We need to talk about pornography. Why? Because it may be one of the biggest challenges the global church is facing in the 21st century. But talking about it is hard. It’s uncomfortable, it’s embarrassing, it’s not a family friendly topic.
But that is exactly why we need to talk about it. For as long as pornography stays as a taboo subject, people will continue to struggle. “But it doesn’t affect me” is an understandable response but it may be stopping us from dealing with this issue as the church.
It may be shocking to find out that: Three-quarters of British men (76%) say they have watched porn, compared to around half of women (53%). Around a third of men (36%) say they watch pornography at least once a week, including 13% who watch porn every day or most days, while just 4% of women say they watch porn at least once a week.
YouGov, July 2022
Watching pornography is particularly an issue for men, young and old. “While 62% of men under 30 say they watch porn, this remains as high as 52% among men in their 50s. Even for men in their 60s and older, a third (34%) say they watch pornography.”
YouGov, July 2022
The chances are, if you personally don’t struggle with pornography, you will know someone who does. They may be a friend, work colleague or family member. But we may think that this issue doesn’t affect Christians as much as atheists or agnostics. Sadly, this isn’t true at all.
In the USA, 93% of pastors said pornography is a bigger issue than ever before in their congregations, but only 7% of those said their church had a programme to address it. (The Porn Phenomenon, Barna Group)
Behind these statistics are stories of men, women, and children deeply impacted by pornography: physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. These people are in our churches and communities, walking with addiction, betrayal, trauma, relational crisis, breakdown, depression, sexual harassment, abuse…
We need to be talking about pornography in the church - not just fleeting mentions met by blushes and avoidance, but real, honest dialogue. It’s a tough conversation to start though, isn’t it? We know leaders, parents and friends are concerned that even mentioning ‘the p-word’ will open a can of worms they’re not equipped to deal with.
We know that fear and shame hold Christians back from seeking the help they need. We know that it takes courage to talk about porn. But we need to talk about! So, let’s do that.
Warning: some people may find the following stories hard to read.
“Porn was making me feel worthless. As a Husband, Dad, Christian and Church Elder I felt as though I was living a double life and betraying those who I loved the most. The problem escalated during the Covid pandemic and one day I sat down and thought "this is not who I am, and I can’t carry on like this any longer, if I do I will lose those who I love the most. The cost of carrying on was not worth it, something had to change.”
In some ways it would be easier for Mark to keep parts of his life separate, to place his porn use in a different compartment to his family or faith, but his decision to come out of the shadows, and join a click to kick support group was life changing.
“I realised more than anything that porn does not define me; it is not who I am. There was a great bunch of guys from all walks of life, that were men of faith, who wanted out of porn addiction. Understanding how addictions works helped me to see a way through it. I have hope for the present and the future.”
Bethany was an active member of her church, involved in lead worship and Bible study but she was also battling with a secret life of porn use. She had been viewing pornography all through her teenage years, but whilst at university things escalated.
“What started as curiosity became a horrible cycle of feeling so ashamed of what I was looking at, which then led me right back into porn use because I felt so unlovable. I felt like I couldn't tell anybody this because I’ll get rejected, or ‘I could never be in a relationship with anybody’. So up until the age of about 20 all I had was me and pornography.”
“Despite trying various techniques to stop viewing porn, I found it impossible and cried myself to sleep most nights for over 8 months. After hitting rock bottom and skipping university lectures, avoiding friends, having sleepless nights, the only option I had left was to tell someone that I trusted at church; it changed everything."
Have you ever known the despair of living a double life, where your actions, beliefs and thoughts are divided or not aligned?
Perhaps you know how easy it is to compartmentalise, separate and box off bits of your life. Or you know the pull of keeping feelings or actions hidden, and the shame, disappointment or even numbness living like this can bring.
Have you, like Mark and Bethany, ever known that despair and shame of living a double life? You may know someone who is secretly struggling with pornography. Whether it’s you or someone you know and you want to find help or help someone else, keep reading…
If we want to find answers on how to start to deal with pornography addictions, we need to start looking at what Jesus says in the Bible – specifically about purity. Jesus knows the pain and problems living a divided life can bring us, so in the beatitudes we find him calling us to imagine and pursue something else. A life that is whole, connected and fully focused on God. That’s what He is talking about when he says,
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
Let's look at some of the words in this short verse, firstly “the heart.” In our culture, the heart represents our emotions and desires, but for Jesus and His Jewish audience, the heart represented every part of your inner person. Our feelings, thoughts, behaviours and beliefs all interweaved and knitted together.
Jesus is saying “blessed are the pure in thought, emotions, actions, purpose and beliefs.”
Which just makes this feel even more unattainable, right?
So, it’s also helpful to think about what Jesus means when He uses this word “pure.” When you hear the word pure, do your thoughts go straight to the idea of being perfect, flawless, unblemished, and clean? Maybe you read the verse as “happy are the holy ones, the perfect people, because they will see God.” However, Jesus’ words here are more about being authentic than perfect, being single-minded rather than sinless.
In the Bible, the words clean and pure are often associated but also have separate meanings. The word pure can mean holy but more often it means connected, whole or focused. So perhaps we should read the beatitude this way:
“Happy are the wholehearted, whose emotions, actions, thoughts and beliefs are one, undivided and focused on the Father, for they will see God”
Throughout scripture we can see this connection with knowing God, being made clean and being wholehearted or undivided. James 4:8 puts it like this,
“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.”
Notice how, for James, being “double minded” is linked to purifying our hearts. I’m sure Jesus’ words from the beatitude were echoing in James’ mind as he wrote this letter, but perhaps both Jesus and James were referencing a psalm they memorised as children.
Psalm 24 says - “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord, who can stand in his Holy place, the one who has clean hands and a pure heart."
Of course, we know this is poetic and the psalmist, David, isn't talking about mountain climbing skills or ensuring we wash our hands for 2 minutes. To ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place, is about being in the right relationship with God, seeing God or being near to Him.
So according to David, James and Jesus, to see God, we need clean hands and a pure heart.
But what if that feels a million miles away? What if we feel like Mark or Bethany when they were rock bottom? What if our hands feel anything but clean? What if our beliefs, attitudes and actions don’t match, or we lose sight of God? Does this beatitude offer any hope? To answer that, let’s look again at David, who wrote Psalm 24.
He was guilty of using his power abusively, of betrayal, of murder, of hypocrisy - to name just a few of his publicly recorded failures and sins. Although we know he had a deep love for God, worship and scripture, this passion certainly wasn’t the same thing as perfection. He got a lot wrong, but what David got right was he understood how much he needed God.
He famously writes in Psalm 51 - “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (v2) Cleanse me and I will be clean (v7).” David knew he needed to be clean and knew God was the one to do it. He calls on God for forgiveness but then later he also says “Create in me a pure heart, O God” (v10)
David is saying he is dependent on God for both clean hands and a pure heart. So are we. As we daily turn to Jesus to forgive us and cleanse us, we also can call on him to form and shape our lives and to help us live wholehearted. Like Bethany and Mark, we may have some brave decisions to make, but through Jesus we can have a pure heart and see God.
If you want to explore this topic more or find help, check out these websites:
About the author: Ian Henderson is the founder and CEO of the Naked Truth Project, which aims to open eyes and free lives from the harmful impact of porn through awareness, education and recovery programmes.