Someone1 has said that one of the biggest problems with pornography is not that it shows too much of a woman, but that it doesn’t show enough. It doesn’t show that she is an individual with a soul, who has a right to be valued as such. It doesn’t show that she has the right to privacy and honor and respect. It doesn’t show that she is a person of worth, created in the image of God, fully human.
It is clear that pornography is a serious problem for both the church and the broader society. As a pastor and counselor, I am interested in the problems lurking beneath the problem. What is it about our culture that makes pornography normal, even acceptable? What is it about men that makes them think they have permission to look at women as objects? What is it about women that keeps them from believing they deserve better? In this article I propose that we will deal effectively with pornography only once we truly understand our sexuality, our value, and our relationships.
The Repression of Our Spirit: Understanding Sexuality
While thinkers like Sigmund Freud have entertained the question of how repression of physical sexuality harms the individual, few people have dealt with the question of how repression of the human spirit has harmed our personality. We have been created to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with our own selves (all necessary if we are to live in full community), in a way that recognizes our spiritual, mental, and physical nature. God has expressed himself in all three of these ways, and bearing God’s image we also have the capability of these expressions.2 Denying that a person’s body is sacred, deserving to be respected and not exploited, is but a step away from assaulting the spirit and the mind in the same way. The mind and the body are never far apart. The spirit and the body are never far apart. The mind and the spirit are never far apart. What affects one will affect the others, and when one is in pain, it may well be sending a message to the others.
Freud was also wrong about repression when he failed to recognize self-control as a healthy way to value sexuality. Self-control, or we may call it self-discipline, is a healthy and necessary way to develop who we are, to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ (2 Pet. 2:18), to press toward the mark of the high call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14), and to be good stewards of who we are in mind, body, and spirit.
In the Image of God: Understanding our Value
What does show the whole truth about a woman, or a man? Not all pictures are worth a thousand words. Let’s take a closer look at who we are as God’s children, created in his image, male and female (Gen. 1:27).
As a pastor and as a marriage counselor, I hear of many good books, support groups, and therapy approaches to help wrest a person away from the addictive snare of pornography. These efforts produce varying results, but still something is lacking if we are only trying to change people’s minds about the nature of pornography. Nothing works as well as a genuine change of mind about the nature of women, the startling recognition that every woman is a person for whom Christ died. To let the gospel speak to us about each other is to become amazed at the infinite value that God has given to us. When we truly understand our value, we are able to look at each other and say “Here is someone who should not be made the victim of either shame or arrogance.” Internalizing this truth changes the way we “view” women, both figuratively and literally. The world of pornography is a world where respect is abandoned and lost, and it is a world where people become shallow viewers of shallow expressions, in which neither the viewer nor the person in the picture is respecting or experiencing full humanity.
To see our value as Christ does requires us to deal with another fact: pornography not only fails to show all that is true of women, but it also fails to show all that is true of men. The tired and worn-out clichés depicting men as animalistic cravers of yet another sexual adventure, as well as the assumption that men just aren’t as sensitive as women when it comes to sexuality, have come not from the Bible, but rather from a fallen and shallow world.
Love and Respect for Women and Men: Understanding Relationships
Recently, an old theory has resurged in the world of Christian counseling. I often hear people say that their well-meaning pastor or therapist has taught them that men want respect more than they want love and that women want love more than they want respect. The theory suggests that men will forsake love if they have to do so in order to get respect, and that women will forsake respect if they have to do so in order to gain love. On the face of it, this theory may seem valid but it is filled with problems and falsehoods. The truth about love is that true love is also respectful. The truth about respect is that it can and should be loving. If it is not connected to love, it is probably not respect.
Furthermore, what many men view as respect is really something else. It may be nothing more than pride. If not pride, this “respect” may only be an attempt to avoid the openness and sharing that love requires. Or, sadly and strangely, it may be a cover-up of shame. Pride, avoidance, and shame do not recognize or value our humanity.
True love is stronger than most of us believe. It is not the fuzziness of a romance novel or the desperate fleeing of loneliness at all costs; true love is the “energy of our will that drives us toward the healing of what is broken about us.”3 Love builds relationships. Love sacrifices. Love values the personhood of others.
Respect happens when we see something we value. Respect will do well to preserve and nurture its object. Respect will seek to love.
In the counseling room, when I hear men talking about respect, the requests are often more about a demand for power without accountability. They don’t want questions about where they are, what they do, whom they are with, or how they spend money and time. They want blind faith, and they don’t want to share decision-making. It gives respect a bad name.
This love/respect issue is unhelpful. Statistically, there are some people who live this way, though certainly not all men and not all women do so. (And remember, statistics may only be a count of people’s mistakes rather than a count of their true human characteristics.) If we accept the ideas behind the theory that some men may value respect to the abandonment of love and some women value love to the abandonment of respect, we must also ask some hard questions. Why would men fail to see that they need love? Why would women fail to see that they need respect? Why would we devalue either one of these great graces? Do we believe that we can’t have both love and respect? Do we believe that either of these can really survive without the other? Love and respect are equally to be credited for influencing the way we act toward each other, the way we speak to each other, and the purposes of our relationships.
Pornography strikes out in both of these concepts; it is neither respectful nor loving. God intends for us to give respect and love and to receive both in return, but the world of pornography is the world of selfishness and isolation. It is a world of manipulation. It is the world of a double life.
In Being Human…Becoming Human, noted theologian Helmut Thielicke writes of humanity in this way: it is our calling to be fully human, a quest that means that as we grow toward Christ, we become more human as well. This process continues throughout the believer’s life and never ends until we see Christ face to face. In heaven we will not be gods: we will finally be the complete humans God intended us to be. “The human self receives infinite reality from its awareness of existing for God, of being a human self for which God is the standard,” Thielicke writes. He points out that if we see ourselves only in relation to our jobs, or our possessions, or our parents’ standards, or our governmental construct, or our behaviors, then we will be a “lowly self.” Without a better standard than what we ourselves create, we have only our work to measure ourselves by. But, “…what an infinite emphasis it puts on the self to receive God as the standard.”
The human self with God as the standard will see and treat other humans in a new and different way.
It is only by grace that we grow toward the likeness of Christ, just as it is only by grace that we become the child of God by faith. We are God’s by creation, and we are his by redemption. By his grace, he who came among us as fully God and fully human seeks to perform the miracle of making us fully human as well.
- John Paul II, from the lectures “Theology of the Body,” as discussed by Christopher West.
- While this article cannot develop a full theological study of what it means to be created in the image of God, I have come to a comfortable belief that at least part of this expression refers to the mental, physical, and spiritual persons of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), which God has created in us, as mind, body, and spirit. Respectfully and thankfully stated, we too are “trinity."
- Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1954.