Fathers, Sons, and Pornography

sonsby John Ellis

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Matthew 5:29-30

Many in my generation are averse to standards, to rules. Specifically, but not exclusively, those of us who were raised in strict, conservative, fundamentalist Christian homes are often averse to standards. Many of us believe that holding to standards indicates some level of legalism.

We grew up being taught that almost all forms of pop music are sinful and dishonoring to our holy God, especially rock, pop, hip-hop, and most forms of country-western music. Movie theatres were verboten. In fact, in my family, movies rated PG and above were off limits even at home. Rules were stacked upon rules, at least it felt that way. As my generation entered adulthood, many of us “discovered” grace and cast off the “legalism” of our parents.

Except many of us have run so far from our parents’ position that we’ve arrived at the libertine freedom enticingly offered by antinomianism. Granted, we reject the tag antinomianism as ungracious and a product of “heresy hunters.” “After all,” we believe, “Jesus didn’t die so that we would have to deny ourselves earthly pleasures; he died to give us freedom.”

Ok, maybe we don’t articulate our thought process in such obviously contra-Biblical terms. Instead, we hijack Bible verses and prooftext ourselves into positions. One position that I’ve heard is that things aren’t bad. Therefore, the argument goes, just because your conscience is seared and weak doesn’t mean that mine is. I am free to fill-in-the-blank. Usually, that blank is filled-in with some form of entertainment option.

In a recent article, I wrote, “It’s much easier to shake off the out-of-balanced approach of previous generations than it is to do the hard work of thinking about a personal approach to entertainment that honors God’s commands for Christians to pursue holiness.”

As I watch my children grow, I’m beginning to become more aware of how my own choices affect them. Frequently now, I ask myself, “By listening to this song, what am I teaching my kids? Am I teaching them that I prioritize pursuing holiness in obedience to God over entertainment? Or, instead, am I teaching them that I’m willing to wink at sin because my freedom to engage pop culture is more important to me than pursuing holiness?”

Earlier this summer, my pastor returned from the Southern Baptist Convention with a stack of books for me to read. Edited by Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker, the newly published series titled The Gospel for Life from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC (ERLC) made up most of the books handed to me by my pastor. The Gospel for Life series is comprised of nine books covering a variety of topics, including abortion, work, and same-sex relationships. Among the books in the series that I’ve read so far is the one titled The Gospel & Pornography.

The book is edifying and is a helpful addition to the topic. In my own life, the book has prompted me to double-down, so to speak, on my prayers for my son as well as consider how my own choices help or hinder him.

Most importantly, I pray for God the Father to reveal Himself to my son, provide him repentance of sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and adopt him into His family, making him co-heirs with Christ. After praying for God to save my son from his sins, my most frequent request of my Heavenly Father regarding my son is that God would be pleased to protect him from the scourge of pornography.

Ever since my son was born in 2010, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility that’s been given me to raise him in the fear of the Lord. In Ephesians 6:4, the Apostle Paul offers this sobering admonishment, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” That imperative means many things, of course; things like teaching my son who God is, including God’s perfect standard of righteousness. Narrowing that down even further, I have a responsibility to teach my son God’s parameters for sex. That, of course, includes Jesus’ direct and crystal-clear admonition in Matthew 5:28, “that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery.”

The way many of us live and talk, I’m afraid that we don’t really believe that Jesus really meant what he said in Matthew 5:28. Men’s lust is becoming an increasingly taboo topic in the evangelical world. Articles and blog posts are churned out pushing back on any attempts to take seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28[1]. Regardless of the current climate of rolling eyes at (at best) and shaming as patriarchal and oppressive (at worst) efforts to combat lust, as a father, I have a responsibility before God to do just that, as do all fathers (and mothers). I am called to help my son guard his heart against lust.

How to help my son guard his heart from lust in our increasingly pornographic world is a daunting task. Having spoken with several friends who are also fathers of sons, I’m not alone in my fear. We lament the seemingly impossible task, strategize, and desperately pray for help. Granted, some of this demonstrates the weakness of my faith, but not all. God is in control, no doubt. However, God works through means and the shameful reality is that it is next to impossible to escape pornography in our society and God has tasked us with shepherding our sons in the way of righteousness. One day, we will be called to account for how we’ve responded to God in our role as fathers – a role that has pointing to God the Father as one of its purposes.

The Problem of Pornography

I was in fourth grade when my brother, Ben (the boy who lived next door), and I discovered the Penthouse magazine in the woods behind our house. Most of the pages were stuck together due to rain, and the magazine was tattered, but the few clear pictures that remained were enough. My first introduction to pornography awakened fires of lust in my prepubescent heart and body.

Over the intervening years, me and my friends’ search for porn was frequently stymied by the fact that we were too young to buy the covered magazines taunting us from the magazine racks and because our parents were Christians who were committed to the pursuit of holiness; illicit sexuality and nudity were not found among our parents’ movies and magazines. That didn’t discourage our pursuit, though. Staying up late and watching the scrambled Spice channel in hopes that the picture would clear up enough to see something; passing around the few pieces of pornographic material in our possession; taking advantage of being in a hotel room with HBO whenever we were on overnight trips were all part of our pursuit of porn.

Sadly, and shamefully, we became rather adroit at weaseling out pornography. A friend from church raided his older brother’s porn stash. VHS copies of movies with nude scenes were passed around and more copies were made. By the time I headed to Bob Jones University, I had accumulated a sizeable porn stash; well, sizeable by the standards of an underaged, Christian school kid in 1994.

When I was a teenager, finding porn took effort. Even after uncovering porn, it took added effort to keep that porn. Hiding VHS tapes and magazines can be a hassle, and the limitations of the mediums created obstacles to viewing it. Having a couple of tattered Playboys securely tucked away in locked chest in the closet of my BJU dorm room was a pyrrhic victory in my lustful eyes. What was the point of having any porn if it was next to impossible to look at it?

None of that is an attempt to soft sell my sin. Looking back, being born in 1975 was a kindness of God, because coming of age prior to the full flowering of the digital age was a barrier that prevented me from fully engaging my lustful desire to see naked women. Furthermore, my story is not unique; almost every guy friend of mine has a similar tale, some with more lurid success, some with less. But almost every man that I know has battled/battles lust, and the battle frequently began with pictures discovered during childhood[2].

Current friends and I have commented on how we don’t envy our brothers in Christ who are coming of age now. The ease with which anyone can access pornography today is scary.

I can already here the naysayers – “but, that’s not me. I’m not a pervert, never have been. Confessing your past sin is great, John. But don’t confess the same sin for me.”

Except, according to statistics, and assuming that you’re a man, you have sought out pornography at some point in your life.

Denying that pornography is an enormous problem in our culture is a Quixotic task. Yet, some professing Christians pick up their cracking, splintering lances, and do battle with the claim that Christians, especially men[3], should be extra wary about pornography. Accusations that we’re making a mountain out of mole-hill, we’re promoting patriarchy, and that we need to grow up are mouthed; they accuse those of us who are concerned about pornography of turning sexuality into a shameful thing shrouded in legalistic demands that oppresses women.

Before tackling the charges of legalism, the problem of pornography needs to be elucidated. Or rather, the problem of pornography need to be elucidated again. The research is overwhelming, and many organizations, Christian and secular, have compiled and released the research that reveals the ubiquitousness of porn, the incredible ease with which it’s available, and its ravages within our society.

The website Covenant Eyes cites statistics that reveal that 79% of men ages 18-30 view pornography on a monthly basis; 67% of men ages 31-49 years old view pornography on a monthly basis. Change it to a weekly basis, and 63% of men ages 18-30 report to having viewed pornography. 70% of unmarried men report that they regularly consume pornography; 55% of married men report that they regularly consume pornography.

I could cite depressing and scary statistic after statistic, and I encourage you to avail yourself of the free e-book offered by Covenant Eyes (you can do so by clicking here). The unassailable fact is that pornography is already an enormous problem; our young men (and our middle-aged and old men) are overwhelming being trapped in a spiritual and physical prison of their own lust by a media-savvy industry that is available on the devices that rarely leave their grasp. And, apart from God’s grace, it’s a problem that is probably only going to worsen.

According to Barna Research, only 32% of teenagers believe that viewing porn is wrong. The report reveals that, “This posture toward porn among younger Americans is confirmed by how they talk about porn with their friends: the vast majority reports that conversations with their friends about porn are neutral, accepting or even encouraging. They generally assume most people look at porn at least on occasion, and the morality of porn is rarely discussed or even considered. Just one in 10 teens and one in 20 young adults report talking with their friends about porn in a disapproving way.”

A few paragraphs above, I related my first experience with pornography and my subsequent attempts to find porn as I entered high school and college. My experience was not atypical for a young man in the late 80s and early 90s. We were neither less nor more prone to lust than young men in the new millennium. The difference is that young men today don’t have to work at all to find pornography. Allow me to repeat that – young men today do NOT have to work at all to find pornography. Not only do the overwhelming majority of teens believe that it’s morally acceptable to view porn, the vast majority of teens have easy and free access to porn. In most cases, as in teens with smart phones, literally nothing is stopping them from feeding their lust.

The statistics bear out the truth that men are prone to lust. The scary thing is that men don’t need explicit pornography to lust. There is a reason that the “famed” Swimsuit Issue is Sport’s Illustrated’s best-selling issue year in and out. And that reason is not holy and pure, nor is that reason connected to the empowerment of women[4]. Even in the face of those statistics, and taking their dishonest verbal cues from the Serpent-Satan of Genesis 3, some professing Christians scoff at the notion that men, as a group, tend to lust apart from the grace of God. That rejection of such an obvious truth is unhelpful (at best) and leading men to hell (at worst).

It boggles my mind that people, both men and women, deny the truth that men lust and that the less clothes a woman has on, the more men enjoy looking at her for wrong reasons. Look, that last statement is not to lay the blame for men’s lust on women. When men lust, we are solely to blame for our sin. However, Christians really need to stop pretending that the way women dress doesn’t affect men[5]. And for men who claim that it doesn’t, I don’t believe you or I assume that you’re asexual. If that offends you, so be it. To be frank, you might need to be offended in order to jar you out of your self-serving deceit.

Lust is a problem that almost all men face. And it’s not a problem that only exists among conservative Christians who have “antiquated” views of sexuality; rejecting that claim requires sticking your fingers in your ears and squinting your eyes closed whenever you’re confronted with the statistics. Men lust. Considering that my son is growing up in an era in which he’s bombarded with pornographic, near pornographic, and sexualized images, I’m frightened for his sake.

The Plan to Protect Against Pornography

Frightened isn’t a synonym of paralysis. In fact, a healthy dose of fear can drive people to take action. And by God’s grace, I’m taking action for the sake of my own soul and for the sake of my son’s soul. Drastic, weird, counter-culture action, in fact. If my standards, my plan to protect my son (and myself) against pornography, earns me the label of legalist, so be it. My prayer is that more brothers in Christ will be willing to accept the slings and arrows of the scoffers for the sake of their own souls and the souls of their sons.

My desire to take drastic, counter-culture action against the vile deceit of pornography finds precedence in the words of Jesus. In Matthew 5:29-30, quoted at the top of this article, Jesus uses startling imagery to make a very salient point – lust is so dangerous and such a violation of God’s righteous standard, drastic measures should be taken to combat it. Of course, Jesus wasn’t advocated self-mutilation. Jesus was imploring those who would follow him to take the sin of lust seriously and to act accordingly. And to act accordingly in a manner that would astound unbelievers.

I find the ways that some professing Christians talk about pornography and lust stupefying, at best. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29-30 are rarely applied; in fact, coming up with practical ways to obey Jesus’ hyperbolic yet imminently understandable point is a good way to get mocked.

Several years ago, while discussing pop music with a member of my church, I mentioned that I didn’t want my children listening to Katy Perry. At the time, Perry’s album Teenage Dream was topping the charts and producing hit single after hit single. “E.T.” was among the hit singles off the album and was the song that I was directly referencing. Featuring Kanye West in one of the verses, “E.T.” is filled with explicit sexual content. The song not only flaunts a rebellious sexual ethic in the face of the Creator of the Universe, it’s also marketed to youth. When I expressed my concern that young kids were being exposed to the glitteringly attractive rebellion of Katy Perry, I fully expected agreement. When I stated that I would protect my own young kids from the full-throttled rebellion against God displayed by Katy Perry in her music, I expected at least some level of sympathy. Except, my friend laughed at me and expressed surprise that I would be so legalistic about music.

That moment has stuck with me. First, it still saddens me that a brother in Christ subjugates the pursuit of holiness to anything, much less to pop culture. Second, it was a watershed moment for me, of sorts. In that moment, I was confronted with the question of whether I was going to pursue holiness or the esteem of man or even subjugate holiness to my own desire for entertainment.

As my kids have gotten older, that question has taken on a deeper resonance. Specifically, as I have watched my son grow into a boy staring into adolescence, my own engagement with pop culture has begun to carry more weight. Now, the above question includes the query of whether I’m helping set my son up to fight lust or to foster lust in his heart.

If I allow our house to be filled with songs, video games, TV shows, and movies that traffic in the laissez-faire attitudes towards sex that dominate our culture, I’m lying to my son about God’s view of sex. I would also be providing opportunities for his soon to be hormonally filled eyes, mind, and body to have lustful outlets that will lead to the desire and pursuit for further lustful outlets. To that end, one of the ways in which I am “tearing my eye out” and “cutting off my hand” is by controlling the pop culture that my family consumes and that’s allowed in my house.

We don’t have to allow pornography into our house to allow pornography into our house. Referencing pornography, Justice Potter famously quipped that, “I know it when I see it.” Sadly, I’m afraid that many professing Christians have defined pornography very tightly in order to justify their own entertainment desires and, hence, do not know it when they see it. Or, rather, they refuse to acknowledge it when they see it.

Continuing to press on this obvious yet oft ignored fact, nudity isn’t required for men to lust. When I was a teenager, the TV show Baywatch was popular among both teen boys and young men. The show had zero nudity the way nudity is defined in our society, and whatever sexuality that was in the show was presented in a way that many of us would define as “mild.” I defy anyone to tell me that Baywatch’s popularity among boys and men was primarily due to anything other than lusting after women.

If I excuse TV shows and movies that I want to watch because the illicit sexuality is mild compared to other TV shows and movies, what am I teaching my son? What struggles am I leading him into as he enters adolescence? I don’t have to allow him to watch the TV shows and movies that I watch to take part in the devil’s attacks on his soul through the allure of lust. As his father, I could very well be providing him the rhetorical content for him to excuse his own entertainment choices. Because of that, by God’s grace, I have determined to ride strict herd on the TV shows, movies, music, and even video games that are allowed in my family’s life, which includes my life. I encourage my brothers in Christ to be counterculture, “tear out their eye” and “cut off their hand,” and interact with entertainment and pop culture in a manner that protects their sons (and themselves) and that models what they’ve been teaching their sons about God.

Another arena, an obvious arena, in which to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29-30 literally is the arena of technology – computers, smart phones, tablets, etc. My wife and I have already decided that our kids will not be getting smartphones until they are adults. If, for some reason, they need a phone, a dumb phone it will be. Bringing it back to my son, why would my wife and I place pornography in his hand? Because that is what we would be doing if we gave him a smart phone.

Abolition of all technology and internet use for our son is impractical and probably harmful in the long run. Our son needs access to the internet for school and in order to learn how to live effectively in the age of technology. That doesn’t mean that our son should have unfettered and unmonitored access to the internet.

As far as computers go, I’ve already referenced and linked to Covenant Eyes. Installing Covenant Eyes on their computer and other devices is something that I believe all Christian men should pray about and consider (and here’s another link to get started installing Covenant Eyes). For only $11 a month, a trusted accountability partner will receive an internet report that notifies them if a questionable link was clicked on[6]. Taking it a step further, I definitely believe that we should install Covenant Eyes (or another similar internet accountability and filtering site) on the computers and devices that our children use.

Covenant Eyes has a family plan that monitors the internet use of each family member that is included on the plan. For $15 a month, the family plan allows you to monitor an unlimited number of family members on an unlimited number of devices. For the sake of my son, when he’s old enough to need access to the internet, I will be monitoring his key strokes and his internet use. I will not leave him on his own to fight his lust. As his father, I will make the choice for him to enact in his life Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:29-30.

There are probably many other circumstances and practical ways in which fathers can help their sons combat lust and the evil of pornography. In what I believe is one of the most important books ever written, John Owen eloquently reminds us that, “When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.”[7]

For the sake of our own souls, fathers need to constantly be on guard against lust. Being aware of where, when, and how lust is quietly waiting to take root in our hearts requires constant vigilance. As fathers, we have a responsibility before God to take the battle against lust into our sons’ lives, too. The most important way that we battle against lust isn’t in what we do, though.

The Gospel and Pornography

In his seminal book The Mortification of Sin, John Owen also warns, “He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he hath mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He hath changed his master, but is a servant still.”[8]

Owen’s instruction that the “occasional conquests of sin do not amount to mortifying of it”[9] echoes well Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15:10-19 that our heart is what makes us sinners and ethically and eternally separated from God, not what we do. For the record, and to push back on bad proof-texting, in that passage, Jesus is not giving us license to engage in sinful activities. He’s pushing back on the mistaken belief that our actions can make us right with God; that if we never look at pornography, we’re ok before God. That pharisaical belief that our actions determine our standing before God is exactly why John Owen claimed that just because we conquer our sins through our actions that does not mean that we have succeeded in mortifying our sin.

Ultimately, the only solution to protecting our sons from pornography and lust lies in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like us, our sons need to be given a new heart; they need to be freed from the slavery of sin and adopted into God’s family. Therefore, the most important thing that fathers can do for their sons is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.

If I am able to completely protect my son from viewing pornography and even from viewing “mild” sexual content and yet fail to preach the gospel to him, I will have failed him. If he never looks at sexually explicit pictures and yet fails to repent of his sins and place his faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he will one day join the worst pornographers in hell.

Fathers, first and foremost, pray continuously for your sons and preach, and preach continuously, the gospel of Jesus Christ, calling your sons to repentance and faith in Jesus. Secondly, yet still importantly, the devil and the world wants nothing more than to trap our sons in the sin of lust. Take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:19-20 to heart and don’t be afraid to “rip out your eye” and “cut off your hand.” Pornography and lust are grave threats to the souls of our sons. Do we take the threats seriously? Or do we demonstrate though our choices that our own entertainment and desires are more important to us than our sons’ souls? One day, we will be called to account for how we fathered the sons that God has entrusted us with. That’s an important yet daunting task. Let’s commit before God that we will take that task seriously.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Lord willing, later this week, I’ll publish an article interacting with one such article.

[2] To be clear, and I’m planning speaking more on this later in the article, men don’t need pictures to stoke their lust. But let’s be honest, pictures don’t help. In fact, pictures of nude or even scantily clad women are an almost insurmountable obstacle to not lusting for most men.

[3] I understand that the viewing of pornography is a growing problem among Christian women, but my objective with this article is mainly directed at fathers and sons.

[4] For two summers in high school, I worked at a large Christian, youth camp. The camp had a swimming pool that was the highlight of many campers. Like many fundamentalist institutions, this camp had separate swimming times for boys and girls, and the pool had a high wooden fence that prevented people from being able to see inside. The kitchen and dining hall where I worked was across the street from the pool. In the afternoons, many of co-workers (all teenage boys) could be found hanging out in the upstairs dining room. From that room, one could see over the pool’s fence. Flash forward over a decade to when I was bartending at a large nightclub in Florida, and guy’s desire to see women in swimsuits was no different. The club would frequently host swimsuit competitions. My male co-workers went to great lengths to convince all of our female coworkers to participate in the contest. They wanted almost nothing more than to see their “friends” in basically nothing more than their underwear. How do I know that? Because we talked about it. Add in the familiarity of friends and acquaintances, and lust deepens. Those two anecdotes, and I could provide many, many, many more, serve to underline stats like the Swimsuit Issue being the top-seller. Men wanting to look at women in their swimsuits is not limited to a small, sexually-oppressed demographic; it’s widespread. That is a fact.

[5] This is an issue (women’s dress) that requires nuance and a level of sensitivity that I admit that I may not possess (maybe I do). Whether or not I do possess that sensitivity, fleshing out the issue in a way that honors God, speaks truth, and doesn’t lay unnecessary or undeserved guilt on women is beyond the scope of this article. One thought, though – men lust after women who are fully dressed in a manner that is deemed modest by the strictest of fundamentalist Christian colleges. That fact (that men can be prone to lust regardless of how the woman is dressed) should highlight how deep and insidious the problem of lust actually is.

[6] To be frank and meddling, I’m skeptical of any Christian man who claims to have conquered lust to the point where he doesn’t even need to consider using Covenant Eyes (or another similar internet accountability and filtering site).

[7] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Feather Trail Press: 2009), 14.

[8] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 29.

[9] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 29.

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3 thoughts on “Fathers, Sons, and Pornography

  1. Thank you so much for this, John. This is especially poignant given that your son and mine are just one month apart. Thank you also for the mention of Covenant Eyes. A resource like that is something I need to think about implementing in the not too distant future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Michael. And thank you for reading. I’m not under any naïve belief that my efforts will completely shield my son from lust, but that does not abrogate my responsibilities to my son before God.

      Like

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