Pornography and Idols of the Heart

"Any sexual sin in your life is often about much deeper desires.  Focusing on the heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, produces the kind of change that goes all the way down."    

Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

We saw in our last post that pornography, along with any sexual sin, is not just about the action. There is selfishness and idolatry under the surface, motivating all different kinds of sin in our lives. So how do we get under the surface and deal with what's in our heart? We have to explore deep idols, identify our own, and displace them with the power of the gospel.

Exploring Deep Idols
We get a lot of insight when we start talking about pornography and idolatry. When we talk about idolatry in this context we are driven down into what Tim Keller calls the "deep idols." He means that there are some idols that are a bit closer to the surface of our lives: money, achievement, romance, career, etc. But then there are deep idols: those that all the superficial idols trace back to.

In his book "Counterfeit Gods" Keller lists out four of these deep idols (though I'm sure he's not looking to be exhaustive): power, approval, comfort, and control. Each runs along similar lines. You have a deep idol around power when your life is ultimately about seeking influence over others and the feeling it brings. You are irritated, unhappy, unsatisfied, and feel worthless unless you have power and influence over others. The same goes for approval (my life is only worthwhile when I am receiving love and validation), comfort (my life is only worthwhile when my experiences are pleasing to me), and control (my life is only worthwhile when I have complete mastery over myself and my circumstances).

So, Keller would say, someone can worship money for several reasons. One person might rotate their life around money because they can use it to assert power. Another might rotate their life around money because it gives them a sense of security and control. Another might find it compelling because it can purchase comfort. And so on.

In the same way, using pornography is not a one-size-fits-all sin. Different people seek out pornography for entirely different reasons. One might idolize comfort, and find pornography provides a sense of rest and pleasure that they can't do without. Another person might idolize control or power, and find pornography gives them that feeling of absolute control or influence that they crave. Another might idolize approval, and use pornography because it makes him or her feel desirable with no risk of rejection. In this way, pornography (and all sexual sin) isn't about sex. It's about something deeper.

Identifying Deep Idols
How do you identify the idolatry that drives your sexual sin? There's no checklist, but there are several things to pay attention to. First, which of the above deep idols do you seem to struggle with most in general? Look to parts of your life outside of sexual sin. Do you find yourself always looking for control, comfort, power, or approval in relationships? At work? With your family?

Second, what do you tend to think about when you are alone? When you have nothing else to think about, what does your mind drift towards? Often you can see how those thoughts revolve around one of these deep idols.

Third, what makes you the most emotional? People or circumstances in your life that make you the most angry, happy, or sad tend to reveal the idols we've put our hope in. For example, if you quickly get over making a mistake at work, but you fall apart when you think someone doesn't like you, that might indicate you struggle with approval more than control.

This is not an exact science. You're not looking for a percentage breakdown (63% power idolary, 22.5% comfort idolatry, 4.5% approval idolatry). Instead, you're searching for what your heart wants more than Jesus. As you explore and discover, you'll find that these idols express themselves in many different ways. People are often amazed—what they thought was a problem with pornography is actually a deep heart issue that reaches across the entirety of their lives.

Displacing Deep Idols
If you simply will yourself to stop looking at pornography, the problem isn't over. Like a weed with deep roots, plucking one sprout out of the ground just means it will start growing somewhere else. If you were somehow able to stop using pornography without dealing with your heart, you'd simply have your idolatry of control or approval grow more in some other area. What you need is to displace these idols with the gospel of Jesus.

This is different than learning more information about the gospel. Instead, you have to meditate on what the gospel means for the things your heart desires most.

For power idolatry, you need to spend time preaching to your heart something like this: "Jesus has ultimate power, and he laid that power aside so I could be brought into God's family. Now, God is using all his power to love me and grow me and save me. If that's true, I don't need to try to have ultimate power. The gospel means ultimate power has me, and loves me." A passage like Colossians 1:15-22 can help guide this kind of meditation, and is useful to memorize.

For approval idolatry, you need to spend time preaching to your heart something like this: "Jesus was completely and totally approved of by his Father, and he deserved it! Yet he laid aside that approval and was cut off from his Father on the cross, all so that I could have perfect and eternal approval. With that kind of approval from the King of the universe, I don't have to seek approval from others." A good passage here is Ephesians 1:3-10.

For comfort idolatry, you need to spend time preaching to your heart something like this: "Jesus gave up ultimate comfort in heaven to take on the ultimate discomfort of paying for my sins. Now, I have ultimate and eternal comfort in God himself. With God's love and Jesus as my sympathetic high priest, I don't have to try to escape or find comfort in something else." A good passage here is Hebrews 4:14-15.

For control idolatry, you need to spend time preaching to your heart something like this: "Jesus, who has ultimate control, allowed himself to be crucified for me. Now, my future is secure: God is in control of all things, and he loves me perfectly through Jesus. The gospel means I don't have to be in control, because I am safe in the control of my Father." A good passage here is Ephesians 1:11-14.

It isn't enough to repeat these like mantras. You need to put them to use—praying them, dwelling on them, exploring why they could and should matter to you in the every day. You need to remind yourself of them when you find yourself tempted to gain control, seek approval, assert power, or look for comfort. When you feel yourself not just wanting but needing someone to like you, preach to your heart. When you feel yourself not just wanting but needing to feel some comfort, preach to your heart. Release your grip on the idol that you think will take care of you and wrap your arms around Jesus, remembering the cross and the empty tomb.

From Heart to Life
Oscar Wilde was sort of right. Any sexual sin in your life is often about much deeper desires. Focusing on the heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, produces the kind of change that goes all the way down. In our last post, we'll explore the practical steps you can take to do this kind of heart work in your day to day life.