Pornography and Idols of the Heart

“The act of sexual immorality is the tip of the iceberg of our sin. And to properly deal with it, we have to aim deep. We’ll look at three levels of sexual immorality in the fight against pornography.”    

Read part 1 and part 2.

Oscar Wilde said that, “Everything is about sex, except for sex. Sex is about power.” In one sense, he’s horribly wrong: God designed sex and sexuality as a powerful, sacred, good expression of self-giving love. But he does see something that many people miss. Sex isn’t always about sex. And the struggle with pornography runs deeper than many people realize, touching on all sorts of different desires.

In our last post we saw that we have to think rightly about sex and sexuality to avoid simple, superficial answers. We can’t fight pornography simply by using guilt or resolve (these are, of course, different from godly sorrow and grace-motivated effort). We can’t just chain up our desires, we have to change them. And that involves aiming for the heart as we open ourselves up to God’s powerful grace.

The act of sexual immorality is the tip of the iceberg of our sin. And to properly deal with it, we have to aim deep. We’ll look at three levels of sexual immorality in the fight against pornography.

The Top Level: The Immorality of Sexual Sin
This top level focuses on the fact that sexual immorality is immoral. In other words, it’s a sin. For many, the fight against pornography stays at this level: it’s wrong, and so you shouldn’t do it. This, of course, is true. It really is wrong, and you really shouldn’t do it. It’s not a bad thing to remember the flat out immorality of doing what God says not to do, and realizing that it is damaging to you and others. Most of all, it’s a sin against God himself. This top level can be helpful, especially for those who have started to wonder if it’s really that big of a deal. Passages like 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 remind us of exactly what’s going on when we engage in sexual sin:

“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

This is all good, and we cannot forget it. But we must go deeper.

The Deeper Level: The Selfishness of Sexual Sin
Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” opens with: sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality (Galatians 5:19). In the Bible, the problem with the flesh is that it rejects God and focuses on self. This means that sexual immorality isn’t just wrong, it’s self-centered.

Now we take a step below the water and see some of what is underneath our sexual immorality. Whether lust, objectifying others, viewing pornography, fantasizing, or any other type of sexual sin, it is built on a foundation of selfishness. No matter what your circumstances are, when you view pornography, you're being selfish.

How so? In 1 Corinthians 7:4, Paul writes that “...the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” In other words, your sexual capacity is not for you, it’s for others. Sex is a means of self-giving, not self-taking. To remove sex from this idea of self-giving—even in the context of marriage!—is to take sex and twist it into something it was never meant to be.

So then pornography, along with any other kind of sexual sin, is not just an immoral act. It’s an expression of self-centeredness in your heart. You care about your desires more than God’s desires; you take something that is built to be selfless and bend it so that it only serves your own pleasure.

For this reason, you simply cannot repent of your sexual sin without repenting of the selfishness that motivated it. You need to deal with the selfishness in your own heart to deal with the pornography in your life. But to do that, we have to go deeper.

The Deepest Level: The Idols That Use Sexual Immorality
John ends his first epistle with the words: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). What's odd is that he hadn’t used the terms “idol” or “idolatry” in any of the preceding five chapters. But the concluding exhortation fits the letter: he had talked about the need to love God instead of recoil from him, the need to love others instead of hate them, the need to love Christ instead of loving the world. All of these, the Bible would say, are issues of idolatry: looking to something other than God to provide what only God can provide. Idolatry works deep in the heart to exchange the worship of God for the worship of something lesser. The result is a life constantly striving for satisfaction from all the wrong things—and constantly feeling like you've almost got what you're looking for.

The Bible identifies idolatry underneath the selfishness of sin. In Ephesians 5:5 Paul says that one who is covetous is an idolator. He shows us the iceberg all the way down. For example, if you are coveting someone who is not your spouse (a sin), that's an expression of your selfishness (you are concerned only with your own desires). But it goes deeper: underneath that selfishness is an idol which is telling you that selfishly coveting is what will get you the thing you need to finally be satisfied.

In this way, even if you are fighting against selfishness, you aren’t as deep as you need to go. You need to get underneath the selfishness, to the idols that are using the lure of selfish sex as a carrot on a stick to run your life. And so if you want to see some victory in this issue in your life, you need to start repenting of the deeper idols. You can’t just focus on the superficial stuff. Looking at pornography has never been about how you were a bit tired or lonely or just have a bad habit. It’s about power, and comfort, and control. Until you get into those issues—that are spread out into all sorts of different areas in your life—you will never see the kind of heart change you need.

Working Your Way Back Up
It’s clear that trying to deal with the tip of the iceberg is only ignoring the real problem underneath. To find real change in this are requires starting at the bottom, with the deep idols of your heart, and unseating them so the change is felt all the way to the top. In our next post, we’ll explore what it looks like to identify those idols and displace them with something true, real, and ultimate: the good news of Jesus Christ.