Cold Turkey or the Gradual Way?
By Alan Medinger
I had known Paul for a good many years, since he first came to Regeneration as a young man struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions. He was intelligent, a serious Christian and seemed to have most of his life togetheróall pluses in weighing his prospects for significant recovery. However, after a few years, he decided to plunge into the gay life and spent several years there. This did not reflect an abandonment of his Christianity or any new beliefs concerning the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. It looked more like simple rebellion.
Fortunately, as with many rebels or prodigals, after a number of years Paul became convicted and made the decision to, as he put it, "come back to GodĒ and try again to put homosexuality behind him. He asked if he could become accountable to me. I was glad to play that role in his life.
At the beginning of his weekly check-in, he was pleased with himself when there had been three or four days in the week when he hadnít had sex with men. Over the months, his going out and having sex decreased, as did his use of pornography on the Internet. Eventually he reached the point at which he was having sex with men maybe once every three or four months, and his use of pornography diminished to occasionally watching the squiggly lines on the Playboy channel, the shaky images that are visible to nonsubscribers. He continued to masturbate regularly, but with all of the other changes he had made in his life, both he and I were pleased with his progress. Although neither of us expressed it verbally, both Paul and I were willing to let his gradual progress eventually lead him to total or almost total freedom.
But is this realistic? What are the chances that Paul will achieve real victory by going this gradual, progressive route? Will gradual progress really lead him to total or almost total freedom?
Before I begin to address these questions, let me first state plainly that, as is the case for all who struggle with sexual sin, there are only three prospects for Paulís future:
1. Continued progress. Having sex with other men and using pornography clearly become a thing of the past, and masturbation eventually stops altogether. (At another time, we will address the possibility of total victory over lust for any man, but for now letís assume that close to total victory is a possibility.)
2. Finding a level place. Sex with other men and using pornography have stopped and are not likely to recur, while lust and masturbation continue at a level that Paul can accept, the level he assumes is probably typical for most men.
3. Sliding back into active homosexuality. Either he plunges in all the way, or he repeatedly goes back into it in a "bingeĒ sort of way.
In other words, Paul can either continue getting better, stay the same, or get worse. Obviously, these are his only options.
I believe that most people who come through our ministries eventually settle in about where Paul is now, the "level placeĒ of prospect 2. Feeling they have some control over their lust, this is where they choose to stay; they arenít slipping backward, but they arenít moving forward either.
I have three problems with this. The first and most obvious problem is that those who try to live in this "level placeĒ are continuing to sin; they have become tolerant of their sin. (I addressed this in my January 2002 article, "Living With Sin.Ē) The second problem is that, in a way, the level place is the most difficult place to live from day to day. When lust and masturbation remain an option, every temptation results in a battleóif the option to sin is still there, then I must fight to make sure it doesnít get "out of control.Ē And the third problem is that sin has a power that we donít fully understand, and letting any amount of sin have its place in our lives always leaves us vulnerable to more deadly sins. A little bit of sin can be just the foothold Satan needs to draw us deeper into his ways.
So if prospect 2 isnít satisfactory, and certainly prospect 3 isnít, we are left with prospect 1, continued progress until lust and masturbation eventually stop altogether. But why does it have to be gradual? Why not stop cold turkey? Why doesnít Paul simply decide, "Thatís it, no more lust, no more masturbation, no more anything.Ē
Paul is not likely to choose a cold turkey approach for two reasons. First, it seems much more painful than the gradual way. In C.S. Lewisí The Great Divorce, a man who has been living in hell is given the opportunity of going into heaven if he will allow an angel to kill a little lizard that is on his shoulder. For anyone who has struggled with sexual sin, the lizard clearly represents lust. The man from hell acknowledges how destructive the lizard is but pleads in every way possible not to have the lizard killed. One of his pleas to the angel is, "Honestly, I donít think thereís the slightest necessity for [killing the lizard]. Iím sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.Ē He hates and loves the lizard, and he knows how excruciating it will be to have the angel grab the thing and crush it in his hand. The gradual way seems so much less painful.
A second and more significant reason Paul and others like him are more apt to choose a gradual approach over stopping cold turkey is that they have decided to stop cold turkey many times before, and they have failed each time. Mostly, this swearing off has occurred the "morning afterĒ theyíve indulged in sexual sin. After hours of swimming in the cesspool of internet pornography and after gaining relief through masturbation, the Christian man knows he didnít have to do what he did, feels utter contempt for himself, and promises himself, "Never again. This time it will be different.Ē But itís not. In a few weeks or a month heís back in the cesspool again.
I have no idea how many times I swore off masturbation. Including all of my years of active homosexuality, and my years of lesser struggles with lust after I became a Christian, surely it was more than 500 times. I doubt if Iím atypical. Is there any wonder why most of us would pursue the gradual way?
But hereís the clinker: the gradual way hardly ever works eitherónot by itself. Certainly, all things are possible with God, so some men and women may have moved into lasting freedom over lust in a steady, gradual way, but I donít know any of them.
Where does this leave us? Weíve already decided we want to pursue prospect 1, but we canít achieve it by quitting cold turkey or by choosing to stop our sin gradually. So, is there any hope for most of us? Certainly there is. The gradual approach wonít work by itself, but it can work with an added element, what I call the never again surrender. This is not the never again that comes the "morning afterĒ that is based on our strength or even our strength with Godís help. In fact, it is not the statement that I will never lust again. Rather, it is the statement to God that I am willing to never again experience whatever pleasure or excitement or release from pain it is that lust has brought me. NEVER is the defining word. It is saying to God, "I am willing to never feel a manís (womanís) arms around me, to never again experience the wonderful feeling of orgasm, never again thrill at the excitement of the chase, never again feel the security of having one woman (man) take care of me.Ē The never again surrender is forsaking whatever it is that you so clearly love about your homosexuality.
You are not giving up the behavior; that has never worked. You are giving up the reward. And you are not doing it in morning after disgust; you are doing it consciously and intentionally in your conversation with your heavenly Father. And you are doing it with full understanding of what you are giving up. You are truly counting the cost.
Until you do that, you are choosing to remain in control. So long as you are the one to determine how much sin is acceptable before you have crossed some invisible line, you are in control. God is not.
With this willingness to say never, you have truly put God in control. At some point, if he is to attain the victory that he desires, Paul will have to make such a surrender to God. What happens when we do? First of all it is excruciating. When the man in The Great Divorce allows the angel to seize the lizard and crush it, the man let out a "scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth.Ē But the excruciating pain does not last. In fact, typically, a wonderful sense of peace soon follows it. A battle has been fought, and you and God have won.
Does that mean the rewards will not be missed? They will be missed, but now the situation will be different. I would compare the new situation to the feelings one has when he has lost a dear friend or loved one. At first the pain seems almost unbearable, but eventually it changes. Something reminds you of the friend, and a momentary feeling of great sadness comes over you, but it passes quickly. A longing for the old days may persist for many years, but it is almost always fleeting.
Something else very wonderful happens after this surrender, something that makes life much easier. After the surrender, when temptation hits, whether from an external source or from internal emotions, you will very likely be able to dismiss it before it takes root in you and becomes many times more difficult to battle. When confronting an old temptation, it will become second nature to you to say immediately, "Thatís not an option.Ē Ultimately, this is the easier way.
All of us are on a gradual road of sanctification. Daily we take little steps to become more and more who God wants us to be. Paul must take the gradual way because it is the way of daily obedience to God. But to become fully the man God wants him to be, he will almost certainly need to make a cold turkey surrender at some point.
One more thing about this surrender needs to be mentioned, and this is a source of frustration to many. Almost always, this surrender will be prompted by God. You canít make it happen. But (and this is important) it is only in your walk with Him on the road of daily struggles to be obedient, that you will come to the place where you clearly sense that He is telling you that this is the time and place to make that decision. As you pursue the gradual way, He will lead you to that place.
Copyright 2002, Regeneration. All rights reserved. Posted on the web with permission.