11 Oct 2018
An essential aspect of walking alongside married couples dealing with a pornography issue is helping the husband see how this sin hurts his wife. Helping him understand how porn hurts will be a necessary part of his true repentance.
In Christian circles, pornography use carries a heavy weight of shame. A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit. This is not only ineffective; it is not true repentance. Good pastoral intervention is to help him see the particular ways his wife suffers as a result of this sin and the related behaviors that often go with it.
When Nathan confronted King David on the adultery and murder that he was hiding so carefully, he did so by drawing David into a story of a man whose actions were so selfish, so unloving, so disturbingly hurtful that David’s sense of justice and right was acutely aroused. Only then was David able to finally view his own hurtful actions from God’s point of view. Until then, repentance was impossible. The goal was to get David to deal with God (Psalm 51:4), but he would get there by facing how he had hurt people.
A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit.
It is helpful to identify three different levels at which a husband, mired in a porn habit, may be hurting his wife. As with King David’s sin, you will notice that this one sin draws into its service other, more aggressive sins. So, each succeeding level is more than just a step up in hurt; each represents an exponential increase in relational disruption and personal injury.
Level 1: Pornography itself.
Too often this is viewed as merely a shameful habit and not the serious breach of covenant that it is. I cannot give a detailed theology of sex here, but I will summarize by saying that sex is designed by God to function uniquely as the physical, literal culmination of the one-flesh union of the husband and wife, and as such is in multiple ways a picture of the gospel itself, as union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5:25-32).
Sex is designed to express the permanent, exclusively faithful, self-sacrificial love that characterizes our Savior’s love for us. When a man takes what is supposed to express his highest, most profound love and commitment to his wife, and repeatedly focuses it on other women’s bodies, it becomes an anti-gospel message to his wife:
“I am not yours forever, but belong to whatever turns me on for a while; I have not set you apart as the object of my affection, in fact you don’t compare all that well to the hundreds of women I look at; I am not giving myself to you to love you, nurture you, and cherish you, because all I want is for you or anybody who is available to meet my needs and desires on my terms.”
Pornography in a marriage makes a wife feel unloved, insecure, and worthless. An addiction to pornography, if we use that word, is not merely something a husband struggles with— it represents serious mistreatment of a wife.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty.
Level 2: Deception.
At some point the use of pornography involves deception. But deception comes into a marriage relationship in some deeper and more damaging ways.
First, there is the accumulation of deception over time. The longer a man uses porn without fully confessing to his wife, the harder it will be to restore trust in the relationship. If a man spends significant time hiding his sin, and eventually confesses and commits to complete honesty and transparency going forward, a wife will be rocked by the realization that he had been deceiving her for all that time. It is not uncommon for a wife in such a circumstance to say, “I don’t even know who I married!” With real repentance, trust can be mended. However, to restore trust, it is likely that a husband will have to spend just as much time practicing total openness and transparency as he spent hiding and deceiving. Long-term deception seriously handicaps a relationship.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty. This could be rejecting outright to be completely transparent, or just delaying that transparency. Delaying transparency has virtually the same effect as denying it altogether—on what basis can a wife believe him when he suddenly decides to “tell the truth?” He has already proven that there is much he values over being honest with her. This persistent kind of deception destroys the relationship.
Level 3: Abuse.
I am always nervous about using this word. It is a severe word, and not to be thrown around lightly. But I am using it for this third level because a strong word is needed. The key word in abusive behavior is control.
The desire for control is a common heart-idol fueling pornography use. Pornography caters to that need for control in obvious ways. And, to varying degrees, the control impulse porn caters to also takes aim at the wife. Who she is isn’t enough; he needs her to be someone of his own desires and imagination.
So, a husband will learn to think of his wife like a porn object—there for his pleasure, at his bidding, on his terms. He may control her sexually—pressuring her to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, even against her wishes. This is sexual abuse.
It can be even worse—the control impulse that porn feeds on can manifest in broader emotional abuse and manipulation. But it’s important to realize that even if one’s behavior is not yet overtly abusive, pornography always trains a man to think abusively—people exist for your own pleasure, entirely under your control.
This is not love, and a wife knows it. She feels used, cheap, and dirty. To the extent that a husband exerts abusive control over her, she will also feel trapped, helpless, even hopeless. This kind of treatment destroys a person.
This is how hurtful pornography, and all that comes with it, can be to a wife. If you, like David, are hearing, “You are the man,” as you read any of these levels of hurt, then remember also that Nathan’s rebuke was the instrument of God’s grace to David. Restoration of worship, love, and joy is offered to you, but it begins with a clear view of the hurt you have done.
Jim Weidenaar shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: Why Should Husbands Know How Porn Hurts Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Oct 2018
To learn more, read Jim’s accompanying blog: How Porn Hurts: Husbands and Porn.
More and more Christians are entering marriage with a sexual past. Couples need to be aware that virtually no one is entering marriage free of sexual struggle and sin. For this reason, Ellen Dykas explains how to begin talking about your sexual history and why it’s critical to discuss past and current sexual struggles before engagement and marriage. To learn more, read Ellen’s blog, “Sexual History: Why You Need to Address it Before Getting Engaged.”
What happens when a couple enters marriage, and they don’t really know each other? Of course, engaged and newlywed couples can’t possibly know each other to the degree they will after years of marriage. Wise pre-marital counseling usually addresses important issues like family history, faith, finances, children, sex, roles, etc. However, often people marry having avoided a critical component of their story: sexual history.
When a woman and man commit to marriage, it should mirror God’s eternal, exclusive, united-together relationship with his people (Ephesians 5:25-33). The unique one-flesh relationship (Genesis 2:241) of marriage refers to a concept broader than sexual intimacy. Marriage involves two people becoming one in sharing all of life and an intimate knowing of each other.
That’s why knowing your future spouse’s sexual history is so important. Sexual history refers to experiences of sexual activity with another person, with self, mediated through technology, sexual fantasy, etc. Knowing a person’s sexual history includes understanding what the struggle has looked like as far as length of time, frequency of giving in to temptation, attempts to fight and overcome sin, and a willingness to be transparent and accountable with others. Sexual history also includes traumatic experiences of being sexually harassed or abused.
There are many reasons people avoid discussing their sexual history: fear, shame, and feeling intimidated by tough topics are just a few. Private sins like porn and masturbation sometimes seem to fade out when a dating relationship is going well. Some unwisely say things like, “Let the past be the past; move on into the future with this person you love and start fresh!”
Why it’s wise to discuss sexual history before you get engaged.
Most brides begin wedding preparation within days of getting engaged. It’s an exciting time as engagement communicates, I’m committing myself to marry you, as is. Before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say: “I know your strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life. I want to marry you knowing what I know.”
When dating and engaged couples hide the real deal of their sexual history and current struggles from their loved one, they set the stage for broken trust and future broken hearts.
Jesus strengthens and comforts you in the process of sharing your sexual history.
This may feel scary, but you’re not alone as you consider honest conversations with the man or woman you’re dating or engaged to. Jesus is with you to guide, encourage, and enable you to do the right thing and walk in the light rather than hide or avoid.
Secondly, God promises mercy to those who walk in the light. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” His mercy comes through forgiveness, redemption, and providing friends to walk with you through this process.
Finally, Jesus is your eternal companion and spouse. He is with you for all of time and will never abandon you! Your relationship may or may not survive the vulnerable process of sharing your sexual past, but Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.
General principles for sharing sexual history.
Here are some general ideas to help you think through this process:
- Remember, the goal is to be known as someone who needs God’s grace in this area, not to vent or dump all the nitty-gritty details of sexual behaviors. Ask a wise friend or mentor to pray for you and help you discern what you need to share.
- Next, remember that this will be an ongoing conversation, not an intense, one time tell-all. Cultivating patient listening and transparent sharing will set your relationship on a healthy trajectory for marriage if you move forward.
- When is the best time to begin these conversations? There isn’t a spiritual formula to figure out the exact moment when a couple should share with one another about their sexual history. Each relationship is unique; however, if both of you are seriously considering marriage, then it’s important to begin revealing parts of your sexual past.
- If you’re on the receiving end of hearing a dating partner’s sexual past, here are the important things you want to find out. Keep in mind that you’re not looking for perfection but integrity and commitment to walk in repentance.
• How is he/she seeking to walk in faith and repentance? Is it all-out or half-hearted?
• Does this person have solid friendships in his/her life, people who both love and ask the hard questions in light of knowing him/her?
• If sexual sin is a present tense reality, what is the trajectory of the struggle? Is there a decrease in giving way to temptation and an increasing strength to resist and flee?
If your partner is half-hearted, casual, and/or doesn’t see any of this as a big deal, STOP. Do not proceed forward in this relationship. Words of affection, promises to love you, and even a commitment to pray more are not enough! You need to see ongoing, intentional steps to flee sin and grow in Christ before you take one more relational step with this person.
Sexual history is an important and significant topic to discuss in dating relationships, especially if you are considering marriage. But remember, such history does not define or identify any of us; Jesus does! He’s the King of his kingdom and so as we trust him, rest in his love and grace, we’ll have the wisdom we need for our relationships.
This blog first appeared on enCourage, the PCA’s website for Women’s Ministry, but it has been slightly edited for this post.
Ellen talks more about sexual history on her accompanying video: Why Couples Who Are Considering Marriage Need to Share Their Sexual History. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
31 May 2018
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse survivor from Chile, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in April 2018. Cruz, who bravely brought his abuse into the light, self-identifies as gay. In a post-visit interview with CNN, Cruz reported what he says the Pope said to him: “You know, Juan Carlos, [being gay] does not matter. God made you like this. God loves you like this, the Pope loves you like this, and you should love yourself and not worry about what people say.”
The Vatican, when asked, would not comment on whether the reported comments from the Pope were accurate as presented. So, the topic of this blog is not about what Pope Francis said or might have said. Rather, the comments themselves, as reported, are reflective of a growing sentiment in the Church today. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline, more and more church leaders, members, and attendees embrace the concept of “God made me this way” when it comes to people who self-identify as LGBTQ.
But is that statement true? Did God make me this way?
That’s a question I asked myself repeatedly growing up. As an adolescent and young adult, I wrestled with same-sex attraction—and even to this day. Between the ages of six and eight, I was molested several times by Jim, a neighborhood boy. I don’t remember much about those experiences. But I do remember that they made me feel loved, special, wanted. Jim was the first male friend I ever had. He taught me that friendship was expressed through sex. He taught me that I could be someone who could bring him happiness.
He also taught me that I needed to keep secrets. He taught me how to feel ashamed. And in teaching me all this, he opened the door to my being sexually abused by others.
In some respects, my story mirrors Juan Carlos’s. As I struggled as a young man to interpret everything that happened (along with my growing sexual attraction to men) I came to conclude that I must be gay. Why else, after all, would these things have happened to me? What other rational explanation could there be? And like many others, I asked myself, Did God make me this way?
Over the subsequent years, I struggled with depression, self-loathing, and doubt. Deep, suffocating doubt about whether I was really gay; whether I would ever change; whether God made me this way; and whether God loved me.
The answers offered by many compounded my doubt: Two secular counselors I went to in my twenties told me my problem was my religion. Go to a church where they accept you. Men with whom I had sexual encounters told me, Be true to who you really are. Don’t deny yourself the happiness you deserve. A gay friend told me I should question whether or not I was really a Christian, because Christians couldn’t be gay.
And I was forced to agree. I thought I had come to faith as a child. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know and love the Lord. But there was no way I knew to bridge the gap between what I knew the Lord wanted of me (obedience) and my pitiable record of 20 years of life-dominating same-sex attraction and homosexual sin. How could God love me this way?
Then, the Lord brought me to a place where I had to grapple with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, an all-too-familiar passage, one I avoided like the plague, especially verses nine and ten. Those verses are the ones that talk about “men who practice homosexuality” not inheriting the kingdom of God. Every time I read through 1 Corinthians I breezed past those verses as quickly as I could, because I didn’t want to hear the refrain of doubts in my mind and my heart.
But the Lord led me to sit with verse 11: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
I sat with it, and sat, and sat, and sat. And I began to wonder: who is Paul writing this to?
Surely, if he were writing to people who no longer struggled with all the patterns of sin listed in verses nine and ten, then verse eleven wouldn’t make any sense. The only reason why Paul would say: “And such were some of you…” was if those in his audience were still struggling, still living as if they had no hope.
Paul was indeed writing to these people, people like me who were still stuck in patterns of sinful behavior. Paul tells us “Such were some of you,” because he’s trying to get us to see that the identity to which we cling can’t define us any longer. It can’t. Because we were washed, sanctified, and justified—new identity-defining words given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I began to realize God did love me—but not “this way.” He didn’t love my sin; he loved me in spite of my sin, in spite of my continuing struggle with sin.
And I began to learn there is power in realizing that love: gradually living a transformed life. Paul tells us in Titus 2:12 that Jesus “[trains] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” In other words, there’s no way to be in authentic relationship with Jesus without being transformed by his love and the work of his Spirit. We are, over time, becoming people who look and act more and more like Jesus every day.
To Juan Carlos, I say, don’t be deceived, my friend. God doesn’t love you “that way.” As a matter of fact, he loves you so much more that he gave his only Son to become the sacrifice, slain for your sin—so that you would be brought in as a dearly-loved son, someone fitted for uninhibited relationship with the Father. God loves you as a son being perfected, made perfect, made whole.
Pursue God’s grace to rest not in your identity as a gay man, but in your identity as a dearly-loved son of God. One day, your gay identity will be taken away—through repentance or death. On what else will you stand before God?
And to the Church of Christ, I say, don’t give same-sex strugglers the false hope that God is okay with their sin. Lead them to the knowledge that in Christ the power of that sin to rule over them and define them was defeated on the cross. Help these little ones to pursue holiness, peace, love, and joy in repentance and reconciliation with the Father through the Son, instead of glorying in things that will only pass away.
17 May 2018
In the Church, men and women are brothers and sisters in Christ. This means we can relate to one another as friends by sharing life together and helping one another run the race of faith. To learn more about biblical friendship, read Aimee Byrd’s blog, “Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder her Capability for Friendship?” You can also read our latest harvestusa magazine, “Women, Sexuality, and the Church,” here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Aimee Byrd, in light of the #MeToo movement, explores the tensions that exist in friendships between men and women, and then argues that the gospel radically transforms these relationships. When the gospel is lived out, friendships between men and women won’t fall into the abuse that the #MeToo movement rightly exposes, resulting in true intimacy and respect. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When we think about sin’s impact on sexuality, we usually think of things like pornography, broken marriages, rape, sex trafficking, and other abuses. But one category that we often neglect to recognize regarding sin’s impact on sexuality is the gift of friendship. When we over-sexualize men and women made in the image of God, we are unable to view one another holistically and fellowship platonically. And this has been a historical problem, even in the church.
Women Incapable of Friendship
I don’t know of anyone in our contemporary culture that would say women are incapable of the virtue of friendship. In fact, sociological studies reveal that men open up more about themselves when a woman is involved in the dialogue.¹ But ancient philosophers did not believe that women had the moral capacity for what they held as the highest virtue of communion — friendship. Echoing the same mindset taught by Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato in their treatises on friendship, even Augustine joined in this reductive thinking about a woman’s nature. One of our greatest theologians in church history, “although he knew that well-educated and cultured women existed,” and respected his own mother’s wisdom, wrote, “’If God had wanted Adam to have a partner in scintillating conversation he would have created another man.’”² While this kind of statement is a shock to our modern sensibilities, we can still be reductive about virtuous friendship between the sexes.
Men Incapable of Friendship with Women
Almost thirty years ago Billy Crystal uttered a line in the infamous movie When Harry Met Sally that still haunts us today: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” As the character Harry seemed to represent every man, and Sally, every woman, consumers lost sight of the fact that this is just a movie. Now the tables have turned, and instead of a woman’s nature being incapable of attaining relational moral perfection in friendship, it is the man who lacks virtue. Sally, representing all women, argues against this assertion. She sadly concludes that she really could have used a friend, as Harry is the only person she knew in New York.
It’s such a strong scene because in that argument and conclusion, women’s value, worth, and contribution are at stake. Man reduces woman to her capability of gratifying his uncontrollable sexual urges. But man is also reduced to his supposed animalistic impulses, even to the point where he cannot be a friend to someone in need.
Men and Women Can’t Even be Acquaintances
Under the good intentions of upholding purity and faithful marriages, the common teaching in evangelical circles is that men and women shouldn’t even share a meal, a car ride, or a text message without a chaperone. Considering that a number of prominent preachers have fallen into sexual immorality, wrecking their marriages, their ministry, and the faith of some of their followers, taking steps such as these seems prudent.
Many leaders and laity have since followed this example with the same godly intentions. Christian leaders should certainly model sexual integrity to us. But we need to see it displayed with mature spirituality and godly friendship, not with suspicion and fear. I’ve been in conversations with men afraid to give a woman a ride to the hospital, to share an elevator, or to send an email about work. Is this the message the church really wants to send about our design for communion—that women are threats to a man’s purity and that we are incapable of serving as an acquaintance in ordinary life, much less being an actual friend? Yes, take precautions, be accountable, examine your heart, but I wonder if our design and life as new creations in Christ can show us a better way?
A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy 5:2).
Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder Her Capability of Friendship?
Since there will be no marrying and no sexual intercourse in eternity, we know that God’s plan for human sexuality is not ultimately expressed in the sexual intimacy of the bedroom. A greater understanding of what we are created for, who we are in Christ, and where we are headed will help shape the way we relate to one another. A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy. 5:2). Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
Created for Holy Communion
Christians, we were created for the high calling of joyful communion with the Triune God and one another. We get to participate in the Father’s great love for the Son, through his Spirit. God has revealed himself to us in the Son so that he can make friends with us. Is this what we represent in the way we relate to others? Does the world see us exemplifying God’s love for mankind in Christ? Do we treat one another as men and women made in the image of God? If the church cannot model virtuous friendship between the sexes, why would the world take us seriously when we say we are being sanctified even now as we look to our glorification as brothers and sisters serving together in the new heavens and the new earth?
Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
The world should look to the church and see a household of fellowship between siblings in Christ that overflows into the way we relate to everyone.
What does that look like on this side of the resurrection, as we all still struggle with idolatrous tendencies, sexual brokenness, and over-sexualized messages regarding men and women? Scripture tells us, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12: 9-10, CSB).
To love our brothers and sisters well, we are called to be wise at separating good from evil. We pursue godly relationships and we warn against sin. This means we will have to be honest in self-evaluation regarding our own maturity and emotions and open to the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as honesty is achieved in community. We are God’s own possession, so we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Here are some common areas we miss in self-evaluation:
Confusing attraction with sexual temptation.
Let’s not fool ourselves by saying we will never be attracted to anyone but our spouses. What do you do when you discover you are attracted to someone? We are to offer every part of ourselves—body, mind, and soul—to God. It’s easy to misread appropriate feelings that could be a godly attraction and reduce our feelings to romantic or sexual attraction since we hear so many over-sexualized messages. Let’s learn to recognize the difference and properly handle them so that we don’t miss out on the proper affection we could experience as brothers and sisters.
Assuming we won’t be tempted.
Self-evaluation will also help us recognize when we are weak in this distinction or with a particular person. Perhaps we perceive a weakness in someone else. In this case, we should not put ourselves in situations that would feed a temptation to sin or cause anyone to stumble. This is when proactive measures are called for, such as seeking accountability from someone we trust and establishing clear boundaries. If we understand the sin within our own hearts, we should exercise proper discretion, never assuming that we couldn’t be tempted.
Expecting marriage to fulfill all of our relational needs.
Looking to a spouse to fulfill all of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs puts an unbearable burden on one person. This unhealthy dynamic can contribute to temptation that leads to affairs. When a wife or husband can’t measure up to these expectations, it is easy to romanticize a quality in someone else that we see lacking in our spouse.
Not valuing a spouse’s insight.
If you are married, it is dishonoring to your spouse to pursue a friendship with anyone he or she feels uncomfortable about. Also, our spouses often have insight into a situation where we may have a blind spot. Are you open with your spouse about your interactions and friendships with the opposite sex? Do your friends promote your marriage? A spouse may notice that someone has harmful intentions or manipulative ways. I have shared advice with my husband when I thought a woman had more romantic intentions in her friendship with him. He didn’t notice that until I pointed it out. My husband has given me insight about some of my friends being competitive with me in a destructive manner. We should always give heed to our spouse’s wisdom.
What is God calling us to in friendship? He is calling us to image the love he has for us in Christ. He is calling us to look at one another holistically, because along with our bodies, we have minds, souls, and emotions that matter. He is calling us to uphold distinction between the sexes, without reduction. He is calling us to growth, maturity, and a love for obedience that is greater than our fears. He is calling us to wisdom and discernment, not blanket extra-biblical rules that stereotype and hinder growth. He is calling us to a biblical understanding of purity that rightly orients all of our affections to God, as a proper response to understanding that by the help of his Spirit our purity is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ in grateful offering (Rom. 11:36). He is calling us to promote one another’s holiness and to condemn sin.
We do this by being a friend, because friendship is something you do. Friends pursue a common mission, and the church is the ambassador of the gospel in the great commission God has given us. These relationships with our brothers and sisters in the faith will benefit us as we are sent out into the world to be good neighbors to all creation.
¹For example, see Dee Brestin, The Friendships of Women (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988), 16.
²Translated by Henry Chadwick, St. Augustine, Confessions (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), in Chadwick’s Introduction, xviii. Quoted from St. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis.
Watch Ellen Dykas discuss this topic further in the accompanying video: Can Men and Women Be Friends? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Living as both single and sexually faithful might feel impossible. For someone who is single, committing to live within God’s boundaries seems foolish in our current culture’s celebration of sexual ‘freedom.’ But for Christians, we find comfort in knowing our loving and holy Lord has a design for every aspect of life. Jesus is present always to help us stay the course of the race of faith, and he constantly holds out forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Jesus and the Bible are also wise and practical when it comes to our street-level fight against sexual sin and temptation. Jesus stands ready to help when we turn to him as we face struggles and temptations.
So let’s consider one important tool in this battle to help us as single men and women: identifying and fleeing triggers.
In the world of addictions, the concept of a ‘trigger’ is significant. It refers to people, places, experiences, and things which stir up thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires connected to certain behaviors.¹ A food addict may be triggered to overeat by the sight of pastries or criticism from a parent. A TV addict may binge watch while important work is left undone, triggered by feeling lonely or work-related stress. A trigger prompts a person to move towards a harmful behavior which soothes or numbs troubling and painful life experiences. In other words, it’s a temporary pain killer. But then the pain comes back, stronger than ever. And a cycle is set up.
Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts!
For a single person battling sexual temptation, it is crucial to identify the triggers which prompt us to move towards various pain-reducing behaviors like viewing or reading pornography, crossing physical boundaries with a person, or engaging in sexual fantasy and masturbation. Let’s be clear: married people also must battle sexual sin! However, singles committed to walking in sexual integrity do not have this context for sexual expression, so fleeing sexual temptation will never involve having God-blessed sex such as married persons enjoy.
Identify your triggers
Emotions and feelings – What emotions are most troubling to you? Which are difficult to ‘sit with’ or bring to the Lord in prayer? In addictions counseling the acronym HALT is often used to teach that feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired are common triggers which addictive behaviors serve to soothe or numb. With the men and women who come to Harvest USASA, we add boredom, sadness, and relational pain. Sexual sin (with people, self, via technology) often is an attempt to avoid internal pain in our lives, which is usually tied to external, troubling situations.
Circumstances – What are the situations which seem to most often precede your fiercest battles with sexual temptation? Is it work-related stress? The holidays? Family gatherings? Church-related events? Large gatherings of people or times of aloneness? Traveling and being out of your normal routine? Having downtime or a vacation?
People and relationships – Do certain people or relationships seem to consistently trigger the feelings that are troubling for you? On this side of heaven, not all relationships will be redeemed or ‘safe’ for us, so identifying individuals we need to avoid can be challenging for Christians to consider. After all, aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor? Yes, and sometimes loving God and loving people wisely (Philippians 1:9-11) means being aware of relational dynamics which pull us away from Christ, rather than towards him and obedience. Wisdom will necessitate having firm boundaries with people with whom you have participated in sexual sin; those who constantly tempt you towards lust and selfish fantasy; people who consistently discourage and disrespect you and your boundaries; and those who are manipulative, deceptive, and hurtful with their words.
I know that seems like a lot to keep track of, but with focus and intention, it can become second nature. Learning what the triggers are in these three categories will help you not just to know what to avoid; you can make those triggers the things that prompt you to run to Jesus, and that’s the best part of doing this. Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts! The goal is increasingly running towards Christ and running away from sexually sinful activities that we use to soothe difficult experiences.
What we need to understand is that when we use things repeatedly to get through life, those things we use become our functional gods. They become idols to which we run, they become the things we worship, and that’s no different than what Israel did when they ran to and worshipped idols made of wood or clay.
The process of learning how to flee triggers and temptations can mean taking various steps of faith, such as:
- Contacting close friends to pray for you, with a call or quick text
- Setting up an accountability relationship for honesty and prayer
- Putting into place intentional steps to grow in your faith, like doing daily devotions
- Willingness to limit technology and media if they are strong temptations
Do you see how practical it is to identify your triggers? It’s a way to bring Jesus into your struggles, and to experience the joy that comes from living in new, better, and God-glorifying ways.
For more help in this vital aspect of faith for singles, consider Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single?, and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes: Finding True Satisfaction. Find them at the Harvest USA Bookstore: https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/
To see Ellen talking some more about this issue, click on Ellen’s video blog, Sexual Integrity for Singles: It’s not a tragedy, and it’s not impossible! Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters (together with the accompanying written blog) in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Robert Lynn, Associate Pastor, Knox Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Part of Harvest USA’s mission is to encourage and equip churches to reach out to individuals struggling with sexual brokenness and sin. Several years ago, two Harvest USA staff members traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to meet with the pastoral staff and present a seminar at Knox Presbyterian Church. Pastor Robert Lynn spearheaded this cooperative effort. He writes how God has since used him in the lives of strugglers and how he has reaped personal benefits. Here’s another blog post that will encourage you to lead a support group for men; you can read it here.
I recall some years ago, one of the pastors I serve with stopped me as we left a bi-weekly meeting. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “that you’ve really changed over the past eight months or so. You seem so much more relaxed and at ease. You’re taking things in stride in ways you didn’t use to…” The conversation went on a few minutes as he articulated the differences he noticed. I was taken by surprise, but it didn’t take long to see the significance of the eight-month time frame.
A bit of background might be helpful to understand this small tale of pastoral transformation. Eight years ago, I found myself in a difficult season of ministry for me. It was difficult to the point of me thinking, “I don’t want a new church. I want a new career!” The last half of 2007 was a time of tending to wounds, so if you had asked me at the beginning of 2008 how I was doing, my answer no doubt would have been, “Great.” And on many levels, God had done some wonderful heart work, but clearly the work wasn’t finished.
What happened in my life that took my healing to new depths. Quite literally, God opened a door, and one by one a string of men struggling with sexual sin entered my life. They’re still coming. I look back now and see that God was preparing me for all this—understandably, I couldn’t see that then.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new.
What is the result of walking with these men in their sexual struggles? First, there is the opportunity to bring good news to them again and again. I have the privilege of calling them to the only One who has the wisdom and power to make all things new. It seems that I’m always talking about the gospel!
Second, there is growth and strengthening of my own faith—my own understanding of how Jesus is sufficient for the men and for me. When I begin to grasp that and stake my life on it, things begin to change. Jesus will meet all my needs; therefore, I do not need to trust in worldly things to find meaning or peace.
Third, there is an overflow of deep, deep joy. As I read the Psalms, David provides words that say it best, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7, ESV). How can fellow sinners get together with the Gospel at the center and not see an explosion of joy? If anything brings new vitality and passion for ministry, it’s Gospel-promised, cross-purchased, and resurrection-guaranteed joy.
Fourth, I have a new love for my fellow strugglers. In 401 AD, Saint Augustine wrote his friend Pammachius, “I have seen your inner being… Seeing this has made me know you, and knowing you has made me love you.” I have experienced this same truth. These men have all let me into their hearts to see their needs. I have seen Christ at work in them as we engage the Gospel. Seeing has made me know them and knowing them has made me love them.
Finally, I now realize how much a pastor needs strugglers. My personal struggles have been ministry wounds and anger, while theirs has been sex, but we each need Jesus desperately. To my surprise, I find that the one who points them to Jesus needs Jesus as much as any of them.