“I never realized how frivolously I have treated what sex is. I never saw it as something magnificently created. I know that sex is something that God wants us to control, but it’s out of control in my life. How did I get to the point that I both want it and loathe it at the same time?”

Matt (name changed) voiced this opinion following our presentation of “God’s Design for Sex,” which is one of our teaching segments of our Finding Sexual Sanity seminars. In that section, we try to get across the biblical view of sex and sexuality. So many Christians think that the biblical view of sex is predominantly negative: “Don’t do that until you’re married.” And then, if or when you are married, keep it under control, and don’t get too caught up in its pleasures.

How in the world did we, in the church (and not to mention those outside of the church), get to this pathetic conclusion?

Lots of reasons, but I think one thing we continue to miss: We are not doing a good job of proclaiming the wondrous gift that sex is, and so, too many Christians are falling into sexual sin and disorder as they wrestle with strong sexual desires and relational desires.

In Matt’s case, it was pornography. He knew that engaging and looking at pornography was wrong, but its pull on his mind and body was overwhelming to the point of addiction. Saying “no” to his desires, asking God for forgiveness, and forcing himself to stay away from the computer were failed strategies. His marriage was suffering, too.

It was important for Matt—and it’s crucial for anyone finding themselves caught in an obsessive (if not addictive) downward spiral of looking at porn—to discover what the underlying “idols of his heart” are that fuel all this. Sexual sin is a sign of deeper issues. And those deeper issues use sex as a means to gain what the struggler feels he or she must have in life. (Look at our blog postings on 1 Thessalonians 4 for a quick overview of the power of idols and desires. You can click here.)

Matt needed, and continues to keep needing, to pinpoint those non-sexual wants, desires, and longings that set him up to turn to pornography. Success is never measured by what we have stopped doing in our lives that brings harm. Looking at our failures is never enough to give us a desire to want to change. We need to know what is ahead—what will really give us freedom and joy. In other words, what is the thing to replace what we want to stop?

Listening to his support group talk about the beauty of God’s design for sex struck a chord of hope in Matt. He never considered that grasping a high view of sex might cause him to see sexuality as a gift from God, that God wanted him to use to its fullest delight, that God was not prudish about sex. That God had good reasons for designing its rules and boundaries, and they were not so that we would fail to enjoy it. As one writer recently described the Christian view of sex, “Not to mention the core Christian idea that sexuality is, itself, a necessary evil, and something that must be repressed.”

Really? Where do you find that in Scripture?

Matt left the support group that night encouraged that his struggle with sex had a new angle which could help him. While he still needed to actively repent of his deeper idols and engage in effective accountability with others to overcome his sin, he could now learn to look at the good reasons for God’s design for sex and begin to desire to protect something so good. Then he could begin to experience the goodness, beauty and wonder of sex with the person God gave him to do so with: his wife.

Updated 5.23.2017

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation

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

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

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

Two, sexual strugglers live double lives

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

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

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

Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness

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

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

Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is sexual abuse. Child porn, and the awful tragedy of church leaders abusing men and women under their pastoral care, is the extreme display of all this sexual slavery.

Lust is not something that is easily contained. There is a reason Jesus said, in exaggerated language, in order to make a point: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Matthew 5:30).

When we feed our lusts, they will control us and consume us.

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

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

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

Link to Part 1.Part 2.,  Part 4.,  Part 5.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Two

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

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

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

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

How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it does matter.

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

Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word that Paul uses: “lust.” Verse 5 reads, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

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

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

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

Now what is James saying here?

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

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

Now what does this all mean?

It means that we want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time, our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (v. 14).

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

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

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

(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my ruling desires have on me and others?)

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

Voices That Confuse: Reclaiming Biblical Truth from Interpretative Distortions

This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for those who prefer to read it online and may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

The church is in confusion today. The voices advocating for the inclusion of same-sex relationships in the church have been loud enough to sow confusion even among ordinary church members in solid evangelical churches. The typical layperson’s grasp of Scripture on the issue of homosexuality is weakening. Studying the Scriptures on the matter doesn’t seem to help anymore. Why? Because these passages are increasingly undermined by strong, cultural worldviews that are driving alternative interpretations of Scripture.

Do you know what they are? These “background doctrines” are influencing how Scripture is being read today. Living our lives before God, aligning our wills with his, is the central objective of our Christian faith. It matters how we live and on what basis we claim God’s approval.

Here are just three of the worldviews we need to see operating in the background, along with ways we can respond to them with biblical faithfulness.

One, personal stories drive biblical interpretation.

In our culture, personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We don’t look outside of ourselves, to God, to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own experience.

We see this when we look at behavior. There are no longer any agreed-upon moral standards to determine what is right or wrong. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” And no one has the right to say my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.

Do not think this is merely a secular way of thinking. It is making headway into the church in subtle, but powerful ways.

For example, a video made several years ago, For the Bible Tells Me So, presents emotionally powerful stories of kids who grew up in the church and who took their own lives because of the discrimination, abuse, depression, and isolation they felt growing up gay. These are powerful stories and they should move us. But the objective behind telling these stories is to cause us to question why we should hold on to the traditional view of homosexuality in light of how painful—even life-threatening, as the argument goes—that position is for people who live with same-sex attraction. The message? Holding on to the orthodox view hurts people. It’s dangerous.

This illustrates how we decide what is right or wrong—how does it impact others; how does it impact me? Divine revelation, which is God’s story, becomes secondary to my personal autobiography.

How do we respond to this cultural worldview, that our personal stories interpret God’s will for us?

1. We do need to listen to people’s stories. There are things we need to learn in all these stories of those living with same-sex attraction. Our hearts should be moved to compassion by stories of isolation, loneliness, abuse, rejection, fear. But subjective experience can never be the basis for arriving at objective truth. Personal stories illuminate; they challenge us; they help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives. But they must be viewed in the light of what Scripture teaches about life and God. We need an objective word outside us to fully understand ourselves.

Personal stories illuminate, challenge us, help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives.  But they must be viewed in light of what Scripture teaches about life and God.

2. We need to recognize that all our stories are broken. There is a hidden message inserted into these stories when they are presented in these ways, and it’s not immediately evident. It’s this: my sexuality, no matter how it presents itself, is essentially good. The reason I struggle here is because the traditional view of Scripture doesn’t acknowledge the truth of my own experience. I am not in need of rescue or redemption from myself—what I need is freedom to be what I believe I should be.

But the biblical view is that everything about us is broken by the Fall. When Jesus pursued society’s outcasts (a major theme of pro-gay apologetics), he meet them where they were—but he didn’t leave them there. He healed the lepers, and he forgave the “sinners and prostitutes.” When we truly meet Jesus, we are not affirmed in the direction we want in life—our lives are turned upside down and redirected.

3. We need to give true compassion. Ultimately, to allow these stories to reshape God’s word to approve what it does not, is to offer a false compassion. Our compassion must be God’s compassion and not the world’s. God’s compassion comes to us in and through our suffering—and we recognize that sometimes God does not remove our “thorns in the flesh.” We dare not think we can be more merciful than God by encouraging someone to live in ways that are incompatible with his calling.

Two, modern culture is superior to ancient culture

This worldview doctrine goes like this: We moderns know more than people who lived long ago. They were ignorant. We’re not. They didn’t have the knowledge and data that we have today.

Now, this worldview centers on two arguments.

The first one is that sexual orientation is genetic and fixed. Same-sex attraction is part of God’s design for sexuality and is therefore natural and good. We know this from science.

The second one is that the Bible’s negative view on same-sex relationships was because the biblical writers did not observe, in their culture, positive, monogamous same-sex relationships like we see today. They were concerned with promiscuity, exploitative sex like prostitution, and deviant sexual practices centered on cultic worship. So the Scriptures that prohibit homosexual behavior do not apply to loving, faithful same-sex relationships. It’s time to bring the ancient Bible into our time now.

So, how do we respond to this cultural worldview, that modern trumps ancient?

1. Regarding the argument that being gay is genetic, and that orientation is immutable, we respectfully say that it has not been proved. Saying it is, is only a bare assertion. Right now the dominant evidence points not to nature, but to nurture—and maybe some sort of combination. But, let’s be careful and wise here. We should be open to whatever medical research is discovering. We should not close our minds to the possibility that homosexuality might have some genetic or biological component. The Fall has affected everything about us, even down to the smallest level of our biology. But the Bible’s claim to be our guide to faith and life—in other words, how we ought to live—is not altered or threatened by this. Ultimately, science cannot make a moral judgement.

2. About same-sex relationships, when Paul wrote Romans, same-sex relationships, even long-term ones, were not uncommon. Paul traveled widely in the Greco-Roman world, he was a highly educated man, and it is safe to say that he would have been familiar with the varied sexuality embedded in Greco-Roman culture, just as anyone is today who has studied the classics. Paul is clearly saying that all homosexual behavior—not just promiscuous sexual behavior or sex connected with idolatry—is in need of redemption by the atonement of Jesus Christ.

3. We can agree that the Bible is not a science or medical textbook. But let’s be clear on what it is: a book that is authoritative on the human condition. It makes that claim—it says what is wrong with humanity and how God is redeeming it. 2 Timothy 3:16 is one of a number of passages that assert the Bible’s authority over how we ought to live.

One more thing: If Scripture is subordinate to whatever cultural perspective is current, then how can we believe anything God says? We will always throw out portions we don’t agree with, if we see the Bible as merely being man’s ancient attempt to understand God. Faith, then, will always default to what I want in life. As Tim Keller often says, if the Bible is an eternal word from God, then we should not be surprised that every generation and culture will be offended by something in Scripture. God’s ways are not our ways.

Finally, doctrine is bad; love is good. 

Doctrine kills the human spirit. Religious rules and propositions place burdens on people, robbing them of freedom. The Bible is about love, and that’s what matters. Whatever is loving among people is to be celebrated, especially when it includes those who have been religiously excluded or mistreated. So, any passages that appear unloving to any group of people are reinterpreted or dismissed as not being authentically from God (or Jesus). This argument is being made forcefully today: How can loving relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, be wrong? That is a powerful argument. A powerful emotional argument.

Do we have a response here?

1. The biggest problem with this argument is that love needs an objective definition. Love is more than a desire that pulls me or a feeling that overwhelms. If the strength of my love for someone makes it right, then anything goes. I can love whomever I want, in whatever way I want. The logical end of this worldview is a definition of love expressed by Woody Allen when he married his adopted step-daughter:  “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

But love without definition or boundaries is not harmless. The Fall has corrupted all good things.  Without a moral standard, love is easily twisted into self-centered pleasure, vulnerable to abuse and power. That’s not love. God’s design for sex—and marriage— was originally good, and it remains so even today, in spite of our continual failing to faithfully live within its life-affirming boundaries. The transcendent meaning of sex and marriage is a vision we need to grasp anew.

Love needs definition—and it is found in the One who is Love himself. The foundation for loving others is first to love God and obey his commandments (1 John 5:1-3).

2. It is significant to note that Jesus always appealed to Scripture when addressing controversial issues. When he discussed sexual behavior with the Pharisees, in the context of marriage and divorce (Matthew 19:3-6), he referred to God’s creational order of male and female as affirming the only permissible boundaries for sexual expression. The so-called “silence” of Jesus on the issue of homosexuality is clearly dismissed by his recognition of God-ordained sexual boundaries.

3. There is another hidden message in this post-modern doctrine—that love requires sex. Intimacy is not possible without it. But intimacy is much richer and more varied than sexual expression. Intimate relationships—where vulnerability, transparency, companionship, selflessness, and a sharing of mutual interests and life-goals are lived out—happen in friendships, too. God cares deeply about our relationships. He knows that some will not marry or cannot marry, and that can be a significant loss to live with. He knows that. But he has placed us in a community of his body, and deep, loving friendships should be the norm. We have lost that perspective today. C.S. Lewis said, in The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

Finally, how we live regarding all issues of life ultimately reveals our hearts toward God. “Thy will be done”—or my will be done—describes everyone’s relationship with God. To possess a reliable compass to see if we are living for him or for our own desires, requires that we submit everything to God. Unless we work hard to discern our own personal or cultural “background” agendas, the temptation to merge God’s will with our own will always remain deceptively strong.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One

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

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click to read Part 2Part 3.  Part 4.  Part 5.

Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018
“As I’ve read articles defending how many Christian women not only are reading but passionately defending and promoting erotica, I’ve been stunned and saddened…”
 
With this sentence, Ellen Dykas, our Women’s Ministry Coordinator, began a post,”Jesus, His Followers, and Fifty Shades of Grey: Whose Voice Are We Listening To?” to accompany her main article, “Sexual Sanity for Women in a World Gone Mad,” for the Christian Research Journal (CRI)While her comments were directed toward the best-selling book and its huge audience of readers, it remains even more relevant today with the movie’s release in 2015 and its popularity.
 
Click the following link to read what Ellen has to say: Fifty Shades of Grey. Scroll down to read the short piece, and while you are at it, scroll back up and give the main article a good read, too! We think it is well worth your time!
Updated 5.25.2017
The New York Times posted an article on January 7, 2015, about the increasing difficulties parents are having protecting their children from the easy accessibility of pornography on the Internet. Increasingly, even secular groups are realizing that pornography has a significant potential for seriously impacting children and their sexual and relational development. You can read the entire article by following this link: Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography – 1/7/15
Harvest USA also has an easy-to-read mini book on how parents can talk to the their kids about pornography and what steps to take to help protect them: iSnooping on Your Kid: Parenting in an Internet World.
Updated 4.13.17

Atlantic Monthly has a distressing but highly informative article on teen sexting, “Why Kids Sext:” http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/why-kids-sext/380798/

It’s a great read. But, be prepared to be distressed and a bit unnerved.

It’s not just distressing because teens are taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to others (usually boyfriends), but what appears to be a “so what” attitude about doing this by these same kids. While the majority of teens who sext do so consensually, there are still terrible unintended consequences that can occur, and the article points out several. More disturbing are those situations where some teen girls cave in to relentless pressure to send photos to boys. That’s not only manipulative; it can turn criminal when the naked photo of a minor is distributed online.

But in spite of attitudes changing about this activity, one thing also remains: the double-standard of girls losing out and being shamed, while boys are seemingly immune from consequences. In the ongoing descent into sexual chaos which our culture pushes, some things never change.

It’s an article worth reading by every parent. But what should a parent do once they’ve read it? Let me suggest four ways to respond.

One, I suggest you don’t react in fear and grab your child’s cell phone and demand to look at what’s in it (though you might very much want to do that!). And, don’t rush to punish your teen if he or she has done something like this. You won’t win your child’s heart by over reacting, and that’s the key here. Behavior is important (because behavior has real-world consequences), but character is paramount, and helping your child understand her heart is what will ultimately help her to shape her behavior to do what is right (and honor God in the process).

Two, don’t shut down access to technology, either. Taking away the cellphone or restricting Internet use won’t really work in the long run. Technology is too embedded in our kids’ lives (and ours), and trying to shut down what is ubiquitous, and what society is increasingly relying on, will only drive your teen underground. Trying to control our kids’ lives will only train them to be deceptive. It’s not control you want over your child’s life; it’s involvement in their life.

Three, parents need to wisely interact with their teens regarding their use of technology. Yes, they need monitoring. They need supervision and guidance. Think long and hard before giving your young child a smartphone. They are fun, informative, fascinating—and potentially dangerous They can be portals to some of the darkest corners of life. Are your children using smartphones, tablets, laptops, video game devices? Unless you oversee their usage and know where they are going on the web, they WILL access bad sites and maybe engage with people who can seriously harm them. And you won’t know about any of this, because web browsers are now almost universally private when it comes to concealing the history of accessed websites. Effective filters and accountability software should be as mandatory in homes as smoke-detectors. Seriously.

Four, start talking to your children about sex and their sexuality. The silence of parents is driving our kids to the most broken places on the planet to learn about sex: from the Internet, and increasingly they are emulating the practices and standards of pornography as being normative for sex. But God’s message on sex is that it is a gift to be given in a committed, covenantal union between a husband and wife, and that protecting it until such time comes is not only ideal, but it is also realistic. Not easy in today’s over-sexualized culture, but not unattainable, either. Honoring God with our sexuality is worth pursuing—for ourselves, and for our children.

We can help our children navigate this journey. But they need us to speak up. They need us to be involved, helping them to see and understand what God has said about using his gift of sex, and how their hearts need continual direction to align their sexuality with sound, wise, life-affirming biblical practices.

The benefits and blessings of managing their sexuality are life-long. When you show them the way, you’ll be learning how to live with this awesome gift, too.

To learn more how to talk to your kids about sex and how to oversee their use of technology, go to http://harvest-usa-store.com/ and check out Harvest USA’s mini books, like iSnooping on your Kid: Parenting in an Internet Age and What’s Wrong with a Little Porn when You’re Single? 

Updated 4.13.17

The title of this article presupposes two things: First, your children are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss aside this article with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed and I am careful to protect them. I don’t need to read this.” But watch an hour of prime time television and you have seen pornography. Drive past any number of billboards while on a trip and you have seen pornography. Look at the fashion posters in the clothing stores at the mall and you have seen it, in some form.

Don’t believe it? Here is one problem to begin with: We have a very limited definition of pornography. Most of us think of pornography as something found on the Internet, or in adult book stores or behind the counter in convenience stores. While dictionaries might define pornography as pictorial or literary renderings of obscene material related to nudity or the sex act, it is much broader than that. Pornography is anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. It is anything that tempts and corrupts the human heart into desiring sensual pleasure in sinful ways.

By this definition, we live in a pornographic culture. Think of everything you see on a given day, from driving to the office to watching TV at night. Beer and soap advertisements, as well as underwear ads, all use the human body in provocative ways to catch the attention of the audience. It is not so much that sex is used to sell products, but that products are being used to sell sex. A woman groaning erotically while having her hair washed in a TV ad is not encouraging us to think about clean hair, but about having a sexual encounter.

What is happening here? The culture is attempting to feed our hearts. It tells us our lives are incomplete without the product it is trying to sell us. And when sex is used to sell it, it implies that the product will give us something even more enticing: it will make us into a beautiful woman or man, or draw one toward us, or possibly lead to a sexual encounter.

The sensuality of our culture has laid the groundwork, in some sense, for why overt pornography (like what is common on the Internet) has such power over us. The endless stream of sensual and sexual images touches upon the inner hunger for more, which is a result of living in a fallen world. The need for human relationship, a good creation but itself broken by sin, is something the culture teaches can be filled, not by long-term friendships or marriage, but by sexual and sensual pleasure whenever you can get it. This is why a definition of pornography must be broader in scope. The messages and images we are bombarded with today entice our hearts into desiring sexual and sensual pleasures in ways that are far outside of God’s boundaries.

These are the messages your children are inundated with beyond measure. When thinking about the critical issue of protecting your children from viewing or engaging in much more damaging pornography, you need to know that, daily, your children are being brainwashed into thinking that they need to be sexually active to be happy and fulfilled. You need to address the overarching problem of how our culture sexualizes everything before your children become addicted to pornography. There are two major things you can do.

1. Create a nurturing environment to talk about sex with your children 

The first thing parents need to do is just begin talking about sex. This is easier said than done, as the issue of sexuality is so closely connected to matters of one’s past behavior, shame, sin, present behavior, and all the brokenness that the Fall has brought down on sex. But if you don’t begin bringing this subject into the open in your home, you will leave your children defenseless against a culture that is quite willing to talk about sex (and show it) to your children.

Start by working to create a safe environment in your home to talk about emotionally difficult things. Many parents think they are protecting their children by not talking about sex, but in reality they are creating an environment where the children will learn that sex is a taboo subject. As kids grow older, if you have not been talking regularly about sex with your children, then how will they deal with the normal sexual urges and desires they will have growing up? If there is no clear message coming from you, then you can pretty much know where it will be coming from. What’s worse is, if the only time they hear you talking about sex is when you are critical of it (judging other’s behavior), or if your only message is to not have sex before marriage, then they will grow up helpless against the onslaught of unbiblical messages coming their way.

Start by examining God’s view of sex

To teach your children about healthy sexuality, and to begin creating a nurturing environment to talk about it, first examine your own view of sexuality. Is your understanding of sex grounded in Scripture, or is it more based on your own parental upbringing or experiences? There is no way to avoid the impact of your own upbringing here, but it is critical to make what God’s Word says about it paramount. The Bible is very free in discussing sexuality. In Genesis 2:25 we read that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. The Bible says there is nothing wrong with the human body and sexuality; it was the sin of Adam and Eve in disobeying God that caused sexuality to be distorted. It is only after they rebelled against God by eating the forbidden fruit that suddenly they were ashamed by their nakedness. In Proverbs 5:15-19 husbands are encouraged to rejoice in their wives—to enjoy their wives’ breasts and to be drunk with her loving-making. In the Song of Solomon we have vivid descriptions of the joys of sexuality in the context of marriage.

So, what message are you giving your children? Do they see sex as a beautiful gift from God to be enjoyed within the context of marriage, or do they see it as something embarrassing that cannot be discussed? Are they being taught, by your words and your actions, that sex in the context of marriage is something that is right, good, exciting, and life-affirming?

Set the stage on this topic early on with your children. Even if you are late in the game, don’t hesitate to start it now! Learn what the Bible says about sex and let your own misunderstandings and distortions be shaped by God’s Word. Let God’s view of sexuality become yours. If your children are young, talk to them openly and in age-appropriate ways about sex: what it is for; why it is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman; how they should think and feel about sex and their own bodies. If your kids are older, do the same thing, but with teens you may only get an audience by coming at the topic “sideways.” Engage them in conversation over movies, television, news stories, etc. Ask them what their peers are saying about sex and relationships. This can be a good way to get them to open up about their own concerns and struggles about sex, which can then lead into a more “direct” talk on the subject.

Address the deeper longings of their hearts

Talking about the physical or aspects of sex with our children is not enough. There is more to sexuality than Biology 101. But even talking about the emotional aspects of sex is still not enough. Sex begins not with the biology of our bodies, but with the longing for relationship in our hearts.

The beginning of this article focused on the fact that our culture uses a “porn is norm” approach to entice our hearts to want something that will fill our hearts with what we lack. Advertisers clearly understand the human heart, that we have deep inner longings that never seem to be adequately met. That is why pornography is so powerful. Until our children understand why they can feel lonely in a crowded room… until our children understand why they wish life had a happy ending like the movies… until our children understand why they can be sad for no apparent reason… until they understand the longing and emptiness that is always there inside of them, they will never know how to defend themselves against the strong, enticing pull of pornography.

We need to consistently communicate to our children that everyone has these inner longings that cannot be completely fulfilled in this life. This is not to create despair but to give hope. This is Christianity 101: sin has shattered everything in the world, and our longing for something more in life is a sign that points us toward the One who alone can ultimately fulfill us. We were created to be completely fulfilled in an eternal relationship with God, and from that all human relationships would flourish. But now, because of our broken hearts, even the best relationship we might have with God and others will leave us, in this life, longing for more.

Knowing this, about what we are made for and how sin has broken and impaired this relationship with God and others, can help our children identify their longings and resist the inevitable pull to meet them in false and sinful ways. Knowing why we have these longings is one of the best pieces of wisdom a parent can impart to a child. It will give the child a way to process all sorts of emotions and temptations.

Ask the right kinds of questions

How do you address these inner longings with your child? First, do what Jesus did: ask questions all over the place! Parents who only want to make sure their children don’t do anything wrong will generally engage them with commands and lectures. But parents who are wiser, knowing that their children are sinners like themselves and will do wrong things, will engage their behavior and their hearts with probing questions. The first recorded words from Jesus in the book of John is a question: “What do you seek?” When addressing the disabled man at the pool of Bethesda, who obviously wanted nothing more than to walk again, he asked him a question, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus always engaged a person at the level of the heart. We must do the same with our children. Do not just settle for what you see on the surface, their behavior. Dig deeper, for the sake of their souls!

When seeking to engage your child’s heart, watch your own heart! It is easy to ask questions that can be asked in a way that seeks to expose someone for judgment. Are you seeking information just so you can lower the ax? Are you trying to uncover behavior so that you can punish or “ground” your child? The wrong kind of questions, coming from the wrong kind of motive, will drive a child deeper into seclusion and secrecy—the very place sin, especially sexual sin, thrives.

Instead, ask questions that invite your child’s heart to show itself. Ask questions that help him talk about his feelings (positive and negative) and not just get him to explain his behavior. For example: “You’ve been spending a long time on your computer. What is it that you enjoy doing on it?” If you, instead, acted on your fears and directly asked, “Are you looking at porn?” you would close the discussion down immediately. Use an open-ended question to start off the conversation and then follow it with similar questions. You may (or may not) in that conversation get much detail, but a lifetime of engaging your child with questions that help them to be real is what you want to do.

The right kind of questions will affirm the child as being a person of value (created in the image of God) and someone you love and care about. The right kind of questions will allow the child to express his or her hurts and pains. The right kind of questions will uncover the deeper longings that they wrestle with and allow you the opportunity to share truths about God and how to live life by his grace. Ask yourself when talking with your child, “Is this question going after behavior or is it trying to reveal the heart? Am I seeking to expose for judgment, or am I seeking to know their soul?”

Listen with the right way of hearing

Second, as you ask your questions, be careful to genuinely listen and not overreact. Often our children will share something they have done, or a fantasy they may have, and we will react in a knee-jerk way. This is understandable, because we as parents are very protective of our children, but overreacting when they have risked being vulnerable with us will communicate to them that you will not love or understand them on that level. Staying calm and connected with him or her tells your child that your love for them is real, especially when they are being real and honest with you. When you do this, you are in a position to speak into their lives and have them listen to you. By really listening to them, you will find that they will be more willing to allow you to share with them your own concerns, listen to any alternate ways of thinking or behavior you might share with them, and, more importantly, help them wrestle with what God’s Word says as you look to the Scriptures for answers.

Understand their world with the right kind of knowledge

Third, take the time to learn what your child is up against. Enter his or her world. This may mean that you have to do some research. You may have to educate yourself about what his or her peers believe. For example: Did you know that many teens think that they can have oral sex with numerous partners and still be a virgin? Are you aware of how many ways your child can be bombarded with sexual images (the Internet, message apps, text messages, photo sharing sites, etc)?

Every generation has faced sexual temptation and has been pulled to behave in ways that are outside of God’s design. But this generation, with its proliferation of ways to gather information and communicate, is clearly up against the most formidable temptations that have ever existed. As their parent, you must stay on top of what your child faces every day.

Part of taking the time to learn about their world is also determining the extent of the problem your child might be facing. You need to know the dangers out there and also what your child has gotten into. So if you discover your son is visiting adult sites on the Internet, find out, in a non-threatening manner, how often he does this. What kinds of sites (heterosexual, homosexual, streaming videos, etc.) is he visiting? Such a string of questions might sound like you are grilling him, so how you ask will be critical to “invite” him to be honest with you. It is critical that you seek to discern the extent of your child’s behavior, constantly affirming to him that you are not doing this so that you can punish, but to figure out how best to help. Do not let a witch-hunt mentality develop. Instead, hold onto the idea that you are like a surgeon trying to determine the extent of the cancer so that you can treat the patient. Look for patterns in the behaviors that might reveal the deeper heart issues.

Remember that your goal in all of this is to look for the motives of the heart that might be leading your son or daughter into dangerous territory. Keep circling back in your mind to the fact that everyone’s sinful behaviors come out of sinful decisions made to address the core issues of the heart. Your goal is to help your child see, as much as possible, what is happening beneath the surface of his or her behavior.

2. Lead by example 

It should be obvious that the course of action described above cannot occur in one conversation. It is a life-long process. Start doing it now. Carefully build that environment in which you and your children can take steps to be real and open with one another. Asking good questions directed at your child’s heart, listening well, and understanding the world in which he or she lives will go a long way toward creating such a nurturing environment.

But lead now. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Technology is rapidly advancing, and the culture is rapidly moving away from traditional (read: much less Christian) values. You cannot shield your children from problems and sin in this world. You can only shepherd them and give to them the lifelong tools of thinking and behaving that will better help them resist the pressures they will inevitably face once they are grown-up and on their own.

If your children are young, start talking to them now about God’s design for sex (see “Take Courage! Parents and the Dreaded Conversation,” another article on this website).

If you have found that your children have been looking at porn—and again, the odds are overwhelming that they have—go to our bookstore to order a copy of our mini book, iSnooping on Your Kids: Parenting in an Internet World. This mini book will give you further tools on how to talk to your kids about healthy sexuality and the destructive effects of pornography, along with many practical, technological, preventative steps to take.

To help teach your child what are the subtle ways porn impacts and twists one’s mind and heart in ways that destroy relationships, read our mini book, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single.

You might be thinking right now, with the direction the culture is going, that your children are doomed to make it through their childhood, much less their whole life, without escaping this scourge. Remember this, though: The good news is that the first followers of Jesus Christ found themselves in a culture just as deeply broken and sexualized as our own. The Greek and Roman pantheons thrived on unlimited and outrageous sexual debauchery. The early church was filled with people who were coming out of lifestyles of immorality (I Corinthians 6:9-11). Yet the truth of the gospel overcame the pressures to conform to that culture. The gospel then is the gospel now: It is God’s grace that trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11-12, ESV).

God’s Word still speaks powerfully to these issues. You can have the faith that as you share this same gospel with your children, they will experience hope and change. Our hope as parents does not falter, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Updated 4.26.2017

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