“Beware, lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.” —Aesop’s Fables
My children and I are reading through a collection of stories that my grandmother read to me when I was a wee lad. Recently we came across Aesop’s fable of the dog and his shadow. As the story goes, a dog finds a piece of meat and is carrying it to a safe place to eat. On the way, he happens by a stream and notices his reflection in the water. Thinking it is another dog with another piece of meat, he opens his mouth to take that one as well, and his own piece falls into the water. He is left with nothing.
Aesop wrote this some 2,600 years ago, but it seems to accurately describe the sexual life of many young men today.
According to a 2008 study, two-thirds of men aged 18 to 26 said they thought viewing pornography was acceptable. Carroll, Jason S., et al, “Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance and Use Among Emerging Adults,” Journal of Adolescent Research, Volume 23 Number 1, January 2008, 6-30 Acceptable or not, nearly all of them used it, with 86 percent reporting some pornography use in the past year. Nearly half reported viewing pornography at least once a week or more, and one-fifth of men reported daily or every-other-day use.
With half of young men viewing pornography once a week or more, there’s a good chance that many reading this article are struggling with pornography use to some degree and some may be deeply addicted already.
In a CNN article, researchers Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan describe the method by which men are drawn in: “Video game and porn addictions are … ‘arousal addictions,’ where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement.”
Zimbardo and Duncan, along with many other researchers, are concerned that excessive pornography and (perhaps surprising to some) video game use “is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.”
The clinical view confirms the spiritual reality. Jean Vanier describes the trap of lust in his book Man and Woman God Made Them: “The pursuit of [selfish] sexual pleasure can become like a drug, which prevents the heart from becoming sensitive to the needs and sufferings of others. It can enclose people within themselves, within their own feelings and subjective emotions, and cut them off from reality.”
The Shadow of an Image
Why do we pursue counterfeit sexual fantasies when our real, God-given and God-blessed sexual identity withers on the vine? Perhaps another ancient tale can help us understand. In The Republic, Plato describes the illusory nature of this world in his story of the cave.
As Plato tells it, Socrates describes a cave in which people sit, chained and forced to look at the shadows of objects being moved in front of firelight burning somewhere behind them. He asks what it would be like if these people had been there since birth and were unable to turn around to see the source of the shadows on the wall.
“To them,” Socrates says, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”
Doesn’t this describe the world we live in, which revolves around promoting distortion, half-truths and shadows? Highly processed food is called healthy; politicians claim to serve the people but enrich themselves; and pornography pretends to be real sexuality. Why do we so willingly believe these things? In Romans 1:21, Paul explains that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Much of culture today illustrates a heart of darkness, to borrow from Joseph Conrad. The least scrupulous among us have devised insidious, lucrative and extremely enticing shadows for young men that also (not coincidentally) cripple them in the most powerful and vulnerable place of all: their identity.
The world tells men that they are never to grow up, that endless play is the only thing worth pursuing. The world whispers that young men need not struggle to woo a woman or work to communicate with her or learn how to serve her or even to stick with just one woman, but that they can have thousands of dream girls doing seductive and wicked things at the click of a mouse, always available, always turned on, always serving up the heart’s desire.
From birth we have been raised in a hyper-sexualized and commoditized world which values people in terms of money or prestige or fashion or sexual organs. Everywhere we turn the glory of humanity — the very image and likeness of the Triune God in which we were fashioned — grows increasingly tarnished until all that is left is a dim, confused reminder that we might possibly have been made for more.
Why Am I Here?
If this is your experience and you have struggled with a gnawing feeling that life is not the way it is supposed to be, let me help you understand: You’ve been hoodwinked, duped, fooled and conned. No matter how loudly the world screams it as truth, pursuing the twisted desires of your deceitful heart is not what you were made for. This is not your identity.
Yet, in a fabricated world of shadows and false images, how do we recover what is real?
We salvage the truth by untwisting the lie. Pornography teaches that women exist to sexually service men and that men exist to only sexually satisfy themselves. Neither male nor female is human in pornography. They are soulless sexual machines engaged in a battle of degradation and angry movement lacking any delight in each other.
In contrast, the Triune God created us male and female in His image and likeness. He designed the innumerable emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical differences between men and women to bring us into loving union with one another. Among all human relationships, the deepest, most intimate and most vulnerable bond is that between a husband and wife who have devoted their marriage to the service of God and one another. It is in this mysterious union that we see most clearly an image of the love that exists from all time between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Scottish novelist Bruce Marshall wrote the shocking line that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” When you are looking at pornography and lusting after women (or men), has it occurred to you that you are actually trying to fill your deepest hunger with something that can never satisfy?
OK, you reason, maybe pornography won’t satisfy me, but someday a real woman, my wife, will. Your wife cannot satisfy your deepest needs, either, and to burden her with that kind of pressure is to build your marriage on the sand. As the Samaritan woman at the well learned, only an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ can satisfy this kind of longing.
Out of the Cave
Research finds that 82 percent of young adults say that having a successful marriage is one of their “most” or “very” important life goals.Mindy E. Scott, et al., “Young Adults Attitudes About Relationships and Marriage: Times May Have Changed, But Expectations Remain High,” Child Trends Research Brief, Publication #2009-30 (July 2009) p. 4-5. I hate to say it, but our culture makes it very difficult for boys to grow into the kind of men that make good husbands. Those wanting a successful and fulfilling marriage need to prepare for it.
First, if you are sexually active or looking at pornography, it’s time to stop. No, it’s not as easy as writing it on a page. It’s actually very difficult, but there are helpful resources at www.pureintimacy.org. Two to get you started are:
One of the most important aspects of moving away from pornography, addiction or lust is accepting the forgiveness that Jesus Christ truly gives. When He speaks to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus shares something eternally important when He asks the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” Jesus only wanted to forgive her and free her from the bondage she was in. You must believe that is what He wants for you, too.
Yet, getting to the place where we can be free from sexual sin can be a difficult and painful journey. In fact, for all of us, it is impossible to do alone. Evangelist R.A. Torrey wrote that “the Christian life is not to be lived in the realm of natural temperament and Christian work is not to be done in the power of natural endowment. The Christian life is to be lived in the realm of the Spirit and Christian work is to be done in the power of the Spirit.”
This is absolutely true when recovering from sexual wounds, pornography and addiction. Our broken sexuality can never be healed by our own power, no matter how good the interventions are. Only the Holy Spirit can restore our true identity as a child of God and heal us to the point where we can live comfortably in this identity. As you move forward in faith, be sure to invite the Holy Spirit into your life and repeatedly ask for His help and guidance. There is a great explanation of the addiction and recovery process in these three articles:
Practically, you will need to develop a new approach to life. Christian counselor Harry Schaumburg makes a compelling case that one cannot have sexual maturity without a corresponding spiritual maturity. If you want to embrace a life of purity, you need a regimen that encourages spiritual growth.
In The Seven Levels of Intimacy, Mathew Kelly writes:
To give your self—to another person, to an endeavor, or to God—you must first possess your self. This possession of self is freedom. It is a prerequisite for love, and is only attained through discipline. That is why so very few relationships thrive in our time. The very nature of love requires self-possession. Without self-mastery, self-control, self-dominion, we are incapable of love…. The problem is we don’t want discipline. We want someone to tell us that we can be happy without discipline. But we can’t…. The two are directly related.
Few people today talk about cultivating virtue, but spiritual discipline is essential to the Christian life. All seven heavenly virtues are needed for a rich Christian life, but in the context of this article, I will focus on continence and chastity (those terrible, old words).
John Paul II wrote that continence “consists in the capacity to dominate, control and direct drives of a sexual character and their consequences.” If continence describes the control of a negative impulse, chastity involves the right ordering of sexual desire toward that which is good, true and beautiful. A chaste life is not a frustrating, monotonous “no” to sexual desire but a vibrant and compelling “yes” to sexual desire rightly lived.
The great irony is that Christians are accused of being anti-sex. In truth, Christians are the ones working to restore sex to what it was intended to be and to that which is most honoring, most dignifying and most deeply rewarding.
Think about how this will impact the women in your life — currently and in the future. By embracing chastity, you communicate a healthy (not self-serving) sexual desire. You practice patience and sacrifice. You demonstrate self-control. You will gain mastery of your eyes (like Job) and your very gaze will soften and be less offensive to those around you. (Dude, women know how you look at them, so don’t even pretend.)
If you really want to make this happen, check your mates. Are they the type to support the life-changing and challenging journey toward maturity? If not, find some new friends. Or, invite these guys to come along. Chances are one or two will join you and open up a far deeper friendship than you ever had before.
Finally, take your relationship with Jesus seriously. If you can learn from the Master what it means to give all for those He loves, then you will be ready for marriage.
Copyright 2012 Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved.