27 Nov 2019
Hope vs. Despair
Ten, twenty, thirty years of consistent patterns of giving into sin are hard to overcome. Decades of sinful responses to life will produce ingrained ways of thinking and acting that are not easily changed.
At Harvest USA, I find that men who struggle the most to find consistent victory over sin are not those who have suffered significant losses as a consequence of severe sin. Instead, the men who struggle the most to gain traction in their repentance are those who consistently make small compromises with sin, which leads to minor consequences in life.
They don’t lose their jobs; they don’t lose their families. But what they are in danger of losing is hope!
When someone starts to take repentance and accountability seriously, it’s initially a very encouraging endeavor. They feel a high degree of acceptance among others who struggle in similar ways. They experience a clean conscience from confessing sin to others. They feel hope that they are not alone in their struggles, and have real avenues of support and encouragement. All of this momentum gives many people a record-breaking initial season of freedom from sinful behaviors. Victory appears to be on the horizon!
But then they fall back into old patterns. After two months of a clean record, they cross that line and indulge in pornography again, or hook up with someone again. At this point, most people are tempted to question everything that they’ve been doing so far. Was it all a sham? Have they really made any progress if they are back at this place again? To make matters worse, that initial act of sin leads to more acting out. This is when they feel like they are now in a worse place than when they began this journey.
It is not uncommon to put forth unprecedented degrees of effort and resolve into battling sexual sin and still experience regular failure in this area. If this description matches your experience or the experience of someone you are helping, how are we to interpret and understand what God is doing?
First of all, I want to dispel two opposite yet companion false expectations of repentance. These are two lies to guard your heart against:
- The first lie: No matter what you do, you are doomed to eventually act out again, it’s only a matter of time.
- The second lie: All you need is the golden key of a specific insight, technique, or experience to be completely free from this sin.
Both of these lies give false expectations for what repentance looks like. The first lie I confront quickly. I boldly tell new groups of men at Harvest USA, that in Christ, nothing is forcing them to go home that night and act out in their well-worn behaviors. Sin is no longer their master; they’ve died to sin when Christ died to sin on the cross. It is a lie from Satan to believe that you are always doomed to eventually go back to your enslaving patterns of sin. God always provides a way of escape.
Yet the opposite lie is also very tempting and prevalent. Those enslaved to addiction want complete freedom, and they want it as quickly as possible. It’s tempting to believe that this will be an easy fix when there is often powerful momentum in the beginning stages of truly fighting sin. But this expectation of a quick, simple fix, only to be discovered by some insight or a new technique, both misunderstands the power of indwelling sin and also the scope of transformation that God is truly after.
I find it common for men to flip-flop between these two false expectations. One week, they are in the pit of despair that this sin will always enslave them; another week, they feel invincible, believing they’ve crossed a threshold where they’ll never be severely tempted again. But what if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
What if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
It is certainly a good thing to want complete freedom from destructive behaviors. But it is not good if that is the only thing you care about in your repentance.
God is doing so much more in you than merely stopping behaviors. He’s doing a comprehensive renovation of your heart. And for many people, that transformative process involves a much longer season of prolonged failure than they initially expected.
While there are many things God may be doing in allowing people to experience slow growth, I believe there is one fundamental lesson he wants everyone to learn in their repentance.
If God gave us immediate victory over sin, so many of us would be left with immeasurable amounts of deadly pride. We would look at others with judgmental hearts and have little room for patience or compassion as they continued to struggle and fail.
C.S. Lewis captures this deadly exchange when he describes Satan’s delight over prideful law-keeping. He writes, “He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your [blister] cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. (p. 125).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
It’s important that we qualify what humility looks like in the battle against sin. Despair is a form of pride; you are looking to yourself as the answer to your problems, and when you can’t find the strength from within, your pride keeps you from looking to God.
Humility, on the other hand, leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin. The humble person accepts that reality and does not shake their fist at God for allowing them to experience weakness.
Humility leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin.
Instead, the humble person comes to God in trust and faith, continuing to believe that God is good, God is strong, God is mighty to save. The humble person acknowledges God’s goodness in calling them into a dependent relationship with him. That it is eternally better to be weak and experience God’s strength than to be strong in yourself and be separated from God for all of eternity.
God’s highest goal in your battle against sexual sin is growing your dependence, trust, and reliance upon him in ever-increasing intimacy and fellowship. People entrenched in sexual sin are not marked by this kind of relationship with God. This kind of relationship is not quickly grown. And thus your slow progress in fighting sexual sin is directly connected to the progress of your humble reliance upon God.
The more you give in to the temptation to despair over your lack of progress, the harder it is to find hope in a humble relationship with God.
If you are struggling today to make progress in your battle against sexual sin, focus your attention on cultivating a humble relationship of trust and reliance upon God. Fight to hope not in yourself, but in God. Fight against laziness and presumption that you can go a single day without a vital connection with him. Fight to believe that this depth of relationship with God is what you’re ultimately fighting for, and it is what God has promised to accomplish in your life.
Learn more by watching Mark Sanders’ accompanying video: Why Isn’t God Answering My Prayers for Deliverance?
02 Mar 2016
From Despair to Hope: One man’s journey—Part 2
Testimony: By “Ben”
Read the first post to this testimony here. The power and hope to overcome pornography and other sexual struggles is not found in resisting impulses, changing one’s habits, or even in religious practices. It’s found in the power of relationship—specifically the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. One of our former support group members, who wishes to be anonymous, shares his story.
The turning point finally came through tragedy. My wife died, having suffered twenty years with a disabling illness. My horrible grief magnified the pain of my guilt. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I loved my wife. I thought that God was punishing me by taking her. I know now this was not true. Perhaps he was protecting her from the potential consequences of my sin. In any case, God was demonstrating a “severe mercy.” It was severe and painful, but merciful because he was using these horrific circumstances to draw me to himself. I was finally reaching the point where I had had enough of the struggle.
Over the next twenty months, the Lord continued to draw me to himself as I began to regularly call out for him to reveal himself to me and take away the pain. For a long time, my behaviors did not change. Still trying to self-medicate, I engaged in sex more frequently and took more sexual risks. But I did not stop praying.
Two years after my wife’s death, I learned from my church’s new pastor that my spiritual condition was far worse than I thought. I had always thought that homosexuality and pornography were the roots of my sin problem. However, even before he knew my secret, my pastor told me that I did not need to merely stop sinning but also find rest from struggling. Such rest could only be found in the love of Jesus Christ.
One Sunday, my pastor preached on the man who came to Jesus with his demon-possessed son (Mark 9:14-29) for healing. When Jesus asked him if he believed Jesus could do the healing, the man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, ESV).
I needed help to believe that God could love me in spite of my sin
I was that man! I had believed in Jesus since I was five years old but still thought that God’s love was contingent on my behavior. I needed help to accept that I could never make myself righteous in God’s eyes. I needed help to believe that God could love me in spite of my sin. I needed to believe that not only did Jesus suffer the punishment for sin that I deserved, but that God had also credited Jesus’ sinless life to me. I needed help to believe that I was no longer an object of God’s wrath, but a son in whom he delighted. I prayed for another nine months, meditating on various scriptures, and tearfully crying out, “Help me overcome my unbelief.”
Finally, my desire to know God’s love was so great that nothing else mattered. I lost all fear of rejection. A friendship had been growing between my pastor and me. I told him that I wanted to share something I had never revealed to anyone. After my confession, to my amazement, he did not turn from me in disgust but told me that God loved me and he loved me. He showed me Romans 2:4 where Paul writes that God’s kindness leads us to repent. Through my friend, I felt God’s pleasure for the first time. I repented.
When I confessed to my pastor, I was waiting for the stones. Instead, my friend told me there was no more condemnation. Jesus, my Savior, had set me free at last.
Spiritual change doesn’t take place in secret. Only when sins come to light are the lies of Satan exposed. Satan had told me that no one, even Jesus, could love me. But he lied. In addition to caring brothers and sisters at Harvest USA, Jesus proved his love to me through many other Christians who encouraged me with the gospel. Among these were my children, my siblings, and my best friend of thirty years, who is like a brother. Satan told me that if any of them knew my heart, they would desert me. Instead—praise God—our relationships have grown deeper. I know I don’t deserve any of this. I deserve everything that Satan told me. All I can say is that it is God’s grace!
Although I am thrilled to share how God has worked in my life, it has been a painful exercise to recall many of the events. At times I just want to forget the past; I want it to have never happened. Thankfully God is redeeming even the way I view the past. He is teaching me that my past is not about what I have done, but is part of a larger story revealing what he has done for all of us. He is not asking me to share my story, but to share Christ’s story.
Christ’s story is simple. He has changed places with me. On the cross, he received the full punishment from God that I truly deserved, then gave me his perfect record. I am learning to share this story with joy because I’m beginning to believe the Bible. It tells me I am not the man that I used to be. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
24 Feb 2016
From Despair to Hope: One man’s journey—Part 1
Testimony: By “Ben”
The power and hope to overcome pornography and other sexual struggles is not found in resisting impulses, changing one’s habits or, even in religious practices. It’s found in the power of relationship—specifically the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. One of our former support group members, who wishes to be anonymous, shares his story.
I was reared in a family with one brother and two sisters—all older than me. In our home, my mother was the nurturing one, and although I loved her dearly, I craved my father’s love. He worked hard to provide for us and so was absent much of the time. When he was around, he was busy, tired, and easily angered. He rarely had time for me. His favorite saying was, “Go peddle your papers!” We shared no interests. Talking with him was always awkward. I’m not sure I ever really pleased him or made him proud.
I viewed my relationship with God in the same way. Although I desired him, I had little hope of having a relationship with him. He was unattainable. I tried to convince myself that if I was good and worked hard, one day I would be worthy of his love.
I don’t remember how young I was when I was first exposed to pornography. I doubt that it was very graphic, but I do remember it had a strong attraction. Then, as a teenager, one of my neighborhood friends showed me a hard-core porn magazine that he had stolen from his uncle’s bedroom. This was the first time I had viewed sexual acts between men and women. I was instantly hooked. The images burned into my brain and ignited my fantasies. However, instead of imagining myself with women, I wanted to sexually please the men who used them.
Other than some curiosity-based sexual exploration in my early teen years, I never physically acted on my fantasies with men until after graduation from high school. I had opportunity but feared crossing the line from thoughts to actions.
When I turned eighteen, I started to cruise adult movie theater restrooms and interstate rest areas. Sometimes I was a voyeur, sometimes a participant. More than once on the news, I saw the places I frequented raided by police. But that never stopped me from going back.
At twenty-one, I was arrested for engaging in homosexual sex in an adult theater restroom. During the night I spent in jail, I prayed for forgiveness and swore I would never act out again. But it wasn’t long until I took the same chances, and my desire for men grew stronger. I no longer just wanted to experience sex with a man; I wanted him to tell me that I was the best he had ever had. I didn’t merely want to please him; I wanted him to worship me.
Oddly enough, I rarely had sex with the same man twice. I knew that what I was secretly doing was not pleasing to God. It was more than homosexuality; it was idolatry. I tried to stop repeatedly. I did not want this life for myself. I wanted real relationships with real people and with God. I wanted to be married and have a family. So I compartmentalized my same-sex struggles and lived the illusion of the socially acceptable Christian life.
I attended a Christian college in South Carolina. Upon graduation, I taught in a Christian school for four years. I married a Christian woman, and we served the Lord in our church. Together, we raised a son in a home where we tried to actively live out our faith.
On the outside my life appeared normal and fulfilled, but on the inside there was not one minute of rest from my struggle with sin and my frustrated desire for God’s approval. For forty years I hid this part of my life from everyone, including my wife.
Before we were married, I tried to share my secret sin with my fiancée. Not being totally honest, I told her that I had sex with a man one time and assured her that this was in the past, never to be repeated.
I wanted to believe that what I told her was true, but it wasn’t. I sneaked away to have anonymous sex in an adult bookstore just three weeks after we were married. Realizing that determination alone would not bring me victory, I became all the more unwavering in hiding the truth. I feared that being honest would cost me my wife, my family, my friends, my job, and any hope of having what I perceived to be a “normal” Christian life. Pornography and same-sex encounters continued to be very much part of my life throughout twenty-one years of marriage.
Realizing that determination alone would not bring me victory, I became all the more unwavering in hiding the truth. I feared that being honest would cost me my wife, my family, my friends, my job, and any hope of having what I perceived to be a “normal” Christian life.
Over the years, I sat in Sunday school classes that discussed relevant topics like sinful addictions. I wanted to be honest about my struggles and free of them. I longed for others to walk along side of me and encourage me. But I didn’t see anyone else struggling. Instead of facing my sin, I sat silently in pain, telling myself I just had to try harder. Loneliness and despair, however, drove me deeper into my sin patterns. I continued to hide the truth because I was convinced that no one would love me if they knew the truth. I feared rejection from other Christians more than I feared hell.
I did seek help during those years. Twice I paid psychologists to hear my confession. Both were Christians. Neither were helpful. One told me that if I wore a rubber band around my wrist and snapped it every time I had a lustful thought, I would eventually associate pain with the thought. That would lead me to eventually stop acting out. It failed to produce the promised result.
The turning point finally came through tragedy.
You can continue reading Part Two by clicking here.
01 Mar 2010
Despair on Monday Morning: Where’s hope?
My time with the Lord each morning is 99.99% of the time accompanied by a mug or two of robust coffee. My musings this morning come from Hosea 7:8, Psalm 106:35, and Psalm 32:9. These verses refer to how God’s people “mingled” themselves with the pagan nations. They had been specifically commanded not to do this, but, much like us today, they wanted what they wanted and did it anyway.
Braiding. Mingling. Entangling ourselves. The allusion of oneness where there is no oneness. Christ alone can dwell within us, and Christ alone can truly complete us, fill us, be a faithful and safe receiver of our love, adoration, attention, worship. And yet we are all tempted to spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically entangle ourselves with creation.
For those inclined toward relational and/or sexual idolatry, it can seem so beautiful, so ‘natural’, so right because it feels good: the emotional and sexual rush that happens when the images are clicked to from one to the other; the soothing endorphin release that happens when reading those emails of verbal, emotional, sexual connection; the free-falling lostness into a fantasy world of love and romance that seems to exist with that person on the other side of the IM chat.
You know you’re stuck. You feel the enslavement, the addiction of it all. You fear being found out. Jesus knows these things, and his mercy to you is compassionate love poured over you. His mercy to you comes from his holy heart which knows the misery that sin brings, the anguish and ways of pain that just are a part of living in this fallen world. Are you in pain because of your sin?
To pain-filled, sin-captive hearts, Jesus does not say merely, “Do this or do that!” So here’s where Psalm 32:9 comes in. Our Lord wants so much more than for us to follow him like a bridled horse or mule who is yanked here and there. And I would suggest to you that he even has more for us than the beautiful picture of a sheep listening for the familiar and safe voice of a trusted shepherd. What Christ calls us to is the tender relationship of Bride to Bridegroom. Of relationship. Of love and faithfulness woven together.
If you’re heartsick this Monday—maybe you were doing some braiding and mingling over the weekend—don’t try to undo yourself by being a spiritual horse or mule. That same Psalm 32 contains two other amazing promises which say the Lord’s love and songs of deliverance surround his people (see verses 7 and 10):
- Come to Lord Jesus, a Bridegroom full of mercy and worthy of your devotion.
- Acknowledge where, how, and when you’ve been mingling with this world. Where, how, and when has sin led you away from him?
- Ask him to instruct, counsel, and teach you in the way you should go (verse 8). Do you need to talk to someone? Ask for prayer? Seek accountability? Are you being nurtured from God’s Word? Are you seeking time with people who enthuse you and provoke you to fall in love with Jesus? People who sing and shout and whisper courage into your heart—words that remind you it is worth it to live for King Jesus and his kingdom purposes?
- Ask him to open your spiritual eyes to his mercy which soothes you, then invigorates you to robust obedience.
- Listen—those songs of deliverance are being sung over you!
- Trust that Jesus loves you, forgives you, is making you new, and is setting you free. One step of faithfulness at a time. Just one step. Take your next step of obedience.
Then enjoy a mug of coffee with him tomorrow morning—or now!