A profoundly encouraging book about a pastoral minefield
This is a review I’ve just written for Themelios, out next month. Tim Chester is an old friend who writes with great clarity and compassion. His is not an easy book – it is not an easy subject. For many in our culture, the very notion of why one might actually want to live porn-free seems utterly ridiculous. It’s as harmless an activity as riding a bike or reading the newspaper. But for others, it impairs relationships and even destroys marriages. This is not a neutral business.
We desperately need there to be some countervailing voices out there who are not shrill, self-righteous or smug. Tim’s voice is none of these things, for which I’m hugely grateful.
It is a brave man who talks openly about sexual sin. It is an even braver one who writes a book about it! But Tim Chester now has an established track record of writing well-crafted, profoundly theological but deeply pastoral books. This book, specifically tackling the blight of pornography head on, follows naturally from his 2008 publication, You Can Change. That Captured by a better vision is needed and timely should not be in doubt. The statistics for pornography usage and the sex industry’s profit margins are truly terrifying. Porn’s repercussions (for users, for those involved in the sex industry and for society as a whole) hardly bear thinking about. Its pervasive presence amongst Christians is the western church’s vast, unspoken secret – in one survey quoted by Chester, it is suggested that out of every 100 adults, twenty-five men and ten women are struggling with regular porn use (p. 11). Yet, despite its prevalence, it is a problem of such shame that it is confined to the shadows and never properly addressed.
So how to tackle it? That is the painful question for pastors who minister to such people, not to mention those who themselves struggle. The age-old resort of the well-directed rebuke, or naming and shaming, has never worked. Many caught up in pornography are wracked by crippling shame as it is, but that is barely enough to halt their indulgence. Furthermore, such an approach falls headlong into the trap of legalism, which can never bring transformation (only pride and defeat or both) and which is fundamentally incompatible with the authentically Christian gospel of grace.
This is something that Chester understands deeply – which is precisely why he is able to navigate so successfully through this pastoral minefield. His tactic seems to be as much about displacement as it is pastoral diagnosis. As his quotation from an anonymous article makes clear, porn addicts ‘need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks.’ (p. 76)
Chester is determined to offer precisely that. This does not, of course, mean he is afraid to provide important information or to speak very frankly (as he warns in the introduction) – a topic like this demands straight talking. He thus rightly begins, in the first of his five sections, by piercing porn’s façade of consensual pleasure and ‘harmless fun’. He ruthlessly exposes what the sex industry actually does to people at every level – his list of twelve reasons to give up porn is brutal in its trenchant but indisputable analysis. It thus easily achieves his aim to make pornography abhorrent.
Fortunately, however, this is not the book’s exclusive agenda – as the title suggests, Chester has a far more encouraging and inspiring concern. He wants to move us from abhorrence to adoration of God, with its resulting confidence of forgiveness and determination to battle sin. He has sought to understand, at a deep level, what insecurities and idols cause people to get hooked in the first place – and then proceeds to expose why the gospel is both infinitely better and far more compelling. Especially powerful was his articulation of the new confidence brought about by a believer’s justification in Christ. He nicely applies the apparent paradoxes of this divinely-granted status: we are freed by Christ to be free, we are cleansed by Christ to be clean, we are made holy so that we can be holy (pp. 90-94). As he says, ‘battling porn in our lives is not an exercise in denying pleasure. It’s about fighting pleasure with greater pleasure.’ (p. 76) ‘So with every false promise of porn there is a true promise of God. Whatever porn offers, God offers more.’ (p. 51)
Along the way, some inevitable pastoral conundrums need handling with care. What of the struggles of those who are not married? Chester tackles this, though probably not as fully as some might hope for (that is the remit of other books). Still, he makes clear how great the gospel compensations are for all, married or not. Or what of those who are in Christian leadership and struggle in this area? He was especially sensitive here. He does not pull his punches and explains how detrimental porn can be for ministry. Yet he reminds us that ‘using porn doesn’t disqualify you from serving God. For one thing, you were never qualified in the first place!’ (p. 87) This is something everyone in ministry needs to hear, porn or no porn. His advice is to keep battling but earnestly look to Christ for our righteousness.
Chester’s writing is always lucid and biblical but, in this book, his compassion is even more evident (as it needs to be). He makes frequent use of personal testimonies and experiences, from other books or from the anonymous research he carried out. These ground the book in reality.
Above all, though, the book is encouraging! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that; but I was. The presenting issue of the book is a crucial and painful one, and his critique and analysis are relentless. Nevertheless, I found myself swept up by a refreshed enthusiasm and excitement for the gospel as he spoke with relish and delight about the grace of God, the glories of Christ and the wonders of sex in its right context. To my mind that clearly demonstrated he had fulfilled his aim of capturing us with a better vision. I certainly was.
It just so happened that Anne Jackson, who’s blog I regularly read, has made a video for XXXChurch talking about her addiction – very honest, down-to-earth and helpful.