Sexual Temptation while Sleeping (And How to Fight It)

Fighting for sexual purity is absolutely crucial, especially for young men. It is a difficult fight, but one every Christian is capable of winning through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more discouraging, however, than fighting for purity and thinking you’ve won that fight, only to be besieged by temptation randomly. One particular area of temptation can happen while sleeping. Mature Christians who are walking in habitual purity can face an onslaught of sexual temptation while unconscious in sleep.

Help for Christians walking in habitual purity but still besieged with sexual temptations, especially while they sleep, comes from an unlikely place…St. Augustine. What could an early church father from the third century actually teach us about the very real temptations we face? A lot, actually.

In his book, Confessions (Book X, section 59), Augustine speaks at length as to the problem of sexual temptation during sleep. Augustine first goes onto to explain God’s design for sexuality and then states the problem.

Quite certainly you [God] command me to refrain from concupiscence [strong desire/lust] of the flesh and concupiscence of the eyes and worldly pride. You command me to abstain from fornication, and recommended a course even better than the marital union you have sanctioned; and because you granted me the grace, this was the course I took even before I was ordained as a dispenser of your sacrament.

Yet in my memory, of which I have spoken at length, sexual images survive, because they were imprinted there by former habit. While I am awake they suggest themselves feebly enough, but in dreams with power to arouse me not only to pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent. So strongly does the illusory image in my mind affect my body that these unreal figments influence me in sleep in a way that the reality could never do while I am awake.

According to Augustine, the Scriptures teach us to abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:8). Augustine goes on to that marriage is God’s idea and design but he did not pursue marriage after becoming a Christian because God’s grace sustained him. Although Augustine was walking in habitual sexual purity, he was still tempted sexually.

In his memory, Augustine says that images were, “imprinted there by former habit.” Because of his past actions, the sexual images are retained in his memory. Now, when Augustine is awake, he can easily fend off sexualized thoughts. He knows that they are wrong and turns from them. But when Augustine goes to sleep, however, something different happens.

These sexual images which have been stored in his memory “come alive” and arouse him in his sleep. So much so they seem to break down his defenses and could possibly cause him to masturbate–“[these sexual images cause] pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent.” Augustine realizes that while sleeping these images can influence him in ways that they could never do when he was awake.

So what gives? Does Augustine somehow become a different person when sleeping? Does his reason which controls his actions go to sleep too? Here is his answer:

Surely this cannot mean that I am not myself while sleep, O Lord my God? Yet the moment of passing from wakefulness to sleep or back again certainly marks a great change in me. What becomes then of my reason, which enables me to resist these suggestions in waking hours, and remain unshaken if the actions themselves intrude upon my attention? Is reason shut down along with my eyelids? Is it lulled to sleep with the body’s senses? Surely not, for how can it happen that often we do resist even in dreams, remembering our commitment and standing firm in complete chastity, giving no consent to these seductions?

There is, notwithstanding, so wide a difference between the two states that even the opposite occurs we return to peace of conscience on awakening, for the very difference between sleep and waking is obvious enough to convince us that we did not really do the disgraceful thing, even though we are sorry that it was in some sense done in us.

Augustine stays himself while sleeping, of course. Yet going to sleep, does mark a great change in him. His reason doesn’t go to sleep either, because sometimes in his dreams he is able to remember God’s word and resists giving into the sexual temptation represented in his dream. Yet, there still is a big difference between being awake and sleeping. So even if we have sexual intercourse with someone in a dream, we realize upon waking that it wasn’t real. We do lament, however, that in a certain sense there was some sort of sexual actions taking place in us.

So what can we do with this? If we are in a “weakened” state due to being asleep, is there any hope for us? For Augustine it all comes down to God’s power and grace:

Is your hand not powerful enough to heal all my soul’s ills, all-powerful God, and by a still more generous grace to extinguish unruly stirrings even in my sleep? Yes, Lord, you will heap gift after gift upon me, that my soul may shake itself free from the sticky morass of concupiscence and follow me to you. As for those foul obscenities in my dreams, where bestial imaginations drives the flesh to the point of polluting itself, grant that this soul of mine, through your grace rebellious against itself no more, may not even consent to, still less commit them. You are the Almighty, able to do more than we ask or understand, and it is no great task for you to make provision that nothing of this kind shall arouse the least sensual pleasure–not even such slight titillation as may be easily restrained–in a person of chaste intention while he is asleep, and this even in the prime of life.

But now that I have declared what I still am in this area of my sinfulness, speaking to my good Lord and exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me, while deploring my unfinished state, my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection, until I attain that utter peace which all that is within me and all my outward being will enjoy with you, when death shall be swallowed up in victory.

God is powerful enough to do anything–even to remove these sexual temptations while we are sleeping. God can also choose to be gracious toward us and exercise His power to remove these temptations. Yet, Augustine acknowledges that while God’s grace that given him growth (“exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me…”), he also acknowledge his remaining sinfulness and that he is still a “work in progress.” God has not chosen to fully remove these temptations from his life (“my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection”).

Conclusion

So what can we do when tempted sexually while asleep? Following Augustine’s example here are a few things:

1. Admit you’ve been scarred
Augustine’s observation long-ago that sexual images have been imprinted in his memory has been confirmed by the neuroscience. This is Augustine that we’re talking about here. The most influential theologian in all of history. His writings have influenced the church for 2,000 years on the topics of free will/predestination, Bible interpretation, and church/state relations. Yet, Augustine admits that his mind has been messed up by his former sinful behavior. We should be able to admit that too. It is cause for lament. Our sinfulness in the past is causing us continue consequences and temptations in the present.

2. Recognize God’s sovereignty and grace
God could remove your sexual temptations if He wanted to. Sometimes in His unknowable sovereignty, He chooses not to relieve us of our temptations. But we must not doubt God’s goodness. The book of James asserts that, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (1:13). So if God chooses not to abolish our sexual temptations, He must have a good reason for not doing so. We may not be able to comprehend that reason this side of eternity, but it most certainly is there. And it is good.

3. Recognize that being asleep is different
Augustine acknowledges that sleep is a different state than being awake. Although you may feel bad about having sexualized dreams or being aroused while asleep, it is not necessarily a sin. These things are probably a result of your past choices, whether from viewing pornography, having illicit sex, masturbating, or a combination of all of them. It is occasion for lament (“O wretched man that I am!”), but not necessarily for heaping guilt upon yourself. We must remember the gospel: all of our sins have been paid for by the crucifixion of Jesus. God is still at work within us and will not cast us off because of our sins. We are “in Christ.” All of the goodness of Jesus rests upon us. God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not struggling with our sexualized dreams.

4. Pray
Augustine asks God to take away his sleeping sexual temptations. We must ask too. God, in His grace, may relieve us of these things. We must also pray for strength to fight these things even if the fight doesn’t always seem “fair” because we’re asleep. Fight on anyways.

Miscarriage, Abortion, and the Gospel

We all live in God’s world: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Whether we acknowledge it or not; there is no escaping that reality. As human beings, we can rage, rail and try to circumvent God’s world for a time. He may even allow us to be successful at it. In fact, Jesus rarely stays where He’s not wanted. For example, after healing a demon-possessed man, the nearby town wanted Jesus gone, so He left (Luke 8:37).

But although we may be somewhat “successful” trying to escape the reality of God, all people know God is there and this is His world (Romans 1:18-20).

Although the predominant culture may proclaim that abortion is a “right” and the “right thing to do,” there is no escaping the crushing guilt which comes from taking another person’s life. You can even feel guilty when you’ve done nothing wrong. Like when your wife experiences a miscarriage.

My wife and I have one child, but she has experienced two pregnancies. (You can read more about the first one here. In fact, this blog is named after that deceased child). The options were laid out to us like this: either she could hemorrhage out the baby, or have a DNC—which is also a common abortion procedure.

Allowing my wife to hemorrhage seemed way too horrifying. She was in enough pain (physical and emotional) already, that to go through such an experience seemed overwhelming. So we chose to go with the DNC.

And we still felt guilty. Was our baby truly dead? Or were we now responsible for ending his life? Did we honor his little body? Did we do the right thing?

Our only hope in that time was that we trusted God to give us wisdom to make the best decision possible (James 1:5-8).

If we have experienced such guilt even though we did nothing wrong, I cannot even imagine the guilt which women face who actually decide to end the life of their still living baby. After having made such a decision, there are really only three options. They can suppress the guilt and through gritted teeth proclaim that everything is ok. Some of you will not buy my argument that women who have abortions feel guilt, because some women will testify that they don’t feel guilty for their decision. My rebuttal to that is this: we still live in God’s world. We must play by His rules. And although He allows us to suppress the truth (see Romans 1 again), this does not negate or nullify the truth. They may also despair from the guilt. There may be a haunting which pervades their life because of what they’ve done.

The third option is this: turning to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only message which can cleanse the conscience and relieve the guilt. Women who have had an abortion may feel like something violent and repulsive should happen to them because of what they’ve done. What the Bible declares is this: something violent and repulsive has already happened, but it happened to God’s only Son, Jesus. Jesus faced rejection and desertion. He faced being whipped and being crucified—nails driven into His hands and His lungs filling up with His own blood. He did so, on your behalf so that the cost of your sins could be paid. He died so that His blood could cover over your own blood-stained hands. God counted Jesus to be a sinner, so that we could be counted free. That means you if you come to Jesus.

“But it’s just too easy!” you may think. Really? And how would you make up for it? Is there any way to truly cleanse the blood of an abortion away? A lifetime of doing good will not, indeed, cannot, do away with the guilt of sin. Only a perfect sacrifice can do that. A perfect sacrifice like Jesus.

Losing Lazarus: One Year Later

On this date last year, we found out the news that Lazarus had stopped growing.

I can’t believe at how radically different our life situation was, just one year ago: I was still in grad school at Southern Seminary, Heather was still pregnant the first time, we lived in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, I am done with school and working for Lincroft Bible Church. Heather is pregnant a second time. And we live in Jersey.

The first Scripture we read after the news was found in a John Piper Devotional:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
For His mercies never fail; They are new every morning.
Lamentations 3:21-22

I can’t even describe what those words meant to us during that time. They were the hardest words in the world to read at that point, but also the words we exactly needed.

God’s mercies are new every morning.

Sometimes, they’re just severe mercies.

It’s Like Waiting for a Christmas Gift that Will Never Come

 

“I know that when you died and went to heaven, the angels sang the alleluia song
but the silence that you left here behind you is empty like the day without the dawn”

–Drew Holcomb, “Sweetness”

 

RIP, my boy, Laz

Christmas is not the same without you here.

I am hopeful to see you again because of the “good news of great joy which will be for all people. For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11)

Jesus is my Lord, and yours now, too. 

Three Verses which Helped Me through Suffering

The book of Romans lays out some of the deepest theology in the whole Bible. So it might seem weird to turn to such a “deep” book for comfort getting through a time of suffering. Surprisingly, the apostle Paul—an early church leader who wrote Romans—spends an entire chapter pretty much talking about suffering.

Here are three verses which helped (and still help) me deal with our loss:

“I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” Romans 8:18

I made this Scripture uncomfortably personal the other day, when I paraphrased it like this: “I consider the suffering of losing a child is not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” It’s a bracing thought, but its true: the glory of Christ for all eternity will be so great, so magnificent, and so powerful that all the pain and suffering endured in this life will melt away. I long for that day.

“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” Romans 8:28

This is the classic suffering verse. And also the verse you never want to hear right away when you are confronted  with suffering. But as time stretched on, I was able to reflect on this verse and it gave me great hope. God is sovereign over my suffering and will somehow, some way, bring good from it. How does that all works out? I have no idea. But I cling to God’s good sovereignty.

“He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things” Romans 8:32

God gave us His Son and will also give us “all things.” I think that “all things” means literally “all things”—even pain and suffering. What’s even more amazing is that Paul describes these things as “freely” given by God. The term “freely” also means “graciously.” In other words, “all things”—even pain and suffering—are gifts of God’s grace. I don’t know why we suffered the loss of Lazarus, but I do know that God loves me (even if He has a funny way of showing it).

Those are three verses which helped me through suffering.

What are some Scripture passages that have helped you get through suffering?

Why We Named our Deceased Baby Lazarus

The fluorescent lights flickered on. And there’s always that crunchy paper that you sit on. So I helped Heather get into her gown, and then we waited. The doctor came in. And she had a pretty small hand-held ultra-sound machine. And she moved it to and for across Heather’s belly, and then we waited. She said, “Come with me.” And we followed down the hallway to another room. This time the ultra-sound machine was much larger. And then we waited…And waited…And waited. For a heartbeat that never came.

January 18th, 2013. That day will be forever burned into my memory. The day we lost our baby. I can still remember the numbing grief and Heather wailing, “Where’s my baby?!? Where’s my baby?!?”

We couldn’t find out the sex of our baby. It was too early. But Heather and I both had a hunch that it was a boy, so we decided to name him Lazarus. That alludes to the story of Jesus and Lazarus in the Gospel of John.

The story of Jesus and Lazarus begins with Jesus doing ministry in another town. As Jesus is working, the sisters of His best friend (Lazarus) come up to Him and tell Him that Lazarus is sick and dying. Now, if I heard that Dan had been diagnosed with cancer I would leave the next day from Louisville to be there. But Jesus doesn’t leave right away. Jesus lets His friend die! And then, only after Lazarus has passed on does Jesus show up to Lazarus’ house.

And of course, it’s the typical chaos that surrounds a family when someone dearly loved passes on. There’s crying and wailing and all sorts of commotion. And here comes Jesus just moseying up the driveway. I can only imagine the anger that Lazarus’ family felt. “Here comes the guy that Laz would go on and on about. How he can heal the sick and raise the dead. And he doesn’t even show up when his best friend is sick!” There is much sorrow, sadness, and grief. And rightly so.

But Jesus just cuts through the crowd and comes to Lazarus’ tomb.

“What is Jesus doing? Don’t get too close, Jesus, he’s already been there for four days and it probably stinks.”

But Jesus just plows ahead, “C’mon, roll it away.” And they do that. And Jesus shouts, “Lazarus come out!”  There was footstep after footstep and Lazarus appeared! Out of the grave!

All the sorrow that Lazarus’ family had felt was turned to joy in an instant by Jesus. But let’s reflect on the story a little more. Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, but Lazarus didn’t have a completely new and incorruptible body. Christianity teaches that when Jesus comes again, we will receive restored physical bodies. Our bodies will be incorruptible, just like Jesus. But this wasn’t that time yet, so Lazarus would have died again.

But how would that second funeral have been different? His family had seen the power of Jesus. They had their sorrow turned into joy. But now, in this funeral, they could have joy in the midst of sorrow, looking forward to what Jesus would do.

Because Jesus is a greater joy than a living brother…or even a baby.