With addiction being the verbal currency of just about any human struggle nowadays, pastors and church leaders will find themselves helping men and women who are trapped in addictive pornography struggles. In this video, Mark Sanders speaks to pastors and church leaders on ways that they can help.
To learn more, read Mark’s accompanying blog: “Is Porn Addiction Just a Medical Problem?” You can also read Mark’s first blog in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, where he discusses how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: What Can Pastors Do When People Say They Feel Addicted to Porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
01 Nov 2018
I’m addicted to porn. I’m a sex addict. I have a porn addiction, but I’m now free for the last ten years. The word addiction is everywhere in our culture today. We live in an unprecedented age of ways and opportunities to become ensnared in life-dominating, destructive behavioral patterns. Whether it’s pornography, alcohol, drugs, gambling, or internet-gaming, we continue, as a society, to expand our list of what we would classify as addictive disorders.
But is the word addiction—and for that matter the label, porn addiction — really helpful when discussing habitual patterns of sin? Our culture has largely bought into the notion that if you have an addiction, you have a disease. I heard on the radio an advertisement for a local recovery center, and the opening statement said, “If you are struggling with addiction, you have a disease, it’s not a lapse in judgment.”
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control. It’s become a monster they can’t contain, and it’s destroying everyone and everything they hold dear. It feels like someone or something else is in the driver’s seat of their lives.
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control… that is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow.
But the church needs to slowly and carefully examine whether the word addiction and the anthropology it espouses is in line with Scripture and God’s revelation of who we are as human beings in a fallen world.
When it comes to the arena of sexuality, at Harvest USA we find some helpful things that this word captures for people’s experiences, but we also see how this language points people in a false direction about the true nature of their problems and where to find the solution.
I want to focus on 3 things about how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
- The addiction model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop.
That is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow. Research shows that the habitual use of anything that is highly stimulating reshapes the brain, creating a powerful neurological process of cravings and rewards that require greater and greater stimulation.
And the Bible affirms this. Paul says in Ephesians 4:19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (ESV) That last phrase, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” is also translated as “a continual lust for more.”(NIV 1984). Sowing into sexual sin only creates greater and greater discontentment, and our brains and bodies feel that lack of satisfaction, and we easily believe the lie that maybe next time I’ll finally find relief from pain, loneliness, or boredom. But it only creates deeper enslavement. Pastors need to understand that when a person comes to them for help with a 30-year struggle with pornography, simply telling that person to stop it and pray more is insufficient for the momentum this sin has in their life.
- The addiction model captures the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation.
When someone has been captured by a desire to feed yet again into their enslavement, they lose all sensitivity to the consequences of their actions. They understand that just one more time might cost them their job, their family, even their lives, but in that moment, the pleasure that is offered in sin is worth losing everything to get. This is so helpful in practically setting up boundaries to keep you far from temptation because people recognize that they can’t be trusted with easy access to sin.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ.
Werewolf movies get this right. In his right mind, the human man begs his family to tie him up in chains because he knows once that full moon appears, he will do things he will regret if he is not chained up. While we know as new creations in Christ that we are no longer slaves to sin to obey its passions, our new freedom in Christ does not imply an immunity to strong temptations in our lives.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ. But sanctification does not mean we live life on the cliffs of temptation. A mature believer has learned that in a moment of temptation, truth and reason can feel impotent and of little value when pleasure is so viscerally offered, and this should keep us humble and aware that it is utterly foolish to play with fire and expect not to get burned.
- The addiction model highlights the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin.
When someone clicks on a pornographic website, they’ve already made multiple concessions with sin. Perhaps they were committed to not being online certain hours of the day, but they broke that rule. They also committed to staying off certain sites that are portals or triggers to sin, like a particular news site, but they justified it because of a story they really wanted to read. People often stay stuck in habitual patterns of sin because they aren’t willing to obey Jesus’ command to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.
Many people want to simply manage their sin and just keep it at a functional level. Too many Christians are content with allowing pornography to be a part of their lives, as long as it doesn’t get too “out of control.” And too many Christians actively trying to stop looking at pornography are not willing to take the radical steps necessary. Christians need a zero-tolerance policy with sexual sin.
The church needs a sober understanding of the epidemic of entrenched patterns of sexual sin that are present in the lives of people in our pews. People feel stuck, they are on the brink of hopelessness, wondering if change is really possible. And the addiction model captures sin’s danger and people’s despair. But it’s not enough, and labeling sin as nothing more than an amoral disease is far less than what Jesus offers us. Stay tuned for more thoughts.
18 Oct 2018
Just heard it again. Another wives and porn story. A sad and frustrating story from a wife who discovered her husband looking at porn again. She had hoped for the best, believing he had been walking out a path of faith and repentance and was “doing okay” (his consistent answer when she asked him).
But then, a quick slam shut of his iPad when she unexpectedly walked in on him. Porn. Again.
But then the story went from wives and porn to busy church leaders. I celebrated her courage to approach her pastor and ask for help, confide in him about her hurting heart, and to open a window for him to see into a very broken and fragile part of her life: her marriage. Thankfully, he listened, he prayed, and then he told her he’d leave it in her court if she needed anything else.
Yes, this pastor did enter in, he did listen, and he did make himself available for a ten-minute conversation after church. But then he left her on her own.
It’s hard enough for many women to approach male pastors for help, but it’s worse when they do and are given little time and dismissed afterward on their own.
A wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
First, let’s be fair and honest. Church leaders are busy and overwhelmed with the needs of the sheep under their care. There are dramatic and complicated things happening in the lives of people in our churches, and pastors are typically on the front line of being asked to help. Pressured by crises and meetings and other commitments, church leaders can come across as disinterested, uncompassionate, or dismissive. Sometimes these perceptions are true, but not always.
In this context of seeking help, a wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
Secondly, another more disheartening reality is when wives are under the authority of church leaders who preach an anti-biblical message about husbands who struggle with lust. It’s just what men do. It’s just who they are. Wives need to trust the Lord and get on board with what he wants to do in their husband’s lives. Get behind his recovery and help him however she can.
Of all the hundreds of wives I’ve gotten to sit with, not one of them feel safe (or cared for) in churches where that message (of minimizing the effect of porn use or ungodly sexual behavior) is taught or implied by church leaders.
Third, I’ve read how many wives manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a husband’s sexual betrayal. It’s important to keep in mind that when wives come to us for help, that the teary or paralyzed or embittered (or all of the above) woman sitting in front of us may not be her true self. Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
“PTSD identifies traumas that don’t seem to fade. Although many difficult events in life such as the death of a loved one don’t really fade, PTSD is used to describe events that intrude into daily life by way of complex emotions rather than simple grief. You can feel numb, you avoid anything that could possibly be similar to the inciting event, you feel depressed and hopeless, or you feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”
These are the behaviors and emotions I see time and again in working with wives whose husbands have betrayed their vows by habitually looking at porn or have been involved in an emotional or sexual affair.
Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
Now, imagine all of these scenarios converging. A busy pastor (or a church leader) getting a phone call from a wife who is in the throes of a PTSD-ish response to her husband’s sin. She’s anxious, brokenhearted, unable to accurately form her thoughts, and breaks into sobs with no warning. Her heart has been shattered, her thoughts are a scrambled mess, and most likely she is exhausted. And she’s asking you for help, but she probably doesn’t even know what she needs.
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me that church leaders, even those who are well-meaning, just don’t know how to engage a wife when she’s in this state. Seminaries don’t train future pastors how to do triage counseling, much less how to walk with a hurting wife over the long haul.
Here’s some steps to help you grow in wise, effective pastoral care for a hurting wife.
- Learn. Read books, blogs (check out our Harvest USA resources!) and articles that will educate you in what sexual betrayal feels like and the impact it has on a wife.
- Ask. Whether you are a woman or man in leadership, ask women to submit anonymous stories about their experience in seeking help. What helped them? What didn’t?
- Teach. Use your platforms of influence (the pulpit, the Bible study podium, the home group, etc.) to teach Christ’s heart for hurting women, including wives betrayed by their husbands.
- Hope. Yes! There is real, transformative, life-changing, and healing hope through Jesus for couples impacted by sexual sin. Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
- Engage. Move towards hurting wives, listen, ask questions, and connect her with others who can encourage her and provide the support and counsel she needs.
Ellen shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Hurting Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
18 Oct 2018
It’s a weighty responsibility to shepherd God’s people. Ellen shares how Psalm 34 can instruct pastors and church leaders in wise ministry to hurting wives who are crushed by their husband’s sexual sins.
To learn more, read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Wives and Porn and Busy Church Leaders.
11 Oct 2018
An essential aspect of walking alongside married couples dealing with a pornography issue is helping the husband see how this sin hurts his wife. Helping him understand how porn hurts will be a necessary part of his true repentance.
In Christian circles, pornography use carries a heavy weight of shame. A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit. This is not only ineffective; it is not true repentance. Good pastoral intervention is to help him see the particular ways his wife suffers as a result of this sin and the related behaviors that often go with it.
When Nathan confronted King David on the adultery and murder that he was hiding so carefully, he did so by drawing David into a story of a man whose actions were so selfish, so unloving, so disturbingly hurtful that David’s sense of justice and right was acutely aroused. Only then was David able to finally view his own hurtful actions from God’s point of view. Until then, repentance was impossible. The goal was to get David to deal with God (Psalm 51:4), but he would get there by facing how he had hurt people.
A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit.
It is helpful to identify three different levels at which a husband, mired in a porn habit, may be hurting his wife. As with King David’s sin, you will notice that this one sin draws into its service other, more aggressive sins. So, each succeeding level is more than just a step up in hurt; each represents an exponential increase in relational disruption and personal injury.
Level 1: Pornography itself.
Too often this is viewed as merely a shameful habit and not the serious breach of covenant that it is. I cannot give a detailed theology of sex here, but I will summarize by saying that sex is designed by God to function uniquely as the physical, literal culmination of the one-flesh union of the husband and wife, and as such is in multiple ways a picture of the gospel itself, as union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5:25-32).
Sex is designed to express the permanent, exclusively faithful, self-sacrificial love that characterizes our Savior’s love for us. When a man takes what is supposed to express his highest, most profound love and commitment to his wife, and repeatedly focuses it on other women’s bodies, it becomes an anti-gospel message to his wife:
“I am not yours forever, but belong to whatever turns me on for a while; I have not set you apart as the object of my affection, in fact you don’t compare all that well to the hundreds of women I look at; I am not giving myself to you to love you, nurture you, and cherish you, because all I want is for you or anybody who is available to meet my needs and desires on my terms.”
Pornography in a marriage makes a wife feel unloved, insecure, and worthless. An addiction to pornography, if we use that word, is not merely something a husband struggles with— it represents serious mistreatment of a wife.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty.
Level 2: Deception.
At some point the use of pornography involves deception. But deception comes into a marriage relationship in some deeper and more damaging ways.
First, there is the accumulation of deception over time. The longer a man uses porn without fully confessing to his wife, the harder it will be to restore trust in the relationship. If a man spends significant time hiding his sin, and eventually confesses and commits to complete honesty and transparency going forward, a wife will be rocked by the realization that he had been deceiving her for all that time. It is not uncommon for a wife in such a circumstance to say, “I don’t even know who I married!” With real repentance, trust can be mended. However, to restore trust, it is likely that a husband will have to spend just as much time practicing total openness and transparency as he spent hiding and deceiving. Long-term deception seriously handicaps a relationship.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty. This could be rejecting outright to be completely transparent, or just delaying that transparency. Delaying transparency has virtually the same effect as denying it altogether—on what basis can a wife believe him when he suddenly decides to “tell the truth?” He has already proven that there is much he values over being honest with her. This persistent kind of deception destroys the relationship.
Level 3: Abuse.
I am always nervous about using this word. It is a severe word, and not to be thrown around lightly. But I am using it for this third level because a strong word is needed. The key word in abusive behavior is control.
The desire for control is a common heart-idol fueling pornography use. Pornography caters to that need for control in obvious ways. And, to varying degrees, the control impulse porn caters to also takes aim at the wife. Who she is isn’t enough; he needs her to be someone of his own desires and imagination.
So, a husband will learn to think of his wife like a porn object—there for his pleasure, at his bidding, on his terms. He may control her sexually—pressuring her to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, even against her wishes. This is sexual abuse.
It can be even worse—the control impulse that porn feeds on can manifest in broader emotional abuse and manipulation. But it’s important to realize that even if one’s behavior is not yet overtly abusive, pornography always trains a man to think abusively—people exist for your own pleasure, entirely under your control.
This is not love, and a wife knows it. She feels used, cheap, and dirty. To the extent that a husband exerts abusive control over her, she will also feel trapped, helpless, even hopeless. This kind of treatment destroys a person.
This is how hurtful pornography, and all that comes with it, can be to a wife. If you, like David, are hearing, “You are the man,” as you read any of these levels of hurt, then remember also that Nathan’s rebuke was the instrument of God’s grace to David. Restoration of worship, love, and joy is offered to you, but it begins with a clear view of the hurt you have done.
Jim Weidenaar shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: Why Should Husbands Know How Porn Hurts Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Oct 2018
To learn more, read Jim’s accompanying blog: How Porn Hurts: Husbands and Porn.
What happens to a marriage when pornography invades the home? What is its relational and sexual impact on the couple? While our culture increasingly dismisses any talk about the negative impact of porn, the reality is that it’s much more corrosive and damaging than you think. Long before your marriage descends into the chaos of exposure and threats of divorce, you need to know the damage that porn can inflict on relationships. It’s never too late to change direction if you know or suspect that porn is disrupting your marriage. One way to start on the road to transformation is to honestly examine the damage porn has already done to you and to others. Sometimes God uses warning signs in our lives to get our attention. There are three major ways that porn disrupts and eventually destroys marriages.
Pornography Destroys the Beauty of God’s Design for Sex
A healthy marriage is based on intimacy. Adam and Eve were “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), a description not just of sexual pleasure but of relational intimacy. They held nothing back from each other; they were totally open and vulnerable. They knew each other in a way that no other couple ever did. Before sin entered the human heart, they experienced sex as God designed it, mutually pleasurable as both sought to selflessly please the other. God gave them the gift of sex as the means to deep relational connection.
But when sin entered the world, the perfect intimacy that Adam and Eve shared collapsed. Because God made sex such a powerful experience, it needed the relationally safe boundaries of marriage. Intimacy is not something that happens quickly between two people; it grows through the years as the couple faces problems together. That is why the father in Proverbs 5 tells his adult son to remember the years he has spent with the “wife of his youth.” He is not to throw away those years and experiences to have sex with anyone he chooses. The pleasure sex brings is better within the boundaries of marriage, with the wife he has spent years knowing and loving. “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Proverbs 5:18–19).
God created sexual pleasure within marriage and values it as a foundational expression of growing spiritual and emotional intimacy. But the physical intimacy with your spouse that God values so highly is steadily corrupted and ultimately destroyed when you engage in porn.
Pornography Makes You Selfish and Self-Centered
As one Christian counselor put it, viewing pornography is all about masturbation.¹ In other words, when you engage in porn, it’s all about what you can get out of it. It’s about your fantasies, your pleasure, and your desires. Women and men are reduced to mere sexual objects for your own selfish pleasures. The people on the screen, whether you are passively viewing them or actively engaged with them (via webcam, texting, or chat rooms) exist only to please you. Real intimacy, which by its nature takes time to develop, is obliterated in quick hits of self-centered fantasy.
What gets lost in viewing or engaging in pornography is this critical fact: the person you are interacting with is not real and neither are you, because the foundation of your “relational encounter” is a total lie. In real life and real relationships, there is someone you want to get to know, and someone who wants to know you as well. The fantasy of pornography is that you believe you are the object of someone else’s interest and desire, but the cold reality is that you are really alone with yourself.
Pornography Isolates You from Your Spouse and Family
The more you use pornography, the less you will attempt to relate to your spouse as God intended, because that involves effort and a willingness to care about someone else. In contrast, porn becomes the way you escape the endless stresses of life, especially the stresses that are part and parcel of marriage. Life in a fallen world is difficult. A good marriage not only lets you weather the storms; it helps you grow through them. But porn entices you with the false promise that you don’t have to face those storms. Instead, it promises pleasure and escape. In porn you will find women who are beautiful, daring, lonely but anxious to be fulfilled by you—quite different from your wife. In porn you will find men who are thoughtful, romantic, and willing to tackle any challenge to have you–quite different from your husband. But porn, very simply, entices you into a world that doesn’t exist.
Your spouse, meanwhile, continues to occupy the real world, and the more you pull away into fantasy, the more he or she will feel abandoned by you.
¹Jeffrey S. Black, Sexual Sin: Combatting the Drifting and Cheating (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2003), 6.
This blog is an excerpt from our minibook, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Married? by Nicholas Black, published by New Growth Press. To purchase this minibook, and other resources from Harvest USA, click here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, Juli Kellogg, who works as a volunteer in our women’s ministry, shares her story of sexual abuse as a child and how her growing understanding of God’s justice led to her healing. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
For months, I’ve seen and heard story after story of women who were sexually abused, mistreated, and manipulated. I can imagine how hard it was for these women to tell their stories.
I know, because it happened to me.
When I was twelve, my family was in turmoil. My biological father left when I was two. My mother and stepdad were struggling through an impending divorce, and life was chaotic. I didn’t know what to expect from day to day, so I learned the art of taking myself out of real life and fabricating my own reality. I read books, lived in fantasy worlds, and hid under the stairs for hours to rock with my knees hugged tightly to my chest when trouble brewed on the home front.
During this time, my mother left me for a month with a man she thought she could trust to take care of me. After my first week with him, he began coming into my room nightly and raping me for the rest of my time there. Moreover, he spent the days prepping me by taking me out to dinner, paying stylists to make me look a particular way, and showing me pornography.
I reacted to this just like I had trained myself to react for years; under the guise of protecting myself, I pretended I was unaffected. While I could not control what was happening to me, there was one thing under my control: I refused to acknowledge that it affected me. When asked how things were, I put on my rose-colored glasses and replied, “Everything is fine.” My security was purchased at the cost of reality.
After going back home, I even returned to his house and endured several more months of abuse. Why did I go back; why did I not protest? Because in my mind, nothing bad had taken place. If I didn’t go after he invited me back, I would have to acknowledge that something awful happened to me. A war ensued inside me: either I give up reality to have control or give up control to live in reality. I chose to ignore what was happening to me for the illusion of control.
Reality, however, was about to come for me.
In the midst of this turmoil, a friend invited me to church. A few months later, God captured my heart, and the landscape of my life underwent a gradual transformation. Growth was slow, messy, and painful, as I grew in understanding that control does not lie with me but with a sovereign God. At times, I felt safe, believing this. Other times, when I encountered hard circumstances, I would slip back into my typical way of controlling my world. I felt safe then, not because I believed God was in control, but because I wouldn’t acknowledge the reality of what was going on.
This continued into my marriage. Jacques and I, friends since middle school, got married in college. A great job offer moved us to a scenic city where we became leaders within our church, expanded our friendships, cherished our extended family, and had a beautiful son. Things were “good.”
All these wonderful things were cut off in an instant when Jacques took his life.
Like all human relationships and marriages, we came up against difficulties. Jacques struggled with depression, and the more he struggled, the harder it was for me to believe I was secure. So, when things started to get hard, I slipped back into my old way of denying reality, seeking to control my interpretations as a means for security. I believed that things were, in fact, “good,” and I did nothing to deal with reality.
My husband’s death finally blew apart my way of handling life. Ignoring reality was no longer an option. Thanks to the loving pursuit of others in the church, I sought counsel. In counseling, other issues were brought in, including the abuse that I had reinterpreted in such a way that seemed to deny the bad. My counselor challenged me to face the trauma of my experience. Yet acknowledging the evil done to me invariably led to the question, where was God during the abuse? In my mind, it seemed that both could not exist at the same time. I had no answer.
As I began wrestling with this question, another believer guided me to Ezekiel 34, which radically reoriented the way I looked back at my story and God in the midst of it. This chapter begins with God speaking to the shepherds of Israel, accusing them of treating the sheep with “force and harshness.” They abused their authority, leaving the sheep “scattered” and defenseless, “food for all the wild beasts” (vv 4,5).
I saw the connection between the abuses the people of Israel endured with my own. We both had shepherds charged with our care who, instead of caring for our needs, used us for their appetites.
As I read the passage, it seemed that God was just letting this happen. But then I read verse 10. He says, “I am against the shepherds.” This is not a weak response. This is an indictment. In Jeremiah 23:1-2, speaking of the same shepherds, God speaks judgment to the shepherds, “I will attend to you for your evil deeds.” Then it hit me: I saw the connection between the abuses the people of Israel endured with my own. We both had shepherds charged with our care who, instead of caring for our needs, used us for their appetites. God hadn’t ignored what happened to me. He didn’t look past what was done to me. Rather, he condemned the shepherds who abdicated their responsibility and said that He would demand full payment for the weight of their atrocious actions.
As I continued to read, God’s wrathful response to injustice became as much a comfort as his grace was to me when He first saved me. To somebody like me, who had experienced unspeakable abuse as a child, the truth of God’s justice was what I needed.
I was finally freed to face reality, to call the abuse done to me wrong, and to grieve my losses. Because God did.
I saw that God did not relinquish control to these wicked shepherds. Instead, he was enraged by their abuse, and he was always the ultimate Shepherd, fully in control, as he promised, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
Not only was God present, but he also was not watching idly. He was working out his plan of redemption in my life.
I found this incredible! “I,” “my,” and “myself” are repeated more than almost any other word in the entire chapter. It is so personal. Far from being far away, God mourned for me, as he reminded me that “I am the Lord [your] God with [you]…” (Ezekiel 34:30). My security lay not in myself–through my habit of denying reality–but in God, who, through everything, was with me and watching over me and would not leave me, until his purposes would be accomplished in my life, just as he promised Jacob (Genesis 28:15).
Not only was God present, but he also was not watching idly. He was working out his plan of redemption in my life. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out… and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered…” (Ezekiel 34: 11, 12). God himself came to the rescue in Jesus, who said, “I am the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus, God incarnate, identified with me in experiencing perversion, betrayal, abuse, and all the pain this world has to offer. Then, Jesus experienced the full justice of God’s wrath, so that he could rescue me.
Now, when I struggle, I am freed to look to the God of Ezekiel 34. Instead of battling to feel secure by denying what is happening, I can recognize the reality that I have a protector who came to battle against the powers of evil on my behalf, who has redeemed me, who knows my pain, and who continues the work he began in me through his Spirit.
I have found that living in the reality of God’s story is far richer than any false reality I could ever create.
Amidst these joys, I fight to remember that in healing, terrible wrong is not meant to be simply washed away, but it can be used as a tool, in God’s hands, to drive me deeper into relationship with him and others. Remembering that also brings to mind the faces of those he sent to me in my church, walking with me in my pain, showing me how to live and love.
I look forward to that glorious day when the brokenness I see in myself and the world will truly be healed. On that day, we will meet our Savior face to face and “[we] shall dwell securely, and none shall make [us] afraid,” (Ezekiel 34: 28).
Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Do I Live with My Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
If childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is part of your story, Penny Freeman offers three suggestions in this video that might help you move forward. To read more on this topic, read Juli Kellogg’s blog, “Sexual Abuse, Brokenness, and Redemption: A Journey of Healing and Seeing.“