The Wider Battle beyond Lust
Consider our struggle with sin and suffering this way. Imagine a multiplex theater screening many movies simultaneously. Immorality or violation might be the “feature film” advertised on the marquee. But other significant films are playing in other screening rooms. The war with sin, the experience of affliction, and the triumph of grace take place in many places simultaneously.
In ministry to someone who struggles with sexual darkness, you may get the breakthrough in another screening room, in an area that neither of you had noticed or considered to be related. A fresh understanding of God’s intimate purposes in suffering can significantly rewrite the script of a person’s life. A breakthrough—dealing with anger, or pride, or anxiety, or laziness—may have ripple effects that eventually help disarm the big bogeyman that has been hogging all the attention and earnest concern.
It’s very important to widen the battlefront and not to let the high-profile wrongs blinker us from seeing the whole picture. The following case study shows how sexual sin can and must be located within wider battles.
Tom is a single man, thirty-five years old. You might be able to fill in the rest of his story, because his pattern is so typical! He came to Christ, with a sincere profession of faith, when he was fifteen. At about the same time, his twenty-year struggle with sexual lust began. It involves episodic use of pornography and episodic masturbation, about which Tom is deeply discouraged. Over the years he has experienced many ups of “victory,” and just as many downs of “defeat.”
Tom sought help from me as his elder and small group leader. He was discouraged by recent failures, by the latest downturn in a seemingly endless cycle. Over the years he had tried “all the right things,” the standard answers and techniques. He’d tried accountability—sincerely. It helped some, but not decisively. Accountability had a way of starting strong but slipping to the side. At a certain point, to tell others you failed yet again, and to receive either sympathy or exhortation, stopped being helpful. Tom had memorized Scripture and wrestled to apply truth in moments of battle. It often helped, but then in snow-blind moments, when he most needed help, he’d forget everything he knew. Sex would fill his mind, and Scripture would vanish from sight. Other times he would just override the truth in an act of “Who cares?” rebellion. Then he’d feel terrible; his conscience would only go snow-blind for half an hour at a time!
He’d prayed, and he continued to pray. He fasted. He sought to discipline himself. He planned constructive things to do with his time, and to do with and for others. He’d gotten involved in ministry to teens. He tried things that aren’t in the Bible: vigorous exercise, cold showers, dietary regimes. Briefly, he even tried the advice of a self-help book, trying to think of masturbation as “normal, something everybody does, so give yourself permission.” His conscience, wisely, could never get around Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:28 about committing adultery in your heart.
Tom had tried it all. Most things (except giving up the fight) helped a bit. But in the end, success was always spotty and fragile. Tom had gained no greater insight into his heart and into the inner workings of sin and grace. For twenty years it had been “Sin is bad. Don’t do it. Just do [x, y, or z] to help you not sin.” His entire Christian life had been conceived and constructed around this struggle with episodic sexual sin.
His pattern was as follows. Seasons of relative purity might last for days, weeks, even a few months. He measured his success by “How long since I last fell?” The longer he’d go, the more his hopes would rise: “Maybe now I’ve finally broken the back of my besetting sin.” Then he’d fall again. He’d stumble through seasons of defeat, wandering back to the same old pigsty. “Am I even a Christian? Why bother? What’s the point? Nothing ever works.” He was plagued with guilt, discouragement, despair, shame. Sometimes Tom would even turn to pornography to dull the misery of his guilt over using pornography. He’d beg God’s forgiveness over and over and over, without any relief or any joy. Then, for unaccountable reasons, the season would change for the better. He’d get inspired to fight again. In one such season, he gave me a call. He really wanted deliverance once and for all.
How could I help Tom? I was reticent to simply give him more of the same things he’d tried dozens of times and found wanting. I didn’t want to just give him a pep talk and a Scripture, urge him to gird his loins to run the race, and offer accountability phone calls. What was he missing? What was happening in the other theaters of his life? Were there motives and patterns neither of us yet saw? What was going on in the days or hours before he stumbled? What about how he (mis)handled the days and weeks after a fall? Why did his whole approach to life seem like so much complicated machinery for managing moral failure? Why did his approach to the Christian life seem so dehumanized and depersonalized? His Christianity seemed like a big production, a lot of earnest effort at self-improvement. Why did his collection of truths and techniques never seem to warm up and invigorate the quality of his relationships with God and people? Is the centerpiece of the Christian life really an endless cycle of “I sin. I don’t sin. I sin. I don’t sin. I sin.” What were we missing?
“My Temper Tantrum at God”
I asked Tom to do a simple thing, attempting to gain a better sense of the overall terrain of his life: “Would you keep a log of when you are tempted?” I wanted to know what was going on when he struggled. When? Where? What had just happened? What did he do? What was he feeling? What was he thinking? If he resisted, how did he do it? If he fell, how did he react afterward? Did anything else correlate to sexual temptations?
Through all the ups and downs, Tom maintained a disarming sense of humor. He laughed at me and said, “I don’t need to keep a log. I already know the answer. I only fall on Friday or Saturday nights—usually Friday, since Saturday is right before Sunday.”
If you have any pastoral care genes in you, you light up at an answer like that. Repeated patterns always prove extremely revealing on inspection. I asked, “Why does sexual sin surface on Friday night? What’s going on with that?” He said, “I turn to pornography as my temper tantrum at God.”
Amazing! Look what we just found out: another movie was playing in a theater next door. Suddenly we were not only dealing with a couple of bad behaviors: viewing pornography and masturbating. We were dealing with anger at God that was driving those behaviors. What was that about?
A breakthrough—dealing with anger, or pride, or anxiety, or laziness—may have ripple effects that eventually help disarm the big bogeyman that has been hogging all the attention and earnest concern.
Tom went on to give a fuller picture: “I come home from work on Friday night, back to the apartment. I’m all alone. I imagine that all my single friends are out on dates, and my married friends are spending time with their wives. But I’m all alone in my apartment. I build up a good head of steam of self-pity. Then by nine or ten o’clock, I think, ‘You deserve a break today’—I even hear the little McDonald’s jingle in my head, and then sexual desires start to look really, really sweet. ‘God has cheated you. If only I had a girlfriend or a wife. I can’t stand how I feel. Why not feel good for a while? What does it matter anyway?’ Then I take the plunge into sin.”
Amazing, isn’t it? Pornography and masturbation had captured all the attention, generated all the guilt, defined the moment and act of “falling.” Let’s call that screening room 1. But then we also heard about anger at God that preceded and legitimated sexual sin: screening room 2. We heard about hours of low-grade self-pity, grumbling, and envious fantasies about his friends and fellow workers: a matinee performance in screening room 3. We heard Tom name the original desire that led to self-pity, to anger at God, and finally to sexual lust: “God owes me a wife. I need, want, demand a woman to love me.” That was playing in screening room 4, an unobtrusive G-rated film, seemingly no problem at all. It was a classic nonsexual lust of the flesh that Tom had never viewed as problematic. In fact, in his mind, it was practically a promise from God: “Psalm 37:4: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and he’ll give you the desires of your heart.’ If I do my part, God should do his part and give me a wife.”
As Tom and I kept talking, I found out why God owed him a wife: “I’ve tried to do all the right things. I’ve served him. I’ve tried accountability. I’ve memorized Scripture. I’ve tried to be a good Christian. I do ministry. I witness. I tithe. . . . but God hasn’t come through.” In other words, the “right answers” for fighting sin are also the levers to pry goodies out of God. Tom’s words sound eerily like the self-righteous whine of the older brother in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son: “I’m good, therefore God owes me the goodies I want.” Subsequent anger at God operates like any other sinful anger: “You aren’t giving me what I want, expect, need, and demand.” This fatally flawed, proud “upside” of the classic legalistic construct was showing in screening room 5. And why did Tom mope in self-lacerating depression for days and weeks after falling, rather than finding God’s living mercies new every morning? That’s the self-punitive, despairing “downside” of the legalistic construct: “I’m bad, therefore God won’t give me the goodies.” Screening room 6 was where self-punishment, self-atonement, penance, and self-hatred played out.
It doesn’t take much theological insight to see how all these distortions of Tom’s relationship with God express different forms of basic unbelief. They suppress living knowledge of the true God. They create a universe for oneself void of the real God’s presence, truth, and purposes. Unbelief does not mean a vacuum; rather the universe fills up with seductive, persuasive fictions. Screening room 7 was showing a blockbuster that Tom had never noticed as trouble. (When Dame Folly keeps her clothes on and quietly erases awareness of God, she is invisible.)
In fact, we even found out why Tom was so eager right then to get my counsel and advice. Why did he want to have victory over his lust problem, to try again, to defeat the dragon of lust once and for all? He had his eye on an eligible young lady who started to attend our church. And that reawakened his motivation to fight. If only lust would go, then God would owe, and maybe Tom would get the wife of his dreams. Even his agenda for seeking pastoral counsel played a bit part in the wider battle: screening room 8!
Wider Battle, Greater Progress
Look how far we’d come in half an hour. Tom’s “fall” at 9:30 p.m. last Friday was not where he’d started to fall. It was not even his most devastating fall. For me to assist Tom’s discipleship to Jesus was not simply to offer tips and truths that might help him remain “morally pure” on subsequent Fridays. Counseling needed to be about rewiring Tom’s entire life. “Cure of souls” is what ministry does.
You can see why we must widen the battlefront in order to cure souls. Tom concentrated all his attention on one marquee sin that surfaced sporadically, defining and energizing all his guilty feelings. But that narrowing of attention served to mask far more serious, pervasive sins. As a pastor, friend, or other counselor, you don’t want to concentrate all your energies in the same place Tom did. There were other, deeper opportunities for grace and truth to rewrite the script of this man’s life. Tom had turned his whole relationship with God into flimsy scaffolding. Self-righteousness (“victory at last”) would get him the goodies he really wanted out of life. Though Tom knew and professed sound theology, in daily practice he reduced God to “an errand boy to satisfy [his] wandering desires” (as Bob Dylan voiced it).1
Tom and I put the fire of truth and grace to the scaffolding and rebuilt his faith. Wonderful changes started to run through his life. We didn’t ignore temptations to sexual sin, but many other things that he had never before noticed became urgently important. We spent far more time talking about self-pity and grumbling as “early warning” sins, about how the desire for a wife becomes a mastering lust, about how the self-righteousness construct falls before the dynamics of grace. Temptations to sexual sin diminished significantly. They were not erased, but the topography of the battlefield radically changed. The significance of Jesus Christ’s love went off the charts. The lights of more accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge came on. A man going in circles, muddling in the middle, started to do some leaping and bounding in the right direction. We experienced the delights of a season of gazelle growth.
Ministering to someone who has struggled for twenty years with the exact same thing is disheartening, and frequently a recipe for futility. Ministering to someone who is starting to battle a half-dozen foes that were previously invisible is extremely heartening! Widening the war served to deepen and heighten the significance of the Savior who met Tom on every battlefront.
- Bob Dylan, “When You Gonna Wake Up,” 1979.
This article is adapted from Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by David Powlison.
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