I confessed my struggle with pornography in late 2004. I had struggled for 5 years after being exposed at age 13. My “hobby” use quickly spiraled into what I would consider an addiction (though experts argue if that’s even a real thing. I say yes.)
By the time I was 17 and away at college, I was viewing pornography on a school computer with my roommate asleep less than 10 feet behind me, within view of our behemoth 2003 desktop. I was sleeping through my morning Chemistry class and sex chatting with men and women online, from my dorm room, at a Christian college. Eventually I sent nude photos of myself to a man.
I got caught there in college. My internet was being tracked. But when the dean confronted me with my internet history report and alleged porn problem that was “disgusting and one of the worst cases they had ever seen” she told me “We know this wasn’t you. Women just don’t have this problem.” That was Fall 2003.
A year later, I outed myself, and told someone I struggled with pornography and needed help. I found help, and it took me almost two years to feel like I was “free” from pornography. While I’ve been “free” for over a decade, I’ve never stopped battling it. Those ten years of freedom have included moments of temptation and many times of relapse. Still, I would call it freedom, and there’s much I have learned in the process.
Freedom from Pornography is Possible
There were days I thought, “There’s no way I can beat this.” In the morning, I would wake up and say, “Not today” but it’s like my feet had autopilot and just walked me to the computer desk. Hours would slip by online and I felt powerless to stop any of it. I tried changing passwords (doesn’t help when you know them!). I tried self-harm. I tried finding other hobbies. Nothing seemed to help.
You can’t begin to fathom a life without pornography, so you’re just desperate to survive in spite of it. But there’s a better option that “surviving in spite of pornography.” Freedom is possible. It’s hard, but it’s real.
That bit of truth would have been so helpful for me in my struggle, because the days I thought, “There’s no way out of this” were always the hardest. In fact, believing there was no way out is exactly what led me into the darkest parts of my story. We need the hope that there is a way out and that freedom is available to us. It is.
Healing Goes Beyond Freedom
But there’s more to this journey than simply finding freedom from pornography. Too many times we make it all about “stop watching porn” and just leave it at that. We forget to answer important questions like
- What does life look like without pornography?
- What kind of damage has pornography done and has it healed?
- Do I know how to build healthy friendships?
- How do I restore a positive view of sex?
- How has this affected my view of my body?
We can get so focused on not doing a particular behavior that we forget about the healing that needs to take place. What I’ve found though is as you heal those deeper wounds, if you will, the temptation and draw toward pornography essentially lessens.
Porn and Trauma are Connected
My friend, Lacy Bentley, author of Overcoming Love Addiction, once said during a presentation that she hasn’t worked with one woman addicted to porn who didn’t have some sort of sexual trauma that predated her porn experience.
I would add that this has likely changed with Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) as many of them consume pornography because it’s viewed as acceptable to do so. In fact, it’s encouraged. That being said, the exposure to pornography can itself be traumatic.
There’s a reason exposing children to pornography is classified as child abuse. When I give my parent presentations, I explain that little children are not drawn to the sexual aspects of pornography. Instead they are drawn like we are to footage of crashes. Exposure to sexual material is traumatizing for children.
However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realized it can be traumatic for many adults and young adults as well. It can be traumatic in the sense that you weren’t prepared for what you saw and that seeing it negatively affected how you thought or reacted to something.
We spend a lot of time talking about pornography as a bad choice, but not a lot discussing how we were led to make that bad choice. When there are lasting consequences, we have a bad tendency of just labeling those as sin and neglecting the reality of the effects of trauma.
Boundaries are OK
A common misconception is that post-porn me needs to look exactly like everyone who has never viewed it. That’s simply not the case. I have friends who are allowed to ask me awkward questions. I have controls enabled on my phone.
There are things in place in my life that help me stay on the track of freedom. Even as I prepare to be married in less than two weeks, there are boundaries my fiance and I have that other couples may not. And that’s ok. They aren’t a negative side effect of my choices. They are ways I choose freedom.
I would rather be free than fit in.
Falling isn’t a Relapse
I have been free from pornography for over a decade. That means the last time I compulsively viewed pornography was over ten years ago. But, I’ve said it many times before, pornography will be a weakness for the rest of my life. In a sense, it is my drug. My brain knows the hit it gets from porn and if I’m looking for a hit, that’s where my mind is going to go.
As the years have gone by that connection has lessened, but I think it’s always going to be there. Sure, it may grow over, and synapses may rewire, and memories and images may fade, but things are never fully erased from our minds. The track would always be there if I chose to jump back on it.
And in those ten years, there are times I have. I’m not dishonest about that. This isn’t a sex addict’s anonymous blog where I stand here and say, “My name is Jessica and it’s been ten years since I last saw porn.” It hasn’t. But never in those ten years, when a low point sucked me back into the porn vortex, did I ever feel “Oh no, I’m trapped again.” If anything, the response was,”Oh no you don’t!”and I fought even harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.
It saddens me when women feel like one bad choice can “cancel” out weeks, months, even years of freedom. If you fall, get up and fight. Free people can fight back. Don’t throw yourself back in prison, fight. Figure out what led you to make those choices. Find your triggers and deal with them.
Ladies, Your Sex Drive is a Good Thing
Perhaps that’s a “no duh” statement for you, but I come from a religious culture in which the sex drive of women isn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, it’s stifled. The moment we do anything remotely embracing our sexuality we get hurled into Proverbs 5 territory (the adulteress woman). Women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex, even though we were created by God with an organ specifically devoted to sexual pleasure.
So, I guess God didn’t get the memo?
A book I am currently reading is Knowing Her Intimately by Laura Brotherson, a certified sex therapist. In the first chapter, she addresses this idea that women have such negative views of their own sexuality. Many women struggle to embrace the fact they are sexual beings and struggle to see that as a good thing. Before healthy sex can happen, she says, that view needs to be transformed.
Women need to recognize that we also are made with the ability and drive to enjoy sex. Is it always on par with a man’s drive? No. Can it be? For some. Can it exceed a man’s drive? Yes. In fact, according to one author’s survey, 24% of marriages had a wife with a higher drive than her husband.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Side note: Even while writing this, I am realizing that so much about freedom is not only learning what is actually wrong and addressing that, but also, embracing that which is not wrong.
When we label things wrong that aren’t, we make ourselves feel even more trapped.
If I thought being a woman with a high sex drive was something broken that needed fixing, I’d never be “free.” Trauma in my past? That needs addressed. The fact that I desire sex? That does not.
Honesty Brings Freedom
There’s a Bible verse that talks about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. This might not be the appropriate application of it, but it comes to mind when talking about honesty and how honesty eradicates shame.
So much of the feeling of being stuck in pornography is due to shame. Shame is what keeps women in silence. Shame is what makes us not reach out and ask for help. Shame is what keeps us from sharing our story with others.
Honesty combats shame because it opens doors for grace. I will never experience grace if I’m not first honest.
Years ago, when I shared my story, I didn’t understand the level of freedom that would bring in my life. I don’t have to hide. I can openly discuss my story. Not only does that help me experience freedom, it’s also used to help others find freedom.
In the past few months, as I’ve gotten to know my future husband, I’ve seen this truth replayed over and over. When I am honest with him, it doesn’t rip us apart, it draws us together. It makes us a team as opposed to me vs. him and a fear of him finding things out.
Fear of being known is a hallmark of shame and we deal with that by taking a risk and being honest.
Honesty is what started my journey of freedom, and every moment of growth—from dealing with trauma in my past, to understanding my own need for boundaries—has come because of honesty.
If you are looking for freedom, to step out on that journey of a life without pornography, I encourage you to start where I did—tell somebody. Find a trusted friend, mentor, counselor, parent, and share your story.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. It was for me. But you can’t walk in freedom if you aren’t willing to open the door.
Visit Jessica Harris’s website, Beggar’s Daughter, for additional resources and articles.
02 May 2019
To say that ministry is incredibly challenging is an understatement. It’s a joy to see God work in those you minister to, but it’s really hard when God begins to expose your struggles, sins, and limits. In this video, Shalee explains that God works in us by undoing things that aren’t of him. The undoing process is often uncomfortable and painful, but if it is of God, it is worth it. You can read more about what Shalee learned in her year-long internship at Harvest USA in her blog, “Jumping in the Deep End of Ministry.”
02 May 2019
I sat, listening to women in my discipleship group share personal stories about pain and heartbreak in their lives. My emotions began to unravel. The group ended, and I felt undone. I was not sure how to process what I’d heard. Tears of empathy and anger tumbled out of me.
I had moved across the country to intern with Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry, but I didn’t realize how deep was the end of the pool I had agreed to jump into. I saw God work powerfully in the women’s lives I worked with, but what I didn’t expect was the different places in my own life where God would be doing and undoing, affecting my spiritual walk every step of the way.
My previous life revolved around athletics as both a player and a coach, so doing ministry was an entirely different transition. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve been considering ministry to sexual strugglers, but you know that this work can be incredibly challenging and humbling.
Let me share one big takeaway that I’ve learned: ministry can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Here are four ways God did his work of doing and undoing in my life as I served this past year.
1. Wresting with Insecurity
Emotions. Life is full of them. Entering into ministry provoked new levels of fear and anxiety in me. I feared the impact on my reputation. Throughout life, I rode the coattails of my athletic success, and unbeknownst to me, I developed a deep-rooted pride in the reputation I had built. As I experienced strong reactions from people about my new life path, I was gripped with fear, fear of what people thought of me and if my beliefs would cost me relationships along the way.
I also experienced insecurity and doubts as I quickly learned how inadequate I am to help people.
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey.
I questioned what I had to offer and what would I possibly say to someone who is suffering? Lack of confidence rapidly overtook areas of my life, making me wonder if there were people more qualified for this type of work and whether I was cut out for this.
2. Facing the Real in Life (AKA Reality)
I realized I had spent much of my life naive to the realities around me. It is far easier to live naively and deliberately choose to see what you want rather than face the reality of the pain and darkness so many followers of Jesus have been carrying alone. God put me in a situation of not only facing these hard realities, but he also invited me into them.
As God brought my head out of the sand of denial, I was overwhelmed. I was gripped by the sadness of seeing the brokenness and suffering people go through. I was met head-on with the hard reality that sin causes devastation and leaves behind unimaginable wreckage in people’s lives. As many of you already know, facing reality is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
3. Everyone Journeys at Their Own Pace
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey. In the battle against sin, rich biblical truths that God uses in our own journey may be applied differently. In my own life, I saw there were so many things I needed to be quick to obey and follow through on and just do it (see my blog, “Quick to Obey…”)
I tried this with a woman who was walking a similar road as me. I thought these things worked for me, so surely they will work for her, too. As I shared details about what specific obedience looked like for me, before I knew it, I had put demands, expectations, and time frames on her to make the same choices.
As time passed, it was becoming clear she wasn’t heeding my advice. As I look back, I sacrificed patience by demanding she hurry up and obey. I sacrificed humility by failing to speak the truth in love.
But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives.
I painfully learned that imposing my faith walk on someone else was unwise and unloving. When we do this, we risk boxing others within our walls of experience, potentially blocking truths in Scripture that lead to other faithful avenues for the other person. Thankfully, God is bigger than my failed attempts to love. I’m thankful for James 4:6: “But he gives more grace.”
4. Ministry is About Faithfulness, Not Success
I learned that God doesn’t measure spiritual growth through my worldly definition of success. My athletic background wired me for a relentless pursuit of success. That distracted me from the ultimate goal of ministry—faithfulness to the glory of God.
Success is often rooted in a desire to receive glory for our own efforts while faithfulness is rooted in a desire to glorify God through your efforts. This contrast creates a tension between competing goals. I had to learn that the end goal isn’t to win the day but rather to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Ministry at street level can be overwhelming and feel like we are in over our head. But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives. As someone who suffered in silence and secrecy for years, it is easy to believe we are alone in this fight, but our loving Father is with us, and he has raised up people who are not afraid to enter into these painful places with us as well.
My experience at Harvest USA has shown me what a privilege it is to come alongside women needing help in their journey of faith and repentance. Because I’ve seen the power of this kind of ministry, I’ve recently decided to join the full-time staff as part of the women’s ministry team.
Do I still feel in over my head? Yes! But I have seen that I have everything I need, and you do too. All ministry, not just to those who battle patterns of sexual sin, is over our heads! When we follow Jesus into hard places, we’re going into the deep end of humanity’s worst struggle: sin. Thanks be to God that our Savior gives us everything we need to point people to him, the ultimate Lifeline we all need.
Shalee shares additional insight in the accompanying video: What Is God Undoing in My Life—and Yours? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
The first time I skydived, I was terrified and excited to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I could see the cloudy sky and minute details of the ground below—very far below. The instructor, to whom I was attached in tandem, yelled out as the wind rushed in the open door as my comfort zone slowly slipped away, “Are you ready?!” My heart raced as I said yes and before I knew it, we were falling out of the plane into the open air. After an exhilarating free fall, the parachute cord was pulled and down we gracefully floated to the ground. As I look back, I realized that I could have missed the rush of that experience had I not taken that initial step out of the comfort zone of the plane.
Years ago, when God began a life-transforming process in my life, I struggled to “step out of the plane.” I mean, I did want to follow Jesus, and I did want to do whatever it took. But not always. As the real-deal of what it was going to look like to be free from unhealthy relationships and sinful patterns in my life, I tried everything I could to delay being obedient to what God had set before me.
What I was trying to do—stay within my comfort zone by not stepping into the freefall of obeying God, which was terrifying—is what many sexual strugglers do.
Obedience begins with a willingness to submit oneself to the will of God. John 14:15 sums it up, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice in this verse that love precedes the command. It is from an overflow of our love for God that makes us willing to be obedient. What often isn’t expressed in this discussion is how easy it is to waste time dancing around obedience all while trying to justify your delays.
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another.
In Psalm 119:60, David says, “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” To hasten is “to move or act quickly.” David is reminding us that out of our love for God, we are not called to just keep his commandments, we should strive to be quick to obey.
Being quick to obey can be difficult for many reasons. Decisions are usually accompanied by a host of emotions, feelings that toss you to and fro, often times confusing the matter by fogging what’s otherwise seemingly black and white. Most would agree, obedience usually costs us something. But often times, the most profound spiritual growth comes as we make commitments to walk in obedience regardless of how we feel. Lived out, we pray for Christ-enabling power to make changes, then it requires us to make up our mind to love God by just doing it, or in some cases, stop doing it.
Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” What it looks like to “put on” and make no provision for worldly desires will look different for each of us. There is no formula, but here are four examples of ways to hasten obedience and not delay in order to break free from sinful patterns.
- Pursue Jesus every day
Here’s the amazing truth for all of us: we don’t walk alone! Far better than being attached to a professional skydiver, we are united with Jesus. Our first obedience is to abide in his love and Word and to deepen our understanding of our identity of being in Christ. We show our love for God through our obedience, but this is never about us mustering up the courage or strength to do it. As Paul said in Phil. 2:13, “its God who is at work” in us to change our desires and give us a willingness to obey him.
- Develop Accountability in Relationships
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another. While it is ideal to have others take the initiative to ask questions, make a commitment to confess your sins whether asked or not.
- Avoid relational connections that tempt you towards sin
It is important to disconnect from people that have been a part of your past sinful decisions. This is painful to acknowledge, but your past selfish choices could lead to hard consequences that hurt people you love. Staying in this type of relationship isn’t really loving if it doesn’t lead to obeying God. Although a choice like this can easily be misconstrued, it is actually an act of love and helps avoid being mired in long-term messy situations. For people on both sides of this type of obedience, God can be trusted with whatever consequences may come.
- Implement Technology Restrictions
Make modifications to any form of technology that grips or controls your emotional state, especially social media. These types of limitations expose what you allow in your life and how that positively or negatively affects what comes out in thought, word and behavior. This may seem minimal, but give it a try for a week or two and see for yourself.
Maybe for you all these steps look overwhelming. The good news (because there is Good news!), is God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. His command, his calls to quick obedience, are doable things God wants to help us with. The ground may look very far below, but it is God’s promise to get us there safely.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
So what could this look like in your life? Maybe it looks like being quick to fight against focusing on the negative but rather fight for a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6-7). Or maybe this looks like being quick to break the cycle of selfish inward thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5). Or maybe this looks like being quick to have honest conversations with God through prayer in the day in and day out battle of life.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
He is the ultimate Instructor who is tender and compassionate towards us as we learn how to walk in ways of new life in new light. He will bind up our broken hearts, lift our drooping heads, and provide peace that surpasses understanding. All while blessing our obedience and delighting in our efforts on this long road no matter how many times we fail to hasten.
Shalee talks more about this issue in the accompanying video: Why Is Delayed Obedience So Dangerous? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
It’s hard to obey God when it costs something of us. It’s even harder to quickly obey, to obey without hesitation. But the more we linger or delay, the things that trouble us grow in power and strength over us. In this video, Shalee shares four dangers of delayed obedience.
To learn more, read Shalee’s accompanying blog: “Quick to Obey on the Long Road of Obedience.”
With addiction being the verbal currency of just about any human struggle nowadays, pastors and church leaders will find themselves helping men and women who are trapped in addictive pornography struggles. In this video, Mark Sanders speaks to pastors and church leaders on ways that they can help.
To learn more, read Mark’s accompanying blog: “Is Porn Addiction Just a Medical Problem?” You can also read Mark’s first blog in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, where he discusses how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: What Can Pastors Do When People Say They Feel Addicted to Porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
04 Oct 2018
Women involved in friendships and ministry (discipleship, caregiving, counseling, etc.) sometimes become ensnared in messy, emotional, codependent attachments with each other. These codependent relationships easily take on a romantic feel and can become sexualized. Breaking free can be excruciating! However, rest assured that messy relationships are a “common to man” temptation and sin struggle. Consider Beth and Anna.
“Ellen, we never saw ourselves as gay, but we have never been in love with another person in this way.”
This was how Beth¹ a woman in her forties, described her affair with Anna, a young grad student who began coming to her church. They connected easily, and a warm friendship and casual mentoring relationship developed quickly.
Beth described her marriage to her husband, a pastor, as “living under the same roof but being physically and emotionally divorced.” With Anna, however, she experienced the deeply satisfying emotional oneness she had always craved. Their physical affection slowly pushed past appropriate boundaries. Before long, these two Christian sisters were involved in a sexual relationship. No one questioned the intense, consuming nature of the relationship. “Everyone just thought we were the best of friends and even envied our connection,” Beth told me.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
Diagnosing a Messy Relationship
Here are five indicators of an unhealthy attachment.
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders, as a threat to your closeness.
- The relationship needs regular clarification of each person’s role in it. Generally, one woman has a needy/take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed/caregiver role. Fear, insecurity, and jealousy are triggered when one steps out of her role.
- Maintaining consistent emotional connection is vital. Texts, emails, calls and time spent together grow and intensify to typically become life-dominating.
- Romanticized affection through words and physical touch, and of course any sexual involvement.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
The Mess of Relational Idolatry
Our desires for unfailing love and being deeply known are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God. He loves us perfectly, knows us completely, and exists in a holy relational Trinity. However, every detail of our image bearing capability is distorted by sin.
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God. As God’s redeemed and no-longer-belonging-to-ourselves people, we are created by, through, and for Christ as Colossians 1:16 beautifully declares. This means that all of our relationships, and the place we give people in our lives, are to be submitted under the loving Lordship of Christ. No friend or woman we may be mentoring should ever become a god or Jesus-replacement in our life!
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God… Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can.
The truth is that messy relationships can still feel beautiful and loving. But even our desires are disordered and need the radical Christward orientation that only the clarity of Scripture gives. Desires can be corrupt and sinful (2 Peter 1:4), or they can be “of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17), which bears out in the sweet, holy good fruit of the Spirit. Though created for wholeness and holiness, all of us struggle in one way or another in our desires and relationships.
Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can. Sister, if you are involved in a relationship similar to Anna and Beth’s, know that idolatry is a common struggle to all of us.
The Bible and Idolatry
My journey of faith, relationships, and sin has included the worship of people, including women I’ve mentored. Though Scripture does not use the phrase “relational idolatry,” it’s in there.
Consider these passages.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)
God does not command us to be exclusive in our devotion to him because he is insecure or narcissistic! Instead, God loves us and knows that when we worship him alone, we glorify him, and people will be in their proper place in our lives as godly friends rather than Jesus-replacements.
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13)
God’s people had committed a variety of rebellious acts, yet he sums up their sin with two statements that apply to us today: a) we turn away from him and b) seek other sources as our living water. What do you value in your relationships?
- Is it to fix someone’s life?
- Is it to have someone put your life back together when you feel broken?
- Is your heart empty and you want someone to make it whole?
You know the name for this: codependency. But it’s deeper than that: it’s co-idolatry as two women look to each other for their value, identity, and security, something only God is able to give to us.
Steps of Repentance if You’re in a Relational Mess
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships, which is a fruit of worship and trust of God alone. Here are steps of faith and repentance to take.
1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus. Fleeing to Jesus means letting go of this relationship by turning towards him. Which means you must leave where you are, throw off sin and hindrances. He is faithful to hear, forgive, and love all who come to him (Heb. 4:16).
If you don’t know where to begin, try praying Psalm 139:23-24. Here’s my expanded version.
“Lord, search and examine me…explore all the crevices of my heart and mind…all my anxious thoughts. See if there are any sinful paths I’m walking in, if there are patterns of painful idolatry in me. Reveal the true nature of my heart Lord and give me spiritual guidance in your good, holy pathways.”
2. Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s deep comfort. Letting go will be anguishing; it will get more painful before it gets better. But the pain which comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving pain. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to touch, cut, and heal the deeper issues of your heart (unbelief, fear, insecurity, anger, trauma, pain, etc.).
3. Separate and allow space to happen between you and this woman. Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but one that leads to true life. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” If you’ve been sexually involved, you must sever ties completely. Indefinitely. This is how you will put to death the messy attachment that has formed between you.
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships
On this point, I usually get pushback. But Ellen, we love each other as friends! We encouraged each other so much in Christ before things got sexual…can’t we just go back to what was good?!
If you are in this situation, I wish I could see your face now and talk to you tenderly, yet directly. Sister, you must flee temptation and sin at all costs! 1 Corinthians 10:14 says you are to flee from sin…not try to manage it, heal it, or contain it. Put to death, flee, repent (or turn a relational 180). These are the words that God’s word uses in considering our relationship to sin. When sexual sin enters a non-marital relationship, obedience means turning from that person and relationship so that your heart can become set fully on Christ, your true life, once more (Colossians 3:1-4).
Consider this a season of intentional fasting from any contact with this person. No social media stalking. Do not muse over texts, emails, etc. Let go and the comfort of God will be a bottomless well of comfort if you stay the course.
New gospel life WILL come from this death. “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…” (Jer. 30:17).
4. Pursue biblical discipleship regarding:
How to cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ. It’s possible to be busy for the Lord, without loving and abiding in him. A wise Puritan pastor said, “The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls will go in silent search of other lovers.”²
The underlying heart issues you need to address. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32). What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What is off kilter in your beliefs?
God’s design for healthy relationships. What does it mean to have the kind of wise love that Paul prayed for in Philippians 1:9-11? Christ is eager to teach you what it looks like to have himself in his rightful place in your life so that people will be in theirs.
5. Seek accountability for your relationships. I’ve learned that I must have people who have meddling rights in my life! Trusted, spiritually mature friends who love and encourage me to cultivate godly relationships and will help me discern if I’m blind to a potential relational mess.
6. Cry out to Jesus your Deliverer day after day. He is our precious Savior… and our faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom we are married to for all of eternity. He will help, love, and comfort us while we live during this short earthly time. He will grow “into us” the testimony of David:
“He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me.” (Psalm 18:19)
God loves his daughters so much that he faithfully calls us to himself away from idols, including messy relationships. Hear this promise today as you ponder what your next steps of faith are:
“Now to him who is able to Keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)
This blog first appeared on Revive Our Hearts under the title: “Untangle Twisted Relationships: When Women’s Friendships Become Unhealthy.”
² John Flavel, “The Method of Grace,” The Whole Works of John Flavel (London: Baynes, 1820), vol. 2, p. 438.
Ellen talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: When Do Friendships Between Women Become Codependent? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Good friendships in the Body of Christ are vital and necessary. And those friendships should be rich and deep. But sometimes there’s a danger lurking there: when one or both friends look to each other for what only Jesus can give us, then relational idolatry happens. Listen to Ellen talk about how to get yourself out of that unhealthy friendship and move toward Christ.
There’s more to learn after this video! Read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Codependent Struggles in Women’s Friendships. You can also go to Ellen’s 3-part blog and video series on emotional affairs. Click here for “Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part I”.
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.”