Friday, February 06, 2009

How to Deal With the Guilt of Sexual Failure - A Response to John Piper

This was written by Shepherd's Staff Board Member Jim Vander Spek.

Dr. John Piper, the noted pastor and author, has written a widely quoted and admired article about sexual failure among Christians. It was entitled Gutsy Guilt and published October 19, 2007 in Christianity Today. This was an abbreviated version of an earlier message entitled How to deal with the guilt of sexual failure for the glory of Christ and his global cause. These articles and another entitled Missions and Masturbation are freely available on his website. Together, they embody a longstanding position held by this articulate author.

Here is what I understand Piper to be saying. If you are a person who feels God's calling on your life to serve him and yet find yourself overwhelmed by guilt, which comes from an act of uncontrolled lust, you should work through this guilt and continue striving to fulfill God's call. By all means do not allow Satan to use the guilt you feel in such a way that you lose your dream. Accordingly, your strategy should be to understand and appreciate more fully the substitutionary atonement made available by the cross of Christ. Becoming increasingly knowledgeable of God's grace and provision will provide, over time, enough "ballast" to conquer fornication. By allowing Christ to become increasingly precious to you, you will fall less often and not allow Satan to destroy your dream of radical obedience. Emphasizing the point he writes, "The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography." Instead, it is that you are being stripped of your radical dreams to serve Christ.

When I first read Piper's perspective on this vital topic, it made me cringe. He had encapsulated a message and point of view that I had heard before and have found totally ineffective and destructive. Underlying his message is an assumption that "blowing it" periodically in the sexual realm was unfortunate but actually somewhat tolerable. Instead of looking at our own weaknesses, we need to place our focus on God's grace, since He has forgiven us. As we mature in our faith, the problem will diminish. There is no reason to overemphasize our sin. Boys will be boys.

However, after more reflection, my concern has deepened. Piper's message is deficient and needs to be confronted. Most critically, there must be a realization that when a man is overwhelmed by lust and "acts out" in some way or another, such as through masturbation, an illicit affair or emersion in pornography, it is not that particular expression which lies at the center of the problem. Rather, it is the failure of this man to obey the truth presented by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We are clearly forbidden by our Savior to look with lust, period. All lustful looking is sin, whether it involves television, movies, magazines, the Internet or a purposeful walk on the beach. If you lust, even briefly, you have sinned. Keep on lusting and the evil in your heart will break out and result in behavior that is observable, distressing and guilt inducing. Rather than gutting it out, we should see this guilt as a gift from God. It is a kindness. It should lead us to repentance. The only reasonable response is to turn away, not merely from our repulsive observable behavior, but from each and every lustful thought that could lead us to that point.

Jesus did not direct this zero tolerance policy just towards the "sex addict." It is for everyone. At one point, Piper states "theology can conquer biology." The inference is that there is a biological or anatomical source to lust. Poor me, I have a body that wants to sin. If we really believe that this is the source of our problem, we should eagerly pick up the gauntlet that Jesus threw down and pluck out our eyes or mutilate ourselves in some other way. However, it must be obvious that rather than our biology, it is our wayward thoughts and rebellious hearts that are of such grave concern to God. Lust is not a physical or even an emotional imperative. Instead, it is the corruption of a God given capacity. Whenever the object of our sexual desire is not our wife, it is sin. Sensitizing ourselves to this simple truth and training ourselves to recoil from temptations, which will inevitably and relentlessly confront us, is the only way that we can gain victory and be freed from gnawing guilt.

It is important to recognize that obedience rather than knowledge is the key to success. Piper ascribes far too much benefit to mere knowledge. Theological knowledge is fine as far as it goes, but can delude one if it is not coupled with obedience. In that form, it will lead to a righteousness like that of the Pharisees, who were content to preen without corresponding works worthy of repentance. It is telling that the concept of repentance does not appear in any of these three documents produced by Piper. This brings to mind the tenuous, uncomfortable connection that modern evangelicalism has with The Great Awakening of the 18th century. That period was a time when the church literally changed the culture because Christians were powerfully changed, whether they were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists or Wesleyans. The "awakening" was not to a cheerful understanding of God's grace and blessing. Rather it was a wrenching and deeply stirring awakening to repentance. Whether God instilled this awakening, as Brainerd or Edwards believed, or converts were responding to God's grace, as Wesley taught, the result was the same. We are all soft on sin when compared to the teachers of that era and we are the worse for it.

Piper's article in Christianity Today appeared almost immediately one month before Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals stepped down from his post and into the headlines with yet another sickening sexual evangelical leadership scandal. It had been a mere twelve months earlier that Haggard had garnered a cover story on CT, being lauded as an "optimistic champion of free market faith." Tragically, our champion brought embarrassment, being exposed as merely the most recent practitioner of a form of "gutsy guilt" that Piper seems to condone. No doubt, Haggard was deeply remorseful after episodes of binging on sex and drugs. He may even have drawn comfort from the same passage in Micah that Piper leans on, forcefully persisting in his calling and trusting that God would lift him up after he had so spectacularly blown it. Even now, many are eager for his restoration.

However, the wretched sexual trysts engaged in by Haggard were surely not isolated sins. Prolonged and destructive episodes of lustful looking must have preceded each of these events. God saw fit to bring it all to light and the whole world was treated to the spectacle of a male prostitute earnestly identifying the proclaimed leader of all evangelicals as a hypocrite. Did Satan unfairly use the guilt that Haggard surely endured to his advantage or did Haggard simply fail to properly turn from his sin and collapse in ruin as a result?

The sticky sin issue is one that is problematic for evangelicals. On the one hand, we fervently preach forgiveness from the penalty of sin. On the other, we seem to lack a belief that having been saved, we are also freed from the power of sin. As we have received Christ so we must also walk in Him. Sin not only results in eternal punishment, it also destroys our ability to function as we were designed to function. Lust, for example, is a sin that will absolutely derail the walk of a Christian. We were not designed to lust and to use our minds as unwholesomely creative fantasy generators. Accepting Christ and walking in Him, means being freed from the power of all sin including the sin of lust. Nevertheless, this is not the apex of the Christian life. Our model is not Adam nor our goal merely to attain some implausible sinless state. Rather, our goal is Christ living in us, furthering His mighty Kingdom and being joint heirs with Him as we bear His name. This incredible outcome, which was preordained before the foundation of the world, was hidden but is now revealed. This is our true calling not busy work and certainly not the life's work that we seek to achieve.

Piper, on the other hand, seems preoccupied with the idea that some may give up the "calling" that is on their lives due to their sexual failures. Apparently, this calling is some sort of full time Christian service. I would argue that it is a far greater tragedy to move into a position of church leadership even though we are allowing lust to occupy our thoughts. If Satan can continue to delude us into thinking that Christian leaders, let alone everyday Christians, are incapable of living in victory over sin, as they live in Christ, he would surely consider that sweet victory, indeed.

Where to find help.

If you are struggling with lust in your life, there is hope. I urge you to consider the resources developed by This group offers a free, effective, sixty-day internet study called The Way of Purity, which I strongly recommend. Not only will you find powerful and practical Biblical teaching, but also mentors for interaction and numerous testimonies from those who have been freed from crushing sin. You too can be set free from the bondage of lust. "If the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed."

Gutsy Guilt article in Christianity Today

How to Deal with the Guilt of Sexual Failure for the Glory of Christ and His Global Cause

Missions and Masturbation

Article Source:

How to Deal With the Guilt of Sexual Failure - A Response to John Piper


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but this is the biggest crock of BS I have ever read. Sexuality is a biological instinct we are driven to satisy and telling people they can "conquer" it through faith-based obedience is a crock. We need to find the proper outlet for this God-given drive through marriage but in the meantime we can expect to fail repeatedly and seek God's forgiveness. God understands our needs and wants to give us the desire of our hearts as long as what we desire is in line with His will. Sexuality is one of the greatest "natural" gifts he gave us and we should seek to honor that by expressing our sexuality in the context of a committed, loving relationship... that is not possible for many people at one time or another and I believe he understands our need to satisfy this intense desire in some way when that is the case.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if the author of this article could have possibly misrepresented or misinterpreted Piper any more than he did here. To assume that Piper has a "Boys will be Boys" attitude is way off base. Piper is describing the heart of the problem: not treasuring Christ like we should. Instead of giving a three step formula to beat lust, he says we need to ask God for the grace to treasure Christ more than we do now.

If a man wills himself to not ever look at porn but his heart is still being satisfied by something other than Christ he has gained nothing.

Joe B said...

Hold it, angry mob. I don't think the writer here is trying to misrepresent Piper. He is just saying that in his view, Piper's position amounts to the same thing as "boys will be boys."

But his disagreement with Piper births a slanderous interpretation of what he said, doesn't it? Martin Luther's creed, and mine, says this manner of thought and speech violates the 9th commandment in flamboyant style. Sin.

I'd imagine St Paul had heard Jesus' teaching of Mt 5:28. Well, he seems to take a different tack than van der Spek, OR Piper: "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. [Col 3:20-23]

This is true, and I testify that love triumphs over, lust just as surely as mercy triumphs over judgement.

"The law of the spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." [Rom 8:2]

Anonymous said...

If you set the bar in the wrong place you'll bump your head on it over and over.

Anonymous said...

bar? I believe it is possible to masturbate without visualizing a person. Sometimes the urge is strong and the act of masturbating requires no visualizing, but is just a way to find release. Is it that way all the time? No, but one can control that part and so then masturbation is not sin.

Bryonm said...

wow. i love a good controversy. cross piper and the fur really flies...

Joe B said...

Yeah, Piper is like the Eighth Sacrament, isn't he?

I am not a Piper guy, try as I may. He's brilliant and prolific, absolutely.

But he's like John MacArthur, once he says something it is gospel in his own eyes. I read one of his things yesterday in which he absolutely insists that "porneia" in the NT is specifically about "premarital sex", and he bases it solely on the fact that it is a concept distinct from adultery. What?? The logical hole is big enough to drive a bus through, but he doesn't see it.

Personally, I am wrong so much of the time that I seldom assume I'm right. I just assume I am so smart I have the right to be wrong. Wretched man that I am!

Anonymous said...

How about if we all just visualize unattractive women in burkas and masturbate to our hearts content. Gosh, Anonymous 2, you make it sound like lancing a boil. I can't help thinking you all just kinda missed the point somewhere.