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

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

Up to now, we have seen Paul saying very clearly in this passage that how we live our lives sexually matters. God’s will for his people is that we learn to manage our sexual desires and channel them in the direction of his design. Sexuality and holiness go together (v. 7), and God wants us to use these amazing gifts in the way he created them.

But we have also seen Paul admit that doing this is difficult. (To read the prior posts, click here.) But Paul gives us a hint in this passage about how we can navigate our sexual desires, our wants, and the intrusions of a culture that prods us to live any way we want, in a way that honors God and gives health to our bodies and minds.

Where do we find this in the above passage?

Go back to verse one. “Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you…”

Do you notice something? This is not the language of command. This is not a rebuke that says, “Stop it!” This is not a final warning to shape up or else.

This is relational language. There is a tenderness to what Paul is saying, an appeal to our minds and hearts. “Brothers. . . we ask you and urge you.” Why is Paul speaking this way?

We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier in this same letter, in chapter 2:11: “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

Paul knows these people. He has loved them like a caring father. He knows this is not easy, and he wants to help them learn to control their sexuality so that they might live in freedom and honor their Savior.

The way forward is in relationship. You will not escape sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it by all by yourself. We say at Harvest USA that the way to ensure you will never find freedom from sexual sin and its slavery is to privately pray and ask that God will take this away from you. This is not blasphemy; God can do whatever he wants, in whatever way he wants.

But the way he generally works is through his people, the church, the body of Christ. Sexual sin lives in secrecy; it is killed out in the open. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it is banished when we begin to be honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.

For those who struggle with this, you need to believe that the deepest relationship is the one you have with Jesus Christ.

Paul could be tender because he himself knew the mercy and grace of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You can go to Jesus with this sin because he has already made you clean in his eyes. God’s wrath for your sin is over; he poured it all out on his Son.

The more you grasp the truth of Hebrews 4:16, that you can approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need, the more you will freedom to move toward Christ and others for help.

Our new life in Christ must be lived out with others. The road to sexual integrity begins out in the open.

So, what do we need to do to live this way, as individual believers and as a church community? There are four ways to live this way. I’ll show you two of them now, and two at the next blog post.

One, we need to be real about life

By real, I mean being honest about ourselves and our struggles. The church too often plays an “I’m OK, you’re OK” game of pretend, where we all look good on the outside and show people that this is a good place to join.

Some of us, and some churches, do this every Sunday for years and years. We are so afraid to talk about what is really killing us inside.

But remember what I said about the church in 1 Corinthians. We do not have it all together. We are all messes at one stage or another.

I like the way one pastor, speaking about sexual issues, describes the kind of people who sit in church on Sunday morning:

“When these people sit in our pews, they are in various stages of dealing with their problems. Some are denying that they have a problem. Some know they are sinning against God’s law, but have secretly rebelled and live lives of hypocrisy and deception. Some are struggling with various degrees of success and failure in making the changes God requires. Most of them are desperately struggling in silence and feel increasingly hopeless and powerless. . . The challenge for the church today is to welcome sinners, but not be content to leave them where they are. The challenge of the church is to assist sinners at all of these stages. The church must invite in and hold the attention of those who would not have dared (or desired) to look to the church for either hope or help.”

I recall talking to a woman who told me that when she was looking for a church, she visited one where everyone there was dressed up and looking real good. Not a bit like her; she came from a tough background, and she dealt for a long time with addictions and sexual brokenness. But as she sat in the pew feeling like she was wasting her time coming to this church, she came across this notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help, and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with our struggles. No one has it all together. Call ________ to speak in confidence.”

The simple honesty of those words captured her. She decided to stay at that church, because they were honest about the people of God and that God loves broken people.

Two, we need to become un-shockable

By un-shockable, I mean we need to have a “God can handle this” attitude. Paul said gospel is the “power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Salvation is not just about conversion; it’s also about how coming to Christ leads to growth and change in our lives.

Steve Brown of Keylife Network referred to a poem he once read titled, “Jet Sex Engine,” that poses this question: “Why did God put a jet sex engine in my Volkswagen body?” What a great line!

What Steve Brown was saying is that we need to stop being shocked at the sexual struggles that Christians have. They exist in the lives of Christians, too.

Harvest USA’s Founder, John Freeman, wrote a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. (You can get it here.) In the foreword, Steve Brown summed up what it means for the church to be un-shockable:

I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us the ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. Jack Miller used to say that the entire Bible could be summed up in two sentences: “Cheer up, you’re a lot worse than you think you are. And cheer up, God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”

Do you hear what Steve is saying? God is not shocked by our struggles. He sees us, he sees right through our masks, and he still desires to draw near to us and set us free.

When we stop being shocked that these things can happen to us, we can then walk with one another, helping each other take steps of faith toward sexual wholeness.

Our next post will examine two more ways of living that bring honesty and healing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation

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

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

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

Two, sexual strugglers live double lives

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

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

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

Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness

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

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

Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to Part 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it does matter.

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

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

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

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

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

Now what is James saying here?

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

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

Now what does this all mean?

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

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

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

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

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

Link to Part 3

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

She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.

I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.

The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.

As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.

She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.

As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.

Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.

A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.

Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.

Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.

This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at brooke@harvestusa.org.

Updated 5.23.2017

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

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

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

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

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

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

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

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

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

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

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

God knows that this is difficult for his people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read Part 2.

Updated 5.12.2017

This was Ron’s (name has been changed) conclusion after the second week of the men’s Biblical Support Group at our office. “I look around the room, and all these guys are wearing wedding bands, and their problem is about porn. But they still get to have sex. How am I going to live without it?”

In his late 20s, Ron is a babe in Christ, coming to faith just six months ago. Although he was raised in a Christian home, he’s lived a wildly promiscuous gay life for the last decade. Beginning in his first semester in college, his last ten years are a blur of parties and sexual decadence. Now he is here after a startling encounter with God.

Ron was deeply moved when I shared my conversion story the first week of the group, describing God’s amazing condescension to me– opening my eyes to his reality while I was tripping out on LSD. Despite our differences, Ron’s conversion experience was similar to mine in its strangeness, so he felt comfortable opening up to me about feeling so disconnected from the other men and their struggles.

Ron is battling with the reality that there is no way for him to engage sexually the way he craves. Life without sex seems unbearable. I acknowledged that, yes, it is hard to remain celibate when your mind and body want sexual release. But it has been made even more difficult for young men like Ron because the culture in which they have been raised proclaims that a life without sex is a tragedy. Sex is now seen as a human right, of sorts, and to live without engaging in it is considered ridiculous—and impossible. Why would anyone want to do that? How stupid!

I shared with him my own “single again” experience following my wife’s sudden death years ago. For more than two years, I had “knock-down/drag-out” conversations with God: What am I to do with my sexual feelings and desires? At times it felt almost tortuous to dismiss my sexual longings and to not give in to sexual fantasy and masturbation for relief. I recall saying to God once, “I really hope it matters to you that I’m not masturbating right now!”

And the Holy Spirit’s response to me seemed to say, “Yes, it does matter to me; I want to be your comfort and refuge! In your present reality, which to you is hard and painful, I want you to live in the present and not escape to a fantasy world of false pleasures, a fantasy world that is incapable of giving you real life.”

Ron and I talked further. We discussed that we have no idea what God has in store for us in our futures, but that he promises it is going to be good! In obeying him, we are drawn ever closer to his heart. He calls us to obey today, entrusting the future to his nail-scarred hands. Please pray for Ron, as his entire life has been uprooted since his conversion.

For a brief look at how to successfully engage sexual temptation, click the link here on my blog post, “Suffering with Temptation.

Updated 5.25.2017
“As I’ve read articles defending how many Christian women not only are reading but passionately defending and promoting erotica, I’ve been stunned and saddened…”
 
With this sentence, Ellen Dykas, our Women’s Ministry Coordinator, began a post,”Jesus, His Followers, and Fifty Shades of Grey: Whose Voice Are We Listening To?” to accompany her main article, “Sexual Sanity for Women in a World Gone Mad,” for the Christian Research Journal (CRI)While her comments were directed toward the best-selling book and its huge audience of readers, it remains even more relevant today with the movie’s release in 2015 and its popularity.
 
Click the following link to read what Ellen has to say: Fifty Shades of Grey. Scroll down to read the short piece, and while you are at it, scroll back up and give the main article a good read, too! We think it is well worth your time!
Updated 5.25.2017

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).

This verse gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles. The first step is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having acknowledged your sin before God and a trusted person (see previous blog post), now Jesus commands and enables you to “stand up and walk” by faith. What does it mean to “put on Christ?” It means three things:

  1. Seek consistent fellowship with God through his word and in prayer. This seems so basic that often we overlook it. Nothing, however, can replace cultivating our relationship with Jesus. When sexual sin has been a secret, shame-provoking part of a person’s life, often the heart has been dulled in devotion to Christ. Living water and fresh nourishment must be feasted upon regularly to fill and satisfy a hungry heart.
  2. Cultivate authentic relationships with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationship with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7, which connects one’s walk with God to one’s walk with other believers.) God has designed our faith to be personal and intimate with him, but not apart from rich involvement in the life of other believers in the church. Do you have at least two people in your life with whom you can allow yourself to be fully known and prayed for? To be encouraged and discipled by? If you don’t, begin asking the Lord for such friends as these. It’s that important!
  3. Seek opportunities to love and serve others. There is grace, comfort, and joy to be poured into us and through us. We were not designed by God to be receptacles but conduits of his love and mercy. Look for opportunities to reach out to someone and show them love and care. For this you were made:“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Did you notice that I’ve said nothing regarding sexual sin in the advice I’ve given? That’s intentional! Most women who have struggled sexually have spent so much time focusing on “sin management” or battling against temptation, that they have neglected cultivating their relationships—with Jesus and with other sisters in the Lord.

Jesus, not the sin itself, must be the one upon whom you fix your gaze as you seek to walk away from sin!

The second step is to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While cultivating and building up relationships is crucial, especially as a first step, you still need to know how to fight the battle! Overcoming sin patterns, including sexual sin, is never something we “happen upon” or coast into. No, sin must be intentionally fought as we flee temptations and deal directly with the heart issues from which they are triggered.

  1. Identify and then avoid and flee triggers and temptations. What are the situations, influences, people, and emotions which seem to weaken your resolve to obey God? Is it being alone? Watching certain types of entertainment? Anger, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and fear can push us to crumble in the face of temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 instructs believers to flee temptation as we receive the escape path he provides. To run on that path of escape increasingly means we must learn to discern when we are creeping near to sin. Ask yourself, “What helps me to sin, and how can I avoid these influences?”
  2. Fast from good gifts which are not good for you. One common struggle we all have is taking good things from God and then worshipping them—allowing them to mean more to your heart than God himself. Are there things that you use or have that, while either enjoyable or useful, are increasingly pulling you into temptation and sin? Your smartphone? Your laptop? Places you are visiting or people you are hanging around with? Will fasting from these things be difficult or inconvenient? Sure. I challenge you to try this. Hard as it might be, this may be a necessary step in order to focus your time and attention on Christ and recapture your thought life.
  3. Refuse to isolate or hide. It’s been said that the power of secret sin is in the secret. To “walk in the light” (1 John 1: 1-9) and to “renounce secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I said above about cultivating authentic relationships.

These initial steps, walked out day by day, little by little, over a lifetime, will lead you increasingly into the spacious freedom which is ours through Jesus Christ. All of this is waiting for you. May you find in Jesus the humility to run to him—or be carried to him by others who know you—in order to discover the life you really want.

Updated 5.25.2017

A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)

Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.

Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.

Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.

How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?

If you’re stuck on a mat . . .

Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.

First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.

Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.

Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!

Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).

My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.

Updated 5.25.2017
11 Jun 2014

Silent Sisterhood

Silent Sisterhood 

What I have been asked to share with you is not so much my story of how and why I came to Harvest USA, but rather what has happened to me since then. I will not pretend to have answers to many questions. This is a story of a ‘work in progress’ and how God ceaselessly and actively works in my life.

I came to Harvest USA because I was convicted that there was something very wrong in what I wanted from people and women in particular. I remember the night I finally began to see the subtle differences in what was good and bad in my friendships. It was a New Year’s Eve party to which a certain few had been invited. As I sat there, I was aware of, as if for the first time, the lingering, meaningful gazes, the exclusive conversations and private jokes, the hand resting too long on a shoulder. I had the sensation of being sucked into something that was no longer alluring. Everything worked in this group by hints and insinuation; nothing was ever said openly; so nothing could be defined. I remember it being a long, long night.

The next morning, I spoke to someone who shared with me her New Year’s Eve. She talked about how she and her friends had come together and prepared a meal. Then during that meal they renewed their friendships and prayed for the coming year and what it would bring. I walked away from her, into another room–and cried. The openness and honesty of the events of her evening contrasted sharply with the complete lack on anything meaningful in mine, and this cut me to the bone.

The Silent Sisterhood to which I belonged required secrecy, and for maintaining the secret my reward was an aching hollowness that gnawed deeper and deeper into my soul. I was a living, breathing lie. I had spent a lifetime building a pleasant, inoffensive façade keeping all but a tiny few out. Now this façade was so thick that it seemed impossible to break through. This is testimony that God can pulverize even the thickest walls around our hearts.

If God says, “No, this not the lifestyle to which I call you,” then to what does he call me? There has to be more to living than just not being gay anymore. For me Harvest USA is not just about walking alongside men and women coming out of the homosexual and lesbian lifestyle. It is a mistake to think that when someone stops acting out the gay lifestyle that it ends there. In most cases all you’ve got is a celibate homosexual or lesbian who lives in an androgynous twilight world of simply knowing what they shouldn’t do. Having been there, I found it’s a cold, comfortless place to be. Those who stop there find little to rejoice about; their hearts are rarely open or warm, their anger something to be avoided.

So, as I came to know what I shouldn’t do, my heart cried out to God to know what he was calling me to be! There had to be more, my heart yearned too much for these deep changes to stop there. What was it? What was it I was tasting, glimpsing, that drew me to the cliff edge of choices, and to the realization that I had choices. It was in this place I first began to understand what it was to be a child of God–the child of a loving father.

Though it sounds simple, to move from seeing myself as a child of God to being his daughter was a momentous step. I could easily have held on to the idea of being a child, seeing myself simply as a child–not even as a little girl, for the rest of my life and effectively never grown up.

But God calls me to be his daughter, his beloved daughter, to grow into womanhood, capable of seeing and experiencing him, people, and life in a totally unique way through my femininity. He teaches me in Word and leads me to women in church, in groups, and in friendships who, as in the words of Proverbs 31, are clothed in strength and dignity, who do not fear the future because of him and who speak with wisdom and faithful instruction. These women move freely and enjoy the respect and confidence of others and shatter my old notions of strength, independence, and freedom. These women are interdependent, they do not see themselves as separate, and they are connected closely to others and enjoy it! The connection is neither smothering nor exclusive as I found in lesbianism, but springs from being present to one another even in the hard, raw times that God uses to shape his daughters.

I am at that point of my journey where I have begun to explore my femininity, this intrinsic part of me–and it is not without fear. I am often frightened by the newness of everything. In a world in which I have heard femininity described as a ragbag of discarded female values to be passed over in search of something better, allowing my life to be shaped by God through his gift of femininity is also frightening. But to expose myself to the refining fire of my Father, to feel the sharpness of his knife as he cuts deep into the shadowy corners of my soul is also to expose that fear for his attention so that he may deal with it.

And I also know this: God sets me on a high cliff, and there I feel the breath of God; it can burn like fire, searing through me and separating sinew from bone. And all the while as I come apart he reshapes me for his purpose, and all the while the protection of his love holds my feet firm in that place. Only God protects and gives safety as I look in things long buried and discarded and am willing to pick up and own as part of me.

From the safety of his protection I face the temptations to go back, to strive at being strong and independent, and consequently to being untouchable in the core of myself. For these temptations are still there. But in God’s love I no longer welcome them as old friends, but see them as the soul destroyers they are.

My femininity, my sexuality, my place as a daughter: These are all gems for the taking from my Father’s hands. How I will wear such precious gifts is something that only time can reveal. But as I look on these well-cut stones, their facets catch and reflect the light of my Father’s love. The luster of his promises never fades, they are promises more enduring than the hardest diamond. Promises worth dying for; and Christ died so that I might receive these gifts.

To receive is something that was impossible for me not so long ago. There is beauty in this that I know I am just beginning to understand. God has lifted the curtain and I have glimpsed something wonderful–that promises more. I want to know, see and be more of what he is calling me to be. As he reveals more, I know this process will not end in this lifetime, but this a journey I want to make; I want to make it hoping and trusting always in him, my loving Father.

Updated 4.13.17

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