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Joe RigneyJoe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He oversees the Theology and Letters program, an undergraduate major that focuses on the Great Books and the Greatest Book. He is the author of three books: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013), The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Crossway, 2015), and Strangely Bright (Crossway, 2020). Joe...more
Pornography actually re-wires God-given parts of our brains meant to draw us to our mate. Dr. Joe Rigney talks about unmasking the devil’s schemes and finding freedom.
Bob: Jesus had some strong things to say about the issue of lust and about how we deal with that. Joe Rigney says we need to better understand what drives us, as men, to look at pornography. What’s the hunger we’re trying to satisfy?
Joe: When a man goes to pornography, you might think he’s just interested in naked women; but part of what he’s doing, in the fantasizing, he’s imagining himself in the scenario; and he’s picturing himself as a strong, masculine man, capable of satisfying a woman. I think that, for many men, the actual pull to pornography is a deep desire for validation.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, February 2nd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. If we’re going to root out the issue of lust in our lives, we need to understand what’s really driving us. We’ll talk more about that today with Joe Rigney. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. This is an old thing; some of our listeners will have no idea what we’re talking about.
Dave: An old thing; you’re not talking about us? [Laughter]
Bob: I am talking about—
Dave: First thing I thought of.
Bob: I am talking about us! Back when I was a kid, there were no recycling bins or recycling centers; but from time to time, people would put their newspapers out at the curb; and the Boy Scouts would have a paper drive. We’d come through and pick up the stacks of papers; you’d be making some money by getting recycled goods.
Ann: I remember those, Bob.
Bob: I was a Boy Scout/actually, a Cub Scout on a Cub Scout paper drive one Saturday morning—out picking up sacks of paper from the neighbors. One guy had sat out at the curb a sack of old pornographic magazines. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember—
Dave: You remember.
Bob: —picking up that sack—
Bob: —and going, “Oh, my goodness!” We took it back to the truck, where we were loading everything up. I said, “I’ll stay here at the truck and just move stuff toward the back while you guys make the next run.” That was my fall into the pit.
Ann: How old were you?
Bob: Nine or ten years old.
Dave: Oh, man.
Bob: Years later, I was with a group of guys at church—fathers and sons—and I just, on the spur of the moment, said, “Let’s do this—let’s go around the circle, dads—and tell the rest of us: ‘When was your first exposure to porn?’” I told my Cub Scout story.
And it wasn’t, “if you had one,”—
Bob: —it was, “Tell us when it was.” Every dad could tell his story.
I think every son heard every dad telling their story and went, first, “Okay, so what I’ve felt” or “Maybe what I’ve fallen into is not: ‘I’m the only bad person in the world.’”
Bob: But secondly, there was something that happened just in that communication, and in that moment, that opened things up.
We’re talking about how we get out of the pit once we’ve fallen in. Dr. Joe Rigney is joining us this week on FamilyLife Today. Joe, welcome back.
Joe: I’m glad to be here.
Dave: Yes, we’ve got to answer that question. Probably every man listening, and probably some women, are going, “I know that story.”
Dave: It’s a similar story. A lot of times, eight, nine, ten years old, some inadvertent stumbling onto it; but that power! Like I can’t remember the first time I ever looked at a Sports Illustrated sports magazine; I don’t remember it. Why don’t I remember that?—it’s just a sports thing; I’m watching or looking at pictures of athletes. But a visual sexual image has a power.
Ann: Well, here’s the—
Dave: We’ve got Dr. Joe to tell us: “What is that?” “Why is that?
Ann: And, well, here’s my image: I was four or five years old—one of the younger cousins of twelve cousins/we lived around each other. Our older cousins told my cousin and I, who were four or five, “Go steal or grab any pornography”—they would say, “any magazines of naked girls”—"out of our uncle’s bedroom” or “stash”—or whatever—“and then bring it back to us.”
What does that communicate to a little girl?
Bob: Oh, wow!
Ann: “Our dads or uncles have it.
Ann: “Our cousins want it.” When we found it and looked at it, my thought was, “This is what a man wants,”—
Ann: —and “This is who I need to be.”
Bob: Yes; Joe has written a book called More Than a Battle. You describe your own battle with this issue; but you also talk about how God led you out of this and what you’ve seen, as an ongoing pattern, for how guys can get free from this temptation.
Joe: That’s right. You know, part of it is actually trying to help us see that there are multiple lenses that we have to use when we think about this struggle. I tend to default to the battle imagery—you know, “put your sin to death,”—that sort of thing—but there are also ways in which this is an addiction. There’s a deep, bodily dimension to this struggle.
You know, there are sections in the book about the way that dopamine and endorphins, and all of these things, kind of get involved to, basically, take snapshots of those arousal moments. Your body is saying, “That felt good; I want it to happen again.” We need to just stop here and say: “This is the wisdom of God that that happens; that’s design. That snapshot of: ‘Wow! That was a pleasant experience; I want that again,’—that’s for marriage—it’s meant to bind a husband and a wife together in a one-flesh union. That’s what that’s for!”
Then sin; right? These companies and the devil are using that good gift and exploiting a weakness in it, which is, “You know, you could have that same bodily experience at some level with an image on a screen or with the fantasy in your mind.” Recognizing the way that our bodies—we can actually weapon-ize our bodies to where we make sin easy and real relationships hard.
There’s a bodily dimension, and then there’s this kind of/I call it a “brokenness lens.” There are ways in which other issues in our lives/other areas of brokenness can actually be the driver of our sexual sin. I talk about: “There are sins that steal headlines, and then there are sins that fund newspapers,”—okay?
Lust is a headline stealer. When you fall into that, it’s the one that you feel—there’s guilt; there’s shame—there’s all of that that just carries on you. But playing in a back room some place in that theater is another sin: it might be anxiety; it might be desire for power; it might be anger at God. There are all kinds of other sins that are actually the issue, and this is the presenting symptom. Until you deal with these other backroom-type sins, you’re never going to get free; because they’re fueling the intensity of that desire.
I’m trying to take it and say, “Hey! We need to get a more wholistic view of this struggle. It’s not just about the images; it’s not just about sexual desire. It’s really, really complex; and it takes wisdom to try to untangle.”
Dave: Is that why you’ve titled your book More Than a Battle?
Dave: Is that where you’re getting that?
Joe: That’s exactly right.
Dave: Because I think, for a lot of men—and, again, I can’t speak for women; but I know it’s an issue—it’s easy to think, “Oh, come on, dude; there’s nothing in the backroom. It’s just that I want to look at a naked woman. I don’t need to go in the backroom.” Talk about that.
Dave: What is fueling it that so many of us don’t understand?—but we have to get at the root.
Joe: Here’s a good example: I think, that for many men, the actual pull to pornography is a deep desire for validation. When a man goes to pornography, you might think he’s just interested in naked women; but part of what he’s doing, in the fantasizing, is he’s imagining himself in the scenario; and he’s picturing himself as a strong, masculine man, capable of satisfying a woman.
Again, this is a good gift; this is that a husband and wife, in marriage, receive pleasure by giving pleasure. It’s a mutually/it’s a glorious and beautiful thing. In the image, it’s: “I’m creating a version of myself; and I’m able to be a strong man.” The real hunger there is often: “I want to be perceived and seen as a strong man,”—that’s the drug.
So then, you have to step back and have to go, “Well, where is that supposed to be met?” There’s a good thing under there—there’s a desire to be a strong man—it’s a good desire. “Where did God intend for us to fulfill that desire?” And then there are lots of answers to that question—“in marriage,”—that’s one place; a wife respecting her husband—“with other men/like for other men to respect you and to view you.” This is one of the things that I notice, in looking back at my own struggle. I notice that, if I thought other men were looking down on me—like as a college student, if I wasn’t doing well in the opinion polls—[Laughter]—you know, among 18- to 25-year-olds, my approval rating was down in my self-assessment; right?
Joe: In taking my Gallup poll, my approval rating’s down, that made sexual sin really attractive for some reason. I never knew, at the time, what was going on; but there was a deep kind of spiritual, emotional, psychological thing happening, where—because I was not having this sense of approval from this group—that woman on the screen: “She thinks I’m awesome!”—in the fantasy I’m playing in my head.
Then, you have to take it even deeper. Where’s the fundamental approval supposed to come from?
Ann: It comes from God.
Joe: He’s our Father; this is what the gospel is for! “I approve you: ‘Well done!’” “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”—that’s what God said to Jesus—and because we’re in Jesus, that’s what God says about us. The fundamental approval is there, but that’s a weird thing to think: “I’m going to fight my sexual sin by reminding myself that God approves me.”
Joe: If you don’t get that that’s what’s really underneath, that won’t make any sense; so we’ve got to really untangle and do the heart work.
Dave: Yes; and I think the typical guy—and I’m being that guy; and again, I’m not saying women don’t think the same way—it’s like: “Yes, but to do it the real way is so hard.”
Dave: Porn is easy!—you can look at it, and you feel all that stuff. I walk in my bedroom, and it’s like, “Ohh, my wife wants me to taaalk [Laughter] about our relationship. I don’t know if I should rub her shoulder or…” You know what I’m saying?
Dave: I’m having fun with it, but it is so much harder to be intimate—real intimacy with my wife—than it is to just get that superficial hit—
Ann: I’m finding—
Dave: —and with God, by the way, too.
Ann: —as we’ve been doing marriage conferences for Weekend to Remember® [getaways] for over 30 years, I’ve noticed a trend in that, at the beginning, when we first started doing our conferences, I would have women come up to me and say, “Oh, my goodness! I don’t know what to do. My husband is always wanting to have an intimate sexual relationship with me.” Now, I’m finding one of the bigger complaints is: “My husband has no desire for me.”
Ann: And so, the question is: “Why?
Ann: “Are they having their needs met?”
Joe: Yes—“someplace else.”
Joe: Yes; I think you’re right. For many men, a relationship with a real woman looks suspiciously like work—[Laughter]
Ann: That’s so depressing! [Laughter]
Joe: —you know? And that/when we talk about other sins that are feeding into this sin, the kind of laziness that says, “Man, cultivating a real relationship with my wife takes effort!” And it’s not because we don’t love our wives or anything like that. It’s just the same way a wife cultivating a relationship with her husband: it takes effort. People are hard; imaginary people are way easier!
C.S. Lewis described—I quote this in the book—it’s a letter that he’s writing to somebody, who asked him for advice about this issue. He talks about, you know, “The real sin in pornography is the creation of the imaginary harem.” He says, you know, “We collect this imaginary harem with women who far outstrip; because they have all the qualities that we want, with none of the downside; and we are the perfect person in the scenario, who’s perfectly able.” He says that pornography, basically, becomes “a mirror in which we can increasingly worship ourselves.”
Joe: It’s a mirror for our distorted manhood. We’re seeing our distorted glory reflected in the supposed satisfaction of the fantasy. It’s really a self-worship that’s happening in this thing. That’s a deeper issue; and that’s a different issue than simply: “Oh, guys like to look at naked women.” It’s more complicated than that.
Dave: Yes, it is really deep-centered/rooted. I know that I’ve often talked to men, also, about the fear of intimacy.
Dave: It’s sort of a superficial intimacy. Intimacy with your wife, or even being really a close friend with another guy, is hard work. It takes courage to open your soul and bare weakness, you know, with your wife and not know how she’s going to respond.
Dave: And something on a screen is so easy.
Dave: But when I was reading your book, I was sort of struck—because your struggle/you talk about that, and we talk about that—there’s part of me, right now, that’s like, “Okay, let’s get to the victory”; you know?
Dave: There’s a turning in your life, where I was like, “Whoa!” You had a revelation/an understanding that started you on a path toward, you know, you’re writing about victory now. Talk about that; what changed?
Joe: Marriage was a big element of it. When I got engaged, it basically upped the stakes. I think that was a major thing that the Lord used to snap me awake of like: “You can’t just muddle through here.
Joe: “There’s another person involved, whom you love. You love her! You don’t want to hurt her.”
Ann: Were you afraid?
Joe: Oh, of course! I was terrified. The kind of things we were talking about: “I’m going to have to confess something if I fall.” I don’t ever want to see that look on my wife’s face; I don’t ever want to have to have that conversation with her, ever again.
Now, this actually produced certain kinds of distortions we can talk about, as well, in terms of the relationship; because a husband, who’s dealing with this, can begin to treat his wife like God, and feel like, “I’m not forgiven until I’ve been forgiven by her, and she’s happy with me again,”—
Joe: —as opposed to—I mean, you need to confess to make it right with her; but your fundamental forgiveness: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?—He’s the One who forgives sin!
Dave: When you do that—and I know exactly what you’re saying—you lay that weight on her—
Dave: —like, “You to have to forgive me; and until you do, I’m not good.” Then it’s like a weight she shouldn’t have to bear.
Joe: Exactly; right. She can’t be God to you, just like you can’t be God to her.
Joe: There’s a way in which, sometimes, guys can get into a trap of unhealthy habits of confession, where I feel/have a guilty conscience because of something I thought, or did, or whatever—and then I need to vomit it on her—then, “Boy, I feel relief!” because I just got it out; but now, she’s covered in it.
Joe: She’s carrying it; it’s not fair. It’s another way that we’re harming our wives in that way.
A big shift for me was recognizing the value of other men, particularly older and wiser men, helping me. The pattern of confession that I’ve cultivated, and commend to others, is: “First, when you sin, you confess it to God—no minced words; no euphemisms; no beating around the bush—just: ‘What did you do?’ Confess sincerely, honestly, forthrightly confess to God. The Bible says: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse up from all unrighteousness,”—period.
From there, it’s confessing it to other men. And the reason we’re doing that is—James says: “Confess your sins one to another that you may be healed.” The confession to the other men is for healing and, I would say, counsel. I’m going to them, and I’m saying: “Hey, here’s what I did...” “Here’s the temptation I faced…” “Here’s how, for two seconds, I clicked on something,”—or whatever it is/whatever the thing is. Now, I’m confessing it to them; and I’m saying, “Now, you help me. How should I talk to my wife about it? What should I say?” Then I’m running it by them.
The goal here—this is where the wives/this is really important for wives—the guys you’re doing that with, she needs to trust. She needs to know they’re going to be as hard on you as God is. They’re going to call you to live up to the standard that God wants you to live up to; because otherwise, she’s going to feel like, “I need to be involved here, because no one’s going to care about your holiness more than me,” which isn’t true. God actually cares about your holiness more than she does, but the felt sense of fear and anger—she wants to be involved.
There has to be a right ordering. She can be an ally, but only if she’s your wife and not God; and not your main accountability partner in this struggle, because she won’t understand: “What do you mean? Like it was two seconds that woman walked by, and your eyes just went there? What’s wrong with you?” I say, “Well, men and women are different: their temptations are different; the way we experience reality is different, and it’s good.” But she’s not going to get it, so you want to be able to confess to other men.
This was a game-changer for me in having a wise, older counselor, who embodied what I call “gospel presence.” There are two elements to that gospel presence. On the one hand, there was a compassionate stability. What I mean is—I could tell him anything, and he was going to lean in. It didn’t matter what came out of my mouth, he was going to lean in and say, “Hey, I just want you to know, I’m for you. I’m for you! I’m with you. I’m not running away.”
Because the fear—right? —is: “If I say this out loud, he’s going to go, ‘Whoa!’ and freak out, and I’m going to be confirmed in: ‘I am the worst sinner, and nobody else has been as bad as me.’” But instead, he goes, “Alright; I heard it. We’re going to deal with that. I’m with you.” That was massive in terms of like, “Okay, I’m safe here.” Gospel presence made it safe for sinners.
But the second part was focused hostility—it’s not safe for sin—“Now, we’ve got to go to work.” It’s not just, “We’re going to get together. You’re going to vent; and I’m going to say, ‘It’s okay; God loves you anyway,’ and ‘I’ll see you later.’” It was: “Okay; now, what kind of things are we going to do, going forward? What kind of wise strategies are we going to put in place, out of this gospel reality that I love you and am communicating the love of God to you? Out of that, what are we going to do different tomorrow so that we’re not back here again?”
It was that combination of compassionate stability and focused hostility that was a massive game-changer for me in the struggle.
Ann: How did you find this friend? Because a lot of wives would be saying, “My husband has no men like that.”
Joe: He was a college pastor at Texas A&M. I got to know him; he did our pre-marital counseling and was massively helpful, both in terms of my own personal, and then in helping us to work together. When we moved up here, right after we got married, I would still call him and say, “Hey, there’s fall out from the struggles/the confession that happened during engagement; and it’s still kind of lingering. Help me.”
He helped work through some of those things—the relational complications that come—this is a major focus of the book. When I wrote this, the idea was: “I want to write a book that guys, who struggle, and guys, who want to help guys who struggle, can read together and then talk about.”
Dave: Let me ask you this: “Do you think it can be a dad with his son?”
Joe: Yes; I mean, I haven’t gotten there yet—I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old—we’ve begun those conversations. It’s not just a “talk”; it’s the “talks”—plural.
Ann: Give us an example; what does that sound like?
Joe: With my 11-year-old, this was probably about a year ago or so, I got some resources that kind of walked through just the birds-and-the-bees type stuff; right? One day, my wife took the other kids and went off. It was just me and him; and I said, “Hey, you want to talk?” We pulled out the book, and I just kind of walked through it with him and answered some questions.
After a little bit, he was kind of like, “Okay; that’s how it works. Okay, okay.” Then, afterwards, he was like, “Okay, I’m done talking about this now.” [Laughter] It was clear, he was like, “I’m done.” Now, it’s going to be like: “We need to revisit that,” or as things come up. It’s never going to be like, “Okay, I’ve checked that box.” It’s the beginning of a conversation in which, as new things arise: so we talk about modesty; we talk about things like that; we talk about “wise eyes” when we’re watching TV and a commercial comes on—I’ll say to our boys, “Hey, wise eyes!”—that means their eyes go down, and my eyes go down.
Joe: I want to show them, “It’s not that is okay for Dad to watch whatever that is, but it’s not for you.” It’s like, “No; none of us need to see whatever that was.” “Wise eyes look down”; okay? That means they know: “Hey, Dad/we’re the same in this; he’s in the struggle with us.”
Joe: I’m hoping that that means, when the time comes—you know, in the next couple of years, when it becomes more acute—that there’s an openness and a transparency that they’ll feel like they can talk to me; and I can then tell them the same thing you guys were talking about earlier: “Here’s the story…”
Dave: I think there are a lot of dads listening who are afraid to take that step with their son, whether they’re ten, or fifteen, or eighteen; because they’re not winning.
Dave: You know, they’re in the middle of the struggle; they’re not winning. Maybe they’re hiding.
Dave: And they’re like, “I don’t have—I haven’t won,” and “I’m not winning; I’m not making the right choices, so I don’t go there.”
I would just say this: “Today’s your day.
Dave: “Start the step toward freedom. It’s real! Joe’s experienced it; I’ve experienced it; Bob’s experienced it.
Dave: “I know the battle, but I also know victory. It can happen.
Dave: “But you’ve got to take a step to tell somebody. Get the book!—be the first step.”
Ann: And let me ask this real quick, too: “A single mom—
Ann: —“or a wife, who has a husband, who will not enter into this conversation,—
Ann: —“should we, as women, enter into that?”
Joe: —with a son?
Ann: —with a son.
Joe: I would probably say that’s where you’re going to want to get a pastor involved.
Ann: —which could be kind of weird and creepy if they don’t know him.
Joe: What it mean is—it’s got to be about community. This is where your family needs to be embedded in a church, where you have/where there’s that overlap. If it’s a single mom, you know, there are all kinds of reasons you want your son to be around other godly men. You’re going to be working together on: “Hey, he’s missing something that he needs. One of those things is how to help him with this struggle.”
I think that, for most boys, talking to mom about this is going to make things harder.
Ann: —and weird.
Joe: —and weirder.
Joe: The more that it can be mentors and pastors, and people like that, who are helping them and providing that. That was true for me—my dad could have talked about it, I think, but didn’t—so I found other mentors: youth pastors/guys like that, who were helpful.
Bob: Here’s what’s critical: don’t just think, “I’ll get a copy of Joe’s book and put it on my son’s bed,” or “I’ll get a copy and read it, and hopefully it will help.” What you’re saying here is: “It takes more than just information. It takes guys and accountability.” Our hope is that a lot of guys will go through this book with other guys: fathers and sons; men going through this with other guys from church.
We’re making Joe’s book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners. Any of you who’d like a copy, you can go online, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request your copy. We’re asking that you would make a donation to support the ongoing work of this ministry, and we’ll send you Joe’s book as a thank-you gift. We really want to see men engaging with other men around this subject. Again, we’d love to send you a copy of Joe’s book as a way of saying, “Thank you for your support of the work of FamilyLife Today.”
We are listener-supported; you are the people who make today’s program possible. If you’ve never made a donation, somebody made today’s program possible for you. You can pay it forward for somebody else; go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Again, ask for your copy of the book, More Than a Battle, by Joe Rigney when you get in touch with us. We look forward to sending you a copy; and thanks, in advance, for your support of the ministry.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about why we have such a distorted view of what God’s good gift of marital intimacy is supposed to look like. We’ll continue our conversation about how we defeat lust in our lives/how we gain victory over pornography. Joe Rigney’s going to be back with us tomorrow. I hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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