24 Sep 2020
“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!
You can also watch the video, “Why a Christ-Centered Lens Is Important,” which corresponds to this blog.
03 Sep 2020
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.
19 Mar 2020
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.
27 Nov 2019
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?
31 Oct 2019
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.
- 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)
- As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
- 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)
- 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.
In 1987 I was serving as minister of a Presbyterian church in Dunblane, Scotland. The country had been my home since 1972. One evening the news reported the emergence of a new and fatal disease in the United States that was affecting primarily gay men. Accompanying the reportage was a clip from a televised sermon in which the preacher affirmed that this illness was a judgment from God on gays. The manner of delivery was harsh and hateful, and I remember thinking this was not necessarily the best response of the Evangelical Church to an emerging problem.
Sometime later, while reading the Scriptures, the words “you will work with AIDS patients” came to mind. The impression was so strong and overwhelming, I actually said aloud, “No!” What followed was a remarkable series of coordinated events that made it abundantly clear that the words I heard in my mind were a call from God.
Sometime after the strong sense of call I experienced to work with AIDS patients, I was at a minister’s conference in London. In the course of a conversation with another pastor, he suddenly said that I should be working with AIDS patients. Another man who had just come back from America said he had recently worshiped at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and at the morning service, an announcement was made about a collection being taken to start an outreach in the city to minister to those with AIDS. Shortly after this, I was invited to the Shetland Islands to address a medical conference on the subject of terminal care. As part of my research connected to this talk, I wrote to Tenth Presbyterian Church to find out what they were doing regarding the AIDS crisis. Sometime later, John Freeman answered and told me about the project. That began the process which ended in an invitation to return to the United States.
Harvest USA, in conjunction with Tenth, had gathered enough money to begin an outreach to people with AIDS in the Philadelphia area. There was funding for one year, but still it was unimaginably difficult to take my wife and family away from all that was dear to us in Scotland.
The beginning of what became known as Hope was extremely difficult. The gay community did not welcome the involvement of Christians in what was regarded as their issue, and we had to endure a measure of protest and hateful behaviors that were distressing and discouraging.
Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness.
At the time Hope began its work, the gay community was deeply committed to serving its dying members. When word of Hope’s existence spread, there was concern regarding the presence of Christians in this field. On one occasion a protest was staged outside the offices of Tenth Presbyterian Church. I was not present at that time, and the situation was defused by a pastoral staff person. But angry activists continued spreading the word to beware of anyone from Hope visiting sick patients. Occasionally our paths would cross in hospital rooms of individuals who had asked me to visit, and it was difficult to endure snide remarks and hostile looks. Eventually, however, through our relationship with a patient from Tenth, the secular AIDS agencies were told about the good work being done, and the hostility evaporated.
From then on, for the next fourteen years, with no advertising or programmatic plans, Hope ministered to a wide variety of men, women, and children affected by a disease that at that time killed most of them. Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness. The initial question we asked was, “What would you like us to do for you in this situation?” In retrospect, we saw over and over that what most wanted was companionship shaped by the changing circumstances of their lives.
And that is what we did, particularly with those who were dying. Each individual case was different. Some needed nursing care, especially at night. Others wanted a listening ear or someone to coordinate with other AIDS agencies. In essence, we were a ministry which offered friendship to those who wanted it. The degree of intimacy and demands of these friendships varied widely but, in some cases, carried us right to our friends’ deathbeds, gravesides, and beyond.
Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
To form relationships with the dying is both intense and emotionally stressful. With AIDS, it was particularly difficult at the beginning. Concerns about casual transmission meant visiting patients in the hospital wearing protective clothing, which added to the fear and anxiety. Eventually, though, as the disease became better understood, the difficulties for staff and volunteers centered on the distress associated with walking patients through the dying process.
And staying with the dying until the very end was never easy. Sometimes at the end, it was only immediate family members and Hope workers who were there to deal with the messiness of dying and all that follows. Given that some of our patients were from difficult and impoverished backgrounds, it was only the strongest of our volunteers who remained after working with someone who died. Looking back, I see that only God’s grace allowed us to do what we did for fourteen years. But the lessons learned, and occasionally the intimacy of relationship allowed with some individuals, were precious gifts for which we will always be grateful.
What did we learn during those fourteen excruciatingly difficult years? First, that the Church and Christian ministries can and must serve their own, even when sinful choices and destructive behaviors have left them bereft and needy. Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
Secondly, Christians need never be afraid of engaging creatively with non-Christians in their time of trouble. Our volunteers, staff, and I often had access to situations and places where normally no Christians were welcome, nor our message believed. But as Ambassadors of Christ, we were allowed the privilege of representing him as best we could.
Did we help? Did we have an impact? We are never the best judges of the effectiveness or ultimate meaning of our service. We must simply follow where God leads, through good report and bad, trusting him to use what He chooses for His glory. As one of our volunteers said after the death of a particularly difficult and angry patient, “Even changing diapers is a sacred act.”
And that was Hope. When it became clear at the beginning of the 21st century that AIDS was now a chronic and manageable illness, I realized the reason God called me to work with AIDS patients was over. We closed our doors in 2002. Often we feel Christian work in which we are heavily invested must perpetuate itself, but the Lord may well have other plans. Now, many years later, I look back on Hope’s ministry with gratitude. All but a few of the Christians and non-Christians we served are gone, but their faces, stories, and the lessons learned are ineradicable. The world in which AIDS was the crisis of the moment has changed dramatically, and new issues have taken over the headlines. But the needs of sinful men and women are the same, the Gospel has not lost its ancient power, and Jesus still tells His people to go into that world as His ambassadors.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
02 Mar 2016
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
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.
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Five
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)
I mentioned two other ways of living that are crucial for us as believers and as the church to live honestly in dealing with sexual struggles and sin. You can read about these here.
Three, we need to be truth sayers
Our churches must speak the truth. I mean two things here regarding speaking truthfully.
One, of course I mean speak the truth about sex and sexuality as the Scriptures teach it. We do not need to be ashamed of what God’s Word says here. The gospel offers something good to us and to the world. God, as the Creator, knows how the world and all of life should work. Today, we need to have the backbone to speak what it says.
But in speaking truthfully, we need to go beyond merely saying what it says: we also need to articulate clearly why God’s design for sex is good; that it makes sense; that it really is good for individuals and for society. It is not enough to simply know what the sexual boundary lines are—we need to articulate why these boundary lines should be in place and that good things come in our lives from honoring God with our bodies.
In just the past month, I’ve talked to two parents whose college-age children, raised in the church, are sexually active, and they were unable to engage them in a conversation about the goodness of God’s design for sex, why it matters, and why it’s best for relationships. On the one hand, they were grateful for the honesty of their child; but on the other hand, they had no words other than to say to their children, “You shouldn’t do that; it’s not what God wants.”
Two, the second way to speak truthfully is to present information that isn’t distorted or wrong. On the issue of sex and sexuality, it’s easy to for us to do that.
I might step on some toes here, but some of the abstinence education I’ve heard presents inaccurate information. In our zeal to protect our kids from early sexualization, we’ve said that pre-marital sex will bring lifelong guilt and that if you only wait for your wedding night, sex is going to be great!
No, that’s not true in all cases, and it certainly isn’t accurate.
And on the issue of homosexuality, the church has said some misleading and incorrect information about gays and lesbians. Christians have made derogatory statements about their character and labeled all gays and lesbians as being people whose sexuality is out of control.
No, that’s not true in all cases. If you go to Florida during spring break, you’ll see a whole lot of straight people whose sexuality is out of control. Are heterosexuals all the same?
When we speak falsely, we contribute to the confusion our people have today about sexuality. This is especially so with our youth—when they hear the church say one thing but the reality is something different and more nuanced, no wonder they begin to doubt what the Bible says is true or not.
Four, we need to be mercy givers
What do I mean here?
Loving mercifully invites help. The sexual brokenness of our culture is everywhere. It’s not easy to resist the pull and temptations of our culture and our sinful nature. Our sexual natures are powerful, and living in this broken world hurts. That is a powerful combination! All of us are sinners—and all of us frequently slip and fall.
Loving mercifully says, “We are in this together; let me help you get back on your feet. I’ll be patient with you as you learn and grow.”
Eighteen years ago, I went to a counselor because I needed help. It took me more than a year to make that appointment, because I kept trying to figure things out on my own. And when I sat down in my counselor’s office, she leaned over and simply said, “How can I help you?”
I wanted to reply with a well thought-out answer, but instead I started to feel overwhelmed with emotion. I felt so shamed that I had a reached a point in my life that I couldn’t figure out how to help myself.
Her response was full of mercy: “Tell me what you think the problem is, and together we’ll find a way to help you.” Her answer gave me hope. I wasn’t a problem to be fixed and therefore needed someone smarter than me to figure it out. Instead, I now had someone who would walk with me to help me find a way through the problem.
Secondly, loving mercifully means forgiving and restoring. What sexual strugglers need is God’s forgiveness, communicated through your love for them. Forgiveness surprises us. We expect judgment and condemnation for our sins and failures, but sexual strugglers feel that way even more so.
I love the story of Jesus and the “woman sinner” in Luke 7. Jesus ate at the house of a religious leader. The leader was shocked when a woman, described as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute), knelt behind Jesus at his feet and wept. She covered his feet with her tears and poured a jar of perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him. She was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. But then he shocked the Pharisees even more—by forgiving her and honoring her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace of him came as a result of her experience of being forgiven.
It is only when we minister out of our own brokenness and forgiveness that we will love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field.
One more thing about the story in Luke 7: I particularly like that Jesus said of the woman, “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to us. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with messy people; people who have a long history of sins. But if we increasingly live like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches, and we’ll love them well. And God will set them on the road to healing and freedom from enslavement. Forgiveness both cleanses and empowers.