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When the Problem is Sexual Sin

by John Bettler

In this case study, John Bettler describes how to help someone struggling with sexual sin. He concludes: “If you just deal with outward behavior, you’ll have little success”. See what strategy he recommends instead.

How do you counsel someone with a sexual problem, particularly a problem of pornography or masturbation? This article assumes that a counselor has a sound biblical theology on matters related to sexual sin; it intends only to offer a brief sketch of a counseling model that might be effectively used. The model I often use is the three-level pyramid pictured here, which I call the pyramid of lust. The operative verse for this model is Galatians 5:16: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” A person is either living in the flesh, which is this world’s system (not necessarily the human body), or living in the Spirit. When you are energized by the power of the Holy Spirit, He works through the Word of God to enable you to live a godly life.

Lust Object

This pyramid illustrates the different levels or degrees of lust or desire. At the top of this pyramid is the object of your lust for pleasure or release. It might be a magazine or an X-rated movie. Whatever it is, it is depersonalized in your mind and is simply an object for your use. If you are promiscuous sexually, for example, you are not having sex with a person; you are having sex with what to you is only an object. A man who is promiscuous is focusing only on objects of his lust, on breasts and vaginas. He is not focusing on the person who is his sexual partner. One of the first things I find out when I’m counseling somebody with a sexual problem is, what is the object of that lust? What are the objects of his desires?

Relationship Lusts

The second level of the pyramid focuses on the desires of relationship. Remember, the Bible never intended sex to exist as something to pursue in and of itself. It’s always meant to occur in the context of relationship. So, when I talk to a counselee, I want to know what his relationship desires are. What are the relationship lusts? What does this person want out of relationships? For example, does he want to be close? Does he want to be distant? Does he want to be safe or does he want to be risky? Does he want to get involved in the lives of others? Does he want nothing to do with people? In short, what are his relationship desires?

Life-meaning Lusts

Finally, the base of the pyramid looks at what the person wants out of life—not just pleasure and gratification, not just relationship, but life. What does he believe makes life work? What’s important? What isn’t? What does he believe he must have in order for his life to work, to function, to be successful? What we mean by that, of course, are the issues and idols of the heart. What are the person’s idolatrous desires? What are the heart desires that he thinks make his life work?

As foundational as this life level is, it’s important to note that if all you do is focus on this when a person has a problem with sex, you’re trying to invert the pyramid and leave it resting on a point. That doesn’t work. You must begin where the counselee is and find out what the object of his desire is. Then you want to know what relationship desires color his desires for those objects. And finally you want to know what his life desires or life lusts are. Those are either going to be desires of the flesh or of the Spirit.

A Case Study

Let me show you how I applied this model to one young man’s situation. This was a young, well-educated, professional Christian man, very active in his church. He was unmarried but had had a couple of dating relationships, none very serious. He came to talk to me about a problem with pornography and masturbation. This man wouldn’t fit the profile of someone with an “addictive” sexual problem (or what the Bible would term an enslaved sexual problem). He frankly didn’t put a lot of energy into his sexual sin. He would buy an occasional Playboy or Penthouse, but it wasn’t hard core pornography. He didn’t go to adult bookstores; he just went to the local drugstore for his magazines. He wouldn’t even rent X-rated movies; he’d just find R-rated movies that the newspaper said had “a lot of nudity.”

He’d bring that movie home and read his Playboys and masturbate. A young man is sometimes enslaved with masturbation and masturbates several times a day. This fellow did it only once or twice a week. However, this man was a Christian. He was under conviction, and he wanted his behavior to change.

A Counseling Strategy

As a counselor, how do you help him? First, you gather the information. You ask, “What’s the pattern? What’s going on? When does he do it? When doesn’t he do it?” Get him to keep a journal of when he is tempted and what’s going on around those temptations. That gives you what you need to deal with the top of the pyramid, the object of the lust.

Next, what about relationship lusts, relationship desires? What does this guy want out of relationships? Just as he didn’t put a lot of energy into his sin, this fellow didn’t put a lot of his energy into relationships either. He didn’t have any close friends. He had a lot of people he knew but not a lot of people with whom he was really intimate. One family in the church was trying to take him under wing and spend some time with him, but he was having a hard time opening up to them. He didn’t let anybody get very close to him.

So what do I find here? What I find at the level of relationship lusts is: don’t get close. Keep your distance. What this man desired from relationships was safety. He desired cordial relationships but not intimate ones. He wanted it safe. Who’s he thinking about? He’s not thinking about the other person; he’s always thinking of himself.

Then we come to the bottom of the pyramid, the life desires, the life lusts. What makes this man’s life work? What is his idol? What is in his heart? You’re probably already figuring it out: be safe. Don’t take risks. Don’t do anything with a lot of energy. This was a man who just got by. He kept his job, but he was never promoted because he never put much energy into anything. He just wanted to be safe and alone. Then his life would be okay. There are lots of things in his life experiences that led him to that point, and in counseling you would explore them. But you want him to see that this is what’s going on in his life.

“Get release whenever you can.” That’s of the flesh. “Don’t get close to people.” That’s of the flesh. “Be safe. Don’t take risks.” That’s of the flesh. I submit to you that the latter lusts are a lot more foundational than the first one. As serious as masturbation is, if you concentrate only on this and tell this guy to take cold showers so that he won’t yield to his temptation, you’re not going to help him. You have to deal with his relationship lusts and his life lusts as well. How do we do that?

A Three-Pronged Solution

I take a three-pronged approach. For the top part of the pyramid, my counsel is 2 Timothy 2:22: “Flee youthful lusts.” The strategy at this level is simply to get out of the way of temptation; flee. It’s the Joseph strategy. To help him do this we found someone in church to whom he would be accountable. This man was willing to call my counselee every day and say, “How did it go today?” He was also going to pray with him. It’s important to structure things so that it’s much more difficult to yield to the desired object.

For the second stage the operative verse was Philippians 2:3-4: “Let not every man look after his own interests but rather let him look after the interests of others.” When this fellow was trying to play it safe and not get close, the only person he was thinking about was himself, his self-protection. To get out of that he needed to find out how to get involved in the lives of others. We began to explore that, especially in terms of the family that was trying to “adopt” him. How could he begin to minister to them? How could he open up to them? What risks could he take to reveal some things about himself so that this family could help bear his burdens, pray with him, encourage him, confront him, and admonish him? He had to take the risks of getting close, and in his case that meant getting a little more honest about some of the things that were going on.

When we come to the level of life lusts and desires, the verse to turn to is 1 Timothy 4:7, where Paul says we have to “discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.” We have to work at it. This fellow didn’t work at anything. He took it easy for the purpose of protection. He didn’t discipline himself for the purpose of godliness. He didn’t trust God enough to know that God could protect him and care for him and sustain him in the midst of all of life’s difficulties. So here the assignment was “take risks” and all that implied for work, relationships, and everything else.

With that brief summary, my point is that if you’re going to counsel in relation to what we call lusts, sexual problems like pornography and masturbation, you need a robust approach that deals with all of them. If you just deal with outward behavior, you’ll have little success. Find out what the relationship lusts are, find out what the life lusts are, and develop a biblical strategy to deal with them all.

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