Living in the Light: A redemptive response to sexual sin
Weeping with those who weep
Receiving painful phone calls is never easy. I am regularly contacted by individuals—often in tears—because someone in their life has made the decision to forsake their covenant, their faith—their real hope—in order to chase an empty lie.
I hear tragic stories like that of a husband with a history of pornography, caught again after a period of supposed victory, or the spouse whose entire life is shattered by the revelation of affairs spanning decades, or the wife whose enmeshed relationship with a girlfriend turned sexual. Although such scenarios are expected from our post-Christian culture, increasingly they are happening in the local church. Sexual sin is not something “out there”; it is reaching epidemic proportions in your church!
But here’s the rub: The church does not handle sexuality very well, even on a good day! This wondrous gift given to God’s people is rarely talked about positively. Even among those who should revel in sex as a demonstration of God’s joy in delighting his children and in the glorious theological truths revealed by a robust, biblical understanding of sexuality, it is surrounded by shame. In most churches, if sex is addressed at all, our teens are sternly warned, “Don’t do it until you’re married!” I have interacted with countless individuals raised in Christian homes where sexuality was never discussed. It is astounding that such a significant aspect of life—with sweeping spiritual ramifications—is so thoroughly neglected. Given the church’s failures regarding sexuality, the revelation of sexual sin is usually not handled in a balanced and redemptive manner.
There are often two polar responses when sexual sin is disclosed. If the sin is quiet, keep it that way! Do not expose it to the light of day and keep as many people in ignorance as possible. However, if it is too late and the sin has become public knowledge, the only answer is church discipline—swift and severe. Historically, the Church has struggled with “shooting the wounded,” dealing heavy handedly with sexual sin without a view to restoration and healing. There needs to be a redemptive solution, one that embraces the gospel of grace and the living Redeemer who enters into situations and relationships wracked with sin to bring reconciliation and healing. This is the work of his kingdom—“He’s come to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found!” Do we believe Jesus is big enough to handle sexual sin? Do we invite sin-sick people to come into the light, or do we encourage them to continue cowering in the shadows?
Seeking a redemption solution
1 John 1:7 speaks powerfully to what is needed in the body of Christ. Contrasting believers with those who walk in the darkness of their sin, John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This passage echoes John’s Gospel that men love the darkness and will avoid the light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). Do we encourage people to come out of darkness? John makes plain that deep, meaningful fellowship in the body of Christ— genuine intimacy—will only happen as we come into the light. Further, deliberately coming into the light has a direct connection to purging sin from our life. Steve Gallagher of Pure Life Ministries writes, “If you want to stay stuck in your sin, confess it only to God. If you want to overcome it, confess it to someone else!”
We may respond that public confession is unnecessary since we have direct access to God. The Bible clearly teaches, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” However, I argue this reflects a greater fear of man than fear of God. If I truly care what God thinks—filled with awe by his power, grandeur, love, etc.—I don’t care what you think about me! In fact, I will want to talk to you about my sin struggles because I want to be transformed and become his beautiful, long-anticipated Bride. Proverbs says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (28:12). Keeping our sin secret, guarantees continued slavery. Narcotics Anonymous uses a great slogan—“We are only as sick as our secrets!”
Every individual who comes to Harvest USA is different. The histories, life experiences, specifics of their sin and temptation, etc., are widely divergent and require particular attention. In short, there are not many universals—healing comes in specific ways, as diverse as our personal brokenness. In six years at the ministry, there is only one thing that clearly is universal: Those committed to ruthless honesty consistently overcome their sin and make great strides in holiness. In stark contrast, I have never encountered an individual who overcame sexual struggles if they were unwilling to bring the sin fully into the light with an ever-increasing number of individuals. Those who refuse this path of ruthless honesty stay stuck in their sin or return to it after a short period of “white-knuckled” abstinence.
This is all part of God’s design. James exhorts us “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Spiritual healing and transformation occurs in the context of community. Even the world has found this to be true, hence the explosion of Twelve Step groups for every imaginable, errant behavior. Scripture uses the body metaphor to powerfully illustrate that every individual within the church is inextricably linked with all the others (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Ephesians 4:17 makes this even more explicit, exhorting that the body reaches maturity only “when each part is working properly.” Jesus intends his church to be radically interdependent. This is a significant challenge that rails against our innate desire to be free and independent. There are important implications to this reality: When sexual sin arises in the local church, if we fail to deal with it in a way that honors Christ, we harm the individuals involved and impact the entire congregation!
What about the redemptive use of Church Discipline? Discipline is a crucial mark of the true church, but are we careful to enforce its biblical intention? When reading Matthew 18 that the impenitent should be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector,” too often my mind is filled with the image of kicking that dirty sinner to the church’s curb. I was struck recently reading Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this passage in The Message. He writes, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for
repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” A paraphrase for sure, but the tone impacted me strongly. What do you do with a tax collector and sinner? Offer them the hope of the gospel! This is an important insight we should always keep in mind. There are times when sin requires extreme action by the church. But at every point, we must be mindful that the intent of discipline, even in its most extreme form, is to restore the offender (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The goal is to reflect the overwhelming love of Christ to men and women, desperately lost in their sin and folly. Even when obedience to Christ requires “casting out” the individual, he or she must be made aware that the Church’s door is always open, if only he or she will be humbled in repentance and commit to leaving the darkness for his glorious light!
A redemptive approach to dealing with sexual sin in the local church requires risk. It is a messy process that moves everyone outside their comfort zone. It requires actively pursuing those impacted by the sin at every level and bringing the situation into the light, with an eye toward God’s restoration. It is crucial that attention is given to the various relationships impacted by the ripple effect of sexual sin. However, given the constraints of this article, the focus will center on the struggler with very brief considerations for the wider circle of impact within the church as a whole.
Processing the initial disclosure
When sexual sin is exposed, it has usually existed undetected for years, sometimes decades. Sin patterns so deeply entrenched will not peel off like a dirty sock! Radical intervention is required. First, consider how the situation was revealed. Was the individual “caught,” or did he or she come forward of his or her own volition seeking help? Most men coming to Harvest USA fall in the former category. Be very wary in this circumstance. Often God uses getting caught to eventually bring someone to a place of repentance, but it usually does not start there! Pay attention to the confession. Is the person confessing only what he or she has already been caught doing, or is the person freely disclosing the full extent of the behavior? Genuine repentance means turning away from sin. Bringing hidden things into the light is the first step in that process. People engaged in sexual sin are deeply deceitful, and these patterns have been in place for a long time. Be deeply skeptical. Assume that there is always more to be revealed.
In our sin, we both deceive others and are profoundly self-deceived. This means the struggler is tempted to keep you in the dark regarding the extent of the behavior and is personally blind to the depth of the enslavement, similar to the drug addict who will continue to maintain that everything is fine while in the process of literally committing suicide. Employ the rich scriptural imagery of light and darkness in your conversation. Repeatedly hold forth the stark contrast between he who is Truth-incarnate, the King of light, over against the father of lies and his kingdom of darkness. Pray for the activity of the Spirit, who alone can bring the individual to repentance.
There is reason for concern if someone is unwilling to confess to his or her spouse specific sins already confessed to you. By God’s design, no one should know someone better than his or her spouse. There should be no secrets between a husband and wife and we need to be careful that we do not continue nurturing the unholy relational patterns already established. Change will be affected as the couple begins to address the “hidden things” openly and honestly.
Spouses do need full disclosure! This does not mean the nitty-gritty details of every sexual encounter, specific websites, etc. But they need to be fully aware of the extent of the sin: how many incidents of infidelity over how long a period and with whom; the duration and frequency of Internet porn activity, unholy “chatting,” and masturbation, the amount of money squandered, etc. Spouses need counsel because their propensity is to demand too much information—certain details will do more harm than good.
Anyone who claims to be “cured” should be met with skepticism. God rarely brings ultimate deliverance from struggles with sin. The flesh remains a constant barb—but this can be redemptive! It forces us to look to him and to remember our desperate need. God will never answer the prayer that says (in effect), “Bring me to the place where I don’t need to keep crying out to you everyday!” He loves us too much! This does not diminish the reality that Jesus enables us to overcome our struggles with sin, but there is a difference between victory over sin and deliverance from all temptation! Freedom is not gauged by the absence of temptation or the exchange of heterosexual for homosexual desire. Victory is when the individual consistently chooses obedience out of love for Jesus, in the face of contrary desires!
For anyone who struggles with sexual sin, rigorous accountability is a must. Most individuals need a minimum of two people in their lives who regularly ask them probing questions about their personal life—at least once per week. Avoid exhaustive, tedious questionnaires covering every conceivable sexual sin for two reasons: 1) The flesh will always find a loophole or invent some new vehicle for sin; and 2) Deep, intimate relationships are crucial for overcoming our struggles with sin (regardless of its manifestation). Hearing “no” 100 times does not enable you to know the individual on any deeper level – even if you go over that list for weeks!
A short list of five or six pertinent, open-ended, questions that require reflection, i.e. more than a simple yes or no answer, will make your investment far more fruitful. For example, if you know the daily commute has been a problem, rather than asking, “Did you or were you tempted to stop at _____ while driving to work this week,” it is better to ask, “How did you respond when you were driving by _____? What was going on inside of you?” One question allows an easy “No,” the other forces you to engage the individual’s heart. You begin getting to know aspects of his or her person, and things carefully hidden in the past. The questions need to be tailored to the individual, responding to the specifics of the personal struggle.
Accountability needs to identify the “sin behind the sin.” Sexual sin is not primarily about lust. Lust is a component and the self-focused desire to reduce other image-bearers to commodities needs to be addressed. Sexual sin always violates the Second Great Commandment, exploiting another to satisfy self, but it is first and foremost a violation of the First Great Commandment, an idol that replaces the Creator. This means in the face of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. the individual runs to a false god. Rather than collapsing on Christ, pouring out his or her heart, and receiving his peace, the individual takes matters into his or her own hands.
There are times when temptation is like an ambush on a beautiful, sunny day when everything is fine, but often there are predictable patterns of behavior—sinful responses to the challenges of life in a fallen world. One man who recently came to the office was amazed by this reality after having struggled with sexual sin for decades. After paying attention to his patterns of temptation, he realized that his struggle with masturbation was far more a response to anxiety and stress, ratherthan the result of mere lust. Identifying and developing accountability for the “sin behind the sin” will enable him to run to Christ sooner and address the idols even more deeply entrenched than his struggle with sexual sin!
Accountability needs to go beyond restraining sinful behavior. God never intends us to stop in the vacuous place of “absent sin.” The call of the gospel is radical allegiance to the King. We are called to be like him in righteousness and holiness. Thus, good accountability will always balance “putting off” and “putting on” questions. Ephesians 4:20-32 and Colossians 3:5-17 powerfully demonstrate how this exchange is to take place in our lives.
Sexual sin—even with the illusion it is a private offense—is always relationally destructive. Because it is a violation of the command to love God and others, there should be specific, reflective questions that address the individual’s relationship with God and others. Is he or she engaged in spiritual disciplines personally and corporately? Is love for God evidenced by decisions of obedience? How is the person developing intimacy in primary relationships? Is he or she changing the way he or she responds to frustrating circumstances or disagreements with others? Are there specific examples of selflessness in places where he or she was formerly self-consumed? Is the person serving the community and church or seeking to be served?
“Putting on” requires patient “baby steps.” It is tremendous growth for an estranged couple to even sit down and discuss personal issues for 10 minutes at a time, 3 days a week! If the individual is single, part of the accountability plan must include a strategy for intentionally developing significant, vital relationships within the body and finding specific areas of service. It is beneficial for singles to live with a family or other singles in community, learning to selflessly serve on a day-to-day basis. Further, because there are specific ways all of us have mammoth strides yet to make in these categories, accountability is never a one-way street. Remember, a sovereign God has placed you in this circumstance. Given the interdependent reality of life in Christ, you need the struggler in your life as much as they need you!
Widening the circle
Finally, the call to live in the light means laying aside false pretenses. Great wisdom is required, but the reality of the sin and the challenges facing the family needs to be revealed to others in the church. Jesus promises that those who trust in him will never be put to shame. He invites us to be exposed, promising to clothe us in his righteousness. Will we trust him? Do we invite others to trust his promise or communicate by our secrecy that some sins should be kept quiet? Bringing strugglers into the light is a tangible demonstration of the gospel. It invites strugglers to abandon the “sandy foundations” of reputation, image, self-esteem, etc., building their entire identity on the Rock. Conversely, urging secrecy encourages strugglers to see their sin as worse than that of others.
Widening the circle does not mean public confession on Sunday morning! Rather, it means fostering gut-level, honest intimacy in the obvious relationships. Church leadership should know—including those who minister to the children of the individuals involved. People in the individuals’ home fellowship need to be aware of the sin struggle. After all, these groups should exist to minister to one another in specifically these types of circumstances! The church is called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Sexual sin is a profound burden that requires the full support of the body. It demonstrates the necessity of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Jesus is big enough to deal with all the problems in His Church. He is deeply committed to purifying and beautifying his Bride and, he invites us to join him in this work because his heart’s desire is for us to grow more deeply in love with him. The entire goal of the Christian life—the very essence of eternal life—is knowing him! His purposes to this end are powerfully at work in sexual brokenness that we may “grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Will you join him?