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How Pornography Kills Ambition

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Porn's isolating emphasis on pleasing myself actually made me less myself.

It’s a familiar pattern.

An outgoing, enthusiastic guy begins slowly but surely to change. At first it’s almost imperceptible — a shift in mood or a vacancy in the eyes only those closest to him can see. It’s not drastic or alarming, but it’s real. Maybe his friends start to notice when he doesn’t talk about those hobbies he used to love. Perhaps his coworkers make more and more passing remarks like, “Is everything okay?”

There’s a thin but undeniable air of apathy in all he says and does. Friendships get put on hold, and events are skipped for no particular reason. It’s nothing earth-shattering; he just seems not really there.

In my own life, and in the lives of friends I’ve known, this is one of the most reliable signs someone — male or female — is losing the battle against pornography.

The Dangers of Pornography

The dangers of pornography are well-documented. For many years, Christian pastors, teachers and writers have warned that porn is a serious spiritual and emotional threat to individuals and families. The effects of porn addiction have become so commonly seen in our culture that non-Christian observers are beginning to talk about it.  Time magazine, for example, recently devoted an entire cover story to the testimonies of several young men who felt their pornography usage greatly wounded them later in life.

When we list the dangers of pornography, we often address the typical things: We talk about how porn degrades and objectifies men and women. We argue that porn puts spiritual and physical walls between husbands and wives and how it can “re-wire” our brains to cripple our capacity for real intimacy and enjoyment. All of these warnings are absolutely true and need to be repeated.

Porn Kills Ambition

But there’s another consequence of porn, one that might seem insignificant but may actually be one of the deadliest effects of all. Porn doesn’t just dirty the imagination or wound the spirit — it also kills ambition.

Perhaps you see the word “ambition” and think that killing it may not be such a bad idea for a Christian. After all, isn’t ambition just another word for “greed”? Doesn’t ambition signify an insatiable thirst for more — more money, more status, more success?

Certainly, ambition can be directed toward sinful things. There are many examples in Scripture of people whose unrestrained ambition and inflated ego brought them to ruin, and it even led to the splitting of a nation (1 Kings 12). But ambition can also be holy, a Christ-shaped desire to live as meaningfully and faithfully as one can. A young man who desires a good job so he can marry and provide for a wife is experiencing this kind of holy ambition. A student who wants to do well in school so she can graduate and reach others with her skills and talents is likewise “ambitious.” Human beings are not created to live apathetically in a self-consumed cocoon; rather, we are created to image God, through work, love, service and faithfulness.

Porn Trains Our Brains

Pornography is an acid to this kind of holy ambition. The problem is not only that the person addicted to porn spends so much time with it, though that is a problem. A much larger issue is that pornography invites its user to enter into a private world of fantasy, pleasure and power, and it teaches the user to tune his desires and expectations to this fictional universe. As his mind sinks deeper and deeper into sordid imaginings, the real world — with its humanity and people who have their own desires and expectations — starts to seem less interesting.

Pornography trains the mind to be pleasured with self-oriented consumption, and it trains people to feel less and less attachment to the “other” (or to the world and people who exist outside the glowing smartphone screen). Meeting new people becomes an exercise in finding subtle ways to mentally undress them. Work, with its filtered computers and public spaces, becomes a frustrating, dull obstacle to further fantasy. Ministry is weighed down with shame and the fear of being discovered. Even hobbies don’t seem interesting anymore since they fail to provide the chemical jolt that hours of porn use have embedded onto the brain.

Leading a Double Life

This may sound extreme, but it’s a consistent product of a struggle with porn addiction. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I lived a secret double life. I was a pastor’s kid (PK) and enrolled in a Bible college. To many eyes I was an exemplary “PK,” always at church, playing music on Sunday mornings and studying theology and apologetics. But my second life was lived out alone on my laptop where porn consistently drew me in day after day, for years.

All through that time, I thought I was putting forward a pretty convincing act. But it wasn’t until after Christ had delivered me from addiction I realized it hadn’t been that convincing. I had been different. People later told me I seemed perpetually engrossed in my own thoughts, distracted, aloof and anxious. My grades in school had declined, and I even failed a class. None of this was because my life was “falling apart” in the sense we usually think. I had a job, housing and a family who loved me. Instead my pornography addiction had been slowly eroding my interest in life. Porn’s isolating emphasis on pleasing myself had actually made me less myself.

In a letter to an American reader, C.S. Lewis once wrote the danger of self-oriented lust is that it

“sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.”

Pornography thus kills holy ambition by killing love. Love, expressed through marriage and faithful sexual intimacy, is a gift from God that’s meant to pull us out from ourselves toward one another. But pornography aims the mind and heart back at oneself. By collapsing into ourselves, we in turn become less and less like what we are created to be.

The Attack of Our Work

This disordering doesn’t just affect our relationships; it inevitably attacks our work.

It was out of love that God gave Adam and Eve work to do, and their work was meant to rebound in love to God. Whether we are tasked with laboring on an Iowa farm or creating graphics in a city high-rise, our work is part of our love and worship to God. That’s what a holy ambition is: a desire to know and love God more deeply through the fulfillment of the tasks He’s given. By repudiating love through self-worship, pornography stifles holy ambition.

How many people are keeping their talents and gifts from the kingdom because they are burdened and consumed by pornography? As John Piper wrote:

One of the major forces preventing young people from obeying the call of God into vocational Christian service is defeat in the area of lust. A teenager hears a challenging call to throw himself into the cause of world evangelization. He feels the promptings of the Holy Spirit. He tastes the thrill of following the King of kings into battle. But he does not obey because he … feels guilty. He can hardly imagine witnessing to a pretty girl about the eternal plight of her soul, because he has so habitually looked at girls naked in his imagination. So he feels unworthy and unable to obey the call of God.

This is a tragedy. But it’s a tragedy that has a redemptive solution.

The Gospel is for You

The gospel exists for the porn addict. And the druggie. And the hypocritical Christian. The gospel is for you and for me. You are not too far gone, no matter how addicted you may be or how many people have been hurt by your sin. The gospel invites you to come to God, not so He can congratulate you or condemn you, but that He might adopt you.

Join yourself to others in practicing love. Belong to a local church and small group where you can know and be known. Get rid of any part of your life that is “hidden” from everyone.  Cultivate your talents and interests as part of your worship to God, and offer those to the service of the church and the benefit of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Get a holy ambition, and take joy in it.

There is always hope because there is always Jesus. Don’t let the empty promises of pornography kill your holy ambition.

Copyright 2016 Samuel James. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Samuel James

Samuel D. James (@samueld_james) serves in the President’s Office at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His writing has appeared in such places as, First Things, The Gospel Coalition, and Mere Orthodoxy. Samuel earned a B.A. In Christian philosophy from Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife Emily.

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