The Two-Fold Problem of Sexual Sin

Here’s a side of myself you don’t usually see: Me, hysterically sobbing on my bed, pulling at my hair, feeling broken to pieces.

I wasn’t ruminating in the pain of a break-up, or mourning the loss of a friend. No, I was suffocating under the weight of shame and hopelessness that comes with failing at overcoming sexual sin: again.

How many times have I been here before? Promising myself and God that this time is the last time. Crying to him prayers of apology, like the intensity of my emotion will make up for the fact that I always seem to wind back up in this place. While other sins seem to fall under my feet, and I wave multiple flags of victory over gossip, drinking, unforgiveness and pride; Lust is the beast that always comes back and beats me.

I know I am not alone in this. Why does sexual sin seem like an impossible sin to overcome? Is it that Lust is too big, too powerful for even the power of the Lord to break? No, it’s that lust is simply a unique, different, battle. The reason Lust often feels like the unbeatable beast is because it is a two-fold problem.

First of all, it is a spiritual problem, and second, it is a psychological problem.

A Spiritual Problem

Let’s break down the spiritual problem first. Every horizontal sin, or in other words, every sin between yourself and the world, is first a vertical sin, a sin between yourself and God. Therefore, if you cannot stop masturbating, looking at pornography, or ‘doing everything but’ with your boyfriend, it is simply the fruit of a deeper sin between yourself and the Lord.

For me, that vertical sin is usually idolatry. Idolatry for me starts with a mistrust that God truly and deeply loves me, that God is good, or that God forgives and has grace on me. Those three lies lead me to three idols: an idol of intimacy, an idol of men’s attention, and an idol of myself and my desires. Those three idols often lead me to sexual sin in some form. These are merely an example from my life, but I would argue these are the vertical sins behind most women’s horizontal struggles with sexual sin.

Broken Roots

The truth is, a person is like an apple tree. The roots of the tree are their heart, and their behavior is like the fruit. When there is something wrong with the roots of an apple tree, it can only produce bad fruit. If there is brokenness in your heart that is not being met and healed with the Lord, it causes the fruit of bad behavior. You can only overcome sexual sin if you first heal the broken places of your heart that you try to fill with sexual sin.

Go to God, and find the root of your behavior like you are trying to retrace your steps. What’s the specific fruit of sexual sin in your life? Is it having sex with your girlfriend? Is it making out with random people at parties? Is it masturbating and fantasizing about the guy you like?

Now, trace that fruit back to an idol. An idol is anything in your life that replaces God or comes between you and God. It’s when what really rules your heart in the situations and relationships of your daily life is not love for God, but a craving for some other thing. So what is that idol for you? An idol of control? An idol of power? An idol of intimacy? An idol of men/women’s attention? An idol of your girlfriend/boyfriend?

Now, let us trace that idol to the areas of your heart that are broken. Why do you desire power so much? Is it because deep in your heart you believe the message “I am a failure?” Is it because you believe the lie “I am worthless?” Is it because you believe the lie: “I am unlovable?”

Now lets put it together.If you hear that voice in your head every day saying, “You’re a failure, you’re a failure, you’re a failure,” it makes you think that if you can just get a sense of power, you will be okay. And watching porn makes you feel powerful, and in control, and as if, for just a moment, you’re not a failure. Therefore, you will always come back to porn. You will always come back to that broken cistern, and never feel satisfied.

This is why breaking the cycle of sexual sin is so hard.

This is why we need to have grace for anyone who is trying to overcome sexual sin. Because sexual sin is the fruit of the brokenness we all carry.

If you are trying to overcome sexual sin, this is the part of the problem you need to attack first. You need to go on a healing journey with the Lord before you attack the second part of the problem of sexual sin.

A Fifteen Year Road Map

Sexual sin is also a psychological problem. In fact, it is a pretty significant psychological problem. Put on your therapy hats ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to learn some psychology!

The brain learns behavior through a series of actions and rewards/consequences called operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner, a leading father of psychology, studied the connection between rat’s behavior and rewards. He was able to use one of the strongest biological rewards, food, to increase a specific behavior, pulling a lever. To do this, every time the rat accidently hit the lever, a piece of food would come out. Once the rat realized that a specific behavior: pulling a lever, yielded a much-desired reward: food, the rats would constantly pull the lever over and over again, seeking that reward as much as possible. He was able to use operant conditioning to condition the rats to associate the reward of food with the behavior of pulling a lever.

The average millennial first saw pornography around the age of twelve (kids now, on average, are seeing pornography at the age of eight, excuse me while I cry for this generation.).  Furthermore, most kids learn to masturbate when they are young children. Therefore, by the time you are in your mid-twenties, your body could have been conditioning you to reinforce the behavior of masturbating and/or looking at pornography for over fifteen years! 

This behavior: sexual sin, has been partnered with a reward: an orgasm, rushes of feel-good hormones, etc., and has been reinforced over and over again for five, ten, twenty years. This has conditioned a deeply embedded behavior in your brain. In fact, it creates something called a neural pathway. Neural pathways are basically like a roadmap in your brain, and all the individual roads are behaviors that your brain will choose/desire to complete. Your habits are like the highways of this behavior roadmap. These are behaviors that you do frequently, that have a high reward. The body desires to what it does often, good or bad.

If, for over ten years you have been engaging in a behavior: looking at porn 3 to 4 times a week, and giving it a strong reward: a rush of feel-good hormones, feelings of adequacy feelings of connectedness and intimacy, etc., then looking at porn is a ‘highway’ neural pathway in your brain that your brain desires, seeks out, and does naturally.

This is why breaking the cycle of sexual sin is so hard! Your brain is battling against you to get you to engage in sexual sin, while you are trying to overcome it.

Biological Hope

But here is the good and beautiful news. There is also a thing called Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means the brain is plastic, movable, and changeable. It means that even though you may have certain brain pathways and behaviors that seem nearly impossible to change, change is possible. If you stop doing a negative behavior, like masturbating daily, and replace it with a new or different behavior, your body will start to make a new habit out of the new and different behavior, and start desiring the negative behavior less and less.

This is why even if you have tried and tried to stop engaging in sexual sin, even after undergoing significant heart change, you just can’t seem to stop. You have to put physical and practical interventions in place to fight the psychological battle, to coincide with your spiritual heart change.

A Broken Boat

If you are out there trying to overcome sexual sin, but you just can’t seem to stop, it may be that you are only fighting one part of this problem. Maybe you have undergone significant spiritual healing in your heart, but haven’t followed the Lord in obedience to come up with physical, practical ways to change your behavior. On the other hand, you may be trying with all your might to overcome lust with physical interventions, like downloading Covenant Eyes, or having an accountability partner. These are external fixes, but they will never fix the deeper brokenness that keeps leading you to sexual sin.

That approach is like wrongfully trying to fix a boat with a hole in it. If there is a hole in the bottom of your boat, but you are trying to fix the situation by frantically bailing the water out of your boat with your hat, you will surely drown. What you need to do is fix the hole. After fixing the hole, you need to work on a practical way to get the remaining water out of your boat, so it doesn’t weigh you down.

You have to let God fix the hole in your heart that is leading you to sexual sin. Then, in obedience, seek His wisdom for practical ways to overcome the psychological effects of sexual sin.  If you only fight one part of this problem, you will be fighting a losing battle. But with His healing power, and unending wisdom to change, there will always be victory over sin!




8 thoughts on “The Two-Fold Problem of Sexual Sin

  1. The phrasing used in describing vertical and horizontal sin comes off as a little hard to read in my opinion. But I like where you were going with the idea, I feel it could have been further elaborated on. What are your thoughts on the differences between the sexes when it comes to sexual temptation? Ie: regards to men and the more physical. Or do women struggle more because there’s more of an emotional aspect as well? Would love to get more of a woman’s perspective on this subject. Overall, it was an informative piece.

    1. Thanks for the comment and advice! I have so many thoughts about the difference between men and women when struggling with sexual sin, but if I were to share them we would be here all day! I’m actually speaking on the subject in a few weeks so I have been thinking about it a lot. I probably will write another post entirely focused on that subject because there is so much to talk about when we talk about gender differences.

      One thing I will say though, is that there is definitely a difference between how men and women are drawn to sexual sin because men and women were designed by the Lord so differently. That being said, I think that men at times can minimize the emotional brokenness that often lead to sexual sin, and women often minimize the physical/psychological forces that draw them to sexual sin. Also, Christian women talk so infrequently about their struggles with sexual sin, it’s difficult for me to get a more accurate, wider picture of the gender in general.

    2. I think this is an area where the differences between the sexes tend to be WAY overstated. I was told for a decade that girls don’t think about sex that much, and girls aren’t as “visual” as guys (just with sex though – it’s the opposite with design sense), and girls don’t lust, and girls only get into sexual sin when they’re pressured by their boyfriends, and girls just give sex to get love (the reverse for guys). I felt like a monster because none of that was true for me. And I was totally unprepared when it all hit.

      I don’t even think I’m that far out of the average. Women really don’t talk about our struggles with sexual sin enough, but so many of the conversations I do have go like “dude, me too! I thought I was the only one!” and there’s laughing and crying and book recommendations (apparently the books about chastity written for guys actually talk about masturbation! Who knew). Point is, the average woman might think about sex less than the average man, might be less visually stimulated, might be significantly more emotional, but statistics mean nothing to the individual. We can use these expectations to tailor the way we teach different audiences, but if we act like men don’t have emotions and women don’t lust, men aren’t going to know how to deal with emotions and women aren’t going to know to maybe stop watching so many The 1975 music videos.

  2. Thank you for your transparency in sharing this! I understood vertical and horizontal just fine. This is very clear and spells out the why of sexual sin.

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