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Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Three—The damage of sexual slavery: living for our desires

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

If you are just picking up this post now, click here and here for parts one and two.

Paul’s plea to the Thessalonians is that they not live sexually as if they are free to do whatever they want. As he said in another letter: You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6: 19-20).

And his point in verses 4-5 is this: If you are not serving God by living for him, learning to control your body’s powerful sexual desires, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually anyway you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

Here is what we need to know about desires and wants and how they are closely connected to our sexuality. Our sexuality is fed by desires that often are not sexual at all: like loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, inadequacy, power, control, wanting to be loved, known or valued, fear of missing out, peer pressure—there are an unlimited number of wants and desires that become “over-desires” and rule over us. They become things we think we absolutely need in life; they become ultimate things; they become idols that we live for—to have or to avoid.

And if we use our sexuality to erase our loneliness, combat our anxiety or fears, or to convince ourselves that somebody now loves and wants us, then we will keep doing so in order that life gives us what we think we need.

But what they give us is an illusion of control when in fact they give us slavery; they control us.

And when we find ourselves at that place in life, Paul’s description of non-believers becomes true even for believers: we become like the Gentiles who do not know God. When our hearts are given over to something or someone else, Jesus is pushed aside. He simply is not enough for us—to give us what we need in life. So, we begin worshipping a false god of our own making.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality; it reveals the allegiance of our hearts.

Today, pornography is a clear example of sexual-freedom-is-really-sexual-slavery.

Let me show you four ways our struggles with sexuality brings slavery—and how it hurts us and others.

One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation

Many Christians live defeated lives of fear and self-loathing. Their struggles with sex drives them away from God. They hide from him and from others. When they look to God all they see is a Judge, not a Savior who came to rescue them from the very slavery that binds them.

A man from a support group wrote this for our latest newsletter:

“When does the healing from a life time of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? These are questions I struggled with for years …. I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships.”

People like my friend here think: “If I struggle here, I must not be a Christian.”

Two, sexual strugglers live double lives

I’m talking here about compartmentalizing, about splitting your life into separate parts. I can be a Christian at church and be someone else at school, at my workplace, etc. Sexual strugglers live double lives. Our organization’s president, John Freeman, just published a book called: Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. He uses this phrase about sexual strugglers: They become game-players. They put their game face on when they are in public with other believers, but underneath the mask there is tremendous fear and shame and guilt.

Compartmentalizing, however, slowly bleeds into every area of your life. Another man in my support group said he’s been a liar all his life. Now in his 50s, his early encounter with porn as a child led him for decades to hide his sexual addiction, first from his parents and then from his wife and children.

He got so used to lying to cover up his porn addiction. He soon didn’t realize that he unconsciously lied to cover up all his behavior, no matter what it was. He could never relax and just be himself—his constant fear was being found out.

Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness

Crippling doubt about salvation, and living a fear-driven double life ultimately brings hopelessness about ever being able to be free. Many men and women give up—they either give up outwardly and leave the church or they give up silently and just go through the motions of living their Christian faith. But they distance themselves from church, and from family relationships, and those closest to them sense that something is amiss, but they can’t put their finger on it.

Slavery gives you the feeling that the gospel has no power. It is utterly useless to help you with the problems and struggles you face once you leave church on Sunday. And if you feel God himself can’t help you, you are indeed hopeless.

Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others

In verse 6 Paul slips in this: that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

Paul is referring to the relational damage of sexual sin. He connects it with sexuality: “in this matter.”

Here’s the point: Sexual sin is not a private matter. It is not a harmless, private activity. When our desires control us, we become intensely self-centered. Sex was designed by God as a means to bless our spouse. But when our focus is only in ourselves and what we can get out of it, we hurt people and relationships.

A husband who looks at pornography hurts his wife, as he prefers a fantasy life over his real one. At best, his wife becomes merely an object of his own pleasure like all the women he sees on the screen. He uses people.

Someone who engages in porn contributes to the sexual exploitation of the performers and the widespread damage to the minds and hearts of others who are in slavery to this. Increasingly the evidence is growing that sex trafficking is embedded in this porn epidemic.

And then there is sexual abuse. Child porn, and the awful tragedy of church leaders abusing men and women under their pastoral care, is the extreme display of all this sexual slavery.
Lust is not something that is easily contained. There is a reason Jesus said, in exaggerated language, in order to make a point: If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.

When we feed our lusts, they will control us. Consume us.

Can you hear Paul’s plea: Don’t live by your desires, now that you know something of what this slavery looks like!

But if that warning is not enough, Paul gives a stronger one: the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

(Looking ahead: is there a way forward through all this, a way for us, individually, and for us, as a church, to live our life in sexual integrity before God?)

Link to Part 4.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Two — How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery.

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

In my first post on this amazing passage by Paul, I pointed out how God places a high value on how we live before him in these bodies we have. You can read that first post here

Again, Paul’s intent in this passage is to make it very clear that those who name themselves as followers of Christ cannot engage in whatever sexual behavior they wish as the surrounding culture promoted and permitted. But he also understood the struggle they were having in reining in attractions, desires and behaviors which were formally OK for them.

So, after he tells them that what we do with our bodies matters to God, he gives them another compelling reason for fighting sexual sin:

That how we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery.

There are two powerful cultural forces in play regarding sexuality in our world today.

The first one is that we no longer agree on what is right and wrong. The old rules and boundaries regarding sexual behavior are now considered repressive, confining, antiquated. What matters is love, however it is expressed. As long as there is agreement between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, everything is OK.

The second cultural force is that since there is no standard of truth, we all make our own truth. Personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We don’t look outside of ourselves, to God or some sort of external standard, to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own feelings and experiences. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” No one has the right to say my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.

These two cultural forces—that there is no right or wrong other than what I say is right or wrong, are reshaping sexuality today. Sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual rights—it’s an anything-goes-sexuality culture. This is what is called sexual freedom.

But Paul—and indeed the entire Bible—calls this kind of life, not freedom, but slavery.

Look at verses 4 & 5, where Paul says: that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;

What is Paul saying here? He is making clear that believers must not live lives of uncontrolled sexuality the way unbelievers do. Now, Paul is making a worldview statement here. He is not saying that all unbelievers live licentious sexual lives. Rather, he is saying that the world outside of God’s influence promotes living according to one’s passions.

He is saying to the young believers in this new church community, that though this is the world you came out of, and though you may still struggle with your sexuality, don’t give in to those desires as if it doesn’t matter what you do with your bodies.

Because it does matter.

Why? Because when you give your body over to your desires, you will find out what slavery is.

Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word here that Paul uses: “lust.” Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.

Lust is an interesting word. It’s typically a word used in a sexual context, but it’s not limited to that. The Greek word that we translate lust, epithumia, simply means “over-desire” or “strong desire.” The general meaning in the NT when it is used in a sexual context is that of a “ruling desire,” or an “inordinate desire.” A “controlling desire.” A desire that enslaves.

In other words, our desires, which arise from what entices us and what we ourselves want, eventually come to enslave us. And Paul is pleading: Don’t go there! Don’t give in to those over-desires. Don’t let yourself be a slave, controlled by something that brings destruction to your life. Don’t live as if God doesn’t matter to you.

We see this idea of behavior and slavery in another passage—James 1:13-15: It says, 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Now what is James saying here?

James is answering the question: What causes us to sin? His answer is that everyone is tempted from within (“by his own desire”), and that our desires, when we cultivate them, and focus on them, they eventually give birth to sin.

The word that is translated desire is the same word Paul uses: epithumia. And James is clearly using this word in a sexual context, also. In fact, James uses a sexual term that is translated “lured and enticed.”

Now what does this all mean?

It means this: We want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

Do you see? Behavior always has this ongoing dynamic of being my free choice while, at the same time, I’m being dragged toward it or controlled by it. A modern interpretation of this was penned best by Bob Dylan: “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

You are free to do what you want—but you will be serving somebody. And if you are not serving God, living for him, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually anyway you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my “ruling desires” hurt me and others?)

Links to Part 3

This was Ron’s (name has been changed for this blog post) conclusion after the second week of the men’s fall intro group at our office. “I look around the room and all these guys are wearing wedding bands and their problem is about porn. But they still get to have sex. How am I going to live without it?”

In his late 20s, Ron is a babe in Christ, coming to faith just six months ago. Although he was raised in a Christian home, he’s lived a wildly promiscuous gay life for the last decade. Beginning in his first semester in college, his last ten years are a blur of parties and sexual decadence. Now he is here after a startling encounter with God.

Ron was deeply moved when I shared my conversion story the first week of the group, describing God’s amazing condescension to me – opening my eyes to His reality while I was tripping out on LSD. Despite our differences, Ron’s conversion experience was similar to mine in its strangeness, so he felt comfortable opening up to me about feeling so disconnected from the other men and their struggles.

Ron is battling with the reality that there is no way for him to engage sexually the way he craves. Life without sex seems unbearable. I acknowledged that, yes, it is hard to remain celibate when your mind and body want sexual release. But it has been made even more difficult for young men like Ron because the culture in which they have been raised proclaims that a life without sex is a tragedy. Sex is now seen as a human right, of sorts, and to live without engaging in it is considered ridiculous—and impossible. Why would anyone want to do that? How stupid!

I shared with him my own “single again” experience following my wife’s sudden death years ago. For more than two years, I had “knock-down/drag-out” conversations with God: what am I to do with my sexual feelings and desires? At times it felt almost tortuous to dismiss my sexual longings and to not give in to sexual fantasy and masturbation for relief. I recall saying to God once: “I really hope it matters to you that I’m not masturbating right now!”

And the Holy Spirit’s response to me seemed to say, yes, it does matter to me; I want to be your comfort and refuge! In your present reality, which to you is hard and painful, I want you to live in the present and not escape to a fantasy world of false pleasures, a fantasy world that is incapable of giving you real life.
Ron and I talked further: we discussed that we have no idea what God has in store for us in our future, but that he promises that it is going to be good! That in obeying him, we are drawn ever closer to his heart. He calls us to obey today, entrusting the future to his nail-scarred hands. Please pray for Ron as his entire life has been uprooted since his conversion.

FYI: for a brief look at how to successfully engage sexual temptation, click the link here on my blog post, Suffering with Temptation.

Romans 13:14 (ESV) tells Christians to, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Sexual strugglers who come into our office to talk with us often tell us that they don’t want to keep on sinning, but they Ellen_Dykasdon’t know how to stop life-dominating sexual sin patterns. How can women engage the battle to turn to Jesus in faith and repentance and away from sexual sin? How can they receive by faith the words of Jesus to “take up your mat and go home” (Mark 2:11), believing—no matter how tiny that belief might be at the moment—that Jesus forgives her sin?

This verse from Romans gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles.

The first step to take 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 relationship with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationships with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7 that 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” (Eph 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 fixed upon 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 Cor. 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” you to sin, and how can you 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 Cor. 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I already 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.

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.

When Jesus returned to Capernaum several days later, the news spread quickly that he was back home. Soon the house Ellen_Dykaswhere he was staying was so packed with visitors that there was no more room, even outside the door. While Jesus was preaching God’s word to them, four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they dug a hole through the roof above his head. Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My child, your sins are forgiven.”

But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there thought to themselves, “What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!”

Jesus knew immediately what they were thinking, so he asked them, “Why do you question this in your hearts? Is it easier to say to the paralyzed man ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk’? So I will prove to you that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!”

And the man jumped up, grabbed his mat, and walked out through the stunned onlookers. They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:1-12, NIV)

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, 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, “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive 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 faith-steps been helpful to you?  Let me know.

Sexual Sanity for Women:  Healing from Sexual & Relational Brokenness
Excerpts from Introduction and Session One 
The following is an excerpt from Ellen Dykas’ new workbook for women, Sexual Sanity for Women:  Healing from Sexual & Relational Brokenness Published by New Growth Press. Copyright © 2013 by Harvest USA. This Harvest USA resource can be used in a one-on-one discipling relationship or in a small group.  You can obtain this resource at our bookstore: www.harvest-usa-store.com 

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By Ellen Dykas

Elsewhere on this website is Dan Wilson’s excellent article, God Gives the Best Sex. He explained that for the unmarried the grace of God 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

Read More

By Dan Wilson

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.

Read More


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