A recent survey indicates that 52% of Christian men and 10% of Christian women view porn at least several times a month. Most of these individuals sit in their churches week after week, and no one knows their dirty little secret.
What can the church do to create an environment that actually encourages people to open up about their secret and most socially shameful sins?
James Reeves, senior pastor of Celebration Fellowship in Fort Worth, says churches often make two mistakes when they try to help sexually broken people: they do not make the church a safe place, or they do not create a safe process. “The church has to be a safe place for people to tell their secrets and has to have a safe process for people to experience emotional and spiritual healing,” says Reeves.
#1: Safe Place – Create a Culture of Confession
Church leaders might desire to start a “sexual integrity” group for men or women, an addiction recovery group, or a variety of small groups where church members can open up about the struggles they face, but few will take advantage of these opportunities if the church does not feel like a safe place to talk.
The church becomes a safe place as leaders model gospel-exalting brokenness from the front. Pastor Matt Chandler comments about the importance of building what he calls “a culture of confession.” (Listen to the six-minute clip of Chandler’s sermon.) He says, first and foremost, pastors must preach about the cross of Christ. When the cross becomes central to our message, when the work of Christ becomes the only thing worth boasting about, then there’s no room for boasting in anything we do. Our paltry performance seems like lightyears away from righteousness of Christ.
Second, Chandler says, the flip side of that coin is being transparent about how hard life is in the valleys—sharing stories about our non-boast-worthy lives. At his church, The Village, they often show short testimony videos from the front of their church members, and they are not always the hero stories. Often the are simply raw stories of people who are still in process, still living in the unresolved tension of habitual sin or still feeling battered by a sinful world. This has a profound impact on the viewers, he says.
While we all love the God-delivered-me-from-all-my-troubles testimonies, for many Christians the miracle of deliverance is a slow, daily process. Yes, there are instances when God breaks down the walls and crushes our enemies, but more often than not, God brings us into the Promised Land “little by little” (Exodus 23:30).
Don’t Just Confess Your Safe Sins
Sometimes in an effort to be transparent, we think any public confession will do. Unfortunately, some confessions can often have the opposite effect.
Jon Acuff describes what he calls confessing “safe sins,” like “I don’t read my Bible enough,” or “I don’t pray enough.” As real as these shortcomings might feel to us, if we’re honest with ourselves, these are not our deepest or most pressing sins. They are “safe enough for small group” sins.
Confessions like this can dissuade others from opening up. No one wants to follow the I-don’t-read-my-Bible-enough guy with “I spent the weekend binging on porn.”
Acuff’s advice to church leaders is timeless. He calls us to give the gift of “going second.”
When you go first, you give everyone in your church or your community or your small group or your blog, the gift of going second.
It’s so much harder to be first. No one knows what’s off limits yet and you’re setting the boundaries with your words. You’re throwing yourself on the honesty grenade and taking whatever fall out that comes with it. Going second is so much easier. And the ease only grows exponentially as people continue to share. But it has to be started somewhere. Someone has to go first and I think it has to be us.
We’re called to give the gift of second to the people in our lives.
Okay to Not Be Okay
Psalm 89 offers a powerful example for us. Even though this psalm was written to be sung aloud by a congregation, it is a powerful lament that ends with the tension unresolved. After the psalmist celebrates God’s promises and acts of deliverance, he turns a corner in his mind and faces his current situation with nothing but disappointment. His enemies have breached the walls. His king is totally defeated in battle. Exile is immanent. The psalmist is reaching the end of his life, and there is no sign of hope. He cries out to God, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (v.46). But God is silent. There is no answer.
Of course, that is not the end of the Psalter—nor the end of the story. God did deliver them from exile. God did vanquish the enemy. God did resurrect David’s dynasty—in the person of Christ. But at the moment the psalmist put down his pen, there was no resolution. There were no sugar-coated maxims to lighten his spirit. Only questions.
Are our churches safe places where people can admit to being in the ugly stage of a long process—full of thankfulness for the gospel, yes, but still feeling the weight of our present sinful age? Are our churches places where it is okay not to be okay?
#2: Safe Process – Create Means of Healing
Church leaders might preach grace and model transparency, but if we don’t provide a forum where people will be discipled, counseled, and restored, you will never see change. Worse yet, we create an environment where people get burned by their own confessions.
In some church circles, it has become fashionable to be transparent, to be “raw and real.” Church leaders with the best of intentions plan a special service or men’s breakfast where they are going to showcase their most eye-opening and broken-hearted testimonies. They open the can of worms for all the closet porn addicts in their midst—only to realize that they have nothing in place to deal with the worms.
Churches must put safe processes in place where sexual strugglers are given the hope of freedom.
There are three essential ingredients to any safe process: counsel, coaches, and community.
Counsel: Intimate Apprehension of Immortal Truths
Someone who struggles deeply with pornography needs to understand why. They have tried to repent of the behavior but they have yet to unearth and repent of the sin under the sin. They need to understand the war they are fighting and the two primary fronts where the battle is fought: the body and the heart.
- The Body – For the Christian, one of the primary footholds where sin sinks down deep roots is our bodies. Paul writes that the law or power of sin dwells in our members (Romans 7:23). Sexual sin in particular, Paul says, is sinning against one’s own body (1 Corinthians 6:18). Today, we can actually see porn’s imprint on the human brain, the way habitual porn use rewires our brains and hijacks our mental circuits. For many Christians, an understanding of how pornography does this can help them understand the reasons why they feel so physiologically drawn to porn. It can also give them hope that God can bring life to their mortal flesh.
- The Heart – Sin ultimately flows from the heart, the core of our being (Mark 7:21-23). We are attracted to porn because it promises to us something we long for, something we have positioned as an ultimate good in our life. The Bible calls this heart-attitude idolatry, and it is the wellspring of every kind of sin. The one who is hooked on porn needs to ask him or herself the question, “Beyond the obvious physical enjoyment, what is the fantasy world of porn offering me that I find so appealing?” Is it a place of refuge to relieve my stresses? Is it the illusion of respect or intimacy? Is it the place where I play out my anger at God or the world? Repenting of porn means identifying the idols of the heart, turning from them, and turning to God who offers us better promises than what porn can offer.
Any safe process must be a forum where these truths can be learned—not just intellectually, but personally. There are dozens of wonderful resources available to the church today that communicate these truths:
- Your Brain on Porn: 5 Proven Ways Porn Warps Your Mind and 5 Biblical Ways to Renew It
- Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn-Free
- The Conquer DVD Series
- Sex and the Supremacy of Christ
- Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain
- Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace
Coaches: Mentors Who Embody Wisdom and Grace
Jesus did not disciple his followers from a distance. He did not come to earth to sit in an office and write curricula for his disciples to read. Jesus was the curricula. He was their model, their mentor, their shepherd.
While we know this, we might think, “Well, good for Jesus, but I’m not the sinless Son of God.” The fact is, neither was Paul, but he could say, without reservation, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul, the one who also called himself the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), didn’t just call men and women to believe what he taught; he called them to imitate his thoughts, actions, and attitudes.
Those hooked on porn don’t just need truth: they need embodied truth. They don’t just need an information download; they need the wisdom that can only be imparted through walking with the wise (Proverbs 13:20).
This does not mean a church’s safe process should only recruit former porn addicts as mentors. Certainly, men and women with experience in this area of temptation are helpful. However, more than this, the leaders who mentor others should be wise leaders who know their Bible, know how the human heart works, and care deeply about the those trapped in sin.
- They should be men and women of prayer, experienced in helping to heal the hurts caused by sin and living in a broken world (James 5:13-16).
- They should be mature, self-controlled, and tender (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
- They should be men and women led by the Spirit who know how to restore and mend the shattered thoughts those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2).
- They should be “men of understanding” who know how sin works in the heart and can draw up the hidden motives that often drive our sinful dispositions and habits (Proverbs 20:5).
Raising up good coaches is a matter of careful selection and training, but there are resources today that can help:
- A Biblical Guide to Counseling the Sexual Addict
- Speaking the Truth in Love: Counsel in Community
- Sexual Sanity for Men
- Sexual Sanity for Women
- Building a Pure Life
Community: A Context to Know and Be Known
Guilt and shame, though related, are different experiences. Guilt is our feeling of failure before a standard, but shame is our feeling of failure or reproach before the eyes of another—the eyes of friends, family members, the church, the world, God, or even oneself.
Shame is inherently relational. A sense of shame is meant to compel us toward reconciliation and restoration, but shame becomes toxic when it is combined with the belief that restoration is impossible—that our defilement is just too big, too taboo, or too terrible.
A church’s safe process needs to involve the formation of smaller communities where the express purpose is the dismantling of shame. These small groups can be as simple as cluster of two or three people, or it can be something larger and more formal. Either way, these should be groups that receive coaching and instruction on how to do accountability in a way that encourages confession of our deepest sins—despite the shame we feel.
Church members need to be trained in Biblical accountability—the art of confession, prayer, and encouragement that inspires us to rely more deeply on the grace of God to transform us.
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