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the chain of addiction

Once you have set up some barriers between the addict and the pornography (see Step 1), you need to work with him or her to identify (in granular detail) the sequence of thoughts and behaviours that lead up to them acting out.

Why Behaviour Matters

The first step in the plan was about behaviour and we are going to continue further with behavioural matters here.

You do not want to dive too deep too quickly with your addict. It is good for them to feel some traction from the changes they implemented following your previous session. As well, the believer that you are helping is still developing confidence in your ability to help. You will be asking some very personal questions in the future and that is something to build towards incrementally.

Again: addressing behaviour can be a case of just fighting the flesh with the flesh. But you will be deriving information today that will help you in future sessions to open up areas of their heart for the Spirit to work. So there is a transition in this process from behaviour to deeper heart issues, though it may be subtle.

Do You Have a Replacement?

You cannot just take the pornography away without putting something profitable in its place.

Pornography has become a coping mechanism for the addict. They use pornography to make it through life. If you take away their coping mechanism and give them nothing else better to replace it with then you are creating the scenario of the clean house where more unclean spirits return because the house is empty. You could actually cause the addiction to escalate. The clean house needs to be filled with Christ.

“When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.” Matthew 12:43-45

Because of this, merely stopping the pornography is not an ideal treatment outcome.

My goal in treatment is to help the addict find Christ in their brokenness. And to turn to Him rather than pornography. This is not theoretical spirituality: we get right down to brass tacks about what they will do instead of choosing pornography.

Today’s work is a step towards making right choices. When working with addicts, I spend about 40 minutes to an hour going through the process below of identifying their triggers and cues.

Understanding Coping

There is a conceptual assumption you must learn and operate from in order to help the addict. I always explain this to the addict as well, and you should too: *pornography is an invalid coping mechanism for a valid set of feelings and brokenness.*

Allow me to explain.

It is not wrong to feel.

It is not wrong to be broken and have need of healing.

It is wrong to look at pornography and masturbate.

I have never met an addict who does not experience volumes of shame. “I am unworthy” is a common core belief. This core belief is misaligned with how God describes them. As you work through The Chain (below) you will help them to see the difference between their valid, legitimate God-given feelings and the sinful choices they make to medicate those feelings.

It is the repetition of those sinful choices that reinforces their faulty core belief. And the faulty core belief is momentarily relieved by the pornography where they find acceptance, approval and pleasure all wrapped in one sugar-coated lie. See the cycle?

Coping Mechanism or Sin?

When I refer to pornography as a coping mechanism, I am not downplaying sin. Rather, we must understand that this sin is a symptom of a deeper problem. It is how they have learned to cope with deep feelings such as hurt, loneliness, unworthiness or insufficiency.

Ultimately, the addict will need to do two things:

  1. He or she needs to identify the deeper problem (brokenness due to other sin) and find healing.
  2. He or she will need to learn to make better choices in response to environmental or internal challenges.

It is not wrong to have deeper problems or challenges that arise in life. It is what they choose to do with them that is right or wrong.

The work I describe below mainly addresses the last half of the second point: what are they doing with those deeper problems? Future work will deal with unpacking those problems, accepting them, and finding healing.

Dabbling or Tire-Kicking

“But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” James 1:14-15 (KJV)

The use of the word “enticed” in James 1:14 really indicates the force of the flesh within the believer that acts to draw us toward sin. It is a desire: an evil desire.

For the addict, it is a helpful process to understand how desire is fed and how it builds until the motivation to gratify that desire is strong enough to bypass the conscience. The earliest parts of this are just kind of dabbling or kicking the tires. Often at the beginning of a rabbit trail into pornography there is no intention to actually look at it. They are like a person not serious about buying a car: they are just kicking the tires.

However, more entrenched addicts may have a shorter routine. Often an overwhelming urge to view is triggered and they quickly plunge into the pornography.

Regardless of the approach, identifying the steps and triggers is essential because as the intensity of the process increases, their ability to find an exit ramp decreases.

The Chain

First, I will explain to the addict that what we want to do is really understand the sequence–however short or long it may be–that leads them to pornography.

The sequence is like a chain. Except, unlike an ordinary chain, the first links in this chain are very small, quite brittle and easily broken. However, as they go along the chain the links become stronger and thicker and much more difficult to break…until they cannot be broken.

It’s like that with the addict: the first few steps (“links”) they take toward pornography are usually not sinful behaviours in themselves. It would be easy to break out of The Chain at this stage. Maybe they just think to themselves: “I’ve had a rough day at work. I need a break.” And then perhaps at home they go to a news site to look at the news. No sin committed so far, right? But they know there is often some provocative (but fully dressed) images of women in the Entertainment section of the site. That is the beginning of the enticement James refers to: the idle lust of sin here will typically lead to diving headlong into pornography.

Reading the news is not wrong. But it is an early link in The Chain. As such, it is a useful signal that they have engaged The Chain. As a signal, they can see it and respond to it: they can make a choice to to break out of The Chain at this stage while it is still easy to do so.

It is very helpful if you explain The Chain imagery to the addict as you begin this work.

When Did You Last Look at Pornography?

To begin fleshing out The Chain, ask the addict to recall the last time they looked at pornography. Use some basic questions so you can picture the setting:

  • Where were you?
  • What time of day was it?
  • What kind of device did you use to look at porn?
  • Were there any significant issues on your mind?

Once they have recalled that memory, the process is relatively straightforward. You’ll begin by asking, right before you opened the porn site: what were you doing on your phone just before that?

Basically you will just keep asking the same question: “And what were you doing just before that?”

Using The Chain imagery with this question, you’re starting at those thickest, unbreakable links and moving backward up the chain to the more fragile end.

As you do this you want to identify as many links in the chain as possible. Be painfully detailed in your approach. If you feel like there’s a missing link because there’s a large jump from one point to another, work with the addict to figure out what goes on in between.

What you are doing here is identifying how the addict makes provision for the flesh. And then how enticement turns to lust and how lust builds until more sin happens.

Provision for the Flesh

Provision is at work in the earliest links in The Chain, or the start of the path towards pornography.

“But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Romans 13:14 (KJV)

This word, “provision”, is the cognitive process of thinking about what you will do in the event of something happening.

The addict might catch himself or herself at work thinking, “Boy, this is turning out to be a brutal day at work. I’ll look forward to some stress relief when I get home.”

There’s a nuanced point that needs to be reiterated here. It is not wrong to conclude he or she had a brutal day at work. Nor is it wrong to identify that they will need to do something restorative or refreshing when they get home so that they can have a good evening.

This needs to be explained to the addict. This is what I mean when I say the early links in the chain are not sinful.

However, when those thoughts empower the flesh to move towards sinful self-gratification rather than healthy, wholesome choices, that is when sin happens.

What Will You Make Provision For?

This is the question the addict should be confronted with: “So you have a bad day, or whatever happens in those early links. Now what will you do? What will you make provision for? Your flesh? Or, for your spirit?”

You’re asking this in a gentle, kind way. Don’t use a scolding tone of voice or pushy body language. That may amplify shame and fuel a relapse.

You are confronting the addict with options. Will they allow their thinking to take them towards a sinful pleasure for that refreshment? Or will they notice what is happening, accept and acknowledge it (“Yes, I had a hard day at work. That’s not fun but it’s OK”) and then make a God-fearing choice? A choice for healthy pleasure? For wholesome restoration for their body and spirit?

Get Detailed Again

This part must be equally detailed out.

You want to ask the addict: “So when you notice those early links in The Chain, what are you going to do instead?”

“What value-driven choices are you going to make?”

The addict will often struggle here. And you may too. It is tempting to give them a list of your favourite things to do! Like, read a good book, go for a long walk, or study your Bible.

However, you want to trust the Spirit of God to work in their minds at this moment to help them identify the healthy choices that are uniquely suited to their personality. It might not be choices you would make. Skateboarding?!? Going to the gym? It needs to work for their personality, not yours.

Having said that, you can question their choices: just in the sense of asking, is that a healthy choice for them? Is it renewing to their body, soul and/or spirit? And you can also help them expand their number of options. For example, you might say, “You’ve identified some great outdoor activities. What if it is raining?” Or, “Those are great ideas: calling a Christian friend, listening to some good Christian music. But what about some 1 on 1 time with God? Would that help? What would that look like?”

Body, Soul and Spirit

You don’t need to push too hard but I am generally looking to make sure they have a list of good ideas that serve body, soul and spirit.

But I am particularly interested in encouraging them towards activities that build relationship in two directions:

  1. Positive same-sex friendships. Most addicts are very lonely and benefit greatly from meaningful same-sex relationships. Watch for your Messiah complex here: I know I have to! They need more than just me. Ask them to be specific: who will they reach out to? And who else?
  2. The Father. How can they reinstate (or begin) good spiritual disciplines that renew their relationship to their heavenly Father?

What I typically find is that when addicts start making better choices on their own they quickly realize how much better it feels to live life God’s way than to pursue the pleasures of sin. This often becomes a turning point.


To close the session, you may find it useful to reinforce the idea that now the addict has some good options to turn to at the early part of The Chain. He or she has merely received some signals, and now has identified how God can provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13) from the temptation when they recognize those signals.

At the end of this session, the addict will be much more aware of how he or she moves towards pornography. They know what their slippery slope looks like. And they have identified ways to get off the slope before it is too far gone.

Following this session, the next time you meet with the addict, you will ask if they were able to catch themselves going down the chain and make different choices. It is not uncommon for this to be somewhat of a turning point. It just feels so good when they see The Chain coming and then make a healthy, righteous choice and experience victory rather than shame!

About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.