If you were to open my email inbox in the morning and read my emails you’d see that, outside of getting emails from publicists, the vast majority of emails I get are from people struggling with an addiction to pornography. Whether on my social media pages or in my email inbox, I’m almost daily corresponding with someone who wants to talk about their struggle with pornography. People are struggling greatly in this area. The good news is that, as Christians, we have hope to offer them in the Gospel.
Pornography and Self-Condemnation
As I talk to people struggling with an addiction to pornography one of the main themes that keeps coming up is self-condemnation. Most of these people are very hard on themselves. They feel an immense amount of guilt and shame.
I know well the struggle of being hard on myself. I’m regularly my own worst critic. Whether it’s after writing an article, a review, recording a podcast, delivering a sermon, or even after Bible study, I’m wondering if I did “good enough”. While I understand that it isn’t my performance that matters, I still care that I do a good job. I want everything I do to be done with excellence. Yet, fear of man’s opinion is real, and craving the approval of man is fleeting. The fear of God is greater. Here we are confronted with the reality of self-condemnation and the hope we have now in Christ.
No More Condemnation in Christ
Jesus began His ministry with a message that was contrary to the message being delivered by the religious leaders. Jesus opened the scroll of Isaiah 61 and read from it. He proclaimed that He came to set the captives free in Luke 4:18. This message is still revolutionary today.
The Gospel is good news for addicts, for people who struggle with fear of man, and the best news in the world for people who struggle with feelings of self-condemnation. The Gospel says that through Christ we are accepted, loved, and even the beloved of God. Our identity is no longer one of self-hatred, self-condemnation, beating ourselves up like we don’t matter, or any such thing. Instead, the Gospel provides the hope of God. The Gospel provides hope and healing, deliverance from feelings of self-condemnation.
Paul opens Romans with a frank discussion on the reality of sin in chapter one. He further continues to show that it’s not our morality that saves in chapter two. He then explains how depraved we are. And finally, at the very end of Romans 3:26, in Romans 3:26 he says, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Paul knows that man left to his own devices will always continue on in sin. He also knows that only the Gospel can provide hope.
He continues on in Romans 4-5 to talk about justification that we can be declared not guilty by Jesus who was utterly innocent and sinless in every way and yet plead guilty so we could be forgiven. In chapter six and seven, Paul teaches about our new identity, and how now as Christians, we still have indwelling sin.
After going deep into the heart of Christian theology, explaining the sinfulness of man, justification, our new relationship with God, and how we can grow in communion with God, Paul opens chapter 8 with an interesting phrase and the focus of this article. He says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Assurance and No Condemnation in Christ
Whenever Paul uses the word “therefore” you one should always take note. He is about to say something very important. Take a minute and think about what Paul is saying here. He has just talked about the sinfulness of man, justification, our new identity, and the reality of indwelling sin. Now he says for those who have union with Christ, they now have communion with Christ—there – there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
When I counsel people dealing with pornography, and I start talking about how they are beating themselves up and being too hard on themselves, they often think I may be cheapening God’s grace. They often feel like they have no hope. They live in a perpetual cycle of false repentance, guilt, and shame. They can’t see it, taste it, or know the grace of God in the midst.
As we work through their issues, we talk about the reality of sin. I ask them to explain the Gospel to me. I ask them lots of questions about their understanding of salvation and whether they are Christians. Often people who struggle with pornography also have issues with assurance of salvation.
In my experience, most of my counselees can articulate an adequate understanding of the Gospel, but can’t explain and don’t understand that their fellowship with God is broken because of their sin. They have security with God, not because of their own works, but because of God. We would not remain Christians, Dr. John Piper has said, one second without the preserving work of God’s grace.
The struggle for many porn addicts is not with understanding the right theological information. Many have been Christians their entire lives. They could give you an answer to any theological question you would ask. Here’s the thing, though—they lack assurance because they don’t understand that their sin is deadly seriously to God. John (in 1 John 1:7-8) tells us that if we say we don’t sin we deceive ourselves. He’s speaking here to the people of God. He’s telling them, like the Apostle Paul does in Romans 6:1, that they can’t just live any way they want.
Paul’s also telling them that if they think they haven’t ever sinned or don’t sin now they are deceived. The reality of indwelling sin is real. This is why John gives us markers to know that we are saved in his epistle. Christians are those who love the truth, love other people, and demonstrate in word and deed that they love God. To use James’ language, we should not only be hearers of the Word, we should be doers of the Word (James 1:22).
You and I can say all the right words till we are blue in the face. We can pledge allegiance to all the right ideas, but miss the point. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Are you in Christ right now? Have you been born again by the Spirit? Can others see even a tiny amount of change in your life? Do you notice even the tiniest sliver of God’s transforming work of grace in your life? This is where the rubber meets the road. We can say the right words, or we can be honest. We can say, “Yes, my sin is offensive,” or we can say, “No, it’s not”. When we open up and be honest with people about our struggles we open ourselves up to questions about our lives.
Earlier I shared my story of how I came out of an addiction to pornography. I was clearly convicted by the Holy Spirit for my sin. Over the course of two Sundays the Lord graciously convicted me of my pride and self-righteousness. He showed me the ugly horror of my sin. The more I grow in my own understanding of the Gospel, the more I grow in the application of the Gospel. The Gospel is the ground, means, and enablement the Holy Spirit uses to grow people in His Church.
Hope for Those Struggling with Self-Condemnation
You might be reading this issue and seriously struggling with feelings of self-condemnation. I want to plead with you right now that there is hope in Christ alone. Your feelings are not supreme, Jesus is. Jesus is greater than whatever you are feeling now. Christ alone justifies the ungodly. He takes enemies and makes them friends. He takes rebels and makes them servants of His grace.
You don’t have to feel this to know it’s true. Your feelings don’t make it anymore less real. Jesus is above our feelings. His standard isn’t our feelings—it’s Truth. Jesus cuts through our fears, dives headlong into the heart of our lives, and transforms our story. He did it with me. He continues to change me from the inside out and gives me a continuing desire for holiness and more of a love for Jesus.
How are your affections doing today? It was an innocent question I asked to one of the people I counseled. He answered me, “To be honest, not well.” Just the other day I asked someone after they had shared a long story of how they were struggling in their walk with God, “When was the last time you spent private time with the Lord?” What I’m really asking here is a spiritual health question. I’m wanting to know how you are really doing, beyond just how your job is, and the whole list of things on your heart and mind. What you’ll share in that moment with me tells me a lot. It tells me if you are taking your cares to the Lord and resting in the Lord or whether you are anxious, struggling with doubt, or more.
Many of us lack practical peace with God because we don’t understand the objective peace of God. Jesus is the standard bearer of our lives. When we feel like beating ourselves up we are in essence saying Jesus isn’t enough for me at this moment, at this time, or perhaps ever. We question God’s goodness and make an assault on God’s character. Instead of trusting in the promises of God, we rely on our own strength. Instead of fearing the Lord, we fear what others will think if we tell them about our struggles. The Gospel frees us to share openly and honestly with one another. It frees us to share about our troubles, our sins, and to find freedom and hope in Jesus.
When I think of Paul’s words in Romans 8:1, that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, I think of the great hope of God in the Gospel. Jesus bled and died in my place and for my sin. There is no more condemnation when I feel condemned. Even in the midst of divine chastisement, there is hope in Jesus. God is shaping me, modeling me, and challenging me to be who I am now in Christ. God’s purposes are far and away greater than my own.
When you feel self-condemnation go to the Word. Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate His Word to you. Regularly dive into the Word of God headlong, and begin devouring the feast that is prepared before you in His Word. Take time daily to pray. Don’t just say a few quick prayers. Linger long in prayer. Listen to worship music. Take time to stoke the fires of your new affections. The feelings of self-condemnation cannot stand a chance against your new affections being stirred afresh for the glory of God.
This is where we need to go—back to the Gospel. We need to return to our first love in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is hope for strugglers in Jesus name. There is hope and healing for those who feel self-condemned but only Jesus can provide it.
I urge you today to run to Jesus. Don’t just look at Him but know Him. Grow in Him. Don’t stay in spiritual infancy beating yourself up and wondering why God isn’t using you. He desires to do more than use you in the lives of others, He desires to remake you. He longs to do a remodel. He wants the image of God that has been marred by sin to shine brightly before others that they might see and know the goodness and greatness of our God.
Some Final Thoughts…
The next time you feel self-condemned, plead guilty to it. There is hope and freedom in the Gospel. Find some good godly friends to share openly with about your struggles. Instead of beating yourself up, think about how Jesus took the punishment you deserve in your place and for your sin. Rehearse the Gospel to yourself. Stop repeating the same story about how much of a “loser” you are, how defeated you are, or how messed up you are. Instead, proclaim the triumph, victory, and exaltation of our great God and King—the Lord Jesus—who reigns in and overall.
Then you’ll begin to find as you do this that those feelings of self-condemnation will be replaced with new thoughts about Christ; about the glory that God called you into because of Christ. You’ll begin to think of how, now in Christ, you are approved by God to be a worker for Him, instead of defeated and a loser. Because of Christ, you are His friend and a servant. I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day, there’s hope and freedom there; not to mention it’s also the power of God in the Gospel.
This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of Theology for Life. To download this issue please click here.