It was late fall, 1998. I’d gone on a business trip and binged on porn movies in the hotel rooms, again, albeit without masturbating. Even though I hadn’t had self-sex, the images, filth and shame flowing through me were no less intense.
One problem was the 12 step program’s definition of sexual sobriety. It started with “no sex with self or other persons other than the married spouse,” which was ok, and then they had a weird statement about “true sobriety meaning progressive victory over lust.” Since “progressive victory” was hard to grab onto, (or really, meaningless) everyone focused on the physical aspect of the definition. The big goal of the group was for everyone to get sober; guys with one year or more of sobriety were revered as if they were a prophet, and newcomers flocked to them for the secrets of how they became sober.
In the early 90’s when I first got involved in the 12 step program, I jumped in with both feet, and accumulated 18 months of sobriety. Now I was one of the chosen ones that the others oohed and aahed over. I started leading meetings and sponsoring others, dispensing my wisdom like Plato. I had become the “Oracle of Freedom from Lust,” or so I thought.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines sobriety as “Moderation in orabstinence from consumption of alcoholic liquor or use of drugs.”
Even though I’d abstained from porn, masturbation and sex outside of marriage for a year and a half, there was still this nagging emptiness and loneliness inside that gnawed at me. That spiritual vacuum got the better of me on a business trip to Canada, when I lost my 18 months of sobriety on a phone sex and masturbation binge. Overnight, I was dropped back to the bottom with those who were Not Worthy of the 30 Day Chip.
I bounced back quickly, and stayed sober for another 3 years. With 3 years of sobriety to my name, it felt like the others should have been bowing down to me when I walked in the room. How could I fall again after going so long without acting out?
We moved from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs in 1995. With my support base gone, the ever present vacuum of emptiness intensified into a loud roar. I fell hard, and lost my “sobriety” again on a bender of porn and masturbation. This time, thought, I couldn’t get back up, and slid into a 3 year period of binging, shame and depression.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes (and have seen others do the same) from making sexual abstinence the bulls-eye of the target. I’ve seen guys who were binging on porn call themselves “sober,” just because they didn’t masturbate. I’ve been one of them. This is like an alcoholic saying he’s sober because he was drinking beer instead of whiskey.
Pride over length of “sobriety” is an easy hole to fall into, and I’ve had my share of hitting the bottom. It’s hard to navigate the big gaping, potholes in the road with the air bag of ego in our face.
I often skirted the edge of the cliff, trying to see how much lust I could have without losing my “sobriety.” The truth was that I hadn’t made the commitment to run hard from sexual sin, and was still playing games with it. The sobriety standard I was following actually invited this, with enough loopholes to give an accountant a field day.
Purity and sobriety aren’t the same thing. The American Heritage Dictionary defines purity as:
1. The quality or condition of being pure.
2. Freedom from sin or guilt; innocence; chastity.
Ultimately, we have to look to God for the standard of sexual purity, and the one He set goes far beyond the externals:
“You have heard that it was said, you shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Note that Jesus transitioned from the physical to the spiritual when He set God’s standard for sexual purity. While men focus on the externals, God looks at the heart, for this is where “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness and slanders” come from (Mathew 15:19.) Jesus left no loopholes when He set The Standard for sexual purity; in the instant we lust in our heart we’ve sinned, or “lost our sobriety.” There’s no “3 second rule,” as some have advocated.
I get emails from guys complaining that I advocate abstinence from masturbation, and can hear it now: “that’s impossible; who can measure up to that??! Who can clean up their heart?” If you’re thinking this you’re on the right track, because God’s standard for sexual purity is impossible, and I believe He intended it that way. Only God can transform a filthy, lust and self absorbed heart into a pure one.
With God’s standard of sexual purity, I’m forced to my knees. The white flag is up, and I have to declare bankruptcy; the battle is over before it starts, and I’m on the losing side. I’m doomed to failure every time I try to live up to God’s standard, as I can’t clean up my heart. This means I have to drop the idea that I have the power inside of me “to be good enough,” and lean hard on God every day if I want to live free from lust. Ezekiel 36:26 says: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” I can’t brag about having X number of months or days of “sobriety,” because the freedom from sin I enjoy today is a gift from the Lord.
Finding true sexual purity, which is freedom from lust in the heart, does not come from abstinence. Freedom is found when an empty, starved miserable heart is filled with the love of God. If a man abstains from sin but still has an empty heart, in the end he will go back to lust or some other counterfeit love (as I did). What we’re really after is to have our heart filled with something much more powerful, wonderful, and purer than lust.
In The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer writes:
“For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.”
Once you’ve tasted and known the “inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of your heart,” you will gain the power to live up to His impossible standard of sexual purity. A heart that’s thriving and pumping with the love of God has no hunger for the pathetic counterfeits like lust. When you make knowing and loving God your goal, you gain sexual purity. But when you make mere abstinence, (or sobriety, as men call it) the goal you’ll continue to fail, because there’s no power in it. The imperative of scripture is not to “be good enough for God to love you,” but to know Him, as Paul wrote in Phillippians 3:8-11:
“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.”
Righteousness, i.e. a pure heart, comes after we know Christ and have made Him the Lord of our lives. He won’t waste time trying to compete with our other gods, such as lust, work, food, relationships, the pleasures of life – or our pride over something like “sobriety.” We have to make a furious, consistent, no compromise, all-out effort to make Him first, like Paul, who “suffered the loss of all things.”
“It is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself… the Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God” writes Tozer. I meet a lot of Christian sex addicts who have volumes of Bible stored in their head, done plenty of wonderful ministry, and have never had their souls nourished by Jesus. They’ve not “tasted and known the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.” They may know the theology of grace, but it’s not touched their heart. They’re just as empty and miserable as I was.
What keeps the Christian sex addict from the joy of God’s presence is an inner sense of shame over his or her existence that they’ve never faced. Once freed from the shackle of lies, they’re free to bask in the love of God, and the obsessions and compulsions to lust fall off.
Making God’s standard of sexual purity does not cancel out the need to stay out of isolation, go to support groups, meet with accountability partners, or cut off the stumbling blocks of temptation (Matthew 5:29-30). 100% of the responsibility to “make no provision for the flesh” lies with us. (Romans 13:14) God isn’t going to trash that porn stash, or turn off the TV or computer for you. Your part in the deal is to run hard from sexual immorality, not skate the edge of the cliff. (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Abstinence from the external acts of sexual sin is ground zero; the beginning, not the end. Freedom from sexual sin in the heart, which is true sobriety, comes after we restore our First Love.
“You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever. ”
“How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart. They also do no unrighteousness; they walk in His ways.”