Today, the church is facing a major crisis, and few alarms are going off. It is a silent crisis, one that is spreading in the shadows of secrecy, and yet is doing great damage to the lives of those inside her walls.
I’m talking about the normalization of porn within the church. Pornography, which is now so widespread and accessible, seems to have become almost a non-issue for so many churches. Occasionally there are sermons which mention in passing the danger of it. A few bold churches have begun to set up support groups for those who have found themselves addicted to it. But mostly, silence.
No rousing alarms. No calls to action. No warnings that already the flood waters are inside the house and that bold, quick action is needed to save the very house itself. There seems to be a disquieting casualness to this issue, almost like a calm before the storm. But the storm is already raging.
The growing epidemic
“Wait! I need to talk to you!” a woman’s voice called out as I crossed the lobby following a church presentation. Her eyes revealed her distress, and she blurted out, “I just found out my 11-year-old daughter’s been watching online porn for months. What should I do?”
Many Christians assume that they are insulated from problems such as these. Sadly, this mother’s situation is far from unique. Parents call us regularly because they’ve discovered their children’s exposure to Internet pornography. This is not the pornography of yesteryear; rather, the kind that exists today is a cornucopia of increasing depravity. The Internet offers a depth of degradation that wouldn’t have been available even in adult bookstores 20 years ago. Tragically, I received a call from parents after catching their eight-year-old watching bestiality videos on his iPod Touch.
But the problem goes from beyond the impact it is having on our children. Young adults in their twenties can’t remember a day when porn wasn’t free and easily accessible at their fingertips. Young Christian men and women are grievously impacted by its accessibility and, coupled with the vacuum left by the church’s silence on sexuality, are becoming ensnared.
Many singles, committed to chastity in their relationships with the opposite sex, succumb to the lure of porn and self-stimulation as a “less destructive” alternative to sexual temptation. We are now learning that this is a destructive fallacy. Growing numbers of singles don’t know how to move toward real members of the opposite sex because they’ve lived so long in a porn fantasy world.
And a new phenomenon identified by secular researchers is also affecting young men in the church. The fastest-growing segment of the population struggling with erectile dysfunction is men in their twenties and thirties who have been conditioned by online porn to respond only to never-ending novelty with increasing depravity. One man in his twenties likened his experience with online porn to ordering from an a la carte menu: “Tonight I’ll have a little of this and some of that,” lamenting that he is now incapable of sexual intimacy with his wife. Despite entering marriage as a virgin, his sexuality has been maimed by years of porn use.
Older adults in the church aren’t immune to the scourge. I’ve lost count of the people in their forties, fifties, and sixties who describe viewing porn magazines occasionally as a young adult, making a break from the behavior as they entered marriage and family life, only to later confess, “And then we got the Internet…” The result: estranged or broken marriages, shipwrecked careers, and the profound loss of spiritual vitality and faith. And these are men and women in the church.
Nothing robs God’s people of contentment and the joy of following Christ than hidden sexual sin. 2 Peter 1:5-8 is a passage where Peter challenges believers to add to their faith virtues like self-control, knowledge, steadfastness, godliness, and love, and then says that failure to do so will cripple one’s faith: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). I would contend that one of the reasons for the weak and wavering faith of much of the church today may very well be how its people are capitulating to the sexualized culture and are immersed in sexual struggles and sin.
Every demographic in the body of Christ is impacted by this issue, but the most heartbreaking group is our children. Porn usage is so pervasive, especially among youth, college students, and young adults that many have lost any hope that they will find victory over this struggle. If leadership is aware of these struggles, then their overall silence communicates that the gospel is powerless or irrelevant to help them in their sexual struggles.
I recently attended worship at a large urban church. The pastor challenged the church with the danger of fornication and described the wrecked lives of young people having sex outside marriage…and then moved on. As I surveyed the hundreds of people in the sanctuary, most of them married, I wanted to shout from my pew, “What about porn?!” Sex outside marriage is indeed a huge problem, especially among Christian singles, but the pastor’s omission of pornography missed the mark of where the majority of his congregation struggles. They struggle, daily, with the relentless temptation, virtually everywhere, to give in to sexual sin and keep it hidden from others, guaranteeing that the problem will not go away on its own.
What the church needs to do now
The church can’t afford to continue in silence and ignore this growing epidemic. We must shun the casual attitudes and face the reality that the consequences of our inaction are already severe and becoming ruinous. How can the church be so relatively blasé about this, while some countries, like Iceland and England, are proposing outright restrictions on Internet porn being piped into homes? If even secular governments are raising the alarms about how destructive pornography is, then surely the church should be doing that and more for its own people!
How can the church begin to take pro-active steps to address this in a comprehensive way?
Sound the alarm
Like the old heresies facing the church in the early centuries of her existence, there is a new “Gnosticism” on the rise that says what we do sexually no longer matters. The younger generation has been raised on what I refer to as a “Clintonian” definition of sex. The boundary lines for acceptable behavior have been redrawn, and all manner of sexual activity is now seen as not really being sex at all.
The church must reclaim and teach what Paul preached two millennia ago: that what we do with our body matters. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Ephesians 4:17-19, and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 make clear that God cares passionately about our sexuality. According to these passages, what we do with our bodies demonstrates the allegiance of our hearts. We either look like those controlled by the Spirit of the living God, or we look like those in the world ruled by their sensual desires. Rather than displaying a casual attitude toward sexual sin, Ephesians 5:3 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Our sexuality is a litmus test for our spirituality!
The time for the church to sound a very loud alarm is now. The church can do so much more!
The body of Christ needs to hear dedicated sermons on sexuality and faith and have real-life illustrations and strategies woven into sermon messages on an ongoing basis.
We need adult Sunday school classes where we teach practical strategies on how to live lives of sexual integrity, not an easy task in this overly-sexualized culture.
- Youth groups need safe places to talk about this, and continual messages from youth pastors and adult volunteers that it’s okay to seek help when they feel overwhelmed, because silence and secrecy wreak havoc on hearts and lives.
- Pastors, elders, and Christian counselors need to equip youth pastors and youth volunteers to know how to help youth who are already finding themselves ensnared in sexual struggles and sin.
- Men’s and women’s groups need to learn, in a gender-specific context, to talk openly about real-life struggles in this area. If adults and parents can begin to talk about this, then they will lead the way for youth to do so also.
- Parents must be equipped to learn how to talk about sexuality to their kids and given tools to protect their children from the dangers of unfiltered and unaccountable Internet usage that children and youth now see on tablets and smartphones.
- Groups for men and women strugglers need to be up and running, along with groups for affected spouses (usually wives).
We must speak up. We must speak directly and relevantly. We must name the problem, proclaim that there is freedom and hope in the gospel, and patiently show our people how to manage their sexuality well. We need to talk about all this in a whole new way.
Talk about sexuality differently
There is a massive hole in the teaching of sexuality in the church. If the topic is broached at all, it is almost always negative. Yet the church must go beyond a negative message, especially in order to speak cogently into the culture in which we find ourselves. We know that the world doesn’t like to hear the Christian message on human sexuality; they find it too restrictive. Even C.S.Lewis said, decades ago in Mere Christianity, that the most offensive and unpalatable teaching of Christianity is its sexual ethic. When the church merely focuses on the negative, the world (and even a lot of our own people) just turn off and move further away.
Now, we need to proclaim a positive sexual apologetic, one that articulates the goodness of God’s design and develops a positive theology of sexuality to counteract the increasingly alluring false worldview that has captured so many. We need to speak a different narrative, one that tells of the good reasons for God’s design for our sexuality. We need to persuasively declare the beauty of God’s intentions, and how living within God’s boundaries affirms our human dignity and contributes to a healthy society. We need a better narrative to help singles shepherd their sexuality so that they do not feel like they are the ones being left out. We need a compelling argument for how God’s design for sexuality is the best argument against the many and growing forms of sexual brokenness, inside and outside the church. For example, the best argument that homosexuality is not within God’s created design for sex is not Leviticus 18 and 20, but rather Genesis 1 and 2!
Acknowledge the fact that Christians are sexually broken too
At Harvest USA we teach that sexual brokenness is a universal human problem. This simply means that the fall of humanity into sin has touched every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. All of us need a supernatural intervention to bring redemption to our sexuality. But it goes deeper. A significant percentage of men and women in the body of Christ are living in bondage to their sexual desires. Pastors, next time you’re in front of your congregation, look around at your flock, and realize that, according to one survey, as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% of women report being addicted to or ensnared at some level to porn. Add to that the number of youth looking at easily accessible porn online, and the situation is frightening.
Church leadership has been slow to admit that the problem is so widespread among its people. It is time to vocalize this issue and take the necessary steps to minister to the individuals and families scarred by sexual sin.
What would you do if, instead of sexual sin, they had a terminal illness and were glibly going through the motions every Sunday as if all was well? What steps will you take to snatch them from the flames (Jude 1:23)? The mission of Harvest USA is to equip churches to minister to sexually broken people. We’d love to help train your people to mentor and disciple sexual strugglers, so that they can find freedom from this enslavement. We’ve developed material to equip laity to facilitate biblically-based support groups for men and women. But first the church has to publicly admit that the problem exists.
Partner with parents to teach their children about sexuality
Now, I’m not advocating that parents forsake their God-given calling to raise their children and address sexuality with them, but the church must work together with parents in this endeavor. No longer can churches just assume parents are talking about this stuff. They aren’t. I frequently ask audiences how many of them were raised in a Christian home and, out of those, how many had parents that talked about sex. Most of the hands go down!
The failure of parents and the church to shepherd their children’s sexuality (except maybe to say, “Don’t do it until you’re married!”) has resulted in hordes of young people exiting the church and the faith because they have embraced the cultural narrative of sexuality. The next generation of the church is being lost because this generation failed to honestly talk about sexuality in terms both practical and biblical.
It’s time for the church to actively assist parents, via classes, workshops, and outside speakers, and through the power of “one-anothering” to stop the drifting of our kids falling into sexual entrapment and loss of faith. There’s a reason why churches often ask all their members to take vows at infant baptisms or dedications: Raising sexually-faithful kids is the work of the whole body of Christ!
This is much bigger than personal piety
There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. Dealing with this issue 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 continuing to be abused on multiple levels while performing. Human trafficking, the deepest scourge of all, is embedded in this porn and broken sexuality epidemic.
The bottom line is that our 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 the drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice.
But God’s people should be the vanguard of justice, dedicated to undoing this horrific expression of the curse in this world and serving as Christ’s hands and feet to bind up the brokenhearted and heal their wounds. Will you be the one to start doing this in your church? We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.
At Harvest USA, we watch God do this glorious work of “undoing” every day. The gospel is God’s power for salvation, and he is committed to radical change in the lives of his people. But we have a choice: Are we willing to get our hands dirty and enter into this glorious, redemptive work, or continue keeping our heads in the sand, waiting for the storm to clear? One pastor commented that he knew sexual sin was at epidemic levels among his men, but he was scared to take the lid off.
None of us likes to deal with messy situations, but we have a Redeemer who has blazed this path before us. Rather than maintain his glory in the heavens, Jesus was stripped of everything, entering this world as a baby. At the cross, he left it in the same way. But he conquered sin and death—including pornography!—and rose victoriously, so that we can be empowered by his Spirit to face these giants. And that is the key: It is impossible for us to face this challenge alone, but Jesus’ promise is to be with us to the end of the age. He is offering us deeper communion with himself as we face this challenge. It’s worth raising the alarm and rolling up our sleeves for this!
04 Oct 2012
I just bought a GPS with a great new feature: It warns me when I’m approaching a traffic light equipped with a camera. The beloved Philadelphia Parking Authority just installed a camera close to the Harvest USA office. Believe me: I’ll never risk sliding through that yellow light again! It’s amazing how compliant drivers become when we’re being watched…
How does this connect with our obedience to God? You’ve probably heard it said that in order to sin, you need to be a functional atheist. You need to believe that God doesn’t exist, and you are free to do whatever you please. On one level this is true, but is it helpful to see God as the cosmic, red-light enforcement agent? Will this produce obedience? Knowing God is always with us does produce obedience, but our understanding of what his presence with us means makes all the difference in the world.
He is not about red light enforcement! The people behind the camera don’t care whether I make it through the intersection safely, only that I don’t break the law. In fact, they exist to profit from my disobedience. Too many people struggling with sexual sin understand God’s presence to mean he’s looking over their shoulders with pad and pen in hand, compiling an endless list of black marks next to their names. At best, some are grateful that, because of Jesus, at least the marks will be erased on the last day. But they are missing the glorious wonder of God’s presence. He is seen as a threat rather than a “very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
This view could not be further from the truth. God is present with you because he cares. Consider Psalm 139: After describing how God knows every thought he’s ever had, knows every word before he speaks it, is monitoring literally every step he takes in his life—all of which tend to fill us with dread—David concludes, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v. 6). He is overcome by joy. God’s closeness reveals his desire for relationship. The depth of intimacy that already exists is what we are invited to embrace. And— gloriously!—when this is our understanding of God’s presence, it motivates obedience. We are compelled by the love of Christ. So, rather than shrinking back from God in shame, David (who was no stranger to sexual sin) ends the psalm asking God to open his eyes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (v. 23-24). God is so close because he loves and cares for us. When we understand this, we can boldly ask him to enter in and open our eyes, because we know it is in love that he exposes our sin to draw us closer to himself.
I recently made one of my biggest parental blunders to date: showing my daughters a suspenseful film they just weren’t ready for. And I’ve paid the price: repeated cries of “Daaaaddy!” in the wee hours of the morning. (What was I thinking?!) On one of these occasions, I read to them from Psalm 121. The Hebrew word used six times in just eight verses describes God as a guardian, one who keeps close watch, protecting us from all harm. Two of the verses underscore this reality, promising that God “will neither slumber or sleep” (v. 3-4). My daughters can rest secure because God’s eyes are always on them. He is unsleeping, ever vigilant, covering them with his wings so they can sleep in peace.
It’s the same in our struggle with sexual sin. God is always watching because he loves you and promises “to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). He is relentless in his pursuit of our hearts and commitment to conform us to the image of Jesus.
How has your view of God as a traffic cop impacted your relationship with him? What would change if you believed his presence is the result of his love and delight in you?
Do you like being in the dark? I’ve never met a child who wasn’t afraid of darkness. In the Bible, darkness is often directly connected with evil spiritual forces. It always has a negative connotation. This is why I love John’s teaching that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, ESV).
Echoed twice in the last two chapters of Revelation, we’re promised that there will be no need for the sun or moon in the glorious city to come because God will be our light, and the “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5, ESV). Darkness will be vanquished forever.
But not yet. There’s still a whole lot of darkness in this fallen world, and it deeply impacts our souls. Further, it’s not always something we can avoid. Although in a spiritual sense God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), the darkness of life under the curse relentlessly persists.
Isaiah 50:10 gives a surprising description: “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.” What is this verse saying? God is not surprised by our dark circumstance. The Scriptures testify throughout that he is sovereign over it. There is probably nothing scarier than to be in an unknown place in pitch blackness and called to walk blindly. God doesn’t say it’s okay to cower in a corner waiting for light. In whatever dark trial we’re facing, obedience looks like walking “blindly” by faith. He calls us to walk, risking that we might stub a toe, fall headlong, or plummet over a cliff because he promises that we won’t.
This is not normal for us. We don’t like walking by faith at all. We want to see clearly where we’re headed. Isaiah addresses this reality in the next verse: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11). Not wanting to walk by faith in the darkness, trusting and relying on God, the default of humanity is to light a “torch.”
What do you use for a torch? Sexual sin is a perennial favorite. We don’t turn to sex because our hormones are raging. We sin sexually because the chaos of life is raging around us and we want relief. Our trials feel like being in utter darkness—so we light a torch. We try to make our own way apart from trusting God to take care of us. But the result is disastrous. We go from darkness to torment. The trials of providence are nothing compared to the misery we create through our sinful responses. The torment of our sin looks like job loss, squandered time and money, fallout in our relationships, and increasing discontent in our soul. And if you’ve ever walked by the light of a torch, you know the darkness beyond its trembling glow feels even more oppressive.
What’s the good news? The invitation still stands to begin walking by faith. You may have exacerbated your lot in life through your sexual sin, but even now God calls you to extinguish your torch and embrace him in the darkness. Although it feels like it, it is not a blind faith! He has given us great and precious promises. He will not let your foot slip. He will deliver you from all your fears. Your story has an ending so amazing that your puny mind can’t conceive of the wonder. Your current body couldn’t handle the glory of his presence. You need a resurrected body to experience the eternal pleasure of that relationship.
That relationship and unity with him (to which sex points) is just looking in a mirror darkly right now in this life. And he invites you to begin experiencing that relationship now as you walk by faith. In Jesus, we have a Savior not calling out to us from a remote place, but one who walks right ahead, facing our dangers for us and promising to deliver us safely into his Father’s house. Will you trust him and step out in faith?
What “torch” (sexual or otherwise) are you tempted to light when the dark trials of life overwhelm you? Compared to the torment that results, how would it be different to walk by faith in the darkness?
What does this struggle look like? Consider 1 John 2:3: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” Many read this, look at their lives and say, “Ah…I’m not keeping his commandments. That must mean I don’t really have a relationship with him. I must be the liar mentioned in verse 4.” Knowing him, our relationship with God, seems conditional on keeping his commandments. So if that’s not happening, you must be wrong about even the existence of the relationship.
But what if the passage was read the other way around? Keeping his commandments is conditional on knowing him. In other words, when you know him, you obey. You actually want to obey because you enjoy the closeness that comes from walking with him. It is the growing relationship that drives the obedience. When that relationship is rooted deeply in your heart, keeping his commandments is the natural outflow. What if you heard that passage as an invitation to a deeper relationship, rather than condemnation that it must not exist?
According to God, if you confess Jesus as Lord and believe in the resurrection, you are saved. The Bible makes clear that this realization only happens because he is already at work, opening your eyes, enabling you to understand your need of him. You embraced Christ only because he was already wooing you. The relationship is a given because he says it is. The enemy loves to keep you chasing your tail, wondering if you could truly be a Christian and still struggle with sin, because he knows his ability to manipulate and deceive you is finished as soon as you take your focus off your ability and fix your eyes on the relationship God says already exists.
In this light, hear the following passage as an invitation: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11). Jesus invites us to abide in his love. He’s communicating the importance of obedience flowing from relationship because he is for you. He wants your joy to be full. He wants what is best for you. His commandments reflect his love, and they are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).
Commandments are easy when they hold the promise of blessing. God’s desire is to protect you from your destructive desires in order to give you himself. This reality was brought home to me in a really sweet way this summer. After losing my wife almost three years ago from complications due to breast cancer, God brought a wonderful woman into my life this past year, and we were married on July 7. (And I actually have Harvest to thank for this!) Now I’m living under a “command”; I have covenanted with this woman to forsake all others for her. But here’s the thing: I get her! It is a joy to forsake all others because I have a wife who is absolutely amazing in every way. I couldn’t be more thrilled to obey that command because it is actually the foundation of a glorious relationship. A fitting illustration because, after all, God gives us the gift of marriage and sexuality so we can have a tiny glimpse of the wonder of his relationship to us (Ephesians 5:31-32)! We see in a mirror darkly Jesus’ joy and delight as he eagerly anticipates sitting down to feast with his bride at the wedding, arranged from the foundation of the world by his Father.
When have you walked away from reading the Bible feeling condemned? How does that passage point to God’s love in Christ and invite you to deeper relationship with him?
I’m glad summer is over, and not just because my girls are headed back to school. I’m done with the heat. One of my friends is sick of Philly summers. He’s heading back home to Minneapolis. He’d rather face those winters—20 feet of snow and four months of daily temperatures below freezing. As a nation, we experienced the hottest July on record. And in Philly it’s not just the temperature; the humidity is miserable too.
The air is already sticky at 5:30 in the morning. The combined heat and humidity makes me want to just lie on the couch in a dark, air-conditioned room. It sucks the life out of you.
This is exactly how David describes the effects of hidden sin in our life. “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4-5, ESV). We turn to sexual sin trying to make life “work.” It offers escape from the stress of work and real relationships. It promises to spice up the day-to-day monotony. It provides the illusion of intimacy to the lonely. We use sex as a pressure-relief valve when we’re anxious, frustrated with various life circumstances, or angry at our spouse. Psalm 32 describes the tragic irony of hidden sexual sin: We run to it for life, but it leaves us depleted and desolate. I enjoy yard work, but the summer heat makes it an oppressive chore. Similarly, sexual sin promises blessing and offers relief from life’s pressures, but is actually the thief of John 10 that comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
So we don’t find relief. In an instant the fantasy evaporates, the pleasure is gone and we’re left with all our original problems. Only now things are worse, exacerbated by our guilt and shame. And with each fall, the mounting inner turmoil sets us up to repeat the cycle again and again and again.
This Psalm points to the way out of this mess. It begins making the glorious declaration that we are blessed by God when our sins are forgiven. The gospel invites us to revel in this blessing because we have the irrevocable guarantee that our sins are forgiven. Jesus paid the debt in full. The Psalm concludes by assuring us that we are surrounded by the steadfast love of the Lord. God so loved the world he sent Jesus for us. Jesus invites us to abide in his love that our joy may be full (see John 15:1-11). Peter says one of the reasons we fail to grow in the Christian life is because we forget we’ve been cleansed from our former sins (see 2 Peter 1:3-9).
And it goes further. We are promised care and protection through the trials of life. When the flood waters rise, they won’t sweep us away. Note: The passage is clear that trials will come. But it assures us we will be delivered. God will be our “hiding place” and “preserve” us from whatever the trouble may be. Unlike the false god of our sexual sin that brings emptiness and despair, embracing God in the midst of life’s trials brings comfort. We receive spiritual solace that sustains our soul, even as the chaos of life continues to swirl around us.
Finally, we’re exhorted to “be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Embracing the hope of the gospel—God with us—takes us from guilt, anxiety, frustration, shame, etc., to joy and thanksgiving. We are invited to know hope and peace. And it all begins when we stop hiding and get real with who we are and what we’re doing.
How has your experience with sexual sin been like the summer heat, sapping life and vitality? Can you imagine what it would be like to be free?
26 Jul 2012
Our culture teaches us that the strength of our masculinity is directly connected to our sexual activity. It celebrates sexual conquest, mocking monogamy in marriage and chastity in singleness. We are told “real” men have sex multiple times a week, have had many sexual partners, use porn personally and to “spice up” their sex lives, etc. The culture is trying to tell us that these chains are a sign of strength. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sexual sin does not make us more of a man; it emasculates us! You need to know that your sexual sin makes you complicit in injustice, oppressing those who are weaker, those we are called, as men, to cover and protect. It profoundly impacts our view of others.
As a single man, it affects your ability to selflessly engage others. Rather than considering how to serve others and lay down your life, lust programs you to view others as a commodity, as objects that exist for your pleasure. Even if your sin is limited to fantasy and masturbation, you are training yourself in broken, selfish sexuality. Your experience of self-centered sex shapes your expectations for the marriage bed, radically undermining God’s design that spouses are to serve each other sexually, focused on the other’s pleasure, not their own. Should God provide a spouse, you will expect sex to be primarily about your pleasure.
For married men, it robs you of the ability to love your wife and children. You brought selfish expectations of sex into marriage and have taken matters into your own hands when it failed to satisfy. Because sexual sin is such a source of “life” for you, those you are called to love and cherish, shepherd and protect, become an annoyance. They are reduced to obstacles, keeping you from the pleasure you crave.
In the end, sexual sin sucks life and vitality from us. This is part of what is in view when 1 Corinthians 6:18 describes sexual sin as against our own bodies. Perhaps more than any other form of sin, it leaves us utterly drained spiritually. Far from demonstrating our power, sexual sin is a profound revelation of our weakness as we are enslaved to our behaviors and desires. As my colleague, Dan, says, “A real man can stare down his erection.” In other words, he is not a slave to his desires. A real man is stronger than his lust.
Further, in tragic irony, our pursuit of sexual sin ultimately robs us of our ability to experience sexual satisfaction. Ephesians 4:19 describes the reality this way: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (NIV). The Greek word pleonexia literally means a “desire to have more.” It refers to utter insatiability. When we abandon ourselves to indulge in sexual pleasure outside of God’s design, the result is slavery. Like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick, the harder we strive to experience sexual satisfaction, the more it eludes us—even as our reckless pursuit of sexual contentment takes us into ever-deeper perversions. Indulging “every kind of impurity” means that what once satisfied us does so no longer, and we need to go deeper into the mess to find the same thrill.
Jesus’ mission is to “set captives free” (Isaiah 61:1-3). He doesn’t want us to be emasculated, but to be men who are “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). The hope of the gospel is freedom from the things that enslave us, as his power works in us through his Spirit.
Do you believe that sexual sin is emasculating? How does the man you are in your fantasy life compare to the reality of your experience of slavery?
This excerpt was taken from Harvest USA’s workbook for men, Sexual Sanity for Men, Recreating Your Mind in a Crazy Culture, published by New Growth Press. This workbook is excellent for small groups and one-on-one mentoring.
You can also visit the Harvest USA bookstore to browse our other resources, which we hope you will find helpful.
17 Jul 2012
Along with the sense of guilt, long-term sinful habits and hidden desires create a deep sense of shame. Shame is what happens when we begin to identify directly with our sin—when we view our sin as what we are, rather than something we do. In the face of mounting guilt and an inability to change, our sinful behaviors or desires become a source of personal identity.
One brother recounted the shame of being called a “jerk off” as a teen because masturbation had been a central part of his life since early childhood. Since he was secretly enslaved to this behavior and lived with profound guilt for years, he believed he was a “jerk off” in a very deep sense
The power of shame lies in the “hiddenness” of our behavior or desires. Shame grows and overwhelms us when we keep things hidden in the dark. We were created by God for intimacy, to be known by others. But in our shame, we are too scared to let others see who we really are, to know the worst things about us. As a result, we live with the nagging sense that if others truly knew us, they would reject us. We become committed to hiding behind a mask and living a life that is a lie. We begin to project an illusion for others to see, but this just intensifies the problem. As our hypocrisy increases, so does our shame. As shame deepens, we become more committed to the façade. We enter a relational cycle as destructive and ensnaring as our struggle with sexual sin.
Why is shame so destructive? It always results in estrangement from others. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are a social outcast. Many people wrestling with deep shame are the “life of the party.” Everybody knows and loves them, but inwardly they are living a life of hiding, desperately afraid of others finding out. They live with a constant fear of exposure. Although they know they are well-liked, shame makes them think, “Would people really like me if they knew____?” It may appear that they have many rich friendships, but inwardly they are deeply alone because no one truly knows them. The pressure of living a lie is a crushing burden that often leads to depression, seemingly unrelated anxieties, other destructive behaviors like self harm or substance abuse, etc.
For others, their sense of shame leads to both inward and outward isolation. Instead of living a public life that is a sham, they increasingly withdraw from relationships, both because of their fear of being “found out” and the increasing pain of living with others without being truly “known” by them. There is a cost to our souls when we live an illusion before others, never known for who we truly are.
The only way to find freedom from this cycle is to risk exposure. Listen to the promise of 1 John 1:7: “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” (ESV). Did you hear the double promise? If we humble ourselves and risk exposure by “walking in the light,” instead of hiding in the dark in our shame, God promises we will have fellowship—genuine intimacy—with each other, and we’ll get what we’ve been longing for: cleansing from our sin. The only way out of the cycle of sinful behavior and relational estrangement is to be truly known. Only honesty and vulnerability with others in the body can deliver us from both shame and slavery to sin.
How is shame manifested in your life? Are you outgoing but hiding, withdrawn, or in between? In which relationships are you most “hidden?”
This excerpt is taken from Harvest USA’s workbook for men, Sexual Sanity for Men, Recreating Your Mind in a Crazy Culture, published by New Growth Press. This workbook is excellent for small groups and one-on-one mentoring. You can check out this workbook and other resources in the Harvest USA bookstore at www.harvest-usa-store.com.
13 Jul 2012
Do you know the experience of guilt? Sometimes it is acute, a stabbing pain in your gut. At other times, it is a dull, gnawing in your soul—a vague feeling of “wrongness” about life, and when you stop to focus on why, the memory of your sin floods back. You long to be free from guilt, but as your failure persists, the pain continues. As a Christian, the guilt you experience over your sin is unavoidable.
You know the truth. You know how God calls you to live. You know the things you should be doing and the things you shouldn’t.
Worse, our experience of guilt is compounded because sexual sin is always clustered together with other sins. Lies and deceit are the constant companions of sexual sin. We squander time and resources, neglecting our calling as husbands, fathers, sons, employees, church members, etc. Sometimes we steal to support our behaviors. All these things deepen the reality of our guilt.
Because we keep our sin hidden, guilt surfaces in other ways and impacts our relationships with others. We are irritable and impatient. We become withdrawn and sullen. Sometimes we rage, even scaring ourselves. Even if you manage to hide your behavior for decades, you need to realize that there is always fallout from sin. Sin always infects our relationships with God and others. Because of the reality of your guilt, spending the evening looking at porn online will impact who you are at work the next day—how well you are able to function, interact with others, and so on. When you stop at the adult bookstore on the way home from work, it affects who you are at the dinner table with your family. When you spent time at work having a sexual chat online, you will be a different man at the home Bible study that night. If you are having suggestive conversations with a co-worker, it will determine how you interact with your wife once the kids are in bed. You may be able to hide your behavior, but there will always be relational consequences.
The hope for you today is that the gospel is true! Listen to the promise from Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (ESV). He does not treat us as our sins deserve, but rather, because ”the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love,” he removes our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (see Psalm 103, especially v. 8-14). In Christ, God has forever dealt with the problem of our guilt!
How do you tend to respond to others when you feel guilty? Are you angry, impatient, or withdrawn? Who tends to be on the receiving end of these behaviors?
This excerpt is taken from Harvest USA’s workbook for men, Sexual Sanity for Men, Recreating Your Mind in a Crazy Culture, published by New Growth Press. This workbook is excellent for small groups and one-on-one mentoring. Visit the Harvest USA bookstore to check out this resource and others at harvest-usa-store.com.
Even worse, have you suffered with uncontrollable thoughts? You try to restrain where your mind wanders, but it keeps straying back against your will to certain memories, individuals, or fantasies. Thoughts break in constantly, causing distraction. You’ve prayed, fasted, memorized Scripture—but nothing seems to work for very long. The thoughts, desires, and attractions come back, leaving you feeling defeated and hopeless. You lose hope that victory over your thoughts is even possible.
Since you’ve been trying to change for years without success, you just expect you’ll be at it again eventually.
How has your struggle with sexual sin—in your desires and behavior—impacted your life? It appears so innocuous at first: Masturbation may be a “guilty pleasure,” but it seems relatively harmless. Using porn or fantasy to fuel your behavior then becomes an obvious necessity. But there is always a steady progression. What starts with provocative ads or romance novels turns into soft porn and explicit stories. Then you want to experience more and more. Eventually, still pictures aren’t enough, and the Internet has made video downloads so easy. What began as a pleasant escape from the humdrum routine or pressures of life becomes an obsession. Some people begin spending hours every day surfing the Internet for new porn. Others pursue connection through chat rooms or phone sex. Many end up doing what they previously thought impossible—seeking out sexual encounters.
This increasing escalation has a price tag. We all have a very finite life. The time, energy, and money invested in pursuing sexual sin is stealing from your family, future security, career aspirations, ability to serve God and others, etc. Every day men and women are sacrificing things of infinite value to pursue their sexual desires. Even our health becomes a casualty. HIV and other STDs abound. The strain of living a secret, “double life” results in depression, ulcers, and anxiety.
In Psalm 32:3-4, David describes the cost of hidden sin: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (ESV). We willingly sacrifice everything most dear to us—spouse, children, career, financial success, even faith (described as “more precious than gold” in 1 Peter 1:7)—on the altar of our sexual desires. It is crucial to reckon with this reality.
What has your sin cost you?
Even if your struggle hasn’t escalated as just described, have you noticed that the desires are taking up more space in your head and heart? Maybe you are able to manage your behavior on a day-to-day basis, but do you invest time carefully planning your next opportunity? Or savoring the memories of your last exploit? How do you respond to others when your carefully orchestrated plan is thwarted? Maybe your behavior looks okay on the outside, but inwardly you’re enslaved.
There is something incredibly important you need to know: You are not alone in this battle against sin. Too many in the church either aren’t being honest or are blind to this reality, but every Christian who wants to grow in holiness needs to face the fact that there are places in life where he or she is still enslaved by sin. So Paul writes,
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:15-25).
Paul poignantly describes the experience of every Christian battling against sin. There is a profound sense of slavery and frustration in our inability to overcome particular struggles. You can almost see Paul beating his head against the wall in utter exasperation. And the battle is on two fronts: We both continue in sin we hate, and at the same time we woefully neglect God’s calling to love him and others in specific ways. Your situation is not unique. It was experienced by the most prolific writer of the NT, the eminent apostle who fearlessly took the message of Christ to Rome, the place of ultimate power and opposition to Jesus in the 1st century. And it has been the experience of every other leader in the church since and every man in the pew. All of us continue to struggle significantly with sin as Christians and sexual sin in particular reduces us to slavery. But in the midst of his seeming despair, Paul clings to the hope of our Deliverer. The goal of this book is for you to see the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness now!
Regardless of where you are in your struggle with sexual sin, prayerfully consider the following questions, and know that despite where you’ve been, Jesus is offering you a transformed life!
What have you sacrificed on the altar of sexual sin: money, time, relationships, etc.? Are you honestly assessing what it is costing you in your life, your relationships, your walk with God?
What encouragement can you gain from Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7?
24 Jun 2011
In a NY Times opinion piece, “In Search of the True Self,” Joshua Knobe, an associate professor of Cognitive Science and Philosophy at Yale University, discusses his study on humanity’s quest to find our deepest identity. Citing everything from Greek philosophy to pop culture, he rightly sees that this yearning is a “distinctive ideal of modern life.”
Knobe is wrestling with the questions: Who am I? What drives my search to discover my deepest—and hence, real—identity? And how can we find the answer?
According to Knobe, philosophy has traditionally maintained that our ability for self-reflection makes us truly human. (Remember Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” from your Western Civilization class?) Accordingly, philosophy posits that our reflections on our deepest-held beliefs is the greatest indicator of our true selves. These beliefs trump feelings and desires. (For interesting reading along these lines, see the NY Times magazine article, “Living the Good Lie,” that discusses “sexual identity therapy” and Nicholas’ blog response).
But Knobe goes on to say that outside philosophical circles, people recoil at this idea. The broader public believes the exact opposite: It is our suppressed feelings and desires that reveal our deepest identities. These desires must be obeyed for our lives to be authentic to our true selves. Hence anyone with same-sex attraction, Knobe’s opening illustration to his op-ed column, is urged to forsake religious beliefs, marriage vows, etc., in order to “come out” and express his or her true self.
So, do deep-seated, moral values, feelings, or desires determine our true selves? Rather than a strict either/or, Knobe concludes that both views are too simplistic. His initial investigation suggests that we find our true selves through a complicated process that combines both aspects—we develop a value judgment based on what we believe makes life worth living and what will create the most satisfying experience of existence.
He’s right to reject the either/or fallacy but fails to see that our true selves are only found in a radically different “third way.” Any search for our true selves that focuses on desires, personal beliefs, or a combination is still limited to the self. It elevates individual perception, with all its biases and distortions, to ultimate reality.
Fortunately, our true selves are revealed by a source outside of us. Objective truth exists, reality exists, beyond personal perception. Scripture offers our ultimate identity as those made in the image of God, created to live in a relationship of love for all eternity. In love, Jesus redeemed us while we were his enemies. The Father invites us to live within his perspective—one that sees us “in Christ,” outside of time, in our totality. Not defined by desires, behaviors, or failures, but as those who on the last day will be purified. The beautiful Bride, seated at the Wedding Feast with the Son in a marriage he arranged from before the foundation of the world.
Are you struggling with feelings and/or attractions that the world says should define who you are? Look to the objective truth of God’s Word, and in him, you will find your true self as you align yourself with his design.