For a long time, I viewed my sexuality as a curse. I was a mixture of terrible paradoxes: desiring to save sex for marriage on one hand, but deeply fearful of romantic relationships on the other; desiring purity in my thoughts and conduct, but really, really enjoying pornography.
Masturbation and erotic fantasy was a convenient but miserable halfway house—it was easier than actually trusting God while pursuing wholesome relationships. I was begrudgingly of the opinion of Oscar Wilde, who said masturbation is “cleaner, more efficient, and you meet a better class of person.”
If you had been one of my “accountability partners,” you probably would have seen a man who was pursuing sexual purity. I prayed about it, read books about it, went to counseling about it, and even attended conferences about it. But no matter what I did, repentance never seemed to stick.
But in time and through a lot of stubbornness, I learned an extremely valuable lesson about purity, and my life has never been the same since.
The Gratitude Displacement Strategy
In Ephesians 5:3-4, Paul writes:
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
Purity is a funny word. It is a word that stresses the absence of something—the absence of some kind of contamination. In my mid-20s, this was the heart and soul of my pursuit as a young man: flee from porn and lust and hope it isn’t fast enough to catch me. A noble goal, to be sure, but it felt rather pathetic—it felt like a choice between porn or nothing. And this is a pretty lousy choice.
The Bible does not talk about purity this way, however. Here, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he gives us a new pursuit. It isn’t merely about running from sexually immoral behavior, impure thoughts, and crude humor; it is about running towards a life of thanksgiving.
This is what Douglas Wilson calls a “gratitude displacement” strategy: when we are filled with a personal joy, thanksgiving, and contentment directed toward Jesus Christ, then gratitude fills up all the available space in our souls, leaving no room for covetous cravings.
“Biblical contentment is not stoicism. We are not called to be content in the same way that a block of wood is content—even though we may assume the wood presumably is content. That is not what we are called to. And Paul is not urging us into some kind of ‘happy, happy, happy all the day’ kind of stuff. He is not urging a constant and frothy giddiness. No, he sets the pattern for us, providing us with an example. In one place he describes himself as ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10). His joy, his contentment, was not a perverse kind of denial, or a stiff-upper-lip stoicism. And yet it was ‘always rejoicing.’ This kind of contentment, whether well fed or hungry, is a deep satisfaction with the will of God for you (Philippians 4:11-12). This is bedrock stuff—a basalt kind of joy twenty feet down” (Doug Wilson, Father Hunger, p.184).
Porn: My Tantrum at God
At that time in my life, I had bought into the lie that marriage and sexual intimacy were somehow basic rights that had been denied me. I believed sex was not only a tumultuous biological need, I believed sexual pleasure was, in a way, a main goal of life: a promised land I had yet to enter. Porn was my way of cheating the God who had denied me this basic right. It was my tantrum at God.
Had my mind not been so clouded at the time, I would have seen marriage was no more a “right” than anything else in life: it is only by God’s undeserved mercy and patience that I have any blessings at all. Had I been thinking straight, I would have understood that sex was not a “need” (at least, not in the sense I meant it). It was I, not God, who had turned a normal sex drive into something desperate and demanding. It was I, not God, who had elevated sexual pleasure to a pedestal it was never meant to occupy.
I say all of this not to be “down” on our God-given sex drive or down on marriage, but to put them in their proper place, for it is only when they are in their proper place that I can pursue and enjoy them without being enslaved to them. Sex is good (very good, actually). Sexual pleasure is good. Marriage is good. It is good to desire them. But when I believed I “needed” them, then God became a capricious Creator bent on placing people into impossible situations and then demanding chastity from them.
This grumbling, complaining brashness was the opposite of gratitude, for I could not be grateful as long as I believed these lies about God and my sexuality. But understanding sexual pleasure as a good desire—not a desperate need—I am free to place it alongside other good desires and alongside God’s commands about them. I am free to repent of my warped and selfish version of sexual fulfillment without fearing that I am denying or rejecting some essential part of me. And I am free to pray to God without anger in my heart for “making me this way.”
With Christ in the School of Contentment
Yes, contentment is one of the key missing ingredients for a life of purity, but this is admittedly a frustrating sentiment, isn’t it? A sexually fulfilling marriage is often dangled like a carrot in front of those with unrequited lusts. “Just be ‘content,’ and God will satisfy the desires of thy heart with a sexually vibrant spouse,” we are told. But offering God our contentment in exchange for good sex is hardly true contentment.
Instead, we should go on the journey of what Paul calls “the secret” of satisfaction.
“…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11b-13).
What is Paul’s “secret”? The word Paul uses here is a technical word that was used in other religions of his day, carrying the idea of being “initiated” into a special group to learn exclusive mysteries that only an inner circle was allowed to know. However, here Paul implies all Christians can learn the secret of contentment, and he tells them what his initiation process looked like.
Christ had brought Paul through experiences of hunger and distress, as well as circumstances of plenty and fullness. One moment Paul is surrounded by encouraging friends, has a roof over his head, and is experiencing great success in ministry. Then the next moment he is being stoned, shipwrecked, or thrown in prison. Both kinds of experiences—plenty and hunger—were the way Christ initiated Paul in the school of contentment. Every valley and every mountaintop was another opportunity to trust the wisdom of God’s providential and purposeful care.
Deep in the core of our being, we must choose to believe in our covenant-keeping God over the false promises of the ancient serpent—the serpent that whispers in our ear that God is holding out on us.
We must then turn that faith into a daily rehearsal of what Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the presence of God,” turning all our moments, no matter how mundane, exciting, or tempting, into an opportunity for prayerful dialogue and praise.
Until we repent of our discontentment and trust in God’s unending kindness, porn will continue to be the fruit from a bad tree.
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