The Post-Addiction Wilderness
There are legitimate reasons why people find themselves ensnared in a sexual addiction. It is a mistake to overlook the suffering in an addict’s life and only focus on their moral failings. Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain. Whether it’s the pain of loneliness, broken relationships, physical suffering, trauma, or the daily stressors of life, a downward descent into habitual sin patterns is often accompanied by a decreased ability to handle life apart from the numbing power of sinful relief.
Unfiltered life becomes too difficult to bear. Whatever that suffering is, it is something that an addict cannot face or put up with, and life feels more manageable with a sinful numbing agent.
The men and women who struggle over and over with sexual sin may get to a point where they are ready to seek help. They have grown disillusioned with the empty promises that sin offers. Like the prodigal son, God in his mercy brings them to their senses, so that they can taste and smell the foulness of their behavior. They see the chains they have willingly shackled themselves with, and they finally desire a life of freedom.
The men I work with at Harvest USA are desperately longing for freedom. When they think about a life free from the destructive behaviors they are engaged in, they are filled with hope and anticipation. This hope for a new life is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power beginning to renew their minds.
But since addictions are usually a means of escaping or numbing painful experiences, what happens when the numbing agent is removed?
This is the post-sexual addiction wilderness.
When God rescued Israel out of slavery from Egypt, they weren’t teleported to the Promised Land. They had to pass through the wilderness first. God’s people were terrified of the wilderness. They were unsatisfied in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt, back into slavery, because it offered a predictable life and more food than manna. They pined for false security rather than exercise faith in their true security, Jehovah Jireh!
Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain.
Israel had a say in how long their wilderness wanderings lasted. 40 years was not the original course for Israel. Their extended stay was a result of their own unbelief. The same is true for those coming out of sexual addictions. It will not be a simple re-entry into reality. Everyone must pass through the wilderness.
But the choices we make in that wilderness impact the length and quality of our stay there.
I want to talk about three different kinds of wilderness experiences for people coming out of sexual addiction.
The wilderness of consequences
Sinful behavior has cost some of you deeply. You may have lost family, homes, jobs, and your circle of friends, almost everything you hold dear. It is these tragedies that have finally brought you to your senses. Even the thought of going back gives you nightmares because of how real the consequences are now. This is a wilderness where God does amazing heart transformation and literally brings life into dry bones.
The wilderness of consequences was God’s severe mercy for you, losing so much. You needed this wake-up call. But now, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of your own making. In this wilderness, you are wrestling with intense feelings of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness for your future. You know you dare not go back to your sin, but you also don’t know what moving forward looks like.
This is the wilderness described in Psalm 6, where David cries out, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.”
The wilderness of suffering
For others, the wilderness of post-sexual addiction is not the direct consequence for their sin, but the wilderness they sought to initially escape through their sin. Fleeing sexual sin and turning to the Lord does not mean the circumstances people sought to numb through sin have gone away. God calls us to face and experience this kind of suffering, too. In this wilderness, there are two very real struggles simultaneously happening.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain.
On the one hand, you have the painful struggle of sexual withdrawal. Your body is used to getting sexual satisfaction, and denying yourself will be accompanied by a sense of real anguish. But along with that pain, you are now also experiencing the unfiltered pain of whatever circumstance you were using sex to escape from.
But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain. It could be alcohol or drugs, but it could also be more socially acceptable things, like binge-watching TV shows or over-eating. This seems harmless by comparison, but it can be a dangerous, insidious temptation. Why? Because it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have made deep heart progress, while you have only swapped one addiction for another. The goal in the wilderness of this suffering is to seek God in such a way where you are acknowledging that he must become your deepest source of comfort. For God to truly comfort you as the God of all comfort, you must by faith wait on him, and resist the temptation to quickly numb your pain through false means which usually deadens your desire to go to God with your suffering.
The wilderness of idolatry
The last wilderness is similar to the wilderness of suffering but with one key difference. Both are places of pain and suffering, but in the wilderness of suffering, your suffering is not the result of your sin. For example, God is not calling you to repent of your physical suffering or trauma that you experienced. But in this last wilderness, the wilderness of idolatry, you suffer because there is an idol in your heart that is not being satisfied.
For example, often pornography is a false means of feeling affirmed by others. In a fantasy world, everyone affirms you. This is what many people live for. If a false means of affirmation is taken away, the idolatrous desire in your heart will still cry out for satisfaction. This can result in feeling miserable and depressed. You weren’t happy in your addiction, but now you feel God isn’t coming through for you now that you’ve cut out that sinful behavior.
If this is where you are, you haven’t grasped the depths that your repentance needs to reach. This is often the wilderness that is most difficult to endure. Not because the suffering in this wilderness is more painful than the others, but because it’s only white-knuckling behavior modification. You haven’t yet forsaken the idols that still remain in your heart.
If you believe that life is found in the satisfaction of your idolatrous desires, then you will only hold out in repentance for so long until you turn back to the only source that you know to give you that sense of life, which means turning yet again to your addiction.
Post-sexual addiction living is not a simple, smooth transition from slavery to freedom. It’s a journey that often leads people into a wilderness. But this journey is all part of God’s loving transformative purposes. It is in the wilderness where God abides with his people, where they learn to trust him, and where they experience his provision of life!