When Sex Is an Idol, Holiness and Justice Are Both at StakeBy Jo Anna Kelly on December 4, 2017
During the fourth session of the GRTS Talking Points event, we heard from Matt Krieg, licensed therapist and director of Caring Well Counseling. Matt and his wife Laurie travel the world doing what many of us would never dream of doing, and yet they do it with humility and a heart for service. Both Matt and Laurie discuss their respective stories of broken sexuality and the way God has worked in their lives to show them both the depth of His love. This was the backdrop as Matt explored the topic of sexual idolatry and as he shared his personal journey of sexual brokenness.
Disconnected Responses to Sexuality
Matt's story begins like many others: a pornography addiction that threatened to seriously impact his marriage and his life. As Matt sought help and received support from the church, however, he noticed the disparity between the response to his sexual brokenness and the response to his wife's same-sex attraction. Why was there such a difference? Why do we ask our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ+ community to fix themselves before entering church life when we invite pornography addicts into community and care?
For Matt, there is a troubling disconnection between the way the world views sexuality, the way the church views sexuality and the way the topic is addressed biblically. He explains that outside of the church, sex is often regarded as the most important thing, with the least amount of significance. In the church, sex is often viewed as having too much significance—as the best gauge of a healthy marriage.
The Elevation of Sex
The Bible doesn't place sex on a pedestal like this, and yet it is elevated within our culture and in the church. Matt explained that we are living in an age of eroticism where sex is used to entertain, to sell products and even to encourage athletic participation. Our culture has made an idol of sex and warped it into something God never intended it to be.
As a parent, raising children during the age of high-speed internet and the hyper-sexualization of girls, I have observed this to be true. This is evidenced by the widespread consumption of pornography in the country and in our church communities. Matt provided helpful research for understanding the neurological effects of pornography consumption. Matt describes the manner in which dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin work to create excitement, connection and meaning during sex. Oxytocin is particularly important as a bonding agent which has the power to either create bonds to our mate or to create aggression toward those our brain categorizes as "not mate." The more one engages in a relationship with pornography, for example, the more aggression one will experience for those who pose a threat to that relationship (Struthers, 2010). The significance of this for marriage, family life, employment and healthy community is evident.
Questions of Justice
This clarity about the effects of pornography on the individual consumer is critical. Yet, in the days and weeks following the Talking Points event, I find myself wrestling with the question of pornography as a justice issue as well. Matt did a fantastic job bringing awareness to the idolatry of sex in our culture and the manner in which it affects our personal relationships. More importantly, he highlighted how the satisfaction of our sexual desires can serve as a drug to numb or distract from our need for intimacy with the Lord as well as our need for emotional health in and through that relationship.
This is an important message for the church to face, and as we do, there's another layer to peel away as well—the issue of justice.
Pornography does not exist in a spiritual vacuum. Not only can fixating on sexual satisfaction distract us from intimacy with the Lord, doing so through pornography harms real people. If I consume pornography am I only sinning against my spouse? Is this simply a secret sin of the heart? No. When we consume pornography, we are participants in a system of injustice that perpetuates violence against women and sustains human trafficking. What does this mean for Christ followers?
In a 2010 analysis of 300 scenes found in best-selling pornographic films, 89% contained physical and verbal aggression and 94% were targeted toward women. What is particularly harmful, is that 95% of the women in these scenes responded to the aggression with expressions of pleasure or indifference. Many responded to scenes of harm and humiliation in a similar fashion (Makin & Morzek, 2015). In the 2015 issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, a study found that exposure to this type of pornography can lead to changes in attitudes toward women and sexual violence. Male consumer studies have shown an increase in rape fantasy and even a decreased likelihood of intervening during sexual assault (2015). How do we reckon with this as Christians? We may not perpetrate violence, but we are perpetuators of violence when we support it with our consumer behavior.
How, then, do we encourage this conversation in the body of Christ? As I highlight the injustice of using pornography, do I also highlight the shame of using it? Do I make the church an unsafe place for people to be honest about their addiction? How do we encourage awareness of the far-reaching implications of this type of sexual idolatry while also creating safe spaces for healing and restoration from sexual brokenness?
Extending Love in the Helping Process
The weight of this question has pressed on my heart in the days following the conference. I asked Matt about it, and I thought his response was helpful:
It depends on the standing that you have in the person's life. On one hand, if we come down hard on people who struggle it can induce shame and make them feel less valuable than other people. On the other hand, if we don't address it at all and just give the "boys will be boys" answer, in essence we are dehumanizing the person struggling by saying that they are incapable of controlling their desires and are therefore somewhat animalistic in nature.
I believe the more dangerous of the two is the latter. If we don't call out sin, the person may never be uncomfortable enough to change anything. If we call it out, and they start dealing with shame, we can at least be there to help them see who they truly are in Christ. We don't like shame, but the discomfort that comes from it can be part of the motivator for doing a lot of work. As I like to say with my clients, "Rock bottom is a good place to start."
The key thing that I believe helps in dealing with the truth/shame tension is that we aren't operating out of a theology of "no". Rather than just avoiding our sin, we should be moving toward what the person truly needs that their sin is trying to attain. I like to say that the sin we struggle with, or what we run to, is not as important as the reason we run. If we can start meeting that true need in ways that are God honoring, then the motivation to go to that particular sin is lessened.
We need to be honest about the gravity of our sinful behaviors, while also being mindful of the core motivations behind them. We must not shy away from justice conversations, but we must also walk alongside those in our community as they find new life. This is true for each of us in the body of Christ, as we make daily choices that affect the lives of others around the world.
As Matt explained, we are all more sinful that we realize. All fall short, and yet all are loved. Embracing this basic but powerful tenant of Matt and Laurie's ministry reminds us to regard each member of the community in the way Christ sees them. It reminds us to include and love those in the LGBTQ+ community and those addicted to pornography and to remember that God's love is greater.
The following resources were recommended by the conference speakers for further reading:
- "Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace" by Heath Lambert
- "Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real With God About Sex" by John Freeman
- "Pure Eyes, Clean Heart: A Couple's Journey to Freedom From Pornography" by Jen and Craig Ferguson
- "Beggar's Daughter: From the Rags of Pornography to the Riches of Grace" by Jessica Harris
- Statistics and internet accountability for men and women: CovenantEyes.com
- Statistics and help for men and women: FighttheNewDrug.com
Makin, D.A. & Morczek, A.L. (2015) X Views and counting: interest in rape-oriented pornography as gendered microaggression. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2015 (31), 2131-2155. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515573572
Struthers, W. M. (2009). Wired for intimacy: how pornography hijacks the male brain. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press