By Barney Swihart, M.A., M. Div.
I deal with lives that have been devastated by sexual sin every day. Just the other day, I talked with a young man facing the painful exposure of having sexually fallen. This man was distraught and repentant. He shared with me his lifelong struggle of being raised in a solid, fundamentalist church, and yet feeling like there was no one he felt safe talking to.
He went on to speak of the years of loneliness he felt struggling with his schizophrenic-like existence in his church. On one hand, he was an active member of the church. On the other hand, he struggled with the guilt and shame of his secret double life, struggling with pornography, and occasionally acting out sexually.
Few sins carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. They are dealing with something that touches the very core of how they feel about themselves. People who struggle with sexual sin are not just struggling with out of control desires, but also with issues that deeply connect to their sexual identity and self-esteem. The guilt and shame that are associated with these issues are enormous. The result is the pressure to “hide” in their churches out of fear of being exposed.
I once spoke to a men’s church group about the issues of sexual sin and temptation. After I finished speaking, I opened the meeting up for a time of discussion. I was amazed by the men’s uncomfortable shifting in their seats, and the silence of the group. As I looked upon these men, many sat with heads lowered as if to avoid any eye contact. It was as if everyone was terrified to enter into the discussion for fear of being identified.
Many of us would like to think that serious struggles with sexual sin are problems that occur mainly outside the church. However, it has been my experience that whatever sin you see outside the church can, sadly, be found in the lives of those within the church. It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul, in his letters to various churches, was not embarrassed to acknowledge and address issues of sexual sin in the church (e.g. I Corinthians 5-6).
All of us are aware of well-known church leaders who have fallen sexually. However, there are alarming indicators that serious sexual struggles are not limited to a few fallen leaders. This is a growing problem in the church today, and this reality certainly has been borne out in my experience. Every week I spend time with pastors, missionaries, and well-respected church leaders who come to me seeking help to deal with the bondage of sexual sin in their own lives. As I talk with other pastors and counselors, I also hear feedback about their own concern about the growing numbers of Christians coming to them for help.
In addition, recent church surveys report some alarming statistics. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth did a survey on “How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion?” The results were shocking. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents confessed to having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in their church. Another survey of 300 pastors by Leadership magazine indicated that 23% admitted to having been sexually involved with someone other than their spouse. Some large hotel chains report that their largest revenues for adult TV channels have occurred during Christian conventions.
My worry is that if this high rate of moral failure exists with Christian leaders, what is going on in the lives of the “average,” respectable looking men and women sitting in our church pews? My concern is that if struggles with sexual sin are this serious in the lives of men and women in our churches, then what is to be the church’s response to this? Can we say that our churches are safe places for the sexual struggler to open up about their sin, so as to seek spiritual help and restoration?
The reality is that the whole issue of sexual sin in the church is an emotionally charged issue. It is a problem that engenders much fear and prejudice. Many in the church would put sexual sin at the top of their list of “worst sins.” This contributes in part to the deep sense of shameful stigma that sexual strugglers feel in their church. But the fact is that such a perspective is not biblical and is a denial of the grace of the gospel.
In I Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul lists the sins of greed and gossip in the same list with the “sexually immoral” and “homosexual offenders.” The truth is, sin is sin. When we sin, we sin against a holy God and expose our deep need for Christ’s forgiveness. Of course, some sins have greater consequences than others (I Corinthians 6:18). The real issue is that, in God’s eyes, all sins are the same and must be confessed openly to Christ for forgiveness. All sin, whether it is greed, gossip, or homosexuality, equally needs the grace of God.
The danger in viewing sexual sin in a harsher light than gossip, or greed, is that the sexual struggler feels a pressure to hide and keep his sin in the closet. It is no wonder then that so many sexual strugglers choose to avoid confession and carry their painful conflict alone. This in turn leads so often to a person living in two worlds, one existing in the fellowship of believers, and the other being the secret dark world of their sin. It is in this kind of isolation that the bondage of sexual sin entrenches itself. Sexual bondage thrives in the darkness of denial and deception that is fostered by such isolation. As long as there is hiding, there is little hope for freedom.
Another concern that sexual strugglers have in coming out and asking for help is the fear that simplistic solutions will be offered. Many a sexual struggler has shared with me the illustration of having finally opened up about his problem with someone from the church, only to hear the moralistic response, “Just turn to God and repent.” This unsympathetic response amounts to being heard as, “Just shape up and act the way God wants you to act.”
Too often, the well-meaning but misguided persons who offer this advice are Christians who have not wrestled with the depth of their own sin and the complexities of the bondage of serious sexual sin. These people tend to understand the bondage of serious sexual sin as simply “yielding to the flesh” and think that the cure is exhortation and rebuke.
Occasionally this type of approach may seem to work. But in the long haul, it fails to address the depth and deceitfulness of the human heart that empowers ongoing bondage. In addition, this kind of self-righteous approach ignores and puts salt into the struggler’s deep wounds. This in turn often drives him or her away from God and the supportive fellowship of their churches, rather than toward the redemptive mercy and love of God and his people.
One of the sad consequences of this is that many sexual strugglers have had to turn to secular recovery groups for help. Many have felt there was little else available that offered a “safe place” to honestly deal with their struggles. The truth is that many sexual strugglers report to me that they experienced more love and compassion in their secular recovery groups than in the fellowship of their church.
No doubt such recovery groups have helped some Christians. However, my burden is to see the church become a redemptive and safe place where men and women can honestly deal with their sexual sin. Given the fact that the roots of sexual bondage are profoundly spiritual and moral in nature, it is crucial that the church see its opportunity to become a refuge where the healing balm of God’s truth and grace can be offered. I believe this is why so many men and women have sought out the ministry of Harvest. They come to Harvest because they see it as a safe place where they can begin to honestly face their sexual bondages in the light of God’s truth.
Because the root issues of sexual bondage are spiritual in nature, the church must also avoid becoming simplistic, moralistic, or uncompassionate in its approach to the problem. As Christians, we must acknowledge that there are deep and complex issues of the human heart with which we must grapple. Sexual bondage is never about simple lust or external behavior. It is in response to the deep wounds of life that sexual strugglers develop self-protective, relational walls to insulate themselves from further hurt. However, the sad irony is that the very walls they have cultivated to “protect” themselves now have become the “prison” that keeps them in bondage. There are both deep hurts and deeply rooted sin patterns of deceitful thinking and responding that must be exposed and lovingly confronted.
The church as a redemptive community
In responding to the challenge and need of ministering to individuals struggling with sexual sin, I would suggest that there are three important areas to consider. These are all suggestions that will encourage the church to become a place where people will feel encouraged to honestly open up their lives for help within the context of the local church.
1. Cultivate an atmosphere of grace
The church must cultivate an atmosphere of grace through its teaching, preaching, and body life. This is a crucial dimension for the church to become an effective, redemptive community to the sexually broken. What I mean by this is that a church must clearly communicate through its ministry the truth of God’s grace. It is the message of grace that invites every one of us to see ourselves as sinners who deeply need forgiveness. Whether our sins are gossip, greed, or homosexuality, all of us stand in deep need of God’s ongoing work of grace in our lives. The truth is that the sin issues which plague the heart of a man or woman struggling with serious sexual sin are the same sin issues with which any one of us struggle. At the core of all our sinful struggles are hearts that battle with pride, demandingness, and unbelief.
In my own life, I have recently struggled with the battle of being overweight. In dealing with this problem, I have come to see the sinful energy behind my overeating is no different from the energy behind my own past struggles with sexual addiction. The challenge for me has been not to minimize the sinfulness of my late-night “excursions” into the refrigerator as being less sinful than past indulgences into pornography.
As every one of us allows God’s truth to humble us with this perspective we will have a new, growing compassion for the sexual struggler. No longer will there be any room for a pharisaical attitude that says, “I thank God I am not like those other perverted people who struggle with sexual sin” (Luke 18:11). It is interesting to note that Jesus saved his harshest rebukes for self-righteous Pharisees (Cf. Matthew 15:1-9, 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-52). The message of grace humbles the heart and invites everyone in the church to see themselves as needy beggars who are trying to show each other where to find the ongoing “Bread of life” that Jesus offers.
In a practical way, I believe cultivating this kind of atmosphere begins with the consistent and clear preaching of grace from the pulpit. It will be the teaching and preaching on Sunday that will foster an atmosphere of grace in the ministry of a congregation. However, I also believe attention needs to be paid to what is being encouraged in the small group structure of a church. It is important that the body life of a church reflect the graciousness and acceptance of the gospel.
2. Make a commitment to confidentiality
Another necessary element to encouraging the church to become a redemptive community is the need to maintain careful commitment to confidentiality. As stated before, there are few sins which carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. The subsequent fears of exposure and rejection are what keep many sexual strugglers from opening up to people in their churches to get help.
I can tell horror story upon horror story of situations where individuals finally opened up with someone in their church, only to find the news of their problem painfully being spread to others within the fellowship without their permission. One such man reported sharing his struggles about homosexual feelings with a church deacon he had come to trust. Shortly thereafter, he was removed as a Sunday school teacher, without church leadership coming to him to discuss the nature of his struggle. The result was a painful sense of betrayal and rejection by God’s people, just for taking off a mask and becoming honest.
Other situations I have seen involve sexual strugglers experiencing the pain and embarrassment of finding out that they have been the topic of church gossip in the church. It only takes one such painful experience of broken confidentiality to shut a sexual struggler down from ever opening up in the church again. Those who gossip and slander reveal their own sinfulness and demonstrate they are not fit to be involved in such a delicate ministry of restoration.
In working with individuals who struggle with sexual sin, it is imperative that serious attention be given to the subject of confidentiality. One must imagine how devastating a violation of trust must feel in order to appreciate the vulnerable position of the sexual struggler.
In a practical way, there are a couple of key principles to keep in mind to guard confidentiality. First, is the importance of keeping the circle as small as possible. The more people who know, the greater the chance of some sort of breach of confidentiality. Disclosure should only be given on a need-to know” basis. Secondly, the simple rule of thumb to follow about who needs to know is only those individuals who are part of the problem (e.g. individuals who have been directly affected by the person’s sin) or those who are part of the solution (e.g. the pastors, elders, or accountability partners who are directly involved with the person).
3. Practice loving confrontation and accountability
A final important area to consider is the need for the church to provide a context for loving confrontation and accountability for individuals struggling with sexual sin. One of the greatest needs a sexual struggler has is the need to develop new relationships. The struggle with sexual sin is characterized by withdrawal, hiding, and isolation. However, this approach to relationships only leaves the person extremely vulnerable to pursue sinful avenues to relieve their emptiness and loneliness. It is also all too easy to fall prey, time and time again, to the “old, deceitful” way of thinking that keeps them trapped in the bondage of their sexual sin.
What are needed are relationships and other contexts where the individual can honestly share their lives and open up about their struggles. This includes relationships where someone not only listens and loves unconditionally, but also confronts in a loving manner. We all need others “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) because ultimately it is in “knowing and living out the truth of God that we are set free” (John 8:32).
However, the relationships that the sexual struggler experiences in the church must be those that reflect the gracious heart of God. Those who are involved with helping or discipling the sexually broken must be willing to love them through the power of Christ’s love, surprising them with what they do not deserve, and offering them a taste of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy. It is in offering them a loving relationship that is not deserved, that they begin the process of being restored to the Lord and others.
Remember the story of the immoral woman weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7? Here is a picture of a woman’s heart being so captured by the glory and tenderness of Jesus’ mercy, that the shackles of her shame and guilt are dispelled to free her to boldly embrace him. When Christ’s love is given to those held in the bondage of sexual sin, it brings forth the power to astound them and dissipate the power of sexual sin over their lives. The trust of the entire story is this woman’s new freedom came out of the profound experience of forgiveness and mercy she tasted from Jesus’ interaction with her.
In a practical way, cultivating loving, confrontative relationships can be done in the context of pastoral counseling, one-on-one discipling, mentoring relationships, and small accountability groups. Consideration must also be made to utilize resources outside the church to further support and help the sexual struggler. This might include referring to a local Christian counselor and any Christian support groups. This is the role that Harvest has attempted to offer to local churches. Harvest had been a sort of spiritual MASH unit, seeking to help and restore sexual strugglers so that they might be able to effectively “mainstream” back into their churches. Harvest has done this by offering support groups for sexual addiction, homosexuality, and individual counseling.
I must say that I cannot overemphasize the importance of the church in the process of restoration of sexual strugglers’ lives. In my seven years of experience of working with sexual addicts and homosexual strugglers, I have never seen anyone fully experience freedom and restoration without being strongly connected to the life and fellowship of a solid Christian community.
It is my burden to see the church of Jesus Christ grow in its vision and effectiveness in reaching out to the sexually broken men and women who struggle secretly and silently in our churches. I long for the church to become a more redemptive place that reflects the graciousness of God. It will not be by pressure of Pharisaical exhortation that sexual strugglers will be invited to open up their lives and be restored. This kind of restoration and freedom will only take place in the context of a ministry that invites sinners to have their hearts captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel.
Dr. Dan Allender captures this truth powerfully with this concluding quotation:
“Paul says that deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of freedom from God’s wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire to love (Luke 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and privilege to encounter.” (Dan Allender, “Lust, Can We Overcome Its Power?” Discipleship Journal, No. 64, p. 28)
May God give us grace for his church to increasingly reflect the glory of his grace as it reaches out to sexually broken men and women!
Today, the church is facing a major crisis, and few alarms are going off. It is a silent crisis, one that is spreading in the shadows of secrecy, and yet is doing great damage to the lives of those inside her walls.
I’m talking about the normalization of porn within the church. Pornography, which is now so widespread and accessible, seems to have become almost a non-issue for so many churches. Occasionally there are sermons which mention in passing the danger of it. A few bold churches have begun to set up support groups for those who have found themselves addicted to it. But mostly, silence.
No rousing alarms. No calls to action. No warnings that already the flood waters are inside the house and that bold, quick action is needed to save the very house itself. There seems to be a disquieting casualness to this issue, almost like a calm before the storm. But the storm is already raging.
The growing epidemic
“Wait! I need to talk to you!” a woman’s voice called out as I crossed the lobby following a church presentation. Her eyes revealed her distress, and she blurted out, “I just found out my 11-year-old daughter’s been watching online porn for months. What should I do?”
Many Christians assume that they are insulated from problems such as these. Sadly, this mother’s situation is far from unique. Parents call us regularly because they’ve discovered their children’s exposure to Internet pornography. This is not the pornography of yesteryear; rather, the kind that exists today is a cornucopia of increasing depravity. The Internet offers a depth of degradation that wouldn’t have been available even in adult bookstores 20 years ago. Tragically, I received a call from parents after catching their eight-year-old watching bestiality videos on his iPod Touch.
But the problem goes from beyond the impact it is having on our children. Young adults in their twenties can’t remember a day when porn wasn’t free and easily accessible at their fingertips. Young Christian men and women are grievously impacted by its accessibility and, coupled with the vacuum left by the church’s silence on sexuality, are becoming ensnared.
Many singles, committed to chastity in their relationships with the opposite sex, succumb to the lure of porn and self-stimulation as a “less destructive” alternative to sexual temptation. We are now learning that this is a destructive fallacy. Growing numbers of singles don’t know how to move toward real members of the opposite sex because they’ve lived so long in a porn fantasy world.
And a new phenomenon identified by secular researchers is also affecting young men in the church. The fastest-growing segment of the population struggling with erectile dysfunction is men in their twenties and thirties who have been conditioned by online porn to respond only to never-ending novelty with increasing depravity. One man in his twenties likened his experience with online porn to ordering from an a la carte menu: “Tonight I’ll have a little of this and some of that,” lamenting that he is now incapable of sexual intimacy with his wife. Despite entering marriage as a virgin, his sexuality has been maimed by years of porn use.
Older adults in the church aren’t immune to the scourge. I’ve lost count of the people in their forties, fifties, and sixties who describe viewing porn magazines occasionally as a young adult, making a break from the behavior as they entered marriage and family life, only to later confess, “And then we got the Internet…” The result: estranged or broken marriages, shipwrecked careers, and the profound loss of spiritual vitality and faith. And these are men and women in the church.
Nothing robs God’s people of contentment and the joy of following Christ than hidden sexual sin. 2 Peter 1:5-8 is a passage where Peter challenges believers to add to their faith virtues like self-control, knowledge, steadfastness, godliness, and love, and then says that failure to do so will cripple one’s faith: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). I would contend that one of the reasons for the weak and wavering faith of much of the church today may very well be how its people are capitulating to the sexualized culture and are immersed in sexual struggles and sin.
Every demographic in the body of Christ is impacted by this issue, but the most heartbreaking group is our children. Porn usage is so pervasive, especially among youth and college-age and young adults, that many have lost any hope that they will find victory over this struggle. If leadership is aware of these struggles, then their overall silence communicates that the gospel is powerless or irrelevant to help them in their sexual struggles.
I recently attended worship at a large urban church. The pastor challenged the church with the danger of fornication and described the wrecked lives of young people having sex outside marriage…and then moved on. As I surveyed the hundreds of people in the sanctuary, most of them married, I wanted to shout from my pew, “What about porn?!” Sex outside marriage is indeed a huge problem, especially among Christian singles, but the pastor’s omission of pornography missed the mark of where the majority of his congregation struggles. They struggle, daily, with the relentless temptation, virtually everywhere, to give in to sexual sin and keep it hidden from others, guaranteeing that the problem will not go away on its own.
What the church needs to do now
The church can’t afford to continue in silence and ignore this growing epidemic. We must shun the casual attitudes and face the reality that the consequences of our inaction are already severe and becoming ruinous. How can the church be so relatively blasé about this, while some countries, like Iceland and England, are proposing outright restrictions on Internet porn being piped into homes? If even secular governments are raising the alarms about how destructive pornography is, then surely the church should be doing that and more for its own people!
How can the church begin to take pro-active steps to address this in a comprehensive way?
Sound the alarm
Like the old heresies facing the church in the early centuries of her existence, there is a new “Gnosticism” on the rise that says what we do sexually no longer matters. The younger generation has been raised on what I refer to as a “Clintonian” definition of sex. The boundary lines for acceptable behavior have been redrawn, and all manner of sexual activity is now seen as not really being sex at all.
The church must reclaim and teach what Paul preached two centuries ago: that what we do with our body matters. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Ephesians 4:17-19, and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 make clear that God cares passionately about our sexuality. According to these passages, what we do with our bodies demonstrates the allegiance of our hearts. We either look like those controlled by the Spirit of the living God, or we look like those in the world ruled by their sensual desires. Rather than displaying a casual attitude toward sexual sin, Ephesians 5:3 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Our sexuality is a litmus test for our spirituality!
The time for the church to sound a very loud alarm is now. The church can do so much more!
The body of Christ needs to hear dedicated sermons on sexuality and faith and to have real-life illustrations and strategies woven into sermon messages on an ongoing basis.
We need adult Sunday school classes where we teach practical strategies on how to live lives of sexual integrity, not an easy task in this overly-sexualized culture.
- Youth groups need safe places to talk about this, and continual messages from youth pastors and adult volunteers that it’s okay to seek help when they feel overwhelmed, because silence and secrecy wreaks havoc on hearts and lives.
- Pastors, elders, and Christian counselors need to equip youth pastors and youth volunteers to know how to help youth who are already finding themselves ensnared in sexual struggles and sin.
- Men’s and women’s groups need to learn, in a gender-specific context, to talk openly about real-life struggles in this area. If adults and parents can begin to talk about this, then they will lead the way for youth to do so also.
- Parents must be equipped to learn how to talk about sexuality to their kids and given tools to protect their children from the dangers of unfiltered and unaccountable Internet usage that children and youth now see on tablets, smartphones, and iPod Touches.
- Groups for men and women strugglers need to be up and running, along with groups for affected spouses (usually wives).
We must speak up. We must speak directly and relevantly. We must name the problem, proclaim that there is freedom and hope in the gospel, and patiently show our people how to manage their sexuality well. We need to talk about all this in a whole new way.
Talk about sexuality differently
There is a massive hole in the teaching of sexuality in the church. If the topic is broached at all, it is almost always negative. Yet the church must go beyond a negative message, especially in order to speak cogently into the culture in which we find ourselves. We know that the world doesn’t like to hear the Christian message on human sexuality; they find it too restrictive. Even C.S.Lewis said, decades ago in Mere Christianity, that the most offensive and unpalatable teaching of Christianity is its sexual ethic. When the church merely focuses on the negative, the world (and even a lot of our own people) just turn off and move further away.
Now, we need to proclaim a positive sexual apologetic, one that articulates the goodness of God’s design and develops a positive theology of sexuality to counteract the increasingly alluring false worldview that has captured so many. We need to speak a different narrative, one that tells of the good reasons for God’s design for our sexuality. We need to persuasively declare the beauty of God’s intentions, and how living within God’s boundaries affirms our human dignity and contributes to a healthy society. We need a better narrative to help singles shepherd their sexuality so that they do not feel like they are the ones being left out. We need a compelling argument for how God’s design for sexuality is the best argument against the many and growing forms of sexual brokenness, inside and outside the church. For example, the best argument that homosexuality is not within God’s created design for sex is not Leviticus 18 and 20, but rather Genesis 1 and 2!
Acknowledge the fact that Christians are sexually broken too
At Harvest USA we teach that sexual brokenness is a universal human problem. This simply means that the fall of humanity into sin has touched every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. All of us need a supernatural intervention to bring redemption to our sexuality. But it goes deeper. A significant percentage of men and women in the body of Christ are living in bondage to their sexual desires. Pastors, next time you’re in front of your congregation, look around at your flock, and realize that, according to one survey, as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% of women report being addicted to or ensnared at some level to porn. Add to that the number of youth looking at easily accessible porn online, and the situation is frightening.
Church leadership has been slow to admit that the problem is so widespread among its people. It is time to vocalize this issue and take the necessary steps to minister to the individuals and families scarred by sexual sin.
What would you do if, instead of sexual sin, they had a terminal illness and were glibly going through the motions every Sunday as if all was well? What steps will you take to snatch them from the flames (Jude 23)? The mission of Harvest USA is to equip churches to minister to sexually broken people. We’d love to help train your people to mentor and disciple sexual strugglers, so that they can find freedom from this enslavement. We’ve developed material to equip laity to facilitate biblically-based support groups for men and women. But first the church has to publicly admit that the problem exists.
Partner with parents to teach their children about sexuality
Now, I’m not advocating that parents forsake their God-given calling to raise their children and address sexuality with them, but the church must work together with parents in this endeavor. No longer can churches just assume parents are talking about this stuff. They aren’t. I frequently ask audiences how many of them were raised in a Christian home and, out of those, how many had parents that talked about sex. Most of the hands go down!
The failure of parents and the church to shepherd their children’s sexuality (except maybe to say, “Don’t do it until you’re married!”) has resulted in hordes of young people exiting the church and the faith because they have embraced the cultural narrative of sexuality. The next generation of the church is being lost because this generation failed to honestly talk about sexuality in terms both practical and biblical.
It’s time for the church to actively assist parents, via classes, workshops, and outside speakers, and through the power of “one-anothering” to stop the drifting of our kids falling into sexual entrapment and loss of faith. There’s a reason why churches often ask all their members to take vows at infant baptisms or dedications: Raising sexually healthy kids is the work of the whole body of Christ!
This is much bigger than personal piety
There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. Dealing with this issue forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization.
The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continuing to be abused on multiple levels while performing. (See footnote 2.) Human trafficking, the deepest scourge of all, is embedded in this porn and broken sexuality epidemic.
The bottom line is that our silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where the drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice.
But God’s people should be the vanguard of justice, dedicated to undoing this horrific expression of the curse in this world and serving as Christ’s hands and feet to bind up the brokenhearted and heal their wounds. Will you be the one to start doing this in your church? We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.
At Harvest USA, we watch God do this glorious work of “undoing” every day. The gospel is God’s power for salvation, and he is committed to radical change in the lives of his people. But we have a choice: Are we willing to get our hands dirty and enter into this glorious, redemptive work, or continue keeping our heads in the sand, waiting for the storm to clear? One pastor commented that he knew sexual sin was at epidemic levels among his men, but he was scared to take the lid off.
None of us likes to deal with messy situations, but we have a Redeemer who has blazed this path before us. Rather than maintain his glory in the heavens, Jesus was stripped of everything, entering this world as a baby. At the cross, he left it in the same way. But he conquered sin and death—including pornography!—and rose victoriously, so that we can be empowered by his Spirit to face these giants. And that is the key: It is impossible for us to face this challenge alone, but Jesus’ promise is to be with us to the end of the age. He is offering us deeper communion with himself as we face this challenge. It’s worth raising the alarm and rolling up our sleeves for this!
Dave White and Nicholas Black can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, if you want to comment on this article or to find out how Harvest USA can help your church sound the alarm and implement effective ways to teach and help your church community.
1 ChristiaNet, Inc. “ChristiaNet Poll Finds that Evangelicals are Addicted to Porn.” Marketwire, 7 Aug. 2006. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Christianet-Inc-703951.html. As compiled by Covenant Eyes.
2 For a insightful perspective on the reality of porn performers, go to Shelley Lubben’s website: http://www.shelleylubben.com. Shelly is an ex-porn performer who has a ministry to reach out to porn performers with the gospel and talks about the harmful nature of pornography.
12 Oct 2012
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4 (ESV)
In my last post, “Living a Life That Becomes a Life Well-Lived,” I was sharing my thoughts on how to live now in such a way that our lives will have been lived well. David’s words here in Psalm 27 give us (me!) more clues about what this means: knowing what your “one thing” is going to be. David said that his “one thing” was to dwell in the house of the Lord, or as we might say now from our vantage place of being in Christ, to faithfully abide in the Lord Jesus. David said that he wanted to dwell in the Lord’s house so that he could:
- Gaze upon the Lord’s beauty
- Inquire of the Lord
I like the way that Pastor John Piper has often said in his teaching ministry, “Let your passions be single!” He’s speaking of a devoted and undistracted life, for and towards Jesus Christ, of making sure that our “one thing” is faithfulness to Jesus—abiding in Jesus as we love, know, and seek to obey his Word. When our “one thing” becomes a part of many things, or when our “one thing” is self, comfort, pleasure, or the affection and/or sexual attentions of other people, then we find ourselves living an anti-Psalm 27:4 that goes something like this:
One thing I have sought after and asked of the Lord, and that is,
‘Please leave me alone God!’ I mean, I want your attention but not now, okay?!
I want to build and nestle inside a home of my own making, where it feels good,
and no one bothers me about what I’m gazing at.
I’ll inquire of you, Lord, but later—okay?
I don’t mean to offend you, Lord, but I just need (fill in the blank) right now and you…
well, you just don’t seem as real as him/her/it/this.
I love you Lord, but I need him/her/it/this.
Sexual sin and disordered relational entanglements can be “one thing” that offers to us an instant payback of sexual and/or emotional pleasure, a comforting distraction that dulls and temporarily erases our inner pain and heartache. When our “one thing” isn’t Jesus, so many other things will rush in to fill the void, and entice, tantalize, seduce, woo, and offer to us a form of life. But it will be death in the end.
How do you focus on the true “one thing” of living fully for Jesus amid all the struggles of this life? I’d love to know what helps you do this.
10 Oct 2012
Lately I’ve been soberly pondering how to live now; I want to have lived a well-lived life at the end. One of the blessings of serving at a ministry like Harvest USA is growing in grace while being daily confronted in my work with the devastation of sexual sin. Our staff and I are honored (truly!) to be invited into the pain of men, women, couples, and parents, and to walk alongside them.
They are facing the wreckage, pain, and heartache as hurting Christians who, after a season of giving way to sin, are now turning back to Christ. As the grace and love of Jesus Christ floods into and awakens someone from the dulling and destructive impact of living in sexual sin, the road is both glorious and painful. Emotional affairs, random sexual hook-ups, feasting on the ugly and foul “banquet table” of pornography, enslaving and obsessive co-dependent relationships, and sexual sharing with one or more persons outside of marriage—these are the things we hear in our offices and our support groups daily.
It’s glorious to hear of the Lord’s rescue of women from temptation and sin, yet painful to watch them “wake up” and realize, “How did I end up here? How do I get out of here? How do I change?” It’s terribly sobering for me and causes me to shudder every so often, knowing that this woman, or this man, or this marriage got “here” by taking a lot of little steps over time. All these steps are ones that we choose, even while, in the moment of struggle, we may feel that they just “happened to me.”
Gospel hope and wisdom tells us, though, that a life well-lived is also the fruit of taking a lot of little steps in a given direction… over and over, day by day.
Recently some sobering confessions of secret sin were shared with me just as I had finished reading an autobiography of Helen Roseveare, a missionary to the Congo from 1953-1973. I was also at that time beginning to read a biography of Charles Spurgeon, an amazing Bible teacher, preacher, and pastor from the 1800s. This woman and this man are two of my heroes of the faith, and their stories remind me that well-lived lives include suffering, ongoing battles against sin, and lots of seemingly little steps of obedience.
I also began to read and reflect upon Paul’s pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, wondering how Paul arrived at a point where he could say towards the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV).
I’m pretty sure that a part of the answer to this question is in knowing that a life well lived happens as we live each day and through each circumstance like Paul did: deciding in this moment to fight when confronted by temptation and sin; committing today to run the race and fix my eyes upon Jesus, surrendering in this situation to trust the Lord through faith, believing that his purposes are always good for me.
What do you think? Are there heroes of the faith in your life? Who do you look up to, and what are the daily or habitual faith steps they took that bore the fruit of a life well-lived? No one walks this life of faith alone. God has given us a “cloud of witnesses” to show us how to live well.
04 Oct 2012
I just bought a GPS with a great new feature: It warns me when I’m approaching a traffic light equipped with a camera. The beloved Philadelphia Parking Authority just installed a camera close to the Harvest USA office. Believe me: I’ll never risk sliding through that yellow light again! It’s amazing how compliant drivers become when we’re being watched…
How does this connect with our obedience to God? You’ve probably heard it said that in order to sin, you need to be a functional atheist. You need to believe that God doesn’t exist, and you are free to do whatever you please. On one level this is true, but is it helpful to see God as the cosmic, red-light enforcement agent? Will this produce obedience? Knowing God is always with us does produce obedience, but our understanding of what his presence with us means makes all the difference in the world.
He is not about red light enforcement! The people behind the camera don’t care whether I make it through the intersection safely, only that I don’t break the law. In fact, they exist to profit from my disobedience. Too many people struggling with sexual sin understand God’s presence to mean he’s looking over their shoulders with pad and pen in hand, compiling an endless list of black marks next to their names. At best, some are grateful that, because of Jesus, at least the marks will be erased on the last day. But they are missing the glorious wonder of God’s presence. He is seen as a threat rather than a “very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
This view could not be further from the truth. God is present with you because he cares. Consider Psalm 139: After describing how God knows every thought he’s ever had, knows every word before he speaks it, is monitoring literally every step he takes in his life—all of which tend to fill us with dread—David concludes, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v. 6). He is overcome by joy. God’s closeness reveals his desire for relationship. The depth of intimacy that already exists is what we are invited to embrace. And— gloriously!—when this is our understanding of God’s presence, it motivates obedience. We are compelled by the love of Christ. So, rather than shrinking back from God in shame, David (who was no stranger to sexual sin) ends the psalm asking God to open his eyes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (v. 23-24). God is so close because he loves and cares for us. When we understand this, we can boldly ask him to enter in and open our eyes, because we know it is in love that he exposes our sin to draw us closer to himself.
I recently made one of my biggest parental blunders to date: showing my daughters a suspenseful film they just weren’t ready for. And I’ve paid the price: repeated cries of “Daaaaddy!” in the wee hours of the morning. (What was I thinking?!) On one of these occasions, I read to them from Psalm 121. The Hebrew word used six times in just eight verses describes God as a guardian, one who keeps close watch, protecting us from all harm. Two of the verses underscore this reality, promising that God “will neither slumber or sleep” (v. 3-4). My daughters can rest secure because God’s eyes are always on them. He is unsleeping, ever vigilant, covering them with his wings so they can sleep in peace.
It’s the same in our struggle with sexual sin. God is always watching because he loves you and promises “to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). He is relentless in his pursuit of our hearts and commitment to conform us to the image of Jesus.
How has your view of God as a traffic cop impacted your relationship with him? What would change if you believed his presence is the result of his love and delight in you?
Do you like being in the dark? I’ve never met a child who wasn’t afraid of darkness. In the Bible, darkness is often directly connected with evil spiritual forces. It always has a negative connotation. This is why I love John’s teaching that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, ESV).
Echoed twice in the last two chapters of Revelation, we’re promised that there will be no need for the sun or moon in the glorious city to come because God will be our light, and the “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5, ESV). Darkness will be vanquished forever.
But not yet. There’s still a whole lot of darkness in this fallen world, and it deeply impacts our souls. Further, it’s not always something we can avoid. Although in a spiritual sense God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), the darkness of life under the curse relentlessly persists.
Isaiah 50:10 gives a surprising description: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” What is this verse saying? God is not surprised by our dark circumstance. The Scriptures testify throughout that he is sovereign over it. There is probably nothing scarier than to be in an unknown place in pitch blackness and called to walk blindly. God doesn’t say it’s okay to cower in a corner waiting for light. In whatever dark trial we’re facing, obedience looks like walking “blindly” by faith. He calls us to walk, risking that we might stub a toe, fall headlong, or plummet over a cliff because he promises that we won’t.
This is not normal for us. We don’t like walking by faith at all. We want to see clearly where we’re headed. Isaiah addresses this reality in the next verse: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11). Not wanting to walk by faith in the darkness, trusting and relying on God, the default of humanity is to light a “torch.”
What do you use for a torch? Sexual sin is a perennial favorite. We don’t turn to sex because our hormones are raging. We sin sexually because the chaos of life is raging around us and we want relief. Our trials feel like being in utter darkness—so we light a torch. We try to make our own way apart from trusting God to take care of us. But the result is disastrous. We go from darkness to torment. The trials of providence are nothing compared to the misery we create through our sinful responses. The torment of our sin looks like job loss, squandered time and money, fallout in our relationships, and increasing discontent in our soul. And if you’ve ever walked by the light of a torch, you know the darkness beyond its trembling glow feels even more oppressive.
What’s the good news? The invitation still stands to begin walking by faith. You may have exacerbated your lot in life through your sexual sin, but even now God calls you to extinguish your torch and embrace him in the darkness. Although it feels like it, it is not a blind faith! He has given us great and precious promises. He will not let your foot slip. He will deliver you from all your fears. Your story has an ending so amazing that your puny mind can’t conceive of the wonder. Your current body couldn’t handle the glory of his presence. You need a resurrected body to experience the eternal pleasure of that relationship.
That relationship and unity with him (to which sex points) is just looking in a mirror darkly right now in this life. And he invites you to begin experiencing that relationship now as you walk by faith. In Jesus, we have a Savior not calling out to us from a remote place, but one who walks right ahead, facing our dangers for us and promising to deliver us safely into his Father’s house. Will you trust him and step out in faith?
What “torch” (sexual or otherwise) are you tempted to light when the dark trials of life overwhelm you? Compared to the torment that results, how would it be different to walk by faith in the darkness?
What does this struggle look like? Consider 1 John 2:3: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” Many read this, look at their lives and say, “Ah…I’m not keeping his commandments. That must mean I don’t really have a relationship with him. I must be the liar mentioned in verse 4.” Knowing him, our relationship with God, seems conditional on keeping his commandments. So if that’s not happening, you must be wrong about even the existence of the relationship.
But what if the passage was read the other way around? Keeping his commandments is conditional on knowing him. In other words, when you know him, you obey. You actually want to obey because you enjoy the closeness that comes from walking with him. It is the growing relationship that drives the obedience. When that relationship is rooted deeply in your heart, keeping his commandments is the natural outflow. What if you heard that passage as an invitation to a deeper relationship, rather than condemnation that it must not exist?
According to God, if you confess Jesus as Lord and believe in the resurrection, you are saved. The Bible makes clear that this realization only happens because he is already at work, opening your eyes, enabling you to understand your need of him. You embraced Christ only because he was already wooing you. The relationship is a given because he says it is. The enemy loves to keep you chasing your tail, wondering if you could truly be a Christian and still struggle with sin, because he knows his ability to manipulate and deceive you is finished as soon as you take your focus off your ability and fix your eyes on the relationship God says already exists.
In this light, hear the following passage as an invitation: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11). Jesus invites us to abide in his love. He’s communicating the importance of obedience flowing from relationship because he is for you. He wants your joy to be full. He wants what is best for you. His commandments reflect his love, and they are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).
Commandments are easy when they hold the promise of blessing. God’s desire is to protect you from your destructive desires in order to give you himself. This reality was brought home to me in a really sweet way this summer. After losing my wife almost three years ago from complications due to breast cancer, God brought a wonderful woman into my life this past year, and we were married on July 7. (And I actually have Harvest to thank for this!) Now I’m living under a “command”; I have covenanted with this woman to forsake all others for her. But here’s the thing: I get her! It is a joy to forsake all others because I have a wife who is absolutely amazing in every way. I couldn’t be more thrilled to obey that command because it is actually the foundation of a glorious relationship. A fitting illustration because, after all, God gives us the gift of marriage and sexuality so we can have a tiny glimpse of the wonder of his relationship to us (Ephesians 5:31-32)! We see in a mirror darkly Jesus’ joy and delight as he eagerly anticipates sitting down to feast with his bride at the wedding, arranged from the foundation of the world by his Father.
When have you walked away from reading the Bible feeling condemned? How does that passage point to God’s love in Christ and invite you to deeper relationship with him?
I’m glad summer is over, and not just because my girls are headed back to school. I’m done with the heat. One of my friends is sick of Philly summers. He’s heading back home to Minneapolis. He’d rather face those winters—20 feet of snow and four months of daily temperatures below freezing. As a nation, we experienced the hottest July on record. And in Philly it’s not just the temperature; the humidity is miserable too.
The air is already sticky at 5:30 in the morning. The combined heat and humidity makes me want to just lie on the couch in a dark, air-conditioned room. It sucks the life out of you.
This is exactly how David describes the effects of hidden sin in our life. “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4-5, ESV). We turn to sexual sin trying to make life “work.” It offers escape from the stress of work and real relationships. It promises to spice up the day-to-day monotony. It provides the illusion of intimacy to the lonely. We use sex as a pressure-relief valve when we’re anxious, frustrated with various life circumstances, or angry at our spouse. Psalm 32 describes the tragic irony of hidden sexual sin: We run to it for life, but it leaves us depleted and desolate. I enjoy yard work, but the summer heat makes it an oppressive chore. Similarly, sexual sin promises blessing and offers relief from life’s pressures, but is actually the thief of John 10 that comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
So we don’t find relief. In an instant the fantasy evaporates, the pleasure is gone and we’re left with all our original problems. Only now things are worse, exacerbated by our guilt and shame. And with each fall, the mounting inner turmoil sets us up to repeat the cycle again and again and again.
This Psalm points to the way out of this mess. It begins making the glorious declaration that we are blessed by God when our sins are forgiven. The gospel invites us to revel in this blessing because we have the irrevocable guarantee that our sins are forgiven. Jesus paid the debt in full. The Psalm concludes by assuring us that we are surrounded by the steadfast love of the Lord. God so loved the world he sent Jesus for us. Jesus invites us to abide in his love that our joy may be full (see John 15:1-11). Peter says one of the reasons we fail to grow in the Christian life is because we forget we’ve been cleansed from our former sins (see 2 Peter 1:3-9).
And it goes further. We are promised care and protection through the trials of life. When the flood waters rise, they won’t sweep us away. Note: The passage is clear that trials will come. But it assures us we will be delivered. God will be our “hiding place” and “preserve” us from whatever the trouble may be. Unlike the false god of our sexual sin that brings emptiness and despair, embracing God in the midst of life’s trials brings comfort. We receive spiritual solace that sustains our soul, even as the chaos of life continues to swirl around us.
Finally, we’re exhorted to “be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Embracing the hope of the gospel—God with us—takes us from guilt, anxiety, frustration, shame, etc., to joy and thanksgiving. We are invited to know hope and peace. And it all begins when we stop hiding and get real with who we are and what we’re doing.
How has your experience with sexual sin been like the summer heat, sapping life and vitality? Can you imagine what it would be like to be free?
02 Aug 2012
You know, there’s a lot at stake as we live this one, short, earthly life. Speaking at 2012 The Gospel Coalition Women’s conference, John Piper shared thoughts from Isaiah 6. John spoke about the power of gazing upon the Lord, to know our glorious Jesus as the one who is exalted and holy, yet who has come near to us so that we can have a taste of his majesty. Too often, we have a view of God which is way, way too small! To miss him is to spend the fleeting life we have been given on what is fleeting and passing away.
Seventy-five years from now, none of us will regret the decisions we made which flowed from love for Jesus. If we have gotten a taste of the majesty of God, then we will delight to give glory to God in who we are and what we do. We will not regret the ‘inconvenient’ and painful obedience that faith demands; the courageous confrontation and turning away from our favorite idols; the letting go of even good gifts that may not be what God has for us; living in singleness, which leaves a dull and painful ache at times; being faithful to our spouse in a tough marriage; or persevering in love toward wayward and rebellious children.
Many women I’ve gotten the privilege to journey with have become tripped up in their calling to be “glory givers” because their view of God was too small. A small view of God makes other people become big—bigger than they should be in our lives. We become hungry for them, and we feast at the banquet table of emotional cravings. That’s certainly been true in my own life. A growing worship and awe of our Lord Jesus leads me away from people idolatry to truly loving others, rather than using, being controlled by, or obsessing over them.
The Holy One upon the throne, so beautifully described in Isaiah 6, isn’t meant to drive you to a fearful retreat from a Holy God! No, this throne is owned by the Grace Giver, who is glorious and who welcomes needy, robbers of glory like you and me! We come to this throne “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). Read Isaiah 6 in the context of the mercy of Jesus Christ for you, and prayerfully examine your life to see how mercy shapes your life for him.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
How is God calling you to be a living sacrifice for his glory? For his purposes? How is he inviting you to love him by letting go of an unholy relationship that is eclipsing the Lord’s presence in your life? How is he inviting you to fix your gaze on him rather than trying to figure out how obedience will “work” in your favor? How is he calling you to courageously confess to a friend regarding your online addictions?
31 Jul 2012
Paige Benton Brown spoke at the 2012 The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference from 1 Kings 8 and gave a rich exhortation concerning how we do or do not reveal that we are the temple of God. As Paige phrased the question, “Do we have a quality of ‘templeness’ within us?” In her talk, Paige was actually one of the two women I heard who did apply her message to sexual sin in women. She brought out the challenging but rich calling that we all have to be the home of the Lord:
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV).
Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are not our own to do with them whatever we please. This is a powerfully counter-cultural message, especially when the spirit of our age proclaims individual autonomy and self-expression as the core foundation of our identities.
Sisters, when we attach ourselves romantically to our female friends; when we relate sensually to one another physically and perhaps even sexually; when we chat sexually with others with our mouths, texts, and keyboards; and when we are sexual with ourselves or anyone who is not our husband, we are failing to give glory to Jesus, our King, Savior, Healer of our hearts, and Lord of our bodies. We are in fact being sexually ‘insane’ if we pursue self-expression and autonomy from God. Such an attitude reveals a deceived and rebellious heart that demands to do what I want, when I want, and with whom I want.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of God? Will you not treat yourself and your body as God sees you? Will you allow Jesus to rein you in to himself with love and kindness and to rule over your desires, fears, relationships, and sexuality?
Why would you want to do that? Because you were bought with a high price, the life of Jesus himself, so that you could live in the glorious freedom and beauty of being the woman God calls you to be.
To develop these ideas further and glorify God with your sexuality, check out one of Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, which is available in the Harvest USA bookstore. Also, we have a curriculum for women who are struggling sexually, called Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing for Relational and Sexual Brokenness. This resource was written to assist you in delving more deeply into the hope and redemptive ‘sanity’ that the gospel of grace promises to us in our relational and sexual brokenness! Visit the Harvest USA Online Store to take a look at our resources.