Pursue God, not pornography
If you’ve got areas in your life that you are intentionally keeping in the dark, you’ve not only got to confess your sin, but you’ve got to attach yourself to people who can help keep you accountable.
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.
Time Magazine published a cover story in March 2016 titled “Porn and the Threat to Virility.” I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this is one of the saddest, most horrific articles that I have ever read. But it’s not sad and horrific in the sense of war or violent crime. It’s sad and horrific because it narrates the kind of slow-motion suicide that our culture is committing against itself.
The article is about pornography use among young men. At the heart of the article is the backlash against internet pornography use among young men who have been heavy users throughout their adolescence and young adulthood. The author, Belinda Luscombe, writes:
A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic — more prone to permanent change — than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning.
The rest of Luscombe’s article recounts what these young men have been consuming for the last decade and what the results have been in their adult relationships with real women. Many of them are simply unable to experience a response with a real woman. They are only able to respond to pornography. In fact, they prefer it.
I was stunned by this article for a couple of reasons. First, our civilization has not even begun to understand what this crisis means. This is not a story about adolescent hijinks going a little too far. This is the story of broken men who have had their minds rewired to love darkness. And to understand this, you’ve got to wrap your mind around the scope of this thing: Pornography has been a pervasive part of these young men’s lives for the better part of a decade.
In 2007, broadband internet access reached over 50 percent of American households. In 2013, smartphone ownership exceeded 50 percent of the population in our country. What that means is at some point around 2007, more Americans than not had access to moving pornography. And by 2013, more Americans had access to this content at any time and any place through their smartphones.
The average young man first encounters this material when he’s 11-13 years old, which means many kids are younger than that. That means countless young men have spent the better part of the last decade with access to pornographic videos. For many of them, everything they have learned about sexuality has come from pornography. Their preferences have been shaped by this.
This is a civilizational calamity because pornography use eviscerates manhood. It doesn’t teach men virtue and honor. It mires them in passivity and morose private self-indulgence. It teaches them to view women at a distance and as objects to be used and discarded. It renders them completely unprepared for marriage and for fatherhood. If you don’t have marriage and fatherhood, you don’t have a civilization anymore. All you have is ruins.
This is an unfolding crisis for us. Pastors will tell you that none of the other issues they deal with —alcoholism, drug use, marital problems—comes close to the number of professing Christians that they talk to who are in the throes of this particular sin. This ubiquitous evil in our culture has become a ubiquitous evil in our pews. We should have no delusions about that. And that means that we have this thing among us threatening holiness, witness, marriages, fatherhood, childrearing, and every other precious gift that the Lord has given to us.
This is potentially an existential problem for us because porn use undermines holiness, and the Bible says that without holiness, no one will see the Lord. And none of us is going to be the exception to that.
In 2 Timothy 2, Paul warns the congregation against false teachers. But right in the middle of it, he issues this command to Timothy: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).
You cannot pursue God and pursue pornography. You can pursue one or you can pursue the other, but you cannot pursue both. This text is telling us how to pursue the narrow way that leads to life. There are at least three imperatives implied by what Paul writes in this verse: He’s telling us to (1) flee lust, (2) pursue the fruit of the spirit, and (3) embrace Christian fellowship.
Flee youthful desires
The first thing is to flee youthful lusts. Before we can figure out what Paul is commanding Timothy, and us, to do in these texts, we have to figure out what he’s telling us to flee from. The word that’s translated as “passions” is the Greek word epithumia. It’s a term that simply means “desire.” It refers to the human experience of longing or craving for something, the longing or the craving in our hearts that motivates us to make the decisions that we make.
In Romans 7, Paul gives a chapter-long meditation on what he thinks about desire, or epithumia. What he says there should inform what we think Paul is saying in 2 Timothy 2:22. He says in Romans 7, “I would not have known about desire except that the law was saying ‘you shall not desire.’”
Paul says everything he knows about desire, he learned from the law, particularly from the 10th commandment, which you hear translated often as, “You shall not covet.” The Greek translation of the 10th commandment uses the same term for desire that Paul uses. In fact, Paul is getting this term from the 10th commandment.
Like Paul, if we want to understand “flee youthful desires,” we have to understand the 10th commandment, which says this: “You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, you shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17).
When Paul singled out the 10th commandment in Romans 7, he did so because it may very well be the hardest of all commandments. Commandments two through nine address our deeds; the 10th commandment addresses our desires. Why? Because our desires aren’t neutral. They always have an object. And if you desire something that’s sinful—sexual or otherwise—your desire itself is sinful. That means that even if you never actually committed adultery with another woman, for example, the 10th commandment says that if you had desires commensurate with those deeds, you have already sinned. That means that the desires that we must flee from are any desires for something that God has forbidden us from. It’s certainly not limited to illicit sexual desire, but it does include illicit sexual desire.
Why does Paul use the term “youthful”? These desires are youthful in the sense that they are undisciplined. In other words, maturity and experience usually have a moderating effect on the way we experience our desires. The younger you are, and the less experienced you are, the less self-control you bring to your desires.
Viewing pornography is the opposite of fleeing youthful lusts; it is the embracing of youthful lusts. And every walk down that path is an open rebellion against God’s Word in the 10th commandment. It is a surrender to indwelling sin, the very sin that God calls you to repent of.
Practically, this means that you have to flee from the situations that provoke sin in you. This means that you do not do the things, hang out with the people, or go to the places that you know are going to arouse these kinds of desires in your heart. It might mean not owning a television, or not having cable or internet access at your house. It might mean owning a flip phone instead of a smartphone. Cut off your hand—do not be a fool about this. Lose your smartphone. Save your soul.
Pursue the fruit of the Spirit
Paul contends that being a Christian is not just about being against something. It’s about being for something. In this case, we are being called to shun evil desire and instead to pursue its opposite—righteousness, faith, love, and peace. Three of those four virtues are actually listed as fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such there is no law.” So when Paul commands Timothy, and us, to pursue righteousness, faith, and peace, he’s commanding us to pursue what the Spirit is already doing in us. He’s not calling you to do this alone. This is what the Spirit of God is already working inside of you to do.
Your active pursuit of these things is not at odds with grace. It is the evidence of grace in your life. Your active striving against sin is not legalism. It is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is having his way with you. The absence of that striving is the evidence of the absence of the Spirit. You can’t just stop doing the bad things. You have to start pursuing the good things, because you aren’t pursuing abstractions—you’re pursuing God. And when you pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, that’s evidence that you’re pursuing God.
If you’re trying to flee pornography, and your efforts consist merely in stopping one thing without the active pursuit of righteousness, you’re going to falter. You’re going to focus on what you think you’re missing instead of engaging your heart and your mind in something that is much better than what you’re giving up. The fight for holiness is a fight for joy, for what Thomas Chalmers famously called the “expulsive power of a new affection.” It’s leaving an inferior thing to pursue a better and more satisfying thing.
In practical terms, that means that you don’t just sit on your couch staring at your computer, wondering how long you can hold out. It means you get up and get to work. You pursue righteousness. You do the things that make for good character. You work hard. Proverbs says, “It is by his deeds that a lad distinguishes himself if his conduct is pure and right.” Don’t leave yourself one minute to waste on pursuit of youthful lusts. Pursue love. Pursue faith. Read your Bible. Pray heaven down into your life and into your relationships and into your work. Listen to the Word preached. Pursue the means of grace that God has given you that sustain faith and confidence in King Jesus.
If you give yourself to those things, you will learn self- control and love and goodness and a thousand other beautiful things that God wants to do in your life. Flee youthful lusts to pursue the fruit of the spirit.
Embrace Christian fellowship
That last phrase, “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart,” is not a throw-away phrase. That last phrase is telling you how to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. It’s telling you that you must not do it alone. Pursue these things with a group of other people who are also pursuing these things. That’s the church.
Flee youthful lusts, and pursue the fruit of the Spirit, and embrace the fellowship that leads to sanctification. I want to leave you with just a handful of practical things that you can do to flesh this out.
Confess your sin
“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another,” James says. Your secret sin is an open scandal in heaven, and what you’re hiding now is not really hidden. Confess this to God, but also find a trusted friend you can confess to.
If you’ve got areas in your life that you are intentionally keeping in the dark, you’ve not only got to confess your sin, but you’ve got to attach yourself to people who can help keep you accountable. And those people can’t be people who are mired in the same problem you are. They have to be people who have proven faithfulness in this area and can actually pull you forward in constructive ways. And I would add that you should pursue this accountability with somebody in your church. Your accountability ought to be under the purview of the discipline and order of your church.
Cut off your hand and gouge out your eye
Be willing to take extraordinary measures to beat this. There is nothing that you can lay down the Lord won’t replace with more joy. If you lay down your smartphone, then do it.
Realize what’s at stake
Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and few are those who find it.” If you’re looking at pornography, you are walking down the broad road. You’re not walking down the narrow path that leads to life. So everything is at stake in this. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.” You can serve God, or you can serve an idol. You cannot serve both.
Define struggle in terms of victory, not defeat
I hear a lot of guys talk about this as a struggle. What they mean by struggle is they try hard not to look at this material, then they fall, they try hard again, then they fall again, they try some more, then they fall some more. And so, for them, struggle means entrenched patterns of defeat. That’s not biblical struggle.
Biblical struggle is not embracing patterns of defeat but embracing patterns of faithfulness. Test yourself on this. If your struggle is just patterns of defeat with no progress, you’re not doing biblical struggle. So don’t call it that. You need to take even more extraordinary measures to see progress if that’s where you are.
The grace of the Lord Jesus is sufficient for this. Flee youthful lusts. God has enabled you to do this. The Holy Spirit of God is working in you to do this, if you know him.
Denny Burk is a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville.