Human beings—especially men—have always struggled with lust, in the sexual sense of the word. Job was the holiest of the ancients, yet even he had to make “a covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1). The apostle John warned against “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes” (1 John 2:16). In the third century, the theologian Origen was so distressed by his sexual sin that he crushed his testicles between two bricks. Or consider America’s greatest theologian—Jonathan Edwards—who lamented the prevalence of gross sexual immorality in (of all places) Puritan New England. Like any other sin, the lust of the eyes has always been with us.
What is new, however, is the unprecedented access we have to sexual images. There are pornographic magazines and videos. There are adult bookstores and strip clubs. There are pornographic programs on cable television and perhaps most alarmingly of all, there are thousands of ways to access pornography over the Internet. A recent study by psychologists at Stanford and Duquesne Universities reports that some 20 million Americans visit sexual websites each month, of whom perhaps 200,000 are compulsively addicted to cybersex [Associated Press, 3/1/00]. How many of them, do you suppose, are members of a Bible-teaching church?
Using pornography is a sin, of course, which is why people view it in secret, and why they feel ashamed when they do. And just because it is a hidden sin, its destructive power is immense. Lust is never satisfied; it always craves more and more. Thus pornography is always uncontrollable. What at first is only idle curiosity soon becomes a compulsive addiction, and may ultimately lead to more vulgar sins such as prostitution. Along the way, pornography kills joy and inhibits intimacy. Often it hinders a single person from finding a life partner. Frequently it rips a marriage from seam to seam. Always it disturbs a man’s communion with God, robbing his confidence in the power of the gospel to bring spiritual change. It may even destroy his very soul.
Incidentally, the masturbation that often accompanies the viewing of pornographic images is also a sin. I mention this because people sometimes claim that masturbation is not forbidden in the Bible. It is true that masturbation is never explicitly mentioned. Neither is pornography, for that matter, or many other specific kinds of sexual sin. Instead, the Bible is content to address sexual sin in general terms, outlawing any sexual activity outside the union of husband and wife. Remember Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity… because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). Sex is for sharing. But by turning sexual gratification back upon the self, masturbation is perhaps the most intense form of self-worship imaginable.
Christians who are in bondage to sexual sin often hope to find a “quick fix” for their addiction. There are no quick fixes. If there were, you probably would have discovered one by now. The reason you haven’t is because sexual sin goes down to the very deepest levels of the sinful nature.
Even if there are no quick fixes, however, there are some things you can do. The first is to admit that you are in desperate need of spiritual help. Confess your sexual addiction, not only to God, who alone can forgive your sins, but also to a mature Christian. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). In your fight against lust, you will need some allies. Do not be deceived: You will not be able to conquer this problem on your own, in isolation from other Christians. More than almost any other kind of sin, sexual immorality thrives on secrecy. But as soon as the secret is out, sexual sin starts to loosen its hold on both the body and the soul. “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13). Make a commitment to talk with a Christian brother as soon as possible.
The second thing to do is forcibly to limit your access to pornographic images. If you are hoarding any lewd magazines or pictures, go home and throw them away. If you have been watching pornographic movies, get rid of your cable package or stop driving by the adult bookstore. Cancel your credit cards; terminate your Internet account; stay out of the gay bar; ask the hotel to remove your television—do whatever it takes to radically reduce your temptation to sin.
By itself, however, getting rid of pornographic images is not enough. The real problem is not on your computer screen, it is in your heart, which is why trying to “just say no” never works. If it were simply a matter of physical pleasure, sexual sin could be conquered through self-discipline, the exertion of moral effort. But sex is always a spiritual matter, and gaining victory over sexual sin requires a deep and gracious work of God’s Spirit.
Understand that giving in to pornography and lust reflects an inability to give and to receive love. It is an attempt to escape from a world that seems unresponsive to our desire for acceptance and significance. The escape is only an illusion; the relief is only temporary, and it always leads to even deeper disappointment and despair. Dr. Harry Schaumburg writes: “Sexual addiction is the by-product of intense unmet needs, coupled with the demand for fulfillment and control of relational pain independently of God… . Sexual addiction isn’t just an issue of sex or even external behavior: it’s a by-product of loneliness, pain, the self-centered demand to be loved and accepted regardless of the consequences, and a loss of vital relationship with God” (False Intimacy, 23).
The fact that sexual sin is about something more than just sex has a number of significant implications. It means that conquering sexual addiction will require the fresh application of repentance and forgiveness to the deepest wounds in your heart. It also means that there are many other sins that need to be dealt with—sins like arrogance, bitterness, and self-deception—before you can make significant progress towards holiness. In some cases, it also means coming to terms with the ways that you have been sinned against, especially if you have suffered sexual abuse.
Help is available, not only from your pastors and elders, but also through Harvest USA, a ministry of truth and love to those who wish to be free from pornography and other sexual struggles (215-342-7114). The ultimate antidote to lust is love—real love—the kind of selfless love that Christ demonstrated on the cross. And love is one thing that God has in unlimited supply. He has the love to forgive your darkest sins, the love to satisfy your deepest desires, and the love to replace your lust with joy. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures… . But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:3-4).
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org