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Killing Lust with the Cross of Christ

Audio Transcript

Welcome back. As you know, on this podcast we cover the topic of lust from a variety of angles. We did so again on Monday. It’s probably the category of question we get asked about more than any other. You’ll see all the many ways this topic has come up on the podcast in that digest I put together on pages 309–329 in the new Ask Pastor John book.

On Monday, Pastor John, in APJ 2047, you encouraged a wife to confront her husband about erotic literature she found on his phone. And from confrontation comes conviction and repentance, we hope, which is part of the lifelong discipline of killing lust within ourselves. We must root the sin of lust from our lives. And to do that, we’d be helpless on our own. We couldn’t do it on our own. And so, we are not called to battle alone. Most notably, we have the gospel. And we need the gospel here because the only sin we can ever purge from our lives is canceled sin. Step 1: Sin is canceled by the blood of Christ; we are justified before God. Then, step 2: We purge that sin from our lives. We can’t ever get that backward. Sin canceled, then sin purged — another super important theme on the podcast over the years, as you can see in the APJ book on page 274.

So, using the gospel to purge sin is our topic today. It’s fitting because today in our Navigators Bible Reading Plan we are reading about the murder of Christ in Mark 15:33–41. Pastor John, you have talked about the role of visualizing Christ’s crucifixion in our battle against lustful thoughts. Lust is so often a visible battle. So, it makes sense that this battle is fought visually, or at least in the visuals of the imagination. For this purpose, you use an acronym. You created an acronym for this called ANTHEM. That’s important here, to fight lust, and particularly the H in ANTHEM, which you define as this: “Hold a beautiful vision of Jesus in your mind until it triumphs over the other sensual vision.” So, in the fight against lust, how important is it to have this “beautiful vision of Jesus,” and how does this work for you in the moment of temptation? What’s happening as you hold this image in your imagination?

Well, Tony, I’ve had history with really bad ways of using visualization in prayer. So, even though the question isn’t exactly that, let me start there.

Pictures can begin to displace the word of Scripture as the center of God’s saving communication. And that’s really dangerous. We can edge right up to and transgress the intention of the second commandment — “Don’t make any graven images for worship.” There’s an approach that I’ve run into — it’s pretty widespread; at least it was — to healing prayer where people are instructed to go back into their painful past and visualize a scene of, say, abuse, sexual abuse. And, for example, “Imagine Jesus, picture Jesus, walking into the room and picking you up and hugging you and caring for you.”

“One of my strategies in trying to obey Jesus is to fight nudity in my mind with Christ’s misery on the cross.”

And there are problems with that kind of counseling, it seems to me, because it’s foreign to Scripture. You don’t find any pattern quite like that in Scripture, and it’s usually slanted away from some of the aspects of the role that Jesus plays — namely, in providence portraying him only as a comforter and not as a sovereign, and not as a judge, and not as the one who’s going to handle that perpetrator with violence someday. It tends to be just soft and gentle and warm — and therefore slanted. It tends to oversimplify and over-psychologize what’s really needed.

The healing of the soul involves a profound spiritual perception not only of a tender, affectionate Jesus, but of the full meaning of the cross and the reality of the Holy Spirit and God’s ways and justice and judgments. So, there are real dangers that I’ve encountered in this whole area of visualization in prayer.

Visual Words

But let me get back to the positive side. Jesus is the eternal Word, and he became flesh (John 1:14). So, we know he had a body. People looked at him — they could see him with their physical eyes — unlike God the Father, who can’t be visualized in that way. I don’t think we should picture God the Father as a grandfather with a white beard. I think that’s a big mistake. But Jesus had flesh and bones.

And here’s another point: some words do not invoke visual realities — like love, hate, right, wrong, kind. Those are general, principial kinds of words. But other words do necessarily evoke images in our minds: cross, blood, nails, spear, side of body, hands, feet, thorns, beard, spit, rod, sun darkened, hill. You can’t say those words without seeing something, because those words are names of sights. You see a hand; you put a word on a hand; you expect people to process that word and have a kind of hand visualized in their mind — no specific hand, but the idea of hand is being visualized in their mind.

So, when you read, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice” (Matthew 27:46), now you’ve got sounds as well. There are words that designate sounds, like loud voice. That word is supposed to conjure something in your mind concerning “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46). And it was loud. The word loud is used to make you feel and think loud. And then Jesus calls out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). The point of those very words is to get our minds hearing something, and words like beard and spit are supposed to get our minds seeing something.

“In Paul’s mind, the faith to kill sin every day in his life was strengthened by remembering the love of Christ.”

And then here’s one pointer from the apostle that inclines me to go ahead and form this image in my mind. Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Now, what does that mean? I don’t think it means Paul got out a piece of chalk and drew Jesus, but it means, evidently, that he portrayed (with words through the gospel) the cross so vividly that he says, “It was like I was doing it before your very eyes.” He used the words eyes here. “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed.”

So, maybe he means, “I’m embodying this with my sufferings; I’m speaking it in such a way that you can see it.”

Fight Image with Image

And so, back to ANTHEM and the whole battle with lust. One of my strategies, Tony, in trying to obey Jesus — tearing out my eyes, and putting sin to death, and counting myself dead — is to fight nudity (let’s just take that as a concrete example) in my mind with Christ’s misery on the cross. So, nudity is a picture in my mind. Now, I’ve argued that Christ’s misery on the cross is a picture in my mind. Christ died to make me pure. This lustful thought is not pure. Therefore, if I willingly hold this image in my mind, I’m taking a spear and thrusting it into the side of Jesus. I picture myself about to do that. I picture him saying, “I love you. I love you. I am dying to free you from that bondage to lust.”

And I picture a battered body — and maybe I should qualify: It’s not photographic. I don’t have a particular face in view; I don’t know what Jesus looked like. I don’t pick a movie star from The Passion of the Christ or whatever. I don’t have a particular face for me. He doesn’t look like any actor. I don’t get that specific. It’s a word-created picture, not a photo-created picture.

It’s what I think Paul did when he said in Galatians 2:20, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me.” Now, he could have stopped right there, couldn’t he? But he added, “and gave himself for me.” In Paul’s mind, the faith to kill sin every day in his life was strengthened by remembering the love of Christ for him. And the love of Christ is emblazoned in Paul’s mind as he thought of him as crucified. “He gave himself for me.” And Paul saw crucified people. They were on the hills. It was horrible. And when he said, “Christ gave himself for me,” I can’t believe that he didn’t have some picture — if not photographic — in his mind of Christ suffering profoundly for his purity. And thus, his faith was empowered to defeat lust.

Mental Illness and Church Discipline: Seven Principles for Pastors

Mental illness in your church is not an isolated problem. Current research highlights that one in five adults in the United States struggles with some form of mental-health issue each year. One in twenty adults experiences a serious psychiatric disorder. These suffering brothers and sisters are no doubt part of the flock you are called to shepherd.

Joel is one such congregant. He was recently arrested high on crystal meth, engaging the services of a prostitute. In fact, this is the third time this kind of behavior has happened in the last two years. What does pastoral care look like for him? What is the role of church discipline in his life? Should it make a difference that Joel has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ran out of his medications again, potentially precipitating the manic episode in which he stayed up all night using meth and engaging in illicit sex?

There are no easy answers here. In thinking about the juxtaposition of mental-health issues and church discipline, we want to be wary of two extremes. First, we don’t want to avoid corrective pastoral care out of fear that we will “add insult to injury” for those struggling with mental affliction. Second, we don’t want to care for someone with mental illness exactly as we would care for someone without such a struggle. We want biblical truth and love to guide us.

What Is Mental Illness?

Mental (or psychiatric) disorders are significant disturbances of thought, emotion, or behavior that cause distress to the person and often significant impairment in day-to-day functioning. Many struggles fall under the umbrella of mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, and also problems such as substance abuse, autism, and dementia.1

Because there is such heterogeneity in what is understood as mental illness (not to mention the potentially myriad causes of such struggles), we must be careful of any one-size-fits-all approach. Each struggling person is different. A mental-health diagnosis is a starting point, not an endpoint, for understanding a person’s experience.

Much mental suffering is hidden, including among Christians. Many who bear a psychiatric label feel ashamed and stigmatized. They may already feel disconnected from the church body and even from Christ. In my experience, they are much more often “fainthearted” and “weak” rather than “idle” or disorderly (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Mental illness always involves suffering. Church leaders, therefore, are wise to slow down, taking the time to draw near to the brokenhearted as the Lord himself does (Psalm 34:18). But suffering isn’t the only category to consider. All believers simultaneously live as saints, sufferers, and sinners this side of glory.2 When people struggle with mental-health problems, the battle with their sinful nature continues, and this battle may have significant consequences for self or others.

Sinful behavior can be particularly prominent in some mental-health struggles, such as manic excesses, multiple relapses associated with substance abuse, the relational harm associated with certain personality disorders, or angry and abusive outbursts associated with PTSD. In such cases, it becomes even more challenging to discern the priorities of pastoral care for this sister or brother who is both a sufferer and sinner.3

What Is Church Discipline?

Now that we have some general ideas about mental illness, what about church discipline? Jonathan Leeman highlights,

Church discipline is the process of correcting sin in the congregation and its members. Church discipline typically starts privately and informally, growing to include the whole church only when necessary. In its final, formal, and public stage, church discipline involves removing someone from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table.

We see this process most clearly in Matthew 18:15–17. For the person under discipline, the goal is always restorative, not punitive. We want to see unrepentant sinners return to Jesus!

It’s helpful to think of church discipline on a spectrum. In one sense, all believers sit under the autocorrect function of God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:12). As we read and hear Scripture, we are personally convicted — disciplined — by God’s indwelling Spirit to live in line with biblical truth.4

But God also grows us through community. When a friend approaches us and says, “Hey, I’m concerned about your harsh interactions at small group,” God, in his mercy, is using this person to help us see where we have sinned (Matthew 18:15). This broader practice of discipline is an utterly normal part of the Christian life. Informal but intentional conversations focused on what living for Jesus looks like should characterize our body life and our pastoral oversight.

More formal steps of discipline (Matthew 18:16–17) are not carried out simply for those who sin (we all do this!), but for those who sin in significant, high-handed ways and do not repent despite multiple entreaties to return to the safety and beauty of God’s law.5

Seven Guiding Principles

For helpers and church leaders, seeing sin in the lives of fellow believers should prompt the question, “What is most wise and loving at this juncture to help this particular person with these particular patterns of sin?” Answering that question, however, is often more complicated when the person involved deals with mental illness. So, how might we bring together our understanding of mental illness and church discipline?

The following general guidelines are certainly not exhaustive. In any given situation, what is wisest pastorally is prayerfully discerned by a team of thoughtful and compassionate shepherds who know their people well.

1. Personalize mental illness.

Familiarize yourself with the general contours of the psychiatric disorders that you know members of your congregation struggle with, endeavoring to think biblically and theologically about such issues.6 Then personalize that growing awareness by having conversations with those brothers and sisters, along with their family members, counselors, and physicians. Get a sense of their daily lives. Where do they struggle to live out their faith? Where do they experience joy and contentment? How can the church better care for them? You don’t have to be a mental-health professional to know a person deeply, but the more complex the struggle, the greater the importance of broadening your understanding.

2. Deal patiently and gently.

Patience and gentleness are key (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Galatians 6:1–2). Notice that there is no specific timeline associated with the process of church discipline in Matthew 18. In general, apart from the clearest cases, we might expect there to be several or even many conversations while moving along the spectrum from informal to formal church discipline. The administration of church discipline is not on a hair trigger. Godly shepherds model the description of Israel’s high priest in Hebrews 5:2: “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.”

“You don’t have to be a mental-health professional to know a person deeply.”

Along the way, seek the input of the mental-health professionals who are working with the affected person (assuming consent is given). Decisions about formal church discipline are always momentous, even when seemingly clear-cut. How much more so when there are additional factors to weigh in the case of someone with a psychiatric diagnosis.

3. Form wise expectations.

Prayerfully consider how the weaknesses of the person might temper your expectations for obedience. A parenting analogy may help explain what I mean. In parenting, the age and developmental stage of our children matter in terms of our specific expectations for obedience, and the way we discipline should align with those differences. “Honor your father and your mother” holds equally for both the three-year-old and the twelve-year-old, but we have more robust expectations for our twelve-year-old. Additional factors in the child — such as hunger, pain, illness, or sleeplessness — may also warrant an adjustment in expectations. For example, we may not correct our three-year-old who has had a meltdown during a fever and strep throat.

How might this look for someone with both mental-health and recurring sin issues? Years ago, I was consulted about a middle-aged single man who was undergoing formal discipline for laziness and failure to honor his parents. After having a string of part-time jobs for many years, he hadn’t worked for several years and was living with his elderly parents.

As I got to know him, I indeed noticed places where his fleshly propensities for ease and comfort led to laziness. But more was going on. He struggled with incapacitating anxiety in social settings. Further, I observed some impaired interpersonal and cognitive capabilities that no doubt made it difficult for him to hold a job. The elders and I ultimately crafted a shepherding plan that took into account this man’s true weaknesses and inabilities while at the same time exhorting him to take more proactive care of his parents. However, given the full picture, the process of formal church discipline no longer seemed appropriate.

4. Care for everyone involved.

At the same time, it is also important to consider the impact of the person’s struggle on family members and the broader body of Christ. The severity and chronicity of these harmful offenses factor into the extent and time course of church discipline. A wife raising concerns about her husband’s apathy and passivity amid his serious depression is one thing. A depressed husband who has become verbally or physically abusive to his wife is a different matter and requires more urgent pastoral intervention. Or consider the difference between a person with fluctuating psychosis who sometimes disrupts church gatherings and the same person who is also making unwanted sexual advances toward another church member.

You are simultaneously trying to recognize and address the harm done to others while also bringing hope, encouragement, and correction to the suffering sinner. Put another way, you are seeking to love multiple people at once: the person with mental illness, those impacted negatively by his struggle, and the wider body of Christ.

5. Prayerfully assess repentance.

Prayerfully assess the person’s level of repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10–11). Remember, Scripture reserves the most serious manifestations of church discipline for church members who refuse to repent of clear-cut, significant sin. Questions to consider include the following (I’ll use he as a generic pronoun):

Does the person understand what he has done?
Is he grieved by this sin before God and others?
Has he asked forgiveness from those he has sinned against?
Is he doing the hard work of rebuilding trust with others?
Is he availing himself of all reasonable help, including counseling and/or medical care?
Is he compliant with prescribed medications?
Does he welcome greater pastoral oversight and accountability?

The more concern these questions raise, the more reason we may have for continuing a process of formal church discipline.

6. Remain open to change.

Be ready to change direction. Sometimes a decision regarding discipline needs rethinking. In many cases, this is not being wishy-washy but being wise and humble stewards of additional information and insights as they become apparent. No doubt, it is difficult to discern the difference between can’t and won’t in a struggling person. Sometimes, we will realize later that we erred on either side — being too lenient when greater accountability would have been wiser, or being too quick to advance formal discipline when greater patience and mercy would have been appropriate.

7. Love beyond discipline.

What about those (hopefully infrequent) instances where a congregant with a mental-health diagnosis requires removal from membership and the Lord’s Supper for serious and unrepentant sin — despite a prayerful, thoughtful process and multiple entreaties of love and warning? We do it with gentleness and tears, continuing to acknowledge the person’s real suffering as well as the sins that have harmed others and brought the gospel into disrepute.

If possible, communicate well with those outside the church who are involved in the person’s care (like counselors and physicians), as the discipline process may impact the person’s emotional state, and caregivers may need increased vigilance. Be prepared that taking such a step may incite anger and/or self-harm in the person. Ideally, family members and friends understand the need for this final step of church discipline and can offer ongoing support to the person.

Excommunication doesn’t mean that the person is barred from attending your church (a potential exception being harm done to others in the congregation by his continued presence). But it does mean that this person’s profession of faith is no longer seen as credible, and he is therefore viewed as an unbeliever. What does that look like? The person is welcomed and encouraged to attend the gathering but not partake of the Lord’s Supper, and leaders and members continue to urge him toward repentance and faith in Christ.

While this article cannot fully address the complexity involved in the exercise of church discipline in cases of mental illness, I hope these reflections provide biblical perspective and guidance as you, together with your fellow pastors, seek to wisely love those God has called you to shepherd.

Abraham’s Failure and the Peril of Inconsistency

The late professional golfer Tommy Armour observed, “It is not solely the capacity to make great shots that make champions, but the essential quality of making very few bad shots.” In other words, good golfers make consistent shots. What is true in the sport is true for all of life: consistency is the key to doing anything well, while inconsistency brings with it great peril.

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