This is the second in a series of posts on helping people through sexual brokenness. CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
In the last post, I talked about how helping sexually broken people is a blessing and privilege, AND that it’s an extraordinarily hard thing to do. The situations that lead to sexual brokenness in people’s lives are not complex, not simple. The path to healing is difficult, not easy. For pastors and church leaders who take on the role of helping, it’s important to deepen understanding about sexual brokenness.
One of the first things to understand when working with sexually broken people is:
What presents on the surface isn’t the whole story.
By that I mean this. Many situations can seem cut and dried, black and white, and uncomplicated on the surface. For example: A couple comes into your office in crisis. Through tears and anger, the wife tells a story of her husband’s unfaithfulness with pornography, lies, and an eventual affair. He’s never been open about the things he struggles with; she’s always caught him. When she confronts him he is angry and defensive.
It would be easy, as the pastor listening to this story, to conclude some things about this man. “This guys is self-absorbed, narcissistic, and doesn’t care about anyone except himself. He obviously loves the he’s committing because he’s never asked for help. I wonder if he’s really a Christian.” All compassion and empathy is pointed at this man’s wife, and he is painted as the villain. He quits coming to counseling with you, and quits coming to church. Eventually he leaves his family. It seems your initial conclusions were correct, based on his actions. It seems this guy is just choosing his sin and doesn’t care about the consequences. But could it be there’s more to the story?
When we realize that what presents on the surface isn’t the whole story, it opens us to understanding something important. By the time sexual brokenness situations have made their way to our offices, the elements beneath the surface that drive these situations have been building for years. Unraveling the stories behind what shows up in your office takes time and a commitment to pursue the entire truth, not just what is obvious. As a caring helper, it can be very easy to get sucked into the impact of the offender’s behavior, forgetting that there are many other elements that drive that behavior. Recognizing this doesn’t excuse anything, it simply gives us needed context to help us know how to best help everyone involved.
Here are a few observations I think give helpful context to the fact that there’s more to the story than what presents on the surface:
1. Actions are black and white, but the things that influence actions are not.
Take the example I used above. Here is a man who has lied to his wife, become addicted to porn, and whose behavior has escalated to the point where he had a physical affair. Is there anything vague about the rightness or wrongness of his actions? Of course not. If you come from a Biblical perspective, lying is wrong. Using porn is wrong. Having an affair is wrong. All these actions are sinful, and there is no ambiguity. But could there be influences, contributing factors and experiences in this man’s story that give some context into the actions he chose? This is a question worth asking (and one that we will explore more in the next post). Asking the question does not mean you are lessening, glossing over, or excusing his sin; it simply means you understand there are additional parts of the story that need to be understood.
2. Not everyone does the same things for the same reasons.
It can be easy to make a judgment on why a person would do the things he or she does. “He did that because he’s a selfish jerk.” “She did that because she’s emotionally unstable.” I’m sure these and other stereotypical “explanations” have crossed through many of our minds when dealing with volatile situations. But it’s important to understand that while actions can tell a pretty loud story of their own, they also can give some insight into a person’s back story (if we pay attention). Some people choose certain behaviors because they learned early in life they were on their own to get their needs met, and in their immaturity chose unhealthy behaviors to try to meet those needs. As the person ages and grows, the versions of these coping behaviors age as well. Often the method in which people act out can give some insights into formative and difficult early life experiences. (One of the best resources to understand how experience affects behavior is Jay Stringer’s excellent book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing.) While there is no excuse or justification for sinful/hurtful behavior, there is very often an explanation.
3. Curiosity about (not judgment of) a person’s actions is a better path to lasting change.
By the time someone ends up in your office, there’s usually not a lot of arguing over whether or not the actions are harmful or sinful. Even if there is some difference of opinion, though, I’ve become more convinced that our best solution isn’t to try and win that argument through forcing someone to feel “appropriately shameful” for what they’ve done. Instead, a very helpful thread of conversation could begin with, “I’m curious about why that is…” Judgment over a person’s sin, that often manifests in the form of anger and harshness, rarely produces the change everyone is looking for (including the person who has committed the sin). Curiosity often allows us to get to the deeper heart of the matter, and God will use this curiosity to reveal important information that helps in processing and ultimately repenting of sin in a healthy way. Judgment is easy, and curiosity is difficult and less clear-cut, which is why many of us have a hard time with an approach of curiosity. But in the end it’s so worth it.
Recognizing that there’s always more to the story than what presents on the surface allows us to be curious, patient, gracious, and kind to people who have likely been terrified to talk with anyone about their sin. They’ve expected judgment, and when they experience something else, something kinder, that opens the door to amazing things.
In Part 3, we’ll talk about the incredibly powerful influence of trauma on people’s behaviors.
Greg Oliver is the Executive Director of Awaken, a faith-based recovery ministry that provides Gospel-based and therapeutically sound help for individuals, couples, and ministry leaders who have been impacted by sexual brokenness. Awaken offers in-person and online recovery meetings for men & women who struggle, and for women whose partners struggle. We also offer 1-on-1 and couple’s coaching, recovery intensives/ workshops, and training/equipping for church leaders. For more info on any of our resources, check out the rest of our site or CLICK HERE.