The 4 Stages of Temptation

Recently I introduced this series of the porn addiction cycle and why it is so complicated and difficult to get out of this seemingly never-ending turmoil. I mentioned how James states in Chapter 1, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” 

Let’s dive right in and taking a look at the details of this cycle and the stages of temptation.

James says it all starts in desire. Desire then leads to enticement. Enticement leads to conception—the conception of sin in the heart. Conception leads to birth—the birth of sin. Sin then grows stronger. And fully-grown sin brings forth death. This is the cycle of temptation and sin.

What’s interesting is, many counselors and pastors who work with men and women who struggle with porn, even for those who aren’t all that familiar with James’ letter, notice the same cycle. Let’s walk through these stages one by one.

Stage 1: Desire

The first stage of the temptation cycle is “desire.” Now, the original Greek word used here is epi-thu-MEE-ah. Sometimes it’s translated evil desire. Sometime it’s translated lust or craving. But the word does not primarily refer to a desire for evil THINGS as much as it describes a strong desire for anything, even a good thing. The force of the word is not so much about the object of desire being bad as it is the strength of the desire. You might think of it not as just a drive or a desire but an overdrive or an over-desire.

Related: Porn and the Desire Dilemma 

Now, you might be wondering, “What kind of desires are you talking about? A desire to look at porn? A desire for sex?” Well, those can certainly be strong desires, but we shouldn’t read this word in a purely sexual way. Of course people sin sexually for sexual reasons, but there are all kinds of over-desires or overdrives we can have that can be catalysts for getting hooked on pornography. Understanding these over-desires is vital because so often what gets the spotlight is the porn use itself, but the porn use is really just the fruit of something deeper going on in the heart.

In his book Closing the Window, Dr. Tim Chester does a wonderful job drawing up to the surface many of the heart desires that drive a compulsion to look at porn.

For instance, it is normal to desire relationships with others, to want to be close to others. But when it becomes an over-desire, when it becomes an idol in our lives, porn can be a very enticing experience. Porn offers us a fantasy world of false intimacy, a parody of relationship, where we can feel a sense of connectedness to another person but behind the safety and predictability of a computer screen.

Or you might really desire respect. It is normal, of course, to desire respect, to want to feel adequate in the eyes of others. But when that becomes an over-desire or a sinful demand, pornography can get its hooks into us. You see, in the fantasy world of porn, we are the ones adored by fantasy women or men. There we feel man enough or woman enough to capture the attention of others by our sexual prowess, and we get a high from that experience.

Or you might really desire refuge from the stresses of life. It is normal to desire a place of rest and refuge in our lives, a place to relieve our stresses, a place to escape. But when it becomes an over-desire—when we’re willing to sin to get refuge—porn can easily entice us. Out of this strong desire to be somewhere else or to be someone else, porn gives you that fantasy world where we are never a failure, where we always get to have the beautiful girl or handsome guy you desire, or you get to be the desired girl or guy. Porn offers a stress-free fantasy where nothing is asked of you.

Or you might really desire to be rewarded or recognized. Again, this is a natural desire, but when it becomes an over-desire, when it becomes an idol in our hearts, we develop a strong sense of entitlement. When we feel like we’ve made all kinds of sacrifices for others, porn offers us that fantasy world where our over-worked minds and under-appreciated egos can “get what we deserve.” When our desire for reward is unhinged, porn can become the source of our fantasy trophy women and men.

Or you might really have a desire for revenge, a latent sense of anger about something in your life. Now, it is normal and good to want things to be just in the world, but when our sense of justice isn’t informed by God’s Word, and it becomes an over-desire, using porn can become a sort of temper tantrum we have at God or with the world. We might be angry with God for not giving us the life we want, not providing us with the sex we want, not giving us the marriage or relationship we want, so we run to porn and say, “Fine. I’ll get what I want, and no one can tell me otherwise.”

Maybe one of these desires really speaks to your own experience, or maybe they all do, or maybe there’s another desire I haven’t named that’s hiding deep down in your heart. Either way, James says this is where all temptation starts: it starts in our strong cravings, our over-desires.

Related: 19 Possible Motives Triggering Your Porn Consumption

Stage 2: Enticement

This leads to enticement, that feeling of being lured to something. Now, often this can be broken into two steps: triggers and tempting thoughts.

A trigger is anything that gets the process started, anything that gets the motor going. This can be something really obvious, like a sexual trigger—seeing something sexual on TV or on a computer screen or a billboard along the highway, music with suggestive lyrics, seeing a particular person you’re attracted to. It also might be something not so obvious, something internal that creates a state of tension like hunger, stress, exhaustion, or boredom. It might be a relational trigger like someone insulting you or rejecting you. A trigger is simply an external event or an internal state of mind that serves as a catalyst.

The second part of enticement is when your over-desire meets that trigger and it leads to the first tempting thought. This might be a very pronounced thought, like, “Man, I really want to look at pornography,” or maybe just an emotion that boils under the surface, a sort of inclination to do something about the tension you feel. This tempting thought might be experienced as a growing sexual fantasy, or it might be experienced as a sort of trance-like state: a numbness to the world around you as the thought brews in your mind. This tempting thought is often accompanied by some kind of emotion like frustration or preoccupation or anticipation or a growing obsession.

Related: 3 Powerful Porn Triggers (And How to Overcome Them)

Stage 3: Conception 

Next, James said there comes the state of conception. This is when desires become action. Psychologists often talk about the idea of ritualization, the habit or habits we fall into that get us closer to the object of our desire. This is when someone engages in what can be referred to as “SUDs,” or, “seemingly unimportant decisions.” You tell yourself what you’re doing is no big deal. You’re just getting online to check your e-mail or to check your Facebook page. You’re just going to go see what’s new online. You’re just going out for a drive. You’re just going to your room to relax and to be alone. At this stage, you’re suffering from impaired thinking: you tell yourself the action is innocent, but really your feet are on autopilot as that first tempting thought takes control.

Now, after putting feet to your desires, you get closer and closer to the moment of indulgence, and then you do. You indulge. The space between conception and birth might take a day, hours, or maybe only minutes, but birth is the natural follow-through of conception. This is the next stage of what James calls the birth of sin. We give into the temptation fully and we start looking at porn or we start engaging in sinful sexual behavior of some kind.

After this, the sin grows stronger, and this is when we start to experience those defeated thoughts like, “I might as well keep going,” or “It’s no use resisting this,” and we feel that sense of a loss of control, that overwhelming flood of desire that feels like it can’t be stopped. In reality, this tidal wave started BEFORE the moment of indulgence. It started back at the first tempting thought, but we feel it the strongest in the moments before indulgence and as the indulgence grows. 

In the field of neuroscience, this is called hypofrontality. We have a region of our brains call our prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is meant to slam on the breaks from all the impulses we feel and help us make sane, wise decisions based on our goals and our values. But hypofrontality happens when, after we’ve given into temptation over and over and over many times, this region of our brain grows weaker and weaker, like a muscle that atrophies. Scientists can even see these changes on a brain scanner.

Stage 4: Death

Finally, this leads to death. Now, we know the wages of sin is death in an ultimate sense—this is the consequence of sin God warned us about long ago before our first parents sinned in Eden. But in the Bible, death isn’t merely the final stop of life. It’s a word used to describe the whole process of decay and misery that results from sin.

That completes the cycle of pornography addiction. In the next video, we’ll talk about how this makes the person feel, and soon answer the million-dollar question. Stay tuned until next week to find out more about the cycle of porn addiction.