With the Ashley Madison scandal of 2015, and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood, who lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage, gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and hopefully grow, these first few steps will be critical.
In my first two blogs (Part 1 and Part 2), I mentioned two initial steps you need to take to bring healing to your marriage: Fully own the damage you caused, and let your wife heal at her own pace. Now, for the third initial step you must take.
You have to move toward your wife as a forgiven man. Not forgiven by her; you can’t control that or make that happen. No, forgiven by God. If you have given your life to him, then hear the good news of the gospel: God has taken your sin upon himself and given you his perfect, flawless life-record as your own. It’s this new foundation that you need to begin to grasp. God sees you as clean, washed, even when all the pieces of your life are still scattered all around you—even when the pain of your sin is still vividly in your mind and heart.
Why is this so important? Because you really can’t do the first two steps I mentioned apart from this one. You will not be able to fully face the truth of what you did, nor will you be able to let your wife heal at her own pace (with or without you), unless you begin to see that no matter your sin, Christ has paid the ultimate penalty for it. This alone is the foundation for your own healing.
This healing is not being accomplished by your sorrow, nor by your newfound good intentions or works, nor by the hope you have in wanting to heal your marriage. It’s because Jesus was willing, on one gruesome day, to die in your place—in order to give you life, to set you free, to place upon you a love so deep that you now belong to him as a cherished child.
You see, your sin exposed the lovelessness of your own heart. But by grasping God’s love for those with broken hearts with an open, empty hand (that’s faith), you will now be able to learn to love as you never have before.
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
This is what living by faith looks like. Not a cheap grace, but a substantial grace that now gives you the love you need to move forward in total transparency, hiding nothing, admitting to everything. I don’t know your wife. I don’t know how she is going to respond. What I do know is that you need to know that God loves you and that his promises never change. This should help you with my next point.
And this is what your wife needs—she needs to see you growing in this grace. You will still fail. You will still stumble and fall at times. Your wife is going to need her measure of grace from God to survive the destructive self-centeredness that brought you both to where you are now.
Remember that your sin is against God first! He felt it first! It was his law you broke! It was his grace that you trampled underfoot. To me, that is what God is trying to communicate to us from the cross. “This is how your self-indulgence has impacted me,” he is saying. “You broke my heart!” That is deep! That is love at a whole new level! He made an open display of your sin so that you don’t have to hide anymore. If you can honestly face the cross, you can honestly face your wife, hear whatever she needs to say, own all the damage you have caused, and patiently wait for whatever healing she needs to experience before she can even think of getting close again.
Finally, I would say, with Paul, “Love… hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV). You don’t want to give up hope. You want to continue to believe that God will do a work. And he will do a work in your life and in your marriage. It just might not look like the way you want it to look! You have to trust him no matter what the outcome.
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Three
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.
Paul’s plea to the Thessalonians is that they not live sexually as though they are free to do whatever they want. As he said in another letter: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
And his point in verses 4-5 is this: If you are not serving God by living for him, learning to control your body’s powerful sexual desires, you will be a slave to desires you will be unable to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually anyway you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.
You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.
Here is what we need to know about desires and wants and how they are closely connected to our sexuality. Our sexuality is fed by desires that often are not sexual at all, like loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, inadequacy, power, control, wanting to be loved, known or valued, fear of missing out, peer pressure—there are an unlimited number of wants and desires that become excessive desires and rule over us. They become things we think we absolutely need in life; they become ultimate things; they become idols that we live for—to have or to avoid.
And if we use our sexuality to erase our loneliness, combat our anxiety or fears, or to convince ourselves that somebody now loves and wants us, then we will keep doing so in order that life gives us what we think we need.
But what these desires give us is an illusion of control when in fact they give us slavery; they control us.
And when we find ourselves at that place in life, Paul’s description of non-believers becomes true even for believers: We become like “the Gentiles who do not know God.” When our hearts are given over to something or someone else, Jesus is pushed aside. He simply is not enough for us to give us what we need in life. So, we begin worshiping a false god of our own making.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality; it reveals the allegiance of our hearts.
Today, pornography is a clear example of how sexual freedom is really sexual slavery.
Let me show you four ways our struggles with sexuality brings slavery—and how it hurts us and others.
One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation
Many Christians live defeated lives of fear and self-loathing. Their struggles with sex drives them away from God. They hide from him and from others. When they look to God all they see is a judge, not a Savior who came to rescue them from the very slavery that binds them.
A man from a support group wrote this for one of our newsletters: “When does the healing from a lifetime of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? These are questions I struggled with for years. . . I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships.”
People like my friend here think, “If I struggle here, I must not be a Christian.”
Two, sexual strugglers live double lives
I’m talking here about compartmentalizing, about splitting your life into separate parts. I can be a Christian at church and be someone else at school, at my workplace, etc. Sexual strugglers live double lives. Our organization’s founder, John Freeman, just published a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. He uses the phrase “game-players” about sexual strugglers. They put their game face on when they are in public with other believers, but underneath the mask there is tremendous fear and shame and guilt.
Compartmentalizing, however, slowly bleeds into every area of your life. Another man in my support group said he’s been a liar all his life. Now in his 50s, his early encounter with porn as a child led him for decades to hide his sexual addiction, first from his parents and then from his wife and children.
He got so used to lying to cover up his porn addiction. He soon didn’t realize that he unconsciously lied to cover up all his behavior, no matter what it was. He could never relax and just be himself. His constant fear was being found out.
Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness
Crippling doubt about salvation and living a fear-driven double life ultimately brings hopelessness about ever being free. Many men and women give up. They either give up outwardly and leave the church or they give up silently and just go through the motions of living their Christian faith. But they distance themselves from church, from family relationships, and from those closest to them who sense that something is amiss, but they can’t put their finger on it.
Slavery gives you the feeling that the gospel has no power. It is utterly useless to help you with the problems and struggles you face once you leave church on Sunday. And if you feel God himself can’t help you, you are indeed hopeless.
Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others
In verse 6 Paul slips this in: “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.”
Paul is referring to the relational damage of sexual sin. He connects it with sexuality: “in this matter.”
Here’s the point: Sexual sin is not a private matter. It is not a harmless, private activity. When our desires control us, we become intensely self-centered. Sex was designed by God as a means to bless our spouse. But when our focus is only on ourselves and what we can get out of it, we hurt people and relationships.
A husband who looks at pornography hurts his wife, as he prefers a fantasy life over his real one. At best, his wife becomes merely an object of his own pleasure like all the women he sees on the screen. He uses people.
Someone who engages in porn contributes to the sexual exploitation of the performers and the widespread damage to the minds and hearts of others who are in slavery to this. Increasingly the evidence is growing that sex trafficking is embedded in this porn epidemic.
And then there is sexual abuse. Child porn, and the awful tragedy of church leaders abusing men and women under their pastoral care, is the extreme display of all this sexual slavery.
Lust is not something that is easily contained. There is a reason Jesus said, in exaggerated language, in order to make a point: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Matthew 5:30).
When we feed our lusts, they will control us and consume us.
Can you hear Paul’s plea? “Don’t live by your desires, now that you know something of what this slavery looks like!”
But if that warning is not enough, Paul gives a stronger one: “the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”
(Looking ahead: Is there a way forward through all this, a way for us individually, and for us as a church, to live our lives in sexual integrity before God?)