This article was originally written as a chapter for my book Overcoming Lust.
Eventually, before the book was finalized, I was persuaded to tone down my message in this area, since it did not fit the overall positive message of victory over lust that I seek to bring. Some of this information is still found in chapter 9, Victory over Lust. Nevertheless, the ideas in this article are still important.
The Christian counseling movement is overflowing with those who promote a gutted form of “sexual sobriety” even though that concept is not in line with biblical teaching and leads to a life of despair.
Christian Counseling as a means of battling lust
Listen to counsel and accept discipline that you may be wise the rest of your days. (Proverbs 19:20) Once I started on the road of implementing victory over lust in my life, it became clear why my past ways of dealing with these problems were totally ineffective. Since I was not directing my efforts against the core sin of lustful looking as discussed previously, failure was all but certain. Looking back, it feels strange and extraordinarily embarrassing that I failed to properly confront my sin and continued in it for all those years.
Turning to a counselor
Many men eventually turn to a counselor when they want to bring about change in their behavior. In my case, I met with three different Christian counselors at one time or another mostly because there was stress in our marriage because of my sin. Stupid me, I knew there was a problem in our marriage but did not recognize that my persistent sin was the source of our difficulties.
Each of these counselors listened well and empathically, trying to understand and to give good advice. However, because they did not focus on the need to overcome sin in their counsel, they remind me of the broken cisterns that Jeremiah referred to. (Jeremiah 2:13) In fact, these sessions actually reinforced my rationale for sin and left me with little hope for real success. One counselor advised me to join a generic recovery group of some kind. Even worse, they each tried to pull my wife into the mix and more or less told us that this was all partly her fault. Ouch.
The EMB Workshop
Reading the book Every Man’s Battle (EMB) written by Fred Stoeker and Stephen Arterburn acted as a catalyst for change in my life. This change was not immediate. Rather, through God’s grace and over time, victory gradually took hold. There were some bumps in the road. Habits do not change overnight. Those entering into such a struggle learn patience and humility. They are also thankful for all the help they can find. To that end, in April, 2005, I was one of about ninety men who signed up for a pricey three day workshop put on by New Life Ministries. It was held in a hotel in Costa Mesa, California and promoted as a way for men to overcome problems with lust and to assist them in developing sexual purity from a Christian perspective. I hoped to build on what I was already learning and putting into practice. After all, Stephen Arterburn, the founder of New Life Ministries, is also a well-known author, speaker, and co-author of the Every Man’s Battle book. The workshop goes by the name Every Man’s Battle Workshop, closely identifying itself with the popular book. Radio broadcasts, Internet ads and other media are used to recruit men for workshops being held regularly in different parts of the country. Men come because they want to win the battle over lust and are told that the material is “biblically based.” For many, committing time and money to attend represents an act of desperation, since problems with lust have threatened their marriage and other relationships. Many come because they have read what Stoeker and Arterburn have written and want to incorporate their clear message. It did not turn out as I had hoped.
Attending the workshop
There were a lot of meetings. Some of these meetings were as a large group, some were in breakaway small groups with about ten other men led by a trained counselor and finally there was one private session with that same counselor.
The leader of my small group was from Southern California and proved to be extremely capable and sympathetic. With a doctorate in Psychology, he teaches at an evangelical Christian University and also directs a substantial private Christian mental health practice. As far as I could tell the other counselors were similarly top drawer. At the back of the room during the main sessions there were a number of professionals, who had been invited to attend as observers. This was all very impressive and instilled confidence.
The men who attended came from all over and were highly motivated. Being thrust together with strangers, they were very free in discussing their situations and experiences. I was able to talk with many of them and got pretty close with a few. This was the best part of the workshop. Every one of these men seemed squared away and was able to afford the expense. Several were young men getting ready to get married and hoping that they could find a way to switch off their bad habits. One self-assured young man, who came from Texas with this in mind, liked to tell stories that included well-known preachers and Christian businessmen that his well-connected family was close to.
Here are stories from three of the attendees that I got to know:
My roommate came because he was eager to get married. He was living with his girlfriend and they already had a child. He owned a music business and attended a well known large evangelical Church where he was part of a “recovery” group that met weekly. This group was a place to get help for his problem, which he described as being a sex addict. His girlfriend told him she would not marry him unless he kicked his pornography habit.
The small group that he was a part of at the workshop felt to him like the recovery group back home. He would hang out late at night in a large hot tub with some of them. After we got to know each other better it became clear that this unfortunate addict was not going to receive much benefit from the workshop. As I explained my experiences and the basics of recoiling from lustful looking and gaining victory over the sin of lust, his eyes glazed over. It was a foreign language to him that did not line up with his experience or what he had been taught including especially what he was learning at the workshop we were attending.
Another fellow that I became especially close to was a black pastor of a small church from out of state. In addition to being a pastor, he owned and operated a construction business and had driven a flashy car into town. In the evenings we would drive around to see the sites and talk while trying to make his then novel GPS device to work. We were in the same small group and he shared stories of how his wife on several occasions burst into his office and basically destroyed his computer. Her frenzy over the Internet porn that he was viewing forced an ultimatum. He would attend this workshop or it was over for them.
Facing ongoing crises at home, he was very interested in my experiences and this led to several intense conversations. During these times we would discuss the ideas as presented in the EMB book and the approach that had been working in my life. Yet he would not commit himself to a similar goal of sexual purity. It became clear that he did not really want to give up lust although he claimed merely an inability to do so. He mainly wanted to control his behavior and to keep his family together.
We exchanged phone numbers and talked at various times over the next year until we lost touch with each other. He would say that he was still struggling and that he was happy for my success. (This story is highlighted because it is referred to in a blog post)
The third story I will share was of another member of my small group who was completely on the same page with me. His wife and young children came to pick him up after the workshop was over. They had been staying in another hotel and they planned to follow up with a family vacation. Being introduced and seeing them together reminded me of my own grown children and their families. His personal quandary was deciding if his quest for purity would require him to sell his successful fitness facility and personal training business. The situations this business placed him were getting in the way.
Like me, he had read the EMB book and fully bought into the possibility and need for victory over lust. He also had made great progress and wanted to move forward. However, we both recognized and were perplexed at how the EMB workshop was presenting a message that was dramatically different and incompatible with that which we had learned and applied from the EMB book. Perhaps there were others who also had been drawn in by the book and became bewildered by the content of the workshop, but I did not meet them.
How they differ
I appreciate the EMB book because it introduced me to a clear, authentic description of sexual purity consistent with Biblical teaching and also offered several helpful tools for implementing this. The book is now in thirty languages and has enabled untold numbers to gain freedom from the bondage of lust all over the world, including me. Yet there is an inconsistency within it that came from it being a collaborative effort.
Specifically, there is an entire chapter grafted into the book entitled “Addiction- or something else,” which was obviously written by Stephen Arterburn. The introduction to the book explains that the publisher brought Arterburn in as a coauthor after the first draft of the book by Stoeker was submitted. This particular chapter of the book includes self -administered test questions and the advice to contact a professional for help if one fails the test. For example, the first question was, “Do you lock in when an attractive woman comes near you?” “Locking in” is not defined. This test is meant as a pre-screening device. If a person feels like he may have crossed the line into addiction, he is directed to an 800 number for help. Operators stand by to pitch the EMB workshop.
I was not aware of this until later. In retrospect, it is clear that Arterburn and counselors who agree with him have been consistent in the belief that when the line is crossed into addiction, intensive treatment along the lines recommended by the workshop comes into play. That this treatment would diverge so radically from Biblical principles was not explained in the book but became clear after attending the EMB workshop.
The actual questions included in the test are not technical and it is likely that anyone dealing with lust issues could conclude that he very well may be a sex addict based on reading this chapter. Nevertheless, if you look past this section about sexual addiction and do not drill down further into the solutions that Arterburn’s organization, New Life Ministries, is eager to provide, the basic teaching of the EMB book is very sound.
In comparing the book to the workshop the core difference was that while the book is firmly based on Biblical teaching, the Workshop was based on secular theories with biblical teaching patched on. I am sure that this is because Fred Stoeker, the lead author of the book itself (http://www.fredstoeker.com), had no part in the development of the Every Man’s Battle workshop and has never had a direct connection to the New Life organization.
The biggest difference between the book and the workshop is a core difference of opinion about the sin of lust. This difference, mirrors the fact that popular Christian teaching is also clearly of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, the seminar supported a view that is in line with the one held by society at large. It holds that men are incapable of controlling their sexual thoughts. In fact, lustful thoughts are an inescapable part of our lives, with our imaginations easy prey to all kinds of sexual distractions.
As our society devolves from a passive disapproval of pornography to a wholesale embrace of soft and hard-core pornography, such a point of view has stunning implications. If it is not possible to effectively control our thoughts, all men, including Christians, face an unachievable goal if they are seeking sexual purity in their innermost being. In contrast, the book forcefully argues for a diametrically different view that Christian men are called to and capable of achieving purity in their thought lives.
This view takes the teaching of Scripture literally and offers a road map for men who are overcome by sexual temptation in their thoughts and imaginations. The end result of such success is a liberating way to live in a society that is saturated with sexual images and accepting of sexual activities of all kinds.
These diametrically opposing views of how to understand lust resulted in four very striking differences between the EMB book and EMB workshop:
1) Sinner versus addict The first major difference is that the EMB book emphasizes the fact that allowing impure sexual thoughts to take hold in our minds is a grave sin. Such knowledge should motivate men to confess and repent, meaning to thoroughly remove lust from their lives.
Fundamentally, the book calls on Christians to despise lust and to apply an achievable standard of purity. It also demonstrates how this purity can save and enrich troubled marriages. The workshop, in contrast, stuck closely to our culture’s accepted wisdom. In fact, the leader, who continues to be the West Coast Program Director and main author and speaker for the workshop introduced himself with the classic twelve step introduction, “I am a sex addict.”
He felt comfortable saying this despite the fact that he was a pastor and a noted writer on sexual purity issues. During one of the early sessions the sin issue and the need to confess and repent was clearly explained. However, this straightforward biblical teaching was not the central theme of the conference and was quickly abandoned along the way.
Instead of focusing on the sin of lust and how to eliminate it from our lives, the workshop message wrapped itself in therapeutic language. Recovery, relapse, and regression were just some of the key concepts that dominated. The bulk of the teaching dealt with inner conflicts, childhood experiences and emotional triggers that supposedly lie at the root of the problem. Dealing with our moods, past wounds and resentment was touted as essential in order to get a grip on our unhealthy behavior. The need to gain control of certain behaviors, such as viewing pornography and masturbation, emerged as the main focus instead of eliminating lust dwelling in the heart.
This wholesale surrender to muddled, secular theories about uncontrolled lust and the accompanying strong emphasis on outward behavior contrasted strikingly with the direct uncomplicated teaching found in the EMB book. For example, a fundamental insight presented in the EMB book is the distinction it lays down between “excellence” and “purity.”
Excellence sounds good and lines up with what even the world would advocate for those seeking a high standard of behavior in the sexual realm. Those Christians achieving excellence would exhibit an ability to behave properly and to keep sexual sin under control in a way that almost anyone would find commendable. In contrast, the EMB book rejects such excellence in favor of purity.
To that end it provides an unmistakably clear description of what purity looks like. This standard is not subjective. Sexual purity tracks with what the Bible teaches us to do and means eliminating evil desires. Violating this Biblical standard is a serious sin and needs to be dealt with as such. Since the workshop did not present sexual lust as the central problem to be overcome, the need to control bad behavior rather than evil thoughts drew the focus.
Taking an uncompromising attitude towards the sin of lust and recognizing the need for forgiveness and repentance whenever this sin appears was replaced with the model of addiction. Under this model, sin is never really eliminated and true repentance or turning from our sin is not expected. Instead the workshop provided ways to live with our problem while we admit that it still is a powerful force in our lives. As addicts, the best we could hope for was to manage our unhealthy sexual behavior. Sessions in the workshop were focused on addressing problems and strategies that apply to a sex addict, but never defined what a sex addict was.
The following quote is taken from the secular Sexual Recovery Institute (SRI) website. It helps us understand what that particular group believes being a sex addict means. “Addiction is not defined by type of sexual act, by choice of sexual partner, or the sex of that partner. Sexual addiction is defined by the escalating negative consequences of sexual behaviors that are acted out compulsively and impulsively, often without regard to personal or relational consequences.”
Every one of the men who came to the workshop was well aware of the escalating negative consequences of compulsive sexual behavior. Yet, the assumption that everyone who had signed up for the workshop was a sex addict surprised me. I certainly did not see myself that way.
2) Sexual sobriety versus sexual purity
Another key difference between the EMB workshop and the EMB book was that sexual purity was never defined or emphasized in the workshop. Believing compulsive behavior was the real problem, modifying behavior became the focus and attaining sexual sobriety moved to center stage as the defined objective. Since the philosophy for the workshop’s focus and treatment were lifted from 12 step programs and Alcoholics Anonymous, sexual sobriety became the standard for measuring success.
Before we look at how the workshop defined this benchmark, we may consider the way others define it. Consider the following discussion regarding sexual sobriety, which is also from the SRI website:
“In order for recovery to take place from any addiction, there must be some bottom line definition of sobriety. For the alcoholic this is a simple definition, alcoholics and drug addicts define sobriety as being the amount of time they have abstained from the use of alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals. Example: “I stopped using drugs and alcohol on June 15th 1987, therefore I am over 10 years sober.”
For the recovering sexual addict however, sobriety can be more challenging to define. Unlike sobriety from the use of substances, sexual sobriety is rarely considered to be complete abstinence from sex, though at times recovering persons may use complete sexual abstinence (celibacy) for short periods of time while gaining personal perspective or addressing a particular issue. Sexual sobriety is most often defined as a contract that the sexual addict makes between him/herself and their 12 step recovery support and/or their therapist/clergy. These contracts or “sex plans” are always written and involve clearly defined concrete behaviors from which the sexual addict has committed to abstain in order to define their sobriety.”
That seems clear enough. Sexual sobriety can mean whatever we want it to mean. In that spirit, the EMB Workshop’s definition of sexual sobriety came down to eliminating the behaviors of viewing pornography, masturbation and illicit sex. The managing of these particular sexual behaviors became the dominant thrust of the workshop. With the emphasis placed on such externally visible sins the subject of secret, internal sins went under the bus.
At the last session the goal was summed up with the charge for attendees to “maintain sexual sobriety and strive for sexual purity.” Of course, since sexual purity was never defined or taught, that last part was fairly meaningless.
The “battle plan” suggested for maintaining sexual sobriety was an enduring program to prevent inner lust from “acting out” as external behavior. This plan was grueling, time consuming and complicated. At a minimum it included a regimen of weekly sessions with each of the following: a professional therapist, an accountability partner, a support group, and a pastor, in addition to daily personal prayer and study. Attendees are warned that choosing a less rigorous path would inevitably result in failure.
If this looks like a plan modeled on the “recovery” programs common to drug and alcohol addiction groups, it is because this is exactly the approach prescribed. The underlying premise is that men who are caught up in sexual sin are broken and the required treatment including an intense regimen of recovery sessions and therapy would always be needed.
Sexual sobriety of this stripe looks a lot like what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing- cleaning the outside of the cup instead of the inside. Unfortunately for those advocating this approach, He was singularly unimpressed with what the workshop defined as sexual sobriety. Instead, He taught that internal and external sins were equally repugnant to God and demanded purity of the heart so that there would be purity of action. This central truth must become an essential element in any Christian response to compulsively powerful sins.
When there is sin in the heart, it will eventually display itself outwardly. In fact, sexual sobriety without purity in the heart is an impossible charge. Instead of drawing the line at outward behavior, the battle which the EMB book describes is waged within.
According to the book, Christians must overcome the sin of lust in their hearts and cultivate practices that support this. It never brings up “sexual sobriety,” a concept that has no basis in biblical teaching. Neither does the book or Scripture help us understand sexual addiction and carefully crafted strategies for managing our sexual desires. Instead of an unwieldy battle plan as demanded by the workshop, the EMB book sets forth, in a very systematic and compelling way, how every Christian man can obey God’s call for purity in his heart.
Unfortunately, the goal of maintaining sexual sobriety as called for by the workshop is inadequate for the challenge of our day. Men who give in to sexual temptation in their hearts are no longer protected by the cultural restraints that historically have kept pornography and immorality at bay. In fact, the advent of the Internet and other media has opened up a cesspool that is always just a few clicks away.
Someone who regularly gives in to lust will be unable to maintain sexual sobriety easily or at all. As Jesus explained, for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications. Trying to set up a standard that ignores this truth is futile. Even taken on their own terms, it amazed me that the leaders made no attempt in the workshop to distinguish between those who may be addicts from those who were not. Instead, the mere fact that someone was attending acted as prima facie proof that they were sexual addicts and in need of intense therapy.
It is inconceivable to me that the preferred way to overcome what amounts to an epidemic problem dealt with by countless men is to commit oneself to a lifestyle chock full of recovery activities and to adopt the label of an incurable sex addict. However, if that is the chosen solution, it is dramatically different than the thrust of the teaching in the EMB book.
An attendee raised the question as to what action to take if no Christian recovery group was available in their area. The shocking and revealing response to this was to contact Sexaholics Anonymous as a way to find the closest group for help. Teaming up with a secular self-help group of admitted sinners who do not use Scripture as a foundation struck me as beyond the pale. (see special note at the end of this article.)
Yet, it did demonstrate that secular philosophy and concepts were fundamental to all that the seminar offered. Again, this is markedly different than that which the EMB book presented.
3) Victory versus ongoing recovery
The EMB book lays out a practical and brutally honest battle plan for gaining victory over lust. It shows that by means of carefully disciplined behavior, literal acceptance of biblical teaching, support from those who are godly and a gracious dependence on our all-sufficient Savior, there is no reason that lust should reign in the hearts of a believer.
A follow-up to the EMB book, called Everyman’s Challenge, contains a chapter entitled “The death of temptation.” It describes a condition where sexual temptation is no longer a persistent problem. By overcoming lust on a daily basis, the temptation towards this sin loses its power. This lines up with my experience and with that of countless others.
In my mind, this is when victory can be claimed. I have seen a similar dramatic change in other men and have no doubt that it is in reach for all. Unfortunately, the heavily promoted and regularly held EMB workshop does not hold out any prospect of victory over lust. Nothing close to this concept is promoted or illustrated. In stark contrast to the victorious message of the EMB book, the EMB workshop describes a never-ending struggle. Because it buys into the addiction model, the best it can offer is an inescapable twelve step treadmill. Addicts should not expect a cure. They are doomed to furtively flee every temptation and to desperately manage their passions.
In a culture that is losing all self-control, even the sad state of “sexual sobriety” would appear out of reach. In fact, attendees were told that relapses (breaking sobriety) are not failures, but mere slips into old habits that are bound to happen. This was perhaps the most striking and discouraging part of the workshop. It was bad enough that the regimen laid out was intense with numerous recovery, counselor and pastoral meetings, but also that there was no hope for a successful conclusion.
4) Healthy sexuality vs. recovery
The EMB book is remarkable in that it includes comments from the spouses of the authors and highlights the damage to marriages caused by the sin of lust and the special care needed to bring healing into relationships as purity is being established.
This part of the problem is addressed further in other books that are a part of the Every Man’s Battle series. Developing a clear goal of victory over lust is something that should be welcomed in any marriage. By stressing the ways that the marriage relationship can be healed and strengthened as a result of properly eliminating sin, the book tackles the most wrenching byproduct of the sin of evil desires. It strikes at the very core of trust and intimacy. In contrast to the EMB book, the EMB workshop brushed over the issue of how to integrate the pursuit of sexual sobriety into a successful marriage.
I know that my wife would never have been be satisfied with the very meager goals that sexual sobriety represents. Moreover, the battle plan outlined by the workshop was thoroughly inwardly directed. Recovery groups, counseling sessions and such were undertaken to foster personal sexual sobriety and not to rebuild and strengthen marriages. Strategies for accomplishing this were not covered by the workshop nor recommended.
Because of the massive time investment, the very limited projected payoff and the extraordinary ongoing financial costs, the sexual sobriety battle plan being promoted would have been totally unacceptable in my marriage. I cannot imagine needing to inflict such a program upon anyone. Once I understood what victory over lust looked like as a direct result of teaching from the EMB book, I found it to be something that Marsha and I could both fully agree upon. Since it was also in complete agreement with what God’s Word calls for us, there was no need to hold back or to be ashamed. It has also compelled me to write this book. I wish someone else would have gotten this duty, but it is what it is.
On the other hand, where are the bright testimonies that come from those who are gingerly clinging to sexual sobriety? I am embarrassed and ashamed of my past sin and the length of time it took to figure things out, but I am also filled with joy at finally being on track with my gracious Lord and the lovely wife he blessed me with.
At the end of the workshop, we were invited to share with the larger group what we had learned as well as other thoughts. Most of the sharing consisted of the expression of good intentions to try harder and to implement changes in behavior. I spent time the night before writing out an evaluation to turn in, which was also requested. I stood in front of the group and the leaders and read this evaluation, which was built around the first three concerns listed above. I ended my comments with the reminder that we were told early on in the workshop that the EMB book was a good primer but that the real meat would be coming in the form of teaching provided in the workshop.
My advice based on my own experience was that if they wanted success, they should stick to the EMB book, understand the biblical principles that underline it and then to apply its practical tools. This had worked for me and for many others. It could work for them as well. My inner emotions ranged from grief to anger over how poorly these courageous men were being served. No one responded to my concerns or challenged my statements.
Heading home, I thought that this was all some really big mistake. Having worked on my evaluation and my comments, I decided to call New Life Ministries to discuss this with Stephen Arterburn. Graciously, he personally took my call. After briefly explaining my concerns I agreed to fax him what I had written out. He said he would be looking for it and would get back to me once he had read it. Neither Arterburn nor his staff at New Life Ministries returned calls or interacted further. I heard from another source that my expression of concerns had caused a bit of an uproar and that no one was allowed to contact me.
I have also tried unsuccessfully to connect with the Christian psychologist who I got to know at the workshop. I can only assume that he and the many others who were part of the staff for the workshop agree with its teaching and underlying assumptions.
Before leaving discussion about the EMB book and workshop, I must comment about the stories that are used by the authors in the book to illustrate their message. Some have argued that these are more graphic than is necessary. This is seems mostly unfounded, but the issue seems to come up when I talk to others about the book.
Those who argue this had better get their heads out of the sand. The problem has only gotten worse since the book was written. Talk to anyone who has lived on a college campus recently and you will realize that these stories are all most like anachronisms.
The game plan
The Game Plan written by Joe Dallas is also in the sexual sobriety camp. His definition is this: sexual sobriety is “abstaining from pornography or immoral sexual contact with another person.” He is ambivalent about whether one should include abstinence from masturbation as part of the sobriety definition but does conclude that masturbation “is usually, if not always, wrong.”
Unlike the EMB workshop, Dallas is not quick to use the term “sexual addiction,” as applied to Christians and explains it this way, “You are first and foremost, a child of God. If you also happen to be sexually addicted, it’s wise to recognize this as well so you take appropriate action to keep the addiction from running your life.” He describes an addict as one whose “sexual sin has increased in frequency and intensity” and basically taken over their lives.
Even though he is a Christian Counselor, Dallas does not claim that counseling with a trained counselor is essential. However, his approach does assume an ongoing struggle with lust and a daily recommitment to the limited goals of sexual sobriety he has outlined. His plan requires a daily personal regimen and ongoing weekly accountability with a partner or recovery group to that end. He writes, “Every day, then you’ll recommit to sexual sobriety.”
Like the EMB workshop leaders, he encourages a striving for the ideal of sexual purity and a daily commitment to sexual sobriety. Freedom from this sin is not part of the package. Apparently in his mind and in the minds of many others lust is a special sin, undefeatable in the life of a Christian.
Who do you go to?
Pastors, churches and individual Christians have a great challenge as to where best to send someone when they are suffering from being overwhelmed by the sin of lust or the damage in relationships that result. As I have been learning and applying the truth about lust, I am becoming very hesitant about trusting the way that counselors, recovery groups or even pastors offer help.
At one point in our marriage, my wife Marsha met with a respected and ordained leader in women’s ministry about the way this issue was affecting our marriage. After she explained her concerns, the response from this leader was merely to brush them aside and to explain that all men struggle with lust and that she should learn to put up with it. There was not really much to be done.
This was not too much different than what Marsha had been hearing from me. However, it was wrong. When members go to their churches and pastors for help in this area, they are often referred to a professional Christian counselor or some sort of recovery group for help. Aside from the prohibitive cost and time commitment of such a treatment, there is no guarantee that such counsel will be effective or even helpful. In fact, it is likely that the philosophy and content of such counseling will mirror the dreadful errors presented at the EMB Workshop that I attended.
Some forms of Christian Counseling are built around the method of digging into past experiences that trigger behavior. They are also usually steeped in secular theories and treatments. This may cause them to rely on the wisdom of this world. There is a similar problem with Christian recovery groups. They also are all over the map as to what is being said and taught and tend to be led by men who are still struggling. That which is presented may reinforce a feeling of hopelessness or fail to hold up a Biblical standard.
My understanding is that this approach is especially common among American evangelical Christian counselors but that it is not universally accepted or utilized. If sexual sobriety is defined as the goal and the term can have such a wide range of meanings, it is critical that such a goal includes something much deeper than observable sins. We are called to have a pure heart and this is possible when we live in Christ.
The only escape from the overwhelming sin of lust is to seek out and follow the teachings of Jesus who took on the title of Wonderful Counselor and to fully rely on the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father. If you ever encounter less than an authentic Biblical response to overwhelming sin, I would urge you to go somewhere else.
Does the Bible speak to addiction?
The use of the 12 Step program or recovery approach as a way to treat the indwelling sin of lust is pervasive. There are a lot of reasons for this, including its flexibility, references to a “higher power” and easy implementation. However, the main reason is that those who are caught up in this kind of sin feel powerless and lacking in self-control. Like one who is physically addicted to drugs or alcohol, they feel helpless and dependent on what they cannot resist.
Scripture is not silent on this issue. As we will see in the following chapters, this very condition is described frequently in Scripture with the metaphor of being a prisoner to sin. This is apt since a captive is bound and oppressed much like one who is controlled by his inner lust. Jesus was blunt about the power of sin saying,
“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34) Once we concur with the validity of that statement and acknowledge our own bondage, we can begin to find real solutions. The desired outcome of freedom from such captivity in a Christian seeking to overcome lust is not that he has merely put the bad Genie of shameful behavior of seeking out pornography and masturbating back in the bottle. Instead, the outcome we are promised is freedom from sin. God offers inner transformation and freedom.
This freedom includes by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body. (Romans 6) This is the promise offered by a life in Christ.
A Christian leader should never confess, “I am a sex addict.” If the Church permits or endorses this, it is validating the claim, “I am a slave to sin,” as if that were an acceptable expression for a mature Christian. It is instead a clear contradiction of what the Word of God teaches. The apostle Paul provides in depth teaching for those who have become slaves to sin, as we will examine a little later. He confidently proclaimed, you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, and we can lean on this truth. (Romans 7)
Not painting all with the same brush
When someone comes to us with a pressing, frightening need in this area, our first response should not be to send them off to a professional counselor. Instead, we need to clearly and gently lead them by example into the paths of righteousness showing them what victory over lust looks like.
If we do connect them with others we must be sure that they also are victorious and are prepared to counsel from that perspective. As I have been writing this book, I have been looking to others that I trust for help. At one point, I felt that this chapter, which is built around the highly personal and unhappy experience that I went through by attending the EMB Workshop, should not be included.
My intention is not to malign anyone. A friend who is a respected Christian psychologist positioned in Europe urged me to go ahead and leave it in. Though trained in the US and teaching here at times, he was surprised and disappointed at my description of the direction that apparently so much of the Christian Counseling movement in the US is heading and the approaches that are gaining popularity in some quarters for treating sexual sin.
He has graciously taken the time to review this chapter, advised me on it and encouraged me to proceed with it. Knowing that there are many Christian counseling professionals who are upholding biblical standards is encouraging. The field has not been completely overrun by the burgeoning recovery movement.
Yet I do not know how such counselors can easily be identified and urge those who recommend or use such services to make sure of what is being offered. I believe that an unfortunate assumption in much of the church and especially among those caught up in sin is that God is in the “recovery” business.
Our calling is not to recover, but instead to become God’s children- heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. This is something new and breathtaking. It takes us far beyond mere recovery or the shedding of sinful habits. We had better find out whatever may be stopping us from confidently describing ourselves as more than conquerors just like Paul and take corrective action.
After all, Jesus called us the light of the world with the intention that we would participate in His mission to dispel the darkness. For the remainder of the book, we will explore Biblical teaching about lust and how we are to deal with it in our lives.
by Jim Vander Spek
Special Note: I have come to appreciate the work that Sexaholics Anonymous is doing. Although SA is a twelve stem program, they are unique in the way they deal with lust. For more information about this read here. The following short paragraph was included in the latest edition of Overcoming Lust in response to this:
Authentic Sexual Sobriety
The term “Sexual Sobriety” was coined by the founder of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) who described it this way:
“In defining sobriety, we do not speak for those outside Sexaholics Anonymous. We can only speak for ourselves. Thus, for the married sexaholic, sexual sobriety means having no form of sex with self or with persons other than the spouse. For the unmarried sexaholic, sexual sobriety means freedom from sex of any kind. And for all of us, single and married alike, sexual sobriety also includes progressive victory over lust“. 1 (emphasis added)
SA has stuck relentlessly to this definition despite opposition from some quarters. Any Christian should feel comfortable with this version of sexual sobriety if it is pursued according to Biblical principles. It is unfortunate and tragic that many—both Christian and non-Christian—have hijacked the term and gutted it so that it has lost its most potent element: “progressive victory over lust.”
1. K., Roy (October 15, 2001). Sexaholics Anonymous. SA Publications. p. 192