Perhaps the worst moment in an already sordid history came when Jeff went on a “spiritual” retreat. After years of a daily battle with lust, he decided to get away and focus on the Lord.
During the drive down to his parent’s cabin, Jeff felt that familiar stir, the inexorable pull of illicit excitement that lust promises to provide. He knew he would be alone for the weekend, and the sexual temptation seemed to seize the opportunity. “I knew I should go back right then,” Jeff remembers.
But he didn’t. When Jeff arrived at the house, he found some “smut” novels. All thought of prayer and Scripture was eclipsed as Jeff once again lost himself in the world of pornography.
In his book The Sexual Man, Dr. Archibald Hart reports that almost all (94%) of the six hundred “good men with strong religious leanings” he studied had been exposed to pornography, and only six percent said that “they had escaped its influence.” Mitchell Whitman, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology (whose studies have specialized in sexual deviance), affirms, “In my experience of working with many Christian men, the use of pornography is a very common problem,” particularly among single men.
Porn has become so commercially successful and mainstream that it even has its own industry trade publication, Adult Video News, which claims that the number of rented X-rated videos rose from 75 million in 1985 to 490 million in 1992 to 665 million in 1996. In 1996, over eight billion dollars were teased out of consumers’ hands to purchase time in the presence of sex and nudity: videos, peep shows, live sex acts, sex toys, magazines, cable stations, hotel room adult channels, and sexually-explicit books. In fact, as Peter Kreeft notes, if a successful revival completely wiped out lust in our country, “we would be plunged into the greatest economic depression in history.”
The profit found in producing nude images hasn’t been lost on Broadway. When it was announced that Nicole Kidman would appear au natural in the Broadway play The Blue Room, tickets were sold out before the first show opened. The even more explicit play Closer opened on Broadway March 28. A Vanity Fair writer states, “Knifingly explicit, Closer is further proof that the addictive shortcuts of pornography have entered not only the cultural mainstream, but the bloodstream as well.”
Even more disturbing, recent technological advances have brought porn into most homes and apartments. The anonymity provided by the internet has wreaked havoc on otherwise sincere Christians. Whitman notes, “It’s one thing to drive your car to an adult book store and have to look around to see if anybody is watching before you walk in. In that case, there’s an immediate reinforcement of shame. The entire process of obtaining the porn entails numerous barriers that have to be overcome. On the internet, there is a component of confidentiality and secrecy, even though technically it’s not really anonymous. The barriers that once existed are no longer there.” The fight against using sexually-explicit material has become an all-out war for many Christians.
Andy Farmer, a singles’ pastor at Covenant Fellowship in Philadelphia, unmasks some of the lies single men often tell themselves to “excuse” their use of pornography:
“I’ve got sexual urges. God hasn’t given me a way to release these, so what else am I supposed to do?”
“I had another lousy day at work with my jerk boss. I just need to enjoy myself for a little bit, and this is the only way I have available.”
“Another Friday night and I don’t have a date. I’ve tried to relate to women and be friendly, but it gets me nothing. This is better than nothing.” “My problem isn’t as bad as Ed’s; as long as I use porn less than him, I’m okay.”
Whitman warns that many single men erroneously believe that marriage will solve their sexual lust problems and wipe out their thirst for pornography. “My counseling experience demonstrates consistently that men who used porn as singles re-started their use of pornography after they were married.”
Farmer urges men to consider the spiritual consequences of using pornography: “An immediate consequence is damage in your relationship to God. Many men never make that connection. They wonder why prayer seems so barren when they’re tolerating these kinds of indulgences on the side.”
A second consequence is less sensitivity to sin. “There is a redrawing of lines,” Farmer says. “What once was considered sin is now redefined as ‘okay in moderation.'” Just as serious, according to Farmer, is the deception that an addiction to pornography brings into someone’s life. “By nature, using pornography is inherently deceptive, the habit grows in the dark.” It leads men to lie, cover up, and make false denials.
Whitman adds that the use of pornography inevitably attacks one’s view of self. “There’s a loss of integrity, and it compromises our ability to speak out on moral issues.” As Christians, we are called to be proclaimers of the Gospel, but, as Whitman points out, “Proclamation in part is truth lived out, and the use of pornography compromises this.” When we hold on to a secret sin, it radically challenges our central mission in life–testifying to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
Whitman has found that pornography also “entails an objectification of women.” In this, it cuts two ways. When men use porn to mask the pain of not being in a real relationship, it takes away energy and initiative that would otherwise be spent in meeting a real woman and building genuine intimacy. When men are already in a relationship, they will be hindered by the fact that their use of porn has reinforced a fantasy to which no real woman could possibly live up.
Farmer agrees, reminding men that using porn inevitably shapes a man’s view of sex and women, leading to serious consequences in marriage. “Many men have told me they didn’t believe using pornography affected their view of sex very much–until they got married.”
After Jeff came clean and lived without porn for several months, his girlfriend told him she noticed that he was far more “grateful” for her–and it wasn’t until then that Jeff realized how his use of pornographic images had distorted his view of the woman who means more to him than anyone else in the world.
“The Bible presents a view of sex which is self-giving,” Farmer points out. “This is the opposite of porn, which is self-gratification. If a man indulges this sin, when he gets married his orientation toward sex will remain self-gratification. In a marriage like that, sex can be little more than extended masturbation, and his wife just a means to that end.”
Farmer tells his singles, “Self-gratification through using pornography is the opposite of what God intended, not a premature enjoyment of what God intended.”
Even secular sources are recognizing that porn brings consequences. One of the themes of the new Broadway play Closer, according to reviewer James Wolcott, is that “Men have gotten so hooked on the porn reels in their heads that interfacing with actual women proves disruptive–it garbles up the tapes.”
This, indeed, is one of porn’s great dangers–crippling Christian men, sexually, before they get married, making a real relationship problematic, at best.
Jeff’s introduction to pornography came early, back in junior high (which is a typical age, according to Whitman). One of his first memories is when some football buddies played a pornographic movie for their friends. Jeff was launched into a near constant pursuit for sexually stimulating material. If he could get hold of a Playboy, he would, but department store catalogues, television, even memories of women at the beach provided enough stimulation when nothing else was available.
“Sexual materials are multiple in our society,” Whitman points out. “Some materials, such as department store catalogues or Victoria Secret advertisements, are not pornographic, but they can be used pornographically.”
In all other respects, Jeff appeared to be a conscientious Christian. “People would look at me and say, ‘that guy is really passionate about God,'” Jeff says, “but they couldn’t see the underlying sin.”
At times Jeff would share his struggles with his single buddies, but since many of them battled the same sin, it never seemed that serious, even as his sin became a near-daily collapse. It got to the point where Jeff no longer even pretended to struggle–he just gave in. Coming home from college, Jeff purposely stayed up late, waited until his parents went to bed, and surfed the channels, looking for stimulating images. There were brief “vacations” from lust. Sometimes, Jeff could make himself go one or even two weeks without fantasizing, but there was never “any heart change.” “I kept telling myself I would change eventually,” Jeff remembers, but eventually never came. Yet by the time I talked to him, he had gone over a year without falling in this area. What happened?
The Path to Freedom
Jeff began his victory by taking his sin seriously. He was almost forced into it. One night, his roommate came home and nearly caught him in an embarrassing situation. Jeff managed to cover up what had happened, and lied when his roommate asked him what was wrong.
Finally, that same night, he just got tired of lying, sinning, and feeling guilty. Jeff went to his room, wrote out a full confession, and read it to his roommate. He was blessed by a roommate who took his confession seriously, insisting that Jeff talk to his pastor. When Jeff did so, he was led into a time of serious, holy conviction. His pastor helped him see how he had deceived his parents, his girlfriend, and members of the church. Together, they decided that Jeff needed to tell his girlfriend about his daily struggle, as the two of them were seriously considering marriage.
“It was a night I won’t forget,” Jeff recalls. Sitting in a mall parking lot, Jeff had to tell her he wasn’t the man she thought he was. As his girlfriend wept, Jeff gave her the freedom to leave the relationship, but she said she wanted to work through it.
Jeff also confessed what he had been doing to his parents. Since he had been in their house, he felt they needed to know. He was tired of the deception, weary of living in the darkness, and wanted to be in the light.It was a humbling, convicting, difficult time. But all the empty promises and “some-day-I’ll-deal-with-this” excuses had convinced him that a half-effort wouldn’t work–he had to take his problem seriously and act decisively. Whitman is also a proponent of confession. “If you’re struggling with pornography, talk to somebody about it,” he urges. “Don’t keep it a secret. Men usually think, ‘I can handle it,’ but the reality is, you can’t. You keep doing it and that’s evidence enough that you have a problem.”
As a second step, Whitman encourages men to recognize that pornography can function like an addiction. “It can be helpful to use the principles that help an individual break any kind of addictive behavior,” he adds, recommending that those who need more help in this area consult Gerald May’s book Addiction and Grace. Whitman has concerns about the “excuse” use of addiction, but believes May’s book provides helpful steps to address problem behavior.
Jeff also takes issue with addiction terminology. “I believe the addiction phraseology is unhelpful for change because it takes the responsibility of sinning off the sinner and places it on a supposed ‘addiction.’ What helped me was that I was confronted with the fact that I was fully responsible for and guilty of sinning against God and needed to cry out to Him for mercy. That is when I received His grace, love, and forgiveness for my sin and was granted the power to change.”
Andy Farmer recommends Jerry Bridge’s Discipline of Grace, stressing that it’s important not to “just be a behaviorist” but to get at underlying issues. “Men who use pornography are in some sense struggling with God’s authority. Pornography can be a convenient rebellion.”
Whitman agrees. “Change in this area entails…addressing the underlying roots. It usually involves dealing with issues such as loneliness, depression, isolation, stress, and losses and grief.”
Farmer also notes that a man’s propensity to use porn can build from “little” compromises that set him up for a bigger fall. “If I go to the beach and I spend my time looking at women in bathing suits and don’t guard my eyes, it’s not inevitable that that will lead to more temptations, but if an opportunity presents itself after that I’ll be more inclined to indulge myself.”
For some men, every time they flip through the television channels or surf the internet, they are desensitizing themselves and becoming increasingly vulnerable to sexual indulgence. That’s one of the reasons Farmer recommends single men don’t live alone.
“Men are so inundated with sexual images in our society that single men in particular are doing battle daily. It’s going to be very difficult to face this alone. The guys I know who experience some degree of success in battling this are in relationships with other guys who confess their sins to each other.”
Too often, men struggling with pornography are focused on becoming unlike the devil rather than like Christ. It is important to “take off” the sinful garment, but Scripture encourages us to focus on “putting on” the new garment–the virtues of Christ. When we allow sin in any one area to stain our soul, we become weaker in all areas. Conversely, when we grow in honesty, humility, patience, and love, we become stronger in all areas.
Ultimately, victory over pornography will be enhanced when a person doesn’t just focus on overcoming lust, but on becoming like Christ in all their attitudes and actions. This is a moment by moment decision over many things that have absolutely nothing to do with sex. When you practice humility and patience all day long, looking to serve others and put them first because that’s what Christ would do, it seems out of character to then act like the devil late at night when you’re by yourself.
Train yourself in godliness throughout the day, and you’ll likely find that the sin which had such a strong hold on you will lose much of its power and even, over time, much of its allure.
A New Habit
Jeff’s addiction to lust almost cost him everything–his reputation, his relationship with his girlfriend, his call to enter the ministry. But today he is grateful to God he can say, “It has been a year and four months with absolutely no relapse.” Though lust had a strong pull on his life, he now realizes it made his life worse, not better.
While Jeff had a definite ending to his use of pornographic images, other men have gained victory over time. A one-time “deliverance” is unusual, according to Whitman. “Normally, behavioral self-control and the re-training of the mind involves incremental steps and reflects the process of sanctification.”
Most men who experience freedom in this area do so by taking the sin seriously, acting decisively, and involving another brother to help them him make the right choices and go through the process of repentance and training in godliness.
“The struggle with pornography can be like mountain climbing in an avalanche,” Farmer notes. “The things coming at us–from the world around us and from our temptations within–can seem overwhelming. But when we remember that our Guide has been ‘tempted in every way’ but did not fall, we can have confidence that He will lead us along the safe paths and steady us when we stumble.”