Featuring Eric L. Johnson, Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care at Southern Seminary
AJWS: In your experience, what factors are involved in a young man’s ongoing pornography addiction? What drives him back to it time and time again — despite negative consequences (getting caught, spiritual lifelessness, relational separation, chronic guilt, etc.)?
EJ: We are born in sin and all of us are inclined to live for ourselves. That is the nature of original sin. How that ends up getting manifested distinguishes people. Original sin is expressed through our bodies and through our personalities. It gets organized in our brains and in our personalities based on biology and our social experiences.
The fact of the matter is that men are more likely to engage in pornography use than women, and that’s partly because of the way men are wired biologically. That is not an excuse. We are embodied creatures; our sin is embodied — Paul’s use of the word flesh is profound on this matter. So, because of the release of testosterone in teenage years and early adulthood, that’s actually the time when the drive is the strongest for sexual activity — and of course that’s great when you’re married and you’re going to have kids, but it creates problems when marriage is delayed into the late 20s, as it often is in our day. It becomes an incredible burden.
Now, every exposure to pornography binds the brain and the mind and the imagination to a particular cycle that is powerful — one of the most powerful kinds of cycles that humans have. When you do that repeatedly, it locks it into a kind of sequence that makes it extremely difficult to break out. It becomes an addiction. Again, there is no excuse here — we are responsible before God for the state of our brains as young adults. That’s a part of our responsibility before God. But it also creates a level of urgency that we not continue the cycle. Every time a person goes back to the internet and re-engages that cycle, it debilitates them that much more.
Part of the recovery process is to do everything we can to help people prevent another cycle. Pluck out the eye, cut off the hand, throw out the computer. Make it impossible for you to have access. Do whatever you need to do.
AJWS: When you counsel a man struggling with pornography, what does a map toward recovery look like? What process do you lead him through?
EJ: We want to help people develop the optimal amount of contrition, and contrition is a painful emotion. Most conscientious Christians, after they have engaged in pornography use, are going to feel bad. We want to encourage them to learn how to do that in a Christ-centered way, and that means taking it seriously, but it also means not jumping into Doubting Castle and getting beat up by Giant Despair every day. That actually crushes the Christian spirit and it aids Satan in tormenting the believer, saying, “You see, you’re outside the pale. You’re irredeemable. You can’t be a Christian.”
I define pornography addiction as regular, ongoing use. It’s not good to engage in any pornography use at all, but when addressing the problem, we need to distinguish a one-time fall from somebody who is engaging in that behavior every week.
When dealing with someone who is addicted, we have to help them break the cycle. That is pivotal. Because if a person is in despair, they don’t feel like they can even go to Jesus for healing. We have to break the cycle, because when you’re in that despair mindset, you can’t do the redemptive steps that are necessary to get clean. You feel dirty, you feel unworthy, you feel distant from Jesus, and so there has to be some break there. So as soon as possible, we want to get people to go before the Lord through a sequence of cleansing. That is a process of going before the Lord and engaging in confession — a conscious and verbal acknowledgment that I have sinned.
There should also ideally be a certain amount of contrition, and that means staying in that state for several minutes before the Lord and doing what the Puritans called “loading the conscience,” or allowing their sin to weigh on them.
The next step is repentance, and repentance is making a conscious break from the behavior. It is saying: “I have done it, and I disavow that — I do not wish to do it ever again and Lord Jesus, help that to be true of me.” Finally, with a Christ-centered model of repentance, we want to help them — before they leave the presence of Lord — to “hear” him say, “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.” Then, they experience the washing and cleansing of forgiveness so that they can stand before the Lord, not in the basement of Doubting Castle, but knowing that they are forgiven. It’s a miracle every time it happens, but it is a recognition that the Lord has forgiven them and they are making a break with that behavior pattern. The idea long-term is to help them internalize that redemptive process of death and resurrection into the new creation again and again and again to build hope, no matter how many times they fall.
He doesn’t give up on his children and he never will. We need to keep going back to him over and over, and that process ends up changing our sense of our identity. The reason why all this is important is because, in Doubting Castle, the addict is actually more likely to go back to pornography. They don’t feel consolation with the Lord, so they are going to try and find a sick kind of consolation in their sin. This is so important: We have to help them find true consolation in Christ’s forgiveness and love and abiding with the Lord in that state.
AJWS: What is the most important thing a person needs to know, do, or experience in order to overcome a longstanding porn habit?
EJ: I think there are two things. The first is contrition before the Lord. There has to be an acknowledgment of my sin before God, handled in a way that doesn’t crush the believer in a sense of failure and hopelessness. Second, I have to know that Jesus will take back the prodigal every time.
I think both those things have to be held in tension. We might say that it’s the balance of law and grace together. The challenge is that the person who ends up beating himself up is overwhelmed by law and has lost sight of grace; the person who is too casual about it doesn’t allow himself to take the time to hear the Lord say, “It’s not okay.” You can become too law-centered and you can become too grace-centered, in a strange way. It’s always both, and I like to think about it temporally: The Christian life is an ongoing movement from death to resurrection. My job as a counselor is to help people learn how to practice that death-resurrection cycle every time they sin.