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.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he often called people to give up one thing to gain something better. He told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions to gain treasures in heaven. He told Peter and Andrew to give up their profession of fishing to become fishers of men. And in Mark 8:34-38, he calls his disciples to the most radical exchange yet. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vv. 34-35).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who returned to Germany during the Nazi regime to pastor the Church in resisting Hitler, is famous for these words: “When Jesus call a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, he lost his life in following Christ.
The invitation to lose your life is not just for martyrs. The call to lose your life for Christ’s sake is inherent in the Gospel message itself. And this invitation to lose your life to find it is the hope that Jesus extends to a man or woman wrestling with porn.
Porn usage is about worshiping idols. Idols are those things we use to find life, especially to fill the emptiness we feel when our lives aren’t giving us what we think we need.
One of the biggest lies that our idols feed us is that you can find life in them at no cost. Porn holds out empty promises of intimacy, satisfaction, control, comfort, and the rush of feeling alive. And it offers them immediately.
Pornography offers you false life while hiding its dagger of death. Jesus offers you true life while explaining the cost up front.
But the hook in that bait is that it takes from us much more than it could ever offer. Yes, pornography offers euphoric pleasure for a brief time, but it will eventually take everything you hold dear. It will take your integrity, your relationships, perhaps your job, your peace, and ultimately, it will take your soul. This is why Jesus pleads with the crowd gathered around him: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Pornography offers you false life while hiding its dagger of death. Jesus offers you true life while explaining the cost up front. Yes, following Jesus will cost you your life. But when you see that he lost his life to give you yours, you will begin to see that the false life that porn offers was never worth keeping in the first place.
Paul testifies to this exchange in Philippians 3. Paul’s life was wrapped up in his status, his performance, and his pedigree as a Pharisee. He found all of his satisfaction and value outside of Christ. But once he saw the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and being found in him, he saw all that he was giving up as rubbish. It was all loss compared to gaining Christ. I trust that all of us in Christ have tasted at least glimpses of this reality.
But lest we paint an unrealistic picture of this exchange, we need to acknowledge that the life Christ offers us is received through much suffering, and it must be received by faith!
Paul acknowledged that he suffered the loss of all things so that he might gain Christ. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord” (vv.7-8).
Losing our lives is not an easy process. Jesus said that to come after him, we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross. There is a cross to carry in order to fight against pornography. It is, first, a cross of denying urges and desires which scream at us to satisfy them.
But it is not only lust that dies a painful death, because pornography is a means by which people seek to satisfy all kinds of desires. People turn to pornography to escape loneliness, to find comfort in stressful seasons, to get a sense of intimacy with others, to experience what it feels like to be accepted and desired. And pornography offers experiences that feel like those desires are being met.
It is only on the far side of faith that we receive God’s good promises for us. It requires no faith to find comfort in pornography. But comfort without faith only leads to death.
So, when Jesus calls us to lose our lives in our fight against pornography, he is calling us to give him all of those desires and all of the autonomous ways we have sought to satisfy them.
He is inviting us to pray in this way, “Lord Jesus, my desire to feel comfort in the midst of stress, I give that over to you. Lord, I acknowledge that I have desired comfort more than I have desired fellowship with you. I confess that I have sacrificed honoring you in exchange for satisfying myself. And I also confess that I have not waited on you and trusted you for your comfort. I sought to take matters into my own hands instead of seeking life from you, the life-giver. I believed the lie that obedience never leads to satisfaction. Lord help me to wait on you for your comfort. Help me to receive by faith your promise to satisfy my heart with good things.”
It is only on the far side of faith that we receive God’s good promises for us. It requires no faith to find comfort in pornography. But comfort without faith only leads to death.
Jesus is inviting you, brother and sister, to find life in him. The world, the flesh, and the devil all proclaim with one voice that following Jesus by faith is foolishness. But that voice comes from a thief who came to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus, along with a great cloud of witnesses, calls you to lose your life for his sake in order to find it. And he came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
Mark talks more about this on his accompanying video: Losing Your Life While Losing Porn. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
12 Apr 2018
Pornography is more than looking at sexual images; it’s an all-encompassing worldview that many men and women embrace to find relief from their struggles in life. But by turning to porn, they find deeper struggles. Jesus shows us a way out and forward: lay down your life. Lose it in order to find it.
Click here to read more on what Mark is saying on his blog: “Losing Your Life: Jesus’ Invitation to a Porn Struggler”
01 Jun 2017
I hope my first three blogs in this series have helped you consider taking some practical steps to increasingly live with sexual integrity in your life and your relationships.
We’ve looked at how, by faith, we need to throw off anything that distracts or hinders us (blog 1); to learn how to persevere through tough times and not give up (blog 2); and to watch over our hearts to discern when discouragement and discontentment will set us up for failure (blog 3).
In this final blog on making progress in living a life of sexual integrity, here’s the fourth thing we need to do: to keep Jesus and the race he ran in the front of our minds and hearts. It’s this fourth thing that undergirds all the others in pursuing sexual integrity.
We need to take encouragement to put on the mind of Christ, who himself kept one primary goal in his mind during his race.
It’s both an encouragement and a challenge for me to ponder this exhortation: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, ESV).
Peter’s words encourage me when I’m weary or discouraged. Sometimes life feels overwhelmingly tough, even when it has nothing to do with sexual integrity! Or sometimes old temptations rise back up, and I can feel shame in finding myself struggling with the same thing again. But if I prepare my mind for action, I can turn towards God and trusted friends for help and encouragement right when I need it.
Just last week a friend helped me become “sane” again when I was struggling with the seedling of an old sin pattern that emerged again. Her text message to me read, “We need to pray together about this before it grows into something bigger!”
In pride, I hesitated at first but then welcomed the invitation to confess, examine, and pray with someone about the situation. My friend helped me set my hope on Christ, that he would give me what I needed, and that kept me from spiraling inward and getting stuck in examining my temptation, rather than fixing my eyes on Christ and his very present help for me.
Now, there’s everything right in examining our hearts and gaining clarity on the temptations facing us, but we can do that and not take the next step. It’s the next step that is crucial!
I needed to have my thinking reoriented by both the present grace and the future grace that Christ gives me. I needed to hope again in what God can do in and through my present struggles (read that verse in 1 Peter again).
Peter’s words challenge me that I must also put my hope in the grace which is to come: the ultimate redemption which will fill the earth upon Christ’s return. It’s so important to practice redemptive remembering both backward and forward: that Christ has finished his race and that the glorious and final overcoming of sin, death, and the kingdom of darkness is coming. It is still yet to come, but it IS coming!
OK, you say, how does looking ahead help me now in my present struggles with pornography, or sexual fantasy, or unholy relationships that I get myself entangled in?
Remember earlier when I said to put on the mind of Christ, who himself kept one primary goal in his mind during his race? We need to realize that Jesus had us in mind when he endured temptation and suffering!
Hebrews 12: 2-3 says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…Consider him who endured such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Thinking about, reflecting upon, meditating on Jesus’ sufferings and his obedience through everything he endured is the key way we faithfully walk our race of faith.
Our mind is to have Christ in mind; our goal is to honor Christ, to glorify him, in how we grow to trust him and live for him.
Jesus’ mind was to have us in his mind; his goal was to anticipate the joy he would have when his death and resurrection secured our place with him.
“…who for the joy set before him endured the cross…”
There is a finish line. Look at it, like Jesus did. All of human history is moving toward Revelation 4 and 21, which speaks of Jesus sitting on the throne, the One who will wipe away every tear from our eyes. All sin, death, suffering, every struggle you have had in running this race of faith will be overturned; everything will be made new (Revelation 21:5).
And then you will fully believe that it was all worth it.
Sisters, don’t live and act like this life is all there really is. Don’t live out of the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) and think and live sexually in ways that dishonor Christ because you are not getting your needs met.
RUN, sisters, RUN this race of faith with sexual integrity! Find running companions. Don’t try to go solo. As Hebrews 12 says, when our hands are drooping and our knees are wobbly and weak, God sends encouragement through other believers, other runners in the race of faith.
Let’s together help one another to grow in living with sexual integrity, urging one another to look to Jesus when this dark world distracts or entices us.
We can persevere in this life of faith by considering Jesus: our great High Priest, our Loving Savior, the One who sat down on the throne…and is coming again to complete the work he has started!
You can watch Ellen talk more on this subject here in her video, Running the Race Well—Part 4. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Updated 6.13.2017, 5.31.2018
25 May 2017
Running my race of faith well and with sexual integrity is tough! If I’m going to make progress in living a life of sexual integrity, I need to handle four things well. First, I need to intentionally throw off distractions and everything that hinders me (my first blog on this). Second, I need to persevere, learning that hanging tough in rough times is when I most experience Christ’s strength and comfort (my second blog).
Now, another thing: I’ve come to see how crucial it is to watch over my heart and be aware of when discontentment is hovering and lingering. I need to be honest about painful circumstances and deep disappointments that I’m facing.
Why these things? What do they have to do with living a life of sexual integrity?
Because disappointment tends to grow into discontentment, and discontentment can lead us in one of two directions. Which direction you go in is critical.
Positively, a growing sense of discontentment in my life can lead me to run to God, which is exactly what he wants us to do. Hebrews 12:1-13, which is the passage I’m looking at in all these blogs, says that I’m to run the path “marked out for us” (NIV). This path—filled with disappointments and discontentment—is the one God will use in my life to transform me.
I need to stay in this lane.
In other words, sexual integrity (living honestly and intentionally within God’s stated boundaries for sexuality) is not something that is just handed to us. It is pursued and embraced as we wrestle with the fallenness of our own hearts and all of life in general. God intends that trouble and pain would draw us to himself in dependence and humility.
Hebrews 4:16 says beautifully, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (ESV). I would suspect that, like me, millions of people throughout history have crumpled down at that throne with aching and disappointed hearts. The One sitting on the throne graciously welcomes disappointed and discontented people!
Look at Hebrews 4:16 again. Do you see it? Jesus embraces us when we run to him with aching and angsty hearts!
What surprises many people is that pornography, and even sexual fantasy, are not primarily fueled by sexual lust. Lust is a key part of it, but it first begins in a heart that is failing to handle disappointment and discontentment well.
But on the negative side of disappointment and discontentment, it can lead us in a dark and dangerous direction. Instead of going to Jesus, we go anywhere and elsewhere. Why? Because our painful emotions seek relief, seek escape, seek comfort.
Recently a woman confessed how years of looking at pornography created a fantasy world in her mind. It was a quick and easy place of escape when trouble came. Her fantasy world was simply more appealing than the real world in which she lived. It was as if her heart said, “That path God marked out for me? I’m not going there!”
What surprises many people is that pornography, and even sexual fantasy, are not primarily fueled by sexual lust. Lust is a key part of it, but it first begins in a heart that is failing to handle disappointment and discontentment well.
In the case of this young woman, emotional lust and a craving to feel good (loved, pursued, celebrated) propelled her towards the unreal world of sexual fantasy and pornography. The places in her life that were disappointing to her (her singleness, her loneliness in not having women friends, and some tough, physical trials) seemed to vanish in the hours she spent online.
So, what was this woman to do—just “sit” in her disappointment? Should she believe the lie that echoed in her heart: “This is your lot in life. Just deal with it!”?
Absolutely not! Jesus calls her to himself, not to a fatalistic resignation about her life. As I said in my second blog, God isn’t calling us to merely gut it out.
Jesus wants her to fix her eyes on him, trusting that he is with her on this path and that he will provide what she needs. Her life is filled with trials and temptations, but also with an abundance of mercy and comfort from God that is readily available to her.
He wants her to stay in her lane, fixing her hopes on him rather than frantically escaping her troubling emotions. Jesus, who is with her on this path, is the reality her heart really needs. Made-up worlds in our minds, sexual or not, can’t offer lasting comfort or peace!
To run the race of faith with sexual integrity, we must be honest about how we struggle with discontentment. I struggled for years with my own escape to fantasy life, but I’m thankful that I’m not tempted to look at porn or to rent movies that are sensual or sexual. I’m saying this to encourage you, that it is possible to overcome deep-seated sin patterns!
However, when the stress of ministry and responsibilities are high, I can be tempted to run after Netflix, Redbox, or the hundreds of free DVDs at the public library. And when I give way to escaping into entertainment in an unplanned way, out come the salty snacks. Unplanned eating leads to overeating for me.
Running in the path marked out for me means fixing my eyes on Jesus when life is simply hard, when nothing seems to go well. It means calling out for help to Jesus and to his people, confessing my weaknesses, burdens, and the sinful temptations that lurk all around me.
Staying in my lane also means that in the toughness of life, I submit to God’s authority as my loving Lord and allow my heart to go where Mary’s did. When faced with an unbelievable task, to do something that was impossible because of who she was, she replied, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Oh, to grow in that kind of peaceful trust of God when the path marked out for me is different from my plans and even my desires. With Christ in us and beside us, we can run this race well! We can stay in our lanes with our hearts fixed on Jesus.
You can watch Ellen talk more on this subject here in her video, Running the Race Well—Part 3. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Updated 5.22.2017, 5.31.2018
17 May 2017
In the Bible, living out one’s faith is sometimes referred to as a race. A race we are called to run well—and that includes living with our sexuality. Living a life of sexual integrity involves perseverance—and that is something Jesus enables us to do.
Click the following link to dig deeper into what Ellen is saying on in this blog: Women: Running the race well—Part 2.
17 May 2017
For women who desire to run their faith race well—and that includes living a life of sexual integrity—it’s important to know that Jesus doesn’t expect us to just gut it out. No, as I said in my first blog, Jesus enables us to throw off distractions and to run the race with perseverance when it gets tough.
1 John 3:8 says Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil—and that means our unbelief and all the sin attached to it. Living a life of sexual integrity, particularly during times of struggle, shows our commitment to cooperating with Jesus in what he wants to accomplish in us.
And that is, that we persevere, that our faith is for the long haul.
But how do we persevere? How do we run and hold on over a long distance?
First, we need God’s strength to do it. We need to know that the Holy Spirit pours out strength and courage when we are fearful and weary in the battle against sexual sin. I remember a woman I met two years ago who boldly took a step that she knew would be extremely costly to her. She went to a mentor in her life and was honest about being emotionally involved with a married man. In the days following her confession, she felt the anguish of letting go of something which had become intoxicating to her. Intoxicating and dangerous.
But she still had the desire, although weak by that time, to persevere and to walk in sexual integrity. She knew that faithfulness to Jesus meant being willing to part with anything that could hijack her heart from love and obedience to him. That was a costly obedience! When we persevere like this, not only will sexual integrity grow in our lives, but we will also experience Christ’s strength and comfort through our costly obedience.
Secondly, we need God’s discipline to reshape us. Discipline, as described in Hebrews 12:5-11, doesn’t mean a scolding or bearing the brunt of harsh punishment. When Hebrews 12 talks about God disciplining us, it describes God as a father caring for his child.
The goal of God’s fatherly discipline is our holiness; that is, we increasingly become Christ-like in our character, growing in maturity and bearing good fruit throughout our life.
His discipline can come in a number of ways. It might come in the form of someone asking you difficult and humbling questions about your online life or about a relationship in which you’re involved. It might be someone challenging you about a relationship that isn’t good for you. It can be through God not giving you something you desire because what you want might lead you far from him. God’s discipline is tough love! But you have to see it as love!
“God’s discipline is tough love! But you have to see it as love!”
Thirdly, we need to be changed from the inside out to persevere. We need to see that God’s discipline does not just mean outward changes in behavior. God is always targeting our hearts first! God is always wooing us back to him. Yes, discipline should result in changed behavior, but for it to last, for it to deeply please him, for it to be real in our lives, it must flow from a heart that is being changed from the inside out.
Finally, we need to humbly recognize that sometimes God will allow us to experience the consequences of sin when we refuse to turn from it. This is also a form of his loving discipline: to convince us that when we turn from his path, we are in a danger zone.
I think of someone I knew who held on to her sin until all was lost: ministry, marriage, relationship with her kids, and all of this in a very public way. Into this person’s life came God’s rod of loving discipline. The sin was found out, her marriage crumbled, her children left her, her job was lost. All of it so painful, but all of it was allowed by God as a loving and rescuing wake-up call.
Amazingly, the discipline worked! She persevered through the valley of humiliation and is now growing more and more as a humble, Jesus-loving person who is running with integrity in her life.
Jesus said to his followers in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (NIV).
Perseverance is costly obedience over the long haul, but it’s empowered by the ongoing rest we receive in leaning into Jesus.
Are you weary, sister, in your battle against temptations and sin? Go to Jesus, who welcomes the weary and gives strength! Are you hurting and perhaps feeling the anguish of having let go of a person or situation for the sake of holiness? Run to Jesus; he is gentle and desirous to give you rest!
You can watch Ellen talk more on this subject here in her video, Women: Running the race well—Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Updated 5.22.2017, 5.31.2018
Standing in front of a crowd of young Christians at an urban church, John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, talked about the need for faithful believers to live with sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. A young man interrupted him with, “You must be kidding! You can’t expect us to live like that today! It’s not possible! ”
While taken aback by the interruption, John thanked him for his honesty and proceeded to tell the crowd, “Yes, God expects that from you. He will give you what you need to live like that. Your life will be much richer for it.”
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul stood before a group of believers and delivered much the same message. His letter to the church in Thessalonica hints that Paul received similar pushback.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, ESV)
If the church today is going to help her people live faithfully, we need to follow Paul’s example in two ways. First, we must not retreat from proclaiming the importance of living within God’s design for sexuality. Second, we must go beyond proclamation to actively teach people how to walk in sexual integrity. Both of these must go together, or the church will fail in her duty to be a redemptive community where men and women grow into the character of Christ.
Paul proclaimed that how we live with our bodies matters, and our struggle to live faithfully in these bodies is a battle God wants us to fight.
The importance of living with sexual integrity is stressed seven times by Paul. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live sexually is a barometer of our faith.
Verse 2: For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. Here Paul reminds the church of his past instruction to them, instruction that was not mere personal opinion.
Verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . Here Paul links personal growth in faith with sexual integrity.
Verse 4: . . . that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness . . . Paul hints here at how hard this can be, and that we need to learn to do so.
Verse 5: . . . not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles . . . Paul exhorts them to not live like those who base their relationships and life on fleeting and changeable desires and emotions.
Verse 6: . . . that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . Sexual sin can deeply harm another person, and the Lord will not ignore selfishness and injustice.
Verse 7: “For God has called us . . . in holiness . . .” Sexual integrity is a specific call for all believers.
Verse 8: . . . whoever disregards this, disregards . . . God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Again, Paul says this is not his personal opinion and that God has given us help, the Holy Spirit, to enable and empower us to live faithfully.
No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it alone.
Paul’s emphasis counters cultural messages we hear about sex today. We hear that sex equals life, that a life lived without sex is tragic, and that our sexual identities define the core of who we are as human beings. But even for those who resist this cultural siren song, just living in this sexually-saturated world makes sexual integrity incredibly difficult.
Does it encourage you to know that this was difficult for first-century Christians also?
The situation in Thessaloniki existed at other churches as well. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addressed incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, sexual promiscuity, distorted views of sex within marriage, and same-sex attraction. But in the face of stark cultural differences (and, yes, probably protests from newcomers to the faith), Paul upheld the gospel on this matter. He didn’t flinch in saying how important sexual integrity was, even as he saw them struggle to attain it.
But Paul was not merely reinforcing the Old Testament moral law about sexual behavior, nor adding new rules to the early church. Yes, God’s moral law was not overturned in the new covenant, but now there is a far bigger picture to comprehend in Christ: Jesus has brought about a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection. Living in increasing holiness demonstrates that we are a part of this new life; we are part of a new creation bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. Therefore, God wants us to see something in this struggle for sexual integrity. He wants us to depend upon the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to us, to empower us to fight this battle, and he wants us to know that he embraces us even as we struggle.
The New Testament tells us there is no ideal, pure church. A faithful church will be one where strugglers are present, because Jesus came to save sinners. The church is where Jesus invites us to take his yoke and learn from him (Matthew 11:29). Learning takes time, progressing through stages of growth and maturation, with numerous detours of struggle and failure. But change and growth will come as we more fully grasp in our hearts the message of the grace and truth of the gospel.
But we will never get beyond this reality: A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.
Today, some use ever-present sexual struggles as evidence that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. God is still calling his people to holiness with their sexuality, according to his design. We are to pursue obedience even when we struggle—especially as we struggle. It has always been a fight worth fighting. To ignore this part of shepherding God’s people is to ignore what the entire New Testament thought was important—that how we live with our bodies matters.
But Paul goes beyond merely telling us that this is important. We need more than just words of expectation and exhortation.
So, beyond just telling believers that they need to live in a certain way, we see Paul willing to step into their struggles. Growing in sexual integrity requires the church’s involvement with strugglers.
Paul hints at this in the first verse when he introduces the subject of fighting for sexual integrity: Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you. . . that as you received from us. . .
Do you notice something in Paul’s appeal? This is not the language of command or a rebuke that says “Just stop it!” He does not simply tell people to do the right thing. Instead, he uses relational language. Paul addresses them as brothers and then appeals to them, We ask you and urge you. Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12)
You see, Paul knew these people. He loved them like a parent (like a mother and a father!). He knew his children because he spent time with them. He knew the fight was not easy, so he was willing to share his life with them. His presence with them went beyond just talking; his presence patiently walked with them as they learned to control their sexuality in order to honor their Savior.
The way to fight is in relationship. No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by fighting this battle alone. Sexual struggles and sin live in secrecy; they are killed by openness. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it dies when we are honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.
The church becomes a presence with strugglers when she acknowledges that no one has it all together. The church becomes a place of safety and hope when it is honest about the struggles Christians face and about the love and tenderness that Jesus has toward broken people. There are four ways a church can cultivate and live out that truth.
One, we need to be real about all of our struggles with sex and sexuality
Let’s get honest. The church, like all of us, works hard to look good on the outside. When church leadership doesn’t specifically name the struggles people wrestle with, then people stay hidden, and no one receives the crucial help they need.
A woman once told a Harvest USA staff person that she was visiting a church where everyone dressed up and looked good. They weren’t a bit like her; she came from a tough background. She had struggled for a long time with addictions, both sexual and substance abuse. But just as she began feeling like she was wasting her time attending this church, she came across a notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with these struggles. Call _______ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captivated her. She decided to stay at that church, because their honesty about the Christian life displayed their dependency upon God for the grace to live openly.
Two, we need to become un-shockable about our struggles
The attitude a church takes either invites or hinders openness. Steve Brown of KeyLife Network says this beautifully: “I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the Internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us (this) ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. ” 1
Being un-shockable means that we don’t shame people to motivate change. That doesn’t work anyway. Being un-shockable means that we aren’t surprised by the depth of people’s sin either. If Jesus called Paul to himself, a man who decades after his conversion still called himself “the worst of sinners,” then we can also call men and women, no matter the depth of their sin, to find grace in Jesus as they live in our churches.
Three, we need to speak more of the “why” than of the “what” of sexual faithfulness
We need to go beyond merely saying what Scripture says: we also need to clearly articulate why God’s design for sex is good, why it makes sense, why it really is good for individuals, families, and for society. Simply knowing what the sexual boundary lines are is not enough—we need to articulate why we should live within these boundary lines.
This is the way to answer the young man who said sexual integrity was impossible. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we are saying learning to live within God’s gracious boundary lines—even when that might mean a celibate life—produces profoundly good fruit and, yes, even joys in that kind of life.
Four, we need to be lavish givers of mercy
Sexual struggles can go deep and persist for a long time. I love the story in Luke 7, in which Jesus eats at the house of a religious leader who is shocked when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute) stands behind Jesus, weeping, then covers his feet with her tears and pours a jar of expensive perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him because she was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. He did something that shocked the Pharisees even more—he forgave her and honored her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace came as a result of her experiencing forgiveness, of being shown undeserved mercy.
Only when the church ministers out of brokenness and forgiveness can we love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field. Helping one another toward sexual integrity then becomes a shared experience of grace.
One more thing about this story. Jesus was honest about this woman’s struggles: “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to the church. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with people who have a long history of sexual struggles. But if we increasingly love like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches and we’ll love them well.
When the church is real about sexual struggles, when she calls people to biblical faithfulness, and when she steps into the battle with strugglers, then the gospel will shine even brighter to a world which so needs it.
- Steve Brown, Foreword to Hide or Seek, When Men Get Real with God About Sex, by John Freeman (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), xii.
Feel free to comment on this article. You can also contact Nicholas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Five
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (ESV)
I mentioned two other ways of living that are crucial for us as believers and as the church to live honestly in dealing with sexual struggles and sin. You can read about these here.
Three, we need to be truth sayers
Our churches must speak the truth. I mean two things here regarding speaking truthfully.
One, of course I mean speak the truth about sex and sexuality as the Scriptures teach it. We do not need to be ashamed of what God’s Word says here. The gospel offers something good to us and to the world. God, as the Creator, knows how the world and all of life should work. Today, we need to have the backbone to speak what it says.
But in speaking truthfully, we need to go beyond merely saying what it says: we also need to articulate clearly why God’s design for sex is good; that it makes sense; that it really is good for individuals and for society. It is not enough to simply know what the sexual boundary lines are—we need to articulate why these boundary lines should be in place and that good things come in our lives from honoring God with our bodies.
In just the past month, I’ve talked to two parents whose college-age children, raised in the church, are sexually active, and they were unable to engage them in a conversation about the goodness of God’s design for sex, why it matters, and why it’s best for relationships. On the one hand, they were grateful for the honesty of their child; but on the other hand, they had no words other than to say to their children, “You shouldn’t do that; it’s not what God wants.”
Two, the second way to speak truthfully is to present information that isn’t distorted or wrong. On the issue of sex and sexuality, it’s easy to for us to do that.
I might step on some toes here, but some of the abstinence education I’ve heard presents inaccurate information. In our zeal to protect our kids from early sexualization, we’ve said that pre-marital sex will bring lifelong guilt and that if you only wait for your wedding night, sex is going to be great!
No, that’s not true in all cases, and it certainly isn’t accurate.
And on the issue of homosexuality, the church has said some misleading and incorrect information about gays and lesbians. Christians have made derogatory statements about their character and labeled all gays and lesbians as being people whose sexuality is out of control.
No, that’s not true in all cases. If you go to Florida during spring break, you’ll see a whole lot of straight people whose sexuality is out of control. Are heterosexuals all the same?
When we speak falsely, we contribute to the confusion our people have today about sexuality. This is especially so with our youth—when they hear the church say one thing but the reality is something different and more nuanced, no wonder they begin to doubt what the Bible says is true or not.
Four, we need to be mercy givers
What do I mean here?
Loving mercifully invites help. The sexual brokenness of our culture is everywhere. It’s not easy to resist the pull and temptations of our culture and our sinful nature. Our sexual natures are powerful, and living in this broken world hurts. That is a powerful combination! All of us are sinners—and all of us frequently slip and fall.
Loving mercifully says, “We are in this together; let me help you get back on your feet. I’ll be patient with you as you learn and grow.”
Eighteen years ago, I went to a counselor because I needed help. It took me more than a year to make that appointment, because I kept trying to figure things out on my own. And when I sat down in my counselor’s office, she leaned over and simply said, “How can I help you?”
I wanted to reply with a well thought-out answer, but instead I started to feel overwhelmed with emotion. I felt so shamed that I had a reached a point in my life that I couldn’t figure out how to help myself.
Her response was full of mercy: “Tell me what you think the problem is, and together we’ll find a way to help you.” Her answer gave me hope. I wasn’t a problem to be fixed and therefore needed someone smarter than me to figure it out. Instead, I now had someone who would walk with me to help me find a way through the problem.
Secondly, loving mercifully means forgiving and restoring. What sexual strugglers need is God’s forgiveness, communicated through your love for them. Forgiveness surprises us. We expect judgment and condemnation for our sins and failures, but sexual strugglers feel that way even more so.
I love the story of Jesus and the “woman sinner” in Luke 7. Jesus ate at the house of a religious leader. The leader was shocked when a woman, described as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute), knelt behind Jesus at his feet and wept. She covered his feet with her tears and poured a jar of perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him. She was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. But then he shocked the Pharisees even more—by forgiving her and honoring her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace of him came as a result of her experience of being forgiven.
It is only when we minister out of our own brokenness and forgiveness that we will love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field.
One more thing about the story in Luke 7: I particularly like that Jesus said of the woman, “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to us. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with messy people; people who have a long history of sins. But if we increasingly live like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches, and we’ll love them well. And God will set them on the road to healing and freedom from enslavement. Forgiveness both cleanses and empowers.