Living in the Shadows of Your Sexual Past

Men struggling with unaddressed sexual sin are, at deep levels, game–players, juggling all the seen and unseen parts of their lives to make sure only the good parts are seen. I see this tendency in everyone who struggles with sexual sin, but it seems to happen the most with believers. Why? Because often in the church, people tend to succumb to the pressure of appearances. They don’t want others to know how they really struggle. The risk of letting others know who you really are seems too overwhelming, too risky. In church culture, you are often accepted if you seem to have it all together, but you can be viewed differently if you admit you have problems or difficulties.

Beneath the veneer of having it all together, however, many who struggle with persistent, hidden sin would really love to share their burden and get help walking away from their destructive choices. This was made clear to me years ago when our ministry placed carefully worded ads in local newspapers, aimed at those who might be questioning what was going on in their lives. The short ads would say something like, “Porn Struggle? Help Is Available”, or, “Does Porn Have a Grip on You? There’s Hope for You in Christ.”

The Perils of a Disjointed and Compartmentalized Life

A good number who responded to the ads were non-Christians, but the words spoke to them anyway. They were living the reality of Proverbs 14:13, which says “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” No matter how much people’s lives look put together, there can still be a lot of pain and hurt underneath—even in an unbeliever!

I realized something about those who initially came to us as unbelievers. If men came into our ministry, joined one of our Bible study/support groups, and then eventually came to a first-time, saving knowledge and faith in Christ, they often had a much better prognosis for dealing with their sexual sin biblically and sincerely. They had a healthier journey of growing in Christ and “putting off” their sexual sin than did believers who came to us after living disjointed, compartmentalized lives for many years.

How could that be? First, you’ve got to realize that, if you are a believer dealing with these struggles, no one may know about your hidden life—because you’ve designed it that way! Maybe no one even suspects the deep waters of your heart and the efforts you make to keep up a surface-level appearance of a healthy life. People can go on for years with lots of heart-crushing, life-devastating behaviors. No one in your life may ever catch on, and you’re worse off because of it. If you are ever going to deal with your heart with integrity, you will have to unlearn all the coping mechanisms you’ve developed to function in both worlds—your sin-oriented, secret world as well as your “Christian” world.    

People can live for years without anyone knowing about their sexual struggles. Therein lies the deepest power for soul and heart damage. It can lead to dozens of years of being a game-player, even as a Christian. How does it happen? Easy. We learn to compartmentalize, to wall off many parts of our lives early on. We can be this type of person over here, that person over there. And the person, even as a Christian, who learns to do that at age fifteen is soon the person doing that at age twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-five . . . unless God intervenes.

Being a game-player can be exhausting. But one of the most deadly consequences of learning how to live with a pornified heart is the inevitable internal corrosion that takes place over the years. The scariest part of it is that they may not even know that their own heart is decaying!

The Real Effects of a Corroded Heart

Our sexual sins not only cause our hearts to go dead, but they also keep us from being who and what we should be. After years of continued battle, blame-shifting, or justifying of sexual sin, our neglected hearts will rob everyone in our lives of something!

First, a commitment to playing games with porn and other sexual sin will rob you of your effectiveness as a man of God. It will rob you of the gospel words you’re called to speak into your own heart and to the hearts of those closest to you. You can no longer preach the gospel to yourself. It falls on deaf ears. You cease to believe it for yourself. This can be true even if you are in ministry.

Think about it. You lose your bout with internet porn on a regular basis. You’re filled with guilt and shame most of the time. Are you going to be engaged emotionally and practically with your wife? Are you going to be proactive in speaking into her life and your children’s lives? Probably not. You know the reality of your record, and it’s zapped your relational strength, vitality, and integrity. You’ve come to see yourself as a fake, a phony, a sham.

Second, this heart neglect robs men of their confidence in, love for, and excitement about things of God. How could it not? When you know deep down what’s going on in your heart, how you’ve been taken captive by your own untamed desires—and when you know your own record of defeat—it robs you of the love you once had for the gospel.      

Third, our unaddressed struggles also rob God! How do they do that? The counterfeit sexual idols we bow to vie for a deep place in our hearts, a place where only God was meant to dwell.

Does your continual inaction, resignation, and inattention to your heart rob God? You bet. Do they rob you and those around you? Absolutely. They keep you from being fully available to God and others. They keep you from being who you were called to be. In our addictions, our hearts seek attachments that cripple our image-bearing capabilities and the exercise of our gifts to bless others. Everyone loses out.

God Can Still Do Something Personal and Powerful

Change isn’t measured just by what we stop doing. It’s always measured in character change. God can still, very much, intervene. Character change includes coming to God for the courage to be honest. He can take your former preoccupation with yourself, which has robbed others, and can now help you to begin to be more interested in others than yourself. By the power of his grace, you can see yourself wanting to bless others, desiring their good and not just your own. You no longer hide what you are doing; instead, you are increasingly open with others about your struggles and faults. You become a truth-teller. Character grows when we live for God and serve others.

What does it take to want to start walking in repentance and find the help you know you desperately need? What is the path to freedom? You have to come out of your secret self and risk opening up to another person about your struggles.  Discouragement and despair often thrive in our isolation and commitment to go it alone. Also, realize that change is not just about trying harder, but comes from the resurrection power of the gospel that scripture says is at work in your heart and life through the Holy Spirit. As his beloved child, the very presence of God dwells there in you. Remind yourself that the gospel is so much bigger than we are—and that God is always calling broken and fallen people to himself to start again. Finally, ask the Lord to help you see yourself in a new light—as forgiven and, in Christ, more loved than you ever dared to imagine.  

Hide or Seek Frontcover

hide or seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex

You are not powerless in the fight against pornography and lust. Hide or Seek won’t ask you to jump through a series of hoops; it will simply suggest one clear step forward. Discover how the gospel speaks in practical terms to the most private areas of your life and how God offers the freedom you desire. Hide or Seek is easy-to-read, full of real-life stories, and points you to the hope for change that many men have given up on finding. 

About the author

John Freeman

John Freeman is the founder of Harvest USA, which ministers the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ by helping individuals and families impacted by sexual struggles and by producing resources on biblical sexuality for families and churches. He is also the author of Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex.

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