Anyone who’s experienced being enslaved by a life-dominating sin knows how easy it is to let that struggle become the lens through which you see all of life. You know how deadly the sin is. You know the power it possesses, and how powerless you feel to resist it.
Many people wrestling with addiction see their entire moral responsibility resting on a single prohibition: Thou shalt not. . .
They start to measure the strength of their relationship with God based on whether they looked at pornography that day. It doesn’t matter what else happened, good or bad—refraining from sexual sin becomes the sole gauge of spiritual health.
Living with Blinders
There are two pitfalls with this type of thinking. First, you become uninterested in any other area of sanctification in your life. Lying, stealing, idolatry, and unrighteous anger don’t even register as areas of needed growth because sexual sin has given you tunnel vision to any other problems. Your day may have been filled with selfish and self-indulgent pursuits, but, in your mind, it was a great day because you didn’t look at porn.
The second pitfall is just as soul-damaging. Letting your entire day rest upon your ability to perfectly resist sexual temptation also blinds you to the good work God may be doing in your life in other areas. Sexual sin is usually the fruition of many other, deeper heart issues that God is slowly and surgically redeeming. There may be much groundwork being done in your life even while you continue to lose many battles against temptation. Blindness to this good work that God is doing can co-opt a trajectory of growth through discouragement and despair.
Take off the Blinders
It’s time to take off the blinders. It’s time to embrace the full panorama of God’s redemptive purposes for your life. On the day of judgment, God is not only interested in what sins you refrained from. He’s equally interested in what good fruit your life produced. This is why theologians have developed two categories for sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are the sins we commit. We lust, we steal, we lie, we covet. We focus most of our repentant energy on sins of commission. And that’s understandable. The Ten Commandments are largely addressing sins we commit. That is why eight out of the ten are stated in the negative: Thou shalt not. . .
But it was paradigm-shifting for me to read the Westminster Larger Catechism and realize that with every prohibitive commandment is an implied command to do its opposite instead. Not taking the Lord’s name in vain implies the command to revere his name in honor. Not killing implies the command to actively preserve and promote life in others. Not lying implies the command to speak the truth in love to build up your neighbor. Failure to do the opposite of these prohibitions is also sin. Sins of omission are the failure to do the good which God commands. Sin is not just what we have done, but also what we have left undone.
The Opposite of Sexual Sin
If I’m honest, I used to think that all God cared about was that I didn’t lust after other people. If that’s God’s standard, then my tactic was simply to avoid others. If I didn’t have to interact with them, then I was honoring God. But I failed to see that the opposite of lust is not avoidance, but love. There may still be people you need to avoid, especially if they’ve been a snare to you. That is wisdom. But what I’m addressing is a much broader issue of seeing other people not as objects of temptation, but as image-bearers to love.
We fail our brothers and sisters who struggle with sexual sin if we don’t help them to humanize others. God wants so much more than avoidance of sin. He wants the love of Christ to shine forth from our lives.
So what does a life of repentance from sexual sin look like?
Putting off Coveting and Putting on Christ-Centered Contentment
God gives a husband and wife to each other so that, in body and soul, they belong to one another. There’s a sense of co-ownership in marriage. Adultery is so damaging because it’s an outsider stealing what does not belong to them. God has designed sexual desire to be expressed and satisfied solely within the confines of biblical marriage.
This means true repentance for a married man and woman will lead to increasing contentment and delight in their spouse. The positive command we are to obey is to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). It’s not enough to only guard your heart against coveting your neighbor’s wife, you are also commanded by God to actively cultivate a growing love and desire for your spouse. How many Christian husbands believe their apathy toward pursuing their wives romantically is a sin of omission? Contentment must never be confused with complacency. Contentment is proactive; complacency is passive.
For my single brothers and sisters, contentment does not mean it’s wrong to desire marriage. Contentment means that, while you pursue this good thing, your heart is guarded against despair, bitterness, or anger toward the Lord when his timing seems delayed. Your contentment is grounded in what is best: belonging to Christ.
Spirit-gifted contentment flows from the same source for both married and singles. It is not found in any other person than Jesus Christ.
Putting off Idolatry and Putting on True Worship
Idolatry is always at the root of sexual sin. Sex is seen as the means of providing something that feels like life itself. That idol may be pleasure, comfort, control, security, or affirmation. But all of these desires are vanity of vanities when they are separated from the Giver of all true life.
True repentance from sexual sin is not a stoic experience. It’s a life of increasing joy and zeal for God’s glory. It’s a life of growing anticipation and expectation to see your Savior face to face. It’s a life of worshipping our triune God in spirit and in truth.
I’m always amazed by our Savior’s words in John 4:23 when he says, “the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” We were created for this very purpose. Our Father longs to find such people! Sexual sin is not only idolatry, but a failure to do the most fundamental thing we were created for—it’s a failure to delight in the Lord.
Putting off Lust and Putting on Love
We see very clearly in 1 Corinthians 13 that any attempt at repentance not grounded in love is pointless. Repentant love must be directed both vertically and horizontally. This means that God is not pleased with us swapping out sexual sin for some other, less damaging pleasure. Many people try to simply replace lust with social media, video games, exercise, or food, all the while continuing to neglect spiritual nourishment. Paul would tell you, if you’re doing this, you gain nothing.
But even if your rejection of lust is the result of deeper fellowship with Christ, it must not stop there. For John warns us that you cannot love God and hate your brother. True love for God will lead to true love for your neighbor.
It’s a frightening thing to see husbands who are turning from pornography but still abusing their wives. This is a false repentance that brings no pleasure to God.
God is not only calling you to turn from lustful thoughts, he’s calling you to see and treat others as his image-bearers in all purity, dignity, and honor. Lust selfishly steals from others. Love selflessly serves others. Lust devotes our thoughts to sexual fantasy. Love devotes our thoughts to prayerful intercession.
God is after so much more than removing sin from your life. He is committed to making you more like Christ, who not only turned from sin, but actively loved his Father and his neighbor perfectly.
Mark has been President of Harvest USA since October 2022. Mark holds an M.A. in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, and a B.A. in Communications & Integrated Media from Geneva College,More from Mark Sanders