13 Jun 2019
“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.
I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”
I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:
The Lone Ranger Flaw
I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.
Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.
Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.
Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.
The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).
Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.
So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting? We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.
The Shame Syndrome Flaw
A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.
But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.
It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.
Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.
The “Just Stop It” Flaw
A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.
But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.
The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.
So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.
True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.
Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn? Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.
Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.
Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.
16 May 2019
“To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.” He was referring to porn. His tone expressed exasperation, discouragement, defeat. There were nods of agreement in the room from the group of men—several had said roughly the same thing recently and continued to feel it that way. Giving up porn was their life or death battle.
I had known these men for a few years having led their biblical support group at Harvest USA. They had all showed progress against their sin, with varying levels of “victory.” The one who spoke up had gone a significant time without a fall. Every day he said no to porn, every day he fought to give up porn—but only by harboring the secret concession that he could still go to it tomorrow.
I felt tempted to give in to their discouragement. A slew of biblical scenes came to my mind: Rachel hiding the family gods in her saddlebag (Genesis 31); Achan burying some of the spoil in his tent (Joshua 7); the rich young ruler walking away sad, unwilling to give up his “one thing.” (Mark 10:17-22).
Here is their fatal flaw, I thought—they will not forsake their idol. This will not have a good ending.
My discouragement increased.
But in my mind I settled on the story of the rich young ruler and remembered that sentence, “Jesus loved him.” While the rich young ruler walked away thinking I can’t imagine life without it, Jesus was loving him. We are not told the end of that young man’s story. But I have more than a little hope for him—because Jesus loved him. And that’s why I ultimately couldn’t lose hope for the men that I had come to love, either.
Could it be that moments like this, when confronted by the stark choice Jesus gives us, to follow him or to follow our wayward hearts into idolatry and sin, are when the necessary climatic turn can happen in one’s life?
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it.
They—and all of us—are faced daily with the choice to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. Other biblical phrases echo the scene from the young ruler story: “He that loses his life, for me, will find it. . . ”; “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God. . . ”; “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old is gone; the new has come”; “Behold, I am making all things new.”
You see, these men have reached a point where they are facing the question of their existence at its starkest and darkest: “Am I willing to die to all that I’ve been living? Am I ready to forsake forever my familiar idolatrous refuge? Am I willing to let Jesus re-create me? Do I want to be holy, to be steadily reshaped into the character and image of Christ?”
How dear is an idol. It claims to fill a core place in our life—an emotional need, a desire unmet, a hurt unhealed. Over time we steep ourselves in its desire until it is so familiar that it seems a part of us. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. We had thought repentance was change, only to discover that it really means becoming a completely different person!
How do we help someone who is at this place?
First, cheer them on to the right choice.
Remind them that Jesus’ promise of new life is for crises such as this. He said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is nothing but death in the “old,” and nothing but life in the “new.” Implore them to run after new life. At the point of crisis, remind them that Jesus loves them. Even in their struggle; even in their doubt; even in their stumbling and falling.
Second, model life-long faith and repentance yourself as you walk with your brothers.
Your role in encouraging them is not just for this crisis moment; you need to show them by example that this is an ongoing turning. We want to believe we can turn once from an idol that has been a long-time staple of our life, then never have to face the decision again. It is true that there is a decisive turning when we know in our hearts that we belong to Christ and no longer to ourselves, but the full implications of that take a lifetime to work out.
As a new believer, this decisive turning comes with a sense of joy and freedom. But we do not know ourselves very well. God knows us perfectly. We do not see all at once what it will mean to “put off the old self” and “put on the new.” There are other idols we do not immediately see.
As we mature in our life as a Christian, the Spirit progressively brings us from one repentance crisis to another, each time showing us another piece of what is earthly in us and giving us the opportunity—no, the necessity—of saying goodbye to it, of reaffirming, “This is not who I am anymore; I don’t have to do this.”
Third (and this is of course the most important), pray with and for them.
Prayer is how we re-focus on the person who is the power behind our repentance, Jesus himself. It is his work. He is the one to whom we turn. His is the life by which we turn. His is the voice that beckons us to forsake our old life to live his new life.
I have more than a little hope for these friends of mine. I have every reason to believe Jesus loves them, and has brought them to this crisis of eternal identity with his hand outstretched, inviting them to trust him, beckoning them to life, “Come, follow me. . . I am making all things new.”
I confessed my struggle with pornography in late 2004. I had struggled for 5 years after being exposed at age 13. My “hobby” use quickly spiraled into what I would consider an addiction (though experts argue if that’s even a real thing. I say yes.)
By the time I was 17 and away at college, I was viewing pornography on a school computer with my roommate asleep less than 10 feet behind me, within view of our behemoth 2003 desktop. I was sleeping through my morning Chemistry class and sex chatting with men and women online, from my dorm room, at a Christian college. Eventually I sent nude photos of myself to a man.
I got caught there in college. My internet was being tracked. But when the dean confronted me with my internet history report and alleged porn problem that was “disgusting and one of the worst cases they had ever seen” she told me “We know this wasn’t you. Women just don’t have this problem.” That was Fall 2003.
A year later, I outed myself, and told someone I struggled with pornography and needed help. I found help, and it took me almost two years to feel like I was “free” from pornography. While I’ve been “free” for over a decade, I’ve never stopped battling it. Those ten years of freedom have included moments of temptation and many times of relapse. Still, I would call it freedom, and there’s much I have learned in the process.
Freedom from Pornography is Possible
There were days I thought, “There’s no way I can beat this.” In the morning, I would wake up and say, “Not today” but it’s like my feet had autopilot and just walked me to the computer desk. Hours would slip by online and I felt powerless to stop any of it. I tried changing passwords (doesn’t help when you know them!). I tried self-harm. I tried finding other hobbies. Nothing seemed to help.
You can’t begin to fathom a life without pornography, so you’re just desperate to survive in spite of it. But there’s a better option that “surviving in spite of pornography.” Freedom is possible. It’s hard, but it’s real.
That bit of truth would have been so helpful for me in my struggle, because the days I thought, “There’s no way out of this” were always the hardest. In fact, believing there was no way out is exactly what led me into the darkest parts of my story. We need the hope that there is a way out and that freedom is available to us. It is.
Healing Goes Beyond Freedom
But there’s more to this journey than simply finding freedom from pornography. Too many times we make it all about “stop watching porn” and just leave it at that. We forget to answer important questions like
- What does life look like without pornography?
- What kind of damage has pornography done and has it healed?
- Do I know how to build healthy friendships?
- How do I restore a positive view of sex?
- How has this affected my view of my body?
We can get so focused on not doing a particular behavior that we forget about the healing that needs to take place. What I’ve found though is as you heal those deeper wounds, if you will, the temptation and draw toward pornography essentially lessens.
Porn and Trauma are Connected
My friend, Lacy Bentley, author of Overcoming Love Addiction, once said during a presentation that she hasn’t worked with one woman addicted to porn who didn’t have some sort of sexual trauma that predated her porn experience.
I would add that this has likely changed with Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) as many of them consume pornography because it’s viewed as acceptable to do so. In fact, it’s encouraged. That being said, the exposure to pornography can itself be traumatic.
There’s a reason exposing children to pornography is classified as child abuse. When I give my parent presentations, I explain that little children are not drawn to the sexual aspects of pornography. Instead they are drawn like we are to footage of crashes. Exposure to sexual material is traumatizing for children.
However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realized it can be traumatic for many adults and young adults as well. It can be traumatic in the sense that you weren’t prepared for what you saw and that seeing it negatively affected how you thought or reacted to something.
We spend a lot of time talking about pornography as a bad choice, but not a lot discussing how we were led to make that bad choice. When there are lasting consequences, we have a bad tendency of just labeling those as sin and neglecting the reality of the effects of trauma.
Boundaries are OK
A common misconception is that post-porn me needs to look exactly like everyone who has never viewed it. That’s simply not the case. I have friends who are allowed to ask me awkward questions. I have controls enabled on my phone.
There are things in place in my life that help me stay on the track of freedom. Even as I prepare to be married in less than two weeks, there are boundaries my fiance and I have that other couples may not. And that’s ok. They aren’t a negative side effect of my choices. They are ways I choose freedom.
I would rather be free than fit in.
Falling isn’t a Relapse
I have been free from pornography for over a decade. That means the last time I compulsively viewed pornography was over ten years ago. But, I’ve said it many times before, pornography will be a weakness for the rest of my life. In a sense, it is my drug. My brain knows the hit it gets from porn and if I’m looking for a hit, that’s where my mind is going to go.
As the years have gone by that connection has lessened, but I think it’s always going to be there. Sure, it may grow over, and synapses may rewire, and memories and images may fade, but things are never fully erased from our minds. The track would always be there if I chose to jump back on it.
And in those ten years, there are times I have. I’m not dishonest about that. This isn’t a sex addict’s anonymous blog where I stand here and say, “My name is Jessica and it’s been ten years since I last saw porn.” It hasn’t. But never in those ten years, when a low point sucked me back into the porn vortex, did I ever feel “Oh no, I’m trapped again.” If anything, the response was,”Oh no you don’t!”and I fought even harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.
It saddens me when women feel like one bad choice can “cancel” out weeks, months, even years of freedom. If you fall, get up and fight. Free people can fight back. Don’t throw yourself back in prison, fight. Figure out what led you to make those choices. Find your triggers and deal with them.
Ladies, Your Sex Drive is a Good Thing
Perhaps that’s a “no duh” statement for you, but I come from a religious culture in which the sex drive of women isn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, it’s stifled. The moment we do anything remotely embracing our sexuality we get hurled into Proverbs 5 territory (the adulteress woman). Women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex, even though we were created by God with an organ specifically devoted to sexual pleasure.
So, I guess God didn’t get the memo?
A book I am currently reading is Knowing Her Intimately by Laura Brotherson, a certified sex therapist. In the first chapter, she addresses this idea that women have such negative views of their own sexuality. Many women struggle to embrace the fact they are sexual beings and struggle to see that as a good thing. Before healthy sex can happen, she says, that view needs to be transformed.
Women need to recognize that we also are made with the ability and drive to enjoy sex. Is it always on par with a man’s drive? No. Can it be? For some. Can it exceed a man’s drive? Yes. In fact, according to one author’s survey, 24% of marriages had a wife with a higher drive than her husband.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Side note: Even while writing this, I am realizing that so much about freedom is not only learning what is actually wrong and addressing that, but also, embracing that which is not wrong.
When we label things wrong that aren’t, we make ourselves feel even more trapped.
If I thought being a woman with a high sex drive was something broken that needed fixing, I’d never be “free.” Trauma in my past? That needs addressed. The fact that I desire sex? That does not.
Honesty Brings Freedom
There’s a Bible verse that talks about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. This might not be the appropriate application of it, but it comes to mind when talking about honesty and how honesty eradicates shame.
So much of the feeling of being stuck in pornography is due to shame. Shame is what keeps women in silence. Shame is what makes us not reach out and ask for help. Shame is what keeps us from sharing our story with others.
Honesty combats shame because it opens doors for grace. I will never experience grace if I’m not first honest.
Years ago, when I shared my story, I didn’t understand the level of freedom that would bring in my life. I don’t have to hide. I can openly discuss my story. Not only does that help me experience freedom, it’s also used to help others find freedom.
In the past few months, as I’ve gotten to know my future husband, I’ve seen this truth replayed over and over. When I am honest with him, it doesn’t rip us apart, it draws us together. It makes us a team as opposed to me vs. him and a fear of him finding things out.
Fear of being known is a hallmark of shame and we deal with that by taking a risk and being honest.
Honesty is what started my journey of freedom, and every moment of growth—from dealing with trauma in my past, to understanding my own need for boundaries—has come because of honesty.
If you are looking for freedom, to step out on that journey of a life without pornography, I encourage you to start where I did—tell somebody. Find a trusted friend, mentor, counselor, parent, and share your story.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. It was for me. But you can’t walk in freedom if you aren’t willing to open the door.
Visit Jessica Harris’s website, Beggar’s Daughter, for additional resources and articles.
18 Apr 2019
When we think of lust, we think of sexual temptation and desire gone too far. While in one sense that’s true, lust has more to do, not with the person you are looking at, but what you value in your heart. That beautiful person who has captured your eye? That’s not the object that really matters. Lust has to do with what we covet, and what we covet has to do with what we feel we lack in life. We covet those things that our heart feels like we must have in life. Emptiness is what can cause us to lust. Listen to what Mark has to say, and read his blog, “The Insecurity of Lust.”
18 Apr 2019
Every day we are tempted to lust after people. It can be discouraging to feel overwhelmed by attractive people who pull your heart in unhealthy directions. But is there more going on with lust than just what we see with our eyes? Lust always has a hook of some kind. It has to latch onto something in our heart. That hook can sometimes be the insecurities we feel in the recesses of our heart.
Am I good enough? Do I measure up? Will others notice me? Do I really matter? In a world of celebrities, social media, and unrealistic expectations for success and beauty, we all wrestle with deep insecurities about our worth and identity. Our enemy knows that we have profound desires to be cherished, adored, accepted, and significant in the eyes of others; and he knows how to lead us to false means of finding security and fulfillment for these longings.
I believe that sexual lust is one of the most powerful ways that Satan capitalizes on our deep insecurities about our identity and worth. The problem with lust is not that some people are just too attractive or seductive for you to resist. It’s about using other people to build up your own sense of significance and worth.
Consider this scenario. You’re walking down a city street, and every five seconds you feel bombarded with temptation to lust after the people you pass by. Ask yourself this question, “Who are the people I’m tempted by? By what criteria do I judge the significance of those people?”
For many, I would expect they are tempted by people who are confident in their identity and their appearance. They might flaunt their body because they know people like what they see. They could be wearing expensive clothing, designer sunglasses, and have accessories that cost more than your used car. The details of what people find attractive will vary from person to person. What’s important to note here is this: what attracts you is what you value most.
Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart.
Now ask yourself another question: When I encounter attractive people, how am I experiencing my own sense of worth and significance? Do you start to entertain thoughts of what it’d be like if that person were attracted to you? Do you wonder whether they noticed you and are even thinking about you? Perhaps you feel intimidated by attractive people, but with that intimidation comes a desperate desire to belong and be accepted by them.
Lust in the Bible is deeply connected to the sin of covetousness. In the tenth commandment, we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s wife. The Greek word translated there and elsewhere in the New Testament can be translated as “desire, lust, or coveting.” Depending on the context, this word can even have positive meanings, like when Jesus earnestly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15.
But in many contexts, this is a sinful desire for something that God has forbidden. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 5:28 when he says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s important to talk about covetousness because lust is often talked about in a way that is disconnected from our hearts. Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart. Coveting, on the other hand, is connected to deeper desires. We covet what we don’t have. And while we can covet things because we want the pleasure they give us, I believe the deeper reason we covet things is that we believe those things will provide us with a sense of security and worth that we feel is lacking.
This can be a powerful factor in who you find attractive and who you are tempted to lust after. You desire to have that person because they will build up your own sense of value and worth. If that person were to affirm you sexually, even if it’s only fantasy, it is meeting a felt need to be admired, adored, wanted, or needed. In this sense, lust’s main focus isn’t on the object of your lust—the larger focus is on yourself and the insecurity you experience in your identity.
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us!
So if this explanation is true (and this is only one way to understand lust), that your struggle with lust lies with your own insecurities, how can you begin to fight against lust by addressing where you find your identity, worth, and value?
Insecurities about our worth and value come from a variety of places. They may be connected to a lack of affirmation in your upbringing. You might have been bullied by peers at school, or even demeaned and abused by your family. Much of our insecurities come from living in a culture that prizes success and making a name for yourself. But whatever our circumstances have been, all human beings share one powerful, foundational struggle.
We aren’t good enough. We don’t measure up. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. It is only in reconciliation with our Maker that any true security is found. We are reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He took our punishment and has given us his perfect record of righteousness. By faith, we are united to Christ, and all of his benefits now become ours. So presently we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph.2:6); we are co-heirs of the Kingdom with him as God’s adopted children (Romans 8:17); we are ambassadors of the King of the Universe (2 Corinthians 5:20); we are God’s royal priests and his special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and we are loved with the same love that God the Father has for God the Son (John 17:23).
Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us! The next time you are out and about, and tempted to find your validation in the attractive people around you, pray that God would help you to believe Galatians 2:20 at that moment, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
There is no greater validation of who you are than to be united to the King. Christ is not ashamed to call you his brother. He is pleased to show himself to the world through you! He wants to make his love manifest to others through your love. He delights in allowing you to represent Him. What greater dignity can we possibly ask for?
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Is Lust a Form of Coveting? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
For men and women coming out of sexual addiction, they must pass through the post-sexual addiction wilderness (for a fuller explanation of what this wilderness is like, see my previous blog).
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is a particularly treacherous and painful section of the larger wilderness of the Christian life. The author of Hebrews sees the entire Christian life as a trek through the wilderness. In Christ, we have been delivered from slavery to sin, but until Jesus returns, we are called to strive to enter into His rest. The Promised Land is coming for all who endure to the end.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
You could be suffering with the consequences of your sin. You might have lost everything in your pursuit of pleasure. Your wilderness might be a litany of sufferings that you sought to escape through sex. But without that numbing agent, the pain is back, and it could feel unbearable.
Or you might be in the wilderness of idolatry. Sex was a means for you to experience the satisfaction of your deepest longings: to be loved, comforted, affirmed, safe, connected. Without sex, the idolatrous desires you have lived for are still crying out for satisfaction, and you don’t have any quick solutions to silence them. In this wilderness, you feel disappointed, scared, and frustrated.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
Here is a hard truth: There is no turning back! You either enter into God’s rest, or you die in the wilderness. Those are your only options.
But here’s the good news! The wilderness is not endless. There is a destination you’re moving towards. That destination is perfect Shalom with God and His people in a perfected world. But that perfect existence often doesn’t seem worth it, because, at this moment, you feel like you’re about to die in this wilderness.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Let me offer three encouragements for those who are struggling in the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
Learn to Wait in the Wilderness
Like any addiction, sexual sin’s biggest enticement is the instant gratification it offers. The biggest lie sexual temptation tells you is that if you don’t give in now, it’s only a matter of time before you do, so why continue to suffer when you can feel better now? But God wants to use the wilderness to train you to think differently. He wants you to give control of your life back to him, and wait for his hand to feed you.
God’s delay in your relief always has good purposes. He wants to train you to trust Him, to abide in His presence in the midst of your suffering. He wants to conform you to the pattern of 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
This is the pattern of our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death, until the proper time when the Father exalted him in his resurrection and ascension. Waiting on the Lord requires a humble acknowledgment of his good purposes in your suffering. We worship and follow a Savior who trusted his Father even when he became the object of his Father’s wrath. Christ was alone on the cross, but we are never alone in the wilderness.
Let the Wilderness Shape Your Priorities
When life is easy, we give little concern to the basic necessities. I don’t wake up concerned about food, water, or shelter. My attention goes to many things that are not necessities in sustaining my life. But if you’re stranded on a desert island, every day you are consumed with survival. Your priorities are all connected to avoiding death.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground.
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is an opportunity to reprioritize your life. I have been amazed to see the lengths men will go to save their marriages from the destruction of their sexual betrayal. Time, money, and energy are poured into their marriage in ways that for most people would seem excessive. But that’s what you do when your marriage is collapsing. You don’t count the cost, because anything is worth saving it. Just imagine how healthy our marriages would be if we invested in them in times of stability, and not only in moments of crisis.
The same is true for your relationship with God. We don’t prioritize prayer and his Word because we don’t feel our need of him. But in the wilderness you can taste your desperation. You know you can’t go one day without Jesus. I’ve seen men who are on the brink of losing everything, they’ve been kicked out of their house, and they turn to God. That lonely, dreary hotel room is transformed into holy ground. Their suffering brought them to their knees, but this is where God meets them, on their knees. And over time, it’s His love and presence that keeps them on their knees.
Lastly, the wilderness should reshape your priorities for fellowship. We so often live isolated lives because we believe we can do the Christian life on our own. We don’t feel our need for accountability or true discipleship. But in the post-sexual addiction wilderness, you know you’re in a battle for your life, and you must prioritize finding others who will fight alongside you. You’ve seen the dangers of isolation; you see how predators love to pick off ones who have strayed from the pack. So now you’re not just looking for a few friends to hang out with, you’re looking for comrades in war who will fight for you!
Jesus Went Through the Wilderness for You¹
Hebrews 6:19-20 tells us that Jesus is our forerunner, who has gone on ahead of us into the Holy of Holies as our high priest. Jesus intercedes for us now in the wilderness because he first made it through the wilderness himself. Jesus was on the brink of physical starvation, and Satan tempted him to abandon trust in his heavenly Father by turning a stone into bread. Then in a greater way, this same temptation to abandon the Father’s mission came on the cross, when he was given the opportunity to come down and save himself. Jesus survived the wilderness without a single misstep. He received the victor’s crown and has entered into His Father’s rest.
This is important for your wilderness wanderings for two reasons. First, Jesus succeeded where we all have failed. None of us make it through the wilderness perfectly. We all have moments of turning stones into bread. The only reason we have any hope of making it through the wilderness is because we are united to the only One who did. Our acceptance and standing with God is solely based on what Jesus accomplished in the wilderness on our behalf.
Secondly, because we are united to our forerunner, we can have every confidence that he will lead us safely home. We must make it through the wilderness, but we are also given amazing promises that we will make it because he will bring us through it. He has already blazed the trail for us. And by his indwelling Spirit, we can walk in step with him (Gal. 5:25), day by day, until we finally enter into our eternal Sabbath rest.
¹This section, and the application that Jesus went through the wilderness on our behalf, and succeeded where Adam, Israel, and we have failed, is taught by Dr. Lane Tipton in his lecture, “Covenant History and the Tale of Three Sons.” Listen to this lecture here: https://reformedforum.org/rf14_03/
21 Mar 2019
“This feels so compulsive!” he complained. Tom feels like he is always fighting sin. He fights against a tendency to desire and pursue sexual pleasure from men. He believes in Jesus and has seen significant changes in the direction of his life. But his same-sex attraction did not magically go away when he trusted in Christ. His faith is in crisis, “Maybe they’re right; this is just who I am.”
What do we have to offer someone like Tom? Does the gospel have an answer to this crisis, the crisis of continually fighting sin? Yes. And a vital part of that gospel answer is what theologians call indwelling sin. Why would I bring up sin to someone in a faith crisis, especially one involving same-sex attraction? Because the Bible’s teaching on indwelling sin connects the gospel to our deepest struggles.
The Universality of Sin
Scripture teaches that we are all sinners; all who share in the human nature represented in Adam share in the corruption of sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). But more than that, each of us is sinful in every part of us (Rom. 3:10-19; 8:7). We are whole people, with bodies, minds, wills, and affections, and it is as whole people that we are corrupted by sin. At the deepest level, what the Bible calls the heart, we recognize in ourselves a tendency towards sin (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:19).
This tendency has a corrupting influence on our thinking, our emotions, and even our physiology. This sinful leaning (what theologians call original sin) is behind whatever sin acts we commit (what theologians call actual sin). The result: sin feels natural to us.
And this is rather unconscious and spontaneous in real life. We fall into the same kinds of behavior over and over despite a desire to stop. A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
Here’s Tom’s dilemma and ours: this sinful tendency doesn’t disappear when we become Christians. How are we to understand this? What does it mean for Tom, and us, when we were taught that faith in Christ gives us victory over sin?
Here we turn to the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, from which the term, indwelling sin, originates. But first we need a view of the context in which he brings this idea up.
Good News about the Universe and You
In the chapters leading up to Romans 7, Paul lays out a tale of two humanities, the first being “in Adam,” and the second being “in Christ.” In Adam describes our natural state, corrupted by sin, condemned by the law, bound for death. Paul often uses the shorthand, “the flesh” to refer to this.
A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
But who Christ is, and what he did, changes everything—literally, everything—all of reality, including human nature. Christ takes upon himself the flesh of Adam, and in that flesh he dies. Though without sin or sinful tendency, Jesus fulfills the sentence of death that is on sinful humanity. Then, he is raised from the dead. And here is the key—it is not just that Jesus came back to life. Rather, he is resurrected with a new kind of life, an immortal, eternal, powerful life. He is declared to be righteous and therefore given the eternal life that from the beginning was promised to righteous humanity.
And this resurrection life which Christ was given is nothing less than the first installment of God’s plan to re-create the whole universe into a glorious and unspeakably beautiful new reality! Paul’s main point? We, who by faith are united to Christ, have our true identity in that new reality. Paul’s way of saying this is that we have died with Christ and were raised with Christ (Rom 6:1-11).
A Startling Implication
Next, Paul takes this new reality in Christ idea into our real-life struggles. In the early portion of Romans 7 (vs. 7-12), he is explaining that the law of God must be considered good, even though it produces death in us. It’s not the law’s fault, but ours; it is our persistent tendency to break the law that forces the law to prescribe death.
Then, in verse 17, he relates our tendency to break the law to our new identity in Christ in a startling way, “…now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
How in the world can he say such a thing? What does he mean? The answer is not that he is arguing for some sort of psychological dissociation. It is not anything in our psychology that accounts for this new “me.”
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains. In other words, something has happened that has redefined the Christian’s true identity separate from the sinful tendency he experiences.
It is the new reality, the new humanity every Christian has that has objectively come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and which defines us if we are united to him. That is why the conclusion of Paul’s argument is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
Why does this matter to Tom who remains troubled by his persistent tendency to pursue intimacy with men?
Why does it matter to the Christian husband troubled by his persistent tendency to use his eyes and mind to sexually enjoy women other than his wife; to the church elder dogged by his tendency to feel self-righteous contempt for others; to the teenage son battling his tendency to resist and oppose parental love and wisdom? And the list goes on.
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains.
Here is why it matters. Who doesn’t struggle with the troubling resiliency of sinful feelings? Who doesn’t get discouraged at the unrelenting battle against our tendency to sin?
The answer is not that you can, by your own effort and with the right therapy, remove your tendency towards sin; this will lead you to despair. The answer is not that you should come to peace with your tendency towards sin, call it a part of you, and identify with it; this leaves you without hope and without God. The answer is not to say that true Christians no longer experience the pull of a sinful human nature; this is unbiblical and contrary to your experience and leaves you confused and desperate.
The answer is this: Jesus has borne our sin and our tendency to sin, died with and for it, and has been resurrected, inaugurating a whole new reality which shapes our hope for the future and defines us in the present. The continued experience of the tendency to sin is to be expected in this life. But that experience, for the believer, is only the “sin living in me”; it is not a part of who I am for all eternity. Who I am is defined by the resurrection life of Christ. This is not a small thing. It is the gospel. It is everything.
The gospel answer of union with Christ is the only answer that doesn’t disappoint! This is your new identity!
And as it turns out, living out of your new identity in Christ is the only way to make progress against sin. But that’s for another post…
28 Feb 2019
There are legitimate reasons why people find themselves ensnared in a sexual addiction. It is a mistake to overlook the suffering in an addict’s life and only focus on their moral failings. Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain. Whether it’s the pain of loneliness, broken relationships, physical suffering, trauma, or the daily stressors of life, a downward descent into habitual sin patterns is often accompanied by a decreased ability to handle life apart from the numbing power of sinful relief.
Unfiltered life becomes too difficult to bear. Whatever that suffering is, it is something that an addict cannot face or put up with, and life feels more manageable with a sinful numbing agent.
The men and women who struggle over and over with sexual sin may get to a point where they are ready to seek help. They have grown disillusioned with the empty promises that sin offers. Like the prodigal son, God in his mercy brings them to their senses, so that they can taste and smell the foulness of their behavior. They see the chains they have willingly shackled themselves with, and they finally desire a life of freedom.
The men I work with at Harvest USA are desperately longing for freedom. When they think about a life free from the destructive behaviors they are engaged in, they are filled with hope and anticipation. This hope for a new life is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power beginning to renew their minds.
But since addictions are usually a means of escaping or numbing painful experiences, what happens when the numbing agent is removed?
This is the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
When God rescued Israel out of slavery from Egypt, they weren’t teleported to the Promised Land. They had to pass through the wilderness first. God’s people were terrified of the wilderness. They were unsatisfied in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt, back into slavery, because it offered a predictable life and more food than manna. They pined for false security rather than exercise faith in their true security, Jehovah Jireh!
Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain.
Israel had a say in how long their wilderness wanderings lasted. 40 years was not the original course for Israel. Their extended stay was a result of their own unbelief. The same is true for those coming out of sexual addictions. It will not be a simple re-entry into reality. Everyone must pass through the wilderness.
But the choices we make in that wilderness impact the length and quality of our stay there.
I want to talk about three different kinds of wilderness experiences for people coming out of sexual addiction.
The wilderness of consequences
Sinful behavior has cost some of you deeply. You may have lost family, homes, jobs, and your circle of friends, almost everything you hold dear. It is these tragedies that have finally brought you to your senses. Even the thought of going back gives you nightmares because of how real the consequences are now. This is a wilderness where God does amazing heart transformation and literally brings life into dry bones.
The wilderness of consequences was God’s severe mercy for you, losing so much. You needed this wake-up call. But now, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of your own making. In this wilderness, you are wrestling with intense feelings of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness for your future. You know you dare not go back to your sin, but you also don’t know what moving forward looks like.
This is the wilderness described in Psalm 6, where David cries out, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.”
The wilderness of suffering
For others, the wilderness of post-sexual addiction is not the direct consequence for their sin, but the wilderness they sought to initially escape through their sin. Fleeing sexual sin and turning to the Lord does not mean the circumstances people sought to numb through sin have gone away. God calls us to face and experience this kind of suffering, too. In this wilderness, there are two very real struggles simultaneously happening.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain.
On the one hand, you have the painful struggle of sexual withdrawal. Your body is used to getting sexual satisfaction, and denying yourself will be accompanied by a sense of real anguish. But along with that pain, you are now also experiencing the unfiltered pain of whatever circumstance you were using sex to escape from.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain. It could be alcohol or drugs, but it could also be more socially acceptable things, like binge-watching TV shows or over-eating. This seems harmless by comparison, but it can be a dangerous, insidious temptation. Why? Because it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have made deep heart progress, while you have only swapped one addiction for another. The goal in the wilderness of this suffering is to seek God in such a way where you are acknowledging that he must become your deepest source of comfort. For God to truly comfort you as the God of all comfort, you must by faith wait on him, and resist the temptation to quickly numb your pain through false means which usually deadens your desire to go to God with your suffering.
The wilderness of idolatry
The last wilderness is similar to the wilderness of suffering but with one key difference. Both are places of pain and suffering, but in the wilderness of suffering, your suffering is not the result of your sin. For example, God is not calling you to repent of your physical suffering or trauma that you experienced. But in this last wilderness, the wilderness of idolatry, you suffer because there is an idol in your heart that is not being satisfied.
For example, often pornography is a false means of feeling affirmed by others. In a fantasy world, everyone affirms you. This is what many people live for. If a false means of affirmation is taken away, the idolatrous desire in your heart will still cry out for satisfaction. This can result in feeling miserable and depressed. You weren’t happy in your addiction, but now you feel God isn’t coming through for you now that you’ve cut out that sinful behavior.
If this is where you are, you haven’t grasped the depths that your repentance needs to reach. This is often the wilderness that is most difficult to endure. Not because the suffering in this wilderness is more painful than the others, but because it’s only white-knuckling behavior modification. You haven’t yet forsaken the idols that still remain in your heart.
If you believe that life is found in the satisfaction of your idolatrous desires, then you will only hold out in repentance for so long until you turn back to the only source that you know to give you that sense of life, which means turning yet again to your addiction.
Post-sexual addiction living is not a simple, smooth transition from slavery to freedom. It’s a journey that often leads people into a wilderness. But this journey is all part of God’s loving transformative purposes. It is in the wilderness where God abides with his people, where they learn to trust him, and where they experience his provision of life!
07 Feb 2019
The first time I skydived, I was terrified and excited to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I could see the cloudy sky and minute details of the ground below—very far below. The instructor, to whom I was attached in tandem, yelled out as the wind rushed in the open door as my comfort zone slowly slipped away, “Are you ready?!” My heart raced as I said yes and before I knew it, we were falling out of the plane into the open air. After an exhilarating free fall, the parachute cord was pulled and down we gracefully floated to the ground. As I look back, I realized that I could have missed the rush of that experience had I not taken that initial step out of the comfort zone of the plane.
Years ago, when God began a life-transforming process in my life, I struggled to “step out of the plane.” I mean, I did want to follow Jesus, and I did want to do whatever it took. But not always. As the real-deal of what it was going to look like to be free from unhealthy relationships and sinful patterns in my life, I tried everything I could to delay being obedient to what God had set before me.
What I was trying to do—stay within my comfort zone by not stepping into the freefall of obeying God, which was terrifying—is what many sexual strugglers do.
Obedience begins with a willingness to submit oneself to the will of God. John 14:15 sums it up, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice in this verse that love precedes the command. It is from an overflow of our love for God that makes us willing to be obedient. What often isn’t expressed in this discussion is how easy it is to waste time dancing around obedience all while trying to justify your delays.
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another.
In Psalm 119:60, David says, “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” To hasten is “to move or act quickly.” David is reminding us that out of our love for God, we are not called to just keep his commandments, we should strive to be quick to obey.
Being quick to obey can be difficult for many reasons. Decisions are usually accompanied by a host of emotions, feelings that toss you to and fro, often times confusing the matter by fogging what’s otherwise seemingly black and white. Most would agree, obedience usually costs us something. But often times, the most profound spiritual growth comes as we make commitments to walk in obedience regardless of how we feel. Lived out, we pray for Christ-enabling power to make changes, then it requires us to make up our mind to love God by just doing it, or in some cases, stop doing it.
Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” What it looks like to “put on” and make no provision for worldly desires will look different for each of us. There is no formula, but here are four examples of ways to hasten obedience and not delay in order to break free from sinful patterns.
- Pursue Jesus every day
Here’s the amazing truth for all of us: we don’t walk alone! Far better than being attached to a professional skydiver, we are united with Jesus. Our first obedience is to abide in his love and Word and to deepen our understanding of our identity of being in Christ. We show our love for God through our obedience, but this is never about us mustering up the courage or strength to do it. As Paul said in Phil. 2:13, “its God who is at work” in us to change our desires and give us a willingness to obey him.
- Develop Accountability in Relationships
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another. While it is ideal to have others take the initiative to ask questions, make a commitment to confess your sins whether asked or not.
- Avoid relational connections that tempt you towards sin
It is important to disconnect from people that have been a part of your past sinful decisions. This is painful to acknowledge, but your past selfish choices could lead to hard consequences that hurt people you love. Staying in this type of relationship isn’t really loving if it doesn’t lead to obeying God. Although a choice like this can easily be misconstrued, it is actually an act of love and helps avoid being mired in long-term messy situations. For people on both sides of this type of obedience, God can be trusted with whatever consequences may come.
- Implement Technology Restrictions
Make modifications to any form of technology that grips or controls your emotional state, especially social media. These types of limitations expose what you allow in your life and how that positively or negatively affects what comes out in thought, word and behavior. This may seem minimal, but give it a try for a week or two and see for yourself.
Maybe for you all these steps look overwhelming. The good news (because there is Good news!), is God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. His command, his calls to quick obedience, are doable things God wants to help us with. The ground may look very far below, but it is God’s promise to get us there safely.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
So what could this look like in your life? Maybe it looks like being quick to fight against focusing on the negative but rather fight for a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6-7). Or maybe this looks like being quick to break the cycle of selfish inward thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5). Or maybe this looks like being quick to have honest conversations with God through prayer in the day in and day out battle of life.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
He is the ultimate Instructor who is tender and compassionate towards us as we learn how to walk in ways of new life in new light. He will bind up our broken hearts, lift our drooping heads, and provide peace that surpasses understanding. All while blessing our obedience and delighting in our efforts on this long road no matter how many times we fail to hasten.
Shalee talks more about this issue in the accompanying video: Why Is Delayed Obedience So Dangerous? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
It’s hard to obey God when it costs something of us. It’s even harder to quickly obey, to obey without hesitation. But the more we linger or delay, the things that trouble us grow in power and strength over us. In this video, Shalee shares four dangers of delayed obedience.
To learn more, read Shalee’s accompanying blog: “Quick to Obey on the Long Road of Obedience.”