It’s 1:45 on Tuesday afternoon and I’m logging onto the Internet to check my e-mail, read a newspaper article, and begin doing research for Sunday’s sermon. Well, that’s what I’m trying to convince myself anyway. Since my secretary leaves at 2 p.m. and I will be alone in the building, deep down, I know exactly what I’m doing. Yes, I will check my e-mail and I will probably read an article or two, but as soon as I hear the door close behind her, I will do what I have done more times than I care to count. I’ll type “sex” or “porn” or something worse in the search engine and spend the next three or four hours in the pigpen of my bondage.
I will enter a trance that will often lead me to neglect important projects, ignore phone calls, forget appointments and lose track of time. Finally, I will look at the clock and panic because I know my wife was expecting me home 15 minutes earlier, and I am just now starting my cleanup ritual of trashing files, clearing the history and doing what I can to put myself back together so I can seem okay when I walk in the front door. In my shame, I’ll drive home using every minute to create a believable excuse for why I am late. I’ll also try to put a good face on even though I know pornography makes real connection impossible. Usually, I’ll fail miserably and we will end up in a fight within the first 30 minutes.
On Wednesday, I’ll go to the office with a new commitment to not answer the siren calls of the porn sites. I’ll start the morning in prayer, confessing my sin and begging God to give me a fresh start. I’ll return the phone calls I ignored on Tuesday and work diligently on my mid-week lesson. I’ll do fine all morning, but when my secretary leaves, the battle will rage again. Most Wednesdays I’ll win, but still feel the shame of Tuesday as I stand before my evening Bible class teaching the holy Word of God.
Thursdays were almost always a nightmare. In fact, as my addiction escalated, I sometimes looked at porn with the secretary and even others in the building. Sure, I all but panicked whenever someone knocked on my door or (even worse) just walked in. However, I always had a legitimate window to click to in the background and my laptop screen pointed away from the door so no one ever caught me.
Friday was repentance day. I can’t tell you how many Friday mornings began with tearful prayers, begging for God’s mercy and promising this was my new beginning. Once my repentance ritual was done, I would scramble to write a sermon, having done little to no prior preparation. It became so bad that sometimes on Friday afternoons, after I had a rough outline sketched out, I would give in to the siren call once again.
Sunday mornings I would arrive at the building early so I could once again beg God for a fresh start and finish my sermon. Standing in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, I could hear the Accuser of the brethren screaming at me. “Who are you to proclaim God’s holy Word?” and “What would they think if they knew what you did during the week?” One Sunday was especially painful. Throughout the worship service Satan pounded me with the club I handed him through my sin. It was so bad that during the song before communion I seriously contemplated not partaking. “I’m not worthy” and other messages pounded in my brain. Imagine what it would look like if the preacher in the second row refused the elements?
I almost did just that. However, just before the usher handed me the bread, I heard the words from a story I had written a few years earlier about a young man who felt unworthy to partake. “It is your willingness to admit your unworthiness that makes you worthy.” In spite of my mess, in spite of my sin, I knew my gracious heavenly Father was speaking to me through my own words, so I ate the bread, drank the wine and felt renewed once again. However, I continued to struggle with whether or not I was worthy to preach, but then I heard the same phrase once again, “It is your willingness to admit your unworthiness that makes you worthy.” So I preached, and strangely enough, sensed God speaking through me.
Unfortunately, even that experience of God’s grace didn’t set me free from the bondage of my addiction. Week after week, I repeated the cycle. Oh, there were some weeks where I was “victorious,” but I am certain they were even less frequent than I now remember. In fact, I’m guessing many of my “victorious weeks” were really just times when I didn’t act out as much.
I also played my role as pastor. I preached, did weddings, funerals, prayed with the sick, received confessions, led elders’ meetings, and did all the things a good pastor should. I looked the part, and my family appeared on the outside to be perfectly fine. However, there was a secret hiding beneath the veneer. I was the whitewashed tomb. I was the Pharisee. I was Saul telling Samuel, “But I did obey the Lord,” even after Samuel asked him, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle?” (1 Samuel 15).
The signs were all around me just like the animals and the plunder Saul was supposed to have destroyed. My computer constantly had issues, as porn sites are notorious for bugs, viruses, etc. My marriage, while looking good on the outside, was in shambles. In my shame, I hid from my wife for so long that she had chosen to try to make life work without me. My young daughter was already starting to do the same. My ministry suffered. Very few people sought my counsel. There were other signs as well.
The cycle got so bad I seriously contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. I felt hopelessly trapped. I tried everything to get out. I tried Scripture memorization, praying more, fasting, Internet filters, and even eliminating the Web browser from my computer. I tried everything, except the most important thing: I was terrified to tell anyone what was really going on inside of me. After all, while people confessed their sins to me, to whom could I confess? My confession could cost me my position, my income, and even my family. My confession could have a tidal wave effect in my congregation. Surely God wouldn’t want that kind of devastation for a problem that I thought only impacted me?
I remember one of my pigpen days when I almost told a ministry friend. I had just started downloading porn when my phone rang. (Thankfully, my struggle was in the days of dialup so at least it took longer.) He responded to my “Hello” with “What in the world are you up to?” I came within a whisper of responding, “I’m looking for porn on the Internet.” Looking back, I wish I would have been courageous enough to have been honest that day because it was at least a year later before I hit bottom hard enough to begin telling others my story.
Thankfully, in February of 2000, I finally broke. I finally began telling some other men and my wife where I was. I began seeking help. I began reading books specifically on sexual addiction and admitted to myself, my wife and to others that I had a problem. As I moved into the light, I began to discover the power of confession and the inherent weakness of living a life of duplicity.
For the first time in my life, I understood I didn’t have to be a “double-minded” man. For the first time in my life, I began to understand why James 5:16 says that when we confess our sins to one another God brings healing into our life. I learned that “walking in the light” (1 John 1:9) doesn’t mean getting it right, it means getting it in the light and being honest with myself, with God and with others. In fact, it’s interesting that the word the NIV translates as “confess” literally means “to agree with.” It means we agree with God that our sin is repulsive and needs to be removed.
In my old life of addiction, a significant part of me didn’t want to agree with God or others. I wanted to believe I could maintain this duality: I could be a man of God, preaching His holy Word and still indulge my fleshly lusts. Honestly, baring my soul with brothers in Christ who would lock arms with me in the heat of the battle began the process that has enabled me to live the past 10 years completely free from pornography and masturbation.
I can’t begin to describe the way this has transformed my ministry. My sermons now speak of God’s grace and deliverance from personal experience rather than theoretical theology. Individuals and couples now seek my counsel so much that I have to be careful to not spend all my time and energy as a counselor and neglect other responsibilities. When I am with people, I am really with them. Whether it is a leadership meeting, a counseling session, or even praying with someone before a surgery, I am no longer hiding behind a wall of shame. While people may not be able to put their finger on what has changed, they experience me very differently, and the power and the impact are significant.
Even more important is the way my recovery has transformed my marriage and my life as a father. Ten years ago, my wife and I, while still physically together were emotionally divorced. Her contempt for me was so close to the surface she was barely able to hide its biting edge. I resented her for a myriad of things that were not her fault. We constantly fought, bickered, and avoided each other. By the grace of God, however, we are now in a very different place. She is now my best friend, and we genuinely enjoy being together even if it is simply a quiet evening at home.
Recovery has also transformed my relationship with my children. I can vividly remember sitting in another room like a zombie while my 2-year-old daughter cried in her crib and honestly the only thought in my head was, “When is she going to shut up?” I can remember watching my wife play with her in the backyard and feeling a cringe of pain because I didn’t know how to enjoy just being on the grass, playing with my child. My son was born two-and-a-half years into my recovery and I remember having a sense of God telling me, “You are now ready to be the father of a son.” I have since learned to enjoy simply being with my children. I can now meet them where they are, and I can’t tell you the joys I have found being with them in the simple things of life.
Don’t get me wrong. I still struggle at times. God is still at work healing the damage done to my heart that made me vulnerable to pornography in the first place. He is also at work continuing to heal the damage I did to myself and to my family through my sin. At times my kids still annoy me more than they should, and I sometimes still resent my wife for things that aren’t her fault. However, the difference between now and then is night and day.
If you are reading this and can identify with the struggle, but not the victory, please find the help you need. Whether your struggle is as frequent and intense as mine or even if it is much less or even more, you must know, no one gets out in isolation. You must also know that left unchecked, it will take you to even darker places than I have described. I’ve worked with numerous pastors who have gone from pornography to prostitution, one-night stands, affairs with church members, homosexual encounters, and even sexually violating children. Don’t assume you will never cross any of those lines. After all, think of how many lines you have already obliterated that at one point in your life you said you would never cross.
Your recovery is more important than your position or your ministry. Ironically, your recovery might even be the very thing that opens your church or your ministry to the deep work God really wants to do. Call someone. Call me. Don’t allow another day go by with your struggle growing in the darkness. God’s grace is even more amazing than you have preached it to be, but the only way you will know its beauty is to embrace it by facing your struggle head on and with the help of others who will walk with you.
Our role as pastor, minister, or whatever title we wear is worn only by grace. God brought this point home to me five years ago. In a communion meditation, I had told my story about God reminding me of my own words, “It is your willingness to confess your unworthiness that makes you worthy.” I told it because I knew of two individuals attending who were struggling with a tremendous sense of shame. I wanted them to know they could partake of the elements. Then, as I was getting ready to step into the pulpit to preach, I sensed God asking me, “Now that you have been porn free for five years, are you any more worthy to proclaim my holy Word then when you were before I set you free?” I chuckled, and answered, “Of course not, Lord, but by your grace, I will stand before your people as a forgiven saint and trust you to give me the words of grace you want your children to hear.”
We will never (outside of the redemptive work of Christ) be worthy of our calling. However, when we find the freedom He has for us from the compulsive sin in our lives, we will find ourselves speaking, teaching, living and breathing from a radically different place. I pray you find the freedom He has shown me.