A few years ago, I talked to a man whose girlfriend had recently told him about her past, which included intimate relationships with women. When I asked what he thought about that, he said, “I want to marry a woman someday that has been through something hard. Dirty dishes in the sink aren’t as important to a woman who has walked through the fire.”
That comment has stayed with me for years. His perspective was refreshing. Instead of seeing his girlfriend’s past as a disqualification from being marriage material, he saw it as just the opposite. She had persevered and endured things that he knew very little about, but what he did see in her was a woman whom the fire had shaped through suffering.
2 Corinthians 5:16–17 says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” These verses are loaded with meaning, but Paul is acknowledging how, after his conversion, he no longer evaluated people by external, human standards but rather by who they were in Christ, as new creations. Just like the Christian’s sins are paid for by Christ’s substitutionary death, the Christian’s old value systems are replaced with Christ’s righteousness. The cross frees the believer to live a life controlled by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14–15).
What does this have to do with the person you are dating and his same-sex attraction? It has everything to do with it! If this is a part of your girlfriend’s past, God counts her old life as ended. If this is a part of your boyfriend’s present, the power of sin has been broken. While this sin struggle may still be a part of his or her life, it no longer controls, and it certainly isn’t what defines that person.
The man in the story from above didn’t see the outward sin struggle of his girlfriend; instead, he saw her heart and, therefore, her beauty as a new creation in Christ. This is really hard to do when you are dealing with something that you perhaps don’t understand. If you are being really honest, maybe your boyfriend or girlfriend’s struggle feels even worse than other sins to you, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
Check your own sins first.
It is tempting to look at other people’s sins like they are worse than your own (Matthew 7:3–5). We might even see others’ sins and not really know how to deal with them. Before you allow yourself to worry about the nuances of your boyfriend or girlfriend’s sin, you should have the humility to first examine yours. If we see ourselves rightly, we are less likely to hold struggles against someone else because, after all, we all struggle. Some of us just struggle with things that are more public than others’ hidden sins.
Not every same-sex friend is dangerous.
A common misconception is that if someone is attracted to the same sex, then they could be attracted to anyone of the same sex; therefore, no one of the same sex is safe. This is simply not true! Same-sex attraction looks different for each person, just as heterosexual attraction does. We would never say that a person is attracted to every single person of the opposite sex, so we shouldn’t impose that assumption on people who have an attraction to some persons of the same sex.
Resist the temptation to project others’ sin into the future.
It can be tempting to over-fixate on how your boyfriend or girlfriend’s struggle will impact the future. You may wonder, “Will they always struggle with this? What if we get married and this becomes a larger issue? Will I be enough?” These are scary questions, but you don’t even know how your own sin struggles are going to present themselves in the future, so don’t waste time trying to predict theirs. If God plans for this person to be in your future, he will provide the grace needed to walk that out with this person.
With those caveats in mind, here are five things you can do to care well for your boyfriend or girlfriend’s heart:
- Seek to understand your boyfriend or girlfriend’s heart. Resist the temptation to be a detective who only wants to know whether your girlfriend going to struggle with this particular sin while you date her. As with any sin struggle, pain, heartache, confusion, and misunderstanding accompany sexual sin. If you learn what this experience has been like for your significant other, your questions might be answered, and you might even be surprised by the strength and faith that has led him or her to Jesus.
- Treat this struggle the same as you would any other struggle. Instead of responding with, “I don’t know what to do about this,” you should simply do what we are called to do as Christians: Extend love and grace (1 John 4:7, 1 Corinthians 13). Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2, Colossians 3:13). Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Show Christ’s love (John 15:12, Romans 12:10). Die to self (Luke 9:23). And so on.
- See Christ at work. Truly see your boyfriend or girlfriend as a person, not just his or her struggle. Marvel at his or her perseverance. Look with wonder upon your boyfriend’s awareness of his dependency on Jesus. Respect your girlfriend’s strength as she stands upon God’s promises. God allows our struggles to bring us to himself. If this is what God uses in someone’s life, it is not for you to change or fix the struggle; after all, he or she will have to do the same thing for your struggles by appreciating God working in you.
- Discern your emotional response. Work to understand the root of your heart’s response to this information. What is the cause of your fear, intimidation, anger, or insecurities? Are you worried? What specifically about this concerns you? Are you afraid? Are you intimidated? What is it that you don’t feel capable of addressing? Why? God might use this in your life and heart as much as he is using it in your significant other’s.
- Acknowledge your significant other’s humility and courage to entrust you with this. To be honest is to be brave. It would be far easier for your girlfriend to keep this from you than it is to invite you into her struggle. Don’t miss an opportunity to encourage your boyfriend for taking the courageous step of being known in this way. Whatever you do, don’t use this information as a weapon. Instead of distorting the struggle to be all about you, how might God be giving you a unique opportunity to be a reflection of Christ, who diffuses shame and loves us with tenderness (Ephesians 5:1–2)?
You probably did not anticipate a sexual struggle like this to be one of the challenges in your dating relationship. Perhaps you knew you would have to deal with selfishness, different priorities, and baggage from each other’s pasts. Likely, God has surprised you with caring about someone whose story contains a significant sexual struggle. Is God’s grace sufficient to let Christ’s love compel you forward and to refrain from looking at this person from a worldly point of view (2 Corinthians 5:14–17)?
If marriage is in view for your relationship, you will need to realistically face this struggle together, as with any sin. To a degree, most marriages experience things like intimacy challenges, painful feelings of rejection, and loneliness.* Ultimately, all of us need to unlearn our culture’s slavery to spontaneous passions and instead learn intentional and sacrificial intimacy. The unique nuances of walking alongside a spouse dealing with same-sex attraction is different for each couple. None of these challenges should be minimized, and, as you walk this out together, inviting others whom you trust into this challenge is a wise and perhaps necessary choice.
Whether your relationship continues moving forward or not, you have an invitation to love this brother or sister by imitating Jesus. The patience, understanding, and care you model to her through your dating relationship might be what God uses to show her Jesus. Men and women who drink deeply of the grace of Jesus and forsake the attractions that feel so natural to them are courageous. They should not be made to feel like they are unlovable but, rather, should be embraced with the compassionate love of Christ through his people—especially those whom they are moving towards in romantic relationship. This is not other to Jesus, and it shouldn’t be to any of us either.
* For further reading about same-sex attraction in marriage, see Tammy Perlmutter’s article, “My Mixed Orientation Marriage,” on our website.
02 Sep 2021
Perhaps you have heard it said, or felt it clearly implied, that homosexuality is the worst possible sin. Perhaps your testimony includes some kind of personal experience of homosexuality or same-sex attraction, and you have felt—whether they meant to communicate this or not—that others considered you the worst kind of sinner. When this opinion is openly expressed, it is not uncommon to hear Romans 1 referenced, especially the point about homosexuality being contrary to nature.
Is this correct? Does Romans teach that homosexuality, being contrary to nature, is therefore the worst sin?
To begin, let’s admit that not conforming to nature does have a bearing on sin. In Romans 1, this concept is connected to rejection of the Creator. Those who exchange the truth of God (that he made everything and rules over its design) for a lie (that we are autonomous beings who may choose to live how we wish) worship and serve the created—for which the Greek word is ktisei—over and against the Creator—para ton ktisanta (1:25). That is, we might say, to make up a word from the Greek, they make themselves “para-creational.” These creation-worshippers, then, are the very ones who, for that same reason, also exchange the natural—physiken—use of the body for the unnatural use—para physin—or “para-natural” (1:26). Paul is arguing that the willingness to ignore the normativity of created design and intent for the body is a manifestation of the willful rejection of the Creator.
So, in discussions of whether homosexuality is sin, the issue of created design is plainly relevant. You can also see why the Westminster Larger Catechism would list “against the light of nature” (Q151.3) as one of the many contextual considerations that aggravate the seriousness of any particular sin. All sin, of course, is a manifestation of our rejection of the Creator and logically flows from that rebellion. All sin is, in this sense, against the Creator’s design. But in Romans 1, Paul rhetorically seizes on the obviousness to his readers of this particular rejection of natural design. This obvious contradiction of natural design makes especially clear the connection that all sin has to rejecting the Creator of nature.
Nevertheless, the language of Romans 1 does not mean that any sin that is “contrary to nature” is for that reason the most heinous sin, or even that it is automatically worse than any other sin. As I explained in a previous post, “Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?,” determining the relative heinousness of any sin act is complicated and context-specific. The catechism, for example, lists many factors to consider, of which being “against the light of nature” is only one. The effect of this list is not to automatically put any one whole class of sins in a worse category than other classes of sins, but to urge church leadership to wisely shepherd individual cases before them according to the unique situational context. But even in the text of Romans, it is clear that Paul did not intend to single out sins contrary to nature as the pinnacle of wickedness.
First, in the immediate context, one of Paul’s main concerns is to encourage unity in the gospel, especially between the main demographic division of Jew and Gentile. His concern is that each individual in the church, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would have no basis on which to look down upon or judge the other. In the flow of Romans 1 and 2, he does this by progressing from the “unnatural” sins of the Gentiles that would seem so obvious to his Jewish-background readers to the more common and less obviously unnatural but equally debased (1:28) sins like covetousness, strife, deceit, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, and the like (1:29,30). The mere inclusion of some of these sins in this list should be enough to curb the temptation to feel morally superior (see my post on Romans 1). But, significantly, Paul ends this list by adding, “Though they know God’s righteous decree” about such things, they do them anyway (1:32)—a point that the Larger Catechism would describe as another factor increasing the heinousness of a sin that it is committed by a person “of greater experience or grace” (Q151.1). The rhetorical effect is clearly to humble the readers who, because of their greater biblical training and theological heritage, would be tempted to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters (even though his original audience, of course, would not have had the catechism’s language!). Thus, he culminates this section with the rebuke, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (2:1).
But, some may ask, doesn’t the very idea of “contrary to nature” carry a certain pejorative power, conveying an emotional intuition against what clearly ought not be? That is to say, doesn’t it capture what some have described as the “yuck” factor? Well, the point that I have been trying to show is that that kind of understanding is not consistent with Paul’s concern in Romans 1–2 for humility and unity in the gospel. I would also suggest that his other use of this phrase supports this point. The Greek phrase translated “contrary to nature” (para physin) shows up twice in the book of Romans: First, here in chapters 1 and 2, at the beginning of Paul’s argument, where he is mainly urging Jewish Christians to a humble gospel disposition toward the Gentiles. The other time this phrase shows up is in chapter 11, at the end of Paul’s argument, when he flips the coin to make a similar plea to the Gentile Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles… For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:13, 24, emphasis added). Ironically, Paul’s first use of the phrase is as a description of the sin that comes from rejection of God, but his second use of the phrase is to illustrate the unexpected grace of the gospel! Both times, the phrase occurs in the context of encouraging Christians to a humble, gospel-based love for those who are otherwise very different from themselves.
What can we conclude from this? If we listen carefully to the apostle Paul, we will never use the category of “contrary to nature” to favorably compare ourselves to any other sinner or class of sinners. Rather, we will in humility seek out, and point others to, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” acknowledging that there is really “no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22–23).
26 Aug 2021
It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’m sitting with a man who has given in to sexual sin for the majority of his life. He’s tried many things to stop, but he keeps failing to say “no” to temptation. He’s fighting to believe that victory is possible, but he feels weary and scared. Teetering on the edge of hope and despair, he asks me a simple question: “Does the battle ever get any easier?”
While simple questions rarely have simple answers, David Powlison was fond of saying, “[There is a] simplicity on the far side of every complexity.”¹ So the simple answer to this question is, “Yes, the battle does get easier.” However, in order to understand what that really looks like, we need to wade through the complex depths of the human experience.
The battle has a context
In humility, we always need to treat each person as a unique individual, and that requires great attention to the details of their lives. I always want err on being slow to speak and quick to listen. I want to assume that I don’t know what this person needs unless I first get to know them. I want a holy curiosity about his or her life. I don’t just want to know about his sexual sin. I want to know about his family, his childhood, his hopes, his disappointments, his suffering, and his understanding of the world, God, and himself.
As I get to know someone more intimately, I begin to understand in greater ways the functionality of sexual sin in his life. I see more and more the specific false promises that sin has tailor-made to fit someone’s particular desires and weaknesses. Consider the complex algorithms employed by modern social media giants. How is it that Facebook knows exactly what advertisement will hook you? It’s because Facebook has studied you. Facebook knows your heart based on what you click on and how long you stay. Sin operates in the same way. The battle is so difficult partly because you have an enemy who knows exactly where you are weak. Sin preys on its knowledge of your life, your sufferings, your heart, and your desires, and it exploits them.
Growth in the battle against sexual sin requires an increasing self-awareness of your own life experiences and how they have shaped you. Your enemy knows your weaknesses. Do you?
The battle has a past
If we’re honest, we often live our lives thinking only about the present, and sin capitalizes on this short-sightedness. If I only think of life in 24-hour chunks, then what’s the big deal about eating one or two donuts? No problem, right? But what if I eat two donuts every day for a whole week? That’s 14 donuts. What if I eat that same amount for an entire month? Now you’re looking at close to 60 donuts! It’s not hard to see that this kind of lifestyle will lead to major health problems down the road. The problem is that you can’t simply stop eating donuts one day and then pretend like you didn’t eat donuts every day for the past 10 years. The effects of those 10 years will linger and perhaps have lasting, lifelong consequences.
We reap what we sow. In Galatians 6, Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the impact of years of sowing into fleshly desires. He writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:7–8). Sin has a corrupting impact on our hearts and minds. Every time you give in to sexual temptation, you are sowing seeds of corruption. Think of it like an investment. Sexual sin isn’t just an isolated event. Giving into temptation today makes it harder to resist tomorrow. And science has now definitively shown how habitual pornography use in particular actually rewires your brain to make you that much more prone to return again and again to your sin.
Someone who has sown into sexual sin for decades has a difficult battle ahead of him because he has invested into corruption. Even if in the present he does all the right things to avoid temptation, he will still be reaping the consequences of sowing into a corrupt mind for so long. This is why it’s so difficult to not automatically lust after others. This is why people feel like they lose all self-control when triggered by specific circumstances that lead them right back to their well-worn paths of sin.
That’s the bad news. Most people wait far too long to stop investing into sin and corruption. Just like you can’t erase years of unhealthy eating, you can’t erase years of sinful seed sowing either.
The battle has a future
But the good news of the gospel is far better than being given a do-over. Jesus is greater than our sin, he’s greater than our pasts, and he’s promised us a future that is bright with biblical hope.
First, we must acknowledge that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more powerful than decades of sinful sowing to the flesh. Jesus, by the Spirit, raises the dead to life. There is no one who is too far gone from the free offer of the gospel. Our hope is not simply in being cleaned up; our hope is that we have been made new creations who are definitively alive to God in Christ.
But while the new birth does a definitive, eternity-shifting work in our lives, the working out of our sanctification is a much slower and more painful process—and here is where we return to the idea of investing.
The principle of sowing and reaping works both ways. Not only does sowing to the flesh reap corruption, but Paul also goes onto say, “…but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us no grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8–9).
When you turn from sin to Jesus, you are not only repenting today, but you are also investing into repentance for tomorrow, and next week, and a year from now. Saying “no” to sin today makes it easier to say “no” to sin tomorrow.
But, as Paul warns, we can grow weary of saying “no.” We can feel like giving up at times because we aren’t reaping as much as we expected in the short-term. This is why the battle must be fought through faith in the promises of God that are all “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
If you have just started investing in your retirement fund, you know how futile it feels to make such a slow crawl towards your retirement goals. You faithfully sow paycheck after paycheck into this fund, expecting to see a great return on your investment. In those beginning years, checking your balance might tempt you to cut back on your monthly payments or stop all together and instead save up for a nice vacation next summer. You look at other people who have been investing faithfully for 10 years longer than you have, and you think it’s impossible to ever get to their level—but that is short-sighted thinking. Just as you are called to trust in the promises of your financial advisor (promises that have less-than-perfect guarantees), so we are called all the more to trust in the promises of our heavenly Father!
So when someone asks me, “Does the battle ever get any easier?,” my response is, “Are you ready to invest for the long haul?” While I can’t go into everything that investing entails, I want to highlight a few simple, God-ordained means by which we can sow to the Spirit.
Negatively speaking, we sow to the Spirit by removing all hindrances and sin that weaken our endurance in the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). The battle won’t get easier if we continue to keep temptation close at hand. No one struggling with alcohol hangs out at the bars, and yet we often do very little to truly cut off access to sexual temptation, especially through technology.
We also sow to the Spirit by acknowledging our weaknesses and making wise arrangements that will helps us in those areas. A weakness may be a time, a place, a circumstance, or an experience. You need to know where you’re weak and plan accordingly. So often we lose the battle because we fail to plan, and we don’t take our failures as opportunities to learn.
Positively, we sow to the Spirit through the ordinary means of grace, including, but not limited to, prayer, the reading of Scripture, hearing the Word preached, and genuine fellowship with believers. It is rare to meet a man ensnared in sexual sin who also has vibrant fellowship with God through daily prayer and Bible reading.
You may have never thought about it this way, but I’m convinced that fighting sexual sin is a “good work.” In fact, I would go so far as to say it is Kingdom work. And when no one else in the world sees or cares about your resistance to temptation, God sees you, along with innumerable angels who fall down in worship before him who is worthy of your obedience, even when it requires great pain and endurance.
If you will faithfully sow into this Kingdom work, not giving Satan a foothold, you will find that the battle gets easier. As my former colleague David White liked to say, “Faithfully sowing to the Spirit makes temptation go from being a lion that will devour you every time to becoming a mosquito in your life. Mosquitos can be annoying and pesky, but they don’t devour you. But if you continue to sow to the flesh, you are feeding the lion.”
Where will you invest your heart and time today? What you do in the present is an investment into your future.
¹David Powlison, “Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2001: 49.
19 Aug 2021
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 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?
In recent years, there’s been a lot of online chatter and debate about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. I have a burden on my heart for how our brothers and sisters who wrestle in this way are faring in the midst of these debates. I recently reconnected with a dear sister who we’ll call Danae. I hope our conversation encourages you!
All of us have a unique story of faith, growth, and working out our salvation. How has same-sex attraction been a part of yours?
Danae: I first realized I was attracted to women when I developed an emotional connection with a friend after college. Eventually, our relationship turned sexual. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t aware of romantic or sexual attractions to women; this relationship was purely emotional to begin with. Yet, looking back, I became aware that I didn’t experience the boy-crazy phase that excited my peers. I dated men but never felt emotionally connected to them, which didn’t raise any alarm bells until I experienced emotionally intoxicating feelings with my female friend. I finally understood what friends had been talking about earlier in life. I felt excited and ashamed at the same time that these feelings came through relationship with a woman.
After dating guys, what was it like for you to be in a relationship with that friend?
Danae: Well, like I said, it was intoxicating to finally be in a romantic relationship that felt like love! The reality is that we slowly grew into a very entangled, emotional enmeshment, but the path into it seemed so life-giving: Our schedules revolved around each other; she just understood me in ways that guys never did; it seemed like I was finally home in a mutually loving relationship. The guys I dated were nice enough, but I never really felt that I truly liked them.
What kind of faith battles did you have once getting involved in same-sex relationships?
Danae: It was tough! I knew that this newfound joy was at odds with my Christian faith, and it created a whirlwind of confusion. How could what felt so good and right to me with this woman be so bad? I’d seen so many dysfunctional heterosexual relationships, and yet my girlfriend and I shared respect, care, and love for each other. There was a massive amount of heartache and confusion that began swirling in my life as I processed what felt natural to me but what the Bible calls not only sinful but also unnatural. My feelings won out, and, after that first relationship ended, I was pursued by other women and had several secret girlfriends over the next few years.
So what led to your willingness to re-surrender to Christ’s loving Lordship over this part of your life?
Danae: It was a gut-wrenching process for me, and, honestly, it still is at times. I felt love in these relationships with women, so to choose to let go and pursue obedience to God not only meant leaving someone I loved but also facing my fear that I might be single for the remainder of life. The cost of losing love, of not knowing what God would give in its place, was terrifying. Another layer of pain for me was that when I began sharing my story with other believers, they celebrated my obedience but offered very little understanding of the deep grief I was experiencing. Even if same-sex relationships are sinful, the loss of them still included heartache, pain, and confusion for me.
I know you suffered in silence for quite awhile, unknown and unsupported. What gave you the courage to eventually open up to someone?
Danae: Desperation! The pain and confusion I was experiencing eventually became greater than my fear of others finding out. I was desperate for help, for answers, for Jesus, and for hope that I could live a different way. A ministry leader moved towards me with compassion, patience, and an amazing gift of listening and drawing me out. She created the first safe place for me to be totally honest. It was scary but so worth it. She discipled me through Sexual Sanity for Women, and, while it wasn’t easy, lightbulbs came on as I began to understand, for the first time, how hurt and angry I was. There were deep layers of unbelief that emerged, and my mentor gently walked with me (and still does today!) as I faced the reality that I wanted to run my own life, and, in fact, thought I deserved to have what I wanted—what felt good to me. It’s been a slow journey that continues to this day, requiring me to trust God and his Word more than I trust myself, my feelings, and the way I think my life should work.
What is it like for you, with all the online debate among God’s people about homosexuality and how to talk about same-sex attraction? Does it help or hinder you?
Danae: To be honest, it depends. It can be heartbreaking and confusing on one hand, encouraging and inspiring on the other. It all depends on what the motivation of these discussions are. God’s Word has become precious to me, and knowing that his design is for our good has changed the way I view this struggle. To know that some Christians have gone soft on what the Bible clearly says is so deflating. When believers promote “gay Christianity,” it’s so disheartening because I’m seeking to be faithful to Jesus! My own brothers and sisters are forsaking the God who I’ve turned towards when turning away from sinful relationships! And yet I want to mention as well that it can be demotivating to hear leaders fighting about this stuff online as only an issue that needs to be clarified biblically. We absolutely need to have biblical faithfulness about this topic, but I also plead with leaders to not forget the people who are in the throes of working out their faith and repentance because of personal battles with same-sex desires. I’m grateful that Harvest USA seems to keep a helpful balance of biblical clarity and truth woven with compassionate, ground-level discipleship.
One final question for you: What would you say to the woman or man who is reading this and who is where you were so many years ago—hurting, wrestling in secret, and scared to reach out for help?
Danae: You’re not alone! I understand how scary it might seem to open up to someone about your same-sex relationships, inclinations, and what you really believe about all this. I get it—I really do! Jesus is not only inviting you, but also calling you, out of hiding and shame into himself, towards his love. That’s the true “outing” that all of us need, not to identify with our desires but to bring all of it to God. He’s promised to provide comfort and courage for the road in front of you—a road that will be hard and painful to some degree. Like I said earlier, I have grieved my sin and grieved what I lost when I gave up my sinful relationships. Yet living for and through Christ is the only true path towards the deep love we all want. Don’t give up; just take one step at a time.
Please pray for Danae and the many Christian women and men who are following Jesus faithfully, daring to push back on shifting convictions among God’s people.
29 Jul 2021
Name: Jeffrey Minnis
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Position at Harvest USA: Administrative Assistant
Description of work at Harvest USA: As the administrative assistant, my duties cover a variety of things. I welcome visitors and ministry recipients when they arrive at our office. When people call Harvest USA, I answer their general inquiries, connect them to our direct ministry staff, and sometimes even have the pleasure of praying for them. As you can imagine, many of the calls I receive are from men and women who are really struggling, so prayer is a way that I can serve them right then and there. I also help to process donations, so I input gifts in our donor database and issue receipts for those gifts. When Harvest USA staff are getting ready to teach at an event or exhibit at a conference, I prepare and ship the materials they might need. I’ve also had the opportunity to exhibit for Harvest at various events, and that was a lot of fun!
How did you get to Harvest USA? I started working at Harvest USA about seven years ago, after a former Harvest USA staff member, who attended my church, offered me the administrative assistant position.
What is your favorite Scripture? The whole of Psalm 119. I love the way that the psalmist holds onto the Word of God through all the circumstances of his life: the joys, the pains, and the falls that he experiences. In every situation, he lifts up the Word and centers his very soul on it. This psalm gives such a resounding reminder that, day by day, we are to connect to his Word, to delight in it, and to meditate on it, for, when we do this, we are really delighting in and worshipping God, who is the Word!
What do you appreciate most about your local church? Ten years ago, when I began attending my church, the things that stood out to me most were the authentic love and fellowship of the folks there. This made me say, “Yes! I want to be a part of this church!”
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? Now, this will probably sound a little out of the ordinary, but one of the things that I love about Philadelphia is the bus system here. It is so easy to get around to various parts of the city by bus. I found out many years ago that not every city has this, so I have learned to really appreciate it. In addition, as a youth with no car, it was the bus system that taught me how to get around Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs. Now, I am “that guy” whom my friends call when they need to catch a bus to get somewhere, and I don’t mind at all because I like helping!
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? Here is an interesting fact that most people outside of my family do not know: I wanted and studied to be a comic book artist. I grew up drawing, and, at the age of 15, I decided that this was the profession for me, so I started creating my own stories and illustrating them. When I was 20, I went to a vocational-technical school for cartooning, and later I even met and befriended some people who were well-established comic book artists for both DC and Marvel. Since I’m at Harvest now, I would say that the Lord had another good calling in mind for me!
Join Shalee as she talks about commonly deferred hopes, dreams, and expectations; the painful feelings that accompany these unfulfilled longings; a biblical way of hoping well; and how God sees our pain and wants us to come to him.
01 Jul 2021
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.