The Poison of Law and Shame: Merciful Responses to Teens and Sexual Sin

Several years ago, I participated in an online forum with a network of youth ministers who had pursued seminary studies. During this time, one youth pastor asked for help and direction in dealing with a teen who had come to him with struggles related to pornography. I became aghast and saddened by this one response, which I saved. The individual wrote:
“In working with teenage guys in this area I have also tried to point them to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew where Jesus says, ” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matt 5:28-9). I think that this helps guys understand the gravity of their sin and the seriousness of the sin in God’s eyes. The other thing that I have found helpful with guys is to memorize certain passages of scripture that deal directly with this issue (1 Thess 4, 1 Cor 6, etc). Having God’s word in our heart helps us to kill the sin before it becomes an issue.”
The youth pastor, who certainly desires to see kids struggling with sexual sin walk in repentance, offers one of the more damaging responses to teens struggling with sexual sin- especially porn. He/she suggests that the problem underlying sexual sin is a lack of awareness of its severity and an absence of God’s word in our heart.

If I have heard anything from sexual addiction expert, Tal Prince, it is that below sexual sin is usually mounds of shame, heaps of pressure to perform, and plenty of self-hatred. I am an advocate of a balance of law and grace, but in the arena of helping students bonded in sexual sin, I advocate an approach leaning heavily- almost exclusively- on grace and mercy.

I promise you that the problem with sexual sin amongst teens is not a lack of education. The boy or girl who accesses porn often and masturbates routinely feels like a shameful freak deep down inside. The girl who “goes too far” usually views herself as a whore, and the boy who sleeps around most often feels empty and hollow in his sober moments.

Sexual sin, especially for young people, naturally carries so much shame that offenders walk away hating themselves more than they hate the sin. Appealing to law (performance, fear, and guilt) only inflames the situation and probably increases the likelihood that students will fall deeper into sin.  It heightens fear (which weakens their ability to resist) and elicits a performance-driven lifestyle (which led them down this road in the first place).

Responding with grace makes that critical delineation between hating the sin but loving and accepting one’s self through Christ. Perhaps more than in any other of ministry, kids need to hear that God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).  God hates sin, but He LOVES sinners. He adores porn addicts and masturbaters and guys with wandering eyes and girls with compromised standards. The message for kids: hate and run from your sexual sin but love and embrace the God who erases your sins through the Cross and regards them no more, the God who makes you lovable and delightful.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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