With addiction being the verbal currency of just about any human struggle nowadays, pastors and church leaders will find themselves helping men and women who are trapped in addictive pornography struggles. In this video, Mark Sanders speaks to pastors and church leaders on ways that they can help.
To learn more, read Mark’s accompanying blog: “Is Porn Addiction Just a Medical Problem?” You can also read Mark’s first blog in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, where he discusses how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
08 Nov 2018
In my first blog post in this series, “Porn Addiction?”, I looked at three ways a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns. The disease model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop, and the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation. It also rightly shows the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin. These ideas are constructive as we consider how to patiently and lovingly walk alongside men and women who are caught up in years of addictive sexual behavior.
But the church needs to be aware that the fundamental anthropology of a disease model for a porn addiction falls far short of the way God describes humanity’s experience as his fallen image bearers.
Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist, said in a recent USA Today article, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drugs addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
In the same article, Milton Magness, a sex addictions therapist said, “Most of the people I work with are people with very high morals, very responsible, leaders in their industries; many are even clergy or physicians. And they are involved in behaviors they do not want and repeat them, despite repeated attempts to stop.”
Both of these specialists are seeking to locate the problem of the struggler outside of the person’s will. A disease model sees sexual addiction as a medical problem, not a moral one. And I believe this is a genuine attempt to explain how someone’s life can look so good in some areas while being completely out of control in others.
But the Bible always locates sin in one place: the human heart. This doesn’t mean that environmental and physiological factors don’t play a role in addictions, but the Bible sees every external factor as the context for the desires, responses, and engagements of the heart. In other words, Scripture says the entire person—the body, mind, and heart—works together in all of our behaviors.
But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
In 21st century America, we are all spiritually sick, but we desperately want to hear the words that we are not the problem. But Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(ESV)
The typical secular worldview is that we are good people, but there are external forces that trip us up, causing us to do wrong. The biblical worldview is that these external forces (upbringing, brain chemistry, trauma, to name just a few) do impact our behavior, but there is something more fundamental to who we are that causes our problems. We have a natural bent toward evil; we are fallen.
The problem is our sinful heart, and as I said in my last blog, “sin is enslaving,” and there is only one physician who can bring life out of what was once dead.
For the Christian, God has performed a heart transplant for those who trust in him. In Christ, we have died to sin and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). But this definitive transfer from death to life does not mean we don’t still struggle with ongoing sinful desires and inclinations of the heart.
There are two pitfalls we must avoid when helping Christians work through issues of sexual addiction.
The first pitfall is to focus only on moral responsibility. The church has historically helped those with addictive struggles to make good moral choices, focusing on the will. But the church must be careful to go beyond helping someone make the right choices; it must also grasp the compromised ability of someone in an addiction to make the right choices.
But this is the other pitfall, an echo of Adam’s complaint to God: It’s not my fault; it’s this brain you gave me. The culture highlights only the context for the problem (the brain, trauma, family of origin issues, etc.) But the disease model does not account for the wickedness of our fallen hearts. While the addiction model seeks to place the blame on external factors, it misses the complexity of the human heart and its central role in behavior.
The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day.
Landing in either of these pitfalls flattens our experience of being human.
So what is a realistic, compassionate, and practical way forward for new creations in Christ who are caught up in sexual addiction?
We must understand that our hearts are engaged in every moment of life. It often feels like a losing battle to addiction because we are only thinking about our hearts in the moment of severe temptation. But what actually matters the most is what is happening in our hearts when we’re not tempted. Despite what is commonly said, men are not thinking about sex every seven seconds.
For the believer, every single day there are moments of clarity and good godly desires that need to be nurtured. The battle against addiction is not won or lost when you are faced with severe temptation, it’s determined by a multitude of choices we make each and every day. These choices include laying aside every weight that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1), like getting rid of unfettered internet access. They also include the good choices to invest time in prayer, the Word, service, and intentional fellowship and accountability with members of Christ’s body.
The resistance to taking steps to fight sinful addictions is a matter of the heart. People’s hearts idolatrously want to maintain at all costs the comfort and pride that their isolated, unaccountable lifestyle provides. That unwillingness to humble oneself before God and others is often where repentance needs to start.
We do have a disease; it’s called sin.
Deliberate choices—daily decisions in advance of overwhelming temptation— to live humbly and intentionally lay the groundwork for ongoing repentance toward God and others. This submission to accountability and radical amputation of avoidable temptations frees a person to begin to examine what they are really living for. How have they rejected Christ as their source of life and satisfaction? What lies are they believing about God’s love for them and their responsibility in living for him? How have they turned other people into objects to be consumed instead of image bearers to be loved?
This kind of deep heart examination cannot happen when someone is isolated and in the throes of constant addictive behavior. The fog of addiction can be too thick to make real progress, which is why the Lord will often allow severe tragedy to enter a person’s life in order for a season of clarity to enter in. The question is, will they use those moments of clarity to humble themselves and seek the real help they need?
Yes, our brains need rewiring. Yes, the fog of addiction needs to be lifted. But all of this happens under the umbrella of heart repentance towards Christ. We do have a disease; it’s called sin. But Jesus, the Great Physician, did not come for the healthy; he came for those who are sick. And he came that they might have life in him and have it abundantly.
Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: What Can Pastors Do When People Say They Feel Addicted to Porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
01 Nov 2018
I’m addicted to porn. I’m a sex addict. I have a porn addiction, but I’m now free for the last ten years. The word addiction is everywhere in our culture today. We live in an unprecedented age of ways and opportunities to become ensnared in life-dominating, destructive behavioral patterns. Whether it’s pornography, alcohol, drugs, gambling, or internet-gaming, we continue, as a society, to expand our list of what we would classify as addictive disorders.
But is the word addiction—and for that matter the label, porn addiction — really helpful when discussing habitual patterns of sin? Our culture has largely bought into the notion that if you have an addiction, you have a disease. I heard on the radio an advertisement for a local recovery center, and the opening statement said, “If you are struggling with addiction, you have a disease, it’s not a lapse in judgment.”
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control. It’s become a monster they can’t contain, and it’s destroying everyone and everything they hold dear. It feels like someone or something else is in the driver’s seat of their lives.
Many people latch onto the idea that an addiction is a disease because their behavior feels outside of their control… that is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow.
But the church needs to slowly and carefully examine whether the word addiction and the anthropology it espouses is in line with Scripture and God’s revelation of who we are as human beings in a fallen world.
When it comes to the arena of sexuality, at Harvest USA we find some helpful things that this word captures for people’s experiences, but we also see how this language points people in a false direction about the true nature of their problems and where to find the solution.
I want to focus on 3 things about how a disease model of addiction can be helpful in explaining habitual sexual sin patterns.
- The addiction model highlights what it feels like not being able to stop.
That is the very nature of what sin does. Sin is enslaving. We reap what we sow. Research shows that the habitual use of anything that is highly stimulating reshapes the brain, creating a powerful neurological process of cravings and rewards that require greater and greater stimulation.
And the Bible affirms this. Paul says in Ephesians 4:19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” (ESV) That last phrase, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” is also translated as “a continual lust for more.”(NIV 1984). Sowing into sexual sin only creates greater and greater discontentment, and our brains and bodies feel that lack of satisfaction, and we easily believe the lie that maybe next time I’ll finally find relief from pain, loneliness, or boredom. But it only creates deeper enslavement. Pastors need to understand that when a person comes to them for help with a 30-year struggle with pornography, simply telling that person to stop it and pray more is insufficient for the momentum this sin has in their life.
- The addiction model captures the insanity that comes in a moment of temptation.
When someone has been captured by a desire to feed yet again into their enslavement, they lose all sensitivity to the consequences of their actions. They understand that just one more time might cost them their job, their family, even their lives, but in that moment, the pleasure that is offered in sin is worth losing everything to get. This is so helpful in practically setting up boundaries to keep you far from temptation because people recognize that they can’t be trusted with easy access to sin.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ.
Werewolf movies get this right. In his right mind, the human man begs his family to tie him up in chains because he knows once that full moon appears, he will do things he will regret if he is not chained up. While we know as new creations in Christ that we are no longer slaves to sin to obey its passions, our new freedom in Christ does not imply an immunity to strong temptations in our lives.
I tell men all the time that there is no such thing as a point of no return. No matter how deep they’ve gotten into a moment of sin, the door of escape is still available to them in Christ. But sanctification does not mean we live life on the cliffs of temptation. A mature believer has learned that in a moment of temptation, truth and reason can feel impotent and of little value when pleasure is so viscerally offered, and this should keep us humble and aware that it is utterly foolish to play with fire and expect not to get burned.
- The addiction model highlights the need for a zero-tolerance policy on sin.
When someone clicks on a pornographic website, they’ve already made multiple concessions with sin. Perhaps they were committed to not being online certain hours of the day, but they broke that rule. They also committed to staying off certain sites that are portals or triggers to sin, like a particular news site, but they justified it because of a story they really wanted to read. People often stay stuck in habitual patterns of sin because they aren’t willing to obey Jesus’ command to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.
Many people want to simply manage their sin and just keep it at a functional level. Too many Christians are content with allowing pornography to be a part of their lives, as long as it doesn’t get too “out of control.” And too many Christians actively trying to stop looking at pornography are not willing to take the radical steps necessary. Christians need a zero-tolerance policy with sexual sin.
The church needs a sober understanding of the epidemic of entrenched patterns of sexual sin that are present in the lives of people in our pews. People feel stuck, they are on the brink of hopelessness, wondering if change is really possible. And the addiction model captures sin’s danger and people’s despair. But it’s not enough, and labeling sin as nothing more than an amoral disease is far less than what Jesus offers us. Stay tuned for more thoughts.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he often called people to give up one thing to gain something better. He told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions to gain treasures in heaven. He told Peter and Andrew to give up their profession of fishing to become fishers of men. And in Mark 8:34-38, he calls his disciples to the most radical exchange yet. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vv. 34-35).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who returned to Germany during the Nazi regime to pastor the Church in resisting Hitler, is famous for these words: “When Jesus call a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, he lost his life in following Christ.
The invitation to lose your life is not just for martyrs. The call to lose your life for Christ’s sake is inherent in the Gospel message itself. And this invitation to lose your life to find it is the hope that Jesus extends to a man or woman wrestling with porn.
Porn usage is about worshiping idols. Idols are those things we use to find life, especially to fill the emptiness we feel when our lives aren’t giving us what we think we need.
One of the biggest lies that our idols feed us is that you can find life in them at no cost. Porn holds out empty promises of intimacy, satisfaction, control, comfort, and the rush of feeling alive. And it offers them immediately.
Pornography offers you false life while hiding its dagger of death. Jesus offers you true life while explaining the cost up front.
But the hook in that bait is that it takes from us much more than it could ever offer. Yes, pornography offers euphoric pleasure for a brief time, but it will eventually take everything you hold dear. It will take your integrity, your relationships, perhaps your job, your peace, and ultimately, it will take your soul. This is why Jesus pleads with the crowd gathered around him: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Pornography offers you false life while hiding its dagger of death. Jesus offers you true life while explaining the cost up front. Yes, following Jesus will cost you your life. But when you see that he lost his life to give you yours, you will begin to see that the false life that porn offers was never worth keeping in the first place.
Paul testifies to this exchange in Philippians 3. Paul’s life was wrapped up in his status, his performance, and his pedigree as a Pharisee. He found all of his satisfaction and value outside of Christ. But once he saw the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and being found in him, he saw all that he was giving up as rubbish. It was all loss compared to gaining Christ. I trust that all of us in Christ have tasted at least glimpses of this reality.
But lest we paint an unrealistic picture of this exchange, we need to acknowledge that the life Christ offers us is received through much suffering, and it must be received by faith!
Paul acknowledged that he suffered the loss of all things so that he might gain Christ. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord” (vv.7-8).
Losing our lives is not an easy process. Jesus said that to come after him, we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross. There is a cross to carry in order to fight against pornography. It is, first, a cross of denying urges and desires which scream at us to satisfy them.
But it is not only lust that dies a painful death, because pornography is a means by which people seek to satisfy all kinds of desires. People turn to pornography to escape loneliness, to find comfort in stressful seasons, to get a sense of intimacy with others, to experience what it feels like to be accepted and desired. And pornography offers experiences that feel like those desires are being met.
It is only on the far side of faith that we receive God’s good promises for us. It requires no faith to find comfort in pornography. But comfort without faith only leads to death.
So, when Jesus calls us to lose our lives in our fight against pornography, he is calling us to give him all of those desires and all of the autonomous ways we have sought to satisfy them.
He is inviting us to pray in this way, “Lord Jesus, my desire to feel comfort in the midst of stress, I give that over to you. Lord, I acknowledge that I have desired comfort more than I have desired fellowship with you. I confess that I have sacrificed honoring you in exchange for satisfying myself. And I also confess that I have not waited on you and trusted you for your comfort. I sought to take matters into my own hands instead of seeking life from you, the life-giver. I believed the lie that obedience never leads to satisfaction. Lord help me to wait on you for your comfort. Help me to receive by faith your promise to satisfy my heart with good things.”
It is only on the far side of faith that we receive God’s good promises for us. It requires no faith to find comfort in pornography. But comfort without faith only leads to death.
Jesus is inviting you, brother and sister, to find life in him. The world, the flesh, and the devil all proclaim with one voice that following Jesus by faith is foolishness. But that voice comes from a thief who came to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus, along with a great cloud of witnesses, calls you to lose your life for his sake in order to find it. And he came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
Mark talks more about this on his accompanying video: Losing Your Life While Losing Porn. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
12 Apr 2018
Pornography is more than looking at sexual images; it’s an all-encompassing worldview that many men and women embrace to find relief from their struggles in life. But by turning to porn, they find deeper struggles. Jesus shows us a way out and forward: lay down your life. Lose it in order to find it.
Click here to read more on what Mark is saying on his blog: “Losing Your Life: Jesus’ Invitation to a Porn Struggler”
Many who come to Harvest USA battling a serious pornography problem are married. Some discussed their struggle with their spouses before getting married, while others kept it completely hidden. Pornography’s impact on a marriage can be devastating, sometimes to the point of becoming the main factor in a couple’s divorce.
With this danger in mind, is your fiancé’s use of pornography grounds to call off an engagement—or even to end the relationship? If sexual sin, past and present, can destroy a marriage, raising those questions before taking vows becomes a matter of wisdom. It’s also a matter of necessity today. With the universality and accessibility of pornography, almost no one’s heart and mind today are untouched by its impact. Younger generations of Christians, especially, have grown up with high-speed Internet and its ability to deliver pornography anywhere and at any time.
If sexual sin, past and present, can destroy a marriage, raising those questions before taking vows becomes a matter of wisdom. It’s also a matter of necessity today. With the universality and accessibility of pornography, almost no one’s heart and mind today are untouched by its impact.
If almost everyone is affected by porn in some way, then it is not enough to simply ask your fiancé, “Have you looked, or are you looking, at pornography?” That’s not going to decide your answer about the relationship. Rather, you need a follow-up question if the (likely) answer is yes, “If this is an ongoing issue, in what direction is your struggle going?” Meaning, what is he or she doing about it? Is your fiancé showing a growing desire to honor Christ in all areas of life? Is that seen in how he or she acknowledges struggles, confesses sins, and shows evidence of repenting?
To better understand/comprehend the question and evaluate the answer, here are three key ways to gage that process.
Is your fiancé growing in openness and transparency?
First, is your fiancé growing in being open and transparent with you and others about this struggle? Many couples never discuss sexual issues, much less struggles, even when the relationship is clearly heading for the altar. But these issues need to be brought into the open. More than ever, it is essential that couples receive biblically-based pre-marital counseling. Discussing sexual issues with a third party provides a degree of safety for talking through these issues. Navigating this kind of disclosure without help can be scary and difficult. How much should I share, and what details should I give? This is why having an experienced pastor, counselor, or older mentoring couple walk with you is recommended. The goal of this disclosure is meant to promote intimacy, but done carelessly, without wisdom, it can have the opposite impact.
The third party can also provide discernment on the health of the relationship, answering critical questions about proceeding towards marriage. Sometimes the intensity of the struggle might indicate that the relationship should slow down, and any plans for marriage be postponed until further evidence of success is demonstrated. You need an outside voice to help you make that decision.
This transparency not only needs to happen in pre-marital counseling; it should be an ever-increasing way of how you are currently living. Is your fiancé open about other things in his life, or do you sense that he keeps some things hidden? One devastating consequence of pornography usage is a typical pattern of deceit and hiding, which eventually bleeds into all areas of life. In addition, do you both have trusted people in your lives who really know where you struggle, both individually and as a couple? The biggest barrier to fighting sexual sin is living in secrecy. Shame does that to us.
Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (ESV). If your fiancé has never told anyone else about his struggle, then that is a sign he’s not ready to deal with his sin, and he’s also unable to see the situation with any clarity. Danger ahead!
Are specific steps being taken to avoid sources of temptation?
Secondly, is your fiancé actively taking steps to remove clear sources of temptation in her life? If she struggles with her phone or laptop, has she gotten accountability software and put up filters? Or maybe she’s even gone back to a dumb phone, because she knows that having 24/7 availability to the web is a dangerous place for her to live. Though simply removing access to pornography does not guarantee a changed heart, it is evidence that your fiancé takes this struggle seriously. We often have a love/hate relationship with our sin patterns, and it is typical for most of us to be tempted to keep a back door open to our sin. We don’t seriously want to be free of it. Intentionally eliminating those back doors is evidence that she is not simply managing sin; she wants to kill it.
1 Peter 5:8 tells us to be sober-minded and watchful because the devil seeks to devour us. Taking real, sacrificial steps to avoid sources of temptation means that you accurately understand the weight of the situation. Real change needs to happen at the level of heart, but that change is facilitated by humbly recognizing the need for clear boundary lines to live within. For the sake of loving God and others well, we willingly accept restrictions that make it harder to engage in sin.
Deciding to postpone or call off an engagement or relationship requires the insight of trusted and competent mentors.
Are other people holding your fiancé accountable?
Thirdly, accountability is the natural result of transparent living. If your fiancé has taken the difficult step of sharing his struggle with trusted friends and mentors, is he also willing to be held accountable to them? A one-time confession of a private struggle is often a liberating and freeing experience. But the harder work comes in the regular discussion about how the fight has been going and what changes need to be implemented to fight better. If he is willing to be challenged and called to account by men who care about his soul, then you both will experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to “give grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
Establishing who bears this burden of accountability is important. It is unhelpful for a (future) spouse to become the “porn police.” This does not mean that couples fail to confess their sins to one another, but it does mean that the one who struggles has friends in his or her life who regularly ask hard questions. Consequently, the accountability partners have access to speak freely to the couple and their counselors to give their input. Having accountability partners outside of the romantic relationship provides additional support for the struggler. Without it, a constant temptation to worry and speculate can seriously impair the relationship; with it, the fiancé knows that the problem is being addressed and that her intended spouse is getting the help he needs.
We’ve looked at three key areas to consider if your fiancé is struggling with pornography: increasing transparency, actively fleeing temptation, and accountability. If one of these areas is lacking or non-existent, some serious and difficult discussions—and decisions—need to happen. But, again, this should not be done alone. Deciding to postpone or call off an engagement or relationship requires the insight of trusted and competent mentors.
In addition to discussing struggles with pornography, Christian couples need to honestly address how they are honoring Christ in maintaining sexual integrity in their relationship before marriage. Christian couples today are as sexually active before marriage as their secular counterparts. A false line is drawn to rationalize their behavior; everything short of intercourse is defined as not being sex. There are good reasons for delaying sexual intimacy before marriage, and one of them is learning to center your relationship on Christ by jointly encouraging each other to obey and trust his will. If disobedience is brought jointly into the marriage, then a perilous pattern is established. How you choose to honor God and one another through sexual integrity in one season of life will show your commitment and fitness for the next season.
Take heart, brothers and sisters: God does not call or bless only those with perfect obedience to him. His grace covers a multitude of sins, and that same grace can enable both of you to turn from destructive relational patterns and toward honoring Christ in this important area of life. And taking appropriate, wise steps, before saying your vows, is an investment that will reap a harvest of righteousness and joy in God’s glorious covenant of marriage!
You can watch Mark talking some more about this on his video: Is a Struggle with Pornography a Deal-Breaker for Getting Married? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
15 Jun 2017
Are you engaged? In a relationship and thinking about getting married? You’ve got lots to talk about—and be honest about with your future spouse. But the time to talk about these things is now, before you make your vows. And one critical thing to discuss is pornography and sexual sin.
Click here to read more of what Mark says couples must do before the wedding, “Is a Struggle with Pornography a Deal-Breaker for Getting Married?” And click here to read the full version of our latest harvestusa magazine.