Porn is Not Ultimately About Sex

by Jared C. Wilson May 6, 2019

Roger and Evelyn* sat uneasily in the two cushy guest chairs in my pastoral study. Evelyn gnawed on her lower lip and stared at the floor. Roger stared at me like a deer in the headlights. What they were about to share with me was something I had heard countless times throughout twenty-five years of ministry, but for them, it was new, it was fresh, it was in some sense “the end of the world.”

Roger had a porn problem. He was late fifties, several decades into a blue collar career, and he had a nose-to-the-grindstone, tough-guy, no-nonsense way about him. He was a guy who whooped every challenge he faced. Except this one.

It was sports websites that had done him in, he explained. He just wanted to check the score of the ballgames, but the sidebar ads were baited too well, and he ended up just making one or two extra clicks to see whatever lurid things they promised.

Evelyn was disgusted. And deeply hurt. She could not see the appeal, could not see why her allegedly mature Christian husband could be so persistently interested in pictures and videos so obviously gross. And she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t enough. She worried he’d grown tired of her, that her age was diminishing her attractiveness to him. Roger’s porn use triggered the deepest-seated insecurity in his wife—that she wasn’t good enough, that she wasn’t lovely, that she wasn’t worthy.

I don’t recall how Roger’s browsing history was exposed, but whatever transpired in the aftermath of this revelation had brought them to their pastor for help. Roger was looking for a good talking-to and a checklist of things he might obey to demonstrate his repentance. Evelyn was hoping he’d get a good talking-to, as well, but mostly she wanted some kind of explanation, and some kind of comfort. Why would Roger do this? And how could she (and they) get past it?

Whether from past church experience past or simply from their own sense of the gravity of the situation, they sat before me broken and burdened, apparently expecting some kind of hellfire and brimstone sermon on holiness.

I looked at them both softly, a gentle smile on my face. I had a few things to share with them, but the most important (in that moment) was this—you are not alone.

Demystifying the Problem

There was a time when porn was reserved for the shadier corners of our culture. Once upon a time, anyone interested in seeing this kind of material had to travel to a seedy part of town and enter a darkened theater. Maybe people passed around magazines. In any event, the use of pornography was somewhat marginalized, something unbecoming of polite society and thought to only appeal to a minute number of society’s perverts. These are the primary reasons the church has struggled to speak to the problem of pornography.

But we can’t ignore the subject any longer. Churches cannot carry on as if porn is some marginal problem in the life of their communities. For one thing, the advent of the home video market and cable television radically increased the availability of illicit material. Porn began to creep out of our culture’s societal corrals and invade more and more homes. And of course, once the Internet age dawned, bringing with it the proliferation of personal computers and handheld devices with easy and instant connection to the World Wide Web, the porn virus became an outright plague.

The first and primary way the church must respond to the problem of pornography is to admit that she herself has this problem. It is not simply a sin out there committed by “those people.” It’s not limited to back alleys and red light districts. It is in the bedrooms and hotel rooms and laptops and mobile devices of her own participants. And in fact, it is a sin that has been engaged in by more of the church’s participants than not. You would be hard pressed to find a man living in the 21st century who hasn’t struggled with porn use and certainly almost all men have had the opportunity to see it.

Understanding the incredible prevalence of the problem helps us to see how engaging the issue is no longer optional. But understanding the incredible prevalence of the problem also helps us to see how we ought to engage the issue in the first place. Because porn is now found appealing by men and women of all ages in all kinds of circumstances and in all places, we must make some important theological deductions about the problem.

For instance, in many church communities over the last several decades, sins like pornography use have essentially become earners of scarlet letters. Porn is seen by many as the unpardonable sin. But if we continue preaching, discipling, and counseling this way, we will soon find that we’ve excommunicated our church into oblivion! So after we’ve brought our perspective on the problem into the 21st century to see just how widespread it is, we then need to bring our discernment about the problem into mankind’s earliest history to see just how universal it is.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

It confused Evelyn to hear that Roger’s porn problem wasn’t simply about sex. It confused her, because pornography is obviously and graphically about sex. But my counsel to them that difficult night included a deeper perspective on the issue that, in the end, she actually found somewhat encouraging.

See, porn use is only superficially about sexual gratification. Like all behavioral sin, however, porn use is about more than it appears. Like the sexual lust that fuels and feeds on pornography—and like all manner of sexual immorality—pornography is essentially about worship. There is something being trusted in to satisfy, to fulfill, to (of course) gratify in the pursuit and consumption of porn that runs deeper than sexual release. This is why, for instance, the porn addict finds that his tastes over time become coarser and coarser, why his pornographic preferences nearly always devolve into material that is “harder,” more extreme, and frequently violent or otherwise more taboo-breaking. If it were simply about the physical release of masturbatory fantasy, the material that appealed at the first would always be enough.

Secondarily, we discover that it’s not just single men or married men in sexless marriages wrestling with the sin of pornography. This is what originally bothered Evelyn so much. She did not see herself as sexually unavailable to her husband. And while their sex life was certainly not as active or carefree as it had been in the early years of their marriage, she generally enjoyed sex with her husband and knew their intimacy was neither uncommon nor unsatisfactory.

To hear that Roger’s susceptibility to porn had more to do with his own insufficient addressing of personal stress, fatigue, and anxiety than it did with his feelings about their marriage bed was an odd kind of relief. Underneath Roger’s sin was a storm of feelings that made him particularly vulnerable to the lure of porn. He was getting older; a sort of mid-life crisis had set in, where he was facing the rather hard truth that he would never be as strong or as healthy as he had been before, which made him feel unattractive and undesirable. He also was under a lot of stress at work, a problem only exacerbated by the weariness of the long hours and an acute sense of not being in control.

None of these are excuses for using porn! It was important for Evelyn to hear that, just as it was important for Roger to hear that. But attacking porn use must mean attacking the dispositions that weaken our resistance to it in times of temptation. When Roger felt tired and weak, his guard was down, and it became easier to justify in the moment how using porn made him (for a brief moment at a time) feel young, desirable, and—above all—in control. The women in porn exist as objects eager to please, specially tuned to the specific appetites of the man consuming them. They (pretend to) enjoy it, and your wish is their command. Porn provides this heady rush of being known and being served.

In that sense, porn is no different from any sin. Every sinful act is the product of a sinful belief, a disbelief in God. Sin is faithless. It is how we demonstrate our distrust in God to satisfy us, comfort us, or provide for us. When we sin, we are saying essentially, “God, you cannot be trusted to meet my needs. Right now I choose instead to trust this.”

The Gospel is the Antidote to Porn Use

The single most important thing a church can do to help combat the lure of pornography (and all kinds of sexual immorality) is make sure the gospel of Jesus Christ is the single most important thing about the church. If Paul is right in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that it is by beholding the glory of Jesus that transforms us, and if he is right in Titus 2:11-12 that it is grace that trains people to renounce ungodliness, and if he is right in Romans 2:4 that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance—and of course, he is—then we cannot expect the routine work of reminding people of the law to do an adequate job. In countless other Bible passages, we see that it is only the gospel that solves our worship problem.

The commands of God are good and holy. Christians are not to ignore God’s laws! And we ought to apply the Seventh Commandment (the prohibition of adultery) to the sin of porn use, as it encompasses much more than physical intercourse with someone one is not married to. But while the law is good, it is only good at what it’s intended to do—reveal the standard by which we’re to live and reveal our falling short of that standard.  The law cannot empower us to obey itself. No, we need the Holy Spirit working through the grace of God for that. Grace is the only “thing” the Scripture refers to as power. So, Christians are not free from the commandments, only the condemnation that comes from them. In a way, we are both free from the law and free to the law. Now we can obey God with joy and gratitude without fear that when we mess up we will be unjustified.

Until we understand that the gospel is the doorway into freedom from sin, even our religious efforts will simply be rearranging idols. What we are facing, as we have seen, is a worship problem. If we are not walking according to the Spirit in the grace of God, all of our efforts to change, including religious efforts, become acts of self-worship conducted according to the flesh. We have to find our satisfaction in Christ; any other fulfillment we seek to replace the idolatry in porn will simply be another idol.

Sean was another man who came to me for counsel about a porn problem. Sean’s wife was not a believer, and this was an endless source of grief to him. But she was also very cold to him. They had sex maybe once or twice a year. This was extremely difficult for him, as well. He missed the feeling of being delighted in. He desperately wanted his wife to be in love with him, and this was in fact a greater desire for him than simply sexual release. But in porn he had found the illusion of delight and a fleeting fulfillment of sexual release.

One thing we had to get to quickly in our times of discipleship together: his wife’s love for him could not be the solution to his porn problem. In other words, while her demeanor toward him was certainly wrong, his choices could not be contingent upon her behavior. Even if she did reliably show love to him emotionally and physically, he should not be trusting in his wife’s feelings for his own sense of approval and validation. Sean’s god was his wife; she was his functional savior. But even godly wives cannot meet this demand, which is why so many husbands of godly wives also fall prey to adulterous lusts. Until we replace the idol of porn with the glory of Jesus found only in the gospel, we will just be switching out one idol for another.

Thomas Chalmers was a fellow who understood this very well. In his classic essay “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Chalmers writes:

It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man, intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects, to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects - but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences . . .

In other words, Chalmers is saying that until a more powerful affection displaces the sinful affection (in this case, lust), we will simply be replacing old sins with new ones. It’s like the addict who is proud of moving on from cocaine to alcohol. Later, Chalmers goes on to extol the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means of subverting worldly affections. Until we have truly tasted and seen that God is good, until we have been set free by the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection, we will simply be trading in one slave master for another, and thus never truly free.

Internet filters, accountability partners, confessions and admissions, and rigorous living can all be good things. But only the gospel gets to the root of the porn problem, because only the gospel presents to us One so glorious he makes all other objects of worship pale, putrid things by comparison.

(* All personal stories are true but the names have been changed.)

This is an edited excerpt from my chapter in The Gospel & Pornography, part of the ERLC's "Gospel for Life" series edited by Russell Moore and Andrew Walker. For more theological and practical help, including in my chapter additional counsel on how pastors and whole churches can help those struggling with porn use, you can purchase it via Amazon here.