Kicking the Habit

Many years ago one of our men confessed to me his personal struggle with pornography. He mentioned that he had shared his problem with a (unnamed) friend. To his surprise his buddy acknowledged that he too struggled with the same snare. In a sense he felt a measure of relief. It was some help to discover that he wasn’t the only one fighting with this. On the other hand, knowing its destructiveness first hand, he was alarmed to realize that this sin might be more pervasive than he first imagined. He felt it was an issue that needed to be addressed. This reminded me of a tragi-comedy from my teaching days in a Denver-area Bible College. Two male students, unbeknownst to each other, were furtively frequenting the same adult bookstore in a seedy part of town when one day, peering between the shelves, they found themselves staring at each other. The race was on to see who could beat it back to campus and preempt “judgment day” with a timely (but strictly ritual) “confession.” Both were unceremoniously booted.  

A Serious Situation

Our society is sexually obsessed. Titillation is virtually omnipresent. One would almost have to don blinders to avoid all the sources of sexual stimulation (and temptation) that confront us in a given day. Everywhere one turns there is ample heat for the hormones. . . the Web, the family magazines. . .billboards along the freeway. . . catalogues. . . sporting events. . .steamy TV commercials and programs. . . movies. . . chesty tabloids at the checkout counter. . .the seductive dress (or various stages of undress) that one encounters at the office. . .on the streets. . . in the malls. . .at the parks and the pools. . . at the beach. If we tease the dog, it should be no surprise if it takes a piece of us. Or, in the wisdom of the Proverbs, “Can a man take fire into his bosom and not get burnt?” (Proverbs 6.27-28) This pornography thing is deadly. . . it is a form of moral cancer. For awhile one can hide it, but eventually the “tumor” grows and takes over. The trouble is, the “victim” is usually the last person to recognize the advanced stage of his or her disease. Unlike real cancer, it starts working around the edges of the conscience and works toward the center. Eventually it hardens like rock. It becomes as insensitive as stone. Sooner than that person could ever imagine, he or she is capable of anything and blind to everything. If you have that pornography habit, you had better kick it before it kicks you. Christ and pornography cannot co-exist. Jesus said it, not me: “No man can serve two masters; he will hate one and love the other.” (Matthew 6.24) Having raised your consciousness to the stakes, let me offer some biblical principles that may help you cope with this temptation.   1

Starve the temptation.

Suppose one is trying to whip a drinking problem. Obviously it’s not smart to keep a tempting bottle around the house. The best strategy is to avoid, whenever possible, anything that stimulates one’s craving for alcohol. That same principle applies to conquering sexual temptation. Clear the decks of any sources of titillation within your reach. Control your environment. Get rid of stuff that pollutes. You know the saying, “Garbage in; garbage out.” This is what Paul means when he admonishes: “Make no provision for the flesh.” (Romans 13.14) In other words, don’t feed the animal that wants to eat you. Starve it. This is not rocket science. Just do it and stop the flirtation with filth.   2

Come clean.

James tells us to “confess our sins to one another.” (James 5.16) Since confession ought to be made to God first of all (for every sin is against God’s law), this admonition implies that there is great wisdom in also extending our confession to God’s people as well. Let me suggest some reasons why God in His wisdom urges us to confess our sins to one another:
a) Guilt is a great pressure. Eventually under its weight we will either implode (emotional distortion or disintegration) or explode (anti-social behaviors). Confession as a vent brings great (and healthy) release.
b) Confession enlists the support of God’s people. Pride repels God and man. Humility and vulnerability draws people around us. They rush to our support emotionally and with prayer.
c) Our confessions minister to others. If I confess my sins to you, it makes it much easier for you to open up to me. When we see how God’s people rally around and help the humble, we too are encouraged to clear our souls and make a clean breast of things. That’s spiritually healthy. Remember: Without confession of guilt, the choice is either explode or implode.

Accept responsibility.

This is the era of the `victim’. Everybody finds a scapegoat for his or her sins. The implicit watchword of our culture is that “I am not responsible for my mess; you are!” Modern secular psychology rules the popular mind. It is axiomatic that guilt is bad and must be expunged from our psyches. (So far, we agree—guilt is destructive and must be dealt with.) Where we part company is in the way we deal with guilt. The conventional wisdom today is to shift the blame (at least partially) to others. That eases the burden. That way I reduce my share of the responsibility—and accountability. I am now a victim and I need helped, not beat over the head. If I am hooked on pornography, for instance, it is because my wife doesn’t meet my ‘needs’ (translate that `lusts’ in most cases) or perhaps because someone exposed me to it in another period of life and I got inextricably hooked. I am unable to help myself. This may be true for some non-Christians—though it is a questionable thesis even in those cases. But in the case of believers, wrong. Dead wrong. That sort of blame shifting contradicts the premises of the Gospel. The good news is that in addition to the penalty of sin we have been emancipated from the enslaving power of sin. (Read Romans 6 and 8) 2 Peter 1:3 teaches us that in Christ, God has given us “everything we need for life and godliness.” Oh, we can still sin (and do), but now as volunteers, not slaves. That’s a significant difference. The inner residency of God’s Spirit empowers us to rise above the flesh. We can just say “No!” The word “addiction” has the influence of debilitating the Christian will with a victim’s psychology. The end result is a false notion that we are morally disabled and hence unable to rebuff sexual temptation. Now it is true that bad habits may be stubborn and strongly reinforced to the point of becoming almost a sinful reflex. Nevertheless the grace of God (in such forms as the power of the indwelling Spirit, the solvents of the Word and persistent prayer, the release of penitent confession, and the encouragement of a supportive fellowship) is sufficient to interdict these habits. Our trouble is that, in the face of weak incentives to change, we usually demand microwave solutions which by-pass the means of grace that God has provided and eliminate the need for rigorous self-discipline. We have the “money” to buy, so to speak. The problem is, we hate the cost of combat more than we hate the downsides of sin. Right there, I believe, is the crux of the problem. By the time we realize that the price of sin is higher than the price of resisting it, the will is virtually demolished from the fallout.   4

Don’t confuse the desire to change with real intention.

In his old Christian classic, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law once noted that one of the main reasons we Christians keep stumbling over our old sins is that we never learn the difference between the desire to change and a serious intention to walk with God. We have this tendency in the throes of temptation to sit passively in the water and wait for some freak wind to drive us where we need to go. What we really need to do is break out the oars and start rowing with godly intention. Don’t just sit around and wish that you could do better. Intend to do it. It’s like the roof on your house is caving in. You don’t just wish that it would fix itself. You take whatever steps common sense tells you are necessary to fix it. The fact that it’s not going to be easy or inexpensive doesn’t deter us. It’s the same thing with the roof over our spiritual lives. Except in this case, fixing seems more desirable than essential. So we let things ride, occasionally resisting in that lazy, half-asleep way we swat at an annoying insect disturbing our snooze in the backyard shade on a hot afternoon. In that under-threatened mode, we are disinclined to take those sterner measures that are necessary to interdict our sexual temptations. Such harsh steps of self-discipline were what Jesus was referring to when He admonished us in hyperbolic fashion to pluck out our right eye or to cut off our right hand, if either led us astray. (Matthew 5.27-30) It was a way of saying that we must not be cozy with sin; the price is so high that we must take whatever austere measures may be necessary for walling ourselves off from temptations that we keep falling into. That is when we know that desire has translated to intention. At that point we can honestly say that confession is backed by true repentance.   5

Take your nourishment.

I am not a landscaper. But experts have told me that the best way to cultivate a healthy lawn is to nourish the grass. Well nourished grass tends to choke out the bad stuff. Well, much the same principle applies to the soul. Nurture your soul on the Word of God, strengthen the heart with intensive prayer and the stimulation of godly fellowship (“He who walks with wise men will be wise” – (Proverbs 13.20) and it will choke out the spiritual weeds. Never will one meet a real man of the Word and of prayer in a porn shop. You may have met “religious” people there, perhaps to your amazement, a preacher or elder leading a double life or another church member. A true man or woman of God is not a patron of filth. Such is the filtering power of God’s grace resources. It’s a diet that changes our appetites. So change your “eating” habits and it will soon change your tastes. Some fashion buffs like to say that you are what you wear. A person attuned to God’s wisdom would say, you are what you eat. That is, your consumption habits eventually will tell on you. . . for better or worse.   6

Substitute rather than suppress.

It is good to suppress bad habits. . . to turn them away at the gate. However, the most effective strategy is to combine substitution with suppression. That is, when you are tempted to pick up that magazine, pick up your Bible or a good Christian book or magazine instead. When your TV screen is filled with garbage, change channels. Find something good to replace something bad. . . view something constructive instead of something destructive. If someone put a hidden video camera in all your haunts to monitor your private life and offered you $1000 for every time you exercised the discipline of substitution, how many times do you suppose you would have lacked the will or empowerment to do it? You get the picture. Again, the underlying problem comes down to an incentive deficit. And that deficit exists because we do not appreciate the destructiveness of our moral sins or the rewards of holiness or the grace and goodness of God.  

Kingdom Citizens Are Without Excuse for Wallowing In the Mud

Dear people, pornography is a consuming fire. God has endowed us with the grace resources to overcome this kind of temptation. Let’s quit messing around, making excuses for ourselves, and start living up to our ability. Now hear this (again): “. . . His divine power has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. . .” (2 Peter 1:3). When we as believers whine that we are addicted to porn (or anything else) and we cannot help ourselves, we falsify the Word of God that assures us (if indeed we are born again and indwelt by God’s Spirit) that we are empowered with “everything pertaining to life and godliness.” As the Apostle Paul wrote, echoing David in the Psalms, “let God be [considered] true and every person [who contradicts Him be considered] a liar.” (Romans 3.4) If even unbelievers can overcome these vile habits, how dare we as believers claim impotence to part with them? As believers, empowered by the Spirit of God, we are not helpless to overcome stubborn habits that we have nourished by lame surrenders. Take charge of this evil—because you can. Don’t make God out a liar. He did not remove the penalty of sin in Christ only to leave you a slave to its power. The money is in the bank. Draw on it! Don’t go around saying “insufficient funds!” You do your part; God will do His.
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