18 Mar 2017
If you’ve been looking at pornography for any length of time, you have a toxic waste dump in your mind that takes time and intentionality to clean up! How do you begin to decontaminate your mind? The next few video and written blogs I’ll be doing will consider the important steps you need to take to renew your mind.
To get started, let’s use Romans 12:2 as our orienting theme verse: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (ESV). The hard truth is that ongoing pornography use profoundly damages your views of life, sex, others, and God. Change is much bigger than merely stopping bad behaviors; it means the renewal of your mind—transforming your worldview—so that your thought patterns are conformed to the truths of Scripture.
The first step of renewing your mind from pornography is taking your thoughts “captive.” 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Pornography is a prime example of an argument against God and his rule over the world, particularly over your own life. Pornography entices us to denigrate our fellow image-bearers into consumable objects, and it promotes a view of sexuality that is completely against God’s design for what it means to be a person. It diminishes us to brute beasts ruled by our passions (see Jude 10).
So, knowing what porn does to our minds and hearts, renewing our minds becomes a place of warfare. It’s time to engage the fight and start taking prisoners!
All this is to say, taking your thoughts captive is about intentionally engaging God in the places of your struggle. God wants you to draw near to him in your sexual struggles.
What does it mean to take every thought captive to obey Christ? In the past, I’ve viewed that as a hand-slapping rebuke: “Bad Dave! Don’t think that thought! You need to start thinking holy thoughts right now…” If that’s how you’ve viewed it, you know that approach hasn’t been particularly helpful. Others have commented that they need to take their mind off of lustful thoughts, perhaps by quoting Bible memory verses. I’m not knocking Bible memory—far from it!—but I’m concerned that too many Christians think the Bible works like Harry Potter, casting a “spiritual spell” that will inoculate you against lust. Both of these approaches miss the intent of 2 Corinthians 10 and may actually work to keep you in chains. Punishment and quick-fix techniques end up as dead ends; they rarely produce the fruit of ongoing repentance.
Think about how unhelpful the “Bad Dave” approach actually is. According to Romans 8:31-34, who is the one who brings accusations against us? The enemy! When we respond to our temptations and failures with accusatory thoughts, berating ourselves with thoughts of failure, worthlessness, etc., we’re ironically playing right into his hands. He wants us isolated, feeling guilt and condemnation. Further, when we recite Scripture as a talisman, apart from intentionally connecting with God, we remain isolated.
In contrast, God’s goal is to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth (see Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1). He is all about relationship, inviting us to live out of our union with him. The enemy wants us to feel isolated and alone; God wants us to rest in the hope that we’re reconciled to him. And, therefore, able to approach the throne of grace with confidence to receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need! All this is to say, taking your thoughts captive is about intentionally engaging God in the places of your struggle. God wants you to draw near to him in your sexual struggles.
You see, the image in the verse is of taking a prisoner captive in a battle, bringing him in chains into the throne room to consider him before the King. Bring all of your thoughts before your Redeemer to ask him his opinion. Think about it this way: the goal is to not allow these thoughts to be “alone” space in your head. Part of renewing your mind is learning that you’ve never had an “alone” thought! You need to increasingly and self-consciously share your thoughts with your loving heavenly Father and your elder brother who reigns as King over the universe. And this is exactly what the enemy does NOT want you to do!
So, if you want your mind renewed, the first step is to be aware that you need to engage God with your temptations. When the thoughts come, bring them into the throne room. Don’t run from him. Don’t shrink away in guilt. Don’t use Scripture in isolation as a spiritual spell. Acknowledge the temptation. Talk to Christ about how you struggle with intrusive thoughts. Know that he is a present help to you in that trouble. Ask Jesus for his thoughts. Ask him to help you understand the context for the temptation in which you find yourself.
To see Dave talking about this issue, click here on Dave’s video blog, Pornified Mind: Reclaiming Your Thought Life – Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Feb 2017
God created our sexuality to show us his desire for us. In the desire a bridegroom has for his soon-to-be wife, God wants us to see a hint of how much he longs—and delights—to be in relationship with us. (This is a video of Dave White teaching at Harvest USA’s seminar, Discipleship Leader Training.)
Who you are sexually is who you are spiritually. They are inseparable. Dave White talks about why it’s so important that one’s inner life, the one lived privately, matches one’s life on the outside. (From a Harvest USA Seminar, Discipleship Leader Training.)
In an earlier blog, Dave White talks about whether it is ever appropriate to tell you children about your own sexual struggles and sin from the past. To read the blog and see the accompanying video blog, click here. In this video blog, Dave talks about some strategies for talking with your kids about sex and sexuality.
05 Aug 2015
In an earlier post (below), Dave White talks about whether it is ever appropriate to tell you children about your own sexual struggles and sin from the past. In the video above, Dave gives a number of options on how to do this.
Do you have sexual skeletons in your closet? Many Christian parents do, and as their kids edge toward the teen years, they begin to dread the questions that may come and begin to ask their own: How can I expect my kids to hold the line sexually when I failed at their age? Isn’t disclosing my own failures giving them license to do whatever they want?
In light of these concerns, does it ever make sense to open the closet door and let your kids see your past?
It depends. There are some kids in a place of rebellion, looking for any excuse to act out. The parent/child relationship may be so contentious that any vulnerability will be exploited and used later to lash out and possibly wound when you seek to address your child’s behavior. Were you a Christian while you were sexually active? This could cause your Christian teen to think they can sin now and repent later. All of us should pause and seek the Spirit’s guidance in broaching these issues with our kids.
That said, in the vast majority of cases, I believe it can be wise and helpful to let your kids see into the closet. Here are three good reasons why.
First, your story can provide a cautionary tale. Even if you were spared the harsh consequences of STDs or an unplanned pregnancy, you can discuss the soul damage that can occur when we don’t follow God. Our “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt someone” culture tells us we can indulge sexually with impunity, but God says it is a sin against our very selves (1 Corinthians 6:18). Our kids need to hear that there are unseen consequences in carelessly squandering God’s great gift in this area of life. There can be some real losses later in life. Even if the sin was only with your spouse prior to marriage, you can share the challenges this may have caused early in marriage, the way it impacted the joy of your honeymoon, etc.
Listen: I’m not big on scare tactics. Graphic STD photos aren’t helpful to show to your teen. But there is a benefit to hearing that this is God’s world and following him is the only path to true blessing and joy.
Second, it gives glory to the God who redeems. My past is extremely messy, and my kids have known it for a long time, getting more details at age-appropriate stages. Why do they know this about me? I want them to know that my life is a testament of God’s grace! The Spirit of God has radically changed me from the inside out. They need to know that God forgives sinners and there is no one beyond his grasp. I praise God that the man I was 20 years ago would be unrecognizable to my kids (and not just because of the Afro!).
Real honesty removes you from any pedestal that would cause you to eclipse Jesus. He alone is the righteous one, and your kids should know that you’re as needy as they are for his grace—and that means today, not just in your distant past! One of the most crucial things we do in passing on the Christian faith to our kids is to model authentic faith, which revolves around confession and repentance.
During a season often marked by growing distance between parents and teens, this is a way for you to build a bridge relationally. Being vulnerable, inviting your kids to know the “real” you, invites a reciprocal response. True, they may not be willing to open up, but at the very least it lets them know you want a deeper relationship. The essence of relationship is to be “known,” so we should be striving to let our kids really know us in age-appropriate ways. And it is always huge for teens to be treated as the budding adults they are.
Finally, your kids need to know that the gospel speaks to their sexuality, affected by the Fall, as is everything. “Youthful lusts” are a powerful force at this age. All teens enter these turbulent years wrestling with physical desires they’ve never experienced before, and to make matters more difficult for them, parents generally are not asking them about this stage of development. So, kids are wrestling with strong physical and emotional feelings and desires, and the real-life guidance they need is sadly lacking from their own parents. If no one speaks about these struggles, then, to them, neither does the gospel. But it does!
This is a crucial time for them—and you, as their shepherding parents—to apply the gospel in deeper ways! Our sexual struggles (and failures) are often a significant place of learning our utter dependence on God’s Spirit and the body of Christ to grow and live in the way we are called to live in Christ. And the best way for your kids to learn these things is for you to be vulnerable about your own neediness, and encourage them with how Christ and his people have met you in your own struggles with sexual sin.
For further thoughts look for our mini book, Raising Sexually Healthy Kids, published by New Growth Press, available at https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/
03 Jun 2015
“How do you respond to all the kids who injure or even kill themselves because of this type of teaching?”
Having just finished my presentation, I invited the sea of college students to ask questions or make comments, and immediately his hand shot up. Though asked respectfully, the question clearly had an edge. I responded as gently as possible, knowing that someone who is personally struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA), or who has a close friend or family member who is, usually asks this question. It’s not an easy answer to give in a few sentences.
I acknowledged that the church has sometimes sent condemning messages—bereft of the hope of the gospel—to SSA strugglers that lead to self-loathing and despair. Sadly, it’s been communicated that people with SSA are “broken” sexually, but the rest of us are fine. (As if “straight” people don’t have problems with sex!) I spoke about how SSA is just another manifestation of fallen sexuality—a reality that affects all of us and is something Jesus went to the cross to redeem. And now he is bringing healing and renewal to everything affected by the curse, especially in the area of our sexuality. Speaking to this issue with empathy is critical, but it is also imperative to speak the truth.
I went on to say that because this is God’s world and life only works well his way, telling anyone to live outside his bounds is not loving them or enabling them to flourish, but only ends in emptiness and death. I mentioned Proverbs 14:12-13, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (ESV). The world tells us we find meaning through pursuing our desires (especially our sexual ones) and that we can do this with impunity. But Scripture makes clear that this is folly. Living for self and following our desires actually leads to discontentment and even greater bondage.
There were many other questions—mostly seeking to understand and not challenge. One young woman asked a crucial clarifying question: In my talk I rejected the idea of being a “gay Christian,” so did that mean people with SSA temptations aren’t saved? Sadly, she didn’t get what I had been saying. Central to my talk was the idea that all Christians are in the midst of overcoming various struggles with the flesh, but that God is faithful to complete the work he’s begun, remaking us into new creatures while still living in a broken world. Jesus is now our core identity, and any self-identity label that qualifies who we are in Christ is not just inaccurate; it distorts that identity.
The inevitable “change” question arose, and I talked about how a biblical definition of change is really focused on our hearts and submission to God, not becoming heterosexual for the person with SSA. (For a fuller discussion on this critical topic, check out my minibook, Can You Change If You’re Gay?, available in the following formats: 5-pack minibook, eBook, and Kindle.)
Students also wanted to know how to navigate their relationships with their LGBTQ friends and family without compromising their faith. We wrestled with some of the challenges confronting the American Church: If you welcome a gay couple to church and they come to faith, what do you do next? Do you force a “married” couple to divorce? What if there are kids involved? How do you handle church membership and the sacraments if they believe the gospel and understand their need for Christ, but haven’t yet come to the place of seeing homosexual behavior as sinful? These are all difficult and complicated questions in our post-Christian society.
With two minutes left, I took a final question. Swallowing hard, I pointed to a young woman in the back. The hair, the clothes, the piercings. . . what was I thinking?! I was exhausted from the talk and the questions, and the last thing I needed was another complex issue to sort through.
I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as she started speaking, it was clear the choice was Spirit-led. A fairly new Christian, she had come to faith within the last year after living as a lesbian throughout her youth. She talked about the heartache of her experience and her lack of peace and joy. She described how God surrounded her with Christian friends whose lives looked so different. They had the contentment and shalom her life sorely lacked. Resonating with what I taught about God’s design, she concluded with a profound point about our sexuality: Because God is the life-giver, homosexual activity can’t fit his plan because it will never produce life. I couldn’t have come up with a more powerful conclusion! She underscored that inviting people to embrace something as “good” that God calls sin is cheering them on to destruction. She talked about the important role of Christian community and humble witness in her conversion. And she wondrously articulated the difference that Jesus makes in her life. It was a beautiful demonstration of how I was describing “change”—it’s not about becoming “straight,” but about loving God and submitting all of myself to his care.
I drove home praising God for his ability to end “my” talk perfectly! Please pray for this young woman as she continues to grow in her new-found faith, and for us—indeed, all believers in Christ—as we proclaim his Word in our increasingly broken and hostile culture.
This article first appeared in our 2015 magazine. It was written after David White taught a workshop at Cru’s Regional Conference in Washington, DC, on December 29, 2014. The workshop was titled “Homosexuality and Christian Faith.”
18 May 2015
This was Ron’s (name has been changed) conclusion after the second week of the men’s Biblical Support 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 futures, but that he promises it is going to be good! 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.
For a brief look at how to successfully engage sexual temptation, click the link here on my blog post, “Suffering with Temptation.“
08 May 2015
I’ve worked closely with Mitchell (name has been changed), a member in one of our men’s Biblical Support Groups. Mitchell struggles with depression, sometimes to the point of entertaining suicidal thoughts. Mitchell feels hopeless: He’s middle-age, single, unemployed, and right now living in his parent’s home. His loneliness feels unbearable. Challenging him to reach out and connect with others, both in the support group and at his church, is, well, a challenge. You see, his same-sex attraction increases his loneliness in the church.
But community is vital; it matters, so I keep gently encouraging him to move out of his loneliness by believing that Jesus is present in his life, and that, being filled with Christ, he can approach people not from a needy emptiness, but from a filled heart that can give to others.
Men like Mitchell need deep, strong friendships, as we all do. But it is more vital for men like him who live with same-sex attraction. Sadly, those with same-sex attraction deeply fear rejection and therefore increase their loneliness in the body of Christ. But it is in Christ’s body, the community of his people, where we are to learn to be fully present with others in our weakness and struggles. “If one member (of Christ’s body) suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV).
How far the church still needs to go to be that kind of community!
Recently, he sent me an email that shows how far he has come:
This morning as soon as I began the thought, “What man’s arms are around me? I’m lonely!” I stopped. I acknowledged that no man’s were, and no man’s ever would be. But this time I began to picture in my mind Jesus at the end of my bed with his hand on my back; just being there. I imagined him holding me (you always say, Dave, that we are the bride of Christ). Though I wish I could see, feel, and touch Jesus, I never will in this life, but I acknowledged he was there and hadn’t abandoned me. That in that room, in the early hours of the morning, he was with me saying it was okay.
And I believe it. In this moment I believe it’s okay. The depression, the joblessness, the dependence on another for my survival, it’s all okay. I realize now that, especially in the dark days, I have to reach past my own hopelessness and dig deeper to find and hold on to the hope that is Christ. I am far from having this down yet, but I am closer.
I praise God for his good work in Mitchell’s heart. His story displays the power of God’s work in community, where in our Biblical Support Group Mitchell is slowly learning how to cling to Christ for comfort during loneliness and for courage to reach out to engage with others, where he is beginning to establish relationships with men as a fellow brother in Christ.
I pray that what we have in our support groups would be replicated in our church communities! Maybe Mitchell, in his weakness, will lead his church to become the kind of community Christ desires it to be.
14 Jan 2014
Temptation is suffering
“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.
Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.
“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?
In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.
Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)
What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure. James teaches, “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. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14, ESV).
God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure. But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.
God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.
1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!
2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle. The Christian life is a fight. We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Temptation trains us in obedience. The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” There is no growth in holiness without a fight. If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls! We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.
It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials. Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!
Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.
3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.
This is not abstract theology Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically! “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.
Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees. That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!
There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!
The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.
The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?
Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
Weeping with those who weep
Receiving painful phone calls is never easy. I am regularly contacted by individuals—often in tears—because someone in their life has made the decision to forsake their covenant, their faith—their real hope—in order to chase an empty lie.
I hear tragic stories like that of a husband with a history of pornography, caught again after a period of supposed victory, or the spouse whose entire life is shattered by the revelation of affairs spanning decades, or the wife whose enmeshed relationship with a girlfriend turned sexual. Although such scenarios are expected from our post-Christian culture, increasingly they are happening in the local church. Sexual sin is not something “out there”; it is reaching epidemic proportions in your church!
But here’s the rub: The church does not handle sexuality very well, even on a good day! This wondrous gift given to God’s people is rarely talked about positively. Even among those who should revel in sex as a demonstration of God’s joy in delighting his children and in the glorious theological truths revealed by a robust, biblical understanding of sexuality, it is surrounded by shame. In most churches, if sex is addressed at all, our teens are sternly warned, “Don’t do it until you’re married!” I have interacted with countless individuals raised in Christian homes where sexuality was never discussed. It is astounding that such a significant aspect of life—with sweeping spiritual ramifications—is so thoroughly neglected. Given the church’s failures regarding sexuality, the revelation of sexual sin is usually not handled in a balanced and redemptive manner.
There are often two polar responses when sexual sin is disclosed. If the sin is quiet, keep it that way! Do not expose it to the light of day and keep as many people in ignorance as possible. However, if it is too late and the sin has become public knowledge, the only answer is church discipline—swift and severe. Historically, the Church has struggled with “shooting the wounded,” dealing heavy handedly with sexual sin without a view to restoration and healing. There needs to be a redemptive solution, one that embraces the gospel of grace and the living Redeemer who enters into situations and relationships wracked with sin to bring reconciliation and healing. This is the work of his kingdom—“He’s come to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found!” Do we believe Jesus is big enough to handle sexual sin? Do we invite sin-sick people to come into the light, or do we encourage them to continue cowering in the shadows?
Seeking a redemption solution
1 John 1:7 speaks powerfully to what is needed in the body of Christ. Contrasting believers with those who walk in the darkness of their sin, John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This passage echoes John’s Gospel that men love the darkness and will avoid the light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). Do we encourage people to come out of darkness? John makes plain that deep, meaningful fellowship in the body of Christ— genuine intimacy—will only happen as we come into the light. Further, deliberately coming into the light has a direct connection to purging sin from our life. Steve Gallagher of Pure Life Ministries writes, “If you want to stay stuck in your sin, confess it only to God. If you want to overcome it, confess it to someone else!”
We may respond that public confession is unnecessary since we have direct access to God. The Bible clearly teaches, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” However, I argue this reflects a greater fear of man than fear of God. If I truly care what God thinks—filled with awe by his power, grandeur, love, etc.—I don’t care what you think about me! In fact, I will want to talk to you about my sin struggles because I want to be transformed and become his beautiful, long-anticipated Bride. Proverbs says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (28:12). Keeping our sin secret, guarantees continued slavery. Narcotics Anonymous uses a great slogan—“We are only as sick as our secrets!”
Every individual who comes to Harvest USA is different. The histories, life experiences, specifics of their sin and temptation, etc., are widely divergent and require particular attention. In short, there are not many universals—healing comes in specific ways, as diverse as our personal brokenness. In six years at the ministry, there is only one thing that clearly is universal: Those committed to ruthless honesty consistently overcome their sin and make great strides in holiness. In stark contrast, I have never encountered an individual who overcame sexual struggles if they were unwilling to bring the sin fully into the light with an ever-increasing number of individuals. Those who refuse this path of ruthless honesty stay stuck in their sin or return to it after a short period of “white-knuckled” abstinence.
This is all part of God’s design. James exhorts us “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Spiritual healing and transformation occurs in the context of community. Even the world has found this to be true, hence the explosion of Twelve Step groups for every imaginable, errant behavior. Scripture uses the body metaphor to powerfully illustrate that every individual within the church is inextricably linked with all the others (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Ephesians 4:17 makes this even more explicit, exhorting that the body reaches maturity only “when each part is working properly.” Jesus intends his church to be radically interdependent. This is a significant challenge that rails against our innate desire to be free and independent. There are important implications to this reality: When sexual sin arises in the local church, if we fail to deal with it in a way that honors Christ, we harm the individuals involved and impact the entire congregation!
What about the redemptive use of Church Discipline? Discipline is a crucial mark of the true church, but are we careful to enforce its biblical intention? When reading Matthew 18 that the impenitent should be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector,” too often my mind is filled with the image of kicking that dirty sinner to the church’s curb. I was struck recently reading Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this passage in The Message. He writes, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for
repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” A paraphrase for sure, but the tone impacted me strongly. What do you do with a tax collector and sinner? Offer them the hope of the gospel! This is an important insight we should always keep in mind. There are times when sin requires extreme action by the church. But at every point, we must be mindful that the intent of discipline, even in its most extreme form, is to restore the offender (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The goal is to reflect the overwhelming love of Christ to men and women, desperately lost in their sin and folly. Even when obedience to Christ requires “casting out” the individual, he or she must be made aware that the Church’s door is always open, if only he or she will be humbled in repentance and commit to leaving the darkness for his glorious light!
A redemptive approach to dealing with sexual sin in the local church requires risk. It is a messy process that moves everyone outside their comfort zone. It requires actively pursuing those impacted by the sin at every level and bringing the situation into the light, with an eye toward God’s restoration. It is crucial that attention is given to the various relationships impacted by the ripple effect of sexual sin. However, given the constraints of this article, the focus will center on the struggler with very brief considerations for the wider circle of impact within the church as a whole.
Processing the initial disclosure
When sexual sin is exposed, it has usually existed undetected for years, sometimes decades. Sin patterns so deeply entrenched will not peel off like a dirty sock! Radical intervention is required. First, consider how the situation was revealed. Was the individual “caught,” or did he or she come forward of his or her own volition seeking help? Most men coming to Harvest USA fall in the former category. Be very wary in this circumstance. Often God uses getting caught to eventually bring someone to a place of repentance, but it usually does not start there! Pay attention to the confession. Is the person confessing only what he or she has already been caught doing, or is the person freely disclosing the full extent of the behavior? Genuine repentance means turning away from sin. Bringing hidden things into the light is the first step in that process. People engaged in sexual sin are deeply deceitful, and these patterns have been in place for a long time. Be deeply skeptical. Assume that there is always more to be revealed.
In our sin, we both deceive others and are profoundly self-deceived. This means the struggler is tempted to keep you in the dark regarding the extent of the behavior and is personally blind to the depth of the enslavement, similar to the drug addict who will continue to maintain that everything is fine while in the process of literally committing suicide. Employ the rich scriptural imagery of light and darkness in your conversation. Repeatedly hold forth the stark contrast between he who is Truth-incarnate, the King of light, over against the father of lies and his kingdom of darkness. Pray for the activity of the Spirit, who alone can bring the individual to repentance.
There is reason for concern if someone is unwilling to confess to his or her spouse specific sins already confessed to you. By God’s design, no one should know someone better than his or her spouse. There should be no secrets between a husband and wife and we need to be careful that we do not continue nurturing the unholy relational patterns already established. Change will be affected as the couple begins to address the “hidden things” openly and honestly.
Spouses do need full disclosure! This does not mean the nitty-gritty details of every sexual encounter, specific websites, etc. But they need to be fully aware of the extent of the sin: how many incidents of infidelity over how long a period and with whom; the duration and frequency of Internet porn activity, unholy “chatting,” and masturbation, the amount of money squandered, etc. Spouses need counsel because their propensity is to demand too much information—certain details will do more harm than good.
Anyone who claims to be “cured” should be met with skepticism. God rarely brings ultimate deliverance from struggles with sin. The flesh remains a constant barb—but this can be redemptive! It forces us to look to him and to remember our desperate need. God will never answer the prayer that says (in effect), “Bring me to the place where I don’t need to keep crying out to you everyday!” He loves us too much! This does not diminish the reality that Jesus enables us to overcome our struggles with sin, but there is a difference between victory over sin and deliverance from all temptation! Freedom is not gauged by the absence of temptation or the exchange of heterosexual for homosexual desire. Victory is when the individual consistently chooses obedience out of love for Jesus, in the face of contrary desires!
For anyone who struggles with sexual sin, rigorous accountability is a must. Most individuals need a minimum of two people in their lives who regularly ask them probing questions about their personal life—at least once per week. Avoid exhaustive, tedious questionnaires covering every conceivable sexual sin for two reasons: 1) The flesh will always find a loophole or invent some new vehicle for sin; and 2) Deep, intimate relationships are crucial for overcoming our struggles with sin (regardless of its manifestation). Hearing “no” 100 times does not enable you to know the individual on any deeper level – even if you go over that list for weeks!
A short list of five or six pertinent, open-ended, questions that require reflection, i.e. more than a simple yes or no answer, will make your investment far more fruitful. For example, if you know the daily commute has been a problem, rather than asking, “Did you or were you tempted to stop at _____ while driving to work this week,” it is better to ask, “How did you respond when you were driving by _____? What was going on inside of you?” One question allows an easy “No,” the other forces you to engage the individual’s heart. You begin getting to know aspects of his or her person, and things carefully hidden in the past. The questions need to be tailored to the individual, responding to the specifics of the personal struggle.
Accountability needs to identify the “sin behind the sin.” Sexual sin is not primarily about lust. Lust is a component and the self-focused desire to reduce other image-bearers to commodities needs to be addressed. Sexual sin always violates the Second Great Commandment, exploiting another to satisfy self, but it is first and foremost a violation of the First Great Commandment, an idol that replaces the Creator. This means in the face of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. the individual runs to a false god. Rather than collapsing on Christ, pouring out his or her heart, and receiving his peace, the individual takes matters into his or her own hands.
There are times when temptation is like an ambush on a beautiful, sunny day when everything is fine, but often there are predictable patterns of behavior—sinful responses to the challenges of life in a fallen world. One man who recently came to the office was amazed by this reality after having struggled with sexual sin for decades. After paying attention to his patterns of temptation, he realized that his struggle with masturbation was far more a response to anxiety and stress, ratherthan the result of mere lust. Identifying and developing accountability for the “sin behind the sin” will enable him to run to Christ sooner and address the idols even more deeply entrenched than his struggle with sexual sin!
Accountability needs to go beyond restraining sinful behavior. God never intends us to stop in the vacuous place of “absent sin.” The call of the gospel is radical allegiance to the King. We are called to be like him in righteousness and holiness. Thus, good accountability will always balance “putting off” and “putting on” questions. Ephesians 4:20-32 and Colossians 3:5-17 powerfully demonstrate how this exchange is to take place in our lives.
Sexual sin—even with the illusion it is a private offense—is always relationally destructive. Because it is a violation of the command to love God and others, there should be specific, reflective questions that address the individual’s relationship with God and others. Is he or she engaged in spiritual disciplines personally and corporately? Is love for God evidenced by decisions of obedience? How is the person developing intimacy in primary relationships? Is he or she changing the way he or she responds to frustrating circumstances or disagreements with others? Are there specific examples of selflessness in places where he or she was formerly self-consumed? Is the person serving the community and church or seeking to be served?
“Putting on” requires patient “baby steps.” It is tremendous growth for an estranged couple to even sit down and discuss personal issues for 10 minutes at a time, 3 days a week! If the individual is single, part of the accountability plan must include a strategy for intentionally developing significant, vital relationships within the body and finding specific areas of service. It is beneficial for singles to live with a family or other singles in community, learning to selflessly serve on a day-to-day basis. Further, because there are specific ways all of us have mammoth strides yet to make in these categories, accountability is never a one-way street. Remember, a sovereign God has placed you in this circumstance. Given the interdependent reality of life in Christ, you need the struggler in your life as much as they need you!
Widening the circle
Finally, the call to live in the light means laying aside false pretenses. Great wisdom is required, but the reality of the sin and the challenges facing the family needs to be revealed to others in the church. Jesus promises that those who trust in him will never be put to shame. He invites us to be exposed, promising to clothe us in his righteousness. Will we trust him? Do we invite others to trust his promise or communicate by our secrecy that some sins should be kept quiet? Bringing strugglers into the light is a tangible demonstration of the gospel. It invites strugglers to abandon the “sandy foundations” of reputation, image, self-esteem, etc., building their entire identity on the Rock. Conversely, urging secrecy encourages strugglers to see their sin as worse than that of others.
Widening the circle does not mean public confession on Sunday morning! Rather, it means fostering gut-level, honest intimacy in the obvious relationships. Church leadership should know—including those who minister to the children of the individuals involved. People in the individuals’ home fellowship need to be aware of the sin struggle. After all, these groups should exist to minister to one another in specifically these types of circumstances! The church is called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Sexual sin is a profound burden that requires the full support of the body. It demonstrates the necessity of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Jesus is big enough to deal with all the problems in His Church. He is deeply committed to purifying and beautifying his Bride and, he invites us to join him in this work because his heart’s desire is for us to grow more deeply in love with him. The entire goal of the Christian life—the very essence of eternal life—is knowing him! His purposes to this end are powerfully at work in sexual brokenness that we may “grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Will you join him?