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The Not-So-Secret Fight of Porn

We say this "secret" sin has very public consequences and causes.

The woman on the phone was emphatic: “I want my husband to succeed.” A bright, resilient 30-year-old not yet past her third anniversary, Faith (not her real name) was describing what marriage had already taught her about sexuality, self-sacrifice ... and pornography.

The latter was not something she had expected to deal with.

“I knew he had struggled with pornography in the past,” Faith told me, but she thought this was largely a “result of him not being able to have sex ... of him being single. I had no idea.”

In an age where Christianity Today reports that 40 percent of pastors with Internet access have been to a porn site, and the Associated Press says more and more hotels offer “porn-on-demand” as a standard amenity, Faith’s encounter isn’t as unusual as we might wish.

“I don’t think there’s a human being alive who’s not affected by it,” says author and counselor Dan Allender. “We live in a debauched era, no question.”

But where some might blame the Sexual Revolution for a loosening of morals, Allender faults an increase in availability and accessibility to pornography and the accompanying sense of shamelessness this produces more than any seismic shift in human nature.

Certainly, if one reads the Old Testament, there are accounts that might give even the most brazen TV talk-show host pause. Why, then, does pornography still have the power to surprise?

Naive though it seems in retrospect, Faith’s ignorance of what drives the largely (but by no means exclusive) male use of pornography makes a certain sense in a Christian culture where lust is so much more often vilified than sins like self-righteousness, laziness and gluttony. After all, aren't we constantly told to control sexual desire while we're single? No wonder Paul said that it was “better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9, TNIV).

There have, of course, been other kinds of fire that Christians have faced historically. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician and physicist, is famous in religious circles for what some call his “night of fire”—an encounter with God so vivid, he kept the piece of paper describing it sewed in his jacket until he died.

Hebrews speaks of God as “a consuming fire” (12:29), and David writes in Psalm 63:1, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

Hearing such descriptions today, we might be tempted to say that sexual longing is merely being mistaken for something spiritual. Notice the inversion: Sex is ultimate; God is secondary. Put so baldly, the heresy is obvious.

But when the rising average age of marriage is combined with the Christian’s call to unmarried abstinence, the ache within can seem less a panting for God than for the sort of companion God created for Adam.

In his book Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb blames this on a failure to distinguish crucial from critical and casual longings.

“Nothing can satisfy our crucial longings except the kind of relationship that only God offers,” he writes. By contrast, he defines critical longings as “the legitimate and important desires for quality relationships that add immeasurably to the enjoyment of living.”

“When pleasures of any kind are used to satisfy (or at least to quiet) our crucial longings, then the craving for what only God can provide becomes a demanding tyrant driving us toward whatever relief is available,” Crabb writes.

“There definitely can be this power orientation around sex, that ‘this is about me getting my needs met,’” agrees author and speaker Sally Jane Morgenthaler. “Isn’t that what the Fall is, that we chose ourselves? That self-serving, that narcissism—that is sin. And it’s really graphically portrayed in sexual sin.”

God’s plan for marriage and sex points to the unity intended for His people and originates within the Trinity, she says. “The sexual act is a fusion. It’s a oneness that’s really not achievable except in the early infancy, in the womb. That’s certainly something that we seek with God.”

Because of this, Morgenthaler says, “the sexual act is sold as a pathway to intimacy in that way. But what actually happens in the perversion of it is the escape from intimacy ... when we insert power into it. Then it becomes a way for me to escape being known.”

Allender calls this “flight from the human face,” and he says it’s why pornography usually involves far more than sex. As much as we long for closeness with other people, after all, intimacy cannot happen without vulnerability and a measure of exposure.

Porn, by contrast, “allows for the fantasy or illusion of control without any risk,” Allender says. “Many married men would prefer to masturbate rather than have sex with their spouse” because of all the potential problems and opportunities for failure.

Because of how these fears and insecurities play out in men’s most intimate relationships, Allender finds that “sex is never [only] about sex—[in particular,] pornography is almost never about mere sexuality.”

Rather, he says, “It’s far more about power.” He acknowledges this is a far darker view of human nature than we might prefer. “It’s almost easier to think, ‘My husband struggles with lust’” than face the larger issue that “the problem is that he’s a coward.” But by the same token, it may be much easier for wives to let a husband’s pornography stir up old fears about their worth and beauty than face their struggle to base identity solely on God’s approval.

One traditional response to pornography has been to do whatever possible to dampen wayward and excess desire—guard one’s speech, dress modestly and so on. However, these measures don’t do much to combat the larger, darker sin behind pornography. So what does it mean to succeed in the fight against pornography if some of the biggest struggles are not lust but insecurity and cowardice? Allender says one key is to “deal with what the real issues are.”

“You can’t confess something until you name it,” he says. “When truth is engaged, the heart is set free.”

That is why, in the end, there may be more to gain than we expect from not just talking about how pornography hurts us, but also letting God use it to deal with our own sin. Are there ways the we manipulate the person looking at porn or enable them in cowardice? How might this stem from expecting them to satisfy not just critical but crucial longings? And to the people looking at porn: are we hiding our cowardice and fear behind a veneer that it's "just about lust"?

Not easy questions to answer, but as Keller explains, the Christian hope is realizing “we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared to hope.” Thus, one of the major ways for men and women to help each other succeed may be pointing to the supreme and perfect success of Jesus on our behalf.

As the author of Hebrews put it: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:11–14).

So ultimately, what should we do? “Give grace,” Faith says. “If you want him to really succeed ... give him the grace.” As in most areas of sin we encounter, there can never be too much grace. We recognize and confront our sin—and then remember that Jesus forgives us.

Anna Broadway is a writer and editor who works in San Francisco and is the author of Sexless in the City (Doubleday/Broadway, 2008). This article originally appeared in Radiant.

43 Comments

85,162

YTR commented…

"Many married men would prefer to masturbate rather than have sex with their spouse because of all the potential problems and opportunities for failure"

Ha! So not true.. what kind of guy would say no to sex so he can be alone and masturbate? Um.. not any guy i know!

85,162

Eric X commented…

No It was about power for me Im still battling thank God I have a great wife

85,162

Jonny commented…

The glamorization of sex is the problem. Sex in real life can be embarrassing, painful, dirty and quite frankly the same as sh**ing and pi**ing, just another function of biology. Unfortunately you can't tell this to teenage boys, who's first introduction to sex happens on the internet with cosmetically enhanced porn stars and their fake boobs. Sex is way too overrated.

85,162

scottie commented…

I don't struggle with pornography, but it's prevalence certainly contributes to my struggle with masturbation. Knowing that guys look at those seemingly perfect women fuels such an insecurity in women that I've longed to be filled. I struggled for a long time wondering how God was supposed to fulfill that type of desire in my heart. I'm not all-knowing, but after talking to some come friends and reading, here are my thoughts: God cannot come down and physically fulfill those needs, but God can romance me. That "hole" does not necessarily need to be filled with my specific desires, it can be filled with things beyond what I dreamed. All desires- sexual, greed, etc- are all the same in their longing for more; my perception of "more" is way off from what "more" actually is...if we knew how to be entirely fulfilled, we wouldn't need a savior. And thank goodness the savior I do have is the one who made me and knows me better than anyone else...keep your eyes out, God's romancing you constantly.

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