What effect does using pornography have on a person? Some people seem to think that since using pornography is often a private thing, you can get away with it without facing any real consequences. Boys will be boys. This is something that you can do for a while and then one day leave it behind—no worse for wear. I would like to suggest that, in fact, there are serious consequences on a number of different levels. I would like to highlight some of psychological, relational, and spiritual issues that come out of using pornography.
Before doing so, however, I would like to make a few comments on the way God intended us to use our sexuality. In the Scriptures the Lord presents our sexuality as a precious gift that is sacred in his eyes. He has taught us to reserve our sexuality for the marriage covenant. Our Father gives us this gift with the intention that we have children and also so that we might show our love to our husband or wife in a unique way. In a passage like Proverbs 5:15–19, for example, we are taught to find sexual pleasure in marriage. “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.” Similarly, in the Song of Solomon, God commends the beauty of sexual love in marriage. Our Father has given us a precious gift that is meant to bind husband and wife together in love. It is when we understand the Lord’s intentions with this gift that we can see more clearly some of the terrible consequences of pornography.
Pornography is addictive or, to use the biblical word, enslaving. In many ways those who fall into this trap find themselves in a situation not unlike those who use illicit drugs. Many people who use pornography get a high out of it. They find it pleasurable, and so they come back to it time and again. They become addicted. But then over time they become desensitized to it so that they do not get the same feelings as when they first started. This leads them to begin looking for more and more graphic pornography. And it is at this point some men even make the transition to acting out sexually. They move from images to the real world. In Laurie Hall’s book, An Affair of the Mind, she relates with very raw emotions how her husband got caught in this trap and eventually ended up visiting prostitutes.
Even for those men who do not move to acting out sexually, there are still serious psychological consequences. Those who use pornography often lay down patterns in their thinking and relating that stay with them for a long time. Let me use an example to illustrate. Anyone who plays piano knows that after you have learned a piece and played it over and over again, it sticks with you. Even if you have not played that piece for a long time, when you sit down at the piano and start playing that piece, it does not take long for it to come back to you. This is especially true for things learned very well and for things learned early in life. The better something is first learned, the deeper that thing is imprinted in our minds, and the easier it is for that thing to come back to you. It is the reason why elderly immigrants sometimes slip back into speaking their native language when they get older.
So what does this have to do with pornography? The same process happens in your mind when you start using pornography. The more often you go down that road, the stronger the memory becomes. Many think that they can put pornography out of their system when they decide to get over it. They will have fun with it for now, but when they are older or when they get married they will put it out of their mind. But can you unlearn your piano skills that easily? If you have played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” a thousand times, can you one day wake up and decide that you are no longer going to know how to play it? If you have learned a language well as a child, does it ever leave you?
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying that a person can never change. The Lord is a God who transforms and renews His people. But we must realize that viewing pornography can have lasting impact on our thinking. This is a principle that has been well learned, for example, by those who seek to help alcoholics. When a friend and I were invited to a meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous, the one thing that stood out was the way people introduced themselves. “Hi, my name is Bob. I’m an alcoholic and I’ve been dry for ten years.” “Hi, my name is Shelly. I’m an alcoholic and I have been dry for three months.” “Hi, my name is Frank. I’m an alcoholic, and I have been dry for thirty-two years.” The point that Frank was making was that he is still an alcoholic, despite the fact that he has been dry for thirty-two years. He has set down such a strong path in his mind that it will never leave him. He is aware that in the future he may still have a strong desire for another drink. These people are acknowledging that the desire for another drink is not something you just decide one day to get over and all of a sudden you are over it! The same applies to pornography.
At the same time, I would say that I have serious reservations about the way these people were introducing themselves. These people are defining themselves by a particular sin. They said, “I am an alcoholic.” Yet, as the people of God, our sin does not define us. What defines me as a person is that I belong to Jesus Christ. And as children of the Lord we believe that Jesus Christ has more power than any sin or even the devil. So while it may be true that I must struggle against certain sins, they do not define me. Since I belong to Jesus Christ, I trust that He can use His power to rescue me from my sins and set me free to love and worship Him. In the same way, if anyone struggles against pornography, he should not worry that it will always have power over his life. God sent His Son to save us from our sins, and He uses His power to renew us into His own image.
Still, the point remains that we must be careful that we not give sin a place in our lives. This is also the teaching of the Scriptures. In Proverbs 22:6 God says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” The way you train a child when he is young is how he is going to act when he is old. If we get caught in the trap of pornography when we are young, then we should not be surprised if we have to struggle against it when we are old. God makes the same point in Galatians 6:7–8. The context there is that back in chapter 5 the apostle tells us about the contrast between those who satisfy the sinful nature versus those who live by the Spirit. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious, including such things as sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit includes things like love, goodness, faithfulness, and self control. After telling us to restore those who are caught in sin and to carry each other’s burdens, we are exhorted, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” You reap what you sow. If you sow to please your sinful nature, God is saying that it will have consequences in your life. You will reap destruction from your actions. There is a serious calling here to flee from all sin, including sexual sin.
Obviously we cannot do that by our own strength. This is something that the Holy Spirit needs to work out in our lives. It is when we look to Christ in faith and rely on Him to exercise His power in our lives that He will forgive us of our sins, transform our minds, and renew us by His Holy Spirit. He loves to do this for all those who look to Him in faith. Since we belong to Him, He loves to rescue us from sin and the devil and conform us to His own image. In the end, what defines us is not our sin but the fact that we belong to Jesus Christ.
Pornography can also be extremely damaging to our relationships with others. The first thing that stands out is that viewing pornography is an extremely selfish act. Those who view pornography do so in order to get pleasure. Invariably it is tied to self-stimulation or, to use the expensive word, masturbation. This is outside the framework of what God intended. The Bible teaches us that God gave us our sexuality as a means to express love to our husband or wife and as a means to have children. Both of these are entirely missing in those who use pornography.
It also leads to isolation. In most occurrences the person using pornography is physically, mentally, and emotionally isolated from those around. Whereas experiences that are shared create a bond between people, those experiences that are done in isolation create a gulf between people because others have not shared in the experience, and so they do not know what you are thinking or feeling. This is especially true with pornography because of the shame and embarrassment. And on top of that, the more a person is involved in pornography, it is not uncommon that people get involved in more and more perverted expressions of sexuality. This leads to further isolation and estrangement. At end of the day the person is left with the feeling, “I am perverted. I am sick. I am not normal. If they really knew what I was like, they would recoil from me in horror.” And so higher walls are built so that no one can see into the soul. We should understand that if a person has viewed pornography as a young man, the issue is not going to be resolved simply by getting married. Some people naively assume that when they are married, it will all be over, and they will have a normal relationship with their wife. But in reality the selfish patterns and the shame and embarrassment can lead to distance and estrangement in marriage.
Another problem that develops for those who view pornography is that it can absorb a great deal of time and money. Lauri Hall describes how her husband increasingly missed out on family life, became less productive at work and isolated from other people, in part because his time was more and more absorbed by this sin.
Another common effect of pornography is that it leads to a life of deceit. The person involved has to cover for his guilt, time spent elsewhere, lack of interest in healthy intimacy, and many other things. The way to keep this sin a secret is by lying. Eventually these lies are exposed, and trust is compromised. Yet again the person is even more estranged from those around him.
The most serious consequence of pornography is the effect it has on a person’s relationship with the Lord. Those who are involved in pornography are sinning before the Lord. They have taken something that God intended a husband and wife to share together and have taken it for themselves. They sin against the seventh commandment.
Since our sexuality is such an integral part of our person, when we sin in this way it often leads to intense feelings of shame. It is not uncommon that those who sin in this way lose a sense of God’s favor. King David gives expression to that in Psalm 51:11. After asking God to forgive his sins, cleanse him, and create in him a new heart he also prays, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” After sinning sexually, David is concerned that God might cast him from his presence. He asks that God would never take his Holy Spirit from him. That is not an uncommon feeling for someone who has sinned sexually. The Canons of Dort 5.5 speaks of this same matter. It lists the effects of serious sins and says, “By such gross sins, they greatly offend God, incur the guilt of death, grieve the Holy Spirit, suspend the exercise of faith, severely wound their consciences and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor—until they return to the right way through sincere repentance and God’s fatherly face again shines upon them.” Some lose a sense of God’s favor as a result of their sexual sin. Some also feel the heavy hand of God on them, as David expresses in Psalm 32:3–4, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”
If there is still no repentance and forgiveness, instead of receiving the covenant blessings of God, they come under the covenant curse. The Bible talks about that in Proverbs 5:20–23: “Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife? For a man’s ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths. The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.” Or again in Proverbs 7:22–27, speaking about a young man who is being way laid by a prostitute, Scripture says, “All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life. Now then, my sons, listen to me; pay attention to what I say. Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death.” Similarly in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–7 we are taught, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”
The Bible also teaches us that if a man hardens himself in this sin and refuses to repent, the final consequence is that he will be eternally cast out of God’s presence. In both 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and Ephesians 5:5 God says that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The good news that God teaches us in His Word is that Jesus Christ has come to rescue us from our sins. He has defeated sin and the devil and loves to set us free. When King David confessed his sin of adultery to the Lord, God forgave him and renewed him with His Holy Spirit. It is also very striking to note that the passage I quoted earlier from 1 Thessalonians 4 where we are called to be sanctified and avoid sexual immorality is followed by an incredible promise. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 the apostle prays, “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” God will sanctify all those who look to Christ in faith. While it is true that sin may be powerful and its consequences far reaching, the deeper truth is that Christ’s power is greater, and the renewing work of His Holy Spirit has greater reach than our sins. By Christ’s power, God will enable us to live pure and holy lives before Him.
Rev. Dirk Poppe is the pastor of the Coaldale Canadian Reformed in Coaldale, AB.