Let’s face it: When it comes to the issue of sin, sexual sin is in a category all by itself. In the Bible, we see it overpowering the incredible strength of Samson, the unsurpassed wisdom of Solomon and even the godly passion of David. In our society, we see the emotional, physical and spiritual devastation resulting from pornography, adultery and sexual experimentation outside of marriage.
But honestly, most of us don’t need these evidences from Scripture and society to know the unique power of sexual sin. We see it in the lives of the people we lead. And many of us as leaders struggle to resist its pull. Even though we know it’s harmful and actively preach against it, our own failures haunt us. So, how can we defeat this sin in our lives and help our people experience freedom as well?
I wonder if the real problem is that we are focusing on the wrong question. When the primary question we are asking is, “How can I defeat this sin?” we end up unknowingly fostering a spiritual growth path that breeds self-effort, secrecy and shame. People may be trying hard to defeat this sin, but “trying hard” doesn’t seem to be working. They feel like failures yet are too afraid to admit that to anyone else.
Let me suggest three alternative questions I believe are far more helpful in our desire for genuine transformation in our own lives and the lives of those we lead.
1. What am I thirsty for?
In John 7:37, Jesus summarizes the essence of the spiritual life: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”
To talk about sin in terms of “thirst” changes the whole dynamic. Rather than continually scolding ourselves for our failures and making sincere promises to do better, we are invited to discover what it is we are truly thirsty for.
Rarely is a person’s pull toward Internet porn, for example, rooted in a physiological need for sex. We are thirsty for affirmation, for acceptance, for an escape from our loneliness: This beautiful woman (or handsome man) on the screen wants me. For a moment, I feel desirable, in control—but it leaves me thirsty again.
“If anyone hasn’t sinned for a while, they can come to Me and drink.” But that’s not what Jesus says.
One of the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves in this battle is, What am I really thirsty for? After all, sin is not simply defined as “doing bad things.” It is the tendency, deeply rooted in us, to try and satisfy our soul-thirsts with something other than Jesus. Identifying that soul-thirst helps us get below the surface of our struggle and experience genuine repentance in our real places of brokenness and need.
2. Where is Jesus in my struggle?
The invitation of Jesus in John 7:37 is a significantly different invitation from what most Christians embrace. At the depth of our being, we often retranslate Jesus’ words: If anyone hasn’t sinned for a while, they can come to Me and drink. But that’s not what Jesus says. His invitation is to the thirsty, to those who find themselves looking for life apart from Him. In that thirst—not in spite of it but in it—we can drink deeply of Jesus. We can actually welcome His Presence into our struggle, into our sin.
For some, this is a radical and perhaps even offensive concept. Many Christians believe that Jesus distances Himself from us when we sin, turning His face away in disgust or disappointment—but is that really the message of the gospel?
When we experience Jesus’ mercy in our most shame-filled places, something powerful is unleashed.
When Jesus hung on the cross bearing our sin, He experienced God the Father turning His face away so that you and I wouldn’t ever have to experience that again. This means that even in our sin, Jesus never looks away in disgust. He invites us to welcome Him into our thirst, drinking deeply of His Spirit at any moment in time.
What would happen if we felt a freedom to welcome Jesus into a specific sexual struggle as it happened? Instead of living in the shame of repeated failure, perhaps we would more clearly hear His voice saying, I love you and will never leave you. You and I both know that this sexual experience won’t satisfy. I can fill your soul like nothing else can. Let’s go do something else.
His Presence is not condemning but instead brings life—into the very place we need it most.
3. Whom else have I invited into this battle?
When we experience Jesus’ mercy in the most shame-filled places of our lives, something powerful is unleashed in our relationships. We are freed to be real, to honestly admit our sexual struggle to a friend or colleague. It is this movement out of secrecy that dramatically robs the sin of its compulsive power.
There have been times in my own life when the downward spiral of lust was pulling at me relentlessly, and I was horrified at my powerlessness to resist. In those moments, I didn’t really care what I was thirsty for and had no desire to invite Jesus into my sin, but I did realize that my hidden-ness was killing me.
In desperation, I reluctantly shared with my wife or with a trusted friend about my struggle. The impact was immediate. I felt a weight lift from my soul as the shackles of secrecy were broken.
There is incredible power when we invite a few trusted friends into the battle with us—to pray for us, to ask hard questions, to extend grace and remind us that freedom is available.
A church culture of brokenness
Change happens best in an environment of authenticity and mercy—but we must be intentional about creating this atmosphere in our churches. When our teaching about holiness is filled with lots of to-dos and little mercy, we convey an underlying message: Don’t tell anyone about your struggle. Don’t admit your weakness. This message only drives the sin deeper.
The gospel communicates a completely different message: We are all big sinners in need of a big Savior. We never outgrow this truth, no matter how many seminary degrees we hold. At the end of his life, Paul joyfully admitted, “I am the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Perhaps spiritual maturity is not as much about sinning less as it is about seeing more clearly the depth of our need for Jesus. In that place of brokenness and need, we are truly free—free to experience Jesus, free to be real with others and free to embrace real change.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of EFCA Today, along with "It's Not Just About Men."