Motives at Work in Sexual Sin (Powlison)

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by [Powlison, David] Last week I mentioned David Powlison’s forthcoming book, Making All Things New.  Today I want to highlight part of it that is quite helpful in thinking of the nuts and bolts of sexual sin, whether it be adultery, pornography, homosexuality, or lust (and so on).  Below are various motives at work in sexual sin, which I’ve edited for length.  These motives are helpful for those who are fighting lust and other sexual sins:

  1. Angry desires for revenge.  Sexual acting out can be a way to express anger.  I once counseled a couple who had committed backlash adulteries.  They had a big fight, and the man angrily went out and hired a prostitute.  In retaliatory anger, the women went out and seduced her husband’s best friend.  The erotic pleasure wasn’t necessarily the driving force; anger was.  Though it’s rarely that dramatic, anger frequently plays a role in immorality.  A teenager finds sex a convenient way to rebel against and to hurt morally upright parents.  A man cruises down the internet after he and his wife exchange words….
  2. Longings to feel loved, approved, affirmed, or valued through romantic attention.  Consider the situation of a lonely and unattractive teenage girl who doesn’t necessarily enjoy sex.  Why does she sleep around?  It’s not because she longs for erotic pleasure.  She sleeps around in order to feed her consuming desire to have someone care for her romantically and pay attention to her.  It makes her feel loved.  She is enslaved by the desire to get attention and affirmation.  This is an extreme case, perhaps, but many people become sexually active at a young age because they feel pressure to be acceptable, they don’t want to be rejected, and they desire attention.  Sexual behavior can be an instrument in the hands of non-sexual cravings.
  3. Thrilling desires for the power and excitement of the chase.  Some people enjoy the sense of power and control over another person’s sexual response.  The flirt, the tease, the seducer are not motivated solely by sexual desires.  Deeper evil desires are at work than just sex – the thrill and rush that comes with being able to manipulate the romantic-erotic arousal of another.
  4. Anxious desire for money to meet basic survival needs.  Sex makes lots of money for lots of people.  The desire for money is greater than the desire for sex in this case.  One difficult example is the case of a single mother who was in desperate need of money.  Her sleazy landlord offered her free rent in return for sexual favors.  (Thankfully, this woman refused and her church family ended up helping her financially.)
  5. Distorted messianic desire to help another person.  Sometimes people play the rescuer-savior and they sleep with someone because they feel sorry for that person’s loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.  It is a sexual sin, but it is fueled by a warped desire to be helpful, admired, and to “save” a person.
  6. Desires for relief and rest amid the pressures of life.  Sexual sin often serves as an escape valve for other problems.  Consider a man who faces extreme pressures in the workplace.  He and his team pull a few all nighters to get an important project done.  They make it and he goes home completely exhausted.  But he finds no relief in having the project done.  So he revels in pornography and forgets his troubles.  Lust is at work, but there’s more to it.  He is looking for rest, and he sinfully finds it in erotic pleasure.
  7. Indifference, cynicism, ‘Who cares?’, ‘What’s the use?‘.  A single student – a Christian – once confessed that she slept with a co-worker.  She was working late and was tired after a long shift.  She had no accountability that night and was somewhat attracted to her co-worker.  He invited her over, and with a “what does it matter?” attitude, she accepted and sinned by sleeping with him.  This is the sin of acedia – sloth, giving up, spiritual laziness, not caring, saying ‘whatever.”

There are, of course, other reasons why people fall into sexual sins.  The point Powlison was making is that “sexual sin is symptomatic.  It expresses that deeper war for the heart’s loyalty.  We’ve looked at a handful of different ways the deeper war operates.  There are other dynamics, too!  But I hope this primes the pump so you learn to recognize more of what’s going on inside when red-letter sins make an appearance.”

The above-edited quotes are found in  David Powlison, Making All Things New, p. 80-87.

Shane Lems


“Living In The Light” by John Piper: A Review

One of John Piper’s newer booklets is called “Living in the Light: Money, Sex, & Power.”  In it he shows some of the dangers of money, sex, and power and talks about how these three things find their proper place in the Christian life.  Basically, he argues that we often use money, sex, and power in ways that do not glorify God, but if we do glorify God rightly, then we begin to view and use these things in proper ways.

In the first chapter Piper gives definitions and explanations of money, sex, and power.  By sex he means “experiencing erotic stimulation” or seeking to give or get it (p.18).  Power is “the capacity to get what you want” (p. 19).  Money is “one cultural symbol that we use to show what we value” (p. 17).  Using Romans 1, Piper shows that sinful humans turn these three things into idols.  (As a side, it seemed to me like sex was discussed more than the other two topics).

In the chapter on sex we learn that “disordered sexuality” stems from “a disordered relationship with God” (p. 39).  However, a proper sexuality stems from a right relationship with God, when he is at the center and sex is not.  In the chapter on money, Piper laments how Christians pursue wealth even though it is a danger and will fail us “even before the end” (p. 67).  If, however, we are satisfied most in God, then money will find its proper place in the Christian life.  The chapter on power was the weakest chapter in my opinion; I didn’t quite catch all the details of his logic.  The basic message was that we are by nature power addicts and the only way to fix this solution is to be satisfied in God’s power.

The book was helpful in that it kept talking about how the Christian needs to have God at the center and must treasure Christ above all so that power, money, and sex have their proper place in life.  The general theme of the book was a good one.

However, this also was a weakness of the book: the theme of treasuring Christ became the overarching lens to interpret these three topics in Scripture.  While on the one hand it is true we must treasure Christ above all; on the other hand there are many more dimensions in Scripture about these things.  Having a single lens while approaching power, sex, and money detracted the helpfulness of the book for me in various ways:

First, I learned early on that Piper’s answer to the idols of power, money, and sex would be to treasure Christ above them.  Right away I thought, “Ok, but what else does the Bible say about them?”  He did note other Bible themes, but they all were subsets of the “treasure” theme.  Second, this overarching theme led me to question some of Piper’s explanations.  He came to certain texts with the “treasure Christ above all” grid, which I believe led to some questionable interpretations of Scripture.  For example, he said the first commandment means “embrace me as your supreme treasure and be content in me” (p. 60).  I’m not sure that’s the best way to explain the first commandment.  Piper also noted that the essence of sin is not treasuring God/Christ above all (p. 25).  Isn’t it more biblical to say that the essence of sin is lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s law (cf. WSC Q/A 14)?

The third way I thought this book was unhelpful was how the theme of treasuring Christ above power, money, and sex was at times ambiguous and subjective for me.  For example, he said that “the mark of the Christian is that at the root of our lives is this new treasuring of God over all things…” (p. 29).  This seems a little subjective and ambiguous.  I prefer the Belgic Confession’s more objective “marks” of the Christian, which is a short list from Scripture (e.g. faith, love, repentance, etc.; see BCF Article 29).  I also missed a discussion of obedience to God’s law in this book.

I realize I may be in the minority here; my brothers and sisters who read this book might not agree with my critiques.  I admit that I haven’t read much of Piper’s work, so I’m willing to listen if anyone has comments/clarifications.  No doubt some people will enjoy this book, Living in the Light; Money, Sex, & Power.  If you’re looking for a short book that applies the “treasure Christ above all things” to money, sex, and power, you’ll appreciate this one!  If you want a book that discusses these themes in a broader or biblical-theological way, you may want to pass.

(I received this book from the Cross Focused review program in exchange for an honest review.)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Mohler’s “We Cannot Be Silent” – A Review

We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong How do you explain the American sexual revolution that has been taking place since the sixties?  And what is the Christian church to do about it?  These are important questions for us to ask. If you want thoughtful and informed answers to these questions, you’ll want to get Albert Mohler’s new book, We Cannot Be Silent (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015). The subtitle shows the aim of the book: “Speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, and the very meaning of right and wrong.”  In just over 200 pages, Mohler does a nice job explaining the sexual revolution, critiquing it from a Christian perspective, and offering constructive advice for how the church should move forward in the midst of this revolution.  It is a timely book for sure!

Chapter one is a discussion of how the sexual revolution has affected culture.  Chapter two is a study of how the revolution has negatively affected marriage and family.  In chapters three and four, Mohler discusses homosexuality and transgender issues.  The next chapter (five) is a study of the changing and ultimately the end of marriage.  Chapter eight is a summary of Scripture’s teaching on sexuality, while chapter nine has to do with religious freedom.  Chapters nine and ten talk about how the gospel addresses sexuality and some major questions that arise from the topic of the sexual revolution.  The conclusion of the book is a response to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

One reason why I appreciated this book is because it clearly explained how the current sexual mess this nation is in finds its roots in the past – before the nineties – back to the sixties and before.  The gay marriage and transgender issues didn’t arise in the last five years out of a vacuum.  Mohler speaks well to this issue.  The book was also helpful in that Mohler did a nice job of explaining how deep and wide this sexual revolution has spread in our culture: it affects so many things, from high school sports to the military to tax laws to doctor’s offices to elementary school bathrooms.  The sexual revolution is a major movement that the church has to face; we cannot be silent!

Mohler doesn’t just point fingers in this book; in fact, he doesn’t really point fingers in the bad sense of the term at all.  He examines, diagnoses, explains, and even notes that the Christian church has not always handled this revolution well.  So he gives a loving response on how we should go about dealing with the sexual revolution in a way that’s faithful to Scripture (in justice) but also radiates with love (in mercy).

There is a lot of info in this book!  If you’re looking for a quick and light read, this is not it!  However, if you want a readable, yet reasonably in-depth look at the sexual revolution from a Christian perspective, please, get this book: We Cannot Be Silent.  It will be a help to the church as we stand on the Continue reading

Openness Unhindered: A Review

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ I recently read Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield.  This book is a sequel or follow-up to her previous title, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In fact, the first chapter is a summary of her first book which gave the story of her conversion to Christianity.  The rest of the book gives more detail on what conversion is all about, specifically in light of homosexuality and sexual issues.

Here’s an outline of the book, starting with chapter two:

Chapter Two: Identity. 1) Who am I? United to Christ.  2) What am I like? Fallen, depraved, and sinful. 3) What do I need? Union with Christ and sanctification.
Chapter Three: Repentance. What is sin? What is true repentance? More on original sin and a discussion of temptation.  How to mortify sin.
Chapter Four: Sexual Orientation. Sexual orientation in the 19th century (Freud, German Romanticism, Foucault).  Natural revelation and orientation.  Heterosexual blindness.  Use of terms.
Chapter Five: Self Representation. What does it mean to be gay? What does the word gay mean? What is biblical sexual identity?
Chapter Six: Conflict: This chapter is about Butterfield’s disagreement about sexual issues with a female Christian friend.
Chapter Seven: Community.  What is community?  How to make your home a ‘hospitality home’ – seven steps.  Neighborhood community.
Epilogue: Marriage, ministry, and children.  A few more personal notes about the Butterfields.

So what did I think of the book?  Well, honestly, it wasn’t a huge page-turner for me.  Why?  1) A decent part of the book was very similar to her first book; several times I found myself thinking, “I’ve read this before.”  2) The book was rather wordy and dense.  I realize this is subjective, but in my opinion Butterfield used too many words to make her points.  Again, some readers may enjoy the extra words and phrases, but I’m the kind of reader who gets bogged down by wordiness and lengthy descriptions/analogies.  3) Big sections of the material in this book are not unique to it. For example, Butterfield’s discussion of sin and repentance is a summary of several Puritan’s writings and her discussion of “gay” and “identity” is similar to that in other Christian books I’ve read on those issues (for example, Sam Allberry, Wes Hill, and Albert Mohler to name a few).

Basically, I don’t think the book was “bad” at all.  It’s just that for me it wasn’t overly groundbreaking.  If you’ve not read many books that deal with (sexual) sin, temptation, sanctification, and homosexuality, I do recommend this book.  As a side, it may be too thick and detailed for some readers: there were some terms and big sections of this book that “average” readers might not follow (e.g. Rousseau’s philosophy, ontology, platonic, semantic range, lengthy doctrinal discussions, etc.).  It’s not “light” reading at all – it’s very academic reading for those familiar with some philosophy and Reformed theology.  Back to the point : I’m glad we have solid Christian books like these that speak biblical sanity in the confusion of the sexual revolution!  I hope (and believe) it will be helpful to many who read it with attention.

Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant, 2015).

shane lems

Hollywood, Narcissism, and Sex

Christians [should] disagree with the sexual ethic that Hollywood teaches, whether implicitly or explicitly.  This un-Christian, unnatural, privatized, and anti-social view of sex is, as Jennifer Morse argues well, narcissistic  (all about self).  In reality, sex is a public thing – meaning it affects more than just a single, solitary person.  It affects society.  Here’s how Morse describes it:

“For the entertainment industry, all sex is a private good.  Anything I choose to do or not do is acceptable.  My sex life is all about me and my desires and has nothing to do with community of any kind.”

“But Hollywood presents us with two, seemingly contradictory positions.  On the one hand, many stars seem to delight in taunting the public: ‘My sex life is private business; how dare you utter a word of criticism.’  On the other hand, this same group of people readily make their sexual activity public.  In addition to the fictionalized sex produced for movies and television, many entertainment figures share the details of their love lives to the public – every marriage and divorce, every affair and rumor.  As the stars age, and their biological clocks start ticking, we are treated to every facet of their pursuit of a baby, whether conceived naturally or artificially.  Yet when some members of the public object either to the content of the films or the tasteless self-display of the stars’ private lives, the entertainment world pretends to be shocked.”

“This apparent contradiction can be resolved with one word: narcissism.  Privacy in the sense that ‘this is my private business’ is really an implicit claim that I am entitled to do whatever I want without having to answer to anyone.  People express this position by saying, ‘Your rules don’t apply to me.  I am entitled to adapt the rules to my personal needs and desires.’  A cynical observer might offer a less charitable interpretation: these people are really saying ‘I am entitled to make up the rules as I go along.’

‘At the same time, the lack of discretion that seems to be the opposite of privacy allows a person to expose himself (literally and figuratively) to an anonymous public: ‘Look at me! Pay attention to me!’  Pathological narcissism, the worship or idealization of self, is the thread common to both of Hollywood’s interpretations of privacy (pp 120-121). ”

Morse goes on to basically say it is no wonder why many of these same celebrities have miserable lives.  Since they have “displayed their sexuality as a commodity, they have diminished and dehumanized themselves” and true intimacy and relationship are thus impossible.   Hollywood’s sexual contradiction – that sex is private but then displaying sex openly – results in wrecked lives.  And so it goes in society.  Sex is not just a private thing!

To read more of Morse’s excellent observations and critiques of America’s messed up sexual ethic, see Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2005).

shane lems

Consumer Sex and the Crumbling of Society

For quite a few years Jennifer Morse has been saying that if sex is separated from man-and-wife marriage, committed relationships, and procreation, and if it is reduced to a consumer product, it will lead to the weakening of a free society.  One of the places she argues this point is in her 2005 book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World.  I don’t agree with everything in this book, but Morse makes some outstanding ethical and social points in it.  For example:

The sexual revolution has been disappointing because it has been profoundly anti-social.  By uncoupling sexual activity from both of its natural functions, procreation and spousal unity, we have capsized the whole natural order of sexuality.  Instead of being an engine of sociability and community building, sex has become a consumer good.  Instead of being something that drives us out of ourselves and into a relationship with others, our sexual activity turns us inward on ourselves and on our own desires.  A sexual partner is not a person to whom I am irrevocably connected by bonds of love.  Rather, my sexual partner has become an object that satisfies me more or less well.  I call this modern approach to sexual behavior ‘consumer sex’” (p. 61-2).

“…The view I laid out in the first section [of this book] is an outline of an alternative view: human sexuality is about building up the community of the family, both through bringing new children into being and through unifying the spouses in heart and soul as well as body.”

“I believe this difference in world view is at the heart of the culture wars.  One side believes the meaning of human sexuality is primarily individual.  Sex is primarily a private activity; the purpose of sex is to obtain individual pleasure and satisfaction.  The alternative view is that sex is primarily a social activity.  The purpose of sex is building up the community of the family, starting with the spousal relationship and adding on from there” (p. 63).

“Sexual activity can be destructive of community if people become focused inward, exclusively on their own desires, rather than on the building up of the community of the family” (p. 115).

Morse is right on here.  A consumer view – a narcissistic view – of sex is ultimately bad for people and society in more ways that we might realize (I’ll come back to this in a later post).  The biblical view of husband, wife, marriage and family is not a straight-jacket, boring, or old-fashioned way of life; it is a way of life that benefits and blesses other people – and society as a whole!

Jennifer Roback Morse, Smart Sex, (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2005).

shane lems


In the first century, Paul said that Christian women “are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense” (1 Tim. 2:9 HCSB).  Speaking more broadly of sexual purity, all Christians should dress decently and not in a sexually immoral or suggestive way.  Kent Hughes talks about modesty in chapter seven of Set Apart.  His discussion is a good one; I’ll summarize it below.

What Fuels Immodesty Today?

1) The fashion industry.  Early on, Calvin Klein led the way in promoting a drugged-out cocaine chic as pale, skinny adolescent men and women posed in jeans (some with flies unzipped) in various postures of strung-out languor.  Today Abercrombie & Fitch is the leader in marketing lewdness.

2) The body industry.  If anything trumps the fashion industry in promoting immodesty, it’s the body industry.  The body business lives on the promotion of the myth that you cannot be happy without the body you desire.  …All you need to do is buy ‘Men’s Health’ and follow the directions.  And with those abs you’ll have a rich, full life.

3) The beauty industry.  Immodesty is fueled by an inordinate emphasis on the body and on the myth that you can’t be happy in less than a perfect body.  This culturally induced delusion and frustration is further fueled by the fashion industry’s peddling of fashions for skinny models who epitomize the ideal.

4) Sin’s industry.  And then there’s sin’s industry – that is, our own sin’s industriousness in dragging us down into immodesty.  At the heart of our sin is self-love.  We are naturally lovers of self rather than lovers of God.

“These immense pressures serve to marginalize modesty, until finally it is viewed as a quaint sentiment of a bygone day.”

And what are the negative effects of immodesty?

Hughes lists four things.  First, immodesty demystifies and diminishes the mystery of sexuality.  Second, it devalues humans, sexuality, and marriage; people are reduced to objects. Third, it breeds shallowness.  Fourth, immodestly confuses people and makes it difficult to live a chaste life.

“The Christian’s only hope is in Christ and his Holy Word.  And for the man or woman who has been victimized by the propaganda of the body industry, the answer is that you have been created in the image of God, and as such you are a beautiful and unique creation by God – whether tall or short, skinny or unskinny, well-endowed or less endowed, muscular or muscle less.”

The above is a summary of a longer and excellent discussion in chapter seven of Set Apart.  Recommended!

shane lems