And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
Sexual intimacy in marriage is one of God’s gifts. It furthers humanity, cements the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and fosters love and joy in their union.
Christians confess these things. But do we truly, deep-down, believe sex in marriage is pure? All too often, I don’t. Many factors can taint the purity of marital sex in our minds and hearts. Sexualization seeps into almost every part of western culture, and the world’s view of sex as base and animalistic surely affects us more than we realize. We may feel hesitancy and shame about enjoying marital sex. And if we’ve been abused or struggle with sexual sin, it can be difficult to believe that sex can honor God or be safe.
The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to convince us that what God says is good really isn’t good, and our battle-weary hearts struggle to accept the purity of this gift.
And what we believe impacts how we live. It’s harder to engage with your spouse in a loving and vulnerable way through intimacy if sex feels sinful. We may know the truth with our heads, but how do we respond to rogue feelings?
Christ Is Enough
Being a Christian means hiding in the righteousness of Christ, always. If we’re trusting Jesus, every single wrong belief and warped motivation has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) that we may live in him (Rom. 5:18)! Our hope doesn’t rest in our behavior or feelings, but in Christ’s finished work. If God says sex in a loving marriage between a man and a woman is good, and if you’re married, then intimacy with your spouse is good—regardless of your feelings.*
Here are four truths to help us “talk back” to our feelings.
- We’ve been declared righteous according to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Faith in Jesus alone justifies us, not our works (Rom. 3:23–24). Apart from Christ, our hearts are twisted. We may bring sexual sin and its accompanying shame, or the shame of sins committed against us, into the marriage covenant. We’ll be fighting sin and feeling the pain of sins committed against us until heaven. This is why justification is such liberating news—our souls are safe because of Jesus.
God has set his favor upon us. He sparked faith in our warped, corrupted hearts, making them new and empowering us to walk in good works (Eph. 2:4–9). If you’re married, your marriage relationship is one of those good works. Marriage illuminates the all-surpassing gift of Christ, our Bridegroom, to his people. Being justified by faith means we can take our worried eyes off ourselves and fix them on our Savior. We’re united with Christ, reconciled with the Father, and helped by the Spirit. We can walk in good works because of Jesus.
- Christ’s righteousness covers us.
R.C. Sproul illustrates this doctrine of imputation in his children’s book, The Priest with Dirty Clothes. When Jonathan irreparably stains his robe, he goes to the great prince desperate for help to clean his clothes so he can stand before the king. Shockingly, the prince puts Jonathan’s filthy clothes on himself and gives Jonathan his own royal robes. He smiles, saying, “These are the clean clothes I promised you. They are yours forever. They will never wear out. There is not a spot of dirt on them and nothing can make them dirty. They are perfect for you.”
Think about that! Nothing can mar the righteousness that’s ours in Christ—not our sin (past or present), not sin done against us, not our feelings.
What does this have to do with sex? We can wrongly believe purity is rooted in our behavior. If we’ve sinned or been sinned against sexually, that’s it. Game over. We’re “used goods.” But the gospel truth is that our purity is found in Christ—it’s rooted not in us, but in the spotlessly pure robes of Christ’s righteousness covering us.
At the end of Sproul’s story, Jonathan wants to be good enough to wear the prince’s clothes. “But you cannot be good enough, Jonathan,” the prince says. “You must live your whole life trusting in my goodness while you wear my clothes.” We will never be pure apart from Christ. Yet, in Christ, we’re adorned by a purity more shimmeringly beautiful than we can imagine.
- God uses ordinary means to sanctify us.
Day by day, by the power of his Spirit, God is doing extraordinary work in us through ordinary means—reading his Word, prayer, fellowship with believers, partaking of communion, suffering, relationships. For believers who are called to it, marriage—in all its dimensions—is part of that process.
As we learn to submit to another, preferring them before ourselves, seeking their wellbeing, and caring for their emotions, God is sanctifying us. As we embrace the vulnerability of sexual union, committing ourselves to our spouse again, knowing and being known in all our imperfections, God is sanctifying us. God will use even marital sex to work out our sanctification. Christian, you can enjoy sex with your spouse not only as something good in itself, but as part of the Lord’s sanctification in your life.
This is good news, but we still sin against God and each other. Have you ever thought, “I can’t even have sex with my spouse without sinning in my mind!”? The frustrating reality of ongoing sin can tempt us to avoid sex altogether. But that’s not the answer. As Jim Weidenaar said, simply avoiding sex would be like saying, “I can’t pursue relationships with people in church without my pride and anger surfacing, so to avoid more sin I’ll be a loner.”
“Instead,” Jim said, “it’s as we pursue loving relationships that we recognize sin and true growth happens. The path of sanctification, in sex or any area of life, requires us to exercise faith. Though the road is rocky, our Savior will help us grow even as we grieve, confront, repent of, and work through sin day by day.”
- We’re headed to eternal glory.
Neither marriage nor sex within marriage are ultimate or eternal—like all God’s gifts, they’re signposts pointing to the greater realities of Christ and his love for his people. One day we will physically be with Jesus, our heart’s satisfaction, forever (Ps. 16:5–6). We’ll be free from sin and shame, delighting in the consummation of our souls’ deepest longings.
Paradoxically, this frees us to treasure our earthly marriage more than ever and to not take it too seriously. The intimacy of marriage is a lovely gift, but it pales compared to that great day when we see our Lord face to face. Christ himself is our joy! He is our inheritance. He is our tender husband. The marriage union is a temporary gift; spiritual union with Christ is our eternal reality.
How does this head knowledge work its way into our hearts, so our felt experience matches the truth we confess?
We may still feel that sex with our spouse is impure. Feelings are stubborn and must occasionally be given “a stern talking to.” But that doesn’t always change them. In this fallen life we will sometimes be overset by feelings that run roughshod over us, leaving no reprieve, no peace. But amid all the turmoil of all the feelings, we have a sure and steady refuge for our soul in Christ our Savior. We can shelter in him, crying with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
And as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, our belief in Christ’s sufficiency will grow. The answer, if we’re married, is not to avoid sexual intimacy with our spouse* nor to ignore the feelings. Neither can we examine ourselves thoroughly enough or purge ourselves of sin! No, our hope is found in Jesus.
Who Jesus is and what he has done triumphs over our feelings. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ” (293). Let’s look to Christ, our Savior, and hide in his righteousness. We can trust him with every part of our lives.
*This assumes your marriage is not abusive. If you’re facing harm from your spouse, remove yourself to safety and seek guidance from a trusted counselor.
07 Jul 2022
In part one, I outlined some major reasons why your spouse may be avoiding sexual intimacy in your marriage. You might still feel the reason behind this distance remains a mystery. On one level, it’s important to lovingly seek to understand why your spouse refuses sexual intimacy because their reasons will influence how you respond. But even if your spouse can’t or is unwilling to articulate why, there is still a way forward in your marriage.
(This blog assumes the reason your spouse is sexually unavailable is not due to present sexual sin. The way forward in that situation is vastly different than what I outline below. You can find resources for responding to and battling sexual sin here.)
Pray for Your Marriage
God cares about the sexual health of your marriage—it’s part of his glorious design. But he doesn’t care about sex for its own sake. He cares about sex because it’s an important piece of your entire marriage. While it’s good to pray for the Lord’s blessing on your sexual intimacy with your spouse, it’s even better to pray for his blessing on your marriage holistically. God wants your marriage to display the “manifold wisdom of God. . . to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Your marriage is designed to reveal the mystery of the gospel. Whenever you’re praying for your marriage to be strengthened, you’re praying according to God’s will.
A Good Marriage without Sex?
It’s not a foregone conclusion that if a couple is not regularly engaging in sexual activity, their marriage is struggling. If a spouse gets in a car accident and is paralyzed, sex is done. But that couple can still show sacrificial love, affection, affirmation, and unity in many other ways. The same is true for older couples. A couple’s sexual relationship has a life cycle to it, and while that cycle may look different for each couple, statistically the frequency of sex greatly decreases as couples reach their twilight years. This is simple biology, and it says nothing about the health of their marriage. Sex is a very important part of marriage, but the absence of it does not nullify the marriage.
Patiently Seek Conversations
Most couples struggle to talk about their sexual relationship. It feels awkward and intimidating. And if your spouse is avoiding sex altogether, they’ll probably avoid conversations about it as well. It requires great discernment and courage to engage your spouse. Hopefully you know your spouse well enough to understand what makes them feel comfortable and when they’re likely to be willing to have difficult conversations. But if your marriage is only sustained by avoiding conflict, you may need outside help from a marriage counselor to learn how to constructively have harder conversations. Good communication in your marriage is the foundation for building sexual intimacy. You can’t skip this step. There may be a lot of groundwork to be laid before any conversations about sex can happen.
Show Interest in Your Spouse
It’s no coincidence that the Bible uses the word “know” to speak euphemistically about sex. Adam “knew” Eve. This is why our culture’s obsession with one-night stands is completely antithetical to God’s design. Sex with a stranger only leads to loneliness, isolation, and insecurity. If sex is the consummative act of knowing your spouse, the more you know them in all facets of your relationship, the more natural it is for that knowledge to culminate in a celebration of knowing one another sexually.
Seek to know what makes them laugh, and what makes them cry. Show them daily that your own hobbies and interests are always subordinate to their needs. And, whenever possible, help them to connect your interest in them with God’s interest in them. Encourage them to see through you to their Savior. Seek daily to represent Christ in your home.
Weep with Them
If the Lord allows you to know the deeper reasons behind your spouse’s avoidance of sex, you have an opportunity to selflessly minister to your spouse—for their sake. If their reason is physical or personal, show them deep compassion and sorrow over the ways they’ve suffered through this alone. You’ll need wisdom for how and when to present potential solutions such as counseling or medical intervention; don’t rush to “fix them” to remove a barrier to sex. Again, selfless service is the goal—which is also the goal in sex. You must strive to communicate that you care more for their health and healing than you do your sexual fulfillment. Your spouse will be able to tell if your efforts to help them are truly motivated by a concern for them or simply a concern for yourself.
Be Courageous and Patient
If it’s clear there aren’t physical or personal reasons that would make it wrong to pursue your spouse sexually, then I encourage you to take an investment approach to romancing your spouse. This will look different for men and women, so for this situation I’ll use a husband as the example.
Husband, see every act of love as a deposit into your relationship. Pray for wisdom to discern what your wife is comfortable with in different moments. Perhaps a kiss on the cheek or a gentle hug will not be rejected. But you have to be courageous and committed to continual investments. Just like any kind of wise investment plan, you should place greater emphasis on future results, not present rewards. This mindset will guard you against easily giving up when your initial efforts to woo your wife fall flat. It’s also important that you have support from people who can encourage you when you start to get discouraged. In appropriate ways (making sure to avoid embarrassing or shaming your wife) it can be helpful to share with trusted friends how you’re feeling about your relational investments. They can prop you up and pray for you in seasons when you feel like giving up.
Christ Pursues His Bride
While husbands have a unique role in representing Christ in their marriage, both husband and wife need to lean on Christ with their sexual disappointments and show his love to one another.
It’s important to reckon with the reality that you cannot love your spouse well unless you love Christ more. If Christ is not your wellspring of life, you will be seeking that life from your spouse, but they can never provide it. Sex can’t give you what only Christ can. Your romantic pursuit of your spouse will only be sustained and honoring to God if it’s coming from a place of growing contentment in the Lord.
Wrestle with God through the pain of your unmet longings. It’s okay to wrestle. It’s okay to feel pain. You don’t need to pretend it doesn’t affect you. But the aim of that wrestling should be increasing rest in our Lord’s promises, purposes, and power. God wants you to love your spouse from a place of freedom. He doesn’t want you to be in bondage to your desires. But that freedom is costly—it’s not an easy road, but Christ has already blazed the path for you as your forerunner.
As you wrestle with God about feeling rejected, my hope is that you will come to see that Christ knows your experience intimately. The entire story of the Bible is one epoch after another of God’s people rejecting him. Your spouse’s sexual unavailability may not be a rejection of you, but that probably doesn’t remove the sting. And this is where Christ comes as your sympathetic high priest. He wants you to know that you’re sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings, that even this trial is a tool to refine your faith and glorify God.
Even though God’s people have a long history of rejecting their Husband, he doesn’t stop pursuing them. He doesn’t stop loving them. He doesn’t stop wooing them. “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:14). God pursues his bride and tenderly draws her in. He’s done that for you and for me. Just as Hosea’s pursuit of Gomer was a picture of God’s pursuit of Israel, your faithful, tender, patient, long-suffering pursuit of your spouse is a picture of the loving pursuit of God for his church. Whether or not sex is the culmination of this pursuit, it’s still a pursuit that honors God, conforms you into the image of Christ, and conveys his love for your spouse.
Have you heard a sermon on singleness lately? If you’re honest, as a single Christian, perhaps you bristle at the thought of the topic. Maybe you’ve been wounded or just plain frustrated by some of the messages you’ve heard—likely on themes of contentment, sexual purity, and guarding against selfishness. I heartily affirm these as relevant themes for godly single Christians to consider. But when was the last time you, my single brother or sister, considered how the abundant riches of Christ can be uniquely experienced in your singleness?
Do you regularly relish the wealth of Christ that is yours to be received and enjoyed right now? Surely there’s more to life than just holding on for your condition of singleness to change.
Whether you’re single and waiting or have become single through the painful loss of widowhood or unwanted divorce, this post is particularly for you. Still, because all true believers are brought into irrevocable union with Christ, all Christian readers can rejoice over these truths regardless of their marital status.
What are some features of singleness that can draw out—or perhaps even enhance—some of the blessings of a believer’s union with Christ?
Have you heard about the pitfalls of being single? Perhaps you’ve heard negative discussions around things like excess free time, the need for wisdom in relationships, temptation toward sexual sin, and concerns about selfishness. These are all real concerns, and faithful singles should pursue obedience in them. However, have you considered your time of singleness as an opportunity for undivided devotion to Christ? For simplicity in your devotion to him?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives the most explicit instructions for marriage and singleness found in the New Testament: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). He goes on to say:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (vv. 32–34)
I believe Paul is describing a simplicity that lends itself to an undivided heart toward Christ. Is Paul saying here that those in a season of widowhood or singleness have simple, worry-free lives? I don’t think so. But one of the opportunities unique to singles is to pursue undivided simplicity and devotion to Christ, while looking to the reward. Christ himself, and communion with him, is that reward.
Christ Our Reward
Consider Jesus’s words in the Great Commission, as he’s sending his people out to fulfill his mission: “Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Or when Jesus speaks of his Holy Spirit and says, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16, emphasis mine). Is this not one of the things our hearts long for most? We long for someone who will make a permanent covenant with us—one who will be with us forever, who will be “our person,” our closest companion. Jesus himself promises to be nothing less than this to us, by faith, in this present age.
These are not mere platitudes or simple ideas to appease us as Christians. These are rich truths to be received, meditated upon, and taken hold of by faith! Dear Christian brother or sister in a season of singleness, would you consider today the riches of Christ? They’re not only yours for all eternity but can be received by faith today! Would you take hold of them in Christ with all your heart? By prayer? In community with the family of God?
Receiving Christ in a Season of Unmet Longings
Maybe these words sting a little for some. How can I enjoy Jesus when I’m experiencing the pain of unmet desires? What if Jesus seems like a consolation prize to settle for? I want to affirm the good desire for romance, sexual expression, and companionship that are found in a godly marriage—but even this good thing only points to the greater reality found in Christ.
Let’s listen to Paul’s words again: “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Paul’s goal for this exhortation is clear: undivided devotion to the Lord. Just before this, Paul, in speaking to all believers, says:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (vv. 29–31)
Even those in godly marriages are called to live in such a way that the glory of Christ is at the forefront because the present form of this world is passing away.
If this idea doesn’t get you excited, I would encourage you to consider that God created your longings and therefore knows how to fulfill them better than any other. Psalm 16:11 makes a stunning claim about God: “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The life of a single Christian, united to Christ, can be truly rich. As Sam Allberry writes, single believers have an opportunity to display the sufficiency of God’s promises in the gospel and his love for us relationally.
Ask God to help you see things the way he sees them. How might your perspective need to shift to align with his holy and righteous view? He longs to meet you and help you as your loving Lord.
Invite God into the painful moments when you feel the sting of being single. Another wedding without a plus one? Feeling left behind in life as your friends move on? These moments of sorrow also include an invitation for you to have Christ himself bear your burdens with you.
Ask God to search you for ungodly attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors around your singleness. Repent and turn from these things. Maybe you just don’t believe that Christ can fulfill the deepest longings of your heart. Maybe you’ve tried to seek him in the past and it didn’t seem to “work.” Don’t do this alone! Seek the help of trusted brothers and sisters walking with you along the journey.
Wait on the Lord as you long to receive the good gifts he has for you in your singleness. Jesus is the greatest gift. There are no guarantees about when or how he will show up; be on the lookout! It helps to keep in mind that we still experience the felt comforts of Jesus amid a broken world this side of heaven. Have your heart and eyes wide open for the ways in which he is meeting you with his sustaining grace in the present even as he points you toward the ultimate fulfillment of your all your longings in heaven—namely, perfect fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Single brothers and sisters, let’s pursue our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, with all that we have, in whatever season God has called us to for today. He not only gives us good gifts in every season, but he himself is our portion and our eternal delight (Ps. 16). Enjoy your unshakeable union with Christ today. He is worthy!
Caitlin McCaffrey is our new Women’s Ministry staff member and started with us in July 2022. Please consider joining her financial support team here!
For sexual strugglers, the holidays can be a perilous time of struggle and temptation. The holidays can be a pit of despair and sin for sexual strugglers. Watch as Dave discusses a hope-filled perspective on life that can lead to joy and hope during the holiday season. If you haven’t seen the first video in this series, click here.
Click here to read more on what Dave is saying on his blog: ‘Tis the Season for Temptation – Pt. 2
28 Dec 2017
In my last blog, we considered how the holidays pose a unique challenge for people seeking to live sexually faithful lives. Temptation: lots of temptation.
We all face temptations at the holidays (overeat on Sunday or Monday, perchance?). But for many, these are compounded by a drive toward sexual sin when faced with relational stress, frustration, anxiety, etc. How can we find hope when faced with so much pain in this broken world?
Do you have hope this holiday? I want you to, and I believe it’s possible. Not just by battling temptation, but by looking deeper into the struggles you face.
I want to consider how our holiday aches point to our ultimate hope.
My last blog mentioned that one challenge of Christmas is most of our families don’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting. But even for those with great family relationships, Christmas still brings an ache. (Which is another reason why there’s so much temptation around the holidays.) Our most upbeat Christmas carols (think “Joy to the World”) stir unsatisfied longings.
Why? “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). We sing “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground,” but here’s the crucial point: these things are all still happening. At the holidays, more than other times of the year, we long for relationships restored, wrongs to be righted, pain and suffering to be eradicated. In Advent services we listen misty-eyed to passages like Isaiah 11:1-9, hoping in the promises while living squarely in the “not yet” of a fallen world where violence, disease, and death still have the last word.
Lest this blog feed your post-holiday blues, I want to point you to the hope behind this ache, hope that started long ago.
The Jews eagerly awaited the Messiah to free them from foreign oppressors, bringing hope and healing to the world. God began that process in sending Jesus. But the work is far from finished. We’re now living in the middle of the story, what theologians refer to as the “already, not yet.” There’s more to come; specifically, Jesus will come again. But for now, we’re called to live by faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
People who love you aren’t content with vague answers when you’re clearly struggling – they want to know your heart. It’s a copout to treat God differently because “He already knows what I’m feeling.”
As you look toward the New Year, consider these implications of the holiday ache and hope:
First, the ache is a sign of life! This is so important. Just as the Spirit groans within us and all of creation groans as in childbirth waiting for the renewal of all things, your holiday ache is homesickness for your ultimate Home. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says if you experience a longing nothing in this world can satisfy, it must mean that you were created for another world. The hope of the gospel is that God is uniting all things in heaven and earth in Jesus so that – finally! – the dwelling of God will be visibly and tangibly with his people. This began with reconciling us through the cross, but the ultimate goal has cosmic proportions (consider Ephesians 1:7-10; Colossians 1:19-20; Revelation 21). Your ache evidences the Spirit within you, longing for the life to come.
Second, be honest about the current ache with God and others. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Realize it really matters that you talk to him about the things swirling inside you. Like any good friend, he cares! People who love you aren’t content with vague answers when you’re clearly struggling – they want to know your heart. It’s a copout to treat God differently because “He already knows what I’m feeling.”
Through our heart cries, we receive the Spirit’s comfort and learn the truth that he is the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Further, talk to others about the ache! Sexual sin is isolating – turning inward to find ways to medicate pain. Growth and healing will lead to deepening intimacy with others in the Body. Let people in!
Third, don’t forget the “already”! How is he calling you to have a part in making “his blessings flow as far as the curse is found” right now? We’re invited as his ambassadors to be active participants in ushering in his kingdom. How might your particular ache be an opportunity to act for his kingdom? Are there specific relationships where you need to pursue reconciliation? Difficult people for you to love for the sake of the Lover? Ways to show generosity, or help the poor? He invites us to not shrink back from a broken world, but participate in overturning the Curse by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, flip the ache on its head through thankfulness. God’s promises mean it won’t always be this way. Give him thanks that one Day every tear will be wiped away. Death will be emptied of power. In the wonderful words of John Donne, “Death, thou shalt die.” Like the rush of relief when waking from a nightmare, the aching of this world will only enhance the joy and glory of the life to come.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
Watch Dave talk more about this on his accompanying video: How do I battle temptation during the holidays? Pt. 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
For sexual strugglers, the holidays can be a dangerous time. In a season that exults family and good times, struggles and loneliness can bear in painfully. The holidays can be a pit of despair and sin for sexual strugglers. But Dave White gives four steps to handle it successfully.
Click here to read more on what Dave is saying on his blog: ‘Tis the Season for Temptation.
21 Dec 2017
The holidays can be particularly challenging for people struggling with sexual temptation and sin. Why? Despite our best wishes for Christmas to look like a Norman Rockwell painting, it rarely does.
Sexual temptation is a powerful struggle in a season where there are disappointments and loss. There may be a bounty spread on the table, but relationships are often fraught with problems. Hidden behind forced smiles and meaningless chatter are past hurts and unreconciled issues, seemingly impossible to resolve. Perhaps you long to truly be known by family and friends, but they’re content with banal superficiality. Or there are empty seats that were filled in years past.
The holidays shine a light on aspects of life that feel deficient. During my “single again” years, holiday shopping meant wading through a mall of smiling, arm-in-arm couples. It seemed everyone was paired—except for me. This can be particularly painful for same-sex attracted believers, honoring Christ with a celibate life, but surrounded by same-sex couples (and jeered by the culture for denying themselves). One brother recently lamented the pain of celebrating with others, while very aware he’s not making memories with a family of his own.
Because sexual sin is often used for “false comfort” in the midst of stress, frustration, anxiety, etc., all these challenges means Christmas ‘tis the season for temptation.
Others struggle financially and, in a culture of rampant materialism where personal worth is determined by “stuff,” gift giving can be a painful pointer to your (supposed) inadequacy. Or a siren’s call to dive even deeper into debt.
Then there’s the reality that lust thrives off the “me-centered” vacation attitude. Not to mention the lure of so many other pleasures (food, drink, gifts) that, if used improperly don’t satisfy, leaving us craving more.
These compounding factors warn you to be on guard during the holidays! Because sexual sin is often used for “false comfort” in the midst of stress, frustration, anxiety, etc., all these challenges means Christmas ‘tis the season for temptation. A significant shift happens when you begin to understand the context of your temptation and sin and prepare ahead of time to face them in the Spirit and with the support of the Body.
There are four key things to do to get you successfully (and maybe joyfully) through what can be a painful holiday season.
First, prayerfully consider how the holidays have been difficult. Journal about causes of sadness in the past. In what ways do you wish your relationships were different? What do you feel is lacking? What changed circumstance, relationship, etc., do you believe would transform your life? How do your answers to these questions impact your view of yourself? Your understanding of God and his character?
Typically, we translate painful past or present experiences and relationships into evidence of God’s faithless abandonment or indifference to our plight. In what specific ways does your current situation cause you to doubt God’s goodness, love, or power?
Second, examine the lies you believe about God and yourself. Talk to him about them. Ask him to help you believe what is true. Record in your journal biblically accurate descriptions of God’s character to counter the lies. Ask believing friends to help you in this! According to Ephesians 6:17, the Bible is our offensive weapon against the enemy’s lies. He wants you to know the truth of Psalm 28:7, “…in him my heart trusts, and I am helped…” Further, ask God to glimpse his purposes for you in not changing the things you wish he would. How does he want to make you more like Jesus? How might he encourage others through your self-denial and obedience?
Third, because of the likelihood of increased temptation, you need greater support from the Body of Christ. What specific challenges will you face this holiday and how can others come alongside you? If you usually check in weekly with someone, it might make sense to report in at the end of each day you’re away (or your family’s in town). Consider sending a quick daily text/email to let others know what you’re experiencing, your level of temptation, the lies you’re fighting, and the truths you need to believe.
Will you be staying with relatives where there’s unprotected Wi-Fi? Commit to keeping your phone off their network and make sure your laptop/tablet has accountability software. (You have taken that important step, right?) If you’re traveling, are there dangers specific to that location? Being away from home can create the illusion of anonymity. Are there particular places that will be a danger either en route or once you arrive? If returning to your hometown, are there potentially dangerous “old flames”? Acknowledge these things beforehand and invite your friends to ask intrusive questions. As with all of life, we shouldn’t face the temptations of Christmas alone.
Finally, focus on him! Be intentional to draw near to him through Scripture and prayer. Meditate on the wonder of the incarnation. Fight to not lose perspective on the true meaning of Christmas. By his Spirit, he is still “God with us” and (in the words of John Newton) invites you to experience “Solid joys and lasting treasures; None but Zion’s children know”!
Watch Dave talk more about this on his accompanying video: How do I battle temptation during the holidays? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jul 2017
There are few hurts deeper than sexual betrayal. Sex is supposed to be a space of deep vulnerability and intimacy, a place of joyful self-giving. No wonder the Bible calls marriage a “one-flesh” union, where physical nakedness is a profound image of intimacy, of total knowing and complete trust between a wife and husband.
When that trust is broken, a husband and wife will struggle to believe that their sexual intimacy can ever be restored. For those who stay together (and sadly, sometimes that will not be possible), they will need a way forward to become vulnerable and again. It will not be easy, but a focus on the gospel gives real hope and practical help.
To understand how to rebuild trust, it helps to see God’s intention for sexual intimacy within marriage. As Dave White says in his blog, “Just What is Godly Sex?” sexual expression is “analogous to a deeper, eternal reality—a husband and wife are to be devoted to one another, forsaking all others, as a reflection of Jesus’ desire that we be utterly devoted to him, forsaking worship of all others.”
Sexual unfaithfulness breaks trust at the most vulnerable aspect of oneness as a spouse chooses, rather than forsakes, something or someone instead of the one to whom they promised faithfulness. Whether the betrayal is mental, emotional, or physical (or all three), the sins of pornography, sexual fantasy, masturbation, and adultery are ways a spouse breaks from devotion to Christ and their spouse, for worship of self and pleasure.
It is crucial for relational trust and spiritual togetherness to grow between two spouses before they attempt to restore sexual intimacy. If you are already actively pursuing healing in your marriage after the disclosure of sexual unfaithfulness, then consider the following four steps which can bring the kind of healing that makes the renewal of sexual intimacy a reality. If you are a friend, counselor, or pastor, these steps can enable you to help.
Sexual unfaithfulness breaks trust at the most vulnerable aspect of oneness as a spouse chooses, rather than forsakes, something or someone instead of the one to whom they promised faithfulness.
1. Pray and commit for Jesus to have the first place in your heart. Colossians 1:16-17 describes Jesus as Lord and Creator over all, which means he is to be first in all things. This includes your marriage and your sex life! Ask God to show how this failed to happen in your marriage, and in repentance begin learning what a biblical view of sex within marriage is and how Jesus helps you love your spouse.
2. Turn towards your spouse. Firm and strong choices to turn from all things that led to sexual sin must be another initial step. That means cutting off people, places, and situations that are sources of temptation. Trust cannot grow if the offending spouse is not actively seeking to flee from sin. However, fleeing is not enough! It is just as important for both to choose to turn towards the other sexually. This means making your marriage relationship a priority, as well as learning what cultivates an atmosphere of trust and safety for sexual intimacy, before, during, and after being together.
To move in that direction, pray for God to give you renewed emotional, mental, and sexual desire for your spouse alone. In other words, ask God to make you spousal-sexual: radically oriented and devoted to your husband or wife. God delights to respond to this prayer! After all, godly sex is his idea.
3. Cultivate honest communication about sex. God will use the exposure of sexual sin to open up communication on many topics, but the one that will require major focus will be your sexual relationship. Rebuilding trust will require an openness to share feelings, thoughts, and desires in this area. You need to learn what the other enjoys, what brings pleasure, what is uncomfortable, what communicates being used rather than being delighted in. These are extremely vulnerable topics; go slowly, and remember to continually/actively build up your emotional trust with each other. For some, fasting from sexual activity can enable a couple to communicate honestly without the pressure (and fear) of engaging sexually.
4. Pursue and receive your spouse with patient love. Restoring your sexual relationship will take time. Expressing non-sexual affection is a way to express love for the ‘whole person’ of your spouse. Remember that pain and hurt don’t go away quickly, so be patient with yourself and your spouse as you learn new ways of relating. Patience and perseverance are the key words!
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her video: Rebuilding Sexual Intimacy After Sexual Betrayal These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jul 2017
Pornography has destroyed countless marriages. Sexual sin of all kinds inflicts deep pain and damage. But in order to repair and restore the marriage, if possible, Ellen talks about four key things every couple needs to do.
“How did this happen?” asked the woman sitting across from me in my office.
“Our relationship started out as one of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I feel like I have waited for years to have a close friend, someone who lights up when she sees me. I guess she got tired of me because now she won’t even talk to me. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I wake every morning and wonder if she will ever call me again.”
Another woman spoke with me on the phone and said, “Neither of us has ever been involved with another woman before. In fact, I’ve never had sexual feelings for women, but somehow we’ve gotten physically involved with each other. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know how to salvage our relationship. I’m afraid you will tell me I need to give her up. Is there any way to fix our relationship and still be friends?”
A third woman asked me, “Is it normal to want to be with one friend all the time? My husband works long hours and he isn’t around much. My friend is available, and she understands how I feel… even before I tell her. I think we are too close though; my husband seems jealous of her. He thinks we’re too dependent on one another.”
“My last female friend and I became so enmeshed that I couldn’t make decisions without talking it over with her first. When she moved away, I thought it would kill me,” said another woman. “Our relationship was unbalanced, but I couldn’t see it until we were apart. How do you know when your friendship is too close in an unhealthy way?”
These are questions often asked by women who are questioning the health of their friendships. In addition, women who have turned away from a homosexual life often express concern about becoming involved with women in an unhealthy way. They want to know how to develop new friendships that will reflect their growth and refusal to connect with others improperly. In this article, we will explore why and how friendships go wrong and how to repair the damage between women who have an unhealthy relationship.
Designed with his image
Women are relational beings. It is a fact that few would argue. Even our play from childhood reflects how we feel about relationships. It has been said that little boys play “side by side” while little girls play “face to face.” I see the truth of this desire for relationship as I watch my daughters and their friends play. Tears and frustrations surface often for them. If one feels left out or ignored by someone they want to be connected to, they react strongly. While these eruptions in their friendships eventually calm down and they return to playing and enjoying one another, their passion for wanting to be loved and included remains very important to them.
God has built within us all a desire to connect. God himself experiences ongoing intimacy within the Trinity. In turn, he has fashioned us to experience some of the connection he enjoys by giving us other humans to know and love. These friendships enrich our lives, giving meaning and purpose in ways that living in isolation will not.
Sometimes, however, we take the beauty of friendship with another human and expect it to fill us in ways only God is meant to do. When does friendship enhance life properly and when does it become unbalanced? Let’s look briefly at how unhealthy relationships develop for some women.
The desire for connection gone wrong
1. An unhealthy relationship starts with relational disappointment carried over from childhood.
None of us had the perfect parents. None of us will parent perfectly. All of us have scars and wounds left over from the effects of interacting with parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and other figures we thought should love us, but frequently failed to do so well. All too often these relationships included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of the worst kind. Some women grow up and find a way to integrate their past and move on to live life with a balanced understanding for relationship in their lives. Still other women reach adulthood vigilantly searching for the significant figure that will love them in some fashion so as to erase the memory of the pain they have endured.
No woman vows this consciously, saying in her heart, “Since my trust has been betrayed in my childhood relationships, I will look for and find someone to fix this hole in my heart.” However, we all, by trial and error, find what works for a season to fill us relationally. Our self-focused goal is primarily to minimize discomfort and maximize the experience of acceptance and love. If our lives are motivated by avoiding abandonment or looking for acceptance and approval, we relate in ways that flow from an empty heart mainly concerned with itself, not with God or others. Once we engage in a relationship that we think will satisfy us continually, we begin to find ways to manage the relationship so that we don’t experience the sting of loneliness again.
2. An unhealthy relationship continues for the purpose of satisfying a nagging sense of emptiness.
As some women search for someone to love them unfailingly they often attach themselves to another woman who appears to offer the nurturing they long for. Like “hand in glove,” these relational dynamics seem to fit—temporarily.
For example, there are some women whose stories compel them to be the “rescuer”; for others, their stories compel them to be the “rescuee.” When these relationship designs match, an intense connection can begin to fill up a hole in each that gives a temporary sense of satisfaction. However, requiring another person to “fix” our empty broken hearts is a tall order and can quickly become a burden. Such was the case of Anna (fictitious name) who called my office for help.
Alone and rejected from a failed seven-year marriage, she poured her heart out in a women’s prayer meeting at her church. Her vulnerability touched something deep in Carol (name has been changed), and she invited Anna out for coffee. As Anna talked about her life, Carol felt herself drawn towards Anna’s pain and sorrow. Carol knew all too well the pain of divorce, having experienced it just four years prior herself. Carol also felt a familiar pull to take care of Anna, but she had always thought it was a sign of compassion for others.
Carol kept checking on Anna over the next few days and surprised her with a homemade dinner for her and her kids. It felt so good to have someone help with the household chores. Another adult pair of hands lightened her load, so Anna gratefully received the help offered. Anna also enjoyed the companionship of another woman who seemed to understand what she felt. Within weeks, it seemed, Anna and Carol were inseparable, and Anna’s children began to think of Carol as a permanent appendage to their mom.
Carol also enjoyed a burst of zeal for this new friendship. Anna’s children played a unique role in her life since she was childless herself. It felt so good to lighten the burden of her friend, and she thought often of ways to brighten her day. It was not unusual for Carol to invent reasons to either see Anna or at least talk to her daily.
Eventually, though, the children grew to hate the talks between the women that often robbed them of their mom’s attention. They grew tired of Carol’s presence and resented going everywhere with their mom’s friend. Because Anna felt the children’s remarks were ungrateful and demanding, she dismissed their complaints to the notion that they expected to always have their mom all to themselves. She found herself frequently defending her relationship with Carol to her own children.
It wasn’t unusual for the women to hug when they saw each other, but late one night after a particularly long, intense talk, their hug seemed to last too long. That hug stirred something in Anna that kept her up all night wondering what was happening to their relationship. She felt something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what. Hugging Carol seemed inappropriate, but what could be wrong with a hug? She finally decided it was best to put some distance in their relationship until she could sort out what was bothering her.
The next morning, the two women talked about how close they were becoming. It surprised Carol when Anna suggested that they might need to include others in their relationship or spread out how often they saw each other. Fearing Anna might be forsaking the relationship, Carol became upset and moped through the rest of their breakfast. The sulking made Anna realize that to pull away would result in disapproval and resistance from Carol. Not wanting to disappoint the woman who had done so much for her, Anna scrambled to reassure Carol that everything would be fine. But Anna began to feel fearful that her friendship may not be so healthy after all.
3. Unhealthy relationships remain exclusive, unusually intense, and resist attempts to manage the frequency or intensity of the relationship.
As we saw in Anna and Carol’s relationship, friendships that are earmarked over “matching” pasts often sprout up over short periods of time and become intensely intimate. These friendships can be like a seed that finds soil in the cracks of pavement and germinates, sometimes even blooming flowers. But the roots of these tiny plants can’t grow deep, and the plant itself is not in the right place.
So it is with unhealthy friendships. Perhaps the friendship started out well, but the intensity and exclusivity of the relationship has resulted in strong feelings of protective loyalty and impenetrable cohesiveness. As a result, it is often very difficult to objectively evaluate the dynamics of the relationship.
Sometimes when the intensity builds, a desire grows to express the closeness and intimacy being enjoyed—in a physical way. When this happens and appropriate boundaries are crossed, the friendship can become sexualized. No one is more shocked and confused when these sexual feelings begin than women who have never thought of themselves as homosexual in orientation. The process of sorting out a relationship that is unhealthy is difficult and often painful, but it can be done.
Hope for healthy relationships: steps to freedom
When involved in a friendship that has turned into something unhealthy, you may wonder if you can ever break free. If you have a history of these kinds of friendships, you may even question if you are fatally flawed and are destined to forever develop unhealthy relationships with women. You may have even determined to keep everyone at arm’s length from your heart, erroneously thinking this will keep yourself and others “safe.”
However confused you may be about your ability to relate in healthy ways, God’s promise to forgive and make you new reaches the deepest of relational problems. We often don’t turn to God for help until our relationships make us miserable or fall apart. Such was the pattern for the nation of Israel.
In the book of Isaiah, we find God using his prophet Isaiah to caution Israel from trusting the strength of their foreign neighbors’ armies to rescue them. In chapters 30 and 31, Isaiah warns them not to depend on alliances with Egypt or to trust in their swift horses and chariots. He wants them to turn their wandering hearts back to him as their God. His plan is to protect them and deliver them on his terms. Israel experienced disappointment, misery, and literal torment when they disobeyed God. Similarly, unhealthy alliances with other women often result in some type of agony, as we see from the examples of real conversations I have recorded at the beginning of this article.
Finally, God speaks to Israel through his servant Isaiah again in 50:10-11 about the consequences of finding solace in anyone other than him.
“Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire
and by the torches you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.” (ESV)
Like Israel, his love for us is demonstrated in how he will not permit us to depend more on his creatures than we depend on him. In fact, God will lovingly allow our worlds to collapse so we will experience the torment of our persistent pursuit of any torch we depend on to light our path and find our way in this dark world. He knows our hearts will build an idol out of anything, and he will keep exposing the inability of our idols to save or satisfy our hearts built for him. However, he never intends us to live a lonely, unattached life.
Admitting the truth
Facing the truth that your friendship is not healthy for you or the woman with whom you are in relationship is a brave step towards freedom. It is crucial to find the time to be alone and to reflect on what has made this relationship unhealthy. Creating space to reflect, apart from this woman, allows you to think and feel for yourself without the complications of handling her thoughts and feelings. Developing your own sense of self is not only a good place to start, but is also foundational to building healthy relationships.
Also, facing our God-given design for companionship and connection is an important step to health. Nevertheless, only the bold can admit they want to be loved but may have gone to wrong sources to get it. Fundamentally, these kinds of relationships are taking a God-given longing and squeezing people to fit a hole in our hearts that only God can satisfy.
Inviting others to help you
The next step will be important. It is vital to name out loud to others the conclusions to which you have come about your relationship. It would be easy to get confused if you are isolated from others who could give you a much needed perspective. It is also easy to waver from your convictions if your decision is being challenged by the woman with whom you are involved. Mature and committed friends are necessary to help you disengage from the relationship in question.
Inviting a few women, perhaps from church or from a Bible study group, into your life will ensure accountability and give you objective evaluations about your relationships. If your relationship has crossed sexual lines, be sure to confess this to God and your support system. Crossing lines sexually doesn’t mean you are a worse sinner than most. It only means you must avail yourself of helpful support and accountability to continue walking the path of relational integrity. Exposing your relationship to mature women who will help you grow will put to death the desire to keep the relationship exclusive or “secret.”
The significance of grieving
Learning how to live as a separate woman apart from the woman with whom you had a relationship will be difficult at first, especially if you had daily phone contact or visits. There will likely be a time of loneliness and grieving as you begin to live your life without the influence and affection of someone who was so vital and important to you. This would be a good time for you to draw near to God, spending a significant amount of time talking and reflecting with him about what you are experiencing as you separate from the other woman.
As you grieve the loss of relationship, you might find yourself sorrowing over the damage you feel from the unhealthiness of your friendship. This kind of inventory is important for your growth as a new woman, open to new friendships. You may begin to see how being exclusive warped your openness to others and how you may have allowed this woman to be important to you in a way that inhibited your development as an individual. You may also see how your friendship may have damaged others who tried to offer you friendship, or how you may have used this person to escape pain or loneliness by the intensity of the relationship. This grieving is an important part of the process of repentance that, over time, will give you a new perspective and help you make the necessary changes to love others from a new heart.
Setting new boundaries
The next step is to develop and begin to practice certain relational limits in all your relationships for your own health and growth. As you reflect on how to set limits you can begin to identify some of the dynamics of unhealthy relating patterns. Asking God to help you uncover a relational agenda of trying to fill yourself inappropriately will be helpful as you begin this journey. Pay attention to what he shows you as you investigate what you want from others. Begin to talk openly with your support system about how to get these needs met safely and appropriately. Allow yourself to watch how other women relate to one another and begin to label what makes their friendships healthy. Ask the women in your support system to help you by offering you feedback when they sense you doing something that feels uncomfortable to them.
Some examples of relational sins may be how you always appear needy and dependent so that others feel pulled to take care of you. Perhaps your style is to always rise to the occasion of taking care of others, making them feel indebted and obligated while making yourself feel competent and superior. Maybe you relate to others by keeping the relationship intense all the time or being emotionally erratic in disruptive ways to manipulate or control the behavior of another. Asking a few trusted and mature friends to honestly tell you how they see you in relationships will be invaluable to your development as you learn how to keep personal boundaries.
Risking and choosing to love again
Finally, there is no fail-safe code to personal relationships. Even if you watch carefully and try your hardest, you can be sure you will slip up and find yourself looking for someone to fill your empty heart in a way that keeps you from needing God. Our hearts are endlessly creative in looking for some way to avoid needing a God who won’t be managed or behave predictably. The Israelites are an example of how easily we replace God with something or someone we think might do a better job of satisfying our hearts.
No sooner had the Israelites experienced a miraculous exodus from the slavery of Egypt and a miraculous rescue from their enemies, than they became restless. When their tangible leader, Moses, disappeared from their sight while camped on the foothills of Mt. Sinai, they begged Aaron to fashion a god for them that they could see, touch, and ultimately control. One thing led to another, and they soon found themselves rationalizing their “needs” so they could indulge in immorality.
You would think they would have already learned their lesson to depend on God alone, but they had to learn this important lesson again. While traveling in the wilderness, they tried to save enough manna to free themselves from the trouble of going out the next day and dependently receiving from God the daily supply of food he provided. Imagine their surprise the next morning when, after sleeping in, they found maggots in their manna. God intended for the Israelites (and us!) to find him to be the “Living Bread.” His desire for Israel and for us is to remain dependent on his daily provision for our hearts and our souls, as well as our stomachs.
Part of learning this dependency is the practice of inviting God to reveal to us which idols he wants us to destroy with his help. It is not work for the faint of heart. A deep look at our sin must involve the necessary trip to the foot of the cross to be cleansed and made new. However, a woman who develops the habit of returning to her Creator again and again will find the cherishing she longs for as she hears her Father remind her of his Calvary love. In his presence, she will receive the courage to love others in new and healthy ways that will continually bless their life here on earth.
As women we can enjoy relationship as God intends. The experience of knowing another’s soul is a privilege that gives us a glimpse of the intimacy we were designed for, as well as point us to the eternal enjoyment of God and his people that awaits our souls. God will reward us with meaningful relationships with other believers as we daily invite him to fill us. Let us enjoy him by uniting our hearts with his. Then we can in turn offer the source of our satisfied hearts to others.