Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Four
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Up to now, we have seen Paul saying very clearly in this passage that how we live our lives sexually matters. God’s will for his people is that we learn to manage our sexual desires and channel them in the direction of his design. Sexuality and holiness go together (v. 7), and God wants us to use these amazing gifts in the way he created them.
But we have also seen Paul admit that doing this is difficult. (To read the prior posts, click here.) But Paul gives us a hint in this passage about how we can navigate our sexual desires, our wants, and the intrusions of a culture that prods us to live any way we want, in a way that honors God and gives health to our bodies and minds.
Where do we find this in the above passage?
Go back to verse one. “Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you…”
Do you notice something? This is not the language of command. This is not a rebuke that says, “Stop it!” This is not a final warning to shape up or else.
This is relational language. There is a tenderness to what Paul is saying, an appeal to our minds and hearts. “Brothers. . . we ask you and urge you.” Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier in this same letter, in chapter 2:11: “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
Paul knows these people. He has loved them like a caring father. He knows this is not easy, and he wants to help them learn to control their sexuality so that they might live in freedom and honor their Savior.
The way forward is in relationship. You will not escape sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it by all by yourself. We say at Harvest USA that the way to ensure you will never find freedom from sexual sin and its slavery is to privately pray and ask that God will take this away from you. This is not blasphemy; God can do whatever he wants, in whatever way he wants.
But the way he generally works is through his people, the church, the body of Christ. Sexual sin lives in secrecy; it is killed out in the open. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it is banished when we begin to be honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
For those who struggle with this, you need to believe that the deepest relationship is the one you have with Jesus Christ.
Paul could be tender because he himself knew the mercy and grace of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You can go to Jesus with this sin because he has already made you clean in his eyes. God’s wrath for your sin is over; he poured it all out on his Son.
The more you grasp the truth of Hebrews 4:16, that you can approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need, the more you will freedom to move toward Christ and others for help.
Our new life in Christ must be lived out with others. The road to sexual integrity begins out in the open.
So, what do we need to do to live this way, as individual believers and as a church community? There are four ways to live this way. I’ll show you two of them now, and two at the next blog post.
One, we need to be real about life
By real, I mean being honest about ourselves and our struggles. The church too often plays an “I’m OK, you’re OK” game of pretend, where we all look good on the outside and show people that this is a good place to join.
Some of us, and some churches, do this every Sunday for years and years. We are so afraid to talk about what is really killing us inside.
But remember what I said about the church in 1 Corinthians. We do not have it all together. We are all messes at one stage or another.
I like the way one pastor, speaking about sexual issues, describes the kind of people who sit in church on Sunday morning:
“When these people sit in our pews, they are in various stages of dealing with their problems. Some are denying that they have a problem. Some know they are sinning against God’s law, but have secretly rebelled and live lives of hypocrisy and deception. Some are struggling with various degrees of success and failure in making the changes God requires. Most of them are desperately struggling in silence and feel increasingly hopeless and powerless. . . The challenge for the church today is to welcome sinners, but not be content to leave them where they are. The challenge of the church is to assist sinners at all of these stages. The church must invite in and hold the attention of those who would not have dared (or desired) to look to the church for either hope or help.”
I recall talking to a woman who told me that when she was looking for a church, she visited one where everyone there was dressed up and looking real good. Not a bit like her; she came from a tough background, and she dealt for a long time with addictions and sexual brokenness. But as she sat in the pew feeling like she was wasting her time coming to this church, she came across this notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help, and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with our struggles. No one has it all together. Call ________ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captured her. She decided to stay at that church, because they were honest about the people of God and that God loves broken people.
Two, we need to become un-shockable
By un-shockable, I mean we need to have a “God can handle this” attitude. Paul said gospel is the “power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Salvation is not just about conversion; it’s also about how coming to Christ leads to growth and change in our lives.
Steve Brown of Keylife Network referred to a poem he once read titled, “Jet Sex Engine,” that poses this question: “Why did God put a jet sex engine in my Volkswagen body?” What a great line!
What Steve Brown was saying is that we need to stop being shocked at the sexual struggles that Christians have. They exist in the lives of Christians, too.
Harvest USA’s Founder, John Freeman, wrote a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. (You can get it here.) In the foreword, Steve Brown summed up what it means for the church to be un-shockable:
I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us the ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. Jack Miller used to say that the entire Bible could be summed up in two sentences: “Cheer up, you’re a lot worse than you think you are. And cheer up, God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”
Do you hear what Steve is saying? God is not shocked by our struggles. He sees us, he sees right through our masks, and he still desires to draw near to us and set us free.
When we stop being shocked that these things can happen to us, we can then walk with one another, helping each other take steps of faith toward sexual wholeness.
Our next post will examine two more ways of living that bring honesty and healing.
A question often asked here at Harvest USA is a common one. “Why do people, Christians even, go back to a gay life after they have come for help?” It’s a legitimate question. For Christians who believe the Word, the Scriptures, and believe that faith in Christ makes one a “new creation,” the issue may seem confusing, but the answer must be honest and biblically grounded. Here is the fourth reason which explains what might be happening here, as we have seen some common denominators over the years in our ministry.
This is a very subtle thing, but it is something significant that begins to characterize the heart of the struggler. How does it show up? Well, in a variety of ways.
The most common way is the demand that one’s feelings and attractions change, usually on the person’s own timetable. Sometimes months or years later, a man will complain to us that he still feels strongly attracted to men, or a woman still feels attracted to women. Our response is, “Why does that surprise you?” It would surprise us if they didn’t.
You see, if you spend years cultivating desires, acting on attractions, and feeding temptations, it is perfectly understandable that one’s heart is still stirred by what has characterized his or her life. If a man or a woman has spent years looking at others in a way that diminishes the image of God in them, reducing others to what you can get from them, then that will be the first place their hearts will turn until they learn, steadily over time, to love others biblically. This is an important lesson to learn; else you will be surprised at the ferocity of the desires of the “old man” or “old woman.” Within this context, a struggler can demand that God stop those attractional pulls and desires now, but they need to understand that there can be a number of reasons that these temptations still occur.
What else is going on here? One, there is a false idea of what healing means, and there is a lack of understanding of what it means to have the old (sinful) nature and the new (redeemed) nature be at war within you. The latter ignorance is to be vulnerably exposed to the wiles and schemes of the evil one, which can lay a foundation of demandingness in the heart.
As for what healing is, there is confusion about, and sometimes a demand that, God remove feelings and attractions for the same sex, while at the same time cause feelings and attractions for the opposite sex. It has been our experience that God doesn’t bring one out of a general lust for the same sex and into a general lust for the opposite sex. Rather, as one begins to have an understanding of, acceptance and appreciation of who they are in their true sexual identity, they can begin to experience a lessening of same-sex attraction over time. What may also occur is an attraction for someone of the opposite sex—not generalized but specific toward one person with whom they are in relationship. But it is important to note that the ability to walk in obedience and to experience a sense of the wholeness of Christ can occur whether or not one ever develops sexual attraction for the opposite sex.
At times during their initial interviews, when someone is asked why they came to Harvest USA, we’ll get this response: “I want to be like everyone else. I want to be married and have a traditional family.” We tell them that, while that is a noble and good goal to have, it cannot be the reason for their being here. Why not? Because, invariably, when feelings don’t change and these expectations don’t materialize in the person’s timetable, they will grow disillusioned and want to give up. Often underneath is the demand, “God, you better come through for me! Look how much I have given up for you!”
God does come through for us, but often in ways we don’t expect or even want.