His head was buried in his arms. His shoulders began to shake, and I heard muffled sobbing. Ben* was devastated. Powerless. Crushed.
I had been sitting in Ben’s apartment for an hour. He had called me earlier in the evening, and I had rushed over, not sure what to expect. Although he normally spoke with strength and confidence, the thin and shaky voice on the other end of the line told me that something was wrong. Sure enough, when I greeted him a little while later, his eyes were red from crying. “There’s something I need to talk with you about,” he told me, as we sat down at the kitchen table. I was all ears.
What he told me was painful to hear. After a few months of valiantly defending against an old temptation—Internet pornography—Ben gave into his flesh. His entire high school years were littered with the garbage of sexual promiscuity and hardcore porn. When he got saved in his freshmen year of college, he had a refreshing experience of freedom from all that. But the temptation of the flesh returned, and for three, Ben had secretly harbored his sinful addiction. It was secret, that is, until this summer.
But a half hour of lustful gazing was all it took for everything to change. His roommate happened to see Ben involved viewing the pornography, and the roommate felt compelled to tell the church leaders. Ben had just gained a sought-after paid internship at a high-profile church. He had just graduated with his B.A. in Pastoral Studies from a good school. Now, three weeks into his internship, it was all over. After they heard about it, the leadership explained to Ben that with his current struggle with these temptations, it would be best to postpone the internship until a later time. He lost his position as the Sunday School teacher for a class of 5-6th graders. He would not be able to preach in the upcoming Sunday evening service. He would not be leading a small group Bible study. He was finished.
Perhaps most painful of all was the fact that Ben’s girlfriend did not take the news well. They had been steady for a whole year, and Ben had hoped that Rachel would be the one he married. They had talked about it frequently, but Ben’s telephone conversation with her earlier that evening ended in angry words, a lot of tears, and a request for no more communication. Ever.
I looked at Ben. The whole story was out. His shoulders shaking; tears flowing; heart broken, and I started to weep, too.
Although Ben’s story is painful, it is no more distressing than the thousands of variations on the same theme played out nearly every day. Marriages crumble. Relationships split. Pastors are disqualified. Leaders are crushed. Daddy’s compromise their trust and faithfulness. In most cases, the nasty culprit is the same: sinful sexual addiction. Pornography. The sin, even through it gets started with little glances, lingering looks, and soft-core porn, eventually turns into a consuming monster. It tears apart the soul. It hampers ministry effectiveness. It results in tragic stories like Ben’s, but often worse.
Ben’s story had been told, but it wasn’t over. “Ben,” I asked, hesitatingly. “Do you need some accountability?” Between sobs, Ben blurted out a muffled “yes.”
How to Become Toast
Christian men, and even women who struggle with the sin, don’t like the fact that they are addicted to pornography. Although it gives a temporary tingle of guilty pleasure, it doesn’t satisfy. Nearly everyone who has struggled with it has tried to rid themselves of the pornography cancer. There are all kinds of techniques for eradicating the sin. Some work…for a short time. Some don’t work. Some are just incomplete. By themselves, they result in failure. Here are the common techniques that ultimately don’t bring victory. Here’s how to become toast in your fight against the sin of pornography.
- Trying to increase your self-discipline. Many people resort to grit-your-teeth self discipline. Giving in to a couple minutes of lewd staring is a sign of weakness and lack of self-discipline, right? Obviously, then, the solution is to man-up, clench the jaw until the muscles give off a manly ripple, force your mind to switch tracks, and bam, you’ve fought temptation. Success! All you need to crush any temptation is a bigger dose of discipline. That’s the way ahead. And so, with this delusion, so many people are on a nosedive to consistent failure. Self-discipline is great, but it does not ultimately work.
- Setting up little barriers. Instead, what you need is barriers, right? You need to put little fences in the way of your bad habits. So what do you do? Simple. You tell yourself that you’ll only use the computer when other people are around. Or you’ll tape a little Bible verse above your computer screen–something about thinking pure thoughts, maybe. Or you’ll even unplug the TV when your roommates are out of the house. But barriers are easily kicked out of the way when your lust rages and when temptation strikes. Barriers are fine, but by themselves, you’re getting ready to become toast…again.
- Implementing austere and ascetic habits. In an effort to atone for sin and try to recover, some people try to get hard on themselves. They begin to do crazy things in an effort to feel like they are somehow paying for their sin. They will skip meals, force themselves to wake up earlier, refuse to associate with people of the opposite gender, deny themselves any pleasure, and create a joyless atmosphere of stoicism and asceticism. But trying to pay for one’s sins isn’t just impossible; it’s essentially blasphemous. What’s more, no matter what kind of self-punishing habits you put into your life, that is not what it takes to combat sin successfully. Asceticism as a form of temptation-fighting is a formula for defeat.
- Trying to convince yourself that you’ll never do it again…after one last time. There is the person who swears that they will never again do it after this final time. Just one more peek at the garbage, and it will be over. That’s it. Again, this facile and empty self-assurance doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and never will.
And so the rabid, self-defeating cycle of sinful capitulation continues. All of these efforts have one thing in common. They are rooted in self-reliant pride. They are symptomatic of a do-it-myself Christianity which leaves other people out of the picture. Although it is cliche, the pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps mentality perverts true sanctification. This attitude may even be rooted in the idolized American attitude of independence, strength, and self reliance.
But these attitudes run counter to the gospel, which is total reliance upon Jesus Christ for everything. Jesus believed in the power of a Christ-centered community. His most vital relationships were with twelve followers who traveled with him, ate with him, served with him, and participated in every facet of his ministry. After Jesus’ earthly ministry, God established the New Testament church, which is essentially an organic community of people–serving, interacting, fellowshipping, and edifying one another. Lone ranger Christianity is antithetical to the Bible (Romans 14:7-8). This is false idealism–that idea that a Christian can grow and develop apart from the church and the sharpening influence of other believers.
The Way to Progress: Accountability
All of the temptation-fighting techniques above have one feature in common: they repudiate accountability. The church is a vehicle of accountability. The Bible uses family terminology to describe relationships in the church–brothers, sisters, etc.–giving us insight into the close-knit necessity of church interaction. We attend church not just to hear good preaching or to sing encouraging songs, but rather to fellowship with other believers. Fellowship goes way beyond two Christians drinking coffee and talking about football. Fellowship involves intentional insight and mutual attention to God’s word and character.
We see patterns of interdependence and accountability in the very nature of God-as-Trinity. We also see biblical examples of accountability and discipleship, including Paul with Timothy and Titus. The relationship between Paul and Barnabas was a ministry relationship that most likely included a form of accountability. Accountability is a biblical paradigm that protects, encourages, and aids growth in godliness.
So, to bring ourselves back to fighting the sin of pornography, let’s consider accountability. Accountability is a powerful force in fighting sin. When you are expecting the regular and bold confrontation of a fellow Christian, asking directly about your battle against pornography, it provides a powerful antidote to sin addictions. Here are some guidelines for accountability.
- Seek accountability with someone of the same gender. Although husband/wife accountability teams are good, it is also important to have an accountability partner of the same gender, especially if you are unmarried.
- Seek accountability with someone who is a godly and growing Christian. Looking for accountability with someone who is perhaps, addicted to the same sin, will be frustrating for both of you. Seek someone out who is a more mature Christian, and who will take a proactive role in discipling you (Mt. 28:19). This step will take humility, but that is part of what accountability involves (Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 5:5). God gifts the church with those who can help others grow (Eph 4:11), guiding us toward maturity.
- Be specific. Generic accountability isn’t going to cut it. Questions like, “How is your relationship with God this week?” is fine, but it doesn’t get to the details of the issue you’re concerned about. Specificity puts up barriers to sin: “Did you view pornography this week? When? Where? What can we do to avoid this next time? Accountability isn’t about coercive power tactics, nosey probing, or judging another person (Romans 14:10). It is about two Christians growing in grace and helping one another. It is about encouragement (1 Thess. 5:11).
- Be consistent and regular in accountability. Accountability should be a weekly practice–at least. The consistency and regularity of accountability is one of its most powerful features. Knowing that a time of accountability will come at a certain time gives measurable periods, and anticipation of a coming meeting.
- Be accountable around the Word and prayer. Accountability doesn’t just involve confrontational questions. It should also include meditation on the Bible and prayer together. Praying for one another, studying God’s Word together, and meditating on God’s character will produce growth.
The fight against sin is not exclusively a defensive battle. If we constantly think of ourselves as victims, we will eventually adopt the posture of a victim: cowering. Remember that “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” Power, love, and self-control–God’s gifts for ministry–are ours. A Christian life which is viewed exclusively as a defensive battle is a wearying dead-end. Incorporate active ministry into your life. Seek to help others.
The End of Ben
Ben’s story, thankfully, has a positive ending. He and I began a pattern of accountability that went on for several years. Our consistent, weekly meetings became times that we both looked forward to. We grew. We changed. And Ben began to see victory over sin more and more consistently. By God’s grace, the accountability pattern that we established was used by the Spirit, to end Ben’s sin of addiction to pornography. Today, he is married. He is growing. And he is helping to keep others accountable in their battle against sin.
* Names and details have been changed.
. . . .