I have grown up with an unhealthy obsession with sex, one which for all its trying, was not helped by the church. My teenage years coincided with the dawn of the increasing popularity and accessibility to the internet and invariably to internet porn. As much as my religious upbringing tried to shield me from this vice, it only amplified the problem, along with the guilt and shame that accompanied it.
There are many great reasons for not getting involved with porn, and there is some good science that has shown the damage it can do to brain function and intimate relationships. But none of these reasons seemed to help me resist the lure every time it came knocking. Church youth groups, sermons and testimonies all told me it was feasible to abstain from this sexual perversion. But for a young man struggling through adolescence into adulthood and trying to figure out the murkiness of human sexuality, it was damn near impossible.
A sterilising insecurity
My hormones were raging, drawing my gaze every which way and stimulating all kinds of desires and fantasies. I could never act on them of course, being a good Christian boy, and I developed an increasing insecurity around girls. I was told that sex was for marriage and that I had better leave it there, suppressing all sexual thought and desire until I had said “I do”. My insecurity led me to withdraw from girls, or filter every interaction with them through the possibility of future marriage, a future I certainly wasn’t ready to consider and that honestly, scared the hell out of me at that point in my life.
And so porn became my sexual outlet, one that I could engage with privately and wouldn’t hurt anyone else (or so I thought). It certainly wouldn’t get anyone pregnant or force me to prematurely jump into marriage in order to meet the church’s - and God’s - expectations for my life.
Disappointment and disgust
The only problem was that God was watching me watch porn, and he was disgusted with me. I was disgusted with myself. I had to beat myself up for days after the event before I could feel good enough about myself to come grovelling back to God, pleading for forgiveness. A forgiveness that would only last until the next time I was seduced by erotic desire, and so I would always promise that I would never fall into sin again.
But it didn’t help, and I fell again and again, the guilt and shame only compounding on me as the broken promises piled up. Leading youth groups and camps didn’t help, as I followed the script and told the young men in my care to abstain from something that I was ultimately powerless over. I was unable to live up to the standard that God demanded of me, and yet here I was, placing this same standard over others. Oh the hypocrisy, oh the shame that just kept loading up on me, weighing me down and pushing me further and further into self-loathing and depression. Pretty soon the only thing that could relieve the pain, if only temporarily, was another click on the computer, another bite from the forbidden fruit.
The impotence of religion
Sexual purity was and is such a big deal to the church, and yet there was nothing that it offered that could save me from my pain, my emptiness. I entered into a devout regime of bible study, prayer and fasting in order to obtain some kind of breakthrough. I thought that if I could dedicate myself to these holy practices, surely purity would follow.
And yet the sin continued. Along with the guilt. So I tried harder. I prayed more. I devoted myself to more and more bible study. And I failed.
The power of God unto salvation
Until I came to see that Jesus died for my guilt and shame, and that there really was no condemnation from him towards me at all. The condemnation, the guilt and the shame I was feeling was not coming from him at all. It was coming from me, and from the world around me. Where the church was telling me to do everything I could to lead a holy life, Jesus was telling me that he alone made me holy and that nothing, not even sexual perversion could separate me from his love.
If he had died for my guilt and shame, I decided I could let my guilt and shame die too. The next time I fell into the arms of that “whore of Babylon”, I didn’t beat myself up. I refused to feel bad about it. I acknowledged what had occurred, and let God love me. Every time it happened became a reminder of God’s grace and love for me. Sin became no longer a separator, but a joyous reminder of God’s goodness in providing everything I needed to be in relationship with him. I no longer needed to perform, or be something different before I could be loved. I was loved in the depths of my sexual perversion, and I was finally free!
Some might argue that this would give me a license to sin, to continue in my wicked ways. And they might have a point, except that this was not my experience, nor was it St Paul’s. His experience of God’s grace did not give him an excuse to sin (Romans 5:18-6:2), but to leave sin to die so that it no longer had any hold over him.
You are what you eat
And so instead of focusing on my own sin, I let it fade into insignificance as I beheld the majesty of God’s grace. My need for porn did not increase, but immediately began to decline. The pain and the shame that had led me back to tainted wells again and again was washed over by unconditional love. I was loved and I was whole, not because I could resist temptation, but because I had a saviour who took away the sins of the world. A saviour who didn’t leave us to forge our own relationship with God but included us all in his relationship with the Father.
Knowing who I am changed my life. It changed my view of sin and sinners. It changed my view of God, the Life he brings and the Hope he offers for all. A transforming love that is not dependent on me changing some aspect of my life, but that reveals a unity with God that existed before I knew of it, a unity that cannot be shaken or torn apart. A union that brings peace, joy and wholeness, not conditions, demands and requirements. A union that finally allows me to truly be me. Honest, vulnerable and care-free.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft