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Church Is Good For You; It's Time To Go Back
I meet more and more Christians who have simply given up on church. Maybe you are one of them. You’ve been disappointed by a leader, disillusioned by division, or just can’t find a place you belong. Through COVID-19 quarantines, perhaps you settled into a new routine of watching your favorite pastor on YouTube and listening to Hillsong on a Sunday hike. That’s worship, right? With the best music and teaching available on your smartphone, it’s easy to forego the hassle of going to church or the heartache of investing in a place that might disappoint you. Many of us have been rethinking church. Why does it matter? What does a healthy church look like? What’s the purpose of church? I want to share with you five reasons why being involved in a healthy church is a critical part of following Jesus.    Church is a reminder that it’s not about you. Individualism is one of the blindspots of our current culture. Companies spend billions of dollars curating experiences and content that will connect with your desires and preferences. All day long, we absorb subliminal messages that life is all about you. Without even realizing it, we can translate that into our relationship with God. He loves me. He wants to use me. He wrote the Bible to me. While God absolutely cares about you and deeply knows individuals, His primary work is through people, not just a person.  When you regularly gather and serve with other believers, you will constantly be reminded that you are part of something bigger. God’s story is much greater than your specific part in it. In fact, your unique journey will only make sense once you see it in light of the greater work that God is doing around you. When I interact with God’s people, I see people who are suffering when things are going well for me. God says, “Weep with those who weep” Romans 12:15 (ESV). Other times, I witness God’s divine intervention in someone’s life when my faith is shaky.  Church reminds me that I’m not alone and that God is always working around me. Being with God’s people will help you put your own story in context of the greater story.   Church is a place for celebration and offerings to God. One of the main ways we put a smile on God’s face is to gather together to worship Him. Worship and praise are offerings to God. He loves it when He sees His children putting aside their differences and distractions to offer a joyful noise to Him.  Our worship is not just the “warm up” for the sermon. It is a literal offering to God. You can praise the Lord in the privacy of your own home or car, but there is a greater celebration when you worship with other believers.  In God’s goodness, this sacrifice of praise also blesses us. Singing to God releases endorphins and dopamine into your body, giving you a sense of peace and happiness. Interestingly, when we sing together, we also experience a release of oxytocin, a hormone that bonds people together with feelings of love and closeness.    Church is where you form critical relationships. America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, medical and psychological experts voiced concern about rising rates of anxiety, depression, and alienation. According to a survey published by Cigna in January of 2020, more than three in five Americans reported feeling left out, being poorly understood, and lacking companionship.   The Church is meant to be an antidote to this alienation. The Bible consistently uses the language of family (son, daughter, sister, and brother) to describe how intimate our relationships within the church are supposed to be. Are you looking for a mentor? Someone who understands your journey and can encourage you? Are you looking for a potential spouse? Do you long to nurture children or invest in people’s lives? Your smartphone can never provide that type of intimate relationship. Church should be the number one place we connect with people in this way.  Notice that the family relationships described here require that you be involved in a church, not simply attend. And remember: when you put people together and they move past the pleasantries, you will run into differences and disagreements, like family. There is no perfect church. This is why so much of the New Testament emphasizes how we are to treat each other in the Family of God. Forgive. Give grace. Be patient. Accept people’s faults. Above all, let the love of Christ bind you together.  Friend, you may have experienced deep heartache through previous experiences in a church. If this is your story, I’m so sorry. There is a time to separate from unhealthy relationships and communities, but don’t give up on finding a safe church.    Church provides accountability. Just yesterday at church, I thanked a woman who had recently joined the worship team. She replied, “I joined mostly because I need the accountability.” She went on to explain that without being involved in church, she had wandered from God’s Word and had begun making poor decisions in her relationships.  God’s Word encourages us, but it also rebukes and corrects us. Attending a church that is faithful to His Word will bring you back to truth on a regular basis.  On top of that, God intends fellow believers to be “up in each other’s business,” gently and lovingly correcting one another. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” Proverbs 27:6 (ESV). In healthy churches, pastors, counselors, and mentors engage in discipleship, which may include discipline for a Christian who is willfully engaging in a pattern of sin. How many marriages, families, and lives might be different if Christians took discipleship relationships seriously?     Church is where we use our gifts. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes about the spiritual gifts that God gives believers. God gave gifts of teaching, preaching, evangelism, shepherding, and many others for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Paul goes on to explain that when Christians use their spiritual gifts together, the people of God will be mature in love and not tossed about by every new wind of teaching. Bringing maturity to the church is not just your pastor’s job. You have a part in it too!  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has given you gifts that are not meant for you to keep for yourself, but intended for you to exercise for the sake of others. The primary place you use those gifts is with other Christians. Young or old. Male or female. Single or married. God has given you gifts and perspectives that your church needs. When you spend time engaging with people at church, they will see your gifts and encourage you. You will begin hearing things like, “You are so encouraging. Every time I’m with you, I just feel better.” or “You have a true gift with teenagers. They are drawn to you.” or “You explain things in a way that just makes sense.”  I discovered my spiritual gifts not so much in school or even in private practice, but by serving alongside my brothers and sisters. They continually help me see how God has gifted me and where I am most needed in the work of God.    There should be no lone warriors in the body of God. You were meant to be connected to God’s people. When you commit to a church, think beyond the consumer mentality of “Does it meet my needs?” Invest in God’s people because God loves His Church and commands us to be part of it.   Photo by Tom Ramalho on Unsplash
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3 Reasons To Invite Women Into Conversations About Sexual Brokenness
by Joy Skarka I opened my door and there she stood. She was nervous. I invited her inside my home, offered her a cup of coffee, and we sat down on my couch. I could see the hesitancy on her face as she fidgeted with her phone. I asked her to tell me a bit about her story.  My new friend was referred to me by another woman who had sat on my couch just last week and cried as she said I was the first person she had ever told about her porn addiction. Every woman who sits on my couch has different details in their stories––different traumas or different types of sexual brokenness, but each story and each face are filled with pain and questions.  “Will my life always feel this empty?” “Will I always be addicted to porn?” “Will my marriage always be this hard?” “Will I always be afraid of men?” “Why did God allow this to happen?” “Can Jesus really meet my longings and desires for intimacy?” After each woman shares her story, I offer comfort with just two little words, “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry that she has walked through such a painful experience. I assure her from my own story that there is hope. I’ve been in her shoes. I may not have experienced the exact trauma and experiences as each new friend on my couch, but I’ve walked through sexual assault and sexual addiction, and I’ve found hope and healing. For some of these women, that’s all they need to hear. As they stand up and walk out my door, I can see that they look lighter. Happier. More hopeful. I didn’t fix their problems, but I gave them a safe space to share their stories and they no longer feel alone. I meet women in their brokenness on my couch, and I meet new friends at different events. I frequently share my story from a stage in front of hundreds of people, and afterwards women line up to share their own brokenness and ask for hope. One time a young woman hesitated near the line, waiting for others to leave. I walked over and asked if she wanted to talk. With tears in her eyes she said, “I’ve never even heard a woman, let alone a Christian woman, say the words pornography and masturbation. Thank you for giving me the space to say them too.”  In my doctoral research, I surveyed over 1,000 women on how they experienced sexual shame and if or how they found freedom. Sadly, almost 69 percent of the women said their sexual shame made them feel far from God, and 52 percent said they felt so much shame that they kept their struggles a secret from their friends and family.   In my experience, sexual struggle and temptation are almost always talked about as guys’ problems. This just heaps shame on the many women who also struggle with them. Sexual sin issues are not just topics for men. It’s time we invite women into the conversation.    Honest conversations invite women to know God’s forgiveness. If we continue to ignore the sexual brokenness of women, how will they know the forgiving love of a God who sets them free? Understanding God’s forgiveness is key to helping women find freedom from sexual sin and sexual shame. Anna, a 42-year-old woman, struggled with sexual shame surrounding same-sex relationships, pornography, and masturbation. She also experienced sexual abuse as a child. Anna shared with me that hearing God forgives and loves her is what set her free from sexual sin and shame. Similarly, Andrea, a 37-year-old woman, chose to abort her baby, and the shame she experienced led to her living a life of continued sexual sin. Andrea said that she believed God could never love or forgive her because of her actions, which led to her walking away from God for years. Similarly to Anna, for Andrea to find healing from the pain of her abortion, she said the most powerful thing that happened in her life was hearing from a pastor that God loves her and forgives her.   Honest conversations create a safe place for women to ask questions and share their stories. We need to create a safe place in church to talk about sexuality, and if we fail to include women, they may not feel comfortable coming forward with their issues. Many women believe they have no safe place to ask questions about sex or to talk about sexuality; yet having that safe place is a part of biblical community. Instead of silencing or shaming women, churches can normalize these conversations. You can be an empathetic friend—but don’t stop there. Pray with your leadership and ask God to show you how to create places where men and women can gather and talk about their struggles and share their stories with other believers. One way to offer a safe place is to have female staff members and/or trained lay leaders so that women are able to speak with other women first. Men and women have more in common than we realize. There are important spaces for men and women to heal in their own groups; but we also need to heal together. Including women in conversations about sexuality opens doors for brothers and sisters in Christian community to have conversations with one another. When we categorize sexual sin as a “man’s issue,” we not only hurt women, we also hurt men. Both men and women are sexually broken.   Honest conversations point women to the hope of Christ.  Many of the women who have sat on my couch share that they believe they are “too far gone” or “too addicted” to ever find healing. Other women share that they have gone through too much pain and suffering to have hope for healing. Including women in conversations about sexuality helps them to realize they aren’t exempt from the hope of Christ because of their sin.  Hebrews 10 explains how we can provide hope to men and women. The author of Hebrews encourages us to, “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10: 22-24 NIV). First, we draw near to God. Then we can experience being cleansed from our sins. And through that faith in God and His forgiveness, we can have hope. Why? Not because of anything we’ve done, but because He is faithful. I love the last verse that encourages us to then spur one another on.   We can spur one another on by having honest conversations. This is true for my friend Stacy. Stacy, a 28 year-old woman, found freedom from shame through the vulnerability of a mentor. Before finding someone to honestly share with, Stacy struggled alone. “Growing up it was never safe to ask anyone questions about sex. It would always turn into ‘I had done something wrong.’ I grew up feeling bad about my sexuality and soon turned to pornography and masturbation in secret because I couldn’t open up to anyone about how I was struggling. I didn’t know another woman who struggled with these things or even had sexual desire of her own. I thought I was the only one! Every book or sermon on the subject only mentioned male desire.” Stacy shared what brought her healing. “It wasn’t until a mentor led with vulnerability and shared about her own struggles that I felt safe to share my own sin. She pointed me to the gospel and how God knew the whole time and still sent Jesus to make a way for me to have a relationship with him. This gave me the strength to keep being vulnerable with that mentor and pursue accountability and healing of those deeper issues. Over time, I felt safe enough and secure in God to share my stories with others and help them start their recovery journey.” I wish I could invite you over to my couch to have an honest conversation about sexual brokenness. If you are struggling, who is a safe Christian mentor or friend you can begin sharing your story with? Or if you are a Christian leader, I encourage you that you can begin having these conversations on your couch. Have you led with vulnerability? Are you allowing your own story to point others to the gospel? Think about one way you can begin having honest conversations about sexuality that include women too.  If you would like to hear more about my story or how to include women in these conversations, listen to our episode on Java with Juli #369: Changing the Way We Talk About Porn (Because Women Struggle Too).   Photo by Nathan Fertig on Unsplash
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3 Things I Want You To Know as I Launch a Countercultural Book
A book release. Normally this would be an exciting event. It’s kind of like giving birth to a child that you have nurtured in your womb for nine months. As this one approaches, my excitement is honestly mixed with trepidation. Over twenty years ago, I wrote my first book, Finding the Hero in Your Husband. I was a young wife and therapist, yet God was giving me wisdom to understand some of the more common challenges of marriage. That book went on to sell about 80,000 copies over the years and was still selling. I realized that while the message of the book was true and helpful, a lot needed to be updated. Cultural trends have shifted, and I’ve learned a lot through twenty years of life and ministry. So in 2020 I got to work rewriting the entire book. Little did I know that it would be re-released in the middle of changing cultural winds. It seems as if everyone, including those inside the Church, is running away from discussions on the uniqueness of male and female within marriage. With increasing revelations of abuse in churches, ministries, and Christian families, we are desperately trying to correct our understanding of biblical passages that have been taken out of context to promote unhealthy authority, toxic masculinity, and the devaluing of women. While this is a very necessary conversation, we also run the risk of overcorrecting. This has become the era of a woman’s voice.  Then here I go with this book release, encouraging women to consider that God has a unique design for them within the covenant of marriage. Their husbands matter, and how a wife uses her power in marriage can either build or destroy intimacy. Both husbands and wives have the power to be either destructive or life-giving in their marriage.  By nature, I’m a people pleaser. I don’t like conflict. I like to help people, not ruffle their feathers. I’m not looking for a debate or an argument, especially not with fellow Christ followers. But this book is standing in a place from which the whole culture seems to be running.  It’s a sobering thing to teach, to write, to speak. James reminds us that teachers will be held to stricter judgment. So I want to share my heart with you. I want to share why I teach what I do and the spirit with which we approach ministry at Authentic Intimacy.  I want you to know God. I believe that the Bible is unlike any other book. It is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword. It comforts, convicts, and brings us to truth. I don’t want to simply teach my opinion, but to be faithful to begin and end with what God says on every topic.  A.W. Tozer wrote, “What Christian when faced with a moral problem goes straight to the Sermon on the Mount or other New Testament Scriptures for the authoritative answer? Who lets the words of Christ be final on giving, birth control, the bringing up of a family, personal habits, tithing, entertainment, buying, selling and other such important matters?” God’s Word is unchanging and life-giving. It is also extremely countercultural. Christians are called to live in this world as “foreigners” and “aliens” who have our eyes fixed on what it means to honor God in everything. We don’t measure God’s Word by the world’s wisdom, but we measure the world’s wisdom by God’s Word.  This doesn’t mean that we bury our heads in the sand, ignoring research and science. The same God who inspired His Word created the world with observable patterns of health and flourishing. I’ve earned three advanced degrees in clinical psychology and I love studying God’s wisdom reflected in His creation. When I look at what causes humans to flourish, I see a consistency with biblical wisdom. I also understand that research and scientific conclusions, particularly within “soft” sciences like psychology, may be flawed by how we ask questions and use findings to reinforce our agendas.  Paul told the older women to teach younger women how to love their husbands.  Finding the Hero In Your Husband, Revisited is my imperfect but best attempt to help you answer the question, “How do I honor God in my marriage?” I hope to encourage you to be like the Bereans in the book of Acts, who measured every teaching by the truth of God — not the wisdom of their age. Don’t trust me as your source of truth. Don’t trust any human author or speaker to be your final gauge. The winds of Christian culture will blow back and forth, reacting to the most recent podcast or blog. My desire is to point you to the Unchanging One, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  I don’t want to avoid difficult issues. While the Bible is quite clear on many principles of living, the application can be really messy. It’s tempting to avoid complex topics like addiction, trauma, and sexuality. It’s also tempting to sidestep triggering teachings, like what God means when He instructs wives to respect their husbands. The leader of a Christian family organization recently told me, “We’ve just decided not to go there.” I get it. No matter what you say or how you say it, you will likely be misunderstood and elicit angry responses. Why not just stick to safe topics like communication or conflict management?  Real-life relationships are messy and require courage to address complex questions. Since we began in 2012, I’ve wanted Authentic Intimacy to be a space where people (particularly women) could wrestle with complicated topics and issues. What should you do if your husband refuses to get a job? When does heated conflict cross the line into emotional abuse? How do you know when you have become controlling and manipulative as a wife? How should you approach sex if one or both of you has a history of sexual addiction?  I don’t want to “stay safe” to keep this ministry from potential criticism. Many women feel lost in their marriages. They don’t know what to do with their disappointment, when to stand their ground, when to reach out for help, and what it looks like to surrender their need to control. That’s why I felt it was necessary to resurrect this book for a new generation of Christian women who are asking questions and have few places to turn for Christ-centered answers. But messy means “no easy answers.” Much of the damaging teaching toward women from Christian resources has come from blanket statements of truth that do not nuance the complexities of relational dynamics. What might be life-giving advice in 99 situations may also be harmful for the one woman in a unique marriage dynamic.  As much as an author or podcaster may try to give well-rounded perspectives, it’s impossible to consider every conceivable application (or misapplication). For example, a book on health and nutrition might say, “Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.” This is solid and needed advice for the vast majority of the population but may be disastrous for someone with a condition like Crohn's disease. This is why God uses a body of people with different gifts and why He gives us wisdom to help sort through how to apply principles to your own unique situation.   I want to be known by Jesus’ love. Paul said that if you have all the wisdom and knowledge in the world, but you lack love, you will be like a clanging gong — an annoying noise. It’s not enough to strive for truth in what we write and say. Jesus told His disciples that people would know them by the way they love each other.  It gives me great comfort to realize the early Church, even with such great leadership and revelation from the Holy Spirit, still disagreed about important applications of truth. God doesn’t expect us to all get on the same page. In fact, He designed the Body so that we need each other. No one person would contain all truth. We need shepherds, counselors, pastors, researchers, and prophets. I need my brothers and sisters to give me their perspectives, and I have something to offer them. I can learn from those who see things differently and they can learn from me.  In the working out of God’s truth, it is vitally important to carry ourselves with deep humility and grace. As Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each to you to the interest of the others.” He goes on to say that our relationships should reflect Christ, who didn’t demand to be noticed but came to serve. (Philippians 2:3-8 NIV) People are impacted not only by what we say, but also by how we say it. Jesus calls us to be unified as believers, to love our neighbors unselfishly, and to bless those who curse us.  Does the watching world observe Christians as a group of people who snip at each other about who is right, or do they see supernatural grace, patience, forgiveness, and kindness? Our posture of grace is as important to God as our pursuit of truth and may even have a more lasting effect. One day, all of our books, blogs, and podcasts will be forgotten. He will never be. When we stand before Him, we will see everything clearly. I’ll see where I got things wrong. The hidden secrets of my heart will be revealed. The messiness of life on earth will fade away, covered by God’s extravagant grace. So we set our eyes on what is eternal. In all things, we remember and reverence the One who was and is and is to come.    Learn more Juli's new book, Finding the Hero in Your Husband, Revisited, in our FREE webinar, How To Use Your Power To Build Intimacy. Gather your friends and have your questions ready because Juli will be answering them live! You can also preorder a copy of Finding the Hero in Your Husband, Revisited today. You may also be interested in these related blog posts, "How To Have Tough Conversations" and "How We Love Each Other."