How do pastors fight pornography?
Don’t think that because you are a pastor you’re beyond using the common means that porn strugglers typically use.
Editors’ note: This article was adapted from the new eBook from Southern Equip and The Gospel Coalition, Porn and the Pastor: The Life and Death Consequences of Addiction in Ministry, edited by Jeff Robinson and Garrett Kell. The book is available for free download.
You’re a pastor and you have a porn problem. You know something has to be done about your sin. Our goal for this chapter is to answer, “How do you (as a pastor) fight this sin?” I hope to pull you out of the ditch and give you a hopeful direction.
Porn struggles are addictions—something harmful that you habitually return to because of your lack of self-control. Let Scripture speak into this. Terms like desires run amok or voluntary slavery help to make sense of your struggle. You’ve voluntarily chosen this sin, and have done it so often that your desires for porn rule your heart and mess up your life.
One principle will undergird everything—as a sinner, you need God’s grace, just like every member of your church. The lie is you’re a super-Christian so you don’t need help. As a pastor, someone who teaches God’s Word to God’s people, you are marked by a greater maturity than the rest (Titus 1:5-9). But depravity corrupts you, just like every believer in your church (Rom. 3:11-12). Pride, selfishness, anger, self-pity, self-righteousness, idolatry—like a drop of poison in the King’s cup, these sins seep into your heart, and dull the effectiveness of your ministry. Grace—God’s undeserved favor—is something you teach, but also something you need. God’s grace triumphs over sin, and you need God’s help to get rid of your porn problem.
Building a solid firewall
Picture a hospital scene, where a man rushes in, screaming, “I’m bleeding! Help me! I’m going to die!” Now imagine me as the triage nurse, looking him directly in the eyes, saying, “Calm down and tell me about your struggles. Why are you so scared?” That would be ridiculous, right? A proper response to acute bleeding is to stop the bleeding and put all the other issues aside temporarily. So it is with porn struggles—we’ll address heart issues, accountability, faith, and other things later. First things first—we’ve got to stop the tide of pornography from seeping into your heart and mind by building a solid, impenetrable firewall. The goal is to let nothing in.
Don’t think that because you are a pastor you’re beyond using the common means that porn strugglers typically use. Pastors who overestimate themselves, and underestimate their sin, get themselves in trouble. Rather, you need to be defined by “sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3) about your sin. See sin for what it is, even in your life—self-deceiving, dumbing down your spiritual senses, fooling you into thinking you can handle this on your own.
The goal is to cut off access to pornography. Be brutal about halting access. A passive approach won’t work. The devil is too smart. He’ll take advantage of your weaknesses. Jesus insists that you need a radical approach to your sin.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt. 5:28-30)
Jesus’ metaphors are very active and violent—tear out your eye; cut off your hand. He’s not passive when it comes to sin. How aggressive are you when it comes to fighting your sin? Have you grown so comfortable with it, that you tolerate it too much? Have you lost that edginess that’s needed to fight your porn problem?
Picture your sinful flesh as a dragon, a hungry beast who is never satisfied with just a little. Your goal is to starve the beast. Literally, put it to death (Gal. 5:24) and make no provision for it (Rom. 13:14).
Be wise about building a firewall. If you are struggling with porn, you’ve shown that you shouldn’t trust yourself. A good rule of thumb—protect yourself from yourself. Be willing to sacrifice your freedom for the sake of your holiness. Any freedom you allow yourself on this issue will be taken advantage of by the devil and your flesh. Build your firewall as if you don’t trust your sinful nature to do you good, but, as expected, your sin will wreak havoc in your life.
Do you have basic internet filter programs on your computer, like Covenant Eyes? If not, what is getting in the way of your doing so? Pride? Over-confidence? Shame? Have you made a habit of guarding your eyes? Do you look away when you see something, or do you linger? Danger zones are typical times and places where you stumble. Are you rearranging your life such that it is harder to access porn in those danger zones? For example, if you access porn while alone in your office, shift the screen on your desk so it is visible at all times. What about your phone? Have you set up the restrictions on your phone so you can’t access dangerous content? If not, why not? Do you proactively make plans when you are vulnerable? Or are you letting your struggle get the upper hand? If you fall, do you have a plan for what to do next?
Repentance, faith and forgiveness
When you stumble, do you feel bad about the sin (guilty feelings), and then return to it like a dog returning to its vomit (Prov. 26:11)? Or do you experience a godly sorrow for what you’ve done? If you are grieved over this sin, that’s a good sign. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (1 Cor. 7:9-11).
Ask yourself, have you genuinely renounced this sin? Or are you going through the motions—confession, scrambling to make changes—but are not really grieved over the sin? Repentance is turning your back on sin. But it’s more than that. It’s a change of heart that leads to a change of life. Does your life evidence repentance? It’s not just in what you do (like taking practical steps to build a firewall), but also your heart attitude (grief over this sin).
What should be most intimidating is the thought that your sin of pornography consumption is an offense against a holy, righteous, morally pure God (Ps. 51:4). Does that thought scare you? Does that grieve you?
The absence of sin is not the same thing as faith. We don’t trust in a system of redemption, but a personal Savior. I know you know this. I know you preach this.
But it is possible to preach truth each week, and not let it affect your heart. Do you feel distant from Christ? Does your faith feel hollow? If this describes you, you’re in a spiritually dangerous position. Turn to Christ right now, and pledge to fight every temptation that cuts off your heart from the truth of Jesus.
No matter how far gone you are in your sin, don’t ever forget that even for you, there is forgiveness in Christ. Pornography is not the unforgiveable sin, even for the pastor. “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (Rev. 1:5).
Your internal life
Consider a few more battlefronts with your heart and mind. First, there are lies and self-justifications that perpetuate your sin.
- “I can control it.”
- “I’ll do it just one more time.”
- “Pornography hurts no one but me.”
- “I need this. I’m burning and can’t bear it anymore. Something has to give.”
- “If my life were better, I wouldn’t be tempted to do this.”
- “I’m stressed out, and I need some relief.”
- “God will forgive, so it doesn’t matter.”
Do you recognize any of these lies? What are the lies you tell yourself? The devil wants you to buy into self-justifications and lies because they perpetuate your sin. Repent of the lies. Put them to death. Don’t believe their sparkly promises. Put your hope in the promises of God (Exod. 14:14; Isa. 40:10, 29; 54:10, 17; Ps. 18:3; 46:1-2; Matt. 6:31-33; John 3:16, 36; Eph. 3:16-19; Phil. 4:6-7).
Second, as pictures and images get imbedded in the hard-drive of your mind and heart, they become a playground for your sinful flesh. Your corrupt imagination can take those images, and turn them into a full movie-reel. You arouse yourself and indulge yourself as you do so. As we’ll talk about more in a moment, accountability shouldn’t be limited to your external behavior, but should reach into your mind and heart. Does your accountability partner ask you about your fantasy life?
Third, ongoing struggles with porn can lead to battles with doubt. Sometimes the building up of guilt and shame over the course of this struggle can make you condemn yourself (“What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I get my act together?”) and second guess God (“Is God going to help me?” “Have I messed up so badly that God doesn’t care?”). Pastors struggle with doubt. Don’t be ashamed to admit this fact, because it’s true. As you struggle with porn, the evidence of your sin stacks up and you wonder, “Maybe I’m not saved after all,” or “Maybe God has abandoned me,” or some other dreadful thought. Unbelief takes root.
Fight the unbelief. Don’t bottle this up. Tell others about your porn struggles, and the doubt that follows. If you are confident in what Christ has done for you on the cross, and his imputed righteousness for you, don’t let doubt get the upper hand. Lean in on the truth that you are justified in Christ.
Fourth, we know that there are desires and motives that drive what we do. As heart-oriented creatures (Prov. 20:5; Matt. 12:33-37; Luke 6:43-45), we want to know the deep purposes of our hearts. Do you act out because of stress? Are you longing to be affirmed? Are you struggling with the boredom of a pietistic life and want more adventure? Are you longing for more intimacy and creating false paradises? Are you using porn as a means of escape? The reasons are never simple, and often as you map out the topography of your sin, you see that porn struggles are not just about lust. What drives you to act out?
The war of your desires sits behind everything—every deed, thought, feeling and action. The flesh’s desires are battling the Spirit’s desires. As you kill off your carnal desires, you retrain your desires for more holy things. Is your greatest affection for Christ, or are you running on spiritual fumes? Training takes time. Every step of obedience, every moment of joy in the Lord, every lie put to death, every promise of God owned, every tinge of affection that grows for Christ—each of these trains your heart, and moves you in a holier direction. You probably preach this truth to your members, but now you get to live by it.
Relationships and accountability
The pastorate is very isolating. The pressure of appearing godly, and expectations placed upon you, make it hard to figure out where to get help. Don’t believe the lie that you can go at this alone. Don’t let the fear of revealing your sin get the upper hand. No sin should ever be fought in isolation. If you agree with me, then the question is who do you tell?
If it is possible to share with someone within your church, I think that’s best. As a shepherd, you have wounds, hurts and struggles. Let fellow leaders or church members take the responsibility given to them in Scripture to take care of you. Is there another pastor in the church who you can tell about your struggles? If not, is there a mature Christian man in the church to whom you can confess? Ask them to hold you accountable, but take it upon yourself to be proactive in going to them with your sin. Don’t let the overwhelming burdens of the pastorate be an excuse for you to not deal with your sin.
If you can’t tell someone in your church, find a professional counselor in your community, who has experience helping porn strugglers, and who can walk with you through these struggles.
Your wife should also know about your struggles. The first ditch you can fall into is not to tell her anything because you are ashamed, and you don’t want to hurt her. Or, you could err by tell her everything. In a cathartic effort to cleanse your conscience, you tell all without regard to what it does to her soul. Think of your wife’s weaknesses, not just physically (cf. 1 Peter 1:7), but also emotionally. If she stands as your primary accountability, the emotional toll of your confessions over time will degrade the trust in your marriage. Maybe not initially, but with time, I’ve always seen it get to this place. That’s why I think your main accountability should be another man, whom your wife can access directly when she has questions or concerns. Let another guy bear the brunt of your struggles, not your wife.
She should know if you are struggling, but only in general terms. Think in terms of a dirty laundry bag—she needs to know the size and shape of the problem, but not the details of what’s in the bag.
What then is her role? To be an ally with you against your sin. She prays for you. She stays aware of the sin in general terms. She helps you porn-proof your life and home with a substantial firewall on all devices in the home. She enjoys a rich sex-life with you. She helps you to find joy in Christ and in life. You get to do all of this together.
As you share with her, realize that the feeling for her is one of betrayal. That’s the most common word I hear wives use. Porn degrades the trust in marriage. So show your wife you’ll fight this sin and work to rebuild trust.
Fight the war, not just one battle
It might seem a bit much to do all of this, but any military strategist knows you can’t win a war by fighting on just one front. You tactically plan for a multi-front war—a robust firewall, repentance and faith, forgiveness, good accountability with men, rebuilding trust with your wife, and putting to death lies, doubts and fantasies.
The blessing of being an undershepherd is that there is a Chief Shepherd. He’s ultimately in charge, not you. Your soul, just like the souls of everyone else, is in his hands. As you fight this war, remember that God has not forgotten you. He’s by your side.
Deepak Reju is the pastor of biblical counseling and family ministry at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He’s married to Sarah and has five children. He’s authored She’s Got the Wrong Guy (2017) and Pornography: Fighting for Freedom (2018).