Helping a Sexual Struggler Open Up
Your friendship and your church can be a safe place for honest revelations. This blog is based on a prior article by Rev. Philip Henry.
Have you ever wanted to unburden yourself from a problem or share a deep, dark secret, perhaps of a difficult or sexual nature, with someone? If you have chosen to reveal your heart in this way, reflect on this for a moment: What was it that allowed you to feel safe enough to open up?
As I have personally pondered this question, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to help someone feel safe enough where honest revelations of the heart can be shared?” Or to put it another way, “How can I help my church community become a safe place where strugglers can unburden themselves from secrets that have kept them enslaved to sexual struggles and sin?”
I’ve come to several principles gleaned from Bible study, ministry, therapy, teaching, and supervising counselors, as well as from friends and my own life experiences regarding how to help people talk about their struggles. Here are some insights from those observations that I hope will be helpful to those who struggle with sexual sin and those who want to help.
1. Make honesty the only policy you live by
We all desire to talk with a friend who will honestly tell us what they think. Why? Because an honest person is a safe person—at least you know what you are getting is the truth. Good or bad, a friend is someone who does not withhold truth, but tells it like it is. Because we know that they have our best interest at heart, we are confident they will tell us the whole truth.
Yet it does seem difficult for Christians to be honest. This is surprising because we make such a big deal about lying. It’s a sin to tell a lie, but we are all too human. Those half-truths and shaded meanings come quickly to the sons and daughters of Adam.
Perhaps we struggle with telling the truth because we have been taught that not being nice is the greatest sin. For the average Christian, the truth is, on occasions, something to be covered over and avoided because it is not nice.
“Why would this be?” you might ask. Confrontation and genuineness are a problem because, above all else, we often value being comfortable, not just with our surroundings but most of all with our emotions. Honesty makes us a little too uncomfortable. It means we have to be involved. “Do you really want to know what I have to say?” someone asks. Eventually, others might even see that we are not perfect and mention it to us. Then what would happen?
Twelve-step groups teach that honesty is not just telling the truth, but the telling the ‘whole’ truth. Therefore, lying is not just failing to be truthful about facts. Leaving out key events, emotions, thoughts, and details or leaving a person with a different impression other than what is right or what really happened is also lying. Often in the church community, people try to be nice, and so the reason given for a particular decision may not be the real reason.
Here is an example: A woman on the missions’ committee has no social skills. She is rude, and as a result of her, rudeness no one wants her to head committees or work with her any longer. However, when she is rejected from becoming the head of the committee, she is told another, more palatable reason, so as to not ruffle any feathers. This lack of honesty with someone dealing with a very obvious problem (which everyone else can see) makes the sexual struggler that much more reluctant to share his story. Why? Because the underlying message they hear is, “We can’t handle the truth here.” These short-cuts or lies, as the Bible calls them, end up short-changing spiritual growth. In the effort to avoid conflict, we fail to really love. Honesty creates the environment where honest revelations of the heart can grow. Honesty is the best policy because, as Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (ESV).
You help someone open up about a hidden truth by being and becoming someone who is honest, first, about yourself. You don’t hide your issues or struggles; you speak openly and plainly about them. With others, you consistently practice telling them what you see in their lives and in their behavior, and in doing so, you create a place of safety for the sexual struggler. They know you are a real person, someone with inner strength; that you are someone who can handle the truth because you love them.
2. Make humility a central part of your character
The Bible instructs us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we actually are. Jesus on many occasions attacked the Pharisees because they placed themselves in a better light than that which was true. They were always more spiritual than those who followed them, and they wanted everyone to know it.
If you want to be someone who is a safe haven to receive honest revelations of the heart, you must have an attitude of humility, starting with you first. There is an old joke about a pastor who was walking through the sanctuary and felt God’s presence. He knelt down at the front near the altar and began to pray, crying out loud, “Lord, I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” A short time later, the associate pastor was walking by and heard the pastor calling out, and he, too, was moved. He entered the sanctuary and knelt by the pastor and began to cry out, “Lord I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” As it happened, the church custodian passed by a short time later and saw the two ministers. He too was moved and came to the front of the church and called out the same as the other two. About this time the associate pastor looked over at the pastor and said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing now.” Pride takes many forms. The Bible instructs us that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The opposite of pride, then, is to look honestly at ourselves and be open to looking at our own faults first and admitting them. I John 1:8-9 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Humility involves modeling for the struggler your own honest heart revelations. For an entire church community, it means that the leaders of the church model before the congregation a humble and honest spirit about themselves. A humble attitude is not an option if we desire the growth of a safe climate where openness develops. This can begin by admitting not our deepest darkest sins, but the common sins that we all struggle with. Once this is done, consistently over time, you will be identified as a safe person to whom one can share the deepest and messiest stuff of one’s life. By allowing humility to grow deeper into your character, you are letting strugglers know that you are not someone better or more holy than they are—just another follower of Christ who needs his work done in their life, as well.
3. Give comfort in confession
Once we have examined ourselves and begun to admit our own struggles, we can help others find comfort in confession. The truth is, if you are going to hear the honest revelations of people’s hearts, you must become comfortable with confession. This means having a tolerance for messiness. If you are to minister to people effectively, you must be willing to let things get a little messy (maybe a lot messy). In an operating room there will be blood, pain, skin, and even some guts. But all of these are necessary if the healing process is going to take place. What is important is not the blood or guts, but that in spite of the messiness, the surgeon (and hopefully the patient) believes that the effort will be worthwhile.
God certainly does believe it is worth the effort. How many times have you yourself brought the same sins to God? I have brought the same dirty laundry over and over and over. Why does God not become disgusted by our sin, by our weakness, by our messiness? Because he chooses relationship over the pain. He has chosen confession as the place of connection with us and lets us find comfort and safety there. So we too must connect with others in the messiness of their lives. As you hear their confession, grieve with them and weep with them over the damage they have done in their own lives and in the lives of others. Then lead them to the cross of Christ where a holy God brought truth (the stain of our sin) and mercy (his free grace) together. As we wade through the messiness that often accompanies honest revelations of the heart, we connect with others and lead them to connect with our Father.
4. Demonstrate acceptance
If you yourself have shared with another person an honest revelation of your heart, what was the response? Whatever the it was, if you have experienced sharing with someone deep and painful things from your heart, you know that the response given is extremely important. As a counselor, I have heard many, many confessions. Many things come into play as someone confesses a sin or heart struggle with me. My own words, facial expressions, body language, and attitude are all being weighed very carefully by the confessor. This is, in a sense, the moment of truth. The person stands before you emotionally naked, as it were, and you are there to pass judgment—or so they will often fear. As you hear the revelation, at that moment you have the power of life or death, blessing and cursing. I believe that this is one of the most sacred trusts we possess in these encounters. We must use extreme caution in our response, because heaven and hell literally may be in the balance.
This does not mean that you agree with what the person did or said. I have rarely had to convince a confessor of their wrong. It simply means that you stop, look past the confession itself, and look at the person. The revealer has taken a step of faith, and it is important that while they understand they are wrong—yes and even sinful—they are accepted and loved.
5. Take time to care for the whole person
“There is a time for everything,” Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3. If you are meeting with a struggler over a period of time, he or she needs to know that you will hear what they have to say, even if they bring to you more or less the same stories of failure. But what you are doing in this helping relationship is building a friendship; you are not merely meeting with a ministry project. There is a place in this emerging friendship where breaks are needed from sharing even honest revelations. This gives everyone a breather. It helps the struggler see that there is more to them than their particular struggle or temptation. There are other things to talk about and to share.
We must help each other not fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our struggles. We must remind ourselves, as well as others, that we are not our struggles. God has said that we are a new creation. There should be times when we relax, go out for a meal together, share an event, worship together, laugh, and have fun. God is still central in all of these things.
The poet Samuel Coleridge once compared friendship to a “sheltering tree.” Growth of this kind, that of a strong tree, takes time, even years. Yesterday, as I walked with a friend, we shared some things that we have not shared with perhaps anyone. As I thought about this later, I realized that our sharing came about because I have walked with this friend several times a week for over four years. The passage of time with others and the investment of time is a key healing element that many need. There is no shortcut to this. When you minister to the whole person by getting to know them in a number of contexts you create community that can be a “sheltering tree.” It is beneath this tree that real, honest revelations of the heart are safely shared.
6. You and the church must be grace-full
We must convey to strugglers, and to the whole church community, that sexual struggles are common. But more than that, we must communicate that grace is greater than any sin they have committed. I know of a client who kept a sexual difficulty quiet for over fifty years. For some reason, this church member decided to share the secret at a Wednesday night prayer meeting he had been attending. The result? The pastor asked that the person not return to the church. This ought not to be. The church must overflow with grace.
Paul, writing to the church at Corinth says, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But, you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
I have always wanted, when preaching, to mention this passage and then say, “As I read this passage, I want you to stand as I mention the sin that you have struggled with.” (Perhaps this is why I get asked to preach only once at so many churches). The truth is that if we truly realized the measure of grace given us in Christ, then honest revelations of the heart would be the norm and grace would fill our churches. The bottom line, when all is said and done, is, Does grace or sin win? If we extend grace the way that God says we should, grace always has the last word.
A final warning
A final word of caution is in order here. While the suggestions mentioned here seem relatively simple, they are not. They are, in fact, impossible. Let us not forget that what has begun in us is supernatural and that we need the power of God in our lives daily to even begin the process. It is only in constantly remembering this again and again that we develop the correct attitude and learn the best approach to hurting people. Then we can be responsive to him as he leads us to be his instruments in creating a safe place for the honest revelations of the heart.