Frank greeted the counselor with a stiff smile when he came into the restaurant. After some uncomfortable small talk, Frank’s eyes dropped. He played with the stir stick in his coffee. His hands and his voice trembled.

The counselor had never seen Frank (not his real name) this way before. He had always been upbeat and optimistic. His wife of 5 years and his two little boys adored him. He was doing well as a systems analyst. He attended church regularly. On the surface, all seemed to be going well—but that was far from the truth.

Over the next few minutes, Frank said that he’d had an affair with a woman at work, and that she was now pregnant with his baby. There was a long silence. The color had drained from his face. His eyes were still riveted on the table. “I didn’t intend for it to happen, but there hasn’t been anything for me at home. Patty has been so preoccupied with the kids, she just doesn’t have time for me anymore. She’s been too tired to be interested in me since Billy came along—but she didn’t deserve this. I’ve really messed up. I don’t know what to do. I can’t bring myself to tell Patty. This will kill her. She’ll probably . . . I couldn’t bear to lose her and the kids. I can’t believe what I’ve done.”

Frank needed help. Even though he would bear the burden of his own choices, he was also at a point of needing someone to support him as he carried the weight of what he had done. He needed friends to help him find his way back to God and to those he had hurt.

A registered nurse (we’ll call her Janet) works at a local hospital. Outwardly she is attractive and competent. Inwardly she is dying. She tells a painful story of childhood sexual abuse and a violent 18-year marriage to a physically and sexually abusive man. Since her divorce 6 years ago, she has dated several men from her church singles’ group and from the hospital. She has slept with all of them. Eventually, she said, they all dropped her.

Through her tears Janet sobbed, “I know what I’m doing is wrong. But I just don’t seem to be able to stop it. I always vow that it will never happen again. But nothing works. The men I go out with all expect me to be intimate with them after a couple of dates. I know it isn’t all their fault. I seem to need so much affection and reassurance. I just want someone to hold me, to love me. I feel so alone. What’s wrong with me?”

The answer to Janet’s question also applies to Frank—and to the rest of us as well. Our inclination is to misunderstand our God-given capacity for intimacy and desire. Our tendency is either to deny and kill our passions or to satisfy them temporarily in ways that only multiply our frustration and self-contempt.

Our tendency is also to fail to see the difference between needs and misdirected desires.We learned long ago that when we are thirsty we need water, when we are hungry we need food, when we are tired we need sleep. It is easy, therefore, to assume that when we are sexually aroused we need to satisfy ourselves with a real or imagined sexual relationship.

Our culture reinforces such an assumption. Industry and media have made an art of sexual seduction.We are surrounded by those who know that they can make a living by stirring up and fanning the flames of sexual desire. TV, radio, the internet, music, video, movie, publishing, advertising, and clothing industries are all exploiting our misunderstood and misdirected longings for intimacy and satisfaction.

The truth, however, is that we don’t need a kind of sexual experience that robs us of opportunity for long-term friendships and relationships.We don’t need a physical, sexual relationship to be fulfilled as a man or a woman. Sexual conquest outside of marriage is not a sign of freedom, personal worth, or sophistication.

If you have lost your way in the darkness of our sexualized world, there is a way back. There is a way to be sure of the forgiveness of God. But first it’s important to have a clear understanding of the problem. Even though some of the following material might be painful to read, it’s essential that we know what God thinks of sexual behaviors that are not according to His design for desire. The prospects for recovery are much better if we are willing to listen carefully to the voice of God.