The other day, I grabbed coffee with a friend. We talked about our lives. And then the conversation ventured into purity. I suddenly became painfully aware of the smooth, echoey floors. The wide open space. The two women at the table next to us. Why didn’t they have earbuds in?

I scooted closer to my friend, trying not to make it obvious that I was embarrassed talking about porn when strangers were within earshot.

He didn’t scoot in. He actually leaned back, casually talking about his struggles, his journey, and how he’s been clean for years. All in a voice that was three notches above a comfortable volume.

The women definitely heard him.

But he didn’t seem to care what they thought.

Then he said something that lurched me from thoughts of how this coffee shop would be much better with massive sound-absorbant rugs, eight-foot walls around each table… and no one else in the shop.

“Porn is a ton of fun,” he almost bellowed. “I get it. The anticipation while looking for the right thing. The hunt. The rush. The women always accept you. Help you forget your pain for a while. It’s great, isn’t it?”

I wanted to agree with him, but all I could muster was a curt nod because I felt the capital c Church behind my rickety chair, staring down my neck saying, ‘God is better than in porn. Psalm 16:11 says you make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.’

I had never heard a Christian admit they thought porn was fun. I’d only heard men lamenting to an accountability group how they stumbled, and how they wanted to find their fulfillment in God rather than in porn.

Who am I kidding… I’m usually that guy.

If I felt ignored, disrespected, or belittled and craved a hit of dopamine to numb the pain, I didn’t find that rush in the pages of 2 Peter. It’s just never done it for me. I needed something stronger. And I felt like a defective Christian for it.

What was wrong with me?

Whenever I’d hear someone say to find my joy in the Lord, I nodded, but inside I was questioning. Questioning because if the Lord was truly that compelling, then why didn’t He win the battle for my soul when temptation came knocking?

In the Absence of Meaning, People Settle for Pleasure

Friedrich Nietzsche’s core philosophy was that everything you do on earth is in search of pleasure, happiness, and stimulant. The only reason you’d put up with suffering or hard work is the pleasure you’d get for accomplishing it — whether it’s extrinsic or intrinsic.

Basically, we’re always chasing a high.

It’s usually moments alone late at night after my wife has fallen asleep, and I’m tossing around, trying to get comfortable in bed where I find myself trapped in an almost unbearable state of self-reflective honesty. And in vulnerable moments like that, after my inner lawyer has gone to sleep, I would admit I feel like I’m trapped in Nietzsche’s philosophy of chasing and finding.

The circle of pleasure.

Only my circle felt more like chasing and less like finding. So I’d binge more, trying to find that elusive high. The funny thing about the crash after porn is that I’d get whacked across the face with crippling self-hatred and insecurity.

The circle of pleasure only looks like a circle from a top-down view. If you look at it from the side, you’ll see that it’s actually a downward spiral. And the biggest fantasy on that spiral was my fantasy of control.

There was another philosopher who was born shortly after Nietzsche passed away. And his philosophy was quite different. Viktor Frankl surmised that in the absence of meaning, people settle for pleasure. And meaning was our responsibility to create for our lives. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he said:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

It was one of those nights again. Tossing. Unbearable honesty.

Frankl’s philosophy rattled around in my head. Was I pursuing meaning, or was I pursuing pleasure? And in that moment alone and naked to my probing thoughts, I knew the answer didn’t make me look as put-together as I wanted to appear when I shook hands with acquaintances in the church lobby.

But here there wasn’t anyone else to impress. As fatigue set in, I had a brief moment of searing clarity: I knew in my bones that I was living a meaningless life. I didn’t have a compelling goal that my life was building towards…

I was just letting life happen to me.

The next morning I desperately wanted that epiphany to just be a dream that faded with the cold shock of water on my face.

But it wasn’t.

I went about work on autopilot. My inner lawyer didn’t show up that day. I was vulnerable to my inner voice all day. By evening, I was worn out from painful introspection. My wife was out. I had time to kill. I thought about looking at porn for a brief reprieve.

But all I could think about were these clamoring, clanging questions that were starting to drive me insane: Are you living a meaningful life? Who are you becoming?

Living a Meaningful Story

I recently read the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. It’s about how the building blocks used to create a compelling story are the same needed to live a meaningful life.

In the book, Miller says every scene in a movie exists to push the plot forward. Every action the main character takes is slowly building and cementing who they are becoming. At its essence, a story can be defined as a character who has to overcome an obstacle in order to achieve what they want, and as a result of the journey, are transformed.

At the beginning of the movie, if the main character is timid, then by the end, they’ll be courageous. Rude to kind. Stingy to generous. You get it. You’ve seen movies before.

The transformation a character goes through is usually gradual as they overcome multiple obstacles throughout the movie. Each decision they make is shaping their identity into someone new. Miller’s point is that every small decision we make is leading us (as the main character in our own lives) and changing us into who we’re becoming. No matter how small the decision is, it’s a scene in our overall story, moving the plot along.

His words spun around incessantly in my brain, jumbling and tumbling with Nietzsche and Frankl. And that thing started to happen — you know, once you notice something, you start to see it everywhere?

I recently watched a video in which clinical Psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson was asked about how to quit porn. He said,

“It isn’t that you’re trying to quit porn. That’s not the right way to think about it. The right way to think about it is that you’re trying to figure out how to have a better life… porn isn’t the issue. The issue is that you’re not living your life the way you want to. So you need a vision of life that’s more compelling than porn.”

I couldn’t be stationary any longer. I needed to write a more compelling narrative for my life because clearly my trajectory was stagnant at best, and headed for a mile-high cliff at the worst.

So I decided to do something about it.

Dr. Peterson and a small team of other clinical psychologists have a site called Self Authoring, which is a series of short writing exercises to help you explore your past, present, and future. So I began to write my story and where I wanted it to go using their frameworks. One of the questions they pose is: If you do not change your undesired behavior, what will your life (relationships, work, view of self) look like in 5 years?

As I wrote my answer to that question, I froze. I was sitting in the car in a Barnes and Noble parking lot. My Starbucks vanilla latte half-drunken, half-forgotten. My notes app on my phone was open, my answer half-written.

Thumbs hesitating an inch above the screen, I was facing a lie I’d been telling myself for a long time.

You see, I used to believe that my porn “habit” was pretty contained. That those small decisions weren’t affecting who I was becoming. I was fighting for purity — I didn’t believe porn was okay. I wanted to be rid of it. I’d semi-regularly confess my sins with in accountability groups, and I was chasing after God. So porn wasn’t altering my path, it was baggage I was carrying on the path… right?

Sitting there in the car, I had to map out where those “small” decisions would lead me in 5 years if I didn’t overcome porn once and for all. If each time I look at porn, it causes a stress fracture in my relationship with my wife, then what would our marriage look like in 5 years? I didn’t want to test how much damage our marriage could take before it evolved into emotional isolation, or possibly buckling completely.

How would porn affect my relationship with my 1-year-old son? The other day we got matching socks so he can be just like daddy. The immense weight of responsibility burdened my shoulders as I watched him giggle and waddle around the living room in his socks. So pleased to look like me. What example of manhood was I setting for him?

My sweaty thumbs typed quickly as I wrote down my trajectory, and suddenly the sum of all my small decisions didn’t seem so contained anymore. They were leaking, staining the rest of my life and those I cared about.

Seeking A High

I used to think that porn was more fun than God. But now I know that in the absence of meaning, people settle for pleasure as second best.

You see… I was a user.

I used porn.

And I used God.

I used porn to distract me from pain. And I was trying to use God as a numbing agent for my pain.

Turns out God isn’t a numbing agent. He doesn’t want our relationship to be limited to me unloading my baggage onto him whenever I feel overwhelmed. While He does take my burdens on Him, if that was where our relationship ended, it would be shallow, and I’d be treating Him like a service, not like a friend.

He yearns for a real, vulnerable, intimate relationship. Yet I set a box on the table and told God to fit inside it because that’s all I wanted from Him: numb my pain, make me feel better about myself, and take my problems away. I was giving Him my 5-minute attention span, and expecting God to out-pleasure porn.

Then I was perplexed when I found porn more enticing than time with my God-in-the-box.

When I had a choice between facing my pain or hiding behind a daze of numbness…. The numb won. And with each hit of dopamine, it was leading me further and further away from a storyline of meaning.

But when I drove out of the Barnes and Noble parking lot, I felt hope. Hope because I had a vision for what my storyline would be. I was an inch closer to the person I wanted to become. And it was a lot more compelling to me than porn.

I have an embarrassing habit of talking like I’m a verified expert on a subject like 10 minutes after learning about it. And in the scheme of things, I basically realized these things 10 minutes ago.

So, as a verified expert, I need to ask you… Are you living a meaningful life? Who are you becoming?