To read Dave’s blog, you can click on the title here: “Renewing Your Mind from Pornography: “Taking Thoughts Captive.” These short videos and blog posts can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s, and women’s groups, etc.
18 Mar 2017
If you’ve been looking at pornography for any length of time, you have a toxic waste dump in your mind that takes time and intentionality to clean up! How do you begin to decontaminate your mind? The next few video and written blogs I’ll be doing will consider the important steps you need to take to renew your mind.
To get started, let’s use Romans 12:2 as our orienting theme verse: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (ESV). The hard truth is that ongoing pornography use profoundly damages your views of life, sex, others, and God. Change is much bigger than merely stopping bad behaviors; it means the renewal of your mind—transforming your worldview—so that your thought patterns are conformed to the truths of Scripture.
The first step of renewing your mind from pornography is taking your thoughts “captive.” 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Pornography is a prime example of an argument against God and his rule over the world, particularly over your own life. Pornography entices us to denigrate our fellow image-bearers into consumable objects, and it promotes a view of sexuality that is completely against God’s design for what it means to be a person. It diminishes us to brute beasts ruled by our passions (see Jude 10).
So, knowing what porn does to our minds and hearts, renewing our minds becomes a place of warfare. It’s time to engage the fight and start taking prisoners!
All this is to say, taking your thoughts captive is about intentionally engaging God in the places of your struggle. God wants you to draw near to him in your sexual struggles.
What does it mean to take every thought captive to obey Christ? In the past, I’ve viewed that as a hand-slapping rebuke: “Bad Dave! Don’t think that thought! You need to start thinking holy thoughts right now…” If that’s how you’ve viewed it, you know that approach hasn’t been particularly helpful. Others have commented that they need to take their mind off of lustful thoughts, perhaps by quoting Bible memory verses. I’m not knocking Bible memory—far from it!—but I’m concerned that too many Christians think the Bible works like Harry Potter, casting a “spiritual spell” that will inoculate you against lust. Both of these approaches miss the intent of 2 Corinthians 10 and may actually work to keep you in chains. Punishment and quick-fix techniques end up as dead ends; they rarely produce the fruit of ongoing repentance.
Think about how unhelpful the “Bad Dave” approach actually is. According to Romans 8:31-34, who is the one who brings accusations against us? The enemy! When we respond to our temptations and failures with accusatory thoughts, berating ourselves with thoughts of failure, worthlessness, etc., we’re ironically playing right into his hands. He wants us isolated, feeling guilt and condemnation. Further, when we recite Scripture as a talisman, apart from intentionally connecting with God, we remain isolated.
In contrast, God’s goal is to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth (see Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1). He is all about relationship, inviting us to live out of our union with him. The enemy wants us to feel isolated and alone; God wants us to rest in the hope that we’re reconciled to him. And, therefore, able to approach the throne of grace with confidence to receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need! All this is to say, taking your thoughts captive is about intentionally engaging God in the places of your struggle. God wants you to draw near to him in your sexual struggles.
You see, the image in the verse is of taking a prisoner captive in a battle, bringing him in chains into the throne room to consider him before the King. Bring all of your thoughts before your Redeemer to ask him his opinion. Think about it this way: the goal is to not allow these thoughts to be “alone” space in your head. Part of renewing your mind is learning that you’ve never had an “alone” thought! You need to increasingly and self-consciously share your thoughts with your loving heavenly Father and your elder brother who reigns as King over the universe. And this is exactly what the enemy does NOT want you to do!
So, if you want your mind renewed, the first step is to be aware that you need to engage God with your temptations. When the thoughts come, bring them into the throne room. Don’t run from him. Don’t shrink away in guilt. Don’t use Scripture in isolation as a spiritual spell. Acknowledge the temptation. Talk to Christ about how you struggle with intrusive thoughts. Know that he is a present help to you in that trouble. Ask Jesus for his thoughts. Ask him to help you understand the context for the temptation in which you find yourself.
To see Dave talking about this issue, click here on Dave’s video blog, Pornified Mind: Reclaiming Your Thought Life – Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
To read Ellen’s blog on being single and dealing with temptation, just click on this link here. These short videos and blog posts can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s, and women’s groups etc.
Living as both single and sexually faithful might feel impossible. For someone who is single, committing to live within God’s boundaries seems foolish in our current culture’s celebration of sexual ‘freedom.’ But for Christians, we find comfort in knowing our loving and holy Lord has a design for every aspect of life. Jesus is present always to help us stay the course of the race of faith, and he constantly holds out forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Jesus and the Bible are also wise and practical when it comes to our street-level fight against sexual sin and temptation. Jesus stands ready to help when we turn to him as we face struggles and temptations.
So let’s consider one important tool in this battle to help us as single men and women: identifying and fleeing triggers.
In the world of addictions, the concept of a ‘trigger’ is significant. It refers to people, places, experiences, and things which stir up thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires connected to certain behaviors.¹ A food addict may be triggered to overeat by the sight of pastries or criticism from a parent. A TV addict may binge watch while important work is left undone, triggered by feeling lonely or work-related stress. A trigger prompts a person to move towards a harmful behavior which soothes or numbs troubling and painful life experiences. In other words, it’s a temporary pain killer. But then the pain comes back, stronger than ever. And a cycle is set up.
Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts!
For a single person battling sexual temptation, it is crucial to identify the triggers which prompt us to move towards various pain-reducing behaviors like viewing or reading pornography, crossing physical boundaries with a person, or engaging in sexual fantasy and masturbation. Let’s be clear: married people also must battle sexual sin! However, singles committed to walking in sexual integrity do not have this context for sexual expression, so fleeing sexual temptation will never involve having God-blessed sex such as married persons enjoy.
Identify your triggers
Emotions and feelings – What emotions are most troubling to you? Which are difficult to ‘sit with’ or bring to the Lord in prayer? In addictions counseling the acronym HALT is often used to teach that feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired are common triggers which addictive behaviors serve to soothe or numb. With the men and women who come to Harvest USASA, we add boredom, sadness, and relational pain. Sexual sin (with people, self, via technology) often is an attempt to avoid internal pain in our lives, which is usually tied to external, troubling situations.
Circumstances – What are the situations which seem to most often precede your fiercest battles with sexual temptation? Is it work-related stress? The holidays? Family gatherings? Church-related events? Large gatherings of people or times of aloneness? Traveling and being out of your normal routine? Having downtime or a vacation?
People and relationships – Do certain people or relationships seem to consistently trigger the feelings that are troubling for you? On this side of heaven, not all relationships will be redeemed or ‘safe’ for us, so identifying individuals we need to avoid can be challenging for Christians to consider. After all, aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor? Yes, and sometimes loving God and loving people wisely (Philippians 1:9-11) means being aware of relational dynamics which pull us away from Christ, rather than towards him and obedience. Wisdom will necessitate having firm boundaries with people with whom you have participated in sexual sin; those who constantly tempt you towards lust and selfish fantasy; people who consistently discourage and disrespect you and your boundaries; and those who are manipulative, deceptive, and hurtful with their words.
I know that seems like a lot to keep track of, but with focus and intention, it can become second nature. Learning what the triggers are in these three categories will help you not just to know what to avoid; you can make those triggers the things that prompt you to run to Jesus, and that’s the best part of doing this. Identifying triggers isn’t meant to make us live as suspicious, joyless Christians who avoid people or good gifts! The goal is increasingly running towards Christ and running away from sexually sinful activities that we use to soothe difficult experiences.
What we need to understand is that when we use things repeatedly to get through life, those things we use become our functional gods. They become idols to which we run, they become the things we worship, and that’s no different than what Israel did when they ran to and worshipped idols made of wood or clay.
The process of learning how to flee triggers and temptations can mean taking various steps of faith, such as:
- Contacting close friends to pray for you, with a call or quick text
- Setting up an accountability relationship for honesty and prayer
- Putting into place intentional steps to grow in your faith, like doing daily devotions
- Willingness to limit technology and media if they are strong temptations
Do you see how practical it is to identify your triggers? It’s a way to bring Jesus into your struggles, and to experience the joy that comes from living in new, better, and God-glorifying ways.
For more help in this vital aspect of faith for singles, consider Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single?, and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes: Finding True Satisfaction. Find them at the Harvest USA Bookstore: https://newgrowthpress.com/harvest-usa/
To see Ellen talking some more about this issue, click on Ellen’s video blog, Sexual Integrity for Singles: It’s not a tragedy, and it’s not impossible! Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters (together with the accompanying written blog) in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
21 Feb 2017
Harvest USA brings the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ by helping individuals and families affected by sexual sin and by providing resources that address biblical sexuality to individuals and churches.
10 Feb 2017
Christians who are single have a real battle to face. In the midst of sexual temptation, they can easily wonder where God is in this ongoing struggle.
Jesus made many things abundantly clear to his followers, and they particularly apply to those who are single. He was clear about his love, forgiveness, and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to live a holy life.
His disciples understood that following him had to be synced up with a willingness to let go of sin, die to self, and to embrace obedience as we “stay in our lane” in the race of faith.
“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…” (Hebrews 12:1–2, NIV)
It can seem like God has left us on our own in this struggle, telling us what to do but seemingly not helping us. Oh no! Jesus is there with those of us who are single.
This race of faith, however, isn’t easy. For those of us who are single, staying within God’s boundaries for sexuality can seem impossible. Life without sex feels tragic to some, foolish to others. Sexual integrity is an experience of both sanctification and suffering. Sanctification, because as we battle to slay sin and to live fully for Christ, we learn to entrust him with every area of our lives, growing in Christlikeness. (See 1 Peter 1:6–9.) Suffering, because resisting the enticement of sin and temptation is a trial common to humanity and an unavoidable reality of living in a fallen world.
It can seem like God has left us on our own in this struggle, telling us what to do but seemingly not helping us. Oh no! Jesus is there with those of us who are single. He absolutely gives us help in our sexual struggles. I’d like to focus on three ways to help us see that he is indeed present. By looking at who he is, we can understand what he provides.
- Our loving Lord and Creator. We belong to Christ, and all things were created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16-17). These wonderful truths orient our hearts and our thinking when ‘staying in the lane’ of sexual faithfulness is tough. When we believe that our entire self belongs to Christ (body, thoughts, sexual desires, relationships, etc.) and that he has a specific and wise plan for how we are to ‘use’ each of these things, it helps us to bend the knee of our will to him. We can submit, though it might be with tears and painful angst, “Lord, your will, not mine… your will, not mine! Help me, comfort me, rescue me.”
- Our Rescuer and way of escape. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 explains that in every temptation, there is a way of escape out of it. God himself is our refuge and place of escape when we rush to him, nestling in close to him, allowing his enveloping presence to stand between us and the sexual temptation. Think here of Jesus, when he walked unwaveringly on storm-tossed waves to his scared and exhausted friends. He entered into their experience, calming their hearts and the outside forces battling against them (Matthew 14:22-33). Ponder the image of Christ as Shepherd, who knows his own, and gently holds and carries them (Isaiah 40:11, John 10:14-15). God rescues us from temptation by entering into our circumstances of sexual and emotional struggle.
- Our Redeemer and Mercy-giver. Our Lord knows we’re not going to stay in our lane 24/7. He is holy, commanding us to throw off sin. But the throne he sits on is one of mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:14-16). Therefore he is also gracious, receiving us in our desperate need and hearing our cries for help, especially in our brokenness. If you struggle to know what to say to him when those times come, look to the words of Psalm 13, 16, 34, or 51. These words can give voice to your own words. You can also find a worship song and pray it to the Lord.
Teach my song to rise to You
When temptation comes my way
And when I cannot stand I’ll fall on You
Jesus you’re my hope and stay!
(“Lord I Need You,” Matt Maher, 2013, All the People Said Amen (Live))
The most important tool in battling sexual temptation or emotional pain is knowing Jesus. And knowing that he wants you to run to him when you are even at your worst. As a single man or woman, you need more than behavioral strategies to succeed. You need a growing understanding and trust in Jesus. He gives us his presence and his power to run the race of faith that bears out in sexual faithfulness!
Nonetheless, we DO need a specific battle plan. That’s what we’ll look at in the next post.
To see Ellen talking about this issue, click on Ellen’s video blog, Sexual Integrity for Singles: It’s not a tragedy, and it’s not impossible, Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters (together with the accompanying written blog) in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
09 Mar 2016
Do you suffer from “Mug Shot Theology?” We’ve all seen mug shots of people who have been arrested. It’s that photo the police take of a person when they’ve been caught—in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. We’ve all seen Hollywood personalities looking their worst and having it all captured, for posterity, in their mug shot. These glamorous and handsome stars are almost unrecognizable when you catch a glimpse of them on that tabloid paper at the check-out counter at your local store. The image of one’s mug shot follows one around forever, coloring everything.
What does that have to do with Christians, you may be thinking? Mug Shot Theology is that picture we’re sure God has of us and always looks at when we’ve been behaving at our worst—when we’ve really blown it.
I’ve not known very many men who don’t suffer from Mug Shot Theology, especially when it comes to their deep and unrelenting sexual temptations, struggles, and sin. It just seems to come with the territory.
When we labor under this, it affects everything in our life. So it’s a very practical issue. When you have Mug Shot Theology, it’s rare to ever experience any joy in your life. It’s virtually impossible to possess the ability to run to the throne of grace at your time of deepest need. It keeps you from access to the power of God to help counter temptations. It turns your face away from God because of your shame and guilt. You are shut down from communicating with God. You feel left all alone with your temptations and sin, not knowing what to do, because Mug Shot Theology will make sure the cross is the last place you’ll run to.
“You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ.”
When you don’t know what to do with your guilty heart and your sins, you will (because you’re a sinner) always adopt one or more of the following strategies.
- You’ll let yourself off the hook, explaining, excusing, or rationalizing your sin, falsely believing it’s not as bad or deadly as it is.
- You’ll put yourself under “house arrest,” only going through the motions of faith, severely limiting your attempts to love and serve God and others well.
- You’ll just try to say no to your temptations while constantly resolving to do better and white-knuckling it along the way.
- You become you own executioner, punishing yourself relentlessly.
- You’ll put yourself on probation with God, slinking back to him when you’ve put enough distance between your temptations or failures until you get up the courage to approach God again.
All these behaviors are the ways most men deal with their sin and struggles. But when we change that Mug Shot Theology to a Gospel Theology—in which we understand and admit that we, always, stand guilty, before a holy God, and yet our God beckons and invites unworthy sinners to his throne because of Jesus—then everything changes. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, in his commentary, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 5, Assurance, states it quite well.
“God has become one who delights to see us coming, receives us, loves us and sits us at a banqueting table. God is always looking upon us with favor and smiling upon us . . . So it is in prayer. . . we remind ourselves of this and rush into his presence . . . we rush in with boldness and full confidence, having access to the throne room. . . You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ. You own this great truth and act upon it in your prayer life. . . knowing He is a Heavenly Father who delights to see us, to receive us. . . and whose love for us is way beyond our imagination.”
What a way to blast away Mug Shot Theology! It captures the essence of what it means to be dearly beloved children, ransomed by our God. It also moves us, in humility, towards God in our worst moments, daring to believe, once again, that the gospel is for us.
To learn more about these concepts of Christ’s love and grace for the downcast and disheartened, be sure and check out John’s new book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex.
03 Feb 2016
I was camping out in Hebrews 11 recently. That’s the chapter where many of the heroes of the faith are listed. Three names immediately stuck out for me. First there is Abraham. Not once but twice, Abraham offers his wife, Sarah, to other men to sleep with to save himself. And when it seems the covenant promise of an heir won’t ever come true because of old age, Sarah suggests he sleep with her bondservant. He immediately says “okay.”
David is listed there—a man after God’s own heart. But we know he was also hotheaded and impetuous at times, often acting first and thinking later. He was a deceiver, murderer, and adulterer. He had at least six wives and several concubines.
Then there’s Sampson. What!? God, you’ve got to be kidding! Sampson? He was the Charlie Sheen of his day! His life was ruled by scandal. When he saw a beautiful Philistine girl, he told his parents, “Go get her for me.” They put up a little fight because God had forbidden the intermarriage of heathen people with the Israelites. Sampson basically said to them, “I don’t care—go get her for me.” Then we see that he visited houses of ill-repute. His love (lust?) for Delilah was almost the downfall of the emergent nation and was his ruin.
These are the kind of men counted among the great men of faith. It doesn’t make sense. How can it be when each was involved in sexual sin or approved of sexual misconduct? How could these men be those in whom God took pleasure?
The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too.
I think it means this. The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too. Yet God blesses men like this (like us) because he mixes his grace with our corruptions—as a rule, not an exception! It’s not about our sin, although he takes that extremely seriously; it’s about his grace.
In one of my favorite books, The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson, written in 1666, there is a chapter entitled, “Comfort to the Godly.” Honestly, I think it should have been entitled, “Comfort to the Scoundrels.” Watson says this,
“There are in the best of saints, interweavings of sin and grace; a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with much humility; much earthliness mixes with much heavenly-ness. Even in the regenerate there is often more corruption than grace. There’s so much bad passion that you can hardly see any good. A Christian in this life is like a glass of beer that has more froth (foam) than beer. Christ will never quench remnants of grace, because a little grace is as precious as much grace. As a fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of the soul.”
It’s true—this side of heaven, grace and holiness are always mixed with our corrupt hearts. But experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness should move us towards a growing desire to be holy. I find many men who come for help to our ministry erroneously thinking there will be a day when they won’t desire or want things that would take them down dark roads. They think their hearts are, one day, not going to want bad things—therefore, they spiral down into depression and hopelessness when they do! Our hope is not in perfection here, or even in freedom from temptation, but in the realization that faith and obedience is a real possibility, because of God’s grace.
In his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, John expands on this encouraging point that God takes us as we are and that even while he transforms our lives, he continues to work in us while we remain a mess of both corruptions and grace. Click this link to get the book.
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).
This verse gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles. The first step is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having acknowledged your sin before God and a trusted person (see previous blog post), now Jesus commands and enables you to “stand up and walk” by faith. What does it mean to “put on Christ?” It means three things:
- Seek consistent fellowship with God through his word and in prayer. This seems so basic that often we overlook it. Nothing, however, can replace cultivating our relationship with Jesus. When sexual sin has been a secret, shame-provoking part of a person’s life, often the heart has been dulled in devotion to Christ. Living water and fresh nourishment must be feasted upon regularly to fill and satisfy a hungry heart.
- Cultivate authentic relationships with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationship with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7, which connects one’s walk with God to one’s walk with other believers.) God has designed our faith to be personal and intimate with him, but not apart from rich involvement in the life of other believers in the church. Do you have at least two people in your life with whom you can allow yourself to be fully known and prayed for? To be encouraged and discipled by? If you don’t, begin asking the Lord for such friends as these. It’s that important!
- Seek opportunities to love and serve others. There is grace, comfort, and joy to be poured into us and through us. We were not designed by God to be receptacles but conduits of his love and mercy. Look for opportunities to reach out to someone and show them love and care. For this you were made:“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Did you notice that I’ve said nothing regarding sexual sin in the advice I’ve given? That’s intentional! Most women who have struggled sexually have spent so much time focusing on “sin management” or battling against temptation, that they have neglected cultivating their relationships—with Jesus and with other sisters in the Lord.
Jesus, not the sin itself, must be the one upon whom you fix your gaze as you seek to walk away from sin!
The second step is to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While cultivating and building up relationships is crucial, especially as a first step, you still need to know how to fight the battle! Overcoming sin patterns, including sexual sin, is never something we “happen upon” or coast into. No, sin must be intentionally fought as we flee temptations and deal directly with the heart issues from which they are triggered.
- Identify and then avoid and flee triggers and temptations. What are the situations, influences, people, and emotions which seem to weaken your resolve to obey God? Is it being alone? Watching certain types of entertainment? Anger, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and fear can push us to crumble in the face of temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 instructs believers to flee temptation as we receive the escape path he provides. To run on that path of escape increasingly means we must learn to discern when we are creeping near to sin. Ask yourself, “What helps me to sin, and how can I avoid these influences?”
- Fast from good gifts which are not good for you. One common struggle we all have is taking good things from God and then worshipping them—allowing them to mean more to your heart than God himself. Are there things that you use or have that, while either enjoyable or useful, are increasingly pulling you into temptation and sin? Your smartphone? Your laptop? Places you are visiting or people you are hanging around with? Will fasting from these things be difficult or inconvenient? Sure. I challenge you to try this. Hard as it might be, this may be a necessary step in order to focus your time and attention on Christ and recapture your thought life.
- Refuse to isolate or hide. It’s been said that the power of secret sin is in the secret. To “walk in the light” (1 John 1: 1-9) and to “renounce secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I said above about cultivating authentic relationships.
These initial steps, walked out day by day, little by little, over a lifetime, will lead you increasingly into the spacious freedom which is ours through Jesus Christ. All of this is waiting for you. May you find in Jesus the humility to run to him—or be carried to him by others who know you—in order to discover the life you really want.
14 Jan 2014
Temptation is suffering
“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.
Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.
“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?
In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.
Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)
What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure. James teaches, “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” (James 1:13-14, ESV).
God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure. But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.
God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.
1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!
2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle. The Christian life is a fight. We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Temptation trains us in obedience. The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” There is no growth in holiness without a fight. If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls! We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.
It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials. Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!
Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.
3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.
This is not abstract theology Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically! “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.
Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees. That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!
There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!
The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.
The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?
Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)
“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 24-25)