Guest Author: Ryan Fraser
As I sat in my office listening to my new client, he told me a somewhat familiar story . . . one about his self-destructive addiction to pornography. The problem started for him when he was an adolescent but had followed him way into adulthood. He had just never seemed to be able to shake this unhealthy and sinful pattern of behavior in the past. But now he had been faced with the harsh reality that either he overcome the pornographic habit or his wife said she would leave him. He was sincerely scared of losing his family and all he loved, but was also somewhat relieved at having been caught. While he suffered from great embarrassment and shame, he confessed that now for the first time in his life he was hopeful that he could get some much-needed help. Our work in therapy had just begun as he embarked upon a long and challenging journey toward recovery.
As a minister, elder, professor, and counselor, I have received many opportunities to help sincere Christian people overcome their secret (or “not-so-secret”) struggles. Addictions come in many shapes and forms, whether it be addiction to drugs and alcohol, to gambling, to eating, to exercise, to sex and pornography, or to something else. But I believe that behind each of these problems is an underlying, common denominator. This intangible is a deep and intrinsic sense of emptiness which the addict is seeking to fill with something. The problem, though, is that what they are resorting to is nothing short of a cheap surrogate for the real thing – namely an intimate connection with God. Only God can fill the existential vacuum that exists within us. Anything else—any replacement or artificial high—ultimately will come up short. Addicts continually seek their next “fix” but it is only God himself who can truly heal their diseased and sin-sick soul.
In the arena of pornography addiction, genuine intimacy with God and with one’s spouse is exchanged for a meaningless connection to an image on a computer screen or in a magazine that represents a fantasy relationship. Once the pornographic encounter, typically accompanied by masturbation, is over, the individual often feels immediate regret, shame, and remorse, but they feel trapped in a vicious ongoing cycle. This cycle if fueled by an insatiable appetite for their next fix—but the sexual appetite is never completely satiated. Moreover, the problem is perpetuated by the presence of dysfunctional patterns that form within the individual’s neural pathways within their mind.
To overcome this particular issue, as with other addictions, there must be a fundamental renewal and transformation of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2). I call this process a “rewiring” process. While it is certainly not an easy feat, and requires tremendous effort and energy, it is possible because “all things are possible with God” (Matt. 19:26). The treatment plan necessitates repentance (a sincere change of heart and redirection) that consists of a complete abstinence from sexualized images, thoughts, and masturbation for an extended period of time. The first 14 days in particular constitutes something of a parallel to detoxing from an addictive substance in one’s system. Physiologically, one might feel as if one is experiencing many symptoms of withdrawal.
With my clients, I establish three phases to our treatment protocol. Each of these phases lasts 40 days (a good biblical number). Phase One entails cessation of the sinful and addictive behaviors with built-in daily accountability procedures as well as positive self-rewards for “sobriety” or “abstinence.” I break this first phase up further into smaller 10-day segments, which are tackled one at a time. My clients are encouraged to keep a calendar to track the progress of their purity/sobriety resolution.
Phase Two is what I call maintenance. New healthy replacement behaviors to engaging in pornography and masturbation are practiced as alternate habits and patterns are firmly established. These new actions slowly but surely become entrenched in the person’s daily life and behavioral patterns.
Phase Three involves what I refer to as anomaly. What I mean by this is that by this point in treatment, though the temptation still exists (and likely always will to some decree) the addict’s transformed thinking and behaviors are so permanently in place that for them to relapse would be rather unusual. It is such a joy for me as a pastoral counselor to see men successfully complete this last phase. Their immense joy and personal sense of accomplishment is inexpressible, as is their healthy self-esteem and reconciled relationships with those they have transgressed. In Christ, these men are “more than conquerors through him who loved” them (Rom. 8:37). They are able to experience the amazing freedom in Christ from the painful consequences of sin in their lives.
Make no mistake – overcoming any addiction is extremely arduous work. It is often a long process that necessitates both individual and relationship (or marriage) counseling to work through effectively. But, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Working through it successfully requires (1) a strong motivation to recover, (2) a well-structured strategy, (3) a solid system of accountability and support, and (4) spiritual disciplines to strengthen the struggler along the journey.
There is no doubt in my mind that God is bigger than addiction, including an addiction to pornography. God has called us to purity and holiness, and he enables us to experience abundant life in him.
Dr. Ryan Fraser was raised in South Africa. He teaches counseling at Freed-Hardeman University, preaches at Bethel Springs church of Christ, and is a Christian non-fiction author.