04 Jan 2018
HARVEST USA did two day-long seminars for parents and youth leaders at Chelten Church, in the suburbs of Philly. Afterwards, we sat down with Jon Shepherd, their Student Ministry Director, to talk about ways he addresses sexuality with his youth group.
As a bit of an ice-breaker, what’s one of the funnest moments you have experienced in youth ministry?
Having been a part of the Youth Ministry at Chelten since 2006, I have so many fun memories. One that everyone can enjoy involved one of our senior guys laying on the beach at Ocean City, NJ letting a flock of seagulls eat Cool Ranch Doritos off his bare chest.
We know you have a heart for youth, so tell us a bit about why you got into youth ministry.
One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I got into youth ministry because I want to use the gifts that God has given me and my own experiences to help the next generation know Christ and follow him from a young age.
What do you think are some of the unique challenges facing youth ministers today in discipling students in the area of sexuality?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the culture’s definition of normal sexuality. From billboards to TV shows, songs to smartphone apps—we are combatting a message that says that you get to define your sexuality and do what seems right for you.
Also, what is unique to our day and age is the role that the smartphone has played in the lives of our teenagers. Social media, for example, tells our young people that they don’t look good enough. Other apps make hooking up or sexting as easy as a swipe of your finger. Unfiltered cell phones provide accessibility to endless amounts of pornography with just a few simple clicks.
This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.
Leaving the depressing state of our world, what have been some of the best moments in addressing sexuality amongst students?
The most impactful times with students have always come after another leader or I have made the first move toward individual students by sharing some of our own struggles. I can remember a night where we had a “guy’s night” and allowed the students to anonymously write questions on index cards where a panel of their regular youth leaders would take turns answering. Several of our leaders were very vulnerable with our guys and shared both past and present struggles with sexual sin. This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.
As we take the risk of sharing our need for Jesus in the area of sexuality, we open the door for students to invite us into their lives. Young men will come and share their addiction to pornography. Young ladies share that they have turned to self-harm or an eating disorder because they don’t feel pretty or sexy enough. It is then a privilege to walk beside them to Christ, knowing that we both need the same grace.
HARVEST USA came to your church to do Gospel Sexuality: Student Ministry Training. What did you take away from the seminar that you would like others who work with students to hear?
One reason youth leaders don’t talk about sexuality is that we feel the pressure to have an entire night or series devoted to the topic, which is overwhelming and quite honestly, terrifying! Your training gave us some great tips on how to make sexuality a regular topic of conversation. For example, when addressing different sins that students may be battling, include in your talk a sexual sin like looking at pornography along with lying to your parents and trashing someone else’s reputation.
Also, we learned that when we don’t talk about sexual issues, it communicates shame to the one who is struggling in those taboo areas. Jesus invites all sinners to come forward from a place of shame, as he did the woman with the bleeding problem in Mark 5. We must create a church culture in which sexual sin is not ignored but is instead safe to talk about, a place where we can confess and find healing in Christ.
Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it.
What did you take away from Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids that you would like parents to hear?
Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids began with providing the bigger picture on sexuality and sexual sin by using the metaphor of the tree. This metaphor showed that we cannot simply address the fruit—the behaviors that we see—we must also address other factors as well.
Also, it is not enough to have “the talk;” we must, instead, engage in multiple discussions at different levels over the course of our child’s life. In other words, discussing sexuality with our kids is not a box to be checked, but is instead an ongoing topic of conversation and discipleship. We want to maintain ongoing communication to the point where we can be there to help pick up the pieces when they mess up and walk with them to Christ.
As a parting gift, what are three words of wisdom you want to give to youth ministers or parents on talking about sex and sexuality?
Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it. Sharing your own need is also a great way to begin that conversation. As you share your own story, where you talk about your past and present need for Jesus, you invite them to open up and share their struggles.
Second, shepherd in community. Sexual sin can be a dangerous area to enter into with a young person. It is essential that we shepherd our students in community. Developing a team of adults in your youth ministry is key to this. In our youth ministry, every student is divided into small groups based on age and gender with multiple volunteer youth leaders over every group. We regularly divide into small groups for processing God’s word, sharing, and prayer. When a student comes to a staff member or volunteer leader with a sexual sin, we ask the student to continue to widen the circle of knowledge by involving another staff member, volunteer leader, or parent into the conversation. While it is extremely important to protect the student’s trust and privacy, it is also important that we, as youth leaders, are accountable to one another for our own protection.
Third, pray for your students more than you talk to them about sexuality. The reality is, we cannot fix the brokenness in our own lives or the lives of students. Redemption and healing can only be found in Jesus Christ. Knowing this truth is a huge relief and comfort. God is far more invested in your youth ministry and the sexuality of your students than you are.
Watch Jon talk more about this on his accompanying video: How does a youth pastor address sexuality with students? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Whether you’re a youth minister or a parent, talking about sex and sexuality to teens is uncomfortable, to say the least. But it needs to be done. Listen as one youth minister at a large church gives his tips on how he and his youth team handles it.
07 Dec 2017
As a youth minister, it’s an already confusing task to lead youth to the feet of Jesus when you yourself need to take the journey. How can we, as youth ministers, bear students’ sins and sufferings when we’re barely holding on? How can we lead youth to streams of living water when we’re dying in the desert?
And then throw porn into the mix. Some churches call for an all-out air strike on any of their staff who might wrestle with pornography: the staff position will be taken away, and the staff person will leave in shame. While we don’t have time to get into church policy, the measures taken by any church should be nuanced enough to vary by situation. But as youth ministers, how can we ourselves move forward? What are some initial categories we can keep in mind?
Confession to My Spouse, Boss, or Mentor?
Placed in context, the richness of James’ teaching on confession becomes apparent:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (5:13-16, ESV).
Confession does help others hold us accountable, but more than that, confession is a means for others to join their healing prayers for us with the two Divine intercessors, our Great High Priest and the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27, 34). Sin says, “Don’t confess. No one can be trusted.” Jesus says otherwise. Sin casts confession as insecurity and defeat. Jesus casts confession as a means to healing. Confession is scary, and I always wrestle with it whatever my sin. But I’ve got to lean into what I know is true: God says there is healing here, not destruction.
If there is a pattern of confession already taking place in your marriage, confess to your spouse. I understand there are a whole host of issues that need to be addressed, from the support your wife needs after hearing your confession to how often you confess to your wife, but I always air on the side of transparency. But should you confess to your boss? It certainly depends on the type of church culture you are in and, more particularly, the relationship you have with your boss. This needs to be in the equation at some point, but I would suggest you first start elsewhere. What about a peer? I certainly think so, but peers usually do not have the grey streaks of wisdom that come with age and experience. That grey-streaked wisdom can help to lift us from the mire, instead of simply commiserating with us in the midst of it.
Consider confessing to someone older and wiser, preferably someone in ministry, who has demonstrated not only a record of humility but also a record of being able to shoulder other people’s burdens. This person will be able to both empathize with you and point out potential blind spots in yourself.
The urgent call is clear: we need to brainstorm ways, to whomever we confess, to practically turn from our sin and turn to Jesus. At minimum, it will mean installing filtering and accountability software on all devices you use. But it could also mean getting rid of smartphones or personal computers altogether. It could mean setting up times of Bible study and prayer with the person to whom you confess. It will certainly mean making a habit of daily prayer to cast ourselves upon our God. The key is practical, daily repentance, not lofty, vague goals.
As a youth leader, you are already serving. But as a way to battle the inward spiral of selfishness that porn facilitates, let’s look for ways for you to serve more. Can you set up regular times to do the dishes for your wife or husband instead of surfing the Internet? Can you set up a standing meeting with students that will interfere with your usual time of looking at porn (i.e., early breakfasts, dinners)? With the person to whom we confess, it’s good to brainstorm little, practical ways that we can further love and serve others for the kingdom of God.
All of the above ideas – confession, repentance, and love – happen in the midst of a relationship with someone we trust. I would strongly advise finding older and wiser men and women who can serve as mentors for us. This could mean having a standing meeting where we talk about life, stress, good things, hard things, or anything at all. During these meetings spend time in prayer, walk through a book on Christian living together, or simply read Scripture.
Pornography thrives in the darkness of isolation. It is best dispelled in the light of relationship with others.
When Do We Need to Exit Ministry?
When is pornography a disqualification from ministry? My first response is: I don’t know. If we continue to harbor the secret sin of porn and do not confess and ask for help from anyone, then clearly we have no business in ministry, where openness and honesty in the light of Christ should be the norm. On the other hand, if the presence of pornography is simply ubiquitous, infused into our lives with power and influence, and if taking the steps above are not leading to measurable evidence of practical repentance and change, then yes, step away from ministry. Here is when you need to ask your supervisor for their input and honestly submit to your local church.
I think a certain posture is key, however, in being able to do this: we need to be so focused on Christ and His faithfulness in practical ways that everything else in our lives, including our jobs, can be up for grabs. We need to ask at least two question of ourselves. The first is, are we going to be helpful to others if we continue to struggle like this with porn? The second is, am I giving myself time to heal, obey, and follow Jesus if I’m struggling so much with porn and trying to lead others to Jesus?
Jesus Chose You
Overall, it is difficult to reconcile our own sin with the leadership task we have been given as youth ministers. But we also need to recognize that God has chosen sinners to act as youth ministers; He has chosen us in our weakness and sin to point others to Himself. Jesus’ words are obvious, but I often forget the obvious: “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17). Still, just because Jesus chose sinners to do his work does not mean that we should continue in youth ministry. Wisdom and input from others is crucial.
Whether we continue in our job or not, we must remember that Jesus came for people like us and has united us to Himself in a Spirit-forged bond. The Spirit residing within us is power to engage the fight passionately and relentlessly. He will not give up on us. And that truth is water to a desert-ridden soul, hope for the confused youth minister, and fuel to keep leading others to the very same Savior that we ourselves so desperately need.
You can watch Cooper talk more about this on his accompanying video: What does a youth minister do when he struggles with porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
26 Oct 2017
Youth pastors have challenging ministries, and that’s an understatement today. I took a phone call from Tom (all names have been changed), a youth pastor at a large, PCA church, and his situation is something churches will be encountering everywhere.
Tom said he had worked hard to build a thriving, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. He solicited many 30-something adult helpers and small group leaders. His ministry emphasis was on biblical education and personal ministry, but he also worked to develop an outreach mindset for the unsaved and outsiders among his kids.
And it was working. The youth group grew. Many un-churched kids regularly attended as a result of being invited by his kids. But one day his outreach approach came close to tearing the entire ministry apart.
What happened? One of the invited kids, Eric, who got very involved in the youth group, announced one day that he was gay. This is where the problem for Tom began.
The kids from church had different responses to Eric’s disclosure, and they fell into three camps. The first camp was, “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t be in the youth group.” The second was, “He should be here. The church is the best place for him to learn about Christ.” And some said, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
All three responses created confusion and turmoil.
And then the parents got wind of it all. Not only were they shocked by the emerging disorder in the youth group, but many of the parents began to learn, for the first time, what their children believed about this issue. And they responded with anger and fear at everything that was happening.
Tom’s phone rang, and his email overflowed. “How did this kid get into the church’s youth group?” asked one dad. One mom gave an ultimatum: “If that boy continues to attend, we’re pulling our sons out.” Another said, “I don’t want that kind of bad influence around my child.”
Some church kids threatened to leave if Eric was asked to leave; others said they would never invite anyone else to come. To top it off, Tom’s staff had different responses. Tom was in no-man’s land, feeling pressure to make the right decision. Clearly, there would be consequences no matter how he handled the situation. Hence his phone call to me!
We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
As issues of sex, sexuality, and gender become the defining identity marker in the culture, it has never been more critical for the church to be educated and equipped. With the church and parents often committed to not speaking about these matters to our kids, most kids make up their minds about sexuality and gay marriage by the age of 12 these days (and it’s getting younger every day). The culture has “discipled” them well. They are listening to the voices on the Internet and media, which they spend hours each day consuming.
Churches need to educate their leaders and volunteers in how to lovingly and compassionately minister to youth, some whom struggle silently with sexual issues from a relatively early age. Parents need to be taught how to talk to their kids, well before an issue explodes and they respond in anger and fear.
Those who are involved in ministry to junior and senior high youth must speak boldly, frequently, compassionately, and truthfully about sex, sexuality, and gender, especially because most kids struggle in their silent formative years when sexual identity is being formed and embraced. We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
Yes, you want 13-year-old Jason to trust you (or his small group leader) to tell you he’s looking at porn on his smartphone. Yes, you want 15-year-old Erica to confide that she’s attracted to other girls, and wants to know, is she gay. You want Sam to tell you he feels he’s another gender. You want these kinds of talks because God has placed you in their lives at this crucial time, while they still live at home and before college. Believe me, once they get to a secular college, there will be plenty of voices saying, “Yes, please come talk to us. We’ll help you figure this out.”
I’m so serious about this I’m going to repeat it: if youth leaders are not willing to engage these issues with the youth under their care, they shouldn’t be involved in youth work today!
HARVEST USA is ready to help your church become educated and proactive in dealing with these matters. We can meet with your church staffs and elder boards to help them strategize and implement how to do 21st-century youth ministry work.
Email me at email@example.com.
Walking away from an emotional affair is painful; it can feel like death. In fact, something does need to die: the unholy attachment between two people that never should have been. In my first two posts in this series, I shared how you can identify an emotional affair and how to take the first steps out of it. In this final post, I’ll share what healing looks like over the long haul for everyone involved.
After the confession of sin and the intentional breaking of all ties between the two people involved, the next step is both immediate and lifelong: what is Christ asking you to pursue and commit to so as to grow in relational, emotional and sexual integrity? Answering that question will be necessary to not just get through this pain, but to grow in and through it.
If you’re the single person
What led you into the emotional affair was, most likely, a desire for something good. Longings for companionship, emotional intimacy, and being loved are good desires! These desires, however, always motivate us in a direction—towards Christ or away from him, towards godly love for others, or towards self-centered interests. You now know in what direction those desires led you, so here are some things to reflect upon—and to do—to move in Christ’s direction.
- Focus on God’s grace for brokenhearted sinners. Turning away from our sin hurts, and this will be excruciating. I don’t want to sugar-coat this. But, see this pain as one that heals, freeing you from the enslaving pain of secret sin and an unholy, obsessive relationship.
- Steep yourself in Scripture and learn again how God’s word brings deep comfort.
- Learn about a biblical view of God’s design for singles in regards to relationships, including friendships with both men and women.
- Press into a study of what wisdom looks like in dating relationships, and what godly marriage is.
What led you into the emotional affair was, most likely, a desire for something good. Longings for companionship, emotional intimacy, and being loved are good desires! These desires, however, always motivate us in a direction—towards Christ or away from him, towards godly love for others, or towards self-centered interests.
If you’re the married person
- Same for you, drink deeply of God’s mercy for you, a suffering sinner who is desperate for God’s comfort.
- Actively turn towards Christ and your spouse in new and selfless ways will be your most important step. God is now calling you to cultivate spiritual intimacy and friendship with your spouse and to bear patiently with him or her in their healing process. Marriage counseling will help you find and repair the fractured connections between you and your spouse, helping you grow forward into a relationship based on trust and true intimacy. Your character is formed through the promises you make and the commitments you keep.
- Continue to close all paths and doors that can connect you to this person. And I do mean all. God never said to manage sin; he said to kill it. He doesn’t say kick the sin out of the living room of your heart, but you can keep it in the back guest room. But if it is impossible to cut off all ties due to circumstances, then you must have rigorous accountability about your commitments.
- Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and track down what your heart most wanted in the emotional affair. You will find idols that have owned you (Jesus replacements) that need to be unearthed and dismantled. 
- Don’t do this alone: get help and accountability. This should involve a wise counselor and spiritual friends who will remind you that one thing that got you into the mess was not being honest with God and others.
- Accept that your obedience in doing all this will hurt. The pain of letting go and accepting these losses will sting for a long time, most likely. This is normal, brother or sister! Anticipate it, and ask God to give you faith to believe what is true, and resolve to walk forward into wholeness and integrity. It is worth it.
Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and track down what your heart most wanted in the emotional affair. You will find idols that have owned you (Jesus replacements) that need to be unearthed and dismantled.
If you’re the spouse who was betrayed
- How will you handle being sinned against in a traumatic and trust-crushing way? Will you turn towards the God of comfort, strength, and healing, or find comfort in sinful ways? As your spouse turns away from the sinful entanglement of the emotional affair, will you walk forward with your spouse into a new marriage built on forgiveness, honesty, and trust in Christ as your foundation? These are critical decisions you must make early on when your hurt is greatest. Only you can make these decisions, and through the Holy Spirit, you can be led into a new spacious place of healing and hope.
- You, too, will need accountability. Besides a marriage counselor for you and your spouse, find a friend or two to be totally honest with. It will feel embarrassing to admit that your spouse was unfaithful to you. This betrayal was intensely personal, and while the affair was birthed out of your spouse’s sinful heart, it’s natural to “wear it” like a garment of shame. Ask God to lead you to the helpers and friends he has for you, and pray that your heart will be ready to receive his provision!
Is there life after an emotional affair? Yes, friends, there is! But only through following Christ through your own “Garden of Gethsemane,” one day at a time. Saying to God, Your will be done Father, not mine, but your will be done, will be your daily prayer. God is strong enough to get you to the other side of this affair and the wreckage it has brought about. He is your healer, redeemer, and will always be faithful to his word. It may feel impossible at this moment, but he can bring beauty from the ashes, comfort to your heart, and give you an amazing chapter of grace in your life story.
 For some resources to learn more about this, listen to my workshop at the Gospel Coalition’s 2016 Women’s Conference here: Cultivating Emotional and Sexual Wholeness; and I recommend two excellent books by Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (for married couples) and Sacred Search (for singles).
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her accompanying video: Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part 3. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Ending an emotional affair is hard. It can be so hard that some choose not to end it even when it’s clear that the relationship is wrong and doesn’t honor Christ. But there are practical steps you can take to know how to get through this process—and come out stronger on the other side.
Click here to go deeper on this subject in Ellen’s blog: Emotional Affairs: When closeness becomes destructive—Part 3
Now that you know the danger signs of being in an unhealthy emotional affair in Ellen’s first blog, what do you do now? Hear three key steps that Ellen gives on moving toward repentance and spiritual health.
Click here to go deeper on this subject in Ellen’s blog: Emotional Affairs: When closeness becomes destructive—Part 2
Navigating life when you feel lonely is tough. When God-given desires for relationships go off the rails of what is holy and wise, we’re headed for a mess. Sometimes, the result is an emotional affair.
In my first post, I described an emotional affair as an unholy connection between two people (one of whom is married, if not both) that involves a level of intimacy that rightly belongs in marriage. Perhaps you’ve realized, like Josh from my first blog post that you are in a relationship that has moved into this dangerous territory.
To honor Christ, and to keep this relationship from further harming you and others, you need to take active steps to disentangle yourself
If you’re in this situation, what do you do now? To honor Christ, and to keep this relationship from further harming you and others, you need to take active steps to disentangle yourself. Here are three steps to take.
First, you need to confess the sin of this relationship to God, your spouse (if married), and to at least one, if not two, trusted and spiritually mature friends. DON’T confess your sin first to the person with whom you are having an emotional affair. If that person isn’t ready to let go, he or she might try to convince you to stay. Go first to God, and then to a friend or two you can trust. Those friends can help you discern the best way to communicate the situation and your decision to the other parties involved (the person you’ve had the affair with, and your spouse, if married).
You’ll need courage, friend, and resolve to take this step! You wouldn’t be in an affair if you weren’t getting something out of it. Peter wrote that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV), and that power includes taking steps to end your emotional affair. God never expects his children to muscle their way through hard and costly obedience; no, he calls us to trust in him to empower us to do the right thing. He is able to strengthen you as you humble yourself before him and others.
After confessing to God and key people, your second step is to break off this relationship and prepare to grieve, as letting go of it will hurt! You need to communicate clearly that the relationship cannot continue. I often find that some women stay stuck in sinful patterns or relationships because one, they fear the pain which comes from letting go and are unsure how to grieve the loss of the relationship or two, they can’t imagine how God will comfort the deepest parts of their hearts. So, they stay stuck.
Peter went on to say that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials “(2 Peter 2:9 ESV). He knows you! He will rescue you from fear and give you comfort as a huge part of your heart will feel empty. One of the painful consequences of any relationship that has become too big in our lives is the way it can block intimacy with the Lord. Ending the relationship can feel like you are entering an emotional wasteland, but this can actually be a path back towards abiding in Jesus and experiencing new intimacy with him.
Ending the relationship can feel like you are entering an emotional wasteland, but this can actually be a path back towards abiding in Jesus and experiencing new intimacy with him
What do you do if this person goes to church with you? Is a coworker? A member of your extended family? You’ll need wisdom to navigate this terrain (which is why having mature believers alongside you is crucial). You may need to find a new church or job, or have a season where you avoid family gatherings. When hearts become emotionally entangled in an emotional affair, the disentangling process often requires radical steps like these. They are painful and costly, but worth it!
If you can’t remove yourself from being around this person due to circumstances, you need to be sure you have specific accountability. This means having people ask you:
Are you being faithful in not having any contact with this person?
Are you doing everything you can to pursue your spouse and godly friendships with others?
How are you guarding your heart in unavoidable circumstances when you are around this person?
Finally, what is God calling you to pursue and cultivate in your life now? Your emotional affair allowed a person to displace the central place of God in your life. With that person out of the picture, drawing near to God may feel emotionally unappealing. Give it time—but keep taking steps toward your relationship with God. It usually is a long process for emotions and hearts to heal and become untangled. God is calling you back to himself and will work to give you “the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Phil. 2:13 NLT).
Meeting with a counselor or wise friend to address the deeper issues in your life which made you vulnerable to this emotional affair is important. For the married person involved, you and your spouse will be helped by a season of marriage counseling to help you grow together in Christ and in your intimacy as a couple (more on this in my third post, as I explore what help the offended spouse needs).
Let me end this post with how Josh and Sara dealt with their emotional affair.
Josh did not go to Sara or her husband first to confess the sinful relationship. He contacted a Christian friend and shared what was going on. The friend prayed with Josh and offered to go with him to one of the elders for counsel.
Josh decided with his elder’s support to set up a meeting for the two of them to meet with Sara and Craig. At this meeting, Josh confessed that his attachment to Sara had grown beyond what is appropriate. He realized he needed to break ties with her and thus attend a new church for at least a season. He kept his focus in this meeting on his behavior and sin, not “confessing” for Sara.
Faced with Josh’s humility, Sara broke down and confessed her unfaithfulness to Craig, as well as using Josh’s attention to feel good about herself. Shocked and hurt, Craig was silent. In the weeks that followed, he and Sara began to talk more honestly about their marriage than they had in years. Craig acknowledged ways he had allowed ministry responsibilities to distract him from his family. The sin of Sara’s emotional affair was not his fault, but he humbly recognized that the foundation in his marriage was fractured and needed attention. The elders gave him a sabbatical with a mandate that he and Sara pursue counseling and the rebuilding of their marriage.
How can we avoid emotional affairs? By growing in wisdom and living in the truth of Romans 13:14, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires“(ESV). If you’re married, consider reading our magazine issue on godly sexuality that addresses several key issues for couples. If you’re single like me, consider reading my online article, “Sexuality and the Single Christian: Godly Answers in a Confusing World.”
Next week I’ll finish this series with thoughts on what the process of healing looks like over the long haul, for everyone involved.
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her accompanying video: Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jul 2017
Pornography has destroyed countless marriages. Sexual sin of all kinds inflicts deep pain and damage. But in order to repair and restore the marriage, if possible, Ellen talks about four key things every couple needs to do.
06 Jul 2017
In the first part of my post, I talked about how sexual pleasure points to something greater than the mere physical experience of it. Many don’t realize that God loves pleasure, and his design for sex and sexuality in our lives is to give us a taste of his love and longing for us. You can read the first post here, and now on to three other aspects of godly sex that helps us better understand God’s purposes.
Godly sex serves
The only sex “how to” passage in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. It states each spouse “owes” the other “conjugal rights” and commands them not to deprive each other. It even says sex is a mandate in marriage; the only reason for not engaging sexually is when both agree specific time is needed to seek God in prayer (perhaps when facing a life or family crisis). This is another problem in many marriages: it’s too easy to let sexual expression fall by the wayside in the busyness of life. Juggling jobs, children, household responsibilities, church activities, and friendships take time. The Bible makes clear that this crucial area of marriage can’t be neglected. Couples must prioritize building mutual intimacy—emotional, spiritual, and physical—for their marriage to flourish. And deepening intimacy is further hindered when couples allow the accumulation of hurts, slights, fights, etc., to build until neither can muster the desire to be vulnerable again.
Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse
Even though sex is “mandated,” there is no room in Christian marriage for sex on demand. Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse. 1 Corinthians 7 mentions that each spouse’s body belongs to the other, but I should not read that passage thinking, “My spouse’s body is mine.” Instead, my body belongs to my wife; I’m called to use it to bless her. God designed sexuality in marriage to teach couples the joy and blessing of serving. God intends husband and wife to approach the marriage bed looking to pleasure his or her spouse—this is the recipe for a great sex life! And it is why a marriage must be marked by good communication. A dynamic sex life doesn’t come easily or naturally; it requires intentionality, effort, direct conversation, and practice! Part of the joy and wonder is discovering how to satisfy someone who’s built radically different than you!
Godly sex takes work
If sex is such an incredible blessing, why do so many Christian couples struggle to have a fulfilling sexual component to their relationship? First, many buy into the world’s lie that “sex = life.” This guarantees you will never be satisfied, and anyone telling you sex is life-giving is lying. There is only one Life Giver. Sex is glorious because it points beyond itself to the Lover of our souls. If we think it’s more than a signpost, we’re setting ourselves up for discontent. Sex will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake—a gift to be received with thanksgiving to God—than something that will change your life. Further, many couples have broken sexual histories or present struggles sullying their experience. Sexual sin mars the blessing God wants us to experience. That’s part of the reason sexual sin is described as a sin against self (1 Corinthians 6:18). So many marriages are impacted by porn use. It violates the call to forsake all others, and its effects are devastating. Porn brings out the base instincts of our fallen nature, focusing on physical appeal and the desire to copulate with abandon, completely ignoring God’s design that sexual desire be focused on serving another in an emotionally and spiritually intimate relationship. Those ensnared by porn live with perpetual discontent. No individual will ever satisfy. Internet porn programs us for constant novelty by providing innumerable sexual “partners,” leaving many people incapable of maintaining real relationships. Years ago secular researchers were stunned to discover the fastest-growing demographic of men dealing with erectile dysfunction were not elderly, but guys in their 20s and 30s, abusers of internet porn since adolescence. There’s even greater social devastation as a generation prefers images over real people. And this isn’t just a “guys’ problem”—women are also drawn to porn. Brokenness abounds in our sexuality, so we need to grasp God’s grace for forgiveness and healing.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically. We were created to be known, and marriage should be the most significant place this happens. In marriage, we are invited back to the experience of “naked and unashamed,” to be known for who we truly are and experience profound love and acceptance. Marriages become broken and distant when it is not safe to be vulnerable. Sex is intended to be a celebration of the emotional and spiritual closeness experienced by husband and wife in all of life. The Hebrew word used most frequently in the OT for sexual intimacy is “to know,” because image-bearing sexuality should be the culmination of a deep knowing and oneness. A great sex life starts in life’s mundane moments: driving in the car, sitting in the living room, during long walks, and doing the dishes.
Practicing godly sex
These two aspects of sexuality—theological implications and practical applications—are crucial in helping couples express godly sexuality. Often couples want to know what behaviors are permitted in the marriage bed. Here’s where couples need to reflect on what they are pursuing and ask: Will my spouse be served, blessed, and encouraged? Or shamed, demeaned, and feel exploited? Is our activity a reflection of Christ’s love for his church? Will my spouse experience love, safety, joy, comfort through this? Will our behavior lead to my spouse’s flourishing, or will it mainly be for the benefit of one, turning the spouse into an object of self-centered pleasure? Honest reflection and discussion about motivation is critical, considering God’s intentions for sex in marriage.
For example, many in our culture were swept up in the 50 Shades phenomena, including Christians. But activities like sexual bondage (BDSM) are completely at odds with everything we’ve been considering. To inject humiliation, pain, shame, fantasy role-play, and violence into what God designed to be the most intimate place of love, mutual trust, respect, and safety is destructive to godly sex. Many behaviors celebrated by our culture are the result of porn’s destructive influence on our imagination, and safety, trust, and respect are violated when a spouse uses power or manipulation to get their way. And some Christian couples justify using porn to try to “spice up” their sex life. The marriage bed is a place where God wants us exclusively devoted to one another, focused on each other, learning of each other, not titillated by others.
Finally, there’s also no room for pouting when your advances are met with tired refusal. Focusing on one another forces us to balance our own longings with the desire to bless our spouse. And the cultural joke about a wife’s headache is increasingly inaccurate. Many wives are desperate for their husband to engage them sexually, but often he neglects her, consumed by his own struggle with pornography and other sexual sin.
Some Christians believe the world’s lie that maximum pleasure is the goal of sex. Scripture warns that in the last days people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). God wants us to know him more fully in all of life, to worship him as our Creator and see that the world and life are charged with pleasure and glory as they reflect the wonder of his majesty. Although only partial in this life, he wants our eyes open now to this wonder, even as we long for its fullness. Sex, like all of life, is profoundly theological, while being gloriously earthy and physical. There should be a “Godward” orientation to every aspect of our lives. Through sexuality Christians are invited into deeper relationship with God, knowing our Creator’s delight in our experience of pleasures he designed for his glory and our good.
May we increasingly worship God through our sexuality, knowing that whether we fast or feast, sex is a signpost to the great consummation with Jesus, a herald of the glorious life to come.