Pastor and author John Piper has said the closest he ever came to being fired from his long tenure as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church was when he wrote an article entitled “Missions and Masturbation.”
Provocative title, huh? He writes,
One of the major forces preventing young people from obeying the call of God into vocational Christian service is defeat in the area of lust. A teenager hears a challenging call to throw himself into the cause of world evangelization. He feels the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He tastes the thrill of following the King of kings into battle. But he does not obey because he is masturbating regularly. He feels guilty… So he feels unworthy and unable to obey the call of God.
Reflecting on the article from years later, Piper noted his words were birthed out of the sadness he felt over so many people, young people especially, “lost in the cause of Christ’s mission because they were not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure.”
Note carefully what he did not say. He didn’t say that many people were lost to the mission of Christ because of sexual failure. Piper’s point is more specific. He argued that many were lost to the mission of Christ because they didn’t know how to deal with the guilt and shame that come from sexual failure. They messed up and moved on with life, and in the process, also moved on from missions because they didn’t know how to deal with their guilt. What a sad outcome.
Piper published the original article in September of 1984, which is 35 years ago! But I suspect Piper’s concern is still relevant. Sexual sin and its associated guilt and shame are just as prevalent today—if not more so.
Is Shame Good or Bad?
While guilt and shame over sin are typically understood as negative, I want to start by saying they can actually be signs of health. After many centuries consumed with sin, the indictment God levels against his people is that they no longer know how to blush (Jeremiah 6:15). Their sinful patterns killed their ability to even know what is shameful. Adam and Eve shouldn’t have taken the fruit or hidden from God, but at least they knew enough to know they did something wrong.
But I should also point out that no matter how much shame we feel, no amount of shame over sin can atone for our sin. We can’t blush enough to buy forgiveness. In his book about the struggle with pornography, John Cusick writes that in penance “a man takes the shame he carries and attempts to overcome it somehow through performance. It’s an unconscious way of atoning for our sin, because deep down we believe our struggle makes us less acceptable to God” (Cusick, Surfing for God, 92). Cusick isn’t advocating for penance to deal with our sin; he’s just describing a common solution, a solution that really is no solution at all.
We often associate penance with Roman Catholicism, but as Protestants we have our own forms of penance. Do you ever find yourself in a flurry of good deeds to show God how sorry you are? I know a man who would randomly do hours and hours of hard labor on church construction projects. In hindsight, we learned the tornado of saw dust was his attempt to deal with his sexual sin. Or perhaps you find yourself pouting to show God how much you want to be forgiven. We can mope about our house or church, but by itself, presenting our sadness to God atones for zero sins (Hebrews 9:22).
Neither Working nor Wallowing Save
Stand back from these questions and consider the bigger picture. Why do you think working off our sins or wallowing in them are such common experiences? Could it be that these are the default “gospels” of our hearts? I think so. We try to work off our sexual sin to earn God’s love. And we lament our sin because our sadness shows God—so we think—how much we know we don’t deserve his love, which is a convoluted way to show God we do deserve his love.
Paul would call the whole thing—working off sin or wallowing over sin—“a different gospel” (Galatians 1:7, 8). And different gospels don’t save. Only the real one does.
To John Piper’s point above, too many people are lost to the mission of Christ because they don’t know the solution to sexual sin is the same solution to all sin. As Christians, we need repentance, not penance. We need faith, not performance. There’s an eternal difference. Salvation is found only through the love of Jesus for us. And once we’re saved through him and by him, we’re free. Simply free (Galatians 5:1).
If you’re currently leading a ministry and your sexual sin is to such an extent that it disqualifies you, then you need to step down. It’s important that you get your sexual struggles under control before you worry about ministering to others. John Piper’s concern for people bailing on the mission of Christ shouldn’t be taken to mean that a person should continue headstrong in public ministry regardless of the extent of sexual sin. That’s not the point. The point is that whatever you do for a living—whether you continue in vocational ministry or now work a construction job—no matter our struggle with sexual sin, don’t stop serving Jesus.
If you need time away from public ministry, the outworking of your Christian ministry may look different and be less visible, but keep fighting; keep struggling against sexual sin and helping others do the same. “Let us not grow weary of doing good,” Paul wrote, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Paul warns against weariness because the temptation to quit is real.
But maybe as you read this, you don’t need to step away from ministry because years and years ago you already did, and you don’t feel worthy to begin again. Stop. You’ll never feel worthy because you won’t ever be worthy. No one will. I’d encourage you to seek out a friend, pastor, or missionary who could help you discern if it might be right to re-engage in missions.
“The tragedy,” Piper says, “is that Satan uses the guilt of [sexual sin] to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have . . .” Piper continues by saying that in the place of your dreams for world evangelization, Satan gives “you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.”
That paragraph might be just as provocative as an article titled “Missions and Masturbation.” But I think he’s right. Friend, the gospel you so long to share with others is not simply good news for them. It’s good news for you too. Give Christ your sin and your shame. He wants them both.
Editor’s Note: If you are struggling with sexual shame, you don’t have to struggle alone. Reach out to your pastor and bring it to God in prayer!