At Harvest USA, we minister to people who know that their lives just aren’t working well. We don’t have to labor at convincing those who come here that they’re a mess, spiritually and sexually speaking! Men and women come in, so often with their spirits crushed, either from a lifetime of failed attempts to manage their own lives and struggles, or as someone whose family member struggles. The joy in their lives has gone out a long time ago.
Yet, I believe—and it’s what’s kept us ministering here these 30-odd years—that Jesus longs to meet us in our despair, in our deepest pits. I’m convinced that only the broken receive the gospel. When that happens, when we are most aware of our deepest need of Christ, is when he often shows up.
People have often asked us to tell them the one key thing we do to help others. There’s no secret. God brings people to the end of themselves and then into our office. For those who get serious about their situation, it’s always a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s here that they sit with everything that brought them here—the entire mess of their hearts and lives—and talk it through with our staff, those in their support groups, and particularly with the Lord himself. For however long it takes.
It’s in the setting of a caring, confidential, Christ-centered, supportive environment that God begins a process of growth and healing. It’s also the place where the love of Christ begins to capture hearts and where the other loves—the idols that capture our hearts—begin to dull in comparison!
What I’m talking about here is the unconditional acceptance of a community that doesn’t hold back, but that speaks encouraging, life-giving, and, at times, hard and serious words. Of course, the local church is God’s ordained place that this can and should take place. Our mission is to see that churches establish these groups, so email me and I’ll show you how it can be done!
If you were to ask me what central thing most indicates that a person’s life is beginning to change, I would say it’s the presence of a renewed sense of joy. For the sexual struggler, that often comes as a surprise. It doesn’t, however, just appear suddenly, without context. It’s not even just the result of getting a handle on one’s sexual struggle.
It’s the result of something else. It’s a by-product of something greater.
Tim Keller said, in a sermon on Galatians, “When we obey God, out of a grateful joy, that comes from a deep awareness of our status as children of God . . . then the idols which control our lives can be disempowered and we’re free to live for Christ.” This is an amazing statement in two ways.
First, it demonstrates that true obedience comes out of an awareness of joy-filled gratitude. But about what?
Our deep awareness of our status! He is talking here about our union with Christ. Our positional and legal status to God have changed because Jesus lived the totally obedient life we couldn’t ever live, and he paid the price for our sin with his own blood. We are now part of a new reality where everything is changed about us—who we are presently, and even, especially, where we will be in the future. In being united with Christ in his life and death, our standing and eternity are secure because of what he has accomplished.
Of course, the Holy Spirit initiates, joins, and administers this new standing, taking up residence in us, bringing a new vitality to us. This is true even as we learn to struggle against sin. The driving force of any new vigor for Christ is this union between Christ and our souls, which the Holy Spirit both starts and continues.
Second, it’s not just our union with Christ, which produces joy, but our ongoing communion with him. Union and communion go hand in hand. Our communion with Christ comes out of our faith-driven striving to grow in grace, based on our knowledge of and our union with him. In other words, we want to change because he has loved us and given us the power to change. This energizes us to put off sin and to walk in godliness. It’s a constant looking to Jesus for all things.
Pastor J.C. Ryle, in seeking to describe the relationship between union and communion, said this: “Union is the bud, but communion is the flower. He that has union with Christ does well; but he that enjoys communion with him does far better. . . both place a heavenly seed in our hearts, that enable us to draw out of him every hour.”
May this be so in your life as you look to him, who first looked at you and mercifully loved you.
17 Jun 2015
This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.
She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.
I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.
The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.
As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.
She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.
As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.
Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.
A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.
Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.
Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.
This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at email@example.com.
03 Jun 2015
“How do you respond to all the kids who injure or even kill themselves because of this type of teaching?”
Having just finished my presentation, I invited the sea of college students to ask questions or make comments, and immediately his hand shot up. Though asked respectfully, the question clearly had an edge. I responded as gently as possible, knowing that someone who is personally struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA), or who has a close friend or family member who is, usually asks this question. It’s not an easy answer to give in a few sentences.
I acknowledged that the church has sometimes sent condemning messages—bereft of the hope of the gospel—to SSA strugglers that lead to self-loathing and despair. Sadly, it’s been communicated that people with SSA are “broken” sexually, but the rest of us are fine. (As if “straight” people don’t have problems with sex!) I spoke about how SSA is just another manifestation of fallen sexuality—a reality that affects all of us and is something Jesus went to the cross to redeem. And now he is bringing healing and renewal to everything affected by the curse, especially in the area of our sexuality. Speaking to this issue with empathy is critical, but it is also imperative to speak the truth.
I went on to say that because this is God’s world and life only works well his way, telling anyone to live outside his bounds is not loving them or enabling them to flourish, but only ends in emptiness and death. I mentioned Proverbs 14:12-13, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (ESV). The world tells us we find meaning through pursuing our desires (especially our sexual ones) and that we can do this with impunity. But Scripture makes clear that this is folly. Living for self and following our desires actually leads to discontentment and even greater bondage.
There were many other questions—mostly seeking to understand and not challenge. One young woman asked a crucial clarifying question: In my talk I rejected the idea of being a “gay Christian,” so did that mean people with SSA temptations aren’t saved? Sadly, she didn’t get what I had been saying. Central to my talk was the idea that all Christians are in the midst of overcoming various struggles with the flesh, but that God is faithful to complete the work he’s begun, remaking us into new creatures while still living in a broken world. Jesus is now our core identity, and any self-identity label that qualifies who we are in Christ is not just inaccurate; it distorts that identity.
The inevitable “change” question arose, and I talked about how a biblical definition of change is really focused on our hearts and submission to God, not becoming heterosexual for the person with SSA. (For a fuller discussion on this critical topic, check out my minibook, Can You Change If You’re Gay?, available in the following formats: 5-pack minibook, eBook, and Kindle.)
Students also wanted to know how to navigate their relationships with their LGBTQ friends and family without compromising their faith. We wrestled with some of the challenges confronting the American Church: If you welcome a gay couple to church and they come to faith, what do you do next? Do you force a “married” couple to divorce? What if there are kids involved? How do you handle church membership and the sacraments if they believe the gospel and understand their need for Christ, but haven’t yet come to the place of seeing homosexual behavior as sinful? These are all difficult and complicated questions in our post-Christian society.
With two minutes left, I took a final question. Swallowing hard, I pointed to a young woman in the back. The hair, the clothes, the piercings. . . what was I thinking?! I was exhausted from the talk and the questions, and the last thing I needed was another complex issue to sort through.
I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as she started speaking, it was clear the choice was Spirit-led. A fairly new Christian, she had come to faith within the last year after living as a lesbian throughout her youth. She talked about the heartache of her experience and her lack of peace and joy. She described how God surrounded her with Christian friends whose lives looked so different. They had the contentment and shalom her life sorely lacked. Resonating with what I taught about God’s design, she concluded with a profound point about our sexuality: Because God is the life-giver, homosexual activity can’t fit his plan because it will never produce life. I couldn’t have come up with a more powerful conclusion! She underscored that inviting people to embrace something as “good” that God calls sin is cheering them on to destruction. She talked about the important role of Christian community and humble witness in her conversion. And she wondrously articulated the difference that Jesus makes in her life. It was a beautiful demonstration of how I was describing “change”—it’s not about becoming “straight,” but about loving God and submitting all of myself to his care.
I drove home praising God for his ability to end “my” talk perfectly! Please pray for this young woman as she continues to grow in her new-found faith, and for us—indeed, all believers in Christ—as we proclaim his Word in our increasingly broken and hostile culture.
This article first appeared in our 2015 magazine. It was written after David White taught a workshop at Cru’s Regional Conference in Washington, DC, on December 29, 2014. The workshop was titled “Homosexuality and Christian Faith.”
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).
What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.
But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:
What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.
I’m struck by two things in this passage.
One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.
V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”
V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”
V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”
V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)
V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”
V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”
V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”
Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.
We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.
But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.
What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.
Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?
God knows that this is difficult for his people
Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”
In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.
What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:
- There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
- Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
- They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
- They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
- They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
- They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.
And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!
It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?
It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!
There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.
A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.
Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.
God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.
Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )
Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018
Even worse, have you suffered with uncontrollable thoughts? You try to restrain where your mind wanders, but it keeps straying back against your will to certain memories, individuals, or fantasies. Thoughts break in constantly, causing distraction. You’ve prayed, fasted, memorized Scripture—but nothing seems to work for very long. The thoughts, desires, and attractions come back, leaving you feeling defeated and hopeless. You lose hope that victory over your thoughts is even possible.
Since you’ve been trying to change for years without success, you just expect you’ll be at it again eventually.
How has your struggle with sexual sin—in your desires and behavior—impacted your life? It appears so innocuous at first: Masturbation may be a “guilty pleasure,” but it seems relatively harmless. Using porn or fantasy to fuel your behavior then becomes an obvious necessity. But there is always a steady progression. What starts with provocative ads or romance novels turns into soft porn and explicit stories. Then you want to experience more and more. Eventually, still pictures aren’t enough, and the Internet has made video downloads so easy. What began as a pleasant escape from the humdrum routine or pressures of life becomes an obsession. Some people begin spending hours every day surfing the Internet for new porn. Others pursue connection through chat rooms or phone sex. Many end up doing what they previously thought impossible—seeking out sexual encounters.
This increasing escalation has a price tag. We all have a very finite life. The time, energy, and money invested in pursuing sexual sin is stealing from your family, future security, career aspirations, ability to serve God and others, etc. Every day men and women are sacrificing things of infinite value to pursue their sexual desires. Even our health becomes a casualty. HIV and other STDs abound. The strain of living a secret, “double life” results in depression, ulcers, and anxiety.
In Psalm 32:3-4, David describes the cost of hidden sin: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (ESV). We willingly sacrifice everything most dear to us—spouse, children, career, financial success, even faith (described as “more precious than gold” in 1 Peter 1:7)—on the altar of our sexual desires. It is crucial to reckon with this reality.
What has your sin cost you?
Even if your struggle hasn’t escalated as just described, have you noticed that the desires are taking up more space in your head and heart? Maybe you are able to manage your behavior on a day-to-day basis, but do you invest time carefully planning your next opportunity? Or savoring the memories of your last exploit? How do you respond to others when your carefully orchestrated plan is thwarted? Maybe your behavior looks okay on the outside, but inwardly you’re enslaved.
There is something incredibly important you need to know: You are not alone in this battle against sin. Too many in the church either aren’t being honest or are blind to this reality, but every Christian who wants to grow in holiness needs to face the fact that there are places in life where he or she is still enslaved by sin. So Paul writes,
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:15-25).
Paul poignantly describes the experience of every Christian battling against sin. There is a profound sense of slavery and frustration in our inability to overcome particular struggles. You can almost see Paul beating his head against the wall in utter exasperation. And the battle is on two fronts: We both continue in sin we hate, and at the same time we woefully neglect God’s calling to love him and others in specific ways. Your situation is not unique. It was experienced by the most prolific writer of the NT, the eminent apostle who fearlessly took the message of Christ to Rome, the place of ultimate power and opposition to Jesus in the 1st century. And it has been the experience of every other leader in the church since and every man in the pew. All of us continue to struggle significantly with sin as Christians and sexual sin in particular reduces us to slavery. But in the midst of his seeming despair, Paul clings to the hope of our Deliverer. The goal of this book is for you to see the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness now!
Regardless of where you are in your struggle with sexual sin, prayerfully consider the following questions, and know that despite where you’ve been, Jesus is offering you a transformed life!
What have you sacrificed on the altar of sexual sin: money, time, relationships, etc.? Are you honestly assessing what it is costing you in your life, your relationships, your walk with God?
What encouragement can you gain from Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7?
04 Jan 2011
How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? Do you get excited about ways you can grow and mature in the coming year? Or are you bombarded with memories of all your past failures, all your grand hopes for change that were dashed before the end of January? This passage is in favor of New Year’s resolutions because it challenges us to take stock of where we are in life—and then get moving!
Read the following passage from Hebrews 12:1-3:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (ESV).
It’s the first day back after the holidays, so we’ll keep it simple. The passage describes the Christian life as running a race. What does this mean? The Christian life isn’t easy. Spiritual growth is grueling, strenuous labor. We are encumbered by “weights” and entangling sin that thwart our progress.
Many men have said to me, “I know what I have to do—I need to put Jesus where porn is in my life.” Theologically this is true. Idol worship needs to be replaced with worship of the true and living God. But here’s the rub: Jesus will never become like porn for you. If it was that simple, none of us would sin. The Christian life is always living by faith, and, as my colleague Bob says, sometimes living by faith doesn’t seem like much. We aren’t tortured for our faith in this country. Faith doesn’t usually produce a runner’s high. Let me tell you: Having spent many years abusing drugs, running the race of faith is not my definition of being “high.” But it is better in the long run.
Do you know why I keep running? Because of how I feel when it’s over. The process is torture, but the end is glorious. Sexual sin lures, promising immediate pleasure, but it withholds the truth of the guilt, shame, wrecked relationships, etc., that always follow. The Christian life is hard, probably much harder than you realized it would be when you signed on. But it’s worth it.
What do I mean? The Christian life is kind of like a runner’s high. After my wife’s passing in 2010, I started taking exercise seriously and began running regularly. I hate to run. But at long last, I experienced the runner’s high.
So, let’s look at three quick things the passage tells us about this race:
1) The race has an audience. Following the list of Old Testament saints in chapter 11, this passage begins telling us that they are witnesses to the race we are running. They are cheering us on! And, more importantly, they stand as a witness to us that the end is in sight. This race will be over before we know it. They encourage us to persevere, standing as proof that God’s grace is sufficient for us.
2) The race has been set for us. Your life is not an accident. This includes all the painful trials, temptations, unwanted attractions, etc. You are running a path set for you by a loving God who promises that he is working everything together for your good to conform you to the image of Jesus so that he will be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (see Romans 8:28-29).
3) The race has already been run by your Champion. We’ll spend more time in later posts considering this crucial reality. Jesus has already run this road, faced every trial and temptation you face, but never stumbled. He ran the race ahead of us, blazing the trail, and offers us the exact grace we need to face all the specific challenges because he has already endured them for us victoriously.
Are you weary at the start of the New Year? Where do you need to be encouraged? What “weights” are slowing you down? What sins are entangling you? May God give us the grace to look to Jesus and get up and run!