Is It Sexual Addiction or Is It Sexual Sin?

An article in Christianity Today, “Help for the Sexually Desperate,” states: Is sexual addiction a disease or simply immoral behavior? Clinical psychologist Bob Hughes speaks for many Christian therapists when he says sex addiction is both a sinful choice and a biological disease. Dr. Harry Schaumburg, with twenty nine years of experience in helping restore sexual purity, disagrees. Addiction does not provide a path to healing because it does not get to the heart of evil.

For more than eight years, the evangelical church has been forced into an unwilling awareness that there is sexual sin in our midst. There is an increasing volume of books, articles, and seminars. New ministries and more counselors are jumping on the opportunity to sell a book, build a practice or establish a thriving ministry. Without a doubt, greater awareness is critical as men and women struggle in secret, marriages crumble, and another local church staggers at the revelation that their pastor has fallen. Greater awareness of a problem always stimulates a new industry, a new ministry, or a new technique. However, having been captured by a therapeutic culture and a persistent attitude that we can fix anything, I believe we fall prey to a psychological diagnosis and label the problem an addiction, a new biological disease. The disease concept of sexual addiction immediately weakens an already frayed understanding of sin, especially when its strong advocates tell the hurting and desperate that “using the word addiction helps us define the qualities of sin.”

Reading the cover article “Addicted to Sex: Why Many Men Are and What To Do About It,” in the March issue of Christianity Today heightened my fears that more and more people will be lead astray and lose sight of the fact that the truth of the gospel is only powerful when we know and believe in our hearts that sin is sin. With open minds we must realize how easy it is for well-meaning people to be deluded “. . .with plausible arguments” (Col. 2:4). In this spiritual crisis, like the church at Corinth in their struggle with sexual sin, we must “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human traditions, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (vs. 8).

To even imagine, as the article suggests, that looking at pornography, having multiple affairs or visiting a prostitute is both a sexual addiction and sin shows the lack of sound doctrine. It is one or the other; it can’t be both. The two concepts cannot co-exist in our theology, and to attempt to do so reduces the effectiveness in combating this evil that now is so widespread and growing within Christian home. It is time to draw a line in our minds that clearly defines the truth, a truth we not only believe but guides our hearts and lives. We can’t afford, in this post-modern era, to say we believe in sin and then turn away from the power of the Gospel to flawed human techniques to heal a deceitful heart. Snapping a rubber band on your wrist, telling your secret sins in a group to find acceptance and comfort, or daily checking in with a sponsor will never conquer the sin that “clings so closely” and tears marriage to shreds. Removing human responsibility by theorizing that natural brain chemicals, androgens, or changes in neural circuits is the cause of compulsive sexual behavior may appeal to some who want an explanation that eases their conscience. Such theories lack the sharpness of a “. . . two-edged sword, . . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Without conviction and the application of grace the best we can achieve is frustrating behavioral management. Researchers, as indicated by the Mayo Clinic, can establish theories, but the truth of sound doctrine offers an explanation that stands the rest of time and is for all people.

For the twenty-nine years that I have helped people out of the bondage to sexual sin there has been a consistent voice declaring that the cause lies within the family of origin and past history of abuse. Quoting Mark Laaser, a highly regarded expert in the field, the CT article states: “But the Internet has changed that. Now there are people without the extensive history [of abuse] who get sucked into sex addiction.” Do we actually believe that new technology creates a new problem? We so easily forget that nothing has changed from the days of Noah, just improved technology. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5) Let’s not be naive. Easier access to pornography via computer’s use of the Internet didn’t suck people into a sexual addiction. It’s a machine; it is just bettered technology! It is the intention of the thoughts of heart toward evil that sucks us into greater levels of sexual sin. A computer expert relayed to me, “It is sex that is driving the development of much of the new computer technology, not military nor business use.” Make it available and people will look at it, whether you go from sketches to colored printing, or black and white photos to colored movies. The Bible makes it very clear (1 Cor. 7:2ff) that every man and every woman is vulnerable to sexual temptation and lacks self-control.

If we understand the nature of sin we will not be so dangerously deceived “with empty words” (Eph. 5:3-6). The foundation for understanding why men and women struggle with sexual sin and what to do about it is not found in the afore mentioned article. The understanding is as old as the problem and spelled out clearly in the New Testament. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5, 6). Paul answers the questions we should be asking: What is the real problem? Where did it come from? What we are to do about it? And, why it is vitally important to address the problem?

First, what is it? It is sexual immorality, or in the Greek, porneia. Porneia originally referred to any excessive behavior or lack of restraint. Eventually it became associated with sexual excess and indulgence. We get our word pornography from the Greek word; porn plus graph equals a writing. So porn is a writing or picture about sexual sin. Porneia includes all sexual behavior outside of marriage, including adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, bestiality, incest and prostitution. I believe that any form of impersonal sex, masturbation, lust, fantasy or any sexual activity that disregards God or another person, including a disregard for one’s spouse, is unacceptable behavior for the true believer who wishes to glorify God in their body (1 Cor. 6:20).

The remaining vices in Col. 3:5 give us a picture of what is on the inside and further describe the true nature of sexual sin. Impurity describes any substance that is filthy or dirty and could include refuse or the content of graves. It is a filthiness of the heart and mind that make the person defiled. The word speaks of an internal disposition, an immoral filthiness on the inside. Passion is an inward emotion aroused by some external object; an impure object prompting sexual sin. To effectively deal with the problem of sexual sin we must understand the God takes action in dealing with all sexual sin. Paul states, “God gave them up to dishonorable (degrading) passions” (Rom. 1:26). At the same time we have the responsibility to “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom. 6:12). Passions express themselves in bodily activity. Rather than falling into an addiction through the influence of our family of origin or the Internet, the dreadful picture is that a person who claims to be a believer can yield to sexual temptation and then has no immunity to the consequences of becoming a slave to that sexual sin.

Being a slave to our passions, which is a heart condition not an addiction, leads to being driven by our desires for wrong things. Evil desires are strong desires which are a perversion of our God-given desires and which are unrestrained and originate in what is earthly or our sin nature. Covetousness, which is idolatry is a word that means a strong desire to acquire more and more, especially that which is forbidden. It is a desire to have more regardless of one’s need. Peter makes the connection between lust and greed (covetousness), “They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:14).

The next question that Paul answers, Where did it come from? “Put to death, therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5). Clearly, the problem in on the inside. All men and women are vulnerable to sexual sin; we all have within us a nature that exists for self, not for the glory of God. It is within us to do, to say, to act in ways that serve our needs, our goals, and our purpose. Meaningful sexual intimacy must involve a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman in which they give emotionally, spiritually, relationally and sexuality for God’s divine glory and purpose. Anything less is a perversion of the will of God and leads to destruction.

This leads to the next question, What to do about it? Three words say it all, “Put to death . . .” Putting sexual sin to death requires the work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women through the process of illumination, true conviction, genuine repentance and perseverance. Today we know the concept behind these words, but know little of the experience of this kind of death. Many want to change their shameful behavior and avoid the negative consequences and expect God to do His thing without completely dying to self. In the last seventeen years I have worked with nearly 2500 people from across the US who have experienced years of sexual sin, who have struggled with every conceivable sexual behavior, who have tried recovery and failed, counseling that didn’t work, and accountability that was a fraud. Many who came for intensive counseling have found real and lasting change. The proof of change is not simply the absence of the sexual behavior, but everything changing as we learn to live out the reality that “The grace of God has appeared, . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).

Real change is not the false conviction of being caught and then being riddled with shame. Nor is it a human attempt to control behavior in fear of serious consequences. Nor is it a matter of accountability that asks hard questions but frequently fails because one is only as accountable as one wants to be. It is a death of self, death to being self-centered and becoming God-centered and other-centered. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died , and you life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Finally, why is it vitally important to address the problem? Almost everyone begins to deal with their sexual sin when they are caught. The pressure is on to do something when the secret is out and the person has been arrested, they’ve lost their job or are threatened with losing their wife and family. This is not the most effective motivation for putting sexual sin to death. It is a calculated but limited human response designed to improve one’s situation. The Lord Jesus demands a deeper obedience, a high regard for God’s commands. He raises the bar under grace for everyone who struggles with sexual sin. “You have heard that it was said’ You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). The Lord’s unpopular motivation for changes comes from a different perspective than the model of addiction can ever create. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (vs. 29). This severe demand demonstrates the radical nature of the problem. Eyes don’t cause lust. It is not the eye that literally needs to be torn out, but the heart and mind must be effectively dealt with because everything is at stake. Put to death what is in you! Paul knew the warning and states, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Putting to death sexual sin is the ultimate choice and we can’t afford to get it wrong.

I have spent the last 29 years counseling individuals, couples and families caught in the bondage of sexual sin. During the first five years I was a treatment coordinator for abusive families and specialized in working with incestuous families. The next five years was spent in a Christian counseling center where most of my counseling load consisted of referrals from Golden Valley Hospital where Patrick Carnes directed the first sexual dependency unit. For almost two years I worked as an inpatient therapist in a psychiatric hospital and the majority of my patients where classified as sex addicts. Since then I have devoted myself to the ministry of Stone Gate Resources, where I pioneered Brief Intensive Counseling, an eight day intensive program that addresses the problems of adultery, pornography, homosexuality, voyeurism, exhibitionism and prostitution. In 1990, I wrote False Intimacy, the first book written from a biblical perspective on the subject of sexual addiction. The book has been translated into Portuguese, Russian, Italian and Spanish. In the last seventeen years I have spoken on this subject at retreats, conferences, colleges and universities, and churches across America and in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. I say all that to say this:

  • The problem is not the Internet.
  • The problem is not pornography.
  • The problem is not a disease.
  • The problem is not so much an addiction, but a bondage to sin.
  • The problem does not originate from a dysfunctional/shame-based family.
  • The problem is not the result of nature brain chemicals, androgens or changes in brain circuitry.

The problem is:

  • A deep rooted self-centeredness in the heart.
  • An arrogant disregard for God and others.
  • An appetite to have and possess what is filthy.
  • A power that is beyond imagination.
  • A bondage to one’s own passions and evil desires.
  • A loss of control of our passions and desires.

In future posts I will develop these thoughts in greater detail to offer hope and real change to those caught in the slavery of sexual sin and to marriages being torn by the jagged claws of deceit, betrayal and mistrust.

Copyrighted 2008 Harry W. Schaumburg. For web posting, please link to this page on our website. Any exceptions must be approved by Harry Schaumburg.