Monday, July 01, 2013

The process requires more than forgiveness.

by Stephen Arterburn
The following article was originally published by Christianity Today in 1995.

My brother and I both struggled with sexuality. His brokenness led him through many painful years of homosexuality. Mine led me into promiscuity. My brother died from AIDS; I killed my unborn child with an abortion.

Decisions have consequences; both of ours led to death. Sexual sin always has serious ramifications. Those who are caught in sexual sin need pastors and Christian leaders willing and able to restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Any sexual behavior that violates Scripture, of course, is sin. But when someone repeatedly violates his or her moral standards and is unable to stop, that is besetting sin. That is sexual addiction. Therefore, all sexual addiction is sin, but not all sexual sin is addiction.

Sexual addiction is a powerful, destructive force in a person’s life, whether voyeuristic or active, alone or with another person. People may be addicted to masturbating while using pornography, fondling women’s underwear, visiting an adult bookstore, entertaining sexual fantasies, or doing anything else for sexual stimulation and escape.

When sexual sin has moved to the level of addiction, it must be treated in a different way. It’s often easier to confront sin and work through forgiveness than work through issues related to sexual addiction. In pastoral care, for example, we lead the sinner to repent, confess, make amends, and go on with life. But if the sinner is also a sex addict, failure to confront the issue of addiction may leave the person on a downward spiral toward destruction.

One woman was shocked to learn that her husband, an associate pastor at a large church, was addicted to pornography and had engaged in numerous, anonymous sexual encounters during their marriage. Even more distressing was that the senior pastor had known for more than a year.

The senior pastor had treated the issue as a simple issue of sin and repentance. He had soothed the guilt-ridden staff member but not seen the signs of ongoing sexual addiction (the use of pornography, for example, hidden in the home). Because issues of sexual addiction were never addressed or resolved, it was only a matter of time until the man began sexually acting out again. That time it involved another member of the church staff.

If the associate pastor had been identified as a sex addict as well as a sinner, the senior pastor could have helped prevent further sin. He later confessed he let things slide because he did not understand the nature of sexual addiction.


The indicators of addictive sex are distinct; they follow the predictable pattern of other addictions.

Done in isolation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the sexual addict performs certain acts alone. It means that mentally and emotionally the addict is detached, or isolated, from human relationship. Sex, the most personal of human behaviors, becomes utterly impersonal.

Addictive sex is “mere sex,” sex for its own sake, sex divorced from authentic human interaction. This is most clear with regard to fantasy, pornography, and compulsive masturbation. But even with sex involving a partner, the partner is not really a person to whom the addict is relating but a cipher, an interchangeable part in an impersonal, almost mechanical, process.

In effect, sex addicts develop a double life—practicing masturbation, using pornography, patronizing massage parlors or porn shops, engaging in sexual encounters. All this is secreted away from others—and in a sense, from themselves.

One person who engaged in anonymous homosexual encounters never thought of being tested for AIDS. He became so divorced from what he was doing that he deceived himself into believing that what the “other part of him” did could not touch the godly man, the husband of his wife.


The person begins experiencing uncomfortable feelings of pain, stress, or shame. Then, a sexually stimulating activity is used to medicate or distract from the uncomfortable feelings. The escapist nature of addictive sex is often one of the clearest indicators that it is present. Anyone who uses sex like a mood-altering drug has issues deeper than sexual sin needing to be addressed.

After the act, the sex addict feels intense guilt and self-reproach (often promising himself it will never happen again). Days or weeks later, the scene is repeated.

Over time, the addict becomes desensitized, needing more and more stimulation to produce the same level of results; eventually he does things that were previously off limits. Unless someone or something intervenes, the addict continues his downward spiral.

Leaves emptiness.

When married couples make love, they are generally more fulfilled for having had the experience. Addictive sex leaves the participants feeling guilty, regretting the experience, and filled with shame and remorse. Rather than being fulfilling, it leaves them more empty. This sets them up for another round in the futile cycle of trying to satisfy an insatiable sexual hunger.

Creates victims.

Sexual addiction victimizes the family, the person who becomes an object of sexual arousal or expression, even a church (if the sex addict is in leadership). The obsession with self-gratification blinds sex addicts to the harmful effects their behavior has on others, and even on themselves.


I know God can certainly do a miraculous intervention and sweep clean the inner house of a repentant sinner. However, if sex addicts are to stay free they must fill that empty inner house with new understanding and a new way of life. I know of no sex addict who has recovered apart from an ongoing support group prepared to handle the issues unique to sexual addiction. Sex addicts need the church and Christian treatment, which can involve counseling and support groups. The best and first thing a pastor should do is help a sex addict find a Christian therapist.

Sex addicts need tremendous support, given our sexually saturated culture. It’s difficult enough for men who aren’t sexually addicted not to give in regularly to lust and its inexorable pull. In Western culture, viewing sexually stimulating material is almost inescapable. Sex addicts must have the understanding, accountability, and support that is provided in the loving context of Christian treatment and follow-up care.

Recovery for sex addiction is a long and winding road. Addicts must be brutally honest with themselves and others. Sex addicts can experience withdrawal, which can cause painful emotional and even physical distress. They need companions offering support and accountability without condemnation, especially during times of failure.


In addition to encouraging the person to get treatment, pastors can provide ongoing care. Here are several things to keep in mind when walking beside someone battling sexual addiction:

  • Reaffirm that God’s grace and power are available for all who turn to God for help.
  • Reaffirm your love for the sex addict. You may need to ask God to give you true compassion for one who has disappointed you and may have done things you cannot fathom.
  • Confront and intervene as necessary. If the person continues to act out in sexually sinful and dangerous ways, confront him. Most addicts become consummate liars. They’ve learned to lie convincingly to maintain their double life. Don’t trust everything they say. If a person has not begun treatment, make the goal for him to take that step. This is done similarly to interventions for alcoholics.
  • Care for the addict’s family, especially the spouse. Some people will cast the spouse as a co-conspirator. Many times the spouse is kept entirely in the dark about errant sexual behavior.
  • Maintain strict confidentiality: Do not tell anyone unless he or she is directly affected by the person’s behavior. It will be much easier when the repentant brother or sister is looking for acceptance and support within the church body if the details of the sin have not been rumored about.
  • Create and follow a plan of restoration. Galatians 6:1 speaks of restoration being similar to the way a doctor sets a broken bone. The treatment process will help this person stop his sexually acting out and set his life to heal properly. Those in your congregation need to uphold the person until the broken pieces can heal. This takes a reaffirmation of love and a diligent commitment to walk alongside the person and family while they are being knit back together.
  • Hold out hope to the addict of complete restoration. Dare to trust God for wholeness.

Sexual wholeness is possible. Sex addicts whom I have talked with, those who have not acted out for thirty days or more, express feelings of inner cleanliness. They feel right with God and right within themselves. Their chains have been broken.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP Journal

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