T.C. Ryan’s book Ashamed No More: A Pastor’s Journey Through Sex Addiction (IVP, 2012) is a breath of fresh air. A clean, crisp, slightly cool (but not too cold) breath of fresh air. Reading this book has been like living in the mountains again! As one who struggled with pornography for about ten years, I read a number of popular books on subjects dealing with pornography in hopes that I could find my way out of the addiction. I always felt like the topic was never thoroughly addressed, solutions were far from pragmatic, and, worst of all, there was little I could identify with in either content or the author. I remember wishing that someone, just someone who had really struggled with pornography (not just glancing at the occasional girl on the beach) would write about it. Alas, this is that book and it is the book I wish that I had growing up.
Because of the importance of this book, I want to review it in three segments in order to grasp the full weight of what T.C. Ryan is saying. Let me suggest, up front, that if you struggle with pornography and, especially, if you are a Christian involved in some sort of ministry, this is the book you need to pick up.
T.C. Ryan begins the preface of the book with one captivating sentence: “I spent over forty years in the wilderness” (11). Immediately, the book makes a claim to be one which is highly relational for those who find themselves addicted over lengthy periods of times to sex or porn. You’re not going to get fluff here, you’re going to encounter something deep and something which has taken so much out of a man. This is, in fact, the most encouraging way that Ryan could have started his book off with. There’s nothing like admitting a long time in captivity to identify with those who currently are. For those who, like myself or Ryan, thought that overcoming the addiction was impossible (perhaps in part because of books and resources which promise to help but don’t), Ryan’s story is uplifting and his promise is equally captivating: “God will not waste our pain if we cooperate with him” (16). This last sentence sets two tones for the rest of the book: 1) This is not about doing something ourselves, it is about relying on God to use us; 2) Sexual addiction is painful, not pleasurable These two points will lie behind almost everything that Ryan goes on to say.
In Chapter 1 Ryan talks about being both a Christian and a sex addict. For those that suggest that the two are an oxymoron, Ryan shows that the problem with addiction is that it is beyond the will. The transformation of the mind through redemption caused him to hate his addiction, but transformation of intention can only go so far to cure habits and addictive behaviors. He delves more into the biological and neurological issues in chapter 3, but here he gives us his heart of how much he hated his addiction. For those who think people who are addicted to porn do so for mere sinful desire and lust, Ryan tells us that from a psychological perspective addictions are characterized by compulsion:
“Sexual addiction is a person’s use of sex to alter moods that progress to the point where they are unable to control their use of sex, suffer consequences and are behaving contrary to their will and desire. The key elements are that it is progressive, creates a sense of preoccupation, becomes a substititute for healthy relating, takes over a person’s will and is pathological in nature” (21).
These terms are defined (22) in terms of how they relate to the inability to will yourself out of an addiction. Indeed, as Ryan notes, for the drug addict the “Just Say No” approach is simply psychologically meaningless and ineffective. The same is true with the porn addict.
In Chapter 2, Ryan discusses the link between spirituality and sexuality, affirming the basic goodness of sexuality as a relational expression of our view of ourselves, of others, and of God. Yet he also affirms that “lusting is fragmented living” (43) and that sexual addiction is a spiritual disease, not simply a mental one. In effect, our misuse of sex is a misuse of something which God has given to us. Instead of using it for glorification and relationship, we use it for coping.
Chapter 3 is something which is too often missing in Christian approaches towards pornography. Here, Ryan discusses the psychological and biological elements associate with addiction, noting that “there is hardly any good feeling for the addict–only a mind-numbing, compulsive urge to seek relief and escape” (51). He lists three specific triggers: high stress, boredom, and opportunity. These are, as I can testify, right on the mark. He proceeds to describe the psychological frame of mind for the addict. There exist lies about value and meaning which, in turn, give way to the idea that sexual expression is merely a means of relief from such thoughts. This relief, by the excretion of brain chemicals like Dopamine, Adrenaline, and Oxytocin, inevitably root the addiction deeper in the brain. “It is a self-reinforcing cycle of personal self-destruction” (64). We must know the enemy within, so it is absolutely crucial for those dealing his sexual brokenness to understand how the addiction works chemically.
Ryan then proceeds in chapter 4 to dovetail on the last sentence of chapter three: “way too often, the church is the last place an addict can find [truth and community, support and love]” (65). Here he notes that one of the problems in the church is that we are really good at shaming people. Yet this is precisely one of the reasons why so many addicts return to their addictions since it simply reinforces the need to escape and numb the pain of guilt. We feel embarrassed, so in order to fix this feeling we turn back to our drugs. “Shame is toxic to strugglers” (68). Indeed, as Ryan knows all too well, we are really good at accepting the stories of people who have come out of major struggles; we are not so good at helping people in the midst of them. Ryan gives some helpful tips for how the Church can better deal with the addicts and, specifically, the sexually broken.
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