This message appears as a chapter in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.
For many years, a quilt has adorned one wall of our living room. The artist took swatches of fabric and cut hundreds of tiny squares and triangles. She created a lattice pattern through which you gaze into a luminous, iridescent garden. I view her quilt as an invitation to pause and catch a glimpse into paradise. The latticework encloses, protects, provides structure, revealing wonders. The garden within creates an impression of color and light, flower and air, life and pleasure.
It gives a small picture of our God’s great work, the brightness of all creation, the brightness of our salvation.
As such, it gives us a picture of sexuality — and of every other luminous thing that becomes darkened and can be redeemed. Sex is one good strand of God’s good work in creation. Sex is one good strand of his good work in salvation. Imagine your sexuality transformed into a garden of delight protected within the lattice. God began to do good work in you, and he is working to complete this. You will flourish in a garden of safety and joy. Wrongs are made right, “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Divine Love, chapter 31.). The highest pleasure, the joy that remakes all lesser pleasures innocent, is our pleasure in Christ, the inexpressible gift. He is light. He is life-giver. In his light, your sexuality transforms into one blossom among all that is good.
I needed a contrasting object lesson, so I stopped in to talk with my auto mechanic. He fished a greasy rag from the trash bin at the back of his garage and handed it to me. Unnameable filth had soaked through that scrap of fabric. Ground-in, oily dirt. If your hands are clean, you don’t really feel like touching such a sordid rag. If you must handle such an object, you pick it up by one corner between thumb and forefinger, holding it out away from you at arm’s length.
The filthy rag gives us a second, all-too-familiar picture of sexuality. Sex soaks up dark, dirty stains. We must deal with such ground-in evils if we are to fix what’s wrong with us and with others. We understand why Jude evokes an unpleasant sense of wariness even amid his call to generous-hearted love: “To others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23).
You can hardly bear to put a name on what some people do, or on what happens to some people. Is your sexuality misshapen and misdirected? Sexual evils are among the dark things that pour forth from within our hearts. Jesus bluntly indicts a roster of sexual wrongs (Mark 7:21-23) — and offers costly mercy to the repentant. Has your sexuality been harmed by others? Some people experience terrible sufferings at the hands of predators, users, misusers, and abusers. Jesus fiercely curses those who trip up others (Matthew 18:6-7) — and offers safe refuge to sufferers.
On the one hand, sex becomes a complex darkness. On the other hand, sex becomes a garden of simple, pure delights. Which picture represents you?
It’s not really a fair question. You probably can’t answer either-or, because most likely you’re somewhere in the middle. This chapter is about making new, about the long restoring of joys to the broken and dirtied. In other words, it’s about the process of change. It’s about moving along a trajectory away from the dark and toward the light. It’s about knowing where you’re heading while you’re still somewhere in the middle.
Of course, some human beings aren’t in the middle, but live utterly mired within sexual darkness. They even call “good” what God calls “evil.” But they’re not likely to have kept reading this far, because they want to feel justified in wrong, not to be remade right. They want more of what they already have. But if you have read this far, that very persevering has been because light, however far away it seems, is drawing you.
There is no darkness so deep that it is immune to light. Perhaps you’ve been wronged sexually and have lived a nightmare of fear and hurt. But you long for light. Such longing is a blossom of light pulling you in the direction of more light. Or, perhaps you’ve been wrong sexually and have lived in a fantasyland of lewd, nude, and crude. But you feel sick and tired, dirty and ashamed. Such guilt is a blossom of honesty. It pushes you toward the middle. Your sins delight you less and less; they afflict you more and more. “Kyrie, eleison; Lord, have mercy, you whose mercies are new every morning.” When you know you need help, then you’re already moving into the middle, out of the filth.
Are you tilted more toward light? One man did live utterly as that garden of light shining through the lattice. Jesus did no sin. Yet he chose to enter our deepest darkness. He bore your stains, and did so without becoming stained. He is able to sympathize with your particular weakness and struggles because he has entered your plight, facing the temptations of sin and suffering. He is able to help you in your failure and your vulnerability to future failure because he remains unstained. He does not hold you at arm’s length. Jesus is willing to deal gently and truthfully, however ignorant and wayward we are. He is bringing us back to the paradise of light.
Perhaps you have come far along this good path already. You have been given much light sexually. Much of the garden of faithful pleasures already flourishes in you. Much of the latticework of loving restraints is set in place. Oh, hopeful joy, so much has already been purified! “Gloria in excelsis Deo; glory to God in the highest.” But I know, and you know, that oily stains and cracked slats remain in the fabric of every person’s life. We must still run the race of renewal.
A contemporary hymn contains this line: “In all I do, I honor you.” When I sing that hymn, I always think, Well, I want to honor you in all I do, but I don’t. The line is truest as a statement of honest intention, but often false as a statement of achievement. We want the garden, but grime still clings to us and oozes from us. Augustine put his struggle starkly: “As I prayed to you for the gift of chastity I had even pleaded, ‘Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.’ I was afraid that you might hear me immediately and heal me forthwith of the morbid lust which I was more anxious to satisfy than to snuff out” (Augustine, The Confessions [New City, 1997], book 8, chapter 17, 198). We want the latticework to protect us, but dark creatures slip into or out of our hearts. When talking about something as important and troublesome as sex, it is important to affirm that the desire for light is the beginning of the emergence of light in our lives.
One theme runs through this chapter: “. . . he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). What does that lifelong process look like? How do you get from here to there? How does dirt transform into beauty? What is the battle like?
You’re somewhere in the middle, but Christ has begun a good work in you. He has washed away true guilt. He has broken your willing bondage. Jesus knows his business well. He is looking out for you. He is working to clear away sin’s rot. Jesus is remaking you into a person who actually loves people and who begins to consider their best interests. Your opinions and impulses no longer reign. What he has begun, he will complete. On the final day, he will entirely remove the instincts and energies of sin from you. How does the war work out? We will look at seven aspects.
1. Bring Light to All That Darkens Sex
You fight on many fronts. There are many kinds of evil, more than you might imagine. Some are obvious, some not so obvious. So what are you up against?
a. Unholy Pleasure
The most obvious forms of sexual darkness involve the sins of overt immorality. There are countless ways that sexuality veers into extramarital eroticism. Sex can become like living in a carnival of intoxicating fires, a dream world of erotic arousal, predatory instinct, manipulative intention, and the pursuit of carnal knowledge. In a nutshell, in each of the many forms of wrong, a person has sexual intercourse with the wrong object of desire. Sexual love flourishes as a loving intimacy between one husband and wife.
But desire is easily distorted and action misdirected. Wrongful sexual relations can occur either in reality or in fantasy. These are the typical, red-letter, on-the-marquee sins. So what do the weeds of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, pornography, rape, bestiality, voyeurism, incest, pedophilia, fetishism, sado-masochism, transvestitism, prostitution, and bigamy-polygamy have in common? They involve sexual relations, in person or in your imagination, with the wrong object of desire. Other people become objects of unholy desire. These fantasies and interpersonal transactions are the obvious ways in which human sexuality is misdirected into overt sins.
Historically, the behaviors mentioned have usually been evaluated and stigmatized as socially shameful. They have often been named as criminal acts in legal codes. To the degree that cultural values and laws mirror the call of love for others, rather than endorsing lust, they express the way that God sizes up human sexuality. Of course, when mores and laws change for the worse, such behaviors may even be reinterpreted as good, right, and sweet, rather than evil, wrong, and bitter (Isaiah 5:20). But God teaches us to see things for what they are.
The bold-print sins point in the direction of the fine-print versions of the same sins. Many varieties of flirtation, self-display, foreplay, and entertainment don’t necessarily “go all the way” to orgasm: dressing to attract and tease the lust of others, looking voyeuristically, suggestive remarks, crude humor, erotic kissing, petting, and the like. All these actions suggest an intention toward immoral sexual intercourse, whether the intention is consummated or not. Such behaviors (whether occurring in daily life or portrayed on film or page) cross the line of love. Whether or not our cultural context views such things as acceptable, or even as entertaining, they are evils. Love considers the true welfare of others in “the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13, NASB).
Jesus Christ will come even to those who have pursued unholy pleasures. He who hates the gamut of perversities listed in previous paragraphs is not ashamed to love sinners. He does not weary in the task of rewiring sexuality into a servant of love. He is not only willing to forgive those who turn and repent; he takes the initiative to forgive, and to turn us, and to give us countless reasons to turn. He says, “You need mercy and help in your time of need. Come to me. Turn from evils, and turn to mercies that are new every morning. Flee what is wrong. Seek help. Everyone who seeks finds. Fight with yourself. Don’t justify things that God names as evil. Don’t despair when you find evils within yourself. The only unforgivable sin is the impenitence that justifies sin and opposes the purifying mercies of God. Come to me, and I will begin to teach you how to love.”
“The desire for light is the beginning of the emergence of light in our lives.”
Our culture thinks that any consenting object of desire is fair game for sexual intercourse. Individual will is the supreme value. But Christ thinks differently, and he gets the last say. He backs up his point of view with a promise of clear-eyed, unavoidable reckoning: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
He backs up his point of view with a promise of hard-won mercies and with power to patiently change you so that you learn to love him supremely. Each of the perversities makes sex too important (and makes the Maker, Evaluator, and Redeemer of sex irrelevant). Sex becomes your identity, your right, your fulfillment, your need. That is nonsense. Each ends up degrading sex as a mere urge that must find an outlet. That, too, is nonsense. Whether exalted or degraded, sex ends up disappointing, selfdestructive, and mutually destructive.
Jesus brings sanity and good sense. He starts by making sex of secondary importance. Sex is a real but secondary good. God neither overvalues nor degrades the good things he has made. By realigning whom you most love (away from yourself and distorted pleasures), he makes all secondary loves, including sexuality, flourish in their proper place. That might mean containing sexual expression during a long season, even a lifetime of purposeful celibacy as a single adult.
Jesus himself lived this way. It might mean a season of frequent sexual expression within loving marriage. That’s the most common calling. It might mean short or long seasons of again containing sexual expression because of the different kinds of celibacy that arise in the course of marital life: for example, advanced pregnancy and post-partum; forced separation for business or military reasons; a chosen fast from sexual expression because of more pressing needs; the diminution of sexual arousal with advancing age; consequences of prostate surgery or other illnesses; the loss of your spouse by death. Whether by containment or by expression, our sexuality can be remade into love.
When we think about the forms of “sexual brokenness” that need to be made new, it is natural that we think first of the obvious sins. But other evils also begrime us as sexual beings. These also lie within the scope of redeeming love.
b. Unholy Pain
Many people experience pain and fear attached to sexual victimization. Have you ever been attacked or betrayed sexually? Sex becomes like life in Auschwitz, like a burn survivor, a waking nightmare of hurt, fear, and helplessness from the hands of tormentors. Jesus’ kindness redeems both sinners and sufferers. He rights all wrongs. Jesus is merciful to people who do wrong (forgiving and changing you). He is merciful to people who are wronged (comforting and changing you). When you are used, misused, and abused, sex grows dark. If you are or were a victim of sexual aggression, if you were violated, betrayed, or threatened by the sins of others, then the prospect of sex may often cause ambivalence or fear.
The erotic is meant to be a bright expression of mutual lovingkindness. Sex thrives in a context of commitment, safety, trust, affection, giving, closeness, intimacy, generosity. The erotic flourishes as one normal, everyday expression of genuine love within marriage. A man and woman are “naked and unashamed” with each other and under God (see Genesis 2:25). They give mutual pleasure. Sex with your spouse can be simple self-giving, freely given and freely received. Your sexual interactions can express honesty, laughter, play, prayer, and ecstasy. Sex can be open before the eyes of God, approved in your own conscience, and approved in the eyes of family and friends who care for you.
But sex can become very distasteful. Pawing, seduction, bullying, predation, attack, betrayal, and abandonment are among the many ways that sex becomes stained by sufferings at the hands of others. When you’ve been treated like an object, the mere thought of the act can produce tense torment. Sexual darkness is not always lust; sometimes it is fear, pain, haunting memories.
If immoral fantasies bring one poison into sex, then nightmarish memories infiltrate a different poison. The arena for trusting friendship can become a prison of mistrust. The experience of violation can leave the victim self-labeled as “damaged goods.” Sex becomes intrinsically dirty, shameful, dangerous. Even in marriage, it can become an unpleasant duty, a necessary evil, not the delightful convergence of duty and desire.
If such things happened to you, you might well feel hatred, terror, and disgust. You might feel guilt, shame, and self-reproach over what someone else did to you. Your thoughts of sex might be filled with loathing and despair, the furthest thing from lustful desire. This, too, is a rag soaked in the grease of nameless dirt. To those for whom sexual experience has resulted in unholy pain, Christ says, “I understand well your experience. I hear the cry of the needy, afflicted, and broken. Come to me. I am your refuge. I am safe. I will remake what is broken. I will give you reason to trust, and then to love. I will remake your joy.”
For good reason, two-thirds of the Psalms engage the experience of those who suffer violence, violation, and threat (see, Psalm 10). These sufferings found their point of reference in the God who hears you now, who is your refuge, your hope, who is willing to hear your anguish and loneliness, who overflows with comforts. The reference point makes all the difference. God cares and will patiently repair what has been torn.
In different ways, both violator and violated are stained with the filth of a fallen world. In different ways, Jesus Christ washes both. And there’s still other dirt on the shop floor, and other fresh mercies.
The activity of doing sin is different from the repercussion of feeling guilt. Temptation arises as internal desire and external allure culminate into action. Then, if the conscience is not seared, comes the typical aftermath: guilt, shame, regret, remorse, resolves to change, penance, selfreproach, despair, making up, concealment, and so forth. Obsession with erotic pleasure yields to obsession with moral failure. Grace addresses both in different ways, because both are part of the dynamic of sexual evils.
Are you haunted by your sins — in the eyes of God, in the eyes of your conscience, and in the eyes of others who might find out? The sin may have just occurred a few minutes ago; it may be a distant but potent memory. Perhaps you don’t actively participate in that sin anymore. You’ve come far, and you no longer feel any allure to a lifestyle you once avidly pursued. Or perhaps you just did it again. But the memory — whether freshly minted or ancient history — fills you with dismay.
Perhaps immediate and long-term consequences of your sin run far beyond the repercussions within your conscience: an abortion, sexually transmitted disease, inability to bear children, ongoing vulnerability to certain kinds of temptations, a bad reputation, ruined relationships, wasted time, failed responsibilities. Nobody did this to you; you did it to yourself and to others. You victimized yourself as well as those you betrayed. You, too, feel like damaged goods.
For you, sex is no longer bright, iridescent, cheerful, generous, matter-of-fact. It is not a flat-out good to be enjoyed with your spouse or to be saved should you ever marry. You might live with such guilty feelings in your singleness. You might have brought them into your marriage. Perhaps you are afraid of relationships because you know from bitter experience that you can’t be trusted. Perhaps it’s hard to shake off the train of bleak associations that attach to sexual feelings and acts.
We often underestimate just how radically biblical faith relies on grace. Grace means that what makes things right comes to you from the outside. It’s the sheer gift that someone else gives to you. You don’t get it by jumping through certain religious hoops. You are forgiven, accepted, saved from death outside of yourself and because of Another. Listen to how a man of faith dealt forthrightly with his former sins.
The italics highlight how much your hope amid real guilt lies outside of you:
Remember, O LORD, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; According to Your lovingkindness remember me, For Your goodness’ sake, O LORD. . . . For Your name’s sake, O LORD, Pardon my iniquity, for it is great. (Psalm 25:6-7, 11, NASB)
David’s sexual sin was high-handed. It tore his conscience (Psalm 51; compare with Psalms 32, 38). It brought immediate and long-lasting consequences (2 Samuel 12:10-12, 14). Yet David was truly forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13). He experienced the joy of repentance and the wisdom, clarity, and purposeful energy that real repentance brings (see those same psalms, and the rest of 2 Samuel 12). Notice: David radically appeals to the quality of “Your mercy, O LORD.” David’s own conscience remembers only too well, but he appeals to what someone else will choose to remember: “When God looks at me, will he remember my sin, or his own mercies?”
Sin turns you in on yourself, blinding you to God. Guilt also tends to turn you in on yourself. Self-laceration exalts your opinion of yourself as supremely important; shame exalts the opinion of other people. But living repentance and living faith turn outward to the one whose opinion matters most. What God chooses to “remember” about you will prove decisive. Your conscience, if well-tuned, is secondary and dependent on the stance he takes.
“Sin turns you in on yourself, blinding you to God.”
If the Lord is merciful, then mercy has the final say. It is beyond our comprehension that God acts mercifully for his sake, because of what he is like. Wrap your heart around this, and the aftermath of sin will never be the same. You will stand in joy and gratitude, not grovel in shame. You’ll be able to get back to the business of life with fresh resolve, not just with good intentions and some flimsy New Year’s resolutions to do better next time. This is our hope. This is our deepest need. This is our Lord’s essential, foundational gift. The one with whom we have to do freely offers mercy and grace to help us by the lovingkindness of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4:13-16, NASB).
d. Viewing Sexual Sin as Just a Male Problem
Too often, teaching on sexual sin assumes and targets only the struggles of men. Seductive women may be viewed as sources of temptation to men (provocative clothing; participation in making pornography; the temptress at work; the prostitute). But women often slip under the radar when the issue is the struggle with lust. Unvarnished erotic lust is seen as a typically male problem. As one common saying puts it, “95 percent of men struggle with lust . . . and the other 5 percent are lying.” But what about the 100 percent of women sitting in churches, either secretly struggling or secretly smug? There are core similarities between men and women, along with some typical differences.
For starters, the Bible is candid that there is no temptation that is not common to all (1 Corinthians 10:13). This doesn’t mean temptations always take exactly the same form, but there are underlying similarities. By God’s creation, men and women are primarily the same (human). By his creation and providence, we are secondarily different (male-female differences tied to biology; masculine-feminine differences tied to culture). Add it up, and we struggle with the same kind of thing, but may struggle in different ways.
That does not mean that females are not perfectly capable of the same unvarnished, immoral eroticism that characterizes some males. It takes two to tango in any act of adultery or fornication. The woman may well be the initiator/aggressor in sending out sexual signals or in arranging a liaison. Women have roving eyes and get hooked on erotic pleasures. Women masturbate. Women pursue homosexuality. A woman can pattern her identity around fulfilling sexual self-interest and having a magnetic effect on male sexual interest. When she finds mercy in Christ and starts her journey toward the garden of light, her struggle may directly parallel the struggle of the man who has similarly patterned his lifestyle around immoralities. Both must learn how to love, rather than how to fulfill and arouse lust.
Second, it is noticeable that female sexuality in America has taken on cruder forms in recent years (or, at least, is far more willing to be brazen). Open lewdness and frank immorality have replaced coy, suggestive hints of availability. Male or female, the rule seems to be, if you want it, go for it. For example, female athletes increasingly display the openly obscene behaviors that were once the prerogative of male athletes: gutter humor, mooning, streaking, sexualized hazing and initiation rites, predatory sexual acts, an atmospheric grossness.
Using obscene language, attending a strip show, and surfing pornographic websites are not exclusively male sins. Women’s magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan) have increasingly become manuals for how to have wildly ecstatic sex with your “partner” of choice. Marital status is an optional, irrelevant category. But Jesus Christ is “no respecter of persons”: a coarse female is as ugly as a coarse male. Jesus loathes the degradation of sex (Ephesians 5:3-8). His selfsacrificing mercy works to transform sex into an expression of love, light, and fruitfulness (Ephesians 5:1, 8-10) for females and males alike.
Third, there are some typical and noteworthy differences between men and women. Both strugglers and those who minister to them should be aware of variations on the common themes. At the level of motive, for example, male sexual sin and female sexual sin often operate in somewhat different ways. Men are often more wired to visual cues, to anonymous “body parts” eroticism. Women are often more wired to feelings of personal intimacy and emotional closeness as cues for sexual arousal. These aren’t absolute differences (notice the “oftens”). But being aware of the tendencies can be helpful. The motives driving adultery, fornication, and promiscuity may follow somewhat different patterns.
Homosexuality provides a particularly obvious example. Lesbianism typically presents a different picture from male homosexuality. Many lesbians were once actively, unambivalently heterosexual, whether promiscuous or faithfully married. They might have conceived, borne, and raised children without much questioning of their sexual identity. But over time the men in their lives proved disappointing, violent, drunken, uncomprehending, or unfaithful.
Perhaps during the unhappiness of a slow marital disintegration, or while picking up the wreckage after a divorce, other women proved to be far more understanding and sympathetic friends. Emotional intimacy and communication opened a new door. Sexual repatterning as a lesbian came later. The life-reshaping “lusts of the flesh” were not initially sexual. Instead, cravings to be treated tenderly and sympathetically — to be known, understood, loved, and accepted — played first violin, and sex per se played viola.
Fourth, the culture of romance novels, soap operas, and women’s magazines does not draw nearly as much attention as male-oriented pornography. Men do graphic pornography. That’s an obvious problem. Women do romance. It’s the same kind of problem, though the participants keep their clothes on a while longer, and there’s more of a story to tell before they tumble into bed.
Romance novels are female pornography. The sin comes wired through intimacy lust first and builds toward erotic lust. The formulaic fantasies offer narrative emotion-candy, not visual eye-candy. Romance tells a story about someone with a name, someone you fall in love with. It builds slowly. It’s more than a moment of instant gratification with anonymous, naked, willing bodies.
But like male pornography, there is a progression from soft-core (e.g., Harlequin series), to more openly erotic (e.g., Silhouette series), to frankly pornographic writings that target women. The male model Fabio made his career posing for formulaic book cover art. A big, strong guy, stripped to the waist, tenderly cradles a beautiful woman. He’s the knight in shining armor, protective, gentle, understanding — and the handsome hunk. The romantic novel genre has even made a crossover to evangelical Christian publishing houses. The sex is cleaned up; the knight in shining armor is also a deep spiritual leader who marries you before sleeping with you. But the fantasy appeal to intimacy and romance lusts remains as the inner engine that allures readers.
Female versions of sexual-romantic sin are shop-floor rags as much as male versions. Jesus Christ calls all of us out of fantasy, delusion, and lust, whether the fantasyland is filled with naked bodies or with romantic knights. Jesus Christ is about the reality business. Francis of Assisi got things straight: “Grant that I would not so much seek . . . to be loved as to love.”
“Romance novels are female pornography.”
Jesus teaches us how to be committed, patient, kind, protective, able to make peace, keeping no record of wrongs, merciful, forgiving, generous, and all the other hard, wonderful characteristics of grace. He teaches us to consider the true interests of others. He teaches us a positive, loving purity that protects the purity of others. Instead of our instinctual ways — narcissism, fascination with our own desires and opinions, self-indulgence — Jesus Christ takes us by the hand to lead us in ways that make vive la difference shine brightly.
e. Sexual Struggles Within Marriage
We mislead ourselves and others if we say or imply that just getting married solves all the problems of sexual sin, sexual pain, sexual confusion. All sorts of remnant sins can carry on in marriage. All sorts of remnant heartaches and fears can still play out. “Making all things new” continues to remake sex within marriage. Here are some examples.
One person may need to learn that sex is good, not dirty. You can relax rather than tense up. You can give yourself freely, rather than worry about what will happen to you. Pleasure will not betray you. Your spouse is faithful and can be trusted. Only larger, deeper, fundamental trust in God can free us to grant simple trust and generous love to another human being, who will in fact let us down and do us wrong in some ways.
Another person may need to learn that sexual bliss is not the summum bonum of human life. You still need to say no to lust. There are seasons and reasons for self-denial and temporary celibacy. Your spouse may struggle, in sex as in other areas, and you will need to learn that “love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4) comes first in Paul’s list for a reason.
Some people may need to learn whole new patterns of sexual arousal. Sexual gymnastics may have been a part of the fantasies and fornications of your past. But your spouse, God’s gift to you, may enjoy quiet, tender moments being held in your arms. The Richter Scale of raw ecstasies may have spiked higher in your past immoralities than in your marriage. But you need to learn that the scale of solid joys and lasting treasures proves incomparably deeper and more satisfying.
Still other marriages may need to give up evil relational patterns: game-playing, manipulation, give to get, avoidance, bartering sex for other goodies, sulking. Even high-stakes criminal sins — sadistic sexual aggression, violence, and rape — can occur in marriage.
Still other people must sever the link that equated sex with “success or failure,” with “performance” and “identity.” As Christ redefines and recenters your identity, he changes what sex means. Sex can become a simple and meaningful way to give. It can become a simple pleasure, as normal as eating breakfast. It can become a safe place where failures and struggles can be talked about and prayed through.
Some marriages may deal with impotence and frigidity (“erectile dysfunction” and “arousal disorder” in the medicalizing jargon of our times). On the male side, Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra present a purely chemical solution for symptoms. The problem sometimes has a significant biological component unrelated to normal aging. But most often there are significant links to spiritual issues: performance anxiety, an unwillingness to face the diminishments of aging, the separation of sex from love, guilt over premarital sex, or unreal expectations of potency that have been learned from the media, pornography, or fornication.
Still others may be tempted to compare their spouse with previous partners, or with fantasy partners, or with some idealized fantasy of what marital bliss should be like. Wise sex loves your husband or wife.
Still others will continue to struggle with familiar patterns of lust. They may be tempted to flirt, or to cheat, or to view pornography, or to masturbate in the shower, or to fantasize about past experiences.
Finally, every person will struggle with garden variety anger, anxiety, grumbling, selfishness, unbelief, and the weight of life’s difficulties. The everyday nonsexual sins and troubles don’t disappear! Other sins and hardships can clutter the bedroom with nonsexual troubles that greatly affect sexual intimacy. Christ’s ongoing mercies will remake your sexuality in part by remaking the worry and irritability and other problems that arise in response to life’s pressures.
You get the picture! “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). His redemption will touch every form of grease. We can’t do justice to “sexual brokenness” unless we get the whole problem on the table. Jesus works with us. And it is our joy that he works with far more than just the Technicolor sexual immoralities.
2. It’s a Longer War
One key to fighting well is to lengthen your view of the battle. If you think that one week of “shock and awe” combat will win this war, you’re bound for disappointment. If you’re looking for some quick fix, an easy answer, a one-and-done solution, then you’ll never really understand the nature of the fight. And if you promise easy, once-for-all victories to others, then you’ll never be much help to them.
The day of “completion” will not arrive until the day when Jesus Christ returns (Philippians 1:6). When we see him, then we will be like him perfectly (1 John 3:2). The wiping away of all tears, the taking away of every reason for sorrow, crying, and pain, will not come until God lives visibly in our midst (Revelation 21:3-4). Someday, not today, all things will be made new (Revelation 21:5). Much of the failure to fight well, pastor well, counsel well, arises because we don’t really understand and work well with this long truth. Consider two specific implications. First, sanctification is a direction in which you are heading. Second, repentance is a lifestyle you are living.
a. Sanctification Is a Direction
Too often our practical view of sanctification, discipleship, and counseling is shortsighted. If you memorize and call to mind one special Bible verse, will it clean up all the mess? Will prayer drive all the darkness away? Will remembering that you are a child of God, justified by faith, shield your heart against every evil? Will careful self-discipline and a plan to live constructively eliminate all failure? Is it enough to sit under good preaching and have daily devotions? Is honest accountability to others the decisive key to walking in purity?
These are all very good things. But none of them guarantees that three weeks from now, or three years, or thirty years, you will not struggle to learn how to love rather than lust. We must have a vision for a long process (lifelong), with a glorious end (“the day of Jesus Christ”), that is actually going somewhere (today). Put those three together in the right way, and you have a practical theology that’s good to go and good for the going.
Look at church history. Look at denominations. Look at local churches. Look at people groups. Look at families. Look at individuals. Look at all the people in the Bible. They all have a history and keep making history. Things are never finished. No one ever says, “I’ve made it. No more forks in the road. No more places I might stumble and fall flat. No more hard, daily choices to make.” Look at yourself. Life never operates on cruise control. The living God seems content to work in his church and in people groups on a scale of generations and centuries. The living God seems content to work in individuals (you, me, the person you are trying to help) on a scale of decades, throughout a whole lifetime.
At every step, there’s some crucial watershed issue. What will you choose? Whom will you love and serve? There’s always something that the Vinedresser is pruning, some difficult lesson that the Father is teaching the children he loves (John 15; Hebrews 12). It’s no accident that “God is love” and “love is patient” fit together seamlessly. God takes his time with us.
In your sanctification journey and in your ministry to others, you must operate on a scale that can envision a lifetime, even while communicating the urgency of today’s significant choice. “Disciple” is the most common New Testament term describing God’s people. A disciple is simply a lifelong learner of wisdom, living in relationship to a wise master.
The second most common term, “son/child/daughter,” contains the same purpose: by living in lifelong relationship to a loving Father, we learn how to love. When you think in terms of the moral absolutes, it’s either oily rag or garden of delights. But when you think in terms of the change process, it’s from oily rag to garden of delights. We are each and all on a trajectory from what we are to what we will be. The moral absolutes rightly orient us on the road map. But the process heads out on the actual long, long journey in the right direction. The key to getting a long view of sanctification is to understand direction. What matters most is not the distance you’ve covered. It’s not the speed you’re going. It’s not how long you’ve been a Christian. It’s the direction you’re heading.
Do you remember any high school math? “A man drives the 300 miles from Boston to Philadelphia. He goes 60 miles per hour for 2 hours, 40 miles per hour for 3 hours, and then sits in traffic for 1 hour, not moving. If traffic lightens up, and he can drive the rest of the way at 30 miles per hour, how many hours will the whole trip take?” If you know the formula, “distance equals rate times time,” you can figure it out (8 hours!).
Is sanctification like that, a calculation of how far and how fast for how long? Not really. The key question in sanctification is whether you’re even heading in the direction of Philadelphia. If you’re heading north toward Montreal, you can go 75 miles per hour for as long as you want; you’ll never, ever get to Philadelphia. And if you’re simply sitting outside Boston, and have no idea which direction you’re supposed to go, you’ll never get anywhere. But if you’re heading in the right direction, you can go 10 miles per hour or 60 miles per hour; you can get stuck in traffic and sit awhile; you can get out and walk; you can crawl on your hands and knees; you can even get temporarily turned around. But at some point you’ll get where you need to go.
The rate of sanctification is completely variable. We cannot predict how it will go. Some people, during some seasons of life, leap and bound like gazelles. Let’s say you’ve been living in flagrant sexual sins. You turn from sin to Christ; the open sins disappear. No more fornication, sleeping with your girlfriend or boyfriend. No more exhibitionism, wearing revealing clothes. No more pornography, buying Penthouse or the latest salacious romance novel. Ever. It sometimes happens like that. For other people (and the same people, at another season of life) sanctification is a steady, measured walk. You learn truth. You learn to serve others constructively. You build new disciplines. You learn basic life wisdom. You learn who God is, who you are, how life works. You learn to worship, to pray, to give time, money, and caring. And you grow steadily — wonder of wonders!
Other people (and the same people, at another season) trudge. It’s hard going. You limp. You don’t seem to get very far very fast. But if you’re trudging in the right direction, someday you will see him face to face, and you will be like him. Some people crawl on their hands and knees. Progress is painful. Praise God for the glory of his grace, you are inching in the right direction. And then there are times you aren’t even moving, stuck in gridlock, broken down — but you’re still facing in the right direction. That’s Psalm 88, the “basement” of the Psalms. This man feels dark despair — but it’s despair in the Lord’s direction. In other words, it’s still faith, even when faith feels so discouraged you can only say, “You are my only hope. Help. Where are you?” That counts — it made it into the Bible!
There are times you might fall asleep in the blizzard and lie down comatose and forgetful — but grace wakes you up, reminds you, and gets you moving again. There are times you slowly wander off in the wrong direction, beguiled by some false promise, or disappointed by a true promise that you falsely understood. But he who began a good work in you awakens you from your sleepwalk, sooner or later, and puts you back on the path. And then there are times you revolt, and do a face-plant in the muck, a swan dive into the abyss — but grace picks you up and washes you off again, and turns you back. Slowly you get the point. Perhaps then you leap and bound, or walk steadily, or trudge, or crawl, or face with greater hope in the right direction.
We love gazelles. Graceful leaps make for a great testimony to God’s wonder-working power. And we like steady and predictable. It seems to vindicate our efforts at making the Christian life work in a businesslike manner. But, in fact, there’s no formula, no secret, no technique, no program, and no truth that guarantees the speed, distance, or time frame. On the day you die, you’ll still be somewhere in the middle, but hopefully further along. When we lengthen the battle, we realize that our business is the direction. God manages to work his glory in and through all of the above scenarios! God’s people need to know that, so someone else’s story doesn’t set the bar in a place that is not how your story of Christ’s grace is working out in real life.
b. Repentance Is a Lifestyle
What was the first trumpet call of the Reformation?
It was not the authority of Scripture, foundational as that is. Scripture is the very voice, face, and revelation of God. A Person presses through the pages. You learn how he thinks. How he acts. Who he is. What he’s up to. But “Scripture alone” did not stand first in line.
It was not justification by faith, crucial as that is. We are oily-rag people. Christ is the garden of light. We are saved by his doing, his dying, his goodness. We are saved from ourselves outside of ourselves. No religious hocus-pocus. No climbing up a ladder of good works, or religious knowledge, or mystical experience. He came down, full of grace and truth, Word made flesh, Lamb of God. We receive. That’s crucial. But “faith alone” wasn’t actually where it all started.
It was not the priesthood of all believers, revolutionary as that is. Imagine, there aren’t two classes of people, the religious people who do holy things by a special call from God, and the masses of laity toiling in the slums of secular reality. The “man of God” is not doing God’s show before an audience of bystanders. We all assemble as God’s people, doing the work and worshiping together, with differing gifts. The one Lord, our common King and attentive audience, powerfully enables faith and love. Yes and amen, but this radical revision of church didn’t come first.
“One key to fighting well is to lengthen your view of the battle.”
The trumpet call, Thesis Number One of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, was this: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That first of Luther’s theses dismantled all the machinery of religiosity and called us back to human reality. Luther glimpsed and aimed to recover the essential inner dynamic of the Christian life.
It is an ongoing change process. It involves a continual turning motion, turning toward God, and turning away from the riot of other voices, other desires, other loves. We tend to use the word repentance in its more narrow sense, for decisive moments of realization, conviction, confession, turning. But Luther uses the word in its wider, more inclusive sense. If we are living in Christ, we are living from-to. John Calvin put it in a similar way: “This restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year. . . . In order that believers may reach this goal [the shining image of God], God assigns to them a race of repentance, which they are to run throughout their lives” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.9). The entire Christian life (including the more specific moments of repentance) follows a pattern of turning from other things and turning to the Lord.
Luther went on to describe the transformation that occurs as we live from-to:
This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified. (Martin Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” Second Article )
Lifelong progressive sanctification was the trumpet call back to biblical faith. It was a call back to this life — including sex — in which the living God is on the scene throughout your life. He planned a good work. He began a good work. He continues a good work. He will finish a good work. He has staked his glory on the completion of that work. Lengthening the battle heightens the significance of our Savior for every step along the way. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.
3. It’s a Wider War
Sexual sins grab everyone’s attention. They haunt the conscience and excite the gossip. They push other sins into the background. They go up on the marquee in red letters ten feet high. But consider the struggle with sin this way. Imagine a multiplex theater screening many movies simultaneously. Sexual sin is the “feature film” advertised on the marquee. But other significant films are playing in other screening rooms. The war with sin happens in many places simultaneously.
In ministry to people who struggle with sexual sins, you may get the breakthrough in another screening room, with a sin that you might not have noticed or might not have considered to be related. A breakthrough — with anger, or pride, or anxiety, or laziness — may have ripple effects that eventually help disarm the big bogeyman that has been hogging all the attention and concern. It’s very important to widen the battlefront and not to let the highprofile sins blinker us from seeing the whole picture. I will give a case study of how sexual sin can and must be located within wider battles.
Tom is a single man, 35 years old. You might be able to fill in the rest of his story, because his pattern is so typical. He came to Christ, with a sincere profession of faith, when he was 15. At about the same time, his 20-year struggle with sexual lust began. It involves episodic use of pornography and episodic masturbation, about which Tom is deeply discouraged. Over the years he has experienced many ups of “victory” and just as many downs of “defeat.”
Tom came for help to me as his elder and small-group leader. He was discouraged by recent failures, by the latest downturn in a seemingly endless cycle. Over the years he had tried “all the right things,” the standard answers and techniques. He had tried accountability — sincerely. It helped some, but not decisively. Accountability has a way of starting strong, but slipping to the side. At a certain point, to tell others you failed yet again, and to receive either sympathy or exhortation, stops being helpful. Tom had memorized Scripture and wrestled to apply truth in moments of battle. It often helped, but then in snow-blind moments, when he most needed help, he would forget everything he knew. Sex filled his mind and Scripture vanished from sight. Other times he just overrode the truth in an act of “Who cares?” rebellion.
Then he would feel terrible — his conscience would go snow-blind for only half an hour at a time! He prayed. He fasted. He sought to discipline himself. He planned constructive things to do with his time, and to do with and for others. He got involved in ministry to teens. He tried things that aren’t in the Bible: vigorous exercise, cold showers, dietary regimes. Briefly, he even tried the advice of a self-help book, trying to think of masturbation as “normal, everybody does it, so give yourself permission.” His conscience, wisely, could never get around Jesus’ words about lust in the heart (Matthew 5:28).
Tom had tried it all. Most things helped a bit. But in the end, success was always spotty and fragile. Tom had gained no greater insight into his heart and into the inner workings of sin and grace. For twenty years it was, “Sin is bad. Don’t do it. Just do to help you not sin.” His entire Christian life was conceived and constructed around this struggle with episodic sexual sin.
His pattern was as follows: Seasons of relative purity might last for days, weeks, even for a few months. He measured his success by “How long since I last fell?” The longer he went, the more his hopes would rise: “Maybe now I’ve finally broken the back of my besetting sin.” Then he would fall again. He would stumble through seasons of defeat, wandering back to the same old pigsty. “Am I even a Christian? Why bother? What’s the point? Nothing ever works.” He was plagued with guilt, discouragement, despair, shame. Sometimes Tom would even turn to pornography to dull the misery of his guilt over using pornography. He would beg God’s forgiveness over and over and over, without any relief or any joy. Then, for unaccountable reasons the season would change for the better. He would get sick of sin or get inspired to fight again.
That’s when he gave me a call. He really wanted deliverance once and for all.
What should I do in trying to help Tom? I was reticent to simply give Tom more of the same things he’d tried dozens of times and found wanting. I didn’t want to just give him a pep talk and a Scripture, urge him to gird up his loins to run the race, and offer accountability phone calls. What is he missing? What’s happening in the other theaters of his life? Are there motives and patterns neither of us yet sees? What’s going on in the days or hours before he stumbles? What about how he (mis)handles the days and weeks after a fall? Why does his whole approach to life seem like so much complicated machinery for managing moral failure? Why does his approach to the Christian life seem so dehumanized and depersonalized? His Christianity seems like a big production, a lot of earnest effort at self-improvement. Why does his collection of truths and techniques never seem to warm up and invigorate the quality of his relationships with God and people? Is the centerpiece of the Christian life really this endless cycle of “I sin. I don’t sin. I sin. I don’t sin. I sin”? What are we missing?
I asked Tom to do a simple thing, attempting to gain a better sense of the overall terrain of his life: “Would you keep a log of when you are tempted?” I wanted to know what was going on when he struggled. “When? Where? What just happened? What did you do? What were you feeling? What were you thinking? If you resisted, how did you do it? If you fell, how did you react afterwards? Does anything else correlate to your sexual temptations?”
Through all the ups and downs, Tom had maintained a great sense of humor. He laughed at me and said, “I don’t need to keep a log. I already know the answer. I only fall on Friday or Saturday nights — usually Friday, since Saturday is right before Sunday.” If you have any pastoral counseling genes in you, you light up at an answer like that. Repeated patterns always prove extremely revealing on inspection. I asked, “Why does sexual sin surface on Friday night? What’s going on with that?” He said, “I go out and buy Playboy magazine as my temper tantrum at God.”
Amazing! Look what we’ve just found out: another movie is playing in a theater next door. Now we’re not only dealing with a couple of bad behaviors, buying pornography and masturbating. We’re dealing with anger at God that drives those behaviors. What’s that about? Tom went on to give a fuller picture. “I come home from work on Friday night, back to the apartment. I’m all alone. I imagine that all my single friends are out on dates, and my married friends are spending time with their wives. But I’m all alone in my apartment. I build up a good head of steam of self-pity. Then by nine or ten o’clock, I think, ‘You deserve a break today’ — I even hear the little McDonald’s jingle in my head, and then sexual desires start to look really, really sweet. ‘God has cheated me. If only I had a girlfriend or a wife. I can’t stand how I feel. Why not feel good for awhile? What does it matter anyway?’ Then I hop in the car, head to 7-11, and fall into sin.”
Sanctification is a direction; repentance is a lifestyle.
Amazing, isn’t it? Pornography and masturbation grabbed all the attention, generated all the guilt, defined the moment and act of “falling.” Let’s call that Screening Room #1. But we’ve also heard about anger at God that precedes and legitimates sexual sin: Screening Room #2. We’ve heard about hours of low-grade self-pity, grumbling, and envious fantasies: a matinee performance in Screening Room #3. We’ve heard Tom name the original desire that leads to self-pity, to anger at God, and finally to sexual lust: “God owes me a wife. I need, want, demand a woman to love me.” That’s playing in Screening Room #4, an unobtrusive G-rated film, seemingly no problem at all. It’s a classic nonsexual lust of the flesh that Tom has never viewed as problematic. In fact, in his mind, it’s practically a promise from God: “Psalm 37:4: Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” “If I do my part, God should do his part and give me a wife.”
As Tom and I kept talking, I found out why God owes him a wife: “I’ve tried to do all the right things. I’ve served him. I’ve tried accountability. I’ve memorized Scripture. I’ve tried to be a good Christian. I do ministry. I witness. I tithe . . . but God hasn’t come through.” In other words, the “right answers” for fighting sin are also the levers to pry goodies out of God. Tom’s words sound eerily like the self-righteous whine of the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: “I’m good, therefore God owes me the goodies I want.”
Subsequent anger at God operates like any other sinful anger: “You aren’t giving me what I want, expect, need, and demand.” This fatally flawed, proud “upside” of the classic legalistic construct has been showing in Screening Room #5. And why does Tom mope in self-lacerating depression for days and weeks after falling, rather than finding God’s living mercies new every morning? That’s the self-punitive, despairing “downside” of the legalistic construct: “I’m bad, therefore God won’t give me the goodies.” Screening Room #6 is where self-punishment, self-atonement, penance, and self-hatred play out.
It doesn’t take much theological insight to see how all these distortions of Tom’s relationship with God express different forms of basic unbelief. We suppress living knowledge of the true God. We create a universe for ourselves void of the real God’s presence, truth, and purposes. Unbelief does not mean a vacuum; rather the universe fills up with seductive, persuasive fictions. Screening Room #7 is showing a blockbuster that Tom had never noticed as trouble. (When Dame Folly keeps her clothes on she sounds like common sense.)
In fact, we have found out why Tom is so eager right now to get my counsel and advice. Why does he want to have victory over his lust problem, to try again, to defeat the dragon of lust once and for all? He’s recently had his eye on an eligible young lady who started to attend our church. That’s reawakened his motivation to fight. If only lust goes, then God owes, and maybe he’ll get the wife of his dreams. Even Tom’s agenda for counseling plays a bit part in the wider battle: Screening Room #8!
Look how far we’ve come in half an hour. Tom’s “fall” at 9:30 P.M. last Friday was not where he started to fall. It was not even his most devastating fall. For me to assist Tom’s discipleship to Jesus is not simply to offer tips and truths that might help him remain “morally pure” on subsequent Fridays. Counseling must be about rewiring Tom’s entire life. “Cure of souls” is what ministry does.
You can see why we must widen the battlefront in order to cure souls. Tom concentrates all his attention on one marquee sin that sporadically surfaces, defining and energizing all his guilty feelings. But that narrowing of attention serves to mask far more serious, pervasive sins. As a pastor, friend, or other counselor, you don’t want to concentrate all your energies in the same place Tom does. There are other, deeper opportunities for grace and truth to rewrite the script of this man’s life. Tom had turned his whole relationship with God into flimsy scaffolding. Selfrighteousness (“victory at last”) would get him the goodies he really wanted out of life. Though Tom knew and professed sound theology, in daily practice he reduced God to, in Bob Dylan’s words, the “errand boy to satisfy [his] wandering desires” (“When You Gonna Wake Up,” Bob Dylan, from the album Slow Train Coming ).
Tom and I put the fire of truth and grace to the scaffolding. Wonderful changes started to run through his life. We didn’t ignore temptations to sexual sin, but many other things that he had never before noticed became urgently important. We spent far more time talking about self-pity and grumbling as “early warning sins,” about how the desire for a wife becomes a mastering lust, about how the selfrighteousness construct falls before the dynamics of grace. Temptations to sexual sin greatly diminished. The topography of the battlefield radically changed.
The significance of Jesus Christ’s love went off the charts. The lights of more accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge came on. A man going in circles, muddling in the middle, started to leap and bound in the right direction. We experienced the delights of a season of gazelle growth. Ministering to someone who has struggled for twenty years with the exact same thing is disheartening, and frequently a recipe for futility. Ministering to someone who is starting to battle a half-dozen foes that were previously invisible is extremely heartening! Widening the war served to deepen and heighten the significance of the Savior, who met Tom on every battlefront.
4. It’s a Deeper War
The Bible is always about behavior, but it is never only about behavior. God’s indictment of human nature always gets below the surface, into the “heart.” His gaze and Word expose the thoughts, intentions, desires, and fears that shape the entire way we approach life. An immoral act or fantasy — behavior — is a sin in itself. But such behavior always arises from desires and beliefs that dethrone God. Whenever I do wrong, I am loving something besides God with all my heart, soul, mind, and might. I am listening attentively to some other voice. Typically (but not always!), immoral actions arise in connection with erotic desires that squirm out from under God’s lordship.
But immorality results from many other motives, too, and usually arises from a combination of motives. We saw some of this in describing Tom. Erotic motives, the “feel good” of sex, played an important role. But other motives — “I want a wife”; “If I’m good, God owes me goodies”; “I’m angry because God has let me down” — interconnected with his eroticism. Many coconspirators play a role when Tom starts rummaging in the gutter of “I want to look at a naked Playmate” and “I need sexual release now.”
Many other lusts join hands to give a boost to sexual lust. It’s worth digging, both in order to understand yourself and in order to minister wisely to other people. As our understanding of sin’s inner cravings deepens, our ability to know and appreciate the God of grace grows deeper still. Consider a handful of typical examples to prime the pump.
a. Angry Desires for Revenge
Sexual acting out can be a way to express anger. I once counseled a couple who had committed backlash adulteries. First they had a big fight, full of yelling, threats, and bitter accusations. In anger the man went out and slept with a prostitute. Still burning with anger, he came home and gloated about it to his wife. In retaliatory anger, the woman went out and seduced her husband’s best friend. Did they get any erotic pleasure out of those acts? Probably. But was eros the driving force? No way.
Though it’s not always so dramatic, anger often plays a role in immorality: A teenager finds sex a convenient way to rebel against and to hurt morally upright parents; a man cruises the Internet after he and his wife exchange words; a woman masturbates to fantasies of former boyfriends after she and her husband argue. In all these situations, the redemption of dirtied sexuality can happen only alongside the redemption of dirtied anger.
b. Longings to Feel Loved, Approved, Affirmed, to Be Given Romantic Attention
Consider the situation of an overweight, lonely, teenage girl with acne, whose enjoyment of sex as an act is minimal or even nil. Why then is she promiscuous, giving away sexual favors to any boy who pays her any attention? She barters her body, not in service to erotic lust, but in order to feed her consuming lust for romantic attention. When boys say sweet things and pledge their faithful love, she might even know inside that they are lying. She knows that they are merely using her as a receptacle for their lust, but she temporarily blocks out the thought. She engages in sex anyway — because she’s hooked on “feeling loved.” Ministry to such a young woman does her a disservice if we concentrate only on the wrong of fornication and do not help her to understand the subtler enslavement of living for human attention. Sex can be an instrument in the hands of nonsexual lust. Both evils must find the mercies and transforming power of Christ.
c. Thrilling Desires for the Power and Excitement of the Chase
Some people enjoy the sense of power and control over another person’s sexual response. The flirt, the tease, the Don Juan, the seducer are not motivated solely by sexual desires. Often evil erotic pleasure is enhanced and complemented by deeper evil pleasures: the chase, the hunt, the thrill of conquest, the rush that comes with being able to manipulate the romantic-erotic arousal of another. There is a kind of sadistic pleasure driving through such sexual sins. These people like to see others get aroused, “fall” for them, and squirm. They may become indifferent to a willing sexual partner once that particular chase has ended. Repentance and change for seducers will address lusts for perverse power and excitement, as well as lusts for sex.
d. Anxious Desires for Money to Meet Basic Survival Needs
Sex makes lots of money for lots of people. As in the previous cases, eros may be one factor. But in money-making sex, pleasure plays second fiddle to mammon. There are also more subtle situations. A single mother in our church was in very tight financial straits. She found herself strongly tempted by her sleazy landlord’s offer of free rent in exchange for sexual favors. If she had fallen, sexual desire might have been nonexistent. In fact, she might have fornicated despite feeling active repugnance, shame, and guilt in the act.
To God’s glory, she opened up her struggle to a wise woman. In a variety of appropriate ways the church was able to come to her aid with care and counsel. One aspect of care for her came from the deacons (who didn’t even know what had almost happened): “Know that you will not end up on the street. We are your family. If you get stuck, if you wonder where the money will come from for rent, or groceries, or a doctor’s bill, don’t think twice about asking for help.” Interesting, isn’t it? Mercy ministry to financial needs played a significant role in reducing a woman’s vulnerability to one particular sort of sexual temptation.
e. Distorted Messianic Desire to Help Another
Certainly there are pastors and priests who are sexual predators, but that’s not the only dynamic of sexual sin in the ministry. I’ve dealt with a number of situations that involved the very impulses that make for ministry — run far off the rails. For example, a pastor feels deep concern for a lonely young widow or divorcée. He wants so much (too much) to help her and comfort her. She so appreciates his wise, Scriptural counsel. He’s such a role model of kindness, gentleness, communication, attentive concern.
But life is still very hard and lonely for her. He starts to console her with hugs. They end up in bed. The motives? Sexual, yes. But more significant in the early going was a warped desire to be helpful, to be admired, to make a real difference, to be important, to “save” her. When anyone who is not the Messiah starts to act messianic, it gets very ugly very fast. When you minister to a minister who has committed sexual sin, you might find that sex was only the poisoned dessert. The poisonous entrée might have been a very different set of deceitful desires, desires arising more from the mind than from the body (Ephesians 4:22; 2:3).
f. Desires for Relief and Rest amid the Pressures of Life
Sexual sin often serves as a kind of “escape valve” from other problems. When steam pressure gets too high in a pressure cooker, it blows off steam. That’s a metaphor for what’s often true with people, too. Consider a man who faces, and mishandles, extreme pressures in his workplace. He’s part of a team facing a drop-dead deadline for a major project. They’ve been running behind. He’s had a month of eighty-hour work weeks. He’s harried, driven, preoccupied, worried, worn out. Every day his boss applies more pressure, more panic, more threats. There’s been vicious infighting on the project team: who’s responsible for what task, who’s to blame for what glitch, who gets credit for what achievement.
All along, he isn’t casting his real cares on the God who cares for him; he isn’t “anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6, NASB), but anxious about lots of things. After two straight all-nighters, just under the wire, they finish the project. They made it. He made it. Success. Finally he has a free night, with no deadlines, no jungle of intramural combat, no tomorrow to worry about. But after a month of living “stressed-out,” he feels no relief. He finds no satisfaction in achievement. So he surfs the Internet, revels in pornography, forgets his troubles. What’s going on with him?
Erotic sin is part of his picture, but there’s lots more. Every deviant motive — every lust of the flesh, lie, false love — is a hijacker. It mimics some aspect of God. It usurps some promise of God. About two-thirds of the Psalms present God as “our refuge” amid the troubles of life. Amid threat, hurt, disappointment, and attack, God protects, cares, and looks out for us. Our friend has faced troubles: people out to get him, threats to his job, intolerable demands, relentless weeks. But he’s been finding no true refuge during this frenzied month.
Now, in a spasm of immorality, he takes “false refuge” in eroticism. His erotic behavior serves as a counterfeit rest from his troubles. Psalm 23 breathes true refuge: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” This man pants after false refuge: “After I’ve walked through that godforsaken valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because the photograph of a surgically enhanced female wearing no clothes is with me.” A false refuge looks pretty silly when exposed for what it really is.
Sexual sin is one expression of a deeper war for the heart’s loyalty and primary love. Learning to see more clearly is a crucial part of your sanctification journey. Teaching others to have eyes open to the deeper battles is a crucial part of wise pastoral ministry. Jesus Christ looks better and better the more we see what he is about. He is not simply in the business of cleaning up a few embarrassing moral blots. Deepening the battle deepens the significance of the Savior. He alone sees your heart accurately. He alone loves you well enough to make you love him.
5. It’s a Subtler War
A newcomer to war imagines that the first battles are the hardest battles. When you’re first coming out of the morass of an adulterous relationship, of being betrayed by a spouse’s adultery, of promiscuous fornications, of having experienced rape or molestation, of a homosexual lifestyle, of an obsession with Internet porn, it can seem as though your troubles will be over if you can only get past the particular bad behavior.
Those battles are hard. But will your troubles be over? That’s not how life works. That’s not how sanctification works in the clean-up from sexual dirt. In fact, in some ways it’s the opposite. The more obviously destructive sins can be “easier” to deal with. The subtler sins can be more stubborn, pervasive, sneaky, and elusive.
Consider a metaphor for this. Many computer and video games send you out on a quest, a sort of pilgrim’s progress. You proceed through level after level, facing test after test, until, say, at Level 50 you’ve run the race and won. Level 1 starts you out with easier challenges. The tasks are clear-cut. The enemies are slower, more limited in their abilities, more obvious in their approach, not so smart. With some practice, you learn to accomplish your task and blow away your attackers.
Level 2 gets a little harder. Each successive level gets harder still. The tasks get trickier. The enemies are wilier, stronger, quicker, more numerous. The skills you need are subtler and more varied. If you ever arrive at, say, Level 40, it’s because you’ve died often, but you learned something each time, and you kept coming back. You’ve come a distance in the right direction.
The struggle with sexual sin (as with any other sin) has a certain similarity to those video games. There is typically a front-and-center issue, and the “front lines” of the current battle move from the more overt sins to subtler sins. Let’s work out the metaphor.
(The video game metaphor captures a progression of different kinds of battles we face. It does not capture how in real life we also “regress” and may have to fight an old battle over again. It also does not capture that in real life the subtler sins are actually present all the way through. But they don’t tend to come front-and-center when some other struggle is more overt and decisive for that moment.)
a. High-Effort, High-Cost Sins
Think of consenting sex (adultery, fornication, homosexuality, prostitution) and criminal sex (rape, child abuse) as the Level 1 sins. These are the obvious evils. I don’t mean that such sins are easy to break or easy to change. But they are relatively easy to see. Easier to recognize as wrong. Easier to know when you’re doing wrong, once your conscience starts to see straight. And such sins are usually harder to do and harder to get away with.
Think about that. You have to do a lot of scheming in order to arrange a liaison. You have to hide things from people who love you, who would be unhappy if they found out what you’ve been doing. You have to tell consistent and increasingly complex lies in order to get away with it. You have to lie to your own conscience to persuade yourself that everything’s okay. Because these actions involve actual sexual relations with other people, those partners may blow your cover, or blackmail you, or slip up, or report you.
“Many other lusts join hands to give a boost to sexual lust.”
These sins can catch up with you very quickly, taking you down in an instant. They can destroy your reputation. Destroy family relationships. Destroy finances. Destroy health by a sexually transmitted disease. Even send you to jail. In other words, these sins take a lot of work and can bite back hard. If you’re willing to seek mercy and change, it’s easier to set up meaningful barriers against the high-effort, high-cost sins.
Jesus Christ often begins his work of mercy and renewal by dealing with such high-handed sins. Often the dramatic first steps of sanctification shake off overt evils. Oily-rag people make leaps and bounds into the garden of light. There are adulterers who repent and never again have sexual relations with anyone who is not their own wife or husband. It is entirely possible to have lived an immoral life for many years, with a string of lovers, and then to make such a complete break with that sin that you will never be immoral again — in the Level 1 sense.
That does not always happen. And it’s never a snap of the fingers. And you may still face ongoing consequences. And believers do fall back into such sins. But grace and change can be as easy to see and as powerful as the sin once was. Accountability relationships can really help. The Scriptures openly and frequently speak to the obvious sins to bring transformation. (By doing this, God also familiarizes us with how the subtler versions of sin and love work, teaching us how to see more of life for what it is and can become.)
b. Lower-Effort, Lower-Cost Sins
Let’s say you’ve done some growing. You’ve put away overt evils. No immoral liaisons. By grace you’ve worked and fought your way to a Level 8 battle. Pornography was around before, but now it’s the biggie. In some ways, pornography is a tougher problem than adultery. In one sense, it’s “not as bad,” because it doesn’t involve an accomplice or victim. But it’s harder to get rid of. Harder to set up protective barriers against.
Why is this? Pornography is easier to do and easier to get away with. The necessary deceit is not as complicated. It doesn’t take much work for you to do the sin. Adultery usually takes a lot of effort, both to arrange and to cover your tracks. But pornography? The gap between temptation and sin can be a matter of seconds. Three clicks of the mouse and you’re there. A few dollars at an airport magazine shop. A remote control in your hand to check out what’s on cable TV.
And who’s to know? No one. Pornography use is harder to discover. Unless you fail to erase it off your computer. Or you spend so many hours online late at night that friends and family get suspicious. Or someone walks in on you. Or you get depressed and grouchy because you feel guilty. Or your relationships slowly fray and alienate because of your preoccupation, defensiveness, and hiding. The consequences are shameful — but usually not as disastrous as with the interpersonal sins.
So pornography is both “not as bad” as adultery, and yet harder to defeat because it’s easier to do and not as devastating. Christ is merciful here, too. Lots of people have broken with pornography and never gone back. You learn the joys of righteousness, the deeper pleasures of a clear conscience and honest relationships. You learn to say no to yourself. You get more interested in good things. You care about people, and sin just doesn’t have as much room to insinuate itself into your heart. Some practical tools can help, too. A friend who will look you in the eye, ask a direct question, and expect an honest answer can help you. You can set up Covenant Eyes software (www.covenanteyes.com) to monitor your Internet use and email a report to a friend.
c. No-Effort Sins
Let’s say you’ve put pornography and immoral sexual relations aside. The acted-out sins no longer draw you. Are there no more enemies to fight? Now we’re up to Level 16: mental tapes. This is an even subtler problem. You don’t even have to do anything. No effort, no expense. You aren’t having sexual relations outside of marriage. You aren’t cruising the Internet. But you have a theater and library in your own mind. It’s all stored there: memories, images, stories. At your mind’s fingertips are things you did, experiences you had, people you watched or read about. You don’t have to tell any lies or arrange anything. You just open a door in your mind. You can’t get caught — except by the Searcher of hearts, before whose eyes all things are open and laid bare, him with whom we have to do. Because he sees us on the inside, and because he’s merciful both inside and out, grace is available here, too.
Sometimes the battle with mental tapes stalls because you actively cherish and nurture old memories. But when you actually start to fight, you wish you could push ERASE and obliterate the collection of old videos. But the erase button on memories doesn’t work on request. It’s a subtler battle, learning to say no inside your mind, and yes to your Father who is right at hand. The point is clear. The enemies get subtler. They aren’t as “bad” outwardly. But they’re “worse” when it comes to getting rid of them, because sins are so easy to arrange and not so immediately self-destructive.
I’ve chosen examples from the active sins. But there is an analogy for those who experienced the dark splash of evil as the victim of another’s sin. In some ways, it can be “easier” to deal with an abusive relationship (Level 1). Hard as it is to get away, it can be done. The problem is clear-cut and definable. Like adultery, the wrongdoer can be caught in the act. Violence can be intercepted. The action steps are obvious. Friends will help you. The law can help protect you: police intervention, a restraining order, criminal charges against the offender. You can flee. When you aren’t in the same room, the person can’t hurt you anymore. There are places to live where you are safe.
But how do you deal with the memories (Level 16)? Memories aren’t as “bad” as being abused, but they can be harder to get rid of. They inhabit the room of your mind. Or, how do you deal with the fact that you are primed to interpret anyone’s irritation at you as a threat of imminent violence (Level 24)? How do you deal with the subtle fears that you now bring to all relationships, apprehensions so automatic that you don’t even know you’re doing it (Level 40)?
Those motions of your soul are almost invisible, but they are pervasive, hard to intercept, and highly corrosive to developing future trust and love. The themes of safe refuge, peace, and watchful care run deep in the Psalms. God is trustworthy at every level. Psalm 23 means one very good thing at Level 1, something still richer at Level 16, and wonders beyond wonders at Level 40. The significance of the Lord’s kindness is not exhausted at the more obvious levels. The Psalms go deep, deeper, and deepest, the more you bring complex, honest experience onto the table.
d. Sins That Come Looking for You
Let’s say you’ve left adultery and pornography behind, and you simply don’t go there. You’re closing and locking the door on mental tapes. But how about those situations where you aren’t looking for sin, but sin is looking for you? Let’s call that Level 24. In this battle the insurgents are trickier. An invitation to lust can sneak up and attack you in ways that no actual human being can. Our culture has many “acceptable” predators. Have you ever been blindsided by a lewd image or suggestion that you were not looking for, but that was looking for you? The fashion industry, entertainment industry, advertising industry, and sex industry know their business well. They are looking to find you, to snag your heart, to shape your identity, your goals, your worries, your spending. We live in a culture of visual media, where such ambushes are increasingly common:
You’re on the Internet, searching for an out-of-print theology book. A slightly mistyped web address pipes hardcore porn onto your screen. Or, you open an email that looks like it’s for real, but it turns out to be well-disguised spam spewing gutter words in bold, colorful print. Or, you recognize that an email is spam and delete it, but you can’t avoid reading the filth on the subject line. You feel splashed with sewer water. You weren’t looking for sin; you didn’t linger; but you’re dirtied anyway.
In the grocery store, a handsome, charming young man starts to flirt suggestively with you, a mature, married woman with well over a hundred thousand miles on your odometer! Is there an answering flutter inside you?
You hear that a certain movie is worth watching, but get blindsided. A lewd scene was gratuitously inserted to avoid a G rating. Or, you find yourself feeling deep empathy for a couple committing adultery because their respective spouses are portrayed so unfavorably.
You’re driving down the highway when, suddenly, you see a twenty-by-sixty-foot billboard advertising beer, featuring a nearly undressed lady. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were nothing inside answering back to her call, if that ad created the same indifference as the neighboring billboard, advertising a 5.25 percent mortgage rate? No one ever came under church discipline or was sued for divorce for looking twice at a billboard of a mostly naked lady. But that’s where the ambush occurs.
You’ve learned to deeply trust and love your God and a circle of dear friends, after torturous experiences many years ago. You’ve learned not to shrink from new people. Your new boss generally treats you reasonably, but his appearance, voice, and mannerisms bear an uncanny resemblance to the person who once betrayed you. Where that person was cruel, your boss is only irritable and sarcastic on occasion. His sins are 1 percent of what you once experienced; but that’s where today’s battle erupts.
You can have a lot of light growing in your life, good latticework in place, gardens of healthy sexuality. But wherever there’s still a broken lattice, an oily stain, then an inner spark or inner flinch can answer to what comes at you. Redemption proceeds exactly in such places. You face things that whisper the very things that once shouted in your life. And Christ speaks loud and clear, so that at this level, too, you learn to choose well.
e. Sins So Atmospheric They Seem Like Who You Are
Sometimes lust is so subtle it doesn’t even seem like lust — until you think about it, unmask it, pull it toward the light: Level 40. For example, have you ever used sexual attraction criteria in sizing up a person? It can be a largely unconscious operation. Subliminal radar explores, notices, registers on the wavelength of mildly sexualized desire. It’s a quiet current trending in the direction of lust. You’re subtly aware of a body’s shape; of the cues communicated by posture and gesture; of the messages expressed through clothing, hairstyle, makeup, scent, tone of voice.
This subtle attentiveness correlates to the heart’s erotic attraction: “Is this person desirable to my eyes, worth further exploratory interest?” Perhaps this thought process rarely surfaces into conscious awareness. Perhaps you almost as instinctively say no, resisting the impulse to convert its intentions into a conscious lewd look. But the very existence of such atmospheric erotic intentionality subtly stains you. It is yet another aspect of our battle with darkness.
When you see sin’s subtlety, you realize how much our lives hang upon sheer mercy from God. He is utterly aware of thoughts and intentions of which we may be wholly unaware. Mercy extends here, too. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. . . . Let the . . . meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:12, 14).
Is it possible to alter the subtle tendencies that pattern how you look at people? Yes. The Holy Spirit is about this business. But he takes time with us and works with us over time: a lot of walking on the paths of light, a lot of needing God and loving God, a lot of receiving his mercies, a lot of learning to genuinely love people. But you can grow wiser even at this subtlest of levels. You can increasingly view each human being as a sister or brother, a mother or father, a daughter or son, not as a sexual object. Your gaze and intentions can become more and more about the business of caring and protecting.
f. Truly Changed, Truly Changing, and Still at War
All this — from Level 1 to Level 40 — is the arena of sanctification. In heart, soul, mind, and might we are being conformed and transformed into radiant purity. A heightened view of our war brings with it a heightened view of the significance of our Jesus Christ. One of the deep truths of sanctification is that you get “better” and “worse” at the same time!
You truly shine more brightly as you move toward the light. You hold onto God more steadily. You’re more loving and joyful. You’re more trustworthy. More teachable. You give to people rather than use them. But brighter light also exposes more dark corners, pockets of unconscionable and once unimaginable iniquity. As we have seen, sin is not only the worst things I ever did. It’s also an atmospheric narcissism: “Is that person pleasing to the sexual impulse that animates my desires?” John Calvin captured well the historical wisdom of the church regarding these things:
The children of God [are] freed through regeneration from bondage to sin. Yet . . . there still remains in them a continuing occasion for struggle whereby they may be exercised; and not only be exercised, but also better learn their own weakness. In this matter all writers of sounder judgment agree that there remains in a regenerate man a smoldering cinder of evil, from which desires continually leap forth to allure and spur him to commit sin. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.10)
A “smoldering cinder of evil.” A restless inner motion of sin. Jesus’ first beatitude is first for a reason. Awareness of an impoverished need for mercy is the opening motion of living faith. The better I know my Christ, the better I know my need for what he alone is and does.
When you understand your subtle sinfulness, you will never say of any human being, “How could he do that?” or “Can you believe she did that!” We are fundamentally more alike than different. You may never have been an adulterer, fornicator, homosexual, or consumer of pornography. But you know with all your heart that no temptation overtakes anyone that is not common to everyone (1 Corinthians 10:13). And grasping the subtlety of the battle helps you to grasp the true subtlety and scope of the work of our Savior. “Remember me, O LORD, according to Your lovingkindness.”
6. Remember the Goal
We’ve looked at many varieties of sexual darkness. The war is longer, wider, deeper, more subtle than we might imagine. It is no accident, therefore, that the height, depth, length, and breadth of the love and work of Jesus is more wonderful than we understand at first. What is God after in remaking our lives? Is his purpose merely that we would just stop sinning? That we would become more involved in religious activities? Yes, stop sinning. Yes, use the means of grace. But neither is an end in itself. The point is to become more like Jesus.
Jesus loves God. He lives out a head-on, honest relationship with his Father. Whether in pain or joy, whether needy or exultant, whether looking at the weather or looking at the people out to hurt him, whether considering God’s love or considering God’s wrath, Jesus talks it all out with God his Father. He needs God, thanks God, trusts God, serves God. The Psalms aren’t merely “devotions” for him. When Jesus talks and acts, he brings life to God and brings God to life. That’s what God intends the means of grace to accomplish. As you stop sinning, that’s how you live instead.
The way Jesus works as a person is the diametric opposite from how the oily rag works. When you’re living in sexual sin or swamped in unredeemed sexual sufferings, you live in your own head. Sin pulls you into an in-curving, self-absorbing inertia. You shut God out. The universe becomes all about you. Suffering tends to have the same effect, as we return evils for evils. But Jesus suffers in the exact opposite way, opening out to God in his times of need. Jesus teaches life lived in God’s direction. He teaches you how to talk out everything that matters with the One whose opinion most matters, the only One who can do something about it all.
In the same way, Jesus loves people. He notices others. He stops. He helps people where they most need help. He answers real questions. He inverts hostile questions. He relentlessly leads people to think about the two decisive life-or-death questions: “Whom are you living for? How are you living?” He’s dedicated to the true welfare of others. He protects and promotes the sexual purity of others (even when interacting with notoriously immoral women). He attacks oppressors and tenderly bends toward the helpless. He dies willingly, the innocent for the guilty.
The way Jesus loves is the diametric opposite from how sexual sin works. Whether flagrant or atmospheric, whether physical or imaginary, sexual sin is hate. It misuses people. Jesus’ love treasures and serves our sexual purity. We misuse God’s gift of sexuality when we do not treasure and serve the sexual purity of others. We degrade ourselves and degrade others. As Jesus starts to rearrange how you treat people, you are becoming a qualitatively different kind of person. Let me give two simple examples.
First, you learn to see and treat all people in wise, constructive ways. In principle, for the Christian, every person of the opposite sex fits into one of three categories: either family member, or spouse, or threat. (Every person of the same sex fits into one of two categories: either family member or threat.) “Family member” is the controlling category. In general we are to view and treat people as beloved sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, grandmothers and grandfathers.
The lines are clear: anything that sexualizes familial relationships is wrong. True affection and fierce protection go hand in hand. The notion of incestuous sexuality is abhorrent before God. In marriage, one sister, Nan, becomes my wife, and I become her husband. All our sexuality belongs rightly and freely to each other. The notion of treacherous sexuality — infidelity — is abhorrent before God. A third group of people falls into the category of threat. Males and females who prove unfamilial in their intentions are threats. Again, the lines are clear: nothing sexualized, so flee seduction, whether in person or in imagination. The notion of an invitation to immoral sexuality is abhorrent before God. Love is radically free to be fiercely faithful.
Second, good sexual love is simply “normal.” Sometimes the idealized view of good sex can sound overheated, even when we prize and protect marital sexuality. Sometimes we may get the idea that good sex is a gymnastic, ecstatic, romantic, ravishing bliss of marital passion! Sorry to disillusion you. But much of good sex is just . . . well, normal, everyday. Think about it. Most people in the history of the world have lived in one-room huts, where the kids sleep in the same room with their parents!
Countless families have lived with only curtains for room dividers, your mother-in-law in the far corner, your wife’s younger brother sleeping on the couch. Or they’ve lived in tents, as nomads. Not much sound-proofing or major privacy operative in that housing arrangement! Not much in the way of gymnastics or sound effects is possible unless you have no children. That’s not to say that a married couple with children shouldn’t get away for a weekend, or close the door, or do things to make sex special. Nothing wrong with some high-wire encounters that bring a little extra spice.
Think of the analogy with food, another of life’s very redeemable pleasures. Occasionally you pull out all the stops for a memorable feast with all the fixings. But in normal life, you eat a lot of healthy breakfasts. In the redemption of sex, lots of normal things flourish. How about courtesy? Basic kindness and patience? How about humor — pet names, teasing, irony, private jokes? Good sex is not that serious! How about mercy? How about a shower, shave, and being relaxed? How about a fundamental willingness to be available to another, simply to give? How about conversation? How about quiet, slow, leisurely time together? Basic love goes a long way toward making good sex good. It’s great when the Richter Scale tops out at an earth-shattering 8.1. But in normalized good sex, you’ll also enjoy the 3.1 temblors that hardly rattle the teacups.
Get your goals straight. It heightens the significance of your Savior. He alone restores you to practical love for God and to the practical love appropriate for each of your various kinds of neighbors. He alone makes daily life shine with visible glory.
7. Get Down to Today’s Skirmish in the Great War
We’ve talked about the war, the direction of the journey, the destination. The final word in restoring joy to your life as a sexual being is to get down to business. And your business has three parts.
First, where is today’s skirmish? Your battle in the area of sex will always be fought one step at a time; no one wins this war all at once. “Today’s trouble” (see Matthew 6:34) is where you find God’s aid. Where are you tempted, now? Tom had to figure out how to refight his Friday nights so that he wouldn’t keep coming out a loser. How about you? Where is today’s choice point?
Second, what one thing about God in Christ speaks directly into today’s trouble? Just as we don’t change all at once, so we don’t swallow all of truth in one gulp. We are simple people. You can’t remember ten things at once. Invariably, if you could remember just one true thing in the moment of trial, you’d be different. Bible verses aren’t magic. But God’s words are revelations of God from God for our redemption. When you actually remember God, you do not sin. The only way you ever sin is by suppressing God, by forgetting, by tuning out his voice, switching channels, and listening to other voices. When you actually remember, you actually change.
In fact, remembering is the first change. Here’s a simple example. God says, “I am with you” (see Genesis26:24; Isaiah 41:10; Haggai 1:13; Matthew 28:20). Those are his exact words. How does taking that to heart utterly change the script of your sexual darkness? What if you are facing a temptation to some immorality? For starters, with these words in view you realize that nothing is private, no secrets are possible: “I am with you.” “I . . . am . . . with . . . you.” Say it ten different ways. Slow it down. Speed it up. Say it out loud. Say it out loud back to him: “You are with me, Lord.” You’ll probably find that you immediately need to say more, like, “Help me. Have mercy on me. I need you. Make me understand that you are with me.” You will find that the competing voices, sly and argumentative, will become more obvious. To the degree that you remember that your Lord is with you, then what those other voices say will sound devious, tawdry, hostile to your welfare. How did they ever sound so appealing!
The contrast, the battle of wills, the battle between good and evil, will be more evident. Your immediate choice — Which voice will I listen to? — will become stark. Remembering what’s true does not chalk up automatic victory. It’s not magic. Your battle will heat up. But we do secretive things only when we’re kidding ourselves. Every time you remember that you are out in public, then you live an out-in-public life. “I am with you” means you’re always out in public. In order to sin, you’ll have to drown out the voice of reality, put your fingers in your ears, and switch to the fantasy channel, the lie channel, the death channel. And even if you switch channels and sin by high-handed choice, you will still be in broad daylight before
God’s searching eyes. You can shut your eyes and plug your ears, he’s still right here. You’ll never get away.
And you only have to open your eyes, listen, and turn around in order to find help. After all, he who loves you says, “I am with you.”
“I am with you” means that the person who can help you right now knows and is watching. In fact, he is watching over you to protect you. He will help you escape darkness, because he has transferred you into the kingdom of the Son whom he loves.
What if you face a different struggle today? What if you feel overwhelmed with aloneness and fear, buried under your hurt, abandoned and betrayed? “I am with you.” “I am with you.” Again, when you really hear that, and take it to heart, you know you are not alone. You are safe. Manipulative or violent lust betrayed you; steadfast love never betrays you. Or what if you’re overwhelmed by the grime of past failures? “I am with you.” God is not shocked by the ugliness of your past. He came to die for the worst of sinners (as Paul twice refers to himself — 1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Whatever your struggle, “I am with you” changes the terrain of battle.
Third, put trouble and God together. Start talking, and start walking. We began to do this in the previous paragraphs. It was impossible simply to identify choice points and then to offer promises and revelations of God without starting to capture the honest human responses: faith’s need for God, and constructive love for others. You must fiercely pursue God. He must be to you what he says he is and do for you what he says he will do. You are not yet what you shall be, but you are growing toward it, step by step in real life. How will you treat people today? Will love contain and express your sexuality well? Or will evil squander and warp your sexuality, treating others as sex objects?
Walking in the light is not magic. When you see the fork in the road more clearly (today’s skirmish) . . . , and when you see and hear your Lord more clearly (something he says) . . . , then you start talking, start needing, start trusting, and then you start making the hard, significant, joyous choice to love people rather than use them.
Go into action in today’s battle. That’s our final word. It gets us down to where our Savior is going into action. It’s where our Father is making us more fruitful. It’s exactly where the Spirit of life is changing us into his image of light and delight.
More Messages from Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part One (John Piper)
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part Two (John Piper)
The Goodness of Sex and the Glory of God (Ben Patterson)
Homosexual Marriage as a Challenge to the Church: Biblical and Cultural Reflections (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)
Sex and the Single Man (Mark Dever)
Sex and the Single Woman (Carolyn McCulley)