10 May 2017
In 2013 I finished the Philadelphia half-marathon with integrity, even though I wasn’t on board with the race’s motto: “For the Love of Running.” I don’t love to run, and in fact I walked the entire 13.1 miles! My form was less than professional, and my running clothes were not high-end gear, but I did finish the race. I finished what I started. That was my integrity, the principle for which I strove for: Finish well what you started.
I did it by keeping the finish line in mind. One step at a time. Not getting distracted by the scenery along the race, like the beauty of Rittenhouse Square or the exotic landscape of the Philadelphia Zoo.
Women who desire to live with sexual integrity—with themselves and in their relationships with others and with God—also need to run the race of faith well.
Which means throwing off distractions and hindrances, like how I finished the half-marathon.
Hebrews 12:1-13 gives us many rich truths to consider in this regard, but let’s start this discussion with the importance of throwing off the endless distractions we all face in this world and the sins that easily trip us up.
After the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon, there were four tons of discarded clothing collected along the marathon route!¹ Serious runners start the race wearing gear that can be tossed off in the first miles as their bodies warm up. These articles of clothing are helpful at the start but a heavy hindrance once underway.
Similarly, we need to recognize and be willing to part with not only obvious sin but also influences in our lives which distract and hinder us from loving Jesus in our pursuit of sexual integrity. We need to take seriously the influences which can weigh us down and make it easier to walk into sinful situations.
“The key here is not so much the thing itself but the impact it has on us. Sexual sin most often has a seemingly ‘innocent’ beginning—when a potential hindrance or distraction is given room to grow, when a temptation is managed rather than run from!”
People, forms of recreation, activities, and so on may be good things but may also have a power in our lives to pull us away from following Jesus. A person or relationship can easily hijack our heart’s contentment in Christ. A form of entertainment can quickly become our default source of comfort or escape from the stresses of life. A ministry or work scenario can put us near someone to whom we’re growing in an unholy attachment, even to the point where we feel we need that person’s affirmation to be okay or feel secure.
The key here is not so much the thing itself but the impact it has on us. Sexual sin most often has a seemingly ‘innocent’ beginning—when a potential hindrance or distraction is given room to grow, when a temptation is managed rather than run from!
Hebrews 12:1 says that not only are we commanded to throw off hindrances, but the sin which so easily entangles us” [emphasis mine]. The idea here isn’t sin in general, like “Lord, please forgive me of all the sins I’ve done this week,” but rather the specific sins that we are more likely to give into—our characteristic sins that easily tempt us.
In my life, I’ve not generally been prone towards anger, coveting things, or lying, but I have at times been prone towards people-pleasing, worship of comfort, selfishness with my time, fantasy, and abuse of food. And that’s just for starters!
Over the years of walking with Jesus, I’ve had my fantasy life cleaned up, food has now become an occasional distraction, and I don’t crave people’s approval of me anymore. I’m not entangled by these things anymore. However, worship of comfort and possessiveness with time? Those are an ongoing part of my race of faith in which I need the throne of grace to be open for heart-business 24/7, and I need others to help me grow.
What about you? What are the sins that easily trip you up? What are the sins that seem to precede sexual sin in your life? Women who battle against various forms of sexual sin usually give way to other things first: things like unbelief, laziness, exposure to questionable entertainment, dabbling in inappropriate physical affection with someone, and withdrawing from other believers.
No one floats or coasts into holiness or Christian maturity. Years ago my battle against fantasy had to be serious: meditating upon God’s Word, not allowing my eyes to take in things which tempt me, prayer, confessing immediately to others. I had to lay aside many hindrances and potential distractions so that they wouldn’t grow into sin.
In 2013 I wasn’t a fast runner or a top finisher in the Philly half-marathon, but I did cross the finish line! You can run your faith race well and increasingly grow into being a woman of sexual and relational integrity—persevering one step at a time.
Running the race of sexual integrity well is possible through the love and grace of Jesus! But experiencing that love and grace means we commit to throwing off sin and distractions. This process of laying aside must be intentional sisters!
You can watch Ellen talk more on this subject here in her video, Running the Race Well—Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
21 Feb 2017
Harvest USA brings the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ by helping individuals and families affected by sexual sin and by providing resources that address biblical sexuality to individuals and churches.
For a large majority of men today, the ubiquity of porn on the Internet and its ability to provide unlimited access to it (especially via search engines) means that the issue is no longer, “Have you looked at porn?” but rather, “Are you actively looking at porn?” Many wives may already fear or suspect that their husbands are engaging in pornography.
Looking at porn is not harmless (see the short video of Bob Heywood’s struggle with porn and its impact on his marriage). But the problem is that pornography usage is usually hidden, a closely guarded secret. What if you suspect that porn is impacting your marriage (or your relationship with your boyfriend or fiancé)? Here are some things you can look for, as well as steps you can take to bring healing.
Signs that may indicate usage of porn:
- Unusual decrease in sexual activity between you and your husband—and increasing relationship distance physically.
- Mental distance between the two of you. He’s physically present but not mentally there when you seek to engage him.
- Late-night computer activity, especially a pattern of needing to use the computer after you have gone to bed.
- He quickly changes the screen when someone comes into the room, and he is spending more and more time on the computer.
- Secrecy regarding finances, like not letting you see credit card statements.
- Any gaps in accountability for time and finances.
- No history on the web browser after he spends time on the computer (keep in mind that private browser windows are pretty standard today, leaving behind zero web history).
What steps can you take?
Viewing pornography is sexual sin and is not “just what men do.” While painful and devastating for any wife to acknowledge, you must honestly face the reality of sexual sin impacting your marriage. Now is not the time to be passive. You have a vital role to play in helping your husband break free.
- Know that the Lord has comfort for you! He has not abandoned you or your marriage. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, and despair are normal for the wife who’s just discovered her husband’s porn usage. God is your compassionate Father and source of comfort and strength. (Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.)
- See this as a real threat to your marriage. Don’t deny it or hope that it will just go away. Now is the time for you to battle hard for your marriage through prayer, courageous confrontation, and humble reliance upon the Lord.
- Talk openly with your husband about your concerns. You may need to acknowledge that this is a common problem for men today, even Christian men, so come alongside him rather than take an oppositional role. Watch for his response to your inquiry. Is there defensiveness, anger, deflection? Check your own heart for self-righteous indignation.
- Pray for and seek helpers who can encourage you and pray with you. Seek out godly Christian women or any ministry leader who is a “safe” person for you to talk with (someone who has track record of godly living, is compassionate, and is trustworthy with confidences). Talk with your pastor.
- Don’t put yourself in the position of being his “porn police” or primary accountability partner. If he admits he is struggling, tell him to talk to one of his friends or his pastor to set up accountability. If there is a group of men who meet regularly for these issues, encourage him to attend.
- Do not think or accept (if your husband suggests) that his porn issue is your fault. He is responsible for his own behavior. His behavior comes from within his own heart (Matthew 15:17-20), and your behavior cannot cause him to look at porn.
- Consider marriage counseling with a pastor, counselor, or a trusted couple. This may be a perfect time for both of you to seek assistance to talk through ongoing issues or problems. Couples that do not talk openly about their struggles, needs, and disappointments (especially sexual problems and disappointments) are wounding their marriage. They need to be willing to look deeply at motivations and past events that affect their relationship with each other. Since sexual sin is so dangerous and powerful, it is something which must be dealt with openly—with the help of other Christians. Your marriage will not survive if this is not dealt with and if your husband refuses to seek help.
- Run to the Lord as your refuge! Psalm 16:1-2 says that God is your strength, hope, and safe place as you navigate these painful and scary waters in your marriage. You cannot control your husband’s heart or his response to the Lord, but you can bring your own needs, pain, and confusion to him, and you need to!
Christian couples dare not keep sexual sin hidden in the shadows. It will only get worse, and its potential to destroy the marriage is real. The hope of the Gospel is that in Christ we can find restoration, reconciliation, and victory, even over deeply embedded sin patterns. There is hope for deep change and profound healing through the power of Jesus Christ.
We have a great devotional book for wives dealing with this issue in their marriage. It’s called When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography: Healing Your Wounded Heart, by Vickie Tiede. You can check it out here.
With the Ashley Madison scandal of 2015, and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood, who lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage, gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and hopefully grow, these first few steps will be critical.
In my first two blogs (Part 1 and Part 2), I mentioned two initial steps you need to take to bring healing to your marriage: Fully own the damage you caused, and let your wife heal at her own pace. Now, for the third initial step you must take.
You have to move toward your wife as a forgiven man. Not forgiven by her; you can’t control that or make that happen. No, forgiven by God. If you have given your life to him, then hear the good news of the gospel: God has taken your sin upon himself and given you his perfect, flawless life-record as your own. It’s this new foundation that you need to begin to grasp. God sees you as clean, washed, even when all the pieces of your life are still scattered all around you—even when the pain of your sin is still vividly in your mind and heart.
Why is this so important? Because you really can’t do the first two steps I mentioned apart from this one. You will not be able to fully face the truth of what you did, nor will you be able to let your wife heal at her own pace (with or without you), unless you begin to see that no matter your sin, Christ has paid the ultimate penalty for it. This alone is the foundation for your own healing.
This healing is not being accomplished by your sorrow, nor by your newfound good intentions or works, nor by the hope you have in wanting to heal your marriage. It’s because Jesus was willing, on one gruesome day, to die in your place—in order to give you life, to set you free, to place upon you a love so deep that you now belong to him as a cherished child.
You see, your sin exposed the lovelessness of your own heart. But by grasping God’s love for those with broken hearts with an open, empty hand (that’s faith), you will now be able to learn to love as you never have before.
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
This is what living by faith looks like. Not a cheap grace, but a substantial grace that now gives you the love you need to move forward in total transparency, hiding nothing, admitting to everything. I don’t know your wife. I don’t know how she is going to respond. What I do know is that you need to know that God loves you and that his promises never change. This should help you with my next point.
And this is what your wife needs—she needs to see you growing in this grace. You will still fail. You will still stumble and fall at times. Your wife is going to need her measure of grace from God to survive the destructive self-centeredness that brought you both to where you are now.
Remember that your sin is against God first! He felt it first! It was his law you broke! It was his grace that you trampled underfoot. To me, that is what God is trying to communicate to us from the cross. “This is how your self-indulgence has impacted me,” he is saying. “You broke my heart!” That is deep! That is love at a whole new level! He made an open display of your sin so that you don’t have to hide anymore. If you can honestly face the cross, you can honestly face your wife, hear whatever she needs to say, own all the damage you have caused, and patiently wait for whatever healing she needs to experience before she can even think of getting close again.
Finally, I would say, with Paul, “Love… hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV). You don’t want to give up hope. You want to continue to believe that God will do a work. And he will do a work in your life and in your marriage. It just might not look like the way you want it to look! You have to trust him no matter what the outcome.
With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
I mentioned in my last post (here) that one of the most devastating things that impacted your wife when your sexual sin finally came out in the open was this fact: You were living a double life. You lived one way in front of her, and you lived another way behind her back. That type of secrecy in a marriage causes great damage.
One of the first things you need to do to rebuild your marriage is to learn—carefully and with sincerity—how to rebuild the trust that you broke. I’ve already said a few things about the first step you need to take: Take a hard and honest inventory of the damage you have caused to your wife and marriage.
And if your wife is still willing to stay in the marriage, here’s a second big step you must take:
Give your wife space to walk her road of healing, at her pace
Don’t expect that trying to do all the right things and doing lots of good activity this time is going to fix everything. If this is your new focus, you will put a crushing weight of pressure on your wife. How? Because most likely, underneath all your “good” activity, is an unspoken demand that she should respond and accept your earnest steps to change.
When you do this, you are shifting the dynamic of the relationship off of you and onto her. Now the future of the marriage depends on how she responds to the “new” you. Oh, this is subtle! You may not even be aware of it. But if this is happening, and if your wife is having big problems accepting the new you, then you attempt to justify that, whatever happens, at least you really tried. After all, marriage involves two people working at it, right?
Yes, start changing your behavior, and begin relating to your wife as a man of honesty and transparency. But you have got to disconnect your behavior from expecting a particular response to it. You must.
The most important thing she needs from you right now is to give her all the space she wants to heal at her own pace, not yours. She is disoriented from living with a man who lived two lives. Jesus said sexual sins were legitimate grounds for divorce. You need to face the reality that you crossed that line—whether your sexual sin involved a physical encounter or “just” a virtual one.
Your wife will be struggling with the reality that you crossed sexual boundaries, that you took your heart and your body outside of your marriage. That’s bad enough. But she will also be struggling—perhaps more so—with your deception. Your wife can’t fix that. You’ll have to give her emotional space as she struggles with how to move on. How to learn, slowly, whether she can begin to trust the person you are now showing her.
One thing that God will work on in your heart is this: your desire to control things and make them work out your way. That’s what your sexual sin was about. Your desire for control is what plunged you into porn or whatever you did to seek emotional or physical intimacy outside of your promise to your wife. Control, to be in charge, to make sure you got what you wanted—and avoid whatever it was that you hated—is what kept your deception going.
Your idolatry to control your life is one giant lie that God cannot satisfy you. Your refusal to seek him led you to seek something else that promised no disappointment, no pain, no struggle, no problems.
But now you need to learn from God that your control was an illusion. You thought being in control would give you what you needed. And now your continued desire for control will also lead you to think that you need to—and can—fix this relationship and get it back on its feet. But that’s not going to work this time.
This time, you are going to have to deeply rely on God to fix this. You can’t fix this on your own. At this point, your promises, your new intentions, your new behavior are going to have to be seen to be believed. Over time. Over a lot of time.
You must now learn not to depend on yourself—your “wisdom,” your schemes, your manipulations. You can’t make this thing work. It’s in the mess that you have made of things that God is trying to make himself real to both you and your wife. It’s in the brokenness that God slowly brings new life.
Don’t push this, don’t rush this, don’t expect things from your wife. Don’t pressure her to heal faster than she can. Love is a long road. It’s worth the trip. She needs to go at her pace, and you will need to learn to love her at that pace.
God is in the business of redeeming lives, but he also insists on doing it his way. You’ve got to learn this yourself. Are you willing to be a disciple, willing to walk with her at his pace? Then realize that his pace for you includes the time your wife needs to heal. When you give her space, you walk at your master’s pace.
With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what some of the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
You’ve been found out. You’ve messed up and you’ve messed up big time. You have violated the boundary lines of sexual activity that God has put in place, and you have crushed your wife. You think you know how bad it is. But chances are good you still aren’t thinking clearly right now. You haven’t a clue how deep sexual betrayal runs. You can feel the pain you caused, but you still don’t know all the ins and outs of your sin.
The real issue right now for you is this: Will you honestly look at the damage you have done to your wife, and to your marriage? Will you name it and own it?
The worst first step you can make is to say “I’m sorry” and plead that you won’t ever do it again. Sorry is not going to be enough this time, even if you think it will ease the pain. But whose pain are you trying to heal at this point? If your goal is to get rid of the pain and move on, then you are just doing what your sexual sin was trying to accomplish in the first place: rid yourself of pain.
As much as you might want to put your marriage back together, I believe the real issue is not about how couples move forward again or how they are going to pick up the pieces.
The real issue right now for you is this: Will you honestly look at the damage you have done to your wife, and to your marriage? Will you name it and own it?
You have to own up to the fact that your behavior has crossed lines that bring death to a relationship. We can speculate about what Adam and Eve were thinking about before they ate the fruit. But it was when they ate the fruit that death occurred. They crossed the line, and everything changed.
By doing what you did, you crossed the line; you’ve eaten the forbidden fruit. Everything has changed now. The fallout is deeper than you think. Maybe Adam and Eve wouldn’t have eaten the fruit if they could have seen the possibility that their one action would eventually lead, through uncountable years of human history, to a world overrun with violence and suffering. But that doesn’t really matter right now. We are living in a world that they created, and we keep sustaining. So you must face your own self-made catastrophe because you didn’t consider the consequences.
No matter how your wife found out about your sexual sin (whether you got caught or you confessed), she now needs to process the fact that she doesn’t really know who you are. A whole chunk of your life has been lived in secrecy from her. Now she feels like she has been living with a stranger all these years. You may think this isn’t so big a deal, but it is. Can you imagine what the wife of Dennis Rader felt after finding out that she was married to a serial killer for 30 years? For three decades she related to a man who lied to her every minute of every day. I know that sounds like an over-the-top example, but do you get the point? How can your wife easily trust you again, when (for how long? how many years?) you presented a part of yourself to her, every minute of every day, that was a lie?
You shouldn’t be surprised that she is now asking herself questions like, “Does this mean that every time he walked out the door and said he was just going to the store he was really going somewhere else?” She may feel like she has to turn into some sort of private investigator or detective. This wasn’t her calling when God asked her to be your wife. She is wondering what these women on the Internet have that she doesn’t have. She struggles with wondering what is wrong with her, even when she isn’t to blame at all for what you did. She wonders if her husband ever really loved her at all, or if that just another lie.
I know I’ve been very negative up to this point. But one thing I’ve learned in my own journey is that God works in real time. He does his work in reality. It does us no good to paint the picture different than it really is. The corner we’ve painted ourselves into looks bleak.
But there is hope! And it can only start when we get real with what our behavior has done—how it has deeply hurt—our spouse and honestly face up to the damage we have inflicted. It can’t start any other place. Start naming the damage—to God and to her.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
11 Jun 2014
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.
14 Jan 2014
I was exposed to pornography at a very young age. I was six. At that point in my life I really didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t understand my body’s reaction to it. All I knew was I felt good and I felt guilty. Those two feelings drove me to a life of shame that I still haven’t fully unpacked. The hallmark of that shame was sneaking. And I was good at it.
But to have an entire area of my life in the dark and not talked about, meant that I knew I wasn’t functioning properly. Something was wrong, and that reality drove me to Christ.
When Christ drew me to himself and saved me, He made some radical changes in my life. I experienced a certain amount of victory concerning my habit. But I’ll never forget the first time I used pornography after I got saved. I remember thinking, “Its back.” I also remember looking in the mirror and realizing I couldn’t wait for my good works to kick in, in order to get right with God. My promise to faithfully do my devotions for a week didn’t really help. I needed to trust Christ for what he did for me on the cross, right then and there.
The problem was that I was dealing with this on my own—by myself. Because of my shame, I didn’t open up to anyone when I occasionally fell. I had no understanding concerning what pushed me toward acting out. I didn’t believe anyone would understand my behavior, and I had no concept of accountability. Becoming a leader in the church meant it was even more strategic to not let the cat out of the bag. The fact that I had an occasional bout with pornography and masturbation just wasn’t going to be brought up.
Then came along a wonderful invention called the VCR. The curiosity of wanting to see just what went on in those videos was just too much. As I began to give into this temptation I realized I was getting in way over my head. I also felt like I couldn’t stop because I hadn’t stopped. I’ll never forget when I came to what I now consider the worst soul-deadening conclusion ever in my life. And that was: “Maybe I can do both. Maybe I can be a leader in the church and look at porn at the same time.” After all, I was getting away with it, in a sense, already. I had plenty of opportunities to teach and lead in the church and nobody suspected anything thanks to my deep theological convictions. And, don’t forget my uncanny ability to sneak.
The problem with all of this is that I was married. My wife kept sensing more and more that she was living with a stranger, somebody she really didn’t know. She noticed that I wasn’t spending much time in the scriptures in my preparations for Sunday school classes. She realized I was living off of leftover energy from years’ past. As she tried to communicate this conviction to people in the church she got blown off as a woman who needed to go home and submit. Frustrated, she almost got to the same place of giving up and just living with an unresponsive husband.
Finally, two couples in our church heard my wife’s cry. They started to keep an eye on our behavior in public and realized something was wrong. One Sunday after church, these two couples approached my wife and I. They mentioned they had observed a few things in our relationship that they had concerns about. As they confronted us with their observations, we agreed to go to counseling. After all, I did love my wife, and I would rather see our marriage work out than fail. As we waited for an opening at the local counseling center, our four friends became an accountability group for us. We met together once a week to go over how my wife and I were dealing with each other and working together through everyday struggles.
Around a month into this process I rented a pornographic video. The next day, I immediately noticed how this impacted my communication with my wife. Our words were flying over each other’s heads without connecting and we were only frustrating each other. I knew I couldn’t move toward my wife and continue looking at pornography. I decided to confess my sin to the accountability group. This was the first time in my life I ever spoke out loud to any one about my problem. Needless to say, my life hasn’t been the same since. That confession, in that room, with those people, whose pursuit of my wife and myself I knew I couldn’t get around, changed my life forever.
One of the first things that happened was that God opened up an opportunity to counsel with a man who specialized in sexual issues. He directed me to a men’s Biblical Support Group at Harvest USA. I remember the first time I walked into the support group. I carefully looked around to make sure nobody knew me. Then I sat there and wept. I couldn’t believe where God had me. This was a whole new experience for me. I became aware of the fact that one of the main reasons why I kept losing this battle was because I was fighting it by myself. I desperately needed the body of Christ to act like the body of Christ. I needed men in my life to challenge me in both my thoughts and actions. I also began to see my sin as idolatry. As men courageously revealed their rituals and described their heart’s engagement when viewing pornography, I began to see clearly the same experiences in my own life. There was no other way to describe this behavior than as worship—as idolatry.
Let me conclude by saying this: If it weren’t for the loving pursuit of those two couples in our church, I really don’t know where I’d be right now. Their courageous step into the chaos of our lives is a living example of how the church is to put the “one another” passages of scripture into practice. Whenever I share my testimony, people think of situations in their lives where they wish someone would have walked into it in a similar redemptive manner. If you see people struggling in your church, that’s a call from God to you to apply his Gospel to his people.
Weeping with those who weep
Receiving painful phone calls is never easy. I am regularly contacted by individuals—often in tears—because someone in their life has made the decision to forsake their covenant, their faith—their real hope—in order to chase an empty lie.
I hear tragic stories like that of a husband with a history of pornography, caught again after a period of supposed victory, or the spouse whose entire life is shattered by the revelation of affairs spanning decades, or the wife whose enmeshed relationship with a girlfriend turned sexual. Although such scenarios are expected from our post-Christian culture, increasingly they are happening in the local church. Sexual sin is not something “out there”; it is reaching epidemic proportions in your church!
But here’s the rub: The church does not handle sexuality very well, even on a good day! This wondrous gift given to God’s people is rarely talked about positively. Even among those who should revel in sex as a demonstration of God’s joy in delighting his children and in the glorious theological truths revealed by a robust, biblical understanding of sexuality, it is surrounded by shame. In most churches, if sex is addressed at all, our teens are sternly warned, “Don’t do it until you’re married!” I have interacted with countless individuals raised in Christian homes where sexuality was never discussed. It is astounding that such a significant aspect of life—with sweeping spiritual ramifications—is so thoroughly neglected. Given the church’s failures regarding sexuality, the revelation of sexual sin is usually not handled in a balanced and redemptive manner.
There are often two polar responses when sexual sin is disclosed. If the sin is quiet, keep it that way! Do not expose it to the light of day and keep as many people in ignorance as possible. However, if it is too late and the sin has become public knowledge, the only answer is church discipline—swift and severe. Historically, the Church has struggled with “shooting the wounded,” dealing heavy handedly with sexual sin without a view to restoration and healing. There needs to be a redemptive solution, one that embraces the gospel of grace and the living Redeemer who enters into situations and relationships wracked with sin to bring reconciliation and healing. This is the work of his kingdom—“He’s come to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found!” Do we believe Jesus is big enough to handle sexual sin? Do we invite sin-sick people to come into the light, or do we encourage them to continue cowering in the shadows?
Seeking a redemption solution
1 John 1:7 speaks powerfully to what is needed in the body of Christ. Contrasting believers with those who walk in the darkness of their sin, John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This passage echoes John’s Gospel that men love the darkness and will avoid the light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). Do we encourage people to come out of darkness? John makes plain that deep, meaningful fellowship in the body of Christ— genuine intimacy—will only happen as we come into the light. Further, deliberately coming into the light has a direct connection to purging sin from our life. Steve Gallagher of Pure Life Ministries writes, “If you want to stay stuck in your sin, confess it only to God. If you want to overcome it, confess it to someone else!”
We may respond that public confession is unnecessary since we have direct access to God. The Bible clearly teaches, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” However, I argue this reflects a greater fear of man than fear of God. If I truly care what God thinks—filled with awe by his power, grandeur, love, etc.—I don’t care what you think about me! In fact, I will want to talk to you about my sin struggles because I want to be transformed and become his beautiful, long-anticipated Bride. Proverbs says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (28:12). Keeping our sin secret, guarantees continued slavery. Narcotics Anonymous uses a great slogan—“We are only as sick as our secrets!”
Every individual who comes to Harvest USA is different. The histories, life experiences, specifics of their sin and temptation, etc., are widely divergent and require particular attention. In short, there are not many universals—healing comes in specific ways, as diverse as our personal brokenness. In six years at the ministry, there is only one thing that clearly is universal: Those committed to ruthless honesty consistently overcome their sin and make great strides in holiness. In stark contrast, I have never encountered an individual who overcame sexual struggles if they were unwilling to bring the sin fully into the light with an ever-increasing number of individuals. Those who refuse this path of ruthless honesty stay stuck in their sin or return to it after a short period of “white-knuckled” abstinence.
This is all part of God’s design. James exhorts us “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Spiritual healing and transformation occurs in the context of community. Even the world has found this to be true, hence the explosion of Twelve Step groups for every imaginable, errant behavior. Scripture uses the body metaphor to powerfully illustrate that every individual within the church is inextricably linked with all the others (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Ephesians 4:17 makes this even more explicit, exhorting that the body reaches maturity only “when each part is working properly.” Jesus intends his church to be radically interdependent. This is a significant challenge that rails against our innate desire to be free and independent. There are important implications to this reality: When sexual sin arises in the local church, if we fail to deal with it in a way that honors Christ, we harm the individuals involved and impact the entire congregation!
What about the redemptive use of Church Discipline? Discipline is a crucial mark of the true church, but are we careful to enforce its biblical intention? When reading Matthew 18 that the impenitent should be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector,” too often my mind is filled with the image of kicking that dirty sinner to the church’s curb. I was struck recently reading Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this passage in The Message. He writes, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for
repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” A paraphrase for sure, but the tone impacted me strongly. What do you do with a tax collector and sinner? Offer them the hope of the gospel! This is an important insight we should always keep in mind. There are times when sin requires extreme action by the church. But at every point, we must be mindful that the intent of discipline, even in its most extreme form, is to restore the offender (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The goal is to reflect the overwhelming love of Christ to men and women, desperately lost in their sin and folly. Even when obedience to Christ requires “casting out” the individual, he or she must be made aware that the Church’s door is always open, if only he or she will be humbled in repentance and commit to leaving the darkness for his glorious light!
A redemptive approach to dealing with sexual sin in the local church requires risk. It is a messy process that moves everyone outside their comfort zone. It requires actively pursuing those impacted by the sin at every level and bringing the situation into the light, with an eye toward God’s restoration. It is crucial that attention is given to the various relationships impacted by the ripple effect of sexual sin. However, given the constraints of this article, the focus will center on the struggler with very brief considerations for the wider circle of impact within the church as a whole.
Processing the initial disclosure
When sexual sin is exposed, it has usually existed undetected for years, sometimes decades. Sin patterns so deeply entrenched will not peel off like a dirty sock! Radical intervention is required. First, consider how the situation was revealed. Was the individual “caught,” or did he or she come forward of his or her own volition seeking help? Most men coming to Harvest USA fall in the former category. Be very wary in this circumstance. Often God uses getting caught to eventually bring someone to a place of repentance, but it usually does not start there! Pay attention to the confession. Is the person confessing only what he or she has already been caught doing, or is the person freely disclosing the full extent of the behavior? Genuine repentance means turning away from sin. Bringing hidden things into the light is the first step in that process. People engaged in sexual sin are deeply deceitful, and these patterns have been in place for a long time. Be deeply skeptical. Assume that there is always more to be revealed.
In our sin, we both deceive others and are profoundly self-deceived. This means the struggler is tempted to keep you in the dark regarding the extent of the behavior and is personally blind to the depth of the enslavement, similar to the drug addict who will continue to maintain that everything is fine while in the process of literally committing suicide. Employ the rich scriptural imagery of light and darkness in your conversation. Repeatedly hold forth the stark contrast between he who is Truth-incarnate, the King of light, over against the father of lies and his kingdom of darkness. Pray for the activity of the Spirit, who alone can bring the individual to repentance.
There is reason for concern if someone is unwilling to confess to his or her spouse specific sins already confessed to you. By God’s design, no one should know someone better than his or her spouse. There should be no secrets between a husband and wife and we need to be careful that we do not continue nurturing the unholy relational patterns already established. Change will be affected as the couple begins to address the “hidden things” openly and honestly.
Spouses do need full disclosure! This does not mean the nitty-gritty details of every sexual encounter, specific websites, etc. But they need to be fully aware of the extent of the sin: how many incidents of infidelity over how long a period and with whom; the duration and frequency of Internet porn activity, unholy “chatting,” and masturbation, the amount of money squandered, etc. Spouses need counsel because their propensity is to demand too much information—certain details will do more harm than good.
Anyone who claims to be “cured” should be met with skepticism. God rarely brings ultimate deliverance from struggles with sin. The flesh remains a constant barb—but this can be redemptive! It forces us to look to him and to remember our desperate need. God will never answer the prayer that says (in effect), “Bring me to the place where I don’t need to keep crying out to you everyday!” He loves us too much! This does not diminish the reality that Jesus enables us to overcome our struggles with sin, but there is a difference between victory over sin and deliverance from all temptation! Freedom is not gauged by the absence of temptation or the exchange of heterosexual for homosexual desire. Victory is when the individual consistently chooses obedience out of love for Jesus, in the face of contrary desires!
For anyone who struggles with sexual sin, rigorous accountability is a must. Most individuals need a minimum of two people in their lives who regularly ask them probing questions about their personal life—at least once per week. Avoid exhaustive, tedious questionnaires covering every conceivable sexual sin for two reasons: 1) The flesh will always find a loophole or invent some new vehicle for sin; and 2) Deep, intimate relationships are crucial for overcoming our struggles with sin (regardless of its manifestation). Hearing “no” 100 times does not enable you to know the individual on any deeper level – even if you go over that list for weeks!
A short list of five or six pertinent, open-ended, questions that require reflection, i.e. more than a simple yes or no answer, will make your investment far more fruitful. For example, if you know the daily commute has been a problem, rather than asking, “Did you or were you tempted to stop at _____ while driving to work this week,” it is better to ask, “How did you respond when you were driving by _____? What was going on inside of you?” One question allows an easy “No,” the other forces you to engage the individual’s heart. You begin getting to know aspects of his or her person, and things carefully hidden in the past. The questions need to be tailored to the individual, responding to the specifics of the personal struggle.
Accountability needs to identify the “sin behind the sin.” Sexual sin is not primarily about lust. Lust is a component and the self-focused desire to reduce other image-bearers to commodities needs to be addressed. Sexual sin always violates the Second Great Commandment, exploiting another to satisfy self, but it is first and foremost a violation of the First Great Commandment, an idol that replaces the Creator. This means in the face of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. the individual runs to a false god. Rather than collapsing on Christ, pouring out his or her heart, and receiving his peace, the individual takes matters into his or her own hands.
There are times when temptation is like an ambush on a beautiful, sunny day when everything is fine, but often there are predictable patterns of behavior—sinful responses to the challenges of life in a fallen world. One man who recently came to the office was amazed by this reality after having struggled with sexual sin for decades. After paying attention to his patterns of temptation, he realized that his struggle with masturbation was far more a response to anxiety and stress, ratherthan the result of mere lust. Identifying and developing accountability for the “sin behind the sin” will enable him to run to Christ sooner and address the idols even more deeply entrenched than his struggle with sexual sin!
Accountability needs to go beyond restraining sinful behavior. God never intends us to stop in the vacuous place of “absent sin.” The call of the gospel is radical allegiance to the King. We are called to be like him in righteousness and holiness. Thus, good accountability will always balance “putting off” and “putting on” questions. Ephesians 4:20-32 and Colossians 3:5-17 powerfully demonstrate how this exchange is to take place in our lives.
Sexual sin—even with the illusion it is a private offense—is always relationally destructive. Because it is a violation of the command to love God and others, there should be specific, reflective questions that address the individual’s relationship with God and others. Is he or she engaged in spiritual disciplines personally and corporately? Is love for God evidenced by decisions of obedience? How is the person developing intimacy in primary relationships? Is he or she changing the way he or she responds to frustrating circumstances or disagreements with others? Are there specific examples of selflessness in places where he or she was formerly self-consumed? Is the person serving the community and church or seeking to be served?
“Putting on” requires patient “baby steps.” It is tremendous growth for an estranged couple to even sit down and discuss personal issues for 10 minutes at a time, 3 days a week! If the individual is single, part of the accountability plan must include a strategy for intentionally developing significant, vital relationships within the body and finding specific areas of service. It is beneficial for singles to live with a family or other singles in community, learning to selflessly serve on a day-to-day basis. Further, because there are specific ways all of us have mammoth strides yet to make in these categories, accountability is never a one-way street. Remember, a sovereign God has placed you in this circumstance. Given the interdependent reality of life in Christ, you need the struggler in your life as much as they need you!
Widening the circle
Finally, the call to live in the light means laying aside false pretenses. Great wisdom is required, but the reality of the sin and the challenges facing the family needs to be revealed to others in the church. Jesus promises that those who trust in him will never be put to shame. He invites us to be exposed, promising to clothe us in his righteousness. Will we trust him? Do we invite others to trust his promise or communicate by our secrecy that some sins should be kept quiet? Bringing strugglers into the light is a tangible demonstration of the gospel. It invites strugglers to abandon the “sandy foundations” of reputation, image, self-esteem, etc., building their entire identity on the Rock. Conversely, urging secrecy encourages strugglers to see their sin as worse than that of others.
Widening the circle does not mean public confession on Sunday morning! Rather, it means fostering gut-level, honest intimacy in the obvious relationships. Church leadership should know—including those who minister to the children of the individuals involved. People in the individuals’ home fellowship need to be aware of the sin struggle. After all, these groups should exist to minister to one another in specifically these types of circumstances! The church is called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Sexual sin is a profound burden that requires the full support of the body. It demonstrates the necessity of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Jesus is big enough to deal with all the problems in His Church. He is deeply committed to purifying and beautifying his Bride and, he invites us to join him in this work because his heart’s desire is for us to grow more deeply in love with him. The entire goal of the Christian life—the very essence of eternal life—is knowing him! His purposes to this end are powerfully at work in sexual brokenness that we may “grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Will you join him?