While many believe problematic sexual behavior has steadily increased since the dawn of the sexual revolution, it is only in recent years that we have been able to more fully comprehend the impact of these behaviors on the formation of the spiritual and psychological aspects of personhood. Specifically, the emergence of sexual addiction has forced a conversation in Christian circles about topics dismissed 20 years ago.
The landscape has changed with the advent of more personalized technology and the privatization of behavior. No longer is pornography purchased at the drug store counter or gas station or viewed on a VCR on the single television in the house; rather, it is stored away in the hidden areas of our cell phones, tablets and laptops, where its secrecy compounds the shame of its existence. We must understand that in today’s virtual world, pornography is a predator, stalking the far corners of the internet for its prey. Even if we never seek it out, the industry is working hard to find a way to get it in front of us, from pop-up ads to spam email. For the masses, it takes just one click to be swept away in a flood of adrenaline, devouring countless images in a mindless binge. The onslaught can cause entrapment in an addictive cycle that leads to a range of emotions that compete for control and leaves the individual more and more isolated.
With enough repetition, the behaviors associated with acting out sexually become ritualized and reflexive, and one manages one’s emotional state through sex. Thoughts, locations and behaviors, as well as the emotional state in which they commonly occur, can become triggers that initiate an urge to participate in the addictive behavior.
According to Dr. Mark Laaser of Faithful and True Ministries, sexual struggles of an addictive nature involve the meeting of a legitimate emotional need through compulsive sexual behavior. According to Dr. Pat Carnes, the grandfather of the sexual addiction movement, sexual addiction is considered a pathological relationship to a mood-altering experience.
“When His Advisors Were Away…”
“In the spring time, when his advisors were away at war…” (2 Samuel 11:1). NIV
One method for discovering the origins of sexual addiction draws on the breadth of scientific literature as well as Scripture. This model seeks to provide deeper understanding into the nature of the struggle so that counselors and ministers can be even more effective in journeying alongside those in need of help. This model recognizes that sexual struggle begins with isolation. This source of entrapment is nothing new. When King David ruled over Judah he reached new heights of acclaim, and was lauded for leading many military victories. When the time came to battle the Ammonites, David “sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites… However, David stayed behind in Jerusalem.
“Late one afternoon… David got out of bed and was walking on the roof of the palace. As he looked out over the city, he noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath. He sent someone to find out who she was, and he was told, ‘She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ Then David sent messengers to get her; and when she came to the palace, he slept with her” (2 Samuel 11:2-4).
David finds himself isolated and elects to soothe his angst through communing with flesh instead of God. He fills his legitimate need for connection with an illegitimate solution.
One of the common patterns for individuals struggling with problematic sexual behavior is “re-sensitization”: when one becomes consciously aware again of the emotional state that was medicated or numbed with sex. This initiates remorse and regret, common byproducts of sexual acting out; the greater one’s sense of shame and despair in this process, the more likely that person will act out in the same way in the future. Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden underscores the motivation for this behavior. After they disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they “heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees” (Genesis 3:8).” We can see from the experience of our first ancestors that the primary function of shame is to protect our sense of insufficiency by replacing it with inauthenticity. In short, shame leads people to build a façade to try to appear healthy from a distance, but the more they let people in, the greater the chance of their struggle being discovered.
The shame evidenced in this façade creates cognitive dissonance, fractures in the mind and heart. Paul the Apostle expresses this honestly, revealing the pain he feels by not living authentically: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway” (Romans 7:15–19).
Such self-awareness and public confession is rare. And when it comes to the highly charged topic of sexuality, the addict remains detached from other people to avoid being exposed, resulting in a return to a state of isolation that fuels the next addictive cycle.
Although an addiction can be incredibly powerful in controlling one’s life, there is a greater power that can free a person from this sense of bondage: the Spirit of the Lord. The most essential aspect of any recovery or healing process is a deepening sense of God at work in the life of the individual. Also essential is a commitment to not only sobriety of thought and behavior, but to filling the void created by ceasing the sexual behavior with things like prayer, Scripture reading and worship. Many, however, attempt to experience transformation in a vacuum, persisting in the same sense of isolation that fostered the sexual struggle in the first place.
To paraphrase John Wesley, there is no personal holiness without public holiness. Healing from sexually addictive behavior necessitates that one learns how to form more healthy patterns in relationships than he or she has experienced previously. This is where the Body of Christ becomes critical in overcoming this struggle.
No One An Island
Community: “Now you are the Body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.”
The first step in helping others to live sexually pure lives is to engage them in community. Recall that is why God created man and woman in the first place. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him” (Genesis 2:18). We are created with a desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Our desire for belonging is a reflection of our desire to know God and to be known by Him and to know that we belong to a community of grace and compassion. That is exactly what God calls people to be, in a most literal sense, as we take part in His new life. “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Healing happens in community. It is an intentional process. Simply showing up and hiding in the anonymity of the crowd will not suffice. We are created for deep and meaningful connection at every level of our being, and not just connection at the sexual and marital levels, but meaningful connection with those with whom we interact. Establishing a sustainable sobriety in the aftermath of sexual addiction requires that we move into a place of authentic intimacy with others.
A 12-step recovery group can be an important starting point for those who are just beginning this journey.
There they will find a place where they are understood in ways most individuals struggling with sexually addictive behavior have never experienced. As a result they will be challenged and held accountable in ways that only those who have previously struggled and been healed can offer.
Space for the Hard Things
Confession: “Confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned!” (Nehemiah 1:6b).
When there is participation in community and a growing sense of connection in discipleship and recovery, there is space for confession. True confession is penetratingly honest, and recognizes the extent of calamities caused by unhealthy motives. Nehemiah demonstrated such deep confession when he learned that the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the people in disgrace. And the root of sin implicated not just him individually but his family and, by association, the community. “O Lord, God of heaven… who keeps His covenant of unfailing love with those who love Him and obey His commands, listen to my prayer… I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:5-6).
Some folks struggling with sexually addictive behaviors are liberated instantly from their struggle. Most, however, reflect Peter’s denial in spite of his guilt when he denied he was a follower of Jesus. After Jesus was arrested and Peter was near where Jesus was being held, “Peter was standing by the fire warming himself, they asked him again, ‘You’re not one of His disciples, are you?’
“He denied it, saying, ‘No, I am not.’
“But one of the household slaves of the high priest… asked, ‘Didn’t I see you out there in the olive grove with Jesus?’ Again Peter denied it” (John 18:25-26).
When community is healthy and connection is authentic, there is room for confession, the freedom to be real, as a means of deepening holiness. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, each cycle of struggling and slipping— when met with grace for what has happened and challenge to learn from it, so as to not repeat that mistake— is a successive approximation toward healthy spiritual, emotional and sexual living.
“You Are That Man”
Confrontation: “Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are that man’” (2 Samuel 12:7a).
Much like healthy community empowers space for confession, it also opens the door for confrontation: specifically, the gentle, reflective prompting of a greater sense of insight or self-awareness. When David’s best friend Nathan told him how a rich man took the only animal a poor man owned and killed it for food, David was outraged. Then Nathan said, “You are that man” (2 Samuel 12:7), referring to David’s relationship with Bathsheba. “Then David confessed to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’” (vs. 13).
Those who have struggled with sexually addictive behavior have done so, at least in part, due to a lack of self-awareness or insight. Rather than screaming at David, it is possible that Nathan instead used a voice that was more consistent with the story he used to evoke David’s anger. Confrontation, when misused, can drive a wedge of isolation that sends people back to their problematic behavior. But when used correctly, it can be the means of grace that keeps them rooted in the Father’s arms.
How can you grow in your capacity to help foster sexual purity in the lives of those in your world, your community, your church and your home? Whatever small step you can take today, go and do so.
By Dr. Todd Bowman