Letter to a Slave of Sin
A few weeks ago I received a heart-wrenching letter from a man in prison in another part of the country, who had read my book Deadline. I am reproducing here my letter of response I sent to him. The questions he asked don’t just relate to those who have committed his sins, but to all of us.
I received your letter last week, and it has been on my mind ever since. I’m glad you found Deadline in the prison library. And I’m sorry you haven’t gotten responses from other Christian leaders you’ve written to. Perhaps it’s because your questions are so deeply rooted that no brief answers are sufficient. I will therefore not be brief.
I wept as I read your letter. First, I wept for the innocent girls you molested, and for the horrible tragedy you inflicted on them and their families. I have two daughters of my own. If anyone was to molest them . . . I can’t express the depth of the grief or rage I would feel.
Second, I wept for you. You say “I so desperately want to make something of myself” and “I have very little discipline but so desperately want to be a better person.” You say you are in a very deep depression, have thoughts of suicide and that you “mostly sit around and beat myself up inside.” You say “I see no hope,” “I am at my wit’s end” and “I am ashamed of what I am.”
You need to understand you are not the first to experience this. The apostle Paul describes it in Romans 7:
“For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v.15). “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (v. 18). “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18). He describes himself as “a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members” (v. 23). He agonizes, “What a wretched man I am!” In desperation he cries out “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).
The next verse gives an answer to his cry, an answer you need to hear and believe: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Confession and Repentance
Before we get into the solution to this slavery to sin dilemma, I want to commend you for something. Perhaps the thing that gives me the most hope in your despairing letter is that you appear to accept responsibility for your sin. I didn’t hear you making any excuses for yourself. I was expecting you to start blaming your child molesting on hard experiences in your past, a difficult upbringing, uncaring parents, etc. You did not. That is a good sign, since we cannot experience God’s forgiveness of sin and empowerment to righteous living as long as we think of ourselves as less than fully responsible for our choices.
Scripture says “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13). It says “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Confession means agreeing with God that you have sinned against him. Yes, you sinned terribly against those girls and their families, and as despicable as what you did against them was, it was an even greater sin against God, to whom we all must give account (Heb. 9:28).
But here’s something you must consider. While true conversion begins with admitting you’re wrong, it doesn’t end there. It involves repentance. Judas was “seized with remorse” over what he did to Jesus, but did not seek to make himself right with God (Matthew 27:3-5). He killed himself, a sign of being sorrowful and desperate, but not of being repentant.
Your desperation, so evident in your letter, does not necessarily show you are repentant. To be repentant means to be committed to do whatever is necessary not to fall back into sin again. God says “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8). Whether or not you are repentant will be demonstrated in whether you are willing to take the steps necessary to nourish your soul and reprogram your mind from the Scriptures, so that you can draw on Christ’s power to be righteous.
I’ve enclosed an article I wrote called “Finding Forgiveness for Your Sin.” Read it carefully. Memorize some of the passages. If you have not yet truly come to faith in Christ and repented of your sins and embraced his forgiveness, you need to do so. (Until you do, there can be no solution to your dilemma.) If you have in fact come to Christ, you need to remind yourself what the Bible says about forgiveness.
You say in your letter you feel like you don’t deserve to live. You’re right. You don’t deserve to live. Neither do I. All of us deserve to go to hell. None of us deserves to be forgiven. Not one of us deserves the amazing grace offered to us by Christ. If we deserved it, we wouldn’t need it.
You say you have no hope. By beginning with hopelessness you are beginning at the right place. After all, God’s Word paints a very bleak picture of what lies ahead for wicked people: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
If God left it there, you and I would have no hope. But he doesn’t leave it there! The next verse says “And that’s what some of you were.” Note the past tense—not are, but were. “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
If you are still what you were, you will go to hell. But if you have become a child of God, you are no longer what you were. God says, “He made Him to be sin for us, he who knew no sin, that you might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). He went to hell for us so that we could go to heaven with him (John 14:2). As I portrayed it in Deadline, the perfect one, the only sinless one, is the only one in eternity whose body will bear the marks of sin. The only human being with scars is the only human being who didn’t deserve to have scars.
You say in your letter that you feel worse when you read the Bible because you feel more and more ashamed of your sin. Well, shame is the proper response to sin. Those who feel no shame at sin have no hope for redemption, for without shame there can be no confession and repentance, no receiving of God’s grace and empowerment. Now, once your sin is forgiven by God, that’s something else entirely. Once he has taken away your guilt, there’s no reason to live in shame. He who is infinitely more holy than we declares that we are now holy because of the work of Christ on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). Who are we to disagree? We have to learn to trust Him when he says he’s covered us in Christ’s righteousness and remembers our sins no more. When we do, the Bible is not a book we avoid, but one we come to for strength and guidance.
You are right to believe the Bible when it says your sin—and mine—is despicable in the sight of a holy God. But you are not going far enough. You are believing Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but you are not believing verse 24, “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” You are believing the first part of Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death,” but not the last part, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What It Means to be in Christ
You say “I have accepted Jesus Christ, but I am struggling worse than before.” Again, be sure you have truly come to Christ in repentance. If you have, then you must learn to distinguish between the work of the Holy Spirit who convicts you of sin and guilt to bring you to confession and forgiveness (John 16:8) and the work of Satan, “the accuser of the brethren,” who accuses you of sin even after it has been forgiven (Revelation 12:10) because he wants to derail you from living out what God has declared you to be.
Believe God when he says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Once you have repented and asked God’s forgiveness, you no longer stand condemned. Sure, you must face some consequences, including your imprisonment. Yet even inside prison walls your spirit can be free, just as so many outside are prisoners to sin.
Christ is our defense attorney (1 John 2:1). He is the judge’s son and has paid the full price for our sin. When Jesus said “it is finished,” he used the Greek word teleo, which was commonly written over certificates of debt once they were fully paid. It means “nothing more is owed; there is no more debt to be paid.” It’s not that Christ took on 99.9% of your sin and guilt and you must carry the other .1%. It’s that he took it all on. To try to carry the weight of your sin is disbelieving God. It is an insult to his work on the cross, and a prideful affirmation of your worth. You and I aren’t worthy even to bear the smallest fraction of our sins. Only he is worthy. He has borne it all so that you would not have to bear any of it. He doesn’t ask you to repeat the atonement. He asks you to accept the atonement.
You say in your letter, “I don’t want to be a child molester, and I am wanting to get rid of my deviant sexual arousal, but everyone, even the Chaplain, tells me that I will always be.”
First, I truly hope you misunderstood the Chaplain. Maybe his point was that you cannot expect this pattern of temptation developed over your lifetime and reinforced through acts of sin, will automatically and immediately disappear. If he actually means you cannot ever change, he could not be more wrong.
God says “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). If you have truly turned to Christ, truly confessed your sin and utter unworthiness, truly trusted him to save you from your sins, then you are a new person. In order to live like a new person, you need to meditate on and embrace this new reality. The old habits of sinful thought and action have embedded patterns in you. To break those habits and establish new patterns you must appeal to and cultivate your new identity in Christ, establishing a new set of habits that reinforce it.
The Bible says your old self died in Christ. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). We must call upon this reality in order to live righteously:
“Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:11-14).
If you have come to Christ, God says you have been “set free from sin and have become slaves to God” (Rom. 6:22). He has taken off the shackles and unlocked the door. You are a free man. But you have to choose to walk out of the cell of sin. (Actually, it’s a choice that has to be made over and over again, every day in every situation where we are tempted.) You have been made a free man, but you are still free to live in bondage if you so choose. You need instead to choose to live as a free man. Doing so will not be easy. It will involve new choices, new habits that eventually will become new patterns replacing the old. The way you act, speak and eventually even the way you think can and will be changed as you allow his Holy Spirit within to reprogram your life patterned on God’s Word.
Changing Our Behavior
I know what you’re thinking now. “Surely it isn’t really possible to change my way of life when it comes to my sexual perversion.” The answer is absolutely yes, it is possible, and God has given you the identity and resources in Christ to do just that.
First, you must realize it is possible to control your sexual behavior no matter how vile or persistent the temptations you face. You are not the only one who lives with sexual temptation. I know many men who face temptation toward pornography and fornication and adultery with as much perverse inner longing as your urge to molest children, but they consistently resist both the thoughts and the actions. A man may feel like killing someone, but he can resist the urge to actually do so. A man can have a temptation toward molesting, but he can resist the urge to actually do so.
The existence of a desire does not justify or necessitate succumbing to that desire. We live in a hedonistic society that tells us desires are meant to be fulfilled. But desires need not be fulfilled, and indeed, in many cases, should not be. We are not animals blindly compelled by desire. We are human beings, created in God’s image, with the capacity to choose. We are not victims. Every action is a choice. Every sin is a choice. Every right behavior is a choice.
If you feel your desires are so strong that you “must” do a sinful act (say, look at pornography), you should ask yourself the question, “Would I still do this if someone pointed a gun at my head and promised to fire it if I did?” If the answer is no, and of course it is, it demonstrates that you don’t have to make this choice, but merely that you want to and choose to. (Once we are in heaven with Christ there will be no more sin or even temptation. Till then we have to face temptations, but we don’t have to succumb to them.)
Second, it is possible over time to redirect and change your heart. Jesus said sexual sin begins in the heart—”I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Matthew 15:19-20 and 23:25-26 teach the same truth, that all evil resides and is cultivated in the heart, and that outward behavior is the product of this inner evil. That means that we need a heart transplant, a mind reprogramming, a change in our inner beings.
1 Peter 1:13 says we are responsible for the way we think. We are to take charge of our minds and focus them on what is right, not wrong: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
How do we renew our minds? By filling them with what’s right and true, especially God’s Word. Psalm 119:11 says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Note this verse says that sin is prevented not simply by restraining the body but by retraining the heart, from which actions flow.
While we are busy filling our minds with what is right, we must be careful not to take in that which tempts us to evil. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23). I know there are often a lot of rotten television shows and videos and magazines in prison. Stay away from this kind of mental garbage. “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18). This is not a suggestion, it’s a command. We disobey it to our own destruction. Don’t just walk away from temptation, turn your tail and run from it. Write out this verse and put it up somewhere: “Turn my eyes from worthless things; renew my life according to your Word” (Psalm 119:37).
As you eliminate the garbage you find it easier to do what Philippians 4:8 says: “Finally, brothers, 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.”
You must actively resist and refuse to give into the evil desires and fantasies that push themselves upon you. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Don’t say this is impossible. It isn’t. God is not cruel. He never commands us to do something without giving us the power in Christ to obey Him. Call upon Christ for that power.
Give your mind over to God’s Word and the fellowship of believers. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
When you choose to feed your righteous desires and starve your unrighteous ones, by God’s grace you program your life for righteousness. You begin to think and live like the new creature God has made you in Christ.
A Story of Deliverance
From your letter, I sense you might still say all this seems hopeless to you, that your sexual perversion is too indelible and too strong. Let me tell you about a man I know. He was 100% homosexual in orientation from his childhood. He literally cannot remember ever having a single sexual desire for a female. For years he dressed up and lived as a woman, got a job as a woman, and had sexual relations with countless homosexual men. He was actually scheduled to have a sex change operation at Johns Hopkins, and was devastated when just a few weeks before the surgery he was called and told the surgery was off because the program wasn’t working.
In his desperation, this man repented and turned to Christ. He found himself faced with homosexual temptations, but took seriously what the Scriptures said. He began to meditate on and affirm the reality that God had created him a man. Instead of letting his mind feed on his old desires, he displaced them by meditating on Scripture, on the reality of who he was in Christ. After years of living a celibate lifestyle and not giving in to the temptation, he established a new pattern of life and thinking in keeping with his identity in Christ.
He then saw a friendship relationship with a wonderful Christian woman develop into more than a friendship. He was amazed to experience, for the first time in his life, sexual desires toward a woman. He remained celibate until the wedding (obviously, heterosexual immorality is no solution to homosexual immorality), and now he and his wife have two lovely children. He explained to me the day we met, “I still have some effeminate mannerisms, but that’s because I spent so many years cultivating them. Even my mannerisms are fading, though, as I continue to follow Christ.”
This man is an extreme case, a man who never knew a normal sexual desire, and never expected to. But through refusing to act on ungodly desires, and by filling his mind and heart with God’s Word, by God’s grace he came to live out the reality of his new identity in Christ. If it could happen to him—and it did—then, without a doubt it can happen to you.
Created to Do Good Works
But the road from here to there, from now to then, will demand that you must not feed your old desires. Whenever they come beating on the door of your life, you must affirm that it is the dwelling place of Christ, not Satan, and you must not open the door. You must instead reject them, resist them, flee from them and fill your mind with God’s Word. When you fail, confess that to him, immediately ask for the forgiveness he freely gives (1 John 1:9), and turn away decisively from the temptation and the sin.
When I choose to do a sinful act, just as when I do a righteous act, God is watching me. If love for God is not enough to motivate me, fear of God should be. “Nothing is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). God will hold you accountable for the life you live as a Christian (2 Cor. 5:10). There are rewards in heaven he wants you to have that you will gain or lose depending upon whether you live for Christ (1 Cor. 3:11-15). So here is a third motive for righteous living--first, love for God, second fear of God, and third hope of reward from God.
Take a look at the three pages of Scripture references I’ve enclosed related to “works” or human effort. The first page is entitled “God says your works can’t earn salvation (and therefore can’t lose it.)” The other two pages of Scripture fall under the heading “God says He values your good works (and He will reward you for them!)”
God says in Ephesians 2:10 he has created you to do good works (not bad ones), which he prepared in advance for you to do. This is how you should spend the rest of your time in jail, and the rest of your time on this earth, doing the good works God has called you to do, and promises to reward you for. Not the bad works that displease him and bring their own punishment and pain to your life and others. Meditate on and memorize these verses!
God Majors in Changing Us
You say “I have found no reason to try to change anymore.” I hope you feel differently now. But if you are still insisting God cannot change you, you are deceived. If you think your sin is greater than his grace and strength, you are disbelieving the promises of God and greatly underestimating the power of God. Listen to Ezekiel 36:25-27:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
If God can’t change your heart and mind and actions from that of a child molester, then he is not God, the Bible is not true, Christ died in vain, and Christianity is a hoax. Don’t fall for this. Satan is a deceiver. Jesus said of him, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Every time a thought comes into your mind contrary to all the Scripture I’ve quoted in this letter, reject it for what it is--a lie from the pit of hell.
Your letter shows you are looking desperately for some answer, perhaps an easier answer than what I’ve presented to you. There is no easier answer. There is no other answer at all. If you have indeed come to Christ, then you need to stop looking and come to grips with what you’ve found in Him. Ephesians 1:3 says every spiritual blessing is ours in Christ. If you know Christ, you don’t need additional blessings. All there is to have you have in him. You have all the resources of God.
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Pet. 1:3). So what do we need to live righteously that he has not given us in Christ? Nothing.
You state that in your desperation you have given up hope. You are right to have given up hope in yourself. You are wrong to have given up hope in God. He does not merely promise to send you to heaven, he promises to prepare you for heaven, by equipping and empowering you to follow him (Phil. 4:13).
The source of strength we call upon is not merely our own, which is insufficient (as you say, you are “weak” and “undisciplined”), but God’s, which is infinitely powerful. You are weak? Well, God says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). You bring the weakness, he brings the power.
Where Does Our Effort Come In?
Does any of this imply that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to live the Christian life? Of course not. But notice the intertwining of effort in this partnership with God—”To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29). We must make every effort to be righteous, to obey him, to avoid sinful thoughts and actions. Yet all the while we must do this appealing to his strength, not our own.
One caution is important here. Some people approach the concept of “allowing God to work through me” as if it were some passive condition whereby God invades you and takes over, automatically causing you to live righteously, bypassing your own will. Not true. The spiritual life is warfare. To win the fight you must take on the armor of God and wield the sword of God’s Word, which requires diligence and hard work (Ephesians 6:10-18). As J. I. Packer says in his book Keeping in Step With the Spirit, “The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘trust God and get going!’”
There is no contradiction between God working in you and you working to follow God. This is the nature of the spiritual partnership he establishes with us. He works, and so must we. If you pray that God will keep your thoughts sexually pure, then turn around and look at a dirty magazine, you act in contradiction to your prayer, showing it to be only words. You must demonstrate that you are serious about your prayer by taking all the steps to avoid sexual immorality of the mind and body.
Prison: A Place of Opportunity
Years ago I went to jail for a few days for doing peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience at an abortion clinic. I vividly remember the dehumanizing strip search, the contempt the guards seemed to have, the nurse who wouldn’t believe I was an insulin dependent diabetic, the strangeness of being unable to leave and go where I wanted to. But I also remember the abiding sense of peace, the sense that God had me there for a reason, and the tremendous opportunity to talk with men who so desperately needed help. Yes, it was just a few days, but in a small way I can picture better than most the world where you find yourself, both its trials and its opportunities. God wants to work in you there in prison, and also through you. You have been given time and opportunity to establish new habits and patterns. Use that time and opportunity well.
You say you want to die but are afraid to kill yourself. You should be. “Your” life is not yours to take. God alone is the giver and taker of life. If he was done with you, you’d be dead by now. He isn’t done. He is accomplishing a work in your life. Don’t cop out and take an early exit. Recognize that the voice telling you to kill yourself is the voice of Satan. Talk back to him by quoting Scripture. Tell him your life belongs to God, not to him.
Rejoice that you have no opportunity in prison to molest a little girl. Use your time now so that you will become the kind of person who, once you get out of jail, would never again succumb to such temptation, never again commit such evil.
As long as your temptation toward molesting children remains, once you’re out of prison I urge you to obey God and “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) by taking radical steps. First, get in an honest relationship with a more mature Christian who will hold you accountable. Attend a Bible teaching church and tell your story to a pastor there. Second, take measures to be sure you stay away from any private encounters with children. This means not having a job that brings you in contact with little girls, not living near a school, not living in a neighborhood with young unsupervised children. It probably means never living alone, but living with a committed Christian who will help you be sure your home cannot be a place that lures you to “secret sins” of pornography or abuse. (Of course, none of our sins are secret to God--they are done in full view of heaven.) Such protections are necessary both for the sake of innocent children and the sake of your own opportunity for spiritual victory and reconditioning. (You didn’t say if you are married or have children, but in any case you must take serious measures to head off this temptation.)
Five minutes after you die you’ll know exactly how you should have lived. But then it will be too late. Just as non-Christians don’t have a second chance to come back and this time trust Christ, so Christians don’t have a second chance to come back and this time really live their lives for Christ. Don’t waste your life. Use it. Every day is an opportunity to grow closer to him, to live for him, to establish a new way of thinking and living that is pleasing to him, and useful for his kingdom.
Do you have a Prison Fellowship ministry there? A Bible study? A chaplain who believes the Bible and the power of Christ? People from local churches who come in to minister? Other inmates who are Christians? Seek them out. You need their fellowship and support. If you don’t know of any such groups that come in to minister, ask the prison authorities if any Christian services are available for you. If you still can’t find anyone, perhaps I can make some phone calls and check around for you.
If there is one, join a Bible study. Read God’s Word, pray, seek out Christian fellowship, share your faith. Memorize Scripture. Resist the temptations of mind and body. As you do, your self-discipline and self-respect will increase, as will your dependence on God.
Can I send you some books there in prison? I ask because I’ve tried this before and in some cases the authorities wouldn’t let them in. If I can, I’d like to send you a couple of books to help you grow in Christ. Let me know if there’s a certain procedure to follow.
You are in my prayers. I wish you God’s very best, and encourage you not to settle for any less. I pray you will experience the fullness of Christ’s forgiveness and empowerment. I don’t have a lot of time to just “jaw,” but if you are serious about following Christ and need help that you cannot get locally, I’d be glad to correspond with you again. After meditating on the enclosed verses, jot me a note to let me know how you’re doing.