Joining our show this week is someone whom I have admired from afar for quite some time now. Author of “Ashamed No More: A Pastor’s Journey Through Sex Addiction” – an extremely powerful book that I have read three times – Thomas “TC” Ryan and I worked at a conference together recently and I couldn’t be more excited to talk about life with him!
TC had been a pastor at a sizeable church for 19 years, prior to “voluntarily” stepping down. According to TC, while the moving on was voluntarily, he admits today that he was in the midst of sabotaging his own life. He found himself in the back of a police car, arrested for activity stemming from his sexual addiction. And, while it didn’t end up in the papers, he stepped down from his pastoral position. As a friend told him, “God has kept this out of the papers. Don’t you put it back in. Just humbly resign and follow God’s continued guidance.” Even his therapist was surprised that someone so crazy could shepherd such a healthy and thriving congregation!
Thus proving my theory that people are simply attracted to crazy!
Since 1992, TC worked and worked at his recovery from compulsive sexual behaviors. It’s an understatement to say that the roots of his addiction ran very deep. So, in 2008, he wrote “Ashamed No More”, which tells a good bit of his story of recovery, stemming from forty years of compulsion, as well as a number of things he has learned about brokenness, recovery, and healing along the way out of that wilderness.
To simplify his story, it’s a tale of grace, revealing that there is, in fact, mercy in this world, and God is incredibly good – even if He may seem difficult to figure out.
Eventually, TC learned how to deal properly with the impulses when they arise. His head and soul are in the right place. His marriage was made whole again. He even has days filled with “partly cloudy serenity”.
So, today, he is involved again in ministry – though not ordained by any particular denomination, and he doesn’t pastor any particular congregation – though he does serve people’s needs with more pastoral care and spiritual direction work than ever before. God has been incredibly gracious to use his struggles and history in order to meet the needs of so many others.
I believe that we are at a point in today’s culture that many people struggling with “sex addiction” – when lust and sexual thoughts consume your thoughts – actually end up picking up “self-help” books in an effort to justify their behavior as they actually voyeuristically read through the pages and descriptions of someone else’s struggles just to fill their own minds with new escapades and experiences.
That’s one thing that I love about Ashamed No More – TC doesn’t delve into those details. He doesn’t want anyone to think that he enjoyed his addiction. As he so accurately wrote:
“Lust always demands more from the person who uses it and never delivers joy.”
I mean, let’s be honest, there are neurological studies that show things like a biological dopamine drip and other pleasure autosensory things taking place in anticipation of sexual activity, but two other dynamics also come into play.
The first is that the way that we are actually wired to interact with another human being, to express and receive love comprehensively, means that a lot of the “love” that we express is via attention, conversation, physical touch… but all involving sharing life experiences together.
Apart from that, however, is erotic connection. This is both a fruit of a loving relationship and also a way of deeply bonding with one another. In the act of engaging one another erotically, there’s an exchange and a reward, as well as a soothing bonding occurring.
However, when I act out, individually, however I might do that, when the act is finished, there is no soothing. No bonding. There’s actually an emptiness which pervades the whole act. So, when an addict partakes again and again, they know that they are constantly pursuing something that will never come to fruition, so they are all the more frustrated and never joyful.
I remember putting myself through identical situations when I was addicted to cocaine. Sitting in the car for 45 minutes debating whether I was going to go get some or not. Then driving to my dealer, all the while telling myself how wrong this was. Then laying the money on the table, coming home, getting high, then waking up filled with guilt, shame, unfulfillment, and the wondering why on earth I just wasted so much time, money and so much more!
Then, I’d put myself through the exact same thing with pornography! The biochemical and neurological responses to sex are so similar to what cocaine does to you!
Yet, as TC says, the drugs and sex merely offers a brief moment to disassociate with life’s current worries and tensions, where we don’t think about the hypocrisy, emptiness and shame. By disassociation, he simply means that we are able to take one part of our reality, set it in a box up on a shelf and not pay any attention to it. We get to briefly pretend that it doesn’t exist… when actually, it really does!
It’s opting out. And, the toughest thing is that it reinforces itself. But, it does so with a law of diminishing returns, so you need more and more of it in order to feel the escape that once only required a little.
And that’s how addictions progress, whether it’s chemical, alcohol, gambling, or sex.
And, with sex, it’s not just that you need more, but you need different. That’s how people end up involved in things that they previously thought they would never even look at, much less do. Then, as the addict is in the midst of it, they look around and they are horrified, which leads to the great, ultimate reinforcer of the addiction cycle: shame.
This shame continues to shout at you, telling you that you don’t matter. You are stupid. It doesn’t matter what you do with your life. You will never get it right.
So, when all this discomfort becomes unbearable, then the addict winds up with an increased desire to escape.
And the cycle continues.
The Addiction Cycle operates much like a clock. If you imagine 12:00 high, that’s where the addict encounters faulty core beliefs. They’re not constant conversations that someone has, but they are at the foundation of much of their behaviors and thoughts. These may be something like: “You are broken. There is something fundamentally wrong with you. If people knew who you really were, they wouldn’t want anything to do with you.” Along with these faulty core beliefs, many addicts also are confronted with thoughts like, “If I have to depend on other people, I’m going to be disappointed – particularly when it comes to my emotional, heart, deep needs.” And going even further, for a sex addict, they battle thoughts like, “Sex is my most important need. I can’t imagine living without sex.”
These faulty core beliefs fuel the addict, and lead to 3:00 on the clock face. This is where impaired thinking rears its ugly head. Impaired thinking has lots of different flavors and expressions in each of us, but it all boils down to denial. One example that TC faced many, many times are thoughts resembling, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m never going to be free of this. I’ll start over tomorrow. This is the last time. In fact, it doesn’t matter what I do, I’ve messed up so many times, no one would miss me if I simply disappeared.”
Filled with these thoughts, the addict’s clock swings down to 6:00, which triggers this smaller clock face that is the actual addictive system itself. This is where the addict begins to initiate what they are going to do – planning out where to go, strategizing what to do (12:00). It actually becomes its own little ritual – going to a particular neighborhood, isolating oneself in front of the laptop, contacting a certain individual, etc. At this point (3:00), there is a huge dopamine drip going on! This is why, particularly sex addicts, can go hours upon hours before bringing it to fruition, because they know that the second they move to 6:00 on the sub-clock face, and do the deed, they immediately swing to 9:00, after just two-to-four seconds of euphoria.
As the addict’s clock begins its uphill stride toward the 9:00 mark on the main clock face, they are filled with despair. Emptiness. “You are such a loser! You will never work your way out of this. You just spent six hours of your life on this?! You just did something that you said you would never do again!”
That’s when 9:00 hits: Unmanageability. “I cannot make life work. My life is one giant mistake. I am a mistake.”
These thoughts rattle through the addicts mind, and feed all the faulty core beliefs that await at the 12:00 mark as the cycle repeats itself over and over again.
Patrick Carnes came up with this clock face metaphor, and it is so relevant to addicts of every flavor!
And once an addict enters into this ritualization process, their mind and body believe that they cannot go on without the thing that they are addicted to. In fact, the part of the brain that processes the addiction is the same part that processes hunger, so it begins to fool the addict into thinking they need the act or substance, or else they will “starve to death”. And nobody can tackle the addiction on their own – NOBODY!
I once had a sponsor give me trash bags. He told me, “Next time you get the urge to use and you don’t want to or can’t get ahold of me, take these trash bags out and start picking up trash. Either at a mini-mart, off the sidewalk… wherever. Just pick up trash and watch how difficult it is to try to not allow other people to see you do this kind act. Get out of yourself, you selfish jerk! If not trash, call the church that you’re performing at and ask them if they need help setting up chairs or making coffee. Serve other people in some way so that you are not so self-centered.”
This coincides so much with Scripture: death to self… the more I die, the more He lives…
You see, all God wants is for us to pursue Him.
He wants to interrupt that addiction clock!
Now, I believe that this wildfire of sexual addiction is burning American churches to the ground! As TC says, it’s the perfect addiction for pastors – they are stressed, they are typically have performance-oriented personalities, and they are often on the internet for several hours each day.
Combine that with the fact that porn is more readily available and more slickly produced than ever before – and this trend is not going to go backward any time soon – and the Church is going to have to change its approach to sex, porn and addiction altogether.
Today’s Church leaders need to be anticipatory in their approach. They can’t do witch hunts. They need to back up and take an honest look at people, God and His Word. After all, Jesus didn’t really single-out sexual sin. And in the morality passages that Paul wrote about discuss gossip, slander, gluttony, pride, and any form of idolatry. Addiction is a form of idolatry, but we have all kinds of potential idols in our world today! Today’s leaders need to stop scoring sex as this BIG GATEWAY to holiness, where your sexual life is the indicator of the sincerity of your heart.
Because we tend to score different sins differently, and even different acts within a particular sin differently, people get too hung up on the inconsequential details and miss the big picture.
Jesus doesn’t score sins, so why do we?
The greatest sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, says:
Judge not, that you not be judged. Because the measure that you use in judging others will be used in judging yourselves.
This is a very serious admonition, no matter how you slice it!
And, neither TC nor I can see how anybody working in Student Ministries today can do so and not struggle with sexual issues at all. They are all over social media – they have to be – and today’s teens, even the Christian ones, are sending each other sexually charged messages all the time.
And for the Youth Pastors, simply yelling at them, shaming them, and saying “YOU KIDS BETTER STOP THAT!” just doesn’t work.
When we look at what Jesus actually says about this: “I love you so much, and there is a far better way that the path you’re on regarding your sexuality. Your personhood means so much more than that. Come follow Me and learn.”
Or, as C.S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce:
“Lust is a poor, weak, whispering thing compared with the richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”
But, according to TC, we need to expect brokenness and craziness. We need to offer positive tools that show how to follow Jesus with our sexuality. And we need to know that nobody is going to do it perfectly. We’re all going to mess up. Everybody has a story about sex. Even if they haven’t done something that they are ashamed of, they have been disappointed, or they have had expectations that were dashed, or they live with regrets, or they have fears because they have seen what other people have done with their sexuality.
But remember, God didn’t make a mistake in creating human sexuality.
And the Church has to go through a bit of a reformation regarding this before we are going to be the conduit of grace that God wants us to be.
To contact TC directly, you can reach him on Facebook (@TCRyan), via his website: tc-ryan.com. Also, you can buy his book: Ashamed No More: A Pastor’s Journey Through Sex Addiction.