We know a big sin when we see one, right? We know the difference between depraved acts and mere peccadillos. We know that while all sin is the same in expressing rebellion against God, some sins show greater evidence of a hardened heart and bring more devastating consequences. In some ways all sin is the same and in some ways each sin is unique.
The big sin I address most often in my church and travels is the sin of pornography—men or women, boys or girls, who willingly and repeatedly seek out pornography as a means of sexual pleasure. I write this article particularly for the long line of young men and women who spoke to me after the student conference last week. We are battling a porn plague today and I’ve yet to find a Christian who is unconcerned about it, unconcerned about the consequences to individuals and to the church as a whole.
I think we all agree that looking at pornography is a big sin and for a number of reasons: it is vulgar, avoidable, indefensible, exploitive, and conscience-hardening. Still, sometimes I find myself wondering if it’s as big a sin as we make it out to be. Or maybe it’s more that this big/small terminology is deceptive, unhelpful. Hear me out, then feel free to let me know what you think.
Many Christians fall into pornography when they are young or before they are converted. Then, as they progress into the Christian life, they become convicted of their sin and determine they must rid their lives of it. They wage war against porn, they fight tooth and nail for weeks, months, or years. They enlist friends to pray, they install accountability software, they earnestly plead for deliverance, they modify their habits to avoid the patterns that previously led them into the downward spiral. Eventually they find victory, they find freedom from this sin. Praise God! Many believers can rightly say this is a former sin, a past temptation. Its power has been broken.
But. But it doesn’t take long for so many of them to realize that the battle is far from over. They often send me emails or approach me after conferences to say they’ve learned, to their surprise and disappointment, that the battle against pornography was actually a mere skirmish, a precursor to a much bigger battle, an all-out war—a war against lust. Even while pornography is lying broken on the battlefield, they find themselves assaulted by lustful thoughts. Even though they experience no great desire to click that tempting image, to search for that favorite term, still they find their eyes wandering, still they find their hearts desiring, still they find the root sin crying out for satisfaction. The man or woman who battled pornography for six months and saw it defeated, finds that the battle over their own mind, heart, and desires, is only getting started. This is a fight that might rage for years, decades, a lifetime.
These battles over our eyes, hearts, and minds—these internal battles we fight secretly where no one else can see them—these are the ones we consider small (or smaller) sins. Having lustful thoughts or fantasies is a minor sin while acting them out through porn is a big sin, right? But here’s the question: What’s the sin that better showcases the depravity of the human heart? Is it the visible one that can be defeated in weeks or months, or is it the internal one that lingers for a lifetime? Is it the outward manifestation of that sin, or is it the internal disposition that generates the desire in the first place?
My concern in all our emphasis on battling the sin of pornography is that we may trim the fruit without digging up the root, we may satisfy ourselves with what is actually a small measure of holiness. My concern is that we rid ourselves of the shameful outward manifestations of the sin even while we allow the inner manifestations to remain and fester.
We can, should, and must be grateful for each deliverance, for each person who finds victory over pornography. It is right and good to celebrate with them. But then we must roll up our sleeves together, knowing there are more battles to come in this great and terrible war.