Previously we looked at a scenario with "Toni" and how as Christians we might help someone who is "stuck" in sexual sin, such as pornography and masturbation for instance. "Toni" is of course a fictional character, but I know everyone can relate to this, if not personally, than you know someone who can.
Toni was looking to you for help with their struggles against sexual sin, and their pattern of "falling in". Thanks to the many people who responded with their thoughts on how to go about helping Toni (you can see the responses here). Before I share my thoughts on how I would go about helping Toni, I want from the outset to state that this is a very difficult subject to discuss, and one that is very often difficult to understand, as we find ourselves as Christians in the dynamic tension of what the apostle Paul called the "war between the flesh and the Spirit who are always in conflict with one another" (Gal 5:17). The dynamic tension that we feel and experience between grace and the law (Gal 3), faith and deeds (Jam 1), and our lives being ruled by the Spirit or by the Flesh (Rom 7-8; Gal 5) are very deep waters, so I don't want to offer any trite or overly simplistic responses to these difficult realities.
I would want to offer a few thoughts to Toni about their struggle. First, that the war is much longer than we tend to think, second that the war is much deeper than we think, third it's much wider than we think, and fourth is much more subtle than we think.
1. It's a longer war
A key to fighting the battle for sexual purity as a Christian can begin by lengthening your view of the battle. If you think one week of "shock and awe" tactics and combat will win the war you are likely going to be disappointed. I usually tell people that you didn't get to the state of brokenness with sexual sin overnight, and while Christ has come to set you free (Jn 8) it will not likely happen overnight. If you're looking for some quick fix, magic wand to wave, easy answer one-and-done solution, then you will never really understand the nature of the fight, and likely all that it is that God is trying to teach you and show amidst the fight.
The day when we are finally and truly free from sin will be the day of "completion" when Jesus return (Phil 1:6) and we will be like him perfectly (1 Jn 3:2) when all things are made new (Rev 21:5). Much of the failure to fight well arises because we don't really understand and work well with this long truth of the battle. Consider these two things: sanctification is a direction in which you are heading, not a destination (until Christ returns), and second that repentance is a lifestyle you are living (not a one time decision).
Sanctification is a direction not a destination, repentance is a lifestyle not a one time decision.
In your sanctification journey and in your ministry to others, you must operate on a scale that can envision a lifetime, even while communicating the urgency of today's significant choice. The key to getting a long view of sanctification is to understand direction. What matters most is not the distance you've covered, it's not the speed you're going, it's not how long you have been a Christian. It's the direction you're heading.
We love gazelles. Graceful leaps make for a great testimony to God's wonder-working power. And we like steady and predictable. It seems to vindicate our efforts at making the Christian life work in a businesslike manner. But, in fact, there's no formula, no secret, no technique, no program, and no truth that guarantees the speed, distance, or time frame of our sanctification. On the day you die, you'll still be somewhere in the middle of your sanctification journey, but hopefully further along than when you started.
2. It's a wider war
Sexual sin in our culture in the Western church tends to grab everyone's attention more than a lot of other sins (though this is changing more and more in the secular culture around the church). Take for instance gluttony or anger. We don't tend to think of those sins as "bad" as sexual sin, although we assent to the mental truth of all sins being equal before God, we rarely live like that practically in community with one another. Now obviously certain sins carry with them more weighty consequences than other sins, and Paul said that there is something unique about sexual sin (1 Cor 6:18), but we have a cultural influence as to what sins are more frowned upon than others, and it changes from culture to culture.
It's very important to widen the battlefront and not let the "high-profile" sins blind us from seeing the whole picture. Never should a person's entire Christian life defined and constructed around a struggle with a particular sin, such as sexual sin, though often times it can feel that this is what defines us.
3. It's a deeper war
The Bible is always about behavior, but it is never only about behavior. God's indictment of human nature always gets below the surface, in the "heart". Immoral behavior and sin result from a multitude of motives, many times as a result of a simultaneous combination of motives (c,f. Jam 1:14-15). It's worth digging, both in order to understand yourself and to minister wisely to others. As our understanding of our inner cravings deepens, our ability to know and appreciate the God of grace grows deeper still (c.f. Prov 20:5).
Sexual sin is one expression of a deeper war for the heart's loyalty and primary love. Learning to see more clearly is a crucial part of your sanctification journey. Teaching others to have eyes open to the deeper battles is a crucial part of wise pastoral ministry. Jesus Christ looks better and better the more we see what he is about. He is not simply in the business of cleaning up a few embarrassing moral blots. Deepening the battle deepens the significance of the Savior. He alone sees your heart accurately. He alone loves you well enough to make you love him (c.f. 1 Jn 4:19).
4. It's a subtler war
The last thing I would offer here is the idea that the battle for sexual purity is a subtle war. Many times the obvious and more recognizable sexual sins (fornication, rape, adultery, homosexuality, Internet pornography, etc.) fade for many people as they become Christians and advance on their journey for sanctification, but the battle is never truly over, even if we might think it basically is.
For example, have you ever used sexual attraction criteria in sizing up a person? It can be a largely unconscious operation. Subliminal radar explores, notices, registers on the wavelength of mildly sexualized desire. You're subtly aware of a body's shape; of the cues communicated by posture and gesture; of the messages expressed through clothing, hairstyle, makeup, scent, tone of voice, etc. This subtle attentiveness correlates to the heart's erotic attraction.
When you see sin's subtlety, you realize how much our lives hang up on sheer mercy from God. He is utterly aware of the thoughts and intentions of which we may be wholly unaware. There is mercy here too (c.f. Ps 19:12-14). Is it possible to alter the subtle tendencies that pattern how you look at people? Yes. The Holy Spirit is about this business. But He takes time with us and works with us over time.
When you personally understand your subtle sinfulness, you will never say of anyone else, "How could you do that?" or "Can you believe they did that!?" You may never have been an adulterer, fornicator, homosexual, or consumer of pornography, but you know with all your heart that no temptation overtakes anyone that is not common to everyone (1 Co 10:13), and grasping the subtlety of the battle helps you grasp the true subtlety and scope of the work of our Savior.
For a great chapter on this topic, in which excerpts here were taken, see: Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ