In the internet age, vast numbers of believers are exposed and addicted to sexually explicit material, and the church has traditionally been silent on how they can find real freedom and healing.
Spencer B. Olmstead and his colleagues conducted a survey of young college students, asking them what they thought about pornography.
Nearly half of the women and over 70 percent of men said that they would probably watch porn with their partner in a future romantic relationship. Many felt that watching sexually explicit material would help them “spice up” bedroom activities.
Another study by Brigham Young University attempts to argue that porn-use helps adolescents transition into adulthood, and some therapists even recommend that couples watch porn together to increase intimacy.
Addiction Changes Even the Best of Brains
Hopefully surprising no one, an increasing number of studies are finding that pornography damages the viewing individuals and their relationships.
Paul Maxwell, philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute, cogently gives this particular addiction’s grim diagnosis: “Pornography soothes its users into a drama, a character, a story with a script and lines and actions: one person for pleasing, one person for being pleased; one person making sacrifices, another receiving sacrifices; one subhuman, one god.
“Pornography is a training session in the skill of using others for personal pleasure.”
The scientific answer why porn is so addictive falls into the category of “supernormal stimulus.” Namely, it invokes a much larger chemical response in the brain than any normal stimulus would produce. In her study of the phenomenon, Deirdre Barrett found that supernormal stimuli numbed the brain to normal impulses and made an individual far less responsive to anything other than the supernormal.
A fMRI study at the Max Planck Institute noticed that the more porn individuals consumed, the smaller their brain striatum—the reward center—became, while another study by the University of Cambridge found porn addicts’ brain scans closely resembled substance abusers’ response to their drug of choice.
Not only that, but a subreddit called NoFap was formed and is now growing exponentially for young men and women who are trying to shake their porn habit, in large part because many of them now struggle with sexual impotence.
Doctors have laughed them out of the exam room, saying there’s no way early 20-year olds should be dealing with this problem.
However, biology professor and TED talk speaker Gary Wilson has accumulated a wide spread of studies on his website Your Brain On Porn which confirm that the addiction is very capable of creating sexual dysfunctions and neurological disorders. All of this is more or less confirmed in Amanda Maddox's study that people who didn’t partake in porn at all were twice as likely to stay faithful to their partner and reported less negative communication alongside higher levels of sexual satisfaction.
So God might’ve known what he was talking about when he unequivocally stated that lust is a sin and commanded monogamy within marriage.
Feeling Hopelessly Trapped
As much as we might intellectually agree that pornography builds unhealthy perceptions of other people and damages relationships, none of that takes away from the addictive power of supernormal stimuli.
Brett Butcher described the terrible draw of this particular addiction as he experienced it at the beginning of his recovery journey, “I took a year away from ministry to focus on restoration. It was a great year, but it didn’t help with my addiction. I attended counseling, but it didn’t help with my addiction.
“I believed Jesus wanted to transform me, but could not understand why He wouldn’t heal this area. I decided either I was broken beyond repair or that maybe God wasn’t real. I was in despair, completely hopeless.
“I had tried everything and stopped believing I could be free.”
Addressing the failure of many programs to help Christians escape pornography addiction, Paul Maxwell explains, “It is often in the moment after the closed door, the darkness, the screen-light, the hidden act — after pornography indulgence — that Satan spins his most eloquent web: menacing patterns of thinking; bargaining with a disapproving and distant God; twisting us in on ourselves in self-hatred. It is in the moment after pornography indulgence that Satan does his finest work.”
Feeling stricken by our conscience isn’t a bad thing; it’s what should lead us to repentance, but often we want to punish ourselves for falling again, for taking part in a degradation of human dignity, for betraying what should be a right and healthy experience within marriage.
“I think most people never get free because they're only dealing with pornography or masturbation or lust,” Gary Wilkerson muses in his podcast on the topic.
“‘I've got to stop lusting.’ ‘I've got to stop masturbating.’ ‘I've got to stop looking at pornography.’—They're not dealing with what's underneath. They go to church, and they might hear a whole series about sexual sin or whatever, and it's almost always saying, ‘Don't do this.’ ‘Let's have covenant with our eyes.’ ‘Let's have an accountability partner.’
“Those can be good if used the right way, but most of the time they're looking at the surface issue.”
If these superficial cures won’t work, then, how do we get to the root of the issue?
Traveling the Road to Freedom
Brett Butcher points out the hard truth of recovering from a pornography addiction: “Everyone seems to want a book, and there are some good books. But you can’t read or pray your way out of this. You were likely wounded in a relationship and that’s where you’ll find healing.”
In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkins discusses what held him back from finally breaking free of a decades long pornography addiction.
“I was willing to trust Christ, but I was not ready to trust the body of Christ. What I did not yet understand was that while Jesus does offer a personal relationship to every one of his disciples, he never promises any of us a private one. I cannot live victoriously on my own. That’s why I need a Helper and brothers. I cannot keep my promises to God—the very act of making them is delusional—but God will keep his promises to me.”
Larkins stresses the importance of friendship and ongoing accountability relationships to maintain healthy living and sexual relationships. Sin and temptation will remain as long as we’re alive. “No matter how far down the road I get, the ditch is only a few feet away.”
Alongside a faithful accountability community, Gary Wilkerson adds that looking beyond the surface issue is vital. “For me, my freedom came when I realized, ‘I'm not going to break free from pornography. What is it that I'm going to break free from?’
“I looked underneath the surface, and I realized there's loneliness there….
“As I started dealing with those issues, I realized that God created me as someone who is significant. He created me as someone who's sufficient, who's lovable, who belongs.”
Combating these lies is a long-term endeavor.
Most importantly, a relapse doesn’t mean anyone struggling with this addiction should give up the fight. It’s a battle worth winning, and God is on our side.