Having the proper perspective toward men struggling in the area of sexual purity
A renown evangelical preacher once said that habitual struggles with sexual immorality are, without exception, indicative of spiritual immaturity. Below is the quotation that he made:
“And yes, if a person in the body, who is not disciplined, because they truly show signs and fruit of conversion, but are struggling in a certain area, this area of sexual immorality, then, here’s a few things I think we need to look at. First of all, as we’ve seen in the Book of Acts, no matter what else they know, they’re immature. No matter what else they think they know, they’ve not even reached the first rung of a Christian ethic being applied to their life. They should never be given a ministry in the church while they are struggling with this matter.”
I truly respect this preacher for who he is, what he preaches, what he lives for, and how he lives it out. But in this statement, I have to respectfully disagree.
First, it can be a misdiagnosis; I don’t believe that the Bible makes that kind of a sweeping correlation. Second, it can be damaging; such a belief has led may pastors, ministers, lay-leaders, and counselors to deal with men in their churches struggling in this area in a manner that has been largely unedifying.
When I was first ordained for the gospel ministry, I was asked by my Greek Professor (who I opted to be part of the ordination council) how I would help a young man who was struggling with pornography. The reason why he asked this was because ministering to men in the church will inevitably result in having to exhort young men in this very issue. Generally speaking, young adult men in the church will struggle with sexual purity. It doesn’t take rocket science to deduce this; it only takes a few years of being in the men’s ministry in your local church. It can be true for men of all ages, but it’s particularly volcanic for those hovering in their twenties and thirties. I once told a fellow pastor that biblical counseling for men is euphemistic for the sex and purity talk. I specifically identified young men “in the church” above, as the struggle against sexual purity is not one that solely plagues non-Christians; it plagues all.
I’ve also come to observe over the years that, for men, this particular struggle tends to be unique in the effect it has on men and also the trajectory with which men learn to overcome it. First, it’s unique in the privacy with which it plagues. Christian men simply have a difficult time being fully transparent about the full nature of their struggles with lust regarding, history and habit alike. Second, it’s unique in the shame that men feel regarding continual struggles. While all sin is offensive in the eyes of a holy God, to think that men exhibit equal sentiment toward frustration with co-workers as they do in the weekly stumbling into pornography is simply naive. Third, it’s unique in the nature of progress. Tell a man upon conversion to stop dropping expletive bombshells, and he’ll stop tomorrow. Tell him to stop masturbating, and you’re in for a five-year battle. Fourth, it’s unique in that it takes marriage to fully overcome the struggle (cf 1 Corinthians 7). While it’s true that the Spirit empowers us to overcome the dominating power of all sin (Romans 6), some sinful habits are quite frankly tougher to break than others (Romans 7). And those habits related to sexual purity tend to have the thickest shackles. Be naive about these realities, and you’ll more than likely fail to minister to the young men in your church the way you ought.
The Bible is not silent on how to approach struggling believers – be it with sin or suffering. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, calls for us to admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with all. What I failed to realize early in ministry was that, for the most part, Christian men struggling with sexual purity aren’t being unruly. Much of the time, they’re faint-hearted. True, there are always those men who hypocritically claim to love Christ and live in gross immorality and vehemently refuse to repent from it (cf 1 Corinthians 5-6) and must be exposed for such. I do agree that at times, the presence of a certain level of sexual immorality can indicate the reality of an unregenerate heart or a very immature one. But in sound, Bible-teaching churches, these are exceptions and not the norm. The majority of the men in these congregations who will admit to struggling with purity of some sort are not living with their girlfriends, are not in adulterous relationships, and are not soliciting prostitutes during the week. Most of them are sitting in the pews absorbing the Sunday sermon, faithfully serving in various ministries, are seeking accountability in small groups, and are looking for books and articles online that speak on the topic of their struggles. The majority of them are at the point of despair, questioning the integrity of their faith as a result of it, timid about doing any kind of church ministry, confused about their standing before God, and are desperate for solutions for success. Discouraged, shamed, humbled, insecure, confused, and desperate men don’t need to be hammered. They need to be encouraged and guided.
So what is it with the tendency amongst pastors, disciplers, and counselors to hammer the young men of the church for struggling with these things? The hammering happens from the pulpit, in books, and in one-to-one counseling sessions. Don’t get me wrong; sexual impurity is a serious sin that has serious consequences against which a man ought to vehemently guard himself. And yes, absolutely, we ought to preach against it, especially in our day and age where immorality of all breeds is not only tolerated but embraced. But I do believe that we inappropriately employ the hammer when we lead faint-hearted men to think that their struggles are wholly indicative either of the integrity of their faith or the genuineness of their growth. We also cause unnecessary damage by leading them to believe that their struggles with purity will forever prevent their future from marriage from reaching the fulfillment that God designed marriage to have. I myself have erred in the past in saying such things. I’ve heard others do so as well. And it hurts more than helps.
It hurts more than helps, because it fails to unveil the reality that, at times and to some degree, even model Christians can struggle with some form of sexual impurity.
Need proof? Look at the Scripture. Specifically, look at the Thessalonians.
The theme of 1 Thessalonians is “The Model Church.” Why? Because the Thessalonian church was indeed a model church. They were, as Paul said, an example to all the believers in the region (1:7). Unlike the Galatians who flirted with false gospels and the Corinthians who swam in carnality at which even Gentiles gawked, the virtuous character of the Thessalonian Christians made them deservedly reputable amongst the early church community. These were Christians marked with genuine faith, hope, and love (1:3), who had genuinely repented from idolatry to serve the living and true God (1:9), who had sincerely received the word of God and in whom the Word of God was truly performing its work (2:13), whose character and devotion to Christ had proven itself under the pressure of suffering and persecution (2:14), and who consistently practiced love to one another and to those around them (4:9-10). The Thessalonians were, in every respect, an exemplary church made up of exemplary Christians. Hence, the main exhortation from Paul to them was not harsh admonition, but to excel still more in all that they were doing (4:1, 10).
One of the ways they would excel beyond the character that they had already attained was to abstain from sexual immorality (4:3). Apparently, even this kind of a faith-filled, love-abounding, and hope-anchored model church still struggled with the oh-so-common problem of lust. They weren’t at the level that the Corinthians were (cf 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20), but the struggle was still there.
Alongside the accountability and the plethora of Christian literature written on the topic, having a proper perspective toward a Christian man’s struggle against sexual immorality. Pastors, leaders, disciplers, and counselors of men ought to be cautious about judging the maturity of a man based on the presence of struggles in the area of sexual purity. The truth is that some of the most quality men I’ve ministered to and alongside have struggled with it. We have to be careful with putting the same blanket over all kinds of sexual sin. Obviously, not all sexual sin is created equal in terms of its natural consequences. All sins are created equal in terms of its unrighteousness and the need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice that it warrants for the one who commits it. But a man who refuses to leave an adulterous relationship will be disciplined by the church; a man who is caught viewing a pornographic website won’t.
Equally vital to having a proper perspective is knowing how to give the proper encouragement and hope to the young men struggling with purity. Enough of this “once you view a pornographic image, it’ll be seared in your mind forever and will forever haunt you even in your marriage” talk. You may not be wrong in saying it, but you end up sending the wrong message. The truth is, many of the men who struggled with purity in their single years end up not only overcoming it, but today are themselves exemplary husbands, fathers, and church leaders. God, after all, is able to fully sanctify a man (1 Thessalonians 5:23) and work all things from his past to conform him to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29).
So give young men hope. Give them hope that, even in their struggles, their faith may very well be real and growing. Give them hope that, in spite of the repeated stumbling, sanctity awaits.