Sex is like fire. When it blazes in the fireplace, a good fire warms and brightens the room, enhancing joy and companionship. But when fires ignite in the wrong places, the house burns down. Is your sexuality igniting in the wrong places? Are you treating sexual sin casually? How do you know when this has happened? Let me offer a few tests that can rouse your conscience.
If you are being nonchalant about your sexual sin, I hope that my list arouses a proper sense of unease. Fires are burning outside the fireplace. Is something not right with your sexual behavior? You are a child of light—don’t walk in darkness! God’s point of view is good, right, and true. He beckons you. Walk as a child of light—for the fruit of light is found in all that is good, right, and true. The God who invites us into what is good also warns us off what is bad. You may be sure of this: everyone who is sexually immoral has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words. Because of these things, the wrath of God comes on the disobedient. That’s the gist of Ephesians 5:5–9:
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).
Take it to heart. Don’t let peer pressure or the culture deceive you. By the mercy of Christ, you will live a brighter, more loving, and more fruitful life.
How do you change? There are many facets of that big question, but I will point to four. First, the starting point for change is to say, “What I am doing is wrong.” That acknowledgement gets you pointed in the right direction.
But God doesn’t just tell you to shape up. The second step is to realize “I need mercies from my Father. I need him to love me and forgive me. I need his strength and forgiveness.” Recognizing wrong leads to awareness that you need something that only God can give you—something he freely gives. He gives himself in Jesus Christ.
The third step in changing is to act on this. The Lord calls you to seek him, to find him, and from him to receive what you most need. Psalm 25:11 brings this to life:
For your name’s sake, O LORD,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Cast yourself on the care of your Father. Find grace and help from outside yourself. Seek, and you will find the mercy you need.
The fourth step is not really a step, it’s a lifestyle. It’s learning to walk out what those “good, right, and true” things look like. This has many different aspects that work out in our lives at different times. Choose to spend time with different companions. Put filtering software on your screens. Set up real accountability with someone you trust. Make the kind of lifestyle changes that get you out of the path of where you’ve gotten yourself into trouble. Jesus uses a vivid picture of how to deal with our own evil. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. He shocks us into a radical amputation of evil. And, of course, none of these battles are one-and-done. God intends to work in you a committed resolve to take seriously what’s wrong, to need him, to pursue what’s right. It’s an ongoing fight.
Here is one of the most helpful things I heard early in my Christian life. Think of your soul as a room. When you’re in sin, that room is full of dark forces, dark people, and darkness. There are two ways you get rid of darkness in your soul. One way is to cast it out, fight it, resist and reject it. The other way is to fill the room with light. As your life fills with better people, better things to do, and more reasons to live in the light, then there’s less room for the darkness.
Jesus Christ gives a beautiful call. He invites you to live a radical life. He challenges people who think that it’s okay to do wrong. He challenges people who think they have moved past outmoded cultural values. He challenges people who think that current cultural assumptions are good, right, and true. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t drift with the culture. Do what Flannery O’Connor said we should do: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” Live out in the daylight, not in the shadows and darkness.
Finding the mercies of Christ and learning to walk in his light is courageous. It has an impact on people around you. You demonstrate the Lord. That’s bigger than any one of us individually. In a world where the light is going out on sexual rights and wrongs, you have an opportunity to turn on the lights.
This letter originally appeared on the Crossway website.
David’s book, Making All Things New, was released by Crossway in August 2017. Purchase your copy here.
What do you do when you are still struggling? What do you do when repeated failure, guilt, and shame weigh heavily on your conscience?
Let me begin with a story about a friend of mine. He had come to faith in Christ when he was in his late twenties. As they say, “He had history. He came with baggage.” I’ve never forgotten the way he described his life at the point when Jesus reached him. “If you divided my mental day into a thousand moments, nine hundred of those moments were immoral. I simply lived in a world of immoral images and desires and pursuits and behaviors.” His entire life was steeped in polyamorous, bisexual immorality.
Did his newfound faith immediately bring about a complete change? You know the answer: of course not. But his way of describing the process was particularly vivid. “It wasn’t as though I went from nine hundred immoral moments down to zero. But nine hundred went to seven hundred. And seven hundred became five hundred, and five hundred became two hundred, and so on. It was very hard to think that seven hundred out of a thousand meant progress! But it was. It was huge progress, and even though I was still failing, Christ was changing me.”
He grew. Eventually, by the time I knew him, he was significantly changed—but still not perfect. And he lived with a daily awareness that, “I’m still vulnerable in the area of sexual temptations. I can never think I’m home free and will never struggle.” But he had entered into the long walk of discipleship, the patient, persistent obedience in the right direction, walking under the mercy of the Lord.
What sustained him for ups and downs of the long walk? I’ve never forgotten his words. “Early on I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. I had to presume that Christ loved me. Jesus knew the kind of person he had chosen to forgive and save. He who had begun a good work in me was committed to one day bring me to completion. I relied on the fact that his mercies for me truly are new every morning—I lived in that promise of Lamentations 3:22–24.” Christ’s love for him was the given on which his life depended. He could daily seek Christ’s mercies for what he needed that day: forgiveness from the Lamb, strength from the King, protection in the Refuge, guidance under the Shepherd’s hand.
Step by step by step by step he was moving toward the light. His long, hard fight was wrapped up in the mercy of Christ to him. It is the same for all of us, whatever our particular struggle—sexual immorality, anger and bitterness, fears, addictions, self-righteousness. Jesus knows the kinds of people he has chosen to save. We can seek him, and we will find him true and good for the long haul. My friend was honest, no secrets before God. He was honest to confess where and when he struggled. He was honest with friends, who helped him to seek and find the God who promises many mercies. He was honest in asking help from other people: accountability and prayer, counsel and conversation with brothers. He rebuilt a life that had good in it. He learned to treat both men and women as holy brothers and sisters, rather than as sexual objects.
Here’s an old metaphor about how a Christian fights against darkness. Envision your mind as a room. When sin reigns, that room is filled with dark thoughts, dark actions, and deceptive people who mean you no good. So how do you get darkness out of the room? There are two ways that you fight. First, you stand up to the darkness, expelling it from the room, learning to directly say no to evil. And second, you fight the darkness by filling the room with light. There’s no room for the darkness when the room is filled with worthy actions, true thoughts, and constructive people. When Christ enters the room, he is patiently committed to teach us to say no to what is wrong and yes to what is merciful and good. My friend began to care for other people, rather than using them as objects of his lust.
One of the actions that proved most helpful to him was getting involved in discipling teenage boys. (Pedophilia was not one of the sins he had indulged in.) They were entering adolescence and puberty in a hypersexualized world. At the same age that evil had trapped him, he could help to protect them from going down a self-destructive path. Serving others in need also helped him by filling the room with light so there was less room for darkness. In a sense, they were helping him as much as he was helping them.
Christ comes with mercy for people who know their sins. His mercy leads to doing simple things that consistently head in the right direction. Do you feel discouraged and defeated by your struggle? Don’t let anyone kid you that there’s some magic answer and somehow you missed it. There are no magic answers. But a Person full of light is willing to walk with you in the direction of the light. He is willing to walk with you the whole way home.
This letter originally appeared on the Crossway website.
David’s book, Making All Things New, was released by Crossway in August 2017. Purchase your copy here.
The Apostle Paul has a tendency to give us lists of sins. He gives us at least five of them. (1) At first glance, it feels like he is simply piling it on. But his lists include a recurring structure that brings keen insight into the human condition. He identifies the overarching category of renegade desire, and he typically calls out two expressions of this desire: sexual sin and anger. These are a big deal to Paul because they are a big deal to God.
Here are two of those lists.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Gal. 5:19-21)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. (Col. 3:5-8)
Inordinate and idolatrous desires dominate the way Paul describes sin. These sins are filled with: I WANT! (2)
So here is the raw human condition.
We are bent toward sexual immorality. God has created us to live within sexual boundaries. Male-female, joined in a covenant—that is the boundary. But as those who are no longer fully in synch with the mind of God, we flirt with that boundary through pornography, and many violate it when given the opportunity. We want to sexually possess people who do not belong to us. No surprises here.
We are bent toward anger. According to Paul, we should have at least as much interest in anger and its divisive, destructive ways as we do in sexual immorality. Look at the ways it is expressed: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, wrath, malice, and slander. People are devastated by reckless anger, in our churches and in the world.
Paul urges us to be rigorous in taking our souls to task. We are to aim for accountability with anger just like we do with sexuality. And we want to speak into a world that is losing confidence that we can actually help people with either.
So here is something better.
We aim for self-control. We might prefer to hold out for a better offer, but self-control is Scripture’s contrast to self-indulgence. It is not shallow self-effort or dour asceticism—it is the ability to say “no” to desires. And it is on the cusp of becoming stylish. The world around us is rediscovering the goodness of self-control because it happens to be correlated with happiness and “success.”
Paul’s sin lists tend to scatter our minds in different directions, but he is actually focusing us with illustrations of one thing—unleashed and ungodly desire—that is chronically expressed in two ways—sexual immorality and anger. One small step we can take toward self-control is to be more specific when we pray “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). “Forgive me for sexual sin in thought, word or deed, and forgive me for anger and its endless manifestations, all of which are lethal.”
(1) Rom. 1:21-32, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, Col. 3:5-9, Tit. 3:3.
(2) In Galatians he inserts idolatry, but even there he emphasizes the greedy, rapacious roots of idolatry. That is, “God has not given me what I want so I will look elsewhere.”
This scares me.
Recently, I was talking with an older, single man who keeps drifting back into sexual sin. It’s as if the tide of sexuality is going to win in the end—like he is destined to postpone sexual sin—but not to beat it. That way of thinking is scary enough, but there is more.
While we talked, I quietly reflected on how my battle with sexual sin is easier because I am married. I did not mean it is easier because I have opportunities to have a sexual relationship with my wife, though, of course, I do. Rather, I meant that sexual drifting for me would hurt an actual person, whereas for him, sexual drifting would not directly hurt another human being because he is single.
My reasoning makes some sense, but it is worse than it appears. Here is what I was really saying: I live within sexual boundaries for the sake of my wife. And though almost any reason for sexual boundaries is a good one, mine is not a Christian reason in that it has nothing to do with Jesus. That scares me. Jeopardizing my relationship with my wife is more motivating to me than jeopardizing my relationship with the Lord. My power to resist temptation comes from my relationship with her, not from Jesus. I love my wife—or my relationship with her—more than I love him. The truth is that any motive that replaces Christ is less than Christian.
Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Josh. 22:5)
For the love of Christ controls us. (2 Cor. 5:14)
So I am thankful that the Spirit reveals matters of the heart that scare me, and I set off again to know Christ and aim for nothing short of a full-bodied, full-hearted love that surpasses all others.
When the wealthy young man could not quite give all his money away and follow Jesus, we are given a hard story (Matt. 19:16-22). Many of us have wondered what we would have done if Jesus asked us the same question. The story is always challenging. But the wealthy young man has recently been hijacked by someone new: the young man who is hoping to have sex…soon.
He is twenty-ish and a capable apologist with his friends. If you spoke with him for five minutes you would be impressed with his spiritual depth and think there is hope for the next generation. But, if you spoke with him for a little longer, you would discover that he has decided not to follow Jesus.
He wants to keep his options open—his sexual options that is.
He has not had a sexual relationship yet, but he hopes to date soon and he does not want to be encumbered by God’s restrictions. So, rather than possibly feeling guilty or being a hypocrite, he has renounced his faith—at least until he gets married and sex is legit.
The Word of God has come to him, asked him to hold off on sex and follow Jesus, and he has chosen instead to keep the possibility of sex available and follow his own desires.
I am impressed with his spiritual understanding. Most young men—and older men—think they can have it both ways.
This October at the CCEF Annual Conference I’ll share some reflections on a vexing question: What should you share with your spouse about sexual sin in your life? If you’ve ever confessed sexual sin to your spouse—and probably even if you haven’t—you understand how loaded this issue can be.
The good news is the answer is simple—or at least the basic principle is simple. You confess your sins and bring them “into the light” (1 John 1 will be our guiding passage). This forges and deepens fellowship. However, you confess in a way that “builds up” the hearer (Eph. 4:29), so that you are not dragging your spouse back through every detail of the sin. Taken together though, there can be significant tension. How do you drag something dark and ugly into the light without harming your spouse?
If October sounds far away, listen to David Powlison and Cecelia Bernhardt’s podcast about this topic from last year, titled How Specific Should I Be in Confessing Sin? A lot of our work at the conference will build on and flesh out the core ideas they discuss (and which I briefly summarize in the paragraph above).
Here’s the basic outline of what we will cover:
a) Confess in a way that “builds up” the one you have harmed.
b) Receive a confession, even a painful one, in a way that gives grace (rather than sweeping the sin under the rug or retaliating).
c) Rebuild trust together after sexual sin has been brought into the light.
I’ll be talking primarily to married couples and couples who are thinking about getting married. But whether you are dating, have been married for 30 years, or do pre-marital or marital counseling, you’ll be sharpened by thinking through this issue. I know I have been.
My hope is that everyone will leave challenged by the call of our Lord to fully repent of and confess our sins (sexual and otherwise). But I want more than that. I want us to leave with hope that the secrets, shame and guilt we instinctively protect with darkness and silence are not the final word in the kingdom of light and freedom.
Sexual Addiction: Freedom from Compulsive Behavior
Have you ever thought or said anything like this?
“I’ve tried to stop so many times, but I still end up in front of the computer surfing websites.”
“I want to be faithful to my spouse, but other sexual partners are so available. I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t seem to stop myself.”
“Accountability, prayer, avoiding situations, cold showers—I’ve tried everything, but I still fail. Is there any hope for me?”
“I know I need to get help, but I am too ashamed.”
“I thought only men struggled with pornography, but I spend way too much time in my erotic, romantic fantasy world.”
If some of these echo your thoughts and words, it’s likely that you are feeling trapped by an addiction to sexual fantasies and illicit sexual behavior. You feel guilty and ashamed, but you just can’t seem to stop. You try to keep your thoughts and behavior hidden, but you’re always afraid that one day you will be found out. You know that your closest relationships are being affected by your struggle, but that doesn’t help you to stop.
There is no magic wand to free you from your compulsive behavior. But there is a long-term relationship that will change you. When you ask Jesus for help, he will come to you mercifully and firmly. Jesus welcomes all kinds of strugglers into his kingdom. His Spirit will work with you. He will show mercy to you. He will change you.
Change happens as you face your behavior honestly and as you understand what motivates what you do and as you go to God to work true change in your life and as you find his mercy and help. True change that comes from God starts with your imagination and your desire life. That is where your struggle with compulsive sexual behavior begins. Do you believe God can do this? Take a step of faith. Read on. Ask God to begin to change you. Asking God for help isn’t meant to be a big production. Just ask: “Help me. Teach me. Make me understand. Have mercy on me.” Ask.
We love each other and are faithful to each other, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having sex before we get married.”
“Isn’t it a good idea to see if we’re sexually compatible before we get married?”
“Don’t make sex before marriage into such a big deal—everyone does it.”
“I’m not going to let other people make me feel guilty just because I don’t buy into their value system.”
Have you ever thought or said things like this? If your answer is yes, you have a lot of company. Most people, at least in some circumstances, think premarital sex is okay. What was once frowned upon is now an accepted part of Western culture, and sex education usually means learning about “safe sex,” and how to take steps to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But you have probably noticed that education about “safe sex” hasn’t protected those around you from experiencing hurt and broken relationships as they have experimented sexually. Since God made you and also created sex, why not take the time to look at what he has to say about your sexuality and how it should be expressed? You may be surprised at what you learn.
Christians haven’t always done a very good job talking about sex. Some avoid the topic all together, and others give the impression that sex is somehow inherently degrading and tainted. But God, in the Bible, doesn’t avoid the topic of sex or say that it is bad. Instead, God has a positive view of sex and also specific guidelines about how to express your sexuality. God is not a killjoy—his guidelines for your sexuality are for your help, protection, and good.
It’s no secret that sex is everywhere, infiltrating the remotest points of our society. How does a Christian remain in this sex-obsessed world without falling into its lies and snares? Ed Welch teaches how we can live godly lives amid rampant wickedness, and how we can counsel those who have been harmed by it.
Ed is a counselor and faculty member of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, as well as the author of several books. Today you’ll hear Ed in a full-length address titled “Sex in the City, Suburbs, and Countryside: Maintaining Purity in a sex-obsessed culture.”
Can God change those who are addicted to pornography? Yes, God can and does bring people out of their isolated, imaginary world of sexual addiction into the real world of authentic, loving relationships with God and people. David Powlison explains that change happens as people are lovingly challenged to face their behavior honestly, understand its roots, and turn to God for help. True change from God will bring freedom from pornography addiction by transforming the sexual addict’s imagination and behavior.
Have you ever said anything like this?
“I’ve tried to stop so many times, but somehow I’m still end up in front of the computer surfing websites.”
“Cold showers, prayer, avoiding situations—I’ve tried everything. Is there any hope for me?”
“I know I should get help, but I am too ashamed.”
“I thought only men struggled with pornography, but I spend way too much time in my own little fantasy world.”
If you have, it’s likely that you are feeling trapped by an addiction to pornography and sexual fantasies. You feel guilty and ashamed, but you just can’t seem to stop. Maybe you are starting to notice that your relationships with the real people in your life are being affected by your struggle.
There is no magic bullet to free you from your addiction, but when you ask Jesus for help, he will come to you mercifully and firmly. Jesus welcomes all kinds of strugglers into his kingdom, and his Spirit will provide the deep down change you long for.
Change happens when you face your behavior honestly, understand the roots of your behavior, and then go to God to work true change in your life. The true change that comes from God will affect not only your behavior, but your imagination and desire life. Do you believe God can do this? Take a step of faith; read this booklet, and ask God to use it to begin to change you.
What is Pornography?
The first part of the word pornography, “porné,” means immorality and the second part, “graph” means to write, draw, or portray. Pornography is about picturing, imagining, and fantasizing about immorality.
Pornography has been around for centuries. But the widespread availability of pornography means the problem touches more people than ever before. Soft core pornography is everywhere you look: television, movies, magazines, billboards, and even posters at bus stops. And it’s not just in the media. In our world, both men and women dress to attract attention and to elicit romantic or erotic feelings in others. We are all bombarded with pornography every day—it’s the atmosphere we live in.
And pornography isn’t just a male problem. Both sexes have immoral fantasies. Women might be more captured by romantic literature and men by erotic pictures, but the end result is the same—you are committing adultery in your thought life.
Fantasizing Immorality is Wrong
Perhaps you have been told that fantasizing immoral images and actions isn’t really wrong. It’s true that it’s a different kind of wrong than having an actual affair, but it is still sin. Jesus made this clear when he said, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). It’s important for you to acknowledge that what you are doing is wrong, because you won’t fight well unless you are able to say, “This is an enemy. When I do this, I sin.”
What Does Progress Look Like?
What does progress in your struggle with pornography look like? In all typical human struggles (like anger, anxiety, escapism) winning doesn’t mean achieving perfection. It means having a new goal and a new direction. Your direction in life determines your final destination. Where are you headed? Are you going in the right direction? Going in the right direction in your struggle with pornography means learning to fight your temptation to sin, to handle your guilt when you fail, and to understand and avoid the circumstances in which you are tempted.
Making progress in these three areas does not mean you will suddenly get teleported from the mire in which you now live to the mountaintop of freedom from all temptation. Change in these areas means taking many small, incremental steps in the right direction. For example:
Understand Your Deeper Struggle
How do you get going in the right direction? You start by understanding your struggle. It’s easy for your big, obvious sins (like surfing the internet for pornographic material) to conceal the deeper sins that fuel your struggle with pornography. But unless you recognize and repent of the sin patterns underlying your addiction, you won’t be fighting the right battle. I learned this when I counseled Tom,1 a single, Christian man in his late thirties who had been struggling with pornography and masturbation since he was a teenager. He had tried all the right things: accountability, memorizing the Bible, exercise, cold showers, and being involved in ministry. But he still struggled.
When I asked him to keep a record of when he was tempted, he said to me, “I already know when. It’s usually on Friday night. It’s my temper tantrum with God.” I thought his big struggle was with pornography, but all of a sudden he was talking about anger at God!
Then he said, “I’m tired and lonely on Friday nights. I think about my single friends on dates and my married friends with their wives, and I feel sorry for myself. I get angry at God because I think he owes me a wife, and I don’t have one. By 9 o’clock the temptation to sexual sin is overwhelming, and I give in.”
Tom’s fight with sin focused on just one thing—his struggle with pornography. But underlying that struggle was Tom’s anger at God, self-pity, envy, and, a hugely significant issue, his belief that God owed him a wife. Tom’s desire for a wife had become what the Bible calls a “lust of the flesh.” A lust of the flesh is any desire (even a desire for a good thing like a wife) that dominates our lives, anything we organize our lives around except God. Tom’s lust for a wife fueled his sins of self-pity, anger at God, and then pornography.
Tom was also a legalist. He believed that when he tried to be a good Christian God owed him goodies (such as a wife), and when he did something wrong he despaired. Tom’s imagination was much more than a sexualized imagination. It was full of envy, grumbling, and believing that what he did would either pry goodies from God or release a whirlwind of punishment. His imagination didn’t include the gospel, forgiveness of sins, understanding God’s love for him, or understanding the help that’s available from the Spirit of God. Underneath all of Tom’s sins was unbelief. He was living as if God wasn’t with him and wasn’t able to help him in his time of need.
As Tom faced these deep sin patterns and confessed them to God, he started to grow and change. His entire Christian life had been about managing one moral failure, but now his Christian life began to sparkle. He was fighting a much broader battle, and God gave him a wider vision to see the real battle and the real grace of God that was available for his whole life, not just one area of temptation.
You can take the same journey that Tom did. Start a journal, and keep track of what’s happening in your life when you struggle with pornography. Answer these questions:
Keeping this journal will help you see what is really going on in your struggle with pornography. As you start to grapple with your deeper sin patterns, you’ll see that your problem is much bigger, your need for grace is much deeper, and your goal is much more magnificent than you ever imagined.
You Go to God
What do you do when you see the scope of the battle you are fighting? How do you begin taking those small steps in the right direction that will add up to deep down change? You go to God. These four words—so simple to say and so hard to do—are at the center of how you fight against sin.
Why is this so hard? Because your natural instinct is to turn to yourself, instead of to Jesus. This is true of all sin, but it’s obvious in your struggle with pornography because it’s a solitary pursuit. Your pornographic sins are, by definition, only about you: what you want, what you hope for, and what you long for. When you are facing hard or disappointing circumstances—boredom, loneliness, money problems, fighting with a spouse, distance from a friend—it’s easy (and instinctive) to turn in on yourself and try to escape your troubles by going to your fantasy life.
After you sin, it’s easy (and instinctive) to stay turned in on yourself, but in a different way. Now, because you feel guilty, you chew on yourself, kick yourself, and are dismayed with yourself. But even your guilt is all about you.
Your only hope for deliverance from this never ending cycle of self is going to Jesus. How do you recover from defeats? You recover from defeats by going back to the God who offers mercy and forgiveness to you through the death of his own Son on the cross. Jesus died so you could be forgiven.
How do you face hardship, boredom, hurt, betrayal, and loneliness? By going to the God who is there, who is not surprised by sexual sin, who hears you, who cares about you, who wants to be in relationship with you. He is able to change your instinctive patterns.
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1Pseudonyms are used for counselee names and personal details have been changed.
This article is adapted from the forthcoming mini book, Freedom from Sexual Addiction copyright © 2009 by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded and/or reproduced without prior written permission of New Growth Press. www.newgrowthpress.com
In this article, Winston shows how seemingly “harmless” sexual fantasies and masturbation negatively impact people and their ability to have healthy relationships with others. He shares how to build a new inner world founded on Christ’s love, instead of imaginary fantasies. Learning these truths will help those who struggle with masturbation and sexual fantasies to grow in their ability to have loving relationships with the real people in their lives.
Winston will speak on this topic in a lecture titled “Solo Sex” at CCEF’s National Conference in November. Click here for more information.
“It’s normal; everybody does it.”
“It’s a harmless escape. Nobody’s getting hurt.”
These are some of the first things that may come to your mind if you are someone who indulges in sexual fantasies or masturbates. And while it certainly is “normal” in the sense that almost everyone struggles with this type of sexual sin to some degree, it is not harmless.
Ask Christie who just found out that her husband has been looking at pornography on the internet for months. She feels betrayed, deeply hurt, and wonders how she’ll ever trust him again. And she can’t help wondering what’s wrong with her. If her husband chooses to look at other women, then she must be lacking something.
Ask Robert who realizes now that every minute he spent escaping into his fantasy world was a minute he didn’t spend building healthy relationships with his wife and children. He treated them more like inconveniences—interruptions to the life of comfort and ease he wanted—than family. He tuned out the stressful demands of family life and found escape in sexual fantasy and pornography. Now he is estranged from his children, and his marriage is in shambles.
How Sexual Escapes Harm Relationships
To understand how sexual escapes harm your relationships, take a moment to examine your fantasies as more than imaginary movie clips. When we take apart your fantasy world what do we see? First of all, notice this simple fact: your fantasies are about more than sex; they are about relationships. That is, sex is more than a physical act; it is something that you do with a person, not an object. Your fantasies are populated with people (some of whom I’ll bet you know).
For a moment look beyond the sex acts and explore these fantasy relationships in nonsexual terms. How would you describe their attitudes? How are they relating to you?
Don’t just answer, “They are enjoying themselves,” or “They are giving me pleasure.” Let me ask you to be a little more honest. In most cases people are fawning over you. You are the center of attention in a world where no one cares about anything but you. You are in a world where the people who normally ignore you cannot seem to resist you. You are in a world where people who don’t even know you mindlessly turn away from marital fidelity and all other moral and social norms to be with you.
Am I getting close? Perhaps your fantasies take an even darker turn. Maybe your fantasies aren’t about being liked at all, but about power and control. Your fantasies become a playground for anger and frustration, and you enjoy the thought of degrading others or making them cringe before you.
Playing God with Other People
In the secret places of your mind, where you have free reign to live in a world with the kinds of relationship you desire most, what do your relationships look like? In relational terms, sexual fantasies are a world where you practice selfishness and manipulation. Would you honestly describe any of this as love? No matter how widely your fantasies may vary, in every instance you play god with people. You reduce those made in the image of the true God to mindless robots who serve your whims.
“OK, so I’m a selfish uncaring person in my fantasies. So who’s being hurt?” you might ask. But remember Robert? His sexual escapes hurt himself and others because his relationships were negatively affected. You may not have noticed it yet, but the way you practice relationships in your heart will not stay safely contained. The violations of love that become the habit of your mind will inevitably find their way into the real world. It will contaminate all of your relationships, and in all likelihood it already has.
That doesn’t mean you will have an affair, molest children, or become a rapist, though sexual fantasy can certainly fuel those temptations. What’s more likely is that the same self-focus, pleasure seeking, and escapist attitudes that rule your sexual fantasies will infect your marriage and friendships.
Rather than learning to work through the tough moments of relationships, you will become more and more likely to seek momentary escapes. Daily irritations become reasons to tune out others and visit the secret world you’ve created in your mind. Perhaps, without realizing it, you will begin to export the habits of your lust (comfort, convenience, pleasure on demand, etc.) into the real world.
A Biblical Warning
We shouldn’t be surprised then that the Bible warns us about making overly neat distinctions between what happens in our minds or hearts and what happens in our lives. In Matthew 5:27–28 Jesus warns, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus knows that we often take dangerous comfort in believing that the hidden sins of the heart are harmless.
Similarly, Proverbs 27:19 tells us, “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.” In other words, the activities of your heart—your fantasies—reflect truths about you as a person. Do you like what your fantasies reveal about you?
In your heart you are creating a world that is completely opposed to God and his love. God does not treat people as objects to be manipulated and used, but values them and cares for them. God cares about what you are doing and who you are becoming in your heart.
Jesus Came to Free Us
Jesus didn’t come just to police our sexual lust, but to free us from it. He is able to help because he has experienced all of the temptations that drive sexual lust and overcome them. He knows the temptation to escape hardship, to be served by others rather than serve them, to want pleasure rather than face difficulty. The Bible describes Jesus this way, “[Jesus,] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness . . . he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6–8). Jesus knew what it is like to be God himself! He could do everything the easy way, never inconveniencing himself one bit. But instead, he came to this broken world and served us, doing what was necessary to cleanse and forgive us. He did all that so he could be in relationship with us. And it cost him a painful, agonizing death. Out of love for his heavenly Father and for us, he chose the path of service and love rather than escape and comfort. Jesus wants us to know his love, and he wants to give us the power to overcome temptation.
You may not believe it, but the truth is that Jesus’ love is far sweeter than any world of self-indulgence you can create. If you haven’t already realized it, you will: your fantasy world is an empty world of phantoms and darkness that will only make you miserable in the long run.
What Feels Like Death Brings Life and Joy
Choosing to say no to lust and yes to love isn’t easy. Saying no to something that seems to have offered comfort and pleasure can feel like dying. It seems contradictory, but the truth is, being willing to go through the suffering of saying no to yourself and saying yes to the challenges of real love leads to life and joy. Jesus put it this way: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24–25).
When a seed falls to the ground and begins to grow, in a sense, the seed is destroyed. But, really, the seed is just becoming what it was always made to be—a mature, productive plant. You weren’t made for selfishness. You were made to love as God loves you, and that means doing the hard work of relationships at the cost of your own comfort. When you love others the way God loves you, your relationships will be characterized by real, lasting love, not phony, escapist lust that lasts a moment and ruins lives. You can’t do this for yourself, but Jesus can do this in you. He promises us in 2 Peter 1:3 that “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness,” and Jesus keeps all of his promises.
Practical Strategies for Change
Would you like to build a new inner world founded on Christ’s love? Here are a few steps to get you started.
Steps to Building a New Inner World
Start by confessing to God that you have created a world that is opposed to his love. Ask him for forgiveness right now. You will need God’s forgiveness and love every day as you turn away from your fantasy world. Habits die hard, especially ones that deliver the kind of excitement and immediate rush that sexual lust does. You won’t simply have to say no just once, but many times, and sometimes you will fail. It’s important for you to understand that no matter how many times you fail and no matter how long this battle lasts, you cannot exhaust God’s love and forgiveness. The Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). Notice that God’s purifying work is based on his faithfulness, not yours. Take responsibility for your sin, trusting that God will forgive and cleanse you because of his faithfulness, not yours.
Don’t go it alone. Find others who are committed to having pure thoughts and meet with them for encouragement, prayer, and accountability. Your local church is a good place to start. Many Bible-believing churches have support groups and Bible studies that can help. If you aren’t already a member of a church, find one that will not just point you to your problems, but to Jesus as the solution. You need to regularly hear about God’s love and forgiveness. Find a friend or group, too, that doesn’t simply share in your struggle, but reinforces what you hear on Sunday morning. You need relationships that remind you of who you are becoming in Christ, not just who you are as a struggler.
If you are married, be careful how you share your struggle with your spouse. In a Christian marriage, Christ’s love and forgiveness should make it safe for us to reveal our sins to each other and receive help and understanding. Who better to help us with our weaknesses than our spouses who know us intimately and have promised to nurture us in love and act in our best interest? However, in asking for your spouse’s help and support, you must be careful to not injure him or her.
In most cases you are not engaging in sexual fantasy to intentionally hurt your spouse, but it is a form of betrayal and hurtful to your spouse. In addition to being hurt, knowing too much about a spouse’s battle with sexual lust can create terrific fear and insecurity. This, in turn, can lead to overzealous “policing” behavior on the part of the offended spouse. When that happens, daily interrogations and accusations end up creating more secrecy, shame, and marital distress.
How much and how often you should share this struggle depends, in large part, on the health of your marriage. Do you normally share spiritual struggles with each other? Are there other past or current betrayals that will inform your spouse’s response? As in all communication, the rule of thumb is “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Provide truth in a measure and manner that will strengthen the relationship, not damage it.
In my counseling experience, this usually means it is appropriate to share with your spouse that a battle in this area exists and to ask for prayer and encouragement, but it is hurtful to share the content of your fantasies. In general, you should be seeking primary accountability and support from a counselor or other wise friends.
Learning to Love Real People in the Real World
Ask Jesus to teach you how to love others in tangible ways. Replace old habits of escapism and avoidance by learning how to communicate honestly and deal with relational problems directly. Rather than living in a world of selfish pleasures, learn the joys of being with and serving others in love. Christ’s love is made complete in you as you share it with others.
The Bible says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:10–12). God has shown us perfect love in Christ, so we learn how to love from him. If you want to learn how to love, then become a lifelong student of Jesus.
This isn’t just about kicking a bad habit. God promises that, as you live a life of love by trusting in Christ, God’s love will become visible through you. What could be more meaningful than making God’s love visible to others? This same passage helps us to see how special that love is: God’s love is sacrificial. He puts our needs first even though it costs him a high price. Your basic compass heading for love is to do what is best for others even if it costs you. Your initial sacrifice will be your own comfort and lusts. When you are tempted to escape, look around, notice what others need in that moment and serve them.
What this looks in a real-life relationship. To help you understand this, let me tell you about a man I counseled named Peter. He was dissatisfied with the frequency of sexual intimacy in his marriage to Mary; he wanted to make love more often than she did. He dealt with this relationship problem by fantasizing about Mary and masturbating. He believed that because he was thinking about Mary, what he was doing was okay.
But what would real, sacrificial love for his wife look like in this situation? There are many possibilities, but you can be sure that it does NOT look like being alone in a room having sex by himself. This doesn’t communicate love to his wife; it communicates love for himself. This behavior takes the God-given meaning out of sex and turns it into a form of self-medication. This might seem harmless, but in the long run, Peter’s lack of love towards Mary creates more problems.
What are some of those problems? Inevitably he will be creating more and more dissatisfaction with his real wife, because no matter how attentive she might be, she will not be able to match the creativity and convenience of the fantasy wife his imagination has created. Certainly it is also likely that Mary will not remain the object of Peter’s fantasies for long because his imagination will require more and more novelty to fuel sexual excitement.
But even worse, the convenience of only having to please himself will inevitably keep him from doing the hard work of creating real intimacy by spending time in conversation and problem solving. Peter’s solution to his problem will only make him more self-centered and will erode his marriage. But what if, instead of thinking about how to satisfy himself and his needs, he sought to expand his understanding of how to love Mary and found ways to express that love concretely? Then, instead of being isolated and alone, he would be building a real relationship of love with her that would reflect Christ’s love.
How about you? Who are the real people that God is calling you to love and build a relationship with? Instead of focusing on your fantasies and sexual satisfaction, look around at all the real people God has put into your life for you to love and serve. There is an almost infinite variety of ways to express love to others; many of them, believe it or not, are quite exciting. Ask God to stretch your understanding of love. Think about how you can love sacrificially those who are in your life. Instead of treating the people in your life as objects in your sexual fantasies, think of them as your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Ask God to help you know how to love and serve them. As you do so your life will grow richer in real relationships, and your fantasies will pale by comparison.
Replacing your old habits of sexual fantasy with new habits of repentance, accountability, and sacrificial love will not be easy. But remember, every time you fall in this area, you have “one who speaks to the Father in [your] defense—Jesus Christ” (1 John 2:1). Remember also that Jesus has not left you alone. He has given you the gift of the Holy Spirit, and “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4). Like all spiritual struggles, we overcome as we learn to rely on the Spirit and daily ask him to change us to be like Christ.
* This article is adapted from the mini book, It’s All About Me: The Problem with Masturbation copyright © 2009 by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded and/or reproduced in any way. All rights reserved. It’s All About Me: The Problem with Masturbation is available for purchase at www.newgrowthpress.com