Because the slavery and pain of our flocks is obvious, we are called upon to offer the grace and healing of Christ. The pulpit can be an excellent platform for entreating even the most stained and hopeless heart.
As they leave the house on Sunday morning heading for church, the very last thing most parishioners anticipate is a sermon addressing the issues of cultural sexualization. The themes within that topic are revolting: internet pornography, sexually oriented businesses, prostitution, child porn, sexual addiction. While nobody doubts God’s ability to heal the broken, few come to church wishing to hear a homily on this topic.
There are legitimate reasons for this, including the desire to protect the innocence of the children present in the sanctuary. Furthermore, a pastor even broaching the subject of sexual sin from the pulpit can risk sounding legalistic or hypocritical. Granted, our culture is currently steeped in sexuality: hardly any child in America will grow up without viewing pornography; even our public officials spotlight sexual pathology in TV news reporting. Our children are growing up in moral danger.
Making matters worse, research finds that frighteningly high percentages of both men and women come to worship each week carrying dark stains of sexual guilt, confusion, and hopelessness, aching, not only for hope and absolution, but for freedom from sexual slavery. Yet their desperate quest is hidden behind a smiling Sunday façade and “polite society” which says it’s improper to talk about sex in public. So is it appropriate to use God’s Word to address this distasteful subject in the pulpit?
Christ taught about it in the Sermon on the Mount, a setting in which it was assumed both children and adults were present: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Here, we have no statistics, no raw data to cite, but we know that the Lord publically raised the bar far higher than the Torah (e.g., Ex 20:14: “You shall not commit adultery”), and he felt so strongly about it as to directly correlate the topic with Hell.
What pastor does not understand the many kinds of Hell that await those who choose to live their sexual lives outside of God’s plan? Again, pastors can avoid mentioning distasteful things like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in epidemic proportions, 40 percent of American children born out of wedlock, divorce rates, or other specifics. Yet, they understand what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey?” (Rom 6:16).
We see the shame, fear, and isolation from God’s love that accompanies moral rebellion. In our offices, or in the confessional, we have a window into the wretchedness of Satan’s lure in Genesis: “You will be like God” (if you disobey God as I instruct you). Because the slavery and pain of our flocks is obvious, we are called upon to offer the grace and healing of Christ. The pulpit can be an excellent platform for entreating even the most stained and hopeless heart. Sermons can be terrific opportunities for healing, grace, and life-giving principles.
Here are a few sample messages of hope for those struggling with sexual heart stains.
1. We are “hard-wired,” not for sin and slavery, but for freedom and for God. Pastoral scenes in the stories of the Old Testament, such as those describing Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden of Eden, and in Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”), parallel similar scenes in the New Testament, such as the disciples walking with Christ on the road to Emmaus, following his resurrection. All portray a warm and precious relationship between man and God.
Sin always breaches that relationship, with few types of sin as effective at dragging the heart away from God as sexual sin. Satan’s first act was to lure Adam and Eve away from God through the hook of power (“You will be like God”), and to replace that precious relationship with shame and fear. Isn’t it interesting that their sin of disobedience led them immediately to recognize their nakedness? In shame, they covered up and hid. (We cover up and hide.) Yet God came calling for them.
God sends Christ, calling for us. Christ taught about the Father’s love for the prodigal son, who, when returning home, was greeted by a passionately loving Father’s embrace with tears. We were created for attachment—Heaven celebrates when attachment is restored.
2. All freely-chosen attachments either heal or destroy. God provides us with numerous means of healthy, wholesome, life-giving attachment: Marriage, parenting, family, friends, and Christ. The field of psychology confirms that the more we surround ourselves with God’s definition of life-giving attachments, the more mentally healthy we are, and the more satisfied with life we become.
By contrast, God’s enemy offers faux (false) attachments, through images on a computer screen or TV screen, a magazine fold-out, or a tryst outside of marriage. As we yield to these temptations, our characters are demeaned, our brains become addicted, and we lose our ability to maintain normal, healthy relationships with real people. That’s why so many marriages end in divorce—real attachments have been replaced by faux attachments. In the end, we learn the depth of wisdom taught by St. Paul when he wrote, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey?” (Rom 6:16). There is no exception clause to this spiritual principle.
Yet, St. Paul rejoiced in the grace of Christ as he triumphed over his own failures. After writhing his way through a personal expression of his own struggles (see Romans 7), he concluded, “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom8:1). That’s the same message Christ gave to the woman caught in adultery. He looked beyond her fault, seeing her need, saying that he did not condemn her, and adding: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (Jn 8:11). Attachment can heal or destroy. The outcome is based entirely upon whether we build and manage our attachment as God instructs, or in ways opposed to God’s character.
3. Shame and fear are the birthplace of love and attachment. Pastors and psychologists who work with people struggling with addiction know that shame is the primary driver of addiction. Shame led Adam and Eve to hide from God. Shame made them aware of their physical nakedness. It is shame that foments the rage found so often in people who are addicted. It is shame-driven hopelessness and rage that often wounds those around the addict, like shrapnel from a hand grenade. Shame’s twin sibling is fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being discovered.
Yet, God’s love stands in the face of all our shame and fear. St. Paul said it most succinctly when he wrote: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). It’s not as if God didn’t anticipate the depth of human sin and depravity. Our sinful nature is no surprise to him. Rather, he foresaw our sinful nature, providing a solution in Christ.
It is actually in the moment of our darkest shame and worst fear, that we are most able to understand God’s amazing grace. For it is in the moment of our most wretched hopelessness, as we recognize the limit of our own ability, that we most fully recognize what God’s grace means—not just “theologically”—but personally. It is in those moments of hopelessness, when we turn to Christ, because we’ve run out of other options, that to our amazement, we see the outstretched arms of grace, offering forgiveness, and renewed hope. Shame and fear are the birthplace of love and attachment.
4. To embrace God’s ability is the first step in managing our vulnerability. Vulnerability is most often driven by shame or fear—often by both. We fear being unmasked. We are ashamed of our moral failures. We fear rejection. We are ashamed of our self-centeredness. We generally see vulnerability as representing weakness. The more vulnerable we feel, the more easily we are led into sinful response to God’s high calling.
We attempt, as human beings, to limit the extent of our vulnerability. Indeed, this drive sometimes becomes our hidden reason for existence, as we stockpile money in retirement plans, insure our worldly goods against loss, and do our best at being somehow stronger, or more insulated, than others around us.
We try to limit our sense of vulnerability by making the uncertain certain. This is part of the motivation toward sexual infidelity through pornography. We know we can always have what we want, if only in fantasy. We can always engineer sexual perfection in our minds. We never have to experience the vulnerability of rejection, servant-hood, or reality, when, as a result of narcissism, we can mentally control another person’s body.
It is in such attempts at avoiding vulnerability, that we deny our humanity and relegate our character to the trash pile. By contrast, Christ says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).
Our sense of vulnerability is neither good nor bad. It’s just what it is: the condition of being human. The enemy of God uses it to drive us toward false security and false attachment. Christ provides rest for our souls. To embrace God’s ability is the first step in managing our vulnerability.
5. Grace always trumps sin. Many Christians come to a point of hopelessness in which they feel that they have out-sinned God’s willingness to forgive them. That thought is one of Satan’s favorites to whisper in our ear. When people become addicted to a substance or an activity, and when they repeatedly try to quit, yet repeatedly fail, the spiritual hope of forgiveness and reconciliation with God sometimes seems impossible.
To speak to this fear, St. Paul wrote words of comfort: “… where sin increased, grace increased all the more…” (Rom 5:20-21). God’s ability to give grace is like a cork floating on water—it’s always higher than the water. This thought is especially important to men and women who are trapped in sin that they’ve struggled against for months, or for years. Christ taught this principle of God’s grace when asked by Peter how often a person should forgive. The Mishna’s (the Jewish oral traditions, or “Oral Torah”) answer was “three times,” so that was Peter’s basis point.
Scripture records two answers to Peter’s question. The first and most widely known was, “…seventy-seven times” (alternately translated as “…seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22). The second answer is less quoted, but perhaps more significant, as Christ said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Lk 17:3-4). This being Christ’s answer regarding repetitive failure, do you think God would use a lesser standard when any sinner comes to him after failing in the same sin, time after time, even year after year? God’s grace always trumps our sin. There is always grace at the foot of the cross. After he lavishes his grace upon us, he rebuilds us in Christ.
Sermons can reflect moments when the cleric, representing the will and person of Christ, can offer hope and restoration to even the sexually enslaved. Pastors need not speak about specific sexual practices or areas of failure. Indeed, when we speak metaphorically or use broad spiritual references, the soul still hears the call of the Master, and can respond.
Ways of Responding Online
- Safe Eyes (www.safeeyes.com) keeps home computers porn-free;
- Covenant Eyes (www.covenanteyes.com) provides accountability with others;
- Mpower (www.mympowerbox.com) protects your TV from pornography, foul language, and wanton violence;
- PureHOPE (www.purehope.net) provides multiple tools to break the cycle of pornography addiction.