“I said I would never do it again.”
“I can’t believe I’m back to the same old sin patterns.”
“Why can’t I stop doing this?”
“I thought I was past this.”
Why do we pursue sexual sin, particularly after we’ve come to loathe the impact it has on us, our spouse, our ministries, and our relationship with the living God? Have you ever said with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man (or woman) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)?
There are many reasons why we pursue broken sexual choices, but I would like to focus on one core motivation: unfulfilled longing for something transcendent. Our hearts are designed to long for something intimate, life-giving, and hope filled. Sexual sin makes many promises, but it can never give us these things. Even godly sex within marriage, as glorious a gift as it may be, fails to be the ultimate fulfillment our hearts deeply—and rightly—long for. Speaking of the folly of idolatry in his commentary on Isaiah, Ray Ortlund says, “It’s absurd to try to derive an ultimate experience from a less-than-ultimate resource. That’s false worship” (293).
This blog follows a previous post entitled, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and takes a deeper look into union with Christ.
Two Distinct Realities: Union and Communion
Before discussing the nuts and bolts of how to enjoy your union with Christ, it’s important to make a distinction between two concepts: union and communion.
Union with Christ is a position Christians enjoy as a result of the work of Christ on their behalf, uniting them completely to himself. It is passively received; it is not something merited, achieved, or fought for. It is an act of sheer grace from God’s benevolent heart down to the Christian. Marcus Peter Johnson describes union this way in his book One with Christ:
To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are “members of Christ,” “crucified in Christ,” “included in Christ,” “baptized into Christ,” and “the body of Christ.” They eat and drink Christ, they are one with Christ, Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; they can do nothing apart from him (39).
When reading this definition, you may be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but I live in the real world and certainly don’t feel like I’m on cloud nine, united to Jesus all day, every day!” How are we to reconcile the glorious truth of our irrevocable union with Christ with our day-to-day reality, which, if we’re honest, often feels dull, disappointing, or at times even hopeless?
Understanding the dynamics of our communion with the triune Godhead may shed light on the frustration of this dissonance between what we read in Johnson’s definition and what we experience in our daily lives.
Communion with God is the felt experience of the life of God intersecting with our own; it’s the sense that we relationally interact with God himself through the varied means of grace. We share in the life of God and relate to him in the many ways he represents himself as father, king, intercessor, comforter, counselor, refuge, friend, high priest, elder brother, great physician, husband, and sympathizer with our weakness. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the ways God describes his communion with his people! Contrary to our union with Christ, our communion does ebb and flow. It is subject to our weakness, efforts, striving, and lack thereof. We may experience profound joy in communion with Christ and we may experience seasons of weariness and discouragement. Even mature believers go through times when they struggle to have rich communion with God.
Our communion with God—or lack of communion—is one key to the “why” behind our sinful behaviors and attitudes. John Flavel says it this way:
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 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 go in silent search of other lovers (vol. 2, 438).
Growing in holiness and purity is not merely the “putting off” of unwanted behaviors, though it is not less than that. It is also the “putting on” and pursuit of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seeking deeper communion with God—the one who loves our souls—is a death blow to the pet sins we nurture because it brings the satisfaction we were longing for when we chose to pursue sin in the first place.
Acknowledging the Mystery
There is a degree of wonder and mystery involved in comprehending our union with Christ. When we pursue Christ, we’re endeavoring to do what only the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith.
We must observe a posture of humility because, after all, we’re talking about communing with—enjoying, relating to—the living God. This is his world. All things are for him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36), on his terms. Thankfully, we have a gracious God who wants to disclose himself to us—to be known and worshiped in Spirit and in truth. He is not hiding, so knowing God is not a scavenger hunt. Take heart! God relates to us intimately. He is deeply personal and specific, so there’s not a “one size fits all” method to unlock the secret to true communion.
It’s helpful to acknowledge that pursuing communion with Christ in a faithful way may differ for each Christian based on their season of life. A mother of young children, a man in hospice, a young professional, a pastor, and a teen all may have different habits of communion with God.
A dear brother in his nineties said that singing and playing his piano in worship to Christ has become more primary as Bible reading grew more difficult with age. Similarly, a mom with school-aged kids shared that in her single years she experienced her communion with God as primarily a silent, meditative time alone in the Scriptures. She laughed as she remarked, “I can’t remember the last time there was silence in our home!” As you seek after communion with God, seek first to be faithful in that pursuit. Rather than unlocking the secret to a transcendent experience, communion with God can grow even in the ordinary moments of daily life.
Why do we pursue sin in the first place? Often, it’s because we’re not pursuing our indescribably satisfying Savior. We try to fill our desire for transcendence with cheap trinkets when we have all the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ (Rom. 11:33). Indwelling sin can’t hold a candle to communion with God.
In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll discuss ten practical ways you can pursue deeper communion with Christ.
For men and women coming out of sexual addiction, they must pass through the post-sexual addiction wilderness (for a fuller explanation of what this wilderness is like, see my previous blog).
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is a particularly treacherous and painful section of the larger wilderness of the Christian life. The author of Hebrews sees the entire Christian life as a trek through the wilderness. In Christ, we have been delivered from slavery to sin, but until Jesus returns, we are called to strive to enter into His rest. The Promised Land is coming for all who endure to the end.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
You could be suffering with the consequences of your sin. You might have lost everything in your pursuit of pleasure. Your wilderness might be a litany of sufferings that you sought to escape through sex. But without that numbing agent, the pain is back, and it could feel unbearable.
Or you might be in the wilderness of idolatry. Sex was a means for you to experience the satisfaction of your deepest longings: to be loved, comforted, affirmed, safe, connected. Without sex, the idolatrous desires you have lived for are still crying out for satisfaction, and you don’t have any quick solutions to silence them. In this wilderness, you feel disappointed, scared, and frustrated.
The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.
Here is a hard truth: There is no turning back! You either enter into God’s rest, or you die in the wilderness. Those are your only options.
But here’s the good news! The wilderness is not endless. There is a destination you’re moving towards. That destination is perfect Shalom with God and His people in a perfected world. But that perfect existence often doesn’t seem worth it, because, at this moment, you feel like you’re about to die in this wilderness.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Let me offer three encouragements for those who are struggling in the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
Learn to Wait in the Wilderness
Like any addiction, sexual sin’s biggest enticement is the instant gratification it offers. The biggest lie sexual temptation tells you is that if you don’t give in now, it’s only a matter of time before you do, so why continue to suffer when you can feel better now? But God wants to use the wilderness to train you to think differently. He wants you to give control of your life back to him, and wait for his hand to feed you.
God’s delay in your relief always has good purposes. He wants to train you to trust Him, to abide in His presence in the midst of your suffering. He wants to conform you to the pattern of 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
This is the pattern of our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death, until the proper time when the Father exalted him in his resurrection and ascension. Waiting on the Lord requires a humble acknowledgment of his good purposes in your suffering. We worship and follow a Savior who trusted his Father even when he became the object of his Father’s wrath. Christ was alone on the cross, but we are never alone in the wilderness.
Let the Wilderness Shape Your Priorities
When life is easy, we give little concern to the basic necessities. I don’t wake up concerned about food, water, or shelter. My attention goes to many things that are not necessities in sustaining my life. But if you’re stranded on a desert island, every day you are consumed with survival. Your priorities are all connected to avoiding death.
God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground.
The post-sexual addiction wilderness is an opportunity to reprioritize your life. I have been amazed to see the lengths men will go to save their marriages from the destruction of their sexual betrayal. Time, money, and energy are poured into their marriage in ways that for most people would seem excessive. But that’s what you do when your marriage is collapsing. You don’t count the cost, because anything is worth saving it. Just imagine how healthy our marriages would be if we invested in them in times of stability, and not only in moments of crisis.
The same is true for your relationship with God. We don’t prioritize prayer and his Word because we don’t feel our need of him. But in the wilderness you can taste your desperation. You know you can’t go one day without Jesus. I’ve seen men who are on the brink of losing everything, they’ve been kicked out of their house, and they turn to God. That lonely, dreary hotel room is transformed into holy ground. Their suffering brought them to their knees, but this is where God meets them, on their knees. And over time, it’s His love and presence that keeps them on their knees.
Lastly, the wilderness should reshape your priorities for fellowship. We so often live isolated lives because we believe we can do the Christian life on our own. We don’t feel our need for accountability or true discipleship. But in the post-sexual addiction wilderness, you know you’re in a battle for your life, and you must prioritize finding others who will fight alongside you. You’ve seen the dangers of isolation; you see how predators love to pick off ones who have strayed from the pack. So now you’re not just looking for a few friends to hang out with, you’re looking for comrades in war who will fight for you!
Jesus Went Through the Wilderness for You¹
Hebrews 6:19-20 tells us that Jesus is our forerunner, who has gone on ahead of us into the Holy of Holies as our high priest. Jesus intercedes for us now in the wilderness because he first made it through the wilderness himself. Jesus was on the brink of physical starvation, and Satan tempted him to abandon trust in his heavenly Father by turning a stone into bread. Then in a greater way, this same temptation to abandon the Father’s mission came on the cross, when he was given the opportunity to come down and save himself. Jesus survived the wilderness without a single misstep. He received the victor’s crown and has entered into His Father’s rest.
This is important for your wilderness wanderings for two reasons. First, Jesus succeeded where we all have failed. None of us make it through the wilderness perfectly. We all have moments of turning stones into bread. The only reason we have any hope of making it through the wilderness is because we are united to the only One who did. Our acceptance and standing with God is solely based on what Jesus accomplished in the wilderness on our behalf.
Secondly, because we are united to our forerunner, we can have every confidence that he will lead us safely home. We must make it through the wilderness, but we are also given amazing promises that we will make it because he will bring us through it. He has already blazed the trail for us. And by his indwelling Spirit, we can walk in step with him (Gal. 5:25), day by day, until we finally enter into our eternal Sabbath rest.
¹This section, and the application that Jesus went through the wilderness on our behalf, and succeeded where Adam, Israel, and we have failed, is taught by Dr. Lane Tipton in his lecture, “Covenant History and the Tale of Three Sons.” Listen to this lecture here: https://reformedforum.org/rf14_03/
28 Feb 2019
There are legitimate reasons why people find themselves ensnared in a sexual addiction. It is a mistake to overlook the suffering in an addict’s life and only focus on their moral failings. Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain. Whether it’s the pain of loneliness, broken relationships, physical suffering, trauma, or the daily stressors of life, a downward descent into habitual sin patterns is often accompanied by a decreased ability to handle life apart from the numbing power of sinful relief.
Unfiltered life becomes too difficult to bear. Whatever that suffering is, it is something that an addict cannot face or put up with, and life feels more manageable with a sinful numbing agent.
The men and women who struggle over and over with sexual sin may get to a point where they are ready to seek help. They have grown disillusioned with the empty promises that sin offers. Like the prodigal son, God in his mercy brings them to their senses, so that they can taste and smell the foulness of their behavior. They see the chains they have willingly shackled themselves with, and they finally desire a life of freedom.
The men I work with at Harvest USA are desperately longing for freedom. When they think about a life free from the destructive behaviors they are engaged in, they are filled with hope and anticipation. This hope for a new life is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power beginning to renew their minds.
But since addictions are usually a means of escaping or numbing painful experiences, what happens when the numbing agent is removed?
This is the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
When God rescued Israel out of slavery from Egypt, they weren’t teleported to the Promised Land. They had to pass through the wilderness first. God’s people were terrified of the wilderness. They were unsatisfied in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt, back into slavery, because it offered a predictable life and more food than manna. They pined for false security rather than exercise faith in their true security, Jehovah Jireh!
Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain.
Israel had a say in how long their wilderness wanderings lasted. 40 years was not the original course for Israel. Their extended stay was a result of their own unbelief. The same is true for those coming out of sexual addictions. It will not be a simple re-entry into reality. Everyone must pass through the wilderness.
But the choices we make in that wilderness impact the length and quality of our stay there.
I want to talk about three different kinds of wilderness experiences for people coming out of sexual addiction.
The wilderness of consequences
Sinful behavior has cost some of you deeply. You may have lost family, homes, jobs, and your circle of friends, almost everything you hold dear. It is these tragedies that have finally brought you to your senses. Even the thought of going back gives you nightmares because of how real the consequences are now. This is a wilderness where God does amazing heart transformation and literally brings life into dry bones.
The wilderness of consequences was God’s severe mercy for you, losing so much. You needed this wake-up call. But now, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of your own making. In this wilderness, you are wrestling with intense feelings of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness for your future. You know you dare not go back to your sin, but you also don’t know what moving forward looks like.
This is the wilderness described in Psalm 6, where David cries out, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.”
The wilderness of suffering
For others, the wilderness of post-sexual addiction is not the direct consequence for their sin, but the wilderness they sought to initially escape through their sin. Fleeing sexual sin and turning to the Lord does not mean the circumstances people sought to numb through sin have gone away. God calls us to face and experience this kind of suffering, too. In this wilderness, there are two very real struggles simultaneously happening.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain.
On the one hand, you have the painful struggle of sexual withdrawal. Your body is used to getting sexual satisfaction, and denying yourself will be accompanied by a sense of real anguish. But along with that pain, you are now also experiencing the unfiltered pain of whatever circumstance you were using sex to escape from.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain. It could be alcohol or drugs, but it could also be more socially acceptable things, like binge-watching TV shows or over-eating. This seems harmless by comparison, but it can be a dangerous, insidious temptation. Why? Because it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have made deep heart progress, while you have only swapped one addiction for another. The goal in the wilderness of this suffering is to seek God in such a way where you are acknowledging that he must become your deepest source of comfort. For God to truly comfort you as the God of all comfort, you must by faith wait on him, and resist the temptation to quickly numb your pain through false means which usually deadens your desire to go to God with your suffering.
The wilderness of idolatry
The last wilderness is similar to the wilderness of suffering but with one key difference. Both are places of pain and suffering, but in the wilderness of suffering, your suffering is not the result of your sin. For example, God is not calling you to repent of your physical suffering or trauma that you experienced. But in this last wilderness, the wilderness of idolatry, you suffer because there is an idol in your heart that is not being satisfied.
For example, often pornography is a false means of feeling affirmed by others. In a fantasy world, everyone affirms you. This is what many people live for. If a false means of affirmation is taken away, the idolatrous desire in your heart will still cry out for satisfaction. This can result in feeling miserable and depressed. You weren’t happy in your addiction, but now you feel God isn’t coming through for you now that you’ve cut out that sinful behavior.
If this is where you are, you haven’t grasped the depths that your repentance needs to reach. This is often the wilderness that is most difficult to endure. Not because the suffering in this wilderness is more painful than the others, but because it’s only white-knuckling behavior modification. You haven’t yet forsaken the idols that still remain in your heart.
If you believe that life is found in the satisfaction of your idolatrous desires, then you will only hold out in repentance for so long until you turn back to the only source that you know to give you that sense of life, which means turning yet again to your addiction.
Post-sexual addiction living is not a simple, smooth transition from slavery to freedom. It’s a journey that often leads people into a wilderness. But this journey is all part of God’s loving transformative purposes. It is in the wilderness where God abides with his people, where they learn to trust him, and where they experience his provision of life!
17 Jan 2019
It was halftime several years ago during the Super bowl, and we were with extended family at our home. During the second quarter, my brother-in-law logged onto our family computer to catch up on business emails. When logging out, it’s his custom to clear the history from the computer so his company’s passwords are not saved. In doing so, he brought up the recent history and found some websites that troubled him. He alerted my wife (his sister), and they both viewed several extremely graphic websites full of porn that had been saved in the computer’s history. They discussed it for a few moments and decided to pull me away from the game to confront me about what they had found.
I am in my mid-40s and a father of four children. Based on the ages of our kids and the graphic nature of the websites, my brother-in-law and wife assumed the websites were connected to me. After we settled that it was not me, I proceeded to view the websites and knew we had a big problem. These sites were not just topless women or partially nude couples, but included sites with extremely graphic sexual videos. Although I was shaken up by the content, I was determined to find out who in our family was drowning in this stuff. I don’t really know why, but I suspected that it was my youngest: my 10-year old son.
During the rest of the game I was in and out of the family-filled TV room, pacing, praying and thinking of words to say, words that would both confront and also leave the door open for honesty. Near the end of the game, families began to pack up and head out. It was a school night and our family was starting to fade; my 10-year-old son poked his head into the office where we keep our computer and said, “Goodnight.” I said the same back.
Through his tears he described how bad he felt about himself and how powerless he felt in trying to stop.
Before he hit the stairs I got up and said to him, “Hey, have you been looking at anything you shouldn’t be looking at on the computer?” He quickly and confidently replied: “Me? No, I haven’t at all.” I said, “OK, good.” He then started upstairs, but I gently stopped him and asked him to come back down into the office. He did. I said to him, “I’m going to ask you one more time; think before you answer. Have you looked at anything you shouldn’t have looked at on that [pointing to the desktop computer].”
He paused, looked away from me to the floor and said “Yes.”
When I tell you I have never seen a look of shame and guilt so clearly, I am being totally honest. I did not feel anger or disappointment. I reached out and embraced my boy, whom I later learned had been sucked in by the power of pornography for a long time. I embraced him; he wept, I wept, and we rocked as we had done so often when he was an infant. During the next several hours he confessed his daily habit of viewing pornography at certain “safe” hours, when our daily family pattern would allow him time on the computer while others were out of sight. Other times were with friends at sleepovers, where they would use their smartphones or internet capable game consoles to surf pornography websites. Through his tears he described how bad he felt about himself and how powerless he felt in trying to stop.
The hour was now 2am. We were both beat, and we were still embracing. Instead of disappointment and anger I felt relief and a deeper love for my son who was almost asleep in my arms. As I carried him to bed I thought about God’s yearning to have us in the same place every night: after a day of messing up, if we only felt the “ease” to tell it all as it really is and then find the peace to collapse in his arms, that’s exactly where God wants us. He does not want us living a lie, running up the stairs, brushing our teeth, burying our secrets and going it alone. Once I placed him in his bed he fell asleep and subsequently woke several times during the next hour, calling out my name to discuss and confess some more. Eventually he got everything off his chest and finally fell asleep.
I did not sleep that night, nor did my wife. We talked. We cried. We prayed. We argued. The weight on us was heavy. The next day was long; I was desperate to help my son and I felt incompetent to do it myself. I reached out to several close friends, one of which was John Freeman from Harvest USA.
This was a wake-up call, but instead of being a start to an ugly, downward cycle it has opened our family to a better way of dealing with the ever-present world of pornography and, more than that, the relentless, never-ending love that God has for each of us.
John and I are close friends. I told him everything. There were long pauses, as I could not speak through the tears. John was patient. When I was done, all I could do was ask him, would my son be all right. John didn’t take the role of an expert but rather a deep and close friend. He did not at this time encourage me to seek outside help, as he thought we had everything we needed within our family. He did not blithely point to Bible verses or books but instead reminded me of my close relationship with a God who loves me and would never turn His back on me.
John comforted me and gave me the courage to be a loving father to a hurting and scared son who was full of shame. He encouraged me to be a safe place for my son, someone to talk to and help interpret what he had seen and what he was feeling. He suggested that a remedy would not come instantly but would come over a long period of time as I grew into being a safe and loving place for my son to come and rest.
John’s words, along with those of other men who know me well, helped me rise up to become the place where my son could find grace, forgiveness, and “ease”, so he could move beyond the trap he found himself in.
Now that my son had felt the healing and cleansing power of confession and forgiveness, the days ahead became darker for me; they were filled with despair and discouragement in thinking about what my child had been exposed to for a long time. Conversations between my wife and I were nonstop about what to do now and how this could have happened. For one of the first times in our 24-year marriage, the conversations were starting to dramatically break down and anger crept in. I did not know it at first but I was slowly coming to terms with my guilt of removing our home internet filter years ago (because it was a nuisance). I started to admit to myself both that we had been lax in forming our daily schedule that allowed for consistent unsupervised time after school and our naïveté of allowing him full access to internet capable devices for his personal use at a very young age. I have been through dark seasons in my life, and I rank this as one of the most difficult.
The weight that was on our hearts lightened as time passed. In the weeks that followed the opportunities to speak to my son, my wife, and my girls about these topics and about God’s unwavering love for us no matter what we do, think, feel or see, were many.
We now have a top rated content filter on our computer, are clear with our kids about the dangers of web-enabled devices, have set up “house rules” for our family and friends regarding those devices, and have kept this topic in the forefront of family discussion. This was a wake-up call, but instead of being a start to an ugly, downward cycle it has opened our family to a better way of dealing with the ever-present world of pornography and, more than that, the relentless, never-ending love that God has for each of us. Through this I am reminded that there is nothing we can do that will cause God to withhold his love and affection for us. All he wants is for us to collapse in His arms, give him all of our troubles, shame, guilt, and secrets, and then to find rest in him.
This blog post also appears in our Fall 2018 harvestusa magazine, along with other articles for parents and families.
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.
In this video, Ellen talks about Jessica Harris’ blog, “My Problem Wasn’t Amish Romance Novels.” Many people think women do not have intense struggles with hard-core porn, but Jessica writes about her struggle and what women need to battle—and win—over addictive pornography struggles. You can read Jessica’s blog here. And you can read the entire Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine on Women, Sexuality, and the Church here.
02 May 2018
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Jessica Harris shares her personal story of pornography addiction, a struggle that still too many think is only a man’s problem. Because pornography addiction is seen as primarily a male issue, the Church isn’t helping women who continue to struggle in silence and shame. Jessica shows how the Church can change this broken perspective. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When I first felt God calling me to share my story, my answer was no.
I had spent my entire high school career struggling with pornography addiction. In college, I was caught looking at porn after logging in on a school computer, but they concluded it couldn’t be me. “Women just don’t have this problem.”
My struggle escalated to the point where I sent nude photos to a stranger online. This was back in 2003 before sexting was in vogue. Seventeen years old, from my dorm room on a Christian college campus, I, a newly-converted Christian who had grown up in the church, became someone else’s pornography. To me, that was all my life was worth.
A year later, I finally told somebody about my struggle with porn. I confessed to the Student Life staff at the second Bible college I was attending. They began to work with me intensively, and after nearly two years of a long, hard fight, I found freedom.
In my mind, freedom meant I didn’t have to think about it anymore. The past was behind me. No one ever had to know this was part of my story.
When I realized God might want me to share it, I resisted. I tried to find anything else to do with my life. I told Him He could send me to China. He could call me to some jungle somewhere.
Anything but this.
But I felt a bit like Jonah getting tossed around in life’s boat. There wasn’t peace. Everything I tried to do wasn’t working. So, angrily, I created my website and shared my story of porn addiction and shame. I wondered if God hated me and that’s why He was making me do this. It felt like a permanent form of branding and punishment. Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
I was convinced I was alone—the only woman in the world who had managed to become addicted to porn.
Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
Then, the emails started coming in. A year after starting my site, a large Christian conference asked me to lead a workshop for women on the topic of lust. When women realized this workshop wasn’t going to be your typical “Proverbs 31, and True Beauty is on the Inside” workshop, they started planning to skip theirs and come to mine instead.
Every seat was filled. Women stood along the back. Women even sat on the floor at the front of the room. God moved mightily in that workshop. At the end, I watched the small groups as women shared their struggles with each other and prayed together. God was setting women free.
I walked out of the room and had what I call my Esther moment. It was as if God said to me, “You can have what you want. You can do whatever you would like. No one really knows you, so you could keep silent and move on with your plans, or you could be part of this.”
That day I decided I was all in, having no idea what that might mean. I knew women were struggling, lost, and hurting, and I knew how they could get help. How could I leave them? How could I just walk away and pretend they weren’t there?
I moved forward more publicly, telling my story, trying to write for various magazines, and reaching out to churches. The response was often, “We don’t need that kind of stuff for our women. Our women don’t struggle with that.” It quickly became clear that the biggest enemy I was going to face wasn’t pornography itself, but an old script and layer upon layer of shame.
There’s a script we have when it comes to things like sexual struggles and pornography. It goes something like this:
Men are visual, so men struggle with pornography. Women are emotional, so women struggle with Amish romance novels. Men are the eyes. Women are the heart. Men get Fight Club with resources and accountability groups. Women get tea parties with talk about dating and “protecting your heart.”
And that leaves thousands of visual women who struggle with pornography with nowhere to turn. They need Fight Club, but when they knock on the door, they’re met with disapproving glances or a belittling of their struggle.
When I stand on a stage and say, “My name is Jessica, and I was addicted to pornography,” I have to clarify exactly what I mean. People try to change my story to fit the script. They either water down what I mean by “addicted” or what I mean by “pornography.” They assume, at the very most, I was compulsively into soft-core pornography.
That’s not the case. I was never into soft-core pornography. Instead, I spent hours, every day, watching hard-core pornography: the same type of porn men are known for watching and worse. Mine is not a story of a young girl entrenched in romance novels. It’s a story of a young woman having her identity completely warped and lost to years of compulsive, daily, hard-core pornography use.
Sharing that story, whether from a stage, on my site, or through my book, Beggar’s Daughter, has never been easy. I still get emails questioning my experience or what might be wrong with me. After all, the email will say, “This is a man’s problem.”
The advantage is now, I know my story is not unique. In fact, it is far from it. The script we’re using is old and needs to change, because the script itself is causing shame. The script itself is leaving women feeling trapped and hopeless.
How do we change that script?
- Use the word “and” – When you address issues around sexuality, know that sexual struggles do not respect genders. Men and women can struggle with pornography. Men and women should be able to find hope, healing, and grace in your community.
- Train women to help— Equip women in your midst to be able to minister to women in this area. Women’s ministry isn’t all homemaking tips and studies on Proverbs 31. Equip and encourage your teams to tackle harder issues with truth and grace.
- Stop worrying about “causing” problems— Many ministry leaders are concerned that discussing these issues will introduce sin into their circles. In the years since I published my book, I’ve not once had someone say, “I wish you hadn’t written this. It made my problem worse.” When we talk about issues in the light of God’s redemptive grace, people find hope and freedom.
Discussing an issue, no matter how hard, in relation to the Gospel and grace will always bring light, not darkness. Mentioning that women struggle with pornography doesn’t take women captive; it sets them free. It opens up the door for them to come forward, confess, and find hope and healing.
As the body of Christ, that should be our mission. We should welcome His redemptive work in each other’s lives, regardless of what He is redeeming us from.
It might be an overused saying, but if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If your church or ministry isn’t speaking out about these issues, then your silence is trapping women in shame. Don’t withhold grace from the women in your midst. We need to get rid of the script that destroys a woman’s identity and, instead, speak the truth and invite grace to redeem our identities and be a part of every woman’s story.
Ellen Dykas discusses this topic further in the accompanying video: What If I’m a Woman Who Struggles with Pornography? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
09 Mar 2016
Do you suffer from “Mug Shot Theology?” We’ve all seen mug shots of people who have been arrested. It’s that photo the police take of a person when they’ve been caught—in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. We’ve all seen Hollywood personalities looking their worst and having it all captured, for posterity, in their mug shot. These glamorous and handsome stars are almost unrecognizable when you catch a glimpse of them on that tabloid paper at the check-out counter at your local store. The image of one’s mug shot follows one around forever, coloring everything.
What does that have to do with Christians, you may be thinking? Mug Shot Theology is that picture we’re sure God has of us and always looks at when we’ve been behaving at our worst—when we’ve really blown it.
I’ve not known very many men who don’t suffer from Mug Shot Theology, especially when it comes to their deep and unrelenting sexual temptations, struggles, and sin. It just seems to come with the territory.
When we labor under this, it affects everything in our life. So it’s a very practical issue. When you have Mug Shot Theology, it’s rare to ever experience any joy in your life. It’s virtually impossible to possess the ability to run to the throne of grace at your time of deepest need. It keeps you from access to the power of God to help counter temptations. It turns your face away from God because of your shame and guilt. You are shut down from communicating with God. You feel left all alone with your temptations and sin, not knowing what to do, because Mug Shot Theology will make sure the cross is the last place you’ll run to.
“You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ.”
When you don’t know what to do with your guilty heart and your sins, you will (because you’re a sinner) always adopt one or more of the following strategies.
- You’ll let yourself off the hook, explaining, excusing, or rationalizing your sin, falsely believing it’s not as bad or deadly as it is.
- You’ll put yourself under “house arrest,” only going through the motions of faith, severely limiting your attempts to love and serve God and others well.
- You’ll just try to say no to your temptations while constantly resolving to do better and white-knuckling it along the way.
- You become you own executioner, punishing yourself relentlessly.
- You’ll put yourself on probation with God, slinking back to him when you’ve put enough distance between your temptations or failures until you get up the courage to approach God again.
All these behaviors are the ways most men deal with their sin and struggles. But when we change that Mug Shot Theology to a Gospel Theology—in which we understand and admit that we, always, stand guilty, before a holy God, and yet our God beckons and invites unworthy sinners to his throne because of Jesus—then everything changes. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, in his commentary, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 5, Assurance, states it quite well.
“God has become one who delights to see us coming, receives us, loves us and sits us at a banqueting table. God is always looking upon us with favor and smiling upon us . . . So it is in prayer. . . we remind ourselves of this and rush into his presence . . . we rush in with boldness and full confidence, having access to the throne room. . . You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ. You own this great truth and act upon it in your prayer life. . . knowing He is a Heavenly Father who delights to see us, to receive us. . . and whose love for us is way beyond our imagination.”
What a way to blast away Mug Shot Theology! It captures the essence of what it means to be dearly beloved children, ransomed by our God. It also moves us, in humility, towards God in our worst moments, daring to believe, once again, that the gospel is for us.
To learn more about these concepts of Christ’s love and grace for the downcast and disheartened, be sure and check out John’s new book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex.
For a large majority of men today, the ubiquity of porn on the Internet and its ability to provide unlimited access to it (especially via search engines) means that the issue is no longer, “Have you looked at porn?” but rather, “Are you actively looking at porn?” Many wives may already fear or suspect that their husbands are engaging in pornography.
Looking at porn is not harmless (see the short video of Bob Heywood’s struggle with porn and its impact on his marriage). But the problem is that pornography usage is usually hidden, a closely guarded secret. What if you suspect that porn is impacting your marriage (or your relationship with your boyfriend or fiancé)? Here are some things you can look for, as well as steps you can take to bring healing.
Signs that may indicate usage of porn:
- Unusual decrease in sexual activity between you and your husband—and increasing relationship distance physically.
- Mental distance between the two of you. He’s physically present but not mentally there when you seek to engage him.
- Late-night computer activity, especially a pattern of needing to use the computer after you have gone to bed.
- He quickly changes the screen when someone comes into the room, and he is spending more and more time on the computer.
- Secrecy regarding finances, like not letting you see credit card statements.
- Any gaps in accountability for time and finances.
- No history on the web browser after he spends time on the computer (keep in mind that private browser windows are pretty standard today, leaving behind zero web history).
What steps can you take?
Viewing pornography is sexual sin and is not “just what men do.” While painful and devastating for any wife to acknowledge, you must honestly face the reality of sexual sin impacting your marriage. Now is not the time to be passive. You have a vital role to play in helping your husband break free.
- Know that the Lord has comfort for you! He has not abandoned you or your marriage. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, and despair are normal for the wife who’s just discovered her husband’s porn usage. God is your compassionate Father and source of comfort and strength. (Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.)
- See this as a real threat to your marriage. Don’t deny it or hope that it will just go away. Now is the time for you to battle hard for your marriage through prayer, courageous confrontation, and humble reliance upon the Lord.
- Talk openly with your husband about your concerns. You may need to acknowledge that this is a common problem for men today, even Christian men, so come alongside him rather than take an oppositional role. Watch for his response to your inquiry. Is there defensiveness, anger, deflection? Check your own heart for self-righteous indignation.
- Pray for and seek helpers who can encourage you and pray with you. Seek out godly Christian women or any ministry leader who is a “safe” person for you to talk with (someone who has track record of godly living, is compassionate, and is trustworthy with confidences). Talk with your pastor.
- Don’t put yourself in the position of being his “porn police” or primary accountability partner. If he admits he is struggling, tell him to talk to one of his friends or his pastor to set up accountability. If there is a group of men who meet regularly for these issues, encourage him to attend.
- Do not think or accept (if your husband suggests) that his porn issue is your fault. He is responsible for his own behavior. His behavior comes from within his own heart (Matthew 15:17-20), and your behavior cannot cause him to look at porn.
- Consider marriage counseling with a pastor, counselor, or a trusted couple. This may be a perfect time for both of you to seek assistance to talk through ongoing issues or problems. Couples that do not talk openly about their struggles, needs, and disappointments (especially sexual problems and disappointments) are wounding their marriage. They need to be willing to look deeply at motivations and past events that affect their relationship with each other. Since sexual sin is so dangerous and powerful, it is something which must be dealt with openly—with the help of other Christians. Your marriage will not survive if this is not dealt with and if your husband refuses to seek help.
- Run to the Lord as your refuge! Psalm 16:1-2 says that God is your strength, hope, and safe place as you navigate these painful and scary waters in your marriage. You cannot control your husband’s heart or his response to the Lord, but you can bring your own needs, pain, and confusion to him, and you need to!
Christian couples dare not keep sexual sin hidden in the shadows. It will only get worse, and its potential to destroy the marriage is real. The hope of the Gospel is that in Christ we can find restoration, reconciliation, and victory, even over deeply embedded sin patterns. There is hope for deep change and profound healing through the power of Jesus Christ.
We have a great devotional book for wives dealing with this issue in their marriage. It’s called When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography: Healing Your Wounded Heart, by Vickie Tiede. You can check it out here.