21 Jan 2021
A single young man has struggled for years with an addiction to pornography. He’s had some ups and many downs and is now fairly discouraged. He looks forward to marriage as the key to defeating this sin. He is engaged and is now clinging to the hope that having marital sexuality will free him from pornography.
Another young man has no fiancée on the horizon but is praying for one. He pleads and reasons with God that if only he would give him a wife, he would not feel compelled to fantasize about having one. His prayers come close to saying, “Please, God, give me a wife because, until you do, I can’t help but go to porn again and again.”
Both of these men are putting great hopes on marriage as the special ingredient to cure their porn addiction. And it’s not just men we hear this from. This is a common scenario that we see in our ministry to both single men and women.
At first glance, there is a seemingly commonsense and biblical reason for a young man to think this way. It seems like common sense to say that when he has a licit outlet for his sexual desire, he will be able to turn from his illicit outlet. And biblically, doesn’t Paul say that marriage is a remedy for sexual immorality? However, in my experience I have generally seen that 1) marriage does not resolve a previously established pornography problem, and 2) when an unresolved pornography habit is brought into a marriage, it causes significant damage, up to and including sometimes destroying the marriage. This suggests that we need to be careful and wise in how we encourage the young men above—and other men or women like them—in their desire for marriage.
Let’s hear what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. The entire chapter is his response to a Corinthian proposition expressing a high value on celibacy. In verse 1, Paul writes, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” He does not directly contradict this sentiment. In fact, as he extends his response to various demographic groups and situations in the Church, Paul makes apparent that he considers a life of single, contented, worshipful celibacy the preferred option. This is his own state, and he considers it the most blessed (verses 7, 8, 38, and 40), especially during troubled times, when even normal attentions to concerns of this life may be wisely suspended (verses 26–31).
However, there is a catch. The prerequisite for this life is a sufficient level of self-control (verses 5, 9, 36, and 37). The desire for the companionship and intimacy of marriage is natural and good; the decision to forgo it involves an ongoing commitment to self-denial of things pertaining to marriage. Not everyone has this. Some might have self-control in other areas, such as finances, food, or anger, but not in sexuality; as Paul says, “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (verse 7). If you don’t have this type of self-control, then a life of singleness will only make it more likely that you will fall to sexual immorality.
So what is the bottom line? Are you trying to decide whether to marry or stay single? If you can handle the self-denial required to maintain celibacy, singleness brings huge blessings. But beware: If you don’t have a good level of self-control in this area, celibacy will increase temptation to sexual immorality.
So what does this mean for men or women hooked on pornography? On the one hand, the fact that they are addicted to pornography suggests that they don’t have the self-control to practice celibate singleness, and they should probably seek marriage. However, to simplistically think that marriage will solve their pornography problem is a dangerous mistake. Here are some reasons why.
While trying to remain single when lacking the self-control to be celibate is a pretty sure recipe for immorality, marriage does not make you immune to it.
Remember that adultery, properly speaking, is a sin involving married people. Even in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s first mention of the need for self-control is directed to married couples “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (verse 5). Satan’s goal is always to get you to turn from God’s holy design for sexuality. He doesn’t give up the day you exchange your vows.
Your pornography habit is already a form of sexual immorality and must be dealt with, whether you marry or not.
While marriage provides the opportunity and responsibility to learn and express a godly sexuality, established patterns of sexual sin do not go away without repentance from those particular sins. Do you have a habit of porn use? You will live with that habit until you put it to death. Whether you are married or single, this is done by applying the gospel, living out of your union with Christ, and setting your mind on the things of the Spirit. There is no substitute for this.
Your pornography habit, if not dealt with, will destroy your marriage.
Using pornography is not essentially the same as married sexuality but without the vows. Pornography is a warped, demonic distortion of sexuality. By giving yourself to pornography, you have learned a sexuality which involves no self-sacrifice, no love, no patience—a sexuality in which you exercise total, god-like control over other people solely to maximize your own pleasure; a sexuality in which other people are not whole persons bearing the image of God but objects to be used and discarded; a sexuality that caters to the idols of your heart, thus eroding faith and strengthening your rebellion against the one true God. What happens if you get married without addressing this evil? Your spouse becomes your next porn object. I have talked with too many men who treat their wives as the porn they are allowed to have. What you desire in sex has been warped by porn and needs to be transformed. God designed sexuality to be committed, faithful, sacrificial, and exclusive. The sexuality of pornography is the satanic opposite of that in every way. Marriage will not solve your porn problem; your porn problem will destroy your marriage.
So what advice should be given to those struggling with porn? Should they seek marriage? Yes, you can certainly seek marriage. But godly, married sexuality is very different in character from the pornography-fed version to which you have become accustomed. You will need to embrace the responsibility and joy of the “putting off” and “putting on” of the gospel to your entire approach to sexuality. So don’t expect marriage to cure you of porn. Rather, make yourself ready for marriage by killing your porn habit now. Begin to love your future wife or husband by bringing every gospel weapon to bear on unlearning what porn has taught you about sex. And if God does give you marriage, do not think that this means simply transferring your sexual habits into a “moral” context; it is rather a constant putting off of old ways to be clothed with Christ. Marriage pursued and practiced this way will indeed be a strong help against sexual immorality, as surely as resurrection life defeats sin and death.
10 Sep 2020
Do non-Christians care about sexual sin, particularly behaviors like masturbation that our culture views as benign? Believe it or not, many do! There are even online support groups for unbelievers who are particularly focused on stopping behaviors like masturbation and pornography. Groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous have very stringent standards for sobriety, and yet many of the people who regularly attend would not claim to follow Christ.
Through the biblical category of “common grace,” we can acknowledge that someone can overcome addictive sexual behaviors and still be dead in their sins. What this means is that a biblical approach to repentance must have a deeper aim beyond mere behavioral change.
At the root of all true Christian ministry stands not a technique, but the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whatever good people may attain through techniques, they are of zero lasting benefit if those techniques do not lead them to Christ. Jesus said as much in John 5:39–40:“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (ESV).
At some point or another in our lives, aren’t we all guilty of reading Scripture merely to check it off our lists? It is a sobering thought that even reading the Bible can itself become a technique devoid of Christ and therefore have no power to give life to the reader. If you are seeking to offer hope to someone stuck in slavery to sexual sin, or if you yourself need hope, you must keep their—and your—eyes fixed on the only person who can give eternal life in whatever techniques you offer.
Your goal in helping a brother or sister should be the same goal of the apostle John in writing his gospel. John said, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
At first glance, you might hear John’s words only in an evangelistic context. You might say, “My brother or sister already believes in Jesus, but they still struggle with sin.” Certainly, if you only see belief in Jesus as an entrance into life and not the way of life, then you will forfeit any power to fight sin.
Faith in Christ unites us to him and all of his saving benefits. Through Spirit-wrought faith, a believer has passed from death to life. Their old nature died with Christ, and their new nature was raised to walk in newness of life. The believer’s new life is fundamentally sustained by the one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
This life that Christ gives is not limited to the moment of regeneration but is instead a constant wellspring that sustains you through your eternal union with Christ. Every second of eternal life that you enjoy both now and forever will be inextricably linked to your union with Christ.
John uniquely highlights Christ’s life-giving power in almost every chapter of his gospel. Jesus frequently speaks of eternal life that he alone can give. But this gift is not something outside of him; Jesus offers himself. Here is a sample of these statements:
- “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
- “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5:21).
- “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst”
- “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
- “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
Without specifically using the word “life” in John 15, Jesus speaks of the utmost necessity of abiding in him for bearing any good fruit. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and branches to clearly illustrate that a branch cut off from the vine has no life.
What this means practically is that your primary aim as a helper for those struggling with sin is pointing them to the way, the truth, and the life. Are other things needed to overcome sexual sin? Yes. People need community. People need to cut off access to temptation. People need to confess their sins and learn how to love others instead of consuming them. But all of those efforts and means of repenting have no eternal power if they are cut off from Christ.
In response to Walter Marshall’s classic work, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Bruce McRae writes in a footnote about the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, “These ‘means of grace’ are not what you do to attain holiness; they are what bring you into a deeper fellowship with Christ who makes you more holy.”¹
Your life, Christian, is only found in Christ. More than any other activity or responsibility you have today, may your first and primary goal be to abide in Christ. Your life is so united to the life of Christ that you can say with the apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
¹ In his book, Walter Marshall outlines nine different means of grace: reading Scripture; examining one’s life by the Scriptures; meditating on Scripture; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; prayer; singing; fasting; and fellowship and relationships with other Christians in the Church.
You can also watch the video, “Serving Self or Serving Christ,” which corresponds to this blog.
17 Feb 2016
The power of community is where we experience the transformative power of the cross in our lives. “Tom” came to Harvest USA to end his decades-long pornography addiction. What he got was that—and much more.
How long have I been living a lie by pretending that pornography and my flesh are not huge issues for me? My story of struggling with pornography began like so many others—when I was young. Just before my tenth birthday, I went to my classmate’s house to look at some Playboy magazines that he’d hidden under his bed. Even though I was not a Christian and didn’t grow up in church, somehow I knew this must be kept secret, hidden from my parents and my siblings. Going over to my friend’s house became a regular occurrence.
When I became a Christian as an adult, the guilt and shame of looking at porn, which was now years later, came into sharper focus. The nagging guilt now became overwhelming. Yet I continued to live a double life of secrecy for over a decade. No matter how strong the guilt and secrecy, I was terrified to let anyone know. Would anyone understand?
Then God brought a prayer partner who also struggled with Internet pornography. But he was doing something about it. As I saw him walking in the light and the freedom he had in Christ, I began to learn how to walk in the light too. By confessing what was happening in the darkness to my prayer partner, I began to realize how great God’s love for me was. As I considered the seriousness of my sin, I realized how great my debt to God was. Rather than be crushed by that, however, the cross of Christ got bigger and more significant to me. This is what Jesus came to die for—my sin! The gospel began to grow in new ways and new places. But I still struggled with porn, I’m sad to say.
Years later, God led me to marry a devout Christian woman. Now I thought: My porn struggles would finally be over. I don’t need to fantasize about sex with someone anymore. My loneliness would end.
On the outside, I looked pretty good, solid, upright. But on the inside, I continued to treat women as objects to be used. How ugly!
Those who know about struggles with pornography addiction know that, of course, didn’t happen. I began to live a double life again. On the outside, I looked pretty good, solid, upright. But on the inside, I continued to treat women as objects to be used. How ugly! Mercifully God led me to another godly man who became my prayer partner. After another long period of indulging in porn, I confessed my sin to him. He gently encouraged me to discuss my porn use with my wife and then follow up with my pastor. It was my pastor who suggested Harvest USA as a good resource for men with sexual sin issues.
But going to a men’s support group terrified me. What scared me most about going to Harvest USA was being exposed for what was my most shameful problem and sin. I’d have to talk about how porn was controlling my life. I had to admit that I was too weak to beat this. I resisted going for a while. However, the Holy Spirit was on the move in my heart. I couldn’t resist.
At Harvest USA, I discovered I was not alone, and I was now no longer isolated. God was exposing the root of my biggest issue: unbelief. My sexual sin was but a surface symptom of what the real struggle was. I didn’t believe that God was enough for me, that I could rest in him and be satisfied, no matter what happened in my life.
In Mark 9:14-29, there’s a boy possessed by a mute spirit that threw him to the ground and into convulsions. His father sought out Jesus to heal him, crying out for help. Jesus replied, “All things are possible to him who believes.” What the father said next is what we all wrestle with: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Jesus heals the boy, even though the father’s faith remained weak. What counted was not the strength of his faith, but the object of his faith. He sought out Jesus.
Daily, Jesus is healing my unbelief. When I am drawn to the world and the flesh for comfort and escape from difficulties, I speak the gospel to myself: Jesus died on the cross for my sins; his blood washes me clean even though my sins run red like scarlet. The best thing that’s happened by joining a support group is the freedom of confessing my sins, experiencing the power of prayer, and knowing that by the power of the Holy Spirit my Abba Father is speaking to me, shepherding me, and holding me in his embrace. He will never let go of me.
“Tom” lived most of his life “in the shadows.” Read John Freeman’s chapter, “Living in the Shadows: Life as a Game-Player,” from his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, followed by another testimony of how a defeated man discovered hope and change. Click here to get it.