“I said I would never do it again.”
“I can’t believe I’m back to the same old sin patterns.”
“Why can’t I stop doing this?”
“I thought I was past this.”
Why do we pursue sexual sin, particularly after we’ve come to loathe the impact it has on us, our spouse, our ministries, and our relationship with the living God? Have you ever said with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man (or woman) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)?
There are many reasons why we pursue broken sexual choices, but I would like to focus on one core motivation: unfulfilled longing for something transcendent. Our hearts are designed to long for something intimate, life-giving, and hope filled. Sexual sin makes many promises, but it can never give us these things. Even godly sex within marriage, as glorious a gift as it may be, fails to be the ultimate fulfillment our hearts deeply—and rightly—long for. Speaking of the folly of idolatry in his commentary on Isaiah, Ray Ortlund says, “It’s absurd to try to derive an ultimate experience from a less-than-ultimate resource. That’s false worship” (293).
This blog follows a previous post entitled, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and takes a deeper look into union with Christ.
Two Distinct Realities: Union and Communion
Before discussing the nuts and bolts of how to enjoy your union with Christ, it’s important to make a distinction between two concepts: union and communion.
Union with Christ is a position Christians enjoy as a result of the work of Christ on their behalf, uniting them completely to himself. It is passively received; it is not something merited, achieved, or fought for. It is an act of sheer grace from God’s benevolent heart down to the Christian. Marcus Peter Johnson describes union this way in his book One with Christ:
To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are “members of Christ,” “crucified in Christ,” “included in Christ,” “baptized into Christ,” and “the body of Christ.” They eat and drink Christ, they are one with Christ, Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; they can do nothing apart from him (39).
When reading this definition, you may be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but I live in the real world and certainly don’t feel like I’m on cloud nine, united to Jesus all day, every day!” How are we to reconcile the glorious truth of our irrevocable union with Christ with our day-to-day reality, which, if we’re honest, often feels dull, disappointing, or at times even hopeless?
Understanding the dynamics of our communion with the triune Godhead may shed light on the frustration of this dissonance between what we read in Johnson’s definition and what we experience in our daily lives.
Communion with God is the felt experience of the life of God intersecting with our own; it’s the sense that we relationally interact with God himself through the varied means of grace. We share in the life of God and relate to him in the many ways he represents himself as father, king, intercessor, comforter, counselor, refuge, friend, high priest, elder brother, great physician, husband, and sympathizer with our weakness. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the ways God describes his communion with his people! Contrary to our union with Christ, our communion does ebb and flow. It is subject to our weakness, efforts, striving, and lack thereof. We may experience profound joy in communion with Christ and we may experience seasons of weariness and discouragement. Even mature believers go through times when they struggle to have rich communion with God.
Our communion with God—or lack of communion—is one key to the “why” behind our sinful behaviors and attitudes. John Flavel says it this way:
The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls go in silent search of other lovers (vol. 2, 438).
Growing in holiness and purity is not merely the “putting off” of unwanted behaviors, though it is not less than that. It is also the “putting on” and pursuit of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seeking deeper communion with God—the one who loves our souls—is a death blow to the pet sins we nurture because it brings the satisfaction we were longing for when we chose to pursue sin in the first place.
Acknowledging the Mystery
There is a degree of wonder and mystery involved in comprehending our union with Christ. When we pursue Christ, we’re endeavoring to do what only the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith.
We must observe a posture of humility because, after all, we’re talking about communing with—enjoying, relating to—the living God. This is his world. All things are for him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36), on his terms. Thankfully, we have a gracious God who wants to disclose himself to us—to be known and worshiped in Spirit and in truth. He is not hiding, so knowing God is not a scavenger hunt. Take heart! God relates to us intimately. He is deeply personal and specific, so there’s not a “one size fits all” method to unlock the secret to true communion.
It’s helpful to acknowledge that pursuing communion with Christ in a faithful way may differ for each Christian based on their season of life. A mother of young children, a man in hospice, a young professional, a pastor, and a teen all may have different habits of communion with God.
A dear brother in his nineties said that singing and playing his piano in worship to Christ has become more primary as Bible reading grew more difficult with age. Similarly, a mom with school-aged kids shared that in her single years she experienced her communion with God as primarily a silent, meditative time alone in the Scriptures. She laughed as she remarked, “I can’t remember the last time there was silence in our home!” As you seek after communion with God, seek first to be faithful in that pursuit. Rather than unlocking the secret to a transcendent experience, communion with God can grow even in the ordinary moments of daily life.
Why do we pursue sin in the first place? Often, it’s because we’re not pursuing our indescribably satisfying Savior. We try to fill our desire for transcendence with cheap trinkets when we have all the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ (Rom. 11:33). Indwelling sin can’t hold a candle to communion with God.
In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll discuss ten practical ways you can pursue deeper communion with Christ.
22 Sep 2022
Several years ago, a ‘worship’ song went viral with two million hits. With a beautiful melody and poetic words, it caught the hearts of many.
You’re the first thing I know I can believe in,
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy, I’m high on loving you
You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt,
You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church,
This, however, is not a song about the Lord Jesus Christ, but a romantic relationship. H.O.L.Y., the song’s title, refers to someone being “high on loving you.” The words of devotion and ecstasy are about a person providing healing and saving grace. This person is even described as a “church” within which to worship.
We all desire the security of feeling loved—and we’re all tempted to find that security not in God our Creator but in unhealthy relationships with people around us. Through books, songs, and movies we have stories of people craving and searching for an experience of love and security that can only truly—and in a healthy way—be met by Jesus.
Worshipping a Person or Loving Them
As H.O.L.Y. illustrates, romantic love is one way the worship of a person can displace Jesus as the worthy focus of our hearts. However, idolatry of people happens between parents and kids, in friendships and mentoring relationships. Wherever there are two hearts unanchored from worshipping and depending upon Christ, there is fertile soil for relational idols to grow.
Tim Keller describes idols as “anything more important to us than God, anything that absorbs our heart and imagination, anything we seek to give us only what God can give” (xix). When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, to have your life fixed, your heart healed, or an empty heart made whole through a person, it’s false worship. Often this is called codependency, but it’s really idolatry.
God’s word is clear that he alone is to be worshipped, rather than any created thing—including people.
“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.” (Ex. 20:2-3)
God is to have no rivals or replacements in our lives, hearts, and affections. Often, relationships with people can intrude upon our intimacy with God as our hearts’ devotion is easily hijacked by the human element that people, a good gift, offer to us.
“Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:11–13)
I’ve struggled over the years to keep people in their proper place in my life; I’m not alone! I’ve walked with so many women who have become consumed with a best friend, boyfriend, or mentor in their lives. What God may have provided as a gift has become ultimate, displacing God and resulting in an entangled mess of codependency. Paul says it this way: “. . . they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25).
This exchange of the created thing for our loving Creator is one of the most common sins. If you see yourself in this article, have hope! You are not alone. And let’s be clear: desires for unfailing love, to be deeply known, needed, pursued—even just to matter to someone—are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God who loves us deeply, knows us completely, and exists Himself in a holy, relational Trinity.
The problem is that our image bearing capability has been distorted by sin. Our desires have become disordered. What is “natural” to us rises from our sinful hearts. All of us struggle in one way or another in our relationships. We crave and work at getting things from people that can truly only be found in our union with Christ.
Engage Some Diagnostic Questions
Is there a person in your life who:
- . . . you depend on for your sense of identity and value?
- . . . you obsess about in your thoughts?
- . . . you feel addicted to being in touch with throughout the day? Not having contact prompts you to feel threatened and insecure?
- . . . is needy for you to be a parent/counselor/surrogate-spouse for them, and you are happy and secure in this role of being a ‘need-meeter’ and rescuer?
- . . . has been a friend or counselee but has become someone for whom you have romantic feelings and / or have gotten involved with physically, perhaps even sexually?
Friend, did you answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions? If so, I plead with you to pause. You may be playing with fire, or you may be in the flames already. Displacing Christ with people may happen intentionally from a hard heart; it also happens when we are naïve. Regardless of how you got here, Jesus has a way out for you.
Steps to Take If You’re Entangled in a Relational Mess
- If this person is a family member, you’ll need to get help to understand what healthy boundaries are and what godly love looks and feels like. God is not calling you to abandon this relationship but to have your affections and the relational dynamics radically reoriented and transformed. Seek help from someone outside your family.
- For other relationships:
- If there has been sexual involvement, confess your sin to a trusted person, end the relationship, and commit to no contact with this person for an indefinite length of time.
- Seek Christ! You probably won’t feel like it, but fleeing to him and his Word is a must.*
- Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s comfort. In one of his letters, John Newton said, “He wounds—in order to heal. He kills—that he may make alive. He casts down—when he designs to raise. He brings a death upon our feelings, wishes and prospects—when he is about to give us the desire of our hearts.”
- Pursue discipleship regarding the underlying heart issues that made you vulnerable to idolizing people.
- Hope! One day, the pain of this costly obedience will subside. Jesus is with you and he will never stop loving you.
- Believe! God Himself does battle with our idols as he transforms us into Christlikeness.
God has brought me a long way in my journey into relational wholeness and holiness. What was once a pattern in my life isn’t anymore. What felt necessary, life-giving, and beautiful (but was none of these), has faded from my heart and been replaced with a desire for Christ that fuels godly love rather than grasping relational lust. God wants to delight you with healthy, rich relationships, and my prayer for you as I post this article is that today you will have hope and courage to take the steps you need to be free.
*You might consider working through my 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
02 Jun 2022
I believe God designed our hearts on earth to be motivated by future realities. We don’t eat ice cream at 4:00 p.m. because a delicious dinner is on the horizon. We don’t spend all our money on present desires because we need to save for the future. We accept painful physical exercise for short- and long-term health benefits. In our best moments, we’re always keeping the future in view.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the apostles are so fixated upon the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. They repeatedly use the imminent and certain Day of the Lord as motivation for our present obedience:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24–25)
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet.1:13)
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (James 5:7–8)
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:9–10)
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)
The apostles wrote this way because Jesus taught them to focus on his return. Jesus spoke in many parables about his second coming and the great need to be prepared: we must have oil in our lamps, the proper wedding attire, wise investments of our talents, and faithfulness in God’s house.
Denying Christ’s Return
But what does this have to do with pornography?
Sin is a denial of Christ’s return. Looking at pornography is a tacit agreement with the skeptics who say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). If we don’t believe Jesus is coming back, why bother with obedience? Our motivation matters! And this is where we need to be careful to understand Scripture correctly.
Our obedience does not earn our salvation—that’s impossible. Anyone seeking salvation through their own righteousness will be greatly disappointed when Jesus returns. Our motivation is not, “Don’t look at porn so that Jesus will accept you.”
No, faith in Jesus’s person and work is the only way of salvation and true obedience is only possible because of our secure acceptance in Christ. The gospel powers our motivation to obey: “Don’t look at porn because, in his abundant mercy, Jesus has accepted you.”
Fixing Our Hearts on Christ’s Return
So then, how does Christ’s coming return motivate our present obedience? There are at least five ways:
- The crown of righteousness is for those who love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).
To be a Christian is to love Jesus—because he first loved us. Every true Christian can and must say, “Jesus, I love you.” Not only must we love him, but we must also love him above all others. What greater desire could we have than to see our Savior face to face? Fellow Christian, turn from pornography today because you love Jesus. May the thought of seeing him, as he is, turn your eyes from worthless things (Ps. 119:37).
- Jesus will repay us for what we have done (Revelation 22:12).
Jesus teaches us to store up treasures in heaven that will last for eternity. He wants us to think like eternal investors. It’s exciting to think about small, frequent investments compounding over time into something much greater. I can’t overstate how much bigger the scale of compound interest is for eternal investments! Looking at pornography is the worst eternal investment policy.
- There is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
This holiness is not referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ but the holiness of a believer’s sanctification. Our union with Christ deals with our guilt and defeats its power and corrupting influence in us. This doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect in this life, but we will be growing in holiness. Beware the lie that our present Christian life ever involves coasting. No, it is a constant striving! “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “Strive to enter” God’s eternal rest (Heb. 4:11). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
- Our holy living today is the future adornment of Christ’s bride (Revelation 19:8).
When Jesus returns, there’s going to be a wedding with Jesus the bridegroom and the church his bride. This is a corporate reality, but our individual lives matter. John speaks of this bride adorned with “fine linen, bright and pure,” representing “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19). All Christians are in wedding preparation mode. Weeks—months—before the wedding, a bride is making meticulous preparations. But no matter how glorious she may look, there can be no comparison to the bride of Christ at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
- Christ’s return will consummate our union and communion with God.
Every time we think of Christ’s return, we should be reminded of what life is all about—communion with God. We have that communion now, through Christ, but it’s by faith. It’s not yet consummated. But when Jesus returns—then and only then will the dwelling place of God be with man (Rev. 21:3). Until that day, all creation groans with longing and expectation (Rom. 8:22). Meditating on Christ’s return brings us back to the heart and center of all meaning and existence.
It’s hard to dwell on such weighty realities and then run to pornography. In the words of John Ross Macduff:
“Earth can now but tell the story of thy bitter cross and pain;
she shall yet behold the glory, when thou comest back to reign:
Christ is coming! Christ is coming!
Let each heart repeat the strain.”
18 Apr 2019
When we think of lust, we think of sexual temptation and desire gone too far. While in one sense that’s true, lust has more to do, not with the person you are looking at, but what you value in your heart. That beautiful person who has captured your eye? That’s not the object that really matters. Lust has to do with what we covet, and what we covet has to do with what we feel we lack in life. We covet those things that our heart feels like we must have in life. Emptiness is what can cause us to lust. Listen to what Mark has to say, and read his blog, “The Insecurity of Lust.”
18 Apr 2019
Every day we are tempted to lust after people. It can be discouraging to feel overwhelmed by attractive people who pull your heart in unhealthy directions. But is there more going on with lust than just what we see with our eyes? Lust always has a hook of some kind. It has to latch onto something in our heart. That hook can sometimes be the insecurities we feel in the recesses of our heart.
Am I good enough? Do I measure up? Will others notice me? Do I really matter? In a world of celebrities, social media, and unrealistic expectations for success and beauty, we all wrestle with deep insecurities about our worth and identity. Our enemy knows that we have profound desires to be cherished, adored, accepted, and significant in the eyes of others; and he knows how to lead us to false means of finding security and fulfillment for these longings.
I believe that sexual lust is one of the most powerful ways that Satan capitalizes on our deep insecurities about our identity and worth. The problem with lust is not that some people are just too attractive or seductive for you to resist. It’s about using other people to build up your own sense of significance and worth.
Consider this scenario. You’re walking down a city street, and every five seconds you feel bombarded with temptation to lust after the people you pass by. Ask yourself this question, “Who are the people I’m tempted by? By what criteria do I judge the significance of those people?”
For many, I would expect they are tempted by people who are confident in their identity and their appearance. They might flaunt their body because they know people like what they see. They could be wearing expensive clothing, designer sunglasses, and have accessories that cost more than your used car. The details of what people find attractive will vary from person to person. What’s important to note here is this: what attracts you is what you value most.
Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart.
Now ask yourself another question: When I encounter attractive people, how am I experiencing my own sense of worth and significance? Do you start to entertain thoughts of what it’d be like if that person were attracted to you? Do you wonder whether they noticed you and are even thinking about you? Perhaps you feel intimidated by attractive people, but with that intimidation comes a desperate desire to belong and be accepted by them.
Lust in the Bible is deeply connected to the sin of covetousness. In the tenth commandment, we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s wife. The Greek word translated there and elsewhere in the New Testament can be translated as “desire, lust, or coveting.” Depending on the context, this word can even have positive meanings, like when Jesus earnestly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15.
But in many contexts, this is a sinful desire for something that God has forbidden. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 5:28 when he says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s important to talk about covetousness because lust is often talked about in a way that is disconnected from our hearts. Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart. Coveting, on the other hand, is connected to deeper desires. We covet what we don’t have. And while we can covet things because we want the pleasure they give us, I believe the deeper reason we covet things is that we believe those things will provide us with a sense of security and worth that we feel is lacking.
This can be a powerful factor in who you find attractive and who you are tempted to lust after. You desire to have that person because they will build up your own sense of value and worth. If that person were to affirm you sexually, even if it’s only fantasy, it is meeting a felt need to be admired, adored, wanted, or needed. In this sense, lust’s main focus isn’t on the object of your lust—the larger focus is on yourself and the insecurity you experience in your identity.
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us!
So if this explanation is true (and this is only one way to understand lust), that your struggle with lust lies with your own insecurities, how can you begin to fight against lust by addressing where you find your identity, worth, and value?
Insecurities about our worth and value come from a variety of places. They may be connected to a lack of affirmation in your upbringing. You might have been bullied by peers at school, or even demeaned and abused by your family. Much of our insecurities come from living in a culture that prizes success and making a name for yourself. But whatever our circumstances have been, all human beings share one powerful, foundational struggle.
We aren’t good enough. We don’t measure up. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. It is only in reconciliation with our Maker that any true security is found. We are reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He took our punishment and has given us his perfect record of righteousness. By faith, we are united to Christ, and all of his benefits now become ours. So presently we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph.2:6); we are co-heirs of the Kingdom with him as God’s adopted children (Romans 8:17); we are ambassadors of the King of the Universe (2 Corinthians 5:20); we are God’s royal priests and his special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and we are loved with the same love that God the Father has for God the Son (John 17:23).
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us! The next time you are out and about, and tempted to find your validation in the attractive people around you, pray that God would help you to believe Galatians 2:20 at that moment, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
There is no greater validation of who you are than to be united to the King. Christ is not ashamed to call you his brother. He is pleased to show himself to the world through you! He wants to make his love manifest to others through your love. He delights in allowing you to represent Him. What greater dignity can we possibly ask for?
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Is Lust a Form of Coveting? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
14 Feb 2019
There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.
But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.
I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1. Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?
It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.
When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel. After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.
To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference.
What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18). In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.
First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20). Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).
This is where Paul brings in homosexuality. Why? The reason is in the answer to this question, “What sort of conclusions flow logically and inevitably from a worldview in which all of nature is disassociated from God?” The answer: ironically, all sorts of “unnatural” conclusions.
Ironically, but inevitably, when humans make nature merely “Mother Nature” and not any kind of creation, they redefine and manipulate “nature” according to their desires, resulting in conclusions that are patently un-natural. Remember, Paul is speaking about, but not to, the broader world here. He is not speaking to that broader world where these unnatural conclusions are held forth as truth; of course, they would not agree that their views are patently unnatural.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference. But to those who have been called out of atheistic or agnostic darkness into light the unnaturalness is clear. And to those to whom it is clear, Paul’s point is this: isn’t all this exactly what one would expect in a world opposed to God? God lets denial of his existence play out to its obvious consequences. Of course! No wonder Paul shines a spotlight on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. (Cue the traditionalists at this point saying “Amen!”)
Oh, but wait.
Paul continues his list of the consequences of a God-less worldview. As his list continues, we begin to hear some things that are a little less obviously “unnatural.” We still hear “Amens” now and then, but they are more subdued, less confident. We still see some easy consequences to condemn: “evil,” “murder,” “haters of God,” “heartless,” “ruthless.” But mixed in are, “covetousness,” “strife,” “deceit,” “gossips,” “boasters,” “disobedient to parents.”
Yikes! The thought that ought to be whispering in the minds of Paul’s Christian audience—in our minds—is, “Uh… if these are the outworkings of a God-denying worldview, and their existence is a sign of God’s judgment, then how do I account for these things in my life in spite of my claim to know God?”
That is exactly what Paul intends you to think. It should be troubling. It should be jarring.
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point. And if we are really committed to missing the point, we stop at the end of chapter 1.
But Paul didn’t put any chapter break here. In fact, the first word in what we call “chapter 2” is, “Therefore….” Here is the conclusion of his argument: “…you, oh man, have no excuse.”
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point.
No excuse. Bam! We are brought full circle back to verse 20 of chapter 1, where it was said of the God-denying world, “they are without excuse.” At least when they do these things it is a logical consequence of their worldview. But if we do them—and we do—it proves something that should stop us in our tracks and terrify us. It proves that what is wrong with us is so bad that we too continue to rebel against God while claiming to acknowledge him.
What, we should ask ourselves, is worse—to live in godless ways consistent with an atheistic worldview, or to live in godless ways in betrayal of a professed acknowledgement of God?
What is the application here? How should this affect us? It should bring a deep humility that precludes judgmentalism.
I am not saying that Romans 1:26-27 means anything different than we’ve always thought. My caution is this: if reading Romans 1 leaves you feeling anything but uncomfortable, humbled, and convicted—in short, in desperate need of mercy—you are not reading it correctly.
And if all of us do not hear Paul’s message correctly, we are ill-prepared to understand the gospel and to help others do so as well.
01 Nov 2018
I’m addicted to porn. I’m a sex addict. I have a porn addiction, but I’m now free for the last ten years. The word addiction is everywhere in our culture today. We live in an unprecedented age of ways and opportunities to become ensnared in life-dominating, destructive behavioral patterns. Whether it’s pornography, alcohol, drugs, gambling, or internet-gaming, we continue, as a society, to expand our list of what we would classify as addictive disorders.
But is the word addiction—and for that matter the label, porn addiction — really helpful when discussing habitual patterns of sin? Our culture has largely bought into the notion that if you have an addiction, you have a disease. I heard on the radio an advertisement for a local recovery center, and the opening statement said, “If you are struggling with addiction, you have a disease, it’s not a lapse in judgment.”
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control. It’s become a monster they can’t contain, and it’s destroying everyone and everything they hold dear. It feels like someone or something else is in the driver’s seat of their lives.
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control… that is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow.
But the church needs to slowly and carefully examine whether the word addiction and the anthropology it espouses is in line with Scripture and God’s revelation of who we are as human beings in a fallen world.
When it comes to the arena of sexuality, at Harvest USA we find some helpful things that this word captures for people’s experiences, but we also see how this language points people in a false direction about the true nature of their problems and where to find the solution.
I want to focus on 3 things about how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
- The addiction model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop.
That is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow. Research shows that the habitual use of anything that is highly stimulating reshapes the brain, creating a powerful neurological process of cravings and rewards that require greater and greater stimulation.
And the Bible affirms this. Paul says in Ephesians 4:19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (ESV) That last phrase, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” is also translated as “a continual lust for more.”(NIV 1984). Sowing into sexual sin only creates greater and greater discontentment, and our brains and bodies feel that lack of satisfaction, and we easily believe the lie that maybe next time I’ll finally find relief from pain, loneliness, or boredom. But it only creates deeper enslavement. Pastors need to understand that when a person comes to them for help with a 30-year struggle with pornography, simply telling that person to stop it and pray more is insufficient for the momentum this sin has in their life.
- The addiction model captures the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation.
When someone has been captured by a desire to feed yet again into their enslavement, they lose all sensitivity to the consequences of their actions. They understand that just one more time might cost them their job, their family, even their lives, but in that moment, the pleasure that is offered in sin is worth losing everything to get. This is so helpful in practically setting up boundaries to keep you far from temptation because people recognize that they can’t be trusted with easy access to sin.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ.
Werewolf movies get this right. In his right mind, the human man begs his family to tie him up in chains because he knows once that full moon appears, he will do things he will regret if he is not chained up. While we know as new creations in Christ that we are no longer slaves to sin to obey its passions, our new freedom in Christ does not imply an immunity to strong temptations in our lives.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ. But sanctification does not mean we live life on the cliffs of temptation. A mature believer has learned that in a moment of temptation, truth and reason can feel impotent and of little value when pleasure is so viscerally offered, and this should keep us humble and aware that it is utterly foolish to play with fire and expect not to get burned.
- The addiction model highlights the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin.
When someone clicks on a pornographic website, they’ve already made multiple concessions with sin. Perhaps they were committed to not being online certain hours of the day, but they broke that rule. They also committed to staying off certain sites that are portals or triggers to sin, like a particular news site, but they justified it because of a story they really wanted to read. People often stay stuck in habitual patterns of sin because they aren’t willing to obey Jesus’ command to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.
Many people want to simply manage their sin and just keep it at a functional level. Too many Christians are content with allowing pornography to be a part of their lives, as long as it doesn’t get too “out of control.” And too many Christians actively trying to stop looking at pornography are not willing to take the radical steps necessary. Christians need a zero-tolerance policy with sexual sin.
The church needs a sober understanding of the epidemic of entrenched patterns of sexual sin that are present in the lives of people in our pews. People feel stuck, they are on the brink of hopelessness, wondering if change is really possible. And the addiction model captures sin’s danger and people’s despair. But it’s not enough, and labeling sin as nothing more than an amoral disease is far less than what Jesus offers us. Stay tuned for more thoughts.
19 Sep 2018
Much was said about Revoice before the first talk took place in St. Louis on July 27-29, 2018. And much has been said since. As one who attended the conference and engaged with the speakers and attendees, here’s my perspective.
First, let me answer the question some people asked me: why would you attend this conference? Simple; given what I knew about it, I was concerned. Concerned, because the stated purpose of Revoice is provocative: it exists to “support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Concerned, because Revoice has the potential to influence many in the Church, leading Christians to rethink their understanding of sex, sexuality, gender, and sin.
As a seminary professor cautioned me many years ago, “Whenever someone comes up with a new understanding of Scripture, it needs to be examined very carefully. You can’t assume that 2,000 years of Spirit-led biblical interpretation has been wrong.” That’s wise counsel in any instance, but particularly in this one. From my perspective, Revoice is calling the Church to reconsider historic, orthodox understandings of personal identity and sin.
That’s serious, and it is a discussion that we must enter into with much prayer and discernment.
The workshops and plenary sessions presented a wide diversity of views from an array of presenters. Overall, the content seemed more an attempt to gather people together under a common banner than to advance one specific idea or concept. While some teaching was commendable, others were not so.
Here is what I found positive. Every speaker I heard stated that acting on same-sex attraction was sinful. This is consistent with the traditional, orthodox understanding of God’s design for sex and sexuality. A second positive message was that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. Again, an affirmation of the biblical paradigm for marriage.
I also appreciated that many of the speakers asked good questions; questions about how the Church could better care for same-sex attracted Christians. These are questions the Church has not been asking, much less answering.
What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, consider marriage? How can the Church become a real, vital family for them, encouraging these brothers and sisters to likewise live for others in the Body? These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ.
Now, here were the issues that concerned me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: identity, the Body of Christ, and the nature of change.
Identity. There was a theme throughout the conference calling for those who experience same-sex attraction to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this post will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So I will briefly mention two things that struck me about this contentious issue.
First, while Revoice says that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.
The speakers at Revoice would say that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology such as this confuses, and in doing so it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.
But, secondly, using these terms is more than merely descriptive. The historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. The speakers at Revoice are nuancing that perspective, calling same-sex attraction a way of looking at and experiencing the world and is only sinful when it is acted upon sexually. This is a significant theological change.
As I heard from my seminary professor, there is good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can see Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.) Again, the length of my remarks here about my time at Revoice cannot adequately discuss these arguments.
Nevertheless, it is this issue where the biggest battles are going to be fought. And, as believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to Scripture and not human experience.
I’ve discussed some of this issue in my blog post Gay + Christian. My main point was that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
Revoice must realize that advocating for the use of such terms is not an insignificant thing. It is one charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with, or long for, the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.
The Body of Christ. Developing a separate queer culture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church. The seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated.
One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating division or another category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.
One of the terms used repeatedly throughout the Revoice conference was “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people being described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.
What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale for some of Revoice’s use of this term.
And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood, and at times mistreated, by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for men and women affected by sexual and relational brokenness.
But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even wounded by the Church.
We must do better in this regard, for the glory of Christ. Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else. No more, no less.
The Nature of Change. One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that change in desire or attraction always happens. Many Christians have been hurt by that belief. But such change might happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.
Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.
We live in a day when more people than ever before (particularly those under 40) self-identify as LGBTQ+. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 7.3% of millennials self-identify as non-heterosexual.[i] That’s a marked increase over prior surveys and a much higher self-identification rate than other age groups in the U.S. adult population.
Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.[ii] However, most of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.
Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligning with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that this is how God made me. And if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.
There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.
The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart, and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.
For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. Over time, it should include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is counter to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.
Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16: a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the love of authentic friendship, wherein brothers and sisters compassionately confront each other’s sinful attitudes and acts, as well as assist one another towards obedience as they faithfully follow Christ in their struggles. Through engaging in this process, Paul tells us we not only build ourselves up but we also “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15).
This means that we must be willing to engage each other through authentic friendship. We must labor in love to understand every struggler and their personal history and take the time to prayerfully and thoughtfully help each one understand why they struggle in the ways they do. It means helping them grow in their comprehension of how the Person and Work of Jesus Christ is actually what they need more than anything else.
Responding to Revoice isn’t a single action. It isn’t a blog post, or a sermon, or a pastoral counseling session. It involves the often difficult and time-consuming work of getting to know the stories, the experiences, the joys and fears of Christians who wrestle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.
The Harvest USA website is full of resources you can use to grow in your understanding of how to engage Christians wrestling with all kinds of issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender. Our mission is partly to help the Church become a safe place for those dealing with sexual sin to walk in increasing faith and repentance. Contact us, and ask us how.
You can learn more about same-sex attraction and homosexuality by purchasing our 15-session video series, God’s Design for Sexuality in a Changing Culture, which is perfect for Sunday school and small group settings.
Ed LeClair, the Development Director for Harvest USA, attended a denominational conference at the invitation of the moderator and another pastor within the denomination’s more conservative contingent. We wanted to tell you about his journey so that you get a sense of how we proclaim a truth-and-mercy response to the divergent views that many within the church proclaim today.
We attended one denomination’s conference at the request of the conference moderator and the pastor of a church in the denomination’s “conservative camp.” They knew that the LGBT organization which exists within the denomination would be represented and would be presenting some workshops. Some more conservative pastors wanted to see a biblical witness to sexual issues also represented.
Prior to attending, a post appeared on our Harvest USA Facebook page. A member of the denomination expressed his opposition to our presence at the conference and urged the moderator to disinvite us. He saw us as an organization engaging in “spiritual and emotional violence” toward gays and lesbians because our biblical position on homosexuality was not affirming. We responded to his letter, replying that we are not hateful toward gays and lesbians, but rather call all people (not just gays and lesbians) to live within God’s design for sexuality, affirming that there is no place for violence and hatred within or surrounding this subject. Following this post, we began to notice on the web that some others within the denomination were upset at our attending.
So, I went to the conference with some trepidation. Frankly, we are used to this at Harvest USA, but it is never easy to be disliked, attacked, or have our message distorted and maligned. We have come to expect this in an age of “tolerance,” when anything short of total affirmation is chalked up as bigoted and hateful. How did we get to the point in our culture, in which the mere expression of different positions is considered completely unacceptable and, in the name of “tolerance,” virulently shut down and dismissed?
Having all this hanging over me, it was a wonderful relief on the first day to engage with many people who stopped by my exhibit table to say they were happy to have us there representing God’s Word. Many expressed concern for my well-being and said they would be looking out for me. Looking out for me? Someone reported to me that, at a previous conference when the issue of homosexuality came up, fights broke out. During this year’s conference, there was a team of “Reconciliation Ministers” who roamed the convention floor in pairs, on the alert for any signs of trouble developing. They all made it a point to assure me of their immediate support if I should need it. It’s always good to be looked out for!
Shortly after the conference began, the leader of the LGBTQ organization approached me to talk. The exchange was tense at first. She explained her reasons why she did not want our representation here. She cited instances of people, particularly young people, being “harmed” by ministries such as ours, which in some cases led to depression and even suicides. She expressed her concerns about “reparative therapy,” in which she believed we engaged, and also a concern about how we counsel parents whose children self-identify as gay.
As I listened, it became clear that her perception of our ministry is typical. I clarified our position on reparative therapy—we never engage in it, primarily because the gospel is not a foundational part of this therapy. We never advise parents to shun their children who profess same-sex attractions or identify as gay. I spoke about the countless number of men and women who have come to Harvest USA over the past 30 years, who desired to follow the long-held, orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures regarding their sexuality, and they needed help. Far from harming them, we gave them hope! I stressed that our mission and our methods are steeped in the mercy and truth of Jesus Christ, and that we have long been advocates of opposing disrespectful or hateful intent towards gays and lesbians.
As we talked, I shared about my own long struggle with homosexuality and the hope I encountered when I first came to Harvest USA. Gradually, the tension began to subside, replaced by a growing trust and respect between us. She even invited me for dinner with some of her friends, and I gladly accepted!
For the remainder of the conference, there were cordial and pleasant exchanges coming from most of the people aligned with the LGBTQ group, while a very small number of them chose to ignore me altogether. Over breakfast one morning with a pastor who firmly aligned himself with their position, we ended our meeting with an appreciation for one another, in spite of the differences between us. But I also encountered angry people who were upset by our very presence and our scriptural position. I was told several times that I should pack up and disappear, that the world and the church were moving in a different direction, and that our message was no longer relevant. These were sad and painful encounters. I could only silently pray for them as they quickly moved away from me after their short outburst. Standing for scriptural truth and authority is not a walk in the park!
Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to attend the conference, for several reasons. Chief among them were the dialogues I had with a number of people who had held a narrow view of Harvest USA and a great dislike for us. While the dividing issues are still there, I believe some of the hostility and misconceptions in these encounters were diminished by respectful words and acts of kindness, which I strove to display—and so did many on the other side as well. I was also appreciative of the opportunity I had to meet many fine people, have good conversations, and, in particular, directly minister to a number of people wanting to share stories of their own pain and struggles with sexuality. To God be the glory!
A third reason why we may change our minds on what Scripture has historically about the acceptability of homosexuality has to do with the company we keep. By this I mean, consider what you are reading, seeing, and viewing in today’s media. I’m not advocating we turn off the TV or stop reading articles and books that take positions different from our own, but we need to be careful that those positions may alter our view—not because of their reasoning, but because of the status of the person writing the material.
One author I have always enjoyed for his devotional work is Henri Nouwen. During the last years of his life, however, Nouwen’s theology openly shifted not just regarding homosexuality but also regarding the uniqueness of Christ and his work as the only way to God. Only after his death did some of the reason for that shift become apparent: Nouwen himself secretly struggled with same-sex attraction. Couple that with dabbling in eastern religions, and Nouwen began to shift his own views. It wasn’t so much his own wrestling with Scripture that brought about this positional shift; it was what was going on in his own life. But Nouwen’s status, huge and imposing in the Christian world, had and still has a powerful impact on those who read him.
Who we listen to really does matter. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read anything that differs from our own viewpoint, or anything that differs from an historic Christian doctrinal position. We need to have our own positions, and the historical Christian position is sharpened by interacting with how the current culture is thinking. But we also have to be aware that when someone we admire begins to shift his or her position on what the Scriptures say, that can have a significant impact on us. We can be swayed not merely on the basis of a reasoned argument, but because we don’t want to look “out of step” with people whose thinking we have admired.
Have you ever been swayed to a different position than what the Scripture has historically taught (on anything) because someone you admired or respected took a different position?