How to Leave Porn Behind

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My older sister sat across from me at the Taco Bell and listened carefully. She knew I was lying, but she was too concerned to be angry. As she questioned me about the double life I had been living, which had been unwillingly exposed to my family and friends, she calmly heard my mistruths and told me that she knew better.

For years I had been hiding beneath the identity of being a pastor’s kid in the church worship band while yielding myself totally to pornography. I was broken, but not broken enough, and still trying to put up a crumbling façade.

As she surgically deconstructed my lies, she knew I was broken. She knew I needed a path toward healing as soon as possible. So she looked at me and said something that still echoes in my mind eight years later: “I want you to pursue a radical lifestyle of repentance.”

“The sin of pornography goes much deeper than the singular moments of watching and downloading.”

This frightened me. What did she mean? Yes, I knew I had to repent. Yes, Jesus had used this destruction in my life to show me his gospel in a saving way for the very first time. I was ready (or so I thought) to turn from my sin. The solution seemed obvious enough: (1) I had to confess openly my problem with porn, (2) I had to get an accountability partner, and (3) I needed to see a counselor at my school (I ended up doing all three).

But her words “radical lifestyle” — radical, not garden-variety; lifestyle, not sporadic or occasional — suggested unknown depths of discipline. I squirmed in my seat, nodded, and quietly feared my future. Little did I realize how life-giving a “radical lifestyle” could be.

Why So Many Are Losing the Battle

If you had asked me, I would have said that my life was just fine as it was, except for the porn. But I’ve come to realize that this perception was wrong.

The sin of pornography goes much deeper than the singular moments of watching and downloading. It’s about entire daily patterns of unbelief, laziness, self-absorption, and much more. Thus, repentance from enslavement to pornography must seek more than behavior modification in one isolated habit. It must be a resolve to bring every piece of the heart’s architecture, every beat of the rhythm of life, into the light of the gospel.

Many Christian men are fighting a losing battle with pornography because they are trying to remove the sin without adopting a radical lifestyle of repentance. They know their spiritual lives would be sweeter without giving way to lust. They know their capacity for rich relationships with other believers would expand tenfold if they weren’t smothered by midnight shame. They know their Godward ambitions for vocation and missions and pastoring are being squashed by it.

They really do want it gone, but they want everything else to stay where it is — and then they are perplexed why it just won’t work, even with accountability partners and internet filters. It won’t work long-term because this is not how God designed us.

How Badly Do You Want to Win?

Repentance has a radical character to it precisely because repentance happens in the heart. Human beings are not equally partitioned creatures: one part intellect, one part body, one part soul, and so on. In his glorious, image-bearing design, God creates us with a center of existential gravity. The heart is that center.

“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). God promised to give his covenant people new hearts that would lead to authentic and holistic obedience (Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus explicitly taught us that our external rituals pale in comparison to our inner heart-delights (Matthew 15:18). Because our heart orients everything else, and since real repentance happens foremost in the heart, turning away from heart-enslaving sin often has far-reaching implications.

“You need to make radical changes in parts of your life that you might not intuitively think need changing.”

If you are losing the battle against porn, let me exhort you, as a fellow fighter by God’s grace: You need to make radical changes in parts of your life that you might not intuitively think need changing.

What about your job? Could the chokehold that porn currently has on you be strengthened by your daily vocation? Sometimes companies require you to have a smartphone, or to be online, alone, during late hours. While God has grace for every situation and promises the opportunity to resist temptation, I’ve met more than one fellow struggler who would have been much better off had they laid down their vocation at the feet of Jesus, and chosen radical repentance instead. What does it profit a man to gain the world but forfeit his soul to the lust that will damn him?

Likewise, I’ve known friends, especially men, who don’t realize how their lack of industriousness (or their dead-end job) is actually feeding a sense of aimlessness that makes them more vulnerable to the lure of porn. But the gospel commands those who are born again to reckon themselves dead to sin and alive to Christ (Romans 6:11). If you aren’t being a faithful steward of your time in helpful, character-building work, take radical repentance with you to a different situation.

Consider too your hobbies. Most people who are serious about fighting lust know intuitively there are some movies and sitcoms they need to leave behind. A friend of mine was deeply frustrated at his lack of progress in this battle. He loved video games. But as he spoke and confessed that failure was still the norm, I started to realize that radical repentance for him would look like cultivating better, more life-giving hobbies. He was trying to negotiate with his old habits, instead of infusing them with radical repentance. His three hours of daily gaming were not neutral; they were actually artifacts of a cloistered lifestyle that had been tailored to resist valuable means of grace in the fight against lust.

Repentance Brings Us Gain, Not Loss

Radical repentance isn’t just subtraction; it’s addition too. One of the most helpful pieces of counsel I received was that I should start cultivating the skills, ambitions, and opportunities God had given to me, instead of merely sitting on the couch, retreating from life out of shame at the past.

“Radical repentance isn’t just subtraction. It’s addition too.”

What holy ambitions have you been ignoring while merely trying to keep your head above water? Don’t just passively sit on the forgiveness and new life Jesus gives you. Turn it into a new job, one that empowers you to work heartily and serve others. Turn it into new hobbies, especially offline ones that can take you outside your own head. Turn it into a new lifestyle of sacrificial giving and of “radically ordinary” hospitality. Sin has no power over you, because you are under grace (Romans 6:14) and bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). Why not live like it?

Jesus offers much more than a cleansing purge. He offers an eternally springing fountain of himself that spills into every well in our heart. Trust me, whatever you lose in radical repentance is not something you want to keep. Radical repentance begins and ends with delight: delight in God, delight in what he loves, delight in his good gifts, and delight in his promise to never cast you away or leave you. Go to him — radically.