Day 1 : Do I Have a Problem?

THE CAVE

There, beneath a hundred feet of dirt, our crew of seven carefully marched through corridors of rock and earth that made the most seasoned caver claustrophobic. With only our headlamps to light the path, we forced our way through each narrow pass, stopping only to ensure the man behind us hadn't become caught between the walls. Hours, it seemed, had passed before we reached the first open cavern. With a sigh of relief we enjoyed this simple reprieve as each of us, one by one, began to switch off our headlamps. When the last lamp faded, I stretched my hand out in front of me only to realize it was nowhere in sight. No matter how long I waited, my eyes never adjusted. In that moment, I learned what true darkness felt like.

Many of us continue to stumble in darkness with a question haunting us, "Is it just me?" We don't claim to be the answer, for only God ultimately has the answers. Pornography, masturbation, and all other forms of sexual immorality are darker still than the deepest cave. What we can promise is that no matter the depth we sink to, no matter how dark the world gets, God is still right there beside those who trust in Him.

I've made the mistake in the past of not taking sinful tenancies seriously. My sense is I'm not alone. That is why the goal of lesson one is to emphasize why pornography, masturbation, fornication and all forms of sexual immorality are an issue worth dealing with. We will look at the neurological, heart, and spiritual effects that these things have on us. In order to be motivated towards freedom we must know exactly what we're dealing with. Like a doctor prescribing the correct antibiotic, we need to diagnose the disease first.

EFFECT #1: NEUROLOGICAL

Ongoing neurological research shows that the effect pornography has on our brains can be likened to that of cocaine or heroin. While physical substances can be removed from the body naturally through metabolic means, pornographic images are stored in long-term memory. Like a drug, we begin to crave this chemical release more and more. Over time, the addiction demands far more then we ever agreed to. In his article "9 things you should know about pornography and the brain", Joe Carter writes:

Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. Dopamine surges when a person is exposed to novel stimuli, particularly if it is sexual, or when a stimuli is more arousing than anticipated. Because erotic imagery triggers more dopamine than sex with a familiar partner, exposure to pornography leads to “arousal addiction” and teaches the brain to prefer the image and become less satisfied with real-life sexual partners.

Why do men seek out a variety of new explicit sexual images rather than being satisfied with the same ones? The reason is attributed to the Coolidge effect, a phenomenon seen in mammalian species whereby males (and to a lesser extent females) exhibit renewed sexual interest if introduced to new receptive sexual partners, even after refusing sex from prior but still available sexual partners. This neurological mechanism is one of the primary reasons for the abundance and addictiveness of Internet pornography. [1]

The effects on our brain are slow at first, much like any other addiction, but happen immediately. Over time, as that neurological path to satisfaction is paved, we crave more to reach the same ever-growing peak. This cycle continues for years, slowly warping our brains into demanding, reward-driven, compulsive machines. One student wrote:

I've reinforced neuro-pathways that seek sexual pleasure through porn, fantasy and self-gratification, and weakened pathways that find pleasure in intimacy with my wife. If I stayed in this cycle, it would take more and more intense stimulation to receive the same pleasure.

Whether or not we notice, over time we're re-wiring our brains to respond only to certain types of pleasure. In this case, pornography trains our brain to crave a constant stream of new images, partners, scenarios, and fantasies. This might seem harmless in the moment, but over the course of weeks, months, or even years, we slowly come to realize that nothing pornography has to offer will ever truly satisfy. What's worse, when left unchecked, it destroys the relationships that matter most in our lives and can make us feel far from God. Anyone else resonate with Proverbs 27:20 like I do? It seems to describe the pursuit of these things perfectly:

Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied. -Proverbs 27:20 (KJV)

EFFECT #2: HEART

The brain is not the only part of us that is affected, our hearts also suffer in this lifestyle. Dr. Andrew Armour Ph.D., a neuro-cardiologist/researcher, points out that there are actually neurons in the heart, capable of providing functions similar to that of the brain. Some scientists have speculated that the heart actually sends more information to the brain then the brain does to the heart. Such studies remind us all over again of the old proverb:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. -Proverbs 4:23 (ESV)

Now obviously we're talking about the heart in a two-fold fashion. There is the physical, literal heart and then there is the non-physical heart that represents the deeper parts of our soul. On the physical heart, we ask how can something as small and as common as our hearts bear this much influence? I think that Gabriel Gonsalves sums it up well in his article "Your Heart On Porn: How Pornography Affects Your Heart":

While my primitive brain wants to mate and find pleasure, my hearts wants to connect. But the fact remains that there isn’t a real person right there with me to connect with, be intimate, touch, smell, feel, and therefore, an imbalance of some form is now created. When I do it over and over again until a new habit is formed then my body has to adapt to all this hyper-stimulation I’m giving it. How? By becoming numb. In essence, this is what happens to our brains when it is overexposed to the visual stimulus of attractive and sexy mates that porn provides. And the same happens in our hearts as the brain, through the vagus nerve, begins to send neurological signals prompting the heart to ‘stop feeling’ and start numbing down. Add to this all those feelings of frustration, disconnection and loneliness and you now have a fully close heart, or what the Institute of HeartMath would call an incoherent heart with incoherent heart rhythm waves that can be clearly observed in a monitor.

Our hearts crave human connection. Mine always has. After moving through one of the most sexually promiscuous periods of my life while living in LA, I can now conclude that I was confusing being ‘horny’ with being’ lonely’. What I most longed and craved for during those lonely years of my life was connecting with another human being at a much deeper and intimate level. Porn could provide hours and hours of distraction and excitement, but as the character Emma tells Dexter in the movie ‘One Day’ when talking about meaningless sex, it “wont’ take care of you when you’re old.” For me, porn, no matter how gonzo it can get, won’t bring me coffee in bed, keep me warm at night, and take care of me when I’m sick. [2]

Without a change of heart, we’re simply changing behaviors. Behavior modification as a scientific study began in the early 1900's when a man named Ivan Pavlov began making interesting discoveries about the nature of dogs. In his discoveries he found a way to manipulate dogs with the sound of a bell. Eventually this idea of modifying behavior through repetition and consistency found its way into recovery programs for men and women struggling with addiction. It has been used to help people stop using drugs, drinking alcohol, gaining excessive weight and such related things. The problem with behavior modification is that it only solves half of the problem. Quite often, you're left with people who appear to be free on the outside but have yet to deal with the source of the problem on the inside. Despite our hatred of these struggles, something in our heart, not our heads, is fighting back.

The first step in finding freedom is guarding our hearts. I must be careful here, this course is hardly a 1-2-3 step program to “fix” us, but a journey towards freedom, a journey that is messy and inconsistent for most of us (if we're honest). The journey typically starts in the heart.


EFFECT #3: SPIRITUAL

The final way that sexual immorality affects us is in our spiritual walk. This is somewhat synonymous with the second part of the heart, the part that represents our soul. It's the "who" in "who we are." At The Risen, we believe that Jesus Christ has delivered mankind from their sin, putting them now in right standing with God. Immorality has a way of causing us to not only second guess this truth, but confuses us to the point that we no longer feel capable of growing, serving, or leading. For many it leads to other shortcomings such as anger. In an article titled "So what's so bad about pornography?", it's phrased this way:

Lust spreads like a fire and is never satisfied. Pornography baits you with the visual lust and hooks you in with the bodily enjoyment (lust of the flesh). Lust has a nasty tendency of spilling over into over forms of evil, like anger, envy, covetousness, depression, compulsiveness, selfishness, idolatry and perversions. As you see the negative effects of the lust, you will want to be free from it, but may find yourself powerless to get free. Lust grows bondage in your life to things that are sweet on the outside, but bitter to the core on the inside. [3]

Perhaps you've already seen some of these debilitating affects in your life. Maybe the struggle is relatively young for you. Either way, try to grasp that this is a lifelong journey for most of us. Many hope that it will simply one day go away. This is not the case. Of all the freedom testimonies we've heard, none of them result in a person waking up one day and the problem of lust magically disappearing:

As a Christian, my largest consequence I faced as an addict was the distance from God. I constantly defied God and only wanted him present when it was convenient for me. I never read my Bible. I didn’t believe that God wanted the best for me. My relationships with everybody suffered. I had a mask I would wear for everybody. I didn’t trust anyone and didn’t open up. I kept all of my pain locked inside. [4]

Porn and masturbation had been a constant part of my life since my teen years when I was exposed to it in middle school. Things escalated from there, especially when we got internet access in my bedroom in high school. I always thought I would ‘grow out of it’ like when I went to a Christian college, met my fiancé and started in ministry. I was wrong, wrong and wrong again. [4]

I knew what I was doing and thinking was wrong, but I didn’t know how to stop. I talked to a number of people about my struggles, but they either told me they would pray for me or minimized the problem. [4]

ADMISSION

So we do indeed have a big problem on our hands, any fool can recognize that and I've done you little service in blabbering on about it. Hopefully, however, you have a bit of clarity on the specifics of the issue. Being here, reading this first lesson means that you’ve already figured lesson 1 out… You know that something isn’t quite right, that you were made for more. Many people never care enough to make it this far. The road ahead is difficult and will be (if you're anything like the rest of us) filled with seemingly endless stumbles. Be encouraged that you're not alone. Remember these truths from today's lesson:

Recognize that sexual immorality is not harmless

It affects our minds, hearts, and souls in negative ways. There is far more research that can be done beyond this course. Find out the truth behind this struggle by reading testimonies, studying God's Word, and looking at some of the scientific research being done on the topic.

Freedom starts in the heart, not with this course

There must be a true, genuine desire to be free. Often this is as simple as becoming fed up and trying to find help. There are many resources out there, we don't claim to be any better than another. We do however want to emphasize that this course by itself (nor any other) won't grant you freedom. The lessons taught here point to an issue of the heart and how to start slowly (or quickly, should God will it) addressing those issues.

Don't underestimate this struggle

A great many people ignore or undermine the issue and later pay the price. That price can be years of struggle, ruined marriages, becoming increasingly unsatisfied with normal sexual relations, and a constant feeling of brokenness. Do not minimize the effects that this can have on your life.

APPLICATION

How has sexual addiction/sin (of any kind: porn, masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery included) affected you neurologically?

What spiritual effects have you had in your life as a result of sin?

What about your heart? Have you seen changes in your heart as a result of these struggles?