05 Oct 2023
Jonah is a unique prophet—he’s most known for his overarching failings. In their song about Jonah, VeggieTales (a children’s show with vegetables acting out Bible stories) describes him with these lyrics: “Jonah was a prophet (ooh-ooh), but he really never got it (sad but true). . . he did not get the point.” If you haven’t read the book of Jonah in the Bible, I encourage you to read it. We all, as sinners, need to ask ourselves: What is the point Jonah didn’t get?
Jonah, David, and God’s Grace
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1–4)
How often are we like Jonah, rejecting the glory of God’s loving, gracious mercy and instead shaking our fist at him in anger over his sovereignty? Sexual sin comes from a heart that says, I want it my way, not God’s way—or maybe more accurately, God, how dare your way not be my way? Like Jonah, the single who habitually looks at porn may feel frustrated with God that others are married, and she is not. The married man committing adultery may blame God for not making his wife more loving. The one wrestling with same sex attraction or gender dysphoria is struggling against God’s design for marriage and gender. Have we ever wished even to be dead rather than trust in the ways of the Lord?
Jonah failed to understand that he, as the created one, has no right to decide the outpouring of the Creator’s grace and mercy upon those he made. The point Jonah missed due to his judgmental anger—his demand that God’s will bend to his own—is the beauty and glory of God’s grace for sinners. The sexual sinner who turns to “a gracious God and (One who is) merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 2) finds deep wells of mercy that inspire praise.
The point Jonah missed due to his judgmental anger—his demand that God’s will bend to his own—is the beauty and glory of God’s grace for sinners.
What Jonah missed, David clung to after he was challenged by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah (2 Sam. 11–12). In Psalm 51, David cries to the Lord for mercy and restoration—for grace. In that cry, we see his conviction of sin and his response to the great, undeserved salvation he received from the Lord:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:12–15)
There’s a clear distinction between these two biblical characters. Jonah is miserable because he doesn’t understand God’s grace while David comes to a place of delight in the Lord despite his egregious sins. This contrast between Jonah and David presents two important questions.
- How do you see your sin?
He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Like the Pharisee, when we refuse to bring our sins to God for grace, we become judgmental of self and others. We find ourselves hyper-critical because we must fix ourselves and judge others in a way that affirms our false sense of self-correction. In this scenario, God is the captain picking players for his team, salvation is a competition to not be picked last, and being picked last means God wants you to feel the condemnation of knowing everyone else is better than you. This is prideful posturing, not repentance. It misses the true stain of sin and our total inability to fix ourselves.
- How do you see your salvation?
Here is my big spill-the-beans moment—and it’s a reality I wrestle with often. What we do with the concept of salvation will dictate whether there is any joy in our lives. Jonah and the Pharisee ultimately find misery because they value their performance and works above God’s gifts of mercy and grace. As they point the finger of judgment, hatred, and anger at others, three fingers point back at them with the same verdict.
The tax collector could only judge himself, not others, because he rightly saw his sin—causing him to treasure his salvation!
But the tax collector could only judge himself, not others, because he rightly saw his sin—causing him to treasure his salvation! By God’s grace, he had eyes to see his need, and it drove him to repentance. David, with the same humble awareness of his deep sin, found that same repentance and was irresistibly compelled to bring fellow sinners to worship God and share in the joy of his salvation.
Who Do You Want to Be?
Too many hide their sin in the darkness. They become like Jonah and the Pharisee, miserable complainers and self-deceivers, judgmental toward others and God, anxious about the day when their image of having it all together will collapse and everyone will despise them—the same way they despise themselves, deep down. Don’t let this be you, dear friend. Don’t deteriorate and suffer in darkness, afraid of stepping into the light. Instead, like David and the tax collector, see the great opportunity of repentance. Through humility and open confession, they found overflowing mercy, grace, peace, and joy. They also found love for God—displayed in glorious, pleasurable worship—and love for others displayed in honest confession of sin that stirred others to also look to God for salvation.
“There just isn’t anything else I can say.” My counselor looked at me kindly, but with a very serious face. “If you continue in this pattern, I will still be your friend. But there isn’t anything new I can say to help you other than what I’ve already said.”
Many of us know how hard it is to work up the courage to tell someone for the very first time about a secret sin habit. We’ll often be encouraged to “get help.” But what are we supposed to do when we’ve repeatedly received help yet are still enslaved to habitual sin?
For almost two years, I was stuck in an addictive pattern of sin. Two women spent countless hours giving me biblical counsel, I talked to Ellen Dykas more than once and worked through the entirety of Sexual Sanity for Women. Over time, I became aware that what I was doing was truly wrong and took practical steps to resist temptation. But I kept returning to the same sin despite the wealth of love and biblical teaching that had been poured into me. I felt more and more hopeless about ever breaking free. Nobody, including me, could make me stop.
“You Need a Word from God”
After my counselor told me she didn’t have anything new to say to me, she said I needed “a word from God.” She did not mean hearing God’s voice audibly but having God himself teach me through his Word by impressing it deep into my heart. I needed more than simply being convicted by a specific verse or passage. I needed a word from God that would be life changing—something I would never forget.
Both of us began to pray that the Lord would do this special work in me. Some days I prayed for it very earnestly. Other times, though I prayed, I did so in a rather weak, hopeless way. It was getting harder and harder to believe that something like this could actually happen.
An Endless Pattern of Sin
From the age of 13, through college, and well into my 30s, I had sexual struggles that I kept hidden. At times, I would confess specific sins to the Lord. But for many years I didn’t realize I had a much bigger problem than individual times of giving in to temptation. Heart attitudes that I didn’t think about were driving my actions, and I didn’t realize how enslaved I was to certain habits until I tried to give them up.
One day I was in a very bad mood and went online deliberately looking for what could best be described as the “counsel of the ungodly.” I chose to follow that counsel, and to this day I regret it greatly. That was the beginning of the two-year period of a terribly addictive habit.
Those two years were characterized by a repeating pattern of sin, confession, avoiding sin, drifting spiritually, experiencing intense temptation, and yielding to it once again. I would be like a sane, spiritually-minded Christian one moment and a selfish, stubborn, confused person the next, bringing the reality of my relationship with God into question.
As a child, I professed faith in Christ, and certain things in my life seemed to be evidence of true belief. However, I repeatedly questioned the reality of my salvation because of the power of this sin habit and my seeming inability to break free from it. I knew that, though believers will sin, true believers are no longer mastered by sin because they have died to sin and are alive in Christ (Romans 6).
Even when I was not questioning my salvation, I often wondered if God was truly forgiving me for specific sins when I would confess them to him, and worried about whether I had genuinely repented—or repented well enough.
The intense stress of all these spiritual battles affected me physically, causing, or at least exacerbating, significant digestive issues. I also experienced symptoms of physical withdrawal when I tried to resist temptation. Much of what Psalms 32 and 38 say about sin’s effects on the body describes my experience during this time.
At one point, I became strongly convicted about “loving pleasure more than God.” It was extremely sobering to realize that I loved feeling good far more than I loved God. Nevertheless, I kept going back. Having a sense of conviction about sin was not enough to keep me from returning to it.
Confess the Sin of Unbelief
My confusion and hopelessness increased over time. I could not completely give myself over to my own desires and turn my back on my faith. But it felt as though the biblical truths I knew so well did not work in my case. Would God ever completely deliver me from this enslavement?
One day, one of my counselors said, “I think you need to confess the sin of unbelief.” Something in me thought maybe she was right, but I did not fully understand what that specifically meant for me. Several days later, I would remember her words, and the Lord used them to bring me to a major turning point.
I was alone one evening, wrestling with despair, temptation, and a whole array of ugly thoughts, hopeless about ever breaking free from this pattern of sin. But then I realized that my despair and hopelessness were “the sin of unbelief”—I was not believing and trusting God. Hopelessness reflects on God himself, as though he were not able and willing to deliver.
Suddenly, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5) took on a new meaning. The Lord pressed that verse deep into my heart, giving me a strong conviction that it was describing me personally. Outwardly I looked like a good person. But inwardly, not everything lined up with what I professed to be. I desperately needed God to use the same power he used to raise Jesus from the dead to bring about genuine change in my heart (Eph. 1:18–20; Heb. 13:20–21).
Stepping Out in Faith
The Lord mercifully did not simply give me a deep sense of conviction and then leave me! He just as strongly impressed on my heart, “the one who comes to me I certainly will not cast out” (John 6:37). This verse gave me confidence that when I come to him for forgiveness, he really will forgive. He will not turn me away.
That evening, the Lord helped me trust him in a way I never had before. I surrendered everything, confessing many wrong actions, thinking, and attitudes. More than anything else, I was ashamed that I had treated Jesus terribly, loving pleasure more than him, even in light of all he sacrificed for me.
This kind of surrender meant stepping out in faith when I felt exposed and vulnerable. I was extremely conscious of all the times I’d “repented” then repeatedly turned back to the same sin. But the Lord helped me trust him for complete deliverance from this addictive habit. Despite how I felt, trusting him was the safest thing I could possibly do! He is the most trustworthy Being in the universe, with an immeasurable resource of power available for resisting even the most difficult kinds of temptation.
Everything Is Different
So much has changed since that night. My relationship with the Lord is now characterized by an overwhelming love for him. Learning more about my own sinfulness and experiencing deliverance and forgiveness have made God’s grace indescribably precious to me. If sin were no big deal, God’s grace would not mean that much!
Surprisingly, the overwhelming power of temptation has been broken. Now there is strength for resisting temptation that I did not have before. But if I do choose to sin, I am so grieved about it that I run quickly to the Lord, seeking and trusting in his forgiveness. How could I hurt the One I love after all he has done for me? Being completely confident that I’m forgiven motivates me to pursue holiness now more than ever before.
Are you stuck in sin? The Lord is able and willing to deliver you! Ask him to convict you of the sin of unbelief and to impress his Word deep into your heart. Only in Heaven will there be complete freedom from the possibility of sinning. But even in this life, Jesus, who paid the penalty for our sin, will break the enslaving power of canceled sin!
Now may the God of peace—
who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great Shepherd of the sheep,
and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—
may he equip you with all you need
for doing his will.
May he produce in you,
through the power of Jesus Christ,
every good thing that is pleasing to him.
All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. (Heb. 13:20–21, NLT)
11 Feb 2021
The following is meant to help those who are weary in their battle to overcome sin and who need help knowing how to pray and cry out to God for a fresh start.
Father, I’m scared…
I’m scared of many things. I’m scared of people finding out who I really am. I’m scared of seeing their faces when they hear about my sexual sin. I’m scared of the consequences not only for me but also for those I love if this ever gets out. I’m scared of being seen as a fraud, a pervert, a hypocrite. I’m scared that everyone will abandon me, and I’ll be alone in my sin and shame. I’m scared of wearing a scarlet A for the rest of my life.
But, Lord, I’m also scared of my heart growing colder and colder towards you. I’m scared of what this sin is doing to me and how it is destroying my mind and thought life. I’m scared that I’ve already gone far deeper into places of sin and darkness than I ever expected, and that maybe I’ll go even further. I’m scared that I’m not really your child; what if I’m just fooling myself into thinking I am? There are so many parts of the Bible I avoid because I know they expose me and my hypocrisy. It’s been so long since I’ve read your Word with delight because I’m constantly bombarded with guilt and fear when I read it.
I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I want a third way! I want an easy way out. I want to be truly known and loved, but I don’t want people to know these things about me.
Jesus, you tell me in your Word that you are the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. I know you’ve come for me. I sense your Spirit convicting me. I used to be able to live a double life with ease and even excitement. But now I feel like David in Psalm 32 when he said, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
Lord, I feel your heavy hand upon me, and I cannot escape your conviction. I have to tell others. The thought of putting on a fake smile for one more Sunday is too much! I’m so tired of hearing compliments from others when I know they would take them all back in a second if they knew the truth. Their words of encouragement sting! Their affirmation leaves me feeling even more empty!
I know the only way forward is to follow you, Jesus, into the valley of the shadow of death. I confess that I struggle to believe that you too won’t abandon me there. I’m not sure I even know what it means for your rod and staff to comfort me—because I’ve rejected your comfort for so long in exchange for the comforts of sin. You’re asking me to trust you with something that would be completely new for me. And yet, Lord, even now, I do sense your Spirit comforting me. As painful and scary as it is, I feel a strange comfort at the thought of surrendering my life completely to you. Is this what Paul meant when he said that your peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus?
Father, Abba Father, I need to confess to you that I have made so many excuses for why it was right for me to hide. I don’t know whether I really believed them or not, but I kept justifying myself, and I kept hoping that somehow you’d excuse me too. I made the excuse that telling the truth would hurt people too much, and I wanted to spare them of that pain. Forgive me, Father, for I know that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t ultimately about sparing them pain—I was really protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel the pain of causing others pain. In my heart, I know that telling the truth is not what ultimately causes them pain; my actions have done that. If I really cared about them as I said I did, I wouldn’t have done these things over and over again for so long.
I need your grace, Lord, to get me through this. I don’t have what it takes. I don’t have the strength to see my loved ones hurting so much and not turn inwards on myself. I want to truly grieve with them and not sink into self-pity and despair. How could I possibly love someone this way when I feel so wretched about myself?
Jesus, did you really bear all of my sin on the cross? Did you take the shame, the mocking, the scorn, the beating, the nails, and the wrath of the Father because you love me and want me to live in freedom? Do you really love me? Do you see my sin? Do you really see the decades of hiding, of living for myself, and still want me?
Right now, Jesus, as weak as my faith is, I’m trying to believe you and take you at your word because you said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Lord, I come to you for cleansing, for forgiveness, and for redemption. I can’t fix myself. I can’t clean myself up. I am utterly in need of you to restore me.
I’m so scared of the shame and the scorn, but you took that shame upon yourself in love so that, “Everyone who believes in you will not be put to shame.” Lord, if I expose my sin to others, I know I will feel shame. And I know others will seek to shame me further. But I believe. I pray that you would help my unbelief, that at the final day, I would not be put to shame if I trust in you. In spite of my sin, I will be raised, and when you appear in your glory, Jesus, I will appear with you in glory!
Jesus, I died with you. I have been crucified with you. It is no longer I who live, but you who live in me. Help me to no longer walk by sight but by faith in you, the Son of God, who loved me and gave yourself for me. Hallelujah! All I have is Christ!
Help me, Father, to see that I am fundamentally beloved in Christ; while I was still your enemy, you loved me so much that you sent your Son to die for me. I have no argument against that! I only plead with you to give me the grace to believe this more and more each day.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in view of your great mercy towards me, I commit to telling ________ about my sin today! I’m picking up the phone right now to tell them that I need to talk with them about something very important, and I commit to setting a date and time to speak with them. Holy Spirit, give me your words to speak. Help me not to just spew details that are too specific, but to speak truthfully and appropriately. Lord, right now, I ask that you would make their ears and heart ready to receive this very painful news. Prepare _______’s heart to turn quickly to you, Jesus, as the one who wants to bear our burdens. Bring others around them for support in this devastating news. Guard me against wanting a quick resolution, and prepare me for whatever the response may be. I confess that I want quick reconciliation, but, Lord, even if that never comes on this side of glory, help me to continue to trust you.
I love you, Lord. I know that life is going to become very difficult. But there’s no other way, and I’m done with doing things my way. I thank you for your peace right now, and I pray for peace for my loved ones. Guide me, Savior; lead me. I thank you for being with me in this time of prayer, and I ask your blessing upon this step of faith, in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. Amen!
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.
27 Feb 2020
Idols are cruel masters that are bent on your misery. But they don’t present themselves that way. First, they convince you that your life is summed up in the attainment of a specific desire. It might be success, comfort, control, affirmation, or intimacy. Then, this idol promises you that it can meet this desire in your life. It even gives you displays of its power and invites you to taste of its delicacies. So you sign on the dotted line and agree to give your heart to this idol in exchange for its services.
The Problem with Your Idol
In the beginning, the idol seems to be fulfilling every single promise it made. It delivers quickly and efficiently. It’s there for you in the good times and the bad. It’s there to comfort you, weep with you, celebrate with you, and offer to spend the lonely nights with you.
Your love for this idol is growing quickly. The more you feed it, the more it draws you in. Over time, your life becomes consumed by it. Other things in life become distractions and obstacles in the way of going back to this idol again and again. Going one day without it feels unbearable, making your inevitable return that much more intoxicating.
This is when you start to question your agreement with this idol. The cost of this pleasure wasn’t spelled out for you in the initial contract. You start to notice that other things in life have lost their value. You don’t enjoy them the way you used to. Your relationships with others may have become awkward, transactional, and strained. Over time, you’ve become more and more isolated, and, eventually, you’re left alone—just you and your idol.
The Struggle with Your Idol
Upon realizing that you have made a terrible mistake, you try to get out of this contract. But this idol has already sealed and notarized it. You beg and plead with it to let you go, but it shouts all the more that it will never leave you. It even threatens you and those you love. It tells you that if you try to get help from others, you’ll be endangering your family and even your own life. Right after threatening you, it woos you back with smooth and enticing words.
Finally, one day, you think you’ve found a way to escape this idol’s grip. If this idol offered you such powerful fulfillment in life, maybe Jesus can do the same for you. So you pray that Jesus will meet you in the same way this idol did, maybe even better. That Jesus will give you comfort, intimacy, control, and affirmation. But Jesus doesn’t answer you the way this idol did. The idol said, “You can walk by sight and feel good whenever you want.” Jesus says, “Walk by faith, and trust me when trials come your way.” After a while, you grow frustrated with Jesus, that he’s not helping you the way you want. He seems distant and unable to give you what makes you happy. In anger and unbelief, you willingly return to your idol, hopeless for anything better in your life.
As you stay with your idol, one thing is very clear to you: This idol hasn’t satisfied you. It’s just filled you with junk that tasted sweet but left you bitter. It promised real life but only delivered powerful counterfeits. Your life is now marked by unsatisfied longings that are temporarily mitigated by your idol.
You feel stuck, and it seems that Jesus is either unwilling or unable to free you from your misery.
Freedom from Your Idol
But then Jesus comes to you and offers you a pathway out of your despair. He tells you there is a way to be freed from the tyranny of this idol and its false promises. He exposes the lie that brought you in to begin with: That life can be found outside of the Life-giver. It is the hook of believing that life can be found in living for comfort, intimacy, control, security, and affirmation.
As long as you continue to believe that lie, your hope of escaping this cruel master is vain.
Jesus tells you to repent of coming to him merely to use him as a means of giving you your idolatrous desires. He reminds you of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” You had put your desires for other things before desiring him. You thought that in them was found the wellspring of life.
Jesus reminds you,
“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8).
Your heart is pierced by his words. You see clearly how you’ve been spurning his offer of himself in order to cling to your idols. And you hear his invitation as a real way forward out of your misery, but your idol retorts with a strong counterargument. It says, “If you give your heart to Jesus, he’s calling you to give up good things and desire him only. Do you really want to give up your comfort, your security, your control?”
Jesus knows your weak faith and the ease at which your idol is able to convince you of its lies. And so, tenderly, with a heart of compassion, he tells you, “You’re not giving up your desires; you’re giving them over to me. You’re giving your whole life to me. In so doing, I will give you myself. And when I give you myself, all of your desires with which I created you find their ultimate satisfaction in me. When you are satisfied in me, you are truly free.”
In tears, you cry out, “Lord, I want to be satisfied in you, but that’s not happening in my life. I’ve tried, and you haven’t shown up for me.”
“My beloved child,” Jesus says, “You’ve been coming to me on the basis of your feelings, your experience, and your doubts. You haven’t been coming to me in faith in my promises to you. You’ve been coming to me demanding that I meet you on your terms. You haven’t been coming to me in trust, submitting to my perfect will for your life. You’ve wanted me to serve you so that you can be lord of your life. I want you to know a peace that comes from offering yourself to me daily as a living sacrifice, because you trust that I am sufficient for every need you have, and I will be faithful to every promise I have ever made to you. You thought that I existed for you. But you exist for me. You exist to glorify my name.”
With these words, your shackles come undone and fall to the floor as you see the path of joy and freedom set before you. Freedom is not in having your desires met in your timing and your ways. Freedom comes from repenting of your idolatry and entrusting your whole life to your first love, to the one for whom you were created.
The Death of Your Idol
Your idol has been dealt a death blow, but with its dying breath, it lunges at you with a sword of doubt saying, “You might want this freedom, you might even desire to worship Jesus alone, but you’ll fail, and you’ll come crawling back to me. Your repentance won’t be perfect.”
With confident humility you respond, “You’re right. I won’t be perfect. Even in my best moments, my love for Jesus will fall short of his supreme value. But my hope is not in my righteousness. My hope rests in being united to my Savior, who bore my sin of idolatry on the cross and has given me his perfect righteousness, so that I can come to him freely and ask for help from his infinite storehouse of grace.”
Jesus welcomes you into his arms and declares with amazing love, “You are my portion, and I am yours!” Jesus is not a genie or a powerful new way to get what you really want in the way you want it. Jesus Christ is the one who bore all the guilt of your sinful humanity and gives you nothing less than his own indestructible life—he himself is our reward. He doesn’t serve our desires; he reshapes them by his death and resurrection and guarantees them to us by joining us eternally to himself.
13 Jun 2019
“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.
I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”
I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:
The Lone Ranger Flaw
I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.
Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.
Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.
The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).
Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.
So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting? We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.
The Shame Syndrome Flaw
A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.
But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.
It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.
Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.
The “Just Stop It” Flaw
A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.
But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.
The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.
So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn? Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.
Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.
Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.
31 Aug 2017
For those who struggle with life-dominating sexual struggles, repenting is something that is hard to do. We resist it. We run from it. Why? Bob Heywood talks about the reasons why it’s so hard — and what the one key thing you need to do to stop resisting.
Click to read Bob’s blog on this: Repentance and Resistance.
31 Aug 2017
Repentance and Resistance
Repentance is a hard thing to talk about. We might have a certain confidence in our ability to articulate what the Bible says about repentance, but when we take an honest look at our repentance, in the light of what we know the Bible teaches, we can become very discouraged. Truth be told, we don’t know what a life of repentance is supposed to look like. When was the last time you talked about it in your home Bible study group? Around your dinner table? With your friends?
Are we modeling repentance in our churches? Jack Miller, the author of Repentance and the 20th Century Man, said that the leaders of the church (pastors, elders, deacons, etc.) should be the lead repenters. In other words, the congregants should know what repentance looks like by observing the lives of their leaders.
How true is that in your church? Martin Luther said, “When Jesus Christ said, ‘Except you repent you will all likewise perish,’ he was not talking about a one-time event but rather a life time of repentance.”
I resist repentance because of my deep sense of shame over my sexual sin. I find it hard to believe God could love a pervert like me.
I think about this subject a lot because the men who come to Harvest USA struggle with the reality of going to church and feeling like they’re the only ones who need to repent.
For them, not only is repentance not modeled well for them, repentance is a hard thing to do. They resist it and believe me, I know what that resistance is like in my own life.
I resist repentance because of my deep sense of shame over my sexual sin. I find it hard to believe God could love a pervert like me. Feeling like a pervert is a shame-based self-identity that sticks to us like tar.
I resist because I feel like I’ve sinned my way past God’s desire to pursue me. I’ve gone too far, I’ve sinned too much. He’s not going to want me anymore.
I resist because I haven’t made myself good enough again for him. I first need to pray more or read the Bible more or tell more people about Jesus. I got work to do.
I resist because I simply can’t believe he would accept me right here and now.
To be honest, I resist God simply because He is God! He is too big for me to take in. Too much holiness for me. Too sovereign for me. He knows too much about me. When the Psalmist says “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Psa. 139:6), I think to myself, I’m not even going to go there! I resist some more.
These are all lies that shame tells me about myself.
The only way I can do what I need to do—which is to resist those lies!—is to speak truth to myself. Truth about what repentance really is.
And it starts with this truth. You need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you. Let me explain how this first step leads us to freedom and joy.
I believe that faith and repentance are opposite sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. You obviously need faith and repentance to be saved, and I don’t believe God is asking for two different things. As you begin to believe — you are starting to repent. That’s why if we take an honest look at our faith we can get discouraged. Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6).
So this is again what I’m saying to anyone struggling with sexual behavior you can’t seem to stop—you need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this, I realize that I must have very little faith. And while that’s true, here’s a bigger truth I have to speak to myself: It’s not my faith that saves me, it’s the object of my faith that saves me.
It’s the same thing with repentance. It’s not my repentance that saves me; it’s who I’m turning to. It’s not how sincere I am, but how sincere God is. That is the reason we are saved by faith and not by love. If our salvation depends on our love for God we immediately turn love into a work that we have to do.
Then our conversations with God sound like, Why don’t you believe I love you, God? Or, What else do you want me to do? Let’s stop looking at what we bring to the table and look at what Christ brings to the table. Hey! That’s something to repent of! God doesn’t need to believe us. We need to believe Him.
So this is again what I’m saying to anyone struggling with sexual behavior you can’t seem to stop—you need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you.
But here’s the second thing to know about repentance. God will take you places where you can’t avoid Him. The verse before Psa. 139:6 says, “You hem me in, behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.” And Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
God has cornered me with nowhere else to go but to Him. Perhaps you are feeling this right now. But the good news is, when I look at my behavior as the very thing Jesus died for, I’ve got no other alternative but to submit to Him. Nobody else points directly at my sin and calls it what it really is. His blood is the only honest solution for my dilemma.
I submit to Him when I’m honest with Him about my sin. When I learned that my sexual struggle was not just a habit I couldn’t stop doing, but it was idolatry and turning to something else besides God for my source of comfort and strength, then I could confess accurately. I could thank God for opening up my eyes to see things as they really are.
Then another truth hits me: I have really sinned, but God really loves sinners!
To me, that is what a life of repentance looks like. Appreciating more and more God’s character that we can’t help turning to Him. His perseverance with us is disarming. We can’t avoid Him. So we find ourselves acknowledging the movement in our hearts away from Him and His will, but that doesn’t have to stop us from turning back toward Him. Because we know of His eternal commitment to us for His glory.
Understanding the reasons for our resistance enables us to truly repent.
You can watch Bob talk more about this on his accompanying video: Why Do I have Such a Hard Time Repenting? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
08 Jul 2015
Dr. Clair Davis, retired church history professor from Westminster Theological Seminary, writes on church and gospel issues. When he writes on sex and sexuality, he has a lot of good things to say, so we thought you’d like to read it also. Dr. Davis wrote in respomse to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2015 that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court’s decision enabling same-sex marriage in all states has gotten much attention, positively and negatively. It will facilitate unbiblical marriages everywhere, and God and his law will be massively mocked. Of course that is very serious. Going ahead, will those opposing this decision be convicted of hate-crime? It is very possible.
But how is this anything new? Some of us can remember when states followed biblical norms, permitting divorce only in cases of adultery. That was when people went to Reno, Nevada, to live for six weeks until they could obtain a “no-fault” divorce there. Those finding that inconvenient were able to enlist private detectives to help them set up a phony adultery in raids on hotel rooms. I can’t remember how believers responded to Reno, but wasn’t that just as serious then as the Court’s decision today?
No doubt there are legal and social advantages to “marriage,” but in a hook-up culture, that has little to do with sexual activity. Puberty comes earlier and marriage much later; do the math yourself. No one says “common-law marriage” any more, but what could be more common? Has the evangelical Christian church, along with Catholic and Orthodox churches, been consistently clear?
This has nothing to do with our welcoming people. Jesus welcomed all us sinners, and we are so glad. But along with our trusting Jesus Christ comes repentance for our sin, and that is what we know ourselves and seek to tell others. I tell this story, one that I actually experienced, about getting drainage pipe for a plot of ground and asking for a much bigger pipe than the clerk suggested, prompting his response as he sold me the really big one, “You do have a drainage problem.” That the Beloved Son of the Father should give up his life for us sinners, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—that wasn’t to show off, that was because of our sin.
We are called to welcome all to Jesus, but clearly turning to him means turning away from whatever idol you worship, including same-sex relations. We need to show and tell that this means us too. We are not called to be Pharisees, to look down on those not as holy as we are. In no way are we worthy.
Were we sloppy about Reno? Hook-ups? It is time for us to repent of that and our own respectable sins too. The Court has gotten everyone’s attention right now, so why should we delay our own repentance? And along with that, calling the world around us to Jesus the Savior? Not just same-sex people—that suggests their sin is greater than ours, and it isn’t. That suggests cultural narrowness, and our calling is to the whole world. The Court has people awake. Now is the time to talk—more clearly and consistently than ever before.