Hot Bods, the Bible, and the Brain: Understanding Porn Addiction

We cannot grow spiritually if we ignore our humanness, just as we cannot become fully human if we ignore our spirituality.” – Jean Vanier

Porn can bury its hooks into nearly anyone, even Christians. Nearly every day, I speak with someone whose life has been hijacked by porn, most of them churchgoers.

A lot of the world has caught on to the problem. “Porn addiction” has become a common way to describe what millions are experiencing, even though the phrase is rife with ambiguities. In fact, recent studies are now confirming what sex addiction therapists have been saying for decades: porn actually damages the brain.

Now that neuroscience is entering the discussion about porn, how should a Christian integrate this information into their understanding about God, the Bible, and humanity?

Addiction vs. Moral Responsibility

More often than not, when Christians respond negatively to recent developments in neuroscience, the fear is that by dissecting the organ of all our feelings, thoughts, and decisions, we will somehow lose our belief in moral responsibility. If I come to believe that porn has warped my brain, I can eventually say, “I’m not responsible for this problem. My brain made me do it.”

The field of neuroscience is actually bringing a much older conversation to the foreground, a conversation that has been present in addiction recovery circles for the better part of 80 years: Is addiction a disease?

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was among the first who likened alcoholism to a disease. He didn’t actually believe alcoholism was a disease, but that it was like a disease. It was a pragmatic description: he felt the disease metaphor helped men and women open up about their problems. Once you were in the doors of many AA meetings, however, it was clear that while the problem could be described as a sickness, moral responsibility was never lost. The men and women at AA still felt the moral weight of their decisions.

Christian counselor Ed Welch points out that the Bible itself uses the disease metaphor when talking about sin. Citing passages like Isaiah 1:5-7 and 53:6, he states that Scripture emphasizes that sin has many things in common with a disease. Like a disease, sin affects our entire being, it is painful, it leads to death, and it is absolutely tragic (Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, 61).

However, the Bible never loses sight of moral responsibility. Alcoholism and porn addiction are a lot like diseases—they feel as if we have been taken over by a virus, making us spiral out of control—but it is a voluntary slavery. Dr. Welch calls this the dual nature of sin:

“This enlarged perspective indicates that in sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox, to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits.” (Addictions, p.34)

Just like the Bible, as Christians we can and should speak of slavery to porn as a sickness, but a sickness we have chosen. Disease is a good metaphor for sin, but it is not the only metaphor.

Porn Reveals the Idols of Our Hearts

Sin is not merely disease, it is depravity.

The Bible reveals that sin springs not from our physical bodies but from our hearts, from the core of who we are (Mark 7:21-23). Sin is fundamentally not just a lapse in judgment or a dysfunction. Sin is a movement away from God.

Christian counselor David Powlison rightly points out that in the Bible, idolatry is the most frequently discussed problem. Idolatry not only receives the spotlight in the Bible, it forms the core of our sinful habits. The Bible does not relegate idolatry to the creation of statues; it internalizes the problem. Idols are something taken into the heart (Ezekiel 14:3). Instead of loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, and might, as sinners other things receive our trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear, and delight. We choose to give these desires primacy, and then these desires end up ruling us.

Sin is, as it were, a “worship disorder.”

As sinners, it is the idols of the heart that so often drive a preoccupation with porn. In his book, Closing the Window, Tim Chester describes six core motivations that commonly fuel porn addiction:

1. Respect – When our craving for respect becomes an idol, porn offers us a fantasy world where we are worshipped and adored.

2. Relationship – When our craving for intimacy becomes an idol, porn offers the illusion of relationship without the risks of rejection or vulnerability.

3. Refuge – When life gets tough and our craving for escape becomes an idol, porn gives us a fantasy world where we are never a failure, where there are no expectations.

4. Reward – When our desire for reward becomes a sinful sense of entitlement, porn gives us a fantasy world where our underappreciated egos can “get what we deserve.”

5. Revenge – When our anger at life or God or our spouse gets out of control, porn can become our tantrum at a world that isn’t catering to our desires.

6. Redemption – When self-pity becomes a consuming desire, porn offers us a fantasy where we can feel “normal”—or even a place where we can punish ourselves.

These are core desires of the heart that must be addressed if someone desires to break free from the grip of pornography.

Brain Damage: Porn Sins Against the Body

Sin, at its root, is idolatry in the heart. But just because desires in the heart are at the root of pornography doesn’t mean there aren’t physical consequences. Disease is not just a metaphor for sin. In a very real sense, porn actually makes our brains sick.

In 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul writes, “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” There is a sense in which sexual sin is unique in the damage it does to the body. Perhaps modern neuroscience is unearthing a significant way in which sexual sin hurts us.

In his book, The Porn Circuit, Sam Black explains how porn impacts the human brain. A cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters are released while watching porn. This gives the brain an unnatural high as surge after surge of dopamine is released. Eventually the brain fatigues, leaving the viewer wanting more but unable to reach a level of satisfaction. As a result, the viewer starts to become numb to everyday pleasures. He or she begins to seek out novel, more intense porn to get the same high. Repeatedly watching porn also weakens the cingulate cortex, the region of the brain responsible for moral and ethical decision making. It weakens our ability to control sexual thoughts on a day-to-day level.

This neurologically describes what the Bible says about how sin permeates the body and mind:

  • Paul writes that slavery to sin does not just stem from the heart, but it is something that finds a beachhead in the very members of our physical bodies. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:21-23, italics added).
  • James writes, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (James 4:1, NKJV, italics added).
  • Paul says when we give ourselves up to sensuality, it results in “darkened” understanding, “ignorance,” and “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18-19).

We now can see on an MRI what the Bible has led us to expect all along—that sin in our members includes, to an extent, our brains.

Why Talk About the Brain At All?

What advantages are there to bringing brain science into the discussion about porn addiction?

1. Confirming the Bible

God’s Spirit and revelation are completely sufficient to change someone’s life. The Bible affirms this again and again. It is the law of the Lord that revives the soul and enlightens the eyes (Psalm 19:7-8). It is the God-breathed Scriptures that train us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is by believing in God’s precious promises that we become more like Him (2 Peter 1:4).

For many Christians—from veterans in the faith to lukewarm churchgoers—information about how porn impacts the brain is a wake-up call, alerting them to principles the Scriptures have always said, but now they can see those principles etched on the very fabric of their neurons.

  • The Bible has always taught us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), and now we can literally “map” how our thoughts change the way we see the world.
  • The Bible has always taught that sexual sin has physiological consequences (1 Corinthians 6:18), and now we can see some of those consequences under an brain scanner.
  • The Bible has always taught us to trump the desires of the flesh with the longings of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17), and now we can see the way new, healthy neurological pathways are the key to overcoming old habits.

Neurology is like the new archaeology of the soul. Just as a new archaeological find in the Holy Land can buttress our faith and call attention to passages long forgotten, so scientific studies of the human brain can be used by God to awaken us to believe in truths God wrote centuries ago.

2. Understanding Detox

Internet pornography is a modern phenomenon that has no parallel in history. As a result, slavery to it is not only more common, but the slavery tends to have a deeper neurological impact.

Understanding that porn is physiologically addictive can prepare those who are quitting porn to brace themselves for the pain of breaking the cycle. Christian counselor Brad Hambrick states,

“I think it is very helpful for us to understand that there are strong physiological things that go on in the arousal cycle—that when we begin to pull away from sex we should not have been apart of, that we are going to go through something that feels like withdrawal…We are going to have to physically and morally detox, and detox is a very painful, unpleasant experience.”

The experienced Christian counselor knows that when a man or woman is in drug detox, they don’t just need a Bible study. They need to take radical steps to distance themselves from the source of the addiction. They need special care from loving individuals. Quitting porn, likewise, will require a program of detox, taking radical action especially in the early stages.

Withdrawal from porn will not merely be an obedience issue. It will be a brain issue.

3. Fighting Dualism

For centuries the church has had to fight a dualistic view of the human person. What often comes with dualism is a false belief that matter (the body) is a necessary evil and that the spirit (or soul or heart) is what really matters.

In today’s psychology-conscious church, dualism shows up in how we isolate our problems as either “medical” or “spiritual.” Anything below the neck is a medical problem and requires a physician. Anything above the neck is a spiritual problem and requires you to suck it up, repent, and trust Jesus more.

Neuroscience is reminding us to see ourselves as the Bible does: a whole person. Ed Welch writes that human life cannot be imagined without both the inner and outer person, and the brain is the place where we more clearly see the interplay of mind and body.

“At the level of the brain, this unity suggests that the heart or spirit will always be represented or expressed in the brain’s chemical activity. When we choose good or evil, such decisions will be accompanied by changes in brain activity…This does not mean the brain causes these decisions. It simply means that the brain renders the desires of the heart in a physical medium. It is as if the heart always leaves footprints on the brain.” (Blame It On the Brain?, p.47-48)

None of our problems are either totally physical or totally spiritual. One nearly always spills over into the other. Fighting dualism ensures that the church will always be champions of the best that medicine has to offer while always keeping the heart central.

4. Present Your Brain to God

The principles Paul gives in Romans 6 for the transformation of our character are of vital importance to a porn addict (or any Christian for that matter):

  • Principle #1: Remember and believe that, in His death and resurrection, Christ has died to sin. He is no longer lives in this sinful realm (Romans 6:10).
  • Principle #2: Remember and believe that by the Spirit, we are united to the One who is dead to sin: Christ is in us. We no longer belong to this sinful age. We belong to the sinless age to come (Romans 6:8).
  • Principle #3: Reckon or consider yourself dead to sin (Romans 6:11). You are not dying to sin (a process). You are not commanded to die to sin (an imperative). You are indeed dead to it. United to Christ, your whole identity has changed. So mediate on this. Chew on this. Reconsider it. Get this idea deep into your soul.
  • Principle #4: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13b). Fighting from our new identity, now Paul tells us to be practical. Present the very members of your physical body to God as His instruments.

This last principle brings up highly practical applications for how we use our eyes, our ears, our mouths, our feet, and our hands. Holiness may start in the heart, but it always works itself out in the day-to-day actions of real life.

As we learn more about the three-pound organ between our ears, we can also begin to think of ways to present our brains to God as well.

For instance, neurologist Dr. William Struthers says that in a study of how porn impacts the brain, researchers paid close attention to areas of the brain that “light up” when viewing pornography. Dr. Struthers says,

“If you take a man or a woman, and you put them into a brain scanner, and you show them these [porn] clips, these areas [of the brain] will light up, and they will light up in a very robust fashion. However, if you take individuals and bring them in and tell them, ‘We are going to show you some video clips; we would like you to try to keep your sexual arousal level low,’ you will actually see decreased activity here in these regions. When you are given instruction or when there are expectations about what you should do when you view [porn], and those are exercised, you can actually dampen down this signal and make it less severe. That’s just by them being told. These are actually heterosexual men and women going into the brain scanner, and all they are told is just try to not get so horny.”

Knowing this has profound implications for a man or woman surrounded by sexual triggers and temptations. Knowing how we are wired allows us to make conscious decisions that impact our reactions to temptation. If a sexually tempting image or thought comes across our path we can “present” our brain to God in a simple prayer:

“God, I know you have wired me to enjoy sex, but I also know that to lustfully indulge in this would be sinful. You have wired my brain to be able to have control over how aroused I get by this. I am not doomed to be a victim of my sex drive. I am dead to sin. Sin no longer defines who I am, so therefore I choose to shut down my arousal response to this and turn my eyes and thoughts elsewhere.”

Fighting Porn with Pure Pleasure

Neurology paints a picture of what freedom from porn looks like. Sam Black writes,

Simply avoiding bad habits leads to failure. Spending time thinking about avoiding porn can bring up the mind’s storehouse of images, videos, and encounters, which can lead to anxiety and tension that begs for release. New and rewarding pathways are needed to avert crashes.

Neurologists agree that the old pathways that exit toward uncomfortable behaviors and acting out won’t go away, but intentionally creating new pathways allows a person to avoid swerving off the edge toward the crash. Over time and after building new and positive habits and ignoring paths to porn use, the cravings for porn and the constant cues for sexual thought will diminish and willpower will return. With practice, patience, and perseverance, freedom from porn can be the new reality. (The Porn Circuit, p.30)

Brain science confirms what the Scriptures have said all along. The only way to kill the desires of the flesh is to walk in the desires of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17)—following new pathways of holy pleasure to trump the old sinful ones. Merely following don’t-touch-don’t-taste rules “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). Rather, change comes as we redirect our minds and passions to things above (Colossians 3:1-2).

And lest we think this means we must constantly walk around in a holy fog and avoid physical pleasures, God calls us to but to embrace whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy—wholesome pleasures become a means to practicing God’s presence (Philippians 4:8).

The world is full of holy pleasures for God’s people. Paul writes, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). Gary Thomas explains this text:

In context, Paul is arguing against hyper-religionists trying to saddle Christians with arbitrary rules and prohibitions. These teachers wanted to enslave believers to the old belief that if a defiled person touches something (food, drink, or even another person), this something becomes defiled. Paul cleverly turns this around, saying if someone is pure, then whatever they touch becomes pure!

I’m arguing that we need to look at pleasure and the good gifts of this earth through the eyes of redemption. When our hearts are cleansed and transformed by God, the very things that used to cause us to stumble can now become friends of faith. Not all things, of course; anything specifically against the will and commands of God, regardless of what kind of pleasure is seems to offer, will always destroy our souls. But the good things of this earth, created by God to be received with thanksgiving and praise—things such as friendship, good food and fine drinks, laughter, sex, and family life—can be redeemed to season our life and faith in many positive ways. God can even give us the power to take what we formerly misused and transform it into an instrument of praise. (Pure Pleasure, p.22-23)

Neurologically speaking, this means as we replace old habits with new habits, new neural pathways are formed. Over time we no longer look to porn as our release valve to entertain our idols, but rather we use healthy pleasures as means of delighting in God as the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Giving Life to Our Mortal Neurons

Neurology is a rapidly advancing science. New discoveries are made every day, and this should excite us as Christians. Just as sure as each discovery of distant galaxies brings more color and vibrancy to the phrase “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a), so each new map of neural pathways adds depth to the to the phrase, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27a).

What makes neurology helpful to so many is that people can see that sanctification does not merely happen in the etherial place of the soul, but in the very concrete building blocks of the brain. The same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus’ body from the grave gives life to our mortal neurons (Romans 8:11).

Will knowledge about brain science make or break everyone’s escape from porn? No. Many men and women have escaped porn’s grip without a lick of neuroscience. But it does offer Christians new handles by which to grasp the solutions.

And in a world rife with porn, we need all the handles we can get on holiness.

Pure Minds Online | Issue 41 | More in this issue: 7 Ways Facebook is Similar to Porn | 4 Reasons the Parents Should Block the Internet at Certain Times of Day