09 Jun 2022
“Day after day, year after year, the message of shame filled my ears and heart. I ached to be loved, wanted, cherished, and desired, but instead I was learning to define myself by the way my husband treated me. Unwanted.”¹
This wife’s ache is a gospel cry. It’s a cry of loss in her marriage—a profound loss, a loss measured by the greatness of the gospel truth it was meant to picture. She is mourning the loss of the experience of exclusive belonging.
What is the foundation for the long-term sexual union of marriage? Our culture makes attraction the sole basis of the relationship, rather than one feature of it. But, as my previous post explains, God’s gracious act of setting us apart goes against this grain—and he intends us to be his image-bearers.
If human sexuality was merely animal, we could see sexuality as a simple stimulus-response based on attraction. But as image-bearers of God, our sexuality is to be a picture of the gospel. Delight grows in the security of having been graciously set apart for exclusive belonging.
Belonging, Security, and Delight
The passion and delight of a husband and wife is suggested in the idea of belonging. Belonging is not a mere legal category, as if we are chattel. You should hear it in the repeated refrain of the lover, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 2:16; 6:3; 7:10). Christ’s setting us apart to belong to him is full of warm and intimate affection.
There is so much hope in the unchanging security of our union with Christ! Our belonging to God is not transient or changeable, but eternally fixed. Your beloved Savior chose you from eternity past—his abundant love cannot change because he cannot change.
Does this challenge how you believe God thinks of you? Do you assume he’s disgusted, impatient, disappointed, and angry? You need to know that he loves his bride, the Church, with the ardor and emotion of a lover! He has set us apart to belong to him as his bride. We are our Beloved’s, and he is ours!
The Ache of Being Unwanted
When people who are not set apart to belong to each other engage in sexual activity, not only does it serve mostly selfish purposes but it’s anti-gospel in nature. Personal pleasure at someone else’s expense, a sense of conquest, and a craving to feel wanted do not reflect Christ’s relationship with his bride.
The message of sex as we’ve learned it from our culture is, “For the moment, I want what you have” and “You seem to please me more than the other options in the room.” There’s no grace in this, no gospel. It’s based on an evaluation: What turns me on now? What meets my felt needs now?
Momentary, self-focused sexual activity lacks the fullness, security, and joy of belonging. Although it temporarily mimics the warmth of true belonging, it’s filled with inevitable uncertainty. Tomorrow, he may be with someone else, and she will be aching again, wondering if she will ever be lovable.
Consider how a husband’s porn use affects his wife. When a wife discovers her husband has been looking at porn, the sense of mutual belonging based on his setting her apart in an exclusive category is destroyed. She is immediately reduced to the level of every flaunted body online. She’s no different than every woman walking or driving by.
All the gospel-like benefits of security, value, and safety she enjoyed when her husband set her apart as his own are shown to be an illusion. What is communicated to her is that it’s really always been about competing to fulfill this man’s desire—a competition she knows she can never win. She is, using the word of the wife at the top of this post, “unwanted.” This is devastating.
Eternal Belonging in Christ
Where do we go with this? Wherever we fit into this story—a sinning husband, a hurting wife, a sinning wife, a single person afraid of not belonging to anyone—we can only go to the gospel first. Jesus is the only one who is truly faithful, and his faithfulness counts for us. We belong to him first.
It’s good news that the truth of the gospel, which our sexuality was meant to reveal, is not diminished by our failure and loss. Nothing we do or don’t do can change the eternal security of our union with Christ. We can learn to define ourselves by the way our Savior—our Husband!—treats us: set apart as his own. We are his, and our Beloved is ours, forever.
¹This quotation is from our soon-to-be-released resource, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July, 2022.
Have you heard a sermon on singleness lately? If you’re honest, as a single Christian, perhaps you bristle at the thought of the topic. Maybe you’ve been wounded or just plain frustrated by some of the messages you’ve heard—likely on themes of contentment, sexual purity, and guarding against selfishness. I heartily affirm these as relevant themes for godly single Christians to consider. But when was the last time you, my single brother or sister, considered how the abundant riches of Christ can be uniquely experienced in your singleness?
Do you regularly relish the wealth of Christ that is yours to be received and enjoyed right now? Surely there’s more to life than just holding on for your condition of singleness to change.
Whether you’re single and waiting or have become single through the painful loss of widowhood or unwanted divorce, this post is particularly for you. Still, because all true believers are brought into irrevocable union with Christ, all Christian readers can rejoice over these truths regardless of their marital status.
What are some features of singleness that can draw out—or perhaps even enhance—some of the blessings of a believer’s union with Christ?
Have you heard about the pitfalls of being single? Perhaps you’ve heard negative discussions around things like excess free time, the need for wisdom in relationships, temptation toward sexual sin, and concerns about selfishness. These are all real concerns, and faithful singles should pursue obedience in them. However, have you considered your time of singleness as an opportunity for undivided devotion to Christ? For simplicity in your devotion to him?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives the most explicit instructions for marriage and singleness found in the New Testament: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). He goes on to say:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (vv. 32–34)
I believe Paul is describing a simplicity that lends itself to an undivided heart toward Christ. Is Paul saying here that those in a season of widowhood or singleness have simple, worry-free lives? I don’t think so. But one of the opportunities unique to singles is to pursue undivided simplicity and devotion to Christ, while looking to the reward. Christ himself, and communion with him, is that reward.
Christ Our Reward
Consider Jesus’s words in the Great Commission, as he’s sending his people out to fulfill his mission: “Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Or when Jesus speaks of his Holy Spirit and says, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16, emphasis mine). Is this not one of the things our hearts long for most? We long for someone who will make a permanent covenant with us—one who will be with us forever, who will be “our person,” our closest companion. Jesus himself promises to be nothing less than this to us, by faith, in this present age.
These are not mere platitudes or simple ideas to appease us as Christians. These are rich truths to be received, meditated upon, and taken hold of by faith! Dear Christian brother or sister in a season of singleness, would you consider today the riches of Christ? They’re not only yours for all eternity but can be received by faith today! Would you take hold of them in Christ with all your heart? By prayer? In community with the family of God?
Receiving Christ in a Season of Unmet Longings
Maybe these words sting a little for some. How can I enjoy Jesus when I’m experiencing the pain of unmet desires? What if Jesus seems like a consolation prize to settle for? I want to affirm the good desire for romance, sexual expression, and companionship that are found in a godly marriage—but even this good thing only points to the greater reality found in Christ.
Let’s listen to Paul’s words again: “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Paul’s goal for this exhortation is clear: undivided devotion to the Lord. Just before this, Paul, in speaking to all believers, says:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (vv. 29–31)
Even those in godly marriages are called to live in such a way that the glory of Christ is at the forefront because the present form of this world is passing away.
If this idea doesn’t get you excited, I would encourage you to consider that God created your longings and therefore knows how to fulfill them better than any other. Psalm 16:11 makes a stunning claim about God: “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The life of a single Christian, united to Christ, can be truly rich. As Sam Allberry writes, single believers have an opportunity to display the sufficiency of God’s promises in the gospel and his love for us relationally.
Ask God to help you see things the way he sees them. How might your perspective need to shift to align with his holy and righteous view? He longs to meet you and help you as your loving Lord.
Invite God into the painful moments when you feel the sting of being single. Another wedding without a plus one? Feeling left behind in life as your friends move on? These moments of sorrow also include an invitation for you to have Christ himself bear your burdens with you.
Ask God to search you for ungodly attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors around your singleness. Repent and turn from these things. Maybe you just don’t believe that Christ can fulfill the deepest longings of your heart. Maybe you’ve tried to seek him in the past and it didn’t seem to “work.” Don’t do this alone! Seek the help of trusted brothers and sisters walking with you along the journey.
Wait on the Lord as you long to receive the good gifts he has for you in your singleness. Jesus is the greatest gift. There are no guarantees about when or how he will show up; be on the lookout! It helps to keep in mind that we still experience the felt comforts of Jesus amid a broken world this side of heaven. Have your heart and eyes wide open for the ways in which he is meeting you with his sustaining grace in the present even as he points you toward the ultimate fulfillment of your all your longings in heaven—namely, perfect fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Single brothers and sisters, let’s pursue our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, with all that we have, in whatever season God has called us to for today. He not only gives us good gifts in every season, but he himself is our portion and our eternal delight (Ps. 16). Enjoy your unshakeable union with Christ today. He is worthy!
Caitlin McCaffrey is our new Women’s Ministry staff member and will start in July 2022. Please consider joining her financial support team here!
12 May 2022
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
25 Nov 2021
Harvest USA is a ministry focused on issues of sexuality and gender. It’s not surprising, then, that people often ask us for advice on how to respond to our current culture. How do I get beyond complaints and diatribes about non-Christian ideas in the world around us? Should I engage in political action? What must I do when my neighbors and colleagues push non-Christian views? How do I raise kids in this environment? How do we keep the Church from capitulating in the area of sexuality?
These are urgent and complicated questions. I believe the beginning of an answer to them is one of perspective: It’s not really about sex.
How we address those outside the Church
Throughout the Bible, concern for sexual morality is directed inward, to God’s people, not outward to the world. It is most often associated with expressing holiness, by which is meant being set apart to belong to the LORD. It is always assumed that the people and cultures of the world will be sexually immoral, and, even when that fact is mentioned, it is usually in the context of calling Christians to self-consciously differentiate themselves in that respect. So, for instance, the lists of sexuality rules in Leviticus are framed by, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3). Sexuality was one significant area of application of the principal of having been set apart to belong to God: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
This is exactly the way sexual morality is framed in the New Testament as well, but with the added expectation that even while our beliefs and practices will be radically different from those outside the Church, we will be living and working in close association with them every day. Paul writes, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world…since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10). Peter also says, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). Significantly, the Church is not told to go out and scold the world, or even to try to reform their practices. Instead, we are to focus on being distinctly different.
One implication of this is that we need to be soberly realistic about the sexual practices and views of the non-Christian world we live in. I suspect that we have spent too much time and emotional energy processing shock and disappointment at every major step of cultural decline into sexual license, but this should never surprise us. In fact, in the Scriptures, the reaction of surprise is expected from the other direction: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). It is the world that should be shocked at what we don’t do! If moral decline in the culture around us seems like our biggest concern, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are really hoping for—a world outside the Church that approximates godliness just enough that we can comfortably and respectably partake in its benefits? That is never promised to us by our Lord; it is a counterfeit gospel.
Am I suggesting that God’s rules for sex don’t apply to unbelievers? Of course not. But God has not given us the job of being his morality enforcers. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And listen to how Peter continues: “…but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Notice to whom they are to give account—“to him,” to Christ. They are not accountable to us, nor are we their judges.
However, we do have some responsibility to those who are outside the Church. How does Peter express this? He concludes, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” (1 Peter 4:6). What is our role when they are shocked at our views on sexuality? We are to proclaim the gospel. When it comes to sexuality, our focus is primarily inward; when it comes to evangelism, our focus is primarily outward. This has the potential to give great freedom in how we respond to developments in our culture. In our interactions, our priority is not how we can inform or convince them that their sexual views and practices are wrong. Our priority is to show and tell them about the plan and promise of God to give eternal life and joy in Jesus.
How we address those inside the Church
If, in speaking to the world, we can err by focusing on sexuality rather than the gospel, there is a similar error we can make in speaking to our own—and I’m thinking especially here of our young. Whether we like it or not, our children are hearing persuasive messages from our culture about sex every day. We absolutely must counter those sexual messages. However, just as it is true that our response toward the world is not really focused on sex, but the gospel, so also in our counter-persuasion toward our kids our main point is not about sex, but the gospel.
Why is this? Because we need to make clear to our kids that the real issues are infinitely bigger than sex. In biblical Christianity, sex is a picture of the gospel, but it is not the gospel; in the unbelieving world, sex is salvation. So, the question to answer in refuting the world’s messages about sex is not, “What is sex?,” but “What is salvation?” Where do we turn to find that which is of highest value? What provides goodness and life to the fullest extent? What brings ultimate joy and human flourishing? The world’s answer is, “Sex, unhindered by any outside inhibition and guided by individual internal impulse.” Notice here that our message to our children cannot merely compare and contrast the world’s and God’s rules for sex. The equation is not, “The world says that X, Y, and Z are okay when it comes to sex, but the Church says that only A, B, and C are okay when it comes to sex.” That framing of the question may involve true statements of the Christian do’s and don’ts, but it misses the main point. We ought to frame it this way: “The world says that the highest life is attained by your expressing yourself—especially your sex and gender—according to your impulses and desires, but the Church says that true, abundant, and eternal life is only found by trusting and loving Jesus.” Do you see the difference? That answer does not even mention sex, and it also answers the fundamental error of the world’s messages about sex.
One thing that is implicated here is the temptation to try to convince our young people to choose Christian sexual rules based on an experiential comparison with the world’s prodigality. This is the message that, “Christian sex is the best sex. If you will only keep yourself pure until marriage and then commit to sexuality confined to marriage, your sex life—and you—will be happier.” Granted, there may be some truths contained in that sentiment that are worth saying. Many of the promises that the world makes of the unlimited pleasure and personal fulfillment to be found in freeform sexual expression are, at best, exaggerations and, at worst, outright lies. There are experiential benefits in a lifelong, faithfully monogamous marriage that are impossible in a less committed relationship. Nevertheless, if this is our only or most important argument, it will be largely unconvincing. It will be unconvincing because it concedes the terms of the discussion to the world. In the world’s framing of the discussion, the question of sexuality is a cost-benefit equation limited to the time between birth and death. On these terms, Christian sexuality is a hard sell. Sure, we can name a few benefits, but, if we are honest, we must admit the significant costs of repeated self-denial, deferred hopes, a radical restriction of options, and, for some, lifelong loss and loneliness. Put bluntly, in a world without resurrection, Christian sexual morality is nonsense. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
That is exactly why we cannot accept the world’s terms of discussion. This issue is not as small as this current life; it is infinitely bigger. Why in the world would we make such restrictive—in the world’s view, repressive—commitments in regard to sexuality? Because we have found something of infinitely greater value. We have found Jesus, the Creator himself become one of us, the source and giver of all that is good, giving us intimacy with God and the promise of an indestructible, unending, glorious life in a recreated universe. Everything good in this life is but a dim hint of the eternal joy promised to us in Christ. And sex? Sex is just one of those dim hints of the life to come. What about the standards that define our sexuality? They are not mere restrictions, mere arbitrary deprivations to enforce an other-worldly mindedness. They are meant to cause sexuality to mirror and display our Savior’s faithful, covenantal, lavish, and costly love for us. Do we simplistically give our kids an alternate set of rules about sex we hope they will choose over the world’s views? Or do we show and tell them about something and someone who is worth every ounce of our love and allegiance?
So, whichever direction we face—outward to the world or inward toward our own—it isn’t really about sex. It’s about the gospel.
15 Jan 2020
Harvest USA’s new ministry venture, The Sexually Faithful Church Initiative, aims to help churches be proactive in discipling the church community to understand and trust in the wisdom and glory of God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender.
One major component for assisting the church community to embrace what God is saying about how we ought to live with our bodies is through teaching. But not just the usual way churches teach, through sermons and lectures (nothing wrong here, but it’s not enough). We mean through engagement and dialogue.
The church is making two errors today in dealing with sexual issues: One is to not talk about the subject; the other is to talk without engaging in a discussion. Both these approaches weaken God’s people because, unless the issues are thoroughly explored, most Christians don’t know how to think through the ways the culture is influencing them.
Getting the issues of sexuality out on the table and discussing them in open, safe settings is critical in helping people understand why God’s design for sexuality is good and why it remains relevant for our lives today. Understanding and faithfully following God’s Word in how we ought to live with the bodies God has given us will only take place when we better understand how Christian belief contrasts with current cultural thought.
The church needs to get its people talking! But talking also invites listening, so if we create a context for safe discussions, we can talk about Scriptural truth in a loving way that can help people see and understand the reasons why God’s design for sex and sexuality is good for each one of us individually and at large in our society.
And if we can do this within the church by talking respectfully with truth and love, then we can model the way to speak with those who do not believe what Scripture teaches. These are intensely personal issues, and those who do not follow Scripture here feel threatened by any talk from a religious or faith perspective. By speaking intelligently—with accurate knowledge of the issues—the Christian worldview potentially gains a hearing, and that is typically the way God works to change hearts and minds.
That’s what God’s Design for Sexuality in a Changing Culture (DVD) intends to do. We decided to film 15 of our most popular teaching presentations and reduce each talk to a 30-minute video. We then provide a discussion guide so that churches and small groups can interact with the material.
By showing the video teaching in a group context, it provides an environment for discussion and dialogue. People will watch the same video at the same time, so that means everyone hears the same material. In an age where videos are viewed more than books are read, we think this will entice more people to listen to these important messages and engage in the kind of discussion that can lead to further understanding and embracing of Scriptural truth.
It will be necessary for someone to lead the class or group discussion. It shouldn’t be an unstructured free-for-all. But the leader must make the post-video discussion safe for everyone. The issue of sex, sexuality, and gender—and how we ought to live faithfully before God with our bodies—is a highly emotional topic.
Everyone struggles to live well with God’s powerful gift of sex, sexuality, and gender. There will be people in your class who struggle here, and some have painful sexual histories that make this discussion difficult.
And some may come to different conclusions about what a biblical view of sex, sexuality, and gender is. Having a safe and open conversation about these topics includes having a discussion about why people choose to interpret the Bible in different ways. There may be a temptation to assume a person who thinks differently is not really committed to the Bible, but such is not necessarily the case. It is important to understand why a person interprets the Bible in specific ways and to engage in respectful dialogue about why you disagree. This is the only way to build the trust that is needed when engaging in conversation about such personal and vulnerable topics. A willingness to listen to each other is critical so that everyone understands the ways Christians are being influenced by our culture.
That doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone’s perspective or opinion. It may be necessary in the class or group to say that such a view is outside of Scripture and/or outside of the historical understanding of the church. There is no intent here in these discussions to affirm or suggest that multiple viewpoints on sex, sexuality, and gender are acceptable, or that how we live our lives as sexual and gendered beings is open to any interpretation that is at variance with Scripture and Christian tradition. It does matter that biblical principles for faith and life are affirmed and encouraged.
“It does matter that biblical principles for faith and life are affirmed and encouraged.”
We do, however, need safe and open discussion to help people learn and come to the place where they want to obey God. We grow into obedience to Christ (Matthew 11:28-30). We need to help one another know what we need to learn, and then encourage each other to grab hold of God’s revealed will on this matter and assist one another to live it out faithfully, in the strength that God gives to his people.
Editor’s Note: When you buy God’s Design for Sexuality in a Changing Culture (DVD) from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
19 Dec 2019
Regardless of our marital status, all of us are sexual beings. The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!” Despite its challenges, the Bible suggests singleness is a “gift” for some (see 1 Corinthians 7:7–9). While many singles struggle without a spouse and long for marriage, others may not resonate with the feelings of loneliness discussed below. Many single Christians live joyful, content, and especially fruitful lives for the kingdom, specifically because of their unmarried state. I know the challenge of being an older single. After twelve years of marriage, I suddenly lost my first wife to complications from breast cancer. I was thirty-nine years old (with twin eight-year-old girls). After her death, I was single for almost three years. Though my personal experience with singleness is limited, I write with a keen awareness of the difficulties singles face. Every person’s story is different, but I hope that what follows is helpful to single readers as they seek to faithfully embrace their sexuality.
The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!”
Single and Waiting (on the Lord)
The creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 suggests that waiting on the Lord was built into the world from the beginning. After Adam’s creation, God declares, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18), then proceeds to create the animal kingdom ahead of Eve. But we see the eventual blessing as Adam meets Eve and erupts in poetic exultation. However, waiting is more pronounced and painful after Genesis 3. There is a reason why there are multiple complaints of “How long, oh Lord?” in the Psalms. Now life is filled with disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. As Proverbs 13:12 expresses, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Many of us are living with the deep heartache of hope deferred.
If this is your experience, I want to share a perspective on waiting. It is an active place. I used to think waiting meant trying to be patient, like waiting for the bus with nothing to do. Not so. Waiting on the Lord is active. In fact, it is a place of warfare. Years ago, reading through the Psalms, I was struck by the conclusion of Psalm 27, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (v. 14). Do you hear what David is saying? Waiting on the Lord is a terrifying place to be.
It is not for the faint of heart, but requires incredible, Spirit-given strength. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is moving forward despite your terror. This is true for any waiting God calls us to, but especially the waiting that stretches on for years and decades. If you are wrestling with your singleness, I encourage you to see this as a battle that takes courage, and a place where God wants to meet you.
In the Old Testament, marriage is assumed to be the normative mode of life, with childbearing as a critical component. This is partly due to the creation mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), as well as the building anticipation that a deliverer would come from Abraham’s seed, a son of David, to free Israel from her oppressors. But the focus on physical generation begins to shift as Isaiah prophesies about this coming deliverer.
Isaiah 53 is one of the most wondrous passages pointing to Jesus’s sacrificial death. Written hundreds of years before his earthly life, it describes his crucifixion and even the manner of his burial. After describing Jesus’s death and the reality that he was “cut off” from his generation and the land of the living (v. 8), the passage turns and makes a shocking pronouncement: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (v. 10). There is an anticipation of life after death—resurrection!—and the production of offspring. Although Jesus lived his perfect human life as a single man and was literally childless, Scripture regards Jesus’s single life as having produced a family in the community of his followers. This was a striking claim in the ancient world, in which married life and the production of physical children was the assumed norm.
Isaiah went on to describe the drastic change that is coming with the advent of the Messiah:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3–5, ESV)
This was an incredible statement! The Old Testament law declared that no one with damaged or removed genitalia could even enter God’s assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1). Such people were second-class citizens, at least as far as worship in the temple was concerned. In this context, Isaiah’s pronouncement was a strong affirmation that God saw those who, through their physical and relational status, were excluded from a central aspect of Israel’s religious life. Isaiah envisioned a new day when, in a transformation of the creation mandate, physical generation is no longer the name of the game. Laying out this history highlights the extraordinary redirection that results from Jesus establishing the kingdom of God. Isaiah thus offers singles something “better than sons and daughters”—an everlasting legacy based solely on the work of God through his people who bring about a spiritual generation that carries into the world to come.
Approaching the New Testament, this change is even more pronounced. When questioned about the practice of divorce, Jesus brought his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concluded his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12, ESV).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and the production of children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaimed some people will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state! As we’ll see below, this is because of the heightened focus on the kingdom that corresponds with the coming of Christ.
Paul took Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging the believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness because spouses created divided loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouses (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). The call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom reorients the focus and is prioritized above the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply”. To this end, he encouraged lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledged that it is not sinful to marry. (Also see Paul’s clear refutation in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 of those who forbid marriage.)
I suspect this 1 Corinthians 7 passage is rarely preached in American churches. The suburban church typically portrays marriage and family as the normative ideal. The goal of a singles ministry is to get everyone paired off and participating in the rest of the life of the church: coming to potlucks with casseroles (instead of a bag of Doritos), producing offspring to populate the children’s ministry, and so on. For many churches, children are still their best church-growth strategy. Although churches acknowledge that in Christ things are different than the Old Testament, they still operate as though what matters most is getting married and having children. I preached at a church in Philadelphia and met a single guy in his thirties. As we chatted, he shared about his move to the city. Even though he continued to work in the distant suburbs, he opted for a long commute, changing churches and moving into the city because in that context he is not the bizarre anomaly he’d been in his former, suburban church. There has been little affirmation—at least in many American suburban churches—of the New Testament’s high calling of singleness.
Working through the Pain
I realize for many unmarried Christians this vision may not offer much comfort. I once preached on Malachi 2:10–16. In this section, the ancient tribe of Judah is rebuked for divorcing their wives from among their own people in order to marry foreign women who worship idols. Malachi raged, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (v. 15, emphasis added). As I discussed this passage, I shared some of this vision of singleness—that singles have opportunities to nurture spiritually-generated “offspring.” Some single folks in the church were encouraged by this, but others felt it wasn’t enough. Many singles—and not only women—want actual physical offspring. They want to be parents and hold their own children. What can we say to such a widespread and understandable human desire? With such unique disappointments in the lives of many single people, along with God’s special design of marriage at the creation, we may be forced to conclude that singleness, with its challenges, is one aspect of the brokenness of the world due to the Fall. If this is an accurate assessment, it means singleness may always come with an ache on some level. For some it is a “gift,” and presumably, they have “self-control” and do not “burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:7, 9). But the fact is that many face singleness for a host of reasons while not experiencing a sense of having been designed for it.
If God is truly God, there is no getting around that he is behind everything in existence. His sovereignty is behind your singleness. If you’re not happy about it and you’re not talking to him, you need to start. Because, I guarantee you this—whether you are speaking directly about this issue or not, it affects your relationship with him. Perhaps you are ignoring him in your pain, shutting him out (sadly, this is one of my personal tactics). And, of course, if you’re shutting him out, you’re turning somewhere else to medicate your pain. Maybe you’re losing yourself by searching Christian Mingle, Netflix binging, or trying to assuage your desire with porn or romance novels. Or perhaps it’s alcohol, work, exercise, or food. Or a combination—eating ice cream doused in chocolate liqueur, while doing work on your laptop, sitting in front of Netflix on your smart TV, while occasionally swiping through potential dates on your tablet . . . twenty-first-century idolatry can certainly multitask.
Embracing Promises Amid Pain
While the truth of God’s sovereignty sometimes sounds cold and distant, I urge you to see it in light of his amazingly particular love for you. David, considering God’s close attention to the details of his life, declared, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). He went on to describe God’s thoughts toward him as innumerable as the grains of sand. God’s thoughts toward you are vast and particular and fine-tuned to your unique life. We must think of his sovereignty over the details of our lives in the context of this particular love.
Consider the amazing declaration of Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you. . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isaiah 43:1, 4, 7,). Not only did God create and form you to be a unique image bearer, but he calls you by name as his very own. Because you are incredibly precious and loved, his eyes are on you and he wants to honor you. The ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. And, finally, did you catch why he created you? For his glory! Alongside these incredible statements, the New Testament teaches that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, emphasis added). Do you hear the bridegroom language? He wants to possess you as his very own, and that’s why Jesus came—to win his bride.
If you are single, I long for you to hear these words as deeply true, rather than spiritual platitudes. Jesus wants to meet you in your pain, disappointment, and unsatisfied desires, and give you comfort—this is a profound spiritual reality. Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18). He knows our deep need for him, and he longs to be intimately united to us.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God. According to the Bible, you are in a position to do far more for the kingdom than those who are married. But there is something else incredibly important: your life, lived well, is a revolutionary challenge to the principalities and powers of this dark world as your obedience educates the spiritual forces of the manifold wisdom of God (see Ephesians 3:10; 6:12). Our culture is seduced by sexuality and daily sells us the lie that a life without sex is not worth living. Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace suffering disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life. It is an ongoing challenge to grow in learning that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3), but far from something to be pitied, your life is a countercultural battle cry that the world (and the church!) needs to see!
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.
27 Sep 2019
Most books on sexuality miss a critical piece: a biblical perspective on the goodness of created and redeemed sexuality and how Scripture invites us to know Jesus as the ultimate Bridegroom, whether married or single. Unless we understand sexuality is ultimately about God and our relationship with him, we will not have a complete picture of the God we worship.
The content of this video is based on 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.
20 Jun 2019
Ed was feeling overwhelmed. The couple that just left his office had been there for marriage counseling. The wife angrily revealed in the session that she discovered her husband had been looking at gay pornography. When she confronted him about it, he confessed that it had been a lifelong struggle. She felt betrayed, hurt, and doubtful that someone like her husband could ever change.
That counseling session came on the heels of last week’s revelation that one of the girls in the senior high youth group had come out as transgender and wanted her peers and youth leaders to call her by a male name. And, there was a church session meeting just days prior, where a major topic of conversation was how to effectively discipline a church member who was in an adulterous affair.
As Ed sat in his office, looking out the window, he found himself asking the question: Lord! What do I do?
Ed’s experience illustrates a growing problem many pastors, elders, and other church leaders face: how to respond to sexual and gender-related sin and struggle in the church. How do you minister to the strugglers themselves and help them walk in increasing faith and repentance? How do you comfort and support family members who are directly impacted by their loved ones’ struggle and sin? How do you respond to church members who resist repentance? And, how and when do you engage formal church discipline?
Those actions are all good and necessary. But, they are all reactive. They come into play after the struggle or sin has been exposed and after it has caused so much damage to the lives of God’s saints. And, they constitute only one part of the ministerial responsibility pastors and church leaders face.
The other side of the pastoral care coin (and the more important of the two) is the call for the church to proactively equip its members to walk in accord with God’s timeless, sovereign, holy, and wise design for sex, sexuality, and gender. At a minimum, being proactive helps Christians understand the inherent goodness of God’s created order when the temptation comes to selfishly misuse it. Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
Proactively preparing God’s people could have potentially minimized the impact of the painful challenges now faced by those people in Ed’s church. Could proactive ministry have even prevented some of these issues in the first place? Possibly. As Ed silently pondered his question to the Lord, he asked himself: Is there anything I could have done differently so that these people wouldn’t be struggling in the ways they are now? Is there anything I could have done in advance so I wouldn’t be dealing with these broken lives now?
Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
To minister both reactively (to those directly impacted by sexual and gender-related sin and struggle) and proactively (to the entire membership of the visible church), the church itself must be committed to a position of sexual faithfulness. At Harvest USA, we call such churches “sexually faithful churches.”
What is a Sexually Faithful Church?
The term “sexually faithful church” might sound a bit awkward. It certainly is one I never heard until we came up with it at Harvest USA a couple of years ago. This term is one that is meant to be a bit abrasive, as it is intended to call Christians and church leaders to action.
Though the term “sexually faithful church” may be new, it is an ancient, orthodox concept. Here is how we define a sexually faithful church:
A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry.
What does that definition mean? Let’s briefly explore that definition so you have a better appreciation of where we’re going.
A church that disciples. . . A sexually faithful church is one that intentionally and proactively engages in discipleship. Intentional discipleship is how members grow in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. It is taught and lived out in a way that helps church members apply God’s redemptive grace to their lives. Doing so encourages them to grow in their understanding and appreciation of God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, to resist temptation, and to increase their active ministry among the community of their fellow believers. Through peer and mentor discipleship, they discover practical ways to apply that teaching to their particular lives and situations and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.
. . . its members. . . Members at every age level, from young children to seniors, receive age-appropriate teaching about God’s good and wise design for their bodies and desires. They receive biblical, life-changing teaching about proactive accountability and living transparently and interdependently in the Body of Christ. Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
. . . in a gospel worldview of sexuality. . . We use the word sexuality here as a blanket term to refer to sex, sexuality, and gender. God’s people learn that these attributes of created existence and image bearing are theirs precisely because, through the right exercise and enjoyment of them, we not only honor God, but we reveal his wisdom and glory to each other and the world. In a culture that says we are nothing more than the collection of feelings and desires that drive us, to understand and rest in God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender bestows an uncommon dignity and glory on men and women as God’s image bearers and his servant-kings over his creation.
But our modern culture tells us that a gospel worldview of sex, sexuality, and gender is not only wrong but that it is also harmful to human flourishing. We’re told that teaching a historic gospel worldview on these issues of human personhood is culturally uninformed, out of touch, insensitive, and unloving. A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior. In other words, the sexually faithful church instructs its members on how to compassionately, patiently, and winsomely speak the truth in love to others.
A Special Call to the Sexually Faithful Church
The call to be proactive in discipling God’s people in biblical sexuality must also deal with an issue the Church has not done well with: sexual abuse and the traumatic repercussions that come with it.
First, the church must acknowledge the hiddenness of this sin and work diligently to care for the victims of sexual abuse, recognizing the devastating impact abuse has on survivors. The church should compassionately help and support survivors to heal and to flourish spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
Second, the church must address the issue of the offenders when the abuse is within the congregation. It must not fail to engage the authorities to see that the laws of the state are upheld, in both investigation and prosecution. And then, it must carefully guard the entire church with policies and procedures that protect against further abuse while helping the offenders to repent and grow. Restrictions on offenders are not punitive; they are restorative for everyone.
Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
And third, a sexually faithful church must never shield its leaders from appropriate investigation when allegations are made against them. Careful investigation by those who are not close to the people involved is what is needed to uncover the facts and seek the truth. That will mean getting outside consultation from professionals and a willingness to listen to them and act on their input. Our people need to see this from us. The world needs to see this from us—because one cover-up scandal after another is steadily turning people away from the institution of the Church. How can we persuade people to follow God in this area of sexuality when we misuse it, and then lie about it?
The History of the Sexually Faithful Church
God commanded his people in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere throughout the Law to be sexually faithful. There are numerous New Testament instructions to be sexually faithful; perhaps the most direct of which is Paul’s admonition to “Flee from sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 6:18.
But this imperative is more than a bare command. God’s people are instructed, throughout the length and breadth of Scripture, to both obey the Law and to do so in the context of transparent community.
That instruction goes back to the beginning of Israel as a covenant community. During the period when God established the first community of believers under Moses, he made clear the manner through which God’s people were to be trained in the knowledge and fear of God and equipped to live faithfully. That manner was twofold: teaching, followed by accountability in community. Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Teaching is commanded to take place in different venues and to different audiences. The Law was to be read publicly to the entire congregation during certain public worship observances (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). Parents were commanded “diligently” to teach the Word of God to their children, in all sorts of settings: “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Living out the instruction of God’s Word, in the most deliberate manner, was to be a way of life in the home.
While the community was to receive the recitation of the Law in public worship and talk about it with their families, they were also commanded to focus on God’s revelation during their “quiet time.” Psalm 119 was written as a celebration of God’s Law as the perfect pattern for life itself. Readers are exhorted to “do as I do,” with reference to the writer’s words: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). And, it goes almost without saying, that throughout the Old Testament there are the specific commands forbidding certain sexual behaviors (Leviticus) and the agony God displays in dealing with Israel’s adultery (see the Prophets).
In the New Covenant, Paul tells his hearers in Romans 12:2 that covenant believers will be transformed in all respects as their minds are renewed through interacting with God’s Word. He says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that being intimately acquainted with Scripture makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and that Scripture makes us “complete [and] equipped for every good work.” In a remarkable passage, Paul implores the church at Thessaloniki to intentionally live sexually faithful lives based on the instruction “you received from us (in) how you ought to walk and please God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
Whether in the context of the covenant community or the family or alone, God’s people are to remember God’s Word on a daily basis. We are meant to live it out and be utterly transformed by it.
A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior.
This transformation is not for us alone, merely for individual personal growth. We are messengers of the gospel, and the way we live—and that specifically includes the way we live in and with these bodies God has given to us—is so that we will “shine like lights” in a broken world (see Philippians 2:15). This is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 22:18: “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
To the extent that we, Abraham’s spiritual offspring, obey the fullness of the revelation from that same Teacher, we shall indeed bless those around us in our families, workplaces, schools, and communities.
A Vision for the 21st Century Sexually Faithful Church
To be sure, becoming a sexually faithful church requires a commitment to culture change in our churches. That commitment occurs both at the organizational level (the whole church) and the individual level (the particular believer). It requires a commitment to participate in a lifestyle of discipleship with other believers.
Culture change means teaching God’s people what Scripture really teaches about sex, sexuality, and gender—and that God, as wise and loving Designer of human beings, is the only Authority on how these aspects of personhood should be enjoyed. The sexually faithful church must help its members learn how to discern theological truth from distortion and to know how to engage cultural lies with confidence. Whether it involves compassionate correction or a more robust rebuke, communicating God’s will on these issues must always be the truth, spoken in love.
Harvest USA will launch the Sexually Faithful Church Initiative later in 2019. In the months to come, you’ll see more and more resources produced by Harvest USA to help your church become, increasingly, a sexually faithful church. We realize that educating and equipping the members of your church to become a sexually faithful church is a process. We want to partner with you to help make it a reality—for the glory of God, and a witness to the world.
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
Tim has more thoughts on this topic and shares them in the accompanying video: What Is a Sexually Faithful Church? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc
The embarrassed cultural silence once surrounding masturbation has been replaced with loud, affirming voices. From an early 90s Seinfeld episode in which all the characters acknowledged their inability to refrain from this behavior to recent medical studies affirming the potential health benefits, masturbation has gone mainstream with much acclaim.
In the Christian community, evangelicals have wrestled for years whether masturbation is a sin, with voices on both sides. The debate exists because it’s a sexual behavior without a condemning “proof text.” And although there isn’t a specific passage forbidding solo-sex, if we have a robust understanding of God’s design for sexuality and an awareness of what it means to be Jesus’ disciples, it’s clear that there’s no room for masturbation in the life of a Christian.
Despite how outdated this position may be, parents must speak to their kids about masturbation. Most parents are confronted with a child’s exploration of his/her genitals at a young age. Much could be said here, but how you respond is crucial! You must never shame your child. At very young ages, perhaps the best thing to do is distract and redirect. As they get older, share how God created our genitals for something special in marriage, opening the door to have positive discussions about God’s design.
The Bible always reserves sexual activity for marriage. It is designed to be inherently relational, a deep knowing of and intimacy between a husband and wife.
We must teach our children there is theological significance to our sexuality (read my article in the Spring 2017 issue of harvestusa magazine, “Just What is Godly Sex?”, and my longer article on masturbation, “Solo Sex and the Christian”, in the September 2018 issue of Christian Research Journal).
Two things are crucial to have at the forefront when talking about masturbation with your kids.
First, the Bible always reserves sexual activity for marriage. It is designed to be inherently relational, a deep knowing of and intimacy between a husband and wife. Second, the goal of sex is selfless service; it is a way of giving wholly to the other, providing pleasure and joy in the deepest act of mutual vulnerability. This latter point is particularly clear from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, the only “how to” passage in the Bible prescribing sexual activity.
God designed sexuality to be like every other aspect of the Christian life: a turning away from selfish desires to honor God with my body and use it to serve others. Sex in Christian marriage should reflect the New Testament’s ethic in general. Describing discipleship, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is more than a proof text for the atonement; it is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be his disciple.
As a solitary activity, masturbation is not rooted in relationship with another. There is no opportunity for deepening intimacy and knowing of another. Furthermore, far from selfless service, masturbation is a snapshot of selfishness. This behavior proclaims, “What matters most right now is that I experience the greatest pleasure possible.” This is radically counter to the call of discipleship described above.
Parents must acknowledge the majority of teens are wrestling with masturbation. Are you willing to be vulnerable and discuss your own history with them? You can’t read Proverbs 5-7 without an awareness that the father addressing his son understands the lure of temptation. Particularly, Chapter 7 depicts a scenario that would deeply entice any young man. The father clearly “gets it.” Honesty with our children includes not shrinking back from the reality that sin is incredibly alluring, even to us. Although you will always be their parent, the teen years are the time to begin maturing the relationship, having side-by-side adult conversations, not speaking down to them as children.
Let me point out a very real danger that has only been around for the last couple of decades: Internet porn is a whole new beast, and masturbation is the goal of much pornography use.
This issue of masturbation is an invitation to a deeper level of discipleship with your teens, calling them to a fuller understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, pointing them to how he wants to meet them in the pain of their unsatisfied desires and empower them by his Spirit. Christ wants our children to learn the critical truth, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” because in our weakness “the power of Christ [rests] upon [us]” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). And it is a time when teens can learn that the Christian life and growth in holiness requires community. There is no significant sin struggle that God wants us to face with him alone. He placed us in the Body for a reason. This issue can help kids consider how they turn to false comforts to cope with the challenges of life (what the Bible calls idolatry) and how to increasingly bring their pain to God and others.
Some parents say masturbation isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t hurt anyone. Let me point out a very real danger that has only been around for the last couple of decades: Internet porn is a whole new beast, and masturbation is the goal of much pornography use. It is overwhelmingly likely today that your child will see online sexual images, some violent and degrading, and this can radically shape their hearts and attitudes about sex and relationships. Masturbation, especially if it becomes a habitual behavior, is programming your child with a self-focused sexuality. If the Lord provides a spouse one day for your child, he or she will approach marriage to get personal “needs” met, not looking to selflessly serve another. An inner fantasy world, especially when amplified by pornography, relegates other image-bearers, loved by God, to objects for my personal consumption.
That highlights another problem. Many Christians justify masturbation because our culture elevates sexual desire to a physical “need.” But the hard truth is, no one has ever died for lack of sex. This is not to say that living with unsatisfied sexual desires is easy! Sex is a wonderful blessing, a good gift from God, but it is not a source of life. We need compassion for our children as they mature sexually and learn to live chastely.
Wise parents will tread this road carefully; we don’t want to heap shame on our children for having sexual bodies and desires.
Are Christians just too uptight about sex? Isn’t this repressive? Not at all. We believe God invented pleasure and gave us the capacity to enjoy it in all kinds of ways. But he also prescribed the ways certain pleasures should be expressed. All pleasures can entice our hearts to supplant the Giver to worship the gift instead.
Finally, most secular therapists agree that masturbation is a means of self-soothing and finding comfort. Here’s the problem: God declares himself to be the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). He wants to meet us in our sadness, loneliness, and frustration. He promises to satisfy “you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5). There is a danger when we turn to things of this world to soothe the ache in our soul. Jonah 2:8 warns, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (NIV). When we embrace the false and fleeting comforts of this world to satisfy the deep longings of our soul, we will not find lasting satisfaction or a balm for our yearnings.
Now, desiring comfort is not bad. But we must seek comfort in ways that can facilitate a deepening fellowship with God. A helpful gauge for whether or not your pursuit of comfort is drawing you closer to the Giver is the lens of Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Here’s a good question to ask your children: does whatever activity you are doing invite you to engage God and give thanks to him?
Wise parents will tread this road carefully; we don’t want to heap shame on our children for having sexual bodies and desires. It is important to affirm the inherent goodness of your children’s sexual desires as you call them to wise stewardship. Many young couples raised in Christian homes struggle when they transition to marriage: the repeated refrain of their childhood was “just wait,” but the focus on restraining the sin unwittingly sent a very negative message about sexuality. Tragically, now invited to experience this gift, some couples continue in a sense of guilt and shame.
As we call our kids to sexual obedience, the hope of the gospel must loom large overall. Their elder Brother who understands human frailty and temptation is also their advocate interceding for them, having covered their failings with his own blood. We need to make clear that sexual perfection is impossible on this side of things. God’s love and mercy in Christ must be the most consistent message we proclaim to our children! If we are honest, masturbation is virtually universal at some life season. This fact should drive us to talk with our kids openly, frankly, with compassion, grace, and practical strategies to help.
This blog post also appears in our Fall 2018 harvestusa magazine, along with other articles for parents and families.