05 Jan 2023
Written by a former ministry recipient of Harvest USA
Have you ever been blindsided by pain from the past erupting unexpectedly in present circumstances? It can be disconcerting and even terrifying. I’d like to share my experience of this in the hope that it will help others walking out faith and obedience regarding not only sexual sin, but also the wreckage of painful relationships.
I’m an older woman and thought I’d worked through my issues from the past, including a difficult relationship with my mom. I love the Lord, have sought to be immersed in the truth of God’s Word, and have also benefited greatly from counseling as well as Harvest USA’s discipleship for women. I experienced same-sex attraction (SSA) in my teen years and early adulthood but, by God’s grace, those desires dissipated profoundly. I’m thankful for a kind and godly husband who has journeyed with me. Amid these blessings, a few years ago an incident occurred that brought me to my knees with a sense of desperation to understand what had been triggered that I was seeking to escape.
The Trigger and the Memory
There had been a change in leadership at the job I’d held for many years. During supervision with my new boss, she didn’t want to hear a word I had to say. Things were tense. After the meeting, I found myself wanting to run out of the building. I thought, “Maybe if I go pick up coffee every couple of hours, I’ll be alright; I just need to get out of here!” This familiar sensation is what I’d come to understand as a fight or flight response, common in those who’ve experienced trauma. Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.
After a couple of days feeling out of control, I came before my heavenly Father on my knees in prayer, crying out, “What is wrong with me?” Exhausted, I rested in his presence. I believe the Lord helped me connect a childhood occurrence with its emotion and feelings. These feelings were the same as those I felt in that office with my boss.
Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.
When I was a very young child, I remember standing by my mother’s chair in the living room wanting and asking for her attention, but she would ignore me with a mean and callous look on her face. I felt rejected—as if my personhood was not even worth being recognized. I hadn’t felt those feelings again until I was in that office decades later, with my boss who didn’t want to hear a word I said.
Significantly, my lack of connection with my mother—something I always wanted—was a key component when it comes to my disordered desire for emotional and physical intimacy with older women. I realize now that my mother was greatly troubled and had mental illness. I’ve forgiven her. I thought I’d fully worked through this loss until this triggering event.
What should we do when past trauma is triggered?
What the enemy intends to use for evil, God desires to use for our good (Gen. 50:20). I’ve found the following action steps helpful, and I hope they help you, too. As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.
- It’s important to realize something is wrong. This sounds simple, right? However, sometimes we don’t take time to slow down enough to sort through our feelings. We need to identify what is going on in our hearts to work through our problems and pain. In Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Diane Langberg states:
Pain is the only protest in the human constitution that something is wrong. It is the only thing that raises its voice against existing abuses. If you jump to silence pain, you will fail to find the wound. Pain is the Martin Luther of the human framework; it plasters the wall of the city with the announcement that something is wrong.
- Take time to process what has happened. Like the grieving process, we need time to work through our loss. Many people find journaling helpful. This is an especially important step that must not be overlooked to work through the triggering event and how it relates to past trauma. Some will benefit from talking it out with a trusted friend or counselor to be guided through processing deep pain safely.
- Identify feelings like anxiety, anger, and fear and the “whys” behind each. Also, challenge corresponding thoughts that do not line up with what God says about you, replacing lies with the truth of God’s Word. Knowing who you are in Christ is a firm foundation on which to stand. Emotions can be powerful! When a past trauma has been triggered, it’s helpful to remind yourself that the past event is in the past and that you are safe in the here and now.
- Seek help. Your symptoms (and those strong feelings and emotions) should settle down over time. If you are continuing to struggle—having difficulty with your daily tasks, falling into old negative patterns, experiencing flashbacks or nightmares—help from a counselor may be warranted.
- Remember you’re not alone. Your heavenly Father is with you and will uphold you (Is. 43:1–3). He will never fail you! He longs to comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3). He desires that we pour out our heart to him, and yes, he will meet us in our most challenging times (Heb. 4:16). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
- Don’t isolate. A natural reaction to trauma is to withdraw from others. However, it’s extremely important to maintain relationships and connections to your church community. When you’re hurting and feeling delicate, allow God’s people to love you. This doesn’t mean you share your struggle in every large group setting. But choose to lean on trusted friends who are spiritually mature and have modeled a compassionate heart toward sufferers. In the hard things of life, I have never felt so loved as to be surrounded by my brothers and sisters who care for me with the love of Jesus.
- Self-care. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and getting enough exercise. These things are known to be helpful, increasing our ability to cope with the stressors of life. If you are not feeling very motivated, take small steps in a positive direction and build on those steps as you begin to feel better. And don’t neglect to do things you enjoy!
As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.
Know that God has good plans for you (Jer. 29:11) and desires to use you in the lives of others (Eph. 2:10). Look to Jesus always (Heb. 12:2–3) and run to him when your past pain is triggered—he is our help and our eternal healing.
22 Sep 2022
Several years ago, a ‘worship’ song went viral with two million hits. With a beautiful melody and poetic words, it caught the hearts of many.
You’re the first thing I know I can believe in,
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy, I’m high on loving you
You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt,
You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church,
This, however, is not a song about the Lord Jesus Christ, but a romantic relationship. H.O.L.Y., the song’s title, refers to someone being “high on loving you.” The words of devotion and ecstasy are about a person providing healing and saving grace. This person is even described as a “church” within which to worship.
We all desire the security of feeling loved—and we’re all tempted to find that security not in God our Creator but in unhealthy relationships with people around us. Through books, songs, and movies we have stories of people craving and searching for an experience of love and security that can only truly—and in a healthy way—be met by Jesus.
Worshipping a Person or Loving Them
As H.O.L.Y. illustrates, romantic love is one way the worship of a person can displace Jesus as the worthy focus of our hearts. However, idolatry of people happens between parents and kids, in friendships and mentoring relationships. Wherever there are two hearts unanchored from worshipping and depending upon Christ, there is fertile soil for relational idols to grow.
Tim Keller describes idols as “anything more important to us than God, anything that absorbs our heart and imagination, anything we seek to give us only what God can give” (xix). When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, to have your life fixed, your heart healed, or an empty heart made whole through a person, it’s false worship. Often this is called codependency, but it’s really idolatry.
God’s word is clear that he alone is to be worshipped, rather than any created thing—including people.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)
God is to have no rivals or replacements in our lives, hearts, and affections. Often, relationships with people can intrude upon our intimacy with God as our hearts’ devotion is easily hijacked by the human element that people, a good gift, offer to us.
“Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:11–13)
I’ve struggled over the years to keep people in their proper place in my life; I’m not alone! I’ve walked with so many women who have become consumed with a best friend, boyfriend, or mentor in their lives. What God may have provided as a gift has become ultimate, displacing God and resulting in an entangled mess of codependency. Paul says it this way: “. . . they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25).
This exchange of the created thing for our loving Creator is one of the most common sins. If you see yourself in this article, have hope! You are not alone. And let’s be clear: desires for unfailing love, to be deeply known, needed, pursued—even just to matter to someone—are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God who loves us deeply, knows us completely, and exists Himself in a holy, relational Trinity.
The problem is that our image bearing capability has been distorted by sin. Our desires have become disordered. What is “natural” to us rises from our sinful hearts. All of us struggle in one way or another in our relationships. We crave and work at getting things from people that can truly only be found in our union with Christ.
Engage Some Diagnostic Questions
Is there a person in your life who:
- . . . you depend on for your sense of identity and value?
- . . . you obsess about in your thoughts?
- . . . you feel addicted to being in touch with throughout the day? Not having contact prompts you to feel threatened and insecure?
- . . . is needy for you to be a parent/counselor/surrogate-spouse for them, and you are happy and secure in this role of being a ‘need-meeter’ and rescuer?
- . . . has been a friend or counselee but has become someone for whom you have romantic feelings and / or have gotten involved with physically, perhaps even sexually?
Friend, did you answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions? If so, I plead with you to pause. You may be playing with fire, or you may be in the flames already. Displacing Christ with people may happen intentionally from a hard heart; it also happens when we are naïve. Regardless of how you got here, Jesus has a way out for you.
Steps to Take If You’re Entangled in a Relational Mess
- If this person is a family member, you’ll need to get help to understand what healthy boundaries are and what godly love looks and feels like. God is not calling you to abandon this relationship but to have your affections and the relational dynamics radically reoriented and transformed. Seek help from someone outside your family.
- For other relationships:
- If there has been sexual involvement, confess your sin to a trusted person, end the relationship, and commit to no contact with this person for an indefinite length of time.
- Seek Christ! You probably won’t feel like it, but fleeing to him and his Word is a must.*
- Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s comfort. In one of his letters, John Newton said, “He wounds—in order to heal. He kills—that he may make alive. He casts down—when he designs to raise. He brings a death upon our feelings, wishes and prospects—when he is about to give us the desire of our hearts.”
- Pursue discipleship regarding the underlying heart issues that made you vulnerable to idolizing people.
- Hope! One day, the pain of this costly obedience will subside. Jesus is with you and he will never stop loving you.
- Believe! God Himself does battle with our idols as he transforms us into Christlikeness.
God has brought me a long way in my journey into relational wholeness and holiness. What was once a pattern in my life isn’t anymore. What felt necessary, life-giving, and beautiful (but was none of these), has faded from my heart and been replaced with a desire for Christ that fuels godly love rather than grasping relational lust. God wants to delight you with healthy, rich relationships, and my prayer for you as I post this article is that today you will have hope and courage to take the steps you need to be free.
*You might consider working through my 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
It may be glib, but it rings true: the only thing that never changes is change. I’ve got change happening in almost every area of life right now. You too? Consider this list of what I’m facing and see if it connects with your life.
- Change through death. My dad died several months ago, and family relationships have shifted since then. Not only have I joined the parentless club, but my relationships with my siblings and their families are growing into something different. In the last few years of his life, a lot of our interactions revolved around how Dad was doing. We texted, emailed, and talked about what kind of care he needed, who could do what, and then the dreaded end-of-life decisions. Over the past months, we’ve grown into new ways of connecting that don’t orbit around Dad’s care.
- Change through aging. Umm, I’ll just leave that, at that! But you can guess—bodies age and with that comes a changed appearance, different limitations, new dreams emerging, and a revitalized commitment to make the most of the time given to me in this life.
- Change through new relational landscapes. Our Harvest USA staff family has lost several beloved brothers and sisters to new callings and changed life circumstances; we’ve gained several new coworkers too. There have also been several significant changes in my personal life: my close friend and sister moved overseas with her family, another friend has grown more limited due to chronic illness, and still another moved out of the area.
- Change through spiritual pruning and soul surgery. God has been doing so much in my own heart over the past season. He’s been growing me through challenges, joys, grief, and a long awaited ‘birth’ of a book I’ve wanted to write for years. Writing Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey brought more tears than any other writing project I’ve worked on for Harvest USA. The excruciating stories that women have shared with me have changed and humbled me.
What about you? Do any of those categories hit home, my friend? Perhaps your marriage has suffered the painful blow of abandonment, death, or divorce. Maybe one of your kids just left for college and you aren’t so sure that the emptier nest season is as fabulous as you’ve heard. Or perhaps a friend has moved on, seeking connections elsewhere, and you feel lost and abandoned. You might even be facing the disorienting reality of someone ending their relationship with you because it had become sinful, and your friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/secret lover heard and heeded the loving call of Jesus to return home from the far country.
When the pain of change hits hard, we have a choice in front of us. We can cry out to Jesus for help, comfort, wisdom, and guidance or we can cry out elsewhere for temporary comfort, distraction, rescue, or a sense of stability. Where do you tend to turn?
Everything Will Shift—Except God’s Promises
When you’re hit with pain due to changed circumstances, it’s important to cry out for comfort in the right direction. The enemy of our souls and our weak and easily deceived sin nature crave and seize any opportunity to pursue people, experiences, and feelings that may temporarily numb or relieve our anguish but, in the end, land us in a pit. God alone is the source of unchanging, unfailing love and comfort. He is your steadfast companion when the terrain of your life shifts, whether slightly and subtly or like a wave crashing over you.
Consider these promises from God’s Word:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
For I the Lord do not change. (Mal. 3:6)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb. 13:8)
But people? Your best friend? The person you’re dating? Your spouse if you marry? Your health, financial portfolio, church? All will change and shift. Some of these changes will be sweet and feel good, while others may break your heart.
Painful Change Leads You to Your Steadfast Savior
Only through our relationship with Jesus do we have a relationship with someone who will never:
- Stop loving or change his desires for us. Jesus won’t ever say, “I just don’t have the feels for you anymore.”
- Abandon, break up with us, or join a new friend group, leaving us in the dust by saying, “You know…I just need to do me now…sorry.”
- Take back the forgiveness that has covered all our sins—past, present and future!
- Betray us or not come through on the promises he’s made. His words are trustworthy. God will never stop loving us deeply, even as he knows all the worst things about us and has experienced our sin against him every day. He’ll never stop offering to comfort us when our hearts are broken, lonely, or disappointed. He’ll never grow tired or give up on helping us grow and become more like him. He’ll never go back on his promise to give us strength to live for him and not ourselves. He’ll never grow tired of helping us and carrying our burdens.
- Change his plan to bring all his children into heaven at the time of his choosing.
- Die on us. We will never, ever, have to stand looking over a grave and then turn away to live the rest of our life feeling the empty hole of him not being here, of feeling how silent or quiet the world feels without him.
God’s Unchanging Love Brings Healing Change to You
God is not only unchangeable, he’s also full of holy, compassionate love for you, and he alone has the power to heal and change your broken heart. You may feel devastated today, hopeless and drowning in a sea of painful circumstances. Perhaps you’ve made choices you’re ashamed of, or now enslaved to certain behaviors, or completely consumed with a person—you might even say you’re addicted to this person.
Friend, because God is steadfast and unchanging, and you are in process of being made to be like Jesus, you have hope. Behaviors can be changed, relationships can lose their sinful grip on your heart, addictions can subside, and the pull of your desires diminish as you turn toward God with humble dependence. He is faithful and he will never stop loving you or being with you. That will never, ever change.
14 Jul 2022
Painful information has been revealed, and, most likely, your emotions and thoughts feel like a piece of driftwood on a stormy ocean. You’ve been tossed into a world you didn’t know existed: your husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. Or maybe you knew he had a “little struggle,” but the depth and scope of it have come crashing over you, throwing you against jagged rocks.
Jesus is with you in this unwanted place, and his first words to you are not “get over it,” “forgive and forget,” or “this is your fault.” No! His invitation is to draw near, listen for his love, receive his comfort, and lean on his strength. Take heart, sister. Jesus is near as you grapple with your new reality. Our ever-present God is with you in the pain of the revelations that have created a new terrain of life; he’ll stay with you as you walk forward in this unwanted journey.
Let’s consider a passage that, at first glance, may not seem to connect with you as a wife. The woman who has a transforming encounter with Jesus isn’t suffering because of a broken marriage but rather because of a broken body. She has no power to change her condition or make people really see, know, and love her. But the way Jesus treats this woman gives us great hope in our own brokenness.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. (Luke 13:10–17)
This woman had lived “bent over” for 18 years—basically living at a 90-degree angle—and daily activities were incredibly difficult. Things we might take for granted were a struggle for her: hugging her children (if she had any), walking to the well to get water, reaching up to get a bowl. In addition, she most likely experienced shame and judgment. At the time, it was believed that if you were suffering, you must be a bad person under the punishment of God. She very well may have been the object of sneers and whispered gossip from misinformed and selfish onlookers. Perhaps she was avoided because, after all, what do you say to someone in this kind of situation?!
This woman’s physically bent and disordered body is a picture of how our hearts can become bent and disordered through sin’s impact upon us, through betrayal and trauma. Do you feel “bent” now that your husband’s sinful behaviors are in the light? You may feel weighed down with anxiety or depression, or as if you’re shuffling through life, unable to see what’s next, as this woman would have experienced physically.
A Broken Woman Meets Jesus
Consider how Jesus responds to this hurting, nameless woman.
He is present. He’s more than a teacher or speaker in a synagogue. He has now come to make his home in us, our indwelling Lord who has come near to the brokenhearted. He’s not a God who texts or video chats with us; he is here. He sees us as we really are.
He is a teacher. Jesus was there to teach people that day, and we all need help learning, don’t we? Through Christ and his Word, we have a gentle, wise teacher to show us how to navigate not only sexual sin in marriage but also marriage itself.
He sees her and calls her to come near. Our Savior is relational! He doesn’t merely notice this woman, seeing her from a distance in her bent-over state. She’s most likely at the back of the room. Yet Jesus sees her and goes out of his way (stepping out of normal synagogue protocol) to call her to himself. Jesus puts his radical love and compassion on display as he also allows her weakness to be on display.
He touches and heals. Jesus could have accomplished this same healing privately. He could have noticed the woman and just healed her as she sat back alone. However, he makes this very public as he proclaims freedom over her and then touches her, which would have been another offense to the religious protocol. What would this woman have felt as she heard these words and felt his hands on her back (or maybe her head)? How comforted she must have felt to be noticed, invited, known, touched, and healed by this loving teacher!
He defends and celebrates her. Can you imagine how ashamed she might have felt when the religious leaders pushed back on what Jesus had done for her? Jesus confronts their utter selfishness by exposing that they cared more about their livestock than her. The very ones who should have served, cared, and offered her compassion failed to do so.
Just like this woman, you didn’t choose your situation. Just like this woman, you have a Savior who sees you and invites you to draw near and receive his words of hope, healing, defense, and celebration. He doesn’t take lightly the pain or bentness you carry today because of your broken marriage. Will you draw near to him? Will you courageously journey toward him, regardless of what others may say? If you do, you’ll find all you need in him.
This article is an excerpt from Harvest USA’s soon-to-be-released resource, “Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal.”
30 Jun 2022
I want to speak to a husband or a wife who has remained faithful to their marriage vows but is experiencing the pain and unfulfilled longings of a sexless marriage. Perhaps you’ve tried to talk with someone about this, only to come away feeling misunderstood or even accused of things that may not be true. I hope this post will be a balm to your soul, and an encouragement to seek Christ in this trial.
God Is Glorified in Your Faithfulness
First, I want you to know that God is greatly glorified by your faithfulness to your spouse. Amid loneliness, confusion, unsatisfied desires, and painful feelings of rejection, you have resisted the easy escape of masturbation, pornography, and adultery. What a testimony to the sufficiency of God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9)! If only we could pull back the curtain to see a glimmer of the eternal weight of glory that this momentary trial is producing. It’s no easy pill to swallow, but we all know the utter gravity of being in the presence of a brother or sister in Christ who has experienced profound suffering without blaming God or giving in to unbelief. Your faith is being tested but, as Peter says, it is more precious than gold and its genuineness results in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
God Is Near to the Brokenhearted
Sex was designed by God to be one of the most intimate, affirming, life-giving experiences two humans can know. It’s one of the fundamental glues that holds a marriage together. We all long to be fully known and fully loved. And holy sex is one of the most tangible ways we experience the unconditional love of God for us, through our spouse. For that to be withheld can bring a flood of doubts and concerns. “Is my spouse tired of me?” “Did they find someone else?” “I guess I really am unlovable.” “I can never compete with my spouse’s ideal standard.”
God hears your heart and invites you to draw near to him. He can be trusted with your heart and your longings. Well did Isaiah say of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).
Questions to Consider
By design, sex is not a solo activity. It requires cooperation, trust, love, respect, and a mutual willingness to enter into a moment of unrivaled vulnerability. Because this act is so sacred, it’s understandable why many feel intimidated by it. I’d like to walk you through a few possible reasons why your spouse may not want to engage with you on this level. This is not meant to point the finger at any one person, but it is important to soberly assess how sexual intimacy is typically hindered in a fallen world.
- Life’s busyness. This is perhaps the most common scenario that leads healthy marriages into a sexual desert. The demands and pressures of work, kids, church, social activities, and school all crowd out time and energy for any kind of marital investment. Life is just about survival. While all marriages will likely go through seasons like this, busyness is typically not the only—or even the main—factor why one spouse may be completely avoiding any opportunity for sexual intimacy.
- Hidden sexual sin. Sadly, there are scenarios where your spouse may be avoiding sex with you because they’re satisfying their sexual desires outside of their covenant vows. Whether it be compulsive use of pornography or a secret affair, some spouses treat sex as an appetite, not an act of selfless love. If they’re getting their appetite satisfied elsewhere, they may feel zero responsibility within their marriage. This may be what you fear is happening in your marriage, and perhaps you have compounding evidence to back that up. You’ll need wisdom to know what confrontation should look like. But please don’t let fear and shame keep you from getting help.
- Physical brokenness. Sex is a powerful bodily experience. In many ways it is a whole-bodied experience. When I consider just how many ways our bodies could break down, I often think it’s a miracle that any of us walk around in a state of good health. Engaging in sex requires a relative degree of health. The fall affects some people’s sexual organs, making sex a painful, fearful experience. Men may struggle with erectile dysfunction and could be too scared to admit it to their wives. Heart conditions, motor diseases, and paralysis may restrict sexual activity. The list of health-related reasons to refrain from sex is probably longer than we even imagine. It’s important to consider this because your spouse’s refusal to have sex may be related to their health and not a rejection of you. It may be just as painful and lonely for them to refrain as it is for you, but perhaps they’re too scared to tell you what’s really going on.
- Relational brokenness. Marriage is a covenant established by God. Covenants are accompanied by signs. In our covenant relationship with Jesus, we are given the signs of baptism and communion. In marriage, a couple is given sex as the sign of their covenant union. Just as the sacraments are meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen our union with Christ, so too sex in marriage is meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen the union of husband and wife. Scripture instructs believers not to partake of the Lord’s supper when there is unrepentant sin or unresolved strife with another believer. The covenant sign should be forgone until those issues are resolved. To partake of the sign unworthily is a matter the Lord takes very seriously.So, too, in marriage: we cannot separate the act of sex from the quality of the marriage relationship. Paul Tripp says, “You always drag the character and quality of your marriage relationship into the marriage bed.” This means that if there is relational distance in your marriage, sexual distance may be a result of that. It’s not right to act harshly toward your spouse in the kitchen but then seek to act tenderly toward them in the bedroom. Sex is meant to be a celebration of all the love expressed outside the bedroom. How you love your spouse at the dinner table, in the car, in public, with your children, when you’re tired, when you’re sad, when you’re frustrated—it’s all making deposits into your relationship. If your marital account is running on a deficit of love and not a surplus, it may say a lot about why your spouse is so distant from you sexually.
- Personal brokenness. We all go into marriage carrying many things from our past. Past traumas or regrets may continue to haunt you to this day. God imbued sex with incredible power but, in a fallen world, that power has the ability to create destruction like few other experiences can. Past sexual abuse can make sex feel like the most dangerous experience imaginable. Shame about past sexual experiences could make your spouse feel like sex is only a dirty act. Some people wrestle with crippling anxiety disorders, and sex may be a trigger for those anxieties. For example, there is a condition called homosexual obsessive-compulsive disorder, or HOCD. This person does not struggle with same sex attraction. But they’re so fearful about having a homo-erotic thought that they’ll avoid situations that could trigger them. These types of anxieties are more common than you may realize.
Hope in Christ
Life in a fallen world is not how it was meant to be. But praise be to God that, as Margaret Clarkson wrote, one day he will transmute every earthly sorrow into gold of heavenly gain.
In my next blog, I will look at how you can walk this painful path with your Savior and your spouse. Jesus cares about this aspect of your marriage. He has marked out a way forward for you to honor and love your spouse as you entrust your longings to him.
12 May 2022
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of online chatter and debate about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. I have a burden on my heart for how our brothers and sisters who wrestle in this way are faring in the midst of these debates. I recently reconnected with a dear sister who we’ll call Danae. I hope our conversation encourages you!
All of us have a unique story of faith, growth, and working out our salvation. How has same-sex attraction been a part of yours?
Danae: I first realized I was attracted to women when I developed an emotional connection with a friend after college. Eventually, our relationship turned sexual. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t aware of romantic or sexual attractions to women; this relationship was purely emotional to begin with. Yet, looking back, I became aware that I didn’t experience the boy-crazy phase that excited my peers. I dated men but never felt emotionally connected to them, which didn’t raise any alarm bells until I experienced emotionally intoxicating feelings with my female friend. I finally understood what friends had been talking about earlier in life. I felt excited and ashamed at the same time that these feelings came through relationship with a woman.
After dating guys, what was it like for you to be in a relationship with that friend?
Danae: Well, like I said, it was intoxicating to finally be in a romantic relationship that felt like love! The reality is that we slowly grew into a very entangled, emotional enmeshment, but the path into it seemed so life-giving: Our schedules revolved around each other; she just understood me in ways that guys never did; it seemed like I was finally home in a mutually loving relationship. The guys I dated were nice enough, but I never really felt that I truly liked them.
What kind of faith battles did you have once getting involved in same-sex relationships?
Danae: It was tough! I knew that this newfound joy was at odds with my Christian faith, and it created a whirlwind of confusion. How could what felt so good and right to me with this woman be so bad? I’d seen so many dysfunctional heterosexual relationships, and yet my girlfriend and I shared respect, care, and love for each other. There was a massive amount of heartache and confusion that began swirling in my life as I processed what felt natural to me but what the Bible calls not only sinful but also unnatural. My feelings won out, and, after that first relationship ended, I was pursued by other women and had several secret girlfriends over the next few years.
So what led to your willingness to re-surrender to Christ’s loving Lordship over this part of your life?
Danae: It was a gut-wrenching process for me, and, honestly, it still is at times. I felt love in these relationships with women, so to choose to let go and pursue obedience to God not only meant leaving someone I loved but also facing my fear that I might be single for the remainder of life. The cost of losing love, of not knowing what God would give in its place, was terrifying. Another layer of pain for me was that when I began sharing my story with other believers, they celebrated my obedience but offered very little understanding of the deep grief I was experiencing. Even if same-sex relationships are sinful, the loss of them still included heartache, pain, and confusion for me.
I know you suffered in silence for quite awhile, unknown and unsupported. What gave you the courage to eventually open up to someone?
Danae: Desperation! The pain and confusion I was experiencing eventually became greater than my fear of others finding out. I was desperate for help, for answers, for Jesus, and for hope that I could live a different way. A ministry leader moved towards me with compassion, patience, and an amazing gift of listening and drawing me out. She created the first safe place for me to be totally honest. It was scary but so worth it. She discipled me through Sexual Sanity for Women, and, while it wasn’t easy, lightbulbs came on as I began to understand, for the first time, how hurt and angry I was. There were deep layers of unbelief that emerged, and my mentor gently walked with me (and still does today!) as I faced the reality that I wanted to run my own life, and, in fact, thought I deserved to have what I wanted—what felt good to me. It’s been a slow journey that continues to this day, requiring me to trust God and his Word more than I trust myself, my feelings, and the way I think my life should work.
What is it like for you, with all the online debate among God’s people about homosexuality and how to talk about same-sex attraction? Does it help or hinder you?
Danae: To be honest, it depends. It can be heartbreaking and confusing on one hand, encouraging and inspiring on the other. It all depends on what the motivation of these discussions are. God’s Word has become precious to me, and knowing that his design is for our good has changed the way I view this struggle. To know that some Christians have gone soft on what the Bible clearly says is so deflating. When believers promote “gay Christianity,” it’s so disheartening because I’m seeking to be faithful to Jesus! My own brothers and sisters are forsaking the God who I’ve turned towards when turning away from sinful relationships! And yet I want to mention as well that it can be demotivating to hear leaders fighting about this stuff online as only an issue that needs to be clarified biblically. We absolutely need to have biblical faithfulness about this topic, but I also plead with leaders to not forget the people who are in the throes of working out their faith and repentance because of personal battles with same-sex desires. I’m grateful that Harvest USA seems to keep a helpful balance of biblical clarity and truth woven with compassionate, ground-level discipleship.
One final question for you: What would you say to the woman or man who is reading this and who is where you were so many years ago—hurting, wrestling in secret, and scared to reach out for help?
Danae: You’re not alone! I understand how scary it might seem to open up to someone about your same-sex relationships, inclinations, and what you really believe about all this. I get it—I really do! Jesus is not only inviting you, but also calling you, out of hiding and shame into himself, towards his love. That’s the true “outing” that all of us need, not to identify with our desires but to bring all of it to God. He’s promised to provide comfort and courage for the road in front of you—a road that will be hard and painful to some degree. Like I said earlier, I have grieved my sin and grieved what I lost when I gave up my sinful relationships. Yet living for and through Christ is the only true path towards the deep love we all want. Don’t give up; just take one step at a time.
Please pray for Danae and the many Christian women and men who are following Jesus faithfully, daring to push back on shifting convictions among God’s people.
01 Jul 2021
Do the Ten Commandments intimidate you? I grew up hearing about them, and every so often they came up in the church services I attended. What were they anyway: Ten things that get us in trouble? Ten ways to keep people from enjoying life?
As I’ve grown in the Lord and studied the Scriptures, I’ve realized that these commands are God’s way of loving us by putting guardrails around our desires, thoughts, and behaviors. When God commands one thing, he is at the same time protecting us from what disobedience to that command brings.
The First Commandment: Keep God as our hearts’ priority
In my fourteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I have probably discipled women with the First Commandment more prominently in view than any other. Women whose marriages have been devastated by a spouse’s sexual sin, or those who are battling to overcome pornography, emotionally entangled relationships with other women, sexual fantasies, and promiscuity, have all been helped by honest conversation about the First Commandment. It says, “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1–3).
In other words, God loves us too much to allow other things to displace him in our desires, priorities, and hopes. When he is in his rightful place as loving Lord, Savior, and healer of our hearts, our relationships with people and our sex lives are protected.
Elevating people over God never ends well
Women and men alike wrestle with turning to created things, including God’s sweet gifts of people and the blessing of sexual joy, over relationship with him. Whether you call it codependency or idolatry of people, the heart’s motivation is the same: You need to make me feel good about myself, and if you don’t, I’m sunk.
Have you ever thought or said something like the following?
- Why hasn’t he texted me today?! Is he spending time with someone else? Why wasn’t I invited? Am I being replaced?
- I love her so much—I need her! If this relationship ends, I don’t want to live anymore; life has no meaning without it.
- You make my day, and you have the power to break my day. My heart, stability, and sense of being valuable and lovable rise and fall with how much attention you give me. You are me, and I am you. Don’t leave me!
- I know I’m a bit over the top in how involved I am in my kids’ lives, but they need me—I’m their mother! If my marriage is suffering, so what? God gave me these children, and they are my reason for being alive. If they don’t need me, I won’t exist anymore.
- I just can’t understand why my marriage isn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the one relationship in my life that meets all my needs? Isn’t my spouse supposed to complete me?
It’s good to desire satisfying and loving relationships
God is the Creator of relationships, whether in the context of friendships, family, ministry, work, neighborhoods, and, of course, spiritual siblings in the Body of Christ. However, God never intended for us to turn other people into our primary refuge or home. God wants us to depend on him, to live under his authority and care, and to grow in satisfaction with his love for us. When we are secure in Christ, our love for the people in our lives can be healthy, holy, and honoring to God. But when love for Christ and obedience to him become secondary to our relationships or aren’t a part of them at all, friendships, romantic relationships, mentoring relationships, and family relationships can all slide into idolatry.
According to the Bible, whenever something or someone sidelines God from our thoughts, desires, and focus, our lives have gotten off track. The toxic nature of these kinds of relationships can be difficult to diagnose because they can feel so intoxicating! The emotional buzz or euphoria that often accompanies intense conversations, physical affection, or someone’s adoration of us can be addictive. However, a dynamic of “I need your need of me, and you need my need of your neediness” is messy at best and destructive at worst. Instead of helping us to grow and flourish, sinful dynamics in our relationships imprison us.
I’ve had my share of relationships in which my love for and dependency upon God was displaced by my love for a person’s need of me or my role in that person’s life. I know what it’s like to be anxious, fearful, jealous, and insecure when relational terrain suddenly changes, and you’re left feeling ousted, left behind, and brokenhearted. God has me on a trajectory of growing freedom from interpersonal patterns that were mired down for years in toxic, unholy dependency.
No matter where you are, God is compassionately aware of the circumstances you’re in and knows, really knows, what you are feeling. If you are in relational turmoil, are you willing to have the eyes of your heart and mind reoriented toward him? To gaze upon who he is and then begin to diagnose why there is toxicity in one or more of your relationships? To consider who Jesus is and then move toward humbly understanding that people will be in their rightful places in our lives when he is in his rightful place?
We need faith-fueled realism
You may struggle to believe that God can change your codependent patterns, and perhaps you don’t feel desirous of change. Are you, however, willing to ask God to work “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)? Your first step in pursuing spiritual growth is to believe God’s Word and to surrender control of your life to him.
Your next step is to have realistic expectations. Most of us want quick, pain-free solutions to our problems, and problematic relationships are no exception! But your desires, interpersonal patterns, and relationships won’t change overnight. Instead, repentance brings about directional change—a slow, steady upward trajectory of growth, transformation, and healthiness.
What might growth look like?
- Honestly examining your relationships and asking others to give you feedback on how they see it.
- Putting space between yourself and a person upon whom you are too dependent, especially if you’ve been involved with each other outside of marriage. If you are married and involved in an affair, this relationship needs to be severed immediately!
- Initiating time with a new friend or an acquaintance, which shows a growth in your willingness to engage with other people relationally.
- Engaging with a community of believers through a Christ-centered, biblically faithful local church. God’s people are your “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and local churches provide a unique opportunity to cultivate a variety of types and depths of healthy relationships.
- Reading God’s Word as a way to know him, love him, and cultivate your relationship with him.
- Longing for God more and more, loving him, and seeking him out as your primary relationship.
Jesus frees us from toxic relational dynamics
People problems have been around as long as people have existed outside the Garden of Eden! You’re not alone in this struggle. Many are familiar with the fear, anger, anxiety, discontentment, jealousy, and pain that come when others don’t seem to like, love, or respond to them in the way they desire—in the way they’re convinced they need. Women and men alike have experienced what it’s like to feel trapped, even imprisoned, in a relationship that is obsessive and consuming.
That’s why, of all the prayers and songs David uttered from his heart as a shepherd, king, military commander, sinner, and chosen one of God, the cry that resonates with me the most is, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7). God has indeed brought me out of relational prisons and allowed me to have healthy, Christ-honoring relationships in my life. Even though I am surrounded by the righteous, I’ll never outgrow the need for God to be my refuge, first love, and source of security—and neither will you!
This post is based on Ellen’s 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
Finding a greeting card for someone you love can be tough! Have you noticed how the messages in cards are often exaggerated, lofty, and unattainable?
“You make life complete and worth living for!”
“Mom and Dad, you are my unfailing rock and support. Without you, I would have failed to accomplish anything of worth.”
“You’re the friend I’ve always longed for, the other half of my heart living in another person.”
Movies and music also frequently touch upon deep longings for unfailing love and commitment. As image bearers of God, desiring intimate relationships is in our spiritual DNA—yet God alone can offer us unfailing love. We can taste love like this in human relationships, but spouses, parents, children, friends, siblings, and mentors are supposed to point us to God’s love, not hijack our heart’s devotion to him.
Codependency: Worldly Wisdom vs. Scriptural Truth
In the 1980s, self-help books popularized the term “codependent” to describe dysfunctional relationships in which an individual excessively relies upon others for worth, approval, and self-identity. Professional organizations made diagnoses for personality and relationship-based disorders. One example was dependent personality disorder, described as an “excessive and pervasive need to be taken care of; submissive, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment.”¹ Tragically, the American Psychiatric Association offers little hope because “personality disorders are resistant to treatment!”²
The word “codependent” isn’t in the Bible, and yet Scripture addresses unholy relationship patterns. What the world calls codependency, God’s Word calls “idolatry,” the worship of anything or anyone other than him. When we displace God with human relationships, relational idolatry happens.
God’s explicit command is that we have no other gods, including people, before him in our lives (Exodus 20:2–3). The sin is subtle, but the idolatry that causes codependency happens when relationships entice us away from the Lord, and we selfishly demand that someone give us, or receive from us, love, attention, and affirmation.
Our closest relationships can present the fiercest temptation to turn from the Giver to his gifts. Codependent relationships are idolatrous because they usurp Jesus’s rightful place. Instead of yielding to the Lord who loves us, we yield our sense of well-being to a person. Even though these connections at first feel emotionally intoxicating or comforting, a painful harvest of discontentment, anxiety, and insecurity eventually develops because people can’t fill, heal, or satisfy our hearts!
Delighting In, Rather Than Running After, People
Codependency, or relational idolatry, is something I personally know well. God used Psalm 16, particularly verses 1–4, to help me step away from broken patterns of relating to people.
“Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ’You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.”
David looks to God as his refuge, the One apart from whom there is “no good!” This echoes Jesus teaching his disciples that the truest intimacy and security could only be found in relationship with him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we abide in Jesus alone, he will bear good fruit in our relationships.
Having proclaimed God as his true refuge and Lord, David expresses a godly heart posture towards people: a holy delight in and affection for them. He cautions that when we desperately run after anyone to feel good about ourselves, devastating consequences will result: sorrow, pain, and grief.
When you “watch” Jesus relate to people in the Gospels, he is never aloof or selfishly distant. His relationships weren’t fueled by flattery, people-pleasing, or demands that people make him feel good about himself. John 2:24–25 explains how Jesus lived out Psalm 16:1–4: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
Jesus loved, served, and enjoyed people without “entrusting” himself to them in the same way that he entrusted himself to his Father. He compassionately and selflessly loved people and obeyed the command to love God alone with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. For all of the Bible’s commands regarding marriage, friendship, parenting, and neighbors, God never said to place our trust in people with our whole being—yet we are to love as he has loved us (John 15:12). That kind of love and trust is rightly focused on our Savior, who refused to allow people to capture his heart’s focus and “sideline” God.
God-dependency Displaces Codependency
If you struggle with idolatry in your relationships and recognize the symptoms of codependency in your life, take heart! Worldly wisdom cannot offer effective treatment for a spiritual matter, but the gospel can through Jesus. He offers all that we need to grow into healthy and holy people. Jesus offers you himself! Our Savior makes a home in us through an eternal union based on his grace. This is the most intimate, satisfying, and healthy relationship anyone could ever enjoy!
Jesus also forgives us when we sin in our relationships, and he heals our broken hearts. Many people were never taught what healthy relationships look like, much less how to cultivate relationships and friendships fueled by rightly ordered love. Pray that God would guide you to love that abounds with knowledge and discernment.
Finally—though so much more could be said—Jesus came to transform your heart so that you would be captivated by his love and freed to move towards people with God-honoring motives rather than selfish demands. With Jesus in his rightful place as our loving Lord, other people will increasingly take their proper place as gifts to be enjoyed.
¹ https://www.theravive.com/therapedia/dependent-personality-disorder-dsm–5-301.6-(f60.7), accessed by author May 29, 2020.
You can also watch the video, “Once Codependent, Always Codependent?“, which corresponds to this blog.
23 Nov 2020
If you struggle with codependency and obsessive attachments, take heart! The Lord can help you and change you.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart or Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share by Ellen Dykas. When you buy these minibooks from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Codependent No More: Encouragement for Keeping Christ Central in Our Relationships,” which corresponds to this video.