The other day, I was reading a major Christian publication when I learned of yet another significant Christian leader embroiled in issues of sexual immorality. This all-too-familiar story is derailing an otherwise exceptional career and undermining the influence this leader had attained. My heart sagged from the weight of still one more seemingly mature leader who had left his sexual maturity unaddressed and this gaping hole in his integrity had come back to bite him. I don’t even need to name the leader because whenever and wherever you are reading this article, another leader’s sordid story is likely being splashed across the internet.
Perhaps, like me, you find yourself wondering how many more leaders need to fall before we take seriously the rampant need for sexual discipleship and maturity among Christian leaders.
As men and women preparing for full-time Christian ministry, this need for change begins with us. If we can get this dialed in at the start of our ministry career, our ability to finish well will increase exponentially!.
In my last essay, I borrowed the term “sexual discipleship” from Dr. Juli Slattery to describe the work that is necessary to bring each man and woman to a place of health and maturity in their sexuality. The term “discipleship” invokes ideas of learning, training, and growth. Far too often, we think of sexual integrity as an issue of morality—choosing between right and wrong. But as I put forward in part one, our issues with lust, pornography, and other forms of sexual brokenness are typically rooted in places of immaturity. We don’t need to be shamed or condemned into change; we need to be instructed, guided, and helped on a path to a better way in our sexuality.
What does the healing path toward sexual maturity look like? How can we be discipled in this area? This path is not easy or quick, but from my own story and work with hundreds of others in recovery, I offer the following six principles that can guide us to sexual health and maturity. We can learn from these principles, whether the need is in our own life at a personal level or for the good of those we will one day lead.
Okay, I know this sounds trite, but hear me out. Far too many Christ-followers, if they are honest, have separated their spirituality from their sexuality. They believe that God wants them to do the right thing and not sin, but they haven’t embraced the fullness of the gospel and the creation of their body as a sexual being. Our sexuality was, and is, God’s idea. He cares deeply about what we do with it—not just if we are avoiding sin or not, but if we are experiencing life to the full in our sexuality.
When we believe that Jesus cares deeply about this area of our life, we can take a more serious approach to health and recovery. When I say serious, I don’t mean a sad and somber approach to condemning our sin. What I mean is that the focus and attention one must bring to the table to find lasting healing is typically significant. If we bring a half-hearted effort, healing is rarely found. But if we embrace how deeply Jesus cares about this aspect of our life, and we bring a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to walk in freedom, then true progress can be made.
One of the greatest myths perpetuated among Christian circles is the idea that a godly man or woman should be able to stare down sexual temptation and make the choice to simply walk away. This concept sounds right and good, but it ignores a host of factors beyond the moral choice being made. Another version of this myth says that if a man or woman goes forward at a healing service of some kind, they can be miraculously delivered from a “spirit of lust” and never struggle again. We focus on the one moment—the point—and lose sight of the path to healing and recovery.
While I believe in miracles, and pray for them often, I have found that this is rarely the way the Spirit of God works in our sexuality. When we are stuck in some kind of unwanted sexual behavior, a host of other factors—patterns in our brain, the release of neurochemicals related to past triggers, unaddressed trauma—contribute to the choices we make. Unraveling this system is a process and can take time. If we are prepared to walk a path to transformation, the Spirit of God will work small miracles all along the way.
Seeing the path necessitates that we have the ability to recognize our triggers and points of weakness quickly. In the situation I mentioned above—a man or woman staring down intense temptation and walking away—the remedy I have found most effective is to learn how to avoid a situation where you are likely to face intense temptation altogether. This involves a heightened level of self-awareness, where a person can begin to recognize how various factors around them might contribute to a sexual trigger. Sights, sounds, smells, emotional or physical sensations, and environments (like the anonymity of a hotel room) can all become triggers the brain has associated with sexual arousal or desire.
This is referred to as a person’s arousal template. If we are blind to our personal template—and it differs for every person—it is unlikely we will be able to change our patterns. When we are continually triggered by the same old patterns, we are like a locomotive that has already left the station and is picking up steam. The more momentum that builds up, the more difficult it is to redirect the locomotive. So it is for us. If we can redirect the “train” of our thoughts, emotions, and desires early in the process, we will have a far greater likelihood of avoiding the outcome of the temptation. This kind of awareness develops most readily in an open, honest community.
Developing the level of self-awareness needed to accurately and consistently pinpoint our triggers is nearly impossible to do alone or in isolation. Why? Because of blind spots. We all have them. You do. I do. And we can either act like we don’t, and continue to be tripped up by them, or we can embrace the help that others can give us on this journey. If you consider the human body, God has given us two eyes in order that one eye might compensate for the blind spot of the other. The same is true in life. On our own, we will continue to rationalize, minimize, or deny the severity of our behavior. We need other people who are on the same journey toward wholeness to help us see what we cannot see.
Another important aspect of community is the truth behind our trauma. The trauma and pain we have experienced in life are relational in nature. We have been wounded—intentionally or unintentionally—through relationships with our parents, caregivers, coaches, relatives, and friends. Because these wounds have come through relationships, we cannot heal in isolation. We need positive, healthy relationships with others who know us well—and know our full story—to repair the damage and renew our minds. For these reasons, a group experience correlates highly to lasting transformation.
One of the great dangers in the journey toward freedom is to become overly focused on changing or stopping the behavior. Yes, we certainly want to see the behavior itself amended—and for good—but the behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. We act the way we do because of underlying thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These thoughts and feelings are driven by past experiences and the way we have interpreted what happened to us in life. These interpretations become core beliefs—false core beliefs that relate to our identity, value, and sense of worth.
For example, if you grew up in a home with a busy dad who was often gone from the home, and when he was home rarely engaged with you, you have likely internalized a message from this relationship that you aren’t good enough. (This is a story I have heard in a thousand different ways over the years.) This feeling—or false core belief—of not being good enough can be the emotional trigger that drags you back into sexual fantasies—a world where, at least for a few moments, you are always good enough. In this example, if you were to focus solely on stopping the fantasies without addressing the wounds driving it, how successful do you think you would be? When we address the pain and trauma of our past, we address the engine driving our sexual behavior and lasting change becomes possible.
As we follow these first five principles, we must be able to replace old thought patterns with new ones, old behaviors with new habits, and old messages with new truths. If we only deal with the old, but don’t proactively build in new patterns, we are like the person Jesus describes in Luke 11:24–26: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
I have worked with far too many individuals who did the hard work of dealing with their old, unwanted sexual behavior, only to end up in another trap like workaholism, making an idol of their health, or even becoming addicted to another substance like alcohol or video games. We have developed the negative behaviors in our life because we are looking for something—looking for a way to find purpose and value in life. As we get healthy, an essential element of health is to fill up our life with the good things God has for us. A new community, new opportunities to serve, and new healthy habits become the defense against reverting to old, unhealthy patterns.
So, I hope these six principles give you an idea of the journey that lies ahead.
Let me close with a few steps you can take.
Be educated. What are you doing to develop your understanding of human sexuality and God’s goodness to us in our sexuality? One resource you could use is the Sexual Integrity 101 video course put out by Pure Desire Ministries. This eight-week video course will help introduce men and women to the reality of why we struggle as we do and what lasting freedom truly looks like. Some other great resources include the books Pure Desire, Surfing for God, and Wired for Intimacy, or another video study, the Conquer Series.
Join a group. If you believe this struggle exists in your life to any degree, I encourage you with every breath I have to deal with it! This is not an area of our life that will ever go dormant or just go away. This is a James 1 issue—a desire, giving birth to temptation, that leads to sin, which, when fully developed gives way to death. The outcome of unaddressed sexual brokenness is always death. So why on earth would we wait and risk this kind of an outcome? If you are dealing with any level of unaddressed sexual brokenness, the single greatest step you can take is to engage with others on a healing journey. Pure Desire has groups available online that you could join at any time! (Visit www.puredesire.org for more information.) Similar groups exist through several other ministries and can be found through a short search on Google.
Start a group. If you have the heart to help others in this area, it may be that the Spirit would prompt you to be the one who starts a group among your peers. I have found over and over that other people are simply waiting for someone to open the door and honestly say, “I struggle, but I am pursuing freedom in this way.” When this happens, others are quick to speak and say, “Me, too!” But someone has to go first. Could you be the one who starts this process? Pure Desire has group materials for men and women who struggle, and men and women who are dealing with betrayal from a spouse's behaviors.
My prayer for all of us is that we will be the catalyst of a new generation of leaders—men and women who walk in humility, vulnerability, and integrity. As we learn to be healthy in our sexuality, this is a powerful gift that, with God’s help, can be passed on through us to many, many others. May it be so.