What is new in our time are two things. First, in just a short generation’s time our culture has kicked to the curb sexual boundaries and beliefs that have guided the human race for millennia. It’s breath-taking how almost overnight our culture has exchanged time-tested moral values for what truly is a pre-Christian, pagan view of human sexuality not seen since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.
The second shocking change to come to our world right before our eyes is the tsunami of pornography that has literally overrun the world since the rise of the machines. It’s a sin-threat unlike any which Christians have faced, perhaps ever. And we are not doing well in facing it.
Like a tsunami, this sexual sea change has literally overwhelmed us all, its impact being felt on every part of society – most painfully in the home and church.
Now that the tsunami has hit, most of us are walking around trying to figure out what just happened and how to react to it. Our first reflex when we encounter the porn addict or the millennial with LGBT sympathies may be to respond with simplistic moralism. This is raw sin – repent and be done with it. But that response is like handing a mop to a dazed survivor standing in the rubble of what was once his or her house and saying, “It’s just some water – start cleaning it up.” For a pastor to take that approach with a parishioner, or a husband or wife with their spouse, or the parent with a teen, is to miss the deeper reality behind it all.
Our world has dramatically changed, and if ever there were a time for the Church to shake off its stupor and courageously speak up about God’s design for sexuality, it’s now.
How Should We Respond?
As a pastor knowing what’s happening out there in our pews, I have agonized over how best to minister in this brave, new, corrupt world of ours. There is such a fine-line to be walked. Take a heavy-handed approach and we may suddenly find our church boards and worship teams emptying. We’ll also prevent people from coming forward to seek help, and inadvertently drive many into the closet of hypocrisy.
Yet leniency risks appealing to the debased heart that is always looking for any excuse to cover up its failings. God gives us grace, not to excuse our sin but to overcome it, that we might learn to live “self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
It’s my observation that the Church’s response to our society’s sexual disintegration has tended toward the extremes. Theologically-liberal churches downplay it as they do most of the Bible’s sexual ethics, and shift right along with culture. Meanwhile too many theologically-conservative churches ignore the problem altogether, or relegate sex-talk to the youth groups, or to a secretive support group that meets early on Saturday morning in the church basement.
But with so many of our people struggling, and with Hollywood and the media driving the cultural conversation about sexuality at light-speed into unbiblical directions, it’s past time for us to bring holy conversations about human sexuality front and center in church life.
The time has come to offer dedicated purity training.
First, the sheer number of Christians who are struggling in these areas demands it.
Take porn usage for example. When I look out at my church, I know that virtually every young person out there who has grown up with digital technology already has a heart and mind awash with pornographic images. It would be naïve to think otherwise. Meanwhile, move up the age-ladder and the percentages of those who are struggling with porn or bear its scars go down only slightly.
Secondly, there are different levels of struggle that occur in our hearts.
Jesus said, He who commits a sin becomes a slave of sin. But not all chains are of the same thickness. The person settled into a gay relationship will require a different conversation than the teen confused about their sexual identity. The college kid hooked on porn will need a different approach than the 40-year-old with a laptop loaded up with child porn. The twenty-something couple oblivious to why their living together is wrong will need a different talk than the married man who’s just confessed to an affair.
“Correct, rebuke and encourage,” Paul counseled Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). Some need a pep-talk. Some need a pop in the jaw. Some need a prison cell. There is no one-size-fits all prescription for addressing sexual sin in our congregations.
Thirdly: if all we do to address this issue is ‘bring the thunder’, we risk skewing how sex and sexuality is perceived by our people.
I knew of a young woman who was so inundated with stern and negative messages about sex growing up that when she got married, she found it almost impossible to relate to her husband sexually and enjoy one of the greatest gifts of love that God created for her.
And finally, without true purity training, we can never come to real freedom.
Loading up our devices with porn filters, signing up for accountability programs, or vowing never to go to an R-rated movie or on a business trip alone may all be needed steps in a person’s recovery. But let’s not pretend this is freedom. Freedom is the ability to walk through the flames of our sex-crazed culture and not get burned. Freedom is to learn how – as Paul said to Timothy – to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
The challenge facing followers of Christ here and now is: how do we walk in holiness and joy in this 21st-century, high-tech Corinth? Is it even possible?
Our Two Biggest Obstacles
One of the epiphanies God gave me in my own struggle for sexual wholeness is that humans must contend with two huge obstacles: we have both a sin nature and an untrained nature. Both must be overcome.
My Sin Nature
First, I cave in to temptation because there is something seriously defective about my heart. I have a sin nature. Because of this, I am quite literally wired for sin. The Bible doesn’t have much good to say about our pre-converted state. Our spirits are “dead”, our minds are “darkened” and “ignorant”, our hearts are “hard”, our eyes are “blind” (but other than being blind, deaf, dumb and dead, we’re not in too bad of shape.)
Coming to Christ leads to being “born again” which is more than a legal fiction. In Christ, my spiritual nature comes to life, and God then provides an abundance of spiritual weaponry and nourishment to keep that part of me growing and strong (things such as his Word, and prayer, and fellowship, and a banquet table of spiritual gifts, fruits and disciplines.)
My Untrained Nature
But I also sin because I’ve picked up a mess of bad habits over the years. I also have an untrained nature. What this means is that while my unholy behavior is surely to be repented of and forsaken, it is also to be unlearned. Jesus invites us to “learn from him” in order to find rest for our weary souls (Matthew 11:29).
Countless Christians go to church weekly, read their Bibles daily, pray continually – they check all the spiritual boxes – but still they stumble and don’t know why. Chances are good they are neglecting the training side of things. If you were lazy, hedonistic, sloppy, or selfish before you came to Christ, all of these traits will come with you across the line of faith.
Jesus is not a magic pill you take that makes all your problems go away without you having to do anything. Becoming a Christian does not mean that you get to kick back on a spiritual hammock while the angels bring you pina coladas. Paul – knowing he was saved by grace through faith alone – said, “I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In a manner of speaking, to be free you’ll have to do that with your body and mind also.
There’s something comforting about the fact that the Bible uses the word training to describe the process of growing in holiness. When Paul told Timothy to train himself for godliness, he used the Greek word gumnadzo that has to do with the physical training one acquires in the gym.
Training by its very nature suggests a rigorous process of fits and starts, of two steps forward and one step back. Anyone who has taken up weightlifting or piano lessons understands how training works. Through practice, repetition, trial and error, and falling on your face more times than you can count, you are virtually rewiring your brain and strengthening your muscles in a way that enables you to do things that weren’t possible for you before.
The same process that allows you to master a language or run a marathon applies to learning how to resist porn, or to keep your head and heart on straight when you’re dating, or to stay faithful in your marriage.
How This 40-Day Journey Can Help You
Throughout this book, I’ll be your trail guide on a journey that Jesus took me on more than twenty years ago to bring me to sexual wholeness. Though my struggle was with porn, these principles will help you no matter where sexual temptation strikes you. What follows are forty short readings that summarize the lessons and skills that I learned.
Everything Jesus showed me are things I must still be vigilant to practice. My sin nature is still operational. And though my body, mind and heart are trained and strong, I must “keep up the conditioning” for the moment I stop, is the moment I start getting weaker (anyone who has exercised regularly understands this.)
This 40-day journey is divided into six weekly segments.
Week One: How Should We Think About Sex?
We’ll start the journey by talking about our attitudes and beliefs about sex. If we don’t line up our thinking about sex with the way God thinks about sex then we’ll stumble before we even begin. Having a proper “theology of sexuality” means we get our thinking right before we get our actions right.
Week Two: Why Should I Bother Fighting For Sexual Wholeness?
During this week of readings we’ll explore the relationship of the Gospel – the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection – to the fight for purity. Too many see holiness as something for “extra credit”. But a proper understanding of the Gospel provides one of the greatest motivations for purity that exists. The ideas we’ll discuss in week 2 have helped me over the years more than anything else.
Week Three: Learning To Master My Sin Nature
In this week, I share some blunt details of how my sin nature really kicked into gear when puberty arrived. Then we’ll look with fresh eyes at how some of the foundational practices of our faith such as Bible reading, prayer and fellowship can make a difference in bringing us to freedom.
Week Four: Learning To Master My Untrained Nature
A human being is a mystifying composite of heart, emotions, will, mind and body. And each area must be conditioned and trained if we are to win the battle for holiness. For example, new research into brain science adds incredibly useful insight into how we can break habits that are hurting us.
Week Five: One Man’s Fight For Purity – The Story Of Augustine
Augustine was a famous 4th-century saint. What can we learn from such an old dude? Well, considering that he was basically a sex addict before his conversion, and considering that he wrote extensively about his struggles in a journal of his called Confessions, quite a lot. As we trace Augustine’s story, we’ll see how all the ideas raised in our forty day journey get lived out at street level. Reading Confessions in the midst of my own struggles changed my life.
Week Six: The Home Stretch
In our final readings, we’ll bring everything home and attempt to tie the journey together. In particular, we’ll discuss the importance of purity on singleness, on the home, and on marriage. And we’ll provide practical instruction on how to share “holy conversations” about sex with those you love and care for.
So there it is in a nutshell my friend. I pray that the Lord will draw your heart to join us on this journey, and give you the discipline to gut it out for the entire forty days. Something like freedom could be waiting for you on the other side.