26 Aug 2021
It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’m sitting with a man who has given in to sexual sin for the majority of his life. He’s tried many things to stop, but he keeps failing to say “no” to temptation. He’s fighting to believe that victory is possible, but he feels weary and scared. Teetering on the edge of hope and despair, he asks me a simple question: “Does the battle ever get any easier?”
While simple questions rarely have simple answers, David Powlison was fond of saying, “[There is a] simplicity on the far side of every complexity.”¹ So the simple answer to this question is, “Yes, the battle does get easier.” However, in order to understand what that really looks like, we need to wade through the complex depths of the human experience.
The battle has a context
In humility, we always need to treat each person as a unique individual, and that requires great attention to the details of their lives. I always want err on being slow to speak and quick to listen. I want to assume that I don’t know what this person needs unless I first get to know them. I want a holy curiosity about his or her life. I don’t just want to know about his sexual sin. I want to know about his family, his childhood, his hopes, his disappointments, his suffering, and his understanding of the world, God, and himself.
As I get to know someone more intimately, I begin to understand in greater ways the functionality of sexual sin in his life. I see more and more the specific false promises that sin has tailor-made to fit someone’s particular desires and weaknesses. Consider the complex algorithms employed by modern social media giants. How is it that Facebook knows exactly what advertisement will hook you? It’s because Facebook has studied you. Facebook knows your heart based on what you click on and how long you stay. Sin operates in the same way. The battle is so difficult partly because you have an enemy who knows exactly where you are weak. Sin preys on its knowledge of your life, your sufferings, your heart, and your desires, and it exploits them.
Growth in the battle against sexual sin requires an increasing self-awareness of your own life experiences and how they have shaped you. Your enemy knows your weaknesses. Do you?
The battle has a past
If we’re honest, we often live our lives thinking only about the present, and sin capitalizes on this short-sightedness. If I only think of life in 24-hour chunks, then what’s the big deal about eating one or two donuts? No problem, right? But what if I eat two donuts every day for a whole week? That’s 14 donuts. What if I eat that same amount for an entire month? Now you’re looking at close to 60 donuts! It’s not hard to see that this kind of lifestyle will lead to major health problems down the road. The problem is that you can’t simply stop eating donuts one day and then pretend like you didn’t eat donuts every day for the past 10 years. The effects of those 10 years will linger and perhaps have lasting, lifelong consequences.
We reap what we sow. In Galatians 6, Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the impact of years of sowing into fleshly desires. He writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:7–8). Sin has a corrupting impact on our hearts and minds. Every time you give in to sexual temptation, you are sowing seeds of corruption. Think of it like an investment. Sexual sin isn’t just an isolated event. Giving into temptation today makes it harder to resist tomorrow. And science has now definitively shown how habitual pornography use in particular actually rewires your brain to make you that much more prone to return again and again to your sin.
Someone who has sown into sexual sin for decades has a difficult battle ahead of him because he has invested into corruption. Even if in the present he does all the right things to avoid temptation, he will still be reaping the consequences of sowing into a corrupt mind for so long. This is why it’s so difficult to not automatically lust after others. This is why people feel like they lose all self-control when triggered by specific circumstances that lead them right back to their well-worn paths of sin.
That’s the bad news. Most people wait far too long to stop investing into sin and corruption. Just like you can’t erase years of unhealthy eating, you can’t erase years of sinful seed sowing either.
The battle has a future
But the good news of the gospel is far better than being given a do-over. Jesus is greater than our sin, he’s greater than our pasts, and he’s promised us a future that is bright with biblical hope.
First, we must acknowledge that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more powerful than decades of sinful sowing to the flesh. Jesus, by the Spirit, raises the dead to life. There is no one who is too far gone from the free offer of the gospel. Our hope is not simply in being cleaned up; our hope is that we have been made new creations who are definitively alive to God in Christ.
But while the new birth does a definitive, eternity-shifting work in our lives, the working out of our sanctification is a much slower and more painful process—and here is where we return to the idea of investing.
The principle of sowing and reaping works both ways. Not only does sowing to the flesh reap corruption, but Paul also goes onto say, “…but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us no grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8–9).
When you turn from sin to Jesus, you are not only repenting today, but you are also investing into repentance for tomorrow, and next week, and a year from now. Saying “no” to sin today makes it easier to say “no” to sin tomorrow.
But, as Paul warns, we can grow weary of saying “no.” We can feel like giving up at times because we aren’t reaping as much as we expected in the short-term. This is why the battle must be fought through faith in the promises of God that are all “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
If you have just started investing in your retirement fund, you know how futile it feels to make such a slow crawl towards your retirement goals. You faithfully sow paycheck after paycheck into this fund, expecting to see a great return on your investment. In those beginning years, checking your balance might tempt you to cut back on your monthly payments or stop all together and instead save up for a nice vacation next summer. You look at other people who have been investing faithfully for 10 years longer than you have, and you think it’s impossible to ever get to their level—but that is short-sighted thinking. Just as you are called to trust in the promises of your financial advisor (promises that have less-than-perfect guarantees), so we are called all the more to trust in the promises of our heavenly Father!
So when someone asks me, “Does the battle ever get any easier?,” my response is, “Are you ready to invest for the long haul?” While I can’t go into everything that investing entails, I want to highlight a few simple, God-ordained means by which we can sow to the Spirit.
Negatively speaking, we sow to the Spirit by removing all hindrances and sin that weaken our endurance in the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). The battle won’t get easier if we continue to keep temptation close at hand. No one struggling with alcohol hangs out at the bars, and yet we often do very little to truly cut off access to sexual temptation, especially through technology.
We also sow to the Spirit by acknowledging our weaknesses and making wise arrangements that will helps us in those areas. A weakness may be a time, a place, a circumstance, or an experience. You need to know where you’re weak and plan accordingly. So often we lose the battle because we fail to plan, and we don’t take our failures as opportunities to learn.
Positively, we sow to the Spirit through the ordinary means of grace, including, but not limited to, prayer, the reading of Scripture, hearing the Word preached, and genuine fellowship with believers. It is rare to meet a man ensnared in sexual sin who also has vibrant fellowship with God through daily prayer and Bible reading.
You may have never thought about it this way, but I’m convinced that fighting sexual sin is a “good work.” In fact, I would go so far as to say it is Kingdom work. And when no one else in the world sees or cares about your resistance to temptation, God sees you, along with innumerable angels who fall down in worship before him who is worthy of your obedience, even when it requires great pain and endurance.
If you will faithfully sow into this Kingdom work, not giving Satan a foothold, you will find that the battle gets easier. As my former colleague David White liked to say, “Faithfully sowing to the Spirit makes temptation go from being a lion that will devour you every time to becoming a mosquito in your life. Mosquitos can be annoying and pesky, but they don’t devour you. But if you continue to sow to the flesh, you are feeding the lion.”
Where will you invest your heart and time today? What you do in the present is an investment into your future.
¹David Powlison, “Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2001: 49.
27 May 2021
Do you enjoy or despise it when someone asks you, “Is there anything I can do for you?” This question might be a kind gesture that makes you feel seen and provides just the care you need. Or maybe you find this question difficult to answer. Not only can it be challenging to receive help, but pinpointing specific needs can also feel impossible as we struggle to articulate what we may have kept hidden in our hearts.
Not so with a man named Bartimaeus! This blind, marginalized man responded succinctly and immediately when Jesus asked him straightforwardly, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight” (Mark 10:51).
Friend, how would you answer Jesus’ question? Do you have secret sins that you dare not mention to Jesus because you fear his response? Maybe you wonder, “Can I actually talk to him about sexual addictions?” You may not be blind, but, like me, you have a lot more in common with Bartimaeus than you think, and that’s a good thing!
You can be boldly dependent
In Mark 10:46–52, we read about Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Apart from a miracle, there was no cure for his blindness; he would experience this ailment the rest of his life. One day, he was sitting on the side of the road when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. In desperation, he began yelling and crying out for mercy. The people around him tried to quiet him; how dare a blind man interrupt Jesus, who was journeying towards his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1–11)? But Jesus heard Bartimaeus and stopped to ask him a pointed question: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).
Like Bartimaeus, the men and women who come to our ministry for help and hope deeply feel their weakness and utter desperation to change. Yet what we see in this story is that simply acknowledging his impediment wasn’t sufficient for him; he needed to boldly acknowledge it before Jesus (and others!) and ask for help, which is a good model for us. Can you imagine what Bartimaeus may have been thinking and feeling after he uttered the words, “Let me recover my sight!” He couldn’t see Jesus’ facial expression or tell if he was listening carefully, but he believed enough to cry out for help, boldly and with utter dependence. You can too!
What does bold dependence look like?
- Naming your neediness to God (1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 145:18, and Psalm 28:1–2).
- Asking him to help you and to give you courage to reach out to others (Psalm 121:2, Matthew 11:28–30, and Philippians 4:6–7).
- Looking and waiting for God’s help (Jeremiah 29:12–13, Hebrews 4:16, Psalm 27:13–14, and Proverbs 3:5–6).
Jesus responds to us with attentive compassion
In this passage, we see Jesus respond to Bartimaeus’ specific need. Jesus knew he was blind, and he knew that the man desired his sight. Yet Jesus stops, asks him what he wants Jesus to do for him, listens, commends his faith, and eventually heals him. Before Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?,” he needed to approach Jesus in his heart. Here’s the crazy thing: Bartimaeus’ dependency and blindness is what qualified him to approach Jesus! He needed help from the only One who could truly help him!
Dane Ortlund says in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: open yourself up to him. It is all he needs. Indeed, it is the only thing he works with. Verse 28 of the passage in Matthew 11 tells us explicitly who qualifies for fellowship with Jesus: ‘all who labor and are heavy laden.’ You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come.”¹
Not long ago, a friend of mine asked what I wanted Jesus to do for me. I struggled to answer. What am I allowed to say? The thing that scared me the most about answering this is that to be honest is to be vulnerable. If I bared my heart before Jesus in such an honest way, how would he look at me? How would he respond? Would he hurt me or be disappointed in me like others were when I was vulnerable with them? Would this be the one time that he withheld grace or forgiveness?
To answer honestly would mean an additional layer of trust and surrender to him, which is why I think Jesus asks the question in the first place. Answering his question gives us an opportunity to express our trust in him. I see this same tension in some of the women who come to our ministry. In the midst of wrestling with sexual sin, they can be tempted to believe that what they’re going through is where Jesus draws the line. Strugglers can believe that his compassionate care, his tenderness, his forgiveness applies to everyone else—but not you and not what you’re going through. But, like Bartimaeus, our specific heartaches and struggles are the very things that qualify us to go to the One who can help. His attentive compassion awaits us.
Steps to help you engage conversation with Jesus
First, know that Jesus sees you and is inviting you to be honest with him in the same way that he addressed Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:50). Would your answer to Jesus solely focus on healing you from your sexual sin? Healing from porn addiction, attraction to the same sex, etc.? What can or should we ask for?
Consider asking God for grace (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), for comfort amidst the pain of ongoing struggle (2 Corinthians 1:3–4), that you would know him more amidst trials (John 17:3), for healing for your broken heart (Psalm 147:3), and to feel his nearness (Psalm 34:18).
God uses suffering as an opportunity to know him more, so instead of praying solely for the pain to go away, how might you pray for more of him amidst it? Here are some ideas:
- Walk towards Jesus. Bartimaeus “sprang up” and came to Jesus (Mark 10:50). He didn’t cry out for help and then sit back, hoping Jesus would find him. Despite not being able to see Jesus, simply knowing he was there was enough to make Bartimaeus reach out to him. We too can do this by going to Jesus rather than walking away to false comforts, distractions, or pulling away in isolation.
- Start with honesty. Tell him your pain, struggle, and shame. Try to put words on it. I mean really tell him. This might be messy and full of tears or feel like emotional turmoil; it probably won’t feel neat, tidy, and emotionally composed. We are complex beings, so when our emotions get stirred, we need to keep intentionally bringing these things to the Lord. Jesus is a Shepherd who also shepherds us through our emotions. You know what? It is okay if you go to Jesus, and you can only muster up “I don’t know” in answer to his question.
- Are your thoughts all that you’re listening to? Sometimes our shame and pain can drown out what God is trying to share with us. Answering Jesus’ question is only a part of his interaction with us. After Bartimaeus told Jesus what he wanted him to do, Jesus spoke back to him (Mark 10:52). His Word and his Holy Spirit also speak promises and comfort to us, but we live in a noisy world, and our own thoughts usually have a lot to say. Silence can feel awkward or even painfully loud. Listening is a skill that often requires practice, so consider how you can pursue quiet, slow down, and simply listen. Are you leaving space to pause and listen?
The physical healings we observe Jesus doing in the gospels reveal his power and the in-breaking of his reign as Savior. Can Jesus simply take away and heal your struggles? Yes, he could, but it seems that God more often leads his children through a process of transformation that draws us closer to him, and not only to answers. He longs for our full restoration, yet is just as passionate about having a close relationship with you.
Think about that! Your sexual and relational sins are serious, and God does want them to be repented of through changed behavior. Yet, more than that, he wants your heart changed through faith, dependent upon him, especially when temptations remain or growth is slow. He is not withholding anything from you and will not withdraw from you either!
Which of the above seem to be the most necessary step for you to take? Are you sitting on the road like Bartimaeus, needing to cry out for help with bold dependence? Have you heard Jesus’ call to come near to him, to leave where you are and ask for help? Have you been praying, seeking to grow, and yet change is slow? Jesus not only knows what you need to do next but is also with you as you take that step. Don’t give up; follow the example of a blind beggar who got up, approached Jesus, and followed him on his way.
¹ Dane Ortlund. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton: IL, Crossway, 2020. 20.
18 Jun 2020
I watched her body tense as she made eye contact with me and said tearfully, “I don’t want to pray; I don’t know what to say.”
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery by David White and When Your Husband Is Addicted to Pornography: Healing Your Wounded Heart by Vicki Tiede. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “How to Pray When Your Heart Hurts,” which corresponds to this video.
31 Oct 2019
All of us face the difficult task of discerning what to say yes and no to. In our ministry at Harvest USA, I have daily opportunities to engage people who need help with their sexuality or gender struggles, or to write, or to encourage a staff member, or to reach out to one of my donors.
When I was in my twenties, Numbers 9:22 popped off the page into my heart and became a guiding verse from Scripture for me.
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it lifted, they set out.” (NASB)
This Old Testament version of a spiritual GPS came about in the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. God promised to guide them through manifestations of his presence hovering over the tabernacle as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (see Numbers 9:15-23 and Psalm 78:14).
Wow, seems so great, right?! Today, this might look like praying about something from the following list, glancing outside to see where the cloud is, and following it wherever it goes.
Lord, that woman seems to need a friend; should I reach out and call her—offer to meet up for coffee, or not? Lord, should I…
- Start a blog?
- Make this purchase?
- Be a small group leader at church?
- Look for a job that pays more but will be more time-consuming?
- Talk to my pastor about a concern I have about leadership, or “just” pray?
How do we discern what to say yes to and when we need to say no? In a world of thousands of choices, how do you decide what is the best way to spend your precious, limited resources of time, emotional energy, relational capacity, finances, and physical strength? Consider how the use of your time also factors into becoming a man or woman of sexual integrity.
Our Daily Yes
Thirty years later, the principle of Numbers 9:22 continues to keep my heart oriented to the big picture of being a Christian, and this is what we need to remember when it comes to stewarding our sexuality. Our lives belong to Christ and this gives us the most foundational YES we live out: Lord, wherever you lead, however you lead, I will follow you and do what you ask of me, keeping my eyes on you and throwing off distractions (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
Christ clearly and lovingly commands his followers to a life characterized by heart commitments: to die to self, take up our cross and follow him, love him and his commands, teach the gospel to others, be holy, set our hearts on things above, throw off sin and distractions, enter into and receive his rest (Luke 9:23; John 15:1-10; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-3; 4:9-10; 1 Peter 1:13). And that’s just for starters!
Simply put, our daily yes to these things is lived out through loving obedience and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever promotes, encourages, helps, and nurtures that obedience, we say YES to. Whatever distracts, tempts, or weakens us from living a Christ-centered life, we say NO to. The gospel’s trajectory of transformation in our lives is a process of increasing yeses to obedience and decreasing noes to disobedience.
Wisdom for Gray Areas
But, you ask: OK, that sounds great, but what do I do about practical decisions where the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer? The last time I checked, there weren’t any pillars of fire hovering over my home!
Let me unpack some biblical guidelines that help me.
- What’s the motive of your heart in the issue at hand? Will it help you resist temptation or will it lead you to give in? (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
- Consider the trajectory of God’s work in your life. Does this decision seem to be in sync with him or not? (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13)
- What do the mature and wise-in-Christ people in your life say about it? (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Titus 2:1-15)
God continues to use Numbers 9:22 to orient my heart and vocational decisions as I’ve committed to going where he wants me to go, do what he wants me to do, and to leave where/when/who he calls me to leave. In a beautifully intimate way, all believers have the Spirit to guide and protect us in our desire to live faithful lives as relational and sexual beings.
The life of faith has not always been easy or comfortable, but I’m deeply thankful for God’s kindness in leading me, year after year, and for the wisdom he’s given me in decision making. My Christian life is imperfect, but the more I taste the spacious freedom of obedience and faith, the less I’m tempted to give way to an unholy or foolish YES or NO!
To learn more, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, The Importance of Saying Yes to Jesus.
A sexually faithful church must take seriously its role to love, embrace, disciple, and include those who struggle with attractions and desires that conflict with Scripture.
Those who live with an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction, and those who feel that their sense of gender is in conflict with their body, struggle deeply with feeling different. In a church culture where marriage and family are placed on a high pedestal, where relationships that move from dating to courtship to engagement to wedding are celebrated, those with same-sex attraction wrestle with loneliness, isolation, and discouragement. They know and have heard repeatedly that God is opposed to same-sex marriage. They see a future that feels cut off for them.
Upon hearing this, some in the Church who do not struggle with same-sex or gender issues may feel tempted toward impatience with their brothers and sisters who do. But I encourage you to resist that temptation, as well as its close relative, the temptation to offer quick solutions.
Feelings of painful loneliness and isolation aren’t temporary feelings of distress for those who experience same-sex attraction or gender struggle. They are a present and future reality. They can’t be easily dismissed or replaced with positive thinking. These are deep heart-wounds that the Lord calls the Church to help dress, treat, and heal, over a lifetime.
But what does this look like? What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, experience the joy of a relationship that leads to marriage? How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?
These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ for every follower of Christ.
How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?
I am thankful that in the last several years these questions are being wrestled with by the evangelical church. But while I have been encouraged by this new-found desire for the Church to reach out to and include same-sex attracted and gender-struggling men and women who desire to follow God’s design for sexuality, I have also seen three ways these questions are being answered in ways that are not encouraging.
Here are the issues that concern me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: Identity, The Body of Christ, and The Nature of Change.
There is a significant push to accept a gay identity for those who experience same-sex attraction. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this article will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So, I will briefly mention two things that concern me about this contentious issue.
First, while those who advocate for this position insist that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.
On the one side, the argument is that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But on the other side, the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology is confusing, and it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.
Secondly, the historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. But some are reshaping this understanding in this direction: Same-sex attraction, acted upon, remains sinful, but as a condition of one’s being or identity, it is benign and can be a beneficial way of looking at and experiencing the world.
In this view, the experience of having same-sex attraction enhances one’s life, particularly in the realm of non-sexual friendships and community. Instead of being a remnant of indwelling sin, which must in Christ be mastered and overcome, same-sex attraction is like a personality trait to be nurtured and enjoyed.
I’ve discussed this in my blog post “Gay + Christian?” My main point there is that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
Those who advocate for such terminology need to realize that doing so is not harmless. It is an endeavor charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.
As I heard from my seminary professor, there is a good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can read Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.)
This is the issue where the biggest battles are being fought. As believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to what Scripture says and not human experience.
The Body of Christ
Identity labeling leads to separation at some level. It distinguishes something foundational or characteristic about the person and others who share that identity form and develop a separate culture.
There is nothing new about doing this. We resonate and connect with others who share histories, events, places from which we’ve come, struggles, etc. Shared experiences bring us together and overcome our isolation and loneliness.
But it matters a great deal what those shared experiences are and the meaning that is attached to them.
Another term I am hearing is “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.
Developing a separate subculture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church.
One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ, so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating a category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.
What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale.
And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood and mistreated by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for them.
But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even hurt by the Church.
Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else.
The Nature of Change
One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that complete change in desires or attraction always happens. That belief has hurt many. But change can happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.
Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.
Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them.
Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.1 However, most2 of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.
Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligned with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that “this is how God made me, and if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.”
There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.
The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.
For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. At a minimum, it will include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is antithetical to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.
Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16, a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the strength of authentic friendship, where loving assistance goes side-by-side with loving confrontation. This is how we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. . . ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.
This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue here.
1 Remafedi, G., Resnick, M., Blum, R. and Harris, L., Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 89 (4), 714-721 (1992).
2 The term “most” applies to Generation X. In contrast to the Millennial generation, of whom 7.3% self-identify as non-heterosexual, that number is significantly lower (2.4%) for prior generations (year of birth 1980 and before).
Tim shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can the Church Love Those Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attractions? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
I confessed my struggle with pornography in late 2004. I had struggled for 5 years after being exposed at age 13. My “hobby” use quickly spiraled into what I would consider an addiction (though experts argue if that’s even a real thing. I say yes.)
By the time I was 17 and away at college, I was viewing pornography on a school computer with my roommate asleep less than 10 feet behind me, within view of our behemoth 2003 desktop. I was sleeping through my morning Chemistry class and sex chatting with men and women online, from my dorm room, at a Christian college. Eventually I sent nude photos of myself to a man.
I got caught there in college. My internet was being tracked. But when the dean confronted me with my internet history report and alleged porn problem that was “disgusting and one of the worst cases they had ever seen” she told me “We know this wasn’t you. Women just don’t have this problem.” That was Fall 2003.
A year later, I outed myself, and told someone I struggled with pornography and needed help. I found help, and it took me almost two years to feel like I was “free” from pornography. While I’ve been “free” for over a decade, I’ve never stopped battling it. Those ten years of freedom have included moments of temptation and many times of relapse. Still, I would call it freedom, and there’s much I have learned in the process.
Freedom from Pornography is Possible
There were days I thought, “There’s no way I can beat this.” In the morning, I would wake up and say, “Not today” but it’s like my feet had autopilot and just walked me to the computer desk. Hours would slip by online and I felt powerless to stop any of it. I tried changing passwords (doesn’t help when you know them!). I tried self-harm. I tried finding other hobbies. Nothing seemed to help.
You can’t begin to fathom a life without pornography, so you’re just desperate to survive in spite of it. But there’s a better option that “surviving in spite of pornography.” Freedom is possible. It’s hard, but it’s real.
That bit of truth would have been so helpful for me in my struggle, because the days I thought, “There’s no way out of this” were always the hardest. In fact, believing there was no way out is exactly what led me into the darkest parts of my story. We need the hope that there is a way out and that freedom is available to us. It is.
Healing Goes Beyond Freedom
But there’s more to this journey than simply finding freedom from pornography. Too many times we make it all about “stop watching porn” and just leave it at that. We forget to answer important questions like
- What does life look like without pornography?
- What kind of damage has pornography done and has it healed?
- Do I know how to build healthy friendships?
- How do I restore a positive view of sex?
- How has this affected my view of my body?
We can get so focused on not doing a particular behavior that we forget about the healing that needs to take place. What I’ve found though is as you heal those deeper wounds, if you will, the temptation and draw toward pornography essentially lessens.
Porn and Trauma are Connected
My friend, Lacy Bentley, author of Overcoming Love Addiction, once said during a presentation that she hasn’t worked with one woman addicted to porn who didn’t have some sort of sexual trauma that predated her porn experience.
I would add that this has likely changed with Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) as many of them consume pornography because it’s viewed as acceptable to do so. In fact, it’s encouraged. That being said, the exposure to pornography can itself be traumatic.
There’s a reason exposing children to pornography is classified as child abuse. When I give my parent presentations, I explain that little children are not drawn to the sexual aspects of pornography. Instead they are drawn like we are to footage of crashes. Exposure to sexual material is traumatizing for children.
However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realized it can be traumatic for many adults and young adults as well. It can be traumatic in the sense that you weren’t prepared for what you saw and that seeing it negatively affected how you thought or reacted to something.
We spend a lot of time talking about pornography as a bad choice, but not a lot discussing how we were led to make that bad choice. When there are lasting consequences, we have a bad tendency of just labeling those as sin and neglecting the reality of the effects of trauma.
Boundaries are OK
A common misconception is that post-porn me needs to look exactly like everyone who has never viewed it. That’s simply not the case. I have friends who are allowed to ask me awkward questions. I have controls enabled on my phone.
There are things in place in my life that help me stay on the track of freedom. Even as I prepare to be married in less than two weeks, there are boundaries my fiance and I have that other couples may not. And that’s ok. They aren’t a negative side effect of my choices. They are ways I choose freedom.
I would rather be free than fit in.
Falling isn’t a Relapse
I have been free from pornography for over a decade. That means the last time I compulsively viewed pornography was over ten years ago. But, I’ve said it many times before, pornography will be a weakness for the rest of my life. In a sense, it is my drug. My brain knows the hit it gets from porn and if I’m looking for a hit, that’s where my mind is going to go.
As the years have gone by that connection has lessened, but I think it’s always going to be there. Sure, it may grow over, and synapses may rewire, and memories and images may fade, but things are never fully erased from our minds. The track would always be there if I chose to jump back on it.
And in those ten years, there are times I have. I’m not dishonest about that. This isn’t a sex addict’s anonymous blog where I stand here and say, “My name is Jessica and it’s been ten years since I last saw porn.” It hasn’t. But never in those ten years, when a low point sucked me back into the porn vortex, did I ever feel “Oh no, I’m trapped again.” If anything, the response was,”Oh no you don’t!”and I fought even harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.
It saddens me when women feel like one bad choice can “cancel” out weeks, months, even years of freedom. If you fall, get up and fight. Free people can fight back. Don’t throw yourself back in prison, fight. Figure out what led you to make those choices. Find your triggers and deal with them.
Ladies, Your Sex Drive is a Good Thing
Perhaps that’s a “no duh” statement for you, but I come from a religious culture in which the sex drive of women isn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, it’s stifled. The moment we do anything remotely embracing our sexuality we get hurled into Proverbs 5 territory (the adulteress woman). Women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex, even though we were created by God with an organ specifically devoted to sexual pleasure.
So, I guess God didn’t get the memo?
A book I am currently reading is Knowing Her Intimately by Laura Brotherson, a certified sex therapist. In the first chapter, she addresses this idea that women have such negative views of their own sexuality. Many women struggle to embrace the fact they are sexual beings and struggle to see that as a good thing. Before healthy sex can happen, she says, that view needs to be transformed.
Women need to recognize that we also are made with the ability and drive to enjoy sex. Is it always on par with a man’s drive? No. Can it be? For some. Can it exceed a man’s drive? Yes. In fact, according to one author’s survey, 24% of marriages had a wife with a higher drive than her husband.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Side note: Even while writing this, I am realizing that so much about freedom is not only learning what is actually wrong and addressing that, but also, embracing that which is not wrong.
When we label things wrong that aren’t, we make ourselves feel even more trapped.
If I thought being a woman with a high sex drive was something broken that needed fixing, I’d never be “free.” Trauma in my past? That needs addressed. The fact that I desire sex? That does not.
Honesty Brings Freedom
There’s a Bible verse that talks about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. This might not be the appropriate application of it, but it comes to mind when talking about honesty and how honesty eradicates shame.
So much of the feeling of being stuck in pornography is due to shame. Shame is what keeps women in silence. Shame is what makes us not reach out and ask for help. Shame is what keeps us from sharing our story with others.
Honesty combats shame because it opens doors for grace. I will never experience grace if I’m not first honest.
Years ago, when I shared my story, I didn’t understand the level of freedom that would bring in my life. I don’t have to hide. I can openly discuss my story. Not only does that help me experience freedom, it’s also used to help others find freedom.
In the past few months, as I’ve gotten to know my future husband, I’ve seen this truth replayed over and over. When I am honest with him, it doesn’t rip us apart, it draws us together. It makes us a team as opposed to me vs. him and a fear of him finding things out.
Fear of being known is a hallmark of shame and we deal with that by taking a risk and being honest.
Honesty is what started my journey of freedom, and every moment of growth—from dealing with trauma in my past, to understanding my own need for boundaries—has come because of honesty.
If you are looking for freedom, to step out on that journey of a life without pornography, I encourage you to start where I did—tell somebody. Find a trusted friend, mentor, counselor, parent, and share your story.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. It was for me. But you can’t walk in freedom if you aren’t willing to open the door.
Visit Jessica Harris’s website, Beggar’s Daughter, for additional resources and articles.
02 May 2019
To say that ministry is incredibly challenging is an understatement. It’s a joy to see God work in those you minister to, but it’s really hard when God begins to expose your struggles, sins, and limits. In this video, Shalee explains that God works in us by undoing things that aren’t of him. The undoing process is often uncomfortable and painful, but if it is of God, it is worth it. You can read more about what Shalee learned in her year-long internship at Harvest USA in her blog, “Jumping in the Deep End of Ministry.”
02 May 2019
I sat, listening to women in my discipleship group share personal stories about pain and heartbreak in their lives. My emotions began to unravel. The group ended, and I felt undone. I was not sure how to process what I’d heard. Tears of empathy and anger tumbled out of me.
I had moved across the country to intern with Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry, but I didn’t realize how deep was the end of the pool I had agreed to jump into. I saw God work powerfully in the women’s lives I worked with, but what I didn’t expect was the different places in my own life where God would be doing and undoing, affecting my spiritual walk every step of the way.
My previous life revolved around athletics as both a player and a coach, so doing ministry was an entirely different transition. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve been considering ministry to sexual strugglers, but you know that this work can be incredibly challenging and humbling.
Let me share one big takeaway that I’ve learned: ministry can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Here are four ways God did his work of doing and undoing in my life as I served this past year.
1. Wresting with Insecurity
Emotions. Life is full of them. Entering into ministry provoked new levels of fear and anxiety in me. I feared the impact on my reputation. Throughout life, I rode the coattails of my athletic success, and unbeknownst to me, I developed a deep-rooted pride in the reputation I had built. As I experienced strong reactions from people about my new life path, I was gripped with fear, fear of what people thought of me and if my beliefs would cost me relationships along the way.
I also experienced insecurity and doubts as I quickly learned how inadequate I am to help people.
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey.
I questioned what I had to offer and what would I possibly say to someone who is suffering? Lack of confidence rapidly overtook areas of my life, making me wonder if there were people more qualified for this type of work and whether I was cut out for this.
2. Facing the Real in Life (AKA Reality)
I realized I had spent much of my life naive to the realities around me. It is far easier to live naively and deliberately choose to see what you want rather than face the reality of the pain and darkness so many followers of Jesus have been carrying alone. God put me in a situation of not only facing these hard realities, but he also invited me into them.
As God brought my head out of the sand of denial, I was overwhelmed. I was gripped by the sadness of seeing the brokenness and suffering people go through. I was met head-on with the hard reality that sin causes devastation and leaves behind unimaginable wreckage in people’s lives. As many of you already know, facing reality is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
3. Everyone Journeys at Their Own Pace
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey. In the battle against sin, rich biblical truths that God uses in our own journey may be applied differently. In my own life, I saw there were so many things I needed to be quick to obey and follow through on and just do it (see my blog, “Quick to Obey…”)
I tried this with a woman who was walking a similar road as me. I thought these things worked for me, so surely they will work for her, too. As I shared details about what specific obedience looked like for me, before I knew it, I had put demands, expectations, and time frames on her to make the same choices.
As time passed, it was becoming clear she wasn’t heeding my advice. As I look back, I sacrificed patience by demanding she hurry up and obey. I sacrificed humility by failing to speak the truth in love.
But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives.
I painfully learned that imposing my faith walk on someone else was unwise and unloving. When we do this, we risk boxing others within our walls of experience, potentially blocking truths in Scripture that lead to other faithful avenues for the other person. Thankfully, God is bigger than my failed attempts to love. I’m thankful for James 4:6: “But he gives more grace.”
4. Ministry is About Faithfulness, Not Success
I learned that God doesn’t measure spiritual growth through my worldly definition of success. My athletic background wired me for a relentless pursuit of success. That distracted me from the ultimate goal of ministry—faithfulness to the glory of God.
Success is often rooted in a desire to receive glory for our own efforts while faithfulness is rooted in a desire to glorify God through your efforts. This contrast creates a tension between competing goals. I had to learn that the end goal isn’t to win the day but rather to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Ministry at street level can be overwhelming and feel like we are in over our head. But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives. As someone who suffered in silence and secrecy for years, it is easy to believe we are alone in this fight, but our loving Father is with us, and he has raised up people who are not afraid to enter into these painful places with us as well.
My experience at Harvest USA has shown me what a privilege it is to come alongside women needing help in their journey of faith and repentance. Because I’ve seen the power of this kind of ministry, I’ve recently decided to join the full-time staff as part of the women’s ministry team.
Do I still feel in over my head? Yes! But I have seen that I have everything I need, and you do too. All ministry, not just to those who battle patterns of sexual sin, is over our heads! When we follow Jesus into hard places, we’re going into the deep end of humanity’s worst struggle: sin. Thanks be to God that our Savior gives us everything we need to point people to him, the ultimate Lifeline we all need.
Shalee shares additional insight in the accompanying video: What Is God Undoing in My Life—and Yours? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
The first time I skydived, I was terrified and excited to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I could see the cloudy sky and minute details of the ground below—very far below. The instructor, to whom I was attached in tandem, yelled out as the wind rushed in the open door as my comfort zone slowly slipped away, “Are you ready?!” My heart raced as I said yes and before I knew it, we were falling out of the plane into the open air. After an exhilarating free fall, the parachute cord was pulled and down we gracefully floated to the ground. As I look back, I realized that I could have missed the rush of that experience had I not taken that initial step out of the comfort zone of the plane.
Years ago, when God began a life-transforming process in my life, I struggled to “step out of the plane.” I mean, I did want to follow Jesus, and I did want to do whatever it took. But not always. As the real-deal of what it was going to look like to be free from unhealthy relationships and sinful patterns in my life, I tried everything I could to delay being obedient to what God had set before me.
What I was trying to do—stay within my comfort zone by not stepping into the freefall of obeying God, which was terrifying—is what many sexual strugglers do.
Obedience begins with a willingness to submit oneself to the will of God. John 14:15 sums it up, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice in this verse that love precedes the command. It is from an overflow of our love for God that makes us willing to be obedient. What often isn’t expressed in this discussion is how easy it is to waste time dancing around obedience all while trying to justify your delays.
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another.
In Psalm 119:60, David says, “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” To hasten is “to move or act quickly.” David is reminding us that out of our love for God, we are not called to just keep his commandments, we should strive to be quick to obey.
Being quick to obey can be difficult for many reasons. Decisions are usually accompanied by a host of emotions, feelings that toss you to and fro, often times confusing the matter by fogging what’s otherwise seemingly black and white. Most would agree, obedience usually costs us something. But often times, the most profound spiritual growth comes as we make commitments to walk in obedience regardless of how we feel. Lived out, we pray for Christ-enabling power to make changes, then it requires us to make up our mind to love God by just doing it, or in some cases, stop doing it.
Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” What it looks like to “put on” and make no provision for worldly desires will look different for each of us. There is no formula, but here are four examples of ways to hasten obedience and not delay in order to break free from sinful patterns.
- Pursue Jesus every day
Here’s the amazing truth for all of us: we don’t walk alone! Far better than being attached to a professional skydiver, we are united with Jesus. Our first obedience is to abide in his love and Word and to deepen our understanding of our identity of being in Christ. We show our love for God through our obedience, but this is never about us mustering up the courage or strength to do it. As Paul said in Phil. 2:13, “its God who is at work” in us to change our desires and give us a willingness to obey him.
- Develop Accountability in Relationships
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another. While it is ideal to have others take the initiative to ask questions, make a commitment to confess your sins whether asked or not.
- Avoid relational connections that tempt you towards sin
It is important to disconnect from people that have been a part of your past sinful decisions. This is painful to acknowledge, but your past selfish choices could lead to hard consequences that hurt people you love. Staying in this type of relationship isn’t really loving if it doesn’t lead to obeying God. Although a choice like this can easily be misconstrued, it is actually an act of love and helps avoid being mired in long-term messy situations. For people on both sides of this type of obedience, God can be trusted with whatever consequences may come.
- Implement Technology Restrictions
Make modifications to any form of technology that grips or controls your emotional state, especially social media. These types of limitations expose what you allow in your life and how that positively or negatively affects what comes out in thought, word and behavior. This may seem minimal, but give it a try for a week or two and see for yourself.
Maybe for you all these steps look overwhelming. The good news (because there is Good news!), is God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. His command, his calls to quick obedience, are doable things God wants to help us with. The ground may look very far below, but it is God’s promise to get us there safely.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
So what could this look like in your life? Maybe it looks like being quick to fight against focusing on the negative but rather fight for a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6-7). Or maybe this looks like being quick to break the cycle of selfish inward thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5). Or maybe this looks like being quick to have honest conversations with God through prayer in the day in and day out battle of life.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
He is the ultimate Instructor who is tender and compassionate towards us as we learn how to walk in ways of new life in new light. He will bind up our broken hearts, lift our drooping heads, and provide peace that surpasses understanding. All while blessing our obedience and delighting in our efforts on this long road no matter how many times we fail to hasten.