First things first. Do you want to fight pornography?
Many who “struggle” really just want to be assured of God’s love for them as they enjoy a love-hate relationship with pornography. Like so many spouses in abusive relationships, they hate pornography, but can’t imagine life without it. They hate what it does to them, but love what it provides: a short-lived moment of escape, a false sense of worth, an unsatisfying feeling of love. But after giving in, guilt sets in. They realize they’ve been dehumanized. Longing for pleasure, they run back to their lover again and again and again. Love never felt so wrong.
If that describes you, then you first need to realize that your “struggle” is no struggle at all. You need to admit that you are participating in blatant infidelity. You’re married, but you take off your ring for a moment and indulge yourself. You’ve been united to Christ, but you unite yourself to prostitutes. And let me assure you, your jealous Husband will not long tolerate another stealing your affection. Until this is understood, any approach to fighting sin will fall on deaf ears.
But assuming you do actually struggle against pornography, you need to know how not to fight pornography.
How Not to Fight Pornography
Generally speaking, there are two approaches to fighting pornography among Christians which, if taken by themselves, are insufficient. Some Christians deal with the external and not the internal. They fight sin on the outside, but neglect the deeper affections of their heart. They have Covenant Eyes, or some other accountability program, on their devices in order to assist their battle against the flesh.
Perhaps they even take drastic measures and decide to throw their laptop out of their second-story window — hoping, wishing, praying that their internal desire for pornography will similarly be dashed to pieces. But over time, they quickly discover that their internal desires and sexual impulses, so conditioned to getting what they want, remain. In fact, they are heightened. Neglecting to dethrone pornography as king over their hearts, it continues to reign, demanding their time, loyalty, and affections.
Other Christians deal with the internal and not the external. They fight to have greater affections for the Lord Jesus Christ than for pornography, but they do nothing externally to prevent themselves from giving into sin. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with students about sexual sin. Some have been really encouraging, but others have been quite shocking.
In the course of a vulnerable conversation, I gently assess the nature of the student’s struggle, whether this is a one-time occurrence or an ongoing issue. I gradually gauge whether or not he is repenting, believing, and embracing the gospel of grace, and whether he longs to treasure Christ more than sin. Ultimately, I come around to ask a more forthright question: “Do you have the internet on your phone or device without a filter or accountability software?”
“No, not yet. I’ve been meaning to do that.” With eyes as big as saucers, I usually respond by saying, “You can’t ever expect to be liberated from the grip of pornography as long as you continue to make excuses.” That may sound harsh, but it’s true. To overcome a heroin addiction, you can’t be okay with carrying around heroin in your pocket.
Fight with God’s Warnings
So, how should we fight? Put broadly (and drawing on 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8), it consists of coming under two words: the word of command and the word of promise.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:1, Paul makes known to the church how she “ought to walk” or how it is necessary to live. This general statement becomes a specific command in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–4: “Abstain from sexual immorality,” knowing “how to control [your] own body in holiness and honor.” Apparently, some in the community were struggling to master their body or “vessel” (which may be a euphemism for genitalia). They acted out in lustful passion like the pagan Gentiles “who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:5).
To “know God” is covenantal language. Acting as those who “do not know God” is to live as if you’re not in a covenant relationship with God. It is to live a life of infidelity, without the slightest concern for how your spouse will respond; in this case, the God who “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This ungrateful lifestyle leads to destruction — not only of one’s self, but also others. That’s why Paul further commands us not to “transgress and wrong his brother in this matter” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).
Pornography not only hurts you. It severely hurts others. It dehumanizes real people into images for one’s own sexual gratification, and it completely “destroys life-sustaining relationships” (The Global Sexual Revolution, 127). You lose interest in your spouse. You emotionally distance yourself from your family. You lose your ability to love. You cause your spouse to leave you. You entertain a false view of sex no one can meet. You develop a degrading image of the opposite sex. You become a recluse who can’t wait to see pornography one more time. Please don’t be deceived, Paul continues: “the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).
Does that shock you? Is it surprising to hear that God is an avenger who will punish those in the church who persist in sexual immorality? It probably stunned the Thessalonians. Earlier, Paul mentioned that Jesus delivers the church “from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10) and he later speaks about God’s people not being “destined for wrath” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). But to demonstrate the seriousness of sin, the holiness of God, and the ultimate outcome of sexual sin, he declares that the Lord Jesus will punish those who unrepentantly “struggle” with pornography in the church.
This inescapable reality of judgment should cause the unrepentant to repent and flee to Christ. Thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us with wrath hanging over us. He also gives a word of promise.
Fight Fire with God’s Promises
After noting God’s future judgment on sexual sin, Paul refers back to eternity past to explain God’s promise to save. “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). The word called refers to God’s eternal decree of election and plays an important role in this letter. In 1 Thessalonians 1:2–4, divine election is the ultimate cause of Paul’s thanksgiving. In 2:12, he emphasizes God’s continuing and effectual call of divine election. And now, in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, not only is divine election the guarantee of our salvation from judgment, but it is also motivation for personal holiness. How so?
The one who elected them for salvation is the one who faithfully commits himself to their growth in holiness, until the very end. As 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 states, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” God promises to save a people for himself, a promise that was made in eternity past and kept unto eternity future.
The God who saves us is ultimately the same God who promises to enable our fight against sexual sin presently. Paul highlights this in 1 Thessalonians 4:8: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” If we choose to reject God, we don’t merely reject the one who commands our obedience. We reject the one who enables our obedience.
The Holy Spirit breathes life into our dry bones — not only at the beginning of salvation, but also as a continuing presence. God is, literally, “the one who is giving” his Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:8). He is not “an option against sin,” but the very “dynamic that makes Paul’s argument against sexual impurity possible” (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 53). God’s word of promise enables us to fulfill God’s word of command, by the Spirit of God. Without God’s enabling, we are bound to fail.
All of this happens through our union with Christ. We see this in 1 Thessalonians 4:7: “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Notice the different prepositions Paul uses. It’s not random. It’s purposeful. It indicates a state or sphere in which believers reside. It’s similar to being “in Christ,” who became our “sanctification” or holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
But what does this mean? It means that our growth in personal holiness flows out of the definitive holiness which we have through our union with Christ — a union that began in God’s eternal decree (Ephesians 1:4). A union that the Spirit accomplishes by working faith in us. A union that presently sanctifies justified sinners. And a union that will last into eternity. For this union has our covenant-keeping God at its beginning, middle, and end. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
Putting It All Together
Paul brings us under the word of command (what God requires of us) and the word of promise (what God has done in Christ, is doing by his Spirit, and will do for us in the future). Fighting against pornography therefore involves four steps:
- We receive the will of God for our lives, to abstain from pornography.
- We recognize our inability to fulfill that command apart from our utter dependence on God.
- We embrace the promises of God’s word — promises that increase our affections for Christ and the greater cause of the gospel.
- Then being enabled by the same one who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11), we work out our salvation by hating pornography — all the while knowing it is God who wills and works for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12–13).
Too many Christians fight sexual sin ineffectively. They either focus on their internal struggle with little or no concern for the external. Or they focus on their external struggle with little or no concern for the internal. Our battle plan should consist of both. We need our internal affections to drive our external battle against pornography. It’s the only way to slay this beast.
Sexual sin is such a grave threat to the church today, and it will not go down without a long, drawn-out fight, as if eternity were at stake — because it is.