Many churches today inadvertently preach a message of shame when trying to address sexual sin. How does this happen? What is a better approach?
If you read any research coming out on the social data related to pornography consumption, the statistics are not good. With the smart phone providing accessibility and anonymity to free pornography like never before, staggering numbers of men and women find themselves often going to this well. If there is a plus side to the data, it’s that the Church is awakening to the reality of this issue—we can no longer avoid the issues of pornography and sexual struggle in our preaching and teaching. We must address this topic.
However, as we do, we often preach an inadvertent message of shame; a shame that keeps people more trapped than before.
Most of the messages I have read or heard in church that touch on the topic of pornography follow a pattern like this: “Men, God has a wonderful plan for your sexuality. His plan is good and beautiful. Pornography cheapens His plan and objectifies women. See how good His plan is and how valuable women are? You don’t need pornography in your life, so get rid of it. Choose Jesus and His plan instead of pornography.” End of message.
Everything in that message is true, but it produces shame on several levels. Here are four reasons why this kind of message inadvertently produces loads of shame in the lives of men and women:
When we address the struggle of sexual sin primarily to men, we immediately shame every woman in the room who might be facing a very similar struggle in her life. The message is, “This is an issue men struggle with—if you struggle with it as a woman, there must really be something wrong with you.” We may never say this explicitly, but this is the shaming message whispered to women by the enemy of their souls.
While it’s always healthy to teach on God’s plan and the goodness of His creation, it is a mistake to believe that teaching this will free men and women from pornography. I have yet to hear any man or woman say they struggled with pornography because they didn’t realize God had a better plan. Everyone I hear from knows this. The reality that they can’t seem to choose this better plan causes them to heap shame on themselves.
While viewing pornography is a choice—and, men and women are responsible their choice—freedom rarely comes by an act of will to choose differently. When we say, “Just stop looking,” it’s like saying, “You’ve been drinking Coke. Now drink Pepsi instead.” The battle is so much more than a matter of preference or choice. Men and women are battling years, sometimes decades, of an addictive pathway in their brain that has taught them how to medicate the pain in their life. The choice won’t change until their entire way of handling life is addressed. This requires a process of brain change and life transformation enacted over a significant period of time.
We got into our dark cave of isolation and shame alone; we can’t get out of it the same way. When we work on our struggles with lust and pornography alone, we remain blind to the level of denial, rationalization and minimization we have lived with, enabling the pattern to continue. Men and women must move into a redemptive, safe, and healing community, like a Pure Desire group, in order to experience lasting change.
When we preach against pornography, as summarized above, we give the motive, but not the means; the target without the tools. We provide a clear purpose, but without an applicable plan. We leave people feeling more trapped than ever before. They walk away from our sermons motivated to change with a deep understanding of why they should, but nothing in them has actually changed. Their brain is still stuck in the same, ingrained rut. Their way of doing life—medicating pain through temporary highs—remains unchanged. Only now, when they act out, the shame is deeper than ever.
So, what can we do? Is the answer to leave the topic to experts, counselors, or support groups and not address it publicly? Absolutely not! When addressing pornography in your church or group, consider these three approaches:
A deep and lasting struggle with pornography, or any sexual sin, is never truly about pornography. It is always about a way of dealing with the pain and discomfort in our lives. Pornography is the symptom of core issues related to identity, belonging, and value. Help people connect with the core emotional issues driving their behavior.
After addressing pornography and sexual sin with men and women, help them see what they can do next. Who can they talk to? Is there a group they can attend? Is there a pastor they can meet with? The next step should NOT be, “Go home and immediately talk to your spouse.” The spouse will need to be involved eventually, but if someone has struggled with sexual sin over a period of time, they need time and space for processing and healing to take place before giving a fair and accurate confession to their spouse.
The greatest, and perhaps easiest, adjustment we could make is to speak about sexual brokenness as an “all of us” kind of topic. This topic, more than any other, has been taboo and shame-riddled in the life of the church. When we finally open that lid and speak honestly about pornography and sexual sin, we need to help everyone see that this is a human problem; because we all struggle with idolatry. We all struggle with putting pleasures and desires ahead of Jesus. We all have a way of medicating our pain or dealing with life that takes us away from God rather than moving us toward Him. If we emphasize that all of us struggle, that all of us medicate our pain, then we create a safe place for individuals to step forward and admit they need help.
When these three dynamics are in place, preaching on the perils of pornography and sexual sin can be incredibly effective. For many people sitting weekly in our services, their struggle with sexual stuff is THE biggest barrier between them and God. We must address it. But when we do, we must offer more than a ‘try harder on your own’ approach. We must point them to a holistic plan of change that actually works. That’s exactly what Pure Desire is here to do.
I applaud your courage to speak honestly about pornography and sexual sin. I pray that as you do, you will keep some of these principles in mind, so that your preaching or teaching will lead people away from shame and into grace.
Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.