A Safe Place for Sexual Sinners

Last year, we surveyed 8,000 Desiring God readers. The study revealed that pornography usage is higher among younger adults than their older counterparts. David Mathis sums up our findings:

More than 15% of Christian men over age sixty admitted to ongoing use. It was more than 20% for men in their fifties, 25% for men in their forties, and 30% for men in their thirties. But nearly 50% of self-professing Christian men, ages 18–29, acknowledged ongoing use of porn. (The survey found a similar trend among women, but in lesser proportions: 10% of females, ages 18–29; 5% in their thirties; increasingly less for forties, fifties, and sixty-plus.)

Sexual sin is one of the greatest threats to thriving and vibrant Christian living. Many Christians, especially young singles, are discouraged and defeated in their fight to overcome sexual sin.

Many are so overwhelmed they simply give up for a season. They give in to their sin, stop reading their Bibles, stop sharing the gospel, and eventually stop attending corporate worship. Some come back, but many don’t because they can’t imagine a God who is faithful and just and willing to cleanse them of all unrighteousness. Others simply stop believing in God altogether or create a god that approves of their sinful lifestyle.

Christians who struggle with sexual sin begin to fear that Christianity has nothing to offer but bad news — guilt and shame. Whether the struggle is with homosexuality, fornication, or pornography, many feel helpless in the fight to kill their sin. They don’t know how to deal with the guilt and shame. They feel unsafe around Christians and struggle to see anything good about the gospel we present, especially when the grace of the gospel is not highlighted or lived out.

I recently spoke with Rosaria Butterfield, someone who has thought and written a lot about this subject. She reiterates that the “gospel is good news for sinners and, quite frankly, there is no gospel for people who think they are all cleaned up just the way they are.”

If someone thinks he is doing pretty good and doesn’t have a sexual sin issue, she says she is more worried for that person than anybody. The gospel isn’t good news so that we can have a carefree life.

“The point of the gospel is to so fully reshape and remake us to reflect the image of our Savior that we are fit to inherit a New Jerusalem with him. And in that New Jerusalem, there is absolutely no category called ‘sexual orientation.’ There are two things that will survive into the New Jerusalem: the souls of people and the word of God.”

Rosaria is concerned about how easily personhood is conflated with struggle. The current trend is to define people by their besetting sins. Typically, people who struggle with laziness, gluttony, pride, or sexual immorality define themselves by whatever they struggle with. They often say, “This is just the way I am. I’m just a [fill in the blank] person.” This gives them a false sense of peace, justification, and righteousness. They have peace because they think they’ve accepted themselves for who they truly are. They feel justified and righteous because now the sin is no longer a bad thing, but a personality trait — the way they were born.

This pattern of thought is especially dominant among the LGBT movement in regards to sexual orientation.

“Sexual orientation is a nineteenth-century invention — very clearly redefining people from souls who will last forever to people whose sexual identities determine who they are, who they really are, their deepest sense of truth and self.”

She encourages Christians “not to buy it on either front” and not accept labels of people such as “gay,” “straight,” “lesbian,” and “transgendered” because it is demeaning to our image-bearing status. In other words, we are more than our so-called “sexual orientation.” According to Butterfield, the Bible speaks directly to Christians who struggle with homosexuality in Mark 10:28–31:

Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

“The gospel calls you to lose family and houses and mothers and fathers and farms — your livelihood. But it promises you a hundredfold in this lifetime along with persecutions, and in the days ahead eternal life. I think that verse is tailor-made for people who struggle with an unasked-for homosexual desire, because on the one hand, no one is called to ‘lifelong celibacy.’ That is just an importation from the Catholic Church. So let us not add that yoke to people. But people are called to chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. That is what the Bible calls people to.”

Rosaria believes that the hundredfold promise to struggling Christians is going to come from the church.

Late last year, a YouTube video was released called “Everything We Think We Know About Addiction.” The video was adapted from Johann Hari’s New York Times bestselling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, and asserts that we don’t know as much as we think we know about addiction.

Basically, the video says that isolation causes addiction, not the drug itself. It’s important to note that the video isn’t saying that isolation causes people to take drugs, but that isolation is often what causes them to become hooked. If this is true, what are the implications for the church and our approach to dealing with sexual addiction?

Due to shame and guilt, many feel isolated and alone because of their struggle with sexual sin. Many Christians put on a good face when sexual sin is confessed, but follow up is often lacking. If the Christians struggling are single, isolation is even easier and they are more prone to addiction. Rosaria encourages believers to see singles as a part of their family. She means this quite literally.

“If you are not sharing the gospel with a house key, especially with people for whom crushing loneliness is killing them faster — if you are not doing that, why not? Because 1 Corinthians 10:13 is for all of us. ‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape.’ What if your house is a way of escape, but you are too busy?”

She joked that some may call her a hippie for it, but she believes Acts 2 calls for this type of hospitality to be normal among Christians. Unfortunately, this kind of hospitality is scarce among Christians and it probably has a lot to do with fear of transparency. We don’t invite people into our homes because we’re afraid that they will see our brokenness. We wear our masks that hide our true selves from the world from nine to five. We can’t bear the idea of wearing them from five to nine and on the weekend.

Rosaria suggests that Sunday is the perfect day to allow people into our lives uninvited.

“Why do we make certain days ‘family days’? Sunday is the Lord’s Day. It is not ‘family day.’ It is the Lord’s Day. It is the day for God’s people to be in each other’s lives without invitation.”

“Holidays are hard for people who are single. Why not just make a covenant that says that your home is going to be open, and use the guest room for the people in your church who are going to struggle?”

Rosaria understands that a Christian struggling with homosexual desires is ultimately no different than a Christian struggling with pornography, fornication, greed, or drunkenness. We’re all sinners who need to repent daily of how we’ve failed. There is no ideal church specifically for homosexuals. But there is an ideal church for sinners. It’s a safe place to confess and repent.

“The ideal church is a church where everybody is repenting publicly of something. The ideal church is where people are saying, ‘I struggle with this, and I don’t want it to define me, but I need you to cover my back in prayer. I struggle. I fail. I have been a Christian, and I want to struggle in the Lord.’ That is the ideal church.”

(@PhillipMHolmes) served as a content strategist at desiringGod.org. He and his wife, Jasmine, have a son, and they are members of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi.