I was born two years before the first issue of Playboy premiered, and when I was only six years old, I found some Playboy magazines in my father’s night table next to his bed. I stumbled across them quite innocently enough. Looking back, it was nothing like the porn I looked at as an adult. But it was porn, and I do remember being impacted by the images of naked women.
As a boy of only six, I felt strange sensations looking at the women sprawled across the pages. Feeling excited but also feeling guilty, knowing, somehow, I was looking at something I shouldn’t have. In my young heart and mind, I intended on coming back for more looks because of the good feeling, but I felt compelled to sneak because of the guilty feelings. Later, I discovered that my father had many ingenious places to hide these magazines around the house, but I’m pretty sure I found them all.
Each month I would look forward to new magazines showing up in different hidden places. This was a little private adventure in my life that I never told anyone about. You see, the sexual revolution had just started (thanks to publications like Playboy) and back then people were not openly talking about pornography and masturbation.
So I kept my behavior to myself thinking I was quite alone in what I was experiencing. I also had a tough time processing information I heard about masturbation. I connected it so much with my shameful sneaking that I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing what I was doing.
The point here is this: something happened to me. The images I was too young to process impacted my soul. Some sort of damage occurred. That is why I liken aspects of that experience to being molested. The women in the photos didn’t know how they impacted a six-year-old boy, but that does not make them entirely innocent. This might sound a little overboard for you. But the way I experienced all this felt, in one way, similar to what some people who have been molested have experienced—feeling pleasure and guilt at the same time and ending up confused and conflicted. How was I to think about women after looking at them this way?
If I felt that my experience of looking at porn as a young boy was similar to being molested, then my looking at porn as a grown man was like molesting women. How common is this: the abused becomes the abuser?
But I also had to come to the point of questioning my dad’s behavior and how that confused me. Why did he hide the magazines if they were OK to look at? I didn’t see the magazines laying around other people’s houses. The shame I felt about my inability to process the sexual information I was gathering was huge. I couldn’t get over the idea that normal people probably would go to bed and then go to sleep. I could not do that. I had to do something else first.
Coming to grips with my own personal soul damage was very strategic for me. I certainly believe my indulgence in viewing pornographic images impacted my relationship with women. Among many ways I have disrespected women, speaking to them in a condescending manner is probably top on the list. Dismissing women as too emotional, irrational, and calling them “sweetheart” or “honey” when all I was doing was keeping them in their place. Pretending to listen to them, but all the while trying to catch a glance at certain body parts or saving circumstances in my mind for future fantasies. After all, I could use their body any way I wanted to in my imagination. This is strange behavior for a Christian, I know. But I have come to see that porn taught me to treat women in a more misogynist manner than I probably fully recognize.
And then it hit me. If I felt that my experience of looking at porn as a young boy was similar to being molested, then my looking at porn as a grown man was like molesting women. How common is this: the abused becomes the abuser?
It’s taken me a long time to repent of the way I treated women. I’m still repenting. I have learned that the healing power of the gospel consists in being confronted with the truth of how I have treated others, and repenting as a result. Knowing what I deserve even for a glance (Matt. 5:27-30) can be overwhelming.
But knowing God’s call to repentance goes way down to the depths of your heart. It tears away any pretense of false integrity and assures you that you are really dealing with God. And when you know that the God who made heaven and earth is graciously offering forgiveness and a new start—your heart becomes equipped to change behaviors and attitudes. I needed the healing that only God can provide through what He accomplished in Christ on the cross.
I see it happening with me, and I want to encourage you, men, that it can happen to you. You can treat women as those who are created in God’s image and relate to Christian women as your sisters in Christ. You can go eyeball to eyeball with the women you talk to and not let your mind wander elsewhere. You can care for their hearts, and later you can pray for them.
This is living by faith and not by sight; this is having eyes that are no longer filled with darkness, but rather with light.
Living as both single and sexually faithful might feel impossible. For someone who is single, committing to live within God’s boundaries seems foolish in our current culture’s celebration of sexual ‘freedom.’ But for Christians, we find comfort in knowing our loving and holy Lord has a design for every aspect of life. Jesus is present always to help us stay the course of the race of faith, and he constantly holds out forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Jesus and the Bible are also wise and practical when it comes to our street-level fight against sexual sin and temptation. Jesus stands ready to help when we turn to him as we face struggles and temptations.
So let’s consider one important tool in this battle to help us as single men and women: identifying and fleeing triggers.
In the world of addictions, the concept of a ‘trigger’ is significant. It refers to people, places, experiences, and things which stir up thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires connected to certain behaviors.¹ A food addict may be triggered to overeat by the sight of pastries or criticism from a parent. A TV addict may binge watch while important work is left undone, triggered by feeling lonely or work-related stress. A trigger prompts a person to move towards a harmful behavior which soothes or numbs troubling and painful life experiences. In other words, it’s a temporary pain killer. But then the pain comes back, stronger than ever. And a cycle is set up.
Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts!
For a single person battling sexual temptation, it is crucial to identify the triggers which prompt us to move towards various pain-reducing behaviors like viewing or reading pornography, crossing physical boundaries with a person, or engaging in sexual fantasy and masturbation. Let’s be clear: married people also must battle sexual sin! However, singles committed to walking in sexual integrity do not have this context for sexual expression, so fleeing sexual temptation will never involve having God-blessed sex such as married persons enjoy.
Identify your triggers
Emotions and feelings – What emotions are most troubling to you? Which are difficult to ‘sit with’ or bring to the Lord in prayer? In addictions counseling the acronym HALT is often used to teach that feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired are common triggers which addictive behaviors serve to soothe or numb. With the men and women who come to Harvest USASA, we add boredom, sadness, and relational pain. Sexual sin (with people, self, via technology) often is an attempt to avoid internal pain in our lives, which is usually tied to external, troubling situations.
Circumstances – What are the situations which seem to most often precede your fiercest battles with sexual temptation? Is it work-related stress? The holidays? Family gatherings? Church-related events? Large gatherings of people or times of aloneness? Traveling and being out of your normal routine? Having downtime or a vacation?
People and relationships – Do certain people or relationships seem to consistently trigger the feelings that are troubling for you? On this side of heaven, not all relationships will be redeemed or ‘safe’ for us, so identifying individuals we need to avoid can be challenging for Christians to consider. After all, aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor? Yes, and sometimes loving God and loving people wisely (Philippians 1:9-11) means being aware of relational dynamics which pull us away from Christ, rather than towards him and obedience. Wisdom will necessitate having firm boundaries with people with whom you have participated in sexual sin; those who constantly tempt you towards lust and selfish fantasy; people who consistently discourage and disrespect you and your boundaries; and those who are manipulative, deceptive, and hurtful with their words.
I know that seems like a lot to keep track of, but with focus and intention, it can become second nature. Learning what the triggers are in these three categories will help you not just to know what to avoid; you can make those triggers the things that prompt you to run to Jesus, and that’s the best part of doing this. Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts! The goal is increasingly running towards Christ and running away from sexually sinful activities that we use to soothe difficult experiences.
What we need to understand is that when we use things repeatedly to get through life, those things we use become our functional gods. They become idols to which we run, they become the things we worship, and that’s no different than what Israel did when they ran to and worshipped idols made of wood or clay.
The process of learning how to flee triggers and temptations can mean taking various steps of faith, such as:
- Contacting close friends to pray for you, with a call or quick text
- Setting up an accountability relationship for honesty and prayer
- Putting into place intentional steps to grow in your faith, like doing daily devotions
- Willingness to limit technology and media if they are strong temptations
Do you see how practical it is to identify your triggers? It’s a way to bring Jesus into your struggles, and to experience the joy that comes from living in new, better, and God-glorifying ways.
For more help in this vital aspect of faith for singles, consider Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single?, and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes: Finding True Satisfaction. Find them at the Harvest USA Bookstore: https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/
To see Ellen talking some more about this issue, click on Ellen’s video blog, Sexual Integrity for Singles: It’s not a tragedy, and it’s not impossible! Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters (together with the accompanying written blog) in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Robert Lynn, Associate Pastor, Knox Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Part of Harvest USA’s mission is to encourage and equip churches to reach out to individuals struggling with sexual brokenness and sin. Several years ago, two Harvest USA staff members traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to meet with the pastoral staff and present a seminar at Knox Presbyterian Church. Pastor Robert Lynn spearheaded this cooperative effort. He writes how God has since used him in the lives of strugglers and how he has reaped personal benefits. Here’s another blog post that will encourage you to lead a support group for men; you can read it here.
I recall some years ago, one of the pastors I serve with stopped me as we left a bi-weekly meeting. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “that you’ve really changed over the past eight months or so. You seem so much more relaxed and at ease. You’re taking things in stride in ways you didn’t use to…” The conversation went on a few minutes as he articulated the differences he noticed. I was taken by surprise, but it didn’t take long to see the significance of the eight-month time frame.
A bit of background might be helpful to understand this small tale of pastoral transformation. Eight years ago, I found myself in a difficult season of ministry for me. It was difficult to the point of me thinking, “I don’t want a new church. I want a new career!” The last half of 2007 was a time of tending to wounds, so if you had asked me at the beginning of 2008 how I was doing, my answer no doubt would have been, “Great.” And on many levels, God had done some wonderful heart work, but clearly the work wasn’t finished.
What happened in my life that took my healing to new depths. Quite literally, God opened a door, and one by one a string of men struggling with sexual sin entered my life. They’re still coming. I look back now and see that God was preparing me for all this—understandably, I couldn’t see that then.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new. It seems that I’m always talking about the gospel!
Second, there is growth and strengthening of my own faith—my own understanding of how Jesus is sufficient for the men and for me. When I begin to grasp that and stake my life on it, things begin to change. Jesus will meet all my needs; therefore, I do not need to trust in worldly things to find meaning or peace.
Third, there is an overflow of deep, deep joy. As I read the Psalms, David provides words that say it best, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7, ESV). How can fellow sinners get together with the Gospel at the center and not see an explosion of joy? If anything brings new vitality and passion for ministry, it’s Gospel-promised, cross-purchased, and resurrection-guaranteed joy.
Fourth, I have a new love for my fellow strugglers. In 401 AD, Saint Augustine wrote his friend Pammachius, “I have seen your inner being… Seeing this has made me know you, and knowing you has made me love you.” I have experienced this same truth. These men have all let me into their hearts to see their needs. I have seen Christ at work in them as we engage the Gospel. Seeing has made me know them and knowing them has made me love them.
Finally, I now realize how much a pastor needs strugglers. My personal struggles have been ministry wounds and anger, while theirs has been sex, but we each need Jesus desperately. To my surprise, I find that the one who points them to Jesus needs Jesus as much as any of them.
04 Nov 2015
This is the third of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here, and the second post is here.
As pornography becomes increasingly accepted as a part of cultural life today, we will continue to hear more stories about the impact of sexual brokenness in the lives of individuals, families, and even in the wider society. Christians will not be exempt from this brokenness. The church needs to begin moving along four fronts in order to stop the drift and to begin healing the damage.
One: Acknowledge that the problem exists—in the church
As stated repeatedly, take action about the porn usage epidemic in your church. It exists. Remember, it’s a secret sin, so it won’t come easily to the surface. By admitting that Christians struggle with sex (it’s not just a problem “out there”), we give people hope that God’s gift of sexuality can be used for good. Acknowledge that we all struggle with this powerful gift, and that help is readily available for strugglers.
Teach about biblical sexuality to all age groups of people in the church. Don’t just focus on the negatives—teach about sexuality in a positive way, because Christians today especially need to hear a compelling apologetic about why God’s design for sexual expression is for our good. Pray for and seek out men and women leaders to start and lead support groups for sexual strugglers. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can help you get started on all of this.
Two: Begin to take action on injustice issues
The evangelical church can no longer be silent on social issues like the commercialization of sex and sex trafficking. Scripture repeatedly talks about God as a God of justice and mercy, and that his people should reflect to the world what God is passionate about. Isaiah 1:16-17 is only one of countless passages that direct us as God’s people to actively do justice and bring restoration to the broken.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (ESV)
Consider organizing a church committee or team that explores and teaches on justice and mercy issues. Ask God to develop in you and your church a heart of mercy to those who have been abused, mistreated, and manipulated into sexual sin. The scope of the problem is enormous, but don’t get overwhelmed. Start small; start locally. Look for local resources to get involved in rescuing those who are abused and trapped. Shared Hope International is a good, national resource to start. VAST (thevast.org; Valley Against Sex Trafficking) is an excellent local resource in the Philadelphia region.
Three: Start talking to youth—especially to boys and young men
Of all the demographics in the church, none is more critical to reach than our youth—but especially boys and young men. Why? Because our youth are almost universally immersed in looking at porn today, and they are being frightfully impacted by it. New research is showing how porn usage is shaping the minds and hearts of young men, “rewiring” their brains toward aggressive and dysfunctional sexual behavior and addiction. We need to reach this generation of boys and young men in particular in order to stop the demand for sexual trafficking that is growing around the world.
But don’t forget young women, as well! They, too, are buying into the lies of the world when it comes to sexuality. The youth in our churches today know little about God’s design for sex and are increasingly abandoning the Bible’s teaching on sexuality morality. And the major reason for that is the church’s failure to talk openly and give a compelling reason for following God in this area of life.
Four: Learn how to help by focusing on the heart—not just stopping behavior
Finally, it’s not enough to simply talk about the dangers and the personal/social implications of pornography and sexual brokenness. There are reasons why men and women get hopelessly ensnared in sexual sin, as both offenders and victims. All of our biblical teaching on sexuality must aim for the heart, where sinful behavior starts (Matthew 15:18-20).
Helping a sexual struggler means learning the unique contours of his or her heart. When we see the broken idols that we live for, the idols that promise life but deliver destruction, and when we see them in the light of God’s mercy toward us in Christ, then deep repentance and transformation begin to take shape—moving outward from the individual to family, church, neighborhood, and even to the far reaches of society itself.
28 Oct 2015
This is the second of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here.
Pornography is the vehicle that drives lust forward, and porn spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies, and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in its production. It does so in three primary ways.
- Porn disconnects sex from relationships—Its subjects, usually women, become mere objects for sexual pleasure and/or a commodity for sale.
- Porn disconnects sex from love and respect—This especially has been shown to lead to aggression and violence toward women; many point to a “rape culture” on college campuses that some say is connected to the widespread usage of pornography among male students.
- Porn disconnects sex from human dignity—Today, perversity knows no bounds when it comes to pornography.
While this is admittedly an extreme example, Ariel Castro, who imprisoned and sexually abused three women in his house in Cleveland for more than a decade, said at his sentencing, “I believe I’m addicted to porn. . . to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”¹ As James Conley mentioned in his analysis on how pornography is reshaping the mind of American men, he says, “Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.”
Nowhere do we see more of the destructive and dehumanizing effects that pornography produces than in prostitution and sex trafficking. The image of the happy hooker, as seen in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, is a Hollywood lie. The vast majority enter prostitution—and other commercial sex enterprises like strip clubs, erotic massage, escort services, the production of porn movies, etc.—because of complex social, emotional, and economic reasons. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, drugs, mental illness, and poverty have long been the broken social fabric that propels women into such activities. And sex trafficking is even more damaging, where through the use of manipulation or force, a person—frequently a minor—is trafficked for sex, oftentimes kidnapped, and transported for such acts far from their home environment.
It is imperative that Christians look below the surface of sexual sin to what may be driving its use in the lives of those in it. So many porn actresses and actors, prostitutes, and others who work in the sex industry are there because of other major brokenness issues in their lives. It is inaccurate, unhelpful, and judgmental to merely condemn those in it apart from seeing and understanding the numerous factors that contribute to it. On the Shared Hope International website (sharedhope.org), which is a Christian organization working to help victims of sex trafficking and eradicate the demand for it, a young girl named Robin tells her story about her descent into prostitution, a story that is not uncommon:
I became alcoholic after my first drink at 14 years old. Gradually through my adolescence, I began experimenting with other substances, and they became more important to me than school. After miserably failing almost two years of college, I dropped out. I had just turned 21 before I met the man who sold me a dream. The dream turned into a nightmare, and the nightmare lasted six years. In those six years I was prostituted up and down the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, Hawaii. . . I was 21 years old when my pimp walked into my life and, because I was an “adult,” I always carried the guilt and shame for “choosing” this lifestyle. . . Telling my story and backing it up with truths, rather than misconceptions about prostitution, allowed me to heal. (Survivor Story: Robin’s Journey to Redemption and Restoration,” March 7, 2013, http://sharedhope.org/2013/03/07/survivor-story-robin/.)
Pornography also fuels the demand for such sexual services. Far from quenching lust and reducing sexual exploitation (as many proponents of pornography contend), it radically distorts sexuality and relationships. Pornography feeds the mindset that contributes to abuse, exploitation, oppression, and victimization.
True, not everyone goes from viewing pornography to buying sex. But we must see the deeper connections that viewing pornography facilitates. Participating in the “business” of just looking at pornography keeps the industry going. Whether the pornography is free, paid, professional, or amateur, people are being used. As prostitution was once erroneously called a victimless crime, pornography is equally not a victimless activity. Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers, the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced. Viewing it, engaging in it, contributes to the entire system of broken sexuality throughout the world. Those looking at porn are “served” through the oppression of many.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced.
While it is beyond the scale of this article to lay out everything that ought to be done, there are a few steps you and your church can take to do justice, and to bring healing to those caught in the fabric of sexual brokenness. We’ll look at this in the next post.
¹ James D. Conley, “Ariel Castro’s Addiction,” First Things, August 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/08/ariel-castros-addiction.
14 Oct 2015
Michael kept insisting that his viewing pornography wasn’t hurting anybody. “I’m divorced, and what else am I going to do with my sex drive? This isn’t hurting me; it’s actually helping me.”
This was a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago. Not long after that, he remarried, but the years of porn usage poisoned his second marriage, and it failed. The messages and attitudes of porn distorted his view of sex and relationships. But Michael’s porn usage didn’t just impact himself and his marriage. He failed to realize that his porn usage hurt far more people than he was willing to see or admit.
When people think of pornography and those who look at it, they usually respond in one or two ways. Either, “Look, it’s a personal, private activity; it’s not harmful,” or, “That’s terrible. Looking at that stuff messes up the viewer’s life.”
Both of these responses are inaccurate. The first one ignores the growing evidence that pornography is, in fact, harmful to the viewer. Those who engage in it absorb an insidious message about sex, relationships, and life that can lead to serious emotional, relational, behavioral, and spiritual consequences. That’s what happened to my friend.
The second response, while true, doesn’t capture the total picture. It ignores the fact that viewing pornography impacts more than just the one who uses it—it hurts and victimizes scores of people, seen and unseen.
The reality is that the making and viewing of pornography has deep, worldwide social effects. In the main article of our Fall 2013 newsletter (“The Normalization of Porn in the Church: What the Church Needs to do Now“), we highlighted the fact that pornography usage by Christians is a much bigger issue than merely that of personal piety.
There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. . . The bottom line is that our (the church’s) silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice… We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.
Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin… has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone.
Many people have an erroneous view of ministries like Harvest USA. They think we are only about helping individuals break out of sexually addictive behaviors that are impairing their personal lives. But that is only partially correct. Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin as a result of pornography or other out-of-control sexual behaviors has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone. The sin of one person always impacts others, and when the struggler begins to confront the issue and start changing, it also brings healing to more than himself. When even one person is no longer enslaved to deeply rooted patterns of sexual brokenness, the impact is substantial, something that we again noted in our Fall 2013 newsletter:
Dealing with this issue (pornography) forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization. The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continue to be abused on multiple levels while performing.
Pornography has become increasingly “normalized” in our culture and is just accepted as being a fact of life today. Even with that, we are finally hearing reports that show a connection between the production and usage of pornography and the explosion of commercial sex enterprises, like prostitution and sex trafficking. Covenant Eyes, a ministry offering accountability software for computers and mobile devices, has a number of excellent articles on its website (covenanteyes.com) that show a link between pornography and sex trafficking. One article, “The Connections between Pornography and Sex Trafficking,” refers to a report that states, “Pornography is the primary gateway to the purchase of humans for commercial sex.”
In a compelling Newsweek article that describes how pornography usage increases men’s aggression and fuels the demand for commercial sex enterprises, the author writes:
Many experts believe the digital age has spawned an enormous increase in sexual exploitation; today anyone with access to the Internet can easily make a “date” through online postings, escort agencies, and other suppliers who cater to virtually any sexual predilection. The burgeoning demand has led to a dizzying proliferation of services so commonplace that many men don’t see erotic massages, strip clubs, or lap dances as forms of prostitution. (Leslie Bennetts, “The Growing Demand for Prostitution,” Newsweek, September 1, 2011, http://www.newsweek.com/growing-demand-prostitution-68493.)
Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and hear, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires.
Regardless of the studies, research, and individual stories, the connection between pornography and sexual exploitation is just common sense, biblically speaking. Lust and pornography are mutually destructive partners. Pornography ignites sexual lust, but rather than being satisfied, lust demands more and more. No wonder Jesus spoke metaphorically of the need to take extreme measures to combat sexual lust (Matthew 5:27-30). Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and heart, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires. That’s because sexual lust is more than just sexual desire and its temporary fulfillment. Lust is the strong desire to possess something or someone that is not yours to have. Lust isn’t satisfied until it owns or controls what it wants. Lust refuses to look at the object of lust as anything other than a “thing” for its own pleasure. Pornography takes that basic aspect of lust (“I want!” “I need!” “I must have!”) and spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in it. It does so in three primary ways.
And that’s what we’ll look at in the next post.
14 Jan 2014
A positive theology of sex
Harvest USA articles usually deal with the negative realities of sexual sin, and many people think evangelical Christians, when it comes to discussions of sex, are negative, nit-picking prudes who do not have enough fun and who believe God is anti-pleasure and only says “No!” Harvest USA, in its work with people who struggle with sexual brokenness and sin, speaks seriously about these issues, but serious does not mean negative.
We are about an incredibly positive message; we are about real joy, restoration, and redemption that flow from God’s grace, mercy, and love. This applies to matters of sex!
Scripture says God makes and gives to his creation the best pleasures. Psalm 16 says, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore!” (ESV). Sex, with all its emotional and physical components of pleasure, came from the mind of God. It was not something man invented in opposition to God’s plan. Scripture declares that God designed us to please him and live a life full of lasting pleasures and joys.
This is good news. Even though sin has corrupted all good things, much of the goodness of God’s work of creation remains and God’s work of redemption extends hope to bring joy from despair. We are called to live within the good and right parameters of God’s design. In the area of sex, it is imperative to grasp the positive theology of sexuality that God designed. Doing so will help us live lives that are glorifying to God, enjoy his creation more and avoid the entanglements of sexual idolatry and sin.
Consider the following seven truths about God’s great gift of sex.
1. God made us male and female–the crowning masterpieces of his creation
The good news about God’s gift of sex and sexuality begins with God the almighty, all wise and all loving Creator. God declared the world was good and that man and woman were very good. Our maleness and masculinity or our femaleness and femininity are great and astounding works of divine creativity. Every man and woman is a crowning masterpiece of the Creator.
What are we masterpieces here for? Our culture says life is for sex, and sex is the reason for life. Our culture teaches us to radically devalue our masculinity or femininity unless we are sexually active. Unmarried Christians are tempted to believe their single years are a waste if they cannot have sex and tend to make marriage an idol in their hearts. This “life is for sex” view is far too one-dimensional. If by “sex” we only think about acts of sex—the acts that lead to orgasm—then our definition is extremely narrow and artificial. It is easy to “miss the forest for the trees.” If we think only about the sex act, we miss a grand forest of God-made sexuality and sexual identity.
While it is true that God designed us to have the capacity for sex, we are really created for relationships. We are not a masterpiece to hang alone in an art gallery, nor are we made only for sex. In Psalm 8, King David praised God that we were made “a little lower than the angels” (v. 7, NIV). As male and female, we each have astounding dignity—even glory—to bear his image and have a personal relationship with him. God also enabled us to enjoy a kaleidoscope of relationships because he lovingly gave each of us our gender identity. Maleness or femaleness is the context not only for being husbands and wives, but also fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, male friends and female friends, etc. We best experience this dignity and glory that God graciously intends for us as we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
2. God’s gift of sexuality reveals his own nature and glory
Art reflects the character of the artist, and a novel yields insights into the mind of the author. In a mysterious way, the fact of two genders capable of sexual intimacy reflects the nature of God. Even before time began, God the Father loved God the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit shared a communion that was complete and perfect. It is the perfect relationship and reflects absolute transparency and intimacy. The Bible specifically teaches that each person of the Trinity has total awareness of the others (Luke 10:20; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 2:11, etc.). The intimacy of the Trinity—the three in one—is the source of and reason we are humanly capable of cultivating intimacy. The ability to build trust, closeness, and knowledge of another is itself a love-gift from our Triune God who delights, for example, when two of his children “become one flesh” in marriage.
Scripture also shows the nature of God’s love for his people through metaphors relating to marriage. Ezekiel 16, Hosea 2, and Song of Solomon in various ways point to God as a faithful husband who redemptively loves his undeserving bride. Paul specifically states that marriage reflects the love Christ has for his church (Ephesians 5:32). When married couples have sex they can reflect a glimmer of God’s passion for his church, and the reality of perfect intimacy in Heaven—our state after the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Through faithfulness, chastity, and modesty, unmarried people can enjoy many levels and types of intimacy (other than engaging in sex) in the context of their God-given gender identity. Marriage is not the only venue for a deep and abiding relationship. Singles can and ought to involve themselves in close, long-lasting friendships. These, too, are relationships that reflect the intimate connections of community that the Trinity displays. Unmarried individuals also can reflect the sacrificial love of Christ for the church. Single men can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that seemingly come naturally to men—manual labor, repairing things, etc.—yet which require them to act relationally towards others. Single women can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that reflect a woman’s natural affinities. Women often seem more alert to an individual’s needs, both physical and emotional. We each function out of our sexual identity even if we are not engaging in sex.
3. God’s gift of sexuality is for all of us, whether we are single or married
God made each man and woman able to live righteously and have an abundant life regardless of his or her age or marital status. Both the married and unmarried state can be joy-filled and God-honoring, yet many Christian singles are not feeling the glory of being single. The gift of celibacy sounds like a hard sell. “If only…” riddles and even cripples their joy in life, especially as they strive in good faith to live pure against the backdrop of our orgasmically-obsessed secular culture.
Single Christians wonder, “Will I miss out on something fundamental to life if I never have a full sex-life merely because I don’t have a spouse?” Are the pleasures of sex in marriage better than the pleasures of godly unmarried sexuality? If we say, “yes,” we fall into a two-class view of Christianity that is both un-biblical and destructive. This is just as erroneous as saying that having children is essential to the Christian life and that childless couples are somehow second-class Christians.
The core blessings of the gospel are for everyone who believes, whether married or not. The diverse benefits of the gospel, however, are not equally distributed to all believers at all seasons of life. Remember Jesus? He was unmarried, sinless, and lived without the pleasures of sexual intercourse. Remember Paul? He said that he would rather remain unmarried. Remember Daniel and numerous other singles in the Bible?
The pleasures of sex in marriage are not better than the joys God provides unmarried believers. In the same way that chocolate chip cookies are great and strawberry shortcake is super, these pleasures are not better or worse; they are simply different. An apple pie lover would be foolish to say rhubarb pie is bad simply because he or she had never tasted it.
So is the married state to be preferred to the unmarried state? Not necessarily. While Paul does say that it is better to marry “than to burn” in lust, he also advocates the gift of celibacy over marriage for the sake of service to the Kingdom, especially during times of persecution (I Corinthians 7:9, 28-29). Here is a reality check: Many unmarried Christians experience more intimacy through godly friendships and fulfillment through unhindered service for the Kingdom than others in poor marriages. Singles and married people can be miserable or content. It is all a matter of God’s grace, which good gift God chooses to give his children, and what we do as stewards of these gifts. Some are called to celibacy—not a season but a lifetime of singleness—and so God gives special grace, special opportunities, and especially significant service.
In a season of singleness, God’s powerful and diverse grace is the real key to joy and brings significance to times of challenge. Singles are not the only ones asking, “What am I to do with all my sexual desires?” Single chastity is not easy, but married people will tell you that maintaining purity and growing in intimacy is not a cake walk either.
The fact that purity is hard cannot be a rationalization for compromise. Acting out sexually is not synonymous with intimacy. Masturbation is a prime example. It can give fleeting pleasure, but it is often addictive, always selfish, and cannot deliver intimacy or lasting relational joy.
God our Father is not surprised or outwitted by the sexual temptations we all face. Our Heavenly Father wired us to have desires, and he gives strength to draw near to him and avoid sexual or any other sin. He does not tempt us to sin, but he affords us opportunities to seek and find what is far better, himself, rather than fleeting bodily pleasures. Unmarried men and women can channel their sexual energies toward non-sexual but very fulfilling relationships, noble accomplishments, and adventures in service and ministry. The biggest hazard of singleness is not missing out on sexual release—it is being isolated and alone. Isolation is choice, but it is not God’s will for Christian singles to live without the grace of Christian friends and spiritual family. Life is too short to not have and be family. God provides his body, the church, as a functional family for both time and eternity.
4. God designed sex with marriage to bless, protect, and empower us
Some fear the power of sex, but God gave sexual intimacy the sacred power to bond a husband and wife together—body and soul—in a covenant of loyalty and love. “Becoming one flesh” within marriage is more satisfying that anything the world offers as a sexually attractive substitute. Like a fire inside a fireplace, it provides light and warmth, but outside the right context, sex can destroy like an un-extinguished cigarette can burn down a huge forest. Sex is not the purpose of marriage or a good enough reason to get married. Sex is not the goal. It is a means to an end. The Lord gave sexual intimacy, as a natural part of married-life, to be an intense, joy-giving way to celebrate and reaffirm covenant love. Rest assured God is very pleased when godly couples enjoy it.
Marriage protects sex from promiscuity and exploitation, and sex is to protect marriage by giving comfort and relieving temptation. That is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, commands husbands and wives not to defraud each other sexually but to lovingly fulfill their marital duty to one another. A church that neglected to celebrate Christmas and Easter would be spiritually malnourished. A marriage without sexual intimacy is likewise emotionally impoverished. Godly, other-centered sex protects married couples from temptation and helps keep marriages together. Proper sexual expression in marriage is a celebration that renews commitment and love.
Genesis 1:26-28 reveals that God designed sex within marriage to empower us. God never rescinded his plan for us “to have dominion … be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Dominion may sound like an archaic and politically incorrect concept. Yet, God gave sex within marriage for not only joy, intimacy, mutual comfort and support, but also procreation of children! Without moms and dads, where would we be? One divine purpose of sex in marriage is to provide a context to bear and then empower children who will grow up to fulfill a Kingdom purpose—to spread God’s justice, wisdom, and love to the entire world.
5. God gave our sexuality so we could know Christ better and love others as Christ loves us
The world teaches that whatever one person can do to get another “consenting adult” to please him or her sexually is permissible. God gave us a sex drive not to make us sin but to love well. It takes knowing Christ better to realize that sex is not a toy and we are not consumers of sexual experiences. It takes loving Christ better to see our sexuality as a platform for self-controlled and self-giving love.
When we are tempted to trust sex to heal our emotional needs or save us from emptiness, we become convinced that our pain is worse than sin. We defend our sexual compromise. It takes knowing Jesus better to believe sin is worse than our pain. It takes loving Christ better to sincerely want freedom from sin rather than freedom to sin. This moral challenge does not surprise God. He allows these tensions and tests as opportunities to turn to him for grace and power in our times of need.
The joys and trials of marriage in general and sex within marriage are given to make us holy more than to make us happy. In seasons when a marriage becomes strained, hard, or painful, the desires accompanying sexual intimacy can turn a maturing Christian’s heart toward Christ. Christ provides wisdom and strength to love an imperfect and even unlovely spouse with sexual faithfulness and perseverance, even when one’s flesh wants to run or rage. We can learn, “The better I love Christ, the better I will love my spouse. The better I love my spouse, the better I will love Christ.”
All these sexual tensions, temptations, and emotional desires offer singles and those married opportunities to grow finding paths to joy as God faithfully provides our true needs. When we find him faithful and follow him with trust and integrity, we honor him. Our sincere hearts shine through our good deeds of self-sacrificing love and sexual integrity. This is one way our sexuality gives God glory.
6. Sexuality points to Christ and the church—we need the church to shepherd the story of our sexuality
The world really cannot find a grand story for human sexuality. Secular people want life to be a comedy where being sexually active brings happiness. They find monogamy as boring as re-runs and the sexless narrative of chastity or celibacy a pointless tragedy. In Scripture, on the other hand, God places our sexuality into the grand story of redemption. Our sexuality points towards the grand divine drama—the true story of the High King who builds a Kingdom of people redeemed by a blood covenant through his Son, Christ Jesus.
The gospel story of God making and keeping the covenant of redemption is the grand context within which we should express our sexuality. Our story and Christ’s story are forever united. This union is compared to the connection of the head to the body. As the body of the crucified and risen King, we extend his truth, life, and redemption against all sin, death, and evil. All sexual matters are placed into the epic struggle of good and evil—the Kingdom versus the evil empire.
Since God made sex to be powerful, Christ commissioned the church to function as a shepherd and guide in this area as well as in all other areas of life. The church—the people of God—is a gracious gift to each Christian. It is in the community of Christ that we give and receive guidance, encouragement, correction, and company. Other Christians are crucial to assist us when we are struggling with sexual issues and to keep our eyes on Jesus. Our sexuality is not just our story; it really is part of the family story, and the church family has a say and stake in how we live out our sexuality. Our sexuality is so big no Christian can handle it alone. Christ gave the church as the “family of God” (1 Timothy 3:15) because when sexual brokenness and sin enters our lives, we need a healing community to affirm the forgiveness we receive from Jesus. The church is the spiritually functional family that accepts and guides us in repentance and into the joys of restoration.
7. God gave sex to point us to heaven—sex is not for forever
In Matthew 22, Jesus stated there will be no marriage and therefore no sexual intimacy in Heaven. How can something as intensely good as sexual intimacy be left out of heaven? God will not leave sex out of Heaven because it is inherently sinful. God declared all things good on Day Six after He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply—a task that required sexual activity. If sex is good for time, why is it not good enough for eternity?
It is because there is something better. It is because sex, in the fullness of its meaning, points to greater realities in the way a road sign points to a great city. The sign of sex will be obsolete in Heaven because the reality it points to will be replaced by the greater reality itself. It is the same way with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Heaven, both sacraments will cease since they have their fulfillment there. The Lord’s Supper—a meal remembering Christ’s death and signifying our union with him—will be replaced by the great Wedding Feast. We will be the Bride and he the Groom! Baptism, which is a sign that we belong to Christ, will be replaced in Heaven because we will be face to face with Christ.
The intimacy we will have with Christ throughout eternity will be so great that sexual intimacy will pale in comparison. The ecstatic pleasure of even the best orgasmic 15 seconds shared in a godly marriage will be like tasting the plainest food compared to the everlasting joy and intimacy we will share with Christ at his banquet table.
If sex can be this good now, even in a world tainted by sin, think how much better sinless and perfect intimacy with our Creator will be! It will be the coming home into the embrace of the One who has loved us before the foundations of the world. It will be so glorious not one of us will regret “missing sex.” Instead, we will wonder how we were ever so preoccupied with it. Nothing can compare to entering into the presence of the glorious radiance of God Almighty.
God gives the best sex
God gives the best sex. He gives sex and sexuality for our joy and, ultimately, for his glory. Our Father does not deprive us from pleasures, nor does he condemn us for our failures. God faithfully provides forgiveness and empowering grace so that the trials and joys related to our sexuality work together to prepare us for eternal intimacy with Jesus Christ. Our sexuality offers a tremendous opportunity to live a life of faith and love. As we live with his gift by means of his grace and together with his grace-giving people, we live out the hope of the gospel and are a light to the world.
14 Jan 2014
We routinely approach churches to request they add Harvest USA to their missions budget, as we rely on God’s people for all our support needs. Many churches reply with a response I hear often: “We really love Harvest USA, but you‘re just not missions; you don’t fit into any of our giving categories.”
That’s ironic! Years ago I was deeply impacted by a seminary professor named Dr. Harvie Conn. Harvie was the missions professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, when I was a student. He walked with a limp, literally. That’s because Harvie, prior to being a professor, had been a missionary for years in Korea—to prostitutes! There, he was grabbed several times by a gang of men while walking down a street, dragged to an alleyway, held down, and had his feet beaten and broken with two-by-fours. He was told, “Quit telling these women about Jesus.” It turned out that the pimp’s income was being affected as these women came to Christ and left prostitution.
So, when Harvie spoke—well, you just listened a little more closely. He had earned his stripes, suffering for Christ. One day he told the class, “Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about an unreached people group—a hidden people group.”
Harvie then talked about the need for mission work in the homosexual community. The church, historically, had a totally “hands off” approach to the gay community. At the time, in 1983, it was becoming the fastest-growing group in the country. He went on to define a people group as any group of people who had a self-perceived identity which bonded that group together and facilitated their growth as a specific community. Harvie explained how the gay community was cemented by common political, social, economic, philosophic, and psychological identities.
But Harvie didn’t stop there. He said the real hidden people were men and women who became believers, bringing into the church all their sexual baggage, confusion, and histories, along with the pain of scarred hearts and souls from sexual abuse, pornography, etc. Then they sit there in silence, because these things aren’t talked about in the church. Often paralyzed by the guilt and shame that sexual sin uniquely produces, most have given up hope that anyone cares whether they find forgiveness or freedom. Harvie explained that the gospel, if it truly is the gospel, must meet these people where they are at, with the hope of a cleared conscience and a changed life. This, he told us, was impossible for them to experience without the love, intervention, and assistance of others in the church.
This intrigued me. Here I was, sitting in this class, hearing someone I respected saying, “These are the unreached, the hidden, the disenfranchised moral discards of our day. The church must be about this kind of ministry, both outside and within the church.” I was also personally interested, due to the work God had done in my own sexually-scarred heart and life. After much prayer and discussion with others, several people caught the vision for such a ministry. Harvest USA was soon formed, and I became the first staff member.
So when a church says, “You’re not missions,” I want to laugh and cry at the same time! Not missions? You’ve got to be kidding. Just consider these recent ministry opportunities we had.
- I once did a half-day seminar at a very poor Jamaican church in The Bronx, NY. They began ministering to the sexually broken in their community and wanted more training. We did this as part of our mission work. They couldn’t afford to pay, not even our travel expenses up there and back for the day, as we ministered the gospel and trained them. At the end of the day, the pastor told everyone, “I asked them to come help us, and they sent the head guy.” Then he began to cry.
- A month after that, I met with the staff and lay-leaders of an inner-city Portuguese church in Newark, NJ. The church is in a community of 30,000 Brazilian immigrants. Five young people had “come out” at the church within the past six months. The elders know this is the state of the church today and needed help. In early 2012, we are working toward providing them a whole day’s training seminar.
- A Muslim professor asks us to lunch after our presentation to his university class, telling the staff he has a PhD and has published books but doesn’t have a relationship with God like they had described. He then begins to ask how to get that.
- At a nearby university, I spoke to a group of 250 students on “The Gospel And The Gay”—95% of the students are Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese).
- Recently we’ve received requests to translate Harvest USA materials into Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and Punjabi.
Wow! This all sounds pretty much like missions to me! If you’re on a missions committee, or know someone in your church who is, please advocate for us. Encourage the church to become partners in ministry with us. Since the economy has taken a nosedive, we have lost over a dozen supporting churches and about 150 individual donors. We really need more of God’s churches to help us. If that’s not possible, we also encourage churches to consider an annual “love offering. “Thank you for partnering with us, and praying along with us in this Kingdom missions’ work!