The following blog is an excerpt from my book – Freedom: Battle Strategies for Conquering Temptation. Freedom mentors men – step-by-step – in the fight to overcome the shackles of sexual impurity. You can purchase the book in bulk from Lighthouse Catholic Media or from Ignatius Press. The book is also available on Amazon.
St. Augustine broke down the human person into four parts: the intellect, the will, the emotions, and the passions. Your passions are your appetites, the things that tell you to eat, sleep, and engage in sexual activity. Your emotions are your feelings toward something. Your intellect is your faculty of reason. And your will allows you to make decisions.
So what does this have to do with breaking free from porn? Let me demonstrate how this works. Let’s say you see a doughnut sitting on a plate. You look at the doughnut and your passions say, “Mmm…doughnut.“ Your emotions say, “Doughnuts taste good, and I want that one.” Your intellect says, “You’ve already eaten half a dozen doughnuts today, and you’re supposed to be getting into shape, not further out of it.” Your will makes the decision: to have or not to have another health-defying doughnut. It is your faculty of reason, rightly exercised, that protects your passions and emotions from influencing you into making bad decisions. If your intellect has not been well-formed, or if you don’t have the will to follow through on what you know to be the right course of action, you will become a slave to your passions and emotions. People who make decisions on the basis of these are people who consistently make poor decisions.
Let’s apply the same principle to your sexuality. Let’s say that you are on a first date with an attractive girl. Your passions say, “Mmm…woman.” Your emotions say, “She’s really pretty. I want her because it would make me feel good.” Your intellect (if well-formed) says, “She is a person, which means she is worthy of respect, love, honesty, and commitment. I should not act towards her in ways contrary to respecting and valuing her as a person.” Your will makes the decision of how to respond. Your intellect, when it makes a judgment about right and wrong, is called your conscience. If your conscience is poorly formed, you probably will make a bad decision. A well-formed conscience helps our will to resist making choices on the basis of impulse or emotional responses. When our conscience is sound, we know the right thing to do. Then it is up to our will to choose to love—remember that love is an act of the will—or to give into lust, the passion of sexual desire devoid of love.
This is an important concept. In one sense, overcoming sexual impurity – like pornography and masturbation addictions – is straightforward. It amounts to grasping and acting according to the proper purpose of our sexuality. Consider the following. Using a woman as a mere means to gratify one’s own desires is the way that too many men have grown up thinking about the meaning of sex. Even treating a woman as someone a man wants to share a pleasurable experience with doesn’t properly reflect what sex is meant to be. It diminishes or cheapens it. If a man starts from a flawed understanding of sexuality, it is easy to see how he will wind up acting in the wrong way and developing harmful habits and attitudes toward women and toward himself. God created sexual relations for a much higher purpose than self-gratification or even mutual pleasure-sharing. Rather, he created sexual relations to be an expression of a profound love: a person-uniting and life-giving form of love.
Love respects and cherishes the beloved. Sexual love includes respecting and cherishing one’s partner as a spouse—as one’s irreplaceable, unique, complementary, and permanent companion. It involves the kind of union that by its nature points to new human life, even if in any particular instance it doesn’t result in new life. The bodily union of sexual love is the kind of union into which a man and a woman enter when they want to express their total, permanent commitment of love for one another and to bring a new human being into existence. To engage in the same kind of act for any lesser purpose than expressing a total, permanent commitment, with an openness to life, demeans such an act. From this we can see why sexuality is very important and why impurity distorts it.
For most men the battle against impurity is not just a matter of having the right ideas and attitudes and then deciding to act on them. In fact, for many men—even many Christian men—the fight against sexual impurity is a difficult one. It can continue for years, maybe even a lifetime.
If all we need to do is “just say no to lust,” why is it often so difficult to win the battle?
There are physical reasons why it can be hard to give up pornography, masturbation, and other forms of impurity. For example, scientific research shows that the neurological pathways of pornography addicts are restructured by a stimulant as powerful as any drug, altering brain chemistry and natural hormonal release. I don’t want to minimize those factors. But compounding the difficulty of breaking free from impurity is usually some kind of underlying emotional wound.
In my experience, most men who struggle with sexual impurity, including sexual addiction, have an emotional connection to it. Usually it issues from a wound in their lives, and they comfort themselves with impure forms of sexual release as a way of self-medicating. The wound is usually associated with a sense of inadequacy, deep loneliness, or feeling like they are not worthy of love. Often men succumb to sexual temptation when these feelings are strong.
Consider this story. I know a man who was dealing with some marital problems. He is a good man, a good husband, and a good father. He shared his struggles with me and revealed that he and his wife had not had made love for several months. He then followed that up by saying, “A guy my age should not be struggling with masturbation.” We talked for a while and as more of his story spilled out, it became apparent to me that he wasn’t convinced that his wife loved him. When I brought this to his attention, he told me about his childhood, and how he grew up not being entirely convinced that he was worthy of love. His struggles with his wife were affected by his childhood wound, and as a result, he felt there was something lacking in him.
As we talked and prayed together, it was clear that his sexual impurity was rooted in this wound of inadequacy and that it was triggered when he felt rejected by his wife. He would turn to this sin as a means of soothing his own sense of inadequacy.