This post originally ran September 6, 2010.
Note: this is an imaginary Christian couple, assembled as a composite from various counseling situations.
Thanks for the email and the follow-up phone call. I am glad you decided to get help with this, and I am glad that you and Suzanne are talking about it. A central part of this letter will be some advice on how to make those talks more profitable.
Let me summarize the problem as you outlined it, so that we can be sure I’ve got it right. Your marriage is solid, you think the world of Suzanne, and she of you, your sex life is robust, and you love your family. Your wife does not doubt your Christian commitments at all. At the same time, from time to time you are distracted by various lusts — not the triple x stuff, nothing hard core or marriage threatening — but enough to hurt your wife significantly whenever you stumble or you try to talk with her about it. Whenever you talk about it because you are confessing having fallen into some sin, you are in the doghouse and the talks are not productive. Whenever you are trying to anticipate a problem, she doesn’t understand what you are talking about at all, and cannot comprehend why you would be bringing it up. Does this sum up the situation reasonably well? If it does, it may help you in knowing you are not the lone weirdo. A lot of Christian husbands are in this situation.
Now what I am going to explain to you does not fall under the heading of “lighten up, it’s not that bad.” Rather, it is “lighten up or it is going to get really bad.” What you are dealing with could be called nuisance lust. At the same time, unaddressed, porn can be a marriage destroyer, and nothing I am going to say here should be taken as minimizing the impact of infidelity in marriage, whether actual infidelity or computer-induced fantasy infidelity. The thing to learn is how to turn away from unedifying stuff in a way that does not churn up nuisance lusts inside, in a way that makes things worse. Christian husbands have to learn how to stop trying to put out these fires with buckets of gasoline.
There is a form of lust that is more a function of your relationship to the “protective” laws you have created than it is a about your relationship to another woman’s body. It even works this way with God’s law (Rom. 3:20; Rom. 5:20).
But with God’s law, you are not allowed to give yourself a pass as way of getting around this problem. The way to deal with the law that God laid down is by turning to Christ — that is one of the ways the law was designed to work. But the same principle we learn about God’s law and our justification also applies to our own laws, and our sanctification. We must learn to use them as a reason to turn to Christ for grace and wisdom, and not to use them as a source of spiritual power in themselves.
I am talking here about the fences around the law that we tend to build for ourselves, thinking that rules can fix these things. Well, they don’t. Your laws can’t bring the power for godliness in sanctification any more than God’s law can bring justification. The divine law is a schoolmaster that makes us aware of our need for grace. Your house laws for your use of the family computer don’t have any more sanctifying power than God’s law does, right? How could they?
Paul would not have known the wretchedness of his sin if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” Remember that the centerpiece of that commandment was the reminder not to covet your neighbor’s wife (Ex. 20:17). Your lusts are the hornet’s nest, and God’s law is the stick that whacks it. This is done so that we will turn to Christ, but for some reason we think that after we have turned to Christ, we can grow in sanctification by whittling some extra sticks of our own for whacking the remainders of that hornet’s nest. But whacking that nest always gets the same results, whether the rules are God’s or yours. And it gets the same results even if your rules are good and wise — especially if they are good and wise.
Now there is obviously a delicate balance here, because the point is not to drop the rules so that you can go watch images that are corrosive to your soul. The point is not to grant yourself a looser set of permissions so that you can entertain yourself with porn lite. This is not “go ahead and sin” counsel. The point is to grant yourself a looser set of permissions so that you can walk away from it, for the right reasons, and without leaving your heart back in front of the computer keyboard, wishing the better half of you hadn’t turned the dern thing off.
So there are two steps in what you need to do about this. The first is that you have to get your mind around what I am explaining. You can’t just check the right box. You have to get it. After you get it, you need to show this letter to Suzanne, and work through it with her. Her first reaction will probably be something like, “Do you agree with this?” Or perhaps she will phrase it differently. “You don’t agree with this, do you?” If you have internalized it rightly, the answer will be yes, but you should then be able to talk about it in a way that won’t be offensive to her, or a stumbling block for her. Hope this makes sense.
So let me explain. Suppose you are sitting at your computer, and some blonde bikini-clad welterweight pops up on the screen. Imagine three possible responses from you, with your wife observing those response without your knowledge. The first response is if you give way to sin simpliciter. You lust after that babe, and worse, for a hour or so. Your wife would be upset with you, and rightly so. You would be in the doghouse, right where you belong. Sin is sin. Jesus said not to do that (Matt. 5:28), and you did it anyway. Solomon said that you should be satisfied with your wife’s breasts (Prov. 5:19), and you weren’t being.
The second response would please your wife very much. You react like someone dumped a pan of scalding water in your lap. You yell, jump up, and turn off the computer, praying imprecatory psalms down upon the hairy heads of the manufacturers of red bikinis. Your wife admires your fortitude and godliness, and she is astonished at the holy alacrity with which you leapt toward the ceiling.
The third response is that you look at it for a few seconds, say “huh, I wonder where her mother got to,” and then you head on over to Drudge to find out what Nancy Pelosi is up to.
Now in the first instance, your wife won’t want to hear any explanations, which is good, because there aren’t any good ones. In the second, she thinks explanations are not necessary, which is false. You have drawn the line in such a way as to look like joe godly to her, but the images you saw are eating at your innards even while we speak. This is because you are trying to get sanctified through an external application of the rules or the standards. In the third setting, you treated it with the seriousness it deserved, which is to say, not very much, but your wife might still be miffed — because you didn’t bolt away in a nanosecond. Was he really casual about it, she wonders, or was he “dallying”? But the dallying more often occurs with the second scenario, not the third. She is getting her security from the rule, and you are trying to get security from the same place. But you should know, in your heart, the true nature of the insecurity that is being generated. You sometimes feel like you have an impossible situation in your heart — whether or not you look at anything — and every time you try to explain it to her you have a tangled and unhappy conversation.
Here is another scenario. Suppose a man and his wife are out walking at the mall, and some chick is walking toward them, bouncing away like there’s no tomorrow. If the couple walk past her, and he says, “that’s just terrible. I can’t believe some people,” and his wife agrees, and they walk to the other end of the mall, clucking their tongues, I would be willing to bet ten dollars that the spectacle was far more of a problem to him than he is letting on. But if he could say to his wife, “Is this a great country, or what?” the chances are much better that he is handling it right. The problem is this: if he says that to his wife, then she might have trouble handling it right. What does he mean by saying, “is this a great country or what?” It is that kind of thing, she fulminates, that is causing the country to descend into a sinkhole of corruptions. Yeah, she’s right about that. But we want to be the kind of men who can learn to see this sin rightly, including these delights of sexual lust being advertised by herpes on heels.
Now if the wife comes to her husband afterwards and says, “Was that girl at the mall a problem to you?” his answer should be, “That’s the kind of thing that would be a problem if we couldn’t talk and joke about it.” If she takes offense immediately, then that is going to cause him to clam up, not wanting unnecessary conflict with a wife who is dear to him. And when he clams up, he is left alone with things in his head he ought not to be left alone with. When that happens, petty sins grow into more significant sins.
Most Christian women think that lust happens to guys when they are in the presence of any image of a scantily clad whoosit, and they think that this lust happens the way a bowling ball falls when you drop it. But this is not true. Far more is involved than simple stimulus and response. There is stimulus, response, law, grace, marriage, communion, context, and wisdom. If you shut it up inside your head, then it will be largely confined to stimulus and response, which is why you have such a struggle with it.
Now what Jesus prohibited was the lust. He didn’t require that you drive that stretch of the freeway, that place where the skanky billboard is, with your eyes closed. He prohibited the wanting and desiring; He did not prohibit the seeing.
But yes, someone will say. The seeing leads inexorably to lusting, just like when you drop that bowling ball. Sure, it often does. But my point here is that lurching away with the wrong understanding of your house rules leads to lust more often. The fact that your wife really likes those rules does not give those rules the power to protect her, even though she thinks they do. Let us say another pop-up twinkie appears on your computer, this time with a green bikini, and even less of it than the girl with the red one had. If you yell, and cry out, “Akkk! my eyes, my eyes!” then you are in far greater danger than if you say, “Well, huh. We are a mammalian species it seems. Go put some clothes on now, dearie. There’s a good girl.”
You see the strategy. Minimize the seriousness of this, but not so that you can feel good about indulging yourself. Minimize the seriousness of it so that you can walk away from a couple of big boobs without feeling like you have just fought a cosmic battle with principalities and powers in the heavenly places, for crying out loud. Or, if you like, in another strategy of seeing things rightly, you could nickname these breasts of other woman as the “principalities and powers.” Whatever you do, take this part of life in stride like a grown-up. Stop reacting like a horny and conflicted twelve-year-old boy.
The problem you are fighting has far more to do with how you and your wife are thinking about this than it has to do with “that lingeried hazard over there.” This is a trick, I am telling you. The snare is inside you. The more you lay extra layers of rules on top of those flickering images, the more they shine through. The more you can see them, the more you want to see. It is not like the rules work the same way layers of wool blankets might. The point is for you to be free of this stuff, and not to try to obey an arbitrary restriction. I am saying that the arbitrary restrictions are often counterproductive. They don’t work. You doubt what I say? Look at your own experience. This is like the old joke where guy flexes his arm back and forth, and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor said, “Well, don’t do that.” Whatever it is you are doing right now doesn’t work, right? So try something that will. Quit hitting the tar baby.
Walk away because you want to, and you know that you really want to because you could stay if you wanted. You could not stay “if you wanted to” in order to give way to lust because God’s Word speaks directly to that. But you could see it if you wanted, free of lust, and since it is lawful (but not necessary), you might as well leave. Leaving is the point, but you want it to be the right kind of leaving, because otherwise you are not really leaving.
John Owen once said that a man should not think he makes any progress in godliness who walks not daily over the bellies of his lusts. I am not arguing against this; I am arguing for it. What I am trying to communicate to you is that a vampire needs to have a stake driven through the heart. Stop pelting him with your homemade nerf balls.
I assume that you or Suzanne may have questions, and I am happy to try to answer them if I can.
Cordially in Christ,