EDITOR’S NOTE: Heath Lambert, associate professor of biblical counseling at Boyce College and executive director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors, discusses his new book, Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace, with Towers book review editor, Matt Damico.
MD: Why did you to write this book now?
HL: I wrote the book now because, although there are a lot of books available on pornography — and a lot of books available on pornography by Christians — I thought that all of the books were lacking in at least three areas.
First, most books tend to be about pornography, with a lot statistics about how many people are involved and how many billions of dollars are made. It’s amazing to me how many books are filled up with statistics that don’t actually help anyone. I wanted to move past those statistics — I don’t mention any in the book — just to provide help to people.
Second, the books that do move toward help often are full of really bad language. Those books often end up fueling lust and temptation rather than taming it. So I wanted to write a book that was pure — a book that talked about sex and lust and porn in a frank way, but not in a way that caused people to lust.
Third, I wanted to provide a book that was truly helpful and motivated by the gospel. A lot of the books that are out there, if they talk about the gospel, aren’t very practical. So I wanted to write a book that was practical, but had all those strategies founded on the gospel of grace.
Your book has an optimistic tone that’s unique among similar books. Why is that?
HL: So many books focus on the filthy and disgusting nature of the problem of pornography — and pornography is a filthy and disgusting problem — but I didn’t want to write a book about pornography. I wanted my book to be about the gospel of grace that sets people free. So everything from the cover of the book to the content of the book is meant to be a positive, hope-filled, gospel-saturated presentation of the kind of change that’s possible for those who are hoping and trusting in Jesus.
What’s the danger involved in viewing pornography?
HL: The danger is great. But we need to remember that this is not the only time that men have been at risk for sexual immorality. The kind of lust and the kind of adultery that’s at stake when men ogle the bodies of women has always been a threat, it’s just a unique temptation in this day and age. A sociologist named Al Cooper described online pornography as the crack cocaine version of pornography because it’s so accessible, so affordable and because the viewers can remain anonymous.
There was a time when, if you wanted to look at porn or commit adultery, you had to do it in a way that could get you in trouble – whether it was buying a magazine over the counter from someone who thought you were a creeper, or committing adultery with a woman who could tell on you. That’s not the way it is with Internet pornography. Internet pornography kills us softly and quietly. The women that you fornicate with on the screen are as silent as the grave. And a lot of times you don’t find out that someone you love has a problem until they are lost in the abyss.
What’s at risk when people think they can maintain a life of Christian discipleship while continuing to view pornography?
HL: I’m actually really encouraged when people are willing to talk about it and say, “Let me open up my life and tell you what’s going on.”
The people who concern me are the people who aren’t talking to their pastor or anybody else. Those are the people who are destroying their ministry or future ministry and are destroying their marriage and family or future marriage and family. That’s how sin works: it destroys.
The lie of Internet pornography says, “I’ll do this little thing over here, and it’s nasty and ugly, but when it’s done I can cover it up and go back to the rest of my life.” The problem is that sin doesn’t stay covered up. You think you can control it, but you can’t. It will break out and it will ruin your life. The worst consequences are the ones stored up over a long period of time. So the men who are doing this are sipping on poison that will eventually kill their ministry efforts and their marriage and family. They’re destroying their lives and effectiveness for Christ and they don’t even understand it.
For those seeking to overcome pornography, what practical measures are commonly missing from their strategy?
HL: The most important reality is that you must have a method for change that’s founded on the gospel of grace. Legalism doesn’t work, moralism doesn’t work, guilt trips don’t work.
We must motivate men to change by the gospel of grace. We can and should change because of who Jesus is what he has done for us. It’s very practical to believe that. It’s not just a confessional statement of orthodoxy. You can’t change in the way Jesus wants you to change if you try to do it without his grace.
Another significant thing is that men think they can change on their own, without help. They feel bad about it and pray for help, but they try keep it covered up because they don’t want their mom or their church to find out. But you can’t change that way; sin thrives in the darkness and the only way to defeat it is by exposing it to the light.
A third way people fail is when they try to bring people in, but it’s the wrong people. They don’t tell people who are wise enough to help them. The purpose of the book is to try to explain how to bring in the gospel of grace, how to bring in others and what to tell others in a way that is most conducive to lasting change.
How can people identify whether their sorrow over sin is godly sorrow or worldly sorrow?
HL: That’s where so much of the action is, because you can have two people sobbing and begging for help, but you don’t know if they’re serious about it. That’s why Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 7 is so helpful, because he makes a distinction between these two kinds of sorrow: godly sorrow that leads to life and peace, and worldly sorrow that leads to death and despair.
The fundamental difference is whether the sorrow is about you and your kingdom or about Jesus and his kingdom. If you’re sad because you were found out or because of the consequences, that’s a sorrow that will kill you. If you’re sad over your sin because God’s law has been broken and you’ve grieved the Holy Spirit, that indicates that you’re moving from yourself and your own lusts toward God and his kingdom.
The markers for distinguishing between the two include asking if you have the willingness to reach out to others and to bring the darkness into light, and if you’re willing to accept the consequences – for your wife to be upset, for your parents to take away Internet privileges or for you to lose your job at your church because of immorality. People who are willing to face the consequences are people who are demonstrating that their sorrow is the godly kind that leads to life.
In the process of “putting off” the old man and “putting on” the new, what are some of the thoughts, actions and attitudes that people struggling with pornography should seek to put on?
HL: One is gratitude. Men who look at porn are greedy for things they don’t have. A lot of times, wives, girlfriends or fiancés think that if they looked differently then their husband, boyfriend or fiancé would be attracted to them instead of looking at porn. But that’s not true. Men don’t look at porn because there’s anything wrong with what they’ve got. Men look at porn because they have something that they want but don’t get. That’s the logic of lust: I’m greedy for the things I don’t have. Gratitude is the antidote to greed. Gratitude says, “Whatever the Lord has given me is what I’ll be thankful for.” So as men grow and cultivate the fruit of gratitude, they grow in defeating the problem of pornography.
Another is humility. The only people who look at pornography are arrogant people. James tells us that selfish ambition leads to every vile practice. So, if viewing pornography is a vile practice, then viewing it stems from a heart that is selfish. It’s arrogance; it’s a prideful attitude of the heart. And one of the main virtues we can use to fight that is the fruit of humility.
How are pastors particularly vulnerable to pornography, and what are the dangers?
HL: There’s a recent statistic that says 75 percent of pastors do nothing to make themselves accountable to anyone in regard to pornography. That’s terrible. I think that, in this pornographic age, it’s reckless and irresponsible for a minister of the gospel to take no measures to insulate themselves from pornography. The reality is that pornography is looking for you. The porn industry is investing millions of dollars in marketing to attract people who aren’t currently looking at it. And pastors who are really concerned to protect themselves, their families and their flock from this silent killer need to be serious about putting some kind of accountability measures in their life, whether it’s an accoutablity partner to be honest with and pray with, Internet filters and protection for phone and devices. Those are things that anybody can do, but it’s particularly important for pastors.
Ultimately, what hope do people have to overcome their struggle with pornography?
HL: That is the question. So many people feel stuck in their problem. And they really are stuck. So I always tell people, “Yes, you’re stuck right now. But it doesn’t have to be that way, because Jesus came to set you free from sin.”
Romans 6 says our old self was crucified so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. So, when you’re in Christ, porn is not your master. Jesus Christ is. You are free in Christ – you have power in Christ – to walk with Jesus, to cultivate the virtues of the Spirit, so that you can change. Nobody’s going to be looking at porn in heaven, and the good news of the gospel is that you don’t have to wait until heaven to be free from pornography. You have the Spirit right now who gives life to your mortal body so that you can walk in victory. In perfection? No. In victory? Yes.