And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
Sexual intimacy in marriage is one of God’s gifts. It furthers humanity, cements the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and fosters love and joy in their union.
Christians confess these things. But do we truly, deep-down, believe sex in marriage is pure? All too often, I don’t. Many factors can taint the purity of marital sex in our minds and hearts. Sexualization seeps into almost every part of western culture, and the world’s view of sex as base and animalistic surely affects us more than we realize. We may feel hesitancy and shame about enjoying marital sex. And if we’ve been abused or struggle with sexual sin, it can be difficult to believe that sex can honor God or be safe.
The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to convince us that what God says is good really isn’t good, and our battle-weary hearts struggle to accept the purity of this gift.
And what we believe impacts how we live. It’s harder to engage with your spouse in a loving and vulnerable way through intimacy if sex feels sinful. We may know the truth with our heads, but how do we respond to rogue feelings?
Christ Is Enough
Being a Christian means hiding in the righteousness of Christ, always. If we’re trusting Jesus, every single wrong belief and warped motivation has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) that we may live in him (Rom. 5:18)! Our hope doesn’t rest in our behavior or feelings, but in Christ’s finished work. If God says sex in a loving marriage between a man and a woman is good, and if you’re married, then intimacy with your spouse is good—regardless of your feelings.*
Here are four truths to help us “talk back” to our feelings.
- We’ve been declared righteous according to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Faith in Jesus alone justifies us, not our works (Rom. 3:23–24). Apart from Christ, our hearts are twisted. We may bring sexual sin and its accompanying shame, or the shame of sins committed against us, into the marriage covenant. We’ll be fighting sin and feeling the pain of sins committed against us until heaven. This is why justification is such liberating news—our souls are safe because of Jesus.
God has set his favor upon us. He sparked faith in our warped, corrupted hearts, making them new and empowering us to walk in good works (Eph. 2:4–9). If you’re married, your marriage relationship is one of those good works. Marriage illuminates the all-surpassing gift of Christ, our Bridegroom, to his people. Being justified by faith means we can take our worried eyes off ourselves and fix them on our Savior. We’re united with Christ, reconciled with the Father, and helped by the Spirit. We can walk in good works because of Jesus.
- Christ’s righteousness covers us.
R.C. Sproul illustrates this doctrine of imputation in his children’s book, The Priest with Dirty Clothes. When Jonathan irreparably stains his robe, he goes to the great prince desperate for help to clean his clothes so he can stand before the king. Shockingly, the prince puts Jonathan’s filthy clothes on himself and gives Jonathan his own royal robes. He smiles, saying, “These are the clean clothes I promised you. They are yours forever. They will never wear out. There is not a spot of dirt on them and nothing can make them dirty. They are perfect for you.”
Think about that! Nothing can mar the righteousness that’s ours in Christ—not our sin (past or present), not sin done against us, not our feelings.
What does this have to do with sex? We can wrongly believe purity is rooted in our behavior. If we’ve sinned or been sinned against sexually, that’s it. Game over. We’re “used goods.” But the gospel truth is that our purity is found in Christ—it’s rooted not in us, but in the spotlessly pure robes of Christ’s righteousness covering us.
At the end of Sproul’s story, Jonathan wants to be good enough to wear the prince’s clothes. “But you cannot be good enough, Jonathan,” the prince says. “You must live your whole life trusting in my goodness while you wear my clothes.” We will never be pure apart from Christ. Yet, in Christ, we’re adorned by a purity more shimmeringly beautiful than we can imagine.
- God uses ordinary means to sanctify us.
Day by day, by the power of his Spirit, God is doing extraordinary work in us through ordinary means—reading his Word, prayer, fellowship with believers, partaking of communion, suffering, relationships. For believers who are called to it, marriage—in all its dimensions—is part of that process.
As we learn to submit to another, preferring them before ourselves, seeking their wellbeing, and caring for their emotions, God is sanctifying us. As we embrace the vulnerability of sexual union, committing ourselves to our spouse again, knowing and being known in all our imperfections, God is sanctifying us. God will use even marital sex to work out our sanctification. Christian, you can enjoy sex with your spouse not only as something good in itself, but as part of the Lord’s sanctification in your life.
This is good news, but we still sin against God and each other. Have you ever thought, “I can’t even have sex with my spouse without sinning in my mind!”? The frustrating reality of ongoing sin can tempt us to avoid sex altogether. But that’s not the answer. As Jim Weidenaar said, simply avoiding sex would be like saying, “I can’t pursue relationships with people in church without my pride and anger surfacing, so to avoid more sin I’ll be a loner.”
“Instead,” Jim said, “it’s as we pursue loving relationships that we recognize sin and true growth happens. The path of sanctification, in sex or any area of life, requires us to exercise faith. Though the road is rocky, our Savior will help us grow even as we grieve, confront, repent of, and work through sin day by day.”
- We’re headed to eternal glory.
Neither marriage nor sex within marriage are ultimate or eternal—like all God’s gifts, they’re signposts pointing to the greater realities of Christ and his love for his people. One day we will physically be with Jesus, our heart’s satisfaction, forever (Ps. 16:5–6). We’ll be free from sin and shame, delighting in the consummation of our souls’ deepest longings.
Paradoxically, this frees us to treasure our earthly marriage more than ever and to not take it too seriously. The intimacy of marriage is a lovely gift, but it pales compared to that great day when we see our Lord face to face. Christ himself is our joy! He is our inheritance. He is our tender husband. The marriage union is a temporary gift; spiritual union with Christ is our eternal reality.
How does this head knowledge work its way into our hearts, so our felt experience matches the truth we confess?
We may still feel that sex with our spouse is impure. Feelings are stubborn and must occasionally be given “a stern talking to.” But that doesn’t always change them. In this fallen life we will sometimes be overset by feelings that run roughshod over us, leaving no reprieve, no peace. But amid all the turmoil of all the feelings, we have a sure and steady refuge for our soul in Christ our Savior. We can shelter in him, crying with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
And as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, our belief in Christ’s sufficiency will grow. The answer, if we’re married, is not to avoid sexual intimacy with our spouse* nor to ignore the feelings. Neither can we examine ourselves thoroughly enough or purge ourselves of sin! No, our hope is found in Jesus.
Who Jesus is and what he has done triumphs over our feelings. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ” (293). Let’s look to Christ, our Savior, and hide in his righteousness. We can trust him with every part of our lives.
*This assumes your marriage is not abusive. If you’re facing harm from your spouse, remove yourself to safety and seek guidance from a trusted counselor.
21 Apr 2022
You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” We’ve all seen movies where someone is faced with the imminence of death, and, with no previous evidence of genuine faith, they fall to their knees and plead to God for mercy. Or perhaps less extreme, but more common, is the astronomical uptick in prayers on one Sunday out of the year: Super Bowl Sunday.
Why do foxholes and field goals turn otherwise non-religious skeptics into faith-filled believers? Of course, only God truly knows someone’s heart, and true approaching-death conversions—as in the thief on the cross!—do happen and are to be celebrated. Sometimes the Spirit uses the reality of death to awaken true faith. However, I think it’s safe to say that many of these prayers are not the result of genuine spiritual renewal. Instead, they both have in common an attitude towards God that is just as offensive as not believing in him at all. These prayers treat God as nothing more than a tool.
Geerhardus Vos gives great insight into the function and appeal of idolatry when he writes, “Magic is that paganistic reversal of the process of religion, in which man, instead of letting himself be used by God for the divine purpose, drags down his god to the level of a tool, which he uses for his own selfish purpose.”¹
Vos exposes a struggle that is all too common in my own heart: In my flesh, I don’t want someone else’s agenda forced on me, even if it’s God’s. I’d rather have the freedom to set my own agenda and the autonomy to pursue my own goals. But, by virtue of being a creature, I am inescapably bound to the agenda and purposes of my Creator. Not one day of my life has known the absence of God’s calling to love, worship, and serve him with all my being.
When God’s agenda clashes with my own
If I’m honest, I too am guilty of treating God as a mere tool for my own agenda. I wake up with an attitude that says, “My will be done.” I find myself strolling into the throne room of grace like an ungrateful child asking to borrow $20 from his father, with little intention of actually engaging in relationship with him.
This heart posture toward God is fertile ground for idolatry to spring up. If we functionally treat God as a means to an end, then, when he no longer seems to be on board with our agendas, we’ll start rummaging through our tool kits for something else that will do a better job.
One reason that so many Christians find themselves turning to sexual sin is because God is not serving their agendas. He’s not giving them the sexual satisfaction they expected in marriage, or he’s not giving them marriage at all. But it goes deeper than merely our agenda for sex. We want love, comfort, affirmation, affection, control, intimacy, security, and escape from pain and suffering. Sex delivers on all of those fronts, to varying degrees. It’s easier to avoid sexual sin when life is comfortable, relationships are fulfilling, and ventures are successful. But, when life gets hard, and God isn’t delivering us from those hardships, it becomes very tempting to stop praying and find another tool that you know will get the job done, at least temporarily.
If you find yourself turning to any kind of sinful comfort when life gets hard, there’s a good chance you have reversed your religion, as Vos said, treating God as a tool for your own agenda that can be discarded when his plans veer away from yours.
This is especially difficult for brothers and sisters who are battling same-sex attraction. To begin with, I’ve never heard someone say that same-sex attraction was part of their plans from the beginning. Typically from an early age, they are already wrestling with desires and feelings that were not included in their original agendas. To make matters worse, when they pray and ask God to take these desires away, it feels like God is absent and unwilling to help them. This can bring great confusion about God’s agenda for their lives.
“Does God want me to live a life of forced loneliness?”
“If he hasn’t taken away this desire, does that mean he’s okay with it?”
“Does God hate me?”
“Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”
These are deep, profound questions that are usually drenched in tears. It can feel like God’s agenda for our brothers and sisters is cruel, which is the growing consensus in the wider culture about biblical sexuality.
The essence of true worship
These painful questions are not limited to a select group of Christians; we all ask these questions. We ask them when we get cancer, when a loved one dies tragically, when we are betrayed by close friends, or when we suddenly lose our jobs. We are all confronted with God’s painful purposes for our lives, and these moments force us to ask a question posed to humanity since the Garden of Eden.
Will you worship God for his sake alone?²
Satan believed that no one does that. In fact, he dared to say that Job, God’s beloved servant, only worshipped God because of the gifts he gave him. He believed that if God took all of those gifts away, Job would curse him.
While there are many applications of that story to our subject matter, what is particularly relevant is the end of Job’s story. Job doesn’t ask God to give back all the things that were taken from him; he simply wants an explanation: Why did God allow this to happen? But God never tells Job why, even though we as the readers know why. Instead, God reminds Job of who he is as the Creator, and of who Job is as the creature. And that was sufficient for Job. He needed no other answer.
Why was this sufficient for Job?
The reality is that God has no need to explain himself to us. The very fact that he is God is more than sufficient for his creatures to be completely submitted to his agenda. Job rested not in his understanding of his situation, but in the character of God.
Thus, true worship can be characterized in at least two ways:
- True worship is not dependent upon our own judgments of God’s agenda, but on complete trust in his character and purposes.
- True worship does not worship God for what he does for us first and foremost, but for who he is.
Jesus is the only true worshipper
If you’re like me, it’s sobering to consider how much my worship is often tethered to my own understanding and approval of God’s purposes for my life. But this is why I need Jesus, because he is the only true worshipper, through whom I offer my worship to God.
Jesus is the only person who ever lived his entire life fully submitted to the will of his heavenly Father. Consider his own testimony about himself in John 4–5:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19).
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
I confess that my mind is often baffled by these statements. If there is anyone who would have the right to act according to his own will, it’s the second person of the Trinity come in the flesh. But Jesus, in his humanity, shows us what a life of true worship and submission to the Father actually looks like.
Jesus not only testified that this was true, but he also showed us this heart posture during his most agonizing trial, in the garden of Gethsemane. No other human will ever know the depths of suffering that occurred on the cross of Calvary, and no other human could have born the weight of submitting to the Father under those circumstances.
Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father’s agenda because none of us could. We often fall into the temptation of using God as a tool to find satisfaction outside of him. The epicenter of satisfaction for Jesus was in doing the Father’s will. He graciously gives us his righteous robes that cover our imperfect worship so that, in Christ, our worship is acceptable and pleasing to the Father. And as we worship and submit to God through Christ, the Holy Spirit gradually grants us greater strength to say with Jesus, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
¹ Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 137.
² Olinger, Danny. “You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos.” Reformed Theology and Faith. 11/9/2019. https://blog.daum.net/byk2739/727
With the Ashley Madison scandal of 2015, and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood, who lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage, gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and hopefully grow, these first few steps will be critical.
In my first two blogs (Part 1 and Part 2), I mentioned two initial steps you need to take to bring healing to your marriage: Fully own the damage you caused, and let your wife heal at her own pace. Now, for the third initial step you must take.
You have to move toward your wife as a forgiven man. Not forgiven by her; you can’t control that or make that happen. No, forgiven by God. If you have given your life to him, then hear the good news of the gospel: God has taken your sin upon himself and given you his perfect, flawless life-record as your own. It’s this new foundation that you need to begin to grasp. God sees you as clean, washed, even when all the pieces of your life are still scattered all around you—even when the pain of your sin is still vividly in your mind and heart.
Why is this so important? Because you really can’t do the first two steps I mentioned apart from this one. You will not be able to fully face the truth of what you did, nor will you be able to let your wife heal at her own pace (with or without you), unless you begin to see that no matter your sin, Christ has paid the ultimate penalty for it. This alone is the foundation for your own healing.
This healing is not being accomplished by your sorrow, nor by your newfound good intentions or works, nor by the hope you have in wanting to heal your marriage. It’s because Jesus was willing, on one gruesome day, to die in your place—in order to give you life, to set you free, to place upon you a love so deep that you now belong to him as a cherished child.
You see, your sin exposed the lovelessness of your own heart. But by grasping God’s love for those with broken hearts with an open, empty hand (that’s faith), you will now be able to learn to love as you never have before.
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
This is what living by faith looks like. Not a cheap grace, but a substantial grace that now gives you the love you need to move forward in total transparency, hiding nothing, admitting to everything. I don’t know your wife. I don’t know how she is going to respond. What I do know is that you need to know that God loves you and that his promises never change. This should help you with my next point.
And this is what your wife needs—she needs to see you growing in this grace. You will still fail. You will still stumble and fall at times. Your wife is going to need her measure of grace from God to survive the destructive self-centeredness that brought you both to where you are now.
Remember that your sin is against God first! He felt it first! It was his law you broke! It was his grace that you trampled underfoot. To me, that is what God is trying to communicate to us from the cross. “This is how your self-indulgence has impacted me,” he is saying. “You broke my heart!” That is deep! That is love at a whole new level! He made an open display of your sin so that you don’t have to hide anymore. If you can honestly face the cross, you can honestly face your wife, hear whatever she needs to say, own all the damage you have caused, and patiently wait for whatever healing she needs to experience before she can even think of getting close again.
Finally, I would say, with Paul, “Love… hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV). You don’t want to give up hope. You want to continue to believe that God will do a work. And he will do a work in your life and in your marriage. It just might not look like the way you want it to look! You have to trust him no matter what the outcome.
With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
I mentioned in my last post (here) that one of the most devastating things that impacted your wife when your sexual sin finally came out in the open was this fact: You were living a double life. You lived one way in front of her, and you lived another way behind her back. That type of secrecy in a marriage causes great damage.
One of the first things you need to do to rebuild your marriage is to learn—carefully and with sincerity—how to rebuild the trust that you broke. I’ve already said a few things about the first step you need to take: Take a hard and honest inventory of the damage you have caused to your wife and marriage.
And if your wife is still willing to stay in the marriage, here’s a second big step you must take:
Give your wife space to walk her road of healing, at her pace
Don’t expect that trying to do all the right things and doing lots of good activity this time is going to fix everything. If this is your new focus, you will put a crushing weight of pressure on your wife. How? Because most likely, underneath all your “good” activity, is an unspoken demand that she should respond and accept your earnest steps to change.
When you do this, you are shifting the dynamic of the relationship off of you and onto her. Now the future of the marriage depends on how she responds to the “new” you. Oh, this is subtle! You may not even be aware of it. But if this is happening, and if your wife is having big problems accepting the new you, then you attempt to justify that, whatever happens, at least you really tried. After all, marriage involves two people working at it, right?
Yes, start changing your behavior, and begin relating to your wife as a man of honesty and transparency. But you have got to disconnect your behavior from expecting a particular response to it. You must.
The most important thing she needs from you right now is to give her all the space she wants to heal at her own pace, not yours. She is disoriented from living with a man who lived two lives. Jesus said sexual sins were legitimate grounds for divorce. You need to face the reality that you crossed that line—whether your sexual sin involved a physical encounter or “just” a virtual one.
Your wife will be struggling with the reality that you crossed sexual boundaries, that you took your heart and your body outside of your marriage. That’s bad enough. But she will also be struggling—perhaps more so—with your deception. Your wife can’t fix that. You’ll have to give her emotional space as she struggles with how to move on. How to learn, slowly, whether she can begin to trust the person you are now showing her.
One thing that God will work on in your heart is this: your desire to control things and make them work out your way. That’s what your sexual sin was about. Your desire for control is what plunged you into porn or whatever you did to seek emotional or physical intimacy outside of your promise to your wife. Control, to be in charge, to make sure you got what you wanted—and avoid whatever it was that you hated—is what kept your deception going.
Your idolatry to control your life is one giant lie that God cannot satisfy you. Your refusal to seek him led you to seek something else that promised no disappointment, no pain, no struggle, no problems.
But now you need to learn from God that your control was an illusion. You thought being in control would give you what you needed. And now your continued desire for control will also lead you to think that you need to—and can—fix this relationship and get it back on its feet. But that’s not going to work this time.
This time, you are going to have to deeply rely on God to fix this. You can’t fix this on your own. At this point, your promises, your new intentions, your new behavior are going to have to be seen to be believed. Over time. Over a lot of time.
You must now learn not to depend on yourself—your “wisdom,” your schemes, your manipulations. You can’t make this thing work. It’s in the mess that you have made of things that God is trying to make himself real to both you and your wife. It’s in the brokenness that God slowly brings new life.
Don’t push this, don’t rush this, don’t expect things from your wife. Don’t pressure her to heal faster than she can. Love is a long road. It’s worth the trip. She needs to go at her pace, and you will need to learn to love her at that pace.
God is in the business of redeeming lives, but he also insists on doing it his way. You’ve got to learn this yourself. Are you willing to be a disciple, willing to walk with her at his pace? Then realize that his pace for you includes the time your wife needs to heal. When you give her space, you walk at your master’s pace.
05 Aug 2015
In an earlier post (below), Dave White talks about whether it is ever appropriate to tell you children about your own sexual struggles and sin from the past. In the video above, Dave gives a number of options on how to do this.
Do you have sexual skeletons in your closet? Many Christian parents do, and as their kids edge toward the teen years, they begin to dread the questions that may come and begin to ask their own: How can I expect my kids to hold the line sexually when I failed at their age? Isn’t disclosing my own failures giving them license to do whatever they want?
In light of these concerns, does it ever make sense to open the closet door and let your kids see your past?
It depends. There are some kids in a place of rebellion, looking for any excuse to act out. The parent/child relationship may be so contentious that any vulnerability will be exploited and used later to lash out and possibly wound when you seek to address your child’s behavior. Were you a Christian while you were sexually active? This could cause your Christian teen to think they can sin now and repent later. All of us should pause and seek the Spirit’s guidance in broaching these issues with our kids.
That said, in the vast majority of cases, I believe it can be wise and helpful to let your kids see into the closet. Here are three good reasons why.
First, your story can provide a cautionary tale. Even if you were spared the harsh consequences of STDs or an unplanned pregnancy, you can discuss the soul damage that can occur when we don’t follow God. Our “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt someone” culture tells us we can indulge sexually with impunity, but God says it is a sin against our very selves (1 Corinthians 6:18). Our kids need to hear that there are unseen consequences in carelessly squandering God’s great gift in this area of life. There can be some real losses later in life. Even if the sin was only with your spouse prior to marriage, you can share the challenges this may have caused early in marriage, the way it impacted the joy of your honeymoon, etc.
Listen: I’m not big on scare tactics. Graphic STD photos aren’t helpful to show to your teen. But there is a benefit to hearing that this is God’s world and following him is the only path to true blessing and joy.
Second, it gives glory to the God who redeems. My past is extremely messy, and my kids have known it for a long time, getting more details at age-appropriate stages. Why do they know this about me? I want them to know that my life is a testament of God’s grace! The Spirit of God has radically changed me from the inside out. They need to know that God forgives sinners and there is no one beyond his grasp. I praise God that the man I was 20 years ago would be unrecognizable to my kids (and not just because of the Afro!).
Real honesty removes you from any pedestal that would cause you to eclipse Jesus. He alone is the righteous one, and your kids should know that you’re as needy as they are for his grace—and that means today, not just in your distant past! One of the most crucial things we do in passing on the Christian faith to our kids is to model authentic faith, which revolves around confession and repentance.
During a season often marked by growing distance between parents and teens, this is a way for you to build a bridge relationally. Being vulnerable, inviting your kids to know the “real” you, invites a reciprocal response. True, they may not be willing to open up, but at the very least it lets them know you want a deeper relationship. The essence of relationship is to be “known,” so we should be striving to let our kids really know us in age-appropriate ways. And it is always huge for teens to be treated as the budding adults they are.
Finally, your kids need to know that the gospel speaks to their sexuality, affected by the Fall, as is everything. “Youthful lusts” are a powerful force at this age. All teens enter these turbulent years wrestling with physical desires they’ve never experienced before, and to make matters more difficult for them, parents generally are not asking them about this stage of development. So, kids are wrestling with strong physical and emotional feelings and desires, and the real-life guidance they need is sadly lacking from their own parents. If no one speaks about these struggles, then, to them, neither does the gospel. But it does!
This is a crucial time for them—and you, as their shepherding parents—to apply the gospel in deeper ways! Our sexual struggles (and failures) are often a significant place of learning our utter dependence on God’s Spirit and the body of Christ to grow and live in the way we are called to live in Christ. And the best way for your kids to learn these things is for you to be vulnerable about your own neediness, and encourage them with how Christ and his people have met you in your own struggles with sexual sin.
For further thoughts look for our mini book, Raising Sexually Healthy Kids, published by New Growth Press, available at https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/