This is the second of three posts that explore the connection between porn and personal and social injustice, and what steps the church needs to do about it. The first post is here.

Pornography is the vehicle that drives lust forward, and porn spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies, and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in its production. It does so in three primary ways.

  1. Porn disconnects sex from relationships—Its subjects, usually women, become mere objects for sexual pleasure and/or a commodity for sale.
  1. Porn disconnects sex from love and respect—This especially has been shown to lead to aggression and violence toward women; many point to a “rape culture” on college campuses that some say is connected to the widespread usage of pornography among male students.
  1. Porn disconnects sex from human dignity—Today, perversity knows no bounds when it comes to pornography.

While this is admittedly an extreme example, Ariel Castro, who imprisoned and sexually abused three women in his house in Cleveland for more than a decade, said at his sentencing, “I believe I’m addicted to porn. . . to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”¹ As James Conley mentioned in his analysis on how pornography is reshaping the mind of American men, he says, “Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.”

Nowhere do we see more of the destructive and dehumanizing effects that pornography produces than in prostitution and sex trafficking. The image of the happy hooker, as seen in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, is a Hollywood lie. The vast majority enter prostitution—and other commercial sex enterprises like strip clubs, erotic massage, escort services, the production of porn movies, etc.—because of complex social, emotional, and economic reasons. Divorce, abandonment, abuse, drugs, mental illness, and poverty have long been the broken social fabric that propels women into such activities. And sex trafficking is even more damaging, where through the use of manipulation or force, a person—frequently a minor—is trafficked for sex, oftentimes kidnapped, and transported for such acts far from their home environment.

It is imperative that Christians look below the surface of sexual sin to what may be driving its use in the lives of those in it. So many porn actresses and actors, prostitutes, and others who work in the sex industry are there because of other major brokenness issues in their lives. It is inaccurate, unhelpful, and judgmental to merely condemn those in it apart from seeing and understanding the numerous factors that contribute to it. On the Shared Hope International website (sharedhope.org), which is a Christian organization working to help victims of sex trafficking and eradicate the demand for it, a young girl named Robin tells her story about her descent into prostitution, a story that is not uncommon:

I became alcoholic after my first drink at 14 years old. Gradually through my adolescence, I began experimenting with other substances, and they became more important to me than school. After miserably failing almost two years of college, I dropped out. I had just turned 21 before I met the man who sold me a dream. The dream turned into a nightmare, and the nightmare lasted six years. In those six years I was prostituted up and down the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Honolulu, Hawaii. . . I was 21 years old when my pimp walked into my life and, because I was an “adult,” I always carried the guilt and shame for “choosing” this lifestyle. . . Telling my story and backing it up with truths, rather than misconceptions about prostitution, allowed me to heal. (Survivor Story: Robin’s Journey to Redemption and Restoration,” March 7, 2013, http://sharedhope.org/2013/03/07/survivor-story-robin/.)

Pornography also fuels the demand for such sexual services. Far from quenching lust and reducing sexual exploitation (as many proponents of pornography contend), it radically distorts sexuality and relationships. Pornography feeds the mindset that contributes to abuse, exploitation, oppression, and victimization.

True, not everyone goes from viewing pornography to buying sex. But we must see the deeper connections that viewing pornography facilitates. Participating in the “business” of just looking at pornography keeps the industry going. Whether the pornography is free, paid, professional, or amateur, people are being used. As prostitution was once erroneously called a victimless crime, pornography is equally not a victimless activity. Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers, the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced. Viewing it, engaging in it, contributes to the entire system of broken sexuality throughout the world. Those looking at porn are “served” through the oppression of many.

Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the complex web of sexual distortions that pornography weaves among its viewers the dignity of men and women made in the image of God is increasingly defaced.

While it is beyond the scale of this article to lay out everything that ought to be done, there are a few steps you and your church can take to do justice, and to bring healing to those caught in the fabric of sexual brokenness. We’ll look at this in the next post.

¹ James D. Conley, “Ariel Castro’s Addiction,” First Things, August 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/08/ariel-castros-addiction.

Link to: Part 1.Part 3.

Michael kept insisting that his viewing pornography wasn’t hurting anybody. “I’m divorced, and what else am I going to do with my sex drive? This isn’t hurting me; it’s actually helping me.”

This was a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago. Not long after that, he remarried, but the years of porn usage poisoned his second marriage, and it failed. The messages and attitudes of porn distorted his view of sex and relationships. But Michael’s porn usage didn’t just impact himself and his marriage. He failed to realize that his porn usage hurt far more people than he was willing to see or admit.

When people think of pornography and those who look at it, they usually respond in one or two ways. Either, “Look, it’s a personal, private activity; it’s not harmful,” or, “That’s terrible. Looking at that stuff messes up the viewer’s life.”

Both of these responses are inaccurate. The first one ignores the growing evidence that pornography is, in fact, harmful to the viewer. Those who engage in it absorb an insidious message about sex, relationships, and life that can lead to serious emotional, relational, behavioral, and spiritual consequences. That’s what happened to my friend.

The second response, while true, doesn’t capture the total picture. It ignores the fact that viewing pornography impacts more than just the one who uses it—it hurts and victimizes scores of people, seen and unseen.

The reality is that the making and viewing of pornography has deep, worldwide social effects. In the main article of our Fall 2013 newsletter (“The Normalization of Porn in the Church: What the Church Needs to do Now“), we highlighted the fact that pornography usage by Christians is a much bigger issue than merely that of personal piety.

There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. . . The bottom line is that our (the church’s) silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice… We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.

Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin… has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone.

Many people have an erroneous view of ministries like Harvest USA. They think we are only about helping individuals break out of sexually addictive behaviors that are impairing their personal lives. But that is only partially correct. Helping sexual strugglers break free from crippling sexual sin as a result of pornography or other out-of-control sexual behaviors has far-reaching implications beyond the impact it has on them alone. The sin of one person always impacts others, and when the struggler begins to confront the issue and start changing, it also brings healing to more than himself. When even one person is no longer enslaved to deeply rooted patterns of sexual brokenness, the impact is substantial, something that we again noted in our Fall 2013 newsletter:

Dealing with this issue (pornography) forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization. The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continue to be abused on multiple levels while performing.

Pornography has become increasingly “normalized” in our culture and is just accepted as being a fact of life today. Even with that, we are finally hearing reports that show a connection between the production and usage of pornography and the explosion of commercial sex enterprises, like prostitution and sex trafficking. Covenant Eyes, a ministry offering accountability software for computers and mobile devices, has a number of excellent articles on its website (covenanteyes.com) that show a link between pornography and sex trafficking. One article, “The Connections between Pornography and Sex Trafficking,” refers to a report that states, “Pornography is the primary gateway to the purchase of humans for commercial sex.”

In a compelling Newsweek article that describes how pornography usage increases men’s aggression and fuels the demand for commercial sex enterprises, the author writes:

Many experts believe the digital age has spawned an enormous increase in sexual exploitation; today anyone with access to the Internet can easily make a “date” through online postings, escort agencies, and other suppliers who cater to virtually any sexual predilection. The burgeoning demand has led to a dizzying proliferation of services so commonplace that many men don’t see erotic massages, strip clubs, or lap dances as forms of prostitution. (Leslie Bennetts, “The Growing Demand for Prostitution,” Newsweek, September 1, 2011, http://www.newsweek.com/growing-demand-prostitution-68493.)

Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and hear, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires.

Regardless of the studies, research, and individual stories, the connection between pornography and sexual exploitation is just common sense, biblically speaking. Lust and pornography are mutually destructive partners. Pornography ignites sexual lust, but rather than being satisfied, lust demands more and more. No wonder Jesus spoke metaphorically of the need to take extreme measures to combat sexual lust (Matthew 5:27-30). Once lust gains a foothold in the mind and heart, it becomes an enslaving idol that destroys not just the lustful person, but equally harms the victims it uses to satisfy its desires. That’s because sexual lust is more than just sexual desire and its temporary fulfillment. Lust is the strong desire to possess something or someone that is not yours to have. Lust isn’t satisfied until it owns or controls what it wants. Lust refuses to look at the object of lust as anything other than a “thing” for its own pleasure. Pornography takes that basic aspect of lust (“I want!” “I need!” “I must have!”) and spins a destructive message through its images, a message that dehumanizes, objectifies and enslaves—both the viewer and the ones who participate in it. It does so in three primary ways.

And that’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

Link to: Part 2.Part 3.

 

This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.

I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.

The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.

As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.

She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.

As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.

Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.

A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.

Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.

Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.

This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at brooke@harvestusa.org.

Updated 5.23.2017

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).

This verse gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles. The first step is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having acknowledged your sin before God and a trusted person (see previous blog post), now Jesus commands and enables you to “stand up and walk” by faith. What does it mean to “put on Christ?” It means three things:

  1. Seek consistent fellowship with God through his word and in prayer. This seems so basic that often we overlook it. Nothing, however, can replace cultivating our relationship with Jesus. When sexual sin has been a secret, shame-provoking part of a person’s life, often the heart has been dulled in devotion to Christ. Living water and fresh nourishment must be feasted upon regularly to fill and satisfy a hungry heart.
  2. Cultivate authentic relationships with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationship with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7, which connects one’s walk with God to one’s walk with other believers.) God has designed our faith to be personal and intimate with him, but not apart from rich involvement in the life of other believers in the church. Do you have at least two people in your life with whom you can allow yourself to be fully known and prayed for? To be encouraged and discipled by? If you don’t, begin asking the Lord for such friends as these. It’s that important!
  3. Seek opportunities to love and serve others. There is grace, comfort, and joy to be poured into us and through us. We were not designed by God to be receptacles but conduits of his love and mercy. Look for opportunities to reach out to someone and show them love and care. For this you were made:“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Did you notice that I’ve said nothing regarding sexual sin in the advice I’ve given? That’s intentional! Most women who have struggled sexually have spent so much time focusing on “sin management” or battling against temptation, that they have neglected cultivating their relationships—with Jesus and with other sisters in the Lord.

Jesus, not the sin itself, must be the one upon whom you fix your gaze as you seek to walk away from sin!

The second step is to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While cultivating and building up relationships is crucial, especially as a first step, you still need to know how to fight the battle! Overcoming sin patterns, including sexual sin, is never something we “happen upon” or coast into. No, sin must be intentionally fought as we flee temptations and deal directly with the heart issues from which they are triggered.

  1. Identify and then avoid and flee triggers and temptations. What are the situations, influences, people, and emotions which seem to weaken your resolve to obey God? Is it being alone? Watching certain types of entertainment? Anger, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and fear can push us to crumble in the face of temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 instructs believers to flee temptation as we receive the escape path he provides. To run on that path of escape increasingly means we must learn to discern when we are creeping near to sin. Ask yourself, “What helps me to sin, and how can I avoid these influences?”
  2. Fast from good gifts which are not good for you. One common struggle we all have is taking good things from God and then worshipping them—allowing them to mean more to your heart than God himself. Are there things that you use or have that, while either enjoyable or useful, are increasingly pulling you into temptation and sin? Your smartphone? Your laptop? Places you are visiting or people you are hanging around with? Will fasting from these things be difficult or inconvenient? Sure. I challenge you to try this. Hard as it might be, this may be a necessary step in order to focus your time and attention on Christ and recapture your thought life.
  3. Refuse to isolate or hide. It’s been said that the power of secret sin is in the secret. To “walk in the light” (1 John 1: 1-9) and to “renounce secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I said above about cultivating authentic relationships.

These initial steps, walked out day by day, little by little, over a lifetime, will lead you increasingly into the spacious freedom which is ours through Jesus Christ. All of this is waiting for you. May you find in Jesus the humility to run to him—or be carried to him by others who know you—in order to discover the life you really want.

Updated 5.25.2017

A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)

Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.

Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.

Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.

How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?

If you’re stuck on a mat . . .

Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.

First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.

Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.

Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!

Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).

My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.

Updated 5.25.2017

Silent Sisterhood 

What I have been asked to share with you is not so much my story of how and why I came to Harvest USA, but rather what has happened to me since then. I will not pretend to have answers to many questions. This is a story of a ‘work in progress’ and how God ceaselessly and actively works in my life.

I came to Harvest USA because I was convicted that there was something very wrong in what I wanted from people and women in particular. I remember the night I finally began to see the subtle differences in what was good and bad in my friendships. It was a New Year’s Eve party to which a certain few had been invited. As I sat there, I was aware of, as if for the first time, the lingering, meaningful gazes, the exclusive conversations and private jokes, the hand resting too long on a shoulder. I had the sensation of being sucked into something that was no longer alluring. Everything worked in this group by hints and insinuation; nothing was ever said openly; so nothing could be defined. I remember it being a long, long night.

The next morning, I spoke to someone who shared with me her New Year’s Eve. She talked about how she and her friends had come together and prepared a meal. Then during that meal they renewed their friendships and prayed for the coming year and what it would bring. I walked away from her, into another room–and cried. The openness and honesty of the events of her evening contrasted sharply with the complete lack on anything meaningful in mine, and this cut me to the bone.

The Silent Sisterhood to which I belonged required secrecy, and for maintaining the secret my reward was an aching hollowness that gnawed deeper and deeper into my soul. I was a living, breathing lie. I had spent a lifetime building a pleasant, inoffensive façade keeping all but a tiny few out. Now this façade was so thick that it seemed impossible to break through. This is testimony that God can pulverize even the thickest walls around our hearts.

If God says, “No, this not the lifestyle to which I call you,” then to what does he call me? There has to be more to living than just not being gay anymore. For me Harvest USA is not just about walking alongside men and women coming out of the homosexual and lesbian lifestyle. It is a mistake to think that when someone stops acting out the gay lifestyle that it ends there. In most cases all you’ve got is a celibate homosexual or lesbian who lives in an androgynous twilight world of simply knowing what they shouldn’t do. Having been there, I found it’s a cold, comfortless place to be. Those who stop there find little to rejoice about; their hearts are rarely open or warm, their anger something to be avoided.

So, as I came to know what I shouldn’t do, my heart cried out to God to know what he was calling me to be! There had to be more, my heart yearned too much for these deep changes to stop there. What was it? What was it I was tasting, glimpsing, that drew me to the cliff edge of choices, and to the realization that I had choices. It was in this place I first began to understand what it was to be a child of God–the child of a loving father.

Though it sounds simple, to move from seeing myself as a child of God to being his daughter was a momentous step. I could easily have held on to the idea of being a child, seeing myself simply as a child–not even as a little girl, for the rest of my life and effectively never grown up.

But God calls me to be his daughter, his beloved daughter, to grow into womanhood, capable of seeing and experiencing him, people, and life in a totally unique way through my femininity. He teaches me in Word and leads me to women in church, in groups, and in friendships who, as in the words of Proverbs 31, are clothed in strength and dignity, who do not fear the future because of him and who speak with wisdom and faithful instruction. These women move freely and enjoy the respect and confidence of others and shatter my old notions of strength, independence, and freedom. These women are interdependent, they do not see themselves as separate, and they are connected closely to others and enjoy it! The connection is neither smothering nor exclusive as I found in lesbianism, but springs from being present to one another even in the hard, raw times that God uses to shape his daughters.

I am at that point of my journey where I have begun to explore my femininity, this intrinsic part of me–and it is not without fear. I am often frightened by the newness of everything. In a world in which I have heard femininity described as a ragbag of discarded female values to be passed over in search of something better, allowing my life to be shaped by God through his gift of femininity is also frightening. But to expose myself to the refining fire of my Father, to feel the sharpness of his knife as he cuts deep into the shadowy corners of my soul is also to expose that fear for his attention so that he may deal with it.

And I also know this: God sets me on a high cliff, and there I feel the breath of God; it can burn like fire, searing through me and separating sinew from bone. And all the while as I come apart he reshapes me for his purpose, and all the while the protection of his love holds my feet firm in that place. Only God protects and gives safety as I look in things long buried and discarded and am willing to pick up and own as part of me.

From the safety of his protection I face the temptations to go back, to strive at being strong and independent, and consequently to being untouchable in the core of myself. For these temptations are still there. But in God’s love I no longer welcome them as old friends, but see them as the soul destroyers they are.

My femininity, my sexuality, my place as a daughter: These are all gems for the taking from my Father’s hands. How I will wear such precious gifts is something that only time can reveal. But as I look on these well-cut stones, their facets catch and reflect the light of my Father’s love. The luster of his promises never fades, they are promises more enduring than the hardest diamond. Promises worth dying for; and Christ died so that I might receive these gifts.

To receive is something that was impossible for me not so long ago. There is beauty in this that I know I am just beginning to understand. God has lifted the curtain and I have glimpsed something wonderful–that promises more. I want to know, see and be more of what he is calling me to be. As he reveals more, I know this process will not end in this lifetime, but this a journey I want to make; I want to make it hoping and trusting always in him, my loving Father.

Updated 4.13.17

“How did this happen?” asked the woman sitting across from me in my office.

“Our relationship started out as one of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I feel like I have waited for years to have a close friend, someone who lights up when she sees me. I guess she got tired of me because now she won’t even talk to me. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I wake every morning and wonder if she will ever call me again.”

Another woman spoke with me on the phone and said, “Neither of us has ever been involved with another woman before. In fact, I’ve never had sexual feelings for women, but somehow we’ve gotten physically involved with each other. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know how to salvage our relationship. I’m afraid you will tell me I need to give her up. Is there any way to fix our relationship and still be friends?”

A third woman asked me, “Is it normal to want to be with one friend all the time? My husband works long hours and he isn’t around much. My friend is available, and she understands how I feel… even before I tell her. I think we are too close though; my husband seems jealous of her. He thinks we’re too dependent on one another.”

“My last female friend and I became so enmeshed that I couldn’t make decisions without talking it over with her first. When she moved away, I thought it would kill me,” said another woman. “Our relationship was unbalanced, but I couldn’t see it until we were apart. How do you know when your friendship is too close in an unhealthy way?”

These are questions often asked by women who are questioning the health of their friendships. In addition, women who have turned away from a homosexual life often express concern about becoming involved with women in an unhealthy way. They want to know how to develop new friendships that will reflect their growth and refusal to connect with others improperly. In this article, we will explore why and how friendships go wrong and how to repair the damage between women who have an unhealthy relationship.

Designed with his image
Women are relational beings. It is a fact that few would argue. Even our play from childhood reflects how we feel about relationships. It has been said that little boys play “side by side” while little girls play “face to face.” I see the truth of this desire for relationship as I watch my daughters and their friends play. Tears and frustrations surface often for them. If one feels left out or ignored by someone they want to be connected to, they react strongly. While these eruptions in their friendships eventually calm down and they return to playing and enjoying one another, their passion for wanting to be loved and included remains very important to them.

God has built within us all a desire to connect. God himself experiences ongoing intimacy within the Trinity. In turn, he has fashioned us to experience some of the connection he enjoys by giving us other humans to know and love. These friendships enrich our lives, giving meaning and purpose in ways that living in isolation will not.

Sometimes, however, we take the beauty of friendship with another human and expect it to fill us in ways only God is meant to do. When does friendship enhance life properly and when does it become unbalanced? Let’s look briefly at how unhealthy relationships develop for some women.

The desire for connection gone wrong

1. An unhealthy relationship starts with relational disappointment carried over from childhood.

None of us had the perfect parents. None of us will parent perfectly. All of us have scars and wounds left over from the effects of interacting with parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and other figures we thought should love us, but frequently failed to do so well. All too often these relationships included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of the worst kind. Some women grow up and find a way to integrate their past and move on to live life with a balanced understanding for relationship in their lives. Still other women reach adulthood vigilantly searching for the significant figure that will love them in some fashion so as to erase the memory of the pain they have endured.

No woman vows this consciously, saying in her heart, “Since my trust has been betrayed in my childhood relationships, I will look for and find someone to fix this hole in my heart.” However, we all, by trial and error, find what works for a season to fill us relationally. Our self-focused goal is primarily to minimize discomfort and maximize the experience of acceptance and love. If our lives are motivated by avoiding abandonment or looking for acceptance and approval, we relate in ways that flow from an empty heart mainly concerned with itself, not with God or others. Once we engage in a relationship that we think will satisfy us continually, we begin to find ways to manage the relationship so that we don’t experience the sting of loneliness again.

2. An unhealthy relationship continues for the purpose of satisfying a nagging sense of emptiness.

As some women search for someone to love them unfailingly they often attach themselves to another woman who appears to offer the nurturing they long for. Like “hand in glove,” these relational dynamics seem to fit—temporarily.

For example, there are some women whose stories compel them to be the “rescuer”; for others, their stories compel them to be the “rescuee.” When these relationship designs match, an intense connection can begin to fill up a hole in each that gives a temporary sense of satisfaction. However, requiring another person to “fix” our empty broken hearts is a tall order and can quickly become a burden. Such was the case of Anna (fictitious name) who called my office for help.

Alone and rejected from a failed seven-year marriage, she poured her heart out in a women’s prayer meeting at her church. Her vulnerability touched something deep in Carol (name has been changed), and she invited Anna out for coffee. As Anna talked about her life, Carol felt herself drawn towards Anna’s pain and sorrow. Carol knew all too well the pain of divorce, having experienced it just four years prior herself. Carol also felt a familiar pull to take care of Anna, but she had always thought it was a sign of compassion for others.

Carol kept checking on Anna over the next few days and surprised her with a homemade dinner for her and her kids. It felt so good to have someone help with the household chores. Another adult pair of hands lightened her load, so Anna gratefully received the help offered. Anna also enjoyed the companionship of another woman who seemed to understand what she felt. Within weeks, it seemed, Anna and Carol were inseparable, and Anna’s children began to think of Carol as a permanent appendage to their mom.

Carol also enjoyed a burst of zeal for this new friendship. Anna’s children played a unique role in her life since she was childless herself. It felt so good to lighten the burden of her friend, and she thought often of ways to brighten her day. It was not unusual for Carol to invent reasons to either see Anna or at least talk to her daily.

Eventually, though, the children grew to hate the talks between the women that often robbed them of their mom’s attention. They grew tired of Carol’s presence and resented going everywhere with their mom’s friend. Because Anna felt the children’s remarks were ungrateful and demanding, she dismissed their complaints to the notion that they expected to always have their mom all to themselves. She found herself frequently defending her relationship with Carol to her own children.

It wasn’t unusual for the women to hug when they saw each other, but late one night after a particularly long, intense talk, their hug seemed to last too long. That hug stirred something in Anna that kept her up all night wondering what was happening to their relationship. She felt something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what. Hugging Carol seemed inappropriate, but what could be wrong with a hug? She finally decided it was best to put some distance in their relationship until she could sort out what was bothering her.

The next morning, the two women talked about how close they were becoming. It surprised Carol when Anna suggested that they might need to include others in their relationship or spread out how often they saw each other. Fearing Anna might be forsaking the relationship, Carol became upset and moped through the rest of their breakfast. The sulking made Anna realize that to pull away would result in disapproval and resistance from Carol. Not wanting to disappoint the woman who had done so much for her, Anna scrambled to reassure Carol that everything would be fine. But Anna began to feel fearful that her friendship may not be so healthy after all.

3. Unhealthy relationships remain exclusive, unusually intense, and resist attempts to manage the frequency or intensity of the relationship. 

As we saw in Anna and Carol’s relationship, friendships that are earmarked over “matching” pasts often sprout up over short periods of time and become intensely intimate. These friendships can be like a seed that finds soil in the cracks of pavement and germinates, sometimes even blooming flowers. But the roots of these tiny plants can’t grow deep, and the plant itself is not in the right place.

So it is with unhealthy friendships. Perhaps the friendship started out well, but the intensity and exclusivity of the relationship has resulted in strong feelings of protective loyalty and impenetrable cohesiveness. As a result, it is often very difficult to objectively evaluate the dynamics of the relationship.

Sometimes when the intensity builds, a desire grows to express the closeness and intimacy being enjoyed—in a physical way. When this happens and appropriate boundaries are crossed, the friendship can become sexualized. No one is more shocked and confused when these sexual feelings begin than women who have never thought of themselves as homosexual in orientation. The process of sorting out a relationship that is unhealthy is difficult and often painful, but it can be done.

Hope for healthy relationships: steps to freedom 

When involved in a friendship that has turned into something unhealthy, you may wonder if you can ever break free. If you have a history of these kinds of friendships, you may even question if you are fatally flawed and are destined to forever develop unhealthy relationships with women. You may have even determined to keep everyone at arm’s length from your heart, erroneously thinking this will keep yourself and others “safe.”

However confused you may be about your ability to relate in healthy ways, God’s promise to forgive and make you new reaches the deepest of relational problems. We often don’t turn to God for help until our relationships make us miserable or fall apart. Such was the pattern for the nation of Israel.

In the book of Isaiah, we find God using his prophet Isaiah to caution Israel from trusting the strength of their foreign neighbors’ armies to rescue them. In chapters 30 and 31, Isaiah warns them not to depend on alliances with Egypt or to trust in their swift horses and chariots. He wants them to turn their wandering hearts back to him as their God. His plan is to protect them and deliver them on his terms. Israel experienced disappointment, misery, and literal torment when they disobeyed God. Similarly, unhealthy alliances with other women often result in some type of agony, as we see from the examples of real conversations I have recorded at the beginning of this article.

Finally, God speaks to Israel through his servant Isaiah again in 50:10-11 about the consequences of finding solace in anyone other than him.

“Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire
and by the torches you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.” (ESV)

Like Israel, his love for us is demonstrated in how he will not permit us to depend more on his creatures than we depend on him. In fact, God will lovingly allow our worlds to collapse so we will experience the torment of our persistent pursuit of any torch we depend on to light our path and find our way in this dark world. He knows our hearts will build an idol out of anything, and he will keep exposing the inability of our idols to save or satisfy our hearts built for him. However, he never intends us to live a lonely, unattached life.

Admitting the truth
Facing the truth that your friendship is not healthy for you or the woman with whom you are in relationship is a brave step towards freedom. It is crucial to find the time to be alone and to reflect on what has made this relationship unhealthy. Creating space to reflect, apart from this woman, allows you to think and feel for yourself without the complications of handling her thoughts and feelings. Developing your own sense of self is not only a good place to start, but is also foundational to building healthy relationships.

Also, facing our God-given design for companionship and connection is an important step to health. Nevertheless, only the bold can admit they want to be loved but may have gone to wrong sources to get it. Fundamentally, these kinds of relationships are taking a God-given longing and squeezing people to fit a hole in our hearts that only God can satisfy.

Inviting others to help you
The next step will be important. It is vital to name out loud to others the conclusions to which you have come about your relationship. It would be easy to get confused if you are isolated from others who could give you a much needed perspective. It is also easy to waver from your convictions if your decision is being challenged by the woman with whom you are involved. Mature and committed friends are necessary to help you disengage from the relationship in question.

Inviting a few women, perhaps from church or from a Bible study group, into your life will ensure accountability and give you objective evaluations about your relationships. If your relationship has crossed sexual lines, be sure to confess this to God and your support system. Crossing lines sexually doesn’t mean you are a worse sinner than most. It only means you must avail yourself of helpful support and accountability to continue walking the path of relational integrity. Exposing your relationship to mature women who will help you grow will put to death the desire to keep the relationship exclusive or “secret.”

The significance of grieving
Learning how to live as a separate woman apart from the woman with whom you had a relationship will be difficult at first, especially if you had daily phone contact or visits. There will likely be a time of loneliness and grieving as you begin to live your life without the influence and affection of someone who was so vital and important to you. This would be a good time for you to draw near to God, spending a significant amount of time talking and reflecting with him about what you are experiencing as you separate from the other woman.

As you grieve the loss of relationship, you might find yourself sorrowing over the damage you feel from the unhealthiness of your friendship. This kind of inventory is important for your growth as a new woman, open to new friendships. You may begin to see how being exclusive warped your openness to others and how you may have allowed this woman to be important to you in a way that inhibited your development as an individual. You may also see how your friendship may have damaged others who tried to offer you friendship, or how you may have used this person to escape pain or loneliness by the intensity of the relationship. This grieving is an important part of the process of repentance that, over time, will give you a new perspective and help you make the necessary changes to love others from a new heart.

Setting new boundaries
The next step is to develop and begin to practice certain relational limits in all your relationships for your own health and growth. As you reflect on how to set limits you can begin to identify some of the dynamics of unhealthy relating patterns. Asking God to help you uncover a relational agenda of trying to fill yourself inappropriately will be helpful as you begin this journey. Pay attention to what he shows you as you investigate what you want from others. Begin to talk openly with your support system about how to get these needs met safely and appropriately. Allow yourself to watch how other women relate to one another and begin to label what makes their friendships healthy. Ask the women in your support system to help you by offering you feedback when they sense you doing something that feels uncomfortable to them.

Some examples of relational sins may be how you always appear needy and dependent so that others feel pulled to take care of you. Perhaps your style is to always rise to the occasion of taking care of others, making them feel indebted and obligated while making yourself feel competent and superior. Maybe you relate to others by keeping the relationship intense all the time or being emotionally erratic in disruptive ways to manipulate or control the behavior of another. Asking a few trusted and mature friends to honestly tell you how they see you in relationships will be invaluable to your development as you learn how to keep personal boundaries.

Risking and choosing to love again
Finally, there is no fail-safe code to personal relationships. Even if you watch carefully and try your hardest, you can be sure you will slip up and find yourself looking for someone to fill your empty heart in a way that keeps you from needing God. Our hearts are endlessly creative in looking for some way to avoid needing a God who won’t be managed or behave predictably. The Israelites are an example of how easily we replace God with something or someone we think might do a better job of satisfying our hearts.

No sooner had the Israelites experienced a miraculous exodus from the slavery of Egypt and a miraculous rescue from their enemies, than they became restless. When their tangible leader, Moses, disappeared from their sight while camped on the foothills of Mt. Sinai, they begged Aaron to fashion a god for them that they could see, touch, and ultimately control. One thing led to another, and they soon found themselves rationalizing their “needs” so they could indulge in immorality.

You would think they would have already learned their lesson to depend on God alone, but they had to learn this important lesson again. While traveling in the wilderness, they tried to save enough manna to free themselves from the trouble of going out the next day and dependently receiving from God the daily supply of food he provided. Imagine their surprise the next morning when, after sleeping in, they found maggots in their manna. God intended for the Israelites (and us!) to find him to be the “Living Bread.” His desire for Israel and for us is to remain dependent on his daily provision for our hearts and our souls, as well as our stomachs.

Part of learning this dependency is the practice of inviting God to reveal to us which idols he wants us to destroy with his help. It is not work for the faint of heart. A deep look at our sin must involve the necessary trip to the foot of the cross to be cleansed and made new. However, a woman who develops the habit of returning to her Creator again and again will find the cherishing she longs for as she hears her Father remind her of his Calvary love. In his presence, she will receive the courage to love others in new and healthy ways that will continually bless their life here on earth.

As women we can enjoy relationship as God intends. The experience of knowing another’s soul is a privilege that gives us a glimpse of the intimacy we were designed for, as well as point us to the eternal enjoyment of God and his people that awaits our souls. God will reward us with meaningful relationships with other believers as we daily invite him to fill us. Let us enjoy him by uniting our hearts with his. Then we can in turn offer the source of our satisfied hearts to others.

Updated 4.19.2017

In another excellent article, “God Gives the Best Sex,” Dan Wilson explains that God’s grace for the unmarried is the key to true joy as well as living out a godly sexuality. Because the idea of sexuality is often equated with sexual activity, those of us who are unmarried often miss the rich blessings God can pour out upon us as sons and daughters and as sexual beings. Godly unmarried sexuality is more than a call to abstain from sexual activity. Christ offers treasures to all who seek to live in a way that is pleasing to God as image bearers who are also sexual beings, including the unmarried.

Let us consider godly unmarried sexuality with three questions: What is it? How do we live it out? Why would we want to live it out?

WHAT is godly unmarried sexuality?

When it comes to discussions of sexuality, singles (from the never-married teen, to the senior-something single-again, and all those in-between) are often counseled in these sorts of ways: “Don’t! Be pure! Wait! Hands off!” “Guard your heart!” “It’s really not that great anyway!” “It’s great, but it’s not for you, unless you’re ‘burning’…then get married!”

To a degree, these words ring true. The unmarried are to strive to be sexually pure and chaste—but then so are married folks. Chastity is sexually lived out in a pure way; it is a commitment to keep sex in its proper place. Author Lauren Winner explains in Real Sex that, “…chastity is the free choice to live one’s sexual life in accord with Christian values—therefore everyone is called to live chastely” (p. 134). For the unmarried person, this means a life of purity through abstinence. For the married person, it means a life of purity through faithfulness. All who live in God’s world belong to him (Psalm 24:1, 2) and are designed and called to live a life of purity.

However, there is a profound reality of what godly unmarried sexuality is not. It is not merely about what we are doing or not doing with our genitals! Sadly, sexuality is often reduced to a definition along these lines, but it is crucial to have a fuller understanding of it while also being honest that we are embodied souls. To be an embodied soul means we are image bearers that live on earth in bodies which are created with the capacity for sexual expression. Sexuality involves our whole being—body and soul—and refers to how we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings.

Godly sexuality is something that is pleasing to God, acknowledging the value of God as the giver of sex, while keeping Christ central. While there is much overlap between married and unmarried sexuality, singles’ sexuality has unique features. Here are five basic principles that govern godly sexuality and which we will apply to the unmarried person:

1. It is Jesus-centric and Jesus exalting. In God’s world, Jesus is central to all aspects of life. Life is about valuing God at all times and in all ways. This means that the way we live out our sexuality as unmarried persons will find power and joy as Jesus is the focus of our deepest desires and affections. This does not mean we deny that we have sexual desires or that we struggle to be chaste; nor does it mean that we are condemned if we fall. The core blessings of the gospel are Jesus himself and the cross. As we run to him and cling to him in a radical way for enabling power to live purely and for forgiveness and cleansing when we fail, we are living as godly, unmarried sexual beings!

2. Godly sexuality loves my neighbor as I put others before myself. The second of Jesus’ two great commands—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—is core to godly sexuality inside and outside of marriage. This leads us to not sin against others through participating in sexual sin. This includes our thought lives, our affections, and seemingly “private” sins such as solo sex and pornography. No sin is truly private; others areas are always impacted. I never have the right to honor, esteem, and love myself more than my neighbor, and this includes the how and why of expressing my sexuality. This other-centeredness in sexuality can only be faithfully lived out though radical, self-sacrificing dependence upon Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Romans 14:7, 8)

3. Godly sexuality is concerned not only with physical relationships, but also mental and emotional attachments. As image bearers we are created for relationship. Holy relationships happen as the vertical (God and us) connects with the horizontal (people loving each other). Our relational connecting and attaching with one another was never designed by God to push him aside, but rather to deepen our love for him as we make much of him together. This means that our relationships are not to be all about striving to make each other feel good, but are to focus on pointing one another to Christ. This “shared love” encourages our hearts and spills out into loving others as well. When a person or relationship becomes the basis of our life, the Creator is pushed aside, and a worship disorder is taking place. This is ungodliness in our express of our sexuality.

4. Godly sexuality involves worship through discipline. In Real Sex, Lauren Winner brings out the rarely discussed concept of chastity as a spiritual discipline meant to align our wills with God’s (p. 124). Here, too, there is an overlap between godly unmarried and married sexuality. Faithfulness to one’s spouse (in thoughts, affections and actions) is not easy! Married or not, walking in holiness requires radical dependence upon Christ. It is a battle! It means a fight against the flesh which Paul explained was always “right there” in him, around him, and beside him (Romans 7:21). As singles seek to express their sexuality without physically engaging in sexual activity, there will be a battle that feels intense on some days, easy on others, perhaps pointless on many. Regardless, in God’s world, godly unmarried sexuality is good!

5. Godly sexuality is not only possible, but good in God’s design. Godly unmarried sexuality is not “Plan B.” It is not an elementary level of sexuality that is graduated from into advanced married sexuality. If that were the case, then Jesus himself was lacking, since he never attained a married level of sexuality. The expression of our sexuality may differ if we become married, but that does not mean that it is somehow “better.” Singles embody their particular gender, and sexuality in godly ways just as married individuals do. Single sexuality is not a deficient sexuality. If God has commanded the unmarried to be sexually abstinent, we can know that without a doubt that this abstinence is good and possible.

HOW is godly unmarried sexuality lived out?

Biblical wisdom is practical, but unfortunately teaching singles regarding sexuality is often given in sterile, bullet-point lists that focus on the externals of what to do and not do. Singles are normally just given boundary lines of what is not permissible or told what types of relationships are not acceptable. Yet there are many unanswered questions because many activities can be shifted into “gray areas” not addressed by this type of behavior-oriented teaching. For example:

  • Do we label it dating, courting, or ‘hanging out’?
  • What about the types of physical contact that are considered “sex?” Most people know genital sexual intercourse is off-limits for the unmarried, but what about solo sex, mutual stimulation, or oral sex?
  • And how does this relate to relationships with our same gender? Is it permissible for two women to snuggle up while sharing a bed, experiencing sexual arousal from the physical affection, but not going any further? And what of two men who have no genital contact, but sexually arouse one another? There is no intercourse going on, but how can we tell if these kinds of things are permissible for the unmarried person?

To address these thoughts, we need to go back to what godly unmarried sexuality is: Godly unmarried sexuality exalts Jesus, puts others before self, is good, and reveals Christ to others.

To discern biblical wisdom regarding any of the above questions, the key issues become: “Is Jesus and worship of him central or is the self-ruling? Is Christ and love for him ruling, or am I more concerned with how far I can go? Is this action or thought leading me to love this person as a daughter or son of God, or is it a means to feel good?”

In Christ’s world, God gives the best sex. Sexual intercourse is meant to be experienced only within the context of a one-man, one-woman married union. Any actions or thoughts that lead toward sexual arousal (which God intended to be fulfilled through sexual intercourse) are not to be participated in outside the context of marriage. Does that mean a hands-off, no-touch guideline unless you are married? For singles it may mean exactly that! Radical devotion to Christ requires radical obedience because we want Christ and not our sexual pleasures to be exalted most of all.

Singles might say, “But we don’t have a ‘legal outlet’ for our sexual desires or for the powers that rage in these human bodies! What are we to do?!” This is an excellent question and needs to be addressed with biblical wisdom that is Christ-centric and shared with a compassionate tone of heart. It is true that those of us who are unmarried embodied souls still have sexual desires.

A gospel-drenched, Christ-centric view of our sexuality, however, gives great enabling hope on this point! We are not held captive to our bodies or to our sexual desires. Godly unmarried chastity, like many spiritual disciplines of abstinence, involves something normal and natural being abstained from. Chastity for the unmarried person is a kind of fast, and it may be a very looong fast. Winner’s thoughts here are encouraging: “…the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will. With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one’s spouse for the sake of union with Christ’s body. That union is the fruit of chastity” (Real Sex, p. 129).

What of our emotional desires? Do singles need to also be wise about the emotional intimacy they extend and pursue with others? Yes, but again this is an area where the married also need to practice wisdom and caution in their relationships (including some gender ones!) with those who are not their spouse. What I am not saying is that we shy away from revealing ourselves emotionally to each other. What I am saying is that the way we reveal, express, and share our emotional selves is also to be guarded. Ask if the goal of the particular relationship is oriented toward the self or love of God and others. I have found that a top “Jesus replacement” in my life is emotional comfort and feeling good about myself. This aspect of my own heart’s being prone to wander has led to some very unholy, emotional attachments with women and a few men, too.

It is actually good news that what God commands and says is good is possible through the blessings of the gospel. Godly unmarried sexuality is “Plan A” for those of us who do not have a spouse.

More on the “HOW”: Sober promises and specific wisdom

Galatians 6:7-8 speaks of God’s harvest principle: We inevitably reap what we sow. Despite this, God’s grace and mercy often give us harvests of blessing that we do not deserve. It would be an abuse of his grace, however, to not heed Scripture’s many sober promises. Consider two in light of godly unmarried sexuality:

  1. To pursue sexual expression outside of God’s design will lead to sorrow! (Psalm 16:4)
  2. Blessings will be missed and grace will be forfeited when we seek to trust in ourselves and our own strategies for dealing with our sexuality. (Jeremiah 17:5-9, Jonah 2:8)

God’s Word teaches that when we live life outside of his guidelines, including our sexuality, there is a harvest that we reap. Sexual desires, once stoked and given into, will be much easier to be given into again. Our thought lives record experiences, and it is not easy to forget past sins—especially if they were pleasurable. Regaining the mind for Christ is a battle. It is a winnable battle for sure, but the renewing process requires a radical approach. Living a chaste life sexually diminishes the negative harvest of sin. Does this sound like a tactic to “scare you” into unmarried chastity? It is not meant to be, but it is a sober warning! It is what God’s Word teaches us will happen when we put on SELF to the neglect of putting on Christ.

As a former co-worker used to say, Christ our Savior is a specific Savior! He enters into our journey as unmarried sexual beings with very specific help and wisdom. To live a pure life, we need him to be our specific Savior for our specific struggles. Consider what he offers us as we seek to live a godly life sexually. As you read this list and ponder these verses, honestly bring your specific points of temptation or consistent sexual struggle before him.
Jesus :

  • Gives you himself (John 14:18).
  • Knows and loves you in your temptation (Matthew 26:34, 35).
  • Names you: mine, loved, forgiven, one who receives new beginnings from my hand.
  • Enables and empowers you with an escape to resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).
  • Gives wisdom and discernment (Colossians 2:3).
  • Gives you brothers and sisters to help and shepherd you. These brothers and sisters are his kingdom community for you on earth that he gives to teach, counsel, comfort, guide, and love you (Hebrews 3:12, 13; 10:24, 25).
  • Gives you a kingdom calling to be lived out this side of heaven that will bear much fruit for his glory. This has everything to do with living in godly unmarried sexuality! We abstain from certain things, but also fully participate in others—like his holy work in this world (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 15:5).

Actually, point number one above summarizes the entire list: Jesus gives us himself, and he is the path and provision for us to live godly lives.

How can we respond to Jesus with wisdom? We each need to have a specific battle plan. Again, as you ponder the following list, bring your specific areas of struggle, temptation and/or consistent areas of entangling sexual sin before him.

You need to be:

  • Growing in a love for God and others that abounds in knowledge and insight (Philippians 1:9-11).
  • Learning how to starve the flesh and feed the Spirit as you seek to understand what a “radical approach” will look like in your circumstances. For example, analyze the kinds of music, movies, and TV shows you engage in, taking note of their influence on you (Galatians 6:7-8).
  • Aware of your body, since we are embodied souls. For example: Women, you need to know your hormonal cycle and be aware of what times of the month you may be more prone toward sexual desires being stirred up. Men, you need to know as well how your bodies react to certain visual, tactile, and audio stimuli. Reflect on how God is calling you to love him through the use of your body.
  • Willing to NOT PLAY GAMES with sexual temptation and call it “grace.” This is an abuse of grace, and it is not worth it.
  • Giving others “meddling rights” into your life. Invite friends to ask you the tough questions (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:15).
  • Studying, savoring and praying God’s Word (Ephesians 6:18).

WHY would we want to live it?

Godly unmarried sexuality is lived out as a person seeks to live life fully given over to Jesus and his kingdom purposes, while also living a chaste lifestyle as a female or male image bearer. Through this beautiful calling, the unmarried person reveals Jesus and draws others to Jesus. At the most practical level, the sexuality of an unmarried person should be expressed in such a way that it is a signpost to Jesus. While godly married sexuality is a unique signpost to Jesus and his relationship with the church, the unmarried person also has a unique opportunity to reveal Jesus’ power and purity and to draw others to him.

The unmarried person is called to depend upon Christ, not enjoying the sexual pleasures of marriage, but finding pleasure in abstaining that aligns his or her will with that of God. This 24/7 fast draws attention to the enabling grace of Jesus to live a godly life as a single person. It involves resisting and refusing the loud voices of the flesh and our culture that screams, “Make much of me and run full force toward whatever feels good!” The unmarried person seeks to proclaim Jesus by living a life that is radically other-centered and committed to his kingdom purposes. This kind of obedience can only be faithfully lived out through radical self-sacrificing, dependence upon Christ—as such it is a life lived solely by grace!

Updated 4.24.2017

A positive theology of sex

Harvest USA articles usually deal with the negative realities of sexual sin, and many people think evangelical Christians, when it comes to discussions of sex, are negative, nit-picking prudes who do not have enough fun and who believe God is anti-pleasure and only says “No!” Harvest USA, in its work with people who struggle with sexual brokenness and sin, speaks seriously about these issues, but serious does not mean negative.

We are about an incredibly positive message; we are about real joy, restoration, and redemption that flow from God’s grace, mercy, and love. This applies to matters of sex!

Scripture says God makes and gives to his creation the best pleasures. Psalm 16 says, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore!” (ESV). Sex, with all its emotional and physical components of pleasure, came from the mind of God. It was not something man invented in opposition to God’s plan. Scripture declares that God designed us to please him and live a life full of lasting pleasures and joys.

This is good news. Even though sin has corrupted all good things, much of the goodness of God’s work of creation remains and God’s work of redemption extends hope to bring joy from despair. We are called to live within the good and right parameters of God’s design. In the area of sex, it is imperative to grasp the positive theology of sexuality that God designed. Doing so will help us live lives that are glorifying to God, enjoy his creation more and avoid the entanglements of sexual idolatry and sin.

Consider the following seven truths about God’s great gift of sex.

1. God made us male and female–the crowning masterpieces of his creation

The good news about God’s gift of sex and sexuality begins with God the almighty, all wise and all loving Creator. God declared the world was good and that man and woman were very good. Our maleness and masculinity or our femaleness and femininity are great and astounding works of divine creativity. Every man and woman is a crowning masterpiece of the Creator.

What are we masterpieces here for? Our culture says life is for sex, and sex is the reason for life. Our culture teaches us to radically devalue our masculinity or femininity unless we are sexually active. Unmarried Christians are tempted to believe their single years are a waste if they cannot have sex and tend to make marriage an idol in their hearts. This “life is for sex” view is far too one-dimensional. If by “sex” we only think about acts of sex—the acts that lead to orgasm—then our definition is extremely narrow and artificial. It is easy to “miss the forest for the trees.” If we think only about the sex act, we miss a grand forest of God-made sexuality and sexual identity.

While it is true that God designed us to have the capacity for sex, we are really created for relationships. We are not a masterpiece to hang alone in an art gallery, nor are we made only for sex. In Psalm 8, King David praised God that we were made “a little lower than the angels” (v. 7, NIV). As male and female, we each have astounding dignity—even glory—to bear his image and have a personal relationship with him. God also enabled us to enjoy a kaleidoscope of relationships because he lovingly gave each of us our gender identity. Maleness or femaleness is the context not only for being husbands and wives, but also fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, male friends and female friends, etc. We best experience this dignity and glory that God graciously intends for us as we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

2. God’s gift of sexuality reveals his own nature and glory

Art reflects the character of the artist, and a novel yields insights into the mind of the author. In a mysterious way, the fact of two genders capable of sexual intimacy reflects the nature of God. Even before time began, God the Father loved God the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit shared a communion that was complete and perfect. It is the perfect relationship and reflects absolute transparency and intimacy. The Bible specifically teaches that each person of the Trinity has total awareness of the others (Luke 10:20; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 2:11, etc.). The intimacy of the Trinity—the three in one—is the source of and reason we are humanly capable of cultivating intimacy. The ability to build trust, closeness, and knowledge of another is itself a love-gift from our Triune God who delights, for example, when two of his children “become one flesh” in marriage.

Scripture also shows the nature of God’s love for his people through metaphors relating to marriage. Ezekiel 16, Hosea 2, and Song of Solomon in various ways point to God as a faithful husband who redemptively loves his undeserving bride. Paul specifically states that marriage reflects the love Christ has for his church (Ephesians 5:32). When married couples have sex they can reflect a glimmer of God’s passion for his church, and the reality of perfect intimacy in Heaven—our state after the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

Through faithfulness, chastity, and modesty, unmarried people can enjoy many levels and types of intimacy (other than engaging in sex) in the context of their God-given gender identity. Marriage is not the only venue for a deep and abiding relationship. Singles can and ought to involve themselves in close, long-lasting friendships. These, too, are relationships that reflect the intimate connections of community that the Trinity displays. Unmarried individuals also can reflect the sacrificial love of Christ for the church. Single men can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that seemingly come naturally to men—manual labor, repairing things, etc.—yet which require them to act relationally towards others. Single women can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that reflect a woman’s natural affinities. Women often seem more alert to an individual’s needs, both physical and emotional. We each function out of our sexual identity even if we are not engaging in sex.

3. God’s gift of sexuality is for all of us, whether we are single or married

God made each man and woman able to live righteously and have an abundant life regardless of his or her age or marital status. Both the married and unmarried state can be joy-filled and God-honoring, yet many Christian singles are not feeling the glory of being single. The gift of celibacy sounds like a hard sell. “If only…” riddles and even cripples their joy in life, especially as they strive in good faith to live pure against the backdrop of our orgasmically-obsessed secular culture.

Single Christians wonder, “Will I miss out on something fundamental to life if I never have a full sex-life merely because I don’t have a spouse?” Are the pleasures of sex in marriage better than the pleasures of godly unmarried sexuality? If we say, “yes,” we fall into a two-class view of Christianity that is both un-biblical and destructive. This is just as erroneous as saying that having children is essential to the Christian life and that childless couples are somehow second-class Christians.

The core blessings of the gospel are for everyone who believes, whether married or not. The diverse benefits of the gospel, however, are not equally distributed to all believers at all seasons of life. Remember Jesus? He was unmarried, sinless, and lived without the pleasures of sexual intercourse. Remember Paul? He said that he would rather remain unmarried. Remember Daniel and numerous other singles in the Bible?

The pleasures of sex in marriage are not better than the joys God provides unmarried believers. In the same way that chocolate chip cookies are great and strawberry shortcake is super, these pleasures are not better or worse; they are simply different. An apple pie lover would be foolish to say rhubarb pie is bad simply because he or she had never tasted it.

So is the married state to be preferred to the unmarried state? Not necessarily. While Paul does say that it is better to marry “than to burn” in lust, he also advocates the gift of celibacy over marriage for the sake of service to the Kingdom, especially during times of persecution (I Corinthians 7:9, 28-29). Here is a reality check: Many unmarried Christians experience more intimacy through godly friendships and fulfillment through unhindered service for the Kingdom than others in poor marriages. Singles and married people can be miserable or content. It is all a matter of God’s grace, which good gift God chooses to give his children, and what we do as stewards of these gifts. Some are called to celibacy—not a season but a lifetime of singleness—and so God gives special grace, special opportunities, and especially significant service.

In a season of singleness, God’s powerful and diverse grace is the real key to joy and brings significance to times of challenge. Singles are not the only ones asking, “What am I to do with all my sexual desires?” Single chastity is not easy, but married people will tell you that maintaining purity and growing in intimacy is not a cake walk either.

The fact that purity is hard cannot be a rationalization for compromise. Acting out sexually is not synonymous with intimacy. Masturbation is a prime example. It can give fleeting pleasure, but it is often addictive, always selfish, and cannot deliver intimacy or lasting relational joy.

God our Father is not surprised or outwitted by the sexual temptations we all face. Our Heavenly Father wired us to have desires, and he gives strength to draw near to him and avoid sexual or any other sin. He does not tempt us to sin, but he affords us opportunities to seek and find what is far better, himself, rather than fleeting bodily pleasures. Unmarried men and women can channel their sexual energies toward non-sexual but very fulfilling relationships, noble accomplishments, and adventures in service and ministry. The biggest hazard of singleness is not missing out on sexual release—it is being isolated and alone. Isolation is choice, but it is not God’s will for Christian singles to live without the grace of Christian friends and spiritual family. Life is too short to not have and be family. God provides his body, the church, as a functional family for both time and eternity.

4. God designed sex with marriage to bless, protect, and empower us 

Some fear the power of sex, but God gave sexual intimacy the sacred power to bond a husband and wife together—body and soul—in a covenant of loyalty and love. “Becoming one flesh” within marriage is more satisfying that anything the world offers as a sexually attractive substitute. Like a fire inside a fireplace, it provides light and warmth, but outside the right context, sex can destroy like an un-extinguished cigarette can burn down a huge forest. Sex is not the purpose of marriage or a good enough reason to get married. Sex is not the goal. It is a means to an end. The Lord gave sexual intimacy, as a natural part of married-life, to be an intense, joy-giving way to celebrate and reaffirm covenant love. Rest assured God is very pleased when godly couples enjoy it.

Marriage protects sex from promiscuity and exploitation, and sex is to protect marriage by giving comfort and relieving temptation. That is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, commands husbands and wives not to defraud each other sexually but to lovingly fulfill their marital duty to one another. A church that neglected to celebrate Christmas and Easter would be spiritually malnourished. A marriage without sexual intimacy is likewise emotionally impoverished. Godly, other-centered sex protects married couples from temptation and helps keep marriages together. Proper sexual expression in marriage is a celebration that renews commitment and love.

Genesis 1:26-28 reveals that God designed sex within marriage to empower us. God never rescinded his plan for us “to have dominion … be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Dominion may sound like an archaic and politically incorrect concept. Yet, God gave sex within marriage for not only joy, intimacy, mutual comfort and support, but also procreation of children! Without moms and dads, where would we be? One divine purpose of sex in marriage is to provide a context to bear and then empower children who will grow up to fulfill a Kingdom purpose—to spread God’s justice, wisdom, and love to the entire world.

5. God gave our sexuality so we could know Christ better and love others as Christ loves us

The world teaches that whatever one person can do to get another “consenting adult” to please him or her sexually is permissible. God gave us a sex drive not to make us sin but to love well. It takes knowing Christ better to realize that sex is not a toy and we are not consumers of sexual experiences. It takes loving Christ better to see our sexuality as a platform for self-controlled and self-giving love.

When we are tempted to trust sex to heal our emotional needs or save us from emptiness, we become convinced that our pain is worse than sin. We defend our sexual compromise. It takes knowing Jesus better to believe sin is worse than our pain. It takes loving Christ better to sincerely want freedom from sin rather than freedom to sin. This moral challenge does not surprise God. He allows these tensions and tests as opportunities to turn to him for grace and power in our times of need.

The joys and trials of marriage in general and sex within marriage are given to make us holy more than to make us happy. In seasons when a marriage becomes strained, hard, or painful, the desires accompanying sexual intimacy can turn a maturing Christian’s heart toward Christ. Christ provides wisdom and strength to love an imperfect and even unlovely spouse with sexual faithfulness and perseverance, even when one’s flesh wants to run or rage. We can learn, “The better I love Christ, the better I will love my spouse. The better I love my spouse, the better I will love Christ.”

All these sexual tensions, temptations, and emotional desires offer singles and those married opportunities to grow finding paths to joy as God faithfully provides our true needs. When we find him faithful and follow him with trust and integrity, we honor him. Our sincere hearts shine through our good deeds of self-sacrificing love and sexual integrity. This is one way our sexuality gives God glory.

6. Sexuality points to Christ and the church—we need the church to shepherd the story of our sexuality

The world really cannot find a grand story for human sexuality. Secular people want life to be a comedy where being sexually active brings happiness. They find monogamy as boring as re-runs and the sexless narrative of chastity or celibacy a pointless tragedy. In Scripture, on the other hand, God places our sexuality into the grand story of redemption. Our sexuality points towards the grand divine drama—the true story of the High King who builds a Kingdom of people redeemed by a blood covenant through his Son, Christ Jesus.

The gospel story of God making and keeping the covenant of redemption is the grand context within which we should express our sexuality. Our story and Christ’s story are forever united. This union is compared to the connection of the head to the body. As the body of the crucified and risen King, we extend his truth, life, and redemption against all sin, death, and evil. All sexual matters are placed into the epic struggle of good and evil—the Kingdom versus the evil empire.

Since God made sex to be powerful, Christ commissioned the church to function as a shepherd and guide in this area as well as in all other areas of life. The church—the people of God—is a gracious gift to each Christian. It is in the community of Christ that we give and receive guidance, encouragement, correction, and company. Other Christians are crucial to assist us when we are struggling with sexual issues and to keep our eyes on Jesus. Our sexuality is not just our story; it really is part of the family story, and the church family has a say and stake in how we live out our sexuality. Our sexuality is so big no Christian can handle it alone. Christ gave the church as the “family of God” (1 Timothy 3:15) because when sexual brokenness and sin enters our lives, we need a healing community to affirm the forgiveness we receive from Jesus. The church is the spiritually functional family that accepts and guides us in repentance and into the joys of restoration.

7. God gave sex to point us to heaven—sex is not for forever

In Matthew 22, Jesus stated there will be no marriage and therefore no sexual intimacy in Heaven. How can something as intensely good as sexual intimacy be left out of heaven? God will not leave sex out of Heaven because it is inherently sinful. God declared all things good on Day Six after He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply—a task that required sexual activity. If sex is good for time, why is it not good enough for eternity?

It is because there is something better. It is because sex, in the fullness of its meaning, points to greater realities in the way a road sign points to a great city. The sign of sex will be obsolete in Heaven because the reality it points to will be replaced by the greater reality itself. It is the same way with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Heaven, both sacraments will cease since they have their fulfillment there. The Lord’s Supper—a meal remembering Christ’s death and signifying our union with him—will be replaced by the great Wedding Feast. We will be the Bride and he the Groom! Baptism, which is a sign that we belong to Christ, will be replaced in Heaven because we will be face to face with Christ.

The intimacy we will have with Christ throughout eternity will be so great that sexual intimacy will pale in comparison. The ecstatic pleasure of even the best orgasmic 15 seconds shared in a godly marriage will be like tasting the plainest food compared to the everlasting joy and intimacy we will share with Christ at his banquet table.

If sex can be this good now, even in a world tainted by sin, think how much better sinless and perfect intimacy with our Creator will be! It will be the coming home into the embrace of the One who has loved us before the foundations of the world. It will be so glorious not one of us will regret “missing sex.” Instead, we will wonder how we were ever so preoccupied with it. Nothing can compare to entering into the presence of the glorious radiance of God Almighty.

God gives the best sex

God gives the best sex. He gives sex and sexuality for our joy and, ultimately, for his glory. Our Father does not deprive us from pleasures, nor does he condemn us for our failures. God faithfully provides forgiveness and empowering grace so that the trials and joys related to our sexuality work together to prepare us for eternal intimacy with Jesus Christ. Our sexuality offers a tremendous opportunity to live a life of faith and love. As we live with his gift by means of his grace and together with his grace-giving people, we live out the hope of the gospel and are a light to the world.

Updated 4.25.2017

We routinely approach churches to request they add Harvest USA to their missions budget, as we rely on God’s people for all our support needs. Many churches reply with a response I hear often: “We really love Harvest USA, but you‘re just not missions; you don’t fit into any of our giving categories.”

That’s ironic! Years ago I was deeply impacted by a seminary professor named Dr. Harvie Conn. Harvie was the missions professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, when I was a student. He walked with a limp, literally. That’s because Harvie, prior to being a professor, had been a missionary for years in Korea—to prostitutes! There, he was grabbed several times by a gang of men while walking down a street, dragged to an alleyway, held down, and had his feet beaten and broken with two-by-fours. He was told, “Quit telling these women about Jesus.” It turned out that the pimp’s income was being affected as these women came to Christ and left prostitution.

So, when Harvie spoke—well, you just listened a little more closely. He had earned his stripes, suffering for Christ. One day he told the class, “Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about an unreached people group—a hidden people group.”

Harvie then talked about the need for mission work in the homosexual community. The church, historically, had a totally “hands off” approach to the gay community. At the time, in 1983, it was becoming the fastest-growing group in the country. He went on to define a people group as any group of people who had a self-perceived identity which bonded that group together and facilitated their growth as a specific community. Harvie explained how the gay community was cemented by common political, social, economic, philosophic, and psychological identities.

But Harvie didn’t stop there. He said the real hidden people were men and women who became believers, bringing into the church all their sexual baggage, confusion, and histories, along with the pain of scarred hearts and souls from sexual abuse, pornography, etc. Then they sit there in silence, because these things aren’t talked about in the church. Often paralyzed by the guilt and shame that sexual sin uniquely produces, most have given up hope that anyone cares whether they find forgiveness or freedom. Harvie explained that the gospel, if it truly is the gospel, must meet these people where they are at, with the hope of a cleared conscience and a changed life. This, he told us, was impossible for them to experience without the love, intervention, and assistance of others in the church.

This intrigued me. Here I was, sitting in this class, hearing someone I respected saying, “These are the unreached, the hidden, the disenfranchised moral discards of our day. The church must be about this kind of ministry, both outside and within the church.” I was also personally interested, due to the work God had done in my own sexually-scarred heart and life. After much prayer and discussion with others, several people caught the vision for such a ministry. Harvest USA was soon formed, and I became the first staff member.

So when a church says, “You’re not missions,” I want to laugh and cry at the same time! Not missions? You’ve got to be kidding. Just consider these recent ministry opportunities we had.

  • I once did a half-day seminar at a very poor Jamaican church in The Bronx, NY. They began ministering to the sexually broken in their community and wanted more training. We did this as part of our mission work. They couldn’t afford to pay, not even our travel expenses up there and back for the day, as we ministered the gospel and trained them. At the end of the day, the pastor told everyone, “I asked them to come help us, and they sent the head guy.” Then he began to cry.
  • A month after that, I met with the staff and lay-leaders of an inner-city Portuguese church in Newark, NJ. The church is in a community of 30,000 Brazilian immigrants. Five young people had “come out” at the church within the past six months. The elders know this is the state of the church today and needed help. In early 2012, we are working toward providing them a whole day’s training seminar.
  • A Muslim professor asks us to lunch after our presentation to his university class, telling the staff he has a PhD and has published books but doesn’t have a relationship with God like they had described. He then begins to ask how to get that.
  • At a nearby university, I spoke to a group of 250 students on “The Gospel And The Gay”—95% of the students are Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese).
  • Recently we’ve received requests to translate Harvest USA materials into Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and Punjabi.

Wow! This all sounds pretty much like missions to me! If you’re on a missions committee, or know someone in your church who is, please advocate for us. Encourage the church to become partners in ministry with us. Since the economy has taken a nosedive, we have lost over a dozen supporting churches and about 150 individual donors. We really need more of God’s churches to help us. If that’s not possible, we also encourage churches to consider an annual “love offering. “Thank you for partnering with us, and praying along with us in this Kingdom missions’ work!

Updated 4.27.2017

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