (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Help me not give in to my feelings that tell me you are not present and that you are a distant, impersonal God. Psalm 23 tells me that you are my Shepherd, you provide me with all that I need, you give me rest, you lead me into places of peace, and you bring restoration to my soul. Even though I feel like you have abandoned me and that you will push me away because of my despair and doubts, your goodness and mercy chase after me.
21 Oct 2021
The temptation to single out one type of sin or one category of sinner as uniquely worthy of condemnation is common. It often springs from and feeds the self-righteous hypocrisy of our hearts, which seeks to find a point of comparison by which we can stand over another as morally inferior to us. This temptation is especially strong when the sin to which another person is tempted is one to which we feel no attraction whatsoever or which we find safely unattractive. Because we are confident that we would never do that, we find it easier to treat the person who would as particularly depraved. It is useful to our proud hearts precisely because we are sure that we are not personally susceptible to this depravity.
And yet it would be wrong for us to react to this possibility of self-righteous judgment by taking a ho-hum, cavalier attitude toward sexual sin and temptations. In the Bible, sexual immorality is a big deal. Most who are familiar with Scripture sense this. The subject of sexual immorality comes up often and is treated with heightened seriousness.
So here is our challenge: How do we understand and heed the seriousness of the Bible’s concern over sexual immorality while not giving space to our impulse to look down on others? I suggest three perspectives to help us maintain a proper biblical concern for sexual immorality without being self-righteous:
- Have a biblically high view of sexuality.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, Paul explains to his readers why sexual immorality is so serious: It’s because sex is so precious. Paul opens his discussion by quoting a typical cultural understanding of sex—that it is just an appetite, a biological drive to be fulfilled: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13). Paul contradicts this directly with, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” His point? This is not a mere issue of appetite, a biological need for the flourishing of the human animal. Human sexuality is not primarily biological; it is theological.
This assertion alone is in radical conflict with almost all that our culture believes and teaches about sexuality. But the further we go into this truth, the more incredible it becomes. For Paul goes on to describe the content of the theology of sex, which is nothing less than union with Christ: “For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (6:16–17). He says the same thing to the Ephesians, “’…and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:31–32). We have only begun to plumb the riches of biblical teaching on the ways that sex as God designed it displays to us the wonder of the salvation given to us in union with Christ. His lavish love and delight in his Bride, the intimacy and affirmation of his setting apart his Bride as belonging to him exclusively, the safety of his commitment to never leave or forsake her—these are a few of the enormous gospel realities which true marital sexuality was designed to picture. Sexual immorality, in all its forms, destroys this picture.
David White says it this way:
“Sexual sin damages the self in a way that is unique, unlike any other sins. Why? Paul points to the profound mystery, reminding that sexuality is a reflection of the ultimate union with Jesus. Sexual sin dilutes the greatest wonder in the universe. The glorious hope of the world to come is living in a face-to-face relationship with Jesus—of which marriage and sexuality is the closest terrestrial analogy.”¹
In summary, sexual immorality is so serious because it corrupts and deprives us of something so good.
- Respect the personal and relational power God has given to sexuality.
No one needs to be convinced that sex offers powerful pleasure. The ubiquity and endless variety of options in sexual immorality reflect the pursuit of this pleasure. But lingering beneath our fascination with sexual pleasure, there remains a sense that something more profound is involved, something deeply personal and enduring. The Bible teaches that sex cements the bond of a husband and wife in a lifelong union (Mark 10:8–9). In some mysterious way, this bonding aspect is still present even when we rip sex out from its lifelong, marital context, as Paul explains, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16). We can try to take sex out of the marriage bond, but we can never completely take the marriage bond out of sex. It’s just the way God made it.
As it turns out, there is even a biological component to this bonding. The pleasure of sex corresponds to the powerful release of certain chemicals that have the effect of forming a strong social bond.² On the one hand, this is a wonderful reality that should fill us with gratitude and praise. “Our bodies are the splendid interweaving of the physical and the spiritual. God’s design of our physiology should generate deep awe and worship.”³ But the dark side of this is that all forms of sexual immorality unleash this bonding power in destructive ways. As Paul says, “He who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her.” Or, as William Struthers warns concerning the use of pornography, “Unfortunately, with repeated sexual acting out in the absence of a partner, a man will be bound and attached to the image and not a person.”⁴ Imagine how this damages a future or present marriage. This biological bonding effect is also part of the reason people can speak of sexual addiction. Everything you do sexually contributes to a physiological momentum that builds toward a bondage not easily broken.
Sex is powerful. God made it so. This makes misuse of sex especially dangerous personally and relationally.
- Know that all humanity, yourself included, falls short in God’s design for sexuality.
Notice that my first two points do not apply to just one type of sexual sin. They are based on what sex truly is, the meaning God designed it to communicate, and the relational power God gave it. Every departure from the original design defaces the picture and abuses the power. Isn’t this Jesus’ point when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?” (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus did not say it leads to adultery; it is adultery in the heart. It is an act of the heart that misuses sexual pleasure and violates its gospel-shaped design. Who of us is qualified to throw a first stone (John 8:7)? It is spiritually dangerous to focus moral concern on one kind of sexual sin without recognizing the commonality with our own transgressions.
If we have the Bible’s high view of sex as a picture of the Church’s union with Christ and a respect for the power God has given it, we will not only take sexual sin very seriously, but we will also examine ourselves, confess the many ways we have failed to desire and fulfill God’s perfect design, and cast ourselves again and again at the mercy of the gospel. Yes, sexual immorality is a big deal, so let’s keep pointing each other to our only faithful Bridegroom.
¹ See David White, God, You, & Sex (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019), 148.
² See William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 105.
³ God, You, & Sex, 82.
⁴ Wired for Intimacy, 105.
07 Oct 2021
Think about the last time you gave into a vice that you had been trying to avoid. Maybe it was sexual sin, drunkenness, gluttony, or binging on entertainment. While there are many complex reasons for turning to our sins of choice, the most common one involves some kind of suffering that we are trying to escape or numb.
The men in our biblical support groups at Harvest USA have voiced the most common scenarios that precipitate running to sexual sin:
- An argument with a spouse or some other relational turmoil
- Struggling to fall asleep
- Stress or anxiety related to work or school performance
- General feelings of dissatisfaction in life
All of these situations involve some form of suffering. And how do we respond to suffering? We want to mitigate it in some way—quickly. Our first responses will often involve trying to change, fix, or resolve whatever situation is causing us suffering. If our efforts work, great! The suffering is relieved. But what if your spouse is still angry with you? What if you can’t fall asleep and it’s four o’clock in the morning? What if you get fired from your job for losing the sale? What if your efforts to form relationships continue to fall flat? What if the suffering doesn’t go away?
This is a crucial fork-in-the road moment! You can’t remove the suffering, so now what? How you respond in this scenario determines whether you will see growth in Christian maturity or whether you will remain in patterns of unbelief and sin.
We all know the classic cartoon when the character is presented with two paths. One path is sunny, with birds chirping, flowers blooming, and hope just over the horizon. The other is dark and stormy, with crows squawking and danger lurking. It’s obvious which path is more appealing.
Spiritually speaking, in times of suffering, sin often masquerades as the safe, enticing, bliss-filled answer to our suffering, while following Jesus looks like the path of despair. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before sin’s charade falls apart. Our enemy is more than happy to give us a moment of reprieve from our pain if, in the long run, he can add to our suffering through our sinful responses to it.
So, while sexual pleasure, alcohol, or double chocolate mousse cake may give a hit of dopamine that brings temporary relief, our sin is never the answer to our suffering.
But here’s the problem: Anyone struggling with habitual sin knows that truth, and yet it doesn’t stop them from going back to it anyway. Why is that? Simply put, we struggle to walk by faith, not by sight. Walking by faith is often painful, while walking by sight is quick and easy in the moment of suffering.
There is a simple yet difficult gospel truth that you must embrace in order to mature in faith: Suffering is how we grow. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself what Scripture has to say (Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–4, 1 Peter 1:6–7, John 15:2). Suffering is always part of God’s means to conform us more into the image of our Savior, who was known during his earthly ministry as the suffering servant. Jesus himself “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8) because a savior who never suffered could not save us. While Jesus suffered under the Father’s wrath so that we would never have to, he didn’t suffer on earth so that we could avoid all earthly suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. Being united to Jesus means that suffering is a marker of our lives on this earth as we “fill up what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
That is a really difficult pill for all of us to swallow. How can we possibly accept that truth? What makes that pill go down is the reality that God uses our suffering, in love, to conform us into the image of our Savior (which is the deepest reality of Romans 8:28–29).
But how does this work? How does God use suffering to shape us?
My favorite hymn is probably William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Take some time to slowly meditate on these three stanzas. If you know the music, sing them!
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow’r.¹
What is Cowper saying here? He’s saying that God has good for you in your suffering. He has loving purposes behind it all. The most immediate purpose, the most obvious good that God intends in your pain, is that your suffering would draw you into humble, dependent relationship with him.
One of the greatest tragedies of turning to sin in our suffering is that we rob ourselves of the comfort that God is offering. In what context does Paul call the Father the God of all comfort? It’s in the context of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4). God has a special comfort reserved specifically for your moments of suffering. There is nothing sweeter than his comfort in the midst of bitter affliction.
But here’s the rub: That comfort is not something we can control or demand in our timing or liking. God often calls us to wait upon him. That comfort may be come on the far side many tears, great anguish, desperation, and even feeling abandoned by God at times. This comfort is laid hold of by faith, not by sight, but it is a comfort that God has purchased for you and guarantees for all of his children in Christ who will look to and wait upon him.
Vaneetha Risner proposes a great way to think about suffering. She observes that we often ask the question, “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” But a better, faith-filled question asks, “Because God loves me, why is this happening to me?”² This does not mean that all suffering has easy answers if we just trust God—some suffering may never make sense this side of eternity—but your heart’s posture in trusting the Lord’s loving purposes is what matters.
While we’re not called to enjoy or invite suffering into our lives, see it as an opportunity when it comes and listen for your sympathetic High Priest’s loving invitation to come to him as your refuge, your strength, your high tower. As you come to him, he promises to use the fire of affliction not to destroy you, but to refine you.
As you trust God and turn to him in your suffering, you will find that your faith grows. At every turn, his promises remain true and become even more meaningful and significant as God lovingly forces you to cling to them for your life. A faith that is never practiced, never relied upon, never needed is a very weak faith. God wants to strengthen your faith in him; he wants you to experience how strong he really is. And there’s no better way to know God’s strength than in our weakness
¹Cowper, William. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Trinity Hymnal (Rev. Ed.), No. 128.
²Risner, Vaneetha. “If God Is with Me, Why Did This Happen?,” Desiring God. August 4, 2018. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/if-god-is-with-me-why-did-this-happen.
The following blog is an article from our 2021 Harvest USA Magazine entitled Standing Firm for His Glory. To read more articles from this issue, simply click here or visit www.harvestusa.org/magazines/.
“But isn’t it just a lust problem?” Mike asked. I was explaining to Mike the Harvest USA Tree Model, the core content of our ministry to both individuals and churches. Mike wanted to believe what I was saying about the deeper aspects of his sin. It gave him hope that there was a path to victory in his fight against the porn habit he’d been losing for years, because willpower certainly hadn’t worked. His objection revealed a problem that most of us encounter when thinking about our sin.
Mike’s question forces us to seek a more complete understanding of sin. We tend to think of sin in simple ways that only scratch the surface: I’m tempted; I fall; I repeat. But a biblical view of sin goes much deeper. This is what our Harvest USA Tree Model illustrates.
Jesus describes sin as having a source deep within us, in the heart, the epicenter of where our intellect, will, and affections all converge. In Matthew 15:18–19, Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Thinking of our hearts as part of a tree originates from Jesus’ words in Luke 6:43–45: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his heart produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Building upon these verses, our Tree Model pictures the heart as the source of a tree, the seed.
The Seed: Our Hearts
The most basic characteristic of the seed, or heart, is that it is fallen. The word “autonomy” summarizes the sinful inclination of our hearts. We desire self-rule rather than being ruled by the authority and care of God. Our desire for autonomous independence from God affects every aspect of our lives. It shapes our reactions to our circumstances and experiences; it skews our deepest desires; it taints our functional worldviews. These are the inner workings of sin that bear fruit in what we do. The following three make up the other elements of the tree: the soil, the roots, and the trunk.
The Soil: Our Circumstances and Experiences
The soil is the context for the seed. The parents to whom we were born, our families, and our peers are all part of the soil. It is all the things those people do to us or for us—or neglect to do. It is everything that happens to us, good or bad. We are praised, abused, affirmed, attacked, protected, or wounded. We experience trauma and suffering, or we live in shelter and safety. Together, these experiences comprise the context in which our fallen hearts are active.
It is important to note that the soil is influential but not determinative. The influence of experience and context can be profound and must be taken into account if we want to understand and turn from entrenched sin patterns, but our circumstances do not determine our actions. Our fallen hearts are always interacting with the soil, interpreting and responding to both positive and negative experiences.
The Roots: Our Deepest Desires
One of the ways in which our hearts interact with our contexts is by desire. We were created to receive certain blessings and gifts from the gracious hand of our Creator. As his image bearers, God gave us desires for security, significance, glory, affirmation, love, purpose, and order. Marriage, fellowship, friendship, and other social connections were intended to be conduits of love, affirmation, affection, and intimacy as we became “fruitful and multiplied,” according to God’s blessing.
We still want all of these blessings that were given or promised to us, but now our hearts want them autonomously. We don’t want to receive God’s blessings in his way, in his time, according to his authority or design; we want them on our terms. Second, the soil itself is cursed, and the world and the relationships in it are broken. This combination means that our desires are problematic for us. Separated from God, the true source of every blessing we could rightly desire, we tend to substitute counterfeits to suit our fallen hearts. These counterfeits become our idols. When we speak of idols of the heart, we are referring to desires that have become so important to us that they have replaced God in our hearts. They control us, so we sometimes refer to these as controlling desires.
The Trunk: Our Functional Worldviews
Our idolatrous desires both shape and are shaped by our thinking. We develop patterns of thought that form the grid for our interactions with our world. We sometimes call these “shoots” because they arise out of our hearts’ interaction with the soil, but, because they continue to grow until they are strong and fixed, we can also call this the trunk. Both terms refer to our functional worldviews—our unspoken and largely unconscious set of beliefs about God, the world, ourselves, and other people, which form the basis for our daily lives. These are not the doctrinal affirmations you would likely recite if asked to describe what you officially believe. Instead, this set of beliefs is reflected in the ways that you actually live.
The Gospel: New Hearts, New Trees
The Tree Model illustrates that our behaviors—the fruit—are but a symptom of how the tree is functioning. When you hope in Christ, he renews your heart, and your entire tree is renewed. The Bible promises us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26–27) and describes and our new life as being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1), “hidden with Christ” (Colossians 3:3), and—using a tree metaphor—“grafted into” the tree of salvation (Romans 11:17). The new heart and new life that Christ gives is the beginning of an entirely new tree. In the gospel, our true and eternal identity is in Christ, even though we still battle with the patterns and baggage of our old ways. Rather than simple self-discipline and willpower, though, the real source of change is new faith and affections in our hearts, redeemed desires, and transformed worldviews—all given to us in Christ.
Back to Mike
So how did this help Mike, the questioning struggler with whom I was speaking? By examining his soil, Mike identified a few influential experiences: His dad abandoned the family when he was nine, and his mom became an alcoholic, leaving Mike to care for three younger siblings. By outward appearances, he succeeded admirably in this role, proving himself capable and receiving praise from others, but Mike’s heart became controlled by a fear of chaos and a strong desire for both control and affirmation—his roots. He developed the unspoken belief that, on one hand, people were a threat to him; on the other hand, their adoration of him was essential to his worth. He believed he must control people and things at all costs. Pornography was the fruit. In it, he fantasized about the adoration he craved while holding complete control and avoiding the chaos and threat of relationships. Now, no longer autonomous but armed with faith that his heart and identity were new in Christ, Mike brought all the truths and promises of the gospel to his experiences (soil), his desires (roots), and his thoughts (trunk).
Of course, this is a simplified and condensed version of Mike’s story. In reality, change happens over a lifetime of discipleship, in relationship with others in the Body of Christ. This is why we want leaders and individuals in churches to have this tool. We use our Tree Model to train people in a biblical view of sin and the gospel.
02 Sep 2021
Perhaps you have heard it said, or felt it clearly implied, that homosexuality is the worst possible sin. Perhaps your testimony includes some kind of personal experience of homosexuality or same-sex attraction, and you have felt—whether they meant to communicate this or not—that others considered you the worst kind of sinner. When this opinion is openly expressed, it is not uncommon to hear Romans 1 referenced, especially the point about homosexuality being contrary to nature.
Is this correct? Does Romans teach that homosexuality, being contrary to nature, is therefore the worst sin?
To begin, let’s admit that not conforming to nature does have a bearing on sin. In Romans 1, this concept is connected to rejection of the Creator. Those who exchange the truth of God (that he made everything and rules over its design) for a lie (that we are autonomous beings who may choose to live how we wish) worship and serve the created—for which the Greek word is ktisei—over and against the Creator—para ton ktisanta (1:25). That is, we might say, to make up a word from the Greek, they make themselves “para-creational.” These creation-worshippers, then, are the very ones who, for that same reason, also exchange the natural—physiken—use of the body for the unnatural use—para physin—or “para-natural” (1:26). Paul is arguing that the willingness to ignore the normativity of created design and intent for the body is a manifestation of the willful rejection of the Creator.
So, in discussions of whether homosexuality is sin, the issue of created design is plainly relevant. You can also see why the Westminster Larger Catechism would list “against the light of nature” (Q151.3) as one of the many contextual considerations that aggravate the seriousness of any particular sin. All sin, of course, is a manifestation of our rejection of the Creator and logically flows from that rebellion. All sin is, in this sense, against the Creator’s design. But in Romans 1, Paul rhetorically seizes on the obviousness to his readers of this particular rejection of natural design. This obvious contradiction of natural design makes especially clear the connection that all sin has to rejecting the Creator of nature.
Nevertheless, the language of Romans 1 does not mean that any sin that is “contrary to nature” is for that reason the most heinous sin, or even that it is automatically worse than any other sin. As I explained in a previous post, “Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?,” determining the relative heinousness of any sin act is complicated and context-specific. The catechism, for example, lists many factors to consider, of which being “against the light of nature” is only one. The effect of this list is not to automatically put any one whole class of sins in a worse category than other classes of sins, but to urge church leadership to wisely shepherd individual cases before them according to the unique situational context. But even in the text of Romans, it is clear that Paul did not intend to single out sins contrary to nature as the pinnacle of wickedness.
First, in the immediate context, one of Paul’s main concerns is to encourage unity in the gospel, especially between the main demographic division of Jew and Gentile. His concern is that each individual in the church, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would have no basis on which to look down upon or judge the other. In the flow of Romans 1 and 2, he does this by progressing from the “unnatural” sins of the Gentiles that would seem so obvious to his Jewish-background readers to the more common and less obviously unnatural but equally debased (1:28) sins like covetousness, strife, deceit, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, and the like (1:29,30). The mere inclusion of some of these sins in this list should be enough to curb the temptation to feel morally superior (see my post on Romans 1). But, significantly, Paul ends this list by adding, “Though they know God’s righteous decree” about such things, they do them anyway (1:32)—a point that the Larger Catechism would describe as another factor increasing the heinousness of a sin that it is committed by a person “of greater experience or grace” (Q151.1). The rhetorical effect is clearly to humble the readers who, because of their greater biblical training and theological heritage, would be tempted to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters (even though his original audience, of course, would not have had the catechism’s language!). Thus, he culminates this section with the rebuke, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (2:1).
But, some may ask, doesn’t the very idea of “contrary to nature” carry a certain pejorative power, conveying an emotional intuition against what clearly ought not be? That is to say, doesn’t it capture what some have described as the “yuck” factor? Well, the point that I have been trying to show is that that kind of understanding is not consistent with Paul’s concern in Romans 1–2 for humility and unity in the gospel. I would also suggest that his other use of this phrase supports this point. The Greek phrase translated “contrary to nature” (para physin) shows up twice in the book of Romans: First, here in chapters 1 and 2, at the beginning of Paul’s argument, where he is mainly urging Jewish Christians to a humble gospel disposition toward the Gentiles. The other time this phrase shows up is in chapter 11, at the end of Paul’s argument, when he flips the coin to make a similar plea to the Gentile Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles… For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:13, 24, emphasis added). Ironically, Paul’s first use of the phrase is as a description of the sin that comes from rejection of God, but his second use of the phrase is to illustrate the unexpected grace of the gospel! Both times, the phrase occurs in the context of encouraging Christians to a humble, gospel-based love for those who are otherwise very different from themselves.
What can we conclude from this? If we listen carefully to the apostle Paul, we will never use the category of “contrary to nature” to favorably compare ourselves to any other sinner or class of sinners. Rather, we will in humility seek out, and point others to, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” acknowledging that there is really “no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22–23).