I first met Jim, a business professional in his mid-forties, as we happened to enter the door at the same time at my church. We introduced ourselves, exchanged greetings, and did some general chit-chat. It wasn't much beyond the typical, "Good morning, How are you?" but I did learn that Jim had been a member of the church for about 15 years.
I thought Jim might be someone to get to know. One morning I asked if he would like to have lunch sometime. He readily accepted and we made a lunch appointment.
A few weeks later at lunch, Jim began talking to me about his internet porn problems. Now it clicked as to why he had so readily accepted my invitation. So I took a deep breath, thinking, Okay, God, I'm Your man, he's Your man, and You own the time here. This is of You. I thanked Jim for sharing his story with me and tried to gently go deeper with a few probing questions.
"How long has all this been going on?" I asked.
"For about 10 years," he told me.
"How often?" I probed.
"Two or three times a week, for a few hours at a time," he confessed.
"Have you ever spoken with anyone about this?" I pressed on.
"Are you in a men's group in the church?"
"Does this issue ever come up there?"
"Would you ever be willing to bring it up and share your own situation?" I asked.
With a look of dread, I got a resounding, "Never."
As Jim went on talking, I was hit by how matter-of-fact, unemotional, and detached he seemed as he spoke. Eventually, he began to back-pedal, minimizing what he was doing—both its hold and its impact on him. I don't normally react quite this bluntly, but at one point I said, "Hold it! Right now, I hear addict-speak coming out of your mouth. You're in a worse state than you can imagine."
I went on to try to help him see the numbing effect of it all and how that was reflected even as he was talking to me. I tried to pursue it further, this time more gently, pointing out that he had become intoxicated by his own addiction. I stressed his need to do something redemptive to get out of the pit he had dug for himself. I talked about the heart-deadening, desensitizing impact of his years of routines, accumulated habits, silence, and isolation. Finally, I offered to get together with him again.
It's been over a year now and I'm still waiting. I don't think he'll be having lunch with me again anytime soon.
Even as I share this story it saddens me. While I was glad Jim opened up to me that one time, he was not convinced of the dangerous state of his heart and life. He was willing to confess to me, perhaps seeing me as someone "safe" to acknowledge his behavior to. He was somehow led to a moment of honesty. But he had not let his encounters with the gospel disrupt his soul. He still was invested in keeping up the pretense. As a result, he didn't yet have eyes to see what was happening in his heart and life.
"Holy" and "wholly" disruptions
Sometimes people confuse the act of admitting their problem with doing something positive about it. Yes, disclosing must be the first step, but it cannot and must not stop there. If it does, it can only give you a false sense of doing something positive. Blurting it all out isn't necessarily redemptive; it can serve a false purpose of just getting it off your chest.
Perhaps your own feelings of guilt and shame have led you momentarily to let someone in to your hidden world, but it's never gone further than that. The truth is, our nature is to flee and hide when it comes to our sin and the guilt and shame that accompany it.
In our ministry I always tell people (most often family members with someone in their lives who is a sexual train wreck) to pray for both a "holy" disruption and a "wholly" disruption orchestrated by God. By this I mean to pray for the friend or loved one to be "holy" disrupted by an awesome, mercy-driven encounter with the gospel, maybe like never before. By "wholly" disrupted, I mean to pray for circumstances to crumble and decay in their lives, so that they call out to God and others in desperation in a totally new way.
These kinds of prayers are really quite dangerous. Both ways of praying involve being disrupted by God on the road they're traveling; the former depends on God's mercy toward this person, while the latter involves the sovereign movement of God in the events of his life.
Let me give you an example. I know a man who was once in a 15-year committed gay relationship. Just a few days apart, his father was in an auto accident and his partner was in a boating accident. He spent the next month traveling between rehab centers, caring for the two men he best loved in his life. During this time he began to read a Bible that his partner's mother had given him some years before.
He'll tell you now, 20 years later, that in his Manhattan apartment, between his Marlboros and martinis, he found Jesus—or rather Jesus found him. This began a major disruption in his soul that led him to begin attending a local church. Soon he was converted.
This led to some amazing life changes as God began to get a hold of his heart and all its compartments. He later attended seminary and is now married—to a woman. The gospel had so disrupted him in some difficult and heart-sifting ways that he was changed by God's love and mercy just where God had found him.
Mercy is like that. It always is given in a discerning manner by the Giver, with the intentions of disrupting and eventually deterring someone from his current path.
When our hearts feel the first pull toward something that could lead to bad choices, we often think, "Oh no, not again." It's here that many men get caught off-guard, drop out, give up, and succumb. It's almost as if we're surprised, all over again, at the reality that "sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you" (Genesis 4:7).
I don't think this will ever change in this life. We can't forget that the pull of our hearts to go in bad directions is a normal part of day-to-day life—maybe even hour-to-hour! Let's get real. We won't ever escape the pull of our hearts toward sin on this earth. But we can learn that God provided the tools to deal with them and offers a way out before the temptations become destructive.
Open your heart
Are you tempted to throw in the towel, thinking there will never be any victory in your fight? Are you on the verge of settling into cynicism, not only believing that you'll never get over this, but becoming more tolerant of it, maybe beginning to believe the lie that says, "What's wrong with it?" One of the best things you can do is to be honest about that with God and a few trusted friends. Open your heart up to the Lord and to your friends. Let them know where you are tempted to despair and unbelief. Let God in on the confused and fatigued state of your heart. Start to "pray" your emotions, fears, and despair instead of stuffing them away or letting them explode and control you.
After all, most of us go to one of these extremes or the other. God can handle it, and so can some close friends—if they are the right kind of friends!
What can give us the hope to believe that God still can and still wants to do something amazing with our struggles and with sexual sin? It has to be based on how we believe that because of Jesus, God sees us not as we are right now but as we're going to be. Our record of temptations and failures is wiped away, leaving only a future. God knows what kind of people we are!
But part of our problem is that we fail to see ourselves in a true light. We tend toward all-or-nothing thinking. We either see ourselves as beyond repair and redemption, or we see ourselves as not that bad and our sin not that deadly!
A pastor once described the heart-reality of the average person in the average gospel-believing church, acknowledging that every church will have people in it who struggle with sexual sin as well as other life-dominating sins. He said:
When these people sit in our pews, they are in various stages of dealing with their problems. Some are denying that they have a problem. Some know they are sinning against God's law but have secretly rebelled and live lives of hypocrisy and deception. Some are struggling with various degrees of success and failure in making the changes God requires. Others are regularly and effectively using the grace present in the gospel to lead changed lives.
Do you see yourself or someone you love in this list? What a radically realistic view of the church, one that is both alarming and encouraging. But, this pastor's insight acknowledges that we're on a journey, either in a bad direction or a good one—or maybe we've come to a standstill. His words also show that we need a community to help us process our soul's discouraging elements and learn how to live a life of faith and repentance.
What enables us to progress from one stage to another, to boldly and radically be honest about the state of our hearts? It comes from knowing you've nothing to lose but everything to gain by trusting it all to Christ—trusting your hardened or confused heart, your corrupt desires, and your love for your sin, to Him.
It also requires trusting in the finished work of Christ for the past, present and future for you—just where you may find yourself right now. It means trusting His record instead of yours. It means realizing that we all, at any given moment, are in desperate need of the grace that is found in Jesus. It's a grace that isn't manufactured or self-produced, but one that comes from above as a gift from God.
Many of us are unnecessarily on a roller-coaster ride with God, one day at the top, the next day down at the bottom. Or, even worse, turned upside down again by the fickleness and inconsistency of our own hearts and actions. The truth is, we have to be disrupted to our core by God's grace for us in our worst moments.
It's then, in the midst of our temptation and confusion, that we can see we're not as powerless as we think we are. We can choose obedience, even though we feel quite powerless. Our choice, then, is a true act of faith. We may put our faith in ourselves or in our attachments or in God. In order to do this or believe this, we have to believe the gospel is "for us" in whatever stage we find ourselves.
Adapted from Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real With God About Sex, copyright © 2014 by John Freeman, New Growth Press. Used by permission of New Growth Press. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the express written permission of New Growth Press. All rights reserved.
1. Lori and her husband came to a crossroads in their marriage when they attended a Weekend to Remember®. Read “Pornography Was Killing My Marriage” and learn more about FamilyLife’s popular marriage getaway.
2. Read “Sex Is Not the Problem” and more articles about dealing with pornography.
3. John Freeman understands men who feel trapped by their sexual struggles but don’t yet perceive the need for transparency or accountability. Read Freeman’s book Hide or Seek and listen to the FamilyLife Today® interview with John about his book.