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.
09 Jul 2020
It’s not enough to simply think about desires and beliefs in a vacuum. Our context and our circumstances strongly shape what our hearts believe and desire.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our minibooks, Explaining LGBTQ+ Identity to Your Child by Tim Geiger and Raising Sexually Health Kids by David White. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Your Childhood Experience Matters,” which corresponds to this video.
26 Sep 2019
We live in a culture of the immediate and find waiting for anything insufferable. The advertising industry exacerbates the situation, ironically stoking perpetual dissatisfaction by promising each new product will really satisfy you. Add to this the cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment, coupled with the prominent lie that a life without sex is meaningless, and there is tremendous pressure to live for sexual satisfaction.
Living with unfulfilled sexual desires is seen as the height of folly. Not just folly; some even argue it’s actually harmful. As a result, many Christians wrestle with the Bible’s sexual mores in the face of discontented sexual experience.
The first thing that needs to be said is living with unsatisfied desires is hard! Christians are mocked because the world is shocked that we don’t “join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign” us (1 Peter 4:4). Because the profound mystery of sexuality points to Christ’s love for us as his bride (Ephesians 5:32), there is an experience of transcendence even in its sinful expression. This means the absence of sexual fulfillment is a real and painful loss.
The absence of sexual fulfillment is a real and painful loss.
I know something of this challenge. After 12 years of marriage, I lost my first wife suddenly after complications from her breast cancer treatment. Diagnosis to death in five weeks. Although we were acclimating to a dire prognosis, her sudden death was like the shock of a car accident. As you can imagine, there was an intense experience followed by an eruption of emotions. When the dust settled, what remained was the challenge of being single again—including living with unsatisfied sexual desires.
The hard truth is Jesus described self-denial as a hallmark of following him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). There are two aspects of sexual self-denial I want you to consider: 1) unsatisfied desires are a place where God meets his people; 2) unsatisfied desires whet our appetite for the world to come.
Unsatisfied Desires Are a Place Where God Meets His People
Paul describes God as “the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3), but here’s the rub: you only learn this through suffering. Paul discovered this after being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (v. 8). God wants to meet you in your places of pain and unsatisfied desire. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). When we are pushed beyond our ability to endure, God shows up to strengthen and restore. That’s why Paul later recounts that Jesus wanted him to learn, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
Know this: Jesus gets your experience. His grace is sufficient because he suffered through temptation and unsatisfied desires victoriously. Are you drawing near to the Lover of your soul in your pain and disappointment? Does sexual discontent drive you into the arms of Jesus, or other lovers? According to Ephesians 5:32, sex and marriage are signposts pointing to our relationship with Jesus. This means even our unsatisfied longings are an invitation to know his burning desire for us, his deep longing for the coming wedding supper that launches God’s new creation in fullness (see Revelation 19:6-9).
Unsatisfied Desires Whet Our Appetite for the World to Come
Further, unsatisfied desires are such a critical aspect of Christian discipleship because, in some way, God asks all of us, “Will you wait on me? Will you trust me?” We can live with unsatisfied desires now because the Day is coming when we’ll know pleasure forevermore at his right hand. The blessings of this life should lead to the worship of the Giver of all good gifts. In this transitory world, where all joys and pleasures are fleeting, they should lead us to long for the solidity and permanence of the world to come. The kingdom that cannot be shaken. The momentary delights of this life point forward to the eternal world to come.
Unsatisfied desires are such a critical aspect of Christian discipleship because, in some way, God asks all of us, “Will you wait on me? Will you trust me?”
Whatever your sexual experience, all of us need to see Jesus more clearly at the signpost of sex. Are the blessings you experience deepening your love for the Giver of all good gifts? Does your pleasure in marriage lead to praise and worship of God? Can you give thanks in your singleness and allow your longings and sexual desires to direct you to his heart for you? Can you hold fast to his promises to make your life fruitful for his kingdom even in the absence of marriage or biological children? The call of the Christian is to go deeper with him through the pilgrimage of life in preparation for the world—and relationship!—to come. Learning even now the truth we’ll know fully when we see him face to face, that his “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
01 Aug 2019
Harvest USA is committed to helping churches disciple men and women dealing with life-dominating sexual struggles and sin. Theo and Brittany, who now run a ministry out of their church, one that Harvest USA helped start, give testimony to the power of the Body of Christ in shaping faith and lives.
Theo: It started in college during freshman orientation. Brittany and I met during a pivotal season in our lives. Brittany’s mom had passed away that fall, and I was facing the reality that I struggled with same-sex attraction. When we met, we sensed that there was a connection, but thought we would just be friends forever—nothing more. We clung to each other that first semester, becoming fast friends—sharing our backgrounds, secrets, wishes, and dreams. Brittany provided comfort to me in a time I needed it.
Brittany: Throughout most of college, Theo and I went our separate ways. I buried myself in my schoolwork. I was an art major, and it was demanding enough to justify escaping from my grief. Losing my mom was something I ran from, and college came at the perfect time. Theo dove head first into the athlete world—morning weights, long practices, and parties all week.
Theo: When we graduated, we both moved to Charlotte, NC. Over the next year, we both hit rock bottom. Brittany was in a godless relationship, making poor decisions, and planning a future that didn’t fit with what she believed. I was drowning myself in the party scene, looking for validation, acceptance, and whatever made me feel “masculine.” I was desperate to escape my developing attraction to other men, sporadically giving into these desires.
Brittany: I just signed a lease with my boyfriend to move into an apartment the following weekend. My mom’s best friend lived in Charlotte and was like a second mother to me. She got wind of my plans and confronted me in a way no one else could. She spoke as a mother, a friend, and a believer in Christ. Her boldness gave me the courage to take my first step in trusting the Lord, deciding to not live with my boyfriend. Throughout the next year, with the help of my new small group leaders at church, I felt convicted to walk away from this relationship. I saw the contrast in who God was asking me to be and who I had become.
I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships.
Theo: The Lord intervened in my life by watching Brittany and her involvement in church. I saw her trusting the Lord. I felt a pull to the church—like it could be an answer to my struggle with sexual sin. The only Christian I knew in Charlotte was Brittany, so I reached out to her to ask about finding a small group.
She pointed me to a men’s group. I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships. Later that year, we went on a retreat. A friend asked some hard questions that enabled me to share my struggles with same-sex attraction, as well as my patterns of pornography and hook-ups associated with these sinful desires. That weekend, I felt the Holy Spirit push me to tell the other guys on the retreat. This was my first act of obedience and was the start of my healing.
Following the retreat, the guys in the group pursued me, asking questions and praying for me. It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ. The pastor of our community regularly met with me—he never made me feel ashamed but encouraged me and prayed for me. Coming into the light was critical for my walk with God to grow.
It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ.
Brittany: My friendship with Theo grew stronger and more intimate. We shared our discovery of God and our excitement for the church. People told us frequently that we would be good together, but we were just friends. Best friends. I heard the expression once, “As you run the race toward heaven and continue to pursue holiness in the Lord, look to your left and right and see who is running beside of you.” We were always beside each other, finding new ways to get involved, to serve, to gather our community. Eventually, Theo started to see as more than friends, but I was oblivious. Yet my love for him was growing.
Theo: When I realized I wanted to pursue Brittany as more than a friend, I was terrified of her rejection. After all, what woman would marry a man who admits to having an attraction to other men? It felt like a disease—and I wasn’t “healed” yet. I finally told her about the work God had been doing in my life. I confessed my sexual sin to her. Brittany told me later that this was the moment she fell in love with me. Six months later, we started dating, and soon after, we would be two of the grass-root leaders of the Set Free Ministry at our church, dedicated to walking alongside men and women who come out of the shadows of sexual sin in search of the healing power of the Gospel.
Set Free Ministry was launched with the help of Harvest USA in 2015 as a ministry of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, NC. The leadership team consists of ten leaders who shepherd men, women, wives, and parents of those who are struggling. Were it not for the men, women, and pastors who pursued us, two young wanderers, we may have never found the church, the Lord, or each other. Our God orchestrates his timing over everything, and it’s always perfect. Praise the Lord for his handiwork and the, sometimes messy, pursuit of his children!
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
01 Aug 2019
Where do you begin when someone in your church tells you they struggle with sexual sin of some sort? What is the first thing you say? And after that, what specific help can you give? What if you have never done something like this before?
The answer is not a series of precise to-dos laid out in sequence. It first starts in your view of personal growth and change. And that brings up a much bigger question, the one you must begin with if you, and your church, will effectively help strugglers. It’s about discipleship.
How is the Church called to disciple its people? Not in terms of content, but of practice? What does discipleship in the local church actually look like? What should it look like?
It can be difficult for churches to talk about discipleship because a precise definition is often a moving target. Some would say that discipleship encompasses everything that the church does to help people follow Jesus. Others would say that discipleship is one very specific educational model, counted as one of the many ministries of the church. If we look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church, one might find that both of those perspectives of discipleship can and should be valued. At the same time, there are some common shortcomings in practice that are often associated with both views.
For those who favor a broad definition of discipleship, it is common (though certainly not universal) that, in practice, discipleship looks like a speaker-to-listener monologue. From Sunday mornings to weekly classes, the primary means of growth is lecture. But while instructing God’s people in the truth of his Word is an essential aspect of discipleship, if we look at Jesus’ ministry, we can see that it is not the whole of discipleship.
For those who lean towards a more specific or precise understanding of discipleship—characterizing it as a unique educational model—there can often be a spoken or unspoken two-tiered classification of believers. In this case, there are the “regular” Christians, and there are the “real disciples” who are most committed to the faith. Historically, this perspective has led to discipling movements that can trend in high-pressure, legalistic directions.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined.
This paradigm is completely contradictory to the New Testament model. The word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. The word disciple is used far more often to refer to followers of Jesus. All of his followers are disciples. God’s forgiveness in Christ is complete and full of grace. Growth in grace is also just that: gracious. Our Father doesn’t look at his people in two categories: Christian and super-Christian. He looks at his people and sees beloved children.
So then, how do we define discipleship? Is it everything the church does that helps people grow more and more like Christ? Yes! But if we look at the ministry of Jesus, we can flesh that out a bit more. Should Jesus’ model and methods of ministry inform what we do as His church? I believe it should.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined. In fact, the closer he got to the cross, the more time he spent with the twelve and the less time he spent with the crowds. If we’re honest, most of us would not consider that to be a top church-growth strategy for today. But this was Jesus’ plan for the world to hear the good news of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return: a few ordinary, uneducated men who had been with him. This had been Jesus’ plan from the beginning of his earthly ministry.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” is an invitation into relationship and growth with a mission in mind. When Jesus calls the twelve in Mark 3:14, he calls them “so that they might be with him, and he might send them out to preach…” In Jesus’ discipling of the twelve, monologue or sermon-style content transfer was not his only means of transformation. At the heart of His discipleship was this “withness” and mission. We see this in Paul’s ministry as well in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2.8).
There is both content delivery (the gospel) and deep relationship (“withness”) at the heart of this discipleship ministry. However we define discipleship, we cannot leave it devoid of personal relationship.
We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
I have the privilege of speaking with pastors each year in the US and abroad who believe that their church is doing well, but there is a missing piece that they just can’t put their finger on. They’ve got good preaching, good classes, and a sometimes great, sometimes frustrating small group structure, but they’re not seeing people mature in their faith the way they had hoped. What I’ve found repeatedly as I listen is that they are longing for an intentional approach to help their people become mature and equipped followers of Christ, and they don’t know what that looks like.
We at Life on Life Ministries (a ministry of Perimeter Church) have a working definition for what we call life-on-life missional discipleship: laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, the gospel, and God’s Word in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others. We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
Surely, it’s not a perfect definition, but it is a helpful one. As we work to build a discipling movement in our church and equip pastors of other churches to help them do the same, we want to focus primarily on what we see in the ministry of Jesus with his twelve men. Certainly, we are not asking anyone to become an itinerant preacher and recruit twelve people to spend all day together every day, but I do believe there are principles from Jesus’ life and ministry of discipling that we can apply to our context today. And I think the definition of life-on-life missional discipleship captures some of those principles in ways that we can use in the church today.
It could also be helpful to think about life-on-life missional discipleship in terms of what it is not. It is NOT life on curriculum (though a good curriculum is certainly helpful). It is NOT life on knowledge (though understanding God’s Word is essential). It is NOT life on programs. It is NOT an event.
So, what might a healthy discipling culture look like in a church? It’s one that’s rooted from beginning to end in the gospel. The goal of discipleship is not behavior modification; it is to be conformed into the image of Christ. That happens as we engage with Christ in the gospel day after day (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). As this kind of transformation happens, behaviors do change because the heart is changed. A healthy discipling culture is also built on intentional, accountable relationships that are mutually committed to growth. It also must be built with the mission of the church in mind: to seek and save the lost and to help others grow into Christ-likeness. A healthy movement should be holistic. Any sphere of life is on the table for growth: work, family, sexual struggles, joys, etc. Within relationships that reflect the heart of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, study of the Scriptures, equipping, accountability, prayer, and missional living bear fruit in lives, families, communities, and workplaces.
What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle?
Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time.
It starts by investing in just a few people, helping them move towards maturity in all areas of life. This kind of discipling relationship is not a quick fix, it’s messy, and it’s difficult. If you knew me personally, if you knew my heart, you would easily be able to verify that I am no “super-Christian” exception.
What would it look like, then, to disciple people who are just as messy and difficult as we are? What if their messiness and difficulties look very different from our own? The key to developing intentional accountable relationships is a gospel-centered culture. Performance-based cultures promote pretense, not vulnerability. And within that environment, there will be no freedom to reveal, share, and confess our sin. No opportunity to ask for help.
So the first step is to create a safe space for people to be transparent in their need both for Jesus and for the support and encouragement of his body. Setting the expectations for the group before it begins meeting is vitally important. Before I invite someone to join my group, I tell them that I believe honesty and vulnerability are incredibly important for our group. We are not doing this because we’ve got it all together, we are doing this because we are desperately in need of Jesus and each other to grow more towards maturity. That may be intimidating to hear, which is why I also emphasize that I don’t expect this will happen in the first week or month because it takes time to build trust, and trust will be the foundation of healthy accountability. This is one of the reasons that we have a discipleship covenant that members are asked to pray through and sign before joining the group. The second critical step, in my opinion, is that the leader of the group lead with vulnerability, modeling repentance, and asking for accountability.
With that established, I can circle back to how to help a sexual struggler. What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle? You listen. Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time. Francis Schaeffer once said in his sermon, The Weakness of God’s Servants, “A Bible-believing Christian should have the experience of never being shocked; if we read our Bibles, we should never be shocked.” I love that.
From the beginning, this discipleship group has been a place for sinners in need of God’s grace for our growth, so when we confess our sins to one another and ask for help, this should be no surprise. I want this person to know two very important things: that no struggle with sin is beyond the reach of the gospel and we are not going to run away from you because of what you’ve just shared. You do not have to be a licensed counselor to listen and support someone. Where you go from here varies from situation to situation. You will learn as you go. As a discipleship leader, you are not in a vacuum. Discipleship happens in the context of community. You are a part of a local and global church that displays a variety of gifts for the building up of one another. Other godly men and women can come alongside that person and equip you as a leader along the way.
All of this will take time, and more importantly, it will take dependence on God to be the one who ultimately does the work of transformation. If you’ve never had someone invest in you in this way, that’s OK. Look at Jesus. Look at how he invested in those twelve men. See his relationships with them, his compassion and patience, how he challenged their wrong beliefs, how he equipped them, how he sent them out.
How do you start a discipling movement in your church? We have a simple motto that guides all of our training: Think Big, Start Small, Go Deep. We long to see the world transformed by people encountering the living God. We want to pray and plan and work hard for the gospel to go to places where it has not yet taken root. Discipleship is about following Jesus and pointing people to Jesus: let’s let him be our primary model.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
16 May 2019
“To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.” He was referring to porn. His tone expressed exasperation, discouragement, defeat. There were nods of agreement in the room from the group of men—several had said roughly the same thing recently and continued to feel it that way. Giving up porn was their life or death battle.
I had known these men for a few years having led their biblical support group at Harvest USA. They had all showed progress against their sin, with varying levels of “victory.” The one who spoke up had gone a significant time without a fall. Every day he said no to porn, every day he fought to give up porn—but only by harboring the secret concession that he could still go to it tomorrow.
I felt tempted to give in to their discouragement. A slew of biblical scenes came to my mind: Rachel hiding the family gods in her saddlebag (Genesis 31); Achan burying some of the spoil in his tent (Joshua 7); the rich young ruler walking away sad, unwilling to give up his “one thing.” (Mark 10:17-22).
Here is their fatal flaw, I thought—they will not forsake their idol. This will not have a good ending.
My discouragement increased.
But in my mind I settled on the story of the rich young ruler and remembered that sentence, “Jesus loved him.” While the rich young ruler walked away thinking I can’t imagine life without it, Jesus was loving him. We are not told the end of that young man’s story. But I have more than a little hope for him—because Jesus loved him. And that’s why I ultimately couldn’t lose hope for the men that I had come to love, either.
Could it be that moments like this, when confronted by the stark choice Jesus gives us, to follow him or to follow our wayward hearts into idolatry and sin, are when the necessary climatic turn can happen in one’s life?
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it.
They—and all of us—are faced daily with the choice to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. Other biblical phrases echo the scene from the young ruler story: “He that loses his life, for me, will find it. . . ”; “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God. . . ”; “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old is gone; the new has come”; “Behold, I am making all things new.”
You see, these men have reached a point where they are facing the question of their existence at its starkest and darkest: “Am I willing to die to all that I’ve been living? Am I ready to forsake forever my familiar idolatrous refuge? Am I willing to let Jesus re-create me? Do I want to be holy, to be steadily reshaped into the character and image of Christ?”
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. We had thought repentance was change, only to discover that it really means becoming a completely different person!
How do we help someone who is at this place?
First, cheer them on to the right choice.
Remind them that Jesus’ promise of new life is for crises such as this. He said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is nothing but death in the “old,” and nothing but life in the “new.” Implore them to run after new life. At the point of crisis, remind them that Jesus loves them. Even in their struggle; even in their doubt; even in their stumbling and falling.
Second, model life-long faith and repentance yourself as you walk with your brothers.
Your role in encouraging them is not just for this crisis moment; you need to show them by example that this is an ongoing turning. We want to believe we can turn once from an idol that has been a long-time staple of our life, then never have to face the decision again. It is true that there is a decisive turning when we know in our hearts that we belong to Christ and no longer to ourselves, but the full implications of that take a lifetime to work out.
As a new believer, this decisive turning comes with a sense of joy and freedom. But we do not know ourselves very well. God knows us perfectly. We do not see all at once what it will mean to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” There are other idols we do not immediately see.
As we mature in our life as a Christian, the Spirit progressively brings us from one repentance crisis to another, each time showing us another piece of what is earthly in us and giving us the opportunity—no, the necessity—of saying goodbye to it, of reaffirming, “This is not who I am anymore; I don’t have to do this.”
Third (and this is of course the most important), pray with and for them.
Prayer is how we re-focus on the person who is the power behind our repentance, Jesus himself. It is his work. He is the one to whom we turn. His is the life by which we turn. His is the voice that beckons us to forsake our old life to live his new life.
I have more than a little hope for these friends of mine. I have every reason to believe Jesus loves them, and has brought them to this crisis of eternal identity with his hand outstretched, inviting them to trust him, beckoning them to life, “Come, follow me. . . I am making all things new.”
Relationships: We want so much from them, and when they fail to satisfy, they can crush us. We can spin off into deep disappointment and despair, and that can lead us down dark roads of self-destructive behavior. Listen to Ellen share three ways of rethinking disappointments that will encourage your heart and help you respond in new, redemptive ways when your relationships are tough.
Ellen also writes about disappointment in relationships in her blog, “The Danger Lurking in Disappointing Relationships.”
For further study, consider the following minibooks: Your Husband is Addicted to Porn: Healing after Betrayal by Vicki Tiede (also available in eBook and Kindle formats) and Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart by Ellen Dykas (also available in eBook and Kindle formats).
Disappointment in key relationships can hijack our hearts if we’re not careful. Experiences of being snubbed, misunderstood, disregarded, or flat out rejected have the power to send us reeling. And when that happens, it can pull us to seek out pleasures and comforts that are harmful and destructive. Many women and men who become ensnared in the false intimacy of pornography, sexual hookups, and affairs took steps in those destructive directions when they were disappointed by the street level reality of real relationships.
Have you felt disappointed in someone lately? Has someone recently had the courage to tell you that they are disappointed in you? Relationships are such a sweet gift of God. But they can also be so challenging when the required work of healthy connections with people is just too much to handle. Sadly, many people today settle for superficial, online connections because they believe that investing in real relationships with real people requires too much time, energy, and vulnerability.
Why is it that relationships can lead to such deep disappointment? Disappointment that can tempt us to not only to seek comfort in self-damaging ways, but to avoid, disregard, or reject people in order to keep safe?
Jesus promised something that is difficult to accept: that in this life we’ll have trials, disappointments, and pain (John 16:33). Relational trials and disappointments are the most painful for me. Health trials scare me, and financial stress can lead to anxiety. But stress in key relationships? Deep disappointment by someone? Those can really break my heart.
Sadly, many people today settle for superficial, online connections because they believe that investing in real relationships with real people requires too much time, energy, and vulnerability.
Disappointment is a common human experience because of sin. The ravages of the fall have left sin’s mark on everything and everyone. Our desires don’t align with God’s will perfectly. Our expectations usually aren’t purely anchored in God. Our relationships aren’t satisfying, and if we’re honest, we often don’t wake up singing Psalm 90:14 joyfully, “Satisfy me with yourself O God…I’ll sing and be glad all day and every day!”
It helps me, when facing disappointment in a relationship, to consider where the pain is coming from. In other words, what leads me to experience someone not loving me, not being there, listening, caring, knowing, pursuing me, etc., in the ways I want?
Consider these three things for yourself.
1. Are your desires and expectations off-track from the gospel (remember Jesus’ words about living in a world of tribulation)? Are you living out of a me-centered focus that has pushed Jesus out of his rightful place in your life? Some people live in consistent hurt and anger because people aren’t responding to them the way they want. They want a person to consistently give what only God can truly provide: true heart satisfaction and unfailing love. God says “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25).
2. Is it possible that this person is oblivious or unable to love you as you desire? Sometimes people just have no clue what our desires are, because we’ve not communicated clearly. Perhaps your fear of being vulnerable, or pride has kept you from honestly expressing a need.
I have many relationships which have become technology-mediated. We send texts, voice recordings, and videos back and forth rather than having an actual conversation. It is wonderful in one way because this quick style of communication has allowed me to stay in touch with people in ways I couldn’t before.
Here’s some good news for all of us when faced with relational disappointments: God wants to meet us in and through our unmet desires.
Sometimes though, I feel sad and unpursued when all I’m getting from someone is a text rather than a phone call. One friend had no idea that her flood of texts did not communicate love to me, but rather distance. I needed to have an honest conversation with her about my desire to actually talk, voice to voice! Thankfully she responded gently and lovingly. But the reality was that her current season of life made it difficult for her to have frequent phone or Skype talks with me. I needed to accept this and not manipulate or demand.
But it’s not just busy schedules that can hinder our relationships. People can be unable to love us the way we want, due to their own brokenness. They just don’t have it in them to reciprocate or relate to us deeply. Accepting this has transformed a few relationships in my life and I’ve experienced peace and thankfulness replacing frustration and disappointment. It’s so much better to cultivate gratefulness rather than allowing unmet desires to churn frustration and anger over and over in our hearts.
3. Finally, is God stepping in-between you and this person? This can be hard to swallow, but it has brought peace to my troubled, craving heart to accept that God does cause space to exist between certain people and me. A man I wanted to marry. A friend from whom I wanted more attention. A ministry leader I longed to know and spend time with. A group of friends whose circle I wanted to break into. Disappointment was God’s purpose for me in these hoped-for relationships for reasons I may never know. Trusting God and resting in Him helps me in the not-knowing.
Here’s some good news for all of us when faced with relational disappointments: God wants to meet us in and through our unmet desires. He will use the way people disappoint us to draw us closer to himself. And we need to believe that when that happens, God is enabling us to love people even more selflessly.
Don’t give up! God has appointed something good for you through this disappointment.