Recently a lay leader met with me in my office. Over the next two hours, he laid out a sordid story of some six decades of sex addiction. His struggle began when older boys exposed him to a pornographic magazine when he was seven years old. In the years since, it had affected every aspect of his life, including every relationship.
A Barna survey found that 64 percent of young people ages from 13 to 24 actively seek out pornography weekly or more often.1 How do we as pastors help those who struggle with pornography—including ourselves? Since porn is more than an issue of lust or an addiction to dopamine,2 any unilateral approach to it will fail to bring about lasting change. I suggest four tactics: a healthy environment, a yielded will, a pure heart, and a faithful community.
1. A healthy environment
As I disciple someone struggling with porn, together we need to look at his3 life and analyze the times when the struggle is at its worst. Such moments require management, first by stop-ping every conduit of porn. That can be accomplished by canceling cable TV, installing filtering and account-ability software on every computer and device,4 taking precautions such as ensuring accountability when on business trips, setting up a personal schedule that reduces moments of temptation, and thinking about every situation as one that could lead to a fall.
The typical approach to those who struggle with porn is to install the software and put the computer in a public place; but if that’s all we do, we won’t have accomplished much. Just changing negative behavior is not our ultimate end.
2. A yielded will
Even if we succeed at cutting off all future access to pornographic images, the struggler can, at will, still access those images already filed away in his brain, and sometimes he will involuntarily visualize them. It is important to understand the role of the will with the battles taking place in the human mind.
Does he really want to be free from the sin of pornography, or does he simply feel bad about what he has done? Is he experiencing true guilt, or is he only ashamed of being exposed? Does he view porn as an escape from stress? Is he longing for love or affirmation without the required effort that intimate relationships require? Is he pursuing the emotional rush that he feels from the risk he is taking?
Once we understand what drives the struggler, we can guide him in replacing ungodly motives with biblical ones.
3. A pure heart
When I disciple someone struggling with porn, I must keep in mind that the battle is primarily a spiritual one. Our goal for those to whom we minister is to lead them to a heart transformation that comes from abiding in Christ. The shepherding pastor must acknowledge the motivations, desires, and idols of the heart.
Jeremiah declared, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9, KJV). David cried, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10, KJV). To understand the struggler’s heart, the shepherding pastor needs to be aware of his view of God, his personal faith life, and how he is attempting to confront this sin.
Does he know and trust God? Does he view Him as kind and loving or as arbitrary? Does he love Jesus and fully understand his identity in Him?
4. A faithful community
There is an enemy that seeks to separate believers from one another. Pornography is a specific contributor to broken relationships, not just when a spouse discovers her partner’s addiction but by the changes that take place in the porn addict’s heart and mind, creating an enslaving cycle of sin, guilt, shame, and then return to sin. By nature, pornography offers a false intimacy. What the struggler needs is authentic intimacy.
The church is the perfect institution for providing it as believers live out their faith together day by day and week after week. Through a small group, church members must lovingly ask their fellow believers vital questions, such as, How is your devotional life? What is God showing you about Himself and your own heart? What boundaries have you established to protect yourself, and when are you most tempted?
A multiple-front approach is not just necessary to win a battle, it is imperative for winning the war. As we walk along-side and disciple strugglers—including ourselves—we must address not just behavior but also the relationship with God. We must make real the gospel of grace—that God not only forgives sins of the past but, through the indwelling Spirit, prepares the way for heart trans-formation. The only hope one has in the struggle with porn is the gospel of Jesus Christ.