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May 04, 2023

Prager and Pornography: Why We’ve Got to Kill Lust, Not Cultivate It

Dennis Prager went viral recently for proposing that pornography usage is a viable option for men. In a roundtable conversation with Jordan Peterson and others, Prager opined that "If pornography is a substitute for one's wife, it's awful. If it's a substitute for adultery, it's not awful." As a result, men can engage pornography because "Men want variety," according to Prager.

Later, in a follow-up video, Prager did express that pornography in America has had a "terrible effect on young people." Trying to explain his response to a Peterson question, Prager noted that he was speaking of men battling the instinct for adultery: "Better that he deal with it privately in his fantasy world than have real adultery." Sin is a problem at the level of action, Prager reaffirmed, not of the mind. This matters for him because Judaism—the faith he practices—is a "law-based religion."

Prager's initial remarks created a firestorm, and rightly so. Even taking his later comments into account, we need to address this issue. Toward that end, here are three brief responses to Prager's position.

First, Prager's conception of sin doesn't match that found in the Old Testament. It is true that sinning in deed has consequences that sinning in the mind may not have. But the Old Testament—including the Torah that Prager would recognize as ancient Scripture—identifies sin at the level of desire, not just action. Think of Genesis 3:16b, where God tells Eve this regarding her post-fall condition: "Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you." Eve would not only sinfully challenge her husband's authority by action, but would sinfully desire to rule him in her heart.

We read much the same principle in Deuteronomy 5:21. The tenth of ten commandments speaks with piercing clarity to issues of the heart: "'And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.'" Sin, we learn here, starts in the heart, and proceeds from there into thoughts, words, and actions. The link between heart and action is unbreakable.

Beyond the Torah, Proverbs 6:25 speaks directly to the issue of lust. Regarding the immodest and ungodly sexual temptress, the godly father tells his son: "Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes." What a needed word for our modern lust-soaked culture. The way to defeat lust is, by the power of God's grace, to not chase your ungodly desires. By all means, Proverbs teaches, do not seek out the wayward woman.

Second, Prager's view directly contradicts the teaching of Jesus. Prager referenced Jesus' teachings in his comments and disagreed with them. As noted, his major point was that Judaism focuses on actions, not thoughts. As we just saw, that is altogether incorrect. But that matter aside, we cannot so easily sidestep Jesus. The verses Prager referenced, Matthew 5:27—28, reinforce and concretize what the Old Testament teaches: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." What Jesus hands down, we follow. He alone is our Lord and Master.

I do not mean by this that we should brow-beat Dennis Prager. Nor should we try to force him to follow Christ by faith. We should treat him with respect and pray for his salvation. But in noting this, we must be clear: we are not dealing with equals. Dennis Prager is not on the level of Jesus. No human is. Jesus is the God-man (John 8:58; John 14:6). We must trust and follow Jesus over any other voice, and receive his moral instruction as not only true, but good for us.

In all this, we should not assume that Jesus is giving us a burdensome ethical blueprint. Jesus offers all sinners "rest" (Matthew 11:28). Jesus gives us the way out of temptation and the way out of hell. Jesus' theology and morality is not a superheated legalism; it is the very pathway to joy (Psalm 16:11). It is the only sure way in this wicked world to defeat our sin.

Third, Prager's "realistic" counsel will lead only to genuine disaster. To be sure, Prager's follow-up comments were better than his initial ones. But I'm haunted by this statement about the utility of pornography for struggling men in his second video: "Better that he deal with it [lust] privately in his fantasy world than have real adultery."

In all due respect to Dennis Prager, this is as wrong as wrong can be. Viewing pornography is not a way to "deal with" lust. Viewing pornography is the way to have your lusts overtake you. Chasing your lusts and giving into your desires doesn't solve your problems; it amplifies them exponentially. As I show in my forthcoming book The War on Men, for example, pornography usage by a spouse in marriage increases the likelihood of divorce by 300%. "Dealing with" lust by viewing pornography is the equivalent to gathering dynamite to your chest, lighting a match, and waiting for things to explode. Statistically, the destruction it will cause is inevitable.

The biblical approach to this topic is what Colossians 3:5-11 maps out: we must not cultivate our sin. We've got to kill it. We've got to pray for power over it, steer clear of it, repent of desires for it when they bubble up within us, stock our minds with Scripture, and live out of the overflow of God's grace. Sin isn't a pet to be cared for; sin is a snake, and snake's heads are made for crushing.

One can find reasons from past years to be thankful for Prager's example—he has been right on some key topics that impact life and our republic. However, Prager's recent comments only show us all the clearer what is missing from his worldview: a Savior. A Son of God. A Messiah. A blood-shedding, Satan-overcoming redeemer. Sinful lust is not, after all, a mere failing that we can all manage in our own strength. Our sinful lust is a highway to destruction, both in this life and the next.

For a force this strong, we don't need mere moralism. We need something much stronger. We need biblical wisdom. We need sound habits. Above all, we need the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16). We need the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). We need Jesus. The good news for stumbling and fallen creatures like us is this: God is near, and forgiveness is real. If we will turn to Christ, and if as believers we go back to Jesus to confess and gain victory over our sins, He will redeem our lives—now and for eternity.

That is a promise that far outweighs anything that pornography—the lurking viper of our age—offers us.

Pornography Help and Resources

Dr. Owen Strachan is a trusted contributor of JDFI and is a research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is also a senior fellow for the Family Research Council's Center for Biblical Worldview. He served for six years at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he equipped Christians to think positively about the Word and the world. In addition to being a contributing writer for the Gospel Coalition, he has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today. He is the host of a podcast, City of God, and is the author of several books, including Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind, and Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel. He has made appearances on Fox News, The Hugh Hewitt Show, and The Eric Metaxas Show. Dr. Strachan earned a Ph.D. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has also served as a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Owen Strachan is married and the father of three children.

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