I never struggled with pornography until my wife and I decided to plant a church. I became distracted, busy, boring, and not too interested in my own spiritual health.
I had work to do.
For most of my career as a church planter, I struggled with porn.
I fessed up to my wife, my mentors, and got into therapy, which seemed to make things worse. Everyone knew what I had been up to. One mentor cautioned, “If you look at a mere thumbnail of a naked woman, you should step down as a pastor.”
Scared to death, I downloaded software that would block the bad sites. I locked down my router and signed up for a few “accountability” programs that would alert my friends every time I clicked on something questionable. While this had some effect, I was a part-time web developer and knew how to sneak around these firewalls if I wanted to.
At times I could plow through the temptation. The shame of so many people knowing every site I visited, and the shame of “letting God down” were good motivators. But after a few years I got tired.
I fought the best I could, had some victories, lied sometimes, and got pretty good at keeping it all to myself.
Then, boom. Victory.
I got out of church planting, signed up for a local pastor gig, hung out with a healthy staff team, started having some fun, and for two full years found freedom from porn that I never thought possible.
But our three adopted kids were struggling, and in need of some specialized time and attention from their parents. I drew the short straw, quit my pastor job, sold the web business, and became the first male at-home-parent in my family’s history.
And my porn problem went off the charts.
Saved by a Selfish Prayer
About a year later I gave up. I stopped trying to stop, and let porn become a regular part of my life. Anytime I felt discouraged, angry, lonely, or hopeless, which was often, I’d dive in.
I’d tried everything. And looking for another “fun” job wasn’t an option.
Why keep trying?
I was fully aware of the evils of porn – how it warps us, affects our marriages, marginalizes women, and puts a huge clamp on our ability to be happy. But what concerned me the most was the impact it had on my relationship with Jesus.
For most of my Christian life, I’d had a sense of His presence, His hope. In this latest chapter, I felt like He wasn’t there, and it didn’t bother me. I began to believe that if I kept this up, I wouldn’t believe much longer. Pretty soon I’d be someone who’s faith didn’t amount to much more than good behavior.
One night, at about 2AM, wrestling with thoughts that typically led to something bad, I told Jesus that I didn’t want to live like this anymore, and that I had no idea how to get out.
I prayed something I never prayed before.
It was a self-serving prayer, and wholly unspiritual. But it was also an invitation for Jesus to step into the epicenter of my porn addiction.
“Dear Lord, I feel like crap and porn is the quickest way out. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now. Would you comfort me? I’ll sit here, feel bad, and wait for you. I won’t do my usual escape. Please give me what I’m looking for.”
Instead of gritting my teeth, flexing my spiritual muscles, and plowing through the temptation until it subsided – God knows how long that would have taken – I asked God to solve the problem for me; to provide the comfort that I was expecting from porn.
I told Him He could have 15 minutes to make something happen. If He didn’t show, I’d fire up the laptop.
That’s bad theology, and arrogant, but that’s the shape I was in.
Within 15 minutes the comfort showed up, and I fell asleep.
Saying No to DIY Spirituality
I’d always believed that this fight was up to me. I’d ask God for strength to resist, employ some tools, and go to others for motivation/shame, but I saw it as my battle. I had become confused about the limits of my strength and the limitlessness of His.
It never occurred to me to let God do the work – to have faith that He was willing to replace the temptation with something better.
But this forced me to embrace the spiritual disciplines of weakness and dependence. I’m not good at that. I’m an American Evangelical – part of a culture that values strength, faithfulness, personal purity, and people who overpower life’s frequent hardships.
We are warriors, overcomers, do-it-yourselfers. And we look down on people who aren’t.
But the heroes of the Bible are too often spiritual “losers” who throw up their hands and cry out something akin to “God! I can’t do this! Save me!!” The Bible is the only religious document in the history of religion, to my knowledge, that puts weakness and self-insufficiency near the top of the spiritual disciplines list.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” I Cor 12:9
“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14
Unfortunately, these passages don’t get much pulpit time – they don’t drive our culture nearly as much as the ones that lead us to believe that God loves a good warrior.
So it’s no surprise that my anti-porn campaigns were too dependent on my own strength, which brought even more shame when I failed, which did little more than add fuel to the fire.
For me, shame drives porn like nothing else.
So does repression. When we’re faced with a desire for something, even if it’s for something destructive, and we try to ignore it, or distract ourselves, we make things worse.
If I grit my teeth and go the DIY route, added to the pain of saying “no” to porn is the knowledge that I’ll be doing the same thing multiple times before day’s end. I might be able to claim bragging rights, or sooth myself by thinking about how faithful I am, but by the time I climb into bed, I’ll be a hornet’s nest of repressed desire. No amount of pride or feeling like God loves me for my faithfulness will soothe it.
And I’m not aware of any psychotherapeutic professional who would recommend our typical, repressive model of porn avoidance.
Underneath my temptation to do bad things is the desire for good things – comfort, excitement, pleasure, etc. Repressing these will make them worse. I needed to engage my desires in a way that honored them while keeping them in their place.
This was the best prayer I could come up with. And regardless of how unspiritual it might sound, and how weird it feels when I pray it, it’s working, even in this difficult, lonely, frequently un-fun stay-at-home-dad chapter of my life.
Tempted to Worship
Attractive as DIY spirituality is, it’s never done anything for my addiction beyond making it worse.
Via the weak, dependent, spiritual-loser route, I’m slowly coming to believe that my desire for comfort will be fulfilled. I have confidence that I’ll go to bed tempted to worship God for the tangible, frequent, undeniable ways I saw Him intervene in my day.
He’s taken an impossible addiction and turned it into a call to worship.
I know, I’m peddling a formula here – “Do X and God will give you Y.” We’re not supposed buy into formulas. God does what He wants to do and isn’t subject to our whims and addictions.
But in too many of our Bible translations, the Holy Spirit’s very name is “The Comforter.” No need to speculate on His role in our lives, and no need to feel weird, unholy, or selfish asking for comfort when we need it most.
Add to that the faithfulness of God, the power of God, the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, and the fact that He’s the one who came up with the whole comfort thing in the first place. It’s a little silly for me to not ask for and expect comfort in these moments where my soul is so thirsty that it’s willing to drink toilet water.
I wish I was the kind of person who worships when things are bad, or when God’s not answering my prayers, but I’m not that mature. I’ve got some growing up to do.
Watching God show up in this tangible way, over and over again, and knowing that my temptations now have an enemy that’s bigger than me is not just driving worship, it’s driving trust, and a deeper intimacy with God… which drives more worship.
Feel free to call me weak, undisciplined, hedonistic, whatever – but with regard to spiritual maturity, I’m growing like a weed.
And at the core is one simple belief, an awkward prayer that puts Jesus smack dab in the middle of something that wants to put a great distance between myself and everything that I love.