Do you suffer from “Mug Shot Theology?” We’ve all seen mug shots of people who have been arrested. It’s that photo the police take of a person when they’ve been caught—in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. We’ve all seen Hollywood personalities looking their worst and having it all captured, for posterity, in their mug shot. These glamorous and handsome stars are almost unrecognizable when you catch a glimpse of them on that tabloid paper at the check-out counter at your local store. The image of one’s mug shot follows one around forever, coloring everything.

What does that have to do with Christians, you may be thinking? Mug Shot Theology is that picture we’re sure God has of us and always looks at when we’ve been behaving at our worst—when we’ve really blown it.

I’ve not known very many men who don’t suffer from Mug Shot Theology, especially when it comes to their deep and unrelenting sexual temptations, struggles, and sin. It just seems to come with the territory.

When we labor under this, it affects everything in our life. So it’s a very practical issue. When you have Mug Shot Theology, it’s rare to ever experience any joy in your life. It’s virtually impossible to possess the ability to run to the throne of grace at your time of deepest need. It keeps you from access to the power of God to help counter temptations. It turns your face away from God because of your shame and guilt. You are shut down from communicating with God. You feel left all alone with your temptations and sin, not knowing what to do, because Mug Shot Theology will make sure the cross is the last place you’ll run to.

“You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ.”

When you don’t know what to do with your guilty heart and your sins, you will (because you’re a sinner) always adopt one or more of the following strategies.

  1. You’ll let yourself off the hook, explaining, excusing, or rationalizing your sin, falsely believing it’s not as bad or deadly as it is.
  2.  You’ll put yourself under “house arrest,” only going through the motions of faith, severely limiting your attempts to love and serve God and others well.
  3. You’ll just try to say no to your temptations while constantly resolving to do better and white-knuckling it along the way.
  4. You become you own executioner, punishing yourself relentlessly.
  5. You’ll put yourself on probation with God, slinking back to him when you’ve put enough distance between your temptations or failures until you get up the courage to approach God again.

All these behaviors are the ways most men deal with their sin and struggles. But when we change that Mug Shot Theology to a Gospel Theology—in which we understand and admit that we, always, stand guilty, before a holy God, and yet our God beckons and invites unworthy sinners to his throne because of Jesus—then everything changes. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, in his commentary, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 5, Assurance, states it quite well.

“God has become one who delights to see us coming, receives us, loves us and sits us at a banqueting table. God is always looking upon us with favor and smiling upon us . . . So it is in prayer. . . we remind ourselves of this and rush into his presence . . . we rush in with boldness and full confidence, having access to the throne room. . . You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ. You own this great truth and act upon it in your prayer life. . . knowing He is a Heavenly Father who delights to see us, to receive us. . . and whose love for us is way beyond our imagination.”

What a way to blast away Mug Shot Theology! It captures the essence of what it means to be dearly beloved children, ransomed by our God. It also moves us, in humility, towards God in our worst moments, daring to believe, once again, that the gospel is for us.

To learn more about these concepts of Christ’s love and grace for the downcast and disheartened, be sure and check out John’s new book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex.

I was camping out in Hebrews 11 recently. That’s the chapter where many of the heroes of the faith are listed. Three names immediately stuck out for me. First there is Abraham. Not once but twice, Abraham offers his wife, Sarah, to other men to sleep with to save himself. And when it seems the covenant promise of an heir won’t ever come true because of old age, Sarah suggests he sleep with her bondservant. He immediately says “okay.”

David is listed there—a man after God’s own heart. But we know he was also hotheaded and impetuous at times, often acting first and thinking later. He was a deceiver, murderer, and adulterer. He had at least six wives and several concubines.

Then there’s Sampson. What!? God, you’ve got to be kidding! Sampson? He was the Charlie Sheen of his day! His life was ruled by scandal. When he saw a beautiful Philistine girl, he told his parents, “Go get her for me.” They put up a little fight because God had forbidden the intermarriage of heathen people with the Israelites. Sampson basically said to them, “I don’t care—go get her for me.” Then we see that he visited houses of ill-repute. His love (lust?) for Delilah was almost the downfall of the emergent nation and was his ruin.

These are the kind of men counted among the great men of faith. It doesn’t make sense. How can it be when each was involved in sexual sin or approved of sexual misconduct? How could these men be those in whom God took pleasure?

The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one.  They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too.

I think it means this. The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too. Yet God blesses men like this (like us) because he mixes his grace with our corruptions—as a rule, not an exception! It’s not about our sin, although he takes that extremely seriously; it’s about his grace.

In one of my favorite books, The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson, written in 1666, there is a chapter entitled, “Comfort to the Godly.” Honestly, I think it should have been entitled, “Comfort to the Scoundrels.” Watson says this,

“There are in the best of saints, interweavings of sin and grace; a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with much humility; much earthliness mixes with much heavenly-ness. Even in the regenerate there is often more corruption than grace. There’s so much bad passion that you can hardly see any good. A Christian in this life is like a glass of beer that has more froth (foam) than beer. Christ will never quench remnants of grace, because a little grace is as precious as much grace. As a fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of the soul.”

It’s true—this side of heaven, grace and holiness are always mixed with our corrupt hearts. But experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness should move us towards a growing desire to be holy. I find many men who come for help to our ministry erroneously thinking there will be a day when they won’t desire or want things that would take them down dark roads. They think their hearts are, one day, not going to want bad things—therefore, they spiral down into depression and hopelessness when they do! Our hope is not in perfection here, or even in freedom from temptation, but in the realization that faith and obedience is a real possibility, because of God’s grace.

In his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, John expands on this encouraging point that God takes us as we are and that even while he transforms our lives, he continues to work in us while we remain a mess of both corruptions and grace. Click this link to get the book.

Updated 5.12.2017

At Harvest USA, we minister to people who know that their lives just aren’t working well. We don’t have to labor at convincing those who come here that they’re a mess, spiritually and sexually speaking! Men and women come in, so often with their spirits crushed, either from a lifetime of failed attempts to manage their own lives and struggles, or as someone whose family member struggles. The joy in their lives has gone out a long time ago.

Yet, I believe—and it’s what’s kept us ministering here these 30-odd years—that Jesus longs to meet us in our despair, in our deepest pits. I’m convinced that only the broken receive the gospel. When that happens, when we are most aware of our deepest need of Christ, is when he often shows up.

People have often asked us to tell them the one key thing we do to help others. There’s no secret. God brings people to the end of themselves and then into our office. For those who get serious about their situation, it’s always a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s here that they sit with everything that brought them here—the entire mess of their hearts and lives—and talk it through with our staff, those in their support groups, and particularly with the Lord himself. For however long it takes.

It’s in the setting of a caring, confidential, Christ-centered, supportive environment that God begins a process of growth and healing. It’s also the place where the love of Christ begins to capture hearts and where the other loves—the idols that capture our hearts—begin to dull in comparison!

What I’m talking about here is the unconditional acceptance of a community that doesn’t hold back, but that speaks encouraging, life-giving, and, at times, hard and serious words. Of course, the local church is God’s ordained place that this can and should take place. Our mission is to see that churches establish these groups, so email me and I’ll show you how it can be done!

If you were to ask me what central thing most indicates that a person’s life is beginning to change, I would say it’s the presence of a renewed sense of joy. For the sexual struggler, that often comes as a surprise. It doesn’t, however, just appear suddenly, without context. It’s not even just the result of getting a handle on one’s sexual struggle.

It’s the result of something else. It’s a by-product of something greater.

Tim Keller said, in a sermon on Galatians, “When we obey God, out of a grateful joy, that comes from a deep awareness of our status as children of God . . . then the idols which control our lives can be disempowered and we’re free to live for Christ.” This is an amazing statement in two ways.

First, it demonstrates that true obedience comes out of an awareness of joy-filled gratitude. But about what?

Our deep awareness of our status! He is talking here about our union with Christ. Our positional and legal status to God have changed because Jesus lived the totally obedient life we couldn’t ever live, and he paid the price for our sin with his own blood. We are now part of a new reality where everything is changed about us—who we are presently, and even, especially, where we will be in the future. In being united with Christ in his life and death, our standing and eternity are secure because of what he has accomplished.

Of course, the Holy Spirit initiates, joins, and administers this new standing, taking up residence in us, bringing a new vitality to us. This is true even as we learn to struggle against sin. The driving force of any new vigor for Christ is this union between Christ and our souls, which the Holy Spirit both starts and continues.

Second, it’s not just our union with Christ, which produces joy, but our ongoing communion with him. Union and communion go hand in hand. Our communion with Christ comes out of our faith-driven striving to grow in grace, based on our knowledge of and our union with him. In other words, we want to change because he has loved us and given us the power to change. This energizes us to put off sin and to walk in godliness. It’s a constant looking to Jesus for all things.

Pastor J.C. Ryle, in seeking to describe the relationship between union and communion, said this: “Union is the bud, but communion is the flower. He that has union with Christ does well; but he that enjoys communion with him does far better. . . both place a heavenly seed in our hearts, that enable us to draw out of him every hour.”

May this be so in your life as you look to him, who first looked at you and mercifully loved you.

Updated 5.23.2017

This article first appeared, in edited form, in Haven Today’s web blog, www.haventoday.org.

UPDATE: 

In the summer of 2013, a Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage moved the historic, orthodox Christian view of traditional marriage further to the sidelines. Then, in June 2015, that view was completely taken off the field. Marriage was redefined in our country. Two years ago John Freeman wrote the following, and what he said then remains highly relevant today. Then, as now, we remain firm in our belief that our Sovereign Lord will still use what feels like (and is) a defeat for his glory, as he continues to draw all peoples to himself. 

As the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the referendum of Proposition 8 in California, it certainly seemed that the tide of our culture would continue to steadily move in the direction of the acceptance of gay marriage. So, what now? How are followers of Jesus Christ, and the church, to think about and respond to the recent decision by the Supreme Court? It is crucial that the church as an institution and individual believers respond well. John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, thinks that the best response of the church now is to do the following six things:

1. We should not lash out in anger or be afraid

A fight-or-flight response is normal when overwhelming events occur. But both of these instinctual responses are unhelpful and unproductive. My wife has often told me, “John, when you speak or react out of fear or anger . . . bad things come out of your mouth.” She is usually right. Admittedly, we may legitimately fear where this decision will next take our nation; and we may legitimately be angry over how God’s design for the institution and function of marriage as it has historically benefited society is being hijacked. But we need to keep this in mind: As believers, our true citizenship is in heaven. We must think and act like those whose world has been impacted but not devastated.

I think a more productive response would be that of grief. We need to be grieved at what happened, grieved at the state of the culture, and grieved at how blind people are to the truth of God’s Word and its continuing relevancy for all of human society. We see in the New Testament two ways in which God responds to those who resolutely turn away from his Word. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and her refusal to turn to him as their shepherd (Matthew 23:37-39), and we see in Romans 1 that God, at times, “gives over” (allows) people and society to do what they want to do. Both these pictures are poignant displays of what is wrong with the world: that mankind has torn itself away from God’s shepherding hand and rebelliously set out on its own path. The prodigal son is in all of us.

But just grieve? Doesn’t seem very productive or helpful. It feels so powerless! Yes, it can feel that way, but we need to remind ourselves that the “weakness” of the church is how the power of God is best displayed. It is in that weakness, the weakness of grieving over those who refuse to be shepherded by Christ, that compassion is worked out in our hearts, leading us to love the shepherd-less and for the world to see that we love them.

One way we do this is by not lashing out at the LGBT community. They are not our enemy. The tendency is to see significant political and legal changes such as this as coming from a monolithic force bent on overturning everything. The reality is a bit more complicated. The LGBT community is wide and diverse, and includes those who are secular and those who are religious (even those who claim to be evangelical). It is when the church fails to see this complexity that it has responded to change in terrible and hurtful ways, from when Jerry Falwell twisted Ellen Degeneres’ name to when the church mischaracterizes the gay community in order to have a recognizable “target” to oppose.

For the church to live out the gospel, for it to be the witness to the truth and mercy of Christ, we must not see “them” as the enemy, but rather as men and women who, while throwing off God’s law and calling it freedom, nevertheless are made in God’s image and need to know the real freedom of submitting to God’s will. We need to recognize that there are names and faces attached to this issue, real people, many of them our neighbors or colleagues. An “us” vs. “them” mentality is fear-based; it does violence to the gospel and to us, and it refuses to recognize the humanity that must shape this issue. When we think like this, we fail to recognize that, at one time, we, too, were “them,” people who did not follow the gospel, living for self and following the ways of the world (take note of Ephesians 2).

But we were shown mercy, not because there was anything intrinsically good inside of us, but because God in Christ loved us and showed us mercy.

Another reason not to be angry or afraid is because. . .

2. We need to remind ourselves that God is still on the throne . . . neither slumbering nor sleeping

Although decided in the private chambers of the Supreme Court, this has not happened out of God’s sight. He is the God who knows all and sees all. This is beyond our rational understanding, but by faith we believe that God remains in control over all things, even over the decisions made by man and society that veer away from his wisdom. To respond with anger or abject fear is to forget this.

Why God has allowed the societal acceptance of homosexuality and the (increasing) legalization of same-sex marriage to be so prominent today will remain a mystery at some level. Why he has allowed it to split churches, denominations, and families must also be trusted to his providence. We only know what Scripture does tell us: that this is a broken world, a world where his image-bearers are in rebellion against him and his intentional design for creation. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised. There is nothing new under the sun here. Has there ever been a human society outside of the garden that has not trended in this direction?

We must, as his followers, trust in him at all times, especially when it seems that ungodliness has the upper hand in our society. The courage of faith is when we trust him, especially so in turbulent and darkened times. To continue to follow God when the world thinks we are foolish and it would just be easier to capitulate is to ask God for more faith! He will give it. Remember that faith, even as small as that of a mustard seed, can withstand much adversity and be a force for change (see Luke 17:5-6, in the context of vs. 3-4).

It is by that courage, a courage rooted in God still being a control, and faith that refuses to bend to the latest worldly trends, which moves us to. . .

3. Boldly and gently proclaim the ultimate destructiveness of ungodly actions

While many will celebrate this decision as the advancement of an enlightened society and a triumph of inclusiveness and tolerance, the reality is that actions made in opposition to God’s design carry with them significant consequences. Several years ago noted pastor, teacher, and author James Boice said, “It’s God’s world, not our world. Although we may want to rewrite the rules, we can’t, because it’s God’s world. And sin is destructive, whether or not we admit or agree, it’s still destructive.” In other words, behavior has consequences, even if we don’t fully know now what that will look like.
By removing the definition of marriage from its historical and God-designed nature as being between one man and one woman, how long will it be before other forms of “marriage” will become acceptable and even legal? Many groups deride such speculation as being a consequence of this decision, but history has shown time and again how boundaries are burst open once critical lines have been crossed. And what about the impact on children as we move into social territory that is completely new to human society? To say that there will be no negative consequences when the most stabilizing force for society continues to be upended—that of an intact family of a husband and wife and children—is naïve.

These are important matters that society must wrestle with as it moves further in this uncharted direction. Christians must not shrink from engaging these issues. But we, as Christians, must be careful how we talk about these things. It is one thing to say that actions and behavior that move away from God’s design for human flourishing are ultimately destructive; it is another thing to say that every action and every behavior apart from God’s design will end poorly. We have seen this in the liberalization of divorce laws over the past few decades and in the rise of children born out of wedlock. These two social happenings are tearing families apart. We are learning more and more about the widespread destructiveness to society and to children of such broken family structures. But that does not translate into every single-parent family being an ongoing catastrophe. Many children have grown up with only one parent and have grown up well. But overall, society has suffered when people tear themselves away from the anchor of God’s wise counsel.

What this means is this: We have already—and this will rapidly continue as same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted—embarked on something that is historically very new to human society: children being raised in same-sex families as an acceptable norm. We do not know the cumulative effects of such a new family design. We must wait for evidence of its effect on society and children. But we must also avoid simplistic and sweeping generalizations that erroneously paint distorted and false pictures. We will continue to insist that gender matters in families, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, and in that context a child grows up and learns what it means to be male or female, a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother; but saying this does not mean that good parenting is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals. The fact that God is the one who created marriage and defined it as the establishment of a new family structure (Genesis 2:24) where mothers and fathers are fully engaged in the raising of the next generation is not something to simply discard and say that the gender of a particular parent is irrelevant.

In short, the issues we raise—both within the church and in the marketplace of society—and the ways we speak about them, based on our belief that God’s design for marriage and family is best for society, must be intelligent and complex. We must not be afraid to see the evidence unfold as marriage morphs into newer forms or wrestle with that evidence as we continue to argue for the ways of God over the ways of man.

We live in a broken world, but it still remains a world that God so loved that he sent his only Son, so . . .

4. We must not avoid our calling: to engage the culture and all people with the truth and mercy of the gospel

Even as culture goes off the rails, and we seem powerless to stop it, we’re not off the hook from engaging the culture and actively loving people. Although we may want to retreat and go into self-protective mode, we must not. The church did not do so as the Roman culture descended into greater ungodliness and injustice. The downward spiral of our society and the increasing celebration of what is explicitly forbidden in God’s word make our sharing the gospel more important than ever! The gospel is the only hope for a broken world and fallen hearts. As I already noted, for this reason the church must not attack and demean gays and lesbians because of this issue. The gospel is a message of hope for everyone; not a platform for condemnation and ridicule. The gospel will only be heard through the words and deeds of his people. People are loved into faith and belief, not argued into it.

This will translate into major challenges for the church as society legalizes same-sex marriage. Church leadership must now begin to think through what would be wise and practical ministry to people who, for example, come into the church as a same-sex couple with children. What are the ways the church needs to welcome them while maintaining biblical fidelity? And what if a couple comes to faith and begins to wrestle with what Scripture says about their relationship? In what direction does the church counsel them—and their children? Divorce? Splitting the family apart? Or something else that tries to maintain the integrity of God’s Word while practical gospel ministry unfolds with the family? The truth and mercy of the gospel—a tension that must always be held in dynamic balance—will need to be fleshed out in these types of situations, and we will be undoubtedly stretched. But we need to start thinking about this now.

We must also begin discussing a subject about which we have been much too silent on. . .

5. We must begin relevant and effective preaching and teaching about why God’s design for sexuality is best

The silence of the church on many issues has contributed to the emergence of movements that have been detrimental to mankind. It can be argued that the church’s failure to preach and teach about why God’s design for sexuality is good, relevant, and functional (even in a broken world) has created a vacuum for the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The church has said “No!” for too long as its main message on sexuality and now needs to say “Here’s how,” or “Here’s how God’s design for sexuality remains the best venue for people and society to flourish.”

The church also needs to get honest. Honest about its people who struggle with their sexuality. For the sake of appearances, or because of the fear of not knowing what to do, churches have ignored those in her midst that are falling deeper and deeper into the morass of sexual sin. The church can no longer condemn sexual sin “out there” while at the same time not admitting or helping those who are struggling believers. After all, aren’t redeemed lives the best testimony of the power and love of God—redeemed lives that are honest about continuing struggles but display a relentless gospel grace to follow Christ where ever he leads?

God is always at work, always, so. . .

6. “Keep calm and carry on” as God’s people and his church

During the bombings of World War II, people in Britain felt that the world was falling apart. “Keep calm and carry on” became a common phrase on billboards and posters as a way to encourage the British people. We need to follow this advice as well. How do we “keep calm and carry on” when we see everything around us in a downward spiral and decay? We lean on and trust in the Rock of our salvation, who is still with his people while we continue to carry out his kingdom work.

We must not let these things have more power over us than they really do. And, thankfully, we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak and make our concerns known. We must not be cowed into silence in speaking about further societal consequences and about the future of religious liberty, two major issues embedded in this controversy. But, again, we should not place our faith in any human political or legal structure as our ultimate protector or savior. Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world”—neither is ours. The mission of the church continues. The church cannot be either dismissed or destroyed. It remains God’s vehicle of redemption, worked out through his people. That mission will endure until he returns. So let’s keep calm and keep carrying on with the mission and the message that remains the hope for every person in the world.

To hear more about how to think pastorally in communicating the gospel with gays and lesbians, John has a chapter, “A Missional Response to Homosexual Strugglers in the Church and the Gay Community,” in Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World, published by New Growth Press. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for a copy.

Updated 4.11.2017

This article first appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter under the title, “Real Life Conversations: Ministry Becoming More Challenging as Men and Women in Our Churches Come Out.” It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

I was just clearing my desk, getting ready to lock up the office, when the phone rang. I almost let it go to voicemail, but I decided to answer it.

It was a pastor of a reformed, evangelical church on the phone. Frantically, he shared his predicament. There was to be a receiving of new members into the church on Sunday. However, one situation now threatened to dampen the whole event and possibly cause confusion, disbelief, anger, and hurt feelings all around.

He had, just an hour before, received a call from “Kevin,” one of the men becoming a member. After talking for about fifteen minutes about how happy he was to be joining the church, he dropped the news on the pastor. “I’m gay, you know. I’m a gay Christian.”

The pastor’s questions now came at me fast and furious. What was he going to do now, in the time between this phone call and Sunday? Why hadn’t Kevin told him this before? How could he have answered all the questions for membership in the affirmative? What about those in the church who had become Kevin’s friends? “You don’t understand, John,” the pastor told me, “This man is deeply cared for by many in the congregation. Active in the life of the church, he’s at every event—among the most faithful in serving. Everyone loves him. I thought we knew him. “

I offered the first thoughts that came to mind. “Looks like, between now and Sunday, you’re going to need to have a long conversation with Kevin to better understand what he means.” The pastor seemed confused, “What do you mean? What kinds of things should I ask him?”

I told him that he should, right up front, admit to Kevin that this news shocked him, but still to encourage him that he really wanted to hear his story. Then he could ask some follow-up questions like: Why had he hidden this part of himself? Just what did he mean by saying he was gay? Was this merely a description of his sexual attractions, or was it a behavioral matter, or both? Were these things he wrestled with—or was it a firm identity that he embraced? How did he see the Word of God governing his life in regard to this? Did he have any problem with what Scripture says about homosexuality? How and where did the cross, the work of Christ, and his union with Christ enter into Kevin’s life regarding his sexuality? Was he open to the admonitions and instruction of Scripture, and to pastoral support and care, to help him from living in ways that Scripture says aren’t appropriate for followers of Jesus?

In other words, the objective of these questions was to get to the ruling passions of Kevin’s heart and see where his view of Scriptural authority was in his life. The pastor had to discern whether Kevin understood what walking in repentance and faith looked like for him, as a same-sex attracted man. It’s one thing to have this man active and involved in the church. We want our churches to have open doors to people hearing the gospel and coming to faith. But it’s another thing to join the community of Christ’s body yet then live in any way one wishes. Is Kevin willing to enter the community of faith as all must enter, denying himself, taking up his cross to follow Christ, no matter how uncomfortable, disturbing and disruptive that might be? Getting these answers and deciding what to do next, for this pastor, would be would be quite an undertaking!

Situations like this will only become more common in the future. Actually, the future is now! The gay Christian movement is growing. It’s the new “third way,” promoted by advocates like Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Rachel Held Evans, and others. Many are being persuaded by their false Scriptural arguments and emotional stories, made more powerful by an increasing lack of biblical knowledge and understanding on the part of our people.

How those holding to an historic interpretation of Scripture will ultimately respond to all this is still very much on the table. The pressure to conform to and embrace this new rendering of Christianity in the church and in families is huge. For those who stand firm on God’s Word, they will face the derision of those who label us as out of touch, mean-spirited, and irrelevant. Yet the compassion of Christ is found in his understanding of and grace for all of our struggles, while he continues to call us to a holiness that reflects God’s character. Truth and mercy did not compromise at the Cross: they met—in the One whose life, death and resurrection continues to transform any who come to him.

The call came from a PCA pastor’s wife. “John, an elder’s wife asked me a question recently which I thought I knew how to answer. However, the more we talked the more I realized, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ I soon realized it was more complicated than I thought at first.”

The elder’s wife had asked, “Now that gay marriage is legal in our state, if a gay couple begins to attend our church and if one or both of them claimed faith in Christ, would we encourage them to separate? How can we stand against something which is now legal?” She went on to say, “And we certainly wouldn’t encourage them to separate if there were children involved, would we? I mean, would we want their children’s experience of Christianity to be: ‘My mom became a Christian, and it destroyed our family’”?

I heard a similar dilemma in another pastor’s phone call. In his church’s membership class, the issue of homosexuality came up, and several people who desired to join the church expressed support both of homosexuality and gay marriage. While they themselves were not gay, they nevertheless supported and agreed with those who were.

These situations are happening in conservative churches right now. How do we think about these things? First, we need to remember that people coming into our churches today come out of a culture inundated with post-modern, totally secularistic beliefs. And while we all bring our faulty and fallen thinking into our relationship with Christ, it must be our job, as leaders in the church, to offer venues to openly discuss these things and offer sound biblical teaching.

As I result, I encourage all pastors and church leadership to begin addressing these issues in membership classes (and other venues as well). It is naïve of us to believe our people are on the same page in how they think about sex and sexuality. Please consider spending an hour or so in membership classes talking about God’s intention for sex and sexuality and why God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. If God’s very first words to man and woman were about sex (Genesis 1:28), why are we so afraid to talk about it?

One PCA church recently contacted us because several people in the congregation had come out in one year. As the Session moved to enter into these situations with gospel mercy and truth, several families ended up leaving the church, having felt victim to a “bait and switch” framework. In other words, the church prided itself in being known as a church of love and mercy, yet when members found out that the church saw homosexuality as sin, they felt betrayed. A lot of turmoil resulted which, now several years down the line, is still being felt in the church. Much of this could have been avoided had the leadership spoken directly about biblical sexuality. Our church community is always impacted by the culture more than we realize regarding these issues. Even those with a more solid grasp of the Scriptures are being impacted.

Much of the turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided had the leadership addressed these issues in some of the “entry points” in the church, like small groups, membership classes, etc.

Harvest USA is here to help your church leadership in this area. Please contact us if we can be of help. We’d love to talk with your church staff and elder boards/leadership teams about this. If you’re within a few hours of the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh area, we can do this in person. If you’re farther away, we can do this with a Skype or WebEx meeting. We’re here to serve God’s church and leaders.

Updated 5.25.2017

Below is a brief excerpt from John Freeman’s book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, from New Growth Press.

Men struggling with sexual sin are, at deeper levels in their lives, God-haters and idol-makers. A third element that goes on under the surface in the men who come into our office is that they are accomplished game–players, juggling all the seen and unseen parts of their lives. I see this game-player category in virtually everyone who struggles with sexual sin, but more so with believers. Why? Because in the church, struggles are kept secret from others as the pressure of appearances takes over. You are accepted if you have it all together, but you are viewed differently if you admit you have problems or difficulties. This is especially so when the struggle involves sex, with its attendant shame and guilt. In other words, Christians believe they should not have these problems. The church should not be this way, but oftentimes the “culture” of a church creates this relational dysfunction.

This was made clear to me a number of years ago when our ministry placed carefully-worded ads in local newspapers and magazines, aimed at those who might be questioning what was going in their lives. The short ads would say something like, “Porn Struggle? Help Is Available” or . . . “Does Porn Have a Grip on You? There’s Hope for You.” When we ran those ads, we could get up to forty calls a day.

As I talked with people who responded to these ads, I noticed something: A good number who called were non-Christians, but the ad spoke to them with some kind of clarity and hope anyway. One of the verses that has always been foundation for our outreach is Proverbs 14:13, “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” No matter how much people’s lives look put together as they bask in their sexual freedom, there can still be a lot of pain and hurt underneath—even in an unbeliever!

I realized something else about those who initially came to us as unbelievers. If men came into our ministry, joined one of our Bible study/support groups, and then eventually came to a first-time, saving knowledge and faith in Christ, they often had a much better prognosis for dealing with their sexual sin biblically and sincerely. They had a healthier journey of growing in Christ and “putting off” their sexual sin than did believers who came to us after living disjointed, compartmentalized lives for many years.

How could that be? First, you’ve got to realize that, if you are a believer dealing with struggles. . . no one may know about your hidden struggles because you’ve designed it that way! Maybe no one even suspects the deep waters of your heart in this area and the efforts you make to keep it all working. People can go on for years with these heart-crushing, life-devastating behaviors. No one in your life may ever catch on, and you’re worse off because of it. If you are ever going to deal with your heart with integrity, you will have to unlearn all the coping mechanisms you’ve developed to function in both worlds—your sin-oriented, secret world as well as your “Christian” world.

We have a wonderful man named Bob Heywood on staff in our national office in Philadelphia. He disciples men and works with some of our small groups. His is an amazing story of how the Lord broke into his heart over a dozen years ago, as he lived one of these game-playing, compartmentalized lives. Bob talks about the way his half-hearted Christian life was able to co-exist for so long with his sexual addiction. Bob was an active elder at his church. . . But he had hidden problems that were compounded by the fact that he was able to get away with living a double life. Bob says, “As I began giving in to this temptation, I realized I was getting in way over my head. I felt like I couldn’t stop. I’ll never forget when I came to what I now consider the worst soul-deadening conclusion ever in my life. And that was, ‘Maybe I can do both. Maybe I can be a leader in the church and look at porn at the same time.’”

When Bob teaches and shares his testimony now, he often uses Proverbs 7:13-18 to describe his experience. In that passage, Solomon describes the way a prostitute seduces a young man.

She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.”

Bob uses this vivid picture to say that he was more like the prostitute than the seemingly innocent victim of someone’s charms and seduction. Bob will tell you that for years he did what the prostitute did—he “offered sacrifices and paid vows,” thinking this would take care of his spiritual problem and relieve him of guilt and shame. In other words, he did all the Christian stuff—went to church, read his Bible, prayed, put money in the offering basket, etc.—just as the woman in the passage carried out her religious activities. At the same time, he spent twenty years viewing adult videos. Bob’s Christian life had become a works-oriented, graceless world where doing was more important than being. His carefully crafted façade allowed him to function in two worlds and fool everyone because he looked really good—at least, on the outside.

When it comes to sexual sin. . . men can live for years without anyone knowing how they’re misusing sex. The secret nature of sexual sin allows it to go on for years without anyone ever knowing. Therein lies its deepest power to do soul and heart damage. It can lead to dozens of years of being a game-player, even as a Christian man. How does it happen? Easy. We learn to compartmentalize, that is, to wall off many parts of our lives early on. . . We can be this person over here, that person over there. And the person, even as a Christian, who learns to do that at age fifteen is soon the person doing that at twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, or fifty-five. . .

Being a game-player can be exhausting. But one of the most deadly consequences of learning how to live with a pornified heart is the inevitable corrosion that takes place in our hearts over years. The problem, though, is that you won’t know that your own heart is decaying! You may be the last to know. . .

The real effects of a corroded heart

Our sexual sins not only cause our hearts to go dead, but they also keep us from being who and what we should be as men, husbands, and fathers. Due to years of sexual temptations and unforsaken sins, our neglected hearts will rob everyone in our lives of something! There are at least three ways that this happens.

First, a continued history of failures, a commitment to playing games with these issues and with the Lord, and a commitment to silence will rob you of your effectiveness as a man of God, as a husband, and as a father. It will rob you of the gospel words you’re called to speak on a regular basis to your own heart and to the hearts of those closest to you. You can no longer preach the gospel to yourself with authority. It falls on deaf ears. You cease to believe it for yourself, even though you may go through the motions of acting like you believe it. This can be true even if you are in ministry.

Think about it. You lose your bout with Internet porn on a regular basis. You’re filled with guilt and shame most of the time, with the harsh realization that you’re living in defeat all the time. Now, are you going to be engaged emotionally and practically the way you should be with your wife? Are you going to be proactive in speaking into her life and your children’s lives the way you know Gods wants? Probably not. You know the reality of your record, and it’s zapped your relational strength, vitality, and integrity. You’ve come to see yourself as a fake, a phony, a sham. . .

Second, this heart-neglect robs men of their confidence in, love for, and excitement about things of God, especially about the gospel. How could it not? When you know deep down what’s going on in your heart, how you’ve been taken captive by your own untamed desires—and when you know your own record of defeat—it robs you of the love for the gospel you once had.

Third, our unaddressed struggles, our sexual idols and compulsions also rob God! How do they do that? . . . The counterfeit sexual idols we bow to vie for a deep place in our hearts, a place where only God was meant to dwell.

So, does your continual inaction, resignation, and inattention to your heart rob God? You bet. Do they rob you and those around you? Absolutely. They keep you from being fully available to God and others. They rob the body of Christ in a very real way. Your secret sexual idolatries, your addictions, and your compulsions keep you from being who you were called to be. In our addictions, our hearts seek attachments that cripple our image-bearing capabilities and the exercise of our gifts to bless others. This is one of the saddest, most damaging consequences of our hidden sin—everyone loses out. . .

Real change isn’t measured just by what we stop doing. It’s always measured in character change; whereas your former preoccupation with yourself robbed others, now you begin to be more interested in others than yourself. You see yourself wanting to bless others, desiring their good and not just your own. You no longer hide what you are doing; instead, you are increasingly open with others about your struggles and faults. As one man said to me about his decades of hidden sexual struggles: “I’ve been a liar all my life.” But now, he is learning how to be a truth-teller, to his wife and to everyone he knows. Character grows when we live for God and serve others. One of the ways God starts to change us is to move us to start dealing with our sexual idols.

What does it take to want to start walking in repentance and find the help you know you desperately need? How do you get there? What is the path to freedom? How do you start to live with sexual integrity when you know you don’t have the human resources to do so? You have to be willing for God to do something new and to begin to see yourself as you’ve never done before.

John’s intent in this chapter is to give hope to sexual strugglers who feel the pain and pressure of their hiding (from God and others), yet feel either hopeless to do anything about it or falsely believe that they can battle it on their own. The book lays out a way to go forward into freedom from sexual sin. Check out the testimony that follows for one man’s story of hope and change.

You can take a look at John’s book by clicking the following link – here

Stepping into the Light after a Lifetime of Shadow Living: One man’s testimony of transformation

When does the healing from a life time of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? How many days must I make it without giving in yet again to temptation? These are questions I struggled with for years before finding any answers.

At ten I found a hidden stash of pornographic magazines that proved irresistible to my young mind. I began a life long journey of living life in the shadows, one foot in the world of my family, church, and jobs; the other foot hiding in the darkness of fantasy and sin and increasing despair.

The first thirty years I was successful in hiding my sin from everyone, but like most men enslaved to pornography, I got caught. More than just my sin was exposed; my whole life crumbled. My wife discovered not only that I looked at porn, but also that I was not the man, husband, and father I pretended to be. For the next twenty years, I struggled to be the man I was supposed to be while wresting with the man I actually was.

Years of disappointing and isolated self-effort got me nowhere. I would go for as long as six months before falling. Then the hiding cycle, with its lies and deception, began all over again. Even when I had some success from engaging with porn, my heart and mind remained trapped in the lies I was living. The biggest lie I believed was that no one could possibly love me if they really knew me. That drove me to believe that I had to fight this battle on my own. I could stop doing this, and no one had to know the real me, especially the ugly parts that I carefully kept hidden.

But this also meant that I was cutting God out of all this. You see, if God was a part of my change, I knew things would be really messy. While I had prayed for decades for God to rescue me from my sin, I also was dimly aware that I was terrified he would answer that prayer. Did I want to be clean? Yes! But I knew God wanted more of me than just being a man of sexual integrity. He wanted all of me, not just that part of me that needed fixing. I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships. With God in the mix, I would be completely exposed for who I was, and in my mind I was unlovable.

Did I want to test the limits of everyone’s love? No! I’m not a stupid guy. I’d rather remain hidden. But to change, that would mean no more hiding. I would need to live fully in the open. No more lies, half-lies, rationalizations, excuses; I would need to confess, admit failure, acknowledge how I hurt people, be a truth-teller, and learn to live fully in the present without escaping into my fantasy world.

Only the last few years has that elusive healing finally begun. What happened?

I joined a community of men who also struggled.

When I started to meet with other men I found out I was not alone. I was pushed to examine my life in a safe environment. There is no judgment on Monday nights when we meet. I found I could confess my lies and struggles, while also helping other men who also struggled. In this group I learned to trust Jesus. I learned that I was not unlovable, but loved beyond anything I could imagine. I knew all along that Jesus died for my sin, but I didn’t know it deep in my bones, deep in my heart. The reality of Jesus and his love for me is now being woven into the tapestry of my life; it is becoming a part of who I am.

I discovered that I cannot learn, much less know, of the love of Jesus by myself. I need men, sinners like myself, to remind me of Jesus and how his costly love pursued and embraced me. Do we hold each other accountable for our sin? Absolutely, but even more important we hold each other accountable for seeing Jesus at work in our lives. The question we ask over and over of each other is this: Is Jesus enough for us?

For far too many years the answer was no. Fleeing to porn to escape was my instinctive reaction to pain and difficulties. Now when asked that question, I stop and think and step out in faith, knowing that he is. When I attend a service in my church and look around the sanctuary and see those men whom I meet with, I am reminded of Jesus, because these men know the real me and love me anyway. When I come home now, it is not in fear, but in relief, knowing that my long-suffering wife knows who I am and like Jesus loves me anyway.

Is Jesus enough for you?

Updated 4.13.17

Modern psychology tells us—and indeed, our entire culture seeks to convince us—that it’s not good to repress or deny our sexual urges and desires. They’re seen by many as simple biological needs that demand expression; it’s seen as unhealthy not to seek that expression. Now that might be true, were it not for the fact that sex is never really about ‘us.” It’s about the other person.

Ideally, it’s about bringing all of who we are male or female to bless someone else. As archaic as it may seem, the Bible tells us that sex most aptly blesses others and reflects God in the context of marriage between one man and one woman.

Where does this leave the unmarried? Well, it leaves them dependent on God to meet the desires they might otherwise seek to fulfill through sex. This is also the case for married couples who deal with corrupt desires.

This is tough stuff. It runs contrary to the culture. It runs smack up against the messages about sex we get from advertising, TV, and the movies, that our drives and urges must be met at all costs. Resisting where our sexual desires might take us is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work. It’s a form of suffering, made more extraordinary because it is entirely voluntary.

But there’s an unseen benefit to resisting instead of repressing. C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who wrote more than 40 books, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, had something of value to say about this. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, 

“People often misunderstand what psychology teaches about ‘repressions.’ It teaches that ‘repressed’ sex is dangerous’…. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires… as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”

Lewis is saying that it’s in the active mode of resisting our desires that we come to know more of what fuels our hearts and emotions—that we come to be more aware of our true selves.

In a world that offers numerous ways to dull our emotions and anesthetize our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties, often through sex, knowing one’s self is an amazing thing. It opens us up to knowing God in the depth of our desires in ways we’ve never imagined.

Of course there’s a hint of the supernatural in all of this. It’s not ordinary to resist the pulls of the heart. It can be done only with the power God gives as we seek to worship him and put him first in our lives, by committing our unmet desires to God for him to satisfy in his own way—in his own time.

This is not repression; it’s honestly admitting our desires, yet yielding them to God.

Jesus demonstrated this by putting aside his own desires, drives, and needs and yielding them to his Father. He did this so we could know his forgiveness and love in spite of the weakness of our own flesh and our history of failures.

This article is a reprint of a column published in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Updated 4.20.2017

Two things are usually dear to our hearts: sex and money. We so value control of these that we have adverse reactions to anyone or anything that gets in the way. A good way to know that these may be idols in our lives is how we respond inwardly if they are ever threatened. Believers in the early church understood this.

In the first-century Christian church, followers of Jesus were easy targets. This was because the surrounding culture was shocked at how they lived. In the Greco-Roman world, it was all about being guarded, even tight-fisted, with your pocketbook, your money, and yet being very liberal with your body. You shared it with anyone you liked, any time you liked, any way you liked, with either males or females—maybe all at the same time in orgies, which were common.

Then along came Jesus. He entered the depravity of the world and gave people a sense of worth and dignity. He hung around the down and out, the social misfits and outsiders. He did this so much that the religious people of the day considered him a loser and labeled him unclean, because he surrounded himself with shady characters and sinners—the unreligious.

Jesus also offered people both a clean slate from their past sins and a friendship with God, no matter what their background. All they had to do was quit trying so hard to make up for their own faults and failures; to quit trying so hard to be religious. Jesus welcomed all who had run out of solutions for own their lives. As a result, they became different people and it became all about inverted living; that is, living just the opposite of everyone else. This was not because they tried so hard to be good, but because God forgave them, and as a result it affected how they lived, how they treated others and how they viewed their bodies and possessions.

Instead of being liberal and free when it came to sex and their bodies, they became protective and stingy about their bodies. The body was seen as special and holy, because God now resided there. On the other hand, according to Acts 2:45 in the Bible, they became liberal with their money and material assets: “Selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as they had need” (ESV).

People sold what they didn’t need, maybe stuff just sitting around collecting dust, and gave the money to those who had need of it.

We also learn from historians of the time that these early followers of Jesus also did some other unconventional, even radical stuff. While it was the habit of first-century Roman society to leave infant girls out to die in the harsh elements, Jesus’ followers rescued them and took them home. They also nursed and cared for the sick and dying in the midst of many diseases and plagues. While others fled plague-ridden cities, going out of their way to avoid the sick and dying, Christians purposely did just the opposite. Those in the early church became the first social workers and started the first hospitals. The Roman emperors of the first and second century were astounded by all this, so much so that they wrote about it.

God is still the same today. He desires to do business with those who know they need rescuing and salvaging, those who are needy and desperate for changed lives. All we have to do is stop trying so hard and ask. As a result our lives are put on a different course and we’re free to love and serve others in new and bold ways.

Updated 5.19.2017

A question often asked here at Harvest USA is a common one. “Why do people—Christians even—go back to a gay life after they have come for help?” It’s a legitimate question. For Christians who believe the Word, the Scriptures, and believe that faith in Christ makes one a “new creation,” the issue may seem confusing, but the answer must be honest and biblically grounded. Here is the sixth reason to explain what might be happening here, as we have seen some common denominators over the years in our ministry.

Living in dishonesty

People don’t just jump back into disobedience. What usually happens is that they walk back step by step, and both they and those around them are typically unaware of what is happening. In every case at Harvest USA, in which someone has come for help and then gone back into the gay life, this has happened. When some come back later, we ask them when they first began to experience strong and overwhelming struggles to the point of giving in; they will point back to a specific period in time long before they fell.

Yet they never opened up to anyone about the struggle! Instead, they chose to pursue bondage again to sin—totally in secret. When questioned about why they didn’t come and share their heart with anyone about their struggles, virtually the same answer is given: “I knew you would tell me it was wrong.”

In each case, when the heart begins to do what it wants to do, the idea of honesty with those closest and best able to help was intentionally not pursued. Often, the person will be open with others in the gay life—or even with those in a gay-affirming church—during their time of secrecy with you. Why? Because when they decided to slip back, the thought of hearing what you would say would cause them even more distress! Already struggling, they wanted to get out of the struggle (see the post on demandingness), and hearing truth, even truth spoken with love and mercy, was something they had already closed their ears to.

Those who begin to walk in this kind of dishonesty are sometimes beyond help at this point. They see their new change of heart as a refreshing kind of “freedom” because it eliminates—even if only temporarily—the distress they are in.

Fear and shame enter into this kind of dishonesty. We have seen it in those who have come to us after spending time in Christian counseling, having never really opened up about the real issue of their same-sex attraction or behavior. Instead, they talked about loneliness, depression, and the like, issues which skirted around and shrouded the truth of their struggles.

It’s been our experience that no one gets better, no one grows, unless they lay the cards on the table—all the time! Both with God and with other people. People dealing with same-sex attraction, as with other sexual sins, must be ruthlessly honest with themselves and a few, selected other people they are willing to trust. Sexual struggles and sin move people into lives of denial, secrecy, and silence.

These self-protective mechanisms are simply deadly. It is only in a community of mercy and truth (what should characterize the church) that fear and shame can be overcome and honesty becomes as regular as breathing. If only the church were truly like this, would we see men and women less likely to flee into sexual sin and into communities that support such behavior? When the church, even imperfectly, loves sexual strugglers with mercy and truth, then the struggler is in a better position to see and respond to Christ’s love, even when their hearts are divided. God understands our divided hearts, our doubts, and our deep pockets of unbelief.

Conclusion

These situations are painful for all concerned. It is especially painful to see those you love, with whom you’ve spent much time and in whose lives you have built a growing relationship with, seem to desert all that they once held so strongly. No one escapes this tragedy.

These six factors are the main reasons that people revert back to sinful behavior. I must point out that these reasons are not unique to people with same-sex attraction. I have seen men and women in the church who have deserted the faith or left their marriage vows, and their reasons for doing so can be the same ones I highlighted here. The heart of the person dealing with same-sex attraction is not unlike the heart of any other sinner. Every one of us is prone to follow his own course in life. It’s only the Lord’s grace and goodness that keeps anyone pursuing the truth and living life on God’s terms rather than his own.

Link to: Part 1.Part 2.Part 3.Part 4.Part 5.

Updated 5.3.2017, 6.1.2018

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