What does the Bible say about pornography?

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What does the Bible say about pornography? Can you break free from sexual temptation?

May 15, 2023 -

Teen looking at phone in a dark room © By Mihail /stock.adobe.com

Teen looking at phone in a dark room © By Mihail /stock.adobe.com

Teen looking at phone in a dark room © By Mihail /stock.adobe.com

Pornography carves canals of addiction in our brains, sends a torrent of shame into our hearts, digs up sedentary sin, and wreaks havoc on our relationships.

Porn sites received more monthly traffic than Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix, Pinterest, and Zoom combined. Between three and five percent of Americans are “addicted to sex,” and two-thirds of young people watch pornography at least once a week. Most pastors have struggled with porn, currently or in the past. Nearly one in five pastors currently wrestle with pornography.

Pornography comes from the word porneo, which refers to various sexual sins and promiscuity in the Bible. It’s a fitting word to describe the prevalent practice that “inherently degrades and dehumanizes.”

Pornography is endemic in both men and women.

What does the Bible say about pornography? Does the Bible demand that we become less sexual? Does it put constraints on us to make us “pure?” Ultimately, can you become free of porn addiction?

What is pornography? Who does pornography affect?

First, we need to understand sexuality according to God’s purpose. God created sex as a bonding agent for married couples. Sex brings life in marriage metaphorically and literally through procreation. Genesis indicates Adam and Eve were without shame in their nakedness, and they were tasked to procreate.

God created us for marital intimacy, but in Rewired: How pornography hijacks the male brain, Dr. William M. Struthers observes that our brain will literally restructure to fit sinful sexual desires. While this book focuses on men, the problem affects women nearly as greatly. Men tend to seek out visual pornography more than women, but that gap is diminishing (especially with a rise in lesbian porn). If we account for erotic, pornographic books like Fifty Shades of Grey, the discrepancy essentially disappears.

More and more, pornography affects children, sending them stumbling into a dark, twisted world of sexual exploitation. About half of children’s first exposure to porn is with another person; whether it’s a friend, relative, or even parent, their first encounter is not always accidental. The typical age of exposure to porn is around thirteen—that’s the average.

Is pornography an addiction? Actually, it’s like a disease

Psychologists sometimes talk about addiction as a disease that afflicts people who aren’t themselves addicted. In other words, although only one person in your family might be a raging alcoholic, everyone has the disease because it profoundly affects them. Considering addictions like diseases doesn’t discount the addicted person’s responsibility; they are the ones who are sinning. However, thinking about addiction as a disease shows that it rarely only harms the addict— their addictions profoundly affect their families, friends, and ministry. In addition, friends and family may accidentally make their sickness worse while trying to help.

Pornography addiction acts the same way. It also deepens other sins, traps us in shame, muddies sexual intimacy with spouses, and presents a distorted view of sex.

Is pornography a sin?

Sex acts as a binder between two people as they live out the picture of God’s covenant with his church (Ephesians 5:22–33). Sex is a selfless act between one man and one woman, bringing an element of physical intimacy to their personal intimacy. It’s powerful and ideally comes from selflessness in a Christian ethic (1 Corinthians 7:3–5). The Bible is not shy about sex, though it does keep the subject more or less private. For example, Song of Solomon is romantic and erotic but talks about sex through metaphors. Throughout Song of Solomon, sex is anticipated and, eventually, enjoyed by the lovers.

Once we have the Bible’s picture of sex in view, we can’t help but see pornography as rejecting God’s plan for beauty and pleasure “in the forbidden forest of lust.” And lust is indeed a sin.

However, we can’t stop at calling it a sin, we must gaze at something else. Trevin Wax puts it aptly, “Alongside our ‘no’ to pornography must come the Bible’s ‘yes’ to sexual expression within the martial union. The Bible doesn’t start with ‘no.’ The Bible doesn’t explicitly address pornography at all.”

In addition, alongside our yes to marital sex, we must say yes to single people. They don’t need marriage or sex to be fully Christ-like. They are whole and holy if they follow Jesus, regardless of their status. According to Jesus, marriage won’t even exist in heaven (Matthew 22:30).

Pornography turns something relational into something selfish. It turns people into things to wield as tools for one’s sexual desire. Like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, pornography leads “to distorted views of sexuality and the desire to hide.” Courtney Reissig writes that pornography “teaches us to view people as objects.”

If that’s not convincing enough, how about from the words of a porn actor? One said, “The worst part is that in this industry, you’re no longer human. You are just an object that can be bought for money and the man can do what he wants with you.”

Nearly half of the visits to one popular porn site contain physical violence or aggression.

Dr. Struthers writes, “Evidence backs up the claim that pornography hurts human relationships. Pornography corrupts the ability to be intimate. It pulls consumers and producers in with the promise of intimacy but fails to deliver the connection between two human beings.”

Dozens of studies show that people who watch porn have lower satisfaction in their relationships. One study showed pornography was the second strongest predictor of struggling marriages. The ways pornography undermines intimacy are well documented by the organization Fight the New Drug.

It is no surprise, then, that Hebrews says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4)

Paul writes, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).

Our culture says that sex is everything, in that it should be a part of our identity, yet that it is nothing, in that we can secure it selfishly with no strings attached. Celebrities, advertisements, movies, and even world leaders, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, all inundate us with an acceptance of sexual promiscuity. Some even promote pornography as a way to teach kids about sex.

Sexual sin often arises from shame, but it also creates it, spinning a vicious cycle. Andrew T. Walker writes that Satan always offers both “the sin that rejects Christ, but also the rescue plans that bypass Christ.”

Pornography leads us to self-gratification, coveting sexual intimacy that we can’t or don’t want in a marriage. It nearly always stems from avoidance, shame, or desire for control.

It’s also a weapon used against believers in spiritual warfare. Consider what Matt Jacobson, the founder of Freedom Course, told us in our podcast conversation, “If I’m on the battlefield, then I need to think a certain way I need to have my head in the game. And I have to guard myself against Satan’s destruction because that is what sexual immorality is.”

The fruits and roots of pornography speak for themselves.

While we might naively think that pornography is merely about pleasure-seeking, sexual addiction and brokenness always point to deeper issues.

The root issues of pornography

The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”

This sentiment is poetic and correct to a degree, but it needs nuance. In some sense, we could condense the source of every sin to pride or lack of closeness with God. Jeff Vanderstelt’s Gospel Fluency helps us understand our sins in terms of disbelieving truths about God and the gospel.

To address pornography specifically, let’s turn to Unwanted by Dr. Jay Stringer to understand some of the deeper issues. He holds an MDiv in counseling psychology and is a licensed mental health counselor. He and his team conducted a study with nearly 4,000 participants engaged in unwanted sexual behavior to study their patterns and beliefs.

Consider what Dr. Stringer’s research uncovered: Nearly 80 percent of people struggling with sexual addiction came from a “rigid family,” and nearly 90 percent report coming from a “disengaged family.” He found that shame, lack of purpose, stress, anxiety, depression, and other factors predict the use of pornography.

Something more than pleasure-seeking is going on.

The cycle of temptation

Sexual sin naturally starts cycles. In Rescue Plan, Reju and Holmes construct it like this: “Despair and destruction (death) → Attraction and attention (temptation) → Deception and distraction (lures and enticements) → Slavery and bondage (conception of sin) → despair and destruction,” and repeat.

They base this cycle on James 1:13–15, which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

We could also construe the cycle as a spiral into more powerful sexual brokenness. Neuroscience supports this picture. Wired for Intimacy unpacks this in great depth. Our surroundings, like the Pavlovian dog, can trigger a temptation in the cycle of addiction. Indeed, our brain literally rewires its neurons as we succumb to sexual temptation.

This is no excuse for sin but rather a stark reminder that our very neurochemistry bends to unchecked sexual sin, resulting in deep patterns that can seem impossible to break.

The four pillars of temptation

According to Rescue Plan, the Enemy uses four areas to tempt people: “access, anonymity, appetite, and atheism.” Access and anonymity skyrocketed with the advent of the internet. Limiting access and anonymity can help in the short term, but we must address both practical atheism (acting as though God did not exist) and the appetite for pornography.

Dr. Stringer’s perspective becomes particularly helpful in dealing with appetite. Instead of merely focusing on sexual temptation as a sin, he invites us to listen to what our sexual temptation shows us about our heart issues.

Pornography feeds on stress, fatigue, anxiety, loneliness, abandonment, fear, sadness, and shame. Anyone who’s been addicted to pornography will quickly see this. Again, these underlying reasons for sexual temptation do not excuse sin but help us target the underlying problems.

Trying to repair pornography addiction without addressing the root is like putting a band-aid on a cancerous tumor.

Here’s an example of a faulty Christian coping mechanism. Some believers feel like they’re in bondage to infrequent sexual sin. The infrequency means they may never stoop to prostitution or adultery, which would ruin their lives and possibly force repentance. Instead, they have “the occasional sexual struggle. Most often, they curate sexual struggles that likely will not cost them relationships or careers.” This pattern becomes resignation, and it plagues many Christians as pornography “hijacks” our souls into life-long habitual sin.

Resignation happens when we can no longer imagine what true freedom would look like.

In this way, Satan wants the sexual temptation to not “explode our lives but to slowly deaden their heart’s ability to believe that meaningful change could ever come.”

In Dr. Stringer’s study, one fact surprised him. Women were more likely to seek out aggressive, violent pornography than men by around ten percent. This variance revealed something to him: “Men tend to pursue pornography to find power over their shame and harm, women tend to pursue violent pornography to repeat their shame and harm.”

If this is true, then the fact that women are more likely to be sexually abused by men than vice-versa could cause women to seek out violent pornography at greater rates than men.

This demonstrates the complexity of pornography. It’s correct to call it a sin, but it would be more effective to name its specific causes.

“Come, let us reason together”: Are we serious about getting rid of sexual sin? Yes? Then let’s not hide behind ambiguities. Dig deep, and untangle the emotions and interconnected pains that make pornography so appealing to the flesh.

How to deal with pornography as a Christian

Recently, Christians have generally responded to pornography in one of three ways.

Purity culture

Purity culture rejects sexual sin by admonishing kids and adults alike to seek “purity,” avoiding sexual sin by sheer force of will, obedience to God, and perhaps prayer. This method may work for some, but it tends to heap shame on the addicted believer, which is like adding gasoline to the fire. As Dr. Stringer points out, according to Christ, we are already pure, made righteous by his blood, not by abstinence or celibacy.  

The focus on surface-level actions is a fundamental problem with the purity movement. Purity culture can communicate that we’re dirty or clean based on whether we’ve looked at something inappropriate. It also makes boys out to be lustful fiends who can’t control themselves and teaches girls to shoulder the responsibility for boys’ lust. In marriage, according to the purity view, sexual pleasure is for men only, and women must meet their “needs” whenever they want. All of this flies in the face of Scripture and wrecks the dignity of both men and women.

Purity culture has severely hurt many and even driven some away from the church altogether.

The gospel

Of course, the Bible does talk about sexual sin as unholy and impure (Ephesians 5:3). Instead of viewing it as something we do by our own strength, we must heed Paul’s words, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). We must journey through life alongside the Spirit, putting on “the full armor of God” and by abiding in Jesus.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12).

In a surprising way, God’s gift of salvation can train us to live self-controlled lives. Our salvation comes before sanctification. In addition, we must constantly practice preaching the good news to ourselves, something we’ll discuss later.

We’re not just fleeing from temptation (although we must do that, see 1 Corinthians 6:18); we’re running toward a flourishing relationship with Christ, the people around us, and ourselves. This approach to sexual temptation is sufficient since it’s biblical, but there’s another step we can take.

Understanding our sin

The final approach speaks the good news of Christ into our hearts while psychologically operating on the scars of shame and sexual sin. Going to the core of sin helps us understand it in specific terms rather than merely as a vague “heart issue,” “idolizing pleasure,” or “acting on shame.” We must be “sober-minded” and “watchful.” The devil will pounce on our weakness, whether trauma, loneliness, or shame (1 Peter 5:8).

Dr. Stringer’s book Unwanted breaks new ground here. He argues for a counterintuitive approach: Listen to your sexual brokenness. Instead of pretending sexual temptation doesn’t exist, ask the question with a counselor or trusted mentor: “Why this particular sexual sin?” In Unwanted, he unpacks how childhood abuse and abandonment can lead to sexual brokenness later in life. Dr. Stringer asks, “How many of us have ever asked God to help us understand our lust?” He says our sexual fantasies are “roadmaps” that help us see our underlying desires, emotions, and trauma.

For most, unwanted sexual behavior of any kind points to either childhood years or a current “baseline level of misery.”

Several factors can explain why we stay in sexual brokenness. For example, a lack of purpose can strongly correlate to watching pornography. “The greater the man’s futility, the more likely he was to increase his pornography use.” Insights like these can help us honestly reflect on the source of sexual brokenness.

Because of his sharp discernment in this area, we recommend you read Unwanted. Dr. Springer’s grace-filled insights are innumerable and indispensable for men and women who follow Jesus and feel trapped in sexual sin.

How to break free from pornography

Dr. Stringer’s research shows that many aren’t addicted to disordered intimacy or pleasure; we’re deeply “bonded to feelings of shame and judgment.” He explains, “Unwanted sexual behavior is not seeking medication but rather a familiar poison to deaden our imagination that something could change for the better.”

Because of the pattern that the sins of addiction and shame wield, it feels like we’re under its control. But Scripture says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

The passion of the flesh will win against our better judgment when we’re relying on our own power, but thankfully, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Consider an often-cited verse about sexual temptation: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:12–13).

Notice the way of escape comes from God. He is our salvation from sin and strength to overcome temptation.

A gospel-centered approach points people struggling with sexual sin to truths about their identity in light of Christ. Believers struggling with sexual sin focus on the overwhelming grace of God to break their chains of shame. According to the Bible, Christ sets us free from sin’s slavery through his work on the cross. This grace leads to the conviction of sin and repentance. How does this work?

In Galatians, Paul explains Christ’s power to overcome sin: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Later, he writes, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (4:9). Now we’ve had the wondrous feast of joy in God’s presence, how can we go back to what C.S. Lewis called “mud pies”?

Paul continues, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (5:1)

Freedom comes from realizing we’re already free.

Shame tells Christians the lie that they are slaves, lost, dirty, abandoned, and unrighteous, whereas because of Christ, we are free, found, clean, adopted sons and daughters, and holy. From the place of identity in Christ, we can find freedom.

Matt Jacobson emphasizes Satan’s tactic of deceiving. Christians often believe the lie that they’re weak to sin’s temptations, when in fact Christ is our strength, making us mighty to defeat temptation.

Practical ways to overcome sexual temptation

We’ve covered two pillars of temptation: appetite and atheism. Now, let’s briefly touch on access and anonymity.

Through a season of radical repentance, we may need to metaphorically “cut off our right hand.” This may mean having a friend, mentor, or spouse put restrictions on your phone. Covenant Eyes uses software that alerts accountability partners to suspicious internet activity. You might get rid of Safari, trust your iCloud password to someone else, delete various apps, or even have someone monitor your credit card statement. It’s also important to think about what triggers you to start feeling the temptation. Try to avoid those physical environments.

With regard to anonymity, we can always go somewhere to be alone. Instead, combatting anonymity means getting a supportive community of friends and being discipled. In Rescue Plan, Reju and Holmes argue that one-on-one discipleship from an older mentor is most effective. Regardless, the Scriptures make it clear that confession of sin brings healing. “​​Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Without confession to others and the Lord, sin will remain in the dark.

If you’re a pastor or Christian leader, you, most of all, must bring your sin to light. It will only get worse. It’s time to take responsibility and stop pridefully shouldering life’s weight on your own.

Do you consider yourself exempt from Hebrew’s injunction: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (10:24–25). Do you think you’re so superior that you don’t need others? That “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” doesn’t apply to you? (Galatians 6:2).

Let us step out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light.

The goodness of sex

We would miss an opportunity if we did not end on a positive note. God’s design for sex casts away the twisted, empty vision of pornography.

Dr. Stringer even argues that we should make our lives more sensual while separating sensual from erotic. What does he mean? Well, eating good food, drinking in the wonder of nature, feeling the crackling energy of a song, and tasting a good drink are all sensory and rich experiences—sensual. God wants us to enjoy those things as gifts from him (1 Timothy 4:4–5). It is not wrong to be pleased by God’s good world.

It is wrong to idolize them, and we must make that distinction. We should not fall into the sin of gluttony, alcoholism, cults of personality, or worshiping trees.

If we fall into sinful eroticism, we’re robbing ourselves of true sensuality and, if we’re married, romance and sexual intimacy.

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

When we realize that Christ already won the battle against sexual temptation and sin, our shame can fade away, and Christ breaks the cycle of slavery to sexual sin.

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