Is Porn Your Idol? – Life as an Idol-Maker

The following is an excerpt from John Freeman’s Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex, from New Growth Press.


Derek was twenty-three years old. A friend had referred him to Harvest USA and he launched right into his story with me. He had become a Christian in high school and had been very involved in his church’s youth group. He told me that he had really started to grow in his knowledge of Christ during those years. He had secretly struggled with pornography for some time, however.

He told me that at the same time he was growing in his relationship with Christ, “the images and lies that porn promised me all began to compete with my walk with God.” As he started to follow his desires, he increasingly compromised his own holiness. He began to view Internet porn on a regular basis.

Is Porn Your Idol

“John, it soon became an addiction,” he said, and it had gone downhill ever since. With every passing year, he found himself drowning in his secret sin, crossing boundaries he never thought he would cross. He lived in depression and knew that giving in to these things had taken a devastating toll on his identity and all his relationships.

He often felt sorrowful because of the way his straying had broken fellowship with God and other people. He admitted that he now isolated himself because of where his desires had led him. “John, I rage against all sound judgment, even as I still feel God, from time to time, convicting my heart.” He was sinking deeper now, sometimes several times a day, not just into pornography, but into sexually explicit chat rooms and cyber-sex. It had crossed over from a private thing, involving just him, to involving other people, albeit anonymously.

“God has already taken away the lampstand from my life,” he told me. “I am no longer a credible witness. I am narcissistic, proud, and self-righteous. The times I’ve been faithful to God are becoming more of a distant memory.” And all this had happened by the time he was twenty-three! He went on to say that, deep down inside, he wanted freedom from it all. “I want to regain the essence of who I once was and who I know God wants me to be now. But I see no way out. Help! Please. I know I need God and others. Is there any way out of this pit?”

. . . .

Do you feel the absolute desperation of this young man’s life? Did you hear the frenzied tone of his story, the despair that comes when you exhaust all your human resources? Impersonal statistics may convey the scope and depth of the problems “out there,” but a story like this makes us understand something that those statistics can never convey. It shows us the human picture of what sliding into the gorge and falling over the cliff look like, spiritually and sexually speaking.

Second, this story demonstrates that no one sets out to get addicted to sin. Rather, we get hooked on, addicted to, and oriented toward the things to which we give our hearts on an ongoing basis. We start to become like the things we go to for life, and over time our life becomes chaotic and disordered, and we find ourselves as powerless and dead as the idols we look to. My friend’s story is a step-by-step view into the life of someone who once had a vital, thriving walk with God but who no longer enjoys any kind of walk with him at all. The life he once had is no longer visible. It shows that without living in the gospel, we’re doomed. Can you identify? Maybe that’s where you are right now.

This story shows us that our hearts naturally cling to and worship the things that falsely offer life, the things that promise a taste of euphoria in our otherwise bland existence. Pornography offers a sensual and sensory detonation, which science tells us can—if indulged in frequently and long enough—rewire the brain itself. Little wonder that, for many men, our compulsions or addictions become our illicit playground, the place we escape to, seeking some semblance of emotional “okay-ness.” In that sense, it’s like a drug.

The temptation to look to other things for life came first to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:6). They had to decide if they would follow and obey God or if they would seek the “something else” that seemed to promise life. Now, if our first parents fell into unbelief and sin in an environment that had all the peace, security, and provision God could offer, then how much more vulnerable are we to our fallen and warped passions!

Unfortunately, an increasing number of men and boys in our churches resemble Derek, but at even earlier ages. Several months ago I walked into our offices and saw one of our staff, David White, staring off into space at his desk. I asked, “What’s up?” He told me that in just a few weeks’ time, several parents had brought their middle-school sons into the office, all either deeply hooked on porn or newly proclaiming their “coming out” as gay. Not only was Dave sad that this was their reality so early in life, but he was also impacted by the sober reality that these kids were headed down the road of a lifelong sexual idolatry struggle—unless God intervened in big ways.

Idol-Makers

In our ministry, we’ve seen over and over again that unless God intervenes in the lives of strugglers and unless they allow Christ into their despair, there will be another devastating consequence in their lives. A second persona will come to characterize their hearts as men with years of soul-neglect regarding their sexual struggles. They will live life as idol-makers.

We build, turn to, and bow to counterfeit idols so easily. The Bible views it as the natural character of the fallen heart. Theologian John Calvin once said, “We may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” This is all too true when it comes to sexual sins, especially the use of pornography. I once did a study of what the Bible says about idol worship, particularly the role of “household” idols. One of the surprising things I found was just how much the Bible talks about idolatry—especially in the lives of believers! Even as believers, we are so naturally attracted to idols that in 1 John 5:21, the apostle John admonishes us by saying, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” While the issue of idolatry is found all over the New Testament, especially in the Epistles, it is spoken of frequently in the Old Testament as well. A study of the kings of Israel reveals that the kings were either tearing down idols or erecting them constantly—sometimes both, if their hearts strayed from God. Sometimes kings started off as good guys but then their hearts ”went south” and they turned to idol worship.

With household idols, there was often a more personal, intimate thing going on. In the Old Testament, people sometimes kept small idols of the local deities from other nations in their home just in case the Lord didn’t show up! They were a kind of second-tier insurance policy—or so people thought—merchandise that could bless or save them in a crisis. Today, we all too often do the same thing. We hold on to personal idols that, more than likely, aren’t a small statue in our house but rather are whatever our hearts turn to or cling to instead of God to bring a sense of well-being to our souls.

What are our household idols today? Well, they can be many things, but they are often sexual in nature. A household idol can be anything we turn to that makes us feel alive in some sense. If we are honest, we have to admit that a counterfeit thing can offer temporary comfort and distraction. Our version of household idols is often our “Plan B” for when God doesn’t show up, seems far away or unavailable, or just doesn’t seem to be coming through for us. They can be the things we turn to when life is confusing, scary, difficult, or overwhelming—because the payoff is pretty immediate.

In the lives of many men, the household idol of misused sex in its many forms is the surface idol, the thing seen most clearly. But the surface idols (pornography, masturbation, sexual fantasies, chat rooms, cyber-sex, etc.) point to deeper, hidden idols of the heart that many men don’t see at all. These deeper idols help to make the sexual behaviors compulsive and addictive. That is, men vainly attempt to stop only the surface idols, but apart from digging down deeper to the hidden idols and uncovering them—understanding their power and control over the heart—the struggler can’t break free.

The functional role of an idol feels the same as an addiction or compulsion. We turn to them in an instant, without even being aware of what we are doing. They may even seem foolish to us, but we cling to them because, at some level, we have turned to them for life. When the thing our heart desperately desires is seemingly unattainable, we will grab for something else instead. We’ll create a god of our own making, a false god that brings us a sense of security and comfort—a substitute for the real thing. You don’t have to go far in the Bible to see the anarchy that results when one turns from the real God to a counterfeit.

As a seminary student, one of the first texts I had to translate from the original Hebrew was chapters 32–34 of the book of Exodus. It’s the story of Moses, leaving the people he was leading to the Promised Land to go up on Mount Sinai to meet with God. Now, you must remember that Moses was God’s representative to the people. He was the closest thing to God the people could get. In a sense, to be near Moses was to be near God. To be in Moses’s presence was to be in God’s presence. We’re even told that when Moses met with God, some of God “rubbed off” onto Moses and the people could see in his face God’s reflected glory (Exodus 34:29–35). This resulted in a combination of attraction and fear toward Moses among the people. It was both comforting and terrifying to be near him, which was an accurate picture regarding God, as well. The people were afraid and would not come to Moses until he “called to them . . . and talked with them” (34:31). But to be with Moses was the most intimate the people could be with God. This is important to remember in light of what happens in Exodus 32.

We read in Exodus 32:1, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” Aaron tragically followed the will of the people. He took their gold items and fashioned them into a golden calf. Then Aaron said, “These are your gods.” Then we’re told that the people “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (32:6).

That last phrase, “rose up to play,” is interesting. Another translation says that the people “sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (NIV). Another translation defines the “revelry” as Israel “sinning sexually” (NCV). Whenever I read this passage, I picture the scene in the classic film The Ten Commandments where the people are wildly jumping up and down, hanging all over each other in a riot of sensuality—at least as much sensuality as the censors would allow in 1956. Today, that scene would probably be much more sexually graphic—and it would come closer to being accurate!

I’ve gone to some lengths to describe all this for a reason. The book of Exodus provides an amazing example of our natural propensity to turn to counterfeit idols and the way that involves sex. Thus, the essence of Israel’s sin at the foot of Mount Sinai might easily and realistically be summed up like this: “Where’s Moses?” (Meaning “Where’s God?”) “I don’t know.” “Oh, let’s make an idol, get drunk, and have an orgy.” From “Where’s God” to sexual sin? You bet! Do you see it?

The Default Mode of Our Hearts

Sadly, nothing has changed about fallen human nature. After God judged the world with the flood, which was supposed to be a new beginning, he said, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). But, isn’t that what God said before the flood wiped out almost all human, animal, and plant life? Yes. Genesis 6:5 reads, “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The default mode of our sinful hearts is always to turn to a counterfeit to replace the real thing. Sexual sin in any form is an attempt to seek after a grander experience, on par with being overwhelmed and awed by the living God. Sexual sin is, at its core, a worship disorder. That’s why our search for true spiritual intimacy can get us involved in some pretty extreme, destructive stuff, sexually speaking. G. K. Chesterton is said to have once remarked, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” I don’t know if he really said that or not, but these words make the point really well! When we go looking for sexual intimacy, we are ultimately seeking intimacy with God. There you have it!

Let’s apply what this means. Every man visiting that computer porn site, going to that adult bookstore, frequenting that gentlemen’s club, entering that gay bar, hitting that gay bathhouse, or every woman devouring that romance novel (many of which are now hardcore written porn) and visiting porn sites or engaging that stranger in Internet chat-rooms—well, they’re all looking for God—in the counterfeit!

That’s why, in our ministry, we’re always pointing men and women back to the Lord—the real thing versus the counterfeits they’ve allowed to overshadow God in their lives. The Lord, through his Spirit, puts the desire into the hearts of his people to even want to begin to want him, but many caught in the bondage of sin need help to redirect their hearts toward the true and living God. We need both supernatural and peer help to start to believe and keep believing that our God has much more for us than we can imagine. He is the One who promises so much more than the false appeal and distractions of our petty idols.

Part of the fall and the broken nature of things is that our hearts all too easily believe the lies, false promises, and appeal of our idols, especially the sexual idols we’ve come to depend on. The nature of the false worship I’ve been talking about in this chapter illustrates the degree of our brokenness. But, what does brokenness look like? How is it tied to our sexual lives? Pastor and author Scotty Smith talks about a brokenness that is different from the feeling we experience when we realize that we have been serving false idols (this is the subjective feeling of repentance that we sometimes experience). Smith talks about an objective brokenness, that is, a brokenness that comes from living for the things in life that we make and serve as God-substitutes. This is the brokenness of idolatry. Smith says:

Something is broken to the degree it doesn’t reveal God’s glory and serve the purposes of His story. . . . The main image Scripture uses to demonstrate [such brokenness] is idolatry or false worship—that is, giving anything or anyone the adoration, attention, allegiance, and affection of which Jesus alone is worthy. Paul describes a “broken heart” as one which has “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…”

Smith is quoting here from Romans 1, a powerful passage that goes on to reveal all kinds of resulting “idolatries,” many of which are of a sexual and sensual nature. When we bow down to the false idols of fantasy, porn, and masturbation, we’re truly in the throes of a worship disorder, as some have labeled the theme of this passage. We fall into a pit from which we can’t extract ourselves, and we end up living there! Do you ever feel this way—that you’re in a pit and there is no way out? And because of that, do you ever feel a deadness in your heart that you wish wasn’t so?

Scripture abounds with examples of what idol worship will do to our hearts, even though we’re often the last ones to see its deadening effects on us. That’s the dark and deceptive nature of sin. In our struggles with temptation and sin, we often take the bait without seeing the hook and, therefore, don’t consider how it will rob us of the very life we are looking for. What happens when we “take the bait” of the temporary rush of sexual sin over a long period of time? In Psalm 115:3–8 we read:

Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Habakkuk 2:18–20 says something very similar:

“What profit is an idol
when its maker has shaped it,
a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
when he makes speechless idols!
Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in it. ‘
But the Lord is in his holy temple. . . .”

I want you to think about two things from these passages. First, notice how Psalm 115 begins—and how Habakkuk 2 ends. We’re told first that “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases,” and we end with the truth that “The Lord is in his holy temple.” These two passages are just saying the same thing in different ways. That’s significant! You see, there are only two alternatives. Either we can trust, serve, and worship the living God as he is—the mighty, often unpredictable God who won’t be put into any of our human categories or boxes—or we can forge gods or idols of our own making that we can manipulate but in reality are dead things. The choice is always ours. We can worship the real and true God or bow to one that is really lifeless, that has “no breath in it.”

A New Kind of Life

Even as I write about this idea—that we can either continue in the way we’ve gone for so many years or risk believing that God has something new and better for us—I think of Steve. He was forty-five when I first met him. A very successful businessman, he ran a series of successful yacht clubs for most of his adult life. However, Steve had struggled with same-sex attraction for most of his life. For over twenty years Steve’s life was absorbed by pornography, anonymous sex, and gay relationships, some lasting several years.

But there came a time when God interrupted Steve’s life in a very dramatic way, a way that was extremely frightening to him at first. Having begun attending AA meetings to deal with his drinking problem, Steve still frequented gay bars and had several short-term relationships. But as he began to deal with his drinking, he was thrown into a new kind of crisis. He had been medicating his heart to cover all kinds of pain and confusion. I remember him telling me, “I would go to the bars and sit there, looking at all those other lonely guys, but somehow I couldn’t relate anymore.” Feeling that his whole life was turned upside down, one day Steve just honestly blurted out, “God, this is the only thing I’ve ever known. What am I going to do now?”

In God’s providence, shortly after that Steve found out about one of our Bible study support groups for men dealing with all kinds of sexual messes in their lives. He began to understand and respond to the gospel, making a profession of faith in Christ. Of course, none of his feelings, temptations, or emotional tugs-of-the-heart immediately stopped. He had years of built-up coping mechanisms and core beliefs about life that still ruled his heart. But, in something that can only be described as a new work of God in his life, he began to believe that God was calling him toward a different path as a follower of Jesus. He had to make the choice to follow Christ or continue on as he had lived for years. He admitted to me that leaving the life he had always known was terrifying.

Over the next several years, Steve deepened his fellowship with other men who were learning how to turn away from what they once thought would bring them “life” to turn instead to the living God. Steve reported that he had a new sense of purpose. Something inside had changed. Steve began to develop a personal relationship with Christ and started to apply the gospel to what had fueled his pursuit of sex outside God’s boundaries. As he did this, living in the light with other men, he told me that the loneliness and insecurity that had plagued his life (even as a successful businessman) began to be replaced by a new sense of purpose and the ability to see his struggles in a new light. Christ began to be the intimate, personal friend Steve had always been looking for in those dark and destructive places, where sex on his own terms had been the dominant force in his life. When Steve stepped into the unknown, the God he had begun to know and trust now paved the way for a new kind of life.

Broken Cisterns and Stiff-Necked People

Psalm 115 and Habakkuk 2 aren’t the only passages of Scripture, though, that point out to us the alternatives of pursuing the true God or chasing after idols. The prophet Isaiah uses the metaphor of kindling a fire and lighting our own torches rather than walking in God’s light (that is, trusting in and relying on him), and Jeremiah talks about forsaking God, who is the fountain of living water, and going after water of their own. Those who decide to live by their own light, and those who drink water that doesn’t come from God, are assigned by God to live with, and suffer under, their choices.

Isaiah 50:11 tells us,

Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.

And that theme is repeated by Jeremiah in 2:11–13:

“Has a nation changed its gods
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

Do you see what both of them are getting at? When we walk outside God’s light and insist on finding life on our own terms (even though in the recesses of our minds we know it won’t work out), and when we seek not after God but after an idol and draw from it the water we think will give us life, we will one day pay bitterly for refusing to run to God and find life in him.

The second thing I want you to notice from Psalm 115 and Habakkuk 2 is the way these passages demonstrate how at some point we start to resemble the thing we worship. We begin to look like our idols. Their characteristics rub off on us and threaten to destroy the image of God in us. That’s what happened to Derek, the young man I spoke about at the beginning of the chapter. Rarely can a person so out of control see his issues so clearly and describe so succinctly his downward spiral into the sexual abyss. But, this guy “got it.” He saw that he had lost the ability to do the right thing anymore. Recognizing the dismal state of his heart, he rightly labeled his actions an “addiction.” By doing that, Derek was able to do what others find to be almost impossible. I find that most men tend to minimize the frequency and impact of their secret sins. He did not.

Think about what had happened to him. In just a few short years, Derek went from having a strong relationship with God to barely holding on. He felt increasingly powerless in his life, which mirrors Psalm 115’s warning that we will begin to look like our idols. We think they will give us life, but they are lifeless and powerless. The cisterns Derek had dug and the torches he had lit for himself, outside of Christ and over against the things of God, had a devastating impact on his heart, his life, his relationships, and his walk with Christ. He’s a vivid example of the warnings from Scripture regarding idolatry. Derek’s stunning descent is a sobering reminder to heed what the apostle John said about the futility of pursuing idols, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). But what John said right before that is why pursing idols makes no sense: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20, italics added). Here, once more, Scripture contrasts the real and the false, and we’re left with a decision about where we’ll go for real life.

Perhaps you understand what I’m talking about. Your daily life is one of lighting your own torch and digging your own cistern sexually. You know there is no future in a life like this, but, like Derek, you can’t see any way out. You’ve stopped believing that life can be lived any other way than at the foot of your sexual household gods. You’ve tried and failed over and over.

Your experience is much like the way God described his people Israel in their journey out of Egypt. God often called them “stiff-necked” people. “Stiff-necked” is a term used to describe an animal that stiffens up and will not allow its owner to put a yoke around its neck. A yoke is a wooden frame used to join together two animals, usually oxen, to pull heavy loads. When put in the yoke, the animals would often refuse to submit, to be handled by their owners. God called his people stiff-necked for refusing his yoke of merciful leadership. They were determined to go their own way and settle for shortcuts. Did you know that God first uses this phrase to describe his people just after their fall into idolatry and sexual anarchy in the golden calf incident? In Exodus 32:9, we read that an infuriated God tells Moses while on Mt. Sinai, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” Their idolatry and the debasement that followed had terrible ramifications. It was the start of a history of idol-making and idol-grabbing that characterized God’s people for years to come.

Jesus picks up this image of being stiff-necked and of using a yoke. But in a marvelously impassioned way, he makes it very personal and hopeful. In Matthew 11:28–30, he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Hide or Seek - John FreemanMen who wrestle deeply with sexual sin, with a history of failure, with scarred and polluted hearts, who know the reality of their miserable record, are men who know intimately the yoke of bondage, but they need to learn to live under a different yoke, and that yoke, Jesus promises, is what will give them rest.

You might be thinking, “The idea of rest and the reality of my struggles—well, they just don’t seem to go together. In fact, I’m tired. I’m war-worn. I’m about ready to throw in the towel.” If this is how you feel, it is the best possible place for you to be in order for God to work in your life. Maybe God is putting his finger on some of these sexual idols of yours, whatever they may be. Maybe for the first time you can hear him saying, “No more. This isn’t for you any longer. It’s time to give this up. I have a better plan for you.”

Maybe he’s speaking to your heart once again, telling you that it’s not too late to begin again. That’s his nature, isn’t it? He will continue to pursue us. He never tires of doing that. Do you believe that? It’s true. Don’t harden yourself. In your pursuit of the false intimacy that your idols have promised, don’t become stiff-necked by minimizing the impact of what you are doing, staying in isolation, or not being honest with anyone else. Instead, yield to his touch, his voice, that conviction which is of the Spirit. It’s all of God.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Can you identify with Derek’s story of his downward slide into despair and depression? Are there any elements in his story that are similar to yours?
  2. When God seems unapproachable, unavailable, or far away, where are you tempted to make your own idols, like the Israelites did, and depend on your own resources to make your life work? Can you name some of the idols you see yourself living for?
  3. Psalm 115 speaks of a heart that has become hard, and eventually feels dead, through continual trusting in idols. How do you see this operating in your life? In what ways are you just going through the motions regarding your life with God and other people?