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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.