God is love. Jesus shows us this. The Bible spells this out. And everyday God shares His love with us in so many ways.
Tragically, there are many people, who can’t seem to grasp God’s love because, as the pop song says, “They’re looking for love in all the wrong places.” They’re in the grip of lust and it’s destroying them and their relationships with their loved ones.
More than any other group of people I’ve talked with over the years, sex addicts feel depressed, ashamed, and isolated — they are trapped in a world without love. They are overwhelmed with emptiness inside and keep using lust, pornography, or sex as their “drug of choice” to excite themselves into feeling better temporarily.
The Progression of Lust
Most people misunderstand Jesus’ words: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NIV84). Two points are essential for us to grasp. First, Jesus is not saying that lust is the same as adultery. Obviously, the act of physical adultery causes worse problems than having a lustful desire in your heart. Second, Jesus is not saying that having the thought to lust is a sin. The literal translation of Matthew 5:28 is, “Anyone who looks at a woman to lust…” In other words, the sin is in cultivating lust.
As it relates to lust and other sins we need to differentiate between four different things that tend to go in a progression: temptation, thoughts, feelings, desires, and sin. James speaks about the progression of sin:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. (James 1:13-16, NIV84)
All of us are tempted to various sins, like lust. Even Jesus was tempted to sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Deceiver has a part in enticing us to sin, along with sinful people around us in the world, and our own sin nature.
When the temptation to lust is presented to us it comes with a thought, “You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity!” This is more than a thought — it’s a deception. Lust feels exciting to those who don’t know any better, but it is not an opportunity, it is not good. There is no love, joy, or peace in lust. No true intimacy. This thought of lust is not a sin. However, it is foolish and it is best to dismiss the thought with right thinking informed by the Bible and common sense.
If you accept the idea that lust is “an opportunity” then the thought of lust will lead to emotions. That feeling is not in itself a sin, but it’s getting dangerous close because it may begin to incline the will. Once the thoughts and feelings of sin enter the heart and the person desires to lust after someone then he or she has crossed the line.
If lust lives in your heart, that is in your will, even though no one but you and God may know about it for the time being, eventually if “the opportunity” presents itself you will engage in lustful behavior. Sin will conceive and, as James says, it will bring death and destruction. You have become the kind of person who is ready to lust.
Jesus is saying it’s not enough to avoid lustful behaviors we need to get at the roots of our actions and learn not to cultivate lustful desires in our hearts.
Addicted to Excitement
If you’ve ever ridden a fast roller coaster at an amusement park then you know what a rush of adrenalin is like. There are countless other ways to get this “hit” of excitement in our culture today. Just go to your local movie theatre or in home movie provider and you have your choice of hundreds of exciting, intense, scary, or highly emotional movies to watch.
Many people have come to depend on this perpetual flow of stimulation and excitement to feel pleasure.
This is especially true of how sex addicts use sex. They get high on it and their pursuit of it. Taking risks to get sex, getting away with something wrong, and sustaining intense sexual pleasure gives them this rush of adrenaline and excitement. The pleasure centers in their brains become flooded with morphine-like chemicals.
But then the episode ends. And they didn’t find what they really needed and they ended up feeling worse – until they go back for more illicit sex and become increasing trapped in the cycle of sexual addiction and life without real love.
I’ve Never Told Anyone this Before…
Time and again, I’ve had people schedule an appointment with me to say:
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have a problem with pornography… I’m having an affair… I’ve been having sexual conversations in chat rooms… I can’t stop calling this 900 number… I keep having sex with other men… I went to a massage parlor and…”
Especially for Christian leaders and other committed Christ-followers, compulsive sexual behavior is a source of embarrassment. They feel terrible about what they’re doing. They are disturbed by the contradiction between their Christian beliefs and their repeated immoral behavior. Often they are painfully aware of the gnawing, growing emptiness in their souls. But they can’t stop. And they keep it a secret.
Until they get caught.
He Didn’t Think he had a Problem
“I don’t think it’s really that big a problem,” Larry (not his real name) told me. “My wife is still upset about it, but I threw away the magazines and videos.” He’d finally been caught.
Larry had been living a secret double life. He taught a Sunday school class and led his family in prayer at the dinner table, but every two or three weeks he’d go on a pornography binge, staying up late to watch X-rated videos and masturbate in his home office. He’d been struggling with this on and off during the seven years they’d been married.
“It’s not like I had sex with another woman,” Larry tried justifying himself to me.
His wife felt betrayed because she had been. His was an affair of the mind. Now his wife knew why he wouldn’t go to bed with her on many nights. And why she felt so distant from him most of the time and painfully so on the infrequent times that they had sex.
“It hasn’t felt like `making love’ for years,” she cried. “A few times I even asked him if he was having an affair, but he denied it.”
Now that she knew what was going on she wasn’t going to accept the lies and excuses and defensiveness any more. For the sake of her marriage and their son she put her foot down, “You need to get help or we need to talk about separating.”
Understanding Sexual Addiction
Obviously, not everyone who engages in immoral sex is an addict. To know how serious a problem someone’s compulsive sexual behavior is I developed the acronym “A-N A-D-D-I-C-T” to identify eight key symptoms of addiction, any addiction. Here I’ve applied the test to sexual addiction.
If some of these symptoms seem to describe you or someone you’re concerned about then take my Sexual Addiction Screening Test.
Lies about Sex
If you could get inside the head of a sex addict and listen to what he (Sex addiction is much more common in men than in women.) is saying to himself it’d sound something like this:
- “All men do this.”
- “It’s no big deal. Even the president did this.”
- “She wants this. That’s why she dressed that way or looked like that.”
- “You can get over this whenever you want to.”
- “You shouldn’t tell anyone what you did. Nobody could accept you.”
- “Nobody knows, so it’s not hurting anyone.”
- “You won’t get caught.”
- “You need this. You deserve it. It’s ok.”
- “You won’t destroy your marriage.”
- “Just do it. You’ll feel better.”
Denial is not just a river in Egypt! (De-Nile!)
Deceptions like these are the way that sex addicts justify their behavior and become resigned to a sense of helplessness over their problem. The enemy of our souls loves this! Satan is the father of lies and the accuser of God’s people (John 8:44, Revelation 12:10). Identifying the lies you’re believing and then refuting them with God’s truth is an important part of treatment.
Sex addicts, like others with compulsive behavior problems, continually re-cycle their pain in a pattern that repeats in “The Cycle of Addiction” :
Sex addicts are wounded people and it’s this pain that begins the cycle of sexual addiction for them. For instance, as many as four out of five sex addicts have been sexually traumatized or physically abused in their childhood. In almost all cases they’ve been emotionally traumatized or neglected.
Being sexually abused causes the survivor to feel bad, embarrassed, or ashamed. To feel bad about yourself is the most painful and debilitating of all emotional problems. This is another area where “the father of lies” can deceive us into believing all kinds of untruths and in this case they’re about ourselves:
- “I’m eligible to be mistreated.”
- “Nobody really wants to know me.”
- “I’m too needy, too sensitive, too emotional.”
- “It’s hopeless. I can’t get better.”
Shame usually goes with mistrust. Those who have been violated sexually have been deeply wounded and will tend to isolate in fear and depression. But they can’t remain that way and will eventually reach out to someone—tragically, because their “trustor” has been damaged, it might be someone who will take advantage of them in some way.
Being sexually abused can eventually tempt the victim to abuse others. This is a way to get into a “one up” position of power and control over other people in order to avoid the “one down” posture of being vulnerable. Not only does this spread the shame and pain of abuse to someone else, but it adds guilt and many more painful problems for the survivor.
Emotional pain that just sits inside a person builds and builds. It wears a person down. It can’t be repressed or avoided forever—eventually it is triggered, intensifies, and becomes intolerable.
Lust addicts habitually react to their pain and unmet needs by “sexualizing” this. They crave sex. It feels to them that sex is what they need. They’ve turned their natural desire or drive for sex into a need—not just a physical need for pleasure or satisfaction but it is felt to be the way to bond with someone, feel wanted, accepted, and valued. Of course, sex can’t do any of that!
They develop sexual fantasies, thinking that sex in some form will help them to feel better or to fill the emptiness inside. They may get into a “sexual zone” in which sex is all they think about and they’ll do anything to get it. They want more and more sexual gratification and often they find that they can’t stop thinking about it.
Sexual fantasy leads to rituals. Rituals are repetitive, mindless behaviors that are the addict’s way of preparing to engage in compulsive sexual behavior. Excitement, arousal, and good feelings begin to build. They rationalize these behaviors because they “haven’t done anything wrong yet.”
Examples of sexual rituals include going to the ATM to load up on cash, cruising the public park or street where they might get sex, finding an excuse to go to a store near the sex shop, having a drink (to lower inhibitions), surfing the web to “happen” upon pornography or a sex chat room, or flirting with someone.
Eventually the sex addict “acts out.” He (or sometimes it is a she) acts out his sexual fantasies—buys a bunch of porn magazines or videos, calls the sex line, or “hooks up” with someone wanting sex.
And another set images or experiences is added to the porn library in his head, making it easier and easier to continue and to increase his compulsive sexual behavior. And the sex addict feels a need to do something even more exciting next time in order to get the desired charge. (This is called “tolerance.”)
Although the fantasizing, ritualizing, and acting out creates excitement for the sex addict, the good feelings don’t last long before they are overcome by feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. And as the cycle continues with more and worse sexual acting out behaviors the pain keeps getting worse too.
Uncovering Personal Needs
Love, joy, and peace—these are the qualities that we all need to cultivate. These fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25) are not emotions, they are conditions of being, characteristics of God and godly people. They include emotions, but also attitudes, and capacities of relating and choosing.
Sex addicts have very little love, joy, or peace in their lives. They need to realize that they’re substituting lust for love, excitement for joy, and numbness or detachment for peace. Also they may be substituting power over others or aggression for true self-esteem.
They need to learn how to get their true needs met and to become a different kind of person on the inside.
Let me illustrate. Mark (not his real name) came for help when he developed an STD. Single and in his 30’s, he had struggled with moderate depression ever since he could remember. He felt empty and disconnected most of the time. To cope he worked a lot. And he looked for sex with women he met at parties.
Mark told me, “When I’m with a woman that I might have sex with I feel alive. I’m happy and energized, ready to handle anything that comes my way.”
But Mark’s happiness didn’t last long. Neither did his relationships with women. Inside, he was becoming more and more empty and disconnected. I told him that he was developing a heart of Velcro.
By getting into and out of sexual relationships he was forcing himself (and the women he was in relationship) to continually connect and disconnect emotionally. He admitted that he wasn’t as sensitive and compassionate as he used to be. “I feel trapped,” he lamented to me after another relationship broke up. “I know this isn’t good, but I can’t seem to stop. I guess that’s why I started therapy.”
Mark had lust, but not love. He had excitement at times, but no enduring joy. He satisfied his cravings and temporarily got free of his crave-resist conflict, but he was not truly at peace.
He needed to learn to stop sexualizing his needs and to instead get real help for himself.
Recovery is up to You
No one is helpless over a psychological problem—even if they’ve been abused in the past. Obviously, it’s wrong to be abused and it’s unfair to be burdened with emotional pains that aren’t your fault.
But the hard truth is that my recovery and emotional healing is up to me—no one will do it for me—I have to learn how to reach out to the Lord Jesus Christ and apply his grace and truth to my life. I have to take responsibility for my pain and for the many bad and unhealthy choices that I have made to get into my predicament.
Steps to be Free from Lust
Now I’d like to get real specific and real personal. If you’re struggling with a compulsive sexual behavior then I’m talking with you. Do you want help? Are you serious about getting help? You’ll need to give it all you got to get free from lust and to become free to love. Here are some important steps for recovery and freedom.
Get Support and Accountability
You need to get desperate and cry out to God for help. This is why steps 1 and 2 in the 12 Steps are: “We admitted we were powerless over our dependency on sex, that our lives had become unmanageable. We turned our wills and our lives over to the power of God.”
“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:24). He taught that freedom comes from following his teachings and seeking the truth (John 8:31-32).
So you need to tell the truth to God and to others. You need to tell your whole sexual history with at least one person you trust. A good place to start is to join a 12 Step recovery group. This is essential, as addicts in recovery will hold you accountable if you ask them to.
Get a sponsor, make friends, and work the steps. You need the accountability. You need the support. You need the structure. You need a healthy place to go to replace acting out.
Therapy is also important for many of the reasons above and to help you to experience support, healing of childhood wounds, and resolving of internal conflicts. If you’re married, it’s important to note that your spouse is not a good person to hold you accountable, as it’s too hurtful and confusing.
Talk it Out
One of the important things that you need to learn to do in a safe relationship with someone you respect is to “talk out” your struggles and emotions. In recovery from compulsive behavior you need to learn to “talk it out” so you don’t “act it out.” In this way you discover by experience that you can find relief, care, and help by talking out your struggles, feelings, and needs to someone you trust and then taking in the comfort and encouragement you need.
Talk the stress out. Take the care in. Then you won’t act out your emotional needs with sexual sin.
In this way you are learning to meet your personal needs in relationships instead of by sexualizing, which doesn’t meet any real needs and only makes things worse for you (and others) in the end. With practice in this talk it out process you learn to gain conscious control over your unconscious, sexualizing reactions.
The goal is for you to learn to discipline yourself to talk it out as soon as you feel pain or emotional need (interrupting the first phase in “The Cycle of Addiction”, emotional trigger). If not there, then hopefully you do so when you find yourself starting to fantasize or to feel tempted (phase 2, craving), or when you start to dancing around the edges (phase 3, ritual), or when you start acting out (phase 4, suing).
Seek Healthy Enjoyment
For you to stop pursing the excitement you get from acting out you need to add in new sources of enjoyment through hobbies, exercise, or time with friends. You need to focus on enjoying various simple, holy pleasures in life, like enjoying a walk in the park, appreciating a sunset, playing with a child, relaxing in a spa, participating in a conversation with a friend, calming yourself through quiet prayer, or meditating on Scripture.
Enjoyment won’t give you the same “hit” of excitement that you want, but if you stay sober long enough and even allow yourself to feel bored at times (resting the pleasure center in your brain) then you can find that joy is indeed way better, more meaningful and longer lasting than the illicit excitement you’ve craved.
Meditate on Scripture
As I said above intertwined with compulsive sexual behavior and emotional wounds are lies. These need to be replaced with God’s truth, especially as it’s found in the Bible. You need to meditate deeply on Scripture so that it forms you and imparts God’s life to you. A good place to start is to use the Scriptures for “Our Identity in Christ.”
Devote your Eyes to the Lord
Lust is an addiction of the eyes. To overcome it you need to learn to devote your eyes (your physical eyes and the eyes of your heart) to the Lord Jesus Christ till you become captivated by his beauty and ravished by his kingdom of the heavens. In Romans Paul warns us against offering the parts of our bodies to sin that deadens us but as people brought from death to life we’re to present the parts of our bodies to God as “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13).
Just as sin is rejecting the sufficiency of the Lord as our portion (“Against you only have I sinned”, David confessed in Psalm 51:4) so also devotion to the Lord is the ultimate antidote to lust. If you’re heart is rejoicing in the goodness of the Lord you will not lust!
I teach lust addicts to form a habit of the heart that whenever the thought of lust comes to them they re-direct their mind to engage their heart to offer a Scripture based prayer of devotion to Jesus like, “Whom have I in the heavens but you Lord and earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). From there you can learn to offer prayers of intercession for the one you were tempted to lust after, “Lord, bless this woman. Help her to pure. Protect her from men who want to use and abuse her. May she rejoice in your love Jesus, even now.”
This is a delightful prayer practice that is guaranteed with practice to calm down lust. There’s no point for Satan to entice you to lust if every time he does that you begin to give thanks and praise to Jesus for how wonderfully satisfying he is!
For instance, “Eyes of Prayer” is a short prayer inspired by Psalm 101 and other Scriptures that I wrote to will help you renounce the lust of the eyes and dedicate your eyes to Jesus.
Practice God’s Presence
Sin comes from a soul that is dissatisfied.
Our greatest opportunity in life is to learn to find our joy in the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst, delighting in him (Psalm 37:4) and trusting his sufficiency to meet all our needs (Philippians 4:19). This is called practicing God’s presence and it’s essential to becoming free of lust’s deadly grip. Our goal needs to be able to say with David, “I have set the Lord always before me because he is at my right hand I will not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8). We need to learn more and more to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) as Paul did.
How? Try praying Scripture phrases throughout the day like, “Jesus delights in me… I delight in you my Lord” (inspired by Psalm 18:19; 37:4, 23). Or hold before your mind the picture of Jesus smiling and opening his arms to you. There are many “Breath Prayers from the Bible” that you can use to help you practice God’s presence.
As discussed above, if Satan presents a temptation to lust to you but you’re already in a posture of prayer, meditating on a word from God then it’ll be easy for you to refuse lust and rejoice in the Lord.
Prepare Ahead to Reduce Temptation
If you’re having a compulsive behavior problem then one of the most important things I can tell you is to plan ahead in times of strength for future times of weakness and temptation. This means things like, calling ahead to the hotel to ask them to turn off the sex channels, not letting yourself even drive near the porn shop, not walking by the magazine rack, getting a filter for your internet, or not having a credit card to charge illicit sex on.
Also, it’s helpful for you to set up an “emergency kit” to pull out in times of temptation. Put in it things like a list with support system phone numbers, a picture of your inner child (who you need to care for and to protect), a family picture (of loved ones who care for you and whom you need to care for and not hurt), Bible verses, affirming statements, or 12 Step workbook.
What I’m saying is, you need to”Pray Before you Slip.” You need to watch and pray. If you do the soul training with Jesus that is needed, opening your heart to him and his word, then from a renewed heart you will be in a position to resist temptation.
Celebrate Little Victories
Little victories matter. The wise man of the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit said, “The righteous one falls seven times and rises again” (Proverbs 24:16).
How can it be that it is the righteous one who keeps falling down? Because he or she keeps rising back up with God’s help. Why does he fall seven times? Seven is God’s number of perfection—there is room in God’s grace fur us to fall down as many times as it takes for us to learn to take hold of the hand of Christ.
In the process of recovery from compulsive behavior consider that minimizing the degree of acting out—or stopping yourself at the point of it being “a little slip” and not an all out binge—is a success.
Finally, when you fail don’t think it’s too late. You can still talk it out after you’ve acted out, confessing your sin and your failing to God and to someone you trust, seeking forgiveness and new strength to get back in recovery (1 John 1:9, James 5:16). Even this can be understood and re-framed as a positive because you’re not keeping it a secret and you’re getting help!