Check out the companion video blog of Bob Heywood, where he talks about his struggle with pornography. Then, look at the steps in this blog on how to address your own struggle with pornography.

Acknowledge the reality of your sexual struggles and sin
Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (ESV). When we conceal our sins from others, our struggles become harder and deeper. In denial, we often hide our sin even from ourselves because we do not want to admit we are weak or in need. The first step out of an addictive sinful behavior is to stop denying it and admit to yourself you caught in an enslaving sin pattern (see Galatians 6:1).

Confess your sin to God
In addition to Proverbs 28:13, I John 1:9 says much the same thing: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s hard to admit your brokenness, so focus closely on what this passage says: God is faithful to forgive us, and in Christ we are not just shown mercy, we are also made clean from the very stain of sin.

Confess your sin to someone else
Isn’t confessing to God enough? No, because faith in Christ is not just about me and him, it includes those whom he has also called to follow him, his body, the church. Recall one of the most powerful things Bob said in the video: He needed friends in the church to gently and lovingly pursue him, and he needed to be honest with them about his struggles. Reflect on James 5:14-15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Repent of your sin—which means turning from it and rejecting it
Repentance is more than feeling sorry for yourself because of your struggles. To repent means you will seek to do “whatever it takes” to turn from your sin, even if it is costly to do so. Repentance depends on being honest before God and crying out for his power to change, and then actively “putting to death” the idol of sin—again and again, no matter how long it takes—that is enslaving you. Read the whole chapter of Colossians 3 for Paul’s argument on what repentance looks like.

Seek assistance through accountability
The power of secret sin is its secrecy. Confessing to someone else dispels that power. The Bible encourages us to confess to others and to both help and be helped by others in the body of Christ (again, Galatians 6:1-2; James 5:16). Find someone of the same gender as you with whom to be fully honest with and who will keep you accountable for what you think, say, and do. Do this often, even daily if necessary.

Destroy all pornography in your possession, limit and/or remove your Internet access, and eliminate access to people, places, and things which tempt you
Romans 13:14 states we dare not “make provision for the flesh.” Do not keep open any option to sin. Don’t toy around with anything that keeps this temptation right in front of you. Sin is serious because, as Jesus said, it is an enslaving master; it will control you (look at John 8:34). Be honest with your accountability partner(s) and let them help you close off any and all access to pornography and other sexual sin temptations.

Put yourself under the spiritual direction of a mature Christian
Find someone of the same gender as you who is more mature in the faith to meet with you regularly and discuss your struggles. A more mature Christian may be able to help you see the deeper dynamics of your heart and how you are responding to circumstances and to the deeper desires and longings of your own heart. For a more thorough overview of how our internal heart desires impact us, read the blog series on 1 Thessalonians 4.

Make amends—where possible—with individuals you have harmed
We are called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Do this wherever possible, unless contacting the person would cause more harm—such as in cases of sexual abuse. In those situations, seek professional assistance.

Focus on learning more about Christ and his character, love, and sacrifice
Only a growing love for Christ will eventually push out your love for sin; therefore, you need to focus on him. Too much focus on your struggle will only serve to increase your self-centeredness. Balance self-reflection with learning more of Jesus.

Find ways to serve others instead of yourself
Crowd out sin by occupying yourself with serving others. Serve where your gifts are, but avoid situations that might actually increase temptation.

Continually repent of your deeper sins
The older the Apostle Paul became, the more aware he was of his sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:15). As you grow in Christ, you will see deeper areas of your heart that give energy and power to sin. Keep repenting and thank Christ that his sacrifice is sufficient for even the deeper sins of your heart!

Bob Heywood shares his story about his battle with pornography and what it took for him to change.

 

Desire in its best forms

God is a jealous, desiring God. How does one describe the unseen, all-knowing, omnipotent, ever-present God? Words and human experience can never do him justice. And yet, God uses words to teach us about himself. He is just, benevolent, holy, and sovereign. These descriptions evoke images of power, of needing nothing. God does not need anything, for in him everything obtains its life.

But notice, he does not only describe himself with terms of power and strength, but also with words that suggest desire and longing. God is not merely patient with us. No, he longs for us and would gather us to him as a hen would gather her chicks (Matthew 23:37). He pursues his wife (Israel) and hems her in even when she runs after other lovers (Hosea 2). He “burns” with jealousy for Zion so much so that he returns her to an honor she does not deserve (Zechariah 8:2-7), even paying the price himself for remarriage. If God desires us, longing for the glory he deserves from his creatures, then desire is not just something that we should resist.

God cares about and fulfills our desires

You cannot accuse God of being an ascetic or uncaring of your desires. We see numerous references to God’s attention to our desires. The Psalmist reminds God that he hears the desires of suffering people (10:17). He not only hears; he also acts. In Psalm 20 and 21, David sings of God’s hand in bringing about the desires of his heart. In Psalm 37, David clarifies the relationship between human desires and God’s response. When we delight in God, he delights to give us our desires (see also Matthew 5:6). He is a father who dotes on his children. He gives good things that satisfy (Psalm 103:5). Jesus picks up on this theme and reminds us that if we, who are evil, give good gifts to each other, then will not God, the creator of the universe, give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11)? Are you not yet convinced that God delights to fulfill your desires? Then listen to David as he bursts forth in song, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (Psalm 145:16,19).

I can hear your objection. “But wait,” you say, “There are many desires that God never fulfilled for me. If he longs to fulfill our desires, why didn’t he fulfill mine? Why do I feel so empty? I want to be healthy, married, a parent, happy, content, but my prayers seem to hit the ceiling and return to me.” I do not dispute that living in the wilderness leaves much to be desired. The misery of living in this sin-sick world multiplies daily. Yet, did not God provide for your desires today? Did you not eat? Did you not find momentary rest for your weary body? Did you not see his beauty reflected in something or someone? Ah, we are exposed. We grow complacent with God’s good gifts. They aren’t gifts in our minds, just something that everybody gets. We are far too often like the Israelites in the desert. We overlook the good things God gives us and obsess on what he did not give. God’s good gifts are no accident or afterthought—some sympathetic gesture to a waif. Rather he gives them out of the overflowing desire for his own glory and for the completion of all that he has willed. Every good gift you have received has come because God has ordained your existence in an abundantly provided world (see Psalm 65). He supplies you with your food and with whatever joy, peace, laughter, and righteousness you have experienced.

Fulfilled desires are sweet

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life… a desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:12,19a). These brief proverbs remind us of what we already know. When our desires are fulfilled, it is a satisfying moment. Even illicit gratification is satisfying, though deadly. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Why else would we go back for more? When our desires are filled, we are comforted and secure. God comforts the brokenhearted and satisfies them with his bounty (Jeremiah 31:13-14). Satisfaction also brings joy and gladness. Moses supplicates, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Satisfaction brings knowledge. The children of Israel, once filled with manna, know that the Lord is their God (Exodus 16:12).

Sexual desire is complex, compelling, and good

Why would God put the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to tell us more about himself? What purpose does an erotic book detailing the urges and orgasms of an anonymous couple serve the kingdom of God? The man spends numerous lines waxing poetic about her genitalia and how he wants to play with her. She shivers and aches for her climax. No, this is not a harlequin romance novel. In fact, it is probably more erotic and explicit about sexual desire than our English translations will admit. Those who try to spiritualize the text to mean only something of how God feels towards his church surely do God an injustice. And what of the mysterious phrase that appears in the book on three occasions, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)? These would seem to indicate that one must be careful with love and the power it wields. If you are not careful, your appetites may overwhelm you.

No, really, its best form

As good as sexual desire is, it pales next to desire for God and being united with Christ. The Psalms are full of descriptions of longings for God. David cries out for God, for his ways, his wisdom, and his presence. How are these depicted? There are numerous depictions of this desire as the cries of one who is thirsty and longing for water (e.g., Psalm 42:1; 63:1, 143:6.). In the New Testament, Paul records a similar sentiment. We groan while we are in this “tent” of a body and long for our guaranteed inheritance (II Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice that your good desires for God will bring upon yourself more pain! Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? “Come to Jesus,” we say, “and your life (as you have imagined it) will go well.” Instead, as we draw closer to God, our desire for him enlarges. Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? Satisfaction increases, but certainly so does agony as we develop an increasing awareness of our desperate need for God.

Yet do not be discouraged; our desires for God do not end in only pain. We do find satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, joy, and peace. Psalm 131 depicts satisfaction with God as a baby on his mother’s lap whose stomach is filled, who no longer needs to grab at her breasts for more. When we take worship as our food, Isaiah records that we will delight “in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). These satisfactions are not just spiritual. Rather they reach out into the far corners of our lives. Solomon, who contemplated the search for satisfaction reminds his readers that any satisfaction we achieve has been a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

Update 7.27.2018

In an earlier post (below), Dave White talks about whether it is ever appropriate to tell you children about your own sexual struggles and sin from the past. In the video above, Dave gives a number of options on how to do this.

Do you have sexual skeletons in your closet? Many Christian parents do, and as their kids edge toward the teen years, they begin to dread the questions that may come and begin to ask their own: How can I expect my kids to hold the line sexually when I failed at their age? Isn’t disclosing my own failures giving them license to do whatever they want?

In light of these concerns, does it ever make sense to open the closet door and let your kids see your past?

It depends. There are some kids in a place of rebellion, looking for any excuse to act out. The parent/child relationship may be so contentious that any vulnerability will be exploited and used later to lash out and possibly wound when you seek to address your child’s behavior. Were you a Christian while you were sexually active? This could cause your Christian teen to think they can sin now and repent later. All of us should pause and seek the Spirit’s guidance in broaching these issues with our kids.

That said, in the vast majority of cases, I believe it can be wise and helpful to let your kids see into the closet. Here are three good reasons why.

First, your story can provide a cautionary tale. Even if you were spared the harsh consequences of STDs or an unplanned pregnancy, you can discuss the soul damage that can occur when we don’t follow God. Our “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt someone” culture tells us we can indulge sexually with impunity, but God says it is a sin against our very selves (1 Corinthians 6:18). Our kids need to hear that there are unseen consequences in carelessly squandering God’s great gift in this area of life. There can be some real losses later in life. Even if the sin was only with your spouse prior to marriage, you can share the challenges this may have caused early in marriage, the way it impacted the joy of your honeymoon, etc.

Listen: I’m not big on scare tactics. Graphic STD photos aren’t helpful to show to your teen. But there is a benefit to hearing that this is God’s world and following him is the only path to true blessing and joy.

Second, it gives glory to the God who redeems. My past is extremely messy, and my kids have known it for a long time, getting more details at age-appropriate stages. Why do they know this about me? I want them to know that my life is a testament of God’s grace! The Spirit of God has radically changed me from the inside out. They need to know that God forgives sinners and there is no one beyond his grasp. I praise God that the man I was 20 years ago would be unrecognizable to my kids (and not just because of the Afro!).

Real honesty removes you from any pedestal that would cause you to eclipse Jesus. He alone is the righteous one, and your kids should know that you’re as needy as they are for his grace—and that means today, not just in your distant past! One of the most crucial things we do in passing on the Christian faith to our kids is to model authentic faith, which revolves around confession and repentance.

During a season often marked by growing distance between parents and teens, this is a way for you to build a bridge relationally. Being vulnerable, inviting your kids to know the “real” you, invites a reciprocal response. True, they may not be willing to open up, but at the very least it lets them know you want a deeper relationship. The essence of relationship is to be “known,” so we should be striving to let our kids really know us in age-appropriate ways. And it is always huge for teens to be treated as the budding adults they are.

Finally, your kids need to know that the gospel speaks to their sexuality, affected by the Fall, as is everything. “Youthful lusts” are a powerful force at this age. All teens enter these turbulent years wrestling with physical desires they’ve never experienced before, and to make matters more difficult for them, parents generally are not asking them about this stage of development. So, kids are wrestling with strong physical and emotional feelings and desires, and the real-life guidance they need is sadly lacking from their own parents. If no one speaks about these struggles, then, to them, neither does the gospel. But it does!

This is a crucial time for them—and you, as their shepherding parents—to apply the gospel in deeper ways! Our sexual struggles (and failures) are often a significant place of learning our utter dependence on God’s Spirit and the body of Christ to grow and live in the way we are called to live in Christ. And the best way for your kids to learn these things is for you to be vulnerable about your own neediness, and encourage them with how Christ and his people have met you in your own struggles with sexual sin.

For further thoughts look for our mini book, Raising Sexually Healthy Kids, published by New Growth Press, available at https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One

“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).

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click to read Part 2Part 3.  Part 4.  Part 5.

Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018

The call came from a PCA pastor’s wife. “John, an elder’s wife asked me a question recently which I thought I knew how to answer. However, the more we talked the more I realized, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ I soon realized it was more complicated than I thought at first.”

The elder’s wife had asked, “Now that gay marriage is legal in our state, if a gay couple begins to attend our church and if one or both of them claimed faith in Christ, would we encourage them to separate? How can we stand against something which is now legal?” She went on to say, “And we certainly wouldn’t encourage them to separate if there were children involved, would we? I mean, would we want their children’s experience of Christianity to be: ‘My mom became a Christian, and it destroyed our family’”?

I heard a similar dilemma in another pastor’s phone call. In his church’s membership class, the issue of homosexuality came up, and several people who desired to join the church expressed support both of homosexuality and gay marriage. While they themselves were not gay, they nevertheless supported and agreed with those who were.

These situations are happening in conservative churches right now. How do we think about these things? First, we need to remember that people coming into our churches today come out of a culture inundated with post-modern, totally secularistic beliefs. And while we all bring our faulty and fallen thinking into our relationship with Christ, it must be our job, as leaders in the church, to offer venues to openly discuss these things and offer sound biblical teaching.

As I result, I encourage all pastors and church leadership to begin addressing these issues in membership classes (and other venues as well). It is naïve of us to believe our people are on the same page in how they think about sex and sexuality. Please consider spending an hour or so in membership classes talking about God’s intention for sex and sexuality and why God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. If God’s very first words to man and woman were about sex (Genesis 1:28), why are we so afraid to talk about it?

One PCA church recently contacted us because several people in the congregation had come out in one year. As the Session moved to enter into these situations with gospel mercy and truth, several families ended up leaving the church, having felt victim to a “bait and switch” framework. In other words, the church prided itself in being known as a church of love and mercy, yet when members found out that the church saw homosexuality as sin, they felt betrayed. A lot of turmoil resulted which, now several years down the line, is still being felt in the church. Much of this could have been avoided had the leadership spoken directly about biblical sexuality. Our church community is always impacted by the culture more than we realize regarding these issues. Even those with a more solid grasp of the Scriptures are being impacted.

Much of the turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided had the leadership addressed these issues in some of the “entry points” in the church, like small groups, membership classes, etc.

Harvest USA is here to help your church leadership in this area. Please contact us if we can be of help. We’d love to talk with your church staff and elder boards/leadership teams about this. If you’re within a few hours of the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh area, we can do this in person. If you’re farther away, we can do this with a Skype or WebEx meeting. We’re here to serve God’s church and leaders.

Updated 5.25.2017

Modern psychology tells us—and indeed, our entire culture seeks to convince us—that it’s not good to repress or deny our sexual urges and desires. They’re seen by many as simple biological needs that demand expression; it’s seen as unhealthy not to seek that expression. Now that might be true, were it not for the fact that sex is never really about ‘us.” It’s about the other person.

Ideally, it’s about bringing all of who we are male or female to bless someone else. As archaic as it may seem, the Bible tells us that sex most aptly blesses others and reflects God in the context of marriage between one man and one woman.

Where does this leave the unmarried? Well, it leaves them dependent on God to meet the desires they might otherwise seek to fulfill through sex. This is also the case for married couples who deal with corrupt desires.

This is tough stuff. It runs contrary to the culture. It runs smack up against the messages about sex we get from advertising, TV, and the movies, that our drives and urges must be met at all costs. Resisting where our sexual desires might take us is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work. It’s a form of suffering, made more extraordinary because it is entirely voluntary.

But there’s an unseen benefit to resisting instead of repressing. C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who wrote more than 40 books, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, had something of value to say about this. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, 

“People often misunderstand what psychology teaches about ‘repressions.’ It teaches that ‘repressed’ sex is dangerous’…. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires… as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”

Lewis is saying that it’s in the active mode of resisting our desires that we come to know more of what fuels our hearts and emotions—that we come to be more aware of our true selves.

In a world that offers numerous ways to dull our emotions and anesthetize our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties, often through sex, knowing one’s self is an amazing thing. It opens us up to knowing God in the depth of our desires in ways we’ve never imagined.

Of course there’s a hint of the supernatural in all of this. It’s not ordinary to resist the pulls of the heart. It can be done only with the power God gives as we seek to worship him and put him first in our lives, by committing our unmet desires to God for him to satisfy in his own way—in his own time.

This is not repression; it’s honestly admitting our desires, yet yielding them to God.

Jesus demonstrated this by putting aside his own desires, drives, and needs and yielding them to his Father. He did this so we could know his forgiveness and love in spite of the weakness of our own flesh and our history of failures.

This article is a reprint of a column published in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Updated 4.20.2017

Have you ever wanted to unburden yourself from a problem or share a deep, dark secret, perhaps of a difficult or sexual nature, with someone? If you have chosen to reveal your heart in this way, reflect on this for a moment: What was it that allowed you to feel safe enough to open up?

As I have personally pondered this question, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to help someone feel safe enough where honest revelations of the heart can be shared?” Or to put it another way, “How can I help my church community become a safe place where strugglers can unburden themselves from secrets that have kept them enslaved to sexual struggles and sin?”

I’ve come to several principles gleaned from Bible study, ministry, therapy, teaching, and supervising counselors, as well as from friends and my own life experiences regarding how to help people talk about their struggles. Here are some insights from those observations that I hope will be helpful to those who struggle with sexual sin and those who want to help.

1. Make honesty the only policy you live by 

We all desire to talk with a friend who will honestly tell us what they think. Why? Because an honest person is a safe person—at least you know what you are getting is the truth. Good or bad, a friend is someone who does not withhold truth, but tells it like it is. Because we know that they have our best interest at heart, we are confident they will tell us the whole truth.

Yet it does seem difficult for Christians to be honest. This is surprising because we make such a big deal about lying. It’s a sin to tell a lie, but we are all too human. Those half-truths and shaded meanings come quickly to the sons and daughters of Adam.

Perhaps we struggle with telling the truth because we have been taught that not being nice is the greatest sin. For the average Christian, the truth is, on occasions, something to be covered over and avoided because it is not nice.

“Why would this be?” you might ask. Confrontation and genuineness are a problem because, above all else, we often value being comfortable, not just with our surroundings but most of all with our emotions. Honesty makes us a little too uncomfortable. It means we have to be involved. “Do you really want to know what I have to say?” someone asks. Eventually, others might even see that we are not perfect and mention it to us. Then what would happen?

Twelve-step groups teach that honesty is not just telling the truth, but the telling the ‘whole’ truth. Therefore, lying is not just failing to be truthful about facts. Leaving out key events, emotions, thoughts, and details or leaving a person with a different impression other than what is right or what really happened is also lying. Often in the church community, people try to be nice, and so the reason given for a particular decision may not be the real reason.

Here is an example: A woman on the missions’ committee has no social skills. She is rude, and as a result of her, rudeness no one wants her to head committees or work with her any longer. However, when she is rejected from becoming the head of the committee, she is told another, more palatable reason, so as to not ruffle any feathers. This lack of honesty with someone dealing with a very obvious problem (which everyone else can see) makes the sexual struggler that much more reluctant to share his story. Why? Because the underlying message they hear is, “We can’t handle the truth here.” These short-cuts or lies, as the Bible calls them, end up short-changing spiritual growth. In the effort to avoid conflict, we fail to really love. Honesty creates the environment where honest revelations of the heart can grow. Honesty is the best policy because, as Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (ESV).

You help someone open up about a hidden truth by being and becoming someone who is honest, first, about yourself. You don’t hide your issues or struggles; you speak openly and plainly about them. With others, you consistently practice telling them what you see in their lives and in their behavior, and in doing so, you create a place of safety for the sexual struggler. They know you are a real person, someone with inner strength; that you are someone who can handle the truth because you love them.

2. Make humility a central part of your character 

The Bible instructs us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we actually are. Jesus on many occasions attacked the Pharisees because they placed themselves in a better light than that which was true. They were always more spiritual than those who followed them, and they wanted everyone to know it.

If you want to be someone who is a safe haven to receive honest revelations of the heart, you must have an attitude of humility, starting with you first. There is an old joke about a pastor who was walking through the sanctuary and felt God’s presence. He knelt down at the front near the altar and began to pray, crying out loud, “Lord, I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” A short time later, the associate pastor was walking by and heard the pastor calling out, and he, too, was moved. He entered the sanctuary and knelt by the pastor and began to cry out, “Lord I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” As it happened, the church custodian passed by a short time later and saw the two ministers. He too was moved and came to the front of the church and called out the same as the other two. About this time the associate pastor looked over at the pastor and said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing now.” Pride takes many forms. The Bible instructs us that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The opposite of pride, then, is to look honestly at ourselves and be open to looking at our own faults first and admitting them. I John 1:8-9 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Humility involves modeling for the struggler your own honest heart revelations. For an entire church community, it means that the leaders of the church model before the congregation a humble and honest spirit about themselves. A humble attitude is not an option if we desire the growth of a safe climate where openness develops. This can begin by admitting not our deepest darkest sins, but the common sins that we all struggle with. Once this is done, consistently over time, you will be identified as a safe person to whom one can share the deepest and messiest stuff of one’s life. By allowing humility to grow deeper into your character, you are letting strugglers know that you are not someone better or more holy than they are—just another follower of Christ who needs his work done in their life, as well.

3. Give comfort in confession 

Once we have examined ourselves and begun to admit our own struggles, we can help others find comfort in confession. The truth is, if you are going to hear the honest revelations of people’s hearts, you must become comfortable with confession. This means having a tolerance for messiness. If you are to minister to people effectively, you must be willing to let things get a little messy (maybe a lot messy). In an operating room there will be blood, pain, skin, and even some guts. But all of these are necessary if the healing process is going to take place. What is important is not the blood or guts, but that in spite of the messiness, the surgeon (and hopefully the patient) believes that the effort will be worthwhile.

God certainly does believe it is worth the effort. How many times have you yourself brought the same sins to God? I have brought the same dirty laundry over and over and over. Why does God not become disgusted by our sin, by our weakness, by our messiness? Because he chooses relationship over the pain. He has chosen confession as the place of connection with us and lets us find comfort and safety there. So we too must connect with others in the messiness of their lives. As you hear their confession, grieve with them and weep with them over the damage they have done in their own lives and in the lives of others. Then lead them to the cross of Christ where a holy God brought truth (the stain of our sin) and mercy (his free grace) together. As we wade through the messiness that often accompanies honest revelations of the heart, we connect with others and lead them to connect with our Father.

4. Demonstrate acceptance 

If you yourself have shared with another person an honest revelation of your heart, what was the response? Whatever the it was, if you have experienced sharing with someone deep and painful things from your heart, you know that the response given is extremely important. As a counselor, I have heard many, many confessions. Many things come into play as someone confesses a sin or heart struggle with me. My own words, facial expressions, body language, and attitude are all being weighed very carefully by the confessor. This is, in a sense, the moment of truth. The person stands before you emotionally naked, as it were, and you are there to pass judgment—or so they will often fear. As you hear the revelation, at that moment you have the power of life or death, blessing and cursing. I believe that this is one of the most sacred trusts we possess in these encounters. We must use extreme caution in our response, because heaven and hell literally may be in the balance.

This does not mean that you agree with what the person did or said. I have rarely had to convince a confessor of their wrong. It simply means that you stop, look past the confession itself, and look at the person. The revealer has taken a step of faith, and it is important that while they understand they are wrong—yes and even sinful—they are accepted and loved.

5. Take time to care for the whole person  

“There is a time for everything,” Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3. If you are meeting with a struggler over a period of time, he or she needs to know that you will hear what they have to say, even if they bring to you more or less the same stories of failure. But what you are doing in this helping relationship is building a friendship; you are not merely meeting with a ministry project. There is a place in this emerging friendship where breaks are needed from sharing even honest revelations. This gives everyone a breather. It helps the struggler see that there is more to them than their particular struggle or temptation. There are other things to talk about and to share.

We must help each other not fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our struggles. We must remind ourselves, as well as others, that we are not our struggles. God has said that we are a new creation. There should be times when we relax, go out for a meal together, share an event, worship together, laugh, and have fun. God is still central in all of these things.

The poet Samuel Coleridge once compared friendship to a “sheltering tree.” Growth of this kind, that of a strong tree, takes time, even years. Yesterday, as I walked with a friend, we shared some things that we have not shared with perhaps anyone. As I thought about this later, I realized that our sharing came about because I have walked with this friend several times a week for over four years. The passage of time with others and the investment of time is a key healing element that many need. There is no shortcut to this. When you minister to the whole person by getting to know them in a number of contexts you create community that can be a “sheltering tree.” It is beneath this tree that real, honest revelations of the heart are safely shared.

6. You and the church must be grace-full 

We must convey to strugglers, and to the whole church community, that sexual struggles are common. But more than that, we must communicate that grace is greater than any sin they have committed. I know of a client who kept a sexual difficulty quiet for over fifty years. For some reason, this church member decided to share the secret at a Wednesday night prayer meeting he had been attending. The result? The pastor asked that the person not return to the church. This ought not to be. The church must overflow with grace.

Paul, writing to the church at Corinth says, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But, you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”

I have always wanted, when preaching, to mention this passage and then say, “As I read this passage, I want you to stand as I mention the sin that you have struggled with.” (Perhaps this is why I get asked to preach only once at so many churches). The truth is that if we truly realized the measure of grace given us in Christ, then honest revelations of the heart would be the norm and grace would fill our churches. The bottom line, when all is said and done, is, Does grace or sin win? If we extend grace the way that God says we should, grace always has the last word.

A final warning 

A final word of caution is in order here. While the suggestions mentioned here seem relatively simple, they are not. They are, in fact, impossible. Let us not forget that what has begun in us is supernatural and that we need the power of God in our lives daily to even begin the process. It is only in constantly remembering this again and again that we develop the correct attitude and learn the best approach to hurting people. Then we can be responsive to him as he leads us to be his instruments in creating a safe place for the honest revelations of the heart.

Your friendship and your church can be a safe place for honest revelations. This blog is based on a prior article by Rev. Philip Henry.

Updated 7.27.2018

Read the article below in Leadership Magazine.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/summer/uncleantouch.html?paging=off

It’s a story by a pastor who struggles, along with his leadership team, with allowing a lesbian couple and family into his church. His reflections on what it means to reach out to those who do not follow Christ, but show evidence of perhaps wanting to do so, is excellent. Read his four convictions; they should be guidelines for every church, every follower of Christ, who is serious about introducing people to Jesus Christ.

I love his first conviction: God is here. In other words, if someone like this couple shows up in church, we should think first that God is up to something in the matter, regardless of where the situation ends up eventually. In other words, don’t let your initial thought be, “Why is this (type of) person here?” Believe that God is still drawing people to himself, and those (types of) people will challenge you to act like Jesus did to “sinners and tax collectors.”

At Harvest USA, we have developed some guidelines for youth groups to approach a same-sex attracted youth either coming out or wanting to come to youth group at church. If the church is the place where God is, then accepting the mess of people’s lives is par for our gospel work. So let them in, in whatever stage of “uncleanness” they are, and see what God is up to. It may be very confusing at first, and for some time, but we need to allow God to bring clarity along the way. This doesn’t mean we abandon biblical standards and doctrine, but if we allow our minds to first go to all the potential difficulties that might (will?) ensue if this couple, for example, wants to join the church, then we will hold back from loving them at the beginning of their entry. We will allow our fear to control our welcome.

Isn’t that how he wooed us into his arms? Weren’t we all messes at one time? Don’t we still have some mess still sticking to us?

Updated 5.4.2017

Are struggles with same-sex attraction uniquely different from other struggles?

Wesley Hill begs this question by what he writes in his book, Washed and Waiting. Hill is an evangelical believer who has chosen celibacy as the biblically faithful response of someone struggling with same-sex attraction. His reflections bring God’s Word to bear on his own situation, and they provide us with ways to think about the issue by faith.

So is his sexual struggle different from the sexual struggle of a person with opposite sex attractions? I think there are two ways of answering the question.

Yes—culturally speaking.

The church has been slow to address the issue of believers who are seeking to be faithful to Christ but feel attracted to the same sex. Instead, the church has often spoken judgmentally about homosexuality in a way that drives these believers underground. So those who are tempted in this way feel alone in their struggles and dare not come to the church community for support, prayer, and intimacy. Even in churches that have been more open about helping those who struggle, strugglers fear being stigmatized or labeled, causing them to avoid relationship with others. Also, if someone comes forward for help, church members really aren’t sure what their response should be. The church can be a lonely place for the person who struggles with same-sex attraction, so the temptation to withdraw from fellowship is high, which only moves them closer to acting on their temptations. The unprepared church provides no hope for change or healing for the struggler.

No—biblically speaking.

The Bible speaks about homosexuality in the same way that it talks about adultery, thievery, abuse of alcohol, greed, and slander:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV).

All sin can be forgiven in Jesus Christ. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). All sinful temptations can be addressed by the gospel. Most of us struggle with some particularly strong temptation all of our lives, often leading to hopelessness. The temptations do not have to be sexual. But for many, sexual temptation is a powerful reality, and it can drive someone into an experience of enslavement. The process that leads us into sinful behavior—of which we may not be aware initially—is the same for all sin according to James. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

Our desires drive us to believe that the sin will provide something advantageous for us—maybe in a way we don’t believe God can. The solution to change is also the same for all sin. As we develop a deeper relationship with Christ, our desires are transformed, moving from sinful desire to the godly desire of knowing Christ and living by his Spirit (Romans 8:1-6). These desires can always be fulfilled. So temptation can diminish and lose its controlling power as we move toward Christ in community with other believers.

Hill reflects on the uniqueness of same-sex attraction for a believer in the church, while calling us back to the answer for all sin struggles. Is it harder for the struggler with same-sex attraction? Yes and no.

Part 1., Part 2., Part 3.

Updated 5.5.2017

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