Porn destroys the soul. An increasing awareness of the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to pornography continues to make clear just how vast the destruction is. It’s not merely that pornography impacts a person’s sex-life, it impacts the entire way they think and interact in the world. Neuroscientist William Struthers has documented these realities well (see Wired for Intimacy). Even secular publications are decrying the ways in which porn shapes how men respond to and think about women. Within the church we need to continue to stress and unpack the specific ways that pornography impacts spiritual growth. Prolonged use of porn impedes spiritual growth.
If you do any amount of reading on this subject your likely to hear the same, important, arguments proffered. Long-term exposure alters the neural pathways in the brain, creating addictive patterns in users. Long-term exposure to pornography and the ways in which it devalues and degrades women leads men to greater objectification. Long-term exposure to pornography, like a drug, begins to produce less high without increases the risk and depravity involved in viewing pornography. Long-term exposure to pornography alters a person’s sexual appetite such that normal, healthy, sex becomes impossible – while continued use of porn occurs. All these arguments are true, if increasingly commonplace. There is another side to the damaging effects of porn, however, and that is the spiritual side. Long-term exposure to pornography impacts a person’s spiritual growth in at least three ways.
First, long-term exposure to porn shrinks a person’s appetite for God. This is the most obvious and serious impact on a person’s spiritual life. Here’s a truth about sexual sin that surprises many: it’s not really about sex. Sexual sin is about trying to find in pornography (or adultery, fantasy, etc.) what only God can provide. David Powlison has keenly observed:
Your sexual addiction doesn’t start with your behavior. It begins with what you want, what you live for. (Sexual Addiction, 6)
Sexual sin can be about any number of things: power, respect, control, acceptance. It can stem from our own arrogance or insecurity. It can be triggered by stress or success, boredom or bitterness. We can use the sin of pornography to find affirmation, comfort, or reward. Ultimately, however, we are seeking in porn what only God can provide, and as we try to replace God with sin our desires for him and for the things of God decreases. Sean Fitzpatrick offers an interesting perspective on this point when he talks about the ways in which pornography stunts education.
Fitzpatrick, the headmaster of an all-boys boarding school, has seen the long-term effects of porn on the education of young men. He has deduced that porn actually inhibits wonder and imagination. He writes:
The reason pornography hinders a boy’s ability to accept and enjoy education is because pornography creates a barrier to wonder by numbing the sense of wonder. Without wonder, education is a crippled thing at best. Socrates taught that wonder is the beginning of wisdom, the very occasion of education, and pornography wounds the ability to wonder through the voyeuristic, shameless stripping of one of the most sacred sources of wonder. It creates desensitization to beauty, robbing boys of their innocence through the elimination of the mysteries of the heart, severely impairing their ability to be awed or find pleasure in the beautiful. Jaded spirits are not very susceptible to formation. Cynicism quickly develops as a defense. Boys are finally lost to apathy in a world that fails to titillate. The fantasy, or blasphemy, of reality results in a loss of desire for reality, which is the foundation of any education. (Boys, Porn and Education)
This applies not simply to education in general but to spiritual formation in particular. Pornography reduces the world to that which I can access right now and reap some titillating response from right now. God does not work that way. Understanding God comes with great reward, but at great effort. God has revealed himself in His Word and in His world but to access these truths we must work, we must study, we must wonder, we must pray, we must seek wisdom. What porn does to human relationships it does to spiritual ones too. Where effort is needed to grow any relationship, porn offers a simpler, more immediate route. It comes, however, at great cost.
The porn user doesn’t just merely shrink his appetite for the things of God. In the long-term he attempts to replace God and drown out His real voice. To hear God’s voice truly would mean to face conviction, to be forced to admit sin, to be forced to choose between God and giving up sin. The porn user does not want to face this reality, so he drowns out the voice of God, ignores God, avoids God, as a result altogether loses interest in God.
Secondly, pornography narrows the focus of spiritual need. Christian men and women who want to stop looking at pornography feel the weight of their immorality. They sense the need to stop and the need to grow and change. Often however they don’t see the ways in which this sin is related to a host of other areas of their life. They tend to reduce all the spiritual growth needs to this single area of behavioral modification. “I just need to stop looking at porn,” they think. Every ounce of conviction, then, is directed to the realm of sexual sin and they begin to overlook the rampant sin in other parts of their lives, sin that often feeds their desire for porn. In an interview about his pornography use one man stated:
One thing I’ve found when I’m struggling with pornography is that when I hear the word ‘sin’ I hear it to mean pornography. (quoted in Tim Chester, Closing the Window, 31)
Porn limits the scope of a person’s spiritual sight. They can’t see past this glaring problem to address all the other areas of their life that need attention, ones that may be feeding their desire for porn or at least exacerbating it. Men and women can’t see their anger, their selfishness, or poor stress management. They aren’t looking at the ways the generally use people, or the ways they isolate themselves, or the perfectionism they’ve developed. All theses issues are relevant to the struggle with porn. Furthermore, porn is not the only area that God desires to help them grow in, and sometimes a focus on one single area can not just limit our growth but compound our obsession with that particular struggle. You will not have it all together if you finally get a handle on your porn. God wants more from you and has been attempting to expose more, but this struggle keeps funneling every conviction through that single lens.
Finally, porn isolates believers. We cannot experience sanctification and spiritual growth apart from the company of believers. The one-anothers of Scripture reveal the importance of the body of Christ for Christian growth. Porn, however, isolates believers from believers. Fear of exposure, or the shame for failure, motivate porn-users to keep everyone else at arm’s length. This is especially true of women, who are led to believe that this is a unique male struggle. In a recent interview one young woman confessed:
I lived in shame and secrecy for so many years. I told myself that no one would understand, because this isn’t something that any other girl struggles with. And if anyone ever found out, they would think I was so gross and disgusting. (“Kelsie & Nicole’s Stories: Porn is Not Just a Guy Thing”)
Isolation, however, breeds further spiritual decay. Not only can you not battle porn on your own, but you cannot grow in any area of spiritual health without the body of Christ.
Long-term exposure to pornography damages users in many ways. Many of these ways are becoming common knowledge now, and many are reacting to the neurological and relational dynamics of porn use. The church needs to be aware and ready to respond to the spiritual dangers too. We need to help addicts and users become aware of the spiritual damage they are doing to themselves. This knowledge can provide immediate ways to counsel and care for those who struggle with porn, it can also send red flags up for them about just how serious their problem is. Porn use has spiritual implications, the more you use it the less you will grow.