10 Feb 2022
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:
- Learn the value of saying NO. Have you committed to too many things that are keeping you from doing the most important things well?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
07 Oct 2021
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
- 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.
15 Apr 2021
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
- What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
- 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?
Awhile back, when I led a discipleship group for women seeking to overcome sexual sin, I was amazed at how prevalent abuse was in the stories of these dear sisters in Christ. It’s not that abuse is an unusual part of the backstory of women who come to us; sadly, most who reach out to us for help have experienced sexual abuse in one form or another. What made this group different, though, was the depth of trauma that was so common across the board among group members. I took in their courageous sharing with sobriety, heartbreak, anger, and confusion.
The very questions that many of them asked were now flooding my thoughts: “Why, God? Why did you allow this? What good could possibly come from this? How are they supposed to trust you when you didn’t stop this from happening?”
These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. It is too much for me to sort through why God allows what he does. It is too great for me to discern whether sin is to blame or if it is just a result of the fallenness of this world—or both. I admit that I have given in to demanding answers from God as I have attempted to sort through confusion created by others’ suffering.
In those times, I turn to Isaiah 55:8–9, which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than yours and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There are answers that my finite mind can’t understand, and it lies in the character of who God is and the fact that he knows all of the things I don’t.
But, as helpers, what are we to do when God allows us to come face to face with what seem like “splashes of hell”?¹
If we’re going to truly identify with Jesus in this world, it’s important to realize a few things as a helper. First, hearing traumatic stories is hard, but it is a part of our calling as believers to bear with one another, and Jesus is compassionate to us in this process. Second, we can hear, hold, and steward these stories wisely.
Hearing Traumatic Stories Is Difficult
In Genesis 34, we read about Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was horrifically raped by a man named Shechem. This chapter largely focuses on her brother’s response to the rape, which resulted in his anger boiling over into murder as a form of retaliation. But consider for a moment what it would be like to sit with Dinah. What anguish would you hear her heart express? What fears did this experience cause to rise up in her? What questions is she struggling to find answers to? It would be an understatement to say that her answers would be hard to hear and, most likely, grieve our hearts.
Now let’s consider Jesus: We see him entering into these broken spaces with people. He knew the story of the Samaritan woman who had slept with and married many men (John 4) and the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1–11). We don’t know the details of those actual relationships and what exactly those women endured leading up to the moment they encountered Jesus; we only get a glimpse at where they ended up. Yet Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by their sin or suffering. He saw them and engaged them through his questions, listened to them, offered hope, and even offered himself.
We can do this too, but we need to be prepared: Hearing traumatic stories is difficult. We need to be aware of a few possible temptations for us helpers.
- Dependence on self. Many of us can rely on ourselves to heal, fix, and come up with answers for pain that often doesn’t have easy solutions.
- Pride. Our desire to help can get mixed in with pride that convinces us, “Look at what a great helper I am by hearing such traumatic stories!” Or we can begin to think someone needs us in order to get better.
- Avoidance. In many ways, it is easier to ignore hard things. We put our heads in the sand and pretend it away, or we even run away all together.
We need to remember that we aren’t entrusted with abuse stories unless they have first been heard, seen, and known by Jesus. He cares for the sufferer and for us, the one called alongside those who have endured horrific pain.
Dane Ortlund says in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress. His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain.”²
Holding Difficult Stories Can Be Done Wisely
So what should we do when someone comes to us and wants to open up, to share a painful experience of abuse with us? What about childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment at work? This is a wide and deep topic with lots of necessary detail that would need to be explored in each situation.
Let me offer four key starting points to keep in mind.
- Pray. Prayer must be utilized often as we confront this type of evil. Pray for wisdom to know what God is inviting you into as a helper, for God to guard your own heart as you listen, and for heart healing and comfort for the person sharing.
- Listen and learn. Don’t worry about having the perfect theological answer or the right thing to say. Intentional listening and seeking to understand the person in front of you will help eliminate your responses that lean towards, “I don’t know what to do with what I’m hearing.” Jesus was the ultimate question asker, and he already knows the ins and outs of a person’s heart and situation.
- Get the help you need. As we have talked about, being a helper in these situations can take its own toll on you. Hold the person’s story with honesty and integrity, but invite others to know you in this so they can pray specifically for you. In addition, seek safe spaces to talk about how the weight of these stories is impacting your heart.
- Help the person connect with someone trained in trauma care if needed. Often, the most helpful and loving thing we can do is to acknowledge that we care yet aren’t equipped to address certain experiences of trauma. So, seek to help this person connect with someone who is trained to help in these areas. Practical ways to do this are offering to research professionals in your region, making a phone call to learn more about their specific areas of focus, and providing contact information to the person in need. This doesn’t mean we eliminate ourselves from the situation, though, because God gives us the Body of Christ, and there is wisdom in coming alongside hurting people together.
People who are willing to begin facing abuse and trauma are courageous. To invite someone else to know about that truth is even braver. So, while it is an honor to be entrusted with such stories, we, as helpers, need to be prepared for how those stories will impact our hearts. We also need to be prepared that removing the blinders of the depth of evil and suffering around us is often painfully uncomfortable.
When my co-leader and I finished the group I mentioned earlier, we marveled, with tears, at what we had witnessed in the lives of the group members. They had grown forward, healing had gone a bit deeper, and the pull of sin was lessening. Their stories of trauma had changed us as we bore witness to Jesus, the One who draws near to the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1–3).
Jesus was moved to compassion when he saw the needs of those around him (Matthew 9:36 and 14:14). As we sit with those who have experienced abuse and trauma, may we be moved to compassion, knowing that, although it is hard to hear such stories, Jesus is the one who redeems, restores, and enables us to hold challenging stories wisely.
¹ Joni E. Tada described suffering this way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU6q1r1Z9jg&t=2s, last accessed 2/24/21.
² Dane Ortlund. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton: IL, Crossway, 2020. 46.
14 Jan 2021
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.”
22 Oct 2020
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.”
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.
You can also watch the video, “How Does a Sinless Savior Help Us Sympathetically?,” which corresponds to this blog.
The book of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. But how can those who battle with persistent sin struggles make real spiritual use of these assurances? Learn more in this new video from Jim Weidenaar.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes by Dan Wilson. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Jesus Understands Your Temptations,” which corresponds to this video.
09 Jul 2020
Our childhood experiences impact how we all think, desire, believe, and act as adults. But is there any value in reflecting upon those past experiences for the sake of repentance and transformation in the present? Believe it or not, this is a highly debated question among counselors, ministers, and anyone seeking to help those who are struggling in life.
At Harvest USA, we believe that understanding where we’ve come from, what has influenced and shaped us, and how to apply the gospel to those experiences is absolutely vital. Here are two ways that a growing understanding of the shaping influences in your life can help you battle sin and temptation today.
Healing Is an Aspect of Repentance
In Sexual Sanity for Men, Dave White writes, “You are not merely the sum total of all the individual decisions you make. The aspects of life outside your control are extremely significant and impact you as an individual.”¹
Repentance involves choosing to turn from sin to God. Notice this: We don’t repent of our sufferings; we repent of our sin. In order to effectively turn from our sin, we are helped by understanding why we sin. One major motivation behind sin is an autonomous desire to deal with suffering on own terms. A son whose parents neglect him and show him no comfort easily finds himself turning to masturbation for self-soothing, a pleasurable alternative to crying himself to sleep. A girl who is rejected by her peers and degraded by her father behaves with increasing promiscuity to find validation and worth. A young boy who is sexually abused by an older man is thrown into a world of fear, confusion, shame, and even awakened desire, which he has no ability to process; further, his family culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” keeps him from sharing with anyone about this traumatic experience.
So many men and women who struggle with sexual sin see Jesus only as their judge. They are all too aware that he sees their sin, but they have no concept of him seeing their suffering, especially suffering that happened decades ago, though it continues to deeply impact their lives today. Jesus came to be their Healer, Warrior, Advocate, and Comforter. Once people begin to experience Jesus as one who is for them, who has not forgotten their wounds, who came to heal them, he becomes a refuge for them in times of temptation and guilt. Most sexual strugglers have been hiding not just their sin from Jesus, but their suffering and shame as well.
God designed us to be fundamentally relational, as well as vulnerable to external influences. This is not a result of Adam’s fall into sin. Children are meant to be shaped by their parents, family, and larger covenant community, which should all be saturated with his Word. We are so moldable as children because God wants Scripture to inform our hearts, minds, and desires, both as it is formally taught and as it is lived out in everyday interactions and relationships. As Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Though God intended for us to flourish, man’s fall into sin has made our vulnerability to external influences a heavy liability. We all grow up in a world and culture that rebels against God and his Word. From very young ages, boys and girls are bombarded with unbiblical messages about what is desirable, what it means to be successful, what is means to be a man or a woman. Throughout our lives, we breathe in these messages every day so that none of us are immune to their shaping influence. So many of the men to whom I minister have never given thought to the fact that their beliefs and desires were, on certain levels, taught to them.
But this actually is the beginning of some very good news because, if our beliefs and desires are moldable, we have the opportunity to have them refashioned after God’s own heart. While decades of belief and wrong desire are not easily reformed, our hope for transformation rests in the reality that our union with Christ guarantees this kind of change—albeit with slow, gradual steps—as we daily abide in Christ and his Word.
A Word of Caution
As with every shaping influence in our lives, both good and bad, none of these external influences are ultimately determinative. A child may grow up in a godly, strong, safe, Christian environment and still choose to live a life of rebellion against God. Conversely, a child who grows up in a toxic, painful, ungodly environment is not without hope for gospel transformation that leads to a life of increasing sanctification.
This means that we can’t blame our sin on external circumstances. The Bible always locates sin in our hearts. God will not excuse our sin because of our circumstances. But neither does God discount our circumstances. He takes into account every nuance of our lives, from the biggest moments of trauma to the smallest offense imaginable. He remembers them, cares for us in them, and ultimately uses them to serve our worship of Jesus. Jesus came as a suffering servant: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). A greater understanding of the way we’ve suffered leads us to a greater understanding of the love of Jesus, the One who willingly bore our shame, suffering, sin, and guilt, to reconcile us to God.
¹ David White, Sexual Sanity for Men (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2012), 51.
You can also watch the video, “You Are Always Being Influenced,” which corresponds to this blog.
07 Nov 2019
Have you felt maxed out beyond your capacity to handle, stretched beyond what you feel able to endure any longer? Me too! Like the women I’m discipling who need help overcoming sexual sin, it’s easy to blame my behavior and my heart’s responses on the tough circumstances I find myself in.
But Jesus reveals the source of our distress. It’s not our circumstances; it’s our heart; it’s the way we respond to our circumstances. Jesus diagnosed all of us when he confronted the Pharisees (see Matthew 12:34-35). Like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube when we press it, our hearts reveal their true nature when pressed upon or squeezed by trials and situations that threaten to undo us.
Our hearts reveal their true nature when pressed upon or squeezed by trials and situations that threaten to undo us.
I am going through a lot of transition in my life. I’ve moved to the east coast to begin full-time ministry at Harvest USA, so most everything familiar has changed: living situation, church family, and my social network. I’ve felt pressed and squeezed in this season of change!
What came out of my heart? Insecurity in certain friendships, anxiety as I engage the reality of being a support-raising missionary, and doubts about whether God will provide for me.
Oh, and that’s not all! I’ve also felt frustration because if I’m honest, I flat out desire an easier road to walk than the one God has chosen for me. At times, all of this squeezing has led to feeling completely overwhelmed.
Although my circumstances may be different than yours, when we get down to heart issues, we are more alike than different. I’ve recently been facing my own unbelief, and that’s the same thing that happens in the heart of a woman who keeps going back to porn to numb her pain or that guy that insists he’s just wired to have sex all the time and can’t stop.
On a heart level, we question if God will actually do what he promises. We doubt his goodness; unbelief creeps in, and fear paralyzes us as we grapple for control of our lives.
Life presses in on all of us!
How is life pressing in on you today? Did you wake up with one of the following thoughts?
I can’t kick this pornography addiction.
I can’t overcome my attraction to the same sex.
I can’t get over my fear of being single forever.
I’ll never trust my spouse again.
I can’t keep fighting my sexual temptations on top of everything else. I just can’t.
Or maybe, if you’re in ministry like me, you feel squeezed with fearful thoughts threatening to paralyze you: I don’t want to engage this cultural issue; it is too risky. I don’t want to get caught in the weeds of someone else’s sexual sin struggles; I don’t know how to help them.
Maybe you’re feeling like Moses in Exodus 4:13 when he asked God to please send someone else to do the job. Or perhaps you’re like Jonah, and you want to run away from what God’s called you to do.
These things can be painful beyond words, but the truth is, being squeezed by life can actually humble us in him. In the midst of struggles, God builds a redemptive bridge into the lives of others from our challenging circumstances. God allows these hard circumstances to tether our attention back on our need of him.
You need to hear this: being squeezed isn’t an indication that God is rejecting or abandoning you. In his sovereignty and love, God allows our character and lives to be refined. And the beauty is that in the midst of this refining squeeze, God is tender and gentle to us, even though it may not feel like it. Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” He loves us enough to allow hard circumstances to sanctify us and make us more like Jesus. But as he does so, he brings comfort and encouragement to our weak and oppressed hearts.
God loves us enough to allow hard circumstances to sanctify us and make us more like Jesus.
Aside from living with a heart that is surrendered to Jesus, we do have some responsibility in all this. It matters what we allow “in” to our minds and heart. I recently heard a pastor say, “Where our minds labor, our hearts will follow.” The reality is, our minds are always dwelling on and being filled with something, and what you allow in will directly impact what comes out.
So, what are you filling yourself with in your free time? What is your thought life really like? What voices have the most influence in your life? It is time we stop being so surprised and not allow ourselves to play the victim when sinful and destructive responses come out of us.
Many things in life are out of our control, but being mindful and intentional about what we fill our tube of toothpaste with is up to you. Filling yourself with anything other than the things of God will leave you cleaning up messes. If you choose to fill your mind and heart with God through obedience to his Word, meditating on his majesty, and communicating with him through prayer—then when life squeezes, you will see things coming out of you like the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
So, next time life presses in on all sides, pay attention to your responses and trace them back to the root of what you’re believing about God in those moments. Then replace any lies with truth found in God’s word (2 Corinthians 10:5). Do this over and over, and you will see your responses begin to change. This process can feel daunting, but as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 11:30, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. As you feel hard-pressed on every side, he will give you rest for your weary and burdened heart and the strength you need to persevere.
To learn more, watch Ellen Dykas’ accompanying video, God’s Pruning Is Always Purposeful.