In this ongoing series of articles I am taking a look at books that have won the Platinum or Diamond Sales Awards from the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association. The Platinum Award recognizes books that have achieved one million sales while the Diamond Award recognizes the few that have surpassed the ten million mark. Today we turn our attention to a bestseller meant to help men battle and overcome sexual temptation.
Every Man’s Battle by Steven Arterburn & Fred Stoeker
Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time lists three names on its front cover: Steven Arterburn and Fred Stoeker with Mike Yorkey. The story is that Stoeker wrote the book and passed it to Yorkey for a substantial edit. Yorkey’s editing led to the offer of a contract from Waterbrook Press, but the publisher believed it would thrive with the voice and name recognition of a respected counselor. For that reason they enlisted Arterburn who as founder and chairman of New Life Ministries had begun a chain of mental-health facilities, was hosting a nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show, and had already authored more than thirty books. He was just the man they needed. In the introduction Stoeker explains that he had once been held captive by sexual sin and that he wrote the book to help other men liberate and cleanse themselves from it. “Are you anxious to get started? Good…so am I. We need real men around here—men of honor and decency, men with their hands where they belong and their eyes and minds focused on Christ. If roving eyes or sexually impure thoughts or even sexual addictions are issues in your life, Steve and I are hoping you’ll do something about it. Isn’t it time?”
Arterburn begins the book with an account of his own history with lust. He describes a time he let his eyes and imagination wander and ended up causing a car accident. This story has gained notoriety for its explicit detail about the woman he was ogling—her actions, her clothing, her shape, her desirability. “My eyes locked on this goddesslike blonde…” He tells that for the first ten years of his marriage he was held captive by this kind of lust. Stoeker follows with his own description of sexual sin, manifested through casual sex, addiction to pornography, and habitual self-gratification. In contrast to such sexual darkness the authors lay out a plan to recover sexual purity. “God offers you freedom from the slavery of sin through the cross of Christ, and He created your eyes and mind with an ability to be trained and controlled. We simply have to stand up and walk by His power in the right path.”
This path of self-control involves replacing old destructive habits with new and better ones. “While sexual impurity works like a bad habit, sexual purity works like a good habit.” The two-part habit they teach is bouncing and starving the eyes. “Your eyes have always bounced toward the sexual, and you’ve made no attempt to end this habit. To combat it, you need to build a reflex action by training your eyes to immediately bounce away from the sexual, like the jerk of your hand away from a hot stove.” The authors state that after six weeks of doing this it will become established as a habit and lust will lose its power, halting the cycle of sexual fantasy.
Sales & Lasting Impact
Every Man’s Battle released in July 2000. It sold briskly for the first few years and in 2004 was awarded the Gold Sales Award for selling a half million copies. Sales would slow but remain steady until by 2013 it sold its one millionth copy and was awarded the Platinum Sales Award.
The book was widely praised for its man-to-man tone and its practical advice. It put into words what many men had grappled with—the lust, the desires, the wandering eyes, the self-gratification. It was published at a time when Internet-based pornography was beginning to run rampant but before the problem had been widely acknowledged. Many men turned to this book in shame and despair and many of them found help in its pages.
However, the book has not been without its critiques, the foremost of which is its lascivious tone. Many readers and reviewers have despaired to find that their imaginations are fired rather than freed by the authors’ detailed descriptions of their lust and the objects of their lust.
Of greater concern is the book’s habit-based solution to sin in which the authors offer a behavior-modification approach instead of a gospel-grounded one. They teach the reader to deal with bad habits by replacing them with good ones, but they do not sufficiently explore the root of the sin of lust. The core of any sin is idolatry, a deep heart condition that replaces satisfaction in God with satisfaction in something else, worship of God with worship of something created by God. As Erik Raymond says, in the moment you look lustfully at pornography (or a woman who is not your wife) “you have just declared that these images are chiefly beautiful and worthy of your desire. You have elevated your selfish lust to a position of supremacy above what God has called beautiful. You have exchanged the beauty of God for the beauty of a fleeting image. Your sinful heart has just robbed the glory of God of what is due him by ascribing glory and beauty to this image.”
The Every Man’s Battle approach focuses too much on externals and too little on internals. In that way it offers a faulty and often short-lived approach. Bad habits need to be replaced with good ones to be sure! But habits without the gospel are an insufficient, works-based approach to holiness. So yes, bounce your eyes! Starve them, shut them, pluck them right out of your face if that’s what it takes! But don’t do any of this apart from a deep grounding in the gospel.
Since the Award
The book spawned a plethora of related titles including Every Young Man’s Battle, Preparing Your Son for Every Man’s Battle, Every Man’s Challenge, Every Man God’s Man, Every Young Man God’s Man, Every Man’s Marriage, Every Single Man’s Battle. Then there were the similar books for women: Every Woman’s Battle, Every Young Woman’s Battle, Every Single Woman’s Battle, and so on. There are at least 16 books in “The Every Man” franchise. The books for men continued to list Arterburn, Stoeker, and Yorkey on the front cover while the books for women listed Shannon Ethridge with forewords and afterwords by Arterburn. In 2013 Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Battle both surpassed 500,000 sales.
Both authors have continued to write books and both speak at conferences, though Arterburn has by far the bigger platform. Today he has some eight million books in print, his daily radio program is heard on more than 180 radio stations across American, and he founded the Women of Faith conferences which have now seen over 5 million women attend.
Perhaps the most unusual thing to happen since the book’s release was an article featured in a 2006 issue of GQ magazine. A journalist wrote about the evangelical abstinence movement and in doing so interviewed Arterburn. As he did that, he discovered a surprising fact: Arterburn had recently been divorced for the second time and married for the third. “As my meeting with Arterburn is winding down, I notice a photo on a desk of a fresh-faced blond knockout I take to be his daughter. He corrects this impression: She’s his third wife, Misty. She’s in her early thirties, he informs me; he met her a few years back at one of his seminars, they corresponded through e-mail for a while, and he’s been married to her for nine months. She’s also pregnant with their first child.” Arterburn expressed concern that this might impact his ministry, but his fears were unfounded.
A Personal Perspective
I read Every Man’s Battle in 2003 and offered just a short review. This was long before I had given substantial attention to sexual sin and purity, but even then I found myself dissatisfied with the habit-based approach. “Primarily I find I am disappointed that the authors have no better solution than bouncing the eyes. I would like to believe that God can truly free men from sexual sin rather than having them live their lives masking this sin.” Even then I knew that God must be able to do a deeper work than merely retraining a man’s habits. Can’t God actually deliver a man from the sin of lust? I need to believe God can do a deeper work in a man than merely training him to bounce his eyes.
A few years later I wrote a series of articles titled “Sexual Detox” and these turned into a book by the same title. In some ways that book was my own attempt to right some of the weaknesses of Every Man’s Battle. Far and away the most common feedback I have received is something like this: “Thank you for writing with dignity and not writing in such a way that you cause me to lust even more.” I know exactly what they mean.
With all of this said, I would not wish to deny that God used Every Man’s Battle to challenge and sanctify many of his people. God does not use only perfect books (which is good since there is only one of them). God does not change only those people who have a perfect understanding of sin and how to battle it. He saw fit to use this book. However, since 2000 hundreds of others books have been written that tackle issues of sexual sin and purity and many of them are far superior. Here are my recommendations.