8 Ways to Fight Sexual Temptation (Part 2)
Previously, I developed eight reasons you must flee pornography. Pornography is one expression of sexual immorality inundating our culture.[i] Grievously, it’s far too common in the church as well. Covenant Eyes reports that “64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month.”[ii] Such statistics hardly represent the biblical imperative: “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph 5:3).
Are you among the 64% or the 15%? By God’s grace, you don’t have to be. Are others you know among them? By God’s grace, you can help them not to be. Contrary to popular resolve, Christians can say No to pornography and to any other sexual temptation. God has not left us helpless. In Christ, God supplies all we need to fight sexual temptation; and fight we must!
The Christian life is war. The passions of the flesh wage war against the soul (1 Pet 2:11). Satan fires darts to destroy (Eph 6:16). But in Christ, the members of our body become instruments, or better, weapons for righteousness (Rom 6:13). We put on the full armor of God to resist in the evil day (Eph 6:11). Fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12). In the words of John Owen, “be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”
It’s not that sexual purity is the only sin that will kill you, or even that sexual sin is the major sin the church must combat. Others are just as toxic: idolatry, self-righteousness, greed, anger, bitterness, laziness, etc., and several principles below can help you fight them too. But I’m writing for those who’ve asked for help in striving towards sexual purity in particular. So here are eight ways to fight sexual temptation, especially pornography, lust, masturbation, and adultery.
1. Bring your sexually immoral thoughts, desires, and actions into the light of Christ and confess them to others.
“Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). Sin thrives in the darkness (Eph 5:12). Intentions of the heart hide in darkness (1 Cor 4:5). Evil forces operate the domain of darkness (Eph 6:12). But God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). God the Son says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In and through Jesus Christ, God transfers sinners from darkness to light (Acts 26:18; Col 1:13). He changes our identity from darkness to light (Eph 5:8).[iii] He opens the way for fellowship in the light (1 John 1:6-7).
Such fellowship includes confessing sin (1 John 1:9). We confess sin to God (Ps 32:5). We also confess sin to one another, the purpose being for prayer (Jas 5:16) and for seeking forgiveness from those we’ve sinned against (Luke 17:3-4). Are you hiding your sexual immorality in the darkness? It will devour you there; it will suck your joy and shrivel your soul. Come to the light of Christ for your good! “When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!’” (Eph 5:13-14).
Find trustworthy brothers and sisters, and confess your lusts and immorality. Ask them to pray for your purity and joy in Christ. If you’ve sinned against your spouse, seek their forgiveness for your betrayal. If you’ve got people praying for you already, be honest. Beware that partial confession can become an avenue of hiding sin. You may not be looking at porn, but do you lust over images or other people? Don’t hide details about your sin to make yourself look better. God knows you truly, and he still gave his Son to save. He loved while we were sinners. Therefore, bring your evil into his light.
If your spouse is caught in immorality and refuses to repent, expose the darkness (Eph 5:11). Seek help from other godly men/women. The elders will also listen, support, confront, and care. Satan will tempt us to keep sin hidden. But we know his wicked schemes. Darkness is death (Jas 1:13-15; 5:19-20). Christ is life, and his life is the light of men (John 1:4-5).
2. Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires; cut off everything that arouses lustful desires and compromises purity in thought.[iv]
Temptations are sure to come (Luke 17:1), including temptation to sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:2). But we must not create occasions for sexual temptation, like accessing sensual images or getting into situations that make us vulnerable to immoral behavior. “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14). Even more, Jesus urges that “sexual purity is worth enormous sacrifice.”[v] Take extreme measures to sever whatever facilitates lust and would forfeit our persons to hell. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…if your right hand[vi] causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!” (Matt 5:29-30).
What might this look like? For those lacking self-control, it means getting rid of your iPhone, tablets, personal laptop, TV screens, Roku, and whatever else you may use to access immoral content. Until you mature in self-control, cut them off. If you need a phone, get a regular cellphone. If you need a computer, drive to the library, or only use it in public places or with friends present. If you work in an office, keep the windows and doors open as much as possible. If you notice inappropriate ads/video popping up, know that Google has learned from previous searches what you want. Go off the grid, clean up the computer, and start afresh. Software such as Covenant Eyes or X3watch can become useful measures for accountability.
As much as possible, avoid situations with others that may tempt you toward an immoral relationship. Carbon copy your spouse on emails and texts to people of the opposite sex. If married, choose not to meet alone with a person of the opposite sex. If you must, then let someone else know. For others, being alone and lonely can lead to immoral behavior. As much as possible, strive for close community (more on accountability appears below). If you’re going to be alone overnight on a business trip, call your spouse or a prayer partner and talk until you fall asleep.
The point is vigilance in the fight against temptation, and doing whatever is necessary to gain Christ over sexual sin. However, don’t be deceived! While these external measures remain important, folks can still easily manipulate them or get around them to gratify internal passions.[vii] Deeper transformation is necessary. True repentance doesn’t just avoid sin; it turns to the Lord himself for true satisfaction. To that we now turn.
3. With all the might he grants you, pursue the infinitely superior pleasures of the all-glorious God, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.
Of all that I write here, number three is the key to obedience and sanctification from sin. “By faith Moses…refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:24-26). The pleasures of sin are real, but they are fleeting. Moses knew the pleasures of God in Christ were superior, more rewarding.
When seen truly, the pleasures with God will compel us to renounce the lesser, fleeting pleasures of sin. After all, “in the Lord’s presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). You cannot defeat sexual temptation for very long or with God-glorifying results by white-knuckle duty and list-keeping. True and complete repentance will come only when you find the superior pleasures in God to silence the false promises of sexual temptation.
I’m speaking here of what Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.”[viii] By grace, new affection for Christ replaces and drives away the old affection for sin. Or, borrowing from C. S. Lewis, don’t go on like a half-hearted creature ignorantly fooling around with mud pies in a slum when you’ve been offered a holiday at the sea.[ix] Go for what’s truly glorious, God! Or, as Paul puts it elsewhere, transformation into the image of Christ comes by beholding the glory of the Lord (2 Cor 3:18).
Therefore, delight in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2). Delight yourself in the Lord (Ps 37:4). Lose everything to gain superior joy in the treasures of Christ’s kingdom (Matt 13:44). Follow Jesus’ commands not as bare commands but for his very joy to be in you and your joy to be made full in him (John 15:10-11). As a community, labor for each other’s joy in the faith (Phil 1:25). Cultivate a heart for the glory of God. The way to fight sin is not by looking at the sin but by looking at God’s glory in Christ. The more we see God as he is, the more we comprehend his greatness, the more we satisfy ourselves with the kaleidoscopic glory of his attributes, the more that the pleasures of sin will become distasteful, unattractive, and unwanted.
4. Utilize means of grace[x] such as meditating on Scripture, seeking God in prayer, gathering with the church, and preaching the gospel to yourself and others.
Over time, numerous brothers have asked me to help them walk away from sexual immorality, especially pornography. One of the first questions I ask them is how much time they spend in the word and prayer. In every case so far, time in the word and prayer has been largely absent. That’s no coincidence! There’s a direct correlation, and it’s tied very closely to the third point above. God’s self-revelation in Scripture is how we know and behold the pleasures of his glory in Christ. Also, our dependence on God in prayer is how we gain his powerful presence to overcome temptation. Not to read his word and pray is like trying to drive a car without ever refueling. Consider the following points and utilize the various means of grace God has given us:
- Scripture. “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word” (Ps 119:9). Devote yourself to knowing God’s word and meditating on God’s word. Don’t just read it, but meditate on its truth. Memorize Scripture and mull it over throughout the day. Journal through the word if that helps you think on it. God’s word is our offensive weapon in the warfare (Eph 6:17).[xi] God’s word renews the mind to think rightly about sex, rightly about women/men, rightly about the body, rightly about pleasure, etc.
- Prayer. “Pray then like this…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:13). “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:15). You need the Lord. Without him, you’re powerless against temptation. Ask his help in time of need.[xii]
- Church. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:12).[xiii] As a church, we’ve been given to one another to help in perseverance. Avoid just doing your own thing, and make the most of every Sunday gathered. Pursue close relationships. Speak the word. Gather with your care group members, invite their rebuke and encouragement, and care for one another.
- Gospel. “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…” (1 Cor 15:1-2). Connect gospel-truth(s) to the very specifics of our lives, such that by treasuring God’s awesome holiness and judgment as well as his boundless love and grace in Christ, we’re compelled to forsake sin and live in ways fully pleasing to him (Eph 5:10; Col 1:10; Heb 13:21). For more on preaching the gospel to yourself and others, click here.
5. Surround yourself with brothers/sisters, who will provide lasting, mature, and proactive accountability.
“[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16). “Exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).
Do not pretend that you know yourself better than anyone else. Sin is deceptive, and we need others to help us see what we can’t see. We’re given to one another to teach, warn, care for, pray for, and even discipline one another for our good in God. The Scriptures not only treat such accountability as necessary but urgent (e.g., Matt 18:15-20; 1 Thess 3:5; Jas 5:19-20).
However, when it comes to accountability in the fight against sexual temptation, I’ve observed some potential weaknesses. Some men will surround themselves with other men indulging in the same sins, and who really don’t know how the gospel applies or how the gospel compels us away from sexual temptation. Add to that a lack of proactive care on the front end, wherein “accountability” eventually morphs into just reporting the sins already committed. Eventually, the partners see little use in meeting, and accountability becomes sparse. That’s why I labeled the accountability “lasting, mature, and proactive.”
Find brothers and sisters who know how the gospel applies to sexual temptation, and who have known the liberating power of God’s grace in Christ. Give thanks for their example and imitate their faith. Also, be proactive in the accountability. Accountability isn’t just a partnership for reporting casualties but a troop of soldiers for fighting the enemy. Help each other in the offensive attack. Communicate before you sin. I’ve had brothers on business trips call me from the hotel and ask for prayer. I’ve had others text me while they’re being tempted at work. Others, I’ve called to check on at times when I know they’re most vulnerable to temptation. Keep the promises and warnings of God before each other in personal meetings and emails and texts. Then do it with patience over a long period of time, never ceasing to fight until we see Jesus face to face.
6. In love, observe the needs of others and then devote yourself wholeheartedly to serving them.
It may seem obvious that sexually immoral behavior is self-centered and lacks the outward disposition of love in a number of ways. But what I mean to highlight here is that very often sexual temptation prevails when there’s much laziness to love, when brothers and sisters are not busy seeking to meet the needs of others. In fact, they’re not busy at all with righteousness. Normally, they’re frittering their time away on social media, bouncing from one YouTube video to another, numbing themselves with video games, or just feeling they deserve a little “me time” on the TV after a hard day at work. It’s during these times that I see brothers fall most often.
As one brother put it in Discipleship Hour, the way we overcome vices like sexual immorality is by putting on the virtues of Christ, mainly, love. For example, see how Paul develops renouncing the old self and putting on the new self in Ephesians 4-5 and Colossians 3. Also see the way Peter encourages such virtue in 2 Peter 1:5-11. Or, in Galatians 5, notice how we replace the life of gratifying the flesh by living in the Spirit, the fruit of which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:16-26).
7. If married, delight in the Lord’s good gift of your spouse. If single, give your undivided devotion to Lord.
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely dear, a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Prov 5:18). The imagery may sound foreign, but the point is clear: intimacy within marriage is a good gift and to be celebrated, even pursued (1 Cor 7:3-4). It’s not that the married enjoy the gift of their spouse apart from the Lord. When that happens, all kinds of things get warped. Rather, we enjoy the Lord himself by enjoying his gifts rightly (e.g., 1 Tim 4:4; 6:17). When we delight in our spouse rightly, not only do we please our spouse, but we honor God with our bodies and nurture fidelity (1 Cor 7:5).
If single, consider 1 Corinthians 7:35, “I say this to your own benefit…to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” What did Paul say before to secure undivided devotion? That marriage can wait in view of a present distress (1 Cor 7:26), that marriage will eventually pass away (1 Cor 7:31), and that marriage doesn’t afford the same ministry opportunities singleness does (1 Cor 7:32-34). In other words, marriage is a great gift (the sex included!). It’s okay to want and even pray for marriage. But be sure to keep it in perspective. Marriage isn’t everything; Christ is. Sex in marriage isn’t the way to happiness. Sitting at the feet of King Jesus, ready to serve, is the way to true happiness that will never pass away. Fight sexual temptation by giving your undivided devotion to Christ, whether with others or alone.
8. Replace and overcome sexual immorality with thanksgiving to God.[xiv]
According to Romans 1:21, ingratitude is basically idolatry expressed. When applied to sexual immorality like pornography, sinful intimacy, lust of the eyes, immoral thoughts, etc., what happens in the heart is essentially ingratitude.
We’re ungrateful for God’s presence and power in that moment. We’re ungrateful for the manifold blessings in the heavenly places that are already ours in Christ. We’re ungrateful that men and women alike bear God’s image. We’re saying our ransom in Christ doesn’t deserve the offering of my body as a living sacrifice. We show ingratitude for the spouse the Lord gave us. We functionally believe that God isn’t generous and that he’s withholding good from us. We believe he’s too weak to provide and not glorious enough to satisfy. Ingratitude!
But listen to the way Paul confronts sexual immorality: “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.” Sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking, all of them are set against one command: “let there be thanksgiving.” In other words, thanksgiving is an idol-smasher. It’s an idol-smasher because it expresses the truth about God’s greatness and God’s generosity and God’s glory in Christ. And when you’re full of thanksgiving for God, the false promises of all our man-made idols fall dead, including the idol of sex.
I haven’t said everything. Others may add further counsel. Other books certainly expound on this topic more than I have here.[xv] But these are the eight helpful to my own walk in sexual purity, and I commend them to you. To close, I am reminded of a prayer we often sing together at Redeemer Church:
O great God of highest heaven
Occupy my lowly heart
Own it all and reign supreme
Conquer every rebel power
Let no vice or sin remain
That resists Your holy war
You have loved and purchased me
Make me Yours forevermore.[xvi]
[i]E.g., see the articles and statistics developed by Enough Is Enough: Making the Internet Safer for Children and Families at http://enough.org/statistics.
[ii]See the “Pornography Statistics: 2015 Report” at the following address: http://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/.
[iii]The same truth appears elsewhere: “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness” (1 Thess 5:5); “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
[iv]Heath Lambert develops the same exhortation in chapter four, “Using Radical Measures to Fight Pornography,” in Finally Free: Fighting for Purity in the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 59-74. The exhortation here is also similar to the A in John Piper’s helpful acronym ANTHEM: “A – Avoid as much as possible and reasonable the sights and situations that arouse unfitting desire.” Taken from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/anthem-strategies-for-fighting-lust.
[v]Charles L. Quarels, Matthew, EGGNT (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 58.
[vi]Carson asks about the “right hand” in verse 30 and then concludes that it’s most likely “a euphemism for the male sexual organ.” D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” EBC 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 185.
[vii]Leon Brown, “Pornography: Why Internet Accountability Software Doesn’t Work,” Reformation21 (November 6, 2014), http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2014/11/pornography-why-internet-accou.php.
[viii]Chalmers developed this point while preaching from 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The sermon is available for download at https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Chalmers,%20Thomas%20-%20The%20Exlpulsive%20Power%20of%20a%20New%20Af.pdf.
[ix]C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 1-2.
[x]Both Catholics and Protestants utilize the phrase “means of grace” while defining their terms differently. I am not using it in the Catholic sense, whereby the “means of grace” function ex opere operato (i.e., by virtue of their application alone). Rather, I am using “means of grace” reflective in Article 14.1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith 1689: “The Grace of Faith, whereby the Elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts; and is ordinarily wrought by the Ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, Prayer and other Means appointed of God, it is increased, and strengthened.” David Mathis illustrates very well what I mean by means of grace: “[God’s] grace is essential for our spiritual lives, but we don’t control the supply. We can’t make the favor of God flow, but he has given us circuits to connect and pipes to open expectantly. There are paths along which he has promised his favor.” David Mathis, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 25.
[xi]For more on our devotion to the word as individuals and as a church, see Bret Rogers, “God’s New Family & Care Groups: Devotion to Biblical Truth,” at http://www.redeemerfortworth.org/blog/post/gods-new-family---care-groups-devotion-to-biblical-truth.
[xii]For promises to pray against porn in particular, see J. A. Medders, “Seven Promises to Pray against Porn,” Desiring God (July 15, 2017), https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/seven-promises-to-pray-against-porn.
[xiii]Also, “…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25).
[xiv]Taken from a sermon I preached on November 19, 2017 for Thanksgiving: “The God-centered Life Is One of Thanksgiving,” located at http://www.redeemerfortworth.org/sermons/sermon/2017-11-19/the-god-centered-life-is-one-of-thanksgiving.
[xv]E.g., Lambert, Finally Free, 17-149; Paul David Tripp, Sex & Money: Pleasures That Leave You Empty and Grace That Satisfies (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 41-142; Tim Challies, Sexual Detox: A Guide for Guys Who Are Sick of Porn (Adelphi: Cruciform Press, 2010), 9-83; Harry Schaumberg, Undefiled: Redemption from Sexual Sin, Restoration for Broken Relationships (Chicago: Moody, 2009), 9-210.
[xvi]Taken from the first stanza in Bob Kauflin, “O Great God,” Valley of Vision (Sovereign Grace Praise, 2006); retrieved from https://sovereigngracemusic.org/music/songs/o-great-god/.