John was one of my most devoted volunteers. Not only did he help with my campus ministry, but he was also a full-time youth pastor at one of the big churches in the area. He even used the church bus to cart students to the school’s early morning Bible study. John was great. A couple of years later when I had moved on to a new ministry, I found out that John was arrested for having an inappropriate relationship with one of his students.
It happens often. Too often and more often than we’d like to admit. It begs the question–what drives perfectly capable ministers to throw their careers away? Certain sins start out as “not sin”. However, if they are allowed to grow they become a twisted version of what God intended. Lust is like that.
Lust is powerful because it is something that extends from how we are made. It is hard, especially for guys, to avoid this innate desire because we are wired to notice God’s great works of beauty.
Lust is essentially obsessive or excessive thoughts or desires that are of a sexual nature.
God created us for sex and created the system to work a certain way. Physical attraction is part of the design and the “not sin” part. It becomes lust when we obsess, meditate, or dwell on the object of our desire. Jesus was right when he said we would have to gouge out our eyes to avoid lust completely. This is especially true for our culture, where we are bombarded with images and messages of sex at every turn. Short of exercising that option, let’s explore the roots of lust–what leads someone like John to destroy his ministry–and how we can protect ourselves.
Avoiding the Fall
Jesus spoke directly to this issue as He was turning assumptions upside down. He told the Pharisees in Matthew 5 that it is not enough not to commit adultery; but that if you look with lust you have committed adultery in your heart. For Jesus, lust is a matter of the heart. It is not enough to not engage in the physical act of adultery.
In our ministries today, we may not reach the point of failure that my friend, John, did, but we still may have thoughts and desires that have already crossed the line. As much as sex has become an open and accepted sin in today’s society, it is one that still starts in the privacy of our minds. It starts with a reaction. It starts with a “Whoa!” moment. That “Whoa!” moment becomes thought, then obsession, and finally even expression. Thought, obsession, and expression can destroy our ministry.
Maybe our desires extend from deep heart wounds. One of a human’s deepest needs is to be intimate, connected and loved. Is it any wonder that God is often described as our Groom, our Beloved, and our Husband? When we try to find this intimacy away from God or marriage, things that happened to us long ago create wounds that we try to fill with things that will ultimately never fill our emptiness. We are driven to do things we never want to do.
In Christian circles whether we like it or not, there are sins and then there are “super sins”. There are things confess that we do and people will surround us and restore us. But there are also sins that we can commit or even confess that will bar us from ministry indefinitely or forever. Sexual immorality is a “super sin”, which starts out as lust. Matthew 15:19 says “ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”According to Jesus, sin begins in the heart and grows into more. James talks about how we can be carried away and enticed by the lust of our heart.
Our thoughts are first born from the good or evil intentions of our hearts. When I was in high school, I had an endless debate with my youth pastor about my choice of music. I made the classic argument that the lyrics do not affect me and that I just liked the music. As I got older (and Christian music got better), I began to listen to praise and worship music continuously. One day without the radio on, I caught myself singing a Chris Tomlin song; that was when my youth pastor won the argument. It’s not what’s on the radio that shows our heart intentions. It’s what we sing, think about, focus on when the radio is off that shows the true condition of our hearts. I realized that what I was singing when the radio was off was praise to God. Music was shaping my thought life and I didn’t even realize it.
When it comes to lust, I am not just reacting to the beauty around me. Let’s be honest; beauty, sexuality, and temptation cannot be avoided. But how I reacted to a scantily clad woman, how I react to a television ad is tied to what I fill my heart and thoughts I have. We can become ensnared by our thoughts and desires and those thoughts and desires lead to actions.
So how can we protect ourselves from something so dangerous? I wish there was a magic bullet. However there are some things we can do to bring every thought captive to our Savior and Lord.
We must examine ourselves. Get counseling if necessary. If the deep desires come from a deep emotional wound, they must be identified and worked through. Sometimes being in ministry means that we need to do the hard, gut-wrenching work that it takes to get past the injury of sin. This cannot and should not be done alone. Takings such steps can be tremendous parts of making sure we are all are in ministry for a long time. Ignoring these issues can even mean that we are using ministry to fill the void, instead of tackling it head on.
What are we taking in that can contribute to our thoughts of lust? Are we watching shows, movies, websites that provoke this type of thought life? We may have to give up your favorite TV shows or favorite bands. Just like the argument about music; it does affect us whether we know it or not. Where does lust have a grip on our hearts?
If lust is an issue, seek accountability. It is absolutely essential to find a trusted friend in which to confide our thought lives. Because this issue is such a “super sin”, be extremely careful with who is selected to help with this issue. There are not many churches that will allow a young, single youth pastor who openly confesses his struggles with lust work with students. It is a sad testimony to the state of the church today; but it is a true one. Accountability is a powerful instrument in dealing with things that really are beyond our control, especially if an element of this issue is pornography.
Wisdom about situations
My friend, John, got in trouble because his heart was filled with lust. When his lustful intentions found an opportunity, he gave in to a compromising situation. If we are to protect our students and our ministry, we have to use wisdom about the situations in which we place ourselves. Counseling the opposite sex one-on-one, whether it be student or adult, is inviting danger.
Make sure that if and when it happens, counseling happens in public–where someone could see what’s going on through a window or walk into a room at any time. Asking our students to dress modestly is not about being a prude. We are protecting and our students, our youth leaders, and even those of us who struggle the area of lust.
We must stop and take inventories of our ministries and identify potential situations where our ministries naturally place us in positions to compromise or be compromised. Talk about this issue as a student ministry team and make adjustments. Hold each other accountable to these policies and adjustments.
Satan uses this “super sin” to work its way into our hearts. It can grow beyond what God intended. It twists the desires of the heart into a warped version of what God wanted it to be until it becomes an idol, something we worship other than God. That idolatry can and will destroy our ability to be salt and light to the world. We do not have to gouge our eyes out; but constantl submit ourselves to the God who is more powerful than our desires and ask Him to create in us a clean heart.