I used to look at pornography nearly every day for a decade. But for the past twelve years, by God’s grace, I have not visited a single porn site.
For many battling addiction, that sentence embodies what we’re striving for. That sentence, however, is not a success story.
As we all know by now, lust manifesting in addiction to pornography is rampant in our tech-savvy culture, and sadly it’s little different among Christians. I’m in weekly conversations with college guys at our church who are fighting hard against lust and porn addiction.
It’s interesting for me to hear how people talk about their struggle. Often when they share, they frame it in terms of “how long it’s been” since their last encounter with porn. The room rejoices with those who haven’t had an incident in a while, and we spout off advice to the ones who have. You can almost see the ranking system build before your eyes: The most recent sinner cowers on the bottom with the lowest score, while the one with the longest record of abstinence stands tall at the top.
But we may have it more wrong than we think. Why? Because our actions don’t always reveal our hearts.
If you were looking for the most moral people of Christ’s day, you would look no further than the Pharisees — fasting, tithing, praying, obeying. Yet when Jesus has a chance to speak to them he says this:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)
For these religious leaders, holiness was only skin-deep. Their deeds were moral, but their hearts were evil. Jesus understood that what you could see in a person’s life often says very little about the condition of a person’s spiritual life. If God was merely after behavior modification, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees. Instead, they received some of Jesus’s harshest words of all.
One way to tell if you’re measuring success by an outer-cleanness versus an inner-cleanness is if you obsess over how many days it’s been since you last sinned. That mentality presupposes that your issue is one primarily of behavior, and not of the heart. But God always seeks a change deeper than our behavior.
This isn’t just a porn issue. We see this in other areas. For example, it’s not necessarily grounds for celebration if an obese person loses a hundred pounds. On a superficial level we can certainly say that proper diet and exercise is better for their health, and therefore a good thing. But is it worth celebrating if that weight loss was motivated by vanity? Or if it produced a heart of self-righteousness or self-worship? Perhaps they dealt the decisive blow to their gluttony, only to have narcissism sprout in its place. The new state of the person might be worse than the first!
The Puritan John Owen said it well when speaking on the fight against sin: “He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.”
Obedience from the Heart
If it’s true that God looks at the heart first, what are some markers of that inner-cleanness he desires beyond the changes in our behavior?
A sense of neediness and dependence on the grace of God. Christianity is nothing if not the religion of the helpless. The godliest thing any of us can do in our fight against sin is to admit we cannot fight against sin on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit working within us. If you feel defeated in your struggle against lust, let that sense of defeat push you further into the arms of your strong Savior today, and push you to lean on his strength and help, again.
A steady gaze at Christ as our treasure and satisfaction. Most of our efforts in sanctification fall short of seeing Christ this way. But Scripture is clear: There is no legitimate conquering of sin without a pursuit of Christ in its place (2 Timothy 2:22; Romans 13:14; John 6:35). Jesus is a good meal for our soul. The battle for purity is really a battle to delight in God.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. God absolutely wants external, visible life-change: “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). But a change of behavior is only God-glorifying if it is motivated by a change of heart.
As you war against your flesh, as you fight against lust and addiction, as you counsel others in the battle, aim higher and deeper than outer moral conformity. Feel your inability to produce lasting life change apart from the work of God’s Spirit. Pray for a heart that is so enamored with the beauty of Christ that it despises the temptations of sin. Win the inner victory with Christ’s help, and the external victories will not be far off.