To be sure, lust is one of the most important contributing factors to sexual brokenness. But in our excessive focus on lust, we have lost sight of the other interrelated factor that drives sexual sin more than all the rest: anger.
Despite the potential damage lust and anger cause, they are not holistically something to condemn. Lust points to a great desire for a good thing like beauty and belonging. Anger aims at our longing for justice and restoration. Sin enters when lust is hijacked by covetousness or demand and when anger is hijacked by entitlement, contempt, or dogmatic control. Sexual brokenness can never be redeemed through futile attempts to stop lust and ignorantly disregarding the insidious role anger plays in fueling it.
By aiming at their partnership, however, beauty, belonging, and restoration can indeed become the foundation of our sexual life. Let me show you why.
In Matthew 5, Jesus addresses the nature of sin. He says that anyone who looks at another woman lustfully (epithumeo: to covet) commits adultery in his heart. Often overlooked, however, are Jesus’ remarks on anger that appear first in Matthew 5:22. Jesus says that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. According to Jesus, sin is a confluence of lust and anger. His words are a tough pill to swallow. In our sin, we are not only adulterers, but murderers too.
Lust and anger are the primary tributaries to the river of unwanted sexual behavior, be that the use pornography, an affair, or buying sex. The #MeToo movement was proclaimed to the nations precisely because it named what most faith leaders consistently miss: the misuse of power, control, and anger in the sexual lives of men. We cannot transform sexualized anger in our churches, counseling practices, or organizations when have so little language to, or willingness to, name that it exists.
Too often, faith leaders have been loquacious in discussing purity, lust, and even sexual addiction, but largely silent on the issue of anger and power as it relates to male violence against women. Our preoccupation with lust and our continued silence on misogyny (or blaming sexual assault on sex addiction) are central to why we have lost credibility in the world, and in our silence, may well be condoning it. As faith leaders, we can stem the tide of our irrelevance by inviting those we lead to engage both their anger and their lust.
As a licensed mental health therapist and ordained minister, I have never met someone who struggles deeply with sexual lust that is not also battling with unaddressed anger. Consider the following examples:
It is easy to see each of these scenes through the lens of lust. But if we fail to identify the anger, we miss the fuel that drives the sexual arousal forward. Focusing on lust and accountability will only go so far in maturing men because it is an incomplete paradigm. Men also need to be invited to develop integrity with their anger. They must be challenged to consider the type of man they are becoming through the choices they make in the face of adversity.
Exclusively focusing on lust, instead of recognizing lust and anger as equal contributors to unwanted sexual behavior, will lead to dramatically different outcomes. Let’s take the example of pornography. In the first example above, the conventional wisdom is that the man who makes an unsuccessful bid to his wife for sex will go to porn because he is lusting for erotic material that allows him to release his frustration from unmet sexual needs, self-medicate stress, or escape the pain of rejection. The logic here is fairly simple: the man is lonely and rejected and therefore seeks out porn to soothe himself.
If the assessment of the husband’s struggle with pornography is a “lust problem,” the treatment plan goes something like this: get him accountable with other men to talk about his lust and pursue a therapist or pastoral counselor to address the underlying pain. Though this assessment contains dangerous “partial truths,” it’s incompleteness sets the man up to continue to sexually fail because the other half of the equation is left to fester in hiding.
Now let’s see what happens when we recognize the role anger plays in the husband’s porn use. From this standpoint, the use of pornography exists because of the two tributaries that feed it: lust and anger. To begin, we see the husband’s longing for sex from the standpoint of dignity—his desire to be connected to his wife. Catholic theologian Ronald Rolhieser notes that the word sex is taken from the root word, secare, which means to amputate or sever from the whole. According to Rolheiser, foundational to sexuality is the awareness of how disconnected we are and the way we go about reconnecting.
Though the husband’s initial desire for sex contains dignity, he quickly turns to anger in his unsatisfied desire. The meaning of the sex he is pursuing involves connection, but its infused with entitlement. He is essentially saying, “Want me. Desire sex with me or there will be conflict between us.” The question must be asked, “How is it possible for the wife’s desire to grow for her husband, much less for sex, when the meaning of it is to satisfy his entitlement?” How many accountability or faith communities actively point out to the husband that his wife’s decision to say “no” to his entitled bids makes her the healthiest one between them? Recognizing the role anger plays will take you to a radically different vantage point.
Moments or days after his wife declines his bid for sex, the husband finds himself lusting after porn in which a beautiful woman enthusiastically wants to be with him. The storyline is not too difficult to follow: the wife will not give him what he wants, so he will find someone who will, even if just in fantasy.
This is one of the reasons why pornography appeals so much to men: it offers them escape and revenge simultaneously. In pursuing porn, the husband gets to escape the painful experience of rejection, but he also gets revenge against his wife for her refusal.
While unwanted sexual behavior is evidence of lust, there will be no transformation until we see it also as evidence of hostility. As faith leaders, we will remain baffled by how much sexual brokenness persists in our world until we open our eyes to the role anger plays in perpetuating that sexual brokenness.
Beyond the sexual misconduct of those we lead, we are largely blind to the misuse of sexual power in the most overt forms of sexual exploitation like sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation (prostitution). Our culture refers to women, even teenagers, in the life of prostitution as “sluts” and “whores.” But what do we call the men who buy and rape them? They are “lonely,” “johns,” and “horny.” Our language reveals not only how far men distance themselves from their entitlement, but also the real gender we wish to blame for sexual brokenness: women.
If faith leaders want to see sexual brokenness transformed, it’s time to say, “Time’s up on our love affair with lust.” We need to be honest about how we have painfully oversimplified, even perpetuated, horrific sexual sin by failing to name anger alongside lust as the partners in crime they are.
In my therapy practice, I work primarily with men who buy sex and compulsively watch pornography. There is a glut of information that tells us how prevalent these issues are. For instance, we know that over 50% of us as faith leaders use (or formerly used) pornography. As a clinician, I wanted to understand the “why” behind our pursuit of pornography. To do that, I recently completed research on over 3,600 men and women who were involved in a sexual behavior they wanted to stop, be that pornography, an affair, or buying sex.
My research showed that the use of pornography and the particular type of sexual fantasies men pursued could be predicted by the stories—past and present—that have marked their lives. Men can certainly find freedom from their unwanted sexual behavior, but to do so, we need to help them identify the unique reasons that bring them to it.
One of the most common pornography searches for men in my study had to do with wanting to have power over women. In this fantasy, men pursued pornography where women were younger/teen/college, had a smaller body type, and had a particular race or appearance that suggested (to them) subservience.
What predicted this type of sexual fantasy in men? My research found three key drivers:
Men with the highest levels of shame wanted the most power over women. The writing on the wall shows that men find power over women arousing precisely because it gives them an arena to find dominance amidst a life filled with shame and futility. The ability to find control, not merely hormonal release, keeps them returning day after day.
Pornography gives the common man and over half our faith leaders the ability to be Weinstein or Louis CK for the day. Pornography holds a mirror to the heart of man. It shows us we do not merely lust for beauty; we believe it is our right to search for it, grab it, use it, possess it, and eventually discard it when we are ready for our next person to objectify. As faith leaders, we can either choose to be on the front lines leading men to engage their sexualized anger or continue to hide behind the language of lust that anesthetizes men from their violence.
I am convinced that one of the reasons we have not seen more progress in addressing sexual brokenness in our world is that very few people outside of Jesus and pornographers recognize that the heart of man is seduced by behaviors that allow for both lust and anger to be indulged. I am also convinced that this can change. We can be the light of the world by shining it upon our own need for repentance.
At the heart of the gospel we proclaim the belief that God is neither surprised nor ashamed of our brokenness, but understands it to be the very geography of his arrival. God arrives in our story not to condemn us, but to invite us to deeper questions as to how our lust and anger came to be. He is always asking questions to people in the Bible: Hey Adam, where are you? Jacob, what is your name? Hagar, where do you come from and where are you going? The voice of God is curious and kind, inviting us to deeper reflection of how our lust and anger came to be.
We know too many people watch porn. But the sheer numbers might alarm you. One porn site alone received over 28 billion visits last year. Yes, 28,000,000,000+ visits. This equates to almost 4 visits per person on the planet to one website. As faith leaders, we need ask ourselves and those we guide, “What is our lust and anger ultimately about?” As we explored, lust aims for good things like beauty and belonging. Anger aims at our longing for justice.
The genius of evil is that it uses unwanted sexual behavior to offer imitation versions of the beauty and justice found in Jesus alone. In pornography, the porn user chooses a victim to direct their lust and anger towards, thus offering him catharsis. In the gospel, humanity chooses an innocent victim to suffer death. In Jesus’ atonement, we are paradoxically offered the justice and belonging we most desire. Both pornography and Jesus appeal to the deepest longings in our hearts. Only one offers freedom.
As faith leaders, our role is not to convict people of sin or expose their lust. The Spirit of God is far more graceful and competent in doing this than we could ever imagine. Image bearers of God, human beings know in their bones when they have chosen a sexual life that comes back void of meaning and beauty.
As faith leaders, we can set the table and ask questions about what our collective lust and anger might be pointing towards. Porn offers one answer to these questions, but so does the gospel. The God we follow is an indiscriminate host who invites all to come to the table, share a meal, and join in some kind and curious questions. As faith leaders, we have the privilege of partnering with God to curate the conversation.
To help men and women on the recovery road, Stringer, The Heart of Man movie, and Covenant Eyes are working together to provide support. Journey Into the Heart of Man with Jay Stringer provides a five-month course that includes inspiring presentations, a self- assessment for people to see how their story shapes their sexual choices, and exercises to bring change. Stringer said, “Just as our sexual brokenness is not random, our journey to freedom is not either. In the Journey Into the Heart of Man, I wanted to equip accountability partners, small groups, and faith communities in a way they have not been equipped before to find healing.”
The recovery journey takes time and focus…to grow, learn, have fun, explore, and discover. How long? Stringer said most of his clients find freedom in two to five years. That doesn’t mean they are acting out during that time, but it takes time to shake off the debris of the past and live free.