Understanding Sex Addiction

Understanding Sex Addiction October 3, 2012

What do you do when a pornography addiction has taken over your life?  What do you do when your sexual urges are overwhelming your thoughts, your relationships, your power to resist?  Then, what do you do when you’re also a person in a position of moral or spiritual authority — a parent, a teacher, or (God forbid) a pastor?

T.C. Ryan

T. C. Ryan’s Ashamed No More is a courageous, compelling and thoroughly necessary account of the struggles of sex addiction, the ways in which the Christian church can make those struggles more acute, and of the ragged and difficult and extremely complex matter of finding freedom on the other side of bondage.  Tom Ryan is a pastor who struggled with sex addictions of one sort or another throughout his life.  In his adult life, the primary expression of his sex addiction seems to have been a struggle with pornography.

I used to teach a class at Park Street Church in the center of Boston on sin and addiction.  In my view, sin and addiction are all but indistinguishable.  Fundamentally, sin is not a matter of doing this or that.  Lying and adultery are sins.  But sin, the essence of sin, is rejecting the will of God.  Rejecting his authority, his provision, his love and truth, his goodness and trustworthiness.  It is God who gives us being and freedom and truth.  We are created to be who we are and therefore to find a life that is truly true and free and good in a relationship of unceasing trust and rest and receptivity in God.  Therefore, the very definition of disobeying God, of breaking that relationship, is bondage.  In servanthood to God, we find being and truth and freedom.  In the rejection of God, we find unbeing and untruth and unfreedom — we find that we lose ourselves in darkness, deception and enslavement to false gods.

Yet this is what philosophers would call the phenomenological structure of addiction.  When the addict says “It wasn’t me, it was the drink,” there’s a very real sense in which they’re correct.  The addict is not himself, lacks the power to choose himself or to choose the God that creates him.  The addict is incapable of seeing the world honestly.  He truly believes that he is able to function, that this will be his last drink or drug or porn video, or (most perniciously) that he can overcome the addiction by himself.  And the addict may truly believe that he is embracing his freedom, that he’s “doing whatever the hell I want to do,” but the truth is that his will is divided, he is at war against himself, and like Paul in Romans 7, he does what he wills not, and does not what he wills.

All addiction is sin, and all sin is addictive.  Addiction replaces God with an idol, and idols always enslave.  You as a created human being have only two options: serve the will of God, or be who you are not.

You may not suffer from the classic addictions.  But I’m convinced that we all have our addictions.  Addictions to the black devils: theft, violence, substance abuse.  Or addictions to the white devils: admiration, achievement, comfort.  Sin, addiction, is when something other than God dictates our behavior, and false gods give their pleasures — and snare us with them.

Sexual addiction, like other addictions (and perhaps more than most), distorts who we are.  It presents a false image of our character and our freedom.  Ryan captures this well:

That pornography distorts our humanity is what no one in the sex industry seems to admit, and most of us who have used the products of the sex industry for our own gratification don’t see it or don’t want to admit it either. Saying that porn cheapens our sexuality doesn’t go far enough. Porn magnifies human sexuality, distorts it, makes it larger than reality and isolates it for trade—I’ll show you this and you give me that. At the same time, it makes the magnificence of being a creature made in the image of God something as insignificant as ink on paper or pixels on a screen. It’s a most malicious smearing of the divine image in us. Simply put, porn is uncompromising, progressive, destructive evil.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I’ll talk about “overcoming” sex addiction (and other addictions, since the principles are largely the same even though the application will differ).  But for now let me spell out a couple points that flow from the above:

FIRST: None of us — not a single one — has good reason to look down on addicts.  We are all sinners; ergo, we’re all addicts.  Those of us who have the Spirit of God within us are empowered in ways we were not before, but we still fall into the clutches of our idols time and again.  Whether your addiction is compulsive eating or spending, drugs or drinking, sex or pornography, adrenaline or control, power or money or fame, admiration and achievement, family or friends, comfort or entertainment or spiritual pride, it’s an addiction nonetheless and best recognized as such.

SECOND: In fact, there’s a sense in which the more obvious addictions are more destructive to the body, and the less obvious addictions more destructive to the soul because we don’t recognize them as addictions and therefore don’t recognize our need for help.  The person who has recognized his sin is closer to forgiveness and reconciliation than the “righteous man” who does not recognize his need for grace.

THIRD: There simply is no human solution to this problem.  But addictions are not there to be solved.  The first good that God can bring from an addiction is to help us see ourselves — and our need — honestly.  Like The Law, addiction points us toward our need for grace.  Addicts — and I’ve seen this countless times — are more likely than others to come to God not because they find in God a crutch, but because their addictions show them the truth of who they are.  Like all suffering, addiction makes us visible to ourselves in all our powerlessness and our enslavement and our absolute need for God.

But know this: your addiction is not about showing your power, as though you will tell a glorious story (a story, to be clear, that gives you glory) of overcoming through your own strength and resolve.  It’s about showing you your powerlessness apart from God, and God’s power in you when you surrender yourself to him.

Note: This post is a part of a sponsored discussion on Ashamed No More.  Our partners do not pay for reviews, for obvious reasons, but Patheos works with publishers and filmmakers who want to make a difference in order to host conversations on the themes raised in their books and films.  



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  • jehu limma

    Great article Timothy! I found some people tend to judge when you share your problems, without realizing that we all are sinner except Jesus Christ. After reading your article, i remember the woman caught in adultery and brought before Christ, but Christ never condemned her though He was just to do. Others were condemning her without realizing that they were sinners just like that woman. I think, we Christians should be more gracious, more humble, and more loving people to others. Thanks for this wonderful article. Waiting for the other article on this topic..

  • R.C.

    Great article.

    But I think more needs to be said on the historically important Christian practice of detachment from creatures. (By “creatures” we mean: Created things, things which are good but less good than the ultimate good, which is God.)

    Fasting is a Christian practice which Christ clearly assumes will be commonplace amongst Christians: “When you fast, don’t do it the way the hypocrites do it….” It is straightforward that all Christians should be doing as Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do: Regular disciplines of fasting, and not just in the area of food.

    Of course, this should not be done “as the hypocrites do it”: Not as a form of prideful self-righteousness.

    But we ought to become detached from our idols: The computer, the television, the smartphone, the food, the drink, the entertainment. From our teenage years we ought to inculcate the habit of telling our pleasure-driven bodies and our entertainment-driven brains, “No, you don’t always get what you want, when you want it. You, my body, are a living sacrifice; you my brain, are a living sacrifice; you, my carnal self, must be transformed by the renewing of my mind. As an act of will I abstain from the lesser goods, for a time, in order to train and discipline body and brain to learn how to identify the greater good which is Christ. I give up that for which I long, in order that I might teach myself to long for Him who is the only rightful object of all my longings.”

    After all, pornography is very attractive. Masturbation to pornography is addictive; the site YourBrainOnPorn gives us enough information to understand that. How can our willpower be strong and disciplined enough to fight off such a powerful attractant unless we have previously trained it? But we regularly give in to our desires for television, for snacks between meals, for games now and music now and food now and video-on-demand.

    And the vast amount of premarital fornication and masturbation (even apart from porn) demonstrates to us that we want sex now, or at least orgasm now. When the whim arises, we want it now.

    This is not the way to spiritual maturity, brethren. This is not submission to the Law of Christ. Food is a good thing; sex is a good thing; entertainment is a good thing. All these things are permissible, but, I would be ruled by nothing.

    How do you know you aren’t ruled by one or more of these things?

    Well, give it up for a while. Let’s see if you can. If you can, great! If not, you have identified one of your addictions, one of your idols. Among the Ten Commandments, the first one is not the least important, friends.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great points, R. C. Many thanks.

  • I’m so glad you made the point that none of us has the right to condemn any addict. Most of us are addicts of some form or another.

    The media tends to moralize about sex addiction, “Excuse for cheating” “Excuse for bad behavior.” Nobody talks about other addictions that way.

    I guess it goes back to the incredibly strong like between sin and sex. This cultural shaming of the sex addict is one of the things that makes it so hard to get help.