I’ve been sharing my reflections on faith and fidelity in a series of posts sparked by Matthew Bates’s book Salvation By Allegiance Alone. In the last post, I departed from the book somewhat to explore the way that belief leads to obedience, and that obedience in turn leads to deeper belief. This post is about some of my own experience with that process, so I encourage you to read that post first.
My struggle with pornography
I thought about posting this separately from this series on faith and fidelity, but I’ve decided to post it here. The series has been fairly academic and theology-heavy; I want to make it clear that this is something that has mattered in my life. Regardless of what context I write about it in, I want to write about this because I know it’s something that most men and many women of my generation have struggled with and continue to struggle with.
I struggled with an addiction to online pornography throughout high school and for several years afterward. Mostly it was images, pretty tame by some standards, but still objectifying, and still harmful to my soul. I am grateful that the internet was mostly too slow in those days to download videos – I know that would have taken me to darker places.
From the time I started, I knew on some level it was wrong. I’d erase my browser history for fear of getting caught, and was found out a few times anyway. But at the same time, I always found ways to justify it – everyone did it, I needed it as an outlet, the images weren’t that bad, I still preferred the idea of a real relationship and genuine marriage. It was always surprising how convincing those things were when I was in the moment, and how flimsy they looked afterward. But they were enough that I didn’t stop.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I would pray to the Lord, and I’d have success for short stints – weeks, a few times even months. But the lust would come rushing back and I’d be sucked in deeper than I was before. During the times when I was resisting, part of me was thinking about how good it would feel to go back to it after being away so long. And another part was genuinely desperate to be free.
I wish I could give an easy answer for how I stopped. Here’s what happened: at one point, I said to the Lord, “Lord, I know that I keep justifying this. But I can’t justify breaking a commitment to You. And I commit to You that I will not do this again.” It’s not something that would have worked as a trick, not something I could have said if I hadn’t gotten to the point – through years of struggle – where somehow I knew that it was a promise I could keep. But like that, I was free. It’s not that I never had the urge again, and not like I couldn’t have chosen to go back to it – but something had changed. I was being held back from it. It wasn’t me.
Here I do want to say this: I wish I had taken advantage of the many resources out there. I think they could have helped me stop much earlier than I did. It seemed like such a minor thing, such an embarrassing thing to admit needing help for, that it didn’t occur to me that I could go to a 12-step group for it, or find an online program for support, or talk to a therapist about it, or even read a book about breaking the habit.
What I learned about the Lord when I quit
What does this have to do with the topic of faith and fidelity? Well, here’s what happened: I believed intellectually that the Lord did not want me to act on lust. I had that mental affirmation – although it was a wavering one. I had some kind of allegiance – I was trying to follow Him. And eventually, through that wavering battle, I broke through to a place where something had changed, and where I recognized Him actually acting in my life. He really could hold me back from something. He had power. His faithfulness to me in empowering me to obey Him gave me a new sight of Who He was, His love and His power, the truth of the gospel that He had already fought hell and overcome, that He would fight the same fight for me. Fidelity led to a much more real belief.
What I learned about myself when I quit
I didn’t actually notice much immediate change when I stopped using pornography. It wasn’t until a few years later that I looked back and realized how big a change it had made in my life. I realized that when I’d been addicted, everything had been flatter somehow, that life had lacked depth, had lacked highs or lows. It was shallower, and as I continued to refrain from pornography, it was gaining new texture. I had been deader, and now was more alive.
And this changed my behavior, too. I was able to engage more fully with other people. I was able to work more diligently, more deeply, more seriously – to feel passion for things in a way I hadn’t before. In short, I became slightly more human, and (hopefully) a little bit more conformed to the image and likeness of the Lord.
All this came as something of a surprise to me. I’d begrudgingly admitted that maybe using pornography would lead me to objectify women I was romantically interested in (although I didn’t really even believe that), but it never really occurred to me that its effects would be so much wider than that. Again, it’s something that I have trouble explaining, and something that I don’t think I could have seen or believed without the experience of it. Embodied commitment to the Lord led to a new sight of the truth.
From new insights to new commitments
However, not everything I saw about myself when I quit using pornography was positive. As I got better and better at identifying the effects it had had on me, I started to recognize certain other things having similar effects. There were other more subtle behaviors that I realized were driven by lust, and that had the same dehumanizing effect on me. I tried to deny this perception for a long time because they were things that in themselves weren’t objectively forbidden in Scripture. But when time after time I saw the same behavior resulting in the same effects, I eventually recognized that I would have to change them. Again, I prayed to the Lord and struggled to stop those behaviors; again, He’s given me the strength to change. From belief to confession to obedience to deeper belief again.
In some of these areas I still find myself failing. I still have struggles with lust, and even greater struggles with other sins of arrogance and self-idolatry. But because I’ve seen what the Lord can do, I’m not about to give up the battle – I know He’s fighting for me. That, to me, is what faith means, what allegiance means: to continue to fight as if from my own power to obey the Lord; to acknowledge while doing so that it is the Lord alone who fights for me; and to believe that because He has already conquered hell, He can conquer it in me, so that I can be joined more closely to Him and more fully reflect His love and wisdom in the world. This last point, I believe, is the purpose of faith. I hope to take that up in the final post in this series.
(Image copyright: flynt / 123RF Stock Photo)