Monday, October 26, 2009

Understanding Anger

Anger is universal. It is not limited to human beings but is expressed by the devil and his demons and most supremely by God. It is not merely an emotion, nor is it merely an action. Anger is not entirely positive, nor is it entirely negative. What exactly is anger and how should we evaluate it? David Powlison has written a helpful article dealing with anger in the biblical context and how Christians can understand it with precision and clarity.

The article is structured around the following five points: 1) The Bible is about anger, 2) Anger is something you do, 3) Anger is natural, 4) Anger is learned, and 5) Anger is a moral matter. Points three and four seem contradictory but the thrust of the fourth point is such that it should read “Anger Expression is Learned.” Following the fifth point the article ends with seven tests one can use to evaluate anger.

When one hears the statement “the Bible is about anger” perhaps the popular sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” comes to mind. Or perhaps one would contradict stating that the Bible is about grace; or it is about Jesus. Powlison makes the case that grace cannot be understood without anger, and Jesus’ incarnation would not have occurred if not for anger. From the moment of the fall, God’s anger toward sin has been the backdrop of all the positive elements of Scripture. Would grace be grace if God was not angry? Why would the Son die on the cross if God wasn’t angry? What is the motivation toward holiness if sin doesn’t have a consequence? Satan’s very existence is defined by anger as is known as the destroyer, murderer, and the father of lies. If God—the Holy One—can express anger, and Satan—the destroyer—can express anger, what does that indicate? It clearly indicates that anger has both positive and negative elements. It can be entirely good and entirely evil, though not at the same time. God’s anger is productive while Satan’s anger is destructive. God’s anger at sin was expressed by paying the penalty for sin on the cross resulting in justification. God’s anger at sin is continually expressed by disarming sin’s control of the believer through sanctification. God’s anger at sin will be expressed by finally eradicating it in glorification. Therefore the gracious loving acts of God are at the same time expressions of anger toward sin.

Contrasting God’s productive anger is Satan’s destructive anger. Though we know that Satan’s pride caused his fall did not anger precede pride? Satan must have been angry over his lower-than-divine position in order to desire a higher one. His anger was again expressed by deceiving Eve into rejecting God’s command. In the New Testament his anger came full force in bringing Jesus to the cross working through the Jewish leaders as well as Judas. In the end Satan’s anger will be brought to full force through the Anti-Christ who will amass a world army to do battle with God’s people. Therefore all of Satan’s works are expressions of his anger toward God. With those two real extremes in mind we can now consider human anger and evaluate it in relationship to God and Satan’s anger.

Though the first explicit mention of anger is in Genesis 4 in the episode between Cain and Abel, Powlison considers the first expression of anger to be Adam’s attitude and actions after the fall. This is based on Adam’s blame shifting, sense of superiority (blaming God for giving him the woman), and his sense of innocence because these are aspects closely related to anger. The woman demonstrated the same attitude in blaming the serpent. In the next chapter anger is fueled by jealousy and results in the first recorded murder between Cain and Abel. These instances of anger resulted in a world full of violence (Gen. 6:11). Powlison goes through a number of passages demonstrating characteristics of anger. In short, anger can be easily aroused, mask itself in innocence, be vengeful, result in cursing and uncontrolled actions. Anger is equated with murder in that it can hurt helpless people, make unjust judgments, cause character defamation, bring physical harm, and inner hatred. Righteous anger be characterized by loving reproof and correction, confrontation, protection of the innocent, and motivation to do good. Powlison also discusses the motivations for anger, namely, desires and unbelief. He reminds us that the Old Testament is clear that the Israelites grumbled because their desires were not met and in many situations they did not believe God would take care of them (e.g. by defeating Pharaoh’s army and the inhabitants in the promised land). Cain’s anger stemmed from his desire for approval and the anger of Potiphar’s wife stemmed from her unmet desire for Joseph. Virtually all sinful anger stems from getting what you don’t want or not getting what you do want.

The consequences of anger are an increasing amount of anger and destruction. Proverbs 29:22 states, “An angry man stirs up strife.” That is to say that anger is not self-contained. It spreads to others around it. Even God gets angry when we’re angry, but His anger is a righteous anger at our sinful anger. The Bible is filled with people who were continually angry such as Saul, Jonah, Jezebel, Nabal, Pharisees, and even the disciples became angry on occasion. Righteous anger is rare, but we do have records of people exhibiting this behavior. Moses expressed righteous anger when the people were worshipping a false god while he was on the mountain. Samson exhibited righteous anger when he knew the enemies of Israel were celebrating. We have many records in the Psalms of David’s righteous anger at the prospering of his enemies and his desire for God to glorify himself in their destruction. Finally, hints of Paul’s anger toward false teachers can be found throughout his epistles.

With this foundation of anger understood, Powlison moves on to discuss observations about the expression of anger.

Though anger is an emotion it always acts out through words and/or actions. Powlison refers to this as “Anger is Something you DO.” Not only do we typically act out in anger but our bodies change physically. Muscle and nerve tension, swollen nostrils, body temperature rises, at extreme times adrenaline can surge the body. This explains the terms often used for anger such as hot-tempered, breathing fire, steamed, volcanic, etc. Anger also involves our minds as we make judgments, replay the offense mentally, and perhaps quickly plot revenge. Anger also always has an object on which it is focused. Anger typically occurs between people as in families, politics, religions, work, friendships, etc. but it can also occur toward a impersonal object such a Balaam’s donkey, a pet, a piece of furniture that gives a stubbed toe, etc. Most importantly anger occurs between people and God. No anger toward God is just, but it abounds on earth as people blame God for suffering and difficult times.

For those who believe in the doctrine of utter depravity it is no surprise that anger is natural, but at the same time how one expresses anger is learned. Parents who yell at their children reap yelling children. Parents who react physically without self-control have the same problems in their children.

The final point is that anger is a moral issue. This is easily seen by the fact that a person gets angry when they feel wronged. That is to say they have made a moral judgment about something and deemed it wrong as opposed to right, therefore they react in anger. Not only does anger evaluate right and wrong, but it is also evaluated by God and others. Is the anger righteous or sinful? God reacts to sinful anger with righteous anger, people typically react to sinful anger with sinful anger.

Though Powlison uses a significant amount of Scripture, there was also much support by observation. That is not entirely bad as anger is something we are all familiar with and see all around us. But Scripture provides many of the same supports we see around us (which makes sense since the Bible matches reality). It would have been nice to see more information coming from Psalms and Proverbs which are rich with this issue. Overall as Part 1 in a series it was a helpful start at the subject and ended with good evaluative questions to ask oneself on whether a moment of anger is righteous or sinful.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Counseling and the Problem of the Past

What follows is a review/analysis of an article.

What relationship does the past play in a counselee’s current circumstances? Should the counselor seek to understand the past? Should the counselor use the past in counseling? What does Scripture say about how we should think about the past? These are all questions which John Bettler seeks to answer in “Counseling and the Problem of the Past.” The article, taken from a lecture, begins with comments regarding different methods of biblical counseling and the need for a Biblical Counselor’s Confession of Faith which would allow for differences among biblical counseling methods yet provide a line of demarcation between true biblical counseling and any other form of counseling. The need becomes apparent in the discussion of the past because there are differences of opinion regarding the role of the past in biblical counseling.

According to Bettler there are three main difficulties which the past presents to counselors. First, it is a counseling problem because counselees inevitably bring it up. Whether they are trying to make connections in their own mind or for other reasons they may bring up something out the blue from the distant past which may or may not have relevance to the situation at hand. As the counselor sitting and listening to this recollection, how do you respond? Do you pry for more information, ignore it altogether, or tuck it in the back of your mind for further reference? Secondly, the past is a cultural problem because of the culture’s preoccupation with the past. Nearly everyone is a victim of some form of abuse or dysfunction and that supposedly allows us to excuse current behaviors. Third, the past is a psychotherapeutic problem. Pop psychologies tend to come and go with the theories reaching limited acceptance. However psychoanalysis theories are comparatively old and abiding. Freud’s view of the person as a closed system, the idea of the unconscious, and catharsis are all significant foundations of psychology which have maintained a “persistent challenge to Christianity.” Biblical counseling must have a viable view of the past to answer these dominant secular worldviews of our day.

With these problems understood Bettler moves on to provide the biblical view of the past and how it plays a role in counseling. There is a significant emphasis in all of Scripture on the need for God’s people to remember God’s past and future works. Many of the feasts and ceremonies commanded in the Law of Moses were specifically for Israel to remember God’s redemption out of Egypt. The sacrifices were to cause them to look forward to God’s redemption in the future. In the New Testament believers have the Lord’s Supper to remember Christ’s sacrifice in the past and his return in the future. Negatively there is also an emphasis on remember the sins others in the past which serve as a warning for us (1 Cor 10:1-13).

Additionally, the past is relevant in counseling because it is the context in which the person lives. As Bettler correctly states, “That counselee in front of you wasn’t born yesterday.” Understanding the past is understanding what has lead the counselee to his current situation. The difficulty is that the counselee is a biased replayer of the past. Memories are active, selective, and creative meaning that we choose to remember certain things in certain ways which may or may not reflect reality. Therefore what happened is not as important as how the counselee reacted. The most significant application of the past, according to Bettler, is using the past to discover a person’s “manner of life,” namely, those patterns a person has developed over time which lie beneath the current situation.

Recognizing that in an article there is limited space and extensive treatment of the issue is constricted, there are other aspects of Scripture’s use of the past that are relevant to counseling which Bettler neglected to address. Bettler listed three things God wants us to remember: His past works of deliverance and provision, Christ’s death and future return, and the past sins of others. However none of these uses of the past relate to the counselee who brings up their distant past of either their own sin or sin perpetrated upon them.

There are at least three additional ways that God wants us to utilize the past in our own lives. First, God wants us to remember our former life. Second, He wants us to remember His transforming work and its basis. Third, in times of sin he wants us to remember the times we were faithful.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul reminds the Corinthians that those who practice sin will not enter God’s kingdom. The sole purpose for telling them that is to remind them, or cause them to remember, that is who they were. The sins which Paul listed were not randomly chosen for their severity or shock value. Paul specifically listed sins which the people in the church of Corinth had participated in prior to salvation. The purpose of this was to demonstrate how their actions (suing believers in courts of law) were irreconcilable with their new eternal status. This is made clear by Paul’s three-pronged argument against suing believers: 1) saints will just the world, 2) saints will judge angels, and 3) the unrighteous won’t be there. The conclusion is that since the saints have a prestigious eternal position (in contrast to the unrighteous), then why would they allow the unrighteous to judge them? However lest the Corinthians get prideful over their position, Paul reminds them that they too were at one time in the category of the unrighteous and it was God, not themselves, that took them out of that category. Therefore we can extract a general principle that God wants us to remember our past in order to keep us humble as believers.

Another passage which makes use of the past is Ephesians 2:1-10ff. In this familiar passage Paul first reminds his readers of the destitute state in which they once lived. The motivation for this recollection was not primarily humility, but to provide the foundation for God’s grace. Before Paul could emphasize the one-sidedness of their salvation he had to destroy any notion that any person is saved of their own merit. This universal destitution and gracious salvation is the basis for Paul’s next point (2:11-22) which is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. The broader principle we can extract from this text in terms of that past is anyone who has a low view of God’s grace has a high view of their life before Christ. In other words, if anyone thinks they contributed to their salvation in any way, they need to understand from God’s perspective who they were before Christ. The past, in this case, magnifies God’s grace.
A third use of the past is demonstrated in Revelation 2:1-7 where the Lord dictates a letter to Ephesus. The key verse is verse five where the Lord says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…” In this context the Lord is calling for the church to repent of “abandoning the love [they] had at first” (v. 4). The Ephesians have a history of faithfulness in this area so it is not as though they are unaware of what to do. They simply need to be reminded of their past faithfulness and called back to it.

Certainly these additional three uses of the past, together with those mentioned in the article are not exhaustive of potential biblical uses of the past in counseling. However it should be noted, as stated in the article, that the past is not a source of blame or excuse for current behavior.

Another issue which would require more time and research to develop is the different Greek and Hebrew terms which are translated “remember.” μιμνῄσκομαι has the emphasis of “recollect” and “remind oneself” whereas μνημονεύω emphasizes more “keep in mind” or “think about.” How these terms (and others) are used in their contexts would be a necessary study which was not examined in the article.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Truths that Overcome

Many books and articles have been written to help both counselors and counselees learn to how to handle sexual sin and temptation. Because of the variety of expressions of sexual sin typically these articles are more focused on dealing with a particular nuanced version (e.g. pornography, masturbation, or homosexuality). Some resources attempt to deal with the presentation problem and correct the behavior, while others go deeper at root causes and help bring about change from there. My goal in this paper is to collate the fundamental issues that drive sexual sin in general. My hope is that through this paper the counselor or counselee will be able to take a hold of God’s Word, correct their thinking where it has been wrong and move back onto the path of righteousness.

What is sexual sin? How do we know when someone has transgressed into it? As with all sin sexual sin does not begin with a physical action. While sexual acts are in and of themselves sinful outside biblical boundaries they are not the core issues. The core issue is what is going on—and what had gone on—in the heart. My definition of sexual sin is an unchecked desire for a person, object, activity, or sensation which is outside the bounds of marriage or outside the biblical purpose of sexual activity, and which may or may not be expressed in a physical action. Whether we call it an idol of the heart, a lust or desire, or a fundamental misunderstanding (or rejection) of biblical truth, the reality is that all these come into play to one degree or another. Articles have been written to address each of these areas of sexual sin, and my hope is that this paper will bring all of these concepts together for a holistic counseling paradigm.

Changing the Mind

Repentance of any sin begins with the mind. The foundational meaning of metánoia in the New Testament is a change of mind. Change behavior certainly follows but without the change of mind it is only hypocritical. Therefore it is important in dealing with sexual sin to deal extensively with the mind of the counselee. What do they believe? How do they view sexuality? How do they view marriage? What is their understanding of intimacy? What do they think is the purpose of sex? Whom do they think owns their body? These and many more questions must be asked in order to assess where the counselee needs to have teaching and correction. The rest of this paper will examine several primary texts which deal with the most fundamental mind and heart issues that drive sexual sin. The order in which these issues are dealt with in this paper is not indicative of a natural progression in a person’s heart. The counselor would need to determine which issues and in which order to address these with the counselee.

To Whom Does Your Body Belong?

One of the universally fundamental issues at the core of all sexual sin is a misunderstanding or rejection of the truth that whether single or married our bodies do not belong to us. We do not have the right to do anything with our bodies that we desire. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 discusses how this principle applies to all people whether married or single. The primary truth is this: as believers our body is for the Lord, a member of Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and bought by God. In short, God owns our body. Paul describes the result of sexual sin like this: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” (6:15). To do such a thing is to “sin against his own body” (6:18) because it is doing with the body what it was not intended to do.

When God created us and subsequently saved us there came upon our bodies a new mandate. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The physical body is a gift from God that enables us to worship and serve him. The body is unique among God’s creation. We stand upright, have opposable thumbs, we are able to communicate, think, rationalize, learn, and invent. Our bodies in conjunction with our minds are wonders of creation and uniquely fit to accomplish God’s purposes. Therefore to use the body in a way and for such purposes that are opposed to God is not only a rejection of our redeemed purpose, but God himself. Paul refers to this in Romans 1:24-27 as actions which “are contrary to nature,” “dishonoring of their bodies,” “shameless acts,” which ultimately “exchange the truth about God for a lie.”

The person struggling with sexual sin in mind and body must come to grips with the fact that they are not their own. They simply do not have the rights to do what they will with their body. Secondly, regardless of whether the counselee is married they must also realize that their body belongs to their spouse. If they are unmarried it is critically important, even if more difficult, to realize that their body belongs to their future spouse because anything that happens today will impact their future marriage. If they contract an STD now it will have the same impact on their future marriage than it would for a currently married couple (if not more).

Paul spells this principle clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but he husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” The reason Paul is making this point will be the subject of the next section, but his point in this verse stands on its own even as it serves a greater purpose in the context. The point could not be more clear: no spouse has the right to do what they want with their own body because it does not belong to them, it in fact belongs to their spouse. The implication of this is when a married person sins sexually by pornography, adultery, or some other form, they are not merely being unfaithful; they are also taking what belongs to their spouse and employing it for their own purposes. The same principle applies to the unmarried person. While unmarried everyone is a steward of their body, waiting until the day when they will give themselves to their spouse. In God’s sovereignty a person’s spouse is known by God and in the same way that our sanctification is complete in one sense and progressive in another, so in God’s eyes those who will marry are as good as married in God’s eyes. Sins done in the body (1 Cor. 6:18) have lasting impact and will without doubt have an impact on one’s future spouse.

According to the world, “it’s your body, you can do with it what you want.” This is not only the argument for body piercing, tattoos, and all sorts of body mutilation, but it is also the argument for seeking every sexual experience possible. If our bodies truly were our own perhaps such a case could be made, but the fact is our bodies are not our own. First and foremost our bodies belong to God. We are stewards of the physical and mental capacities that we have been given for approximately 80 years. God has a purpose for our bodies and we must submit to his purposes, not our desires. Secondly our bodies belong to our present or future spouse. As sexual beings we were made for each other, not for ourselves. This necessarily takes us into the second point, namely, for whom is your sexuality?

For Whom Is Your Sexuality?

In the previous section we ended discussing Paul’s statement regarding who owns the rights to our bodies within the marital relationship. The text quoted comes from the context of 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 in which Paul discusses the necessity and providence of marriage. Paul begins in verse two, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” It is interesting that Paul does not say one should simply “get married” to prevent sexual immorality. Paul is certainly not advocating that marriage is the conduit to self-gratification. This is made clear here and in what follows. First, Paul says “each man should have his own wife…” This excludes homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy, harems, and anything that violates a heterosexual monogamous sexual relationship in marriage. Secondly, Paul describes a clear principle of ownership (which he elucidates in verse 4): “his own wife” and “her own husband.” Out of context this verse could be interpreted to allow self-gratification, but what Paul says next removes that possibility. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (3). The clear focus is other-centered. That is to say that your spouse is your own, not for your own pleasure, but for their pleasure. In the same way that a soldier may sign up for the military not primarily for their own benefit (though many do), but to serve and benefit their country, a person should not get married to fulfill their sexual dreams, but to fulfill the needs of their spouse.

Paul then clearly describes the reason for spouse-gratification rather than self-gratification. Your body does not belong to you; it belongs to your spouse for their benefit. Therefore, “do not deprive one another… so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (5). Again, the focus is not on self-gratification to stave off temptation, but on spouse-gratification for their purity. Put another way, God gave you a spouse so that you can help them avoid sexual sin.

The beauty of this truth is that in the process of giving “conjugal rights” and “not depriving one another” both husband and wife are equally served and have their needs met. It is not like the server who distributes food and gets only leftovers for himself, or the preacher who serves the spiritual meal and receives little to nothing from the congregation. There are many examples of one-sided service and edification, but a sexual relationship should be equally satisfying to both husband and wife at the same time. There may be times where one is benefited alone for health or medical reasons, but that should be the rare exception, not the rule.

This principle takes the marital sexual relationship beyond physical activity to spiritual edification whereby each spouse is assisting their spouse in holiness by reducing their openness to temptation. In addition to producing children and simply enjoying the pleasure of a sexual relationship, God has provided that relationship so that each spouse can serve the other and help them avoid sexual sin.

Whom or What Are You Worshipping?

In biblical counseling the concept of heart idols can be utilized in almost every situation. James’ admonition in James 4:2 that “you desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” is at the root of virtually all relationship problems as each party has unmet desires and expectations. The word translated “desire” is epithumía which in this context has a sinful connotation, but the term is not inherently sinful. Desires and passions can be both healthy and good or sinful. The determining factor is both the object and the level of desire. When epithumía is used in a sexual context, it is always sinful. This is because strong sexual desires are always self-centered in the sense that the body naturally wants to be sexually satisfied and is not really all that interested in whether or not anyone else is satisfied. Therefore the fundamental answer to the question of who are you worshipping is yourself. The person who practices sexual sin of any form is worshipping themselves by their own lusts regardless of the impact on others. But sexual sin can also be worship of another or an activity.

Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this issue of sexual activity as worship. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes a progression of truth suppression and worship exchange which includes exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (23). While ancient cultures worshipped many forms of man-like images, some of the prominent ones are images of many-breasted women in various cultures. Other sexually charged images were utilized in temples where one worshipped by lying with a prostitute. Sexual activity in religious worship led to non-religious forms of worship. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator” (25). Paul explains what he means by continuing: “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another…” (26-27). Men and women worship and serve the creature by committing acts which are both contrary to nature and contrary to God’s revelation.

The formula is simple: the one whose standard is adhered to is the one being worshipped. If a person is obeying God’s standard for sexuality then God is being worshipped. If a person’s own standard of sexuality is being obeyed, then they are worshipping themselves. If a person is adhering to another person’s or group’s standard of sexuality, then they are being worshipped. In reality when God is not singularly worshipped, then worship is spread around to oneself and others. Sinful expressions of sexuality are idolatry. Biblical expressions of sexuality are God-glorifying.

Who is in Control?

Once a person has made sexual sin a habit, the world calls it an addiction or a disease and tries to convince the person that they have no control over their problem. They are really not at fault and must be rehabilitated by external means because they don’t have control to be able to change on their own. Those who struggle deeply with sexual sin admit that in their experience they find it virtually impossible to resist the temptations of lust. God tells a completely different story for the Christian struggling with sin. According to Scripture, the believer has all the necessary resources to overcome sin in power of the Spirit.

Romans 8 is the key text for this principle. In the previous chapter Paul has been speaking of the conflict in the believer where experientially sin feels like it has some measure of control in our lives. But while this may feel like it is true, Paul then proclaims that it is patently false. Sin does not have control over the believer because “the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:2). The key issue in overcoming the strong pull of sexual sin is to whom does the counselee give control—the Spirit of the flesh? Paul says “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5). We ought to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). In writing to the church in Colossae Paul makes a similar point, “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God… Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion…” (Col. 3:2-5).

Scripture is clear that unbelievers have no choice in this matter. They are ruled by sin. Believers do have a choice and the sign of true repentance is choosing to walk according to the Spirit, obeying God’s commands, pleasing God. The Christian counselee struggling with sexual sin must agree with God’s Word that they do have control and because of the indwelling Spirit we have “all things that pertain the life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). In the moment of temptation they may feel like they are compelled to sin, but they must know that they are not. In that moment the counselee must proclaim this truth to themselves and be reminded that God’s Word is true above our feelings.

To What Must You Change?

When a person is seeking counseling, they are seeking change. Usually the counselee has a different goal that the counselor would have for them, sometimes they are so confused they don’t know what their goal should be. When a person struggles with sexual sin it usually invades their life. It may impact their finances, but it may not. It may impact their friendships, but it may not. It may impact their occupation, but it may not. These different areas are external consequences that depending on the type of sexual sin and severity of the problem may or may not be affected. What is always affected is a person’s heart and mind. All sexual sin begins in the heart and mind, but it doesn’t all end there. Therefore all change must begin in the heart and mind, and that will often indirectly impact external areas. A person deeply engrossed in sexual sin has a mind which easily wanders into lustful thinking. Virtually anything can cause their mind to go astray at any time—especially boredom. Therefore true change not only deals with behavior and desires, but one must train the mind to have God-honoring thought patterns and to control a wandering mind.

There are two key passages that help us know what a person should strive to become. The first is Galatians 5:16-25. Paul begins this section by explaining that those who “walk by the Spirit will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (16). How do you know if you’re walking by the flesh? You bear the fruit of that, namely, “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry” (19ff), etc. How do you know if you’re walking in the Spirit? You bear the fruit of that, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (22-23). Space does not permit us to discuss how each of these fruit counteracts sexual sin, but we will briefly consider the first and last—love and self-control. The person struggling with sexual sin must change to be a loving person who exhibits self-control. Love of course has nothing to do with feelings and emotions. Love is simply a commitment to do what is best for another (see 1 Corinthians 13:5-8). A sexually immoral person is not loving because they are only concerned for themselves. They don’t consider how their thoughts and actions will impact others, they simply want their desires met. On the other hand a loving person will crucify “the flesh with its passions and desires” (25) and seek the good of others. Secondly they will exhibit self-control. The sexually immoral person is impulsive in their mind and usually in their actions. Their goal is to be self-controlled so that when their mind wanders they take their thoughts captive and repent and think about right things. If they are on the Internet and there is an enticing image or website link then their first instinct is to ignore it or close the browser whereas before they would instinctively click on it. If they drive by an adult store they are able to continue driving rather than impulsively stopping and walking into sin. In counseling it would be helpful to go through each of the categories and help the counselee see what their life should look like when they are walking by the Spirit rather than the flesh.

The second key passage is Philippians 4:8. This is a helpful verse for the counselee to memorize to counteract sinful thinking, however it is only a starting point. When a person finds themselves having sinful thoughts, this passage should be used as a reminder to transition to thinking godly thoughts. It is not helpful to simply recite the verse as some sort of incantation that will take the thoughts away. Instead one should recite it as a reminder of their responsibility and move on to have productive thoughts which crowd out the sinful thoughts. For married men they can think about their wives (mainly in a non-sexual way) and thank God for His gift of a wife who loves and cares for him. Meditating on the gospel, reciting the gospel to himself, can be helpful to remind oneself of God’s grace and forgiveness and the ways in which God demonstrates his love. If he is at work then he can simply refocus and think about the tasks at hand. If in school then refocus on the lecture or homework. We can honor God by thinking about any number of things whether they are spiritual in nature (the gospel) or not (work related tasks). The key is simply to train the mind to not wander into sinful territory, but keep it focused on what is pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.

There are other areas of change that should be discussed, and have been in other works. Galatians 5:16-25 and Philippians 4:8 provide the foundation of change that is needed before other change is sought.


Scripture clearly portrays sexual sin as a choice from which one can change if they have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Good biblical counseling will not merely deal with outward actions and behaviors, but will get into the core issues of someone’s life examining what Scripture teaches about what drives sexual sin. In the course of teaching a counselee what Scripture teaches there are at least five issues which the counselee must adopt into their worldview.

First, the believer must learn to view their body as the property of someone else, namely, God. God has purchased our bodies by the blood of Christ and therefore as its Creator and Purchaser he determines how it is to be used. Secondly their body belongs to their spouse, whether or not they are married. When a person sins sexually they are usurping the authority of their spouse over their body. Second, not only does their body belong to their spouse, it is for their spouse. God provides marriage not for the purpose of self-gratification, but for mutual gratification so that each spouse can please the other and assist them in reducing sexual temptation. Third, how one uses their sexuality is a demonstration of whom they worship. If they worship God they will remain obedient to God’s standard of the proper sexual relationship. If not, they worship themselves and others in adhering to ungodly standards of sexuality. Fourth, the believer must know the biblical truth that no matter how strong sexual temptation is, God has given his divine power via the indwelling Holy Spirit to control any temptation. Fifth, the sexually immoral have become so self-described by their sin (e.g. “I’m a homosexual”), that they need biblical guidance as to what they are to change to. It is not enough for them to acknowledge their need to stop their thinking and behavior, they need to know what to become.

Certainly these five issues are not exhaustive and themselves have only been treated in summary fashion here. Numerous additional scriptures could and should be added to bring hope and clarity. The articles contained in the bibliography include other aspects which are useful in thinking through other foundational issues as well. In this culture of sexual inundation we can be so thankful that God’s Word is sufficient to provide hope and solutions to this sin which can be so entrapping, but by God’s grace and truth we are able to overcome.