19 Mar 2020
Friends, we’ve prayed for you as a staff. We recognize that along with so many unexpected upheavals to schedules, responsibilities, and life dynamics, the unknown future may tempt you to find a particular solution for your anxieties. You won’t find it mentioned in the mainstream media. It’s the temptation to run toward our idols.
Fear, uncertainty, and unwanted change trigger most of us to crave and seek out immediate comfort and relief. Our hearts can go into an inward spin cycle that sends us toward familiar but false saviors that may give temporary relief, yet they will only bruise our souls and enslave our desires. When forced into circumstances in which we feel out of control (and we are!), grabbing for some form of autonomous power seems life-giving. But it isn’t.
RESIST! Remember that Jesus is still the same loving, holy, delivering Lord who is your refuge in the midst of COVID-19-prompted temptations. You may be working from home now without online filters, or hindered in reaching out to your accountability partners, or tempted to reach back out to people who are dangerous to you… to your soul, friendships, marriage, thought-life, and more.
Remember, dear sisters and brothers…
Jesus is still your Rock and Refuge to whom you can cry out to today, right now. “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the ends of the earth; I cry out to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to yourself, Lord, for you alone are the rock that is higher than I, for you have been and are my refuge, a strong tower against my enemies.” (Psalm 61:1–2)
Jesus is still your way of escape when temptations are either fierce or soft and seductive. “Lord God, you are faithful…you won’t allow any temptation to come near to me (even when a pandemic is happening) that isn’t common and for which you’ll be my escape! Help me to cry out to you and trusted others, Lord, and to persevere through these cravings to seek comfort in sinful ways!” (1 Corinthians 10:13–14)
Jesus is still your constant companion in the midst of quarantines and isolation. “Lord, this house, my apartment, my room feels extra lonely; help me, Lord, to believe and know that you are God and that you are with me. God, use this forced retreat from being with people to create an intimate sanctuary for you and me. Help me to abide in you, Lord, to go to your Word and to be nourished with the Bread of Life!” (John 14:23–15:11)
Jesus is still your merciful, compassionate God when fear overwhelms or sin has been pursued. “Jesus, I’m afraid, really scared with what is happening. Help me hear you saying, ‘Take heart dear one, it is I! I’ve not forsaken you. Come to me and find rest for your soul.’ Yes, Lord, help me rest in your compassion. I did pursue sin, Lord; you saw me when I turned from you to sin, back to porn, back to him/her, back to food or alcohol or ______. I name it, Lord, and ask for your strength to stand up, engage the battle again, and walk as your loved son, your loved daughter. Thank you for receiving me with love and grace.” (Mark 6:45–51; Matthew 11:28–30; 1 John 1:5–10; Colossians 3:1–17; Hebrews 4:16–18)
Jesus is with you, friend, and he loves you. He is for you and will not abandon you. Ever.
31 Oct 2019
All of us face the difficult task of discerning what to say yes and no to. In our ministry at Harvest USA, I have daily opportunities to engage people who need help with their sexuality or gender struggles, or to write, or to encourage a staff member, or to reach out to one of my donors.
When I was in my twenties, Numbers 9:22 popped off the page into my heart and became a guiding verse from Scripture for me.
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it lifted, they set out.” (NASB)
This Old Testament version of a spiritual GPS came about in the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. God promised to guide them through manifestations of his presence hovering over the tabernacle as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (see Numbers 9:15-23 and Psalm 78:14).
Wow, seems so great, right?! Today, this might look like praying about something from the following list, glancing outside to see where the cloud is, and following it wherever it goes.
Lord, that woman seems to need a friend; should I reach out and call her—offer to meet up for coffee, or not? Lord, should I…
- Start a blog?
- Make this purchase?
- Be a small group leader at church?
- Look for a job that pays more but will be more time-consuming?
- Talk to my pastor about a concern I have about leadership, or “just” pray?
How do we discern what to say yes to and when we need to say no? In a world of thousands of choices, how do you decide what is the best way to spend your precious, limited resources of time, emotional energy, relational capacity, finances, and physical strength? Consider how the use of your time also factors into becoming a man or woman of sexual integrity.
Our Daily Yes
Thirty years later, the principle of Numbers 9:22 continues to keep my heart oriented to the big picture of being a Christian, and this is what we need to remember when it comes to stewarding our sexuality. Our lives belong to Christ and this gives us the most foundational YES we live out: Lord, wherever you lead, however you lead, I will follow you and do what you ask of me, keeping my eyes on you and throwing off distractions (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
Christ clearly and lovingly commands his followers to a life characterized by heart commitments: to die to self, take up our cross and follow him, love him and his commands, teach the gospel to others, be holy, set our hearts on things above, throw off sin and distractions, enter into and receive his rest (Luke 9:23; John 15:1-10; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-3; 4:9-10; 1 Peter 1:13). And that’s just for starters!
Simply put, our daily yes to these things is lived out through loving obedience and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever promotes, encourages, helps, and nurtures that obedience, we say YES to. Whatever distracts, tempts, or weakens us from living a Christ-centered life, we say NO to. The gospel’s trajectory of transformation in our lives is a process of increasing yeses to obedience and decreasing noes to disobedience.
Wisdom for Gray Areas
But, you ask: OK, that sounds great, but what do I do about practical decisions where the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer? The last time I checked, there weren’t any pillars of fire hovering over my home!
Let me unpack some biblical guidelines that help me.
- What’s the motive of your heart in the issue at hand? Will it help you resist temptation or will it lead you to give in? (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
- Consider the trajectory of God’s work in your life. Does this decision seem to be in sync with him or not? (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13)
- What do the mature and wise-in-Christ people in your life say about it? (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Titus 2:1-15)
God continues to use Numbers 9:22 to orient my heart and vocational decisions as I’ve committed to going where he wants me to go, do what he wants me to do, and to leave where/when/who he calls me to leave. In a beautifully intimate way, all believers have the Spirit to guide and protect us in our desire to live faithful lives as relational and sexual beings.
The life of faith has not always been easy or comfortable, but I’m deeply thankful for God’s kindness in leading me, year after year, and for the wisdom he’s given me in decision making. My Christian life is imperfect, but the more I taste the spacious freedom of obedience and faith, the less I’m tempted to give way to an unholy or foolish YES or NO!
To learn more, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, The Importance of Saying Yes to Jesus.
16 Oct 2019
“How do I know whether I’ve crossed the line in my mind between temptation and sin?”
This is a frequent question I get asked at our Harvest USA groups. While there could be mixed motivations for asking such a question, I believe the most common reason Christians ask this stems from a very legitimate desire to please their heavenly Father. At the core of our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ, we have been given hearts that long to hear our Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We know that sin displeases our Father. So how does God look upon us, when we wrestle daily, and frequently throughout the day, with desires, thoughts, and temptations that we know are not pure, good, or pleasing to God? Is God, at all times, frustrated and dishonored by our lives?
This is an extremely important question for the believer who wants to repent well of ongoing patterns of sin. Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
But if we think that all of our sincere efforts are only met with perpetual disappointment from our Father, then it will only be a matter of time before despair sets in. And eventually, we give up.
This is an especially significant question for men and women wrestling with same-sex attraction. They can struggle with great discouragement if every experience of same-sex attraction is classified as sin. But no matter what form temptation presents itself, these deep questions concern everyone.
We all know the pain of never measuring up to someone’s standards. It may be a child whose parents aren’t pleased with any grade below an A+, or an employee whose boss never gives them a compliment, or someone who never experiences their spouse’s delight in them. This hurts, and over time, it can be a crushing experience. So too, brothers and sisters wrestling with ongoing temptation want to know that God is pleased by their sincere efforts.
In light of these good desires to please God, how should we understand the nature of temptation and sin? This is the topic of much current discussion. My purpose here is not to throw my two cents into the conversation, since I believe a historic, reformed anthropology adequately reflects the biblical teaching on sin and temptation. My concern is more with the pastoral implications of this anthropology.
So, I will briefly summarize my understanding of sin and temptation, and then explain how this does not lead to despair in the Christian’s life, but hope!
It’s helpful to consider three categories when conceptualizing sin and temptation. This is our starting point to get to the place in answering the question I raised.
Temptation from without
This is temptation to sin that comes at you that has no genesis in sinful desires. Adam and Eve were tempted from without by the serpent. Jesus was tempted from without by the devil. When someone entices you to engage in sinful activity, this is temptation from without. It does not come from your heart but is seeking to tempt your heart to sin.
Temptation from within (indwelling sin)
This is temptation that arises from corrupt desires in your heart. James says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). How are we to understand the moral quality of these desires? Are they neutral?
I don’t believe the Bible allows that interpretation. These desires are sinful desires, arising from the fallen, corrupted, sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. Another term for temptation from within is “indwelling sin.” A very important feature of indwelling sin is that it is not something consciously chosen or something that we willfully summon. And yet, it is still sin.
Voluntary (willful) sin
If temptation from within is not something we consciously choose, then voluntary sin is what we willingly engage in. This is what most people think of when they think of sin. They think of something that is willfully chosen. And indeed, much sin is of this variety.
We are presented an opportunity to sin that our hearts desire. Now we are left with a choice. Will we turn to Christ, or give in to our sinful desires? This is what James means when he says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:15). James is not saying the desire itself was not sin, but that sinful desires, often unbidden, give birth to willful sin.
At first, this might sound crushing to someone wrestling with sinful desires on a daily basis. Indeed, it should sober us to think of the overwhelming weight and pervasiveness of our sin. That sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives. Consider the call of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t believe there is a single moment of my life where I can say this was perfectly true of me. Pride and selfishness always infect even the purest motivations of my heart.
Sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives.
This must mean God is constantly disappointed in you, right? Wrong! It is for these very reasons that Christ came not only to die in my place for the sins that I continue to commit, but also to live the perfect life that I never could. We can never merit favor with God by our own righteousness—our own good intentions or efforts. This is why Christ’s active and passive obedience are required to earn our full salvation. Because no one will be accepted into God’s presence unless they have a record of proven, perfect righteousness. Christ alone has accomplished this, and by Spirit-wrought faith we are united to Christ in all of his benefits, including his justification becoming our own.
So, instead of crushing the believer’s heart, it should first of all greatly deepen our appreciation of the gospel—the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us! The more we come to grips with how bad the bad news really is, the more we come to worship, delight in, and love our Savior.
This understanding of Jesus-for-us is the answer to our concern that we can never please God even though we are saved, because indwelling sin stains everything we do. But the Bible gives us so many declarations that God delights in his people and is pleased by their obedience (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Is it perfect, sinless obedience, worthy of salvation? No. But every Christian can and does obey in ways that delight our heavenly Father.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this possibility of pleasing God so well in section 16.6:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
This is so crucial to understand! How are our sincere efforts to please God acceptable in his sight if they are not perfect? They are accepted by God “through Christ,” as God looks upon our imperfect works “in His Son.”
Here’s the answer, then, to the question: How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between temptation and sin? We are always crossing over the line between temptation and sin because we are fallen. We don’t just need the gospel to save us from God’s wrath, we need the gospel in order to do anything that pleases the Father.
This means, when you are wrestling with indwelling sin, temptations from within, you have the opportunity to please God! When you turn from corrupt desires that rise up from within your own heart, and you make war with your flesh, and submit to the Spirit leading you into the throne room of grace, you are met there by your high priest with sympathy and with delight!
Every Christian will battle with indwelling sin until they see Jesus face to face. This will be a daily, moment by moment battle. God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin. The ones who meet God and hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” are those who endured to the end. Who didn’t make peace with their sin, but continued to take up their weapons of warfare that we see so beautifully outlined in Ephesians 6.
God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin.
Brothers and sisters, you aren’t laboring in vain. Not only are your sincere, Spirit-dependent efforts accepted and rewarded in Christ, but they are also sowing seeds into greater and greater righteousness. You don’t “box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead, you are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To learn more, watch Mark Sanders’ accompanying video, Can I Please God When I’m Not Perfect?
16 May 2019
“To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.” He was referring to porn. His tone expressed exasperation, discouragement, defeat. There were nods of agreement in the room from the group of men—several had said roughly the same thing recently and continued to feel it that way. Giving up porn was their life or death battle.
I had known these men for a few years having led their biblical support group at Harvest USA. They had all showed progress against their sin, with varying levels of “victory.” The one who spoke up had gone a significant time without a fall. Every day he said no to porn, every day he fought to give up porn—but only by harboring the secret concession that he could still go to it tomorrow.
I felt tempted to give in to their discouragement. A slew of biblical scenes came to my mind: Rachel hiding the family gods in her saddlebag (Genesis 31); Achan burying some of the spoil in his tent (Joshua 7); the rich young ruler walking away sad, unwilling to give up his “one thing.” (Mark 10:17-22).
Here is their fatal flaw, I thought—they will not forsake their idol. This will not have a good ending.
My discouragement increased.
But in my mind I settled on the story of the rich young ruler and remembered that sentence, “Jesus loved him.” While the rich young ruler walked away thinking I can’t imagine life without it, Jesus was loving him. We are not told the end of that young man’s story. But I have more than a little hope for him—because Jesus loved him. And that’s why I ultimately couldn’t lose hope for the men that I had come to love, either.
Could it be that moments like this, when confronted by the stark choice Jesus gives us, to follow him or to follow our wayward hearts into idolatry and sin, are when the necessary climatic turn can happen in one’s life?
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it.
They—and all of us—are faced daily with the choice to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. Other biblical phrases echo the scene from the young ruler story: “He that loses his life, for me, will find it. . . ”; “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God. . . ”; “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old is gone; the new has come”; “Behold, I am making all things new.”
You see, these men have reached a point where they are facing the question of their existence at its starkest and darkest: “Am I willing to die to all that I’ve been living? Am I ready to forsake forever my familiar idolatrous refuge? Am I willing to let Jesus re-create me? Do I want to be holy, to be steadily reshaped into the character and image of Christ?”
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. We had thought repentance was change, only to discover that it really means becoming a completely different person!
How do we help someone who is at this place?
First, cheer them on to the right choice.
Remind them that Jesus’ promise of new life is for crises such as this. He said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is nothing but death in the “old,” and nothing but life in the “new.” Implore them to run after new life. At the point of crisis, remind them that Jesus loves them. Even in their struggle; even in their doubt; even in their stumbling and falling.
Second, model life-long faith and repentance yourself as you walk with your brothers.
Your role in encouraging them is not just for this crisis moment; you need to show them by example that this is an ongoing turning. We want to believe we can turn once from an idol that has been a long-time staple of our life, then never have to face the decision again. It is true that there is a decisive turning when we know in our hearts that we belong to Christ and no longer to ourselves, but the full implications of that take a lifetime to work out.
As a new believer, this decisive turning comes with a sense of joy and freedom. But we do not know ourselves very well. God knows us perfectly. We do not see all at once what it will mean to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” There are other idols we do not immediately see.
As we mature in our life as a Christian, the Spirit progressively brings us from one repentance crisis to another, each time showing us another piece of what is earthly in us and giving us the opportunity—no, the necessity—of saying goodbye to it, of reaffirming, “This is not who I am anymore; I don’t have to do this.”
Third (and this is of course the most important), pray with and for them.
Prayer is how we re-focus on the person who is the power behind our repentance, Jesus himself. It is his work. He is the one to whom we turn. His is the life by which we turn. His is the voice that beckons us to forsake our old life to live his new life.
I have more than a little hope for these friends of mine. I have every reason to believe Jesus loves them, and has brought them to this crisis of eternal identity with his hand outstretched, inviting them to trust him, beckoning them to life, “Come, follow me. . . I am making all things new.”
07 Feb 2019
The first time I skydived, I was terrified and excited to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I could see the cloudy sky and minute details of the ground below—very far below. The instructor, to whom I was attached in tandem, yelled out as the wind rushed in the open door as my comfort zone slowly slipped away, “Are you ready?!” My heart raced as I said yes and before I knew it, we were falling out of the plane into the open air. After an exhilarating free fall, the parachute cord was pulled and down we gracefully floated to the ground. As I look back, I realized that I could have missed the rush of that experience had I not taken that initial step out of the comfort zone of the plane.
Years ago, when God began a life-transforming process in my life, I struggled to “step out of the plane.” I mean, I did want to follow Jesus, and I did want to do whatever it took. But not always. As the real-deal of what it was going to look like to be free from unhealthy relationships and sinful patterns in my life, I tried everything I could to delay being obedient to what God had set before me.
What I was trying to do—stay within my comfort zone by not stepping into the freefall of obeying God, which was terrifying—is what many sexual strugglers do.
Obedience begins with a willingness to submit oneself to the will of God. John 14:15 sums it up, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice in this verse that love precedes the command. It is from an overflow of our love for God that makes us willing to be obedient. What often isn’t expressed in this discussion is how easy it is to waste time dancing around obedience all while trying to justify your delays.
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another.
In Psalm 119:60, David says, “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” To hasten is “to move or act quickly.” David is reminding us that out of our love for God, we are not called to just keep his commandments, we should strive to be quick to obey.
Being quick to obey can be difficult for many reasons. Decisions are usually accompanied by a host of emotions, feelings that toss you to and fro, often times confusing the matter by fogging what’s otherwise seemingly black and white. Most would agree, obedience usually costs us something. But often times, the most profound spiritual growth comes as we make commitments to walk in obedience regardless of how we feel. Lived out, we pray for Christ-enabling power to make changes, then it requires us to make up our mind to love God by just doing it, or in some cases, stop doing it.
Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” What it looks like to “put on” and make no provision for worldly desires will look different for each of us. There is no formula, but here are four examples of ways to hasten obedience and not delay in order to break free from sinful patterns.
- Pursue Jesus every day
Here’s the amazing truth for all of us: we don’t walk alone! Far better than being attached to a professional skydiver, we are united with Jesus. Our first obedience is to abide in his love and Word and to deepen our understanding of our identity of being in Christ. We show our love for God through our obedience, but this is never about us mustering up the courage or strength to do it. As Paul said in Phil. 2:13, “its God who is at work” in us to change our desires and give us a willingness to obey him.
- Develop Accountability in Relationships
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another. While it is ideal to have others take the initiative to ask questions, make a commitment to confess your sins whether asked or not.
- Avoid relational connections that tempt you towards sin
It is important to disconnect from people that have been a part of your past sinful decisions. This is painful to acknowledge, but your past selfish choices could lead to hard consequences that hurt people you love. Staying in this type of relationship isn’t really loving if it doesn’t lead to obeying God. Although a choice like this can easily be misconstrued, it is actually an act of love and helps avoid being mired in long-term messy situations. For people on both sides of this type of obedience, God can be trusted with whatever consequences may come.
- Implement Technology Restrictions
Make modifications to any form of technology that grips or controls your emotional state, especially social media. These types of limitations expose what you allow in your life and how that positively or negatively affects what comes out in thought, word and behavior. This may seem minimal, but give it a try for a week or two and see for yourself.
Maybe for you all these steps look overwhelming. The good news (because there is Good news!), is God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. His command, his calls to quick obedience, are doable things God wants to help us with. The ground may look very far below, but it is God’s promise to get us there safely.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
So what could this look like in your life? Maybe it looks like being quick to fight against focusing on the negative but rather fight for a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6-7). Or maybe this looks like being quick to break the cycle of selfish inward thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5). Or maybe this looks like being quick to have honest conversations with God through prayer in the day in and day out battle of life.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
He is the ultimate Instructor who is tender and compassionate towards us as we learn how to walk in ways of new life in new light. He will bind up our broken hearts, lift our drooping heads, and provide peace that surpasses understanding. All while blessing our obedience and delighting in our efforts on this long road no matter how many times we fail to hasten.
Shalee talks more about this issue in the accompanying video: Why Is Delayed Obedience So Dangerous? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
It’s hard to obey God when it costs something of us. It’s even harder to quickly obey, to obey without hesitation. But the more we linger or delay, the things that trouble us grow in power and strength over us. In this video, Shalee shares four dangers of delayed obedience.
To learn more, read Shalee’s accompanying blog: “Quick to Obey on the Long Road of Obedience.”
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: What Can Pastors Do When People Say They Feel Addicted to Porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Good friendships in the Body of Christ are vital and necessary. And those friendships should be rich and deep. But sometimes there’s a danger lurking there: when one or both friends look to each other for what only Jesus can give us, then relational idolatry happens. Listen to Ellen talk about how to get yourself out of that unhealthy friendship and move toward Christ.
There’s more to learn after this video! Read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Codependent Struggles in Women’s Friendships. You can also go to Ellen’s 3-part blog and video series on emotional affairs. Click here for “Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part I”.