I hardly need to introduce the subject matter of pornography. All of us know what it is, and many of us are aware of the chokehold that it has on society today. What was once regarded as a habit or indulgence of men only is quickly being picked up by women as well. While many people are still either trying to defend porn or advocate for its use, numerous studies have shown the terrible and negative impact it has on the human brain.
In summary, pornography rewires our brain. It changes the way we think and causes our relationships with real human beings to suffer. In the marriage relationship, it becomes increasingly harder for the partner who is hooked on porn to be intimate because they are getting their pleasure and intimacy from a computer.
As a result of our brains becoming rewired, our desires and thinking changes. Christians are not immune to this. While our hearts are made to love, cherish and desire Christ above all things, instead a rotten seed is planted that shifts our attention and love toward a sinister, glory-stealing idol. To fight this rewiring in our brains, we don’t just need behavior change or accountability but we need a heart change that reorients our desires and thinking!
Pornography, like most sins we face, is a problem that we say we want to fight – until the temptation hits. It is often in these moments where the rotten seed blossoms and overwrites what we know to be true about Christ our Savior and the reality of our sin. For this reason, it is helpful for us to know how Scripture applies to us in those moments, helping us to remember the weight of our sin and the beauty of Christ.
Below are 8 questions to ask yourself in the midst of facing a temptation from pornography. These questions are based on the beautiful passage, Philippians 2:1-11. They are also adapted from a series of questions laid out by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp in their book how people change (page 168).
1. Porn, you look beautiful to me right now, but when did you ever leave your place of prominence and glory to humble yourself for me?
2. Porn, when did you ever enter my world to suffer on my behalf?
3. Porn, when did you ever shed your blood so that I could be cleansed from my sin?
4. Porn, when were you ever raised from the dead on my behalf?
5. Porn, when did you ever promise to give me new life and power?
6. Porn, when did you ever promise to send the Holy Spirit that would help me to please God?
7. Porn, when did you ever promise to intercede for me to my Father in heaven, so that I could be strong during this trial?
8. Porn, when did you ever promise to come again and redeem me from the things that capture me and make me their slave, like you?
Earlier this week I published a short excerpt and elaboration from Paul Tripp’s In the Redeemers Hands, a book on what it means for Christians to help apply the gospel to the lives of one another. It should be no secret that I love everything that comes from Paul Tripp’s ministry, and so to that end I am going to share another excerpt from this same book. This passage needs no elaboration from me. Allow this illustration to simmer, and reflect on the seriousness of sin.
A woman once approached me during a seminar on this material and asked, “If I have the Bible in my hands and the Holy Spirit in my heart, why do I need to be counseled by others?” How would you answer her? Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the Wonderful Counselor of the church. He enables us to understand God’s Word, convicts us of sin, works in us a willingness to obey, and enables us to do what we have been called by God to do. But does this mean that I no longer need one-on-one ministry? You could use the same logic to argue that you don’t need public worship and the public ministry of the Word. This woman was missing something significant, which is captured by a few short verses in Hebrews: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:12-13).
There is a lot packed into these two short verses. First, notice that the passage is written to “brothers,” that is, to believers. The writer us addressing issues that are part of the normal life of every Christian. He is not talking to those outside the faith or to some special class of believers. The writers is saying that there is something in each of us that places us in danger, and because of that, we need the daily ministry of others.
Next, look at the content of the warning: “See to it that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving (i.e. turning away, ultimately hardened) heart.” The fact that there is a need for this kind of warning should get our attention. What is being described here is a process, one I have seen many times in people I have counseled.
It all starts with the person giving in to the sinful desires of his or her heart. A married man becomes interested in a woman at work. He thinks about what it would be like to get to know her better. He begins to spend way too much time studying the way she dresses, the look of her face, the way she keeps her hair, and the shape of her body. As he does this, his desires grow. He has not considered a physical relationship, and he is not thinking of leaving his wife at this point. He decides to talk to the woman. What harm could it do? After all, she is a colleague, so he ought to have a good relationship with her.
It isn’t long before they are having long lunches together and talking often during the day. One day he offers to take her home and spends forty-five minutes sitting closer to her on the couch. He touches her hand and tells her how much he appreciates their friendship. On the way home, for the first time he wishes he wasn’t married. When he arrives home he is careful about how he reports on his day. That night he lies in bed next to his wife, thinking about the woman at work. He is progressively giving in to subtle patterns of sin, but he doesn’t see them for what they are.
Yet there is something else going on inside him, the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He is uneasy. He feels a bit guilty. He doesn’t experience the joy he once did at seeing his wife at the end of a long day. He knows he is all too excited to go to work in the morning. He knows he has begun to be more critical of his wife and that he feels a unique kinship with this other woman. So he argues with himself, trying to quiet his conscience. He doesn’t see it, but he is responding to subtle patterns of sin with subtle patterns of unbelief. He tells himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong, that the Bible does not forbid a man’s friendship with a woman, that he is a faithful husband, and that he hasn’t done anything adulterous. He convinces himself that this relationship is a good thing, that he needs more of these kinds of relationships at work, that he has existed too long in the comfortable Christian ghetto, and that God is actually pleased he has reached out to someone.
Not only is he acting upon the sinful desires of his heart, he is subtly backing away from the interpretive authority of Scripture. Giving in to patters of sin has been followed by unbelief, and all the while the man and his wife are actively involved with their church. But underneath, he has begun to lose his spiritual moorings. A childlike trust in and obedience to the Word has been his moral anchor. He had been sensitive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But now he has cut the anchor chain and is adrift. And he doesn’t even know it.
Because he has lost his spiritual moorings, he drifts away further. Before long he and his coworker are leaving lunch and not returning. He begins to volunteer for business trips when he knows she is going. The relationship is increasingly physical. His relationship with his wife is disintegrating, but he doesn’t care. In fact, he wonders why in the world he married her. He is spending more time at work in the evenings and on weekends, and so he is less involved with activities at his church. He has quit reading his Bible and praying; he feels quite trapped by the whole “Christian thing.” His wife pleads with him to go with her for counseling, but he is not interested.
There are more evenings when he doesn’t even come home. Lies fill his conversations with his wife. His pastor pursues and pleads with him, but he is unmoved, no longer attentive to the Word or sensitive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. His heart has become hard. He is not sure he believes “that stuff” any more, and before long he is making plans to leave his wife.
Sinful -> unbelieving -> turning away -> hardened hearts. What a terrifying progression! Perhaps you are wondering, “How could this happen to a believer?” This passage answers the question with its detailed description of how things went wrong. Notice the words in Hebrews 3:13: “so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” This explains why we need the daily ministry of fellow believers.
-Tripp, In the Redeemer’s Hands, 51-53
So over the past weekend, my wife and I met up with some of her friends to go apple picking at a local orchard. If I’m going to be honest, when I go to apple orchards or local farms, I am not excited for the fruit picking so much as I am excited to buy all the cool jams, seasonings, and other products they sell that you can’t find in a grocery store. Maybe this means I have a consumer problem, I’m not sure!
As we were picking the apples, I couldn’t help but notice the thick smell of rotten, vinegary apples that saturated the tree fields. This is because many of the apples had fallen off the tree and for some time had been rotting in the soil. The smell and sight of these nasty apples immediately reminded me of one of my favorite sermon illustrations from Pastor Paul Tripp. I’ve heard him use his illustration of a pulpy apple tree many times before. It is no coincidence then that when I came home and continued reading Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, he used the illustration again! This was clearly a direct sign from God that I needed to blog about it (sarcasm).
Pastor Tripp’s illustration is concerned with addressing the matters of the heart. Tripp is a pastor who is very active and concerned with Biblical counseling. I’ve heard him speak in person at The Gospel Coalition conference, read numerous articles and book excerpts, and heard a handful of sermons. What I love about Tripp’s approach is that he understands how all of our approaches to eradicating and fighting sin in our lives must be concerned with matters of the heart. Too often, he says, our approach to looking at sin in our lives involves just step-by-step plans to prevent behaviors, but the desires of our heart never change.
Let’s take a look at his illustration:
Let’s say I have an apple tree in my backyard. Each year its apples are dry, wrinkled, brown and pulpy. After several seasons my wife says, “It doesn’t make any sense to have this huge tree and never be able to eat any apples. Can’t you do something?” One day my wife looks out the window to see me in the yard, carrying branch cutters, an industrial grade staple gun, a ladder, and two bushels of apples.
I climb the ladder, cut off all the pulpy apples, and staple shiny, red apples onto every branch of the tree. From a distance our tree looks like it is full of a beautiful harvest. But if you were my wife, what would you be thinking of me at this moment?
If a tree produces bad apples year after year, there is something drastically wrong with its system, down to its very roots. I won’t solve the problem by stapling new apples onto the branches. They also will rot because they are not attached to a life-giving system. And next spring, I will have the same problem again. I will not see a new crop of healthy apples because my solution has not gone to the heart of the problem. If the tree’s roots remain unchanged, it will never produce good apples.
The point is that, in personal ministry, much of what we do to produce growth and change in ourselves and others is little more than “fruit stapling.” It attempts to exchange apples for apples without examining the heart, the root behind the behavior. This is the very thing for which Christ criticized the Pharisees. – Instruments in the Redeemers Hands, 63
This illustration is just too good! I am in complete agreement with Tripp, that much of what the Church offers is merely a system of exchanging apples for apples without getting to the heart of the problem. The Bible again and again speaks plainly to this, but I’m not sure why we so often miss it. I love the example God gives us in Jeremiah 2. When God sends Jeremiah to speak to Israel about their numerous sins and lack of faithfulness towards him, what is the message he gives to Jeremiah?
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. – Jer. 2:13
God did not give Jeremiah a list of numerous sins that the Israelites could topically address with any law-keeping system. God was, and has always been, concerned with matters of the heart. And in this case, as it always is, his people were covetous idolaters with a heart problem.
Much could be said to the subject of addressing heart change, but for now I will leave the reader with four questions. When seeking to fight sin in your life, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want to fight your sin simply because you know (intellectually) it is bad? Or is your desire to fight sin growing out of a genuine hatred for your sin and a genuine love for Christ?
- How does the gospel inform how you’re addressing your sin problem? The gospel is applicable to any and all sins.
- Would the world be able to offer the same advice you’re giving yourself? The Christian has a unique advantage in fighting sinful behavior the world does not have: Christ and the Holy Spirit, through the power of the gospel. Don’t waste your time on a 10-step plan to remedying anger that involves “counting to ten” and “going on long walks to alleviate stress.” These steps may be useful, but they don’t address your heart problem.
- Finally, are you merely putting a plan in place that will prevent behavior, or are you applying the gospel to your heart so that your very desires change?