Anna was just 9 when she first saw porn. She walked into a room where a family member was watching it on TV. This same person would sexually abuse Anna throughout her childhood. As Anna grew up and tried to make sense of the abuse, she turned to porn looking for answers. It quickly became her go-to way of dealing with stress or pain.
Nate was a seminary student when he started viewing hardcore porn. He went on to become a pastor, and yet his porn addiction drove him into riskier and riskier sexual behavior. He learned to “disassociate” his sexual life from the rest of his life. Suddenly, things came to a head.
Garrett was pastoring a small-town church. He felt isolated and discontent, and regularly turned to porn for affirmation. He hated living as a hypocrite. Before he knew it, the whole town had found out.
Anna, Nate, and Garrett were Christians, but they were enslaved to porn. In today’s podcast, a special collaboration with Love Thy Neighborhood, we hear how the gospel freed them from their addictions and helped them grasp why they sought comfort in porn in the first place.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- I Was a Pastor Hooked on Porn
- Porn and the Pastor (free ebook)
- 9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain
- How Pornography Makes Us Less Human and Less Humane
Mentioned in this episode:
- Samson Society
- Samson and the Pirate Monks
- Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing
Collin Hansen: Today’s podcast is a collaboration with Love Thy Neighborhood, a podcast hosted by Jesse Eubanks. Today our own Matt Smethurst joins him to talk about where the gospel meets pornography. You can hear more stories like the ones told in today’s episode on the podcast Love Thy Neighborhood, now in its third season of thoughtfully exploring the intersection of social issues and Christian faith.
Matt Smethurst: This episode contains mature content that may not be suitable for young listeners. Listener discretion is advised.
Jesse Eubanks: Some names in today’s story have been changed to protect identity.
Anna was just nine years old when she first saw pornography.
Anna Reynolds: Honestly, all I can remember is walking into my living room and there was an image on the TV of a woman. And I mean, I’d say it was like borderline pornography that I can remember. Definitely not appropriate at all.
Eubanks: And of course, at nine years old, you don’t really know how to process that.
Reynolds: I didn’t feel one way or the other of, oh this is really interesting to me or like I hate this. I think I was just like really confused. I had no idea like what it meant at all. Yeah. So, that was kind of my first introduction to it.
Eubanks: Her first, but not her last. In fact, the person who had been watching the pornographic content was a family member. And this family member also sexually abused Anna throughout her childhood. So as Anna grew up, she found herself looking for answers, trying to make sense of the abuse. And one place did seem to have answers, pornography.
Reynolds: But it got to a point where I was just really confused about what had happened to me and I would just kind of stumble upon things on the internet. And after some time I just was like, I just wanna kind of see what this is about.
Eubanks: So in middle school, Anna starts looking at porn. At first for answers, but it quickly turned into looking for something else.
Reynolds: In high school it’s definitely more of a distraction stress reliever. Yeah. I would just kind of occasionally like look at porn and just kinda use that as a distraction.
Eubanks: And this continued into college. Sometimes it was once every couple months, sometimes it was two to three times a week. Whenever she had a lot of stress or needed to veg out, Anna turned to pornography.
Reynolds: I just wanted some relief. Like I was just so tired of the pain that I was feeling that, you know, I didn’t drink at the time. I didn’t have access to alcohol or anything else to really distract me. So like that was a thing I went to.
Eubanks: And it may not surprise you to learn that a story like Anna’s, it’s not uncommon. In fact, it’s estimated that one out of every three Americans regularly seeks out pornography. That means that they are intentionally looking for it at least once a month. And in decades past, we thought that this was a problem outside of the church. Non-Christians don’t share our sexual ethic, but, Anna, along with many others regularly engaged in pornography, they’re inside the church. They’re Christians.
Okay. So, Matt, so, Relevant Magazine recently published an article with the following title, “Three porn sites are now more popular than Instagram, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Netflix.”
Smethurst: Yeah, Jesse, you know, I read that piece and it went on to say that these three porn sites are in the top 10 most-visited websites in the United States. So, like you said, they each get more traffic than Twitter, Netflix, even eBay. We live in a sexually-saturated culture.
Eubanks: Well, but we really shouldn’t be surprised by that because having highly sexualized norms in culture, like that’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s not even new for Christians. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul addresses several things with the church in Corinth among which were the sexual norms of the day.
Smethurst: Historians believe the city of Corinth had quite a sexual reputation, wasn’t only like the New York city of the ancient world, but also the Vegas of the ancient world. Places of worship had prostitutes. It was acceptable for a man to not only have a wife but also concubines strictly for his own pleasure. It was also common for husbands to have regular dealings with courtesans, which were basically prostitutes for the upper class.
Eubanks: And it’s hard for us to get our brains around this because our culture doesn’t work this way, but it’s like, imagine the same normative experience we would have walking into someone’s house and they have a dog. So we don’t think anything about that. People have dogs and it’s very acceptable for people to have dogs. Well, in the same way in Corinth, you could walk into someone’s house and they have concubines, and the dad is out with his courtesan friend. It was just seen as normal.
Smethurst: And the Corinthian Christians, they didn’t come from the local Christian college, they came out of this environment. They had lived this lifestyle and now Paul is saying, “You have a different normal now.”
Eubanks: Which prompted Paul to write in 1st Corinthians chapter six these words. He says, “You say, ‘I have the right to do anything,’ but not everything is beneficial. You say, ‘I have the right to do anything, but I will not be dominated by anything.'” Essentially what may be normative may not be the best thing for you.
Smethurst: And no doubt pornography is becoming normative in our culture. As a recent Barna study found, teens and young adults ranked not recycling as more immoral than viewing porn.
Eubanks: But even though that’s society’s view, we know the church is supposed to look different, but the reality is that sometimes it just doesn’t. There was another Barna research study that found that 57% of all U.S. pastors admitted to having a struggle with pornography.
Smethurst: Man, it’s easy for these stats to just wash over us, but think about that. Pastors, as in Christian pastors, 57%.
Eubanks: Yeah. I mean, that’s over half of the people standing in the pulpits on a week in and week out basis, this is a private secret struggle of theirs.
Smethurst: There’s obviously a dichotomy here. We know and believe that pornography is wrong, that it doesn’t honor the God who made us and redeemed us. So, how can you be a Christian and also be actively-engaged in porn?
Eubanks: Yeah, I think that that is the heart of this episode. That’s a great question. And to answer that, we’re actually gonna go back to New York city in the 1980s to meet a guy named Nate Larkin.
Nate Larkin: Yeah. My introduction to hardcore pornography happened, let me see, it was in the early ’80s
Eubanks: So this is Nate. At the time he was a student at Princeton Seminary and he and his wife were on a school sponsored trip in New York City.
Larkin: And the seminary together with a group called Women Against Pornography arranged a trip for seminarians and spouses if spouses wanted to attend, into the city for a tour of Times Square so that we could have a firsthand look at how women are exploited by the sex business. That was the premise of the trip.
Eubanks: Now, we’re not gonna go into the exploitation of women in this episode. For more of that, you can listen to episode number two of our podcast where the gospel meets the sex industry. Anyway, the trip was a noble idea to educate these soon-to-be pastors on the atrocities of the sex industry, so they would be able to advocate for women should the need arise. And for Nate, the trip had another meaning as well.
Larkin: I was really in despair over my continued porn use. And I thought that if I could just get a look behind the curtain, if I could see how bad it really is and that people were getting hurt that I would stop.
Eubanks: See, Nate already had a porn struggle. He’d come across it in his adolescent years and would still allow himself to indulge in Playboys and other magazines because, remember, this is the ’80s, internet porn did not exist yet. And naturally, being a Christian and a seminary student, he legitimately wanted to kick the habit and he saw this trip as his chance.
Larkin: So they toured us through the sex shops and the adult bookstores, and the, you know, all that stuff.
Eubanks: So, so far so good. The trip was having the intended effect, but then Nate encountered something he hadn’t before, porn in the form of a moving image. For us today, this is one click away on the internet, but at the time, Nate saw it through what’s called a peep show.
Larkin: It was film that I first saw. I can still hear the clatter of the projector in the back of the booth. There wasn’t even sound in that first peep show that I saw with my wife sitting beside me. She put the quarter in and in that brief moment, it is as though somewhere deep inside me a door swung open.
Eubanks: And little did Nate know just how far through the door he would go. So the New York trip ended. Nate and his wife went back to Princeton. He was offered a pastorate at a local church, but he couldn’t get the images of the peep show out of his mind. He had a hunger, a hunger he found that he could now fill on his daily commute.
Larkin: Halfway between Princeton and that church at a fork in the road was an adult bookstore. And I found that it was impossible for me to make the round trip without pulling into that bookstore. If I didn’t stop on the way down, I stopped on the way back. And I came to dread at the same time anticipate, every trip down to the church I pastored.
Smethurst: Wait a minute. Nate is a Christian. He’s a pastor, a leader of Christians, and he’s stopping daily at an adult bookstore. How is he reconciling that?
Eubanks: Well, I don’t think he is reconciling that. I mean he’s actually putting himself under a lot of anxiety and stress. I mean, he’s got this whole section of his life that he’s ashamed of and he has to keep it hidden. So he copes much in the same way that a trauma victim would what’s called disassociation.
Larkin: Sexual acting out for guys like me is dissociative. We just go away. I learned early on to toggle between two states. There was the part of me, which, in many ways was genuine. The part I now call Saint Nate, the Christian guy. But there was another state that I could flip into. I could toggle back and forth, and there was this part of me in which God didn’t figure at all.
Eubanks: So, even with disassociating, Nate knew that he had a problem. And so he set about to take care of that problem probably the way that most of us would.
Larkin: Spiritual disciplines, reading certain books, setting up a daily schedule for a quiet time and Bible study and prayer. If I could do the right things in the right sequence, periods of repentance where I would kind of spiral into the ground and then just totally disgust myself and say, “All right, that’s it. I’m done.” You know, take a deep breath, turn over a new leaf.
Eubanks: But none of it worked, which leads us to a very important fact about pornography, because as Christians, I think we can focus solely on the spiritual side of things while ignoring the physical realities that go with them, and pornography, it actually has some powerful physical effects.
Jenna Riemersma: Well, if you look at the reward center of the brain, the reward response is a mirror response to crack cocaine.
Eubanks: This is Jenna Riemersma. She is a therapist who specializes in treating folks with pornography and sex addictions.
Riemersma: Porn, especially because of its highly graphic, highly intense content, and highly novel content, which is something the brain gravitates towards, is highly, highly addictive.
Eubanks: I feel like a lot of times, as Christians, like we get to this conversation and we start talking about like the biological realities of what’s going on. And I think for a lot of Christians, their fear goes off of like, hold on, you’re letting people off the hook morally. Like they have no culpability in their decisions. You’re just trying to say it’s all predetermined biological nonsense.
Smethurst: Yeah. Well, on the one hand, it’s noteworthy that the Bible never instructs us to manage temptation. It says to flee it. And so, obviously, the fundamental challenge facing us is spiritual and moral. And yet we are embodied creatures and we can’t disassociate, like you were talking about earlier, who we are as spiritual and moral creatures from our embodied experience. So it makes sense that there would be physiological effects downstream from our moral choices.
Eubanks: Yeah. There’s a very real addictive element at play.
Smethurst: Yeah. It’s a mutually-destructive dynamic.
Riemersma: The brains seeks novelty and there’s an infinite amount of novelty and intensity in graphic content, unfortunately. So it leads people to places that creates a tremendous amount of distress.
Eubanks: So Nate’s experiencing distress in his physical life because of the addictive nature of porn and he’s experiencing distress in his spiritual life because of the sin and secrecy. And so it’s not surprising at all that Nate is trying to use all these solo spiritual activities to stop using porn while all the while his addiction just keeps growing. And you may have heard the phrase, acknowledgement is the first step. Well, true acknowledgement, that takes confession. And actually saying it out loud to another human being, that’s one of the reasons God tells us to confess our sins to one another. Keeping secrets never leads to anything good, and Nate knows that. He’s a pastor, so, why is he keeping all of this hidden?
Smethurst: I think I can tell you exactly why, Jesse. Mind if I jump in here for a second?
Eubanks: Yeah, sure.
Smethurst: Confession is necessary, absolutely. But confession alone doesn’t mean things will get better. I know this because there’s another pastor who also had a porn struggle, and he did confess.
Garrett Kell: Called the elders together and said, “Okay, guys, here’s the situation. My life and my ministry are in your hands.”
Smethurst: This is Garrett Kell. At the time, he was a new young pastor in a small Texas town called Graham.
Kell: Graham, Texas was very much like Mayberry, if you’ve ever seen the “Andy Griffith Show.”
Smethurst: And like Nate, Garrett also struggled with porn, not with the same frequency or intensity. For him, it looked more like every couple months or so.
Eubanks: Which obviously like that’s still not good.
Smethurst: Right. Just less intense. So, here Garrett is, he’s convicted. He tells his elders, Hey, here’s what’s been going on.
Kell: I basically chronicled all of my struggles with sexual sin and pornography from the time I become a believer up until that very day, and just kind of laid everything out there.
Eubanks: And so how’d that turn out?
Smethurst: He tells them he’s willing to do whatever they think is necessary as a next course of action.
Kell: I do remember one brother, he looked at me, he said, “You know, Garrett, first of all, I want you to know I love you.” He said, “But, when you read through the gospels, you see that Jesus, he’s very compassionate with sinners, but he’s very stern against hypocrites. Whatever you’ve got to do to not be a hypocrite, we wanna help you do it, but you’ve gotta repent of this.” And those words still stick with me.
Smethurst: So tasked with deciding their pastor’s fate, the elders agree they need a few days to figure out what to do. But remember, this is all taking place in a small church, in a small town, in the middle of nowhere, Texas. And if you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know it’s exactly like the movies say it is. Everyone is in everyone else’s business.
Kell: Yeah. In a small town, word starts to travel. So, you know, in a 9,000-person oil town in Texas, there was lots of commentary in town about what was going on down at Graham Bible Church with the pastor there, and pornography. And as you can imagine, there was speculation on every kind of vile thing that could be imagined that I might have been doing.
Smethurst: People continue to talk, rumors continued to spread. And so the elders decide, enough is enough. We don’t need any more time to deliberate. Here’s what we’re going to do. And that Sunday they make an announcement.
Kell: One of the elders got up and said, “Hey, you know, a lot of you have heard that Garrett has some things going on in his private life. Well, tonight, tonight we’re gonna have a meeting and anybody who wants to hear about it should come on out and we’re gonna talk about it.”
Smethurst: And when the elder said anybody, he meant anybody. Even though this was intended as a church family meeting, the church didn’t have official membership in place, which means they couldn’t close off the meeting only to members of the church. Technically, this was an open meeting. Anyone could come if they wanted, church affiliated or not.
Kell: As you can imagine, this is like a small town’s dream.
Eubanks: Oh my gosh. So, this means that he’s gonna basically confess something he’s deeply ashamed of to the entire town?
Smethurst: That is exactly what happened.
Kell: So, that evening, there were a lot of people that showed up at our church, many who had never been to our church before, some who had just started visiting. And then of course, you know, many of the members. And basically I sat on stage and I told my whole story, confessed everything.
Eubanks: Genuinely I feel a little sick in my stomach when I hear this description. This just seems like putting like your entire sexual history like on social media for anyone to read at their leisure.
Smethurst: Yeah. As you can imagine, it was an awful night for Garrett.
Kell: You see some people who are very angry. You see other people who are very confused. I saw tears. I saw people get up and walk out and never walk into a church again because they would say later that they could just never trust another pastor because he might be a hypocrite like me.
Smethurst: But even once the meeting finally ended, things were far from over.
Kell: After that night, a couple of the elders got calls that there were some people who weren’t able to be at the meeting and they were very disappointed and they wanted to hear the story, so I was asked to do it the next weekend. So we did it again.
Eubanks: Like, what is this? Like the circus came to town and they added like an evening performance. Like, this is awful. So he’s gotta do like the whole thing again?
Smethurst: Dude, exact replay. And while the second time there were some new folks there, it was many of the same folks because this was the juiciest thing to happen in their town, maybe in forever. And, as you might imagine, after two of these meetings, a lot of those relationships were damaged.
Kell: One of the hardest things was seeing people who the week before who had hugged me and told me that they loved me, they’re gonna walk with me, were now, it had hit them differently and they were struggling in a different way now. And I’m not blaming them. My sin hurt a lot of people.
Eubanks: And that’s true. Like, sin does. It hurts people. You know, sin has real consequences. But like, I don’t know, the whole approach to this though is still just really shocking to me. Like they essentially hung this guy out to dry.
Smethurst: Well, I’m sure the elders really did have good intentions and were trying to help. But I’m also sure that how to help your porn-watching pastor wasn’t covered in any elder training.
Eubanks: And I totally get that. And at the same time, you know, I’m like, the guy was looking at porn like every couple of months, like he wasn’t like looking at it five hours every day sitting in his pastorate. And like, looking at it every couple months, like that’s not okay. That’s not what I’m trying to say. But the church’s reaction just seems like really excessive to me.
Smethurst: Well, the fact is we, we all have very visceral reactions when it comes to sexual sin. So all that to say, back to your story of Nate, I can see why he wouldn’t wanna tell anybody about his struggle with porn.
Eubanks: Right. I mean, this story illustrates like every pastor’s biggest nightmare. You know, if I come forward and I tell people I’m gonna end up just like Garrett. You know, and I know that Nate had to be scared. Like, “If I tell anybody I’m going to get tarred and feathered.”
Larkin: Yeah, it would’ve been suicide. So, I had to somehow find a way to defeat this addiction.
Eubanks: Yeah. And a way to do so on his own. But if you’ve ever dealt with an addiction or know someone who has, then you know, addiction doesn’t go away in the dark. In the dark, they grow. And Nate’s porn use was about to grow into something that he never thought possible.
Larkin: On my way to set up for a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, just as it was beginning to rain, I pulled over to offer a woman a ride, not knowing what she was up to. I had no clue until she was in the car and propositioning me.
Eubanks: So, it’s Christmas Eve and Nate has duties at his church and he’s on the way there and he sees this lady standing out in the rain. So he pulls over to see if she needs a ride somewhere. And it turns out that the woman was a prostitute. So, what Nate thought was gonna be a good deed, “Hey, let me help this poor lady standing out in the rain,” turned into him and a prostitute being alone in a car. And sadly, that was a scenario which all his porn use had actually prepared him very well for.
Larkin: By this point, having consumed an awful lot of porn, I had already internalized the script for this encounter and I didn’t even see the person in the car when she got in. I saw a body, I had objectified. It never even occurred to me to wonder what would drive a young woman onto the streets to sell her body to strangers on Christmas Eve. I didn’t even wonder what her name was. At that point, I had flipped, I was in a dissociated state, and it was gonna go where it was gonna go.
Eubanks: And so, suddenly like Nate found himself in this new season where like the porn wasn’t enough anymore because Nate had a new rush now. So after this moment, like it’s no longer just about adult bookstores, now, like Nate is going to strip clubs and he’s going and finding prostitutes.
Smethurst: You know, it can be so dangerous for us to say, oh, I would never do anything like that, because we just don’t know what we’d be capable of under the right circumstances.
Eubanks: Right. I doubt that Nate ever thought that he would get to that point, you know, and we think like, “Oh, we’ll never get that bad.” But when it comes to pornography, in order to keep getting the same effect or the same rush, like you always have to keep upping the ante, a term that therapist Jenna Riemersma calls escalation.
Riemersma: Someone might start out with even an accidental exposure to let’s say heterosexual pornography. After a while, that loses its arousal and the person has to escalate to let’s say, same-sex sexual pornography or group or bestiality or child pornography. And so, what we understand about the complexities of how this works is that an individual may end up viewing something that is not even consistent with their arousal template.
Eubanks: Well, now, in an even bigger mess than before, Nate decides like he’s gonna get ahead of the game. Like, “I’m not gonna confess to a bunch of people and then get taken before the congregation and humiliated, I’m just gonna quit.” So, the fear of being found out had just become too great for him.
Smethurst: Yeah. In fact, 55% of all U.S. pastors who use porn say they live in constant fear of being discovered.
Eubanks: Yeah. And for good reason, you know, God’s word says, everything secret will be brought to light. One way or another, our secrets are gonna come out. And that may mean in the last days or it may mean here and now. And for Nate, it was gonna mean here and now. It wasn’t gonna be by his church, but by his wife.
Larkin: I slipped out of bed one night, went back into my office, booted up the computer and started downloading porn. And by this time, the game had changed because now video porn was available, free of charge and endless variety and unlimited supply of virtual sex partners delivered into the anonymity privacy of my own home.
Eubanks: So Nate is sitting there and he’s looking at the computer, and then at one point Nate looks up and he sees his wife in the doorway. She had been standing there watching him.
Larkin: It’s the first time she’d ever seen me do that. And, you know, she just turned and went back to the bedroom. I shut everything down and followed her back into the bedroom apologizing and explaining, promising.
Eubanks: But like a good addict, just a week later, she actually catches him again.
Larkin: And this time she didn’t cry. She just sat me down on the edge of the bed and said, “I’m done.” She said, “I still love you, but I don’t like you. I don’t trust you. I don’t respect you. I don’t think you can ever change.”
Smethurst: And the haunting question this raises is, is change for someone like Nate actually possible? Well, Scripture insists that the answer is yes. With God, all things are possible.
Eubanks: Yeah. But is that change gonna come from him trying harder and praying harder and setting up more restrictions on his software? Probably not, because that is just treating the symptoms of a much deeper issue. You know, pornography is never just about pornography. It’s about something much deeper. And so we’re gonna have to dive to the root of our broken sexuality.
It’s estimated that four out of five sex addicts agree to seek help only after an ultimatum from a partner or a spouse. And so, after being caught by his wife, Nate knew that he needed to get help. The problem was, where is he gonna go to get that help? He knew that he didn’t wanna go to the church because he was afraid that he was in too deep and he was not gonna find anything but condemnation. And so, instead of the church, he decided actually to go to a 12-Step Recovery Group for sex addicts.
Larkin: I came into it determined to set the land speed record for recovery. These guys have found a silver bullet. They’ve got that last puzzle piece that I’ve been looking for. They’ve got the secret information, because I thought I could think my way out of this and I could do it on my own. So I’m gonna study, and I’m a good study, man, I got all the literature, I read all the books, I listened closely, I learned the lingo early on.
Eubanks: So like Nate jumps like deep into the whole thing, but like it did not take him long to realize, this was not gonna be about checking all the boxes. This was about a bigger issue and the bigger issue was relationships.
Larkin: Turns out, there really isn’t any secret information. There’s only relationship, and honesty, and walking in the light together. It really, it made me angry after the first time that I had I spent a lifetime in church and had never been in a room that safe. And not that these guys were soft on sin, there was no buddy in that room who was going to excuse my behavior, but they were gonna excuse me. That was a persona-free zone in that room. They just wanted me to bring my real self and say the real truth. And there was grace in that room and I wanna tell you, I heard Jesus in that room like I’d never heard him before.
Eubanks: So we actually talked about this back in our episode on Where the Gospel Meets Addiction, that an addiction is never about the substance or the thing. Addiction is actually about misaligned relationships. A few months ago, this book came out by a guy named Jay Stringer and it’s called Unwanted, and it’s a book about how sexual brokenness reveals our way to healing. And he likens unwanted sexual behavior to an iceberg. So, he says that the act of looking at porn is actually what’s above the surface of the iceberg. It’s what you can see, but it’s only a part of the whole issue. There’s 80% of the iceberg that exists under the surface. And so if we’re only dealing with the top of the iceberg through accountability culture, that’s a good thing, but it’s very incomplete. We have to get down into that 80%.
Smethurst: We said before, porn is never just about porn. It’s often about power, it’s often about pain. And when we have a relational pain, we will turn to anything necessary to soothe it.
Eubanks: And so, for Nate, as he continued to attend the 12-step meetings, he started to see his broken relationships, many of which went all the way back to his childhood.
Larkin: You know, I’d lost my mother. She died when I was young. I was in an atmosphere where there was a huge emotional vacuum, and I was really a sitting duck for any kind of false intimacy.
Eubanks: I want you to imagine a shelf. This shelf is labeled, “Unwanted sexual behavior.” It could be pornography, it could be masturbation, or going to strip clubs. And on that shelf there’s a jar, and this jar is labeled “pain.” And so Jay Stringer says that there are actually six ingredients that go into that jar, six points of pain that lead us to unwanted sexual behavior. And so I’d like to go through these six things because I think it’s helpful in addressing this issue.
So, number one, the belief that your needs will not be met. The reality is, you have core needs in life. You have core relational needs, physical needs, and if you think that your needs in life are never going to be met, then guess what? You’re gonna feel like you have to handle everything yourself. That it’s up to you because you can’t depend on anyone else to take care of you.
Smethurst: Jesse, hold on. Do you remember the story I told you about Garrett?
Eubanks: Yeah. The pastor who got roasted or the church meeting. Yeah, I remember.
Smethurst: Yeah. Well, I’ve got a great example of this dynamic from my interview with him. Here’s what he had to say when talking about his porn use.
Kell: When I look back, really, I feel like there was discontentment in my soul. I wasn’t married. I wanted to be married. So there were so many things in my life I felt discontent with. And there’s something about pornography that whispers to you words of affirmation, words of entitlement.
Eubanks: Exactly right. So, that is the belief that my needs will not be met. And so, that’s ingredient number one. Okay. Number two, the belief that you deserve to escape. So, maybe you think your life is boring, so you escape for excitement. Maybe you escape because you feel overwhelmed and stressed, but there’s some area of your life in which you just wanna check out. You just wanna be done. I don’t wanna think about that anymore. I just wanna escape from things.
Smethurst: Again. Here’s Garrett.
Kell: I think for me, yeah, it offered an escape from the pressures of ministry, the disappointment of being single, the disappointments in ministry, all those sorts of things. It promised an escape and I chased it.
Eubanks: And the third is the belief that efforts are futile. The idea that, “No matter how hard I try, I’m gonna end up back at the same spot where I started. No matter how much I want to change, I can’t change. No matter how I want things to be different, they’re not going to end up different, so I’m already so far gone. What does it matter anyway?”
Kell: It was almost as if I had resolved myself to being ensnared in this sin forever and just kind of faking it. And there were times I even felt like it’d be easier if I just die because that’d be the only way out of this.
Eubanks: Yeah. And number four is a thing that Jay Stringer calls unconscious arousal. And basically what it is, is this, our sexuality kind of gets hardwired into the stories that we have lived. We all learned our sexuality from somewhere, you know, it might’ve been a family member that exposed us to something, or it might’ve been a first relationship that we were in, or it might’ve been a movie that we had seen. But we learned to be aroused by particular things because of the histories that we have lived. I know this one can be a little tricky to think through. So I’ve actually got therapist Jenna to help us out on this one.
Riemersma: So a child will experience arousal just like anyone will, looking at graphic sexual content, but won’t have any ability to know how to process that. But the brain immediately hooks onto that imagery. For most people, it becomes fused into their memory neural circuitry, and they return and begin seeking that, those images because the brain is novelty seeking and seeking that high intense stimulus.
Eubanks: Okay. And finally, the last two, five and six, they actually go together. And these are, lust and anger. You know, lust is an unrestrained desire, and anger is the demand for control. And these two things, they work together, they are a team. You know, lust is the thing that kick-starts the engine, but it’s anger that actually keeps it running. And a lot of times people fixate just on the lust, but the majority of people that are using pornography, you talk to them and they don’t come across as angry and they themselves may even believe that they’re not angry. But all the research shows, scratch the surface and there’s a lot of unhealed anger in their life.
Smethurst: That’s super helpful. We are sexual centers in rebellion against a Holy God. And yet it’s helpful to think about these six ingredients because they’re often where so much of our pain is coming from.
Eubanks: Right. These questions allow us to get into a deeper place so that, yes, we’re able to say you are responsible for the actions that you’re taking and you will stand before God and you will answer for those and your pain is driving you.
Smethurst: But once we’ve identified these ingredients, then what?
Eubanks: Well, remember, this whole thing is about misaligned relationships. So we need to confess, we need to identify our pain, but to heal, we also need right relationships to do real life with real people. And this is what Nate found in his relationship with his 12-step sponsor. So, the first step for Nate was to write out all that he could remember about his sexual history, everything, and his sponsor would then meet with him and go over it with him?
Larkin: And I wrote pages and pages of what I could remember of a sexual history. And I went to meet him at a park and we sat down on a bench and I had my sheaf of papers and I thought I was gonna read to him and he said, “Before we start,” he said, “what’s the one thing you didn’t write down?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “The thing, the thing you didn’t write down.” I said, “What makes you think there’s something I didn’t write down?” And he says, “There’s always something you don’t write down. What is it?” So I told him. And he said, “Good, thanks. Now read me the rest.”
Eubanks: And what Nate’s sponsor was modeling for him was honesty, something Nate needed to be shown after years of keeping secrets. And his sponsor also showed him grace. When Nate had his first relapse, he was devastated, and embarrassed, and ashamed, and he was supposed to call his sponsor, but he was so ashamed that he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Larkin: I had to get three days of clean time under my feet so that I could have, you know, something to stand on. Then I finally called him, a well-rehearsed call, and at the end, he casually said, “And by the way, I did have a slip last Tuesday, but I’m fine. And I learned from it and it was good. And God and I are square and it’s never gonna happen again.” And I waited for the punch, and it never came. He said, “Dude, I’m sorry. That must have sucked. I’m really sorry. It’s hard.” And then he did something totally counterintuitive, because, you know, I’d been doing the blame thing. I’d gone to the shame thing, right? And so I was waiting for him to give me my penance, and he goes, “Do you like ice cream?” I said, “Yeah, I like ice cream.” He says, “Is there any place around where you are right now where you can get an ice cream cone?” I said, “Yeah, there’s Ben and Jerry’s down the block.” He said, “Go get yourself some ice cream.” That was powerful for me in counteracting this deeply programmed habit of mine to get up on the cross and to atone for my own sin.
Eubanks: You know, I think that what Nate’s getting at is this idea that a lot of times we end up in this battle between grace and truth. I could reference Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery where he speaks a word of grace and a word of truth, but the order’s important. He doesn’t say, “Go and sin no more, and then I won’t condemn you.” He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”
Smethurst: Yeah. Where does our ability to live in truth come from? It comes from God’s grace. So we are able to live in obedience only because he no longer condemns us.
Eubanks: If we live with a constant, constant fear of condemnation, we will find ourselves living on trial every day and finding nothing but guilt. Because the truth is that we are guilty except for the goodness of Christ and being covered by him. And so, in this, what is it that Nate’s finding? He’s experiencing Christ’s grace manifested in this new relationship with someone else. And because Nate is not being condemned, it is out of that, that he begins to experience freedom.
And what’s sad is, you know, Nate talked about this earlier, that first moment that he went to that 12-step group, he had never seen so few personas in a room together where people were just being very honest with each other and being totally truthful and totally gracious. And that mixture of honesty and gentleness, like, that wasn’t something that he had found in the church, and he wanted to change that. So, after completing the 12 steps, Nate told his own pastor about his story as well as gave him his phone number so that if any other men were struggling in similar ways, Nate could be a person to talk to. And as you might imagine, he quickly had a dozen men calling him regularly. So, Nate decided to lead his own meeting, and believe it or not, his wife was actually still with him and she was the one that actually made the suggestion, you know, you guys should actually meet together face to face in the same room.
Larkin: We had our first meeting in the women’s parlor at church, which was pretty awkward, you know, with all the floral prints and there was potpourri, and, I don’t know why it was there. It seemed comfortable.
Eubanks: And so Nate decided to take the very best practices that he had learned at his 12-step group and bring it over to this new thing that he was forming.
Larkin: We opened the meeting and everybody gets a chance to share in the meeting, right? And the first few shares are pretty tentative. And then there was one guy, the only guy I didn’t invite, he was invited by a guy I had invited. He just cannon balled into the deep end of the conversation. I mean, he just was so wonderfully, blisteringly vulnerable and honest. It broke that meeting wide open, and it sent the message, “Oh, we can say anything in here.” And then what a wonderful meeting that was. And we decided to meet again, but not to meet in that room.
Eubanks: So, they continue to meet on a regular basis and eventually they gave their group a name, and they called themselves the Samson Society. And the reason they named themselves after Samson is because Nate believes, a lot of guys were just like Samson. We roam the countryside at night just looking for trouble, relying way too much on our own strength, not listening to the advice of our friends. And if we need to unlearn being like Samson, let’s at least do that together. And now, there are dozens of Samson Society chapters all over the country. You can find one near your city or even join a virtual meeting. And at the heart of what they do is what Nate learned through his own story and what we at Love Thy Neighborhood say often. Relationships change lives.
Okay. So, Matt, remember Anna from the top of the episode?
Smethurst: Yeah, young lady looked at porn in high school and college.
Eubanks: Well, she decided to start seeking help within a Christian context, but one lady she talked to simply gave her hard truth.
Reynolds: She’s like, that stuff is a bunch of crap. That’s not how real life is. Like, that’s not really how sex is. Like you’re better off just not watching it. And honestly, I was like, “I know.”
Eubanks: And the other people that you went to, they just gave her an, okay, thanks for telling me. Followed by like blank stares, awkward silence.
Reynolds: Honestly, I think sometimes like people just don’t really know what to do. It’s a really messy process of helping someone through this.
Eubanks: And Anna hopes in talking openly about this, that more churches will become a place of both truth and grace, a place where everyone does life together.
Reynolds: You’re not alone. I mean that’s something that like I would wanna hear, like I guess like what I would wanna hear is that there are people who have gone through similar experiences and want to help. Yeah. It’s just been, it’s just kind of difficult.
Eubanks: Yeah. And to be clear, like, this is not every church, not every church is like this, but, for many people, this is exactly how things go down. Hey, so, whatever happened with Garrett, you know, is he still a pastor?
Smethurst: Garrett’s doing very well now actually, he’s gone through a lot of counseling. He’s in a wonderful Christian community. He’s still a pastor. He has a group of guys that he calls or texts regularly, because just like Nate, Garrett’s realized the importance of honesty and community.
Kell: I think if I was going to say anything to me as a pastor, as a young man, I would look myself in the eyes and say, “Don’t lie. Do not live a lie.” I just don’t think you can…I don’t think you can walk in holiness with God alone. You know, when God said it’s not good for man to be alone, he wasn’t just talking about getting somebody married. I think that the ultimate provision of that is the church, and having real relationships with other brothers and sisters, you know, I think having those is vital and I can’t imagine my Christian life without them now.
Eubanks: You know, some people say that our society today is not much different from the ancient Corinthians. We’re perverted, highly sexualized, but God calls us to a better normal. How are we helping our fellow brothers and sisters live in that better normal? How can we show people within our church more of what Jesus showed the woman who was caught in adultery?
Smethurst: Yeah, and again, the church should be the place, the only place that says both, neither do I condemn you because of the grace of Christ, and now because of the power of Christ, go and sin no more. The Christian life is not a solo flight. It’s a team effort, a community project, and we need each other in order to flourish.
Larkin: The great error I had made as a Christian was I had thought that because I had a personal relationship with Jesus, I had a private one. And I spent years begging God for a private solution to my private problem. You know, Jesus offers a personal relationship to every one of his disciples, but he’s never offered anybody a private one. Healing happens when we get together. When we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. And in that process, the blood of Jesus Christ, his son, cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
Eubanks: If you’d like to learn more about the Samson Society or how to find one of their meetings, visit them online at samsonsociety.com. For even more resources on this topic or to hear past episodes of this podcast, visit our website at lovethyneighborhood.org/podcast.
Special thanks to our interviewees for this episode, Anna Reynolds, Nate Larken, Jenna Riemersma, and Garrett Kell, and you can hear more of Nate’s story by reading his book, “Samson and the Pirate Monks.” It was one of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few years. Also, special thanks to Jay Stringer for his amazing insights in his book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing.
Smethurst: Our senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.
Eubanks: Our co-host today is Matt Smethurstfrom the Gospel Coalition. Matt, thanks so much for joining us today.
Smethurst: Thank you, Jesse, it was fun to be here.
Eubanks: Also, make sure to check out the Gospel Coalition’s podcast. Just look up TGC wherever it is that you listen to podcasts. They cover a variety of topics for Christians in all stages of life and you can listen to them weekly. And our producer, technical director, editor, and the person that leaves confetti all over our offices on our birthday is Rachel Zebo.
Smethurst: Music for today’s episode comes from Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions, theme music and commercial music by Murphy DX.
Eubanks: Apply for your social justice internship supported by Christian community by visiting lovethyneighborhood.org serve for a summer or year. Grow in your faith and life skills. Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go and do likewise.”