Recovery from sexual (or any) addiction is difficult. (How's that for an understatement?) It's a messy process that requires fundamental changes to a person's life that previously had been left unchecked and unaccountable. Now there must be openness and honesty and community and self-examination and my goodness I'm getting exhausted just writing about it! But what I often see work its way to the top of the list of frustration in recovering sex addicts is that how to recover becomes more important than what needs recovering. Let me illustrate.
A Conversation with a Guy
A guy comes into my office (let's call him Guy). He has developed a deep sexual addiction over the past 20+ years. He was recently caught in an affair and began going to counseling and plugging into a weekly support group. It has been six weeks since he was caught, and now he sits in front of me to tell me his story and see what I have to say to him. This might be how a portion of that conversation would go.
"So, Jonathan, my wife wants to separate, my employer is weighing legal options since the affair was with a co-worker, and I'm hoping none of this leaks out to anyone in our church; my reputation would be shattered. How can fix all this?"
"What do you think needs fixing?" I ask.
"Are you serious? Have you been listening? My wife wants to leave, my job is on the line, and if this affair and the history behind it get leaked to my church, we could lose all our friends. What do you mean 'what' needs fixing?"
"Well, you have been married for 15 years, right?"
"You have been at this company for 10 years, even getting high praise and promotions along the way?"
"You are a prominent member and supporter in your church and have a reputation as a selfless person."
"So, I'll ask again, what needs fixing? It appears like you have it all together."
"Maybe for now, but it's on the verge of collapsing."
"And if you can keep your job, stay married, and be the 'good guy' at church, everything will be fine? There wouldn't be any need for significant, fundamental changes in your life as a man? Are you serious?"
"I guess I see your point, but how do I change?"
"Guy, you need to first focus on what needs to change before you can even consider how to change it. Let's start peeling that onion back and see just how deep the pain, secrecy and selfishness goes that led to your secret sin. Then we can talk strategies for change. Are you willing to start this journey of discovery?"
"I hope so."
Focus on WHAT First
This is just one small example in thousands where well-meaning people who desire change get the cart before the horse. You cannot effectively map out strategies for recovery ("how") until you have thoroughly identified the brokenness ("what"). But even after you uncover all that needs healing in your life, you must continue to remain focused on what God wants you to do about it rather than how to do it. In fact, God emphasizes what over how a lot!
Here are just a few examples of "what emphasis" in the Bible:
You shall not commit adultery. (Ex 20:14)
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Eph 5:3)
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal 5:16)
And there are many others; pray for each other (James 5:16), carry each other's burdens (Gal 6:2), walk in the light (1 John 1:5), this is love for God: to keep his commands (1 John 5:3), My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12). These are the "what's" of recovery and faith. But God is generally pretty silent on the how's. Why is that?
HOW Can Be a Distraction from Connection
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to drift from emotionally and spiritually connecting with someone when the relationship becomes more about "how" than "what?" It's like the "system" of relationship supersedes the importance of authentic presence, interaction and, well, relating. Life becomes an endless list of boxes to check off, ensuring to everyone watching that how you live is the model of perfection (and you usually don't mind the accolades that follow). In essence, you become a lifeless, empty image-builder; shining and spectacular on the outside, but void of any real substance or beauty on the inside.
As Jesus bluntly put it, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matt 23:27-28)
Please don't misunderstand me to say that how we live is unimportant or that God doesn't value how's (for instance, how we are saved is through faith alone in Christ alone; there is no other way, or "how," to be reconciled to God). But the greater value must be placed on what needs healing and what we are called by God to be.
You can never engage a healthy "how" until you have plunged to the deepest depths of humility and honesty before yourself and God. Then, out of the brokenness of the real you, a new life emerges, ready and able to follow wherever (and however) the Lord leads.
So, what needs healing in your life & what is God telling you to do about it?
3 Questions for Diagnosing WHAT Needs to Change
Jesus boiled down what the focus of our lives is to be as his followers: love God and love your neighbor. (Matt. 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27) It's really pretty simple, even if it doesn't come naturally to any of us! In order to discover what needs to change in our lives, we need to analyze the degree to which our lives are aligning with Jesus' simple command.
Here are 3 key questions to help you discover what needs to change:
1. What sin are you returning to again and again?
Sin, in all its forms, pulls us directly away from loving God and loving our neighbor. It is a declaration that I want to choose how to live my life independent from God and His Word. Sin is rooted in pride, and pride is not an attribute of love.
When habitual sin takes hold of our lives, that's a major problem. That is a "what" that needs to be addressed in order to be redirected toward love. When you get clear on the specific sin(s) that needs correction, then you can start working on the "how" of correcting it.
2. Who is truly Lord of your life?
There is only one God. He is Creator and Sustainer of life and the cosmos. But he made human beings in his image, with the ability to choose. We consistently choose against him and his ways. There is a battle that rages in the heart of every human: will I trust and obey God or will I trust and obey myself? In every moment of life, we are choosing someone to be Lord.
What do you believe gives you the greater probability of loving God and neighbor: surrendering to God as Lord or choosing to live by your own wisdom and will? (The answer is obvious, right? Even if we rarely choose the right answer...)
When you confess Christ is Lord, then with the help of His Spirit, you can start mapping out the steps that will lead to greater faithfulness.
3. In what ways are you ignoring or harming your neighbor?
You were made for love and to love. God loves you and wants you to love others in the same way. But as we have shown above, pride and self-centeredness harden our hearts. Sometimes we don't even recognize how deeply we are hurting those around us because of our sin and pride.
Ask God (and some family and friends) to help you see the ways in which you are ignoring or harming others. Confess and repent. And begin looking for opportunities to love others in the same gracious way God has loved you.
When you get clear on what needs you change, then you can start working on how to change.