“Ellen, we never saw ourselves as gay, but we have never been in love with another person in this way.”
This was how Beth1, a woman in her forties, described her affair with Anna, a young grad student who began coming to her church. They connected easily, and a warm friendship and casual mentoring relationship developed quickly.
Beth described her marriage to her husband, a pastor, as “living under the same roof but being physically and emotionally divorced.” With Anna, however, she experienced the deeply satisfying emotional oneness she had always craved. Their physical affection slowly pushed past appropriate boundaries.
Before long, these two Christian sisters were involved in a sexual relationship. No one questioned the intense, consuming nature of the relationship. “Everyone just thought we were the best of friends and even envied our connection,” Beth told me.
Women involved in friendships and ministry relationships (discipleship, caregiving, counseling, etc.) sometimes become ensnared in messy emotional attachments with each other. These relationships easily take on a romantic feel and can become sexualized. Breaking free can be excruciating! However, rest assured that messy relationships are a “common to man” temptation and sin struggle.
Diagnosing a Messy Relationship
Here are five indicators of an unhealthy attachment:
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders, as a threat to your closeness.
- The relationship needs regular clarification of each person’s role in it. Generally, one woman has a needy/take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed/caregiver role. Fear, insecurity, and jealousy are triggered when one steps out of her role.
- Maintaining consistent emotional connection is vital. Texts, emails, calls, and time spent together grow and intensify to typically become life-dominating.
- Romanticized affection through words and physical touch, and, of course, any sexual involvement.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
The Mess of Relational Idolatry
Our desires for unfailing love and being deeply known are beautiful aspects of being image-bearers of God. He loves us perfectly, knows us completely, and exists in a holy relational Trinity. However, every detail of our image-bearing capability is distorted by sin.
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God. As God’s redeemed and no-longer-belonging-to-ourselves people, we are created by, through, and for Christ, as Colossians 1:16 beautifully declares. This means that all of our relationships and the place of people in our lives are to be submitted under the loving Lordship of Christ. No friend or woman we may be mentoring should ever become a god or Jesus-replacement in our life!
The truth is that messy relationships can still feel beautiful and loving. But even our desires are disordered and need the radical Christward orientation that only the clarity of Scripture gives. Desires can be corrupt and sinful (2 Peter 1:4), or they can be “of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17), which bears out in the sweet, holy good fruit of the Spirit. Though created for wholeness and holiness, all of us struggle in one way or another in our desires and relationships.
Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can. Sister, if you are involved in a relationship similar to Anna and Beth’s, know that idolatry is a common struggle to all of us.
The Bible and Idolatry
My journey of faith, relationships, and sin has included the worship of people, including women I’ve mentored. Though Scripture does not use the phrase “relational idolatry,” it’s in there.
Consider these passages.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3).
God does not command us to be exclusive in our devotion to Him because He is insecure or narcissistic! Instead, God loves us and knows that when we worship Him alone, we glorify Him, and people will be in their proper place in our lives as godly friends rather than Jesus-replacements.
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).
God’s people had committed a variety of rebellious acts, yet He sums up their sin with two statements that apply to us today: a) we turn away from Him and b) seek other sources as our living water. What do you value in your relationships?
- Is it to fix someone’s life?
- Is it to have someone put your life back together when you feel broken?
- Is your heart empty and you want someone to make it whole?
You know the name for this: codependency. But it’s deeper than that: It’s co-idolatry as two women look to each other for their value, identity, and security, something only God is able to give to us.
Steps of Repentance If You’re in a Relational Mess
God is committed to rescuing us and keeping Himself as our ultimate source of life, joy and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships, which is a fruit of worship and trust of God alone. Here are steps of faith and repentance to take.
1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus.
Fleeing to Jesus means letting go of this relationship by turning toward Him. Which means you must leave where you are and throw off sin and hindrances. He is faithful to hear, forgive, and love all who come to Him (Heb. 4:16).
If you don’t know where to begin, try praying Psalm 139:23–24. Here’s my expanded version:
Lord, search and examine me . . . explore all the crevices of my heart and mind . . . all my anxious thoughts. See if there are any sinful paths I’m walking in, if there are patterns of painful idolatry in me. Reveal the true nature of my heart, Lord, and give me spiritual guidance in Your good, holy pathways.
2. Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s deep comfort.
Letting go will be painful; it will get more painful before it gets better. But the pain that comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to touch, cut, and heal the deeper issues of your heart (unbelief, fear, insecurity, anger, trauma, pain, etc.).
3. Separate and allow space to happen between you and this woman.
Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but one that leads to true life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” If you’ve been sexually involved, you must sever ties completely. Indefinitely. This is how you will put to death the messy attachment that has formed between you.
On this point, I usually get pushback. But Ellen, we love each other as friends! We encouraged each other so much in Christ before things got sexual . . . can’t we just go back to what was good?!
If you are in this situation, I wish I could see your face now and talk to you tenderly, yet directly. Sister, you must flee temptation and sin at all costs! First Corinthians 10:14 says you are to flee from sin . . . not try to manage it, heal it, or contain it. Put to death, flee, repent (or turn a relational 180). These are the words that God’s word uses considering our relationship to sin. When sexual sin enters a non-marital relationship, obedience means turning from that person and relationship so that your heart can become set fully on Christ, your true life, once more (Col. 3:1–4).
Consider this a season of intentional fasting from any contact with this person. No social media stalking. Do not muse over texts, emails, etc. Let go, and the comfort of God will be a bottomless well of comfort if you stay the course.
New gospel life WILL come from this death. “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the LORD” (Jer. 30:17).
4. Pursue biblical discipleship regarding:
- How to cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ.
It’s possible to be busy for the Lord without loving and abiding in Him. A wise Puritan pastor said, “The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls will go in silent search of other lovers.”2
- The underlying heart issues you need to address.
Jesus said,“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”(John 8:32). What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What is off-kilter in your beliefs?
- God’s design for healthy relationships.
What does it mean to have the kind of wise love that Paul prayed for in Philippians 1:9–11? Christ is eager to teach you what it looks like to have Him in His rightful place in your life so that people will be in theirs.
5. Seek accountability for your relationships.
I’ve learned that I must have people who have meddling rights in my life! I need trusted, spiritually mature friends who love and encourage me to cultivate godly relationships and will help me discern if I’m blind to a potential relational mess.
6. Cry out to Jesus your Deliverer day after day.
He is our precious Savior . . . and our faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom we are married to for all of eternity. He will help, love, and comfort us while we live during this short earthly time. He will grow “into us” the testimony of David.
He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me (Ps. 18:19).
God loves His daughters so much that He faithfully calls us to Himself away from idols, including messy relationships. Hear this promise today as you ponder what your next steps of faith are.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:24–25).
1Names have been changed.
2John Flavel, “The Method of Grace,” The Whole Works of John Flavel (London: Baynes, 1820), vol. 2, p. 438.