Spiritual impact of sexual sin?

Scripture seems to indicate that sexual sin has some different qualities from other sins (1 Cor. 6:16-18). What is the spiritual impact of sexual sin? I’m looking for non-speculative answers.

Here is a hypothetical. The secular world views sexual relations as on the same order as animals mating. And while an animal might mate for life or guard its mate from interlopers, we wouldn’t ascribe any special spiritual quality to the mating relationship between two animals. But is there a special spiritual quality to marriage? As an alternative, we could adopt the just-animals view from the secular world and add on the 7th Commandment. In this case, the only reason why it would be wrong to have sex outside of marriage is simply because God has decided to make that rule, but there would be no quality inherent in marriage to make sex outside of it wrong. Probably many Christians hold this perspective. If so, adultery would be a betrayal, but of the same nature though greater magnitude than a man selling his wife’s antique china set to buy some guns. And there would be nothing wrong with having sex before marriage except that it would break God’s rule and maybe psychologically disturb a future spouse. But is there a genuine spiritual impact from having sex before marriage? If so, what impact (beyond breaking God’s rule and psychologically upsetting a spouse) does premarital fornication or adultery have on the marriage relationship?

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By non-speculative you are looking for Bible citations?

One difference between us and the animals is that we are made in God’s image, and we are also designed to be a temple for the Holy Spirit. When we commit adultery, we sin against this temple in particular. I Cor 6 “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”

Sexual sin destroys attentiveness to God’s commands and ultimately prevents salvation. Animals’ sexual behavior cannot change their attentiveness to God. Eph 4 "They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. "

Sexual sin dishonors and destroys marriage which is a special, honorable creation of God’s for our spiritual benefit (that our prayers be heard, to make us fit to serve the church, to bring about salvation of our spouse.) Marriage is only for humans. I Pet 3 “husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way…so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Heb 13 “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” I Pet 3 “even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” I Tim 3 “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”

Adultery requires encouraging desire in a co-participant. Convincing another to sin, especially to their spiritual death is a special evil. Animals’ mating rituals are not decisions like ours and cannot lead to a wrong partner. Prov 5 “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.” I Cor 8 “By sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Matthew 18 “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

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No, I am looking for a theological framework to understand what the Bible says on the topic that is pretty grounded in Scripture.

It seems like my analogy to animal mating is driving the discussion off track. So I will try this. The apostle Paul says sexual intimacy brings two people together in one body. What does that mean? What happens there in a spiritually? What if the two people aren’t married? What if they go on to get married to other people?

Some Christians make a complete correspondence between sexual union and marriage such that if X fornicates with Y, X cannot marry any other person besides Y until Y dies. If that view is incorrect, what is the correct view? Or is Paul’s use of “one body” merely a descriptive metaphor and not indicating that something of spiritual significance occurs?

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Is there anything wrong with anything other than that it breaks God’s Law? “Where there is no Law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15).

Instead of framing this question as, “What is wrong with sexual sin other than that it breaks God’s Law?” – as if ontological wrongness could inhere in a thing just because of, say, material harms it might cause to men; as if anything other than God’s command, implicit or explicit, could qualify an act as within or without the scope of His revealed will – it could be more helpful to instead frame the question as, “Given that God’s commands are not arbitrary, but always for our good and His glory; and given that our good as His people is always ultimately wrapped up in His glory; what is it about sexual sin that detracts from the Glory of God?”

One answer is that sexual sin has a uniquely “sacramental” character – not that marriage is a sacrament of the Church, of course, but rather that marriage, and sexuality more broadly, are God-given symbols intended to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the Church, as well as the promises of faithfulness and fruitfulness that He makes to us. Moreover, man himself is the image of God; he is made to image God and His holy character to the rest of Creation. Thus sexual sin is uniquely evil in its character because it desecrates the temple of God and “sacramentalizes” a false and perverse message about Christ, putting it on display to the rest of Creation at the very place where Christ is supposed to be especially honored. It is like sacrificing a pig on the altar of YHWH.

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To my mind it seems as if Paul’s statement that the man who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one flesh with her is akin to his statement that the man who communes without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment on himself: an unworthy engagement in a sort of covenant renewal act without the substance of, or fidelity to, the corresponding covenant itself. Does the unregenerate man who drinks Christ’s blood really receive Christ, really drink His blood? No, not substantially. (Some of the Reformed with stronger views of the Real Presence might oppose me here, of course.) But he does receive it symbolically and so desecrate God’s altar. Same deal with fornication: the fornicator doesn’t really marry the woman he beds, but he acts as if he had, and so desecrates the marital bed and each of their bodies, God’s temples.


I think I did post a framework that answers those questions… @jburns makes good points.

Your reference to animalism was right on the mark, totally relevant to adultery. God teaches that the consequences of sexual sin make us like animals (slave to instinct, insensibility to His word, ceasing of prayer or unheard prayer, unfit to lead men.) Our pride in thinking sex on our terms is perfectly good for us adds to the grievance.

When someone dating or cohabitating tells you they think they’re just doing the same thing as you and your wife, you have to use your pastoral gifts to either guide them towards a fully understood and realized marriage or get them to separate to avert the total destruction.

If someone had a prior sexual relationship you just have to work with what you have in front of you. The important thing is that God will use their sexual relations inside their (hopefully eventual) marriage for their good. If they don’t marry he will use their celibacy for their good (another area where God uses something mundane, that looks indistinguishable from their own practices to the world.)

If you’ll forgive quoting a pope, I like how Ratzinger lays it out:

The marriage of baptized persons is indissoluble. This is a clear and unambiguous directive of the faith of the Church of all centuries, a faith nourishing itself from the Scriptures. It is a categorical directive, that is not at the disposal of the Church, but is given to the Church to witness and to realize; it would be irresponsible to give the impression that anything on this point could be changed. The “yes” of marriage in the Church participates in that definitiveness that in the definitive decision of God for man at the same time has become visible as human possibility. It continues the “decisive decision” of God for man in the decisive decision of man for man. Marriage is one of those fundamental decisions of human existence that can only be made completely or not at all, precisely because therein man as a whole is involved, as his very self, unto that depth where he, touched by Christ, transformed, is taken into his “I” opened on the cross and open for us all. This is what is meant when we call marriage a “sacrament”.

Marriage does not remain in the “law”, but is incorporated into the Gospel as the reality of the decisive decision, and is structured by this decision: as Christian. But this means that two fundamental tendencies of modern thought prove to be just at this point incompatible with the Christian faith, or that marriage is exactly the point where fundamental anthropological decisions become concrete and have to be determined one way or the other. First, the reduction of being to consciousness, in which only that which is present in a man’s consciousness is what is truly valid for him (which practically means a throwback to the pre-Christian-Roman consent theory: if the consent ceases to exist, says this theory, then the marriage has ceased to exist. Theories such as these, that a marriage can be just dead and so no longer exist, are forms of this Phenomenologism, which reduces man to his consciousness, thus concealing from him just that depth that faith wants to open up to him.

Besides that – in much the same sense as what has just been said – is the reduction of being to time, which knows only the sequence of becoming and loses what is beyond it, the constancy of being. In contrast to this sale of man to “Chronos,” to the changing gods of the moment and to immediacy stands “Pistis” as fidelity, which in trusting [or in marrying: im Trauen] keeps man for the abiding and thus breaks open the circle of the recurring, gives man the possibility of growth, of going ahead, which has fidelity as its condition …

The Church is the Church of the New Covenant, but it lives in a world in which the “hardness of heart” (Mat 19:8) of the Old Covenant remains unchanged. It cannot stop preaching the faith of the New Covenant, but it must often enough begin its concrete life a bit below the threshold of the scriptural word. Thus it can in clear emergency situations allow limited exceptions in order to avoid worse things. Criteria of such action must be: an act “against what is written,” is limited in that it may not call into question the fundamental form, the form from which the Church lives. It is therefore bound to the character of exemption and of help in urgent need - as the transitional missionary situation was, but also the real emergency situation of the Church union.

This is a huge and vague question, at least to me. Is there really an area of our lives (spiritual and physical) that isn’t shaken to foundation when someone commits sexual sin?Assuming the one who committed the sin is single, they are telling themselves lies about God: “He doesn’t love/care about me. He won’t provide for my needs. He hasn’t given me strength to resist temptation. He’s made me deficient and incapable of marrying…” We could go on with the lies that precede sexual sin as justifications for our behavior. None of them are true and the spiritual consequences couldn’t be more severe. The man or woman who believes these lies isn’t far from apostasy. We’ve seen happen time and again. This is where my mind starts with the spiritual consequences. Sexual sin is corrosive to our souls and leads to death.

Psychological unrest is quite an understatement. How about paralyzing fear about not comparing to their spouse’s previous sexual experiences and appetites? And then the impending betrayal in favor of someone who’s younger, more beautiful or more satisfying in bed. These fears can be worked through and healing can come but what a terrible way to start a marriage. It’s only worse when the betrayal happens within marriage. All of the fears come to life and the offended spouse believes them.

Every person (man or woman) I’ve ever talked to about their fornication before marriage feels like they’ve given/lost something of themselves to the other person, especially their first partner. Are they technically married because they had sex? I don’t think so but I’m not positive I’m right. What is clear is that something happened that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The only people that haven’t felt this way were so hardened to (or because of) sexual sin that they’ve lost the ability to connect in any meaningful way to the person they’re having sex with. This causes real problems when the person is their spouse.

To answer your question directly, their becoming one flesh may not mean becoming married but it does mean that they are connected to that person in someway for the rest of their life, even if that connection is only in their heart and mind. I think the connection is also spiritual and not merely physical however much our society wants to divorce the two.

It creates an incredible pressure to formalize the relationship through marriage–the relationship has to work so that the pain of what we did can be resolved without losing what I gave away. I realize that non-Christians, and sadly, many Christians don’t feel this pressure as acutely as I’m describing but I believe that’s because it’s been suppressed through societal pressure or a habit of casual sexual encounters. The impulse to formalize the relationship is typically much stronger in the woman than the man though men often feel the same impulse.

Good, but that doesn’t erase the spiritual damage of the sin. The couples I’ve worked with in this situation haven’t felt any relief because they got married. They quickly realize that the temptations and sins that led to their fornication are still present in the marriage and can become even more destructive. The wife often feels as though she was taken advantage of (not usually wrong) and is tempted to make sure that never happens again. Not the recipe for a godly, fruitful marriage. And when she has kids, she makes it her mission to protect her children from her past experiences while not realizing that she’s likely to cause them because of the dysfunction in her own marriage. A lot more could be said. Marrying the person you’ve fornicated with doesn’t fix anything. It may stop the bleeding but it’s not until after the dust settles that the cleanup work can begin.



You are correct that might framing of the question may not have been best. I am coming at this from a pastoral angle and looking for what may help people resist temptation to sexual sin. The secular view of sex infiltrates the church and gives people the mindset that sex is nothing more than a natural pleasure that can be engaged in like animals do, which makes the 7th Commandment appear rather arbitrary. Yes, it should be enough that God has commanded us not to have sex outside of marriage and that sexual sin detracts from His glory, but if it helps someone to resist sin if they think doing so will hurt them in some special spiritual way, then I would like to add that in.

This is a helpful analogy. Let me expand further. Baptists have a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper and believe that the benefits received solely come from remembering what Christ did on the cross. Since nothing special in a spiritual sense occurs under this view, I will say that in this case, the Lord’s supper has a direct psychological but not a direct spiritual impact on the believer. Now making an analogy, we could say that a “non-sacramental” view of sex would consider sex inside marriage is psychologically beneficial but without a direct spiritual impact different from any other act of love between spouses and that sex outside of marriage is psychologically detrimental but without any direct spiritual impact that is different from any other type of sin.

In contrast, Presbyterians have a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper and believe that there is a direct spiritual benefit to worthy partakers, apart from any psychological benefit from remembering Christ on the cross, and that there is a direct spiritual judgment on non-worthy partakers that is different from judgment on other types of sin. Making an analogy, a “sacramental” view of sex would consider sex inside marriage to produce a special kind of spiritual blessing different from other acts of love between spouses and that sex outside of marriage would have a special kind of spiritual curse different from curses arising from other types of sin.

So I guess I am asking whether the “non-sacramental” or “sacramental” view of sex is more likely to be biblical, and if the latter, what kind of spiritual blessing or curse might there be, if something non-speculative can be said.

How do you address this pastorally if one member of a married couple has had previous sexual partners? Here I am thinking of the spiritual impacts rather than psychological distress (e.g., fear of comparison, betrayal, etc.). Or is it simply treated as something that can be only regretted and repented because nothing more can be done?

In premarital counseling we spend as much time as it takes to open up the past sexual encounters, the reasons why they engaged in them and how that’s shaped and affected their expectations and desires about sex going into marriage. We (My wife and I) often do this with the couple together so that the fiancé hears and knows what’s going on. There’s one on one meetings as well and we use discretion when we’re all together. The point is to see how the one with the past is processing it as well as how the future spouse is going to handle these realities. The goal isn’t to get them to break up but to get them both to face up to the realities of what married life will be like in light of their fornication. Sometimes the sexual past of one of the people ends up being a deal breaker and that’s really good to realize before the wedding. We would do something similar with a married couple. I’ve even had them fill out our premarital questionnaire concerning their sexual past so that we can get the whole picture before we meet for counseling.

I realize it may seem like I’m not dealing with the situation spiritually but rather partially or psychologically but I don’t think about it that way. In the counseling, the path out of the mess is spiritual growth and maturation. Learning to forgive and trust God in these types of situations are intensely spiritual. If there is no spiritual growth there won’t be any progress psychologically. I just can’t separate the two of them. I think it’s harmful to do so because I’ve seem so many people who know the right answers and can articulate them better than I can but they have no ability or willingness to do what they say.

This question is difficult in the same way as your previous scenario about forgiveness. It’s not an either/or (spiritual vs psychological) situation. It’s always both/and. The particular answers are always case specific and vary to the point of being contradictory because of the details.

It would help me if you could give some examples of what you mean by spiritual impacts because I don’t feel like I completely understand what you’re asking.



I’m sorry, but I don’t completely understand myself what I am asking. But perhaps I can put my finger on a specific issue. Let’s say a person feels deep down that there is nothing inherently special about sex such that it ought to be reserved for marriage. This person agrees that sex should be reserved for marriage because God says so, but not because there is also something in the nature of sex itself. Not surprisingly, this person falls more easily into sexual sin because it is harder to resist temptation when one does not feel deep down that there is anything special about reserving sex for a spouse. This person feels shame and guilt over sexual sin because it transgresses God’s law, but deep down does not feel any loss from sexual sin like that described in previous comments. Essentially, this person is operating as if sexual sin has no spiritual impacts beyond the bare transgression of God’s law. If we say this person is hardened, then the hardening preceded the sexual sins.

The rightness of God’s law regarding sex is fully acknowledged by the person, as well as confession of sin and repentance, but my sense is that something fundamental is missing. If so, what is it, and how can it be addressed?

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This is to deal with men and women as whole humans, rather than computers which are only in need of Bible verses as software updates.

Many pastors seem to know their Bibles better than they understand people. Your approach is a refreshing reminder that knowledge of God’s word and knowledge of God’s people needn’t be mutually exclusive.


Ha! Glad I’m not the only one!

I’ve met person you’re trying to describe and they’re very difficult to help. In my experience, the sort of clinical, right-answerism (common among reformed men) that has all of its understanding figured out but hasn’t figured out how to live as a Christian is very dangerous. The root of the problem is spiritual and in some cases the person is simply not actually a Christian. I find that these sorts of men and women have a very hard time expressing their faith in anything other than academic/theological terms. They tend to love apologetics and arguing in my experience too. They can give great catechism answers but when asked how they’ve seen God working in their lives: What has He saved you from? How did He comforted you when _______ happened? These sorts of heart religion questions are foreign to them and can even irritate them that you would speak about Christianity or their Christian experience in these terms. They’re all brain and no heart. They remind me of ‘old school presbyterians’ during the First Great Awakening that despised experimental Christianity.

In helping these men and women, I try to be especially tender and affectionate toward them because I find them to be very insecure and fragile–they talk a good Christian game but don’t handle pressure very well at all. They usually have issues with their parents though they don’t realize it or they only realize it intellectually and not emotionally. Hard, distant, angry fathers and cold, cynical, manipulative mothers. I try to get them to talk about their relationships with their parents and help them to see the effect that it’s had on them. This isn’t easy because they have a strong aversion to this sort of conversation. Sometimes they get angry. Other times they become silent. I’ve even had them start crying and not have any idea why or what to do about it. So fasten your safety belt.

I once had to tell a man fitting your description to stop talking in front of a whole group of people. He was dominating the conversation without any regard or awareness for the other people in the group. He immediately got quiet and was embarrassed (that wasn’t my goal) but later thanked me and said that he needs other people to help him self-regulate in group settings. He knew he didn’t know when to shut up and was thankful for my correction. I was shocked and thought I’d never see him again.

Generally, I try to talk to these sorts of people about their feelings. They don’t think they have them but they’re wrong. As they learn to identify their feelings in their lives, they can begin to see how their feelings (heart’s desire) can be wicked and lead them astray. The have to fight their sins (fornication or whatever) at this level to make any real progress. John Owen’s Mortification of Sin in Believers is excellent in helping draw out the connection between our heart and actions. Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification is also excellent, though the person you’re describing will probably just get irritated because of the simplicity of the message. I’d have them read these books with a mentor and process through the content personally (as opposed to academically or theologically) with them.

In the end, the person you’re describing is a bruised reed and finding the source of the damage is key to helping them. They will never become a touchy-feeling sort of person and that’s ok as long as they come to see their weaknesses and fight against them so they don’t reproduce them without improvement in their children.



It sounds as if the person you describe, at least in this area, is serving the Lord “in the old way of the written code.” The Spirit gives us intuitions over time that conform our hearts organically to the Law.

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I hope I’m not offending by trying again. Here’s what I believe and informally counsel about that. This is passed down from pastors who helped me as a young man.

God has designed us to be galvanized and spurred forward by irrevocable commitments (“burn the boats.”) Marriage is one of those commitments.

God designed close eye contact, bodies touching and intercourse to draw us together (get into biochemistry and psychology only if helpful–plenty of PDFs out there.)

Together that means that sex within marriage is an unrivaled bonding between a man and a woman because of the intimacy and also the commitment to continue to have sex with only each other.

Adultery (or sodomy or porn use) either doesn’t work like that or does the opposite by putting the anti-commitment in conflict with the physical signals. In the body, the cognitive dissonance among other effects makes the same kind of bonding impossible. I won’t rehash the effects of the sin itself.

If they have previously sinned, faithful sex in marriage still has that designed power, but instead of getting the instant bonding and confident affirmation of their commitment their first times, together, it will happen over time as their faithful sex life accumulates and pushes away or overwrites the sinful history in their hearts, minds and bodies.

It’s pretty common for a man to rebel against this knowledge even if he wants to believe it, at first. There is that desire to debate and be right, first of all. Even after conceding change is necessary, it is really hard to regularly make honest eye contact across a regular sex life if you are used to sinning. There’s often temptation to avoid having sex with his wife that is worse than the temptation to sin outside of the marriage. He will need lots of encouragement and prayer and you can’t let him slip away and start talking abstractly again.

Thanks for the replies. They are helpful.

I agree. My focus on the spiritual side was not to minimize the psychological side but rather to not get sidetracked by discussion of purely psychological elements disconnected from the spiritual.

Right now it is a mystery. A lot of the suggested possible causes don’t seem to really apply, but I suppose this is not really something that can be usefully addressed over the internet. Nevertheless, I am interested in understanding the broader principles, which can be usefully discussed over the internet, because I teach small group and Sunday school classes (in addition to being a father) and want to have a framework in my head for how it all fits together.

My working hypothesis is that it can sometimes be the case that people sit under the ministry of the Word for many years and read their Bibles but never internalize God’s law. So they understand God’s law as a set of external rules and commandments but lack an internal sense of what heartfelt obedience really is or an intuition for what to do in a situation where there is no direct verse in the Bible (e.g., missing good and necessary consequence aspect). My guess is that this happens especially in areas where the world strongly promotes a message opposite to God’s law. Imagine children in public schools with many non-Christian friends and watching all the entertainments of the world. They may hear God’s law in church on Sunday and maybe in youth group, but it is just a set of rules overlaid on a heart trained to have the affections of the world.

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I’m returning to this thread with a new question. What do you think of the pastoral perspective that once forgiveness occurs, the sins and events of the past should be left in the past and that what happened in the past is only a matter between the sinner and God? For example, let’s say the offending spouse and the offended spouse are reconciled and want to work together but are struggling through some issues. Perhaps the offending spouse asks something from the offended spouse, or maybe it is the other way around. Should this be discouraged on the grounds that when God forgives, He remembers our sins no more, so the same applies to believers?

I realize that particular details are important for any given situation, but here is an illustration of two general alternatives.

Situation: Reconciliation has occurred between spouses, but one spouse is still feeling hurt in a certain way and thinks that healing would occur if the other spouse took a particular action or made a particular change.

Alternative A: Even though forgiveness has occurred and the sins are in the past, the hurting spouse is encouraged to talk with the other spouse about what changes might help healing.

Alternative B: The hurting spouse is discouraged from talking with the spouse because forgiveness has occurred and the sins are in the past. Instead, the hurting spouse is exhorted to trust that God will work in the other spouse to make any needed changes.

Alternative A takes the approach that forgiveness is a process by which God works through two spouses working together. Alternative B takes the approach that forgiveness is a one-time event, after which God works through two spouses separately.

Perhaps some situations call for Alternative A and others call for Alternative B, but can it be said that one or the other approach might generally be better? If so, which?

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Pastor Abu-Sara, would you mind elaborating on this? I haven’t heard before anyone float the theory that fornication causes biblical marriage. If there were a possibility that were true, how would it not be adultery to marry a man or woman with a sexual past (e.g., Hosea)?

I wrote a really long response but decided to scrap it. Here’s the short answer to your question.

I didn’t mean to communicate that fornication causes a biblical marriage. I only meant that a promise of marriage and consummation of that promise are the bare minimum requirements for marriage before God. Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage account show this pretty clearly. However, there are cases where fornication should be considered as grounds for a marriage. Not that the marriage has already occurred but that a marriage should be pursued. A resulting pregnancy would be a case where fornication could become a cause for marriage but even that may not always be the case. You’ve heard of shotgun marriages, right?

It would be adultery and we would effectively eliminate fornication altogether. All sexual immorality would become adultery regardless of the person’s marital status. But the person’s marital status is the difference between the two categories. Single people have been fornicating forever and have never been considered married by virtue of their sexual activity.

Hope that clears up what I said earlier.



Thank you, brother. I’m glad you weren’t speaking literally. I asked because I’m pretty easily able to get strange ideas like that into my head and hallucinate connections between a maze of scriptures to seemingly support them, and then get wrapped around the axle trying to disprove false doctrines to myself. This particular thought triggered a surprisingly intense struggle with that side of myself yesterday. The cure I’ve found for almost all of those struggles is to take hold of something God says in His Word and grasp it tightly by faith.