Shalee Lehning

When Repentance Hurts: The Grief of Losing What We Love

Grief is a loaded word. It is something we all feel but rarely acknowledge. Sometimes we try to dictate what we should be allowed to grieve, like when a terminal diagnosis is given or a loved one dies.
But what about the grief we experience when we give up the things we love in order to turn to Christ in obedience? In other words, we experience the deep pain of loss of the things we love when we turn away from our sin in repentance. We experience grief even though we pursue holiness and obedience. This type of grief isn’t named very much in our Christian circles.
Maybe you’re grieving a gut-wrenching heartbreak as you walk away from an unholy relationship, or the pain of singleness as you refuse to run to other lovers, or technology to fill the void of your aloneness. Or the dream job you walked away from because traveling constantly threatened to jeopardize your marriage. Or the reality that, despite your best efforts, social media continues to be an unsafe place that breeds discontentment and jealousy for you.
It hurts to turn away from comforts and pleasures that have replaced Christ. It is godly, and it is absolutely what we are called to do, but it hurts to let go of our desires. Our flesh dies a slow death, and, in the process, we suffer. I mean, is death ever comfortable?
2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Godly grief is characterized by repentance that causes us to turn back from selfish pursuits and live for God. Worldly grief leads to remorse brought about by what we lose from a worldly point of view.
Grief in the repentance process leads us either toward Jesus or away from him.
Worldly grief that leads away from Jesus threatens to bring us right back to the destructive things we are trying to walk away from. The pain leads us away from Jesus as we give way to the temptation to focus on what we have been called to forsake, give up, and run away from (1 Corinthians 6:18–20 and 10:13–14, 2 Timothy 2:2).
His comfort and compassion for us are real as we work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12), putting to death what he died for on the cross. However, God never encourages us to focus on what we are giving up or letting go of; he knows this only exacerbates the spiritual pain associated with sin (Colossians 3:1–3).
In Matthew 19, we read about a rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. After Jesus answers him, the man feels like he has kept all of the commands, yet wonders what he still lacks. Jesus tells him to go and sell all he owns and give it to the poor, and then he will have treasure in heaven. His response? “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). It appears that the cost was too much for him, and this man went away from Jesus because he couldn’t let go of his stuff.
Grief also has the ability to lead us towards Jesus, the one who bore all our afflictions, sorrows, grief, and pain, including spiritual sickness and pain, on the cross. Isaiah 53, commonly known as the Suffering Servant chapter, talks of our Savior as one who suffered and was pierced, crushed, afflicted. As he bore the judgement of our sins, Jesus’ physical agony in the Crucifixion was gruesome and intense, but his obedience to the Father is what counted.

Dear Christian, It is not Us Versus Them

The us-versus-them mentality misses people because it misses the loving heart of Christ. Whereas categorizing people ends in exclusion, Jesus offers invitations to come as we are (Matthew 11:28–30). Jesus welcomed sinners and associated with the people that we might exclude. He calls those other people his own. He didn’t come to save the healthy but the sick, (Mark 2:17).

“What do we need to do to help them?” “How do we love those kinds of people?” “How are we supposed to speak the truth to them?” Have you heard or asked these questions about people in your church dealing with sexual issues? As well-meaning as these questions might be, they can create barriers between fellow Christians, separating God’s people. They metaphorically paint a circle in which some people are included because their struggles are more acceptable, while others are relegated outside of the circle. When we do this, we allow an “us versus them” mentality to form.
As Christians, we need to be extremely careful with such categorization. When it comes to sexual struggles, an us-versus-them mindset places the emphasis on someone’s sin or behavior, not the individual’s heart. Instead of viewing a person through the lens of Christ, as the Bible directs us, we look only at what is visible.
Here are three ways to characterize the “us versus them” mentality:
It speaks of people as a group. There is a truth to this, as well as a danger. The truth is that groups of people often share a characteristic or are in some way associated with each. When Jesus said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16), he was recognizing that all the people gathered before him were united in a group by their common situation of being tired, hungry, and a long way from home. When he said of the Pharisees, “Let them alone; they are blind guides” (Matthew 15:14), he was merely recognizing the voluntary grouping with which they had identified themselves.
But there is also a danger. The danger is that we overemphasize the group’s commonality that we deny the variety and individuality within the group. This is “painting with a broad brush.” One example of this is generalizing the characteristics of a group so much that we unfairly stereotype every individual. For example, “Gay people have an anti-Christian political agenda.” Well, in reality there are many who don’t.
It emphasizes difference at the expense of commonality. The attitude we are talking about focuses on what separates “my kind” from “their kind” without recognizing our commonality. This works against humility because our sinfully proud hearts always tend towards positive descriptions of ourselves and easily identify faults in others. An “us versus them” attitude keeps us stuck on those differences rather than encouraging us to recognize how alike we all are.
It emphasizes conflict at the expense of relationship and reconciliation. “Us versus them” defines the relationship by conflict—either our opposition to them or their opposition to us. In so doing, it does not seek connection. It seeks to conquer. It seeks to defend. It seeks to circle the wagons, to protect “us.” An “us versus them” attitude reinforces what separates us from a group of people and does nothing to move us toward engagement, redemption, reconciliation, and unity.
In the Bible, we see a plethora of us-versus-them examples. The religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, seemed quite certain that everyone outside of their own circle was a them. The self-righteous versus the sinners. The pious, mature adults against insignificant children. Powerful men as opposed to weak women.
One of the more prominent examples of this mentality was God’s chosen people, the Jews, pitted against the not-chosen people, the Gentiles. The division was so intense that Jews thought it was unlawful for themselves to associate with Gentiles. In Acts 10, we read about Peter and Cornelius, a commander of an Italian cohort. An angel of God visits Cornelius, a Gentile, and tells him to send men to Joppa and bring back Peter, a Jew. Cornelius obeyed. Then, starting in verse 9, Peter had a vision. Eventually, the men sent by Cornelius arrive, and, while Peter processed the meaning of the vision, he was told to go with the men without hesitation. Peter obeyed.
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A Prayer Against Despair When You Battle Sin

Even though I am distressed, I am not broken. Even though I am overwhelmed and all I feel is despair, there is hope. Keep me from losing heart. Paul says that though my outer self is wasting away, my inner self is being renewed every day. Help me to see this. Help me to look not at the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. Give me grace to lift my eyes off my here and now and know that the battle I’m fighting in this moment isn’t pointless; it carries eternal weight (2 Corinthians 4:8, 16–18).

The following is meant to help those who are weary in their battle to overcome sin and need to know how to pray and cry out to God for help.
Father, help…help, God. I don’t know what else to do to get rid of this thing—why won’t you take this away?!
Sexual obedience? Integrity? How is that possible when the temptation chases, hounds, calls out to me day after day? Why do you allow me to feel these things and not have them satisfied? Will it ever get easier? Will I ever be free from this? Is this the cross to bear that people talk about, something that dominates every day of my life? How is this fair? These questions haunt me.
My feelings seem to have the loudest voice right now, so I’ll start there. Looking at porn last night felt good! Sure, it was horrible two hours later, but even though I know that stuff is evil, somehow it does help me forget about the rest of my broken life… so much that I can’t find the words to pray. I earnestly desire to fix my eyes on Jesus, but how do I do that when my feelings are just a swirl of inner turmoil? I feel like the man in Mark’s gospel who cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). I admit that it feels so hard to believe right now. Oh please, help me to feel differently, to think with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and to trust you. Help, God! My unbelief is wrecking me.
I resonate with the words of the Psalmist when he says, “My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me” (Psalm 38:10). My attempts to help myself have failed.
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What Do You Want Jesus to Do for You?

The physical healings we observe Jesus doing in the gospels reveal his power and the in-breaking of his reign as Savior. Can Jesus simply take away and heal your struggles? Yes, he could, but it seems that God more often leads his children through a process of transformation that draws us closer to him, and not only to answers. He longs for our full restoration, yet is just as passionate about having a close relationship with you.

Do you enjoy or despise it when someone asks you, “Is there anything I can do for you?” This question might be a kind gesture that makes you feel seen and provides just the care you need. Or maybe you find this question difficult to answer. Not only can it be challenging to receive help, but pinpointing specific needs can also feel impossible as we struggle to articulate what we may have kept hidden in our hearts.
Not so with a man named Bartimaeus! This blind, marginalized man responded succinctly and immediately when Jesus asked him straightforwardly, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight” (Mark 10:51).
Friend, how would you answer Jesus’ question? Do you have secret sins that you dare not mention to Jesus because you fear his response? Maybe you wonder, “Can I actually talk to him about sexual addictions?” You may not be blind, but, like me, you have a lot more in common with Bartimaeus than you think, and that’s a good thing!
You can be boldly dependent
In Mark 10:46–52, we read about Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Apart from a miracle, there was no cure for his blindness; he would experience this ailment the rest of his life. One day, he was sitting on the side of the road when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. In desperation, he began yelling and crying out for mercy. The people around him tried to quiet him; how dare a blind man interrupt Jesus, who was journeying towards his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1–11)? But Jesus heard Bartimaeus and stopped to ask him a pointed question: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).
Like Bartimaeus, the men and women who come to our ministry for help and hope deeply feel their weakness and utter desperation to change. Yet what we see in this story is that simply acknowledging his impediment wasn’t sufficient for him; he needed to boldly acknowledge it before Jesus (and others!) and ask for help, which is a good model for us. Can you imagine what Bartimaeus may have been thinking and feeling after he uttered the words, “Let me recover my sight!” He couldn’t see Jesus’ facial expression or tell if he was listening carefully, but he believed enough to cry out for help, boldly and with utter dependence. You can too!
What does bold dependence look like?

Naming your neediness to God (1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 145:18, and Psalm 28:1–2).
Asking him to help you and to give you courage to reach out to others (Psalm 121:2, Matthew 11:28–30, and Philippians 4:6–7).
Looking and waiting for God’s help (Jeremiah 29:12–13, Hebrews 4:16, Psalm 27:13–14, and Proverbs 3:5–6).

Jesus responds to us with attentive compassion
In this passage, we see Jesus respond to Bartimaeus’ specific need. Jesus knew he was blind, and he knew that the man desired his sight. Yet Jesus stops, asks him what he wants Jesus to do for him, listens, commends his faith, and eventually heals him. Before Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?,” he needed to approach Jesus in his heart. Here’s the crazy thing: Bartimaeus’ dependency and blindness is what qualified him to approach Jesus! He needed help from the only One who could truly help him!
Dane Ortlund says in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: open yourself up to him. It is all he needs. Indeed, it is the only thing he works with. Verse 28 of the passage in Matthew 11 tells us explicitly who qualifies for fellowship with Jesus: ‘all who labor and are heavy laden.’
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Taking Troubling Thoughts to Christ

For believers, over time, our belief systems and thought patterns are conformed more and more to God’s Word. Triggers will lose their power to tempt us towards sin and self as God’s Word becomes more real to us.

“What are you thinking?” We ask this of each other often, don’t we? When our minds are troubled, and our thoughts seem filled with unholy and disturbing ideas or images, we need outside help. Christ does not leave us to fend for ourselves but rescues us out of our distress to produce peace in our thought lives.
God’s Word makes a startling statement about a believer’s thought life. 1 Corinthians 2:16 tells us that, through our union with Jesus, we now have the mind of Christ. This gives us the ability to distinguish good from evil and truth from lies. Believers can think as Christ thinks. Throughout this lifetime, we will battle to keep our thoughts set on him and the truths of Scripture, but, no matter what you have been through, it is possible to have your mind renewed so that you experience thought patterns that line up with the gospel and an increasingly Christ-centered emotional life.
Women who have pursued pornography, sexual fantasy, sinful sexual experiences, and other expressions of sexual sin increase their likelihood of experiencing troubled thought lives. Sadly, women who have been sinned against with sexual trauma can have troubled thought lives, through no fault of their own. Some say that an image or memory can pop into their minds in an instant, even though they have not looked at porn or been involved sexually with someone for years. Others’ patterns of thought are entangled with troubling emotions that seem deeply engrained in their responses; prayer, Bible reading, and listening to Christian music push away these thoughts for a time, but they still return. Distressing, scary, shame-provoking memories about themselves, their bodies, men, women, relationships, and more flood their minds like an incoming wave or an unexpected hurricane that threatens to undo them.
The Bible teaches that all things are the servants of God (Psalm 119:91) and that all things are in subjection to and under the authority of Jesus (Ephesians 1:22–23). Yet many of us struggle to come anywhere close to clean and holy thought lives that serve Jesus. Present and past experiences have formed pathways in our minds that produce dark thoughts—and usually result in sinful behaviors too. Maybe we have absorbed sexual images through pornography, movies that normalize and celebrate sin, or books that feed sensual ideas and fantasies. Maybe the memories that currently trouble you aren’t primarily sexual in focus, but they are connected to messy relational dynamics in which you were ensnared, like codependency and emotional enmeshment. Perhaps fear triggers a moving sidewalk in your thoughts that carries you from distraction to distress to destructive patterns of thinking.
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