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Pastor to Pastor: The Peril of Pornography

William Shishko

Get Your Head Out of the Sand!

We cannot escape the fact that we live in a culture that is increasingly fueled with sensuality. Advertisers have realized for scores of years that an attractive female connected with products ranging from shaving cream to cars will enhance sales. I buy the product, I get the girl—so twisted reasoning goes. Today sexuality has overrun and almost completely destroyed all barriers that have been put up against it in the media. It is impossible to scan the range of cable channels without, in seconds, seeing immodesty and sensual conduct, if not explicit acts of fornication and adultery. Even some movies that are rated PG-13 are noted as having "nudity" and "adult situations." (One wonders what R-rated movies contain!) To make a trip to your local Blockbuster is to put yourself just one step away from disreputable "Adult Shops." Catalogues that come into our homes (even if they are not "Victoria's Secret" catalogues) contain explicit pictures of women in immodest and sensual attire; so also do the advertisements for tanning spas, athletic clubs, and travel agencies in weekly "Shopper's Guides" that are sent freely to our homes. Daily newspapers contain the same, especially on the sports pages. And, increasingly, pop-up ads on computers or cleverly tagged "spam" come before our eyes as we make use of e-mail or the Internet. All of this may fall short of Playboy or Hustler magazine, but any one of these things can become a mental halfway house to men as they struggle with the problem of sexual lust.

My plea to pastors in this article is that you get your heads out of the sand! The ostrich knows that an adversary is present, but avoids the problem by looking away instead of bravely facing it. My fear is that too many pastors have their heads in the sand because they: (a) are not aware that the problem is really as bad as it is; (b) do not think that we should be so alarmed by it; (c) think that their only responsibility is to go about their ministerial duties of generally preaching and teaching in the hope that the problem will take care of itself in the people to whom we minister.

Brothers, I have news for you: (a) the problem is worse than you can imagine; (b) unless you want to deal with a lot of spiritual wreckage in yourself and others, you better be alarmed by it; (c) if you don't get beyond "preaching the word" and "preaching Christ" in broad generalities, you will not be addressing the problem, and it will not take care of itself.

It's a temptation to think that the problem of sexual lust that leads to the viewing of and eventual addiction to pornography (and worse!) is something that is so modern (because of the mass media and technology) that it is not addressed in Holy Scripture. That mindset can easily create a "hands off" attitude when we think of our ministerial duties: "I will minister good doctrine, and the Holy Spirit will make the necessary applications in individual lives." Such an "ostrich view" is not countenanced by the Word of God for a moment. It is a view that is dangerous!

It is helpful to keep in mind that the first century Roman empire, into which Christ and the gospel of the kingdom came, was no less riddled with unbridled sensuality than is ours. In Romans 1:26ff. the apostle Paul describes homosexual and heterosexual fornication as the primary fruits of a culture that is "given up" to false worship—particularly the worship of self. Yet it is to this culture that Paul says that "the Gospel is God's power unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16). In first century Corinth, hundreds of male and female temple prostitutes were available at all hours of day or night for "worshippers" to gratify their lusts in acts of pagan "devotion" (Is this really much different than the problem of Internet porn?). It is to that city that Paul speaks of the grace of God in Christ coming with power such that some were no longer "fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites..." By the Gospel they "were washed, ... sanctified, ... [and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:9, 11). Let's not be ostriches, brothers! Face the enemy with the always powerful gospel of saving grace in Jesus Christ!

It is also important to keep in mind that Christ and the apostles were not backward about dealing specifically with destructive sins like sensual lust. I fear that too many ministers today are shy when their inspired patterns were quite bold:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matt. 5:27-30)

Brothers, does this have no application to radical measures for today's eyes and the lusts that are prompted by pictures on the Internet, television, and in magazines?

But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. (Eph. 5:3-7)

Brothers, do you really believe that "not even a hint" of such uncleanness should mark God's people?

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit. (1 Thess. 4:3-7)

Brothers, have you gotten beyond the interpretative debate over whether "his own vessel" is one's wife or one's body and then have you dealt honestly and practically with what it is to live in holiness rather than uncleanness?

"Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2 Tim. 2:22)

Brothers, are you keeping your hearts pure, are you teaching others to do the same, and are you fleeing "youthful lusts" as a model to help others do the same?

My fellow pastors, I urge you to be aware of the challenge that lust and pornography pose to men and women (yes, women have their battles in this area, too!) in our increasingly sexually charged society. Don't be ostriches. Be honest in realizing that the congregation you pastor is simply not immune to the problem facing our culture at large. Then consider and implement practical strategies for teaching your people, helping them individually and as couples, and providing the accountability necessary for long-term victory in the battle for purity of mind and body.

I recommend the following resources to help increase your awareness of the peril of pornography. These all provide practical suggestions to help you make our younger and older men and women better soldiers on this bloody field of our modern culture wars.

  • Addictions, A Banquet in the Grave by Ed Welch. This is, by far, the best treatment of addictions of any type and the way to confront them by the Gospel. This is a must read for pastors.
  • Every Man's Battle and Every Young Man's Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoker; Every Young Woman's Battle by Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Arterburn. The theology of these books leaves a lot to be desired, but their frank, down-to-earth treatment of the subject of the battle with lust and pornography is engaging and practical.
  • The Purity Principle by Randy Alcorn. Someone can read this book in an hour and be changed by it. It hits you between the eyes, it is rich with memorable statements, and it continually goes back to the riches of Christ that enable believers to face the demand for purity and be successful.
  • Not Even a Hint by Joshua Harris. This 175 page book is my favorite. It is theologically "right on"; it is realistic; and it clearly comes from a pastor's heart. The book is designed for single men and women, but it is also most useful for couples and for older men and women whom we train to help others in the work of guarding ourselves against lust. I particularly recommend this as a book parents should give to their teenage children and discuss with them.

Internet Pornography

Everyone has gone to bed. You're catching up on that vexing pile of e-mails that has accumulated in your "in box." It's late. You're tired. It's been a rough few weeks, but you need to get these things done so that you can get on with other things tomorrow.

Suddenly, as you come to the next item of "spam," you are face to face with a beautiful woman who is looking you straight in the eye. Her expression is obviously one that says "Come, and get me!" You are stunned at first, you're ready to go to the "Delete" key ... and then you hesitate. "I wonder what I'll see if I connect to this link? It's only the human form. God made women to be attractive, didn't he? No one will see me. It's only one look." You struggle with your conscience a bit. But the soldier is weary. He gives in to what he knows is an enemy to his soul. You double click to a new world of "Internet porn."

The rest, as they say, is history. A history that begins with a lacerated conscience and continues into bondage, alienation from spouse, dissipation of time and energy into what becomes a substitute for devotion to Christ, and, if left unchecked, actual fornication and infidelity.

By the end of the year 2003 there were 4.2 million pornographic websites (12 percent of the total number of websites with a total of 372 million pages of pornography). Daily pornographic search engine requests totaled 68 million (a total of 25 percent of total daily search engine requests). Each day 2.5 billion pornographic e-mails were sent (8 percent of total e-mails, an average of 4.5 per Internet user). Each month an average of 1.5 billion pornographic items were downloaded (35 percent of all downloads). In the entire year there were 72 million visitors to pornographic websites worldwide. Twenty percent of men admitted accessing pornography while at work, as did 13 percent of women. Some 40 million US adults regularly visited pornographic websites. Ten percent of these admitted to Internet sexual addiction.

And 47 percent of Christians admitted that pornography was "a major problem" in their homes. (Fifty-three percent of Promise Keeper men admitted to having viewed pornography "in the last week.")

Do you think that you are immune? Or are you already included in one or more of the statistics above?

I have dealt in general above with the peril of pornography, and I included a number of resources that I have found helpful both for myself (Yes, I too struggle to keep myself pure on the street, in motel rooms when I am alone and there is a TV, in stores with prominent displays of magazines that used to be kept behind the counter, and on the Internet) and to help me minister to others. Now I want to zero in on strategies to help pastors fight a battle that has the potential to destroy them, their families, and their ministries. I write it as one who is acutely aware that it has the same devastating potential for me, for my family, and for my ministry. I do not want that devastation for myself, or for anyone else. The Christian church has received too many black eyes from ministers who are required to be "blameless" especially by being "one wife husbands" (1 Tim. 3:2) and yet have fallen into "moral lapses" that bring reproach upon the name of Jesus Christ. Brothers, we are at war for our own salvation and the salvation of others (1 Tim. 4:16). Consider these weapons in the war against lust, pornography, and, especially, pornography that can be just a couple of mouse-clicks away.

1. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. God's standard is exacting: "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people" (Eph. 5:3). Practice "Judgment Day honesty with yourself." Has your mind become a sex playground by daily fantasies? What do you watch as you scan the various cable channels when no one else is around? What would a record of the Internet sites you have accessed indicate? Have you been lying to yourself and to others about your succumbing to the temptation to look at porn? This is not to condemn, brothers, but it is to make us alert to the extent of the problem as it affects us.

2. Be aware of those times, places, persons, and particular circumstances that tempt you. Because of background, our physical condition, and just the way we are "wired," we each have our own customized package of "temptation prompters." Loneliness, fatigue, discouragements, strains in relationships with a spouse, and even the influence of a glass of wine late at night can increase your vulnerability. Our resistance is broken down by regular exposure to immodesty, advertisements that use sexuality to entice, television programs, movies, or even radio stories that treat sexuality casually and that treat fornication and adultery with acceptance or even humor. Let some or all of these be the constant influences of our day, and then give yourself some time to just "surf the web," and you may soon find yourself in the waters of pornography. "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts" (Rom. 13:14).

3. Use whatever crutches you need to keep yourself pure. Jesus' prescription is a radical one. "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:29). While your "right eye" and "right hand" offenses may be different than someone else's, you still must pluck out those things that jeopardize your soul. (Yes, that is exactly what Jesus meant when he said it is better that we pluck out an eye than that we go, body and soul, to hell!) Where you must use crutches, use them! Randy Alcorn, in his helpful little book The Purity Principle, puts it this way:

The battle is too intense, and the stakes are too high to approach purity casually or gradually. So...if you can't keep your eyes away from those explicit images, don't ever go to a video rental store. "Come on. Everybody goes into those stores." No. If it causes you to sin, you shouldn't. Period. (pp. 64ff)

Specifically with respect to controlling the Internet, Alcorn counsels:

Use family-friendly Internet service providers (see www.afafilter.com). Install a pornography-filtering program on your computer, realizing it can't screen out everything. Ask someone else to hold the password. Ask someone to regularly check on your Internet usage history to confirm you're not compromising your walk with God.

Move computers to high traffic areas. Unless you have a proven record of going on-line safely, don't log on to the Internet if you're alone. Be sure the monitor always faces an open door, where others can see what you're looking at (see I Corinthians 10:13). Check out practical resources for Internet accountability (see www.covenanteyes.com).

If you're still losing the battle, disconnect from the Internet. If that's not enough, get rid of the computer. (p. 69)

Does this sound too severe—too "Puritan"? I suggest that you re-read Matthew 5:29 and ask yourself what you think it means. You might also read the exposition of the Seventh Commandment in the Westminster Larger Catechism (questions 137-139). Do what it takes, brothers, to have the mind of Christ regarding sexual sin.

4. Consider the consequences if you don't change. Pornography will drain you, chew you up and, eventually, spit you out. With it will go your marriage, your family, and your ministry. "For by means of a harlot, a man is reduced to a crust of bread, and an adulteress will prey on his precious life" (Prov. 6:26). Harlots and adulteresses are not only found on street corners in the seamy sides of town. They abound on band widths and cable lines and they come through an electronic box that brings "the seamy side of town" right into your office or study. I highly recommend that each of you reading this article secure and read the article "Hooked" in the Winter, 2001 edition of Leadership Journal. I now require it of all of my students in Pastoral Theology. It makes its case unforgettably.

5. Seek superior pleasures in Christ and his wonderful gift of sexuality in the bonds of marriage. You cannot fight this battle by just saying "No!" You must come to Christ moment by moment to keep you even as you work to keep yourself pure (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5 and Jude 21). Enjoy communion with your greatest Lover and Spouse as you read his Word and pray every day and as you yourself are fed on the means of grace in the church that you serve. Do not permit anything to mar your felt sense of acceptance with Christ and his love for you. And, at the same time, do not permit anything to mar the intimacy of your communion with your wife.

Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. For why should you, my son, be enraptured by an immoral woman, and be embraced in the arms of a seductress? (Prov. 5:18-20)

You must fight the sparks of lust with the superior fire of the Gospel and its benefits!

6. If you need help, get it! Lone rangers are dead rangers in this battle. "Confess your transgressions one to another, and pray for one another that you may be healed" (James 5:16). Whether it be accountability to your session or one or more of your elders, or something more elaborate, get the help that you need to get from others. There's too much at stake to let pride keep you from honestly humbling yourself before those who can help you. "Pride goes before destruction..." "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (Prov. 16:18, 1 Pet. 5:5).

"I have seen many ministers begin well," wrote a wise observer of a past day, "but I have seen fewer run well; and I have seen far fewer still end well." May the Lord grant us all grace to run well and to end well, especially as we run a course full of "lusts of the flesh and the eyes" that would make us stumble and fall to the harm of ourselves and so many others.

William Shishko is the pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, New York. Mr. Shishko served on the Committee on Christian Education for many years. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 14.1, March 2005; and 14.2, September 2005.

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