The other night I heard a message at a church service from an enthusiastic young preacher here in Toronto. While the message was inspiring, I couldn’t help but think that it had the common failing of many such messages in that it was not particularly practical. It is all very well to be told to pursue a life of sexual purity while avoiding the pitfalls of legalism, but just exactly how does one do that? As a Christian who has battled pornography for many years, I thought I might be able to share the practical nuts and bolts approach towards sexual purity that has worked wonders for me. To do that, allow me to briefly recount the history of my struggle.
When I first became a Christian, I tried to attain sexual purity by sheer force of will. Every time I failed, I would “beat myself up” and feel disgusted with myself. After beating myself up with shame and guilt for a few hours, I would resolve to do better next time only to have the cycle repeat within a few days. After years of this “cycle of shame”, I began to think that the Christian life was impossible and to doubt my initial belief in God. How could God allow me to fail so spectacularly and at the same time require that I live a life of purity? Had I really become a Christian if I was unable to demonstrate the fruits of the Holy Spirit? I prayed desperately for understanding and improvement.
As I prayed for understanding, I made a couple of discoveries that made real progress possible. The fist thing that I realized was that “feeling guilty” was my way of bargaining with God. “God I will watch X amount of pornography and then I am going to feel really bad about it so that you don’t have to discipline me.” But God didn’t want me to feel guilty, God wanted me to earnestly desire to improve. Ironically, dispensing with the feelings of guilt and shame were essential for making progress in the fight against lust. If I didn’t feel guilty and shameful, I didn’t feel like I had earned the right to wallow in failure.
The second thing I realized about my early attempts was that they were based on pride. If I had been successful and achieved my goal by willpower, to whom would I have given the glory? Would I have been grateful to God? Why if I attained my goal by my own effort? I would have glorified myself and said, “You see how wonderful a Christian I am God? I overcame sexual temptation for you by my own effort.” C.S. Lewis reminds us that pride is the worst of all possible sins and if you battle the sin of lust by priding yourself that you are better than others, you have essentially exchanged a fever for a cancer. This was a big reason that I failed so horribly in those early years and I realized that I needed to rely on God and pray that He would help me overcome the sin of lust in my life.
While these realizations were extremely helpful and I began to see improvement, progress was still slow for a number of years. The frequency and extent of my pornography use decreased significantly, but a few hard knocks would get me down and I would fall again. I was still missing something and I began to pray for even greater understanding.
The turning point came when I asked how Jesus was able to avoid sexual temptations. He was without flaw in this area, so how did he do it? The obvious answer was that he loved all the women that he met so much that the idea of using them in a shameful way was literally unthinkable to him. “Eureka!”, I said to myself, “that is the key! I must pray and ask God for a love so great that the idea of lusting after women will be revolting to me!”
Starting at that point, I made a point of praying for the women that I was lusting after. I prayed that they would find meaningful and fulfilling relationships with men, I prayed that they would come to know God, I prayed that they would be blessed. After years of praying in this way, the Holy Spirit began to change my heart. I began to feel a tremendous sadness whenever I would see a young woman throwing away God’s gift of sexual intimacy for short term popularity or money. It is this genuine concern for women that I trust to safeguard me from the temptations of lust.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul ends his discussion about the gifts of the Holy Spirit with some of the most beautiful words ever written. The twelfth chapter of Corinthians immediately precedes Paul’s discussion of the nature of love and ends with this verse:
But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Love is the more excellent way and it is the key to overcoming sins of every kind as well as being a witness for the glory of Christ.