How A 4th Century Saint Led Me Away From Porn

Back in the mid-90s, I was a young husband, a young father, and a pastor in training. Life was filled with promise and hope. The world was my oyster, as they say.

Yet I was helplessly mired in a sinful swamp.  I had become a habitual porn user.

My Problem

It was pitiful how easily I fell. Cable TV strafed my heart, softening me up for the real invasion to come with the internet, and I wilted like the French before the Nazis.

Looking back now I realize that in some respects I was fortunate. I lost neither marriage nor ministry because of my foolishness. By God’s grace, I somehow recognized my helplessness early on and confessed my failings to my wife and some trusted colleagues. Janis and I began meeting regularly with a counselor to shore up our marriage. And I began to read anything I could get my hands on that spoke to this gaping wound in my soul.

One book in particular was used by God to restore me to health and sanity. This book speaks nothing of digital technology or the recovery moment. In fact, it was written a few years before computers came along – 1,600 years before, to be exact. It’s called The Confessions of St. Augustine, written by Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential church leaders from the early church age.

It’s funny how sometimes we think to ourselves that there’s little to be learned from people from such a bygone era. But the truth is, swap out our clothes and technology, we humans are pretty much the same going as far back as we can see. It can be a worthwhile exercise to compare notes with someone from a past generation – especially someone like this, who left us so many notes.

Augustine was a prodigious preacher and author, producing more than a hundred surviving books. His theology shaped the thinking of the Church for the next millennium, inspired the first generation of Protestant reformers, and continues to cast its shadow over the Church today.

I can testify to the power of his reach. Because reading this remarkable book, Confessions, spoke to my heart as none other about where to find freedom from porn addiction. Because you see, Augustine was more or less a sex addict.

Augustine’s Problem

The reason we know this is because Augustine tells us himself in his Confessions. Here is Augustine in his own words describing (to God, for Confessions is largely written as a love-letter to God) is how lust overwhelmed his heart when puberty came along.

Where was I, and how far was I banished from the delights of your house in that sixteenth year of my flesh when the madness of lust…held complete sway over me and to this madness I surrendered myself entirely!

 He hints at masturbating, in church.

Once when your solemnities were being celebrated within the walls of your Church, I actually dared to desire and then to bring to a conclusion a business which deserved death for its reward.

 He wasn’t talking about playing video games. It’s important to understand that this wasn’t just a young man sowing his wild oats in his teen years, which he would later outgrow. He became truly addicted to the sexual experience.

Around 19 or 20, a woman moved in with him and became his lover or concubine, we might call her a common-law wife. They were together for nine years, and had a son together. Augustine tells us that she was his only sexual partner. But he would not marry her. And he could not leave her.

In his late twenties, as the truth of Christianity pressed heavier on his heart, he knew he had to resolve this if he was to follow Christ. But he couldn’t imagine living any length of time without the comfort of sex.

I thought that I should be unbearably unhappy if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman, and I never thought of your mercy as a medicine to cure that weakness, because I had never tried it.

 When he comes clean with one of his best friends, Alypius, about his struggles, Alypius can’t believe it.

I was the prisoner of this disease of the flesh and of its deadly sweetness, and I dragged my chains about with me, dreading the idea of its being loosed…[Alypius] was much surprised to find that I, of whom he thought so highly, was so stuck in the glue of this kind of pleasure.

Notice the addiction language Augustine uses. This talk of being a ‘prisoner’ held fast with ‘chains’ and ‘glue’. The time comes when he sends away his lover. But no sooner does he do that, than he promptly finds another woman to move in with him!

Since I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust, I found another woman for myself – not of course, as a wife. In this way my soul’s disease was fed and kept alive…Just as strong as before, or stronger, and still the slave of an unbreakable habit.”

I hope you can see why in the midst of my own terrible battle to wrench myself free from porn’s magnetic draw, Augustine’s words spoke to me. This brother from 1,600 years ago understood the depth of my struggle, and why walking away from this just wasn’t a matter of repenting and being done with it, or powering off the computer and walking away. A complete retraining of my heart, mind and will was required.

Yet here’s where Augustine’s story provided hope. It wasn’t long after he shared his weakness with Alypius, that Augustine finally yielded his heart to Jesus Christ. And when it happened, those chains shattered, the glue softened, and his slavery ended.

Looking back on this time more than ten years later, Augustine writes of his freedom.

And this was what you did: I was totally able to set my face against what I willed and to will what you willed. But where had this ability been for all those years? And from what profound and secret depth was my free will suddenly called forth in a moment so that I should bow my neck to your easy yoke and my shoulders to your light burden, O Christ Jesus, my Helper and my Redeemer? How sweet it suddenly became to me to be without the sweetness of those empty toys! How glad I was to give up the things I had been so afraid to lose! You cast them out for me, you true and supreme sweetness, you cast them out and you entered into me to take their place, sweeter than all pleasure.

From his conversion forwards, Augustine’s life completely changed. So much so that this former sex addict was able to embrace in exchange, not marriage, but complete celibacy. The prodigious output of his life as a pastor, writer and theologian poured out from this transformation.

In my next article, I will identify ten principles Augustine’s story illustrate which brought him to freedom. But for now know this:

If there was hope for him, and if there was hope for me, then there is hope for you, my friend. Know that you’re not alone in this struggle, and know that God is not finished with you yet. You will come to freedom.

How sweet it suddenly became to me to be without the sweetness of those empty toys! How glad I was to give up the things I had been so afraid to lose! You cast them out for me, you true and supreme sweetness, you cast them out and you entered into me to take their place, sweeter than all pleasure.

 

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