Today we’re going to start discussing how to find a path out of addiction: what steps can I take if I have an ongoing difficulty in resisting the temptation to use pornography? How can I give up the false image and find communion through the true image of the Heavenly Bridegroom?
Although I’m including these podcasts at the end of the series on pornography, the path is basically the same to help us find our way out of any addiction, any habitual sins or behavioural traits that we have acquired.
The first thing I want to do is to set all practical steps into the right context. What is our aim in seeking freedom from what binds us? If our central aim is to be free from pornography, free from our addiction or habitual sin, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Our one aim must be to be free for life in Christ, to unbind ourselves from everything that separates us from him.
I want to be rid of this temptation, but that is not my main aim. Freedom does not lie in having the temptation gone, but in finding a way to live in a way that honours God, neighbour, and self even in the face of temptation. There is nothing wrong in being tempted: Christ himself was tempted, yet without sin. It is not the temptation itself that is the problem for me, it’s what I do with it.
So the path is not directed at removing the temptation, but in uniting myself to Christ in whom the temptation has no power. I’m tempted to believe that if God loves me, he will take this struggle away, but he did not take the struggle away from his own Son! Rather, God’s love is an offer to me to grow and to live in his love… and in his love to find the freedom to not give in to the temptation. Ultimately, to see his love so clearly that I can look the temptation in the face and laugh.
Of course I want this cup to pass from me, and I should bring that to God in prayer… but I also say, with Christ, “not my will but your will.” Sometimes the temptations will pass — or at least, they will be condensed or clarified — I’ve seen this happen, but only in cases where the primary aim has not been to lose the temptations, but to grow daily closer to Christ.
C S Lewis says, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.”
We understand this principle from iconography: to put second things first is to look at the image as if it were the ultimate thing in itself — as if it were the archetype — and that is idolatry. To put anything first other than God, the ultimate archetype, is idolatry and will lead to confusion.Our aim is not to be emptied of something but to be filled with Someone Click To Tweet
So in the case of our addictions, we do want to be free from what binds us… and it is right that we empty ourselves of that addictive comfort that can never truly fulfil. But emptying ourselves is only a step on the way, it is not the main aim, and if it becomes the main aim, we will lose. Once we have emptied ourselves we will be filled with something else… and usually, that means we return to our addiction to try yet again to fill ourselves with what has never ultimately filled us before. So our main aim is not just to be emptied of something, but more importantly to be filled with someOne better: to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to live a life in union with Christ in God.
Since our aim is to grow into ever-closer union with Christ, there are two basic principles that lie behind all our strategies. The first is that we bear always in ourselves a whole-hearted love for Christ and a commitment to union with him. The second is that, conforming ourselves to the pattern of Christ’s life, we bear also always a willingness to accept total humiliation from the world, a willingness to share in the voluntary passion of Christ — or as St Paul puts it — to make up in my own body what is lacking in Christ’s sacrifice (Col. 1:24). We live in the crucifixion knowing that in Christ the crucifixion is inseparable from the resurrection.
It’s important to bear these two principles in mind, because without this context, any practical steps may not help. St Theophan says that “the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.” And he goes on to say that some people do lots of fasting and ascetic practices, some do lots of long prayers and go to all the services, some spend hours in silent prayer, and the majority just content themselves to follow the rules and avoid excess. All of these are good, he says, as a means, but on their own, they are not enough and can even do harm without the right context, which is the desire for Christ, for union with God.
And the desire for union with God contains within it a desire to conform ourselves to God’s self-giving nature, to Christ’s self-sacrificial love. This means following the path of Christ in Gethsemane, praying God to take the cup of suffering from us, but also praying that not our will but His be done. It means sharing with Christ in his passion, in the humiliation and even mockery, and bearing all this with dignity and humility. For us, as fallen, sinful people, it means accepting our falls as the realisation of our own weakness, and the humiliation that follows as a gift that reminds us of our need for humility and our total dependence on God (2Cor. 1:9).
These principles are the beginning of the transformation of our desires as we learn to desire Christ above all even in the face of our own humiliation. Each of us has many wants, many desires. My will is not constant and ordered, but fickle and fragmented. I need to be attentive to which of my desires lead me into slavery — these are the passions — and where my desires lead me to freedom — that is the desire for God even when it implies self-mortification (mortifying the passions) and the acceptance of humiliation (a true acknowledgement of my personal weakness).
Five Ways to Reorient our Lives
In the light of these central principles, there are five key ways of living, five things we need to bear in mind always when talking about practical steps to help with any habitual temptation or addiction.
First, we live in attentiveness. Jesus said, “Watch and pray, so that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). Primarily we should be attentive to the constant presence of God and learn to desire his presence always to remain with us. In the light of His presence, we are attentive also to what is driving us in the present moment, what our temptations are, and the constant need to turn again to Christ. We need to be attentive to the truth that the fullness of Reality is physical, mental, and spiritual. We must remember that to fight pornography — or any evil — just in the physical realm is futile. That’s not to say that we can’t take useful steps that are primarily physical, but it all needs to take place in a deeper context.Watch and pray, so that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak Click To Tweet
Second, we live in hope. We know that God’s presence surrounds us, and that behind the ugly mask of sin there is always an opportunity for real love and communion. We need to remember that it is possible to find freedom in Christ from pornography — and from any addiction. We know this empirically because we know people who have done it; and we know it in principle because we know that Christ has overcome the world and that God’s power and love are both infinite.
Third, we live in love. We should bear in mind that the point is not to destroy our desires, but to transform them and direct them aright. It’s to set them in the context of a desire for communion and union with God. Our whole life is a preparation for the fullness of this communion, and we prepare for it by fasting and confessing — fasting and confessing being the beginning of learning to give ourselves in love.
Fourth, we live in pilgrimage, which implies two things: first that we stay on the path towards Christ always, and second that we live in each moment as it is given to us. It’s important to note that we don’t focus on some future point where the temptation has gone away. Rather, we know our destination is Christ, but we focus on staying on the path, walking with him and towards ever-greater union with him.
Christ tells us, “Do not be anxious… Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (from Mt. 6:27-34).
So we don’t say ‘from now on I’ll never again use porn’ but we do say, ‘at this moment I commit to loving God with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength, and loving my neighbour as myself.’ The only moment for freedom is the present moment. The future is still imaginary and freedom in it is only a fantasy. Hence we start now, not tomorrow, and we look only to today to stay on the path.
And finally, we live in joyful repentance. We live knowing that the path is good, the struggle is good, and we can find joy in it. Struggle is the ascetic path; it’s living a life of repentance — it’s what we’re called to do. Struggle will be lifelong: even if the temptation to porn should go, other temptations will come. Struggle, the ascetic path, strengthens us because through it not only do we exercise our moral and spiritual muscles, but through it we also have our own weakness constantly before our eyes, and the need for God’s power therefore constantly before us.
So we live in attentiveness, aware that we fight not only in the physical realm, but the mental and spiritual. We live in hope, knowing that freedom is possible. We live in love, our desires being perfected so that we can find a fuller life, not an emptier one. We live in pilgrimage, taking each day as it comes on the path of growing closer to Christ, and we live in joyful repentance, knowing that though the path is a struggle, it is a joyful struggle and a holy struggle that prepares us for ultimate fulfilment in the arms of Christ.
These five aspects make up the mode of life that will enable us to face our weaknesses and give us the space and confidence to take up the spiritual weapons we have been given and engage in the fight against everything that stands between us and Christ — everything that stands in the way of us, the prodigal sons, reaching the open arms of the Father as he runs out to meet us on the road to welcome us back into his home.
So having explored the context and the way we approach life in awareness of our weakness in front of temptations, next time I will look at the practical steps we can take that will help us to get on the path and help us to stay on it: what should we do to prepare ourselves well for the battle we face to find the freedom to live in the image of God?