In every age and culture there are certain habits of sinful behavior that are particularly common and overwhelmingly destructive. In modern Western cultures one of the most soul-destroying habits is consumption of pornography, which leads us to commit adultery in our hearts (see, for example, Matthew 5:28).
For this reason we should give special scrutiny to how habits of porn consumption develop and how they can, by the power of the Gospel, be overcome. Job 31:1 describes how to sever the shackles of porn.
The Power of Pornography
Pornography hijacks the male brain and distorts men’s affections. Women can become addicted to pornography too, of course. The reason for the focus on the men is simply because more research has been done on the unique connection between the male brain and pornography.
Too often we fail to adequately consider how our physical body (including our brain chemistry) affects our soul. William M. Struthers, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, wrote:
“Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates. Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does.”
Here are four reasons porn use becomes a destructive habit:
Porn rewires the brain—Sexually explicit material triggers mirror neurons in the male brain. These neurons, which are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior, contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. In the case of pornography, this mirror neuron system triggers arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet. Seeking a release through porn leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind a man to the object he is focusing on.
“In God’s plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen,” says Struthers. “Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.”
Dopamine causes arousal addiction—Of the five primary chemicals that trigger sexual arousal and response in men, dopamine, which plays a major role in the brain system responsible for reward-driven learning, may play the most significant role in pornography addiction.
Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. Dopamine surges when a person is exposed to novel stimuli, particularly if it is sexual, or when a stimulus is more arousing than anticipated. Because erotic imagery triggers more dopamine than sex with a familiar partner, exposure to pornography leads to “arousal addiction” and teaches the brain to prefer the image and become less satisfied with real-life sexual partners. This neurological mechanism is one of the primary reasons for the abundance and addictive-ness of Internet pornography.
Overstimulation creates desensitization—Overstimulation of the reward circuitry—such as occurs with repeated dopamine spikes related to viewing pornography—creates desensitization.
As Gary Wilson, author of Your Brain on Porn, explains, “When dopamine receptors drop after too much stimulation, the brain doesn’t respond as much, and we feel less reward from pleasure. That drives us to search even harder for feelings of satisfaction—for example, by seeking out more extreme sexual stimuli, longer porn sessions, or more frequent porn viewing—thus further numbing the brain.”
What makes Internet porn unique—Wilson identified a number of reasons why internet porn differs from other addictive behaviors:
- Internet porn offers extreme novelty;
- Unlike food and drugs, there are almost no physical limitations to its consumption;
- One can escalate to increased consumption with more novel “partners” and by viewing new and unusual genres;
- Unlike drugs and food, Internet porn doesn’t eventually activate the brain’s natural aversion system; and
- Porn’s allure to youth sets the addictive behavior deeper in the brain. A teen’s brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, making it highly vulnerable to addiction and rewiring.
Steps to Freedom
Understanding how pornography affects men’s brains can helps us prepare solutions for breaking this soul-destroying habit. Through God’s grace anyone can be released from the shackles of pornography.
Confess and repent—Stop wallowing in guilt and shame. Confess your sins by agreeing with God that consuming pornography is sinful, acknowledging that God views it as harmful and destructive to us and contrary to His own character. Repent knowing that Jesus has already paid the price for the sins of your heart.
Affirm God’s forgiveness—Once we have genuinely confessed that pornography is sin and has found a stronghold in our life, we need to affirm God has pronounced us clean and forgiven (1 John 1:9). “While it may sound humble and modest to question God’s forgiveness, it is actually prideful and arrogant to refuse to believe what God declares to be true about you,” says Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. “Repentance means affirming what God says about you.”
Seek transformation—Not only will God forgive our lust, He will give us the power to overcome that sin as we meditate on His Word on a daily (or more frequent) basis (Romans 12:1–2). Ask for and seek his transforming grace even as you address the patterns of behavior that leave you more vulnerable to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh (Psalm 19:13).
Establish accountability—Seek out someone with whom to establish an accountability relationship and to whom you give permission to hold you accountable. Explain to them that you’ve been enslaved to porn but are now striving to be free and clean. It’s often wise to void explicit details—that life of filth is gone. Ask them to help hold you accountable during your transformation, giving them specific permissions to inquire about what you are feeding your mind when no one is watching.
Install buffers and filters—Use tools and techniques that will prevent you from coming into contact with porn, such as Covenant Eyes or Net Nanny, on your computer and smartphone. Avoid practical, outward temptations as you work on your heart. And if you need to get rid of your computer or smartphone, don’t hesitate. Do whatever it takes to wage war against sin.
Don’t give up—If you stumble, go back to step one—confess and repent—and start again (Proverbs 24:16). God’s power over sin is infinitely greater than your pornography habit as you seek to yield yourself to him (Romans 6:13–14). Trust in His grace; don’t give up, and continually seek freedom from the enslavement to pornography (Galatians 6:8–9).
Joe Carter serves as a communications specialist for ERLC and is a member of Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia.