The law, in highlighting our failure to keep it, points to Christ

October 24, 2014

This Sunday I’m preaching on Josiah, a relatively unsung (to us, anyway) king of Judah. I guess all kings of the divided kingdom are unsung, whether they were good or bad. Still: Josiah was a very good one—perhaps the best of all. He’s the only person in the Old Testament who was said to fulfill the Torah with his whole heart. Unlike even David, Josiah led his people in the celebration of Passover, the only king of Israel, divided or otherwise, to do so.

And what does all this Torah-observance get him? Not salvation for his people, as Peter Leithart points out in his commentary on 2 Kings.

Great as he is, Josiah cannot save Judah from destruction. Like the house of Ahab (1 Kgs. 21:27-29), Judah is doomed despite the repentance of the king, and as with the houses of Jeroboam 1 (14:13) and Ahab (2 Kgs. 3:2), the final prophecy of doom comes to a king who is comparatively good. Wisdom does not save Israel from division; Torah, even when kept with incomparable faithfulness, cannot reverse the effects of generations of idolatry. The message of the reign of Josiah is not that the temple must yield to Torah, but that Torah is as impotent as the temple for saving the people of Yahweh. The law is powerless to purify the idolatries of Judah, and Judah is doomed to exile. As Habakkuk says, the law has “become impotent” (Hab. 1:4), and Josiah points to Jesus largely because of his failure, by showing that the law is weak and by leaving Israel desperately hoping for a greater king to perform what he law cannot accomplish.[1]

And this failure of the law is exactly the failure that Paul points to in Galatians and Romans, especially Romans 7. Leithart writes: “Because of sin and the dominance of flesh, the person who receives the law is radically divided, schizophrenic, in a state of living death torn apart between inward desire to obey God and total inability to do so… The law drives to Christ and to faith in him.”[2]

This is, he writes, the “gospel of 2 Kings 22-23″: the “impotence of the law and the absolute need of an incarnate word who shares his Spirit.”[3]

This is precisely one important point we’ve been talking about so far in my Romans Bible study on Wednesday nights.

1. Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 270.

2. Ibid., 271.

3. Ibid.


People don’t often reject Christianity because it’s hard to believe

October 23, 2014

While John Lomperis doesn’t say at which “stage of heresy” Bart Campolo was when he served as a United Methodist youth minister (one hopes a very early one!), I otherwise appreciated this reflection on Campolo’s journey, as the son of progressive evangelical leader Tony, from growing up evangelical to becoming the “humanist chaplain” at USC.

We often speak of faith as if it’s something that happens in spite of ourselves: either we believe or we don’t, and there’s not much we can do about it. Campolo’s story, told briefly in this Forbes magazine profile on leadership, gives the lie to that. Faith is as least as much a matter of the will. We choose it, and the rest of our life follows.

My point is, I don’t think it’s very hard, intellectually, to believe in Christianity. We may reject Christianity for other reasons, but it’s likely not because we’ve weighed all the evidence for its truth claims and find that we just can’t believe it.

I completely agree with this, from Lomperis:

Christian churches obviously differ on all sorts of important but ultimately secondary issues such as infant baptism, women’s ordination, congregational autonomy, episcopal succession, and charismatic gifts. But once one crosses the line of rejecting matters of core, historic Christian orthodoxy (like the eternally triune nature of God, His omnipotence, His performance of laws-of-physics-breaking miracles, Christ’s bodily resurrection, or whether or not we can simply jettison parts of Scriptural teaching that seem too demanding or counter-cultural), this has a way of throwing up everything for grabs. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has crossed such a very fundamental line of faithfulness in belief or personal practice, but in every other respect is truly a model of Christian purity in doctrine and life. Unfaithfulness has a tendency to spread, like a cancer, until it has overwhelmed its host.


Sermon 10-12-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9b: Elijah”

October 22, 2014

superhero graphic

In today’s scripture, a drought has caused widespread famine. A widow is worried about having enough food to feed herself and her young son. In spite of this, the prophet Elijah asks her to feed him first—and then feed herself and her boy. This was a major test of faith. The question she must have asked herself was: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?” This sermon explores some ways in which that same question is relevant for us today. This is the second of two sermons on this text.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the early 2000s, when I was working as an engineer, I traveled frequently. And once I was slated to go to Toronto, Canada, where I was going to be working at a Coca-Cola plant. It just so happened that there was an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus in Toronto called SARS. Remember SARS? And on the news, they showed people walking around the streets of Toronto wearing surgical masks out of fear that they, too, would catch SARS. And I was worried, too, frankly. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto and catch SARS while I was there. But I was also way too vain to go to Toronto and walk around wearing a surgical mask like the people I saw on TV. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to go to Canada and get this deadly disease. Oh well…

As it turns out, the trip to Canada got canceled anyway. So I didn’t end up getting SARS.

But I’m reminded of that same kind of fear when I follow the news today. Because now, once again, we face a new public health crisis—a deadly new contagious disease that some of us are worried about: Ebola.

In fact, I sense that we’re living in a new season of fear… And our fear is way out of proportion to the actual threat. When it comes to Ebola, for example, from what I’ve read, it is very difficult to contract the disease. An Ebola sufferer doesn’t become really contagious with the disease until they’re really, really sick. So of course doctors and nurses have to take great precautions when treating someone with Ebola, but it’s unlikely that Ebola could be spread on a subway car… or out in public.

And we’re afraid And if we’re not afraid of Ebola, there are plenty of other things to worry about: like the renewed fear of Islamic terrorism. So we’re trying to contain the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And there’s even fear that the Secret Service can’t protect the President and the first family—there have been break-ins at the White House!

Fear!

In today’s scripture, the people of Israel were afraid. It hadn’t rained in over a year with no end in sight. As God had communicated through the prophet Elijah, God was withholding the rain from Israel and the surrounding nations as punishment for God’s people turning away from him and worshiping Baal instead. Baal was considered the god of rain. Baal supposedly controlled the weather. So our God, the one true God, wanted to prove to his people that he was actually in control. So God keeps Elijah alive by sending him out of Israel, about 90 miles north to a city called Zarephath, in Sidon. God tells Elijah that there’s a widow there who will feed him. We talked about how Elijah answered that call to go there in last week’s sermon. This week, I want look at the widow herself. Read the rest of this entry »


The false choice between being devoted to Jesus and being devoted to the Bible

October 20, 2014

Popular blogger and United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli said in a post last week—as he has said many times before—that, contrary to the Bible, including the red-letter words of Jesus, God doesn’t really have wrath toward sin. Wrath is something that we project onto God, out of guilt for our sin. (How on earth Micheli comprehends Paul’s letter to the Romans is beyond me.) Saying that he’s simply regurgitating ideas espoused by Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (from whom, I note with pleasure, the word “dunce” derives), he argues that God doesn’t experience anything resembling emotion because to do so would contradict the idea that God can be changed by anything, including the sorry plight of us sinful human beings.

I’ll leave it to my Catholic brothers and sisters to decide whether Micheli has accurately represented scholastic theology from the Middle Ages. I couldn’t care less. There are reasons I’m not Catholic, and if Aquinas and others argue God’s “impassibility” precludes God’s having wrath toward sin (or anything else suggesting that God, like humans, experiences actual emotion) then that’s just one more reason.

As I’ve said on this blog before and as I said to Micheli last week in a Facebook thread, if our tidy theological ideas constantly grate against our best understanding of what the Bible tells us, at what point do we say, “Maybe our theology needs to be revised”?

After all, as Roger Olson pointed out when discussing this very topic, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Regardless, given everything else Micheli has said about the Bible, no one can be surprised that Micheli preached this sermon yesterday entitled, “My Problem with the Bible.” (But really: “problem,” singular? Surely this is part one of a lengthy sermon series!)

I only wish I disagreed with the sermon more than I do. I agree that the bumper-sticker affirmation, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” is wrong. Obviously, we have to bring our best exegetical and hermeneutical resources to bear on discerning what God is saying to us through scripture. I agree that biblicism is heretical and idolatrous (although I’m sure I would disagree with his definition of it). We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed by the Holy Spirit through its words. And I agree that Jesus is the Word of God, God’s complete and perfect revelation of himself. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the Bible isn’t also the capital-W Word of God, although in a different sense from Jesus.)

But my big objection to the sermon emerges at the end: With rhetorical flourish, he lists some of the sins that a “community devoted to the Bible,” rather than to Jesus, would naturally commit. Then, by way of contrast, he concludes with this:

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes in Jesus Christ and believes him to be the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the full revelation of God.

I believe Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. I believe Jesus has made the Father known.

So that settles it- if we want God to be known- seen- then we have no other way in this world but to love as Christ loved.

Oh my goodness! How does he not see that he’s begging the question?

By all means, let’s be a community devoted to Jesus, characterized by his example of sacrificial love, which is “defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

Who could disagree with that?

Except… How do we know anything about Jesus and his “humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, sacrificial love”? It’s only by reading and studying God’s written revelation of himself, the Bible! How would we know about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? How would we know that Jesus healed on the Sabbath? How would we know that John says that Jesus is the “Word,” the full revelation of God? The apostles and other eyewitnesses aren’t around anymore. We have no reliable revelation of Christ outside of scripture—unless he would argue that a believer in Jesus has some private revelation, independent of scripture, which teaches us who Jesus “really is.”

There’s no way around it, Rev. Micheli: Being a community devoted to Jesus also means being a community devoted to the Bible.

Why does it matter? Because if we’re so confident that the biblical writers, inspired as they were by the Spirit, got the parts about Jesus right—including but not limited to his “red-letter” words—then shouldn’t we be very humble about what we think they got wrong?

This is especially true considering how often Jesus himself affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament. Please see Andrew Wilson’s excellent essay on the “Jesus Tea-Strainer” for more on the false choice with which Micheli presents us.


The Bible assumes that “God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness”

October 17, 2014

esther_for_everyoneIn yesterday’s post about the missionary nurse who contracted and was then cured of Ebola, I said that many Christians resist the idea that human suffering could have any role to play in God’s plans for our world. But as I’ve said many times, the alternative is far worse: God is hands-off when it comes to evil and suffering; he may hate it for us, but he has no power to prevent it, transform it, or use it to serve his purposes. Nevertheless, the moment we say, “God answered my prayer and prevented this evil from happening,” is the moment that we assert God’s involvement in and control over evil and suffering. It’s the moment we say, “This—even this bad thing—is happening for a reason. It’s serving God’s purposes.”

As he does on so many pressing issues, John Goldingay sheds light on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and evil in his For Everyone commentary. Here he’s commenting on Esther 2:1-18:

Gross self-indulgence for which other people pay the price, sexual oppression and abuse, anti-Semitism, and slaughter are facts of the world in which we live. One of the great characteristics of the Bible is that it faces those facts. It does not deal with issues of a merely spiritual kind. It deals with how things are in our world. It invites us to face the fact of what happens to young girls in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Then, most scandalously, it invites us to assume that God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness. The Persian king is about to seek to eliminate the Jewish people, and the means whereby God will avoid the fulfillment of that intention is the sexual abuse of the teenage Esther. Esther pays a price and her entire people lives. It might seem disturbing that God is prepared to use such means to bring about the defeat of evil. It would be even more disturbing if such horrors happened and were incapable of having any significance.[†]

John Goldingay, Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2012), 164-5.


Glenn Peoples asks, “What makes you doubt?”

October 17, 2014

Glenn Peoples, to whom I’ve referred often on this blog, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers, apologists, and theologians. In his most recent post, he asks his readers—both believers and atheists—to step into the “public confessional” and say what makes them doubt either their belief or lack of belief in God. It is surely for the benefit of “professional Christians” like me that he writes the following:

Don’t worry that you might be “giving away” too much [if you admit that you doubt]. If you think that non-believers really accept that you have no doubts at all, you’re kidding yourself. A lot of them, I am sure, think that really you know the whole thing is nonsense, but you pretend to believe it in order to dull your fear of death. The admission of one real doubt then is hardly going to be a great revelation. You may even demonstrate to people that you have honesty and humility after all, and that you are secure enough in what you know that you can admit what you do not know. What’s more, as a public defender of Christianity, your admission that you have some doubts will be encouraging to other Christians, who will be able to say “I’m not the only one! I don’t just lack faith after all. It’s OK to have doubts.” Lastly, while you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there. Anyone who can look you in the eye and say that there is absolutely no reason for pause at all, and that every piece of information that we have supports their believe that God does not exist is either a worse liar than our hypothetical scientist or else far, far more deluded than anyone suffering from what Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” C. S. Lewis recalls his own moments of doubt:

Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

Dr. Peoples confessed that he doubts that petitionary prayer accomplishes anything—that what happens is what would happen anyway, regardless whether we pray or not.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments section:

Great post, Glenn! My biggest doubt has to do with this question: Why is God as difficult to believe in as he is? What I mean is: why doesn’t he offer more direct evidence of his existence—theophanies like those, for example, given to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or Isaiah? I understand that nature bears witness to God; that there is excellent historical evidence for the resurrection, which itself confirms the truth of the gospel; that we have lots of good arguments for God’s existence, etc. I even have much personal experience that confirms my strong intuition that God is real. But believing still requires a lot of faith on our part. I trust that God knows best, but why should it be so?

Even as I write these words, I feel a need to defend my faith—to argue myself out of this doubt—but, in the spirit of Glenn’s post, I’ll let this question stand for now.

The point is, it’s O.K. to doubt. What did Tennyson say? “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.”


Sermon 10-05-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9a: Elijah”

October 16, 2014

superhero graphic

This is the first of two sermons I’ll preach about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath from 1 Kings 17. Today’s sermon focuses on Elijah’s hearing the “word of the Lord” and responding. We’re not told how the word of the Lord came to Elijah, but this sermon describes ways in which we can discern the Lord’s voice today: through scripture, through trusted Christian friends and mentors, through external circumstances, and by listening to our own heart. Once we “hear” his word speaking, however, we must find the courage to obey. That’s often the hard part!

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

For the past couple of weeks, tens of thousands of university students in the city of Hong Kong have been publicly protesting a new election law put in place by the Chinese government. This law limits Hong Kong’s right to rule itself. If you’ll recall, Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997. Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China on the condition that the Communist Chinese government would let Hong Kong retain the right to govern itself democratically.

Students protesting in Hong Kong.

Students protesting in Hong Kong.

For the most part, the mainland Chinese government has honored that agreement, at least until last month. Now, the Chinese government wants to veto any candidate running for office in Hong Kong that it doesn’t approve of.

As a New York Times article points out, this puts the U.S. in an awkward position. One administration official said, “We have principles and values that we want to promote, but we’re not looking to inject the United States into the middle of this.” An official statement from the American consulate said, “We don’t take sides in China’s internal disputes.”

Don’t take sides? We’re the United States! Aren’t we always on the side of democracy and the right of self-determination? What about the Declaration of Independence! But… China is our largest and most important trading partner. We are seeking their cooperation in our war against ISIS. We need them to support us on a nuclear agreement with Iran.

I don’t pretend to know what the right thing to do is. But as you can see, what ends up happening is that we compromise our principles and values in the interest of diplomacy. And this sort of thing happens all the time, no matter who the president is, whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican. Read the rest of this entry »


“In the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace”

October 16, 2014

whitebol

Nancy Writebol, the missionary nurse in Liberia who contracted Ebola and was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital last July, was interviewed for this week’s Christianity Today. Her words reminded me of my sermon last week. As I discussed the headlines involving Brittany Maynard, I quoted James 1:2-3: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Count it all joy. Does “all” mean all? This is a hard truth but true nonetheless: God has what Tim Keller calls a “causal relationship with suffering”—meaning that God has good reasons for permitting it. As bad as our present suffering may be, we may trust that the alternative to our suffering—given this fallen world and its sin-filled circumstances—would be even worse. Even suffering, therefore, serves God’s purposes. The good news, as a consequence, is that God has the power to redeem it and use it for our good.

As I’ve said many times before, if God can transform the worst evil and suffering on the cross of his Son Jesus into the world’s greatest good, then he certainly has the power to redeem lesser evil and suffering—even our own.

Many Christians resist this idea. But I wonder: Would they rather God have no control over our suffering—and merely watch from the sidelines of our lives with pity? In that case, God would not be the God revealed to us in Jesus.

Writebol doesn’t pretend to understand why she contracted Ebola or why she was healed while so many others weren’t. Nevertheless, she said, “I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: ‘This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.'”

Here are some relevant excerpts from the interview:

How did you wrestle spiritually with the fact that you contracted Ebola and lived while many of your colleagues did not?

It is a wrestle. First of all, we don’t know the mind of God and why the Lord allowed me to survive and some of my African brothers and sisters not to survive. I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: “This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.”

God has allowed us to survive, and there are many African brothers and sisters who are surviving Ebola. We give God glory for those who are surviving. But it’s like cancer or any disease: some survive and some don’t. I trust the Lord in what he’s doing and how he’s working. He’s brought awareness to the Ebola crisis, which has helped in getting a vaccine and a serum that can maybe help, and in raising awareness for the rest of the African countries that are suffering.

Did you ever ask God why you got sick?

I don’t know that I ever asked “Why, God?” or “Why?” I know that I received peace from the Lord. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t dark times. All of us in Liberia felt that the week that Dr. Brantly and I were really struggling, there was a spiritual battle going on—there were some very, very dark days. But also in the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace…

To what extent had you already been thinking through these theological issues simply because you had been treating Ebola for several weeks?

I always felt safe going. I trusted the Lord that we were the hands and feet of Christ. I had experienced Christ’s peace way before I ever contracted Ebola. [After I got sick,] my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.


Why “religious pluralism” fails to respect other religions

October 15, 2014

I’m leading a Bible study tonight on Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which we’ll tackle the deeply controversial idea underlying Paul’s words in Romans 2:28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Let’s not beat around the bush: Paul is claiming that those who belong to the new covenant in the Messiah are now entitled to the name “Jew.” One problem with this claim is the exclusivity it implies about Christianity. We modern people, even we more “sophisticated” Christians, are supposed to believe that Christianity and Judaism (and probably Islam and other religions) present parallel paths to the same reality that we name “God.” If we sincerely embark upon any of these paths, we wind up in the same place, ultimately.

The idea that all sincere religions are parallel paths to God—otherwise known as religious pluralism—sounds deeply respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but not so fast. N.T. Wright puts the problem in sharp relief. He says religious pluralism is rooted in Enlightenment thinking, according to which,

all religions are inadequate approximations to truth, and, despite what many of them say, none has exclusive rights to it. The appropriate stance is therefore mutual tolerance. This is, of course, a covert way of saying, among other things, that (at least) Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are all actually misleading, since all of them make, at the very heart, claims that the others are bound to deny if they are not to lose their very identity. Nevertheless, this secularized agenda has seeped into both Jewish and Christian circles, often coupled with the laudable desire for humility and mutual respect, sometimes using that as a pretext for a highly arrogant liberalism that challenges all truth claims while pressing its own with remarkable intolerance.[†]

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 451.


To quit porn, first believe that you can quit porn… and other helpful advice

October 14, 2014

As I blogged about last week, Brett McKay has written a 4-part series on breaking the porn habit on his Art of Manliness blog. It’s filled with wisdom and insight, and it may prove indispensable to men who are ready to break the habit once and for all. In Part 4 of his series, he offers practical advice on how to do it.

As McKay says repeatedly, one key is to recognize that a habit—any habit, including even the porn habit—can be broken. This is why he urges us not to think of porn use as an addiction.

Among men who are trying to quit, it’s popular to conjure up images of porn being an unbeatable dark monster/plague/pandemic/war that must be fought tooth and nail and if you succumb to it, you’re destined to becoming a goat rapist, or something. But I don’t think that mindset is very helpful. In fact, firebrand rhetoric like that can actually backfire. Research suggests that this sort of simplistic, over-the-top rhetoric was the big reason the D.A.R.E. Program failed to reduce drug use amongst American teenagers back in the 80s and 90s. One study even showed that compared to middle schoolers who didn’t take part in the program, D.A.R.E. students showed an increase in the use of drugs! D.A.R.E inadvertently made drugs alluring by giving them the aura of “forbidden fruit,” tempting kids who otherwise wouldn’t have given drugs much thought.

Remember: although McKay himself is a person of faith, he’s writing for a largely secular audience. So let me add some theology to his words: We Christians believe in the power to change our lives for the better—not through our own strength, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that through the Spirit we can (and must) overcome sin in our lives. We Wesleyan Christians, especially, emphasize the work of the Spirit in sanctification—the lifelong process of becoming holy people.

But someone might object: Yes, but if it’s the Holy Spirit, then we don’t have to do anything. On the contrary, while the Spirit enables change, he usually does so through our willingness to let him change us. So even though the Spirit is changing us, he’s often doing so through our human effort. Remember that Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23 includes “self-control.” Although this virtue is “of the Spirit,” Paul emphasizes the role that we must play. Otherwise, Paul would have called it Spirit-control rather than self-control.

So in my mind, we men can apply all of McKay’s words about kicking the porn habit with the helpful understanding that we’re not doing it alone: the Lord is working through us to change us. Believe that God has the power to change us!

One of the best things we can do to overcome the habit, McKay believes, is to demystify it: to understand why the impulse to look at porn is so strong. He explains in depth why this is the case. Very briefly, the body produces dopamine when we start to become sexually aroused. Dopamine makes us feel good; it motivates and reinforces good and necessary behavior; it aids our survival. Obviously, the need to reproduce is an important survival behavior.

When we look at porn, then, our body doesn’t know that what we’re seeing isn’t real to us. We trick our bodies into thinking that we’re about to have sex. So our brain begins producing dopamine. The more porn we look at—and, unfortunately, there’s a free and limitless supply of it, thanks to the internet—the more dopamine we produce. Again, dopamine makes us feel good.

The problem is that our body’s defense against too much dopamine is to increase our resistance to it, by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. Like a drug abuser, we begin to need more of it to get the same effect. In the case of porn, this means not only viewing more porn, but seeking out a wider variety and more extreme versions of it in order to get the same “high.”

Practically speaking, therefore, we can become desensitized to “normal” sex with our spouses. Erectile dysfunction can therefore become a problem. McKay speculates that porn is the reason, for example, that Viagra and other ED drugs are increasingly popular with younger men.

This sounds pretty bleak, I know. We may wonder, Is a healthy sex drive no longer possible for men who’ve already spiraled down into compulsive porn use? But keep in mind that dopamine production explains why it’s difficult to overcome any bad habit—whether it’s porn, or overindulging in sweets, or biting one’s fingernails. In other words, the porn habit isn’t habitual in a unique way: it looks like any other bad habit. This is why one researcher encourages us to think of porn as “sexual junk food”—no more, no less. McKay writes:

Once you understand the science behind porn use, you can see it for what it really is: sexual junk food. You don’t give your bag of potato chips a menacing aura of power. They’re just potato chips. If you want to quit eating potato chips, you learn about the different ways carbs vs. protein and veggies affects your body, you throw away your potato chips, you quit going down the potato chip aisle in the grocery store, and you choose the celery stick at the party. Try doing the same thing with internet pornography.

I know some might think that’s a flippant comparison, particularly if they’ve seen porn destroy marriages and relationships, but I think understanding the problem and making it approachable is truly the key to success here. It puts you in a proactive place where you can confidently start taking steps to kick the habit.

Here’s the good news: we can “reboot” and “rewire” our sex drives, as McKay explains in detail. Rebooting means that if we stop viewing porn for a period of time, dopamine receptors will increase and our sex drive will return to its “factory settings.” Interestingly, McKay says that exercise and fasting can assist this process. Rewiring recognizes that over time our brains create neural pathways that make porn consumption easier and easier. Our brain becomes “wired” for porn. We can rewire our brains, however, by changing the external “cues” that make us want to open our web browsers and search for porn. See his post for specific steps we can take.

McKay’s words about changing our mindsets about porn are filled with wisdom. He concedes that it’s harder for us Christian men to do so. He writes:

The folks who are most concerned about porn tend to be religious, and they see porn as a spiritual cancer.

And yet the way that porn is more often than not discussed at church tends to be incredibly counterproductive, driving men deeper into porn use instead of away from it.

If you’re a regular reader of AoM, you’ll know I’ve talked about the fact that shame can be an unmatchable motivator for seeking positive improvement. But that’s only if it’s simultaneously accompanied by both the will to do better and the confidence that you can improve. If shame is just a trigger for self-pity and endless rumination about how you’re a terrible person, the effect is exactly the opposite. Excess shame becomes debilitating.

That’s why, and this relates to the points made above, I think it’s actually highly ineffective to go overboard on demonizing porn use. Yes, for Christian guys, it’s a sin, and I’ve got nothing against calling a sin, a sin. But porn frequently gets weighted with more baggage than its fellow transgressions; Jesus said simply looking at a woman with lust was adultery, and yet if we catch a young man ogling a woman’s cleavage we tend to just smack him in the head and tell him to cut it out. Yet if he looks at a pair of breasts online – whoa-ho-ho! — he is sick! Filthy! Depraved! On the pathway to addiction and Hell! All this overweening smack down accomplishes is leading the porn user to withdraw, to hide his dirty secret at all costs from his friends and family, to suffer crushing guilt and anxiety, and to feel hopelessly defective, which all leads back to…more porn to soothe his feelings of stress and isolation! I truly believe that excess shame is frequently what turns casual porn use into a compulsion…

If a loved one or someone at your church is having a problem with porn, it’s okay to express disappointment, and it’s okay for the man to feel some healthy shame for the way in which he’s fallen short of your shared ideals. But don’t heap on the scorn. Teach young men that sexuality is a healthy, wonderful thing. Teach them that their attraction to porn is a very normal consequence of their biology and brains, that they should try not to slip up, but if they do, to just get right back in the saddle and keep on trucking.

Good words for pastors like me!

A little more theology: Satan is resourceful. He’ll try to ruin us any way he can. Blinding us to the spiritual harm of pornography (which seems to be his main strategy these days) is one way. But excessive shame and self-loathing can also do the trick. Remember the kind of Savior that we believe in: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).


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