And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
Sexual intimacy in marriage is one of God’s gifts. It furthers humanity, cements the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and fosters love and joy in their union.
Christians confess these things. But do we truly, deep-down, believe sex in marriage is pure? All too often, I don’t. Many factors can taint the purity of marital sex in our minds and hearts. Sexualization seeps into almost every part of western culture, and the world’s view of sex as base and animalistic surely affects us more than we realize. We may feel hesitancy and shame about enjoying marital sex. And if we’ve been abused or struggle with sexual sin, it can be difficult to believe that sex can honor God or be safe.
The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to convince us that what God says is good really isn’t good, and our battle-weary hearts struggle to accept the purity of this gift.
And what we believe impacts how we live. It’s harder to engage with your spouse in a loving and vulnerable way through intimacy if sex feels sinful. We may know the truth with our heads, but how do we respond to rogue feelings?
Christ Is Enough
Being a Christian means hiding in the righteousness of Christ, always. If we’re trusting Jesus, every single wrong belief and warped motivation has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) that we may live in him (Rom. 5:18)! Our hope doesn’t rest in our behavior or feelings, but in Christ’s finished work. If God says sex in a loving marriage between a man and a woman is good, and if you’re married, then intimacy with your spouse is good—regardless of your feelings.*
Here are four truths to help us “talk back” to our feelings.
- We’ve been declared righteous according to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Faith in Jesus alone justifies us, not our works (Rom. 3:23–24). Apart from Christ, our hearts are twisted. We may bring sexual sin and its accompanying shame, or the shame of sins committed against us, into the marriage covenant. We’ll be fighting sin and feeling the pain of sins committed against us until heaven. This is why justification is such liberating news—our souls are safe because of Jesus.
God has set his favor upon us. He sparked faith in our warped, corrupted hearts, making them new and empowering us to walk in good works (Eph. 2:4–9). If you’re married, your marriage relationship is one of those good works. Marriage illuminates the all-surpassing gift of Christ, our Bridegroom, to his people. Being justified by faith means we can take our worried eyes off ourselves and fix them on our Savior. We’re united with Christ, reconciled with the Father, and helped by the Spirit. We can walk in good works because of Jesus.
- Christ’s righteousness covers us.
R.C. Sproul illustrates this doctrine of imputation in his children’s book, The Priest with Dirty Clothes. When Jonathan irreparably stains his robe, he goes to the great prince desperate for help to clean his clothes so he can stand before the king. Shockingly, the prince puts Jonathan’s filthy clothes on himself and gives Jonathan his own royal robes. He smiles, saying, “These are the clean clothes I promised you. They are yours forever. They will never wear out. There is not a spot of dirt on them and nothing can make them dirty. They are perfect for you.”
Think about that! Nothing can mar the righteousness that’s ours in Christ—not our sin (past or present), not sin done against us, not our feelings.
What does this have to do with sex? We can wrongly believe purity is rooted in our behavior. If we’ve sinned or been sinned against sexually, that’s it. Game over. We’re “used goods.” But the gospel truth is that our purity is found in Christ—it’s rooted not in us, but in the spotlessly pure robes of Christ’s righteousness covering us.
At the end of Sproul’s story, Jonathan wants to be good enough to wear the prince’s clothes. “But you cannot be good enough, Jonathan,” the prince says. “You must live your whole life trusting in my goodness while you wear my clothes.” We will never be pure apart from Christ. Yet, in Christ, we’re adorned by a purity more shimmeringly beautiful than we can imagine.
- God uses ordinary means to sanctify us.
Day by day, by the power of his Spirit, God is doing extraordinary work in us through ordinary means—reading his Word, prayer, fellowship with believers, partaking of communion, suffering, relationships. For believers who are called to it, marriage—in all its dimensions—is part of that process.
As we learn to submit to another, preferring them before ourselves, seeking their wellbeing, and caring for their emotions, God is sanctifying us. As we embrace the vulnerability of sexual union, committing ourselves to our spouse again, knowing and being known in all our imperfections, God is sanctifying us. God will use even marital sex to work out our sanctification. Christian, you can enjoy sex with your spouse not only as something good in itself, but as part of the Lord’s sanctification in your life.
This is good news, but we still sin against God and each other. Have you ever thought, “I can’t even have sex with my spouse without sinning in my mind!”? The frustrating reality of ongoing sin can tempt us to avoid sex altogether. But that’s not the answer. As Jim Weidenaar said, simply avoiding sex would be like saying, “I can’t pursue relationships with people in church without my pride and anger surfacing, so to avoid more sin I’ll be a loner.”
“Instead,” Jim said, “it’s as we pursue loving relationships that we recognize sin and true growth happens. The path of sanctification, in sex or any area of life, requires us to exercise faith. Though the road is rocky, our Savior will help us grow even as we grieve, confront, repent of, and work through sin day by day.”
- We’re headed to eternal glory.
Neither marriage nor sex within marriage are ultimate or eternal—like all God’s gifts, they’re signposts pointing to the greater realities of Christ and his love for his people. One day we will physically be with Jesus, our heart’s satisfaction, forever (Ps. 16:5–6). We’ll be free from sin and shame, delighting in the consummation of our souls’ deepest longings.
Paradoxically, this frees us to treasure our earthly marriage more than ever and to not take it too seriously. The intimacy of marriage is a lovely gift, but it pales compared to that great day when we see our Lord face to face. Christ himself is our joy! He is our inheritance. He is our tender husband. The marriage union is a temporary gift; spiritual union with Christ is our eternal reality.
How does this head knowledge work its way into our hearts, so our felt experience matches the truth we confess?
We may still feel that sex with our spouse is impure. Feelings are stubborn and must occasionally be given “a stern talking to.” But that doesn’t always change them. In this fallen life we will sometimes be overset by feelings that run roughshod over us, leaving no reprieve, no peace. But amid all the turmoil of all the feelings, we have a sure and steady refuge for our soul in Christ our Savior. We can shelter in him, crying with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
And as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, our belief in Christ’s sufficiency will grow. The answer, if we’re married, is not to avoid sexual intimacy with our spouse* nor to ignore the feelings. Neither can we examine ourselves thoroughly enough or purge ourselves of sin! No, our hope is found in Jesus.
Who Jesus is and what he has done triumphs over our feelings. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ” (293). Let’s look to Christ, our Savior, and hide in his righteousness. We can trust him with every part of our lives.
*This assumes your marriage is not abusive. If you’re facing harm from your spouse, remove yourself to safety and seek guidance from a trusted counselor.
It may be glib, but it rings true: the only thing that never changes is change. I’ve got change happening in almost every area of life right now. You too? Consider this list of what I’m facing and see if it connects with your life.
- Change through death. My dad died several months ago, and family relationships have shifted since then. Not only have I joined the parentless club, but my relationships with my siblings and their families are growing into something different. In the last few years of his life, a lot of our interactions revolved around how Dad was doing. We texted, emailed, and talked about what kind of care he needed, who could do what, and then the dreaded end-of-life decisions. Over the past months, we’ve grown into new ways of connecting that don’t orbit around Dad’s care.
- Change through aging. Umm, I’ll just leave that, at that! But you can guess—bodies age and with that comes a changed appearance, different limitations, new dreams emerging, and a revitalized commitment to make the most of the time given to me in this life.
- Change through new relational landscapes. Our Harvest USA staff family has lost several beloved brothers and sisters to new callings and changed life circumstances; we’ve gained several new coworkers too. There have also been several significant changes in my personal life: my close friend and sister moved overseas with her family, another friend has grown more limited due to chronic illness, and still another moved out of the area.
- Change through spiritual pruning and soul surgery. God has been doing so much in my own heart over the past season. He’s been growing me through challenges, joys, grief, and a long awaited ‘birth’ of a book I’ve wanted to write for years. Writing Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey brought more tears than any other writing project I’ve worked on for Harvest USA. The excruciating stories that women have shared with me have changed and humbled me.
What about you? Do any of those categories hit home, my friend? Perhaps your marriage has suffered the painful blow of abandonment, death, or divorce. Maybe one of your kids just left for college and you aren’t so sure that the emptier nest season is as fabulous as you’ve heard. Or perhaps a friend has moved on, seeking connections elsewhere, and you feel lost and abandoned. You might even be facing the disorienting reality of someone ending their relationship with you because it had become sinful, and your friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/secret lover heard and heeded the loving call of Jesus to return home from the far country.
When the pain of change hits hard, we have a choice in front of us. We can cry out to Jesus for help, comfort, wisdom, and guidance or we can cry out elsewhere for temporary comfort, distraction, rescue, or a sense of stability. Where do you tend to turn?
Everything Will Shift—Except God’s Promises
When you’re hit with pain due to changed circumstances, it’s important to cry out for comfort in the right direction. The enemy of our souls and our weak and easily deceived sin nature crave and seize any opportunity to pursue people, experiences, and feelings that may temporarily numb or relieve our anguish but, in the end, land us in a pit. God alone is the source of unchanging, unfailing love and comfort. He is your steadfast companion when the terrain of your life shifts, whether slightly and subtly or like a wave crashing over you.
Consider these promises from God’s Word:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
For I the Lord do not change. (Mal. 3:6)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb. 13:8)
But people? Your best friend? The person you’re dating? Your spouse if you marry? Your health, financial portfolio, church? All will change and shift. Some of these changes will be sweet and feel good, while others may break your heart.
Painful Change Leads You to Your Steadfast Savior
Only through our relationship with Jesus do we have a relationship with someone who will never:
- Stop loving or change his desires for us. Jesus won’t ever say, “I just don’t have the feels for you anymore.”
- Abandon, break up with us, or join a new friend group, leaving us in the dust by saying, “You know…I just need to do me now…sorry.”
- Take back the forgiveness that has covered all our sins—past, present and future!
- Betray us or not come through on the promises he’s made. His words are trustworthy. God will never stop loving us deeply, even as he knows all the worst things about us and has experienced our sin against him every day. He’ll never stop offering to comfort us when our hearts are broken, lonely, or disappointed. He’ll never grow tired or give up on helping us grow and become more like him. He’ll never go back on his promise to give us strength to live for him and not ourselves. He’ll never grow tired of helping us and carrying our burdens.
- Change his plan to bring all his children into heaven at the time of his choosing.
- Die on us. We will never, ever, have to stand looking over a grave and then turn away to live the rest of our life feeling the empty hole of him not being here, of feeling how silent or quiet the world feels without him.
God’s Unchanging Love Brings Healing Change to You
God is not only unchangeable, he’s also full of holy, compassionate love for you, and he alone has the power to heal and change your broken heart. You may feel devastated today, hopeless and drowning in a sea of painful circumstances. Perhaps you’ve made choices you’re ashamed of, or now enslaved to certain behaviors, or completely consumed with a person—you might even say you’re addicted to this person.
Friend, because God is steadfast and unchanging, and you are in process of being made to be like Jesus, you have hope. Behaviors can be changed, relationships can lose their sinful grip on your heart, addictions can subside, and the pull of your desires diminish as you turn toward God with humble dependence. He is faithful and he will never stop loving you or being with you. That will never, ever change.
If your husband has sinned sexually, you might be surprised at how deeply you feel ashamed. Shame can be a vague, haunting, smothering feeling in our hearts. It may hover the way a low-grade physical ache emerges with the flu. Or it can suddenly fall over us, collapsing our hearts inward as if a heavy, water-soaked blanket was dropped on us.
The Bible connects shame and guilt, yet also distinguishes between them. Guilt communicates, “I’ve done something wrong.” Shame communicates, “Something is wrong with me.” Ed Welch, a biblical counselor, makes the distinction in his book Shame Interrupted:
Shame lives in the community, though the community can feel like a courtroom. It says, “You don’t belong—you are unacceptable, unclean and disgraced” because “You are wrong, you have sinned” (guilt), or “Wrong has been done to you” or “You are associated with those who are disgraced or outcast.” The shamed person feels worthless, expects rejection, and needs cleansing, fellowship [community], love, and acceptance. (11)
Note what Welch says about shame coming not only from our own sin but also from association with those who are disgraced. Just as you’ve perhaps been troubled by your troubles or anxious about your anxiety, maybe you’ve been carrying the shame of your husband’s sin as your own.
But your husband is guilty of sexual sin, not you. Regardless of how either of you (as sinners and sufferers) may have contributed to brokenness in your marriage, your husband chose to act on desires and pursue his own sexually sinful behaviors. Yet the intimacy of the marriage covenant does closely associate you with his guilt and the shame that comes with rebellion against our holy God. Why is this, and how does it happen?
Marriage, Sexual Sin, and Shame
Marriage creates a powerful opportunity for a husband and wife, in covenant before God and witnesses, to enter into a oneness-of-life relationship. Traditional Christian wedding vows usually include the following components.
Will you have this woman/man to be your wife/husband, to live together in holy marriage?
Will you love, comfort, honor, and keep her/him in sickness and in health?
Will you forsake all others, being faithful (relationally, mentally, sexually, emotionally, physically) to her/him as long as you both shall live?
In response to all of these questions, the man and woman both promise, “I will.”
The marriage covenant is unique, in part, because it’s the only God-blessed context for sharing sexual intimacy. The lifelong, exclusive, loving relationship provides a protected context for spouses to share themselves completely with another. Both spouses commit to do this in dependence upon and out of love for Christ. When experienced according to God’s design and intent, shared sexual love is indeed a beautiful gift that keeps on giving.
Sexual sin doesn’t merely intrude into a marriage as a physical act of betrayal; it brings destruction to the very foundation. This relationship of intimate oneness was built on trust and a mutual commitment to viewing yourselves as “we” rather than “I.” Wives experience covenant treason from the one man they promised to love, cherish, and faithfully honor, and from whom they were promised the same.
Sin in any relationship is serious, but since marriage is a unique covenant that represents Christ and the church, betrayal from a spouse is particularly devastating. Sexual unfaithfulness can shatter a wife’s sense of identity and worth. Her husband has not only gone outside the marriage but has actually brought pollution and idolatry into their union. Wives feel this intensely, even when they’re not the ones who pursued sexual unfaithfulness.¹
Jesus Brings Freedom from Shame
Sister, is shame a coat you’re wearing or a tattoo on your soul you can’t wash off? You may say, “Yes, but it’s not my fault. . . . I didn’t choose it; it was put on me!” Or maybe you’re convinced you caused the sin and deserve to bear this shame until your husband gets his act together, even just a little. If that’s the case, you need to hear this again: your husband’s sexual betrayal came out of his heart, desires, and beliefs—you did not cause it!
Jesus sympathizes with the shame you may carry in response to your husband’s sin and the condition of your marriage. Your Savior understands the ugliness of sin and the shame it brings; he’s experienced the painful betrayal of his bride, the church. Jesus, your loving, gracious, sovereign Lord, knows what it’s like to experience the “dirtiness” of someone else’s sin becoming his.
And there is hope in what Jesus achieved for us through his death and resurrection. As Heather Nelson explains, “In place of shame, [Jesus] gives honor, beauty, joy, comfort, justice, favor, and freedom—what our hearts long for most when shame rules our emotions, thoughts, and desires” (31).
Sister, only through faith in Jesus can you truly be free from the shame you carry, whether it’s due to your own sin or sin done against you by others, including your husband. The way we access Christ’s healing and cleansing from shame is by faith in him alone, believing that through him and by union with him we are forgiven of sin, cleansed from unrighteousness, and kept safe in his mercy.
These beautiful truths are good news for you and your husband. You are both holy, chosen, beloved saints if your faith is placed in Jesus alone (Col. 3:12). You are both sinners who continue to wrong God, each other, and other people (1 John 1:10) and sufferers who daily experience life in a broken, sin-filled world (John 16:33). Christ alone covers the guilt and shame of your husband’s sin, so neither of you has to carry it any longer.
This article is an excerpt from Harvest USA’s new resource, “Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal,” launching August 31 at Harvest USA.
¹Women, including wives, do pursue sexual sin! Harvest USA is committed to ministering the gospel of grace to women who are sexual strugglers. Here I address the audience of the workbook from which this article is extracted: wives of husbands who struggle with sexual sin.
09 Jun 2022
“Day after day, year after year, the message of shame filled my ears and heart. I ached to be loved, wanted, cherished, and desired, but instead I was learning to define myself by the way my husband treated me. Unwanted.”¹
This wife’s ache is a gospel cry. It’s a cry of loss in her marriage—a profound loss, a loss measured by the greatness of the gospel truth it was meant to picture. She is mourning the loss of the experience of exclusive belonging.
What is the foundation for the long-term sexual union of marriage? Our culture makes attraction the sole basis of the relationship, rather than one feature of it. But, as my previous post explains, God’s gracious act of setting us apart goes against this grain—and he intends us to be his image-bearers.
If human sexuality was merely animal, we could see sexuality as a simple stimulus-response based on attraction. But as image-bearers of God, our sexuality is to be a picture of the gospel. Delight grows in the security of having been graciously set apart for exclusive belonging.
Belonging, Security, and Delight
The passion and delight of a husband and wife is suggested in the idea of belonging. Belonging is not a mere legal category, as if we are chattel. You should hear it in the repeated refrain of the lover, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 2:16; 6:3; 7:10). Christ’s setting us apart to belong to him is full of warm and intimate affection.
There is so much hope in the unchanging security of our union with Christ! Our belonging to God is not transient or changeable, but eternally fixed. Your beloved Savior chose you from eternity past—his abundant love cannot change because he cannot change.
Does this challenge how you believe God thinks of you? Do you assume he’s disgusted, impatient, disappointed, and angry? You need to know that he loves his bride, the Church, with the ardor and emotion of a lover! He has set us apart to belong to him as his bride. We are our Beloved’s, and he is ours!
The Ache of Being Unwanted
When people who are not set apart to belong to each other engage in sexual activity, not only does it serve mostly selfish purposes but it’s anti-gospel in nature. Personal pleasure at someone else’s expense, a sense of conquest, and a craving to feel wanted do not reflect Christ’s relationship with his bride.
The message of sex as we’ve learned it from our culture is, “For the moment, I want what you have” and “You seem to please me more than the other options in the room.” There’s no grace in this, no gospel. It’s based on an evaluation: What turns me on now? What meets my felt needs now?
Momentary, self-focused sexual activity lacks the fullness, security, and joy of belonging. Although it temporarily mimics the warmth of true belonging, it’s filled with inevitable uncertainty. Tomorrow, he may be with someone else, and she will be aching again, wondering if she will ever be lovable.
Consider how a husband’s porn use affects his wife. When a wife discovers her husband has been looking at porn, the sense of mutual belonging based on his setting her apart in an exclusive category is destroyed. She is immediately reduced to the level of every flaunted body online. She’s no different than every woman walking or driving by.
All the gospel-like benefits of security, value, and safety she enjoyed when her husband set her apart as his own are shown to be an illusion. What is communicated to her is that it’s really always been about competing to fulfill this man’s desire—a competition she knows she can never win. She is, using the word of the wife at the top of this post, “unwanted.” This is devastating.
Eternal Belonging in Christ
Where do we go with this? Wherever we fit into this story—a sinning husband, a hurting wife, a sinning wife, a single person afraid of not belonging to anyone—we can only go to the gospel first. Jesus is the only one who is truly faithful, and his faithfulness counts for us. We belong to him first.
It’s good news that the truth of the gospel, which our sexuality was meant to reveal, is not diminished by our failure and loss. Nothing we do or don’t do can change the eternal security of our union with Christ. We can learn to define ourselves by the way our Savior—our Husband!—treats us: set apart as his own. We are his, and our Beloved is ours, forever.
¹This quotation is from our soon-to-be-released resource, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July, 2022.
28 Apr 2022
One of the most tender expressions of humble faith was shared with me by a woman in my wives group years ago. She said,
“I thought marriage would be the place where I would finally come to understand God’s love for me in a deeper way through the example of my husband’s love. Instead, God has chosen to teach me about his love by putting me in a place where I had to study his love so I could show it rather than receive it. I found myself running to the Lord, pouring out my pain to him about my unfaithful spouse and fellowshipping in his suffering. As I meditated on how God understood the pain of an unfaithful spouse (his people) and studied his response to their unfaithfulness, I learned about his longsuffering, pursuing love for me and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.”
Sister, are you hurting, disappointed, alone, and confused because of painful marriage dynamics? You may have realized when you married that, as great of a guy as your husband seemed to be, he couldn’t replace Jesus. You probably knew that your issues would also impact the marriage, but you were (and maybe still are!) eager to journey together with your man towards Christ, holiness, togetherness.
But sexual sin isn’t what you signed up for. This is an unwanted chapter in your story, and you wonder how you got here. Where can you turn?
Turn to Jesus. He’s near, and he cares.
Jesus is your steadfast refuge and tender comforter
“I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).
David wrote these words after being chased by enemies and betrayed by people he trusted and loved. (You can read more of that story in 2 Samuel 21–22 if you’re interested). His words guide us when we are in the throes of suffering. When we forget who we are and who God is, it’s easy to drown in our feelings rather than seek refuge in Jesus and tell him “each rising grief, for Thou alone can heal; Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”¹ In the mystery of your suffering, you can know one thing for sure: God wants you to draw more closely to himself as your God.
In the last hours before Jesus was arrested, he assured his friends with these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–2).
Jesus is always with you, not merely by your side but within you as your very life (Colossians 1:27 and 3:3). He is the only one who is capable of sharing this kind of intimacy with you. Even on your husband’s best days—walking in obedience to God, faithfully loving you, sharing moments of sweet sexual intimacy with you—he cannot dwell within your heart. Christ alone is there with you in your broken heart and will not leave.
Jesus is your faithful Bridegroom forever
When your husband fails you, it’s an invitation to turn towards the Bridegroom who never will. One woman shared with me,
“After I found evidence of my husband’s affair, I took off my wedding ring and told my husband in anger and pain, ‘You left me, and God is my husband now.’ True, but a bit dramatic. Then, as I was working through a book with a friend for spouses facing sexual betrayal, we read through Hosea, and I realized I had something ‘special’ in common with God: We are both betrayed spouses! Then my mind quickly went to the realization that I have also been unfaithful—not with my husband, but with God.
Throughout our eight-month separation and long, bumpy road toward marriage reconciliation, I found great comfort in picturing Christ as my Bridegroom, who loves me with an everlasting, perfect love. Who comforts me when I’m down, always listens to me, and cares for me deeply. And will never betray me.”
In the Old Testament, we learn of a beautiful theme that runs throughout Scripture: God’s plan for pursuing an eternal marriage relationship with his people. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19–20). These verses show us that God’s desire is to be more than just a refuge, friend, king with servants, and even a father with his children. He pursues, loves, and offers us eternal marriage with himself.
The concept of being married to God may be a new one for you. God’s spousal love is different from human marriage but no less intimate. We have an eternally secure, forever-together relationship bought for us by the blood of Jesus, our Bridegroom.
The love that Jesus offers to his people, his Bride, is so much more than that of the most devoted husband. No, those “best day” experiences you’ve had with your man are only a glimpse of what it’s like to be loved by Jesus. What you and your husband can offer each other is but a dim reflection of the faithful, eternal, intimate love that Jesus shared with his people—with you.
For all the mystery of why you are suffering in marriage, you can know that Jesus is longing to show himself to you in new ways as your true Bridegroom, the One who never misses you, will not seek another bride, and will never, ever deceive or abandon you. You may not feel excited about this eternal truth right now, and that’s okay. Jesus isn’t put off by the honest recognition in your heart that you may desire a husband’s love more than his.
Jesus is your eternal true home
In John 15, Jesus beautifully explains a new type of intimacy between himself and his followers: He is the true Vine, the source of all life, and we are his branches, created and commanded to abide (or make a home) in him and his words. A vital union with Jesus is now possible because his Spirit is sent to live in all believers.
As amazing as it is to consider that God no longer dwells near us but in us, we won’t experience being at home with God perfectly in this life. Our bruised and sinful hearts and the fallen world around us prevent a purely joyful, peaceful, and comfortable experience. However, when we honestly acknowledge this rather than demand a life with no suffering, it can actually draw us closer to Christ and the joy he offers. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful, for these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others do the same.”²
Your true country, your home, is Christ. He’s your safe place and gentle Shepherd, who will never tell you to “just get over it” and move on. He won’t run from you or awkwardly back away in silence because he doesn’t know what to say to you. He is yours, his love is yours, his comfort is yours. Regardless of what you feel, think, and believe in this moment, he is drawn to you with deep compassion. Turn to him sister; he is near.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in the soon-to-be-released resource from Harvest USA, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July 2022.
¹Steele, Anne. “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.” https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/dear-refuge-of-my-weary-soul.
²C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1952), 121.
05 Mar 2020
The majority of men who come to Harvest USA for help with sexual struggles are married.
In this video, Mark Sanders shares several important truths that husbands need to know about humbly, patiently, and sacrificially walking alongside their wives in the long process of reconciliation and healing.
You can also read the corresponding blog, Wives and Porn: What Not to Say After She Knows.
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:3 ESV)
I looked at my calendar, confused. I already had a dentist appointment scheduled Wednesday. But another one on Friday? I skimmed my phone contacts and of course I hadn’t saved the dentist’s phone number. I checked my wallet for where I’d placed the business card—gone now. And I’d recycled our Yellow Pages long ago.
Old Me would’ve simply looked up the number in my Safari browser (and probably neglected to save it once again).
New Me doesn’t have this option. As I paw fruitlessly through my wallet one last time, I feel a little angry. And a lot humbled. If I didn’t have a porn habit, sending pictures of myself for cheap approval, then I wouldn’t be fishing for something as routine as my dentist’s phone number, simply because my husband helped lock up the internet. Now I’ll have to interrupt my husband at work so he can Google it for me or wait until he returns home to log on for me so I can search for it myself. I feel childish and rather petty, seeking “permission” to use a computer or have a new app installed on my phone. But costing my marriage, my family, and certainly God’s glory for the sake of freely accessing the internet will never balance. I must know my sin.
I’m reminded of my sin, even as I experience changes in my daily minutiae, like figuring out a new way to locate a phone number. My sin is ever before me as I feel frustrated by these changes, however trivial. Then there are times when I feel victory as I see my almost-full cell phone battery from lack of use—and lack of temptation. My sin is before me when I’m quietly folding laundry and my brain starts to replay porn that I viewed five years ago. My sin is before me as I watch my husband spend two hours trying to correctly install web-filtering programs on our computers. Tenderly, my sin is before me when he hugs me afterward and tells me he loves me.
An hour after my missing-phone-number debacle, the dentist calls to confirm Wednesday’s appointment—like a nod from my heavenly Father that he sees my plight.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
As a married woman—a pastor’s wife, at that—with a house full of preschoolers, I don’t much fit the “profile” of a porn-user. I have no history of abuse, and the only traumatic event I seek to escape is the tedious monotony of life on-call with preschoolers—diapers, laundry, dinner, dishes, repeat. Sometimes not fitting the stereotype can make me feel lonely, or exceptionally depraved. In those moments when I’m more responsive to God’s wisdom, I see it as a reminder of how desperate my heart is: no matter how orderly my life looks on the outside, I was born a sinner and a sinner I will be until Christ’s return.
As a married woman—a pastor’s wife, at that—with a house full of preschoolers, I don’t much fit the “profile” of a porn-user.
I didn’t date much in high school. I was painfully shy but constantly craved affirmation that I was good enough—pretty enough, smart enough, friendly enough. Motivated by curiosity and feeling some warped pressure to ‘keep up’, my first internet search for pornographic pictures occurred after hearing a fellow female classmate share that she missed having sex. I’d never even seen male genitalia and my research was a way to feel good enough, perhaps even prepared enough.
In college my curiosity morphed into intrigue. None of my friends dated much or seemed pressured to be in a relationship, while I felt plagued by loneliness. I discovered porn videos and in the solitude of my dorm room began fantasizing that I could be that woman in the videos—beautiful, desired, confident. Although I contemplated it, my resistance to sharing this new habit with anyone left me vulnerable and solitary. Praise God for his mercy, that he protected me from any harmful relationship in which my lonely heart would have undoubtedly sought affirmation in a man’s physical attention, rather than God’s perfect affection.
I met my now husband in my junior year of college. This led me into a prolonged season in which the internet wasn’t a temptation. He truly led me to desire a deeper relationship with God; beautifully the desire for affirmation elsewhere faded as I found it in this godly man and perfectly in God, Himself. As an engaged couple, we stumbled our way through a conversation about sexual histories and our desires and expectations for physical intimacy. I remember feeling deep shame creep over me as I shared pieces of my struggles, but what sweet, precious relief to yet again experience not only his forgiveness but my heavenly Father’s as well.
As newlyweds, we enjoyed—and struggled through, on occasion—our new physical freedom as husband and wife. I don’t remember feeling particularly tempted to find those old websites. But that all changed when we began expecting our first child. That old context of loneliness resurfaced with no close workplace friends and my husband’s first pastoral position. Combine that with hormone surges from pregnancy and few defenses, I began to find new access to porn videos. My husband had just left for an overnight church retreat. I was alone. And then the old lies returned: I’m not good enough…A good pastor’s wife wouldn’t look at porn…A good mom wouldn’t, either…Besides, no one would find me attractive, anyway…I’m not good enough.
As my pregnancy progressed, I had numerous frank conversations with my husband to build accountability and resistance to this sin. Hormones shifted, our baby was born, and we were thrust into that world of figuring out how to be parents. Busyness temporarily outweighed any room for temptation.
But in the swirl of acclimating to my new role as a mother, I never fully processed why I’d been tempted in the first place. I didn’t root out the reason why my husband’s affirmation was no longer sufficient for me. I didn’t confront my own lie that a pastor’s wife does not struggle like I did. I just assumed that, because these temptations went away on their own, I was “better” now.
Not surprisingly, when I was pregnant with baby #2, my struggle came roaring back. This time I found a website where women submitted their own pictures for comments and even re-postings. Never having dropped back to my pre-pregnancy weight after my first child and desperate for affirmation in spite of my growing belly from my second child, I submitted my own photo. Never mind that my husband showered me with compliments and sought my physical affection. Was I still desirable to others? After the initial thrill from that post faded, I was deeply ashamed. I sat in a Sunday service, fighting tears, knowing I just had to confess this to my husband, and that he’d be devastated. I was also fearful. Could he be fired for this? What was wrong with me? I remember a tearful conversation with him and lots of crying. Then I remember a season of waking early for time in the Word and prayer—something I’d never done before. All glory to the Holy Spirit for convicting me and enabling me to obey his leading!
“[A] broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17b)
Oh, how I have been dreading writing this next part of my story.
I wish I had learned my lesson. I wish I had taken more time to pray, reflect, and see where these “triggers” came from, other than blaming pregnancy hormones. I wish I had remained vigilant, even when the temptations relented, to maintain internet filters and time restrictions on my computer and smartphone and more honest accountability check-ins with my husband. But how easily we forget!
I became pregnant with our next child and my husband accepted another ministry call, prompting us to move away from all that was familiar and stable. Cue again loneliness and fear of not being “good enough.” Again, I found virtual strangers to whom I could send photos of myself—more cheap insurance as I, the Homemaker and New Pastor’s Wife, sought affirmation from somewhere. I attended new church services, pushing forward, but feeling miserable.
Finally, I closed out my online accounts permanently—no more photos. I remember cold afternoons in our new backyard, reading my Bible and praying while my kids played. Slowly the temptation faded; slowly I rebuilt my relationship with the Lord. Significantly, I chose not to confess to my husband this time. Having nailed this online door shut to strangers, I felt it would cause more harm than good. Feeling almost noble, I bore my guilt alone, as if that were punishment enough for my crime.
It festered…until I couldn’t keep my secret anymore. My out-of-the-blue, terrifying-yet-impossible need to confess to my husband ended in another heartbreaking revelation. This one was even more difficult, because my sin had gone on for so long without him knowing. He felt lied to. It took weeks before our marriage felt “right” again; even then, shame would still creep up on me. Restoring my relationship with Christ was another uphill battle; I felt plagued, living a lie while serving in my home and my church.
My struggle continues. Usually I measure my life as ‘spiritually neutral’, distinguished by peaks of godly growth, cancelled out by valleys of sexual sin. Since my battles come and go, it’s easy to box them up, like a winter coat that gets put away when spring emerges. Satan’s lust for victory is never far away, like recently when I snuck off to send another photo to a website. Enter yet another hard conversation with my husband and new internet restrictions and countless tears. No internet filter can heal my desperation for true spiritual healing.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:12)
Each failure makes my marriage harder to restore. Yet, each failure reminds me again of my wicked heart that desperately needs to rely on Jesus. I could throw away my computer, but my wicked heart will still find a way to sin—even if only in my mind. My weapons for protection are still the same: prayer, regular Bible reading, tools like Sexual Sanity for Women, and Harvest USA’s Journeyers in Grace biblical support group. I’ve had both a recent failing and victory as well. One day I recognized my own loneliness before it could lead me to temptation by simply texting a friend to see how she was doing. I’ve pushed myself to serve high school girls at our church, instead of letting that “not good enough” feeling cripple me.
Each failure makes my marriage harder to restore. Yet, each failure reminds me again of my wicked heart that desperately needs to rely on Jesus.
While I may never be sin-free in this life, by God’s grace my sin will continue to fade as he is ever illuminated.
Editor’s note: In this article, we do not disclose our ministry recipient’s real name because she has chosen to remain anonymous.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness by Ellen Dykas. When you buy this book from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
18 Oct 2018
Just heard it again. Another wives and porn story. A sad and frustrating story from a wife who discovered her husband looking at porn again. She had hoped for the best, believing he had been walking out a path of faith and repentance and was “doing okay” (his consistent answer when she asked him).
But then, a quick slam shut of his iPad when she unexpectedly walked in on him. Porn. Again.
But then the story went from wives and porn to busy church leaders. I celebrated her courage to approach her pastor and ask for help, confide in him about her hurting heart, and to open a window for him to see into a very broken and fragile part of her life: her marriage. Thankfully, he listened, he prayed, and then he told her he’d leave it in her court if she needed anything else.
Yes, this pastor did enter in, he did listen, and he did make himself available for a ten-minute conversation after church. But then he left her on her own.
It’s hard enough for many women to approach male pastors for help, but it’s worse when they do and are given little time and dismissed afterward on their own.
A wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
First, let’s be fair and honest. Church leaders are busy and overwhelmed with the needs of the sheep under their care. There are dramatic and complicated things happening in the lives of people in our churches, and pastors are typically on the front line of being asked to help. Pressured by crises and meetings and other commitments, church leaders can come across as disinterested, uncompassionate, or dismissive. Sometimes these perceptions are true, but not always.
In this context of seeking help, a wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
Secondly, another more disheartening reality is when wives are under the authority of church leaders who preach an anti-biblical message about husbands who struggle with lust. It’s just what men do. It’s just who they are. Wives need to trust the Lord and get on board with what he wants to do in their husband’s lives. Get behind his recovery and help him however she can.
Of all the hundreds of wives I’ve gotten to sit with, not one of them feel safe (or cared for) in churches where that message (of minimizing the effect of porn use or ungodly sexual behavior) is taught or implied by church leaders.
Third, I’ve read how many wives manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a husband’s sexual betrayal. It’s important to keep in mind that when wives come to us for help, that the teary or paralyzed or embittered (or all of the above) woman sitting in front of us may not be her true self. Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
“PTSD identifies traumas that don’t seem to fade. Although many difficult events in life such as the death of a loved one don’t really fade, PTSD is used to describe events that intrude into daily life by way of complex emotions rather than simple grief. You can feel numb, you avoid anything that could possibly be similar to the inciting event, you feel depressed and hopeless, or you feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”
These are the behaviors and emotions I see time and again in working with wives whose husbands have betrayed their vows by habitually looking at porn or have been involved in an emotional or sexual affair.
Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
Now, imagine all of these scenarios converging. A busy pastor (or a church leader) getting a phone call from a wife who is in the throes of a PTSD-ish response to her husband’s sin. She’s anxious, brokenhearted, unable to accurately form her thoughts, and breaks into sobs with no warning. Her heart has been shattered, her thoughts are a scrambled mess, and most likely she is exhausted. And she’s asking you for help, but she probably doesn’t even know what she needs.
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me that church leaders, even those who are well-meaning, just don’t know how to engage a wife when she’s in this state. Seminaries don’t train future pastors how to do triage counseling, much less how to walk with a hurting wife over the long haul.
Here’s some steps to help you grow in wise, effective pastoral care for a hurting wife.
- Learn. Read books, blogs (check out our Harvest USA resources!) and articles that will educate you in what sexual betrayal feels like and the impact it has on a wife.
- Ask. Whether you are a woman or man in leadership, ask women to submit anonymous stories about their experience in seeking help. What helped them? What didn’t?
- Teach. Use your platforms of influence (the pulpit, the Bible study podium, the home group, etc.) to teach Christ’s heart for hurting women, including wives betrayed by their husbands.
- Hope. Yes! There is real, transformative, life-changing, and healing hope through Jesus for couples impacted by sexual sin. Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
- Engage. Move towards hurting wives, listen, ask questions, and connect her with others who can encourage her and provide the support and counsel she needs.
Ellen shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Hurting Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
18 Oct 2018
It’s a weighty responsibility to shepherd God’s people. Ellen shares how Psalm 34 can instruct pastors and church leaders in wise ministry to hurting wives who are crushed by their husband’s sexual sins.
To learn more, read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Wives and Porn and Busy Church Leaders.
11 Oct 2018
An essential aspect of walking alongside married couples dealing with a pornography issue is helping the husband see how this sin hurts his wife. Helping him understand how porn hurts will be a necessary part of his true repentance.
In Christian circles, pornography use carries a heavy weight of shame. A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit. This is not only ineffective; it is not true repentance. Good pastoral intervention is to help him see the particular ways his wife suffers as a result of this sin and the related behaviors that often go with it.
When Nathan confronted King David on the adultery and murder that he was hiding so carefully, he did so by drawing David into a story of a man whose actions were so selfish, so unloving, so disturbingly hurtful that David’s sense of justice and right was acutely aroused. Only then was David able to finally view his own hurtful actions from God’s point of view. Until then, repentance was impossible. The goal was to get David to deal with God (Psalm 51:4), but he would get there by facing how he had hurt people.
A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit.
It is helpful to identify three different levels at which a husband, mired in a porn habit, may be hurting his wife. As with King David’s sin, you will notice that this one sin draws into its service other, more aggressive sins. So, each succeeding level is more than just a step up in hurt; each represents an exponential increase in relational disruption and personal injury.
Level 1: Pornography itself.
Too often this is viewed as merely a shameful habit and not the serious breach of covenant that it is. I cannot give a detailed theology of sex here, but I will summarize by saying that sex is designed by God to function uniquely as the physical, literal culmination of the one-flesh union of the husband and wife, and as such is in multiple ways a picture of the gospel itself, as union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5:25-32).
Sex is designed to express the permanent, exclusively faithful, self-sacrificial love that characterizes our Savior’s love for us. When a man takes what is supposed to express his highest, most profound love and commitment to his wife, and repeatedly focuses it on other women’s bodies, it becomes an anti-gospel message to his wife:
“I am not yours forever, but belong to whatever turns me on for a while; I have not set you apart as the object of my affection, in fact you don’t compare all that well to the hundreds of women I look at; I am not giving myself to you to love you, nurture you, and cherish you, because all I want is for you or anybody who is available to meet my needs and desires on my terms.”
Pornography in a marriage makes a wife feel unloved, insecure, and worthless. An addiction to pornography, if we use that word, is not merely something a husband struggles with— it represents serious mistreatment of a wife.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty.
Level 2: Deception.
At some point the use of pornography involves deception. But deception comes into a marriage relationship in some deeper and more damaging ways.
First, there is the accumulation of deception over time. The longer a man uses porn without fully confessing to his wife, the harder it will be to restore trust in the relationship. If a man spends significant time hiding his sin, and eventually confesses and commits to complete honesty and transparency going forward, a wife will be rocked by the realization that he had been deceiving her for all that time. It is not uncommon for a wife in such a circumstance to say, “I don’t even know who I married!” With real repentance, trust can be mended. However, to restore trust, it is likely that a husband will have to spend just as much time practicing total openness and transparency as he spent hiding and deceiving. Long-term deception seriously handicaps a relationship.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty. This could be rejecting outright to be completely transparent, or just delaying that transparency. Delaying transparency has virtually the same effect as denying it altogether—on what basis can a wife believe him when he suddenly decides to “tell the truth?” He has already proven that there is much he values over being honest with her. This persistent kind of deception destroys the relationship.
Level 3: Abuse.
I am always nervous about using this word. It is a severe word, and not to be thrown around lightly. But I am using it for this third level because a strong word is needed. The key word in abusive behavior is control.
The desire for control is a common heart-idol fueling pornography use. Pornography caters to that need for control in obvious ways. And, to varying degrees, the control impulse porn caters to also takes aim at the wife. Who she is isn’t enough; he needs her to be someone of his own desires and imagination.
So, a husband will learn to think of his wife like a porn object—there for his pleasure, at his bidding, on his terms. He may control her sexually—pressuring her to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, even against her wishes. This is sexual abuse.
It can be even worse—the control impulse that porn feeds on can manifest in broader emotional abuse and manipulation. But it’s important to realize that even if one’s behavior is not yet overtly abusive, pornography always trains a man to think abusively—people exist for your own pleasure, entirely under your control.
This is not love, and a wife knows it. She feels used, cheap, and dirty. To the extent that a husband exerts abusive control over her, she will also feel trapped, helpless, even hopeless. This kind of treatment destroys a person.
This is how hurtful pornography, and all that comes with it, can be to a wife. If you, like David, are hearing, “You are the man,” as you read any of these levels of hurt, then remember also that Nathan’s rebuke was the instrument of God’s grace to David. Restoration of worship, love, and joy is offered to you, but it begins with a clear view of the hurt you have done.