Looking to the ground, his face is engulfed with hands searching to cover up feelings of shame and regret. Her back to him, her eyes are gazing toward the window, fighting back tears of betrayal. A dead silence exists between the couple. A silence that reflects the magnitude of a self-disclosure that could alter their relationship forever.
To break the silence would seem to disrespect the magnitude of what just happened. However, to allow it to continue would create a deeper foothold for hopelessness to grow. What type of disclosure can take a 25-year marriage and within just a couple minutes create such deep feelings of shame, betrayal, and utter hopelessness? This type of disclosure is becoming far too common in the offices of pastors and therapists as they look into the eyes of couples who have been devastated by sexual sin.
The frequency with which we are exposed to sexual temptation may be greater than at any other time in history. With the advent of the Internet and other types of technology we have stepped into a virtual world in which sexual experiences are much more accessible, affordable, and anonymous.
Patrick Carnes, one of the leading figures in the world on treating sexual addictions, refers to this as the triple threat to obsessive sexual thoughts and behaviors. How accessible is this? Recently we received an e-mail from a missionary friend who, with anguish, shared an unforgettable story.
He told the story of how in recent travels to some of the most remote parts of Papua New Guinea, he encountered what are best described as "porn huts." They are run by locals who exchange butchered pigs for generators, projectors, and pornography. Once purchased, the items are brought to these remote villages and turned into theatres that show pornography to anyone willing to pay two sweet potatoes for entrance.
Once the men in the village enter the hut, they are immediately swept into the world of sexual obsession. The draw of these films is so powerful that they return day after day, two sweet potatoes in hand.
While this story is incredibly moving, it only reflects one piece of the entire picture. The fact is that those struggling with sexually compulsive behaviors are not just strangers, but individuals we may encounter on a daily basis.
Current estimates suggest between 3 and 8 percent of people in the U.S. (and it is true in other world areas) struggle significantly with sexually addictive behaviors. Those 15-25 million people might include a coworker, neighbor, child, spouse, Sunday School teacher, or even a pastor.
Pornography, cyber-sex, and other means of sexual "acting out" have become so pervasive that the accountability and integrity necessary for living a holy life are constantly under assault. Spam e-mails, chat solicitations, TV commercials, and mainstream magazines have all become mechanisms for whetting our sexual appetites, providing an unending invitation to pleasure.
Among those most identified to be at risk for sexual obsessions: those with high stress jobs or academics, those with high amounts of unstructured free time, and those with low amounts of social support. If the picture in your head is a male high school student from a broken home with little parental involvement, you are partially correct. Others who fit this bill and are at high risk include college and graduate students, business people, and pastors.
Both men and women struggle with this. Factor in recent developments in the world of technology such as tablets, smartphones, and wireless Internet, and you have a perfect storm of variables necessary for problematic sexual behaviors to take root and grow.
While traveling and presenting, it is not uncommon for 50 percent of churchgoing men to inform us of their struggles with Internet pornography. Extramarital affairs and other forms of acting out represent a less frequent, but no less significant, portion of these Christians and their struggles with sexual behaviors. One variable that might drive this phenomenon in the Church can be understood as the "forbidden fruit phenomenon."
Shame is primarily characteristic of sexually compulsive behaviors, even when there is no moral compunction to inhibit one's participation in them. With Christians, the historical veil of secrecy that has shrouded the dialogue about sexuality in the church can predispose individuals to this shame-oriented perspective in understanding and experiencing sexuality.
This cycle of shame drives problematic behaviors deeper underground through a process of covering and hiding the source of shame. For many struggling with sexual sin, the primary means of escaping the shame associated with the behavior furthers their dependence on acting out, trapping them in a cycle of isolation and despair.
On one level, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the exploding variety of means by which sexually explicit material is distributed. Issues such as "sexting" and date rape invade our youth groups and Christian college campuses, becoming the topic of conversation at teen retreats and parental support groups alike.
Although the world may look different now, this is not the first time the Church has addressed the notion of sexual immorality. Four suggestions for providing hope and healing to those who struggle with sexually addictive behaviors include accountability software, healing ministries, further education, and counseling support.
Covenant Eyes is a product designed to solve the issue of compulsive sexual behavior from the inside out. Rather than a quick fix, the software helps users build a system of relational accountability and provides a structure to the external world, so that there is time and space to heal spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.
As the head of the church, the pastoral staff must set the tone with regard to voicing the need for software programs that maintain accountability in their lives and those of their congregation. Pastors, does your church computer have a software program installed to help keep you above reproach? What about your home computer or your cell phone?
The purchasing of software is not an admission of struggle with a particular issue, and should not be seen as such. Rather, it is a step closer to serving as healthy models of sexual purity for one another and for your church, knowing that no one is exempt.
Another critical variable in equipping the local church for addressing the cultural need that exists for sexual healing is a formal group ministry. Celebrate Recovery is one such ministry that is designed to provide intentional community for those who are seeking liberation from the bonds of addiction.
It may be easier to identify the need for a ministry such as this for drug and alcohol dependence in ministering to the needs of the local community given the history of the Church of the Nazarene. The fact is the chains of addiction operate almost identically for those struggling with sexually addictive behaviors.
Our call to setting the captives free has the opportunity to inform and equip us in ministering to the needs of our communities if we allow ourselves to perceive and engage the context around us.
Continuing education in the area of healthy sexuality and purity is crucial in facilitating lasting change in the hearts and minds of those in the church. The issue of sex has been influencing culture as long as there has been culture to be influenced. In embodying a people who have been set apart from the world, our responsibility in ministering to the culture around us is to be informed and grounded in scriptural truth.
Counseling services provided by trained sexual addiction clinicians can be a necessary step toward recovery for many. For many clients, counseling has been the extra step that freed them from the struggle with cravings to act out. Many of these clients describe having gone through years educating themselves, attending groups, praying diligently, only to still find themselves "white knuckling" to stay abstinent of their sexual acting out. In these cases it took a process of discovery with their counselors to uncover the origin of their cravings, both past and present, to set them free of their ruminating obsessions.
Pastors, counselors, and educators continue to recognize the need for equipped Christian counselors to work with those who need this additional step. MidAmerica Nazarene University has set up a certification program to equip mental health service providers to work effectively in providing hope and freedom from sexual obsessions for those who struggle.
Even with these resources at our disposal, ultimate healing can only happen as we depend on and trust in God to work in our lives.
Central to this process of healing and relational restoration is the community of the Church.
Much like the prophet Nathan in his dialogue with David, we are called to pursue holiness through difficult conversations on a personal and communal level.
A concluding example of this resides in the aforementioned community in Papua New Guinea. Recently word arrived that the community of believers began witnessing to and graciously reaching out to the owner of one "porn hut." As a result, the family has started attending church and the owner has disposed of the explicit materials that supported the operation.
We thank God for this reconciliation, as well as the restoration of hearts, lives, and marriages to come as we cling to grace and to the God who is able to bring forth hope and healing to this pandemic.
Todd Frye is chair of the Department of Counseling at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas.
Todd Bowman is coordinator of the Sexual Addictions Treatment Provider Certificate Program at MidAmerica Nazarene University.
Holiness Today, July/August 2012
Programs such as the Sexual Addiction Treatment Program at MidAmerica Nazarene University (www.mnu.edu/sexual-addictions.html) are excellent resources for pastors and laity. Sources such as this offer continuing education as well as provide conferences and presentations to their respective communities of faith that will equip them to minister more broadly and effectively to those who continue to struggle in finding the freedom from their sexual compulsivity they so greatly desire.