Shame-filled tears streamed down my face as I said to a friend, “I can’t go to God again! This is my own fault.” I described a scene that, in my mind, perfectly captured my relationship with Christ. It’s now infamously known as “the sledgehammer illustration.”

It went like this: God is the owner of a luxury car, and each morning I’d wake up and take a sledgehammer to the windshield of God’s car. Then, at the end of the day, I’d go to him crying for forgiveness. God would forgive my sins and comfort me. And the very next day, I’d walk right back up to his car, sledgehammer in hand, and smash his windshield again.

Could God have compassion on me, I thought, when I just kept smashing his windshield and asking for forgiveness? The pain and ruin I was experiencing were undoubtedly my own fault. My friend looked at me and said, “Caitlin, God is a Savior. That’s just what you need—a saving, rescuing God.”

Could God have compassion on me, I thought, when I just kept smashing his windshield and asking for forgiveness?

Have you ever felt like I did? Have you ever felt as though God didn’t want to hear from you again? Have you imagined that God is withholding his help and care because your suffering is a direct result of your sins, failures, and choices?

Perhaps you’ve taken a costly step of obedience and confessed your infidelity to your spouse, and now you’re engulfed in the destructive consequences. Or maybe you’re in a season of loneliness and grief because you walked away from an unholy relationship you never should have pursued in the first place.

Does God Care When We Have No One to Blame But Ourselves?

In Psalm 107 we’re introduced to four vignettes, each describing someone in a dire situation who cries out to the Lord for help. I recommend you read the entire psalm, but for our purposes we’ll focus on the third vignette found in vv. 17–22:

                 Some were fools through their sinful ways,

and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;

                 they loathed any kind of food,

and they drew near to the gates of death.

                 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress.

                 He sent out his word and healed them,

and delivered them from their destruction.

                 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,

for his wondrous works to the children of man!

                 And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,

and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!

We’re introduced to a fool who, because of his iniquities, suffered distress and needed deliverance from his own destruction. Does that sound familiar?

But this is truly good news for the ruined sinner. Can you see why? God gives the same healing and deliverance to the foolish sinner (vv. 19–20) as he gives to the other case studies presented in Psalm 107—he doesn’t measure out his help based on our merit.

This Psalm puts the character of our Savior on beautiful display. Is God a compassionate Savior? Psalm 107 gives a resounding YES!

The hymn Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy beautifully summarizes this idea:

Let not conscience make you linger,

nor of fitness fondly dream;

all the fitness he requireth

is to feel your need of him.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,

lost and ruined by the fall;

if you tarry till you’re better,

you will never come at all.

What Am I Really Believing?

Do you find yourself mired in the anguish of your sin’s fallout?  Below are some diagnostic questions for you. Perhaps you can talk through these questions with a pastor, counselor, or trusted friend.

  • Is there a part of you that wants to bring a work to your repentance (a changed attitude, a new resolve, a step in the right direction) to merit God’s compassion?
  • If you believe God is against you because of your sin, what, in your mind, would cause him to be for you in the future?
  • What are you believing about God that’s keeping you from going to him in confession and repentance today?
  • Do you believe God warms or cools his compassion toward you based on your behavior? Why or why not?

Jesus: The Rescuer

Do you feel your need for Jesus amid the consequences of your sin? Are you weary and heavy-laden from your own destructive decisions? Do you need comfort in the firestorm created by your own failure? Oh ruined sinner, look to Christ! Cry out to him in every trouble, even if the trouble is your own doing—look to Jesus.

We bring nothing. Let that free you to bend the knee before your Rescuer. Humbly receive his comfort and help in the midst of the affliction you face from your own sinful choices.

Our hearts naturally push against the humility and dependence this requires. We bring nothing. Let that free you to bend the knee before your Rescuer. Humbly receive his comfort and help in the midst of the affliction you face from your own sinful choices—he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and his mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22–23).

Written by a former ministry recipient of Harvest USA

Have you ever been blindsided by pain from the past erupting unexpectedly in present circumstances? It can be disconcerting and even terrifying. I’d like to share my experience of this in the hope that it will help others walking out faith and obedience regarding not only sexual sin, but also the wreckage of painful relationships.

I’m an older woman and thought I’d worked through my issues from the past, including a difficult relationship with my mom. I love the Lord, have sought to be immersed in the truth of God’s Word, and have also benefited greatly from counseling as well as Harvest USA’s discipleship for women. I experienced same-sex attraction (SSA) in my teen years and early adulthood but, by God’s grace, those desires dissipated profoundly. I’m thankful for a kind and godly husband who has journeyed with me. Amid these blessings, a few years ago an incident occurred that brought me to my knees with a sense of desperation to understand what had been triggered that I was seeking to escape.

The Trigger and the Memory

There had been a change in leadership at the job I’d held for many years. During supervision with my new boss, she didn’t want to hear a word I had to say. Things were tense. After the meeting, I found myself wanting to run out of the building. I thought, “Maybe if I go pick up coffee every couple of hours, I’ll be alright; I just need to get out of here!” This familiar sensation is what I’d come to understand as a fight or flight response, common in those who’ve experienced trauma. Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.

After a couple of days feeling out of control, I came before my heavenly Father on my knees in prayer, crying out, “What is wrong with me?” Exhausted, I rested in his presence. I believe the Lord helped me connect a childhood occurrence with its emotion and feelings. These feelings were the same as those I felt in that office with my boss.

Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.

When I was a very young child, I remember standing by my mother’s chair in the living room wanting and asking for her attention, but she would ignore me with a mean and callous look on her face. I felt rejected—as if my personhood was not even worth being recognized. I hadn’t felt those feelings again until I was in that office decades later, with my boss who didn’t want to hear a word I said.

Significantly, my lack of connection with my mother—something I always wanted—was a key component when it comes to my disordered desire for emotional and physical intimacy with older women. I realize now that my mother was greatly troubled and had mental illness. I’ve forgiven her. I thought I’d fully worked through this loss until this triggering event.

What should we do when past trauma is triggered?

What the enemy intends to use for evil, God desires to use for our good (Gen. 50:20). I’ve found the following action steps helpful, and I hope they help you, too. As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.

  • It’s important to realize something is wrong. This sounds simple, right? However, sometimes we don’t take time to slow down enough to sort through our feelings. We need to identify what is going on in our hearts to work through our problems and pain. In Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Diane Langberg states:

Pain is the only protest in the human constitution that something is wrong. It is the only thing that raises its voice against existing abuses. If you jump to silence pain, you will fail to find the wound. Pain is the Martin Luther of the human framework; it plasters the wall of the city with the announcement that something is wrong.

  • Take time to process what has happened. Like the grieving process, we need time to work through our loss. Many people find journaling helpful. This is an especially important step that must not be overlooked to work through the triggering event and how it relates to past trauma. Some will benefit from talking it out with a trusted friend or counselor to be guided through processing deep pain safely.
  • Identify feelings like anxiety, anger, and fear and the “whys” behind each. Also, challenge corresponding thoughts that do not line up with what God says about you, replacing lies with the truth of God’s Word. Knowing who you are in Christ is a firm foundation on which to stand. Emotions can be powerful! When a past trauma has been triggered, it’s helpful to remind yourself that the past event is in the past and that you are safe in the here and now. 
  • Seek help. Your symptoms (and those strong feelings and emotions) should settle down over time. If you are continuing to struggle—having difficulty with your daily tasks, falling into old negative patterns, experiencing flashbacks or nightmares—help from a counselor may be warranted.
  • Remember you’re not alone. Your heavenly Father is with you and will uphold you (Is. 43:1–3). He will never fail you! He longs to comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3). He desires that we pour out our heart to him, and yes, he will meet us in our most challenging times (Heb. 4:16). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • Don’t isolate. A natural reaction to trauma is to withdraw from others. However, it’s extremely important to maintain relationships and connections to your church community. When you’re hurting and feeling delicate, allow God’s people to love you. This doesn’t mean you share your struggle in every large group setting. But choose to lean on trusted friends who are spiritually mature and have modeled a compassionate heart toward sufferers. In the hard things of life, I have never felt so loved as to be surrounded by my brothers and sisters who care for me with the love of Jesus.
  • Self-care. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and getting enough exercise. These things are known to be helpful, increasing our ability to cope with the stressors of life. If you are not feeling very motivated, take small steps in a positive direction and build on those steps as you begin to feel better. And don’t neglect to do things you enjoy!

As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.

Know that God has good plans for you (Jer. 29:11) and desires to use you in the lives of others (Eph. 2:10). Look to Jesus always (Heb. 12:2–3) and run to him when your past pain is triggered—he is our help and our eternal healing.

I love Christmas. Glowing tree lights illuminate sentimental ornaments, candlelight glints on red berries—everything gauche and shiny and celebratory. Christmas books adorn the coffee table. My long-suffering family endures endless repetitions of “Carols from St. Paul’s Cathedral.” There’s meal planning, card sending, and gifts.

This—receiving gifts—is where my family’s Christmas celebration can get derailed. Anyone else? We can begin to believe we should get precisely what we want. For all its convenience, the Amazon wishlist can become a petty tyrant, serving our bullying demands. This is self-focused—greedy rather than grateful. When it comes to Christmas presents, we can spot that.

But what about how we respond to the life God gives? We all live in a reality that, in some way, is not what we wanted. I never expected my husband to face young-onset Parkinson’s Disease, yet he does. I don’t want to see him growing weaker, yet he is. You may not want to struggle against sexual sin or singleness or discontentment. And family gatherings can make the season extra difficult, highlighting estranged relationships, grief, or loneliness. In all this heartache, do we see God as the tight-fisted arbiter of our life’s wish list—holding out on the good stuff? Or will we trust our heavenly Father?

God’s plans are better than our wish list life, even when we can’t see it and don’t feel it. He is good. He’s able and willing to do us good. Whether or not we believe this truth impacts everything.

Four realities about God’s providence nourish our belief:

1. God Works for Our Good

You may be happily married or aching with loneliness, struggling to care for a gender-dysphoric child or enjoying family life, daily fighting sexual sin or living victoriously. Whether you’re facing the best or the worst things, God’s Word says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, my emphasis).

It’s hard to think of trials as gifts in God’s hands. And it’s true that evil itself is evil. Yet God sovereignly works even evil things for good to his children. In this light, we can receive all things as gifts tailored to us from the wise hand of our good Father.

What a mystery and miracle. In his providence, God fits our life’s circumstances to purpose, for us.

“Do not mistake me,” writes Puritan Thomas Watson. “I do not say that of their own nature the worst things are good, for they are a fruit of the curse; but though they are naturally evil, yet the wise, overruling hand of God disposing and sanctifying them, they are morally good” (21). Joseph answered his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20a).

What a mystery and miracle. In his providence, God fits our life’s circumstances to purpose, for us. Whatever the pain, your wise Father is using that very thing for good in your life. As William Cowper wrote,

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

2. God Gives What Is Necessary

Our Father also takes the worst things and uses them as medicine to refine us. “Out of the most poisonous drugs God extracts our salvation,” writes Watson (22). This is not an optional treatment. It’s spiritual chemotherapy—a violent cure, without which we die.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:6–7, my emphasis)

Our framework for this hard truth is the reality that our greatest need is spiritual. Apart from salvation in Christ, we are eternally lost. The best gifts of this world will vanish like mist in the morning sun. But Christ, and him growing ever dearer to us, is everything we need for all eternity. Truly! Anything that helps us let go of this passing world and cling to the One who lasts forever is essential medicine.

3. God Gives Abundantly

But this medicine is not only bitter. It also carries the sweetness of union with Christ and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Our Father is merciful and generous—he gives us himself.

He provides all we need each moment to walk through this vale of tears, and he is himself our eternal, undefiled, unfading inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3–5). Fernando Ortega’s song “Give Me Jesus” says, “You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.” What better gift can we have, for life and eternity, than fellowship with our Savior?

Our Father is merciful and generous—he gives us himself.

And believers—we have Jesus. He is ours and we are his, now and forever. Jesus walks with us; he does not leave us alone in suffering but comforts and guides us as our sympathetic High Priest. In our suffering, Lord, give us Jesus. In our painful circumstances, our lost hopes, our discouragement—give us Jesus.

4. God Gives What He Requires

God delights to answer this prayer! Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10–11). Our Shepherd Savior is our hope and rest.

In our sin and sorrow, we default to wishlist thinking, but Jesus never did. We question our Father’s character and work—but Jesus trusted his Father unto death. We are weak, but Jesus obeyed in perfect strength. And those who look to him in faith are united with him in his righteousness. This is good news! Even as we doubt, we receive Jesus’s perfect track record and Jesus himself—what can compare to this eternal reality?

God is good. See the cross of Christ and the empty tomb for proof. Whatever you face today, your good, caring Father is working good for you in all things, and you’re headed for an eternal glory more satisfying than any earthly wish list.

This guest blog was written by Tara Hallman, former Harvest USA women’s ministry staff member.

Christmas can be difficult for a betrayed wife. This Christmas may be the first since discovering her husband has been using pornography or had an affair. For others who’ve known about their husband’s struggle for years, the holidays mark another year of suffering without seeing hoped-for changes.

The Christmas season is a time to be around family and friends as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But when a marriage is broken, the holidays can be excruciating. Wives usually feel disconnected as many relatives and friends have no idea about the secret pain they carry. They put on a smile, trying to be ‘merry and bright,’ while inside, they’re hurting. A husband’s sexual brokenness can make once-safe things, like time with family and friends, feel unsafe.

What can a woman do when fear, loss, shame, and disappointment follow her into the Christmas season? How can she find longed-for hope, peace, and rest?

Mary’s Life, Redirected

This Christmas season, we will again encounter Mary in the nativity story. I hope that a hurting wife can see Mary as an example of a woman of faith who faced unexpected trials in life with strength and dignity. As we focus on the birth of our Savior this year, I want to encourage women who have been betrayed to notice Mary and watch how she responded when her life did not go the way she planned.

In Luke 1, we find Mary headed in one direction. A young Jewish woman, she had faith in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She knew the Scriptures, as evidenced by her song, the Magnificat, which contains at least 14 Old Testament references (Luke 1:46–55). Mary was likely just a teenager planning her life, wedding, and future when the angel Gabriel showed up. He told her she was favored, perplexing her. He said she would bear a child to reign over the house of Israel forever. Since she was a virgin, she asked how this would happen. He told her the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she was to name her little boy, the Son of God, Jesus. The angel delivered a message that would take Mary’s life and turn it in a different direction, and she chose to respond in three significant ways.

  1. Mary chose to believe God.

Her first response was, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary took God at his Word, which is no little thing. All through Scripture, from the story of Abraham (see Gen. 15:6) through the New Testament, God calls his people to trust him—to believe his Word and act on it.

Mary’s story fits right in with the many biblical examples of people trusting God with dependent faith. Centuries before, Abraham believed God’s promise that one day the Savior would come through his offspring. Here, young Mary believed God’s Word that she would give birth to the promised One. Now all who believe in Jesus belong to him and are truly Abraham’s seed, heirs of the promise.

To wives who are in pain and betrayal, wondering how to make it through this Christmas season: I want to encourage you to take the first step to trust the Lord. Like Abraham, who trusted when it seemed impossible, and Mary, who trusted when it was not what she would have chosen, believe God. He is bigger than your circumstances. It is no little thing to believe Him. Betrayed wives report feeling unsure of what is real in their life. They say it can feel like walking in quicksand, and it would feel so good to find solid ground. Jesus is that solid ground; those who are in him can stand firm.

Consider this: If we have lost everything dear to us in this life (God forbid it) but maintain our faith in Jesus, then truly—truly—we have lost nothing of eternal significance.

We learn from Mary that the Lord may set us on a path we prefer not to walk. Mary faced shame, being misunderstood, fear, and the unknown. Many wives who come to Harvest USA find themselves in circumstances they did not choose. We cannot change their circumstances, make their husband change, or save their marriage, but we can help them know the Lord truly, love him deeply, and trust him with their lives.

Consider this: If we have lost everything dear to us in this life (God forbid it) but maintain our faith in Jesus, then truly—truly—we have lost nothing of eternal significance.

  1. Mary chose to seek community.

Mary’s second response to God was to seek community when she went to Elizabeth. Wives will be blessed to move toward safe, wise women who will provide them truth and comfort. Today, we are being taught by everything around us. If you’re a wife facing betrayal, be mindful of who or what is teaching you in this vulnerable time when you’re hurt, angry, and fragile. I love that God put Mary and Elizabeth together at a time when they both faced serious changes in their lives and were potentially misunderstood by those around them.

  1. Mary chose to worship her Savior.

Remember, Mary didn’t know what Joseph, or her community, would say about this shocking news. But in the uncertainty of her future, she chose to praise God. In the Magnificat, we see the joyful faith of a young woman who has been set on a path that would include joy intermingled with suffering. May we, like Mary, worship our God even during our unfinished story.

The very last place we see Mary in the New Testament is in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). Not surprisingly, we find her doing these same three things: believing God, seeking godly community, and worshiping her Lord. By this time, she was a believer in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She had seen him live, die, and be resurrected. Her Son lives! May we also fix our eyes on the One whom Mary undoubtedly could not take her eyes off. Jon Bloom writes, “Mary’s greatest blessing was not being the mother of The Child. Her greatest blessing was that her Child would save her from her sins. And this blessing is given to everyone who believes in him.”

May we, like Mary, worship our God even during our unfinished story.

If you are a wife whose marriage has not turned out the way you dreamed it would, and your husband has hurt you deeply, know that your heart and your losses matter. This new path you find yourself on, though you’d never have chosen it, is not plan B in God’s eyes. He can and will do good things in and through you. And the things you’ve lost, precious as they are, pale in comparison to what you have in Christ through faith.

May your response to your unchosen circumstances of your life mirror Mary’s response. May you choose to respond in faith and worship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If you’re facing the fallout of sexual sin in your marriage or know someone who is, consider downloading Harvest USA’s newest resource. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal is a 10-session discipleship workbook available at no charge.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about the role of suffering in Christian sanctification. There’s no way to escape the reality that God uses trials in our lives to make us more like Christ. If I’m honest, more of my suffering than I’d prefer to admit is the result of my own unwise, sinful choices.

The Bible gives us clear categories for righteous and unrighteous suffering. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Later, in 1 Peter 4:15, he says, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”

God does not want us to suffer as a result of our sinful, foolish choices. His commands are meant for our flourishing. Living according to God’s will in more situations than not will actually lead to much prosperity in this life. In our appropriate resolve to kill any hint of a false prosperity gospel, we can’t throw out large swaths of the Bible, like Proverbs, that would show us how righteous living has many present benefits.

One common form of avoidable suffering

Suffering on some level is usually the context for sexual temptation. While God can and does use that suffering to point us to him in our time of need, what if God also wants to show us a better way to live our lives that frees us from much of our avoidable suffering? Let me give you a few examples.

Perhaps the most common form of suffering that leads to sexual temptation is boredom. That might sound petty to some of you, but the most obvious danger zone for many adult men is time alone at home with no one else around and nothing to do. Boredom is almost always an avoidable form of suffering. There are countless productive things we can be engaged in at any moment, even if we’re immobilized due to injury or COVID quarantines. But a combination of laziness, love of comfort, lack of zeal for Christ’s Kingdom, and the conditioning of modern technology, which has us (myself included) often mindlessly scrolling our lives away, keeps us from pursuing a truly full and rich life. A free afternoon home alone can be a wonderful gift from God that can lead to endless possibilities for your own and others’ enrichment!

Simple steps to reduce avoidable suffering

But many people will complain that they are too tired to really invest their lives into anything more than simply surviving, and there may be legitimacy to your exhaustion. Certain seasons of life are going to leave little to no margin, especially if you have young children. But consider how much of our exhaustion and lethargy is avoidable:

  1. Learn the value of saying NO. Have you committed to too many things that are keeping you from doing the most important things well?
  2. Are you exercising? Exercise not only increases physical energy, but it’s also a natural anti-depressant. So many people lack the motivation to get off the couch because they aren’t taking advantage of God’s natural means of physical and emotional boosts through exercise.
  3. Are you getting enough sleep? I know all too well that many of us struggle with sleep for a variety of legitimate reasons, and there may be no easy answer for you. But have you at least tried the recommended options for getting optimal sleep? Have you tried being disciplined at going to bed and waking up at the same time each day? Have you tried cutting back exposure to blue light before bed? Perhaps much of our sleep issues are really lifestyle issues.
  4. Are you eating a healthy diet? I know there are many different schools of thought regarding what a healthy diet is. Is fat good or bad? Vegan or carnivore? Intermittent fasting or five small meals per day? My concern is whether you are being proactive at seeking a healthy diet. All nutritionists can at least agree that that second or third piece of cheesecake will probably lead to avoidable suffering.

I could go on to list many other types of unhealthy lifestyles that add to our suffering, but my point is that we are often hindered in our Christian walk not because we aren’t spiritual enough, but because we have neglected the reality that God made us as physical beings. He created us to need exercise, good sleep, and healthy food. Just as sexual sin goes against God’s design for humanity, so too does unhealthy ways of living. Yet we rarely talk about these as issues of sanctification.

I believe that our silence as the Church on these matters can lead many to give up hope that life can ever be better. They’ve capitulated to always feeling tired, lacking energy and motivation, and scraping by at work just to make it to the weekend. No wonder sexual sin looks so appealing! Many of our brothers and sisters gave up a long time ago in believing that this earthly life could bring many blessings and benefits outside of sinful pleasure.

Avoidable suffering and unbelief

Consider Adam and Eve as you listen to the description of the Garden in Genesis 2.

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east… And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:8, 9, 16–17).

God gave Adam and Eve a paradise of rich food and enjoyment. He was not stingy with them. But the serpent was able to cast doubt on God’s lavish provision. He tempted Adam and Eve to focus only on what God prohibited, to the neglect of all that he permitted. They could’ve spent their lives enjoying so many good gifts from God’s hands, but instead they spurned his generosity in unbelief and doubt.

In the same way, I would ask you to consider how much of your avoidable suffering is an issue of unbelief. Do you fundamentally see God as a stingy taskmaster who doesn’t know how to give good gifts to his children? Do you see him as a bully who loves to pull the rug out from underneath you?

Or do you view him as a loving Father who delights in seeing his children enjoy his good gifts? Do you see how those gifts are meant to nourish our relationship with him?

For some of you, God may allow you to suffer physically in significant, chronic ways. Much of what I’ve shared in this blog may not apply to your particular situation. But, for most of you, I would challenge you to consider how God wants you to steward your body, your finances, and your time for greater Kingdom impact. God wants you to be healthy so that you have strength to serve him and others. He wants you to flourish because he’s your heavenly Father, and he loves you and wants what is best for you!

Think about the last time you gave into a vice that you had been trying to avoid. Maybe it was sexual sin, drunkenness, gluttony, or binging on entertainment. While there are many complex reasons for turning to our sins of choice, the most common one involves some kind of suffering that we are trying to escape or numb.

The men in our biblical support groups at Harvest USA have voiced the most common scenarios that precipitate running to sexual sin:

  • An argument with a spouse or some other relational turmoil
  • Struggling to fall asleep
  • Stress or anxiety related to work or school performance
  • Loneliness
  • General feelings of dissatisfaction in life

All of these situations involve some form of suffering. And how do we respond to suffering? We want to mitigate it in some way—quickly. Our first responses will often involve trying to change, fix, or resolve whatever situation is causing us suffering. If our efforts work, great! The suffering is relieved. But what if your spouse is still angry with you? What if you can’t fall asleep and it’s four o’clock in the morning? What if you get fired from your job for losing the sale? What if your efforts to form relationships continue to fall flat? What if the suffering doesn’t go away?

This is a crucial fork-in-the road moment! You can’t remove the suffering, so now what? How you respond in this scenario determines whether you will see growth in Christian maturity or whether you will remain in patterns of unbelief and sin.

We all know the classic cartoon when the character is presented with two paths. One path is sunny, with birds chirping, flowers blooming, and hope just over the horizon. The other is dark and stormy, with crows squawking and danger lurking. It’s obvious which path is more appealing.

Spiritually speaking, in times of suffering, sin often masquerades as the safe, enticing, bliss-filled answer to our suffering, while following Jesus looks like the path of despair. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before sin’s charade falls apart. Our enemy is more than happy to give us a moment of reprieve from our pain if, in the long run, he can add to our suffering through our sinful responses to it.

So, while sexual pleasure, alcohol, or double chocolate mousse cake may give a hit of dopamine that brings temporary relief, our sin is never the answer to our suffering.

But here’s the problem: Anyone struggling with habitual sin knows that truth, and yet it doesn’t stop them from going back to it anyway. Why is that? Simply put, we struggle to walk by faith, not by sight. Walking by faith is often painful, while walking by sight is quick and easy in the moment of suffering.

There is a simple yet difficult gospel truth that you must embrace in order to mature in faith: Suffering is how we grow. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself what Scripture has to say (Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–4, 1 Peter 1:6–7, John 15:2). Suffering is always part of God’s means to conform us more into the image of our Savior, who was known during his earthly ministry as the suffering servant. Jesus himself “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8) because a savior who never suffered could not save us. While Jesus suffered under the Father’s wrath so that we would never have to, he didn’t suffer on earth so that we could avoid all earthly suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. Being united to Jesus means that suffering is a marker of our lives on this earth as we “fill up what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).

That is a really difficult pill for all of us to swallow. How can we possibly accept that truth? What makes that pill go down is the reality that God uses our suffering, in love, to conform us into the image of our Savior (which is the deepest reality of Romans 8:28–29).

But how does this work? How does God use suffering to shape us?

My favorite hymn is probably William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Take some time to slowly meditate on these three stanzas. If you know the music, sing them!

                    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
                           are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

                    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
                           behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.

                    His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour;
                           the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow’r.¹

What is Cowper saying here? He’s saying that God has good for you in your suffering. He has loving purposes behind it all. The most immediate purpose, the most obvious good that God intends in your pain, is that your suffering would draw you into humble, dependent relationship with him.

One of the greatest tragedies of turning to sin in our suffering is that we rob ourselves of the comfort that God is offering. In what context does Paul call the Father the God of all comfort? It’s in the context of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4). God has a special comfort reserved specifically for your moments of suffering. There is nothing sweeter than his comfort in the midst of bitter affliction.

But here’s the rub: That comfort is not something we can control or demand in our timing or liking. God often calls us to wait upon him. That comfort may be come on the far side many tears, great anguish, desperation, and even feeling abandoned by God at times. This comfort is laid hold of by faith, not by sight, but it is a comfort that God has purchased for you and guarantees for all of his children in Christ who will look to and wait upon him.

Vaneetha Risner proposes a great way to think about suffering. She observes that we often ask the question, “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” But a better, faith-filled question asks, “Because God loves me, why is this happening to me?”² This does not mean that all suffering has easy answers if we just trust God—some suffering may never make sense this side of eternity—but your heart’s posture in trusting the Lord’s loving purposes is what matters.

While we’re not called to enjoy or invite suffering into our lives, see it as an opportunity when it comes and listen for your sympathetic High Priest’s loving invitation to come to him as your refuge, your strength, your high tower. As you come to him, he promises to use the fire of affliction not to destroy you, but to refine you.

As you trust God and turn to him in your suffering, you will find that your faith grows. At every turn, his promises remain true and become even more meaningful and significant as God lovingly forces you to cling to them for your life. A faith that is never practiced, never relied upon, never needed is a very weak faith. God wants to strengthen your faith in him; he wants you to experience how strong he really is. And there’s no better way to know God’s strength than in our weakness

¹Cowper, William. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Trinity Hymnal (Rev. Ed.), No. 128.
²Risner, Vaneetha. “If God Is with Me, Why Did This Happen?,” Desiring God. August 4, 2018. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/if-god-is-with-me-why-did-this-happen.

Ellen has often heard this phrase from both single and married women, young and old. When life is painful and we are face to face with our expectations crumbling, it’s common to pursue sexual sin—we “sign up for” it, if you will—as a way to avoid the pain of other circumstances. But it’s crucial for us to face life as it really is, with faith-fueled realism rather than a demand that it be something it is not and to trust God when life is not what we expected. Jesus actually chose you and signed you up to share in his life, and Jesus has also appointed, or signed us up, to bear fruit while also intimately sharing in his suffering.

The content in this video was adapted from “I Didn’t Sign Up for This!,” a blog that Ellen wrote for the PCA Women’s enCourage website.

 

This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 4 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.

Nobody wants to suffer, right? We know from experience how this broken world overwhelms us, and we know the suffering that our sinful choices bring. Yet the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are called to participate in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), along with the pain that accompanies “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12–13). Though we all experience trials and sufferings differently, the pain, heartache, and struggle on this side of heaven can feel wearisome and lead us to question God.

When we hear the word “suffering,” we think of things like broken relationships, chronic illness, cancer, or the loss of a loved one, but have you ever thought about struggling with temptations and sexual sin as a form of suffering? Many of us tend to dismiss our own experiences and minimize our suffering as we look at others who have what we perceive to be real suffering.

Sexual sin is one of the primary ways we seek comfort or escape in response to suffering. We give way to beliefs influenced by mistaken expectations of the Christian life. But to choose false comforts is to miss out on what delights God.

It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at our culture to realize that we love and crave comfort! Products, social media, and ads offer a life of ease, free of pain, with fulfilling romantic match-ups, financial security, appliances, and technology that do all the things we don’t want to do. Goods and services are daily marketed to us with the promise of relieving our suffering: Apps that allow you to filter your selfies, hook-up sites, online videos, streaming entertainment that consumes you for hours, day spas, plastic surgery, magic cures, and the latest, most successful dating site or marriage therapy technique all vie for our attention as we continually seek ease, comfort, and escape from suffering. The reality is that we can pursue these things for many reasons, but wanting to escape from the pain of life is frequently a significant driving force.

Sadly, the Christian life is too often presented as consistent with and affirming of this kind of comfortable lifestyle, but this understanding of the Christian life did not come from the Bible! Rather, the Bible is clear that living out our union with Christ means glory in the next life and suffering in this one. However, whether we suffer from life circumstances, persecution, or the costly battle against sin itself, we are promised great meaning, hope, and comfort, both in this life and in the one to come, in transforming into Christlikeness.

Of course, there is a sense in which it is natural and good to want to avoid suffering. It’s healthy to avoid someone’s betrayal, an illness, or living in the anguish of depression day after day. The Bible, though, never says that we are to attempt a pain-free life! In contrast, the world shouts loudly and persuasively that if we have the money, beauty, power, and will, we can escape suffering.

The world around us and our own sinful nature seek to dissuade us from this life of faith. In response to just about any suffering, sin offers an immediate, though deceptive, alternative to communion with Christ. Because of its drug-like pleasure and easy availability, sexual sin is one of the most powerful alternatives to gospel faith and comfort. Relational sin, which often accompanies sexual sin, also gives emotional highs and endorphin rushes that feel good now.

But faith in Christ and faith in sin are mutually exclusive; growth in one weakens the other. Just as habitually returning to sex to escape present suffering makes it harder for us to grasp the joy and hope of the gospel, so too will growing in love for Christ and in confidence in his promises give us strength and comfort to endure suffering for his sake

Romans 8:16–17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:13—Scripture abounds with statements that suffering is a basic component of the Christian life. Through these verses, God teaches us about proper expectations for the Christian life. Further, we often think of comfort as an absence of suffering, but one of God’s purposes of Christians experiencing suffering is that we would receive direct, personal comfort from God and, in turn, be able to use that experience to minister God’s comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).

The comforts of this life can be both addictive and deceptive. They tend to give us easy, immediate relief. What effect do you think sexual fantasy, sexual hookups, pornography, and other escapes have on your faith and hope in the gospel promises of resurrection and glory?

There are sweet blessings for God’s daughters as we courageously resist the temptation to rush towards the supposed comforts of sin. For example, Galatians 6:7–8 and Romans 8:5–8 spell out the benefits for “sowing to the Spirit” and the promises of God that can impact our lives in the present.

Although we would not choose to endure suffering, nothing is wasted in God’s economy; he uses our suffering to produce endurance, character, and hope, which transform us into being more like Christ. As believers, we have a strong assurance of hope.


Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application

  1. What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
  2. How do you typically respond to pain and suffering? Why do you think you choose those specific escapes? How well do those escapes, sexual or otherwise, offer relief to you in both the short run and the long run?

A complex web of mixed emotions, circumstances, and motivations lead us to feel like victims—and we have all felt this way at some point. On one hand, none of us wants to feel like a victim of our circumstances. It makes us feel powerless, frustrated, ashamed, and hopeless. But, on the other hand, a victim mentality unlocks endless opportunities for justifying escapist behaviors that, at the very least, make our difficult circumstances a little more bearable. Perhaps in no other setting does our sin feel so justified as when we see ourselves fundamentally as victims.

Let me give you an example of this dynamic:

Frank is 50 years old, works a demanding job in sales, and has a boss who is slow to compliment and quick to criticize. He is married with four children, and he is the sole breadwinner for the family. He often fears getting fired from his job and being unable to provide for his family. This leads him to work long hours, and, with the little time he’s able to sleep, he’s often kept awake by anxious thoughts.

Frank’s wife is frustrated with his lack of attention to her and the kids. The only day he’s not working in some capacity is Sunday, and he typically spends the majority of the day sleeping and watching TV. His wife has tried many times to address his lack of engagement with their children, and she’s worried about their oldest son, who has been caught with marijuana on three separate occasions.

Frank feels like a victim. At work, he’s unappreciated and expected to be on call any hour of the day. At home, he feels the same thing from his wife. He doesn’t think she appreciates how much he does by providing for the family, and all he hears from her are complaints. This has led Frank to seek out conversations with women through a phone-sex hotline. Frank feels that these women are the only people who care about him, who listen to his problems, legitimize his pain, and make him feel special.

For Frank—and all of us—his experience of feeling like a victim is a mixture of legitimate and illegitimate grievances. He is genuinely mistreated and taken advantage of as an employee, but he misjudges his wife’s concerns as expressing the same critical spirit as his boss. Frank lacks discernment, and, in his isolation, he paints everyone in his life with the same broad brush. He finds himself in an ever-descending experience of never feeling adequate, and he blames everyone else in his life, including God.

What Frank needs is holistic, gospel ministry. He needs someone who will speak the whole truth in love to him. That means addressing both his suffering and his sin because that is how Jesus ministers to us. He both heals and rebukes. He ministers with a gracious, gentle touch—but also with clear calls to repentance. In John 5, Jesus heals an invalid who couldn’t walk for 38 years and then tells him, “Sin no more.” Jesus meets us holistically in all of our needs.

Here are four ways you could help Frank:

1. Validate his suffering—Jesus cares about the fact that Frank is kept up at night with anxiety and exhaustion. As Jesus indwells Frank through the Holy Spirit, he is intimately near him in his pain. Jesus knows what it is to stay up all night in torment of the soul. He knows what it means to be mistreated, abused, unfairly criticized, and maligned. He’s not ashamed to call Frank his brother! Jesus is on the side of those who suffer injustice.

2. Rebuke his sinful response to suffering—Frank is sinning in many ways. He is neglecting his wife and children. He is committing adultery and covering it up with lies and deceit. And he justifies these actions by fundamentally identifying as a victim. But this mentality has not led to a response of faith. God gives us a clear opportunity in our sufferings to turn to him for help. Frank’s greatest sin is one of unbelief. He doesn’t believe that God is an ever-present help. He doesn’t believe that God is a God of justice. He doesn’t believe Isaiah 30:15: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.” Instead, Frank is doing what the Israelites did in their affliction from enemy invaders. Isaiah goes onto say, “But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses.’”

Frank has been unwilling to return to God. He’s been unwilling to quiet his soul before the Lord and find his strength and salvation in trusting and resting in God. Instead, he finds false strength in blaming everyone in his life. He seeks comfort and understanding from people who don’t love him and only want his money.

3. Show him Christ’s heart—Jesus sees Frank holistically. There isn’t one moment of suffering or affliction that Jesus misses or forgets. There isn’t one sinful response of Frank’s heart that goes unnoticed. Jesus knows Frank perfectly. Jesus looks him in the eyes with love and says, “I long to be gracious to you, and I exalt myself in showing you mercy. I am a God of justice, and you will be blessed if you wait for me” (paraphrase of Isaiah 30:18). Christ invites Frank into an embrace of forgiveness, protection, comfort, and rest. Frank has but to believe and turn to him!

4. Show him Christ’s power—Frank’s identifying as a victim kills any motivation to love others. Each complaint or criticism just adds fuel to a self-focused pursuit of comfort. But, in union with Christ, Frank has the supernatural ability to respond to criticism in two fundamentally new ways:

1) First, because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to Frank, he has the freedom to acknowledge his sin and failure with his family. He is able to own his sin without his identity being crushed because he has been made righteous in Christ. He’s even able to genuinely grieve his sin against his family and work to change the priorities of his life. Only by living out of our new identity in Christ do we have the ability to receive legitimate criticism.

2) Secondly, Frank is able to respond to his company’s injustice and abuse with long-suffering Christlikeness because the Spirit of the resurrected Christ abides within Frank, giving him new life. In 1 Peter 2:23, Peter tells us that when Jesus “was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus is the true Israelite who responded to God’s call in Isaiah 30 perfectly. Jesus rested in his Father’s care. His strength came from a quiet trust in God. Jesus is the blessed man who waited on the Lord.

Even more amazingly, Jesus willingly subjected himself to this abuse because he loves Frank. Peter goes on in verse 24 to say, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Jesus’ unjust death and suffering purchased for us the forgiving and sanctifying power of salvation. Because Jesus suffered victoriously on our behalf, Peter’s response is the same as Isaiah’s: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (verse 25).

Do you feel like a victim? Are you using your experience as an excuse to continue in sin? Return to the Lord, and receive the comfort he can provide by changing your mentality. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

Empathetic groans chorused through the group as each person confessed the week’s struggles. “It’s just too difficult,” one complains. “It seems like I get to a point in my lust where I am powerless to resist acting out.” “Yeah,” the man next to him chimes in. “I know exactly how that feels! But the Bible says Jesus does too. He had the same temptations we do!” Everyone knows he is referring to Hebrews 4:15, but a few silently wonder, “Is that what that verse means?”

It is vital that we know Jesus as a sympathetic high priest who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is surely a source of great comfort and encouragement. But there is also confusion over these words. Does it mean that Jesus experienced every temptation that I experience? We must deal carefully here in order to confidently claim the encouragement this verse promises. Here are some thoughts:

1. There are senses in which Jesus’ temptation experiences differed from yours.

Difference in particulars. First, let us nuance our understanding by pointing out that there is some difference between Jesus’ experience of temptation and ours. He did not experience the exact same specific temptations that you have. It’s easy to think of particular temptations he did not experience. Jesus was not tempted to wipe his phone to hide his porn from his employer. Jesus never struggled with a compulsion to open an incognito browser on his phone to look at pornography. The point is that Jesus did not share your exact circumstances and, in that sense, did not experience the exact same temptations that you do. This is obvious. So this verse is saying something other than that. In the same way, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” He does not mean everyone has shared the exact same temptation events. Have you ever been tempted to melt your jewelry into a golden calf to worship? I didn’t think so.

No, the sympathy that this verse says Jesus has for you does not depend on his sharing your exact circumstances of temptation. You need not imagine him facing your exact temptations—in fact, you ought not do so. This is because of another major difference in his temptations…

Difference in heart inclination. Jesus did not have a sinful nature; we do. We are born with hearts inclined toward sin. And the sinful patterns of thought and feeling generated by our hearts are themselves a major source of temptation for us. Yes, the inclinations and desires of our hearts are both sin and temptation. Do you need a clear example of how something can be both sin and temptation? Consider someone breaking the tenth commandment in his heart, coveting something God has not given. That person is sinning, breaking the tenth commandment. Yet that very sin constitutes the experience of temptation to commit further sin, to steal or commit adultery. Some theologians have found it helpful to describe temptations as being either external to us or internal. The internal temptations are those that are caused by the sinful momentum of our wayward hearts. This momentum meets any temptation coming from outside of us with a willingness by which we both give in to and even pursue sin. Jesus did not have this. His heart was always rightly ordered and steadfast in love of God. He never added his own sinful desires to the temptations that came at him externally, for he had no sinful desires. Remember, he was “yet without sin.”[1]

2. How then do we rightly understand “in every respect tempted as we are?”

In regard to the deepest dynamic. Jesus understands the dynamic of every possible temptation. This is true even though he hasn’t experienced all of the particulars. This is because all sin is an expression of deeper issues of the heart. Every sin, at its deepest level, entails turning from loving, trusting, and worshiping God. This is why Jesus can call loving God the first and greatest commandment. And every sin with reference to other people is a failure to love people as a fitting response to knowing the love of God. Every temptation we experience boils down to these two issues, and every temptation Jesus experienced was the same. He understands the deepest dynamic that characterizes your every temptation.

In regard to the suffering entailed in resisting temptation. But the main point in Jesus’ sympathetic identification with us has reference to the suffering that obedience and resistance to temptation entails. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), and, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), and, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Temptation is a “test” of our willingness to pay the cost of suffering for obedience. Jesus fully experienced just how painful and difficult obedience in the face of temptation can be.

In this regard, the fact that Jesus’ heart was not inclined toward sin makes his experience of the cost of obedience more complete than any of ours. When temptation comes, our inclination is to give in quickly rather than to fully accept the cost of obedience. Not so with Jesus. He was willing to follow through against sin to the fullest extent. He knows how difficult your temptation is, how much it hurts to obey. You can be sure of this because it hurt him more than it has ever hurt any of us. This is why the author can apply this to the encouragement of his readers, saying, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). You have not yet felt the full weight, but Jesus has. Even if you are called to bleed and die in order to resist sin, he has been there and is a sympathetic high priest for you.

Jesus is exactly the savior, and the brother, you need in your fight. He does know how difficult this is—and he is able to save because he never sinned.

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[1] You don’t want Jesus to identify so closely with you that he becomes disqualified to be your savior. See John Piper’s expression of this in this article.

You can also watch the video, “How Does a Sinless Savior Help Us Sympathetically?,” which corresponds to this blog.


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