Escaping Addiction via Radical Faith
There's a hashtag challenge my church is participating in called #Jesuschangedmylife. The idea is to spread news of Jesus on social media in the week leading up to Easter by briefly explaining on social media how Jesus has changed your life. I’ll be honest—this concept initially made me uncomfortable. I have overcome my uneasiness, however. Here is my contribution. I fear I have failed to be brief, but I assure you, I have never published anything online as important to me or as personal as the article you are reading right now. Beloved reader, do me a solid and at least skim the thing.
As a general rule, I don't post much about my faith on my social media. Part of this is my desire to avoid coming off as cringey, basic Christian, or preachy, especially as it relates to the name "Jesus." This is a grievously warped aesthetic taste I have adopted from our culture. However, I believe a deeper obstacle is my struggle to articulate my own story honestly, especially as it relates to my faith. As a disabled person who grew up with a firm belief in Jesus and sound doctrine, there's a myriad of ways I can spin my story.
Part of the difficulty arises from my ability to read and manipulate people, including myself. Storytelling is my craft. For example, I know that if I want to win over a certain crowd (conservative Christians over forty), all I have to do is share about how God was there for me in the midst of my surgeries, and all my middle-aged admirers will call me inspiring and remind me that they've been praying for me since I was a baby (a warm-hearted response that for all my cynicism, I suspect I secretly enjoy). It's a very tempting story to promote because I know it gets results. I suspect it’s a large part of why the documentary about my life won “People’s Choice Award.”
The problem is, that's not my story. Surgeries were painful, sure, but they're just pain. I know how to cope with pain. Coming out of surgeries, I didn't feel helpless or reliant on God. I was thankful for certain worship songs that reminded me of where my ultimate hope was, but that was about the extent of it. On top of that, thanks to the surgeries, my childhood was filled with concrete evidence that my parents genuinely cared about me when I was in distress, which is more than many other people can say. Any therapist can tell you that an assurance of parental love is an invaluable resource in life. However, the version of my life story in which I star as the "handicapped miracle child" was written for me without my permission. I was deemed a hero and put on a pedestal before I was old enough to realize what was happening. If I'm honest, I never even felt a strong sense of being indebted to God for sustaining me through disability. I'm well aware that I have God to thank for my parents, for my resilient nature, and good fortune I have to exit surgeries in good spirits and with the health that I do have. But that doesn't mean I became the inspirational Christian with a deep connection to God everybody assumed I was.
I struggled with knowing what to say when other people went through pain and would come to me for help. My motto for pain was "suck it up and get moving. It'll be over eventually. Why are you wasting your time whining?" I found that for some strange reason, this was NOT what people wanted to hear when they were suffering. As a consequence, I adopted a habit of spinning some tale about how in the midst of pain you just have to do what I do, and depend on God. It was a comfortable lie because I knew in theory it should be true. I told myself that as long as it was a little bit true for me, there was no harm in exaggerating the truth in order to give people what they wanted to hear.
My story as disabled person who relies on God is an easy one to tell, but it hides a much darker, truer story. From high school onward, I harbored a deep secret: I was addicted to pornography. I was completely at a loss for how to reconcile this with my Christian faith. I knew there was this sin I seemingly could not beat. I knew I loved Jesus. I knew I was a wretched sinner that deserved to go to hell. So why couldn't I stop turning to porn? I felt trapped. I confessed my sin to my mentors. I set up accountability and worked tirelessly to overcome my addiction. I enrolled in online training programs to take control of addiction. I despised myself with all my might in hopes of shaming myself into living the life Jesus wanted me to live. I bent all my will on understanding that Jesus loved me and forgave me and offered me grace. Every sermon in church I longed to hear the answer to the question: "how does one change?" People would share their testimonies and say things like "I struggled with addiction until I found Jesus. It wasn't until I understood what grace really means that I stopped desiring porn." I was at a loss. I knew what grace was. I understood theology deeply. I knew what Christ had done for me. What was I missing? Other people would say things like "The power to change has to come from God." This was also frustrating. What could I, Kip Henderson, do to change? I tried stepping back and just praying for God to change me. Nothing happened. I lived a life secretly filled with an undercurrent of misery all through high school and college. I was a Christian insomuch that I loved God and hated myself. I didn't know what else to do. The Bible became terrifying because I felt condemned by every verse. It's not that I didn't trust God. It's not that I wanted to view porn. It's not that I thought God didn't want lordship over my sexual life. I did everything in my power to abstain, but my self-control was just too weak. For many years, I was so disgusted with myself that I was angry at God for his promise to take me to heaven. I genuinely desired hell for myself so that justice would be done.
I carried all of this baggage with me into my first romantic relationship. The relationship lasted for 4 years and 8 months, which as of writing this, is essentially my entire adult life. During our years of dating, my miserable lifestyle of religious self-loathing soon bled over into her life, and my confusion and desperation only increased as my mess began having an impact on the life of another human. My sin seemed to grow despite my every attempt to reinforce to myself the horror of my choices, confess, repent, and install accountability. My wretchedness plunged my girlfriend into depression. In my religious moments, if I found fault in her I would condemn her as I had so often condemned myself, and in so doing pull her on to my "love God, hate self" track. There's no excuse for the pain I brought to her life. I tried to create boundaries for myself, but like a coward would go back on my convictions every time an inconvenience appeared. I cried out to God to rescue me from myself. I told him I would do anything to repair my relationship with my girlfriend.
Therein lay my error. I wouldn't consider leaving my girlfriend even if that's what it took to live properly. I knew deep down I valued my relationship with her over doing the right thing, but didn't do anything about it. My aversion to even consider breaking up with her became the poison by which our relationship withered and died. Desperate for answers and seeing how much support and help and advice engaged couples got within the Christian community, I proposed. We became engaged August 15th, 2019. Sure enough, as an engaged couple, the answer we sought came to us. We were in a deeply toxic relationship. Faced with the pain and trauma of all the problems we had tried to bury, my fiancée broke up with me on October 13th of the same year. In the midst of all the pain of the break up, relief swept over me like a wave. I knew that I had put my relationship with her over my conviction to do the right thing.
After the breakup, I became obsessed with becoming the type of person who wouldn’t have driven my fiancée away. My goal was not to win her back, but to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. My frenzied research on how to be a healthy lover led me straight to all the tools I needed to defeat the demons within me, starting with my shame. I revisited the Gospel, a phrase and a concept that I had grown up with, but hadn’t yet unpacked to its full extent. Defeating my shame came down to relinquishing my right to judge myself for abandoning my purpose to serve God perfectly. I knew full well that my wretchedness demanded justice. I knew that God the Father had sent his son Jesus to Earth to live a perfect life and die a horrible death as if he had committed a sin, essentially sacrificing himself in my stead. My perspective changed, however, when I realized that the reason I was no longer going to be eternally separated from God was because Jesus had paid for the right to judge me with his blood, and was inviting me to join him in his resurrection. If I counted myself a follower of Christ, that meant I no longer had the right to decide for myself whether I deserved to go to heaven or hell. Now I know Jesus gets to decide, and for some crazy reason he loves me enough to bring me closer to him, and I would be a fool to declare the voices in my head that condemn me wiser than the voice of Jesus calling me his own.
My continued obsession with becoming a healthy lover drove me straight towards understanding the power of radical faith. There's a verse in Revelation in which Jesus says of a church, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold— I am about to spit you out of my mouth." I realized that if I was going to commit to something, I had better be all in. All my favorite movies understood this. It's the leap of faith. How does Miles Morales learn to be Spider-Man? Dives off a building. How does Indiana Jones cross the bottomless pit? He close his eyes and takes a huge step into the abyss. How does the clownfish Marlin escape from the whale? He trusts Dory's advice and lets go of all handholds (fin-holds?). There's a running theme in all these scenes: to achieve personal change, you must be willing to die. This was the answer I had searched for my entire life. For so long in my life, I had lingered in half-heartedness and lived in misery as a consequence. I think I would have been happier if I been oblivious to the evils of pornography and indulged with a clear conscience rather than tried to break free without being willing to do whatever it took. I think this is what Jesus means says he would rather us be cold than lukewarm. To quote Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
I was miserable for so long because I didn't understand what it took to follow Jesus. So much of my life I had been taught that following Christ was as easy as repeating a prayer and acknowledging that God was real. I can now see that the Christian faith is actually nothing short of working out how to surrender your life. The most profound and needed change only comes once you're willing to die. For so long I didn't know how that played out practically. Now I understand. If you know something to be unethical, but chose to go the opposite way for the sake of convenience, you have renounced your trust in truth and goodness itself. You have declared to God that a future guided by truth is not one worth pursuing, and that a future in which you act as you see fit is better than the one God has planned. You have made yourself God, and in so doing, committed an unspeakable crime. Becoming a Christian is absolutely terrifying because of how much control you relinquish. What I have found is you must truly reach the end of yourself before you surrender and are willing to pursue the Word of God unto the point of death, but nothing could be more worth it in the end.
Since the break up, Jesus has turned my life around. Hopefully now I've explained enough that there's some actual weight behind the name "Jesus," and it doesn't just register as some trivial phrase. When I trust and follow him, my desire for pornography fades into oblivion, not because of some magical spiritual force, but because that's what Jesus does. Pornography is a substitute for adventure. The life Jesus calls me to is anything but safe, and nothing if not adventurous. Certainly, publishing such a personal article is not my idea of safe, and the thrill received from engaging in the unknown is precisely the type of thrill pornography substitutes.
Pornography thrived on fear of being found out. Whom have I to fear now? I trust God that the future that arises in light of honesty and confession and courage will always be better in the long run than one in which I keep secrets out of fear. And yes, I'm talking about more than just a secret addiction. I mean ANY future secret I maybe be tempted to keep out of fear, even if keeping any of them would protect relationships, provide job security, avoid incarceration, prolong my life, ingratiate me to a potential lover, or uphold the family name. I’ve been through enough pain to know it’s not worth compromising on my resolve to obey God and remain open about my life.
Lastly, pornography thrived on self-loathing. I thought I could shame myself into stopping porn. Jesus taught me that my desire for porn was a gift, and not a curse. I turned to porn to escape. When I felt lonely, ashamed, or began to disassociate, I would turn to pornography as a form of relief. I began to learn not to shut down those desires, but to listen to them carefully, as one would listen to a suffering child. Taking my cue from the tenderness and grace Jesus displays in the Bible, I carefully listened and sympathized with the part of myself that desperately wanted porn. By listening and caring instead of shunning and bottling, I was able to, through Jesus, offer myself grace. My desires for the drug of pornography turned into an opportunity from God to show kindness to myself and listen to the desires of my soul. Learning this only happened because my ex-fiancée was wise enough to end our romantic relationship. I am so thankful for the break up. It grieves me that the man I should have been to her only emerged after we went our separate ways.
So, that's it. That's how Jesus has changed my life. He rescued me out of misery and wretchedness. I'm not perfect. My relationship with Jesus still needs tons of work. My struggle with porn crops up from time to time, but its hold on my life is rapidly diminishing. I suspect publishing this might just do it in for good. I no longer fear it. Sin has lost its grip on me.
I am still figuring out the particulars of a worthwhile adventure to aim my life at, and that has been a messy process. On the whole, however, I am fulfilled, secured, and thriving thanks to Jesus. I’m sharing all of this publicly because I trust God can use my story to change the life of another. I can only imagine how my life would have been different if I could have read this article my freshman year of high school.
If your life is falling apart, and you're looking for a way out of misery, I can recommend no greater solution than following Jesus no matter what the cost. If you're reading this from your COVID-19 bunker, you can begin by attending my church Southlands from the comforts of your home. All of their services are being carried out through the internet. If your life is going fine without Jesus, I implore you to at least indulge any lingering curiosity. Again, I'd recommend you start by checking out Southlands. Or message me! I always love talking about this sort of thing and would be delighted to recommend reading materials and resources, or to put you in touch with somebody else wiser than I am.
If you're curious as to why I think it's so important to quit pornography, I recommend you read the "Get the Facts" page on the Fight the New Drug Website. It takes a well-researched scientific approach to the issue.
If you're looking to quit unwanted sexual behavior, I recommend you start by reading the book "Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing" by Jay Stringer for a guide to defeating unwanted sexual behavior through being kind and empathetic towards yourself. I also greatly benefited from listening to Eleanor Longden's Ted Talk: "The voices in my head" which provided me with examples of how to talk kindly to myself. Also, please feel free to message me about your struggles. My motto for pain is no longer "suck it up and get moving," and Lord willing, you'll find me a kind and attentive listener, though grace would be appreciated as I develop that skill.
Take courage, my friends. If you found my story valuable, please consider sharing this article so that as many people as possible can avoid the pitfalls I fell into. Christ has conquered death. We who have put our faith in him have nothing to fear.