In this video, Ellen Dykas explains how to begin talking about your sexual history and why it’s critical to discuss past and current sexual struggles before engagement and marriage.
If you’d like to learn more, consider reading Ellen’s minibook, Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share. When you buy this minibook from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
09 Jan 2020
Derrick and Carli are three months out from their wedding. Invites have been sent, RSVPs have come in, the honeymoon has been booked. When they sat down last week for their final premarital counseling session, they both had the wedding jitters. However, a painful and unexpected truth came out in that hour of counseling—a secret Derrick had kept not only from their premarital counselor but from Carli as well. He had been struggling with pornography off and on for the last twelve years, since he was fifteen. He had tried everything he knew to overcome it, but he was always on his own, never daring to share this with anyone. Now that he was in seminary to become a pastor, the terror of being found out had kept him even more committed to hiding. However, as he explained, he loved Carli and wanted her to know about it before their wedding so that she would be able to help him.
Carli was shocked . . . and heartbroken. He’s just telling me about this now?
Now what do they do? Should they move ahead with the wedding and hope for the best? Do they postpone it? Do they call it off?
Michael and Shaina have been dating for eight months and are now beginning to talk about marriage. Sure, they have a few fears, but excitement is growing as they both sense God is doing an amazing thing in their relationship.
However, there are significant secrets hidden in each of their hearts. Each has engaged in pornography and masturbation, though it’s Shaina who is more actively pursuing porn online. She is most drawn to lesbian stories in the sites she visits.
Shaina has been encouraged that, since her relationship with Michael became serious, her struggle with lust seems less intense, even if she’s still giving into temptation. She’s thought to herself, “God must be preparing me to marry him. Maybe when I’m married to him, the temptations toward women will go away all together?”
Michael would be shocked to know that Shaina struggles with porn. It’s completely off his radar that women would be tempted in that way. He’s mentioned several times that men really “wrestle with lust . . . it’s a guy thing.” She wants to be confident in his love for her, but his comments have tempted her to feel dirty and ashamed because she’s looked at porn for years—lesbian porn at that—and isn’t a guy.
Should she be honest with him, or just with her two closest female friends who can keep her accountable? Wouldn’t it be more hurtful for him to know? After all, her private fantasy life isn’t really hurting anything, is it?
Maybe you connect with one of these stories. You’re engaged to someone you truly love and yet you wrestle with knowing exactly what you should share with your fiancé(e) about your past sexual experiences and your present temptations and struggles.
Perhaps you’re not in a relationship at all right now, but you’d like to be married in the future. You’re anxious about the how, the what, the when, and the how much of sharing the parts of your story that include sexual struggle and sin.
These are important things to seriously and prayerfully consider before you get engaged, and even more crucial to consider before you get married.
But what happens when a couple enters marriage and they don’t really know each other? Wise premarital counseling addresses important issues of family history, depth of faith in Jesus, finances, children, sex, roles of each spouse, desires for lifestyle (standard of living, social life, ministry involvement), etc. However, people often marry having avoided, or barely discussed, a critical component of their story: sexual history.
Sexual history refers to experiences of sexual activity with another person, or with oneself, sometimes through technology-based communication and/or sexual fantasy. Knowing a person’s sexual history includes understanding what his or her struggle has looked like in terms of length of time, frequency of giving way to temptation, attempts to fight and overcome sin, and a willingness or resistance to be transparent and accountable with others. Sexual history also includes traumatic experiences of being sexually harassed or abused.
There are any number of reasons dating people (and premarital counselors) avoid discussing sexual history:
- Fear. It’s scary and feels too vulnerable. Will my boyfriend or girlfriend reject me? Is my past or present struggle too much for him or her to handle?
- Some think, “Let the past be the past.” Sharing this will be more damaging than helpful. Leave it alone and trust God to work things out.
- Private sin struggles. Pornography, masturbation, sexual hookups, mental fantasy, etc. may seem to lose some of their tempting power in the euphoria of a new dating relationship. It’s easy to think that perhaps your relationship with this person has solved the problem, as Shaina believed.
- Shame. Derrick had kept his porn struggle hidden from everyone until that fateful moment in the counselor’s office. Shame is a persuasive yet destructive force that leads many to keep secret sin in the dark.
- Feeling intimidated. Therefore, they avoid them all together. Pastors, mentors, and counselors allow personal fears and feelings of insecurity to inhibit the necessary probing into these sensitive issues.
For couples to grow into an honest, truly knowing-each-other level of intimacy, it takes time, risk, and vulnerability. This needs to begin in the dating relationship, as both man and woman wisely open up their true selves, one to the other. Based on that true knowledge of each other, including sexual history and present struggles, each can discern if this is a relationship they want to commit to for life. For this to happen wisely and thoroughly, couples need other trusted people to help them navigate these crucial and often scary conversations—before they get engaged.
Why It’s Wise to Discuss Sexual History Before You Get Engaged
Couples are wise to not wait until engagement and “formal” premarital counseling to discuss sexual history. Pre-engagement is the time for the messiness to be shared and known—not in traditional premarital counseling, which is almost always pursued post-engagement. Why?
Engagement communicates, “I’m committing myself to marry you, as is. I delight in you, respect you, know you, and will support you to grow in Christ through your joys, trials, temptations, and struggles.” Therefore, before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say, “I know you. I know your story, strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life. I want to marry you and stand by your side, ministering to you as I also receive your love and ministry to me.”
Before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say, “I know you. I know your story, strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life.”
Consider another life-impacting decision that requires thorough knowledge and taking the time to gain detailed information before taking action: buying a house. Most people would never purchase a home before the costly, time-consuming process of completing a home inspection. Buyers want to know everything possible about a house before making one of the most significant purchases of their life. A thorough home inspection, conducted by an experienced and trustworthy person, will produce a report that addresses the true condition of that house, from the roof to the foundation. A well-done home inspection brings every problem—both present and potential—into the light. Relationships are much more complex than a physical structure—and thus the importance of knowing potential challenges is that much more crucial!
If it’s commonly accepted as wise to inspect a house, how much more so for couples to do the hard work of knowing, and being known by, each other as thoroughly as possible before committing to marriage? A man and woman need to know each other’s external and internal issues, both past and present, so that they can make a wise decision regarding a lifetime investment into a marriage. Sexual history is certainly one such issue.
Wisdom would lead this couple to invest the time, money, and effort to “go deep” in knowing this house to the best of their ability before purchasing it. Even though they’ve seen the house with their own eyes and have walked on the floors together, there’s more to learn. To avoid the cost and process of a professional home inspection, or to ignore the long-term implications found during the dangerous discoveries of one, would be foolish at best and catastrophic at worst.
Committing yourself to marry a person is so much weightier than buying a house! Taking the time, effort, and vulnerability to truly know a potential spouse isn’t an “inspection”—it’s a way to show humble love to one another and build trust. Rest assured, God delights in honesty and is committed to helping his children walk in the light before him and each other.
Jesus Strengthens and Comforts You in the Process of Sharing Your Sexual History
Sharing your sexual history can be a scary thing to consider. The Lord says that honesty is a good and necessary part of being joined with other Christians (see Ephesians 4:25). If honesty is crucial for our relationships in the church, how much more important is it for those who are preparing to join in the most intimate of unions? Here are some encouraging truths to consider as you prepare to be completely honest with a potential future spouse.
You’re not alone. One of the beautiful facets of a Christ-centered relationship is that it’s not just a twosome. Jesus is with you to guide, encourage, and enable you to do the right thing and walk in the light rather than hide (see Ecclesiastes 4:9–12).
God promises mercy to those who walk in the light. Proverbs 28:13 contains a sweet promise and a sober warning as well: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” A lack of joy and freedom in Christ, versus God’s mercy and grace—which reality do you want to live in? Which of these qualities do you want to be embedded in the foundation of your relationship? Jesus already knows us fully and loves us completely. This truth compels us to confess and turn from sin, which is the invitation given to us in the gospel! Humility before God in acknowledging your need of his gracious love will embolden you to be honest with the person with whom you are contemplating marriage.
God enables us to love rather than be self-protective. Jesus loves us, and also sends us to be ambassadors of his love to people around us (see 2 Corinthians 5:20–21). This includes your girlfriend or boyfriend. Galatians 5:13 commands us that in Christ, we are to no longer live for ourselves, but rather to serve others. A decision to be honest about your past and present sexual struggles may not seem like a way to love and serve someone, but it truly is. You are honestly acknowledging and offering a component of your life story to this person. You are inviting them to know and trust you. Hiding, spinning the facts, and telling half-truths are all basically the same thing: deceitful self-protection. For a future marriage to be healthy, it must be built on transparency and solid trust, which itself begins to grow in an honest dating relationship.
God forgives our sin and redeems our past. As God forgives you, you and your future spouse will have many opportunities to offer and ask for forgiveness, participating in Christ’s work of redemption in each other’s lives (see Colossians 3:12–17). Your relationship becomes a testament to the power of the gospel to make all things new, and to restore years of sinful living. In fact, one of the beautiful ways that God uses the unique “one-flesh” union between husbands and wives is to give them a 24/7/365 experience of being known, unashamed, and loved. This images God’s steadfast love for his people who sin, who are weak, and who have painful and stigmatizing scars.
God provides helpers. Another comfort of Christ, though it may feel scary at first, is that you have brothers and sisters to walk with you. Jesus doesn’t expect couples to navigate their relationship alone. In the euphoria of a new relationship, some couples can pull away from other key relationships, which will hurt them in the long run. Such isolated future spouses evolve into an island of two—and when the storms hit, they have only each other to rely on. Proverbs 11:14 encourages humility, which reaches out to others for help, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Jesus is our eternal companion and spouse. Finally, Jesus is with you now and forever, and will never abandon you. Your relationship may not survive the vulnerable process of sharing your sexual past. It’s better to know now, before making lifelong marriage vows, if this person can accept and be committed to the real you.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Ellen’s minibook, Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share. When you buy this minibook from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
To learn more about this topic, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, Why Couples Who Are Considering Marriage Need to Share Their Sexual History.
14 Nov 2019
A middle-aged man languishes in self-conscious shame and isolation as he sits in church week after week. For over 20 years, he has struggled with sexual sin. Never has he asked for help or confessed to another person. He is convinced, not only by his own shame but also by the heated rhetoric in his church against his type of sin, that this is the worst sin to which he could confess. He must never let anyone know.
Are some sins worse than others? No, and yes. A famous instance of this qualified answer is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. On the no side, “every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse;” on the yes side, “some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q.s 83, 84).
The Larger Catechism expands on this to give a list of examples of these “aggravations” (Q. 151). Many people automatically place sexual sins in a “worse than other sins” category. Is this a proper and helpful application of this idea of aggravations of sins?
My goal here is only to give some preliminary considerations. I start with the observation that there is a sense that “not all sins are equally heinous” is common sense and obvious. Sampling a grape from the produce aisle is not as heinous as stealing a Mercedes from the parking lot. It is common sense that some sins are worse than others, but we need to be very careful how we use this idea. Here are four perspectives that bear on how we should approach this issue.
Our Natural Spiritual Blindness
When Jesus says in Luke 6:41, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” he is calling attention to a tendency that is common to us in our fallen condition, our tendency to think less of our own sin and more of others’.
This tendency flows from our basic sinful instinct towards self-justification. Placing attention on another’s sin distracts attention from our own. Also, we find it easier to recognize and condemn any sin that we see in someone else of which we consider ourselves innocent. This extends to the question of discerning “worseness” of sins. We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
What does Jesus give us as a corrective to this tendency? We should assume the opposite is true. Our own sin is worse. My brother’s sin is a speck; mine is a log. If we are alert to our own spiritual tendency to self-justify, and to the grave danger that poses, we will be wise to magnify our own sin. Indeed, “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).
The Nature of Our Concern
If our concern is to pass judgment, rather than to love and shepherd, we are immediately on the wrong track. This is not unrelated to the first point above, for it is our desire to confirm the relative sinfulness of others while minimizing our own that also motivates us to act as if we are a judge over them. A few verses earlier in Luke Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” James warns, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Of course—as is usually pointed out in any discussion of judging—this isn’t to say there is no place for discerning the sinfulness of actions or even considering the relative gravity of sins. But it does speak to our purpose in doing so. For what purpose is it helpful to discern the relative gravity of a sin?
I have already stated it above; to love and shepherd. Pastors and elders, especially, are called to give guidance and discipline to help those under their care to progress in their faith and Christian life. In doing this, they cannot treat all sins exactly alike; they must wisely discern the course of interaction with each person and situation. This includes carefully discerning, among other things, the relative gravity of any sin involved.
Let me illustrate the difference between a judgmental concern and a shepherding concern. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, a roomful of people conducting a campaign rally for one of the presidential candidates sees a man enter the room wearing paraphernalia of the opposite party. In the second scenario, a roomful of doctors at an oncology conference sees a man enter with a prominent cancerous mole on his face. In both of these scenarios, the situation is perceived with special gravity, and the reaction is strong. But the nature of the concern is completely different.
The Complexity of the Factors
Often, when this topic is discussed, sin is compared in general categories, in the abstract. But in real life, sin doesn’t exist in the abstract. We deal with unique individuals with complicated histories and contexts. This is what the long list of possible “aggravations” in the Larger Catechism is encouraging shepherds to consider.
The context of a particular sin can be considered in multiple categories. If we isolate one category from all others, the issue may seem fairly simple. For example, if the category is “how fully acted out is the sin,” we would say it is worse to actually steal a grape than to fantasize about stealing one; or, if the category is “extent of harm,” we would say it is worse to steal a car than to steal a grape. But what if we ask if it is worse to fantasize about stealing a car or to actually steal a grape? Suddenly it is not so clear. In real life, each instance of sin is even much more complicated. Broad, generalized judgments are often not helpful.
The Common Root of All Sin
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different. This is because every sin grows from a common root. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder’” (James 2:10, 11). In other words, our rebellion against God is our root sin, and every other way we sin is another expression of that treason.
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different.
This helps us understand the other half of the Catechism’s answer: “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse.” It is this perspective that encourages us, rather than dwelling on the sins we think are “worse,” to give more attention to the sins we think are small and inconsequential. For behind their respectability and unremarkableness, these sins conceal a heart committed to the darkest evil.
These four points do not answer all the questions about this issue. But they give necessary perspective on the whole discussion.
31 Oct 2019
All of us face the difficult task of discerning what to say yes and no to. In our ministry at Harvest USA, I have daily opportunities to engage people who need help with their sexuality or gender struggles, or to write, or to encourage a staff member, or to reach out to one of my donors.
When I was in my twenties, Numbers 9:22 popped off the page into my heart and became a guiding verse from Scripture for me.
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it lifted, they set out.” (NASB)
This Old Testament version of a spiritual GPS came about in the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. God promised to guide them through manifestations of his presence hovering over the tabernacle as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (see Numbers 9:15-23 and Psalm 78:14).
Wow, seems so great, right?! Today, this might look like praying about something from the following list, glancing outside to see where the cloud is, and following it wherever it goes.
Lord, that woman seems to need a friend; should I reach out and call her—offer to meet up for coffee, or not? Lord, should I…
- Start a blog?
- Make this purchase?
- Be a small group leader at church?
- Look for a job that pays more but will be more time-consuming?
- Talk to my pastor about a concern I have about leadership, or “just” pray?
How do we discern what to say yes to and when we need to say no? In a world of thousands of choices, how do you decide what is the best way to spend your precious, limited resources of time, emotional energy, relational capacity, finances, and physical strength? Consider how the use of your time also factors into becoming a man or woman of sexual integrity.
Our Daily Yes
Thirty years later, the principle of Numbers 9:22 continues to keep my heart oriented to the big picture of being a Christian, and this is what we need to remember when it comes to stewarding our sexuality. Our lives belong to Christ and this gives us the most foundational YES we live out: Lord, wherever you lead, however you lead, I will follow you and do what you ask of me, keeping my eyes on you and throwing off distractions (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
Christ clearly and lovingly commands his followers to a life characterized by heart commitments: to die to self, take up our cross and follow him, love him and his commands, teach the gospel to others, be holy, set our hearts on things above, throw off sin and distractions, enter into and receive his rest (Luke 9:23; John 15:1-10; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-3; 4:9-10; 1 Peter 1:13). And that’s just for starters!
Simply put, our daily yes to these things is lived out through loving obedience and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever promotes, encourages, helps, and nurtures that obedience, we say YES to. Whatever distracts, tempts, or weakens us from living a Christ-centered life, we say NO to. The gospel’s trajectory of transformation in our lives is a process of increasing yeses to obedience and decreasing noes to disobedience.
Wisdom for Gray Areas
But, you ask: OK, that sounds great, but what do I do about practical decisions where the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer? The last time I checked, there weren’t any pillars of fire hovering over my home!
Let me unpack some biblical guidelines that help me.
- What’s the motive of your heart in the issue at hand? Will it help you resist temptation or will it lead you to give in? (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
- Consider the trajectory of God’s work in your life. Does this decision seem to be in sync with him or not? (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13)
- What do the mature and wise-in-Christ people in your life say about it? (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Titus 2:1-15)
God continues to use Numbers 9:22 to orient my heart and vocational decisions as I’ve committed to going where he wants me to go, do what he wants me to do, and to leave where/when/who he calls me to leave. In a beautifully intimate way, all believers have the Spirit to guide and protect us in our desire to live faithful lives as relational and sexual beings.
The life of faith has not always been easy or comfortable, but I’m deeply thankful for God’s kindness in leading me, year after year, and for the wisdom he’s given me in decision making. My Christian life is imperfect, but the more I taste the spacious freedom of obedience and faith, the less I’m tempted to give way to an unholy or foolish YES or NO!
To learn more, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, The Importance of Saying Yes to Jesus.
03 Oct 2019
As a teen, I had a major porn problem. And that was magazines and VHS tapes (does anyone remember the VCR?). But that’s nothing compared to what kids face today.
Teens are confronted with a staggering level of temptation. I would have failed middle school if I had access to the pornographic material now available to kids.
Here’s the sad, hard truth: it will be nearly impossible to completely shield your child. Porn infiltrated my Christian elementary school in 1979, and now the ubiquity of digital devices (forty years later) means porn is always at our fingertips. It is more realistic to plan how you will respond when exposure to porn occurs than to try to prevent porn from slipping through the inevitable cracks in whatever protection system you devise.
It is more realistic to plan how you will respond when exposure to porn occurs than to try to prevent porn from slipping through the inevitable cracks in whatever protection system you devise.
Here are four ways to do that:
- Respond in faith: don’t freak out!
Don’t give way to fear and begin extrapolating the worst case sexual scenarios awaiting your child. And don’t make it about you and your disappointment, as if your child failed you in some way. Depending on your temperament, avoid the two typical default extremes for most parents: bringing down the hammer or burying your head in the sand.
Instead, before talking with your child about their porn usage, thank God for exposing your child’s sin! Because God disciplines the children he loves (see Hebrews 12:5-11), this is evidence of his favor on your child. Trust God’s purposes here, believing he is wooing your child more closely to himself. Ask God for grace to enter into the situation and to give you his words of life to speak to your child. Abide in him as you love your child through this (see John 15:5). Don’t try to handle this alone!
- Be direct
Confront the situation— honestly and with love. Don’t dance around the topic or use veiled accusations like “Have you done anything I should know about?” Let your child know what you’ve discovered and express your concern. But remember: tremendous shame surrounds sexual sin. Your child already feels this, so be sure your approach points them to Jesus.
First, assure your child of your love and that there is nothing he can do to negate that. Second, remind him of God’s love and encourage him with the hope of the gospel. The essence of the Christian faith is God’s pursuit and redemption of us, not based on our worthiness, but the wonder of his matchless love and grace. Your child needs to be reminded of this confidence now more than ever!
Further, explain that these behaviors come from the heart. Help your teens begin considering how they turn to false comforts to cope with the challenges of life in a fallen world. It is helpful for you to model repentance here. What false comforts tug at your own heart when you are stressed and struggling? Acknowledge your own weakness and propensity to turn to the things of the world instead of God. Your self-disclosure demonstrates your own ongoing need for Christ’s mercy and the empowerment of his Spirit. Your child needs to see that her parent(s) also struggle with sin and weakness, so when she comes to you for help, she knows you understand.
Gently ask your child to open up about the history of his or her sexual struggles. Your own humility and openness about your struggles in this area may invite a responding honesty.
- Establish better safeguards
Hopefully you’ve taken steps to guard the technology in your home. If not, now is the time to start! Monitoring technology has vastly improved over the years. Some combination of parental filters and accountability software is necessary. For the home, the best software or devices are those linked directly to your Wi-Fi router. Usually there is the ability to place varying levels of restriction on different devices, so that a family PC or tablet can be set at a very high level of filtering to protect young children, while an older teen’s smart phone might have fewer restrictions while on the home network.
But the main thing is the capability of viewing the browser history on all devices. Some of these products also have an “on the go” feature that maintains filtering and tracks data usage of phones, iPads, etc., even monitoring the devices on other networks. I am intentionally not promoting specific products because new ones emerge regularly, but do some research and determine what will work best for your family. This is going to cost you something, but the money spent is worth it to protect your child’s mind and heart.
Good discipline is not punitive because Jesus was punished for us. Discipline, though painful at times, is intended to steer us in the right direction (see Hebrews 12:5–13). Discipline includes establishing wise and protective boundaries, proportionate to the age and maturity of your child.
Do not take lightly the effects of pornography. Take proactive steps, but avoid bringing down the hammer and exasperating them (as we are warned in Scripture: see Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). A total internet lockdown or relegating to flip phones might produce short-term compliance, but it is unlikely to form mature disciples of Christ. Only repentance and a deepening relationship with Jesus, modeled through your walk with Christ, will do that. Parent to those ends!
- Keep walking with them
It is important to realize that this will be an ongoing temptation. Again, porn is everywhere, and access is easy. Many parents are gung-ho when the problem first rears its ugly head, but don’t persevere in addressing these challenges. Be faithful in prayer and ask God to reveal sin, but don’t stop there! Stay on top of technology and be willing to ask the awkward questions about how your child is doing sexually. This includes ongoing monitoring of his relationships. Through it all, continue pointing them to Jesus and his love. Remind your child of the mercy that covers their sin and the power given to obey through his outpoured Spirit.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
19 Sep 2019
I remember the intoxication of my early sexual sin. Porn and sexual release provided a technicolor rush against the drab backdrop of middle school reality. And that was looking at magazines. Not surprising, the internet’s heightened experience leads many to addiction. Like all the blessings of this life, sex is a good gift from God. (That’s why the Bible is overwhelmingly positive about sexuality expressed according to God’s design.)
The problem arises from our propensity to worship the gift instead of the Giver. In all beauty and pleasure, we catch a glimpse of transcendence in the Creator’s handiwork. But this can lead us to confuse the signpost for the ultimate destination. Sexuality is a realm of human experience where this is particularly true.
Specifically, God designed the delights of sexuality to point to the wonder of his heart for us. So, in teaching about marriage, Paul writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31,32). This means sexuality is ultimately about God.
Sexual expression consummates lifelong, covenant promises because it points to the glory that our relationship is rooted in God’s covenantal promises to us. Further, he created us to experience the thrill of romance so that we’d glimpse Jesus’s heart and delight in us. Consider this incredible declaration from Isaiah 62:5, “…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you”! The exhilarating thrill of falling in love, the wonderful bliss of sexual experience, the joy and delight of romantic love that has inspired poets and artists over the millennia, are all a dim reflection of an infinitely greater reality: God’s heart for you and Jesus’s great anticipation, as the ultimate Bridegroom, of sitting down with us at the wedding feast at the beginning of the world to come (see Revelation 19:6-9).
The most beautiful experiences of romance in this world are a drop in the Pacific Ocean compared to God’s heart for you. Because of the deep theological truths behind romance and sexuality, God has imbued these experiences with great delight. But the downside is that this particular signpost can become incredibly enslaving when people worship the gift rather than the Giver.
And this is a problem for all of us. Because the Fall has infiltrated every aspect of our personhood, broken sexuality affects every individual and community on the globe. It’s important to underscore that sexual sin is a gender-neutral pathogen of the soul. This is a universal human condition, impacting men and women. All of us need sexual redemption. This includes every Christian—Jesus doesn’t wave a wand over anyone when they come to faith. All of us need sanctification in this area of our lives.
It’s important to underscore that sexual sin is a gender-neutral pathogen of the soul. This is a universal human condition, impacting men and women. All of us need sexual redemption.
But things are not so broken that they do not recall their original goodness or so marred that they can’t be repaired by God’s grace.
How to Move Forward
Realize the theological significance of sex. The passages warning against sexual immorality make clear that sex reveals the allegiance of your heart. Sexual immorality is what pagans do; Christians are to be ruled by the Spirit and so steward their sexuality in holiness and honor (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). 1 Corinthians 6:13 goes further, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Spiritual life and physical reality are inextricably linked together. Being a Christian means acknowledging Jesus is Lord over all.
The aforementioned passages are in the New Testament (along with several others) because Christians struggle with sex. There’s good news here: you’re not the only one. But, do others really know what that struggle means for you? The gospel gains traction in our lives through humble vulnerability. Honest confession of our struggles reflects a confidence in Christ’s atoning work and commitment to be purified as his bride.
Sanctification in this area of life is just like any other. You need the strength of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4 describes how we reach maturity only as we are inextricably linked to one another and “each part is working properly” (v. 16). If you want to grow in this area, you can’t do it alone. (For this reason, our workbooks, Sexual Sanity for Men and Sexual Sanity for Women, were designed for small groups!)
Because sex is about God, regardless of your experience and life situation, Jesus invites you to a deeper place of relationship with him through these desires. In his teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus was clear: there is no marriage in the new heavens and earth. It is a “this world” experience that points beyond itself to the greatest union yet to be. Your desires are a small window into Jesus’s longing for the coming wedding feast. Even unsatisfied, they provide an opportunity to know him and worship him. Jesus meets us in the pain of unsatisfied desires, reorienting them toward himself, because this is what all of life, including sex, is ultimately about.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
13 Jun 2019
“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.
I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”
I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:
The Lone Ranger Flaw
I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.
Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.
Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.
The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).
Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.
So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting? We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.
The Shame Syndrome Flaw
A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.
But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.
It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.
Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.
The “Just Stop It” Flaw
A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.
But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.
The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.
So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn? Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.
Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.
Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.
16 May 2019
“To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.” He was referring to porn. His tone expressed exasperation, discouragement, defeat. There were nods of agreement in the room from the group of men—several had said roughly the same thing recently and continued to feel it that way. Giving up porn was their life or death battle.
I had known these men for a few years having led their biblical support group at Harvest USA. They had all showed progress against their sin, with varying levels of “victory.” The one who spoke up had gone a significant time without a fall. Every day he said no to porn, every day he fought to give up porn—but only by harboring the secret concession that he could still go to it tomorrow.
I felt tempted to give in to their discouragement. A slew of biblical scenes came to my mind: Rachel hiding the family gods in her saddlebag (Genesis 31); Achan burying some of the spoil in his tent (Joshua 7); the rich young ruler walking away sad, unwilling to give up his “one thing.” (Mark 10:17-22).
Here is their fatal flaw, I thought—they will not forsake their idol. This will not have a good ending.
My discouragement increased.
But in my mind I settled on the story of the rich young ruler and remembered that sentence, “Jesus loved him.” While the rich young ruler walked away thinking I can’t imagine life without it, Jesus was loving him. We are not told the end of that young man’s story. But I have more than a little hope for him—because Jesus loved him. And that’s why I ultimately couldn’t lose hope for the men that I had come to love, either.
Could it be that moments like this, when confronted by the stark choice Jesus gives us, to follow him or to follow our wayward hearts into idolatry and sin, are when the necessary climatic turn can happen in one’s life?
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it.
They—and all of us—are faced daily with the choice to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. Other biblical phrases echo the scene from the young ruler story: “He that loses his life, for me, will find it. . . ”; “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God. . . ”; “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old is gone; the new has come”; “Behold, I am making all things new.”
You see, these men have reached a point where they are facing the question of their existence at its starkest and darkest: “Am I willing to die to all that I’ve been living? Am I ready to forsake forever my familiar idolatrous refuge? Am I willing to let Jesus re-create me? Do I want to be holy, to be steadily reshaped into the character and image of Christ?”
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. We had thought repentance was change, only to discover that it really means becoming a completely different person!
How do we help someone who is at this place?
First, cheer them on to the right choice.
Remind them that Jesus’ promise of new life is for crises such as this. He said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is nothing but death in the “old,” and nothing but life in the “new.” Implore them to run after new life. At the point of crisis, remind them that Jesus loves them. Even in their struggle; even in their doubt; even in their stumbling and falling.
Second, model life-long faith and repentance yourself as you walk with your brothers.
Your role in encouraging them is not just for this crisis moment; you need to show them by example that this is an ongoing turning. We want to believe we can turn once from an idol that has been a long-time staple of our life, then never have to face the decision again. It is true that there is a decisive turning when we know in our hearts that we belong to Christ and no longer to ourselves, but the full implications of that take a lifetime to work out.
As a new believer, this decisive turning comes with a sense of joy and freedom. But we do not know ourselves very well. God knows us perfectly. We do not see all at once what it will mean to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” There are other idols we do not immediately see.
As we mature in our life as a Christian, the Spirit progressively brings us from one repentance crisis to another, each time showing us another piece of what is earthly in us and giving us the opportunity—no, the necessity—of saying goodbye to it, of reaffirming, “This is not who I am anymore; I don’t have to do this.”
Third (and this is of course the most important), pray with and for them.
Prayer is how we re-focus on the person who is the power behind our repentance, Jesus himself. It is his work. He is the one to whom we turn. His is the life by which we turn. His is the voice that beckons us to forsake our old life to live his new life.
I have more than a little hope for these friends of mine. I have every reason to believe Jesus loves them, and has brought them to this crisis of eternal identity with his hand outstretched, inviting them to trust him, beckoning them to life, “Come, follow me. . . I am making all things new.”
I confessed my struggle with pornography in late 2004. I had struggled for 5 years after being exposed at age 13. My “hobby” use quickly spiraled into what I would consider an addiction (though experts argue if that’s even a real thing. I say yes.)
By the time I was 17 and away at college, I was viewing pornography on a school computer with my roommate asleep less than 10 feet behind me, within view of our behemoth 2003 desktop. I was sleeping through my morning Chemistry class and sex chatting with men and women online, from my dorm room, at a Christian college. Eventually I sent nude photos of myself to a man.
I got caught there in college. My internet was being tracked. But when the dean confronted me with my internet history report and alleged porn problem that was “disgusting and one of the worst cases they had ever seen” she told me “We know this wasn’t you. Women just don’t have this problem.” That was Fall 2003.
A year later, I outed myself, and told someone I struggled with pornography and needed help. I found help, and it took me almost two years to feel like I was “free” from pornography. While I’ve been “free” for over a decade, I’ve never stopped battling it. Those ten years of freedom have included moments of temptation and many times of relapse. Still, I would call it freedom, and there’s much I have learned in the process.
Freedom from Pornography is Possible
There were days I thought, “There’s no way I can beat this.” In the morning, I would wake up and say, “Not today” but it’s like my feet had autopilot and just walked me to the computer desk. Hours would slip by online and I felt powerless to stop any of it. I tried changing passwords (doesn’t help when you know them!). I tried self-harm. I tried finding other hobbies. Nothing seemed to help.
You can’t begin to fathom a life without pornography, so you’re just desperate to survive in spite of it. But there’s a better option that “surviving in spite of pornography.” Freedom is possible. It’s hard, but it’s real.
That bit of truth would have been so helpful for me in my struggle, because the days I thought, “There’s no way out of this” were always the hardest. In fact, believing there was no way out is exactly what led me into the darkest parts of my story. We need the hope that there is a way out and that freedom is available to us. It is.
Healing Goes Beyond Freedom
But there’s more to this journey than simply finding freedom from pornography. Too many times we make it all about “stop watching porn” and just leave it at that. We forget to answer important questions like
- What does life look like without pornography?
- What kind of damage has pornography done and has it healed?
- Do I know how to build healthy friendships?
- How do I restore a positive view of sex?
- How has this affected my view of my body?
We can get so focused on not doing a particular behavior that we forget about the healing that needs to take place. What I’ve found though is as you heal those deeper wounds, if you will, the temptation and draw toward pornography essentially lessens.
Porn and Trauma are Connected
My friend, Lacy Bentley, author of Overcoming Love Addiction, once said during a presentation that she hasn’t worked with one woman addicted to porn who didn’t have some sort of sexual trauma that predated her porn experience.
I would add that this has likely changed with Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) as many of them consume pornography because it’s viewed as acceptable to do so. In fact, it’s encouraged. That being said, the exposure to pornography can itself be traumatic.
There’s a reason exposing children to pornography is classified as child abuse. When I give my parent presentations, I explain that little children are not drawn to the sexual aspects of pornography. Instead they are drawn like we are to footage of crashes. Exposure to sexual material is traumatizing for children.
However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realized it can be traumatic for many adults and young adults as well. It can be traumatic in the sense that you weren’t prepared for what you saw and that seeing it negatively affected how you thought or reacted to something.
We spend a lot of time talking about pornography as a bad choice, but not a lot discussing how we were led to make that bad choice. When there are lasting consequences, we have a bad tendency of just labeling those as sin and neglecting the reality of the effects of trauma.
Boundaries are OK
A common misconception is that post-porn me needs to look exactly like everyone who has never viewed it. That’s simply not the case. I have friends who are allowed to ask me awkward questions. I have controls enabled on my phone.
There are things in place in my life that help me stay on the track of freedom. Even as I prepare to be married in less than two weeks, there are boundaries my fiance and I have that other couples may not. And that’s ok. They aren’t a negative side effect of my choices. They are ways I choose freedom.
I would rather be free than fit in.
Falling isn’t a Relapse
I have been free from pornography for over a decade. That means the last time I compulsively viewed pornography was over ten years ago. But, I’ve said it many times before, pornography will be a weakness for the rest of my life. In a sense, it is my drug. My brain knows the hit it gets from porn and if I’m looking for a hit, that’s where my mind is going to go.
As the years have gone by that connection has lessened, but I think it’s always going to be there. Sure, it may grow over, and synapses may rewire, and memories and images may fade, but things are never fully erased from our minds. The track would always be there if I chose to jump back on it.
And in those ten years, there are times I have. I’m not dishonest about that. This isn’t a sex addict’s anonymous blog where I stand here and say, “My name is Jessica and it’s been ten years since I last saw porn.” It hasn’t. But never in those ten years, when a low point sucked me back into the porn vortex, did I ever feel “Oh no, I’m trapped again.” If anything, the response was,”Oh no you don’t!”and I fought even harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.
It saddens me when women feel like one bad choice can “cancel” out weeks, months, even years of freedom. If you fall, get up and fight. Free people can fight back. Don’t throw yourself back in prison, fight. Figure out what led you to make those choices. Find your triggers and deal with them.
Ladies, Your Sex Drive is a Good Thing
Perhaps that’s a “no duh” statement for you, but I come from a religious culture in which the sex drive of women isn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, it’s stifled. The moment we do anything remotely embracing our sexuality we get hurled into Proverbs 5 territory (the adulteress woman). Women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex, even though we were created by God with an organ specifically devoted to sexual pleasure.
So, I guess God didn’t get the memo?
A book I am currently reading is Knowing Her Intimately by Laura Brotherson, a certified sex therapist. In the first chapter, she addresses this idea that women have such negative views of their own sexuality. Many women struggle to embrace the fact they are sexual beings and struggle to see that as a good thing. Before healthy sex can happen, she says, that view needs to be transformed.
Women need to recognize that we also are made with the ability and drive to enjoy sex. Is it always on par with a man’s drive? No. Can it be? For some. Can it exceed a man’s drive? Yes. In fact, according to one author’s survey, 24% of marriages had a wife with a higher drive than her husband.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Side note: Even while writing this, I am realizing that so much about freedom is not only learning what is actually wrong and addressing that, but also, embracing that which is not wrong.
When we label things wrong that aren’t, we make ourselves feel even more trapped.
If I thought being a woman with a high sex drive was something broken that needed fixing, I’d never be “free.” Trauma in my past? That needs addressed. The fact that I desire sex? That does not.
Honesty Brings Freedom
There’s a Bible verse that talks about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. This might not be the appropriate application of it, but it comes to mind when talking about honesty and how honesty eradicates shame.
So much of the feeling of being stuck in pornography is due to shame. Shame is what keeps women in silence. Shame is what makes us not reach out and ask for help. Shame is what keeps us from sharing our story with others.
Honesty combats shame because it opens doors for grace. I will never experience grace if I’m not first honest.
Years ago, when I shared my story, I didn’t understand the level of freedom that would bring in my life. I don’t have to hide. I can openly discuss my story. Not only does that help me experience freedom, it’s also used to help others find freedom.
In the past few months, as I’ve gotten to know my future husband, I’ve seen this truth replayed over and over. When I am honest with him, it doesn’t rip us apart, it draws us together. It makes us a team as opposed to me vs. him and a fear of him finding things out.
Fear of being known is a hallmark of shame and we deal with that by taking a risk and being honest.
Honesty is what started my journey of freedom, and every moment of growth—from dealing with trauma in my past, to understanding my own need for boundaries—has come because of honesty.
If you are looking for freedom, to step out on that journey of a life without pornography, I encourage you to start where I did—tell somebody. Find a trusted friend, mentor, counselor, parent, and share your story.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. It was for me. But you can’t walk in freedom if you aren’t willing to open the door.
Visit Jessica Harris’s website, Beggar’s Daughter, for additional resources and articles.