Benjamin Vrbicek is a teaching pastor at Community EFC in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Brooke, have six children. He earned an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. Benjamin blogs regularly at Fan and Flame and is the author of Don't Just Send a Resume and the co-author of More People to Love. You can follow him on Twitter @BenjaminVrbicek.
Struggling Against Pornography, Not With It
An excerpt from "Struggle Against Porn: 29 Diagnostic Tests for Your Head and Heart"
Someone teased me the other day that the two books I’ve written are books people can’t read in public.
The first book helps pastors during the job search process. You can’t read that one in public because congregants might think you’re leaving. The second book has the word “PORN” in giant letters on the cover, so you’re not going to catch guys reading that one at Starbucks, either.
In all seriousness, I began to study the roots of sexual sin and what brings freedom not because I was frustrated with the men and women in my church, but because I was frustrated with myself as a pastor. I knew many were struggling with pornography, yet in discipleship and counseling meetings, I didn’t think I was very helpful. Long before this material became a book, I just wanted to become a more helpful pastor. If I did have aspirations to write a book, it was only for a booklet—that is, something I might be able to hand out as a reference. The more I researched and wrote, though, the booklet kept expanding, eventually outgrowing the need for its original suffix.
With that, I’d love to share with you the introduction to my book, Struggle Against Porn: 29 Diagnostic Tests for Your Head and Heart.
My oldest son is eight years old. He loves sports, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, riding his bike, and wrestling with his dad. I loved these same things when I was eight.
It’s also the age I was first exposed to pornography.
At the time, our family lived in England. In a barbershop, I stumbled upon a newspaper and, on page 3 in shades of black ink on gray paper, there she was. I took her home to my bedroom and closed the door. My brother and I pinned her to our toy dartboard. I don’t know why we did this, but then again, we were kids. It would be many years before we’d learn the end game, the telos of pornography. Ms. Page 3 was quickly confiscated, but more than 25 years later, I still remember the angle of her head and the way she positioned her arm.
Like me, most men can remember their first exposure to pornography. Author Jared Wilson writes:
“I was in fifth grade the first time I saw pornography. A schoolmate had brought his father’s Penthouse magazine on the bus. I have forgotten a lot of pornography since then, but those images are still burned into my brain. This is part of the pernicious evil of pornography. You can’t unsee the depravity that changes you.” (The Prodigal Church, p. 203)
Tragically, for some men, “the first” opens a faucet that never turns off, sometimes it pours, sometimes it trickles, but always and steadily the pollution runs. These men are no longer eight and love Ninja Turtles. Now they have a job, a family, a 30-year mortgage—and a porn addiction.
Sometimes these men end up in my office looking for help. What should I tell them? What should I tell you?
There’s a classic Mad TV skit with Bob Newhart where he plays a therapist. For several minutes, a woman named Katherine confesses her struggles to him, asking for advice on how to overcome them. Among other things, she fears being buried alive. She can’t even ride in elevators or drive through tunnels.
Dr. Switzer, Newhart’s character, then asks if Katherine is ready to hear what she should do. She takes out a pen and paper, and Dr. Switzer leans forward with an impassioned voice and says, “Stop it!” After a quizzical look from Katherine, he repeats himself: “S-T-O-P, new word, I-T...I mean, you don’t want to go through life scared of being buried alive in a box, do you? I mean, that sounds frightening.”
The skit goes on until she’s thoroughly exasperated.
I’d like to think my pastoral counseling is better than this, but too many meetings have ended in my frustration—not frustration aimed at the person looking for help but rather frustration that recoils back upon me. Too often I’ve just nodded my head as I’ve listened to men who struggle with pornography. After some awkward pauses, I’ve made a few comments about the gospel and told the guy he should read his Bible, get some accountability and, well, just stop. S-T-O-P.
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know this approach borders on malpractice. I need to stop. I need to cease being lame and light on gospel application. I need to quit healing the wounds of God’s children lightly. I need to stop saying, “it will be okay,” when it’s not okay.
Instead, I want to have something helpful to offer men who struggle with pornography. Something soaked in the gospel. Something both powerful and practical. My church—all churches—are filled with men who desire to turn off the faucet that keeps contaminating everything with toxic sludge, but they don’t know how. It’s been running for so long, and there have been so many failed attempts to seal it that they’ve finally lost hope.
The pornography sea change
These issues will only increase as technology becomes more advanced and pornography becomes more abundant. I even wonder to what extent pornography drives much of the technological advancements we enjoy in other nobler applications.
Andy Crouch, in his book, The Tech-Wise Family, refers to technology as that which promises its users “easy everywhere.” And there is nothing, he notes, “in our society that has surrendered more completely, and more catastrophically, to technology’s basic promise, easy everywhere, than sex.” A report by The Witherspoon Institute—a religiously, politically, and professionally diverse group—noted that “today’s internet pornography is qualitatively and quantitatively different than any that has come before it.” It’s for this reason that Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argues digital technology has even weaponized pornography. The danger is made all the more real as an average high school student with a smartphone can now blur the lines between porn producer, distributor and consumer, which is why The Barna Group refers to our time as “Porn 2.0.”
We are experiencing a sea change.
Think about this with me. There was a day when lingerie was only advertised on mannequins. Now it’s strutted down runways on women wearing angel wings. Recently, while at an airport with my wife and young children, a Victoria’s Secret storefront played this looped footage on two seventy-inch televisions. This certainly reflects a change in social acceptance.
Consider how Playboy magazine remained largely inaccessible to young men—save when some kid nabbed one from his dad’s secret stash—and those who were old enough to buy pornography for themselves could only do so by enduring the stigma of buying a plastic-wrapped magazine from behind the counter. Maybe not a big hurdle, but it was at least some obstacle. And let’s not forget: even once obtained, these magazines offered only motionless images. Videos existed, of course, but again, accessibility limited exposure.
Fast-forward a few decades and suddenly everything’s different. Smartphones, nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi and high-speed internet provide all manner of pornographic media in seconds—millions and millions of photos and videos. All affordable, all accessible and all anonymous. If someone gets bored with one website, he or she can go to another. And another. Miss January, Miss February and Miss March are now separated not by 31 days but by the millisecond it takes to swipe a thumb right.
And it doesn’t stop there. Internet-linking techniques and pop-up windows push consumers toward increasingly explicit material. Today’s videos aren’t the same as yesterday’s. Instead, like heroin that’s been boiled down to its most concentrated form, the porn streaming now has been cropped to include only the most explicit content. Forget the paltry attempts at plot. Instead, people everywhere watch clip after clip after clip of nothing but bodies slapping together.
Every last bit is affordable, accessible, anonymous, abundant and addictive. And I’ve not even mentioned how advancements in virtual reality will further compound the problem.
See what I mean? We’re experiencing a sea change, and the worst of it might still be on the horizon.
To struggle against or with?
I should talk for a moment about how I want to word things. I’m not writing for those who struggle with porn but for those who struggle against porn. There’s a huge difference.
To struggle against sexual sin is to be proactive. It means sounding the bugle and marshaling the troops. It means combating your sin, not being a passive victim. More importantly, to struggle against lust means you know there is something—indeed many things—worth fighting for.
A few years ago, if someone had asked me, “what does it look like to struggle against pornography?” I’m not sure I would have had an answer. I’ve wanted a resource that would help Christians, in the words of the apostle Paul, “put to death...sexual immorality” and to “walk by the Spirit, and...not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Col 3:5; Gal 5:16).
Let me be clear. The following aren’t “steps” one must follow in a particular order. They’re strategies for storing ammo for your weapons; they’re exhortations to put on your Kevlar vest; they’re suggestions about what to do when temptation catches you behind enemy lines. I want you to have an arsenal of options to fight this war. I want you to be equipped, as John Owen famously wrote, to be killing sin, lest it be killing you. “There is no safety against it,” he writes, “but in constant warfare.”
It’s tempting to become weary with all these war and battle metaphors. Christian literature aimed at men (there’s another one) is full of it. But so is the Bible: be on your guard (Luke 12:15; 1 Cor 16:13); put sin to death (Rom 8:13; Col 3:5); be ruthless (Matt 5:29–30); fight the good fight (1 Tim 1:18); suit up with proper armor (Eph 6:12–18; cf. Isa 59:17); serve as a soldier (2 Tim 2:4); and on and on it goes. Perhaps the Bible speaks this way so often because God doesn’t view the battle against sin as a metaphor. It really is a battle.
But it might be helpful to change the imagery if only to keep things fresh. Look at it like this: When you bring your car to a mechanic, unless the front is crinkled like cardstock the mechanic will ask you to describe the problem. Maybe you’ve noticed a funny sound when you brake or a wobble when you coast. Or maybe the check engine light just came on and you’re not sure why. These days the mechanic will connect your car to a computer to run a diagnostic checkup.
This is how I view the following strategies. They’re diagnostic checkups for your head and your heart, all with the view to help you slay lust and cultivate love. They’re written so you can drive hard after God—for his glory, for the advancement of his kingdom, and for the flourishing of his world.
Without frequent tune-ups, any car will turn into a beater that sputters like an old man with emphysema. You don’t want that, and neither do I. Neither does your heavenly Father. He wants you to dump sin so you can race light and lean with your high beams pointed at Jesus (Heb 12:1–2).
The full version of Struggle Against Porn: 29 Diagnostic Tests for Your Head and Heart by Benjamin Vrbicek is available on Crossway’s website and Amazon.