Serving with a Pure Heart
I like to think I serve Christ and His body on Columbia’s Campus. Some of you may know me from interactions in fellowships, clubs, church and classes, and many of you may only recognize my name or face. Yet all but a few of you are unaware that whilst I am a leader, a woman of God, a student and a servant of Christ, I am also a slave to online pornography.
If I had to name the one other idol that I bow down to each and everyday, it would be worldly recognition. It’s important to me, that you — reader, friend, acquaintance, family member, classmate, mentor, Christian or non-believer — like me. And recognise me as a good, well-intentioned, nice, sincere person. Which, I, more often than not, fail to be. You can imagine then, how this is probably the most difficult piece of writing I will ever craft, despite my “anonymous” authorship. It lays me bare and vulnerable in front of a massive, invisible audience, and it takes away all the masks that I can layer on top of one another when I face the world in person. What happens when people guess who I am? What if people no longer trust me, or see me differently? What if they come to the conclusion I have been a fake all this time? What if they alienate me?
I probably would not have written this a year or two ago. I was convinced that this battle was to be unspoken of in the Christian community, that it was far too scandalous and shameful to have this struggle. Only recently after finally being able to speak with a young woman who had gone through challenges like mine was I struck by the importance and necessity of speaking out. I realised that only after having been able to confess to a real person and see her unshaken love and acceptance for me was I able to begin a healing process of viewing myself in a different light. Yet even today, I am reluctant to share — there is always the perpetual fear of my audience replying, “woah, I don’t want to know” or as we may abbreviate today: “TMI!!!”
Serving and loving Christ with a pure heart is probably something that every Christian struggles with. In the words of David Foster Wallace: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” And very often, the choice we make is not God. Whether it be worshipping with a distracted heart, placing academics and career success over our relationships with God, feeling controlled and trapped by our emotions, our relationships, our worldly materials, the list of the things that we worship in place of God goes on and on. As Tony Reinke writes in his article Fighting Sin With Worship: “All sin is addiction. Whether it’s bitterness, whether it’s envy, whether it’s materialism, whether it’s laziness, whether it’s impurity – every sinful action becomes an addiction.” And yet, for so many years this specific form of addiction has taunted me, haunted me, and repeatedly reminded me of my unworthiness like no other sin of mine ever will.
I don’t remember when or how I stumbled upon pornographic material, nor do I remember what exactly happened that led me to various websites, but I do remember that as the years went on, I began to become more and more curious, and also more and more ashamed. I was the girl who every classmate thought was the face of innocence. I probably have never said more than four curse words in my life. I’ve prided myself in obedience to my teachers and parents. I shudder at the idea of participating in violence. And yet here I was in the confines of my house, watching and taking in the coarse imagery that millions of people are addicted to across the globe. As I grew older and learned more, I realised the gravity of what I had been exposed to. I understood more about the sex trafficking industry – I even worked with survivors of rape. I knew all the facts, the horrors of the perpetrators, the violence involved, the sinful nature of all this and yet I could not stop.
I am compelled to take a quick detour here: because I must clarify that I do not wish to discuss the ethics of the pornographic industry or the meaning of sex. I believe that all things created by God were meant for beauty, and we have in many ways distorted their original purposes. I’m not saying all sex is violent, nor am I saying that all pornographic directors are involved in horrific trafficking industries. But I know that pornography takes advantage of sinful desires, and these desires were stirring within me.
This knowledge only made me more ashamed. How could I, a woman, and a child of God be drawn to this? I was consumed in disgust for myself. And each time I returned to the sites or images, a voice in my head would tell me: “Go ahead, you might as well. There is so much sin in you; some more won’t do any harm. There is no way you can be pure and blameless in God’s sight.” Like Reinke articulates so well: “Addictions destroy willpower. You know you are an addict when you are trying to escape your distress with the very thing that brought you your distress. And when you are in that spiral, you are stuck forever — down and down and down and down.”
And so it continued.
At this point, you might be surprised. Depending on what your experience with the online world is, you might find it unsettling that not all pornography viewers are deranged, sexual, lustful addicts with sinful intentions. And even in the church, when pornography and sexual sin is brought up, it is always in the context of men. There are some articles and sources of guidance when it comes to females and lust, but they are few, and almost never personal. Yet my story does not stand alone. CovenantEyes, an Internet Accountability and Filtering site, shares that more than half of young women today are exposed to sexually explicit material by the age of 14, and that “exposures to pornography during childhood are not just brief glimpses. Some teen girls are viewing online pornography for a half-hour or more at a time, and 1 in 7 have done this on multiple occasions” and of women currently 18-29 years old, 61% saw pornography for the first time before the age of 13 years old.
For me, these statistics are both comforting and alarming at the same time. There is a strange sense of peace for me to know that I am not alone in my experience. The first time I spoke of my addiction was when a friend of mine confided in me her past struggles and shame despite being liberated from these sins. I was so moved by her confession, and in turn opened my heart. What happened next was indescribable. I was immediately encountered with an overwhelming wave of comfort and peace. For the first time, I felt like these experiences could be part of me and I could still be loved by God and recognized by fellow followers of Christ. As we spent the night sharing and praying for one another, I was sharply reminded of the promise of the Gospel, the cleansing of my sin and the hope of my salvation and reunion one day with God, because of Jesus paid it all. I was reminded that “He was pierced for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3). Yet unfortunately this in-the-moment comfort has not always been able to permeate me.
Today I say “I am a slave to online pornography” not because I am still trapped in addiction. I like to think that I am on a road of recovery and I try my best to hold on to God’s strength in deliverance. Yet I am still slave to what the addiction has painted me as. I find it incredibly difficult to see myself as one deserving of love. In relationships I often fear intimacy because I’m afraid that I will be exposed. The thought of needing to reveal the hidden part of me to my loved ones is terrifying. And my constant fear of not being an adequate “spiritual leader” haunts me daily. Every time a friend comments on my purity or faithfulness or kindness or honesty, my heart groans and I think: if only you knew the monster within me. Each time the pastor at church calls us to confess and repent, my past addictions surface to mind, trapping me in a prison of guilt, refusing to let me reflect on other ways I may be sinning or forsaking God. Each time I urge and encourage my brothers and sisters to seek God alongside me, I feel like a two-faced hypocrite. I may be on the road of deliverance in terms of my addiction, but the chains of having sinned in this way still bind me tightly to the back of my shame and disappointment.
There isn’t a hallelujah-happy-ending to this reflection, because I am still learning. As I write this entry, I am experiencing God’s grace and mercy over me. As I tell my friends about my struggles, I continue to experience God’s love flow through them. And as I share honestly to the world, I hope to forgive myself, to repent and to move forward. The community of Christ on this campus, has, in so many ways, encouraged me. I know that in the eyes of many, I am so much more than what my sin defines me as, and even if they were to know, I’d like to think that they would still see beyond my sin. In a way, being trapped in a sense of shame has only replaced my addiction with another idol: the idol of being pure, being able to justify my purity and being able to feel like I am a pure-hearted person. Yet seeking purity for the sake of purity is just as great of an idol. Keller argues in Counterfeit Gods that an idol is “whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel like my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” My obsession over purity or over removing my past stains of addiction have so often prevented me from serving God with my gifts and with fervency.
So today, I want to pray a new prayer, not one of merely shame, regret and repentance but one for deliverance and liberation. I ask God today to help me accept my experiences and see the value He has placed in me. I pray that I will not be pure for my own comfort, glory and recognition, but so that I will be able to serve Him and others with a pure heart.