All posts by Mark

How to Recognize SAFE People

It’s great to have casual friends, like the relationships we might have with neighbors, work colleagues, and acquaintances in our community. But along with this, we need real friends: close friends, people we can be vulnerable with.

As recent research has shown, loneliness not only lowers the quality of our lives — it affects our health, and therefore, the duration of our lives. It is now commonly understood that loneliness is a key risk factor for early mortality, having the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even more dangerous than obesity.

Here’s the thing: casual friends, neighbors, and work colleagues do not end our loneliness. It that were the case, people in urban environments wouldn’t be so lonely. For many people today, their lives are filled with people contact, but not friends. We need real friends, not just associates.

As a pastor of a church, I’m very aware that one of the great benefits of being part of a spiritual community is the depth of fellowship that people can experience there. It’s what I see so many unchurched people missing. At the same time, I also see that too often, relationships in church can be insincere and fraught with conflict and various kinds of dysfunction. Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most important tasks of people in church leadership is to guard the integrity and health of relationships among members.

Let’s be honest: even in churches, there are a lot of people who are NOT SAFE. By that I mean, we intuitively sense that if we told them the truth about our lives — the whole truth — they wouldn’t know how to deal with it. They would judge us, try to “fix” us, look down on us, and maybe even distance ourselves from us.

SAFE Acronym

How do you find SAFE people? First, let’s get clear about what we mean by “SAFE.” Let’s use the word as an acronym:

S – Sincere: SAFE people aren’t fake. They don’t try to present themselves as being different than they really are. You sense an honesty and openness about them.

A – Accepting: Around SAFE people, we feel a permission to be ourselves. They might not approve of everything we do or say. They might even — when it’s appropriate — express their concern about us and our behavior (see “forthright” below). But it’s always done with the awareness that our relationship is not at risk. They will love us and include us in their lives even if we struggle.

F – Forthright: We don’t have to guess what SAFE people are thinking and feeling. They will tell us. This means they might have to share a concern with us, but we know they’ll do it honestly, and in love.

E – Encouraging: SAFE people actively seek to build us up, not tear us down. They speak encouraging words to us, and we trust that they will not divulge anything we tell them to others. Continue reading How to Recognize SAFE People

Today’s Epidemic of Artificial Sex: Pornography, Sexting, Cyber Sex

Let’s call the problem “artificial sex,” or “techno sex.” Today’s technology is facilitating sexual experience in ways that make real personal connection irrelevant. Usually, the problem is simply identified as “pornography,” but the problem also includes sexting and various forms of cyber-sex (such as chat rooms or video game environments).

Here are some statistics from 2019, from Barna Research Group and Covenant Eyes:

  • 68% of church-going men and over 50% of pastors view porn on a regular basis.
  • Of young Christian adults 18-24 years old, 76% actively search for porn.
  • 55% of married men and 25% of married women say they watch porn at least once a month.
  • 57% of pastors say porn addiction is the most damaging issue in their congregation.
  • The Barna Group discovered there is virtually no difference in the monthly porn use of non-Christian men (65 percent) versus Christian men (64 percent).
  • Sexting has become common for young people today. Estimates by researchers start at a low of 20 percent of teens and reach higher than 60 percent in some studies. Teenagers, however, believe that about 90 percent of their peers are sexting. This is an indicator that among teens, the behavior is considered normal, which has led to an increase in sexting behavior among this age group.
  • In 2019, the Freedom Fight conducted a survey of more than 1,300 Practicing Christian college students from over thirty different campuses across the country. The men and women we surveyed were involved in a campus ministry, and they considered their faith in Christ to be very important to them. 89% of the Christian men surveyed watch porn at least occasionally. 61% view it at least weekly and 24% percent watch porn daily or multiple times a day. 51% of these men said they were “addicted to porn.”

What about now, in 2021? What’s happening with these problems in the midst of the pandemic and shut-downs? I’m not sharing statistics about this yet, because estimates are all over the map, and I don’t trust that there’s reliable research yet. (If you know of any, please share it with me!) What everyone agrees on, however, is sobering: as bad as the problem with artificial sex was before the pandemic, it’s now gotten worse. And many people think it’s gotten much worse.

I’m also including cyber sex here, even though it may not be a huge issue … yet. Virtual reality games and environments are here, they’re getting more immersive all the time, and their popularity is growing. When you add the improvement of these  experiences, and combine that with high-tech sex toys,  it won’t be long before there are breakthrough “adult games” or “adult virtual meeting places” that take today’s web cam sites to a new level. Continue reading Today’s Epidemic of Artificial Sex: Pornography, Sexting, Cyber Sex

How the Church is Failing to Help People with Sexual Struggles … and what to do

I’m doing something a little different this time. Instead of an article, I’m going to link to a message I recently gave at Bethel Church in Princeton, MN. It was part of a series on Christianity and mental health issues.

I talk about some of the ways that the church has been failing people in this area, and then look at a Bible passage that offers hope and a way out. (Click on the image below, it’ll take you to the video of our full live-stream service, but starting at the beginning of the sermon.)

Your Brain Doesn’t Care About Your Happiness

One of my favorite quotes from neuroscientist Rick Hanson goes something like this: “Your brain was not evolved to make you happy. Your brain was evolved to keep you alive.” It’s so important to keep this in mind! Our brain evolved over millennia to keep us alert to dangers, and is highly sensitive to negative data and potential threats.

Out in the wild, of course, the finely-tuned limbic system of our brain that keeps us on high alert was a really good thing, because it kept us aware and alive. But today we deal with different issues. Our problems are not natural disasters or predators. Our problems are stress, depression, and illnesses (which are often related to stress and depression). This finely-tuned mechanism has turned against us.

Left to itself, our minds flit around from stimuli to memories to anticipated (or feared) future possibilities. And neuroscientists (like Rick Hansen) are telling us that the mind tends to notice and dwell on the negative: threats, dangers, and problems. Let me emphasize that: the mind WILL go negative. That’s what it does, because its focus is on helping protect you from potential dangers and threats.

The only way to have a good life is to find some way of overriding these natural tendencies, so that we are not at the mercy of our negative, brooding, anxious, monkey-mind.

Three Bible passages

Three Bible passages come to mind, all written by the apostle Paul. The first is 2 Corinthians 10:5, where Paul says that we should “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” Instead of letting our thoughts control us, we control them. We put them in their place.

The second is Romans 12:2, where Paul talks about not letting the world squeeze us into its mold, but rather that we be “transformed through the renewing of our minds.” Our lives are transformed as we transform our thinking. It comes through “renewing our minds.” And our minds are renewed as we take in new thoughts and ideas, and meditate on them, rather than meditating on our fears and worries.

The third is from Philippians 4:8, where Paul says: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yet another place where we’re being told to be deliberate about what we dwell on. Instead of thinking about things that are untrue, ugly, negative, impure … think of good things, true things, positive things, excellent things.

Okay … but how?

How are you going to do that? You’re going to have to train. You’re going to have to practice. You’re going to have to pay attention to what you pay attention to.

I find that the practice of meditation, or contemplative prayer, is very helpful for this. I spend time in quiet, and notice where my mind goes. When it flits around to things that I’m sad, angry, or anxious about, it turn those over to God in prayer. When it flits around to things I’m happy or excited about, I turn those over to God in a prayer of gratitude. I often keep going back again and again to the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Then throughout the day, periodically notice where your mind is. Keep bringing it back to focusing on whatever you’re doing, and on “excellent and praiseworthy” things. Whatever you’re brooding or anxious about, turn it into a prayer and then move on.

Some years ago, Darshan Singh wrote these words — and if anything they’re more important than ever to keep in mind:

“Our tensions are created because we are not able to control our mind, and it runs amuck. Sometimes we think of one problem, sometimes of another problem, and most of the time we are continually brooding. At times we do think of those factors which are a real cause of tension, but we are mostly afflicted with self-created tensions. We often fear our own shadows in life, with the result that we find ourselves in a very sorry plight, and go about with a drooping face and are constantly worried and agitated. But if we are able to control our mind, if we are able to fix our attention at the center of the soul, then we will not brood; we will be delivered from self-created anxieties.

“It is our attention which is the root of worry and also of bliss. In our everyday life we find that when we are sitting lost in thought, or are concentrating on solving a problem or composing a poem, even if someone passes by us or calls out to us, we may be quite unaware of it. … When we control our attention and focus it at the center of the soul, then we feel at peace. Our body is relaxed, our mind is relaxed, and our spirit is relaxed. This is what is meant by sitting in meditation, and it relieves us of our anxieties, of our pains, of our afflictions, and it will will afford us complete relaxation and bliss.”

Recovery requires the willingness to think differently … which is harder than you think

The process of recovery involves learning to think differently, which is much harder than most people realize. It’s not a matter of simply adding a few select pieces of new information onto what you already know.

That’s easy learning. Hard learning is when you’re forced to learn things that contradict what you already “know.”

It’s true that recovery involves taking in some new information that is easily assimilated, and fits into what you already believe to be true. If that were the bulk of it, recovery would be easy, and most everyone would be successful at it. But much of the learning in recovery forces us to evaluate what we’ve believed or assumed to be true … and it challenges us to re-think those ideas. It frequently challenges us to unlearn things, discarding the lies, distortions, and half-truths we’ve accepted — about ourselves, God, our past, other people, how life works, what makes us happy, etc.

We’re often told that recovery requires us to “trust the process.” This is just is another way of saying that we need to be willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were stupid, are in fact really wise and important. And we must become willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were wise and important, are, in fact actually stupid, and dangerous for our well-being.

How do we deal with new and contradictory information?

Does it make you uncomfortable to deal with information that contradicts what you previously thought was true? There are two kinds of people: (a) people who plug their ears to contradictory information, and refuse to change (b) people who are willing to accept the new information — after verifying its accuracy of course — and rethink their position. This is wisdom.

A principle I’ve gleaned from Chinese philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Zhu is that it’s healthy for living things to remain flexible and soft … like a green branch that is able to flex in the blowing wind. When things become old and hard, they become brittle … like a hardened tree branch that is liable to crack and break. That which is alive is soft and flexible, and that which is dead is rigid and brittle. Of course it’s not a perfect analogy, and it’s not the Gospel truth for all occasions, but there’s an important truth there.

There is a fine line between having firm convictions (good), and being rigid and closed to truth (bad). For people in recovery, this mental flexibility is essential. It’s really important to come to grips with the things you need to UN-learn about yourself, your beliefs, your ways of relating. For people in leadership, this mental flexibility is also essential. You have to be willing to learn, to see things in new ways, to challenge your assumptions. Otherwise, you will lose touch with the people around you, and the environment your organization exists in.

John Maynard Keynes once was challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles

In 2007, I developed a program to help people who were dealing with sexual struggles in their lives. Some felt comfortable calling these struggles an addiction, while others weren’t so sure about that label. It started out as followup, or “aftercare,” program for people who attended workshops I helped facilitate with Dr. Mark Laaser.

I think this program could help you, if you are wanting to start something — a group or ministry — to help others, or get more support for your own recovery.

When I created the Recovery Journey, I wanted to offer something different: I wanted to offer something that would work with — and help supplement — work people might already be doing with a therapist, or involvement with a 12-Step recovery group. I didn’t want to create something to compete against the many good programs already out there, or compete with therapists who do face-to-face work. I wanted to create something that would work with those other modalities.

And I wanted to offer something that helped facilitate a practice that I’ve come to believe is essential for long term sobriety:

Doing a little something every day
to support your recovery

As my sexualsanity.com website grew, I started to get people in the program who hadn’t gone to a workshop, and I found it worked just as well — if not better — for them.

Over the years I continued to tweak the program, and for some time now it’s been known as “The Recovery Journey,” and hundreds of participants have gone through it. I wish I had exact numbers. At this point, I think somewhere close to 400 people have gone through the program: about 300 sexual strugglers, and 100 partners of strugglers, who’ve gone through the companion program.

To find out more about the Recovery Journey, 

or sign up for it,

go to the website:

http://recoveryjourney.com

Here’s a little about the program, and a little about what I’ve learned:

1. Set a specific length of time. I decided to focus on a specific span of time, to make it something that people could dedicate themselves to going through as a transition time … even though we all know that recovery is a lifelong journey. With a nod to the recovery tradition of focusing intensively for 90 Days, I eventually set up the program to run for 90 Days.

I recommend this as a way of starting something with other people. Have a group meet for 3 months. Have everybody make a commitment to faithful attendance for that set amount of time. Then, if it goes well, you can decide towards the end of that time if you want to keep going.

2. Include some teaching to solidify a deeper understanding of addiction and recovery. I set up the program to include a short teaching segment, along with an action step to take each day (I’ll say more about the action step below). In my work with people in recovery, I came to see how essential it is to maintain focus on one’s recovery commitment. I came up with the principle that we need to do “a little something EVERY DAY” to remind us of our commitment, and help us move in the right direction. Continue reading Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles

Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

One of my favorite lines from Lao Tzu reads as follows (as translated by William Martin):

If we hold on to thoughts, judgments, and opinions,
our minds will be cluttered and useless.
If we hold on to possessions,
our minds will contract in fear of loss.
If we hold on to the opinions of others,
our minds will be confused and exhausted.
The only path to a satisfying life
lies in letting go.
– Lao Tzu

Not long ago, my wife and I moved from a five bedroom suburban home to a two bedroom apartment in the city of Chicago. We let go of a lot of possessions on the journey from 3000 square feet to 1200! But don’t feel sorry for us … we wanted to do this. Now empty-nesters, we felt it was time to simplify our lives.

Letting go of stuff has its challenges. It wasn’t painful to let our possessions go, but it was a lot of work. It took time and effort, but it was worth it. It was helpful and freeing.

The importance and value of “letting go” applies to more than just possessions. Lao-Tzu also suggests that it’s important to let go of “thoughts, judgments, and opinions.” I agree … but with a caveat. I think the caveat is implied in Lao-Tzu’s verse, but not stated directly: it’s important to let go of thoughts, judgments, and opinions that are no longer accurate or helpful.

Just as we don’t jettison possessions that we still use, enjoy, and need; so we don’t jettison ideas that we still see as true and important. That’s not what we’re after. What we need is to be thoughtful, reflective, and humble enough to recognize that as time goes and as we grow, our understanding deepens. And we find that some of the things we used to think were true and important are really not.

Let me put it another way: the process of growth — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — involves not only adding new insights and ideas, but letting go of old ones. It’s not only about “filling our cup” with new, clean water … it’s also about emptying our cup of the lukewarm, brackish water that is distasteful and unhealthy. Continue reading Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning