My time at Clemson University has recently come to an end. I’m sad to leave the community that I love, that led me into the man that I am now, and that will never exist in the same way again. I am apprehensive about readjusting my perception of myself, and re-understanding my place in the world. My entire life I have been a student—no longer. Sure, I will always be a student in the deepest sense, but that is not my career anymore. I am switching careers. Now, I will be a software engineer that specializes in web technology.
Though I am apprehensive about this huge change, I am excited for it as well. “What Do You Do With a Problem?” You discover that problems hold opportunities to learn, to grow, to be brave, to do something. When I think about the fact that I am now entering the tedium of adult life, the going into the office, the staring at a screen for 7 hours, the getting home from work and making dinner, the bills, the annoying bosses, the drone, the dullness, the reality of work being just a job many days—when I think about these things, this change feels horrible and unwanted. However, when I consider finishing work at five and not having to think about it when I am trying to scrape out a hobby or a thought or a creation or a talk and kiss from my lovely or a short time when I can actually try to do a good, conscious, mindful, aware worship of God and praise of His mighty works, or a proactive loving of my neighbor—the actually enjoyable things of life—this makes me glad. My life will probably not be less busy than it is now. But perhaps, just maybe, I can have a tad bit more freedom from the Man, because now, the Man won’t give me homework. And perhaps, I can use this freedom well.
Anyway, while at Clemson, I helped lead a men’s small group study named Sexual Sanity. The study is about the various ways that college guys struggle with sexual sin, the biggest topic being addiction to porn and masturbation. Since I am graduating, this is another role that I am leaving behind me. I am leaving this community that has been built, however, I know that I will take the lessons I have learned from it with me for the rest of my life. I led seven groups of men through the study, and learned more from them, the other leaders, and the words we studied than I could have imagined.
This past semester I have been organizing a lot of materials that have proved helpful into a curriculum, so that other men can walk the same journey that I and dozens of others did. This is one part of that curriculum, an essay I wrote for it. All praise to Christ.
Sexual Sin and Idolatry
In Christianity, we do not believe in treating symptoms of sin without getting at the heart of sin. Treating the superficial problems of society or a person will not do much good if we don’t go deeper and fix what is causing the problem. So, it makes sense that various attempts have been made to identify what is at the bottom of what sin really is.
There have been a couple answers to this question. Many Muslims say the core of sin is ingratitude, Socrates said it is simple ignorance, and many Christians say it is pride. Another common Christian answer is idolatry. Even if idolatry is not the absolute root of sin, it is certainly close, especially in the case of sexual sin.
But what exactly is idolatry? And what makes it so bad? Many of us have heard this term so many times that its effect has been lessened and its meaning muddled. There are three big topics that must be understood in order to grasp the reality and depravity of idolatry: worship, profit, and slavery.
The first of these is worship. Every moment of every day we are worshiping something. To worship something is to declare it valuable, powerful, important, beautiful, glorious, or satisfying. Things we worship we praise, and we show our love of those things through sacrifice. This doesn’t necessarily mean we offer up our spotless cows to the things we worship. It might mean we sacrifice our time to watch the football game on Friday nights, or sacrifice our money to get the newest iPhone. We prioritize it, which means we prioritize it above other things. It is a ranking of something over something else. We sacrifice up those things in order to worship this thing.
What compels us to do this? We worship because we believe that our worship will profit us. As Ed Welch says in When People are Big and God is Small, “We perceive that the object of our worship has power to give us something.” Men love to watch football because we are hard-wired to be warriors and to delight in the glory of athletics. We live vicariously through the team, calling it “My team” and saying, “We played well last night.” Watching football profits us by fulfilling our desire for battle and athleticism. Or, we spend money on a nice suit because we want to look good for an interview or a potential lady friend. Nice clothes profit us by fulfilling our desire for respectability and a lady friend.
But here is where the problem arises. It is all a matter of how we are trying to profit from what we are worshiping. What do we expect to gain from porn or fantasies? There are many answers, but most of them have something to do with satisfaction. When we feel unsatisfied with our life, we use porn to medicate our frustrations. When we look to things to fulfill in us deep longings for intimacy, for pleasure, or happiness, they will never work. The things we worship will give us happiness for a little while. The problem occurs when we start worshiping them as more important than they actually are, and demanding that they can give us more than they can give. In David Foster Wallace’s speech This Is Water, he says,
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
When we discover that we are discontented, stressed, or bored with life, we look to something to fulfill us. In our case, what we often choose is sexuality. We are saying to ourselves, “Once I look at porn, I will feel better.” But the trouble is that this doesn’t work. We only feel worse. But a few days later, we have forgotten that porn does not satisfy, and so we go right back to it. This is how idolatry enslaves us. It waits until you are discontented, then promises that it will fulfill you. Instead of delivering on its promise, it leaves you feeling worse than before, which feeds right back into the next temptation. In Beyond Accountability, Nate Larkin recounts a friend telling him,
If you think stopping that behavior is going to fix you and make you happy, you’re crazy, because sex is not your problem. Sex is your favorite solution. It is the medication you have been using all these years to numb the pain caused by your deeper problems–and those problems, by the way, are common to man.
Welch notes that idolatry is not a modern problem, but has been the default mode of the human heart since the Fall. He writes,
Idolatry is the age-old strategy of the human heart. The objects of worship may change over time, but the heart stays the same. What we do now is no different from what the Israelites did with the golden calf. When the Israelites left Egypt, they felt very vulnerable and needy (and were hard-hearted and rebellious). Even though they had witnessed the power of God, they felt afraid. They felt out of control. Their remedy was to choose an idol over the true God. By doing this they were both opposing God and avoiding him.
They opposed God by trusting in themselves and their own gods rather than the true God. After all, they couldn’t be absolutely certain that God was going to bless the women with fertility. And what about these other gods that seemed to have power to give abundant crops? Just in case God was not enough, they started to follow other gods. They thought idols would give them what they wanted or felt they needed.
Idolatry is when we worship something more than we worship God. When we try to find rest and happiness in something that is not God. We do not really trust God to give us life, so we seek it elsewhere. The trouble is that only God—and indeed, the Gospel story—can ever fulfill this need.
What should we do then? Should we simply stop worshiping anything and everything? If we abandon worship entirely, we will end up like Qohelet, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, who despaired of anything being truly satisfying. But notice that in the entire book of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet never mentions the promises or deeds of God. He is indeed exceedingly wise, and thinks he sees the world for as it is. And perhaps he does. But he does not see God for who He is.
To escape from idolatry, we cannot simply stop worshiping our idols. We need to replace the worship of idols with the worship of something else. We were designed to worship something, that something just isn’t sex. Our biggest problem is really that we don’t know how to worship and be content with God. In our minds we might know that He is supposed to be the center of our joy, but it just doesn’t feel like following him will produce life. It feels more like following him is drudgery and moralism and death. In order to escape from sexual addiction, we need to learn how we can find pleasure in God’s finished work.
What does God think of all this? The fact that we constantly run to other idols simultaneously enrages and bereaves God. These two responses can be seen in the book of Jeremiah. In the second chapter of Jeremiah, God says to his bride,
What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?” And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.
God loves his bride so much that he saved them from their slavery in Egypt and led them through the dark desert to their true home of Israel, and what do they do? They forget the work he did for them, they do not seek him, and they chase after other lovers that they think will satisfy them. God loved us so much that he saved us from our slavery to sin and led us through the darkness of the world to our true home in the community of the Church, and what do we do? We forget the work he did for us, we do not seek him, and we chase after other lovers that we think will satisfy us. This enraged God when the Israelites did it, and it enrages God when we do it.
But God’s anger is righteous, and the root of any righteous anger is love. God is deeply angry with us because he deeply loves us. He hates that we leave him because he knows that nothing will give us peace outside of himself. God works in mysterious ways, and in the case of ancient Israel, the way he worked was by allowing the Babylonian Empire to capture and imprison them. He brought them very low in order that they might finally seek him, that he may once more lift them high. After describing the utter desolation he revealed was to happen to them through the captivity, he suddenly changed tunes. He shouts to them,
When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Even in his wrath, his aim is restoration. Though he was betrayed by faithless lovers who “whored” themselves out to their idols, he is always there, waiting for their return. And this is true for us. Though we run to masturbation and fantasies time and time again, God is always waiting for us to seek him with our whole heart.
What is miraculous is that once we give up our idols, once we learn to seek after God with our whole heart, our idolatry is not redeemed into disinterest, but instead, it is redeemed into healthy desire. What was once false lust and slavery becomes beautiful desire and freedom. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased thinking of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
When we try to medicate our sorrow through alcohol, we always end up more miserable than we were before. But when we turn our worship upwards to the One Who Satisfies, we are able to approach alcohol correctly, and enjoy it as a pleasure given by God. And it is the same with our sexuality. Sex is a wonderful gift from God, but we can never receive it as such until God is the core of our worship, and we look to him for deepest profit.