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
Are Sins “Contrary to Nature” the Worst Sins?
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).
19 Aug 2021
The Soil: The Body of Christ
The following is adapted from Unit 2, Lesson 1, of our newest curriculum for men, Discovery: A Biblical Support Group Curriculum for Men Pursuing Sexual Integrity, which is available as a FREE digital download here.
Do you really think the Church can be helpful to you in your current struggle? What impact do you think the Church has had, good or bad, on your struggle with sexual sin?
In Harvest USA’s Tree Model, the soil—your environment—is everything around you that you cannot control. Most of what has happened in your past is “fallen” and has been influential in the development of your particular sin patterns. Influential, but not determinative. The soil is not determinative because, ultimately, your heart is always interpreting and interacting with the soil. As we have seen in the last several lessons, though, the fallen world in which you live—in which your heart seeks life apart from God—plays a very significant role.
However, those of us who are in Christ, who have been given a new heart, also have new soil in one sense. Our new identity in Christ is not a lone identity. God puts every person with a new heart within a new context, the Church, which is called “the Body of Christ” in Scripture. Eventually, the new life we have in Christ will thrive in a wholly new heaven and new earth, perfect soil for a glorified humanity. For now, in this time of living by faith and not by sight, the Church is our experience of renewed soil. We are emphasizing here the fact that your placement in the Church is something that God has done; you don’t actually get to decide whether or not you will be a part of Christ’s Body.
Though a model can make everything seem neat and tidy, this life is messy and challenging, even in the Church. All of the patterns, habits, and desires of the old life are still with us. As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:17, “flesh” wars with “Spirit.” This is the case for all the other people in Christ’s “Body” as well. The Church is made up of forgiven sinners on the path of being transformed, put into relationship with other forgiven sinners on the path of being transformed. So, the soil of the Church will seem like part-fallen soil, part-renewed soil. Yet, as with each of us individually, the Church’s true and eternal identity is not defined by the sin that remains but by the righteous and glorious future that is guaranteed in Christ. Indeed, the Church is the true and only soil in which our new hearts are designed to grow and thrive, so we must consider how God intends for that to happen. This is the subject of the next few lessons.
When we are united to Christ by faith and given new hearts, those new hearts are placed by God into the context of his Church, the community in which they are designed to grow and thrive.
In Ephesians 2:18–22, Paul uses three metaphors to describe the Church: citizenship, a household, and a building. We want to draw out some of the implications of those metaphors. A citizen belongs in his or her nation or commonwealth. A citizen has both rights and responsibilities—rights to benefits, to protection, and to enjoy the riches and resources of the nation, as well as responsibilities to loyalty and to participation in joint national activities, whether celebrations or wars. It shouldn’t be too hard to see how these things apply to our inclusion in the Church.
Household implies family, and the Church is our true family. The head of this household, our Father, is very rich! As members or his family, we enjoy his wealth, which is strength and power in our inner beings. It is Christ in our hearts through faith and a strong foundation “rooted and grounded in love.” Just like the love shared in a normal family is experientially deeper than in general relationships, we have insider knowledge of the love of Jesus as we experience his love in the context of the church family. God, who is more powerful than we can ever think, makes that power to work in us together, not just in individuals.
How much of what we wrongly seek in sexual sin—safety, love, affirmation, togetherness, power, and strength—is rightly provided to us in the Church? For many of us, our natural human families were not a source of many of these things, but we make a great mistake if we transfer our disappointment and pessimism about our families of origin to God’s family. We need to vigorously pursue the resources of being in God’s family.
Verses 21–22 depict the Church as a building or structure—specifically, a “holy temple.” The image of a temple highlights that God himself is among us, “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” “Being joined together” and “being built together” communicate the idea of the many different people in the Church enjoying deep unity. The vital connection to the foundation, the apostles, the prophets in the Bible, and Christ as the cornerstone is common to all the individual parts.
Despite a certain cynicism about the Church, we must strive to see the Church as God intended her to be. Our experiences in the Church as sexual sinners have often been rocky. The truth is that the Church hasn’t been a friendly, welcoming environment for many sexual strugglers, but this is not the way God designed it. It is never wrong for us to hear the promises of God’s Word and dare to believe them, in spite of past experiences.
It is far too easy for us to respond to descriptions of what the Church is designed to be by becoming cynical or critical of all the ways we think people in the Church have fallen short of this ideal. Indeed, the failure of God’s people is real; we are called to forbear and forgive within the Church, as well as cry out to God to heal his Church and make it flourish. We also should be asking God to help us see how our own actions or inactions have contributed to the Church not being what we may have hoped. Either way, God is asking each of us to play a part in being the Church. As we grow in this, not only will it bring essential help and strength for our own battles with sin, but we will also be used to encourage and build up others in the Church.
May you gain an appreciation for the necessity of the Church for your growth in Christ; reflect on how your sin struggle has negatively affected your ability to reap the full blessings of life in the Church; and grow in motivation to seek nourishment for your heart in the soil of the Church.
12 Aug 2021
The Seed: Central Desire
The following is adapted from Unit 1, Lesson 3, of our newest curriculum for men, Discovery: A Biblical Support Group Curriculum for Men Pursuing Sexual Integrity, which is available as a FREE digital download here beginning August 13, 2021.
Autonomy is literally self-rule. In the context of our relationship with God, it is broadly connected to our turning away from him, our rejection of him and all that he is. It is not just a desire to be free of his rule; it is a rejection of his care, a repudiation of his love, a condescension over his wisdom, and a mistrust of his plans and purposes. In a nutshell, it is turning away from all that God is and turning toward ourselves in order to be on our own.
This central heart-desire for autonomy, and the way it affects our ongoing experiences, is profoundly illustrated in the story in Genesis 3, though this is not just an illustration; it is the history of our fall into our current sin-filled existence. It also describes the personal sinfulness that shapes all of our lives. To truly see how this story is representative of our sin struggles, we need to have a biblical understanding of sin as being organically connected to the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the heart. Our focus in this story is usually on the act of eating the forbidden fruit, so we don’t imagine sin having any existence until that final moment. It is true that the act of eating is “the sin” in its most mature form.
In Genesis 3:6, we see the woman perceiving the world around her with a heart that has already begun to turn away from God. She has begun to think of making life decisions independent of God. Again, this is autonomy because she interprets and evaluates the fruit on her own without the wisdom of God’s instructions. How does her ignoring of God’s perspective and instructions affect her perception of the fruit? Is any part of what she sees about the fruit only true if she removes God’s perspective and instructions from her sight? What should her perception have included if she had continued to heed and believe God’s words?
The idea is that the fruit would never have appeared “good for food” (good food doesn’t kill you) or “to be desired to make one wise” (it has made us all fools) if Eve’s heart was guided by a secure resting in God’s love and confidence in his instructions, even though the fruit may have had a certain objective “beauty.” Her heart desires and commitments shaped her interpretation of the reality in front of her!
However, an act is only the completion of what the heart has already committed to doing. As James 1:15 says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and when it is fully grown brings forth death.” The childbirth imagery is helpful. We mark our age by the day we were born, but that day is only one stage of life, ending our time in the womb; more life is to follow. Similarly, sin begins with an initial stage, and more stages follow after the first one. Granted, in the first sin, Adam and Eve did not start with a hearts that were already corrupted, but, at some point, their hearts turned, the desire towards sin was conceived, and the sin that had been growing in their hearts was finally born as they sunk their teeth into the fruit. God gave us the whole story on their sin so that we would understand our own, not only as an action but also as a profound turning of our hearts away from him.
Before moving on, recall that the central desire of our fallen hearts is autonomy, imagining ourselves as independent of God and even in the place of God. In this lesson, you will seek to not only identify your fallen heart’s central desires but also to see how those desires continue to shape your perception and feelings about God, others, and yourself; to begin to see connections to your struggle with sexual sin and temptation; and to see your struggle with sexual sin on a deeper heart level and then begin to pray differently about your struggle.
The opposite of the central heart desire for autonomy is having hope in God, trusting in his purposes for us, growing confident in his Word and his character, being content with his gifts and timing, and receiving and trusting his love for us, just to name a few. The gospel working in your heart produces these things in you and helps you toward repentance from sexual sin. By seeing how your lack of trust, contentment, and lack of confidence in God’s love contributes to your sexual sin, you can begin to see how the opposite of these will …
Sample of Discussion Questions
- What things does the serpent say to the woman? How do you think the serpent is trying to get the woman to think and/or feel about God, about herself, and about the tree?
- Have you experienced any of these kinds of thoughts and feelings? Please describe.
- How do these thoughts encourage you to separate yourself from God? In other words, how do they tempt you towards autonomy?
- What are some of the actions and habits you see in your life that flow from the thoughts and feelings you listed in your response to question 2? How have these led you away from God?
01 Jul 2021
God, People, and Sex in their Right Places
Do the Ten Commandments intimidate you? I grew up hearing about them, and every so often they came up in the church services I attended. What were they anyway: Ten things that get us in trouble? Ten ways to keep people from enjoying life?
As I’ve grown in the Lord and studied the Scriptures, I’ve realized that these commands are God’s way of loving us by putting guardrails around our desires, thoughts, and behaviors. When God commands one thing, he is at the same time protecting us from what disobedience to that command brings.
The First Commandment: Keep God as our hearts’ priority
In my fourteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I have probably discipled women with the First Commandment more prominently in view than any other. Women whose marriages have been devastated by a spouse’s sexual sin, or those who are battling to overcome pornography, emotionally entangled relationships with other women, sexual fantasies, and promiscuity, have all been helped by honest conversation about the First Commandment. It says, “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1–3).
In other words, God loves us too much to allow other things to displace him in our desires, priorities, and hopes. When he is in his rightful place as loving Lord, Savior, and healer of our hearts, our relationships with people and our sex lives are protected.
Elevating people over God never ends well
Women and men alike wrestle with turning to created things, including God’s sweet gifts of people and the blessing of sexual joy, over relationship with him. Whether you call it codependency or idolatry of people, the heart’s motivation is the same: You need to make me feel good about myself, and if you don’t, I’m sunk.
Have you ever thought or said something like the following?
- Why hasn’t he texted me today?! Is he spending time with someone else? Why wasn’t I invited? Am I being replaced?
- I love her so much—I need her! If this relationship ends, I don’t want to live anymore; life has no meaning without it.
- You make my day, and you have the power to break my day. My heart, stability, and sense of being valuable and lovable rise and fall with how much attention you give me. You are me, and I am you. Don’t leave me!
- I know I’m a bit over the top in how involved I am in my kids’ lives, but they need me—I’m their mother! If my marriage is suffering, so what? God gave me these children, and they are my reason for being alive. If they don’t need me, I won’t exist anymore.
- I just can’t understand why my marriage isn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the one relationship in my life that meets all my needs? Isn’t my spouse supposed to complete me?
It’s good to desire satisfying and loving relationships
God is the Creator of relationships, whether in the context of friendships, family, ministry, work, neighborhoods, and, of course, spiritual siblings in the Body of Christ. However, God never intended for us to turn other people into our primary refuge or home. God wants us to depend on him, to live under his authority and care, and to grow in satisfaction with his love for us. When we are secure in Christ, our love for the people in our lives can be healthy, holy, and honoring to God. But when love for Christ and obedience to him become secondary to our relationships or aren’t a part of them at all, friendships, romantic relationships, mentoring relationships, and family relationships can all slide into idolatry.
According to the Bible, whenever something or someone sidelines God from our thoughts, desires, and focus, our lives have gotten off track. The toxic nature of these kinds of relationships can be difficult to diagnose because they can feel so intoxicating! The emotional buzz or euphoria that often accompanies intense conversations, physical affection, or someone’s adoration of us can be addictive. However, a dynamic of “I need your need of me, and you need my need of your neediness” is messy at best and destructive at worst. Instead of helping us to grow and flourish, sinful dynamics in our relationships imprison us.
I’ve had my share of relationships in which my love for and dependency upon God was displaced by my love for a person’s need of me or my role in that person’s life. I know what it’s like to be anxious, fearful, jealous, and insecure when relational terrain suddenly changes, and you’re left feeling ousted, left behind, and brokenhearted. God has me on a trajectory of growing freedom from interpersonal patterns that were mired down for years in toxic, unholy dependency.
No matter where you are, God is compassionately aware of the circumstances you’re in and knows, really knows, what you are feeling. If you are in relational turmoil, are you willing to have the eyes of your heart and mind reoriented toward him? To gaze upon who he is and then begin to diagnose why there is toxicity in one or more of your relationships? To consider who Jesus is and then move toward humbly understanding that people will be in their rightful places in our lives when he is in his rightful place?
We need faith-fueled realism
You may struggle to believe that God can change your codependent patterns, and perhaps you don’t feel desirous of change. Are you, however, willing to ask God to work “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)? Your first step in pursuing spiritual growth is to believe God’s Word and to surrender control of your life to him.
Your next step is to have realistic expectations. Most of us want quick, pain-free solutions to our problems, and problematic relationships are no exception! But your desires, interpersonal patterns, and relationships won’t change overnight. Instead, repentance brings about directional change—a slow, steady upward trajectory of growth, transformation, and healthiness.
What might growth look like?
- Honestly examining your relationships and asking others to give you feedback on how they see it.
- Putting space between yourself and a person upon whom you are too dependent, especially if you’ve been involved with each other outside of marriage. If you are married and involved in an affair, this relationship needs to be severed immediately!
- Initiating time with a new friend or an acquaintance, which shows a growth in your willingness to engage with other people relationally.
- Engaging with a community of believers through a Christ-centered, biblically faithful local church. God’s people are your “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and local churches provide a unique opportunity to cultivate a variety of types and depths of healthy relationships.
- Reading God’s Word as a way to know him, love him, and cultivate your relationship with him.
- Longing for God more and more, loving him, and seeking him out as your primary relationship.
Jesus frees us from toxic relational dynamics
People problems have been around as long as people have existed outside the Garden of Eden! You’re not alone in this struggle. Many are familiar with the fear, anger, anxiety, discontentment, jealousy, and pain that come when others don’t seem to like, love, or respond to them in the way they desire—in the way they’re convinced they need. Women and men alike have experienced what it’s like to feel trapped, even imprisoned, in a relationship that is obsessive and consuming.
That’s why, of all the prayers and songs David uttered from his heart as a shepherd, king, military commander, sinner, and chosen one of God, the cry that resonates with me the most is, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7). God has indeed brought me out of relational prisons and allowed me to have healthy, Christ-honoring relationships in my life. Even though I am surrounded by the righteous, I’ll never outgrow the need for God to be my refuge, first love, and source of security—and neither will you!
This post is based on Ellen’s 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
17 Jun 2021
On Fellowship, Authenticity, and Identity
His response surprised even me. He had asked how many were in the group. “Six?!” he exclaimed, his eyes wide with shock and dismay. I was inviting him to join a group of men who met regularly to share fellowship in the gospel and encouragement in the same lifelong sexual sin struggle as he. I had been the first person with whom he had ever been so honest. But a group was, for now, still too much. He was not yet ready for even a few more to know him that well.
By inviting him to express himself with open humility before a larger number of men, I was gently coaxing him into fellowship in the light with God and others (1 John 1:5–7). Without such fellowship, there is no gospel joy, no gospel transformation; fear and shame are both jail and jailor—especially for those who struggle with sexual sins and temptations. Far too often, the message they have received is that they will be rejected if they let anyone know that they even struggle with such things. Many know this through cruel experience. So they remain in hiding and isolation. Sin and darkness reign and grow in that place.
This is why Harvest USA strives to create an environment that encourages people to come into the light, to speak the hardest truth about themselves, to speak in community about the temptations and sins that have dominated their lives. And we believe that many churches still need to be encouraged to grow in this. We urge community in which both truth and mercy are undiminished. I see many churches making progress in this direction.
And yet, we do not view this simplistically as a pendulum that needs to swing to the other side. Yes, the Church must continue to grow in being a place where sin struggles of all kinds can be discussed and met with gospel mercy, gospel challenge, and gospel hope, not disgust, disdain, and condemnation. But as we make this progress, we need to be alert to some pitfalls along the way. I will describe two.
- The pitfall of God-less authenticity
We live in a culture that prizes a sort of brazen authenticity that is only occasionally corralled by, “TMI!” Our culture’s love for authenticity is not exactly the same thing as the fellowship we aspire to. In fact, it is quite different. Put simply, in our culture’s practice of authenticity, God is not in the audience. Our culture presupposes the non-existence of God. In this context, authenticity flows from the individual’s need to create meaning from within herself. Without a transcendent standard, without God, authenticity is unmoored from accountability. There is no aspect of confession, no sin, only honesty and freedom of expression.
We must resist this God-less authenticity. First, because its presupposition is false; God does exist, and we are accountable to him. But also, because the gospel—the good news—is that our accountability to God need not lead to condemnation. There is grace, redemption, and hope in Christ. It is largely because our world either does not know or does not believe this that it seeks an authenticity based on denying God’s existence.
- The pitfalls of “identifying”
In our culture, “identification” has become a common tool in the service of authenticity. So, for example, someone might “identify” as gay or some other subset of LGBTQ+. The idea is tricky to describe and evaluate, but some precision and clarity is necessary. Here is the relevant dictionary definition¹:
identify as: Assign (a particular characteristic or categorization) to oneself; describe oneself as belonging to (a particular category or group)
As defined here, especially in the first sense of assigning a characteristic to oneself, this is fairly common. Grammatically, it involves connecting a predicate adjective or a predicate nominative to ourselves—“I am blonde,” “I am a conservative,” “I am male.” But not every instance of saying something about self is “identifying as.” The second part of the definition adds the sense of placing ourselves in a category, class, or group. The idea of “identification” comes with pitfalls in two directions—one to the left and the other to the right, we might say.
Pitfall #1: Communicating the unstated assumptions of identity politics
It is the second part of the definition, placing oneself in a category or group, that has come to be used in what some call “identity politics.” Used in this way, identifying with a particular group generally implies a whole set of other unstated assertions about that group. Let me suggest a few of the unstated connections that often are implied in such identification:
a. This use of identity is generally claimed on the basis of a trait that is assumed to be indelible.
b. The connection of the group is not merely by commonness of trait but, rather, forms a distinct community with mutual belonging and purpose.
c. The group or class identified by that trait is assumed to have been subject to systematic persecution or oppression.
d. Therefore, as a corrective of c., both the trait and the community identified by it are to be affirmed and celebrated.
e. Lastly, a point which seems to go with the cumulative combining of the previous four: When identification is done in this “identity politics” way, it often represents a level of personal meaning and significance that places it at the core of the sense of self.
Perhaps you can already see how some of these, or perhaps all of them, would be a problem for a Christian if the trait that was the basis of the identification was a sinful condition. Viewing the trait as indelible conflicts with the gospel promise of ultimate glorification and current progressive transformation. A sense of mutual belonging and purpose with a distinct community might, if carefully defined and limited, be seen as a mission-field connection. But it is just as easy to imagine it becoming an alternative and competitor to the Church. As to points c. and d., while godly compassion will always seek to come near to suffering with healing and justice, it cannot do so by affirming or celebrating sin. Finally, no identification with any trait or with any category or group should compete with the gospel reality of what we are in Christ, variously described in the Scriptures.
These unstated implications of identification, as used in identity politics, are the reason why we at Harvest USA have preferred the term “same-sex attraction (SSA)” over terms like “gay” or “lesbian.” You’ll notice that there is no “S” in “LGBTQIA+.” The goal is not to have a different way to say the same thing; it is to avoid the pitfall of communicating those problematic assumptions listed above while encouraging unhindered openness and fellowship in the Lord.
However, this brings us back to the concern I started with, and the other pitfall…
Pitfall #2: Reacting against any language that sounds like identification in such a way that people are driven back into silence and isolation
Focusing so strongly on the issue of identification can inadvertently communicate that honest description of sin struggles is unsafe. Rather than the mercy of the gospel gently inviting self-disclosure and confession, a culture of shame and stigma encourages everyone to “play the game,” look good, and make sure nobody finds out what the real battle is in our hearts and minds. In order to love those who are struggling to come into the light, we may need to be less concerned with the terms used and more concerned with their hearts. That may require us to forego a discussion of terms of identity and the wisdom of using particular language, and instead prioritize discipleship in the gospel truths that counter all of the false implications that may be attached to their current vocabulary.
Also, we should keep in mind that outside of the world of identity politics, it is quite normal to “identify as,”—to assign a particular categorization to oneself or describe oneself as belonging to a certain category or group—while neither intending nor being heard to mean any of the unstated assertions listed above. It is even possible, if wisely subsumed in a gospel context, to do this with a sinful category. For instance, Paul can write, “The saying is trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). He is displaying an extraordinary humility of self-expression, identifying not merely as “sinner” but, in the older versions, “chief of sinners.” And he encourages others to do the same. But Paul communicates none of the erroneous implications listed above. His freedom to identify as a sinner is firmly set in the context of redemption. His identification as chief of sinners does not share the same place in either his argument or his sense of self as does his identification as “an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:1). No one reading Paul in context would think otherwise. His use of identity language here is subsumed under and serves the gospel: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Paul carefully and wisely uses language in a way that does not encourage people to remain in sin and darkness, but draws them from it to the mercy of Christ. Indeed, it would seem healthy for all of us to stand before the Lord and declare who we are apart from him, that he may declare to us who we are now in him.
Let us pray and strive for wisdom and humility as we call people out of darkness into fellowship in the light and into an identity in Christ which is eternal.
¹“identify.” Oxford’s Lexico.com. 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/identify (8 June 2021).
In this new video, John Freeman shares a ministry update and an invitation to partner with us. As we approach the June 30 deadline of our fiscal year-end campaign, we need your help to meet our $250,000 goal. Would you prayerfully consider supporting Harvest USA with a gift of $100 or more today?
03 Jun 2021
Meet the Staff: Mark Sanders
Name: Mark Sanders
Position: Director of Discipleship
Hometown: Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
Describe your work at Harvest USA.
As the Director of Discipleship at our main office in Dresher, PA, I oversee the Men’s, Women’s, and Parents and Family Ministries, but the majority of my work is focused on the Men’s Ministry. I am in charge of shaping and directing what we offer to men who come to us for help with a variety sexual struggles. I also recruit, train, and provide support for interns and volunteers who serve in our biblical support groups. While I provide a large amount of oversight, I spend a fair amount of time doing individual discipleship and facilitating our in-house biblical support groups each week. Alongside of my responsibilities in our direct ministry, I am also a part of our equipping team at Harvest USA. In seeking to equip the Church to faithfully disciple her members in matters of sexuality, I am involved in resource development, teaching and training events, and writing articles for our blogs and magazines. Lastly, I also film, edit, and produce the majority of our video content at Harvest USA, including our 15-lesson Sunday school DVD series, God’s Design for Sexually in a Changing Culture.
How did you get to Harvest?
Like most people involved in ministries like Harvest USA, my heart longs to see men experience deep repentance, transformation, healing, and change in the area of sexual brokenness because this is my own story. My generation was the first to grow up with entire adult bookstores readily available within the confines of your own bedroom. I spent many years, first as a Christian adolescent and then as a young adult, fighting and wrestling to break free of the chains of sexual sin. Through the ordinary means of grace that God provides for his people, the Holy Spirit did a decisive and powerful work of redemption in my life, and, as I considered potential vocational ministry, Harvest USA was always in the back of my mind as one way that God could turn for good what Satan and my own heart meant for evil. While going through my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of volunteering and interning with both Harvest USA and CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation). My internship with Harvest was both challenging and rewarding, and it eventually led to me joining the staff in June of 2015.
What is your favorite Scripture?
As my colleague, Jim, has said, different seasons tend to highlight different Scriptures. Right now, I continue to come back to Colossians 3:1–4 for a few reasons.
First, my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary whetted my appetite to go further into the insights of my school’s theological forerunners. In particular, the writings of Geerhardus Vos as expounded on by Richard Gaffin have deeply shaped me. Gaffin’s work on union with Christ and his explanation of the centrality of the resurrection in the writings of Paul have greatly enriched my understanding of the gospel and salvation. Colossians 3 and Romans 6 have become so important to me when I think about the practical implications of being presently raised with Christ.
Second, this passage has given me great comfort as I watch my mother’s decline with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from occasional smiles, precious-but-momentary eye contact, and squeezing my hand, my mother has lost virtually all of her ability to communicate with us. I have so many difficult questions about her experience, with few answers, but what God has made clear to me is that my mother’s life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). This idea of hiding has so many precious implications for my mom. First, who she truly is in Christ is hidden from us right now. We don’t yet see her in her glorified state, but, in Christ, she has already been raised with and united to the firstfruits of one resurrection harvest. Second, being hidden with Christ means that she is safe in his arms. Nothing, not even Alzheimer’s disease can steal her away from her permanent home in the heavenly places. Third, Christ hides what is most precious to him. There is not one second of my mother’s suffering when Christ is not actively caring for her and providing for all of her needs.
To end this brief reflection, verse 4 is incredibly hope-giving. Right now, my mother is not who she once was. She used to be strong, filled with life and vigor. Her laugh lit up a room. Now, looking at her, it is impossible to escape the ravages of the curse that mark her present experience. But as this disease slowly steals every earthly thing from her, even her life one day, I am reminded that, ultimately, Christ is her life. In almost every chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is our life. My mom’s entire life is wrapped up in Christ. Her hope is fully tethered to him and him alone. One day, not only will I see her as she was before Alzheimer’s, but I will also see her as she will be when Christ appears in glory. It will be the extreme opposite of her current state. She will be radiant, glorious, and fully fit for eternal communion with our triune God.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia?
For anyone who is local, it’s important that I clarify that I don’t live in Philadelphia proper, but in Montgomery County, which is part of the greater metropolitan area. It’s hard to have an objective perspective because I’ve spent the majority of my life here. Philly is home. Most people I know and love live here. And while I must admit I’d rather live in a state with more natural wonder and beauty, I think this is wonderful area to live in. There is so much diversity in Philadelphia, and, as a self-proclaimed foodie, I have much of the best cuisine from around the world within driving distance of my home. Lastly, growing up in Philly afforded me the privilege of not having to move away in order to attend seminary.
What is an interesting fact about yourself?
I lived in South Korea from 2007–2012. It was in Korea where God did some deep spiritual work in my heart, and he gave me a wealth of opportunities to share the gospel. I met my wife there and still have my in-laws and many friends there whom we love going to visit on a biennial basis. Before working at Harvest USA, I had a vision in seminary of doing similar work in South Korea. South Korea is like my second home, and my wife and I are fairly content not seeing much of the world as long as we can make frequent trips back to Korea! I’ve grown to feel strangely comforted every time we get on a plane and hear the captain speaking in Korean. It’s like I’m going back home. While the Lord clearly has called us to Philadelphia for this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually flew a U-Haul back to Korea one day.
06 May 2021
Who Are You?
Our world today is obsessed with self-concept and “identity.” We have never been more encouraged to form thoughts about ourselves and to shape our lives by those thoughts. But what our culture lacks is an objective truth beyond ourselves by which our self-assessments might be shown to be false and harmful.
The Bible is full of stories of people just like us—people who are blind to who they really are and blind to their own blindness! Since Adam and Eve, we humans have tried to understand ourselves under the guidance of our autonomous hearts. The result is that we alternate between thinking too highly of ourselves and thinking too lowly of ourselves. We are either building ourselves up in pride, arrogance, and entitlement or descending into self-defeating despair and depression. The lies we believe about ourselves have contributed to the power of sin over us.
Consider some of the characters whom we know from Scripture. Let’s try to straightforwardly state the things they believed about themselves.
- First, Adam and Eve thought, “I am like God.” Then, “I am more able to discern good and evil than God.” And finally, “I am a doomed rebel. My only hope is to flee God.”
- How about Lamech, Cain’s descendant who thunders menacingly at his wives, “…listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24). How does Lamech define himself? “I am powerful; I am entitled to fear and respect.” Or, could it be, “I am unsafe and vulnerable, and I must protect myself by controlling others with violence and fear?”
- How about the son in Jesus’ parable who has come to be known as the “prodigal” (Luke 15:11–13)? What does he believe about himself as he asks for “what is coming to me” and then goes off to squander it in “reckless living?” “I am entitled to ease and prosperity. I flourish because I am true to myself.” And, after he came to his senses, returning with his rehearsed speech to his father, perhaps he thought, “I am an unlovable failure.”
- How about Saul, after having been anointed by Samuel as God’s choice to be king, cowering and hiding among the baggage (1 Samuel 10:20–22)? “I am doomed to failure.” “I must rely on my own resources and strength to succeed.” “I am a fraud; if people ever saw me truly, they would reject me.”
Do you recognize any of those thoughts in yourself? Do you cling to self-thoughts that are both exaggeratedly autonomous, independent, and selfish, as well as fearful, condemning, and self-loathing? Are you the one whom David describes, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:1–2)? Or does your heart speak with the voice of Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people?” Those with sexual sin in their past and present know both sides of these thoughts about self, often simultaneously.
What can be done? How does one find freedom from such destructive thoughts?
The answer lies outside of yourself. The supreme lie of our current world may be the ever-present message that you must define yourself, that you find your identity within, whether in your experience or in your heart (defined in the Disney way). That is the oldest lie humans were ever told. But the truth is that you do not have the authority to define yourself. None of us do. So who does?
If we do look outside of ourselves, our first tendency is to look to other people. Their praise or their abuse weighs heavily in our self-identification. Of course, the psalmist thinks he is “a worm and not a man,” for he is “scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” If you have been bullied or abused, you may find it easy to think of yourself as “as a worm and not a man.” Also, many of our relational and sexual choices have the aim of surrounding ourselves with the society of those who (we think) will rescue our broken sense of self or reinforce our chosen identity. But other people do not have authority to define you.
The authority to define you lies outside of yourself, not merely in the sense of being outside of your individuality. It is outside of your nature. Only your Creator defines you. And if you have spent your lifetime defining yourself, the identity your Creator gives you will surprise you. Remember that prodigal son? Even when he returned to his father’s house, he only brought with him his self-plausible ideas about who and what he was. The father completely surprised him with love, life, and glory that he could not have anticipated. It turned out he was not a worm, not a failure, not a slave—neither a slave to his own desires and choices nor a slave to his father’s anger and justice. He was a beloved son. What a surprise.
Will you stop defining yourself and let God begin to surprise you?
15 Apr 2021
Where Do You Turn When Suffering Comes?
This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 4 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.
Nobody wants to suffer, right? We know from experience how this broken world overwhelms us, and we know the suffering that our sinful choices bring. Yet the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are called to participate in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), along with the pain that accompanies “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12–13). Though we all experience trials and sufferings differently, the pain, heartache, and struggle on this side of heaven can feel wearisome and lead us to question God.
When we hear the word “suffering,” we think of things like broken relationships, chronic illness, cancer, or the loss of a loved one, but have you ever thought about struggling with temptations and sexual sin as a form of suffering? Many of us tend to dismiss our own experiences and minimize our suffering as we look at others who have what we perceive to be real suffering.
Sexual sin is one of the primary ways we seek comfort or escape in response to suffering. We give way to beliefs influenced by mistaken expectations of the Christian life. But to choose false comforts is to miss out on what delights God.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at our culture to realize that we love and crave comfort! Products, social media, and ads offer a life of ease, free of pain, with fulfilling romantic match-ups, financial security, appliances, and technology that do all the things we don’t want to do. Goods and services are daily marketed to us with the promise of relieving our suffering: Apps that allow you to filter your selfies, hook-up sites, online videos, streaming entertainment that consumes you for hours, day spas, plastic surgery, magic cures, and the latest, most successful dating site or marriage therapy technique all vie for our attention as we continually seek ease, comfort, and escape from suffering. The reality is that we can pursue these things for many reasons, but wanting to escape from the pain of life is frequently a significant driving force.
Sadly, the Christian life is too often presented as consistent with and affirming of this kind of comfortable lifestyle, but this understanding of the Christian life did not come from the Bible! Rather, the Bible is clear that living out our union with Christ means glory in the next life and suffering in this one. However, whether we suffer from life circumstances, persecution, or the costly battle against sin itself, we are promised great meaning, hope, and comfort, both in this life and in the one to come, in transforming into Christlikeness.
Of course, there is a sense in which it is natural and good to want to avoid suffering. It’s healthy to avoid someone’s betrayal, an illness, or living in the anguish of depression day after day. The Bible, though, never says that we are to attempt a pain-free life! In contrast, the world shouts loudly and persuasively that if we have the money, beauty, power, and will, we can escape suffering.
The world around us and our own sinful nature seek to dissuade us from this life of faith. In response to just about any suffering, sin offers an immediate, though deceptive, alternative to communion with Christ. Because of its drug-like pleasure and easy availability, sexual sin is one of the most powerful alternatives to gospel faith and comfort. Relational sin, which often accompanies sexual sin, also gives emotional highs and endorphin rushes that feel good now.
But faith in Christ and faith in sin are mutually exclusive; growth in one weakens the other. Just as habitually returning to sex to escape present suffering makes it harder for us to grasp the joy and hope of the gospel, so too will growing in love for Christ and in confidence in his promises give us strength and comfort to endure suffering for his sake
Romans 8:16–17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:13—Scripture abounds with statements that suffering is a basic component of the Christian life. Through these verses, God teaches us about proper expectations for the Christian life. Further, we often think of comfort as an absence of suffering, but one of God’s purposes of Christians experiencing suffering is that we would receive direct, personal comfort from God and, in turn, be able to use that experience to minister God’s comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).
The comforts of this life can be both addictive and deceptive. They tend to give us easy, immediate relief. What effect do you think sexual fantasy, sexual hookups, pornography, and other escapes have on your faith and hope in the gospel promises of resurrection and glory?
There are sweet blessings for God’s daughters as we courageously resist the temptation to rush towards the supposed comforts of sin. For example, Galatians 6:7–8 and Romans 8:5–8 spell out the benefits for “sowing to the Spirit” and the promises of God that can impact our lives in the present.
Although we would not choose to endure suffering, nothing is wasted in God’s economy; he uses our suffering to produce endurance, character, and hope, which transform us into being more like Christ. As believers, we have a strong assurance of hope.
Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application
- What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
- How do you typically respond to pain and suffering? Why do you think you choose those specific escapes? How well do those escapes, sexual or otherwise, offer relief to you in both the short run and the long run?