Hijacking Back Your Brain from Porn

Hijacking Back Your Brain from Porn

Last week I wrote about the physiological dimension of addiction to pornography. New brain research suggests it is as strong as addiction to cocaine and heroin because of its unique combination of stimulant and opiate. Pornography lays down real physiological paths in the brain. All sexual experience tends to migrate to these paths.

I concluded that none of this brain research takes God by surprise. He designed the interplay between the brain and the soul. Discoveries of the connections between physical and spiritual reality do not nullify either.

Don’t Be Part of Abolishing Man

So don’t let this new brain research make you think of yourself as mere flesh and chemicals. This is the great myth of the modern world — what C. S. Lewis called the abolition of man. This is the theory that human thought is nothing but movement in the brain. It is a theory developed to destroy itself.

Lewis saw the tentacles of materialism reaching into every sphere:

There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry. (“Transposition,” in The Weight of Glory, 114–115)

But Lewis saw that nobody really acts as though they believe this. They are playing a language game. He illustrates this with the relationship between thought and brains:

We are certain that, in this life at any rate, thought is intimately connected with the brain. The theory that thought therefore is merely a movement in the brain is, in my opinion, nonsense; for if so, that theory itself would be merely a movement, an event among atoms, which may have speed and direction but of which it would be meaningless to use the words “true” or ”false.” (“Transposition,” 103)

Lewis is not playing counter-games here. He is blood-earnest that the abolishers of man are refusing to see that they claim to make meaningful statements while destroying meaning.

Take the Mind-Body Connection by the Horns

Meaning is rooted in supra-material truth. You are not mere matter and energy. You are an embodied soul who will live forever in heaven or in hell, created in the image of God, unlike mere animals, and, as a Christian, bought with the blood of the Son of God, and indwelt by the very Spirit of God himself. These are stupendous realities — greater realities than endorphins and dopamine.

God wove together physical nerves and supra-physical spiritual affections — desire, fear, joy, anger, pity, admiration, trust, cherishing, love. Instead of letting this connection discourage you, take it by the horns and make it serve your holiness. This is what the Bible calls you to do.

Don’t think the Bible is silent on this all-important question of mind and body — thinking and brains, affections and chemicals. God made these connections between physical and supra-physical, and God has wisdom for living in them.

Consider these four hope-filled observations.

1. Deep Renewal, Including Your Brain

Brain research is an infant science, publishing its first baby steps. They have scarcely begun to even name the mysteries of how truth and beauty is mediated through language, and then enters the mind as thought, and then is transposed into corresponding chemical processes.

Therefore, we should take hold of this amazing connection and claim what the Bible claims: Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed (2 Corinthians 3:18). Of course seeing nudes changes the brain. But why should we think that seeing the glory of Christ exerts a weaker change? If brain paths pervert our affections and our behavior, do not make the wild mistake of assuming sanctification can only make weaker paths.

Paul calls you to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23–24). Watch out, lest you assume that the renewal of “the spirit of the mind” leaves no trace in the paths of the brain. It does.

Paul says, “Put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). If the seeing of internet nakedness creates new paths in the brain, how much more the seeing of Christ — the spiritual sight of “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We are not left to create new brains for ourselves: “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10). Do not be cowed by brain research. God made the brain and wrote the Book.

2. Bloody Christ, Bad Odors, and Bears

Moreover, we know from experience that we are not slaves of these powerful pornographic changes in our brains. I do not minimize them. Judging by the ongoing effects, even in my sixties, of my teenage tomfoolery, I have tasted the amazing staying power of old sinful patterns. But we are not horses or mules that can only be curbed with bit and bridle (Psalm 32:9).

You know this. If you were in the grip of great sexual desire for pornography, and Jesus himself stood before you in your room, blood splattered, hands trembling with pain, eyes brimming with love, breathing heavily like a dying man, you know — yes, you know — you would have power in that moment to not look at the pornography as Jesus stood there. You are not enslaved. The well-beaten neural paths in your brain would not win. They are not God. They do not have the last say.

Or just at the physical level, you know from experience that a mere smell — say of human feces, or rancid garbage, or your own armpit can knock the sexual drive right out of your groin. What does that mean? It means those neural paths are not final. They can be trumped. You are not a mere victim.

Or consider this. You are about to commit fornication in a tent in the woods. You never dreamed it would come to this, but now the tidal wave of desire has simply conquered you. Or has it? What if, in the moment of hottest passion, before entry, you heard the sound of a grizzly bear, and saw silhouetted on the tent his mammoth size, would you be the slave of lust? Or would not fear utterly triumph over those chemicals?

Beware of thinking you are a victim of the euphoric effect of dopamine and endorphins. You are not. God has ways of revealing his bloody Christ, and staggering you with odors and bears to rescue you for himself. He will stoop to this for love’s sake.

3. Satan, Sex, and Chemicals

Supra-chemical emotions — spiritual affections — are transposed into corresponding physical responses in the brain. That means you can fight physical fire with spiritual fire. And it works the other way as well. God ordains that we fight for spiritual fruit by wielding physiological weapons with spiritual hands.

Have you ever considered the stunning implications of Paul’s Satan-defeating sexual counsel in 1 Corinthians 7:5? Be careful, single people. You are likely to jump to the conclusion that this is either irrelevant for you, or bad news. It’s not. Paul says to husbands and wives,

Do not deprive one another [of sexual relations], except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

This implies that Paul intends for Christian couples to fight against the supernatural power of Satan by having sufficiently frequent sexual relations. To put the point physiologically: There are brain chemicals that increase desire for sex as the length of abstinence increases. The power of those chemicals decreases after orgasm. Therefore, Paul says, make use of that physiological reality in marriage to reduce your vulnerability to Satan’s temptation to adultery and pornography.

Of course, this is not the only or the main weapon in our arsenal. But it is one. And it illustrates the validity of using physiological weapons against physiological foes. Single people may rightly say, I don’t have that particular marriage weapon in my arsenal. That’s right. And I admire you for saying it. But embrace the principle as it applies to you. There are physiological realities that you know affect your vulnerability to temptation. Use them to make war.

4. The Holy Spirit, Sleep, and Self-Control

But is that spiritual? Isn’t self-control a “fruit of the Holy Spirit,” rather than a fruit of frequent sexual relations?

It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), but not “rather than” a fruit of other forces. The Spirit’s way of producing his fruit often includes very natural means. For example, another fruit of the Spirit is patience (Galatians 5:22). But who of us would deny that our patience rises and falls with how much sleep we get? Love, Paul says, is “patient . . . and not easily irritated” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). But we are more easily irritated, and less patient, when we have not gotten the rest we need.

What I infer from this is that one of the many weapons in the arsenal of the Holy Spirit is sleep. He humbles us to realize we are not God and that we need to be as helpless as a baby seven or eight hours a day, in order to be the loving, patient people he calls us to be.

Similarly with sexual self-control. The Holy Spirit teaches us from Scripture, and from experience, and from each other, how our bodies work. He means for us to lean on his power as we use the physiological counter-weapons he gives us.

Finding True Ecstasy

Brain research is right: Our brains are deeply shaped by what we see. And the more we see, the more well-beaten and controlling those paths become. But we are not their victims. These physiological powers are not ultimate. God is ultimate. And he has given us spiritual weapons just as physiologically powerful as pornography. He too means to be seen — often and deeply (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:4).

Moreover the spiritual powers of his word and Spirit have the right to conscript physiological forces into their service. And in the end, God can hijack back the very paths of pornography and transpose the scintillations of those very paths into the ecstasies of knowing Christ.


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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.