This excerpt is adapted from the new e-book Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust through Biblical Accountability (Covenant Eyes, 2013). Download it for free here.
A group of researchers at Newcastle University set out to observe the littering behavior of students in a university cafeteria. Posters at eye level displayed pictures of human eyes staring out at the hungry students all around the cafeteria. Strangely, researchers discovered people were twice as likely to clean up after themselves when surrounded by the eye posters.
This and other studies suggest that even on a subconscious level, we modify our behavior if our brain tells us we’re being watched. Even though I know the eyes on those posters can’t see me, I’m wired in such a way to pay attention to them.
When it comes to facing Internet temptations, knowing others are watching us can change the way we behave—and there are good biblical reasons why.
Triple-A Engine of Porn
From the earliest days of the Internet, social scientists have noted what’s called the “online disinhibition effect.” Basically, people say and do things online they wouldn’t say and do in their “real lives.” This goes for pornography and cybersex as well. Several years ago the late psychologist Alvin Cooper theorized that Internet pornography was alluring due to three primary factors: it’s accessible, it’s affordable, and it’s anonymous—what he called the “Triple-A Engine.” These three aspects of Internet porn open the door wide to online temptations. Little can be done about the affordability of pornography: it’s freely available at hundreds of thousands of online portals. And unless you eliminate all contact to computers and smartphones, porn will always be accessible in some fashion. This is why many people seek to remove the third factor: anonymity. If I no longer have the option to view pornography in secret, I’m much less likely to view it at all. If someone I trust is monitoring my online activity, I’m more likely to avoid temptations altogether.
Secrecy and Sexual Sin
Secrecy and sexual sin often go hand in hand. The apostle Paul said those whose lives are marked by sexual immorality, impurity, and greed (Eph. 5:3) commit shameful acts “in secret” (v. 12). He depicts this way of life as hiding in “darkness” (vv. 8, 11). Sin seeks out the darkness so its deeds aren’t exposed to God or to others (John 3:20). Christians are meant to walk in the light. Among other things, this means we must fight both the illusion of secrecy and also our tendency to create private corners where sin can thrive. This is especially true in an age like ours when there are thousands of digital corners in which to hide.
Accountable to God
Additionally, one of the great motivators God has given us to avoid sin is the knowledge that he sees all we do. Paul calls Christians “children of the light” (1 Thess. 5:5)—those united by faith to the light of the Word (John 8:12) and living in the light of Jesus’ return. We know that God is real, that Christ has come, that he is our Lord, and that he is coming again to set all things right. We live in the dawn of the age to come. The night of this present age is ending, so we must live like children of the day: brimming with faith, hope, and love (vv. 6-8) and casting off the works of darkness (Rom. 13:11-12). One day, each of us “will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12; cf. 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 4:13). We live knowing we’re finally accountable to the God we love.
Accountable to Others
Another motivator God has provided to keep us from sin is the threat of potential disgrace or shame before others (Luke 14:9; Rom. 1:24-26; 6:21; 1 Cor. 11:6, 14; 14:35). We must be aware of how our sins influence other people and our relationships. Paul’s term for this awareness is “walking properly” (Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 14:40; 1 Thess. 4:12). It means living in a manner of decency, understanding that our actions affect those around us. None of us sins in a vacuum. Our sin affects our families, our friends, our communities—and our place in those relationships.
Walk in the Light Online
Internet accountability helps to cure us of online tunnel vision. In my seemingly private online life, it’s easy to feel that the time is my own, that my choices affect only myself. But when I’m reminded I’m not alone—that at least one other person will see what I do—my myopic vision is broken. For a brief moment I see my temptations through the eyes of another, not just through my own foggy vision. By choosing to remove the secrecy, we pull our lives into the light. Being exposed to another’s eyes helps me remember my accountability partner isn’t the only one watching me. The one who loved me and gave himself for me “sees my ways and numbers all my steps” (Job 31:4). And in that moment I recall: I have made a covenant with my eyes; help me, O God, not to look at any worthless thing (Job 31:1; Ps. 101:3).