A Proper Distinction: A Review of “Sex is Not The Problem, Lust is” by Joshua Harris

aharrisDistinctions are important. Nuance is needed, and that’s especially true when we address the subject of sex. Far too often Christians have been accused of being against sex. That, of course, isn’t true, but often the way we talk about sex makes it appear that way. Joshua Harris wants to make sure people don’t draw such conclusions from his helpful book on the subject of sexual sin. In fact he wants to avoid such a conclusion so much that he made it clear in his title: Sex is Not the Problem, Lust is. And that reality, for Harris, is the key to rightly fighting sexual sin.

Christians must address lust. After all, the Bible’s command in regards to sexual immorality is that “not even a hint” should be found among us. And yet there’s more than just a hint found in the lives of many Christians. Harris believes that “lust may be the defining struggle for this generation” (21). And the numerous letters written to him by young people gives some support. But how we deal with lust is as important as is the fact that we deal with it. For, as Harris sees it, if we try to fight lust without the gospel we are doomed for failure.

He begins by outlining for us specifically what it is wrong with so many approaches to fighting lust. Lust is “craving sexually what God has forbidden” (20). And the reason so many people seem to fail at trying to fight off that craving is that we have the “wrong standard for holiness,” the “wrong source of power to change,” and the “wrong motive for fighting our sin” (23). We aim to tame our lust, to control it, when the Bible says “not even a hint.” We try to change ourselves through rules and accountability, not by the power of the Spirit of God. And we are often motivated by shame, or desire to win God’s love, and not by a desire to please and honor the God who already loves us in Christ. The gospel resolves all these problems, and by seeking to better understand it and live in light of it we can fight off the temptation to lust. For Harris, however, this means starting with a proper understanding of what it is that we are fighting.

“Being a sexual being with sexual desires is part of what it means to be a human created in God’s image” (34). Sex is not the problem, Harris wants to insist. We are not fighting against biology, we are fighting a spiritual battle against sin. And as we seek to apply the gospel to this problem we are not applying the gospel to who we are or our good healthy desires. “The truth is,” Harris writes, “that Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from our humanity; He entered into our humanity to rescue us from our sinfulness” (35). This is fundamental to fighting the battle against lust. God is not asking us to say “no” to sex, just to sin. This is a refreshing read because of that distinction. Many within the church have gone to one of two extremes: (1) they tolerate sex; (2) they turn sex into a gimmick. Harris celebrates sex, but not with the nonsense and inane experiments of some celebrity pastors. He gives us a good theology for valuing sex, and for understanding the failure of sexual sin. That makes the book valuable.

Add to that value, however, Harris’ willingness to talk about practical steps. Here we find no theology without application. Joshua Harris wants us to take a hands-on approach to fighting our sin and to do the real hard work of disciplining our bodies and minds. The fact that he sets up some theological safeguards for that process doesn’t negate the practicality of this book. He talks about developing a personally tailored strategy for fighting sexual temptation, dealing with media temptations, and the important of accountability. You may not agree with every strategy in the book, and there are times where it can feel too “conservative” in its approach, but Harris isn’t interested in telling us how to fight the sin in every area personally. He, rather, gives us some ideas to build on. And that makes the book important. He reassures us that not everyone struggles in the same way and we shouldn’t worry about that, focus on a strategy that works for us and keeps pointing us to the gospel.

There’s much to praise in this book. It may not seem like a groundbreaking work in the field of fighting sexual sin, and in many ways it offers the same help a number of other quality books do. But Harris’ willingness to make a the plain and important distinction between sex and lust is huge. Others have said it, yes, but Harris says it with a simplicity that makes it appear fresh. Sex is not the problem, lust is. He repeats that phrase multiple times in the book, and from what he writes in the practical sections (even in the appendices) you get the sense that he really means it. Sex is beautiful and should be celebrated, but sin distorts, destroys, and devalues sex. Harris wants us to see that truth clearly.

Christians must fight sexual sin, but we must fight in two very particular ways, according to Harris. We must fight in with the gospel every before us, focusing on the love of Jesus and the power of His Spirit to change us. And we must fight it with the knowledge that God designed sex to work beautifully within his boundaries. I highly recommend this resource.

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