A version of this post was originally posted at Practical Theology for Women. In light of the Ashley Madison leak, here is some practical help for ministry leaders walking with those struggling with pornography.
One of my elders at church recently taught on the issue of pornography. He was vulnerable and honest about his own serious struggle with pornography after being exposed to it at a very young age through sexual deviancy among the adults in his home. I found his lesson relevant to men who’ve struggled with pornography, women who’ve struggled with pornography, men who haven’t struggled with pornography, and women who haven’t struggled with pornography. Since that probably covers all the readers here, I thought I would share the progression of his thoughts.
1. Pornography is sin. Despite the near mainstream acceptance of pornography in many cultures (certainly in Seattle where our church is), we need a Biblical framework for understanding the issue.
Matthew 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
2. However, don’t elevate the sin above what it is – simply sin. The elder teaching this lesson shared how in a moment of deep angst over his use of pornography yet again, he was confronted by a pastor at our church. Did he have the same angst when he yelled at his wife? When he was angry with his children? The pastor exhorted him to not minimize the sin, but also not to allow it a place of importance above other sins. In a twisted way (because we often do twist such things), elevating the sin of pornography can make fighting the struggle a legalistic idol and source of pride for those who struggle less than others.
Romans 1:29-32 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
3. Hate the sin, and speak truth with patience and grace to yourself and others in the struggle. Paul’s words in Romans 7 don’t excuse our sin, but it does explain our sin.
Romans 7:15-8:1 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The elder shared his story of his wife’s response to him when he first confessed his use of pornography to her. He waited until late in the evening to tell her. Then he got up off the bed to leave the room in shame. She asked him where he was going, and he told her he figured she didn’t want to be around him right now. She said, “Why would I want that? I love you!” He recounted with tears how her words ministered grace to him that kept him walking his struggle with pornography in the light. In contrast, he knew another man who told him of his wife’s response, which was the exact opposite. She told him that if she ever caught him using pornography again, she would immediately divorce him. This further pushed this man into isolation and shame when he needed to admit his sin and walk in the light with his wife. The elder teaching our class pointed out how his own wife’s gracious response helped him walk in the light and confess his sin, which has been key to moving forward in his struggle successfully.
There is a tension here. We need to make sure that in our patience and grace we remember that grace also means to speak truth. Consider Bonhoeffer’s words in Life Together: “Reproof is unavoidable. God’s word demands it when a brother falls into open sin…Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”
Note two things here. First, this is not the same as a wife excusing sin a husband refuses to confess. The particular point was that when the elder owned his sin and wanted to do battle against it, his wife responded in a way that ministered grace to him that helped him continue in the battle. Second, pornography can NOT be solved by a more physically available wife. Pornography isn’t about the sexuality of a wife. Sex as God intended in marriage is distinctly different than the narcissism that pornography inspires and feeds. No wife bears responsibility for her husband’s sin, nor is he more likely to not struggle if she attempts to become his own personal porn star. The elder teaching this lesson made the point that pornography feeds crushing expectations that are unrealistic, and one of the most unhelpful responses we can give in counseling is to place expectations upon a wife to perform in a way that crushes her soul.
4. If you struggle with pornography, you are not alone. Pornography is impacting all kinds of things in our culture—fashion, crushing expectations regarding physical appearance and sexual performance, and so forth. Many believe it is now the number one educator for teaching American children about sex. One survey showed 50 percent of Christian men and 20 percent of Christian women said they were addicted to pornography. 60 percent of Christian women said they struggled with lust. This is a big struggle affecting many people you know.
When this elder first introduced a similar class on sexual immorality during announcements at our church 10 years ago, several wives came up to him after the service to thank him for giving them the freedom to talk with their significant other whom they thought was struggling with pornography. Many men talked with him in the weeks afterwards as well, though not immediately after service. It was a widespread struggle, and one man speaking in the light gave freedom to others to join him.
5. Work out the sin and struggle in community. My elder recounted leaving work after a particularly stressful day feeling a strong desire to watch porn and masturbate. He texted another elder exactly that. It felt brutal and embarrassing to write those words, yet it was important to bring it out to someone with whom he was accountable. The other elder had struggled as well, and the power of the temptation each felt dissipated when they brought it into the light. I am thankful for a gospel-centered church that is safe for people to struggle in the light with their sin. We need to be safe places where others can be honest about their sin. No struggle with sin can be won in the dark.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
Galatians 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
6. Know that you are defined by Jesus, not your sin! The elder teaching this class emphasized how important the truth of his identity in Christ is to overcoming temptation and not believing the accusations of Satan against him. Consider these truths from Scripture on how God thinks of and speaks of us regardless of our struggle.
I am God’s child (John 1:12).
I am confident that God will perfect the work He has begun in me (Philippians 1:6).
I am hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
I am chosen before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4, 11).
I am adopted as his child (Ephesians 1:5).
I am given God’s glorious grace lavishly and without restriction (Ephesians 1:5,8).
I am in Him (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:30).
I am forgiven (Ephesians 1:8; Colossians 1:14) I am included (Ephesians 1:13).
I am sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13).
I am alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5).
I am raised up with Christ (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:12).
I am God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10).
I am a dwelling for the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).
I am not alone (Hebrews 13:5).
I am His disciple (John 13:15).
I am set free (Romans 8:2; John 8:32).
7. In conclusion, hear this encouragement from Galatians whether your struggle is pornography or other sexual sins, anger, greed, or something else.
Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
If you know someone struggling, counsel them to bring it into the light. Whether we struggle personally or not, we must be ready to walk with those who do bring it into the light. They need safe places to be honest about the temptations they face and the sins they commit, because light heals. The gospel of Christ gives us exactly what we need to minister to those facing such temptations in ways that both tackle the destructive nature of such sin and offer hope that we can be free of it.
by Wendy Alsup