Pornography is not usually about sex. Sexual addiction is often a symptom of a deeper heart issue, and while we must correct behaviors and habits, if we never get below the surface in our counseling we will not ultimately be helpful. To help a sex addict, we must understand what heart motivations drive them towards sexual sin.
It is, of course, never easy to get to the heart of someone’s problem, to uncover their motivations. There’s no formula, but good questions can help us unpack such motivations. We should ask questions about the nature of their sin: what do they do; what do they view; what do they desire? We should ask questions about the timing and location of their sin: where are they most tempted; when are they most tempted; how do they spend their time? We should ask questions about life: what’s going on in their life right now; how do they deal with stress; what do they most want out of life; how do they deal with disappointment? The more questions we ask the better our picture of their struggle will be, and the deeper we can get into understanding their heart motivations.
Rarely are the motives simply tied to sex. Sexual sin is related to so much more of our lives than simply biology. As you ask good questions it is likely that you will begin to see various motives at work in the heart of your counselee. There are a number of important/common motivations that tempt people to give in to sexual sin. Exploring each of these common motives will help us to see the deeper issues at work in sexual addictions.
Some people turn to sexual sin because they are bored. Perhaps their life is not as exciting as they want it to be, not as dramatic as they had hoped, and sexual sin, in particular, offers a tantalizing outlet for fun. This can be an especially important motivation for those who have struggled with pornography for years. They train their brain to default to lust when they have nothing else to occupy their mental activity. It’s a default setting. Some people eat when they are bored, some lust. It’s important to help people identify this trigger, and more important for them to see that they are not entitled to be entertained all the time. The idolatry of pleasure lies deep at the root of this tree. It is not their right to never be bored. Begin to help them unpack this, even as you offer them helpful strategies for dealing with their boredom in more God-honoring ways.
But this is not to suggest that there is no place for joy in our lives. Good counseling will help a person seek healthy joy, godly joy. Joy that comes from the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:22). The Scriptures teach us that God invites His children into joy. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Jesus himself invites his disciples to take part in His joy (John 15:11; 17:13). True joy can be found in God alone. Good counsel will help sexual addicts find greater expressions and experiences of joy in Christ.
Other people turn to sexual sin because they are stressed. A bad day at work does not cause a man to lust. The two are not connected in that way. But sexual climax can provide a sense of relief from stress. In a healthy marriage sexual intimacy between a husband and wife can be a great way to unwind from a hard day. Sexual sin, however, is never healthy. For many a young man and many a woman life’s pressures can be a driving force behind their abuse of sex. People use promiscuity and pornography as outlets for “de-stressing.” One young woman I counseled mentioned that after an especially hard week she would convince herself that she “deserved a little fun.” She saw it as a way to unwind and unload baggage. In one sense pornography and masturbation can become a means of comfort for people. Only this comfort never truly achieves its intended purpose. Relaxation only comes for a brief moment. Sexual addicts need to see more clearly from where true comfort comes.
The Spirit of God is called our “comforter” in John 14:25-31. The Holy Spirit provides comfort for the stressed. He can give peace and rest. We can find relaxation in the confident assurance of God’s care and provision when we are willing to meditate upon it and seek it. Lust, masturbation, pornography, and promiscuity do not provide true comfort. Sexual sin doesn’t deal with the issues that are causing stress, and sin only compounds our problems. Brad Hambrick has keenly noted:
If the motive of stress leads you to sexual sin, then examine whether your “comfort” is real or a form of relational self-medication (False Love, 35).
Self-medication never deals with problems; it only numbs us for a while to the frustration and pain we feel. We need to help people see the absurdity of this kind of escapism, and then help them address the issues that “stress them out.” We need to point them to greater comfort in God’s Holy Spirit.
For still others there is a desire for intimacy. My one friend’s biggest fear when dating was facing rejection. When he found those same fears realized in marriage, he turned to pornography. This may sound like it’s about sex, but my friend doesn’t see it that way. In fact, as we spent time working through his heart issues, he came to see his porn addiction as a type of self-medicating against his own loneliness. The more he indulged in this sin the less he thought about how his wife refused to sleep with him. If I were to have talked to him only about sexual issues, about lust, we would never have gotten to this place where he began to see his real need was intimacy, not simply orgasm. That breakthrough was huge for him, and though lust is certainly an issue (and one he continues to address) there has been greater success for him in fighting temptation as he has sought out a healthy relationship with his wife.
Of course we do not always find the level of intimacy we are seeking in other people. There are seasons of life where we do very much feel alone. Turning to God in those seasons for the comfort, care, support, and reassurance that we need is important. Pornography has become a friend in these circumstances, one to whom lonely men and women turn for comfort. The Scriptures tell us, however, that we have a true friend in Christ who loves us and proved it by dying for us (John 15:13). We can turn to Christ when we are experiencing loneliness, instead of turning to sexual sin.
Lastly, some are simply hungry for power and control. It would come as no surprise to many to hear that pornography is often about power. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that some porn is simply power eroticized. It’s not the sex, per se, that arouses some men and women, it is the power associated with certain kinds of sexual acts. Many romanticize bondage and sadomasochism, as is evidenced by the recent 50 Shades of Grey mania. But the fusion of hatred and sex should not merely be treated as an issue of sexual lust. There is a power-lust that needs addressing. The long-term damage that exposure and indulgence in this kind of sin can do is serious. All sexual sin views others as objects to be used for our own ends, not as people made in the image of God. But the kind of sexual sin that slaps others, chokes them, or ties them up has profound consequences for how individuals view others. To overlook the heart issues going on here, even if a person is successful in breaking their addictive habits, is to miss the real issues needing attention.
It’s not that lust isn’t part of the problem, of course it is. But sexual sin requires us to see a bigger picture if we are going to actually help others. Porn addiction in particular requires us to look past the computer screen and see what’s really going on. Tim Chester is absolutely correct when he writes:
Porn is never simply a substitute for sex. Indeed, there’s a real sense in which sex is the one thing porn doesn’t offer – not real sex. Your wife may not act like a porn star, but then neither does the porn star – not in real life. Porn is not offering you a real experience of sex. It’s offering a fantasy substitute for power or success or worship or reward. The problem doesn’t lie with your wife, but in your heart (Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free, 39).
If we only offer counsel based on actual behaviors then we will fail to serve and disciple our people well. To be sure we must help them wrestle with their actions. They must stop looking at porn, stop sleeping around, and stop fantasizing about others. But, our counsel must promote more than just behavioral modification; we want heart transformation for them.
The heart change isn’t our job. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But we want to help expose the idols of the heart driving them to sexual sin, and then point them to the true promises of God that replace such idols. We want them not to run to porn for reward, but to God, the rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). Think of the woman at the well using sex to find satisfaction for her life, and Jesus comes to her and says, “I can offer you a drink that will quench your thirst forever” (John 4). That’s the kind of transformation we want to set our people up to experience. We want people to run, not to a one-night stand for relief, but to God. Promiscuity can’t give you refuge, but “the Lord is my rock, my fortresses, and my deliverer,” cries the Psalmist (see Psalm 18:1-3). The promises of God address the real heart issues that can help people overcome sexual sin, but if we don’t look past their behaviors we won’t be able to help them.
There are, of course, many other components to long-term counseling of sex addicts. Simply telling them to look to Jesus will not be enough. They need help seeing Jesus more clearly, seeing themselves more clearly, and developing new habits. We must help them put up barriers to sin, involve themselves in serving others (as opposed to using others), and help them to manage their emotions, stressors, and triggers in godly ways. Yet, if we do all this, but fail to help them address the specific heart motivations driving them towards sin, we will not help them truly change.
As you counsel people, ask questions that get to the heart of the issue. Don’t just address their symptoms, but probe into the driving force behind their behaviors. We can fight sexual sin in our churches and alongside our people, but only if we stop looking simply at their sex. Sometimes sexual sin isn’t about sex!
This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of Theology for Life. To download this issue please click here.