I want to begin with a text, because I don’t know if you feel like this, but when I come to a topic like addiction it absolutely overwhelms me. This is not an easy topic and this is not an easy situation. This is hard ministry in many ways. It’s heartbreaking ministry.
I want to anchor what we’re going to talk about in practical ways in dealing with temptation and repentance in a text. We need to stand on a truth of God’s Word that will give us hope.
Ephesians 3:20-21 says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Brothers and sisters, God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. We need to remember that when we come alongside difficult cases like addiction. God is able to do these things. He is able. He is powerful. We come to ministry with a confidence not in ourselves, but in Him.
With that in mind, let me introduce you to a couple that we’ll call Mike and Molly. Let’s say they’re in your church and they’re getting to know people, building relationships, and as you get to know them you get a tragic phone call that this dear couple is struggling in significant ways. As you engage in ministry, here’s the story as it envelops in front of you: Both Mike and Molly have a criminal record and have spent some time in jail. They have a history of drug use, they both have psychological diagnoses, and one of them is on a psychotropic medication. The drug that they have been most recently struggling with is meth. Amongst the other struggles, they’re involved in various sexual sin—adultery, pornography. They’ve had some physical issues as well, some health issues that have led to them being on pain meds, which is one more source of potential addiction. They’ve recently come from an intensive two-week rehab treatment. As is so often the case when someone is discharged from a rehab facility involving addiction, they relapse almost immediately.
Why is that? So often—even though there’s a time and place for rehab where we can stabilize and detox them, which are wise things to do—typically in that setting you’re not addressing the heart. You’re not helping them to see the gospel of Christ and how a relationship with Him is really the first step toward any sort of change and growth. The other thing I’ve noticed working with people that come out of rehab is there’s maybe some skills, some practical things that are given, but there is not a robust temptation plan that is put into place. The reality is this side of heaven, even as believers, we continue to be tempted. People coming out of addiction are going to be tempted again. Part of what you and I do as biblical counselors, as brothers and sisters in Christ, is we come alongside to help them to wisely prepare for the next temptation, because it’s not a question of “if” but “when?”
The other thing that doesn’t happen so often in residential treatment is there’s no talk of biblical repentance. Biblical repentance, according to the Bible, is the engine of change in the Christian life. So that is what we spend our time talking about, facilitating, assisting with, and ministering to our dear brothers and sisters that are struggling.
Back to Mike and Molly. They come out of rehab, they immediately relapse. There’s relational conflict in their marriage. They don’t have any problem solving skills. They don’t know how to communicate. They don’t know how to apply the gospel that they’re professing to these challenges that they’re facing. You come to find also that they owe their dealer money, and the dealer knows that. The dealer knows that they’ve just gotten out of rehab and that’s another challenge. In an attempt to pay off the dealer, guess what happens? They’re tempted again and they fall right back in it. How do we help a Mike and Molly? How do we help somebody struggling with drug addiction? Or maybe not drug addiction, maybe it’s pornography, maybe it’s sexual addiction, maybe it’s video game addiction—there’s all these life dominating sins that are enslaving, that have similar profiles. That’s what I want to talk to you about.
To be clear, my goal here is not to talk about a comprehensive approach to counseling addiction. For that I would recommend works on addiction by Mark Shaw and Ed Welch. What I want to talk about is just two pieces of the counseling approach, namely, how do we help them with temptation? And how do we help them with repentance?
The first question is, why should we do that? Why should we plan for temptation and repentance? Because they’re going to be tempted. Our role as their brother or their sister in Christ is to help them to prepare for that with the gospel, with the text of Scripture.
If we’re going to help them to change, we have to facilitate repentance. What does that mean? Probably the area that I have the most experience with when we think about addiction would be a pornography or a sexual addiction sort of situation. Do you know what the typical person does who fails in sexual sin? What do they do when they fail? Do they repent? Do they walk through applying the gospel? Do they claim the promises of Christ? Do they put off and put on? Do they analyze what happened and make no provision for the flesh? The vast majority of Christians—even well-taught Christians—when they fail, they might pray, they might feel bad, they might tell somebody, but the point is they almost always fall short of true repentance. There is no change apart from true repentance. We have to help them to put that in place in their life.
We need to help them plan for temptation because they’re going to be tempted, and we need to help them with repentance because that is the engine for change.
Just so you know a flyover of how I think about counseling, I have a football analogy for you. You have an offense, you have a defense, and you have special teams. Let me just walk you through why we’re approaching counseling in this way. Turn with me to Psalm 119:9 and I want to demonstrate why having an offensive plan in addiction counseling is so important.
Why ought we have an offensive plan, a strategy for helping people to grow? And by offensive plan, what I mean is: We’re trying to put points on the board. Meaning, we are trying to help our brother or sister to grow in their walk with God. We want them to be thriving in a walk with God, growing in the spiritual disciplines, active in their local church, and practicing the one anothers, and all of these things the Bible says a believer ought to be doing and pursuing in order to grow.
You will see that there is a correlation between the extent that a Christian is thriving in their walk with God and their success in handling temptation. Often the person that’s struggling in their walk with God, they’re struggling in their local church, they’re struggling to be active, they’re struggling with even basic spiritual disciplines—they are easy targets for temptation and for the enemy. We want to have a plan that goes something like this. Look at Psalm 119:9, which says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.”
Typically, we love the jump to the AWANA verse, which is another verse down. Verse 11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Yes, we need to memorize God’s Word. That is essential. We know that from Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4. We know the importance of that, but do not skip verse 10.
Verse 10 says, “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” Do you see that the first strategy in helping somebody—anybody, but particularly somebody who might be struggling with addiction—is to help them to grow to a place where they are seeking God with all their hearts. What’s that? That’s offense. That’s spiritually putting points on the board. That’s growing and thriving in their walk with God. It’s growing in the spiritual disciplines. It’s being active in their local church. It’s practicing the one anothers. It’s growing in a general sense in their walk with God.
When you are thriving in your walk with God, you’re going to handle temptation a lot better. It’s not going to be as enticing to you. As we deal with addiction counseling, that offensive strategy is important. How can we help people to grow in their walk with God?
What about defense? The point of defense is to deal with temptation. When temptation comes, how do you resist? How do you say no? How do you claim and draw near to the promises in the gospel and say no to sin and say yes to righteousness? We think of a text like 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Living out that verse, applying that verse, and learning to resist temptation is a huge piece of the counseling puzzle when we’re trying to help people coming out of addiction. We’re going to come back to that in more detail in just a moment, but let me explain special teams.
The football folks out there know that special teams comes on the field when it’s 4th and long, when you’re in trouble, when the offense has failed frankly. I think of special teams as repentance. When failure has happened, what do we do? We think of texts like Psalm 32 and Psalm 51, which inform and outline for us what godly repentance looks like. We need repentance because repentance is how people change. That’s the flyover of how I would approach counseling—an offense being a proactive walk with God, a defense being resisting temptation, and then repentance to answer: What do we do when we fail? How do we handle failure?
If you study the Bible in terms of the texts that inform us about temptation, the first thing we really learn is so simple that we’re prone to overlook it. We call this the “Joseph method” of dealing with sin and temptation. How does that go? Potiphar’s wife approaches you and she uses the subtle approach (“lie with me”), what do you do? You leave your coat and run. You flee. And I want to show you as we come back to Mike and Molly in a minute how something as simple as fleeing temptation is incredibly significant in the moment.
You know what most people do when they’re tempted in front of that computer screen, or they’re tempted in that crowd of friends, or they’re tempted in that occasion? They stay there. They don’t move geographically. When what that young man sitting in the dorm room needs to do when his roommates are out and his laptop is up and he’s tempted to look at something on his computer, what he needs to do is flee the dorm room.
Maybe it’s a peer group that is tempting, maybe it’s entertainment. What they need to do is leave and move to that place away from the temptation. The Bible tells us this all over the place. We need to flee youthful lusts. The Bible tells us that Joseph flees and runs. You need to prepare for temptation before you’re in temptation. We do not do well in the moment of temptation.
Even if it’s something as simple as taking that extra cookie when my diet says no. You don’t sit there and deliberate in front of that cookie and ask, “Do I need to take it how? How many have I had today?” You make a plan ahead of time so that in the moment of temptation all you do is implement the plan. What I love about the Scriptures is the Scriptures recognize our frailness. Dealing with temptation doesn’t need to be a 15-point outline of Greek terms and high-dollar theological principles, it needs to be simple, it needs to be known, so that in the moment of temptation you implement it.
The first thing the Bible tells us is flee, run, get away, remove yourself from the place of temptation. Call me old school, but I tell dating couples this wisdom. If you’re committed as a function of your gospel testimony and your faith in the Lord Jesus to not compromise physically with your girlfriend or boyfriend, I can give you a surefire way to do that. Don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you might. If you stay around other people, that probably won’t happen. You flee. You move to a place or you stay in a place where you’re probably not going to do that.
Let me show you another principle, this time from Romans. As we come to Romans 13, it’s built on the gospel presentation that Paul gives earlier, where we are applying the gospel, we’re living out the gospel. In Romans 13:14, Paul writes this to the Roman Christians, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Notice that before he talks about defense, he talks about offense: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Be active in your walk with God, recall gospel promises, claim your position in Christ, remind yourself, rehearse your adoption, your justification, your redemption, the Spirit in you—those wonderful truths that we know we have because of our union with Christ.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ actively, and then “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” That phrase “make no provision” actually means don’t make a plan.
Let’s apply that for a moment. I was working with a young man many years ago, a college student struggling with pornography and he’s talking to me, we’re having a counseling session. He says, “Oh man, I blew it last week. I looked at pornography again.” I asked, “Well, what happened?” We went back the day it happened, and it was about 7 or 8 p.m. What we discovered, as I talk through his day and try to figure out what was going on and what he was thinking, was there was an event that happened at 9:30 a.m. that morning. As we converse and I listen, as we talked about it together to try to understand the pattern, the challenges that he faced, he came to discover that his temptation to look at pornography at 7 or 8 p.m. happened at 9:30 a.m. that morning.
Something happened and he violated this verse. He violated it in one way in the sense that in that moment of temptation, he did not actively put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He didn’t recall his justification, his redemption, the fact that the Holy Spirit and dwells within him and his body is not his own because he’s been bought with a price so he should glorify God with his body. He didn’t put on the Lord Jesus Christ, but the other thing he did that violates the other side of this verse is he started to make a plan.
He started to think, “Okay, I got classes today, I have a lunch meeting, I’ll go to work.” He started to concoct in his plan that time of day when he would be available to pornography. The wisdom of this verse says you have to stop it right there. You have to stop it the moment that temptation arises. You don’t make a plan, you repent immediately at even the thought of beginning to think about that. That’s what “no provision” means—don’t make a plan.
Solomon warns his son the same thing in Proverbs 7. Make a commitment before the Lord that as soon as that comes into your mind, you need to stop and recall and put on the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of making any sort of plan.
The other text I want you to see is the one I mentioned a moment ago, 1 Corinthians 10. Let’s unpack this text. What we’re doing here is we’re unpacking some texts about temptation and then we’re going to use what we learn to make what I’m going to call a temptation plan. This talk is about crafting temptation and repentance plans. We want to learn what the Bible tells us about temptation and then we’ll flesh it out in a plan, and then I’ll show you in Mike and Molly’s situation how we help them to do those things.
First Corinthians 10:13 says this about temptation: This is common to man. By the way, if you’re a new biblical counselor, you have to be careful with that. We don’t want to say to our counselees, “Oh, it’s no big deal! Everybody goes through that.” That’s not what the intent means. The intent of what Paul is saying is that as fallen people our temptations are similar. One of the ways that sin gets a foothold in our hearts is I start to isolate myself and think I’m the only one that’s ever dealt with this. This verse is designed to remind us that it is common. That’s not to downplay a person’s struggle or to say that their struggle isn’t real or difficult or doesn’t have nuances that may be unique to them. It’s just saying you’re not the only one. Under the hood we all struggle in similar ways.
Notice of the theology of the verse. As biblical counselors you understand that the theology of the verse is the main point. What the text tells us about God is the thing to focus on, and of course what this tells us about God is that He is faithful. God is faithful. He’s reliable, you can depend on Him. You don’t have to wonder in your moment of temptation, “If I cry out to Him, is He going to give me that grace and mercy that He tells me in Hebrews 4 will help me in my day of need?” He’s reliable. He’s faithful. I can trust that whenever I turn to Him, He’s going to help me.
What is He going to help me with? Two things: the Bible says God is always faithful in the temptation to limit the severity of the temptation, so that it’s not too much for you and I to bear as we lean on Christ. That last part is important—we’re leaning on Christ. It’s not too much to bear, God sovereignly limits the severity of the temptation, so that it is not too much for me to resist as I cling to Christ in that temptation. That’s the first point of how God is faithful.
The second one is that He provides a way of escape. Be honest: What we want this verse to mean is He gives a way of escape where the temptation goes away. That’s what we want—and praise the Lord, sometimes He does that. But notice that’s not the direction the text goes. He says that with the temptation He will provide the way of escape, so that you will be able to endure it.
God often brings this promise about not by removing the temptation in the moment, but by giving you extra grace to endure it. That’s so important because in that moment your temptation will feel overwhelming, it will feel like it’s too much, you won’t see a way of escape. You’ll think, “Grace just isn’t going to work this time.” What do we do? We claim the promise of God, we believe that God is faithful. We trust what the text says, not what I’m feeling in the moment. God is faithful in that.
Let me show you another text that we have to talk about when we think about temptation. James 1:13-15 tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Two things we learn very quickly here is that temptation comes through our sinful desires. This is very important. Are there external factors in temptation? Absolutely. Are there circumstantial factors? Yes. Are there people? Yes, there are that contribute to temptation. But James takes his sharpie out and puts the Red X over our own fallen sinful desires as the real issue in temptation. It’s what we’re wanting. It’s what we’re desiring. Notice also—and this is so insightful, if you can translate this into a counseling agenda, you will really help people—James helps us to see that temptation gains power because of deception. Verse 14 says, “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lusts.” That word enticed is really important. It means to lure by desire.
Any fisherman here will understand the purpose of a bass lure. The purpose of a bass lure is to lie to the fish. To deceive the fish. It’s supposed to make the little bass swimming in the lake think, “Man, this is lunch. This is easy!” When he doesn’t realize there’s a hook there. He is deceived by that lure. He’s deceived into thinking this is something good. This is something I need. This is something valuable, and then he bites down on it and what he thought would help him and nourish him actually kills him.
That’s the word James use here. It’s to lure by deception. Why is this so important? When you’re dealing with people struggling with addictions, there is a belief system in their desires that feeds their temptation. The reason temptation has power, the reason our sinful desires have power, is because of the lies we embrace behind them.
All you have to do to see this is on Sunday afternoon when you’re watching football, just watch the commercials. Every commercial is designed to lure. Let’s say let’s say it’s a Ford F-150, Texas edition truck. I have a 1999 Camry. It works just fine, it’s great. But I’m watching this commercial and I’m drooling on my couch, thinking, “Man, I do need a new truck!” They’ve got the happy family and they’re pulling a wonderful ski boat behind it. Before long I’m thinking I need a new truck. Why? Because I’m deceived into thinking I need that to be happy, or I need that to have a family like that. That deception, that false belief, feeds my wants and gives power to temptation.
That’s important because when you come alongside someone who’s struggling with addiction, or really any sort of sinful desire, one of the ways you’re going to help them is you have to unmask the temptation to discover the deception that is behind those sinful desires. What are they wanting? Why do they want it? What lies are they believing? Is it they’re going to be happy, is it they’re trying to escape something, is it an expectation that, “I need this, I deserve this”?
When you begin to unpack the belief system that removes the power. It’s so amazing. When you dismantle the deception behind your sinful desires with the truth of God’s Word, it deflates and renders powerless your temptation. That’s what James is telling us. We need to uncover that.
The last verse we’re going to look at very briefly is in Hebrews 4. I put this in here because we need to remember that in the moment of temptation—even though we have wonderful principles, wonderful truth, wonderful practices, and we’ve unpacked some of those very briefly here—we don’t turn to a principle, we don’t turn to a theological point, we turn to the person of Jesus who gives us grace to live out that theology in the moment.
He was tempted in all things as we are, the Bible tells us, yet without sin. That’s amazing—we can go to Jesus. In fact, you can do this, you can go to Jesus and say, “I am struggling with this temptation.” Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s some other thing. Say, “Lord Jesus I’m struggling with this today.” And you know what He’s going to say if you do that? “I know what that’s like. I can relate.” Because He is a sympathetic high priest, the Scripture tells us. He has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. He’s the Son of God, He never sins. Therefore, He can come and help us. He knows what it’s like, He knows the weight of temptation, He can relate to the pull—and yet He resisted. That’s the person to help us! That’s the one we want to talk to.
Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” When we go to that throne of grace, we don’t receive condemnation. We receive grace and mercy to help in our time of need. When we’re struggling with temptation, when we’re helping with those struggling with addictions, we want to help them to see that turning to Christ is the most important thing that they’re going to do.
How do we take all this now and translate this into a robust temptation plan. I say robust, but actually it’s going to be pretty simple. Robust meaning we’re trying to apply biblical truth to it. Let me start with something really simple. The idea behind this is we want to help somebody to craft a temptation plan, so that the moment they begin to feel temptation, they know exactly how to respond. That means it has to be simple, not complicated, and its goal is to break the building momentum of temptation.
We can all put our hands up and say we know what that growing momentum of temptation is like. We know that, we’ve experienced that our own hearts. A temptation plan is like giving you a spiritual offramp as the road of temptation accelerates.
When our kids were very young and we were trying to help them to deal with their own temptation, we came up with this: Stop, get away, pray, obey. Here you say, “That’s really simple. That’s not very profound.” Exactly! Because you’re not trying to be profound in the moment of temptation. You’re trying to help put a simple outline into the mind of the person so that as soon as they’re tempted, they know what to do.
This is what we taught our kids. First you stop. You have that moment you realize, “What I’m doing is not honoring to God.” You get away—the Joseph method. You remove yourself, insofar as you can, from the place of temptation. Then you apply Hebrews 4—you turn to Christ in prayer. You call on Him. You ask for grace and mercy to help. Can I just say as a parent of growing kids—and you may have kids in your home, you may have grandkids—we need to be teaching children how to turn to Christ first, not last when they’re tempted. This is something we need to be building into children.
Stop. Getaway. Pray. What’s obey? Obey is doing the things that we just learned—make no provision for the flesh. I’m going to stop, and I’m not going to make any more plan. It’s turning to grace and mercy to help. It’s stopping and saying, “Wait a minute. What was I wanting in this moment?” That’s what James tells us, it’s our wants that lead to temptation. “Is there a lie that I’m believing?” That’s what we do.
It seems like every argument in our home has something to do with Legos. We are in the Lego stage of life. Some of you may be in the Lego stage of life. The lie might be something as as simple as this: “I think I should be able to play with my brothers Legos whenever I want to, but he can never use mine.” That is the theological operating system of my 10-year-old that leads to sinful desires, that leads to temptation, that leads to an argument. I’ll stop in that moment and come alongside my son to ask, “Is that is that true? Do you deserve that? Is that the way you honor your brother by thinking you have the right to do that?”
Once he sees that what Philippians 2 says is true, that he should actually consider his brother as more important than himself. When he really truly believes that, what happens to his sinful desire to take his brother’s Legos? It goes away. And that temptation in that moment dissolves because when you deal with the deception behind the desire, it deflates the balloon of temptation.
Stop, get away, pray, obey. How do we turn that into a “big person” plan? This is what I do with somebody struggling with pornography. Flee to a safe place, pray for help, call your accountability partner, and review counseling notes. That assumes that I have prepared them. This is typically what I’ll do: When we go over texts like James 1 or Romans 13, maybe Matthew 5 about radical amputation, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, gospel promises—I’ll have them make a little card and keep it in their Bible of those promises. Or if they’re under 40, I’ll have them put it on their phone, so it’s always available to them. So they know to get away to a safe place, call out to Jesus for grace and help, call their accountability partner, and then review those notes, review those homework assignments, those promises. Renewing their mind in the Scripture will expose the lies. That’s what will help them to claim promises that God is faithful. He’s going to help them. Then analyze and make changes.
The way we do this in our church is the accountability partner is usually not the biblical counselor. It’s kind of a Titus 2 level discipler who’s working with the biblical counselor and to provide accountability and help. They know how to come alongside and give instructions about what to do. Now I’ve found that when you’re trying to do this with a counselee, there may be some specific things you need to do to tweak the temptation plan.
Let me tell you some of the things that I see in helping addicts and helping people struggling with temptation that get them into trouble with temptation. The first thing that they’re doing is they don’t stop making a plan. That young man that I helped years ago at 9:30 a.m. at his college something happens. He sees something, he hears something, and he begins to be tempted to look at pornography. People that continue to fall into temptation have never gotten into the habit of stopping the temptation by not making a plan. That may be an area that you need to help. Check that out: Are they continuing to make a plan? Are they killing temptation as soon as it happens?
The Puritan John Owen said no man will make any progress in his spiritual life who does not walk over the neck of his lusts. That’s good advice from a wise pastor, isn’t it? You kill temptation the moment that it happens. You stop making a plan.
Other people don’t flee. Maybe it’s a young couple in your church and they keep compromising sexually in their dating relationship. You ask, “Well, what are you doing about that?” They’re doing the same thing, the same way, expecting different results. Maybe it’s not wise to hang out in her apartment by yourself. Maybe you need to not do that. Maybe in that situation in the vehicle when you typically get in trouble and are tempted physically, you need to make a plan get out of that vehicle as soon as that temptation arises. They’re not stopping the making of a plan. They’re not fleeing.
Maybe they continue to believe the same lies: “This will satisfy me. I need this. I deserve this.” We need to deal with deception at the level of lies.
Some people just say this: “I can’t.” You know in dealing with addicts that’s a real issue. They really think it’s too much. There is no way they can say no. That’s where we have to come back to the gospel. As I read in Ephesians 3—God is able to do in the gospel what you think is impossible. Then we live trusting His promises, not based on the conclusions of our feelings in the moment of temptation. Feelings are wonderful. They’re a part of the Christian life, but they were never meant to be the Google Map navigation system of your Christian life.
Did you know feelings are the most unreliable in temptation? Your feelings are shouting lies about how this is completely impossible and it’s completely justified for you to do it one more time. We come back to 1 Corinthians 10:13, “God is faithful.” You say to your brother or sister, “Do you believe that? You have to act based on faith in the promises of God in that moment and not based on how you feel.” So you fine-tune that plan for your counselees.
Let’s go back to Mike and Molly, the case scenario there. And of course, these are fictitious people, but based on a composite of cases. They’re struggling, their main struggle as the counseling started was with drug abuse. They kept relapsing back into meth use. We had a biblical counseling team—there were probably about 8 people in these dear folks’ local church who were involved in the counseling. This is a function of our ecclesiology. Biblical counseling is one part of a whole theology of what the church is and should be. Discipleship is happening from the nursery to the pulpit. At least that’s what we see in Scripture. At all levels discipleship is happening. As you help someone like Mike and Molly, it’s not a skilled biblical counselor. It’s a team of brothers and sisters that come alongside in all sorts of different ways and walk with these dear people, and help them, are there for them, provide accountability, and practical help.
The couple things we did with them with temptation is we put in an accountability system where they were to call immediately when temptation arose. We coupled that with people in the church that would literally go by their house twice a day to check on them because that’s where they would typically use. There was a pastor who would make random phone calls. They were told, “You always pick up the phone.” And if they didn’t pick up the phone, there was someone from the church dispatched to their house to check on them. You say, “Really?” I say, “Really!” That’s the church. That’s what we’re called to be. We love one another, we come alongside one another, we bear one another’s burdens. In a practical way, especially in a difficult situation like addiction, that’s the level of care that the church of Jesus Christ ought to be fulfilling.
We also talked to them about getting out of the house. They’re probably not going to go out into the street in front of all their neighbors and all their friends and shoot up. They’re probably not going to do that. That was another thing that we implemented to get them out of the house. So fleeing, calling, people coming over to check on them. Those were things that we put as part of their temptation plan. I’ll tell you how we coupled that with repentance and some other things in a moment.
Let’s talk next about repentance, because the reality is sometimes people are going to say yes to their temptation instead of no. We need to put practical steps in place for when a failure occurs. When they fall into sin, what do we want them to do?
We’ll hit some of the highlights of what repentance is from Psalm 51. If you are a biblical counselor, or if you just want to be a growing Christian, you understand that you need to be very acquainted with repentance. I often say to our counseling students, “You need to be able to fall out of bed in the morning before you’ve had your Starbucks and be able to explain and facilitate repentance.” It’s that important.
What does that look like? We know this is one of two Psalms that David wrote as a reflection of his repentance. In fact, the historic superscript under the title Psalm 51 tells us that this was a Psalm that David wrote after Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone into Bathsheba. I just want to hit some bullet points here on what repentance is, and then I want to walk you through how we might apply that to an addiction case.
David says in Psalm 51:3, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Now this may be really simple and really basic, but you cannot repent until you’ve acknowledged that you’ve done something wrong. When we’re in defense mode, when we’re in denial mode, when we’re in minimizing mode, when we’re in blame-shifting mode, we are not in a place where we can yet repent. David says he acknowledges his sin. I see that, I admit that. There has to be an understanding and an acknowledgement there. Notice also there has to be confession.
David says in verse 4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” David is illustrating what the word confession actually means. The word confession literally means to say the same thing. What that’s getting at is in repentance and confession, I am agreeing with God’s assessment of what I just did. I’m not making excuses. I’m not in denial. I’m not blaming someone else. I am agreeing with God, fully admitting that His just sentence on my life in light of what I’ve just done is right. That’s when David says there: You’re justified when you speak, you’re blameless when you judge. God’s Word has brought an accurate assessment and confession means that I am heartily agreeing with God’s assessment.
Thirdly, there’s godly remorse. We see that again here in verse 3, and David expands on that in verse 8, saying, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” In his contrition over his sin, he says it literally feels like somebody has broken my bones.
In verse 17, we see the same thing. He says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” This is hard to detect in counseling sometimes isn’t it? It’s hard to differentiate a godly sorrow from a worldly sorrow. I’ll tell you that the presence of godly humility as indicated by verse 17—a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart—those are good indicators that is the right kind of sorrow.
Notice also there’s a request for forgiveness. This is part of repentance. He says that in verses 1-2,
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!”
He’s saying three times in three different ways, “Lord, forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.” Blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly, cleanse me from my sin—those are all picturesque ways of saying, “Lord, I need the cleansing of your forgiveness.” He’s asking for forgiveness.
Finally—and this is the one that gets looked over so often—is a commitment. Repentance is not complete until there is an awareness of what needs to change, and there is a commitment by God’s grace to enact those changes. Psalm 51:10 says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” He says, “Lord, don’t leave me like this!” He’s acknowledged to God, he’s confessed his sin, he’s asked for forgiveness. But what is he still saying? “Lord, I don’t want to do this again. I need you to change my heart. Clean my heart. Give me a new heart. Renew me from the inside out. Lord, don’t let me stay like this. Change me.” That the heart of true repentance—there needs to be some level of commitment to change, a request for God to change us from the inside out, and that gets played out in very practical ways.
How do you take that very quick look at the the doctrine of repentance and those five key steps of repentance and turn that into a robust repentance plan? I’m going to focus on pornography because I think this is probably one of the things that we are most likely to see in our counseling and discipling ministries.
Let’s take what we’ve learned about repentance, and this is step-by-step what I take my counselees through in terms of actually practicing repentance. Then we’ll circle back and I’ll explain what we did with Mike and Molly in the case that I mentioned. The first thing we’re going to do: We’re going to lead them to confess the sin to God and to seek His forgiveness. We saw that Psalm 51, also Psalm 32 models this. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s confession—we’re walking through what we’re trying to help them to do as a function of repentance. We also want to help them to confess the sin and seek forgiveness from those whom you sinned against. Remember confession is always vertical, and sometimes horizontal. It’s always vertical because all sin is always against God. It’s sometimes horizontal if that sin has been also directed towards someone else whom we have hurt or sinned against.
Luke 17:3 says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” That may be going to a spouse, that may be going to an adult child, someone whom our sin has been against in our addiction.
We also want to confess the sin to another brother in Christ. You saw that in the temptation plan that we put together. James 5:16 says we need to confess our sins to one another. It is so important that we don’t try to battle the sins of addiction alone. I had a seminary professor that used to say: “In the church, lone rangers are dead rangers.” That’s good advice. God puts us in a body of brothers and sisters, and we work on these things together. We work through them together. We pray for one another. We help one another. That can’t happen if there’s not open and honest dialogue with a couple of trusted friends.
We also want to take steps of radical amputation to avoid temptation in the future. I think the average Christian who struggles with life-dominating sin thinks, “I’m going to confess it to God and that alone will make it different next time.” Well, that’s not what Scripture says. Confessing to God is a good part—a needed part of the process—but Matthew 5 says, “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” This is radical amputation, meaning you are looking for the things that are tripping you up, and you are getting rid of those things. In pornography, what is that? That’s computer access, it’s locations, it’s friends, it’s relationships, it’s access to the pornography. Removing that through some sort of means is absolutely essential.
You ask, “Well, is cutting off the pornography use really going to help them?” No, because you’ve got to get to their heart. Their heart needs to change, but cutting off the access allows you to bring some stability to that person’s life so that you then can address the heart. It’s very important to apply radical amputation. This is all part of repentance.
As you help them review their failure, ask them this: What actions of righteousness should they be doing? They chose to sin, but there were acts of righteousness that they should have been pursuing. What should I have been doing? If it’s a married guy, I might ask him to do this, “What are 10 specific ways that I can show sacrificial love to my wife?” We’re putting off looking at pornography, the adultery, the sexual sin, what are we replacing that with? Practical steps of biblical love toward this man’s wife. There we are putting off and putting on. We’re putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and we’re making no provision for the flesh. And you have to get to the specific level—10 specific ways. Some counselees may say, “Pastor Keith, I’m going to go home and I’m going to be nicer to my wife.” I say, “Well that’s good, but that’s not specific enough. I want 10 specific ways you can demonstrate sacrificial love to your wife.” I may need to help him with ideas, whether it’s helping with the laundry, maybe it’s giving her a night off—practical ways like that.
If it’s a single guy, it might be 10 ways you can love and serve various people in your church, or your neighborhood, or your workplace. The opposite of lust is biblical love. Lust is self-centered, it’s about me and my gratification. Love is others-oriented, it’s about blessing and serving other people. The way you combat lust is you help that person learn to love people biblically, and then practice it in a practical way. These are ideas to do that.
Are there areas of responsibility that I’ve been neglecting? You think of the hours and hours that young people waste viewing pornography when they should be doing profound theological things like their homework, like going to their job on time, like paying attention in doing their job instead of being on their phone all the time. You’re trying to help them to put off and put on steps of righteousness in place of the sin. Personal projects, ministries, household duties—figure out what’s going on there.
Next thing, we want to ask God to examine our heart. I have them pray through Psalm 139 (“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”)
Ask God to examine their hearts. We’re looking for things like self-serving desires and motives, so that we can confess at the heart level. Here’s another thing: What God-honoring and others-serving desires and motives should you replace them with? This is all a part of repentance. They’re not going to change until they start walking through steps like this, or they’re just going to go right back to doing the same thing.
Ask them, “When do you think this particular temptation began?” There’s always a pattern in addiction. Your job as the brother or sister, the biblical counselor, is to discover that pattern, listen, figure it out, and then help them to put plans into place to not fall back into that pattern. When we’re dealing with pornography, we might be thinking about the pleasure, the draw of the pornography. Believe it or not, people don’t all look at pornography for the same reasons. I love Tim Chester’s book Closing the Window. He explains how there are different drawers to pornography. He connects, for example the person who’s looking for a refuge in their pornography, he counters that with some sort of aspect of the character of God. For example, God is great. He is sovereign over our lives. Then a gospel virtue to combat that sinful desire that leads the pornography. I’ve found that very helpful as we try to help these men and women that are struggling.
In what other areas of your life do you see selfishness and living for self? This is really insightful as the Bible helps us to see. I can guarantee you the person that is living for self in addiction—that is not the only place in their life that they’re living for self.
Part of how you battle this is not just by putting both guns of the counseling cannon on the addiction. You look for all the ways in their life that they are living for self. It may be little compromises. It may be in entertainment. It may be in chores around the house. It may be that they’re not being faithful at work or in school. You identify all those things and you help them to see that the way you’re going to help them with living for self in the addiction is helping them to identify all these other ways they’re living for self, and then learning to live for God not just in the midst of the addiction, but in those other areas. At work, with family, in eating, and leisure. We help them to think through all those areas to identify living for self and replace that with living for God.
By God’s grace what commitments to action do you need to make? This is 1 Timothy 4:7, which says, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” We always want to anchor our repentance plan in the doctrine of union with Christ. It’s only through a believer’s connection with Jesus that they can have any help and hope for change. We come to this not from a standpoint that says, “Here’s your list. Now go repent.” We say, “Here are the steps of repentance and you stand on the gospel. You cling to Christ, you lean on the Spirit’s work in you to put these things into practice.”
With Mike and Molly, how do we do this? What did repentance look like for them? First with radical amputation from Matthew 5, there were some relationships that needed to end. For example, with the drug dealer they should not have had a relationship with. We had them change their phone numbers. Well, guess what? Drug dealers are smart. They got their new numbers. We had to help them change their numbers multiple times as an application of Matthew 5. They actually had to move across town to a different community as a function of their repentance, so that they would be in a position when they weren’t going to be tempted. As I mentioned, there were five people that were visiting them two times a day, there were random calls by one of the pastors.
They fell one day. They came and talked a biblical counselor. The counselor asked, “Well, what happened did you go buy drugs?” They said, “No we found some drugs we forgot about in the closet.” So, you know what this dear church did? They mobilized a team of godly people that went over and turned their house upside down and found every bit of paraphernalia, drugs, anything associated with that lifestyle, and we got rid of it. That’s how the church cares. That’s how we facilitate repentance.
We had to help them with conflict resolution. As they were tempted to drugs, one of the things that we discovered that precipitated the addiction was marital conflict. They didn’t know what to do with marital conflict. They didn’t know how to apply the gospel graces that they had in Christ to conflict in terms of confession and forgiveness. They would turn to drugs as their way of dealing with the stress, anxiety, fears, and frustrations of that.
We walked them through conflict resolution—how to do confession, how to do forgiveness. We had to increase accountability. One of the things that we discovered in working with these dear folks is one of the areas when they were usually tempted is when they got a paycheck. They got money in hand, and the temptation was, “We go cash it, and we get drugs, and then maybe we get groceries.” We identified a godly person in the church who was savvy with finances. They actually gave them account access, online access. Then a trusted church member saw when the paycheck hits, and can ask, “Is it all there? Is it not all there?” That financial person really helped them as a function of their repentance, as a way to help them apply gospel principles to that situation.
By God’s grace the church came around them and helped them to repent, helped them to address temptation and I’m here to tell you the gospel of Jesus wins in this. It was an overwhelming situation. It was difficult. There was lots of relapse, but trusting that God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. You’ll notice there’s nothing that we’ve talked about that’s some super secret. I mean, it’s all been in here for 2,000 years. It’s applying the normal means of grace in wisdom and care in the context of a loving and committed local church that helps the Mike’s and Molly’s of the world to turn away from addiction and to grow in gospel graces for His glory.