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Defeat Lust & Pornography 7 minute read

Why are so many Christians addicted to porn?

Last Updated: March 19, 2020

According to a recent survey by the Barna Group, 21% of Christian men say they have thought they were “addicted” to porn or said they weren’t sure. This is more than two times what non-Christian men said (10%). Interestingly, 64% of Christian men say they view porn at least once a month, but a higher percentage (71%) of non-Christian report doing this.

Why are Christian men more likely to feel the term “porn addiction” applies to them?

Another recent study from Case Western Reserve University confirms this. Researchers concluded that there is a strong relationship between strong moral and religious convictions against porn and the perception that personal porn use is an “addiction.”

Definitions of Addiction

In my opinion, the chief sources of the discrepancy are the conflicting definitions of addiction. What does it mean to use porn “compulsively” or “regularly”? For some folks, “addictive” use of porn might be once a month, once a week, once a day, or many hours in a day. Others would measure addictive use by how much it disturbs their lives: has it cost them money or significant relationships? For the most part, surveys are not standardized around specific definitions or descriptions.

For instance, take the survey results published in the Porn University survey:

  • 42% of men (7,065) said that they “regularly” visit sexually explicit websites or chat rooms, read sexually explicit magazines, or romance novels.
  • Yet 64% of men (10,622) said that they spend at least some time each week online for sexual purposes. About one in five of these said they spend 5 or more hours every week.
  • Furthermore, 19% of men (3,187) said they feel “controlled” by their sexual desires or fantasies of romance.

Clearly, what is considered “regular” use of pornography, or being “controlled” by it, are not the same across the board.

So what makes someone feel “out of control”? One contributing factor that psychologists give is religion. Pioneering sex therapist Michael Quadland has studied those who feel “out of control” with their sexual behavior. He found the patient’s and therapist’s beliefs about what is sexually “normal” the biggest controlling factor in whether the behavior is deemed compulsive or destructive.

So if a Christian’s value system leads him or her to believe that any sexual gratification outside of marital intimacy is wrong, then any amount of compulsion to look at porn could be deemed “out of control.”

Christians and Addiction Language

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t use the word “addiction” for anything—not drugs, alcohol, nor any behavior. The language of addiction is largely shaped by culture—not medicine. Christian counselor Ed Welch explains:

“In popular use, addiction has become a very elastic and ambiguous category that contains everything from the frivolous (added to the six o’clock news) to the grave (addicted to alcohol). It also includes the unequally yoked categories of disease and sin. Given its ambiguities, there is a growing sentiment that we need a different word” (Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, p.11).

On top of these cultural ambiguities, addiction language in Christian community is also shaped by sin language. A year ago I heard Ed Welch give a talk at a conference in Philadelphia entitled, “Addiction, Temptation, & Voluntary Slavery.” He spoke about how so often the “Big Book” used by AA members seems so much more alive to them than the words of the Bible. Why? One reason is the Big Book uses “addiction” language. The Bible does not.

The recovering alcoholic needs to understand the language of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk of “addiction,” but rather “slavery to sin.” The Bible doesn’t speak of the root of habitual sin as merely a “disease,” but as “idolatry.” Once these categories are understood, many portions of Scripture can and do come to life for the struggling addict.

Biblical language levels the playing field between the so-called addict and the non-addict. The Bible speaks of a slavery to sin that has affected the whole human race. For the addict, this slavery has impacted his or her life in a particular, more demonstrative way; in fact, the conference in Philadelphia was called “The Addict in Us All,” to highlight this very point: we are all addicted to self, addicted to sin, and as Christians we are all being redeemed from that life of sin-slavery.

Related: Do Christians Overhype Porn Addiction? 

Do Christians and Pornography Mix? Are Christians More Prone to Porn Addiction?

Definitional differences aside, could it be that Christians actually have a more difficult time battling addictions? I am not aware of any studies or surveys that suggest this, but there are at least two “theological” factors at work in Christian communities that might serve to escalate addiction:

First, teaching higher standards makes rebellion more appealing.

Being raised in Christian community, I know that teaching a high moral standard didn’t make me want to sin less: rather, I wanted to sin more. The apostle Paul wrote, “[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:7-8).

This is the hot stove principle: Tell a child not to touch the hot stove, and the forbidden act suddenly seems all the more attractive; the biblical motto of the harlot reiterates this conceit: “Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17).

In a real sense, those who embrace Christian values can find pornography all the more appealing merely because it is demonstrably forbidden by their commitment to God.

Secondly, failing at higher standards makes sin all the more novel and intoxicating.

We are wired to love novelty—it is an essential part of our development. When we encounter a new experience, our bodies release an extra dose of pleasure-producing chemicals, a mechanism which encourages us to experience and explore new things.

For me, the draw of pornography was largely a draw to novelty. Pornography, especially Internet pornography, keeps us coming back for more because it promises a veritably endless source of sexual novelty. Each new picture or video clip promises a new sensation. This is why porn-addicted men don’t simply log on, quickly find one appealing image, and gratify themselves. We keep searching. We can spend hours online. Why? Because it’s not about the climax; it’s about the search, the options, and each one is a novel sexual escapade. This desire for novelty is also the reason why we move from less graphic to more graphic pornography over time: the downward spiral is fed by a desire for novelty.

For the Christian who engages in pornography, typically there are added dimensions of guilt and paranoia. These have a way of compounding the novelty of each experience. This leaves a deeper emotional rut in the mind, as it were. Over time, guilt can become chronic—even a way of life. The guilt can become an essential ingredient to the addiction. There came a time in my life when feeling guilty was the only way I could feel normal.

So, What Is the Answer?

At first glance it would seem the conservative standards are the problem: get rid of the rigid moral code and the rest goes away, right? But when we seek to rid ourselves of Christian morals for the sake of keeping addiction at bay, we are playing fast and lose with theology. Christian morality is not merely an idea about how to live; it is based on real history—the belief that the Creator of heaven and earth has actually revealed Himself in human history. We desire to follow biblical morals because we are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the revelation of God.

No. Instead of discarding our morals, we need to embrace the One who gave them:

Teaching higher standards should point people towards their need for a new heart.

The goal of teaching Christian sexual ethics is not encouraging people to “try harder.” Merely highlighting the hotness of the stove is not the point. To know better is not necessarily to do better. Instead, recognizing our inward pull towards rebellion, we are to be driven to a place of utter neediness: I cannot change myself.

When I was entrenched in addiction, I knew that acknowledging my depravity was par for the Christian course, but something in me always wanted to “graduate” from that place of utter neediness. I sincerely believed that spiritual growth meant moving from spiritual poverty to self-sufficiency. I never would have said it that way, but that was my attitude.

But the great promise of Scripture is not that our “flesh” will get better, but that God can bring about great internal change despite our rebellious nature. He does so, not by enforcing an external code of conduct, but by implanting a new internal drive in His people, what the Bible calls a “new heart.”

Just as sure as pornography stirs up lustful cravings in us, the Holy Spirit is a source of new, holy cravings. Romans 8 tells us all true Christians have the Spirit of Christ within them (v.9). Galatians 5 says we are given the “desires of the Spirit” (v.17), and when we keep in step with these desires (v.16) the lusts of the flesh (leading to sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality) will not have their way in us.

This is what the old Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Laws, rules, and regulations can only tell us what is bad and why it is bad, but they do not change our desire for sinful things. These sinful longings can only be conquered by implanting new “affections,” new cravings, that counter our sinful cravings. This is what the Spirit does in us: He shares His own desires with us, changing us from the inside out. (Your Brain on Porn)

Failing at higher standards should drive us to the cross.

The addict often finds himself in a cycle of abstinence, temptation, sin, guilt, penance, and back to abstinence. How do we break the cycle?

As we have seen, guilt is a big part of the addiction cycle. Guilt is that feeling of self-reproach, the feeling that one is culpable for some offense. When we feel guilt we desire absolution and reconciliation. Out of this longing, just like the pagan religions of old, we invent modes of penance that sooth our consciences: rituals that we hope will make us feel right with the powers of the universe again. We try to “get clean” by doing something good, to “make up” for the moral lapse.

For some Christians, it is renewing a commitment to more prayer, more activity in the church, or donating more time or money to some worthy cause. For others, it is merely time: an extended track record of victory. For me, it was the emotion of worthlessness—a sort of mental flagellation; long hours of beating my heart to a bloody pulp. These are modes of penance that we hope will fuel greater obedience in the future.

This is where a proper understanding of the cross is critical. Yes, my sin means I deserve the lowest hell. But (in love) Christ experienced my hell on the cross. He experienced the agony of God-forsakenness, the curse of my sin. The Father channeled His just wrath for my sin into His Son. The cross is God’s altar to fully extinguish His anger, and, as a result, I am fully pardoned.

Furthermore, to prove Christ’s sacrifice was not in vain, God raised Jesus from the dead three days later. Weeks after this, His disciples saw Him ascend into the heavens, and there, we are told, He entered the holiest place of heaven. He poured out His Spirit on His people, and by His Spirit He can “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).

Knowing this, we should denounce all systems of penance as shallow cross-replacements. Knowing that my condemnation has been taken away, this grace from God breaks the cycle. Instead of guilt moving me to penance, guilt can, rather, move me to confession and praise. Instead of penance moving me to hollow abstinence, I am, rather, moved by real worship to experience a higher pleasure of God’s friendship.

  1. Annonymous

    My reason for addiction, is depression.

    I get depressed, because I haven’t had any succesful relationships, and therefore, I get sasifcation seeing others

  2. John

    What made me feel a ton better, is how every detail you mentioned described my situation exactly, everything I was feeling and everything I was going through. I felt like the only “bad” Christian who was suffering – but just because someone else could describe it that dead on, let me know that I’m not alone – someone else understands. Thank you

    • Luke Gilkerson

      Thanks for saying that, John. Good to know we can help you cut through the shame factor in all of this.

  3. Sree

    Excellent Post, I read an article on Pornography and I wanted to pray for the addicted Christians. I searched for some numbers or % of addicted people and I came to your site. The solution you gave is the exact one that was in my heart. We are pigs by nature, we cannot be controlled by behavioural classes. Instead we need to seek for a change from this Pig nature to a nature of Cat that keeps itself clearn all the time. It is not a behaviour change but a change in nature (heart). God has blessed us with every spiritual weapon that we need to attain his divine nature and escape the lusts of this flesh (2 Peter 1 -4).

  4. ogechi

    amazing post..God bless you

  5. peter

    Very helpful. God has a great plan for me but porn is holding me back. I will be victorious. God’s plan for my life will be fullfilled

    • Rob

      Peter I feel the same way. In my heart I feel like God wants to bless me in ways I cant imagine, but porn just takes control.

  6. andre

    Great Post! Couldn’t have said it better!

    Thank you

  7. Pastor Dave’s advice to the addicted
    One of the hardest things for a man to do in any situation is to admit we’ve done something wrong.
    Porn is the Secret Killer, It delights in staying in the Dark.

    Seems that no matter how many times i have blown it my family still loves me!
    I have also come to believe one of the greatest family building ties you can make is when you humbly stand in front of your wife and kids, and say “I have blown it, I cant say I won’t do it again, but will you please pray for me and help me through this thing that is secretly killing me and my marriage.”

    Now this is the hard part, her reaction.What do you do when she reacts in anger? When she reacts in fear? When she yells “how can I ever trust you again”? When she kicks you out? Your character has already proven you unworthy of trust, now what?This is your greatest moment, all of heaven is breathlessly watching your reaction…..

    Now what?…
    You earn her trust even though it might seem like you’ll never get it. You do your best to prove to her there is nothing to fear. Seek counsel from a Pastor even though most he might look at you like you have the plague, and would never admit they struggle with some of the same temptations? And finally, Yes, the right thing to do is admit you have sinned to your wife. No matter the reaction, and confess your sin to a close and “godly” brother in the Lord, if not Satan will continue to pull you down until you make the trade….

    Make the trade?….
    Most men would rather trade their family, job, ministry and close friends for porn!Hard to believe? It happens everyday….. and counting.Dont let Pride and the fear of getting caught steal your life, family, and all that God wants to bless you with.Suggested reading: the book of Hosea found in the Bible. Let the healing begin.

    By the way I know its not as easy as 1. 2. 3. But just take the first 3 steps:
    1. Confess
    2. Take your thoughts captive.
    3. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind….. and always trust the Lord
    ……..Pastor Dave Hallahan

    See My Testimony…
    http://www.mountainfamilyministries.com/pastordavestestimony.

    • Tyler

      Testimony: “404 Not Found”

  8. Stop it, Luke! Stop putting out such good blogs! I must now link to this one on our blog.

    I also think that the Christian community is very condemning of sexual sins and hush hush. We model to our communities our condemnation by not talking about it.

    Many ministers are ill-educated in helping people in sexual sin. They say something is wrong with you if you do this. They say you are not the Christian you need to be. Very behavioral-based.

    These attitudes add to the gap between my struggle and God’s standard. I am led to believe that I am abnormal, when in fact I share a common struggle. I become afraid to share further struggles and spiral deeper.

    Non-Christian communities talk with more liberality about sexual things. They are not taboo subjects, they are often encouraged. Popular culture teaches that being sexual is the “normal” thing and provides the “condom” message for having sex “the right” way.

    Good stuff.

    • Haary Brad

      Good job prayer. over 70% of Christians watch porn and 50% of ministers watch porn. (This doesn’t even include lusting.) It doesn’t stop until age sets in. Either heaven will be empty or, full of ex perverts.

    • Jonathan

      Hi In response to Luke Gilkerson comments.
      Thank you for your inspiring information. I have been addicted to porn for ages. I and a Christian and have been for some time and like you I have done everything to overcome. I have never been helped so much by your understanding – and coming from someone who has experience in this struggle – the situation. I have been to minister, done all the things, such as repentance, promised God i will never do it again, and even made substitutes for the cross, such as notes on my computer, reminders on my door and even kept a stone in my pocket to remind me of my promise to God I will never do it again. Through the things you have been talking about in your blogg I now know that I was substituting them for the cross. Because the church – and im talking about believing Christian churches – did nothing but heep more guilt on me and as you said, just drove me deeper into my struggles that I became so afraid to talk about my battle. I value your knowledge and your support if you have time to reply but if not I will try to keep in mind all that you have said and ask God for real healing and not Guilt. Well my story and ongoing struggle Thanks

    • Bill

      Hi, I use to be addicted to pornography when and was very religious. I was raised in Catholic School, and used to look at playboy once in a while, in the 70s. Anyway, in my teens I stopped believing, agnostic I guess, after getting into hard rock and heavy metal. Also, started looking at porn when I was going through puberty. So, I converted again around 22 cuz I was suicidal. Started going to a Pentecostal Church. I did that for about 6-7 years. But when the internet came out, it was so easy to look at a porn site, it became a compulsion, and I got addicted I guess. So, my family was kind of republican and conservative, I mean the previous generation, I was too. So it wasn’t too good being addicted and religious and conservative republican. So, anyway, I thought I was lying to myself and I was a hypocrite to me, so I made a decision to quit attending Church and started going out with my friend to strip clubs, here and Mexico. Anyway, after a few years I went back to church, ended up having the same problem. Then I read what St. Paul said in the New Testament, non church people will hate Christians if you are behaving worse than they do, Religious are supposed to behave better. So I haven’t gone to church for 4 years and am not addicted now. But still beleive. I think I’m doing the right thing. I think it was my stomach when I was religious because I was being good by being a conservative Christian, they are supposed to really disapprove of that sin, maybe cuz that’s honor, but then you are being dishonorable by lying, if you had that problem, so it’s honor for that person to fall that way, cuz that’s dishonor, but then your not lying to yourself, it’s not good, but I think that’s why something becomes a huge temptation that way. Same with drugs, I think.

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