Anyone who’s experienced being enslaved by a life-dominating sin knows how easy it is to let that struggle become the lens through which you see all of life. You know how deadly the sin is. You know the power it possesses, and how powerless you feel to resist it.

Many people wrestling with addiction see their entire moral responsibility resting on a single prohibition: Thou shalt not. . .

They start to measure the strength of their relationship with God based on whether they looked at pornography that day. It doesn’t matter what else happened, good or bad—refraining from sexual sin becomes the sole gauge of spiritual health.

Living with Blinders

There are two pitfalls with this type of thinking. First, you become uninterested in any other area of sanctification in your life. Lying, stealing, idolatry, and unrighteous anger don’t even register as areas of needed growth because sexual sin has given you tunnel vision to any other problems. Your day may have been filled with selfish and self-indulgent pursuits, but, in your mind, it was a great day because you didn’t look at porn.

The second pitfall is just as soul-damaging. Letting your entire day rest upon your ability to perfectly resist sexual temptation also blinds you to the good work God may be doing in your life in other areas. Sexual sin is usually the fruition of many other, deeper heart issues that God is slowly and surgically redeeming. There may be much groundwork being done in your life even while you continue to lose many battles against temptation. Blindness to this good work that God is doing can co-opt a trajectory of growth through discouragement and despair.

Take off the Blinders

It’s time to take off the blinders. It’s time to embrace the full panorama of God’s redemptive purposes for your life. On the day of judgment, God is not only interested in what sins you refrained from. He’s equally interested in what good fruit your life produced. This is why theologians have developed two categories for sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are the sins we commit. We lust, we steal, we lie, we covet. We focus most of our repentant energy on sins of commission. And that’s understandable. The Ten Commandments are largely addressing sins we commit. That is why eight out of the ten are stated in the negative: Thou shalt not. . .

But it was paradigm-shifting for me to read the Westminster Larger Catechism and realize that with every prohibitive commandment is an implied command to do its opposite instead. Not taking the Lord’s name in vain implies the command to revere his name in honor. Not killing implies the command to actively preserve and promote life in others. Not lying implies the command to speak the truth in love to build up your neighbor. Failure to do the opposite of these prohibitions is also sin. Sins of omission are the failure to do the good which God commands. Sin is not just what we have done, but also what we have left undone.

The Opposite of Sexual Sin

If I’m honest, I used to think that all God cared about was that I didn’t lust after other people. If that’s God’s standard, then my tactic was simply to avoid others. If I didn’t have to interact with them, then I was honoring God. But I failed to see that the opposite of lust is not avoidance, but love. There may still be people you need to avoid, especially if they’ve been a snare to you. That is wisdom. But what I’m addressing is a much broader issue of seeing other people not as objects of temptation, but as image-bearers to love.

We fail our brothers and sisters who struggle with sexual sin if we don’t help them to humanize others. God wants so much more than avoidance of sin. He wants the love of Christ to shine forth from our lives.

So what does a life of repentance from sexual sin look like?

Putting off Coveting and Putting on Christ-Centered Contentment

God gives a husband and wife to each other so that, in body and soul, they belong to one another. There’s a sense of co-ownership in marriage. Adultery is so damaging because it’s an outsider stealing what does not belong to them. God has designed sexual desire to be expressed and satisfied solely within the confines of biblical marriage.

This means true repentance for a married man and woman will lead to increasing contentment and delight in their spouse. The positive command we are to obey is to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). It’s not enough to only guard your heart against coveting your neighbor’s wife, you are also commanded by God to actively cultivate a growing love and desire for your spouse. How many Christian husbands believe their apathy toward pursuing their wives romantically is a sin of omission? Contentment must never be confused with complacency. Contentment is proactive; complacency is passive.

For my single brothers and sisters, contentment does not mean it’s wrong to desire marriage. Contentment means that, while you pursue this good thing, your heart is guarded against despair, bitterness, or anger toward the Lord when his timing seems delayed. Your contentment is grounded in what is best: belonging to Christ.

Spirit-gifted contentment flows from the same source for both married and singles. It is not found in any other person than Jesus Christ.

Putting off Idolatry and Putting on True Worship

Idolatry is always at the root of sexual sin. Sex is seen as the means of providing something that feels like life itself. That idol may be pleasure, comfort, control, security, or affirmation. But all of these desires are vanity of vanities when they are separated from the Giver of all true life.

True repentance from sexual sin is not a stoic experience. It’s a life of increasing joy and zeal for God’s glory. It’s a life of growing anticipation and expectation to see your Savior face to face. It’s a life of worshipping our triune God in spirit and in truth.

I’m always amazed by our Savior’s words in John 4:23 when he says, “the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” We were created for this very purpose. Our Father longs to find such people! Sexual sin is not only idolatry, but a failure to do the most fundamental thing we were created for—it’s a failure to delight in the Lord.

Putting off Lust and Putting on Love

We see very clearly in 1 Corinthians 13 that any attempt at repentance not grounded in love is pointless. Repentant love must be directed both vertically and horizontally. This means that God is not pleased with us swapping out sexual sin for some other, less damaging pleasure. Many people try to simply replace lust with social media, video games, exercise, or food, all the while continuing to neglect spiritual nourishment. Paul would tell you, if you’re doing this, you gain nothing.

But even if your rejection of lust is the result of deeper fellowship with Christ, it must not stop there. For John warns us that you cannot love God and hate your brother. True love for God will lead to true love for your neighbor.

It’s a frightening thing to see husbands who are turning from pornography but still abusing their wives. This is a false repentance that brings no pleasure to God.

God is not only calling you to turn from lustful thoughts, he’s calling you to see and treat others as his image-bearers in all purity, dignity, and honor. Lust selfishly steals from others. Love selflessly serves others. Lust devotes our thoughts to sexual fantasy. Love devotes our thoughts to prayerful intercession.

God is after so much more than removing sin from your life. He is committed to making you more like Christ, who not only turned from sin, but actively loved his Father and his neighbor perfectly.

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,

You’re holy.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

One of the sentences I often hear at Harvest USA is, “I’m really messed up—am I truly saved?” It usually accompanies a cry of despair amid the destructive and painful reality of sexual sins. Life’s meaning and purpose turn to ashes as many heartbreaking and grievous situations unfold, damaging lives, families, and bodies. The throat feels dry even as you drink water. Food is distasteful, and your anger and pride take control of your spirit as you feel alone, uncared for, hopeless, and destitute, repeatedly pondering, “Am I really saved?”

The anguish this question expresses is familiar to many when life-dominating sexual sins take hold. The sorrowful assumption that there is no way out—and therefore no salvation—when entangled with sexual sins is understandable, because our human hearts are not inclined to see the light. I remember when my darkness was so engulfing that the mere thought of drawing near to God for forgiveness hindered my assurance of salvation. I simply reasoned that my sins were greater than God’s forgiveness.

Beloved, I want you to know that I grieve with you over your sins and suffering and hear your heart; your burdens have not been light. I wish to speak with you as a broken brother who has been given the comfort of Christ—as a prodigal son whose stubbornness learned forgiveness by crawling back to the foot of the cross. Yes, dear brother and sister, there is hope and peace in Jesus despite our constant wrestling with sexual sin. For “by a single offering he [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Such work of Christ is undoubtedly the magisterial foundation of the assurance of our salvation.

Jesus Is the Way

Let’s look first at 1 John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”

Who is protecting believers from evil? This verse points us to Jesus: “he who was born of God.” After all, Jesus is referred to in John’s Gospel as the only begotten Son born of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18). If we are to form a strong foundation in thinking about our assurance, we must start with Jesus.

We can’t find assurance in our vain attempts to achieve perfection as Christians. Rather, assurance is the byproduct of faith that relies on the insurmountable grace of Christ’s work, which alone protects us from evil. It’s difficult to comprehend God’s infinite grace while limited by our finiteness. But throughout his letter, John wants to keep our gaze in the right place. He reminds us of the future glory that awaits believers, and that Christ keeps us safe from beginning to end in life. John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Remarkably, God’s Word teaches that Christ has worked salvation with eternal consequences even now; our identity as believers rests, affirmed in him, at this moment. And when Christ returns, we will be like him in holiness and sin shall be no more. We can expect complete freedom from our human depravity at the precise moment of his return. Oh, how joyful this message is to those who believe! It is in fact this joyful confidence and expectation that motivates our efforts to obey, as John adds, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

If you’re wondering where your confidence or help comes from, remember that your “help comes from the Lord” (Ps. 121). That’s why we must begin with Christ. God loved you so profoundly that he gave his one and only Son, whose propitiatory¹ death (1 John 2:2; 4:10; Rom. 3:25) has ignited your fellowship with him. This sacrifice brings about our union with Christ, whereby our identity as children of God is never forsaken, never lost. He is the one keeping us from evil until that very day.

Do you believe this, dear brothers and sisters? Such is the fountain of living water we drink from, through faith, that the work of Christ rules over life-dominating sexual brokenness.

Jesus Is the Truth

Make no mistake, the war we fight against the flesh highlights the reality that sin remains present. That’s why John reminds us of the ever-constant presence of sin and our ever-constant need for forgiveness as we wrestle to believe in the work of Christ (1 John 1:6; 2:4, 6, 9; 1 Cor. 15:3–4).

Certainly, we want to be free from our sexual brokenness even when we know this shall persist until Christ returns. Yet, know that such yearning for freedom is precisely where we can boldly proclaim our hatred for sin as those born of God. As we long for newness of life in Christ, we grow in holiness because of our union with him whose work on the cross grants us the assurance that, despite our torn apart, messed up, wretched life, we are saved (Rom. 7:24–25). This does not mean “go on sinning and doubting God because all is guaranteed.” It means that true fellowship with Jesus leads to greater holiness as you abide in him.

Your love for Jesus should command your hatred for sin. The message of the cross may sound like folly to the world, but it is, nevertheless, the message of salvation and the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18–31; Rom. 1:16). We can’t reason through this but only seek to be “blessed [as] those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29b). That is the essence of faith as you are convicted of things not seen (Heb. 11:1) and hear the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17b).

Jesus Is the Life

The foundation of the assurance of our salvation is the work of Christ. Without God’s initiative to first love us, we cannot have faith in Jesus. But since “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), we can have confidence in Jesus.

In this, we are not alone. The Helper, the Holy Spirit sent by the Father to teach us all things and bring to remembrance all Christ said, is with us (John 14:15–31). Through him we “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13b), obey God’s commandments, and are enabled to proclaim the gospel. Through him we trust in the promises of God, walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7a), and confess our sins (1 John 1:9a). Through him we take hold of the eternal life at hand as we believe in Jesus (1 John 2:25, 5:13); and believe our protection is certain as Christ is the one keeping us from all evil (1 John 5:18).

Beloved, if these truths are in your heart and you believe that Jesus Christ works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), then your assurance stands with a sound foundation and, therefore, direction.² You’re headed to glory. And as you move toward this narrow gate (Matt. 7:14), you are to be sanctified in truth as you are sent into the world just like Christ (John 17:17–19).

This doesn’t mean you’ll no longer struggle with sexual sin but that, until Christ returns, the joy set before you will be more and more found in him rather than in your flesh. Jesus suffered in agony to the point of shedding blood, asking the Father to remove this cup from him (Luke 22:42–44). And yet he died on the cross, having that as a joy set before him (Heb. 12:2). Wouldn’t this be enough reason for you to confront your sexual sins and rehearse your assurance in Christ?

If your sins imprison you in such a way that you cannot possibly imagine or live as one who abides in Christ, then may I exhort you to genuinely reconsider the cost God paid to forgive you? May I challenge you to leave your standards behind, ALL OF THEM, and wholly trust in the words of Christ? Remember his promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

Beloved, do not be dismayed. It is never too late to start from the beginning and gaze long and hard at the cross of Christ. May your assurance of salvation be clearer and clearer as you realize, each day, that such assurance is being realized by the glorious work of Christ in your life.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:14–17)

 

¹See Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 183.

²See David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work? (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2017).

Name: Mark Sanders

Position: Director of Discipleship

Hometown: Willow Grove, Pennsylvania

Describe your work at Harvest USA.
As the Director of Discipleship at our main office in Dresher, PA, I oversee the Men’s, Women’s, and Parents and Family Ministries, but the majority of my work is focused on the Men’s Ministry. I am in charge of shaping and directing what we offer to men who come to us for help with a variety sexual struggles. I also recruit, train, and provide support for interns and volunteers who serve in our biblical support groups. While I provide a large amount of oversight, I spend a fair amount of time doing individual discipleship and facilitating our in-house biblical support groups each week. Alongside of my responsibilities in our direct ministry, I am also a part of our equipping team at Harvest USA. In seeking to equip the Church to faithfully disciple her members in matters of sexuality, I am involved in resource development, teaching and training events, and writing articles for our blogs and magazines. Lastly, I also film, edit, and produce the majority of our video content at Harvest USA, including our 15-lesson Sunday school DVD series, God’s Design for Sexually in a Changing Culture.

How did you get to Harvest?
Like most people involved in ministries like Harvest USA, my heart longs to see men experience deep repentance, transformation, healing, and change in the area of sexual brokenness because this is my own story. My generation was the first to grow up with entire adult bookstores readily available within the confines of your own bedroom. I spent many years, first as a Christian adolescent and then as a young adult, fighting and wrestling to break free of the chains of sexual sin. Through the ordinary means of grace that God provides for his people, the Holy Spirit did a decisive and powerful work of redemption in my life, and, as I considered potential vocational ministry, Harvest USA was always in the back of my mind as one way that God could turn for good what Satan and my own heart meant for evil. While going through my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of volunteering and interning with both Harvest USA and CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation). My internship with Harvest was both challenging and rewarding, and it eventually led to me joining the staff in June of 2015.

What is your favorite Scripture?
As my colleague, Jim, has said, different seasons tend to highlight different Scriptures. Right now, I continue to come back to Colossians 3:1–4 for a few reasons.

First, my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary whetted my appetite to go further into the insights of my school’s theological forerunners. In particular, the writings of Geerhardus Vos as expounded on by Richard Gaffin have deeply shaped me. Gaffin’s work on union with Christ and his explanation of the centrality of the resurrection in the writings of Paul have greatly enriched my understanding of the gospel and salvation. Colossians 3 and Romans 6 have become so important to me when I think about the practical implications of being presently raised with Christ.

Second, this passage has given me great comfort as I watch my mother’s decline with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from occasional smiles, precious-but-momentary eye contact, and squeezing my hand, my mother has lost virtually all of her ability to communicate with us. I have so many difficult questions about her experience, with few answers, but what God has made clear to me is that my mother’s life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). This idea of hiding has so many precious implications for my mom. First, who she truly is in Christ is hidden from us right now. We don’t yet see her in her glorified state, but, in Christ, she has already been raised with and united to the firstfruits of one resurrection harvest. Second, being hidden with Christ means that she is safe in his arms. Nothing, not even Alzheimer’s disease can steal her away from her permanent home in the heavenly places. Third, Christ hides what is most precious to him. There is not one second of my mother’s suffering when Christ is not actively caring for her and providing for all of her needs.

To end this brief reflection, verse 4 is incredibly hope-giving. Right now, my mother is not who she once was. She used to be strong, filled with life and vigor. Her laugh lit up a room. Now, looking at her, it is impossible to escape the ravages of the curse that mark her present experience. But as this disease slowly steals every earthly thing from her, even her life one day, I am reminded that, ultimately, Christ is her life. In almost every chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is our life. My mom’s entire life is wrapped up in Christ. Her hope is fully tethered to him and him alone. One day, not only will I see her as she was before Alzheimer’s, but I will also see her as she will be when Christ appears in glory. It will be the extreme opposite of her current state. She will be radiant, glorious, and fully fit for eternal communion with our triune God.

What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia?
For anyone who is local, it’s important that I clarify that I don’t live in Philadelphia proper, but in Montgomery County, which is part of the greater metropolitan area. It’s hard to have an objective perspective because I’ve spent the majority of my life here. Philly is home. Most people I know and love live here. And while I must admit I’d rather live in a state with more natural wonder and beauty, I think this is wonderful area to live in. There is so much diversity in Philadelphia, and, as a self-proclaimed foodie, I have much of the best cuisine from around the world within driving distance of my home. Lastly, growing up in Philly afforded me the privilege of not having to move away in order to attend seminary.

What is an interesting fact about yourself?
I lived in South Korea from 2007–2012. It was in Korea where God did some deep spiritual work in my heart, and he gave me a wealth of opportunities to share the gospel. I met my wife there and still have my in-laws and many friends there whom we love going to visit on a biennial basis. Before working at Harvest USA, I had a vision in seminary of doing similar work in South Korea. South Korea is like my second home, and my wife and I are fairly content not seeing much of the world as long as we can make frequent trips back to Korea! I’ve grown to feel strangely comforted every time we get on a plane and hear the captain speaking in Korean. It’s like I’m going back home. While the Lord clearly has called us to Philadelphia for this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually flew a U-Haul back to Korea one day.

“How in the world is she still standing?! Still functioning as a sane, responsible, adult woman?”

More often than I wish, I am left stunned, with these questions swirling through my head, as I hang up the phone or Zoom call or escort a woman to the door of our office. Why? I’ve just heard a story of such horrific suffering, of traumatic pain, that I’m left brokenhearted and in awe. I can only praise God through my tears for his supernatural strength that has enabled so many women to grow forward after suffering circumstances that could have crushed them—and, in fact, have crushed others.

Why is it that some people come through the horrors of this world still standing, even flourishing, while others’ lives are utterly wrecked in the aftermath of trauma? Military veterans, survivors of abuse, abandoned children, and betrayed spouses often experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a “mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”¹

Many of the wives who come into my office have experienced symptoms of PTSD because the husband and the marriage that they assumed and believed they had do not exist. The trauma of betrayal results in sleeplessness, depression, anger, outbursts, and paralyzing grief. They are responding to the demolition of the safety and security, life plans, and stable relationships they thought they had. Yet I’ve witnessed so many of these women shine for Christ! Faith, resiliency, and courage are fired up, and they plant their roots down deep into the Lord and his Word. How?

Post-Traumatic Growth: Psychological Category and Biblical Concept

The American Psychological Association gives one answer for my response of wonder and awe for the resiliency that I witness week after week in suffering women. It’s called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), which I learned about when I researched the impact of sexual abuse. “(PTG) is a theory that explains [healthy]…transformation following trauma. It was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s, and holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward.”²

While the APA provides one helpful perspective from which to consider PTG, Scripture addresses trauma and its impact differently from the APA. Repeatedly, God makes it clear that, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), and, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

The Bible is honest about the ugliness of sin and how people commit evil against one another. In the pages of the Old and New Testaments, stories of traumatic losses, abuse, manipulation, and suffering cause us to cringe. However, the Bible includes something to which the APA is blind: Into this sin-broken world has come our Lord and Healer, Jesus Christ. He offers comfort in the face of terrifying events, hope that these events do not define us, and a trustworthy promise that he can use pain to promote growth rather than distress.

Jesus Enters Our Pain and Transforms Our Responses

Friend, if you’ve suffered trauma, Jesus knows. He sees, hears, and understands. He was treated horrifically through the crucifixion, suffered alienation from the Father, and experienced death. The distress he endured the night before these events was so traumatic that his blood vessels burst, leading to a literal ”sweating” of blood.

Here’s where the gospel brings life and the possibility of true post-trauma healing and growth in a way that the secular theorists can’t! Christ responded to the most horrific pain with honest grief, faith, and love—love for his Father and for us. Christ’s response to traumatic events can become our example and our way of responding, our faith-fueled path of resiliency; this is one of the amazing applications of John 15’s teaching about our union with Jesus.

Post-traumatic growth could be relabeled as “with-Jesus transformation.” As we grow in both knowing who Jesus really is and understanding that we are spiritually joined to him, our pain becomes his, and his resilience, faith, and love become ours in a process that promotes wholeness and healing, displaces our distress, and changes our desires for sinful, false comforts. Christ is in us, the hope of glory, and his power allows us to choose a different path!

Choose Jesus and the Promises of the Gospel

The men and women who come to Harvest USA have a backstory to their sin struggles, just like you do. They may define themselves initially as a sex addict, a traumatized wife, or a person messed up beyond repair. They have been sinned against and suffered much in a sinful world, and they in turn have responded to it with their own sinful choices. However, the gospel of new life in Christ gives us the capability to respond to sin done against us, as well as horrific circumstances, by turning to God for comfort, strength, and wisdom to obey and trust him. This is true post-traumatic growth!

 

¹ https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.

² https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.

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You can also watch the video, “Why a Christ-Centered Lens Is Important,” which corresponds to this blog.

What is it like to be a Christian parent of an LGBTQ+-identified child? You may be intimately acquainted with what this means by having experienced it yourself, or perhaps you have imagined how this would feel and the burden it would place on a parent’s heart. The following article is a window into a mother’s experience and inner dialogue as she navigates these difficult waters with the Lord.

I find myself making so many demands of God. “Lord, dismantle the devices of the evil one. Blast through the darkness and flood my daughter’s life with clarity, truth, and life. Exchange the chaos that rules her soul with your order and peace. Make known to her the vastness of your goodness and the magnitude of your majesty. Make her see your holiness and the desperateness of her sin, and cause her to know the immeasurable greatness of your mercy as you embrace her. Lord, simply let her know that you are good and great so that she will see that she is lost.” And I go on and on, tears accompanying these commands with little provocation.

What right do I have to boss God around? I have no justification apart from my position in Christ to ask anything of him, let alone ask with fervor and impatience. I am at his mercy, and I realize I have no other recourse in this desperate situation with my lost daughter than to cry out to him. It’s obvious that I have no control over this and, if anything, have been a contributing factor in some way or another. (I do not mean to say that I caused my daughter to choose an LGBTQ+ life. My daughter’s confusion about her identity has much to do with her own sinful heart, cultural influences, desires for fulfillment and validation, and many external factors apart from my direct influence.)

So the bottom line is that, despite wanting to fix everything and make it right, I have no power to do so. Only God does. I guess I don’t want to have that kind of power, really, though a huge part of me wishes I could go back in time and somehow untangle all the strands that knotted into the confusion now in my daughter’s mind. It would be scary to entrust my grossly limited mind and despicably tainted heart with any real power. It’s just so tempting for a mother to want to do anything at all to see her daughter in sweet fellowship with the Lord and this nightmare redeemed.

That thought of redemption is the thing to which I cling, hoping and trusting that the One who does have the power to change (and the mind and heart to know why this devastation is our current reality) will make this all well in the end. He will be known to many, and his power will be exalted before masses, and his goodness will be proclaimed to the brokenhearted. One day, it will really count for something more than the bucket of tears I am accumulating now and the untold pain that my daughter has accrued.

But all of those demands that I make incessantly…I’ve been appealing to God on her behalf for decades already. I have begged the Lord to grant me another child who would know him as Lord and Savior and be one of his very own. And I have prayed daily for her growth in grace and protection from the evil one as she matured. The bottom line is that if the volume of pleas and tears could be measured and rewarded in tangible ways in this life, then I have been shortchanged in the absence of God’s response.

Have there been times when I have questioned God’s faithfulness? I have often asked how my daughter could have come to her conclusions, but God keeps circling me back to focus on his economy of time. He doesn’t have to follow my timetable, despite my pleas for miraculous transformation right this second. I will keep asking, and God will do as he knows best. I will rest in the truths that The Valley of Vision outlines in the prayer “Openness”: “Nothing can befall me without his permission, appointment, and administration.”

In the meantime, in this almost unbearable season of waiting, I will pray that I will daily learn more of his love, grace, compassion, faithfulness, and beauty. And I am sure that he will teach me much about my heart and its need to be led to the cross to see my Savior’s wounds for me.

Friends, we’ve prayed for you as a staff. We recognize that along with so many unexpected upheavals to schedules, responsibilities, and life dynamics, the unknown future may tempt you to find a particular solution for your anxieties. You won’t find it mentioned in the mainstream media. It’s the temptation to run toward our idols.

Fear, uncertainty, and unwanted change trigger most of us to crave and seek out immediate comfort and relief. Our hearts can go into an inward spin cycle that sends us toward familiar but false saviors that may give temporary relief, yet they will only bruise our souls and enslave our desires. When forced into circumstances in which we feel out of control (and we are!), grabbing for some form of autonomous power seems life-giving. But it isn’t.

RESIST! Remember that Jesus is still the same loving, holy, delivering Lord who is your refuge in the midst of COVID-19-prompted temptations. You may be working from home now without online filters, or hindered in reaching out to your accountability partners, or tempted to reach back out to people who are dangerous to you… to your soul, friendships, marriage, thought-life, and more.

Remember, dear sisters and brothers…

Jesus is still your Rock and Refuge to whom you can cry out today, right now. “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the ends of the earth; I cry out to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to yourself, Lord, for you alone are the rock that is higher than I, for you have been and are my refuge, a strong tower against my enemies.” (Psalm 61:1–2)

Jesus is still your way of escape when temptations are either fierce or soft and seductive. “Lord God, you are faithful…you won’t allow any temptation to come near to me (even when a pandemic is happening) that isn’t common and for which you won’t be my escape! Help me to cry out to you and trusted others, Lord, and to persevere through these cravings to seek comfort in sinful ways!” (1 Corinthians 10:13–14)

Jesus is still your constant companion in the midst of quarantines and isolation. “Lord, this house, my apartment, my room feels extra lonely; help me, Lord, to believe and know that you are God and that you are with me. God, use this forced retreat from being with people to create an intimate sanctuary for you and me. Help me to abide in you, Lord, to go to your Word and to be nourished with the Bread of Life!” (John 14:23–15:11)

Jesus is still your merciful, compassionate God when fear overwhelms or sin has been pursued. “Jesus, I’m afraid, really scared with what is happening. Help me hear you saying, ‘Take heart dear one, it is I! I’ve not forsaken you. Come to me and find rest for your soul.’ Yes, Lord, help me rest in your compassion. I did pursue sin, Lord; you saw me when I turned from you to sin, back to porn, back to him/her, back to food or alcohol or ______. I name it, Lord, and ask for your strength to stand up, engage the battle again, and walk as your loved son, your loved daughter. Thank you for receiving me with love and grace.” (Mark 6:45–51; Matthew 11:28–30; 1 John 1:5–10; Colossians 3:1–17; Hebrews 4:16–18)

Jesus is with you, friend, and he loves you. He is for you and will not abandon you. Ever.

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:

  1. The first lie: No matter what you do, you are doomed to eventually act out again, it’s only a matter of time.
  2. 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.

Humility.

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?

In order to keep Christ enthroned in your desires, thoughts, and relationships, what do you need to keep saying YES to?

To learn more, read Ellen Dykas’ accompanying blog, Learning to Say Yes and No.

 

All of us face the difficult task of discerning what to say yes and no to. In our ministry at Harvest USA, I have daily opportunities to engage people who need help with their sexuality or gender struggles, or to write, or to encourage a staff member, or to reach out to one of my donors.

When I was in my twenties, Numbers 9:22 popped off the page into my heart and became a guiding verse from Scripture for me.

“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it lifted, they set out.” (NASB)

This Old Testament version of a spiritual GPS came about in the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. God promised to guide them through manifestations of his presence hovering over the tabernacle as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (see Numbers 9:15-23 and Psalm 78:14).

Wow, seems so great, right?! Today, this might look like praying about something from the following list, glancing outside to see where the cloud is, and following it wherever it goes.

Lord, that woman seems to need a friend; should I reach out and call her—offer to meet up for coffee, or not? Lord, should I…

    • Start a blog?
    • Make this purchase?
    • Be a small group leader at church?
    • Look for a job that pays more but will be more time-consuming?
    • Talk to my pastor about a concern I have about leadership, or “just” pray?

How do we discern what to say yes to and when we need to say no? In a world of thousands of choices, how do you decide what is the best way to spend your precious, limited resources of time, emotional energy, relational capacity, finances, and physical strength? Consider how the use of your time also factors into becoming a man or woman of sexual integrity.

Our Daily Yes

Thirty years later, the principle of Numbers 9:22 continues to keep my heart oriented to the big picture of being a Christian, and this is what we need to remember when it comes to stewarding our sexuality. Our lives belong to Christ and this gives us the most foundational YES we live out: Lord, wherever you lead, however you lead, I will follow you and do what you ask of me, keeping my eyes on you and throwing off distractions (see Hebrews 12:1-3).

Christ clearly and lovingly commands his followers to a life characterized by heart commitments: to die to self, take up our cross and follow him, love him and his commands, teach the gospel to others, be holy, set our hearts on things above, throw off sin and distractions, enter into and receive his rest (Luke 9:23; John 15:1-10; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-3; 4:9-10; 1 Peter 1:13). And that’s just for starters!

Simply put, our daily yes to these things is lived out through loving obedience and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever promotes, encourages, helps, and nurtures that obedience, we say YES to. Whatever distracts, tempts, or weakens us from living a Christ-centered life, we say NO to.  The gospel’s trajectory of transformation in our lives is a process of increasing yeses to obedience and decreasing noes to disobedience.

Wisdom for Gray Areas

But, you ask: OK, that sounds great, but what do I do about practical decisions where the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer? The last time I checked, there weren’t any pillars of fire hovering over my home!

Let me unpack some biblical guidelines that help me.

    1. What’s the motive of your heart in the issue at hand? Will it help you resist temptation or will it lead you to give in? (Proverbs 3:5-6)
    2. As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
    3. Consider the trajectory of God’s work in your life. Does this decision seem to be in sync with him or not? (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13)
    4. What do the mature and wise-in-Christ people in your life say about it? (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Titus 2:1-15)

God continues to use Numbers 9:22 to orient my heart and vocational decisions as I’ve committed to going where he wants me to go, do what he wants me to do, and to leave where/when/who he calls me to leave. In a beautifully intimate way, all believers have the Spirit to guide and protect us in our desire to live faithful lives as relational and sexual beings.

The life of faith has not always been easy or comfortable, but I’m deeply thankful for God’s kindness in leading me, year after year, and for the wisdom he’s given me in decision making. My Christian life is imperfect, but the more I taste the spacious freedom of obedience and faith, the less I’m tempted to give way to an unholy or foolish YES or NO!


To learn more, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, The Importance of Saying Yes to Jesus.


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