Embracing A True Identity
When we have a faulty view of our identity, it breeds anxiety, depression, sin, and hiding. These disguise themselves as our friends while we struggle to stay afloat. And the cycle of sin, remorse, shame, depression, more sin, more darkness is wearying. Take heart. God’s desire for us isn’t that we’d stay stuck and without hope. Freedom doesn’t have to be a dream. The work on the cross makes it a reality.
The articles below, excerpts from Josh’s blog, examine these ideas and more.
Gold to Stones
The good news doesn’t start with people as sinners with whom God is angry. It starts in the beginning. And if we miss this, the good news will fail to be good news.
In the beginning, God made man and woman to be the Imago Dei—the image of God on the earth. By God’s design, all of creation recognized them with joyful awe. They were the ones the Creator had joyfully made like Himself. Or as John Eldredge has expressed it, man and woman were “little statues of God walking around.”
It was glorious. They were glorious.
So what happened? They were the ones created by God to be like God, but they bought the lie that they could make themselves like God. Although God’s glory radiated from them, it didn’t originate in them. It was a gift.
God didn’t revoke their glory; they gave it up, traded it for something far less.
In Paul’s words, they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man…” (Romans 1:23).
Since then, we’ve been trying to get it back. It can’t be done. (You can trade a brick of gold for a stone, but a pile of stones won’t buy you a brick of gold.)
And yet, through all history, through all we’ve done, all we’ve settled for, all we’ve lost, God’s heart has always been for us. He desires that his glory would radiate from us, that man and woman would again be the best expression of him on the earth.
This is why Jesus came—not to cover us up so the Father wouldn’t see our sin, but to clean sin from us, free us from its power, and restore the glory of God in us.
The question is, will we let him?
You can’t make yourself glorious. It can only happen as you unite your life with Christ. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27b).
The internal struggle against sin is itself reason to hope. It’s evidence of the Master’s work in your heart, a spark of goodness within that wants to grow.
But for many who struggle, however hard they try, the spark of good remains just a spark, seemingly ineffective amidst the familiar dark waters of temptation.
Can you relate?
• You want to stop yelling at your kids, but you lost your temper again.
• You love your husband, but your best friend is texting and you long to be in her arms again.
• You want to stop looking at pornography, but it’s 2 a.m. and you’re still online looking for more.
You wonder if you’ll ever change, ever leave this sin behind once and for all? Can the spark in you become a burning flame?
It can. I say this confidently not because I know you. But because of the spark.
Where did it come from, this tenacious little light? Did you generate it on your own? No. If you’re in Christ, He put it in you. And He’s very good at what He does.
Consider this: You’ve fallen repeatedly to sin for years, yet the spark in you that wants to do good still burns. How could this be? How much dousing can it take without being extinguished?
Apparently a lot.
What does this say about the One who put it there and His love for you? What does it say about the new heart He’s given you? Could it be He’s made you stronger, more committed, more persevering, more of a fighter than you’ve yet believed?
Could it be the spark is so enduring because, contrary to what you’ve believed, it’s the real you, and the sin that tempts you is the part that doesn’t belong?
Paul understands this when he writes in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
And then he also reminds us in Romans 8:37 that we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us. Not victims. Not failures. But conquerors.
Where have you been falling repeatedly? Instead of beating yourself up for the sins you’ve been falling to, consider the miraculous tenacity of the spark in you and what it means about who lives in you and who you are.
Triage,Change, and Consecration
If you’ve sought major change in any area of your life, you may have discovered that God’s priorities for bringing about change are often different than our own.
We may come to him seeking freedom from pornography, wanting to be rid of our insecurity, needing physical healing, hoping for an end to our homosexual desires, or desperate to get out of debt.
But like a good triage doctor treating a patient with multiple life-threatening wounds, God will sometimes leave one area for a time because something else needs attention first.
To us, the problem that demands immediate attention is obvious: It’s the one causing us, or someone we love, the most pain. And so we cry out, “What are you doing, God? Can’t you see? Don’t you care about the pain I’m in!?” Of course he does.
The cross testifies to us in our pain. He understands.
But the cross also testifies to us through our pain. And so, with each change that has not come (even over a long time) we have a choice:
Abandon the journey or consecrate the journey.
To consecrate this journey to him means he becomes our main desire, not the change we’re after or any of its benefits. To consecrate the journey to him, means entrusting it to him, setting it apart to him as an offering. Consecrating this journey means giving up our rights to have the life we want, and instead gratefully receiving the life he grants.
When we consecrate this journey to God, everything takes on new meaning.
Our victories and our failures alike become opportunities to revel in God’s grace; resisting temptation and leaving a desire unmet become acts of worship; the objects of our temptation become those we fight for not against; and the journey itself—however long it takes and no matter how outwardly successful it may or may not seem—becomes an opportunity to grow more intimate with Jesus.
When Experience Isn’t a Good Thing
Nothing on earth has the authority to define you. Your identity—your true identity—is who God created you to be.
And yet, what you experience regularly informs your sense of who you are. In other words, your experiences—your circumstances, interactions, feelings, temptations, actions, etc.—all give you their opinion about who you are.
And as you might guess, their opinion frequently doesn’t align with who God says you are.
For example, do you feel you don’t measure up compared to others? Have you been abused, used, or abandoned? Do you feel like damaged goods? Do you struggle with habitual sins like lust, rage, gluttony, promiscuity, homosexual activity, envy, or fear?
Maybe you can’t remember a time when one or more of these wasn’t a part of your experience.
Maybe you can’t imagine a version of you apart from them. Nonetheless, they do not speak the truest thing about you.
If this is hard for you to believe, try this:
• Ask Jesus this simple question: What have my experiences (my circumstances, relationships, feelings, desires, or actions) told me about myself that is untrue?
• Spend some time in prayer, see Jesus absorbing each of these untrue labels into his body on the cross for you (2 Cor. 5:21).
• Then, like a child, ask: Jesus, who am I? Who do you say that I am?
Keep asking, and keep listening for his true words. There you’ll discover that…
You are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). You are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). You are chosen (1 Peter 2:9). You are a child of God (Galatians 3:26). You are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).
Explore the Scripture for more truths about who you are as one who is in Christ.
The process of realigning your perceptions of yourself with what’s true can be lengthy and challenging. And it’s worth it. Whatever faulty names your experience has been giving, Jesus has better for you.
You can sign up to receive Josh’s weekly blog in your email inbox by going to www.regenerationministries.org/blog.
In my experience, all the stories we love most have some element of impossibility. A battle that can’t be won, a relationship that just won’t work, an opponent that can’t be beat, a problem that can’t be solved, a foe too powerful to overcome.And then… something happens: A splinter of light in the darkness, the sound of back-up arriving, a forgotten promise kept, a chink in the armor suddenly revealed, an unlikely hero arising, a miracle.Our favorite stories aren’t great in spite of impossibility, they’re great because impossibility is a part of them. And because hope beyond hope, impossibility is overcome.There are few areas in our world today so rife with impossibility as sexuality. Voices and influences come at us fast and furious painting sexuality as something far from God’s beautiful design. Some of these voices are subtle, some seductive, but all of them sound so certain, professional, and authoritative. Even for the stalwart follower of Christ, the voices can sound so matter of fact that he or she feels a bit like an idiot not to buy into them.
• Men lust, that’s just what men do.
• It’s unhealthy and unnatural to live a chaste life if you’re single.
• If a spouse has been unfaithful, it’s just better to give up and start afresh.
• Porn and sexual experimentation are just a part of growing up.
• Some marriages aren’t made to last.
• And for those with same sex attractions, the only way to experience a healthy, meaningful life is to embrace a gay identity. Otherwise, despair and loneliness will follow you the rest of your life.
We need a more trustworthy authority than these voices. Scripture guides us. It reminds us that the accuser of the brethren accuses them—accuses us—day and night (Rev. 12:10). His accusations may be disguised, but at their core, they sound something like this:Those ideas you have: The idea that you could live chastely, that marriage is meant to reveal God’s image, or that you could be defined by a more trustworthy authority than your own desires and attractions, that Christ makes all things new, or that you (or any human, for that matter) could really love another with a self-giving love? All this is foolishness, antiquated, folly. It’s religious bondage, it’s unenlightened stupidity.
In short, it’s impossible.
Standing Amidst Impossibility
The truth is, those in Christ have his Spirit within and his seal on our lives. As we stand firm in love, even amidst the clamor of these voices, his image in us remains. And his quiet, sure voice tells us the truth of who we are as men and as women who bear His image.Still, those fast, furious, rapid fire messages come our way seeking to cover up his image in us, to quench what is true about us. It’s as though hands come out of the dark, slapping ‘hello my name is’ stickers all over us. Every sticker in some version or another reads impossible, impossible, impossible, not you, not important, not loved, not like God, impossible! But these are the same voices that tempted Jesus in the desert—the ones that said, If you’re really the Son of God, than why can’t you just do this, or do that? The same influences that tortured him in the garden, Surely if you were really God’s beloved Son, He’d let this cup pass from you. The same voices that mocked him on the cross, If you’re really the Messiah, if your really the Great Rescuer, why can’t you even save yourself?
And these are the same voices that had his disciples hiding in fear after he died, muttering and whispering to each other something like, “We thought He was the One.” For them, his grave clothes looked like a thousand labels that said, Impossible. And the giant stone over his tomb,—one more, final Impossible.
And then . . .
In the dark of the early morning, during their restless sleep, something happened: A glimmer of light, a chink in the impenetrable armor suddenly became visible, a forgotten promise was kept, an unlikely hero came through. A miracle. If the word Impossible covered his grave clothes, that morning each word shone with incredible light, each Impossible transformed into an eternal, authoritative, all powerful, I’m Possible.
His heart started pumping. He breathed in deeply like a man come up from a long dive under the cold ocean. His body warmed. And that giant, impossible stone moved aside to reveal its master—the living, breathing, walking, in-the-flesh, risen Jesus.
The Impossibility of Changed Lives
ImpossibilityMany of the men and women who have come to Regeneration over the past 30+ years aren’t living with the label Impossible anymore. Tonight, you’re going to hear from three of them. They don’t wear a sticker. It’s their lives that say In Christ all things are possible. And in him, their lives—like his—proclaim, I’m possible!
In Revelation 12:11, John goes on to say, “They overcame [the Accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” These men and women’s lives do just that. What about you? Will you listen for what the Father might be saying to you? Jesus is here, he is walking among us, he sits with us, he is speaking to all of us, inviting us into his story.Will you listen? Will you follow?
Remember those favorite stories I mentioned at the start—the impossible ones where someone stood up against the impossible and wouldn’t back down? For each one who stood up, there were thousands of others who didn’t—men and women (even seemingly good men and women) who bent the knee, slinked off into the crowd, went home, shut the door, got into bed, and pulled the covers up over their heads.
More “Impossibility” Looms
Like all of you, Regeneration faces impossible challenges today.Pornography is not only more accessible than ever before in human history, it is becoming increasingly mainstream. Millions dabble in it, assuming it’s not hurting anyone and that they’ll be able to stop whenever they want. Gay marriage is the law of the land in Maryland and 11 other states, as well as our nation’s capitol. And in June, the Supreme Court of the United States will decide on two landmark cases that may have ripple effects in our country and around the world.A number of well-known and very public Christian voices have come out in support of gay marriage or have added confusion by what they have or have not said. Their followers are left perceiving that the clearest, soundest sounding voices are those promoting homosexuality.In the midst of this, men and women who are personally tempted by same-sex attractions face increasing pressures to abandon Scripture’s teachings on sex and sexuality.
Kids are especially at risk. A high school student recently told me that every guy he knows in his school asks girl classmates to text them nude photos of themselves. He’s the odd man out for refraining. Meanwhile, the constant message young women receive is if they don’t send provocative pictures of themselves then they’re viewed as undesirable and disregarded. Our kids aren’t just viewing porn, they’re unwittingly becoming pornographers.We can too easily get bogged down in all of this, letting the impossibility of it all drive us to resignation.
But Jesus strides right into impossibility, unafraid, clothed in white, and exuding resurrection life and love.
So listen to the stories of those who have walked from darkness to light, those who have joined with Christ to wrestle pornography to the ground, and won. Listen to those whose marriages were in tatters, and through blood, sweat, and tears have experienced the power of his resurrection in the love of husband and wife. And listen to those who have laid their homosexual identities down and let Christ clothe them in new garments—not heavy garments that conceal, but rich and light garments that reveal who they really are.
In these stories, in the pages of Scripture, in the everyday, listen for how God makes impossible possible. Listen for the I’m possible. And listen for the ways Jesus is saying to you, that you’re possible—that the wonder he’s made you to be, that best self, that true self, that good and godly man or woman who bears his likeness and strides right next to him into impossibility—that you are more than possible in him“Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God’” (Mark 10:27).
Twenty-five years ago I had my last homosexual encounter with a former lover. It was the first week of January 1988. This significant event came after I had rededicated my life to the Lord in August of 1987. At that point in my life, I had lived for 11 years as a gay-identified man. During the second week of that January, I broke my silence and shared my past with my church family. Only my pastor had known of my history. During the third week of January, I was visiting a church in Atlanta and heard about Regeneration Ministries. The next week, I visited with Alan Medinger at the Regeneration office in Baltimore. I walked into my first Regeneration meeting in Northern Virginia during the first week of February 1988 and my life has never be the same!
In a period of just 5 weeks I experienced dramatic and significant changes in my life. I now knew there were others like me wrestling with unwanted same-sex attractions, and they were doing so in light of God’s mercy and grace. I came out of the shadows, dropped my masks, and began to enter into real community. No longer was I resigned that there were immutable, genetic influences casting my lot and keeping me from becoming the man God intended. I truly began to grasp my potential of being and accepted the abundant life my Beloved offered me.
As I reflect over these past 25 years, two words surface: change and vulnerability. The word change encompasses many levels which cannot be put into simple context. Likewise, the word vulnerability has associated depths of meaning which requires greater clarification and definition. Change and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, have a strong connection.
Change, of course, is to make something different, often radically different. To be vulnerable can be defined as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack or damage.” On the surface, change and vulnerability may appear to be negative things and not at all desirable. Our personal vulnerabilities often have significant influence on the choices we make, which can then lead to unfortunate or even devastating end results.
Men and women seek the help of Regeneration, as I did, because of a desire to change the road they’ve been walking. In order to make that radical change, they need to be vulnerable which involves risk. Unfortunately, we often lack clarity in understanding our personal vulnerabilities.
God Accepts Vulnerabilities
We are vulnerable in areas of our life which are unprotected, susceptible, and weak. Some of us may have an inability to set healthy boundaries with people. We can experience vulnerability to things that we are most prone to turn to apart from God. It could be food, sex, relationships…the possibilities there are endless. We are more vulnerable during certain times in our life such as when we feel tired, stressed, and anxious about particular circumstances. Our vulnerabilities can be decreased to a negligible awareness or they can be a condition which remains present for extended periods of time.
After I rededicated my life to the Lord, the Holy Spirit began to reveal areas where I had vulnerabilities – areas that were susceptible to sin. These areas were the result of faulty interpretations of my past, unforgiveness, and adherence to lies. These vulnerabilities contributed to the complexity of my brokenness regarding my sexuality and my relationships. However, through Divine objectivity I was able to see my past through God’s eyes and His revelation began to unravel the vines which had restricted my healthy emotional development. When I submitted to His Lordship, He released me from my striving and produced trust that He knew what was best for me and my process of becoming who He wanted me to be.
I needed to allow God to search and expose my heart. As He proved Himself faithful, my trust of Him grew and I became more open. I welcomed His Presence into the closed off areas of my heart. Here is where the basis for specific vulnerabilities existed. Here is where His Divine intervention began to transform my weaknesses into strengths.
God brought about a paradigm shift in my thinking, although I think it was actually repentance. I had to repent of a false understanding of God and who He was. I had to repent of thinking that God despised me for my vulnerabilities. Once I repented of that false idea, what a joy to know the truth – that God accepted my vulnerabilities and wanted to use them as places of opportunity through which He would manifest Himself in my life. My vulnerabilities were not to be places for self-hatred to reside. Rather, these vulnerable areas were places where God wanted to work and effect change. Once I experienced this new change in my thinking, I saw the Lord begin to establish new foundations onto which He was building and regenerating my life into what He wanted it to be.
There is one place in my life where I can be extremely vulnerable. I have experienced times of great loneliness. I know I am not unique in this and loneliness is an ongoing experience for everyone. I also know that loneliness will not be completely met this side of heaven. At times I have despised my loneliness and other times I’ve been tempted to see it with eyes of despair. I also have also turned to other sources, to which I am vulnerable, in order to assuage it, such as food. I have viewed my loneliness through a clouded lens but I have begun to understand it in a new light.
I need to see all of my vulnerabilities as God-accepted with the potential to become God-inspired. God accepts me right where I am in the moment. He is not willing to leave me there, however. He desires me to go higher and deeper with Him. Will I embrace my loneliness in such a way where it is not seen as a deficit? Will I embrace my deeper vulnerabilities with God’s inspiration to cause them to be wondrous places of being where I recognize Him at work? Instead of suppressing, avoiding, or pacifying these places, will I allow the Resurrection Life of Jesus to cause new birth in me? Will I choose to become the man He wants me to be as I study His word, seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit and daily walk in His truth?
Changing Our view of Change
If we allow Him, God will take our vulnerabilities and work radical changes. Change is a multi-layered journey and I believe this is especially so for those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions. For many, I have seen the change of unwanted behaviors become the “ultimate goal”. Should the focus of change in this area be on outward behaviors, inward thinking, or religious pursuits? What do you focus on first? What came first the chicken or the egg?
Within me I recognize the presence of a constant undercurrent of change. I am never static unless I choose to be. I make a daily choice to enter into a place of becoming who God wants me to be. My current state of “what is” knows that tomorrow there is a “not yet” ahead. I am on a pilgrimage towards my true home and live in the tension between two conditions of being.
In the beginning stages as I left my same sex lifestyle, my focus was on changing my behaviors. Like most people that initially come to my office, this is their main goal. But the true need is to experience a change in focus rather than behaviors. Pastor and apologist Timothy Keller says it best – God is not after a morally restrained heart but a supernaturally changed heart. Because I have been there myself, I know the people who come to Regeneration are hurting and often struggling with addictions. I come along side of them, walking with them in the moment. But the reality is our own strength or will is insufficient. We can only overcome our sin and become the person God wants us to be when we know who we are in Christ, and who Christ is in us.
Changing Our focus
As I counsel people at Regeneration, my focus is not on changing sexual orientation. How do you define sexual orientation and why do we categorize orientation? These are categories that the world apart from God has developed. There is really only one true orientation which is the one God created. If sexual orientation is minimized to the question of who you want to have sex with, then its complexity has been greatly diminished. The opposite of homosexuality is the heterosexual reality God intends. When people seek healing from same-sex attraction, this doesn’t mean they will necessarily have sexual attraction to the opposite sex. Like sexual orientation, our heterosexuality cannot be reduced to merely the act of sex. My heterosexuality encompasses how I as a male relate with both men and women. The more secure I am in my gender and the more comfortable I am in my maleness, then the more I begin to bear the unique, heterosexual image God intends for me, independent of sexual attractions. Although we can begin to experience sexual attractions to the opposite sex, this mustn’t be our primary goal.So when I minister at Regeneration, I am only interested in the changing of two orientations: our orientation to sin and our orientation to God. One we want to decrease and the other to increase. The more we come to truly know God, who He is, what He has done for us, what His purpose is for us, then the change we desire will occur. 2 Peter 1:3 says it all: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” It’s knowing God, in our head and heart, which brings true change that lasts and is real.
Changing My Perspective
Over the past 25 years my focus has become more directed towards a Kingdom perspective. Jesus befriended sinners which then allowed His message to be received. He cared for their struggles, their physical needs and their hurts. Others He confronted with their sin to reveal the state of their hearts. When do we befriend and when do we confront? I have seen judgmental confrontation but also compromised befriending. As followers of Jesus, we cannot offer sound theology without true relationship, nor can we offer relationship without sound theology! Only God can save and knows who is saved. Only God can make this important, definitive judgment. We are called to speak the truth of the gospel in love and be the Image bearer of Christ.
I try to greet everyone who walks into my office with the same approach. I open with prayer and always speak of the truth that God knew we were going to meet before the world was created. God therefore knows exactly what He wants to surface and address during our time together. I rest knowing He will direct our discussion and provide the words that I need to speak to the person that is before me. I ask Him to let me see through His eyes the one who sits before me. I ask for the Father’s will to be done.
I want the fullness of Jesus to be made manifest in my vulnerabilities. God desires change in our inner being but only through Him can true, radical change happen. I am continuing to learn what it means to rest in Him. The only change I now want for my life is the same as John the Baptist’s when he said “may I decrease that He may increase.” (John 3:30)
“I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” ~Sir Isaac Newton
I love seashells. My affection for them began as a boy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Unfortunately Lake Erie is not known for its beautiful shells, so I saved my pennies and bought shells from all over the world. In the l960’s there was a very rare cone shell which captured the eye of avid shell collectors around the world – the Glory of the Seas cone. Stories abounded of its rarity and a quality specimen was valued over $1,000.
As diving practices improved, however, and more habitats for this rare cone shell were discovered the shells’ value changed. Today I have at least six of this cone shell and I’m pondering how to use them in my shell art work! Over time the value of some rare shells was impacted because they became commonplace and were readily available. They were no longer special and although the allure for these rare shells still existed, they became something much less valuable.
The same thing has happened in our culture regarding sex. The great truth of what sex is and what it was originally designed to be has been lost as sexual images saturate us in the media. We encounter it visually everyday on the television, in magazines and on the internet. On television shows, it is commonplace to have sex as the main topic or alluded to in jokes or conversation. And many current therapists posit that sex is a biological necessity and a requirement for happiness. Restricting the “urge to merge” or having some form of sexual release is considered unusual or even unhealthy.
Our culture today views sex in a way far different from what God intended when He first created the world. Sex was God’s gift to mankind and had an intentional purpose. It was a way for us to reflect His image in our gender. It was a special blessing given to a man and woman as a way to express intimacy with one another as husband and wife. God can be seen in all of His creation, but He reserved the bearing of His Image for the human race alone. One of His gifts to us as His image bearers is the ability to enjoy intimacy within a sexual union.
And so, our sexuality is innately and profoundly sacred with a divine purpose in its design. But like Sir Isaac Newton’s search for the prettier shell, our culture has lost the great truth of the sacredness of sex. By focusing only on the act of sex itself, we miss the sacred and multifaceted experience of sex—the holy gift God presented to us so long ago. That gift was a like a diamond, valuable and precious. But today, even within the Christians community, we see believers willing to substitute something in place of the diamond we are originally given.
We have seen the loss of this gift over the centuries. In certain centuries, especially in ancient times, sex was part of ritualistic, deity worship. Some cultures had little restrictions on sexual acts while others were more rigid. In Victorian times, sex was not discussed in good company. In our current culture, its presence dominates our media but it is rarely referenced in the way God intended, thereby demeaning and separating it from its greater purpose.
One obvious reason sex is important in our society is because it provides physical pleasure. But if the purpose of sex was solely for pleasure, then there are plenty of other resources available with far less consequences. One prevalent consequence of sex outside of God’s boundaries has been the rise of sexually transmitted diseases. STDs are widespread in our country. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are 19 million new infections every year in the U.S. alone. (CDC 2012 National Data).
Even while our culture espouses the idea that sex should be sought to meet a biological need, it is clearly associated with something far more significant. Even for the many who are imprisoned by sexual addiction, there is an underlying drive which goes beyond the physical. Sex lends itself to attachment because it ties into our deeply buried desire for true intimacy originally planted there by God. C.S. Lewis writes “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside of marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all other kinds of union which were intended to go along with and make up the total union.”
Our culture has polar extremes regarding sex. At one extreme it is highly romanticized in idealistic movies and reality TV. The hard work of building a relationship is minimized and veiled behind the pretense of real love. The other extreme classifies sex as a biological, almost animalistic drive which is diluted down to only physical dimensions. Both extremes reflect a lack of understanding for the deeper significance found in our sexuality. Sex, as expressed in these polar opposites, finds its expression as false intimacy.
We humans hunger for true intimacy. As image bearers of God, we desire relationship with Him and with each other. And when a man and a woman come to together sexually, it is the highest form of being known by one another. Certainly we can know each other within and through healthy, life-giving relationships. However, in the marital bed, there is the opportunity to know one another in a way which is like no other. Here, true intimacy is experienced on multiple levels: physical, emotional and spiritual.
Unfortunately our culture more often substitutes the physical act of sex as being the totality of true intimacy without regard for the deeper aspects of knowing the other person. For many, achieving pleasure and a self-satisfying orgasm is the main goal, with minimal responsibility. In 2011, a film called “No Strings Attached” was released which illustrated the prevailing view of casual sex among today’s generation. The film’s director, Ivan Reitman was quoted as saying, “I noticed from my own kids that with this generation in particular, young people find it easier to have a sexual relationship than an emotional one. That is how the sexes deal with each other today.”
The physical component of sex that brings great pleasure is indeed important in a marital relationship. But in order to fully enjoy all the aspects of this gift from God, we must discern its higher purpose. When sex is only casual or recreational, it is like a cheap cubic zirconium. It may appear beautiful, but it is lacking in value. Sex, understood from the perspective of God’s original design, is like that precious diamond and thus, the expression of it valued, respected and should be protected. The cubic zirconium can easily be given away because it doesn’t represent a great loss. But the diamond, a stone of great worth, will only be given away when its value is understood.
The Greater Gift
In order for us to fully value and appreciate sex, we must connect it with the Creator Himself. When we remove God’s presence, sex loses its Divine connection and purpose. We live in a post-modern society in which the true source of Life has been replaced or eliminated altogether. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 1, mankind has gone from worshiping the Creator to worshipping the created. This degenerates further to worshipping the act of procreation. Without acknowledgement of our God-given need for true intimacy, to know and be known both by God and one another, sex becomes a powerful substitute.
Early in Genesis, we read about a marriage. God gave Adam and Eve to each other also giving them the gift of sex for a variety of purposes. One purpose was for procreation—for the building of a family. We can see this throughout all of creation as animals also have sex to produce off-spring. Being image-bearers of God, spiritual and physical, our sexual act also has a spiritual dimension. This is why in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, believers are told to flee sexual immorality because our body is a home to the Holy Spirit.
All of scripture esteems the beauty of God-honoring sex. The Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) in the Old Testament contains sensual expressions between a bride and bridegroom. Song of Songs 6:3 says, “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine” and chapter 7:10 rejoices that “I belong to my lover and his desire is for me.” It is a beautiful book that is also a metaphor for how God views the church. It expresses His love for us as His Body, as His bride.
Jesus refers to the church as His bride many times in the New Testament. But we are not a “trophy bride” or a bride who is not to be touched. The level of intimacy that Jesus desires with us is as deep as that experienced by a husband and wife. How absolutely amazing that our Creator desires such a level of deep intimacy with us!
In the book of Revelation chapter 21, the Church is defined as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” John saw the city coming down from heaven adorned “as a bride,” meaning that the inhabitants of the city, the Redeemed of the Lord, will be holy and pure, wearing white garments of holiness and righteousness. How overwhelming is God’s love for us! Fully comprehending the greater gift of what sex was and is to be, grasping what God intended, we then will have true freedom to enjoy the wonderful gift He has given to us.
When we lack understanding of its significance, we limit our capacity of knowing Him and being in full relationship with Him. I belong to God and His desire is for me! The metaphors used in the Song of Songs are lost on us if sex has no higher meaning and purpose than just physical. But when we understand its spiritual aspect, we can begin to comprehend how deep the Father’s love is for us. Then we can be naked and unashamed in His presence.
Disregard of the Gift…Disregard the Giver
One of my favorite cartoon strips is no longer being published. The illustrator refused to give into the pressure to franchise his characters and make millions more in revenue. He believed if you take the characters out of their settings, you somehow change them. Their uniqueness is somehow diminished when they are taken out of the environment for which they were intended. Rather than compromise his beliefs, to the disappointment of many, he no longer is illustrating the two characters that many have enjoyed for years.
When sex is taken out of the setting for which it was intended, it loses something. Those outside of Christ may realize that something is not quite right, but are unable to perceive what has been lost. Premarital sex is such a common practice that the wedding night is now no more special than any other night. It holds no uniqueness or special anticipation. Rather premarital sex has been routinely and wrongly used as a measure of compatibility prior to marriage. Absent is the deeper, intimate trust one gives to another through the profession of true commitment witnessed in community.
My heart longs for us to begin to comprehend the inherent value of the sexual union. This deeper understanding of the sacredness of sex can be a vital foundation stone beneath your feet when sexual temptation arises. You can prepare yourself for these temptations that will surely come by asking yourself these questions: “Am I going to use the gift meant for true intimacy as an act of narcissistic self-love devoid of intimacy? Do I want to defile and degrade this amazing gift through casual, one-flesh unions? Do I understand I am truly profaning something which is holy and sacred unto God?” These questions need to be forethought rather than an afterthought. When sexual temptation arises, you are better prepared, with God’s help, to make decisions to honor the gift and the Gift-giver.
For those of us who walk in the state of singleness or the gift of a celibate life, our longing for intimacy can be met in God. Some authors espouse that a deeper knowing of God can be achieved through the gift of celibacy. Remaining chaste or celibate (there is a difference between these words) is a discipline which is honored by God. Instead of mulling over what we are missing, contemplate what we gain through choosing to live within the parameters God has given to us.
Luke 1:37 says, “For with God, nothing is impossible.” Only God can cleanse us of any defilement we may have known through our sexually broken and sinful behaviors. Only God can restore our innocence which was taken or lost. Only He can restore to us the true reverence for His sacred gifts. His desire is for you and He longs for your desire to be for Him!
It’s in our stories, movies, and legends. In Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Edgar Allan Poe’s Telltale Heart, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. We feel it in our bones. It’s in our DNA.
When we’re guilty, we desperately want to come clean.
Can you relate? Maybe you have a loved one who is struggling against being honest with her sin. Maybe you’re carrying something from your past that you’ve never told anyone, maybe it’s an area of sin you continue to struggle with presently. Or maybe you have confessed, but you still feel plagued with a guilty conscience.
Jesus’ invitation is for you. He wants to wash you clean and, yes, He wants you to feel clean. Keep reading.
What’s a Conscience For?
God speaks through our conscience—that muscle inside that alerts us when we’ve done wrong. When you’re guilt free and your conscience is clear, you feel a sense of lightness and freedom. When you’ve done wrong, your conscience reminds you. A healthy and strong conscience tells you there’s sin in your system that needs to be cleaned out.
When you understand what your conscience does, you know it does not accuse you. It doesn’t tell you how rotten you are for what you did. The voice that accuses you is the voice of the enemy, “the accuser of our brothers and sisters . . . who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev. 12:10 NLT).
On the other hand, a healthy and strong conscience, when revealing guilt, actually affirms you. It lets you know that you were made by a good and holy God, made for something better than the sin you’ve done. Sin is to healthy conscience what a splinter (or thorn, or nail, or bullet) is to your physical pain sensors. The pain you feel in your conscience is not the problem. Like the pain sensors in your skin when a splinter is present, a conscience in pain is just telling you that something foreign (unresolved sin) is present and needs to be removed for freedom and life to flow to the fullest.
So if you’re guilty and your conscience bothers you, it’s a good thing. It’s reminding you that you were made—that your natural state is—to be clean. To relieve your conscience is to move toward home.
Symptoms of a Guilty Conscience
Unconfessed sin produces death in us, makes us sick. Even so, there are costs to confessing sin and we know it. I’ll address these directly in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the foul fruit of choosing to keep your sin secret.
- Emotional Distress – As I stated above, it’s in our DNA to get clean. When we don’t, when we try to hide our sin, we feel it. Or as David says in Psalm 32:
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.
- Health Problems – Whether a result of unresolved emotional distress or something else, guilt has been associated with both mental and physical health problems including depression, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, immunodeficiency problems, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers, among others.
- Compulsive Behaviors – To numb or distract ourselves from the discomfort of unconfessed sin, many run to compulsive drug/alcohol use, sexual behaviors, overeating, gambling, etc.
- Avoiding God – Maybe subtly at first, but when we harbor unconfessed sin, we instinctively pull ourselves back from the holy One who sees. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13).
- Avoiding Others – In a similar way, when we sense we are not clean, we instinctively want to hide ourselves from others. We may do this by completely avoiding their company, but more frequently, we do so by keeping secret the full extent of the things we’ve done.
- White-Washing – Instead of letting Jesus clean out the guilt, we try to compensate for it through pursuing financial success, reputation, physical beauty, fitness, and godly behavior. “For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mt. 23:27).
- Unholy Comparisons – In a convoluted attempt to make our sin less, we compare ourselves to others whom we deem worse than ourselves. So much bickering between family members, co-workers, political parties, and even countries is, at root, an attempt to turn the volume down on one’s own guilty conscience.
- Shamelessness – Sometimes, we may even attempt to shut our conscience down altogether. We try to convince ourselves and others that what we’ve done is justified and so not wrong at all. We minimize, intellectualize, excuse, blame others, blame our feelings, even blame God (e.g. It’s natural, It’s what men/women do, God made me this way, etc.).
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).
God allows these symptoms and the pain, dysfunction, and chaos that come with them to get our attention. Why? Because His heart is for us. He wants us to make us clean!
What Keeps Us from Coming Clean?
Why is it so difficult for us to confess our wrongdoing? There are a million excuses, but I think they boil down to these three reasons:
- Fear of consequences. There are natural consequences for our sin, and the darkness promises to hold those consequences at bay. We think that if others find out, we’ll be humiliated and rejected. We may lose a job, money, or people we hold dear. I’m not going to tell you these things aren’t true. Real loss can happen when we come clean.
We must remember that the consequences are consequences of our sin, not of coming into the light.We were made to be clean, made for the light, and as such, we are always better off there, no matter the consequences.And while I cannot guarantee you won’t experience loss, I can guarantee God’s response will never be to leave you or reject you. In fact, when you’ve come clean about your sin, you’re more able to receive all God has for you. This is why those who regularly confess their sins tend to get better faster than those who conceal their sin.
- Pride. We like people to think we’re something special, and we know telling the truth about our sin may change a person’s opinion about us. Pride is really the flipside of insecurity. Think about it—the proud are as concerned about others’ opinions as the insecure are. This is important to realize because it reveals that pride doesn’t really work. It doesn’t make us better, it only keeps us expending energy to convince others we are.
The way to truly grow and change is not hiding behind pride, but inviting others to see and know you as you are. The man or woman whose conscience is clean and who can look the world in the eye, that’s the person who is free—free to live, to love, to learn, to grow, and to change.
- Concern for God’s reputation. We may be tempted to think that we should remain silent about our sin because of our position in the church or ministry, or because people around us know we’re Christians and would be less likely to follow Christ if they found out. It’s true that our sin may impact another’s view of God. But the problem is not the truth, the problem is our sin. Jesus is never more concerned about how you represent Him to others as He is about the truth of your life. You are not just a means to an end for Him, you are the apple of His eye and He wants to see you free. The One who allowed Himself to be stripped naked, beaten, and hung on a tree for you can handle His own reputation.
Besides, what do you think is worse for his reputation—those who own up to their sin, confess it, and get help, or those who conceal it and continue in it?“You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt. 23:26-28).
- Hurting others. Sometimes our sin when revealed will hurt others significantly. If you’re concerned this will happen in your situation, godly counsel is needed to figure out how to proceed. It may be that your concern for hurting others is more about protecting yourself than them. You need to find someone you can be completely honest with who knows you and can help you discern God’s will for the matter. And it goes without saying that this person needs a clean conscience themselves. Together, ask the Holy Spirit to convict, to reveal His will. Then, if/when you do share with the person who may be hurt by your disclosure, you’ll have an ally who can support you as you do.
Confession: The Way to Come Clean
Confession to God in the presence of another is the way to come clean and to begin to truly experience God’s mercy and your new identity. So much of modern Christianity has lost the beauty of confession. And it truly is beautiful. Nowhere else does a sinful soul cast itself upon the mercy of God. Confession opens the soul’s door to God’s mercy, grace, and love. Without confession, the mouth and mind may proclaim forgiveness, but the heart and body’s longing to be clean persists.
Remember, a guilty conscience is simply telling you that you were made for something better than hiding, for something far greater than the enemy’s lies that you belong slinking in the darkness. God has made you good. In Christ, He restores your goodness and removes the sin that binds you.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Christ endured the suffering of the Cross to cleanse you of a guilty conscience. Let Him do His work in you, just as His disciples did one by one as He washed the dirt and feces off their feet (John 13:5ff). And let Him do this for you as often as necessary. Make it a regular part of your life, like eating, sleeping, and exercise.
Along the way, you’ll experience for yourself His enduring yet tender love for you personally, you’ll develop more authentic relationships with those around you, and you’ll grow in your own sense of who you truly are in Christ.
In my 15 years of ministry to those caught in sin, I’ve met hundreds of men and women who regret keeping silent about their sins. But I’ve never met anyone who regrets coming clean through confession. Not one.
Confess your sin. Allow Him to wash you. Come clean.
As a help to you, below are two one-page documents to help you go further.
Guidelines for Confessions - Practical information to help you prepare for confession
Model of Confession - Step by step helps to walk you through a tried and true model of confession
Throughout the month of May in my weekly blog, I explored the apparent tension we all sometimes face between being people of mercy and being people of truth. This is vitally important because the implications of how we handle mercy and truth extend to every facet of how we relate with one another: how parents raise their children, how husbands and wives work through disagreements, how teachers or coaches or bosses motivate those they oversee, how the church goes about “kingdom work,” and certainly how our team at Regeneration relates with the men and women who come to us for help.
Much of my thinking (and writing) in May about the interplay between mercy and truth was informed by what I see as I watch how our culture—including our churches—is inadequately addressing the plight of homosexual men and women.
The reality is that both mercy and truth have power to shape us, and so whether we use them well or poorly makes a huge difference in what we are shaped to be. For those seeking freedom and healing in the area of sexuality and for those seeking to walk well with others who seek that freedom and healing, we must find that place where mercy and truth are wed together.
MERCY, TRUTH AND TWEEZERS
Mercy alone can be harmful. My five year old recently came inside crying because she got a splinter. Mercy rose up in me. I knew the splinter had to come out. But when I tried to remove it, she recoiled in pain, screaming, “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!” My efforts to bring healing were hurting her.
In your life, maybe it’s not a splinter but loneliness, a troubled marriage, a gender identity conflict, sexual temptations or addictions, unwanted same-sex attractions, current problems stemming from past abuse or neglect. Mercy wants to rush in with comfort, kisses, anything to relieve the pain, calm fears, ease aloneness. (Oh how we need more mercy on the earth, don’t we?)
In this ministry, we know thousands of people who have carried a heavy burden of shame for sins they did, sins they could not seem to stop doing, sins they were tempted to do, or sins done to them. Many of them grew up hearing nothing of their struggles but condemnation from the pulpit and gossip from the pews. We’ve heard countless stories of our brothers and sisters responding by hiding their sins, temptations, and wounds for fear they’d be rejected (or worse) if their secret struggles came to light. And we know how destructive shame and secrecy are.
Mercy of course wants to see an end to the burden of shame, the years of aloneness, the pain of reckless words, and the poison of secrecy. Mercy wants something better for these sons and daughters of God. And rightly so.
But there is a form of mercy that hones in solely on these pains, and has as its main and only objective to relieve pain if it can, and if it can’t, at least not to make it worse. This is a shallow mercy.
And here’s where a shallow mercy fails us: The pathway to restoration usually requires more pain, not less. And because it aims to alleviate pain, shallow mercy falters. And when it does, it ends up cooperating with the source of the original pain. It makes an alliance with the true problem. This is what’s happening in so many sectors of our present culture, particularly those dealing with sexual and relational sins and brokenness. And it’s what’s happening in many churches as well.
This results in churches that
· Focus outwardly, while inwardly they are full of festering wounds, enflamed addictions, and dying congregants
· Re-interpret Scripture’s teachings against specific sins to mean something else altogether
· Operate as though inclusion and acceptance are the highest calling of God’s people
We see this in the areas of divorce, sex outside of marriage, lust in general, and homosexuality.
Instead of coming to the Cross and pressing our lives into the body of Christ where true, deep mercy washes us clean from sin and shame, this shallow mercy leads us afar off from the cross. We are like travelers far from home, viewing the cross from a distance—as from a scenic overlook. From a distance it is sanitized—something to remind us of how much He loves us but never something through which we travel from death to life, something that utterly transforms us.
We take Christ’s provision of freedom from sin and shame and trade it for the shamelessness of the culture and a dulling of our corporate conscience.
For my little girl, mercy alone would have left her limping and fearful. With bigger problems, when healing requires greater pain, the consequences are much more substantial where shallow mercy balks.
To be truly merciful, mercy needs truth. Where mercy’s focus is easing pain, truth’s focus is exposing and dealing with the source of the problem. The cross is so important here. In the cross, mercy and truth are wed. They become loving allies, a unit, always working together. Truth empowers mercy to be truly merciful.
Whether receiving mercy for yourself or letting it arise in you for the good of another, you need more mercy, not less. A shallow mercy will not do. Do not settle for the inexpensive copy when the top of the line version is yours at the Cross, where mercy and truth flow deep together.
Likewise, truth without mercy can be destructive, too.
This is kind of a startling thing to consider, isn’t it? After all, Jesus is the Truth. How can truth be destructive? Consider for a moment a quotation taken out of context so it appears to say something different, even contradictory, to what the original speaker had in mind. The person said the words, but the quotation didn’t say all the words.
Truth can be used like this. God’s truth is an expression of His character, His personality, His love, His mercy. Divorced from who God is, truth alone is static and so it can be used destructively.
In Luke 7:36 – 50, a sexually immoral woman comes into a room where Jesus is eating and she falls at his feet. She wets his feet with her tears and uses her hair to wash them. She anoints his feet with expensive perfume.
A respected Jewish leader, Simon, sees all this and says to himself: “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
Simon was right. She had a history of sexual immorality with no evidence she’d changed her ways. And Simon knew a lot about God (the God Jesus was supposed to be representing), and before God, she was guilty. It was all true.
But it wasn’t all that was true.
In response, Jesus tells a parable to bring in the bigger context—what’s actually happening at this table, what “sort of person” she is . . . and what sort of person Jesus is. Then Jesus looks at the woman and asks what I think is one of the most profound questions in the New Testament: “Simon, do you see this woman?”
Truth is, he hadn’t. Simon saw the truth of her sin, her disregard for male-female cultural boundaries, Jesus’ peculiar lack of concern for the things that so occupied Simon’s own attention. But he could not see her.The difference between the two men, the difference between Simon’s smaller truth and Jesus fuller truth, was mercy. Simon saw the truth of this woman’s ungodly actions and believed God’s next order of business with her must be judgment. The truth of God’s heart of mercy towards this woman was nowhere in his equation. And so he assessed her worth to be little. Interestingly, by virtue of Christ’s response to the woman, Simon made a similar assessment of Jesus’ worth. Simon did not see that God’s embodiment of truth and mercy was at the table.
In Christ’s hands, truth comes with mercy and for mercy’s sake. He uses truth not like a bludgeon to crush but like a sword to separate where a person ends and sin begins. He doesn’t like collateral damage. Mercy stays small truth where it would be brash, slows it down and more fully informs it. Just as truth deepens mercy so it can be truly merciful, mercy breathes into truth, expanding its reach to take in the fuller scope of God’s heart towards people.
With mercy, truth includes the context that the creation of humanity is a love story between God and us. And though we brought sin and death into the story, it is not now a chronicle of war or a dark tragedy. Through the merciful work of Christ crucified and resurrected, He is making the love story more heroic, more romantic, more glorious than anyone could ever have dreamed.
Where in your life have you tried to wash yourself or others in the puddles of shallow mercy—tried to alleviate pain and so settled for a life of sin or brokenness? Where have you needed to plunge into the deep cool waters of mercy and truth?
Where in your life have you beat yourself up with your failures, or hammered others with truth devoid of God’s heart of mercy? Where have you settled for the truth of your sin and let it define who you are? Where have you needed the heroic, rescuing embrace of the God who uses truth and mercy together to separate you from your sin?
Do not stand afar off. Come to Christ on the Cross. Come for His truth, come for His mercy. Come.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. ~ Ephesians 6:12
If you are anything like me, you may have read a particular passage of Scripture several times in the course of your life; then one day you read it again and it’s as if you are seeing it with new eyes. I recently had such an experience with Ephesians 6:12 where the apostle Paul talks about our struggles in this world, and where he identifies the real enemy we battle. All of our conflicts in this world, whether they are with an individual person or in the realm of religion or politics, have only one root, one source—the devil himself. What took me to a deeper level as I read this verse was realizing that true victory can be found in only one place.
The only true and lasting victory we can ever hope to have over any sin or conflict must be rooted in the Spirit—in knowing God. The Holy Spirit unrelentingly desires for us to know the Father and the Son. It is only through our knowing of the Lord we can find the capacity to be overcomers. According to 2 Peter 1:3 we have everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of God, knowledge established both in the mind and the heart. Lasting victory will not be achieved by a perceived strategy or action that we use to fight temptation or known areas of weakness. I am not saying we shouldn’t contemplate and be prepared for how we will face these battles. But I am convinced beyond all doubt for us to become the men and women we were created to be, we must know God in every aspect of our lives.
Knowing Him in our sin
How do we know God in our sin? Paul states in Romans 8:28 God works for the good of those who love him. Nothing in our lives is exempt from this working, so even in our sin God has the capacity to turn it toward our good. Our established flesh pattern regarding sin is to try and hide it, just as Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they sinned in the garden. We are so reluctant to invite God into our sin and yet this is the very place He desires to be welcomed. If we in fact knew His true character and nature, we would run to Him rather than away from Him and hide.
Sin is, on one hand, simply a choice against God; on the other hand it has multiple layers of complexity. After processing our shame as a result of our sin, there is great opportunity for us. The Holy Spirit will come at our invitation to transform our experience into something good. Because of our relationship with the Holy Spirit (don’t forget, He’s not a dove but a real person), we know He desires to impart His revelation specifically where it is needed. We can trust Him with our heart. We can rest knowing that He will reveal our sin along with the reasons why we continue to struggle in it. The result is a change in our knowing (true definition of repentance) which will result in a change in our doing.
For many years my own heart has been so aware of the presence of mercy rather than grace. I have frequently stated to others, often receiving looks of confusion, that I want to be less dependent on mercy. I know I will always be dependent on grace which is the receiving of what I don’t deserve. Mercy however, is not receiving of what I do deserve. My heart is so often humbled and drawn closer to God as He makes me aware of the ever present mercy available to the brokenness of my soul. My constant prayer is to be less dependent on mercy, meaning I am requiring less of it because of the decrease of sin in my heart. It has been my awareness of God’s mercy, rather than the law, which consistently draws me back to Him. Tears frequently come to my eyes when His mercy floods my being.
So, how can I receive His mercy, realizing how He is drawing me unto Himself in my sin, if I don’t know Him? In my present, limited capacity to comprehend God, it is perplexing at times to know God in His incredible righteousness and holiness, and yet also as One who desires deep, abiding intimacy. Thankfully He knows me and my limitations. My lack of comprehending the fullness of Him does not cause me to stand afar off but actually motivates me to know Him better. Because I have known Him in times of incredible intimacy, I know I can always approach the Lord in my times of sin or lack of comprehension. As illustrated in the story of Esther, I know the Lord will always extend His scepter allowing me to approach Him because of the work on the Cross of my Beloved.
What is your relational response or reaction to God when you sin? Do you pull yourself away or draw closer? How does God’s mercy impact your daily life? When we understand how great our sin is, then we will understand how great our Savior is and the mercy He imparts.
Knowing Him in our process
Does the word “process” feel like a four-lettered word to you? When you think of “being in process” does that which is still lacking come to mind as opposed to what has been changed? Many tend to look at process in terms of steps and time, with their focus on what needs to be done. However, our process as believers is actually a work of sanctification, walking in and by the Spirit rather than by a set of rules and steps. Much like Paul’s advice in Ephesians’ 6 regarding spiritual warfare, process involves standing your ground (after putting on the armor) rather than jumping immediately into action.
Many people come to my office because of “a” besetting sin. Their desire is to overcome a particular life-dominating behavior. But just like sin, even though it always boils down to a simple choice, there are multiple, complex levels influencing those choices. These besetting behaviors often cannot be addressed on just one level. For example, the sin of masturbation is rooted in many other sins such as lust, envy, idolatry, or jealousy, to name of few. We must come out of our tunnel vision and realize that our process is not overcoming one area of sin, but the presence of sin in many areas.
Jesus is our example of process at its best. Jesus was tempted in every way just we are but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). The means of temptation He faced weren’t the “specific” behaviors, objects, or substances which draw us (the Internet did not exist 2000 years ago); these three things are not where sin is to be found. The sin lies in what motivates us to turn towards them and away from God. All temptation is rooted in the choice to turn from the Father as our source of affirmation, identity, and security. The choices to act out sexually or relationally find their roots in some form of idolatry (i.e. I choose to be God). Jesus overcame any and all temptation which would have turned His focus inward and away from the Father.
How do we know Him in our process? Go back to Ephesians 6:12—we need to have the spiritual perspective first. Since Jesus is our example, by knowing Him we will know how to embrace our process. Our primary focus for process is not found in 12-step groups, programs, or counseling. These are good and valuable resources but they should not be our primary source of strength. Our first choice above all is to seek Him first and whole heartedly. After years of journaling, and pages of self analysis, the real source of my own change was found in the healing word I received back from the Lord. After journaling about what I thought was my issue, Jesus spoke back to my heart and addressed specifically the real need present there. My own issue and struggle was something else, something much deeper that God graciously revealed to me.
What used to take a page or more of journaling now gets condensed into a paragraph or two as I am able to present to God what I think seems to be the issue at hand. I then invite Him into it and because I know He is faithful and committed to me, and because He knows me best, I am able to trust Him wholeheartedly and receive His revelation. Now I search less for answers and more of Him. Instead of turning deeper within myself, I reflect more about my relationship with Him and who He is. My journals today are more of a love song proclaiming the cleansing and restoration of my soul. The Holy Spirit searches my soul and leads me to Godly sorrow, and brings revelation of my true sonship and relationship with my Beloved. By learning how to know Him over the years, the process for change that I was looking for occurred in ways I could never have predicted.
How do you respond or react to the word “process”? In light of what you’ve just read, how can you approach your process differently?
Knowing Him in our community
Oh to be less self-aware! Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go through a day without a single thought of how you look or feel? What would it be like to relate to others having only the eyes of Christ to see them and to be His hands and feet? One of the consequences of walking with life-dominating sin is to have a heightened sense of self-awareness. The temptation is to be in the other person’s mind and wonder what they are thinking and how they perceive us. Perhaps the temptation is attempting to draw another person to see or notice us. In so doing, we are no longer “seeing” others but are trying to perceive ourselves. We are in relationship only with “me.”
As believers, we were created to be in community—in relationship with God and others. Without community our hearts become cut off and will die. But for many, fear and anxiety create barriers to community. Caught in diseased introspection, we view community as a threat rather than a help in our becoming the person God wants us to be. We cannot become in a vacuum or in isolation. Being created in God’s Image, we have been created to know and be known by God and one another. Knowing God in our sin and our process are precursors to better enable us to be in community. When we are truly in community, we become less self-aware and better able to embrace a healthy, non-narcissistic love of self. In community is where we become all we can be!
In my own knowing of God, I lean into Him for my source of security and identity. As I have grown in my knowledge of Him, what the Father thinks of me has taken precedence over what others think about me, real or perceived. If someone places a label on me due to my past, it doesn’t stick because I know how the Father and my Beloved define me. If someone rejects me because of my past, I choose to see it as an opportunity that they are missing! In knowing Jesus and having my identity come from Him, I can better relate to others out of a place of giving rather than expectation.
There was a season where, after Sunday church service, I experienced repeated disappointment as people rushed off. I wanted to be invited to lunch and felt rejection. I began to allow this to become toxic within me and the Lord, as He is faithful to do, intervened by speaking His healing word. He said “Bob, how about you ask others to lunch instead of waiting to be asked? How can you be My Image bearer to another?” The previous perspective focused on introspection about me. My new perspective focused me on thinking how I could be a blessing to others.
The Body of Christ is not perfect. Being in relationship means hurt will be experienced. We are iron sharpening iron and must walk in the state of forgiveness in order to be in community. Jesus was hated and despised by the very ones He came to save. He knew how to walk in a community which could be overwhelmingly hostile to Him. I believe that Jesus also walked with loneliness. In His singleness, He learned how to process His aloneness. Those of us who walk in the state of singleness need to know Him in this place of loneliness. Being married does not alleviate loneliness but singles face a more difficult challenge. Get to know the One who, being the most whole and complete Person to walk this earth, did so in His singleness.
What holds you back from entering into community? Do you know how the Lord see and defines you?
Just knowing Him
Here we get to the bottom line. We must be intentional in our pursuit to know God. There are many ways through which we come to know others in our lives. The common denominator in is the factor of time. The way we spend time together—the things we do and places we go—will vary from person to person. I have a close friend whom I haven’t seen in over three years but we talk on a regular basis. Time spent together is crucial to the development of relationships. It is the same regarding our relationship with God.
Unfortunately, time is a precious commodity which seems to escape like fine sand through our fingers. There is a deluge of competitors for the use our time. In these days of Twitter and Facebook, cell phones and Blackberries, we leave status updates, voice messages and send short texts rather than meet with someone face-to-face. Why is it so difficult to get quality time with God when we have the fastest possible wireless connection with Him? Carving out time to spend with God requires prioritization and discipline.
I believe journaling is an amazing venue to get to know God but it may not work for everyone. When do you feel the closest to God? When do you most sense His Presence? Through what means does God seem to communicate with you? Whatever the way you clearly perceive God and His will for your life, increase that activity. Intentionally pursue Him in the ways you find yourself most aligned with His leading. Make it a priority, perhaps even scheduling it on your Google calendar!
Everything in the life of the believer is sacred. There is nothing secular because we are always carrying the Image of Christ and His fragrance in a world of death. I love Oswald Chamber’s January 1 reading from My Utmost for His Highest: “Shut out every other thought and keep yourself before God in this one thing only— my utmost for His highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and Him alone.” It is truly a spiritual battle we face each day. Get to know the wonderful and amazing Triune God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer—you will become and you will overcome.
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
-Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne
This little nugget of Pooh-inspired wisdom seems out of sync with the frenetic world that we live in today. Our lives are often overwhelmed by appointments, busy schedules and to-do lists as we are distracted and pulled to meet the demands of a 24/7 culture. This constant and fast pace also spills over into our personal struggles as well. We look for the quick fixes to address the issues which plague our Christian walks. We are restless in our search for the correct “knowledge” hoping it will help us overcome whatever Goliath we are facing.
GOING DOWN THE RIVER
When I reflect on my own life journey, which contains its fair share of struggles, the picture of a river often comes to my mind. Sometimes I have been tossed about in its rapids, sometimes gently carried along on still waters. Thankfully, the Lord has routinely and graciously identified to me specific areas of personal need through the working of the Holy Spirit. At times, I have allowed side streams to pull me from the Holy Spirit’s direction. But His faithfulness brought revelation and a healing word which once again diverted me back into the current of His River, the course that He desired for me to follow. The Lord usually did this by refocusing me on a particular area or concept I had learned earlier but which during my journey had somehow lost awareness.
This past year the Lord’s consistent word to me has been to rest. I am grateful for His continual encouragement to me especially in light of recent events which have included an earthquake, hurricane, surgery, and financial uncertainties. It reminds me of Elijah’s similar experiences in the cave facing the awesomeness of nature, before he discerned the gentle whisper of God (1 Kings 19). But these experiences, as intense and powerful as they seem to me, are actually superficial in comparison to the deeper knowledge He desires for me to acquire. The reality God wants for me as I journey through this life is to be totally at rest at the very core of my being. This rest is not a self attained rest, however. It is a rest which only comes from Him. But, can I truly rest in Him for every area in my life? Can I release all control, floating in the currents of His River wherever it may take me, even if I struggle daily to be pure in thought and deed?
STRUGGLING IN THE CURRENTS
In this 21st century world, there is so much societal pressure to accomplish that we often lose the ability to just “be.” We measure those around us by what they have acquired. There is nothing inherently wrong in working toward financial security, or receiving awards for accomplishments, or pursuing higher learning. But often the flow of our capacity “to do” can get caught in the stream of striving. It is fine “to do” something but when we have to “strive” toward something it usually entails toil, struggle, and strenuous effort. Again, these do not necessarily have to be negative things. But when we are so diverted, we’re then pulled out of our capacity “to be” and into the current of restless activism. We are no longer at rest, no longer able to be still. We begin to thrash about in the river of life and can lose our bearings.
In Acts 17:28 Paul is quoted as saying “For in Him we live and move and have our being”. Paul consistently uses the preposition “in” throughout his letters to make the point that our identity as believers is found totally in Christ (see Romans 6:11, Gal 2.20, Col 3:3). The fullness of the men and women we are called to be is rooted in our capacity to grasp this truth. Because He is, I am. Because He is, I can be. All of the aspects of our life are to rest in Jesus.
For those who understand what Jesus has done for them and have accepted Him as their Savior and Lord, the question arises: “Is there anything we can do to make ourselves more righteous?” The obvious answer is no. Our righteousness totally and completely rests on and in the righteous of Jesus.
To go a step further we can ask, “Is there anything we can do to make ourselves more holy?” Again, no. Our holiness is found solely in Christ. Our “doing” does not make us holy for He alone can make us holy. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day wrongly believed holiness was gained through “holy doing.” But Hebrews 10:10 clearly shows us we have nothing to do with achieving holiness: “And by [God’s] will we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.”
Going a step further, the next question we may ask, “Is there anything we can do to make ourselves more pure?” When I have posed this question to groups, quite interestingly the usual response I receive is yes! But if our righteousness and holiness are found only in Christ, how then can we make ourselves more pure? Our capacity to be pure must be grounded only in Christ. Jesus alone is our righteousness, holiness, and purity. We can do nothing to achieve these qualities in and of ourselves. How many people have we seen fail when they try to do so? To try and achieve righteousness, holiness, and purity through our own doing is like paddling a canoe against the river’s flow. We grow weary and tired as we strive to get where we want to go. Yet, if we rest in Jesus’ accomplishments on our behalf, it is as if Jesus IS the boat! We are able to sit back and rest in Him, allowing Him to take us where we need to go.
STAYING IN THE BOAT
God indeed calls us to be holy, pure, and to live righteously. In our true selves, our identity found and grounded in Jesus, these qualities are already present in us. Jesus wants and desires for us to experience holiness and purity as a reality in our lives. But we deceive ourselves if we believe there is anything we can do in and by our own strength to attain these qualities.
Once we accept what Christ has done for us and make Him Lord of our life, then holiness, righteousness and purity are ours. If we do not rest in knowing these qualities are found in who we are in Christ, then our focus turns outward and we begin to vainly strive to achieve them. God’s calling for us can only be lived out through our capacity of being and resting in Him. In his book “The Deeper Journey”, author Robert Mulholland’s stated “the Pharisees were in the world for God rather than being in God for the world.” We need to be in God to truly bear His Image for the world, living a life of integrity and serving in love.
Living in this age of “self-awareness” and “self-help”, we often think we’ve identified problems in our lives and in so doing come up with the solutions we feel will achieve success. However, the solutions we choose cannot possibly work. Why? Because the problem is we don’t know what the problem really is! We have failed to ask ourselves the right questions, and so are unable to see the real issues at hand. We rely on our own understanding and knowledge. As we continue on our journey, we are tempted to stand up in the boat and pick up an oar so we can direct ourselves to where we think we need to go. Anyone who has stood up in a canoe while going down a fast river knows what usually happens— you fall out!
When we are faced with challenges to be holy and pure, we typically focus on looking for solutions through doing something rather than being somebody. Therein lies the problem. Our solution becomes focused on outward behavior modification. We ask ourselves what we can do to make
ourselves holy and pure. But the right question to ask is “Why am I stepping out of my identity in Jesus?” “Why am I feeling tempted to not stand as a holy and pure man or woman?” The issue is not identifying “what can I do?” but “what is causing me to forget who I am in Christ Jesus?”
Regarding the issue of purity, the true goal in becoming pure is not found in mere behavior modification. Embracing Christian virtues goes beyond moralistic behavior changes but also involves addressing the desires of the heart. Many who allow their heart’s desires to be expressed unfortunately end up in sinful, sexual behaviors. The result for people who go down that stream is they can experience a state of fear and the total shutting down of their hearts.
In his book Journey of Desire John Eldredge writes: “the goal of morality is not morality – it is ecstasy. You were intended for pleasure.” God created us to experience pleasure and ecstasy but when we choose sinful behaviors, we cut off our hearts which leads to the death of good desire. God does not want us to be the frozen chosen, cut off from our hearts through behavioral control. He desires for us to know ecstatic freedom at a deep heart level.
Noted Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller tells us God is not after a morally restrained heart but a supernaturally changed one. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed being pure in heart results in our capacity to see God. Jesus is making an appeal to the heart. Purity is not just a cognitive concept but a joint reality continually chosen and embraced within the heart. In Matthew 15:11 and 18-20 Jesus imparts to us the wisdom that it is not what comes out of the mouth which makes us unclean but what comes from the heart. Embracing purity involves the deep places of the heart. It involves intentional pursuit of deep intimacy with our Beloved and resting in Him.
Resting in our purity in Christ is expressed with the outward results of living a life of purity. Purity in behavior is the result of being inwardly tried in our hearts – choosing Jesus or someone/ something else – and choosing to turn toward Him. Each challenge to choose impurity is an opportunity for us to stand in our identity of who we are in Christ. Do we see it as opportunity for becoming who God wants us to be or will these challenges be the means for our defeat? Philippians 4:13 states “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Will you rest in Him, in your true identity as a saint, or will you choose to sin, stepping out of the boat and hoping your feeble strength will bring you to shore?
THE HOLY SPIRIT AS CAPTAIN
We need the deep work of the Holy Spirit in our souls. If Jesus is the boat that we rest in, then the Holy Spirit is our captain. It
is He who guides us along our journey and transforms us to be more like Christ who was perfectly holy, righteous and pure. Our purity originates in Jesus but it is also a virtue, a desirable quality of great worth. It involves the inward realignment of our passions with God’s. It involves having our inner wills submitted to the Cross of Jesus.
To embrace an outward life of purity we need to have an intentional, inward pursuit of knowing Him intimately in relationship. It always is outward change resulting through inward knowing and becoming. My motivation for living a life of purity is found in my relational love for Jesus, not because it is the “right” thing to do.
Oswald Chambers writes in the July 26 entry of My Utmost for His Highest, “Purity is too deep down for me to get naturally: but when the Holy Spirit comes in, He brings into the centre of my personal life the very Spirit that was manifested in the life of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, which is unsullied purity.” Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal what causes you to forget who you are in Jesus. Ask Him to manifest Jesus in your heart. Ask Jesus to strengthen you in your inner being.
We can be at rest knowing God is faithful to meet our every need and will enable us to live a life of integrity. We do not need to feel driven, seeking to accomplish and always “doing”, but we can live a life that is fulfilled through knowing Jesus. Look to Jesus to identify the real problems in your life. Ride on your Heavenly Father’s river, in the safety of His Son and guided by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:6 says “And God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”. It has already been done for us. Be at rest.
Knowing what you’re living for is always more powerful than knowing what you’re living against. Most Christians don’t seem to know this or live this way. They might say they’re living “for God,” but press them further and they may not be able to define what that means..
I’m increasingly aware of how important this is in the area of sexuality. Culturally, Christians have lost their voice because they can only say what they are against. And why are they against what they’re against? Because what they’re against will produce other things they’re against. More out of wedlock sex will mean more STD’s and more abortion and more single-parent homes. Legalizing gay marriage will mean kids growing up without a mom and a dad and further erosion to the institution of marriage in general. Wider pornography use will mean more promiscuity and more sexual addiction and more degradation of women.
On an individual level, men and women come to Regeneration primarily focused on what they want to stop so they can avoid more negative consequences. Worthwhile reasons, all. And it’s true—sin produces problems, chaos, and brokenness. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death. Who wants that? But as a motivator none of this is as powerful as knowing what sexuality is for. If sex isn’t just for momentary pleasure, what is it for? And since sexual desires are so strong, why did God make us sexual creatures?
In the beginning, God gathered together dust from the earth. He packed it. He shaped it. He patiently and skillfully fashioned the first man (Genesis 2:7). Think of an artist working with clay, shaping and molding it, examining it closely with his eyes and fingers until it is as he imagined. In the same way, God formed man—his head, hair, eyes, eyelashes, face, nose, mouth, voice, chest, arms, elbows, fingers, abdomen, genitals, legs, feet, toes, bones, skin, heart, lungs, veins, cells, DNA—all a joyful labor of love. This creature and this creature alone, in His image (Genesis 1:26, 27).
But the man wasn’t a living being until God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. Once He did, the man became a living being. Catch the order, don’t miss the importance. First, God created the earth. Then God formed man’s body of the earth.
Then God moved . . .
up close to
He breathed His breath into the man’s body. You could think CPR here, but that wasn’t quite it. It didn’t have that urgent, life-saving, EMT-at-work feel to it. No, there was more love in it. More purpose. More lingering. Much more like . . . a kiss.
God was giving His life to the man. He was sharing His Spirit, sharing Himself, with man. Think of it. When God created man, He created him to have within himself something of God’s essence. He created man to be in union with Himself. Always. As God leans in and gives of Himself to man, God made man both body and spirit. Not just body and not just spirit, but both.
Back to what sexuality is for: God is love, and being love God shares Himself with us. Not impersonally. Not mass-produced. Not distantly. But personally. Intimately. Vulnerably. Like a kiss. Like sex.
Man’s very being—this union of body and spirit—speaks the story of God’s gift of Himself to us. Our creation and our existence is meant to remind us of His love for us.
God created us for our own sakes, in total generosity . . . so that we might experience God’s self-giving love. Gift. All is gift. If we let this truth sink in, it changes everything.
(Christopher West, The Love that Satisfies)
SEX AND MARRIAGE
Sex between husband and wife is intended by God to further reveal His heart toward us.
God’s intent for us has been oneness with Himself since the beginning of time. And Christ has come for us. Have you ever considered that Scripture begins with a wedding (Adam and Eve) and ends with a wedding (Christ and the Church)? And sex was intended to point us to this, His great love for us. This does not mean that God wants to have sex with us. God is not a sexual being. But it does mean that sexuality points to a greater union with God—an eternal union, an eternal “naked and unashamed” union with the One who knows us best of all and loves us thoroughly.
Man and woman together bear God’s image on the earth. Men can hold their heads high knowing that they possess within the very fabric of their beings God’s image. Likewise, women can hold their heads high knowing they possess within the fabric of their beings God’s image in a way unlike any other created thing on the earth. But to most adequately bear God’s image on the earth, man needs woman and woman needs man.
Man and woman are distinct and different, yet they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, 6). God gives Himself to us, shares Himself with us to be joined with us. Yet He remains distinct from us. We are not God and He is not mere man. Through our bodies as male and female, our sexual differences express the Lord’s loving commitment to us. A man with another man or a woman with another woman cannot express this bodily as a husband and wife can within a loving and committed marriage.
God is self-giving love, and we are created from this love so that we can receive it and share it with others. The real epiphany comes when we realize that an image of this “great mystery” is stamped in our very bodies! Sexual difference is the most concrete expression of “gift” in the created world.“
(Christopher West, The Love that Satisfies)
This is why Paul writes in Ephesians 5:28 – 33a:
So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church., because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave His father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
The very fact of man and woman’s original glory in the area of sex and gender (including masculinity, femininity, sexual desire, intimacy, pregnancy, childrearing, family) is why the enemy so ferociously attacks these things.
The union between a man and his wife is meant to bear the image of Christ and the church. This doesn’t mean Christ will have sex with the church, or that Christ intends to be sexual with us. Rather, it means that sex itself is meant to tell us something about how Christ loves us. Is it any wonder that the enemy would attack marriage? If marriage is in ruins, what will we see of Christ’s love and faithfulness for His bride, the church?
Consider for a moment the common idea that men are aroused visually. What might this tell us about how we bear God’s image? Since He fashioned men this way, could it be God is trying to tell us something about how He feels toward us— that perhaps while we were yet far off from Him, He saw us, desired us, and came running quickly to us? That He would move heaven and earth to get to us, even to rescue us? (cf 1 John 4:19)
What about how men and women are typically sexually aroused? It’s been said that foreplay for a man takes a matter of seconds, but for a woman it begins with how her husband treats her in the kitchen that morning. Do you see God’s image in each? Through men, could it be God wants us to know that His desire for us is ignited easily? That when we reveal ourselves (our hearts, our needs, our bodily struggles) to Him, His love is aroused and He comes quickly to us? And through woman, could it be God wants us to know His desire is to be sought after—that He is not after our ecstatic, fleeting pursuit, but His love is stirred as we pursue Him alone?
Or consider for a moment how God has designed the sexual act between husband and wife. Why did he choose sex as the means to bring about human life? What might He want you to know about how He felt about creating you? Was it a chore or something He longed for with all His heart?
In the marital union, a wife’s trust and willingness emboldens her husband. As she responds to him, he is drawn all the more to her. How does God respond when we are caught by His power, His life, His love? He is not unmoved. And in pregnancy, a wife expresses the glory of God as she carries new life within her womb. The image of a pregnant mother is an intimate, tender picture for us of God’s utter, personal and intimate commitment to each of us (see Isaiah 46:3 – 4, John 15: Galatians 4:19, Colossians 3:2 – 4, 1 John 4:16.)
SEX, SINGLENESS AND WAITING
What about men and women who are not married, including those who never marry? Do they bear God’s image? They most certainly do. For those who are abstinent (whether as singles wanting to marry, singles committed to life-long celibacy for the sake of serving Christ, and those abstaining for a time within marriage), waiting mirrors our waiting for our ultimate connection with God. The wedding of the Lamb is coming but has not yet come. The Bride is still making herself ready.
Every one of us longs for greater connection, greater intimacy with God. We have tastes of our ultimate union with Him, but that union is not yet completely fulfilled. We are in between the times—Christ’s Kingdom has come and it is coming. He is with us now. But, as Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We are invited to wait. We get to wait.
Stop for a moment as you read. Feel the air around your body. Breathe in and breathe out. He is here with you right now. Closer than the air around you. Closer than the air you breathe. And He yearns for you. There are times we feel Him. There are other times we do not.
Some throughout the ages (and certainly in our present age) falter here and turn with a sense of irritation, even anger, at God: A lot of good that does me! I’m lonely! My flesh is crying out for touch, yet I can’t see, hear, or feel God!
He is not holding out on you. He is not dispassionately aloof. He knows the ache you feel. Again, remember, sex is meant to speak to us about God’s love for us. And God asks you to wait. Why is that? Perhaps it is because He waits for you.
Why do you think God chose such a powerful force as sex to speak to you about His love for you? Could it be because He is passionately desiring you, all of you? He is. And so we wait. We wait for the culmination of the ages when Christ will return, when we’ll be united with our Bridegroom. And likewise, we learn to wait sexually for when and only when we can have sex as God ordained: Between one man and one woman in the bounds of marriage, sex offered as a selfless gift of love from each to the other. In so doing, we come to bear the image of God in our sexuality.
SEX, DESIRE AND DIGNITY
And so we do not look upon our bodies as foul, filthy things, but as bearers of God’s image. And we do not look upon sex or our sexual desires as shameful, dirty things. They are worth more than we have yet imagined. They speak the story in language that extends beyond words. They bear the image of God’s love to us in a profound way. Or, they were meant to. Christ came that they would again.
And so humbly, gratefully, and in awe, we walk with dignity, treating our bodies with honor. And so we look upon and treat others’ bodies—those of men and women—with humility, dignity and honor as well. This is worth living for, fighting for, and dying for. Christ did. His body naked, beaten and marred beyond description. Pierced and broken to rescue our bodies— including our sexuality—for God’s great love.
We weren’t just made to run away and cower from sexual sin. We weren’t just made for sexual sobriety or restrictive morality. We were made to reveal God’s self-sacrificing love through our bodies—yes, through our sexual bodies. Is it any wonder the enemy fights so hard against sexual purity? The real wonder is why on earth we wouldn’t fight more.
This holiday season, as we move toward and celebrate the incarnation of Christ, let’s revel in how He has rescued back the dignity of our bodies through is birth, life, death and resurrection. As we join ourselves with God, just as He has always intended, we can overcome.
By Jeff Johnston
When I was in college, I began to notice my struggles with pornography and sexual acting out would intensify right at the end of the first school semester, around the middle of December. I also saw that this seemed to be true for others as well. People in my support group would struggle more over the holidays, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
Later, after I was married, Judy and I lived in an apartment in San Diego, where we drove past a pornographic bookstore on our way home each day. I noticed that the parking lot of the store seemed to get busier during the holidays. I thought to myself, either a lot of people do their Christmas shopping there (looking for that perfect stocking stuffer?), or there is just more sexual activity going on. As I thought about this and talked to group members, there seemed to be a regular season struggle for many people.
I felt saddened that our sexual struggles intensified at Christmas – a season of the incarnation of Christ, a time of hope and celebration. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that people would struggle more during the holidays. I’ll explain some of the reasons why I think this is so, then I’ll discuss some things we can do to prepare for this struggle – forewarned is forearmed! Most of you will receive this letter in early November, right before the holiday season. Now is the time to plan ahead.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Charles Dickens’ familiar story, A Christmas Carol, tells about Ebenezer Scrooge – a bitter miser, who receives a visit on Christmas Eve from four ghosts. The first ghost, his recently deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, comes wrapped in chains that he forged during his life – chains of greed and covetousness. Marley warns Ebenezer that three more ghosts will come on the next three nights. So the unbelieving Ebenezer is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
With the visit of these three ghosts, Dickens taps into something that is psychologically brilliant. Christmas is such a powerful time of year because of all the symbols associated with it. The sights, smells, sounds and sensations of the season resonate within us to evoke powerful memories of all our past celebrations. If we carry unresolved events from a past Christmas – as Scrooge does, with the breakup of his engagement – we will be reminded of them at this time of year.
I remember one group member who had been molested by an older cousin every holiday season for 13 years. Each Christmas, his whole body would remember the pain he felt. A friend of mine experienced a painful romantic breakup at Christmas. Each Christmas was another reminder of his loss, his singleness and his loneliness. Another friend associates the holidays with her father’s drinking and verbal abuse. Christmas brings her memories of fear and hatred, of dysfunctional family gatherings.
Like so many ghosts haunting us, we carry the memories of past holidays. As we hear the Christmas carols and see the lights and trees, the pain and tension of unresolved issues comes back. If we have learned to comfort ourselves with masturbation, to escape with pornography, or to simulate intimacy and connection through anonymous sexual encounters, we will be more tempted to act out at this time of year. Many sexually addicted people also have other addictions – food, drugs, spending, television, sleep – these also may become unmanageable over the holidays.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
When I was struggling with my sexuality as a college student, part of the stress and tension I felt was due to the school calendar – our semester ended only a week or two before Christmas. So right up until Christmas I would be studying for finals, finishing research projects and scrambling to complete assignments I had procrastinated on until the last possible minute. The semester would end, I would have extra time on my hands; and very often I would “just happen to end up” at a place where I could get into trouble.
Two things were going on here. First, I was not very good at handling stress and pressure; and my urge to act out was fed by my stress. Second, in a weird kind of way, I would “reward” myself after a long period of hard work at school. I would binge on work, while my body craved pleasure and connection. Then I would feed the craving through sexual activity, instead of giving myself more healthy pleasure throughout the semester.
My point is this, if you have current stress in your life, you will be more tempted to escape through sinful sexual activity, if that is your pattern. And at Christmas, our stresses are multiplied. Let me list a few extra pressures that many of us feel over the holidays.
First is the general busyness of the season. There are cookies to bake, parties to attend, Christmas specials to watch on TV, presents to buy and last year’s fruitcake to pass along. Then there are money issues – should I go ahead and charge more presents, when I’m still paying for last year’s gifts?
Family pressures may also be part of the problem. I may be expected to attend numerous family functions with people who have hurt me in some way, or who expect me to behave like I used to – not recognizing all the growth in my life, wanting me to fall into old, unhealthy patterns of relating.
We may also carry an image in our head of what we want our Christmas to be – some sort of marriage between Martha Stewart, Hallmark and Normal Rockwell. When the reality falls short and disappoints, the temptation to act out will arise. The idyllic mental picture of what Christmas should be only brings into sharper focus our own loneliness and struggles.
Let me interject here a word to parents and spouses of strugglers. Christmas will bring about the same sort of stress and tension for you, too. If you have a son or daughter who is gay or lesbian, Christmas will be a time of grieving and mourning the loss of your hopes and dreams for your child. There are the added questions of how to treat your child’s partner. For a spouse who has been betrayed, there will be anger and bitterness to work through. Don’t expect to go on this year as if everything were the same as it was before.
The Ghost of Christmas Future
After Scrooge faces the terror of the Ghost of Christmas Future, he realizes that all three ghosts have visited in one night. He still has a chance of redemption, of changing his life and being saved. In the same way, each new Christmas – with all the stress and temptation – can become an opportunity for us to grow and change. There are many things we can do to prepare for the holidays; here are a few practical ideas:
1. Plan Ahead! Defense mechanisms are God-given ways of coping with stress and pain. We got into trouble when our defense mechanisms are unhealthy or inappropriate. Planning – or anticipation – is actually a higher level defense mechanism. It involves looking ahead at upcoming difficulties and mapping out a response.
2. Connect with People. Many support groups shut down over the holidays. I’ve had group members plan social events with other strugglers, when they know they will be lonely and vulnerable. Find safe places and people to hook up with. The book Safe People, available through Regeneration Books, gives excellent teaching on what kind of people are safe and how we can connect with them.
3. Spend Time with God. You feel lonely? You think Jesus doesn’t know what it feels like to be lonely? Ask Him about it. Tell Him what you are going through. When we want to act out, many of us shut God out, instead of bringing Him into our struggle. Spend time worshiping and giving thanks, even if you don’t feel like it. And if you find it difficult to worship and pray alone, ask people to worship and pray with you. Pray for others you know who struggle.
4. Give. Scrooge learns from the Ghost of Christmas Present about the desperate poverty in the world. There are many opportunities to give at this time of year. My Home Group used to throw a party for foster kids – cooking them dinner, buying them gifts, decorating cookies with them. It was a way for us to get our minds off ourselves and focus on others.
5. Rest. You don’t have to be working on recovery all the time – give yourself a break from reading books on healing and working on your “issues”. It’s okay to say “no” to a party to stay home by yourself with a video (G-rated, of course) or a good book. Do something that nurtures your soul.
6. Start New Traditions. If the past holds pain and grief, begin to re-symbolize Christmas by starting a new tradition. When we lived in San Diego, Judy and a friend would find a “Messiah” sing-along to participate in each year. We try to attend midnight Christmas Eve service together. Friends of ours bake a birthday cake for Jesus each year (angel food cake, of course).
If “the most wonderful time of the year” isn’t that great for you, begin to think now about what you will do differently, this year. Pick one or two ideas from this list and put them to practice.
And as Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”
(Originally printed in Regeneration News, November 1999)
Jeff Johnston, a former Regeneration director, now works as an Analyst in the Gender Issues Department for Focus on the Family’s
Government and Public Policy Division. firstname.lastname@example.org