The following is a summary of John Freeman’s session, “Learning to Walk in the Desert: Helping Those Struggling with Sexual Addictions Understand & Grow in Grace.” John is executive director of Harvest USA, a ministry reaching out to those whose lives are affected by sexual sin. John is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Westminster Theological Seminary and an adjunct faculty at Philadelphia Biblical University.
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Sexual/pornography addiction is on the rise in the church. Counselors are constantly saying that people are coming into their practices with well-developed addictions, many of them only 25 years old. It previously took 40 years for such a well-developed addiction, but with the advent of the Internet, sexual addictions are growing at alarmingly accelerated rates.
The uniqueness of porn addiction
Moreover, sexual addictions tend to have a unique qualities compared to other addictions. With sexual addiction there tends to be the development of a secret life. People trapped in this addiction learn how to hide well. Often the sigma attached to sexually compulsive behavior brings with it a fear of a loss of job or ministry position.
A sexual addict tends to experience more shame about who they are, and that shame drives them further into lonely isolation.
Moreover, the tell-tail signs of sexual addiction are not obvious to others on the surface (there’s no smell of alcohol on the breath or days of work missed due to hangovers).
What happens when God calls a man or woman out of their sexual addiction? What does this process look like? When a person really wants to change, what challenges will they face?
God calls sexual addicts into the “desert”
There are several kinds of “deserts” we may find ourselves in. Some desert experiences are of our own making. The sexual addict knows this desert well—it is the bitter pain of addiction’s consequences. Some deserts are places where God leads us to bring us into an experience of deeper intimacy (see Hosea 2:14). Then there are the deserts we choose to enter, usually after a crisis, because we know something needs to change.
The desert exposes our false goals and reveals new, real goals
When the sexual addict goes to the desert they are choosing to leave an old life of addiction and allow God to “undress the heart.” The desert for the sexual addict is that season in their life where they can sit with their confused and hurting hearts and cry out to God for answers, no matter how long it takes.
At first when they enter this desert they may have a host of goals they want to accomplish. “I want to stop looking at porn.” “I want to stop going to massage parlors and strip clubs.” “I want to stop engaging in cyber-sex.” “Once I get rid of _______ in my life, then everything will be okay.” These are actually goals that fall short of where God wants to take us. Yes, behaviors matter to God, but His chief project is our hearts.
God uses the desert experience to be a “light bulb” that exposes these false goals and reveals the depths of our addiction. The purpose of the desert is to lead people to true repentance . . . not merely using Jesus as a Christian version of a self-improvement program. Real repentance takes time. In the desert we learn not just to divorce ourselves from the addictive patterns in our lives, but we embrace new affections, new relationships with God and others.
The desert is not merely a place of “recovery” but “discovery.” Recovery is a great thing, but often recovery groups merely become “monitoring holding tanks,” places where our sin is managed, not overcome. The goal of the recovery group is just getting back to the people we used to be before the addiction came into our lives. In contrast, the discovery group is the place where at new life driven by the love of God is discovered and explored.
Walking through the desert takes time, patience, and will strip us of all self-reliance. The desert is not a quick fix, but a season where dependence on the Holy Spirit is learned.
The church—God’s people—is where grace is discovered
One of the Harvest USA group members called up the director, John Freeman, one day. He said to John that he had just tried, in bitter frustration, drove his car 100mph towards a bridge in order to kill himself. He had just come from a group session where they were continuing their discussion about the roots of pornography addiction. Obviously, he hadn’t hurt himself too badly, and was calling John to confess his anger and frustration.
Here are his words:
“My pornography isn’t even the real issue. It’s simply become my fist in God’s face for all the ways I’ve suffered, been dealt unfair blows, and is my response to how He’s not come through for me.”
These are honest words from someone who is in the desert, someone who is realizing the root of his problem, his anger towards God. These were lessons learned in the context of community, a group of believers who are walking with him in the desert.
This is what the church is called to do. Because there are literally millions of people sitting in our pews and attending our worship services who are struggling with porn addiction, we need to be a church with a continual rescue mission to the addict.
We are called, as God’s agents of grace, to be unshockable realists who climb down into the pit where the addict lives and show him/her the mercy of God.