24 Oct 2019
What makes someone act out sexually in a sinful way? What compels a believer, who wants to follow Christ, to embrace specific actions or a life that he knows to be wrong?
When I am trying to help a man discern why sexual sin has a grip on his life, I ask a lot of questions: “What were you thinking and feeling in the events and interactions leading up to your season of acting out?” There is always something that is a trigger for behavior.
Here is what I hear quite often, a common category of responses: “I was exhausted,” “I felt empty,” “I’d been working so hard; I figured I deserved this pleasure,” “I felt worn out, numb,” and “I felt like there are so many demands on me—I feel no joy.”
More often than not, these experiences do not immediately lead to sexual sin. This feeling of exhaustion, however, marks the beginning of a process. Initially, these men respond “innocently,” going to any number of “recreational” activities—watching TV, surfing the internet, checking Facebook, app surfing on the phone, and playing video games. Seems innocent enough.
Whatever the activity, what seems common is that it is, for the most part, not an actual activity; it’s passive—physically, mentally, and emotionally passive. These things represent the opposite of whatever has the men exhausted. They are tired from doing, doing, doing, and this is their way to stop, to rest. Unfortunately, these “restful” activities almost always morph into sexual sin.
There seems to be an unbroken line from seemingly harmless pastimes to the sinful habit that is destroying these men. Why? Could it be that these things are a counterfeit Sabbath?
I don’t want to focus here on arguments about what one may or may not do on Sunday; my concern is about what the heart of Sabbath means. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It was given to give us rest, but not just rest, rest in God. Sabbath is a ceasing from our efforts, striving, and anxiety at meeting our needs and desires; it is a refreshment in and celebration of our dependence on God and his faithful provision for us.
In other words, when we are exhausted, God wants us to be refreshed in him. When we are anxious, God wants us to find peace in him. When we are weary, God wants us to find rest in him.
When we are weary, God wants us to find rest in him.
Why is this so hard for us to do? I think it is because we have given ourselves for so long to counterfeit Sabbaths—passive entertainment and easy, self-focused pleasures. Our patterns of recreation are predictable and reliable; we are in control. However, receiving refreshment from God when we are weary requires something we can’t do—God must show up.
This means Sabbath is an act of faith. It is a basic exercise of trust—trust first that God himself is faithful to forgive us and give us eternal life in Christ, but also trust that he will sustain us and meet our needs in the here and now.
In the first biblical story of Sabbath observance, in Exodus 16, God sets up a test of trust around his giving of the Manna. On each of the first five days, the Israelites were to limit their gathering to one day’s provision—any more than that spoiled. But on the sixth day, they were to gather two days’ worth, then rest completely on the seventh day, trusting that what had already been given would not spoil. This was not easy for them to learn.
If for six days the Israelites were striving in their own strength, meeting their needs on their own, dependent on their own ability to gather enough bread to sustain themselves, then resting on the seventh day was completely foreign to them. And that is, in fact, the way it went. On day seven, many just continued as if they had to meet their own needs without God’s help or direction.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what does one day of the week have to do with a sin I struggle with 24/7?” In other words, “Isn’t Sabbath a Sunday concern? How does that help me on Friday night?”
Well, Sabbath is not really about one day out of seven. Consider again the Sabbath experience God designed for the Israelites in Exodus 16. Didn’t the faith exercise on day seven change the way they experienced days 1-6? Of course, the point was not just one day, but regular, daily life.
So much of our sin is the fruit of seeking refuge in false gods—activities or people—that give us an immediate payback of what feels like rest. At Harvest USA, we call that “autonomy,” the most basic sinful orientation of the heart, where you determine what you need to meet the problems you face in life, apart from God and his instruction.
So much of our sin is the fruit of seeking refuge in false gods—activities or people—that give us an immediate payback of what feels like rest.
Of course, that is a delusion. In the end, the false gods we turn to for relief eventually lead us into dark places that trap us and hold us in bondage. Before we know it, the relief we find in sexual sin brings despair and hopelessness.
But Jesus still says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary…” (Matthew 11:28). He gives us a better way.
How do we make Jesus our refuge from our weariness? Start by making some choices to rest in specific ways on Sunday that require you to trust in him rather than in your own efforts.
The example of the Israelites is ours, too. If we don’t have this posture on Sunday, this understanding about the heart of Sabbath rest, then we won’t have it any other day. You will continue to “rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2), and in your weariness you will continue to go to your own resources, to the sin that speaks its own promise of rest.
If the Israelites rested in God on the Sabbath, it would be an act of faith in the idea that God was truly with them and committed to meeting their every need. This would change even the way they gathered bread on every other day. They would, in the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
At a heart level, where they received their rest determined how they worked.
This principle applies to the men I talk to who habitually end up using porn as they “rest” after hard labor. The goal is not adherence to a set of religious rules about one day of the week. It is a comprehensive change in posture toward both work and rest, from a posture of independent self-rule to one of grateful dependence on God.
A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)
Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.
Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.
Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.
How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?
If you’re stuck on a mat . . .
Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.
First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.
Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.
Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!
Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.