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Porneia

   

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Purity of Thought

There is a rightful taboo surrounding porneia (Greek: πορνεία, sexual immorality) in Christian circles. Certain parties claim that by “not talking about it” we are making the problem worse. I submit that this is foolishness.

One need not elaborate about what manner of things are included in porneia to help people follow the good path. Is there any doubt about the propriety of some act? Then let the wise man flee from it without looking back. Ephesians 5:3 makes it clear that this is not some game of seeing how long one can handle fire without getting burned.

It is for this reason that victory in this area requires a pattern of thought wherein porneia has no place. You do not conquer sexual sin by keeping track of your progress, trying to motivate yourself by statistics of success and failure, nor through fiddly filtering software, accountability partners, journaling, or anything else. All of these things make you think about “it,” whatever “it” may be. This is madness – like an alcoholic gurgling with vodka or someone who has quit smoking lighting a cigarette but “not inhaling.”

I liken it to what one experiences when someone comes up and says “do not think about pink elephants” (or what have you). Invariably, one begins to think about pink elephants. It’s simply unavoidable. (This phenomenon is described by something called Ironic Process Theory). Because of how our brains work, any time we consciously try not to think about something, neural pathways related to the something – be they visual, auditory, or even emotional – will be called to mind. Put differently, not thinking about something, paradoxically, is a way of thinking about it.

What all this has to do with the matter at hand is this – anything that involves actual thought concerning porneia is playing with fire – but so too is anything that calls porneia to mind to make you “not think about it.” One needs no physical objects to sin in this area (e.g., while one needs alcohol to become drunk, one may lust after a woman without anyone else even about). This makes a zero-tolerance policy all the more important – the line between having porneia in mind (in whatever way) and falling into sin is not one that may be reasonably parsed. Therefore, the only possible path to success is resolving never to even let the topic cross your mind – and if thoughts intrude, to push them right back out.

Practical Matters

Removing Sources of Temptation

It is prudent to remove unnecessary temptation, as long as doing so does not force one to constantly think about it. For this reason, I recommend an “always on” passive internet filter (rather than something which requires timers or intentional “blocking” periods, etc.). I use K9 Web Protection for this purpose. Think of this in the same terms as an alcoholic refusing to keep hard liquor in his house – it’s not legalism, simply common sense.

Within day to day life, I would also recommend that you take care what sort of situations you find yourself in. Some places have much higher concentrations of temptations in this area than others (beaches and bars for example). Minimizing exposure to all tempting things is prudent, as long as one does not get legalistic about it.

Resisting to the Point of Blood

You will never get past this issue (much less any of the other difficult areas of sin in the Christian life) without accepting responsibility for your actions and building a steely resolve – until you “resist to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). We overcome by the Spirit – but we must choose to let the Spirit control us. Failing to accept responsibility for our part in the matter – striving constantly to be under the control of the Spirit – accounts in large part for the whining attitude that has taken over the Church with respect to this topic. Just like many of the Israelites complained to God as he led them through the wilderness, not seeing how he had already delivered them and was leading them to peace and proseperity, so too many people in the Church complain of a culture awash with sexuality and an internet full of temptation. All the Israelites had to do was trust God – nothing is different for us.

Overcoming Feelings of Guilt and Shame

It is important not to be overcome by guilt; sitting around “feeling bad” about sinning (perhaps leading to more sin) is not at all what God wants for us. God will always “punish us enough” – we will be disciplined as sons if we truly are of Him. We needn’t act out some form of our own penance for the sin to be forgiven – any thought that comes close to this is in fact blasphemous. Not being blameless and holy, we are not even worthy of atoning for our sin, and we would not be able to withstand a single instant of the fiery judgement Jesus faced to pay for our transgressions.

So how can we avoid counterproductive feelings of guilt and self-imposed alienation from God after sinning? By forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13). 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, we are forgiven. Confessing our sins restores our fellowship with God, turning any divine discipline into suffering for blessing. If you think about it, refusing to accept the clear teaching of 1 John 1:9 betrays a lack of faith in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf; by refusing to believe that we really are forgiven, we throw God’s gracious offer back in His face, saying, effectively, “I’m too bad a sinner for your grace; Jesus’ sacrifice was in vain.” That’s certainly not something we should be thinking as Christians.

Regarding Teaching On This Subject

One might fairly point out that porneia comes up in the Bible (and I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about it). So, by my own words, am I not leading people into sin? Heaven forbid!

This is a subtle straw man argument that fails to account for what I would call “thought context.” Teaching on porneia requires thinking about it to some extent – true. But this thought occurs in the context of Bible reading and Bible teaching, two activities wherein the believer ought to be closely under the guidance of the Spirit, making sin much less likely. It is also worth pointing out that both my treatment above and scripture deal in generalities without ever getting specific (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8) – unlike many “systems” people use to try and combat this area of sin. Neural connections associated with the the abstract concept of porneia are less likely to lead one into sin than neural connections associated with “specifics” (of whatever form).

This being said, fixating on all this when reading one’s Bible or taking in teaching is still a bad idea. I can think of very little more that needs to be said on the matter outside what I have covered above and scripture’s clear warnings on the subject. So it would be prudent to avoid dwelling on this matter even in reading and teaching contexts, to the extent one is able.