Sex, Prayer, & Video Games
I was twenty seven years old when I got married. I was not exactly old, but old enough that more of my friends were married than not. And the majority of my unmarried friends followed suit within the next few years. One of the things that has been interesting to me during the last eleven years since I made a lifelong covenant with my therapist is the various ways that romantic boys struggle to become the committed men that they say they will be when they launch into marriage. I am not talking about marital infidelity, but the ability to simply mature into a hard-working, supportive, and caring husband and father who places the correct priority on his wife and children.
For example, I recall trying to wrap my mind around stories from married friends with children who would get together with other married friends with children every couple of weeks and play video games until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. I remember being confused about how this was even an option to be considered. I was painfully aware of the stress that comes from the life-adjustments that have to be made when a couple becomes new parents. With that in mind I could not quite fathom walking in from work and saying something like, “Hey honey, would you mind if I got together with some of the guys Friday night to play video games?” Yet, my friends seemed to think that this was quite natural.
Before I go any further I need to offer some disclaimers. As my therapist can attest, I have my share of remedial maturation issues. I have been slow to grow up in some key areas. Video games were not really my thing. Perhaps if I had been forced to make a more conscious effort to prioritize family time over some Xbox with my buddies I would have been a little more sympathetic. Having said that, I still shake my head in bewilderment over the late night gaming escapades in which some of my friends were indulging. While I recognized that I was probably just as guilty at mixing up my priorities with other childish things, there was always something about video games that seemed to bring a slightly more disturbing element. Now we are starting to see research that suggests that the social costs from over-gaming are higher than the surface might suggest.
In 2011 a TED talk was given by renowned psychologist and Stanford professor emeritus, Philip Zimbardo. He suggested with such clarity and authority from his research that boys and men are digressing from their addictions to video games and internet porn that the TED talk became instantly popular. Since then Dr. Zimbardo has teamed up with Nikita Duncan and written a book on his research entitled, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. And just last week CNN wrote an exclusive on the research.
Whether or not one buys into Zimbardo’s conclusions a helpful point to be brought to our attention is that video games (like porn use and excessive internet surfing in general) is an arousal addiction, which is rooted in novelty. That is, the addiction is built upon the satisfaction that comes from encountering new surprises. Once a game or website or porn genre has been fully explored the addict has to move on to a new game or website or porn genre. This is in contrast to traditional forms of addiction, which simply look for more and more quantities of the same thing.
We have known since the 1950’s that humans, like lab rats, will stimulate the pleasure center of the brain nearly to death, given the opportunity. However, what is new in Zimbardo’s research is the suggestion that the male dominated activities of gaming and porn use are now taking measurable tolls on guys. He connects his findings to recent statistics on the growing under-performance of males at work, in school, and, most importantly, in real relationships. Men are increasingly averse to the risks, complexities, gradual developments, and delayed gratifications of committed relationships. Instead, they are choosing the instant, novel, and flighty stimulation of porn and video games. They justify these behaviors in light of the arousal addiction formed in the limbic system of the brain. After all, how could anything that feels so good be bad?
By the time a boy turns twenty one he has played an average of 10,000 video games. We might be tempted to brush off video game stats, despite the fact that young men are now literally gaming themselves to death and preparing for mass murder by spending sixteen hours a day on World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. However, as I have written previously, it should be clear that on the pornography issue we are dealing with something far greater than mere individual moral behavior. The social cost of the ubiquitous supply of internet porn is the ravaging of our children.
I have thrown out statistics on porn before, but here are a few more. The average boy watches fifty porn clips a week. The porn industry is still the fastest growing industry in America, $15 billion annually. For every 400 movies made in Hollywood there are 11,000 porn movies made. Ninety percent of youth ages 8-16 have viewed porn online, the largest single group viewing porn is ages 12-17, and the average age that a child is exposed to porn is 11 years old. If you have a teenager that has not viewed porn your teenager has defied the odds. But if I placed a bet that your teenager has viewed porn I have a 90% chance of winning that bet.
So, if you are a man who has an arousal addiction, whether it is obviously destructive or seemingly benign, what are you to do? My answer may seem oversimplified at first, but hear me out. The answer to your (or any) arousal addiction is prayer. God does not want you to do away with the pleasure center in your brain. He created your limbic system to begin with. What He wants you to do is learn to use it in the way that it was created to be used. And nothing has the potential of stimulating your pleasure center like prayer.
Arousal and the pleasure center were created for intimacy. We see it in sex in marriage and prayer with God. Nowhere do these two come together any clearer than in the Old Testament book of the Song of Songs. The book has often been misappropriated and misunderstood, people mistakingly going to one extreme or the other. On the one hand, there are those who view the book as a semi-inappropriate acknowledgement that sex is a necessary evil for procreation. Those who lean this way ignore the book altogether. On the other hand, there are those who have reduced the message of the book to the idea that God wants you to have killer sex. Those who lean this way see nothing but eroticism in the book.
There is no doubt that the book is erotic. But there is also no doubt that the book is singing the beauty of covenanted relationship. The book is one of five Festival Scrolls, and it is read after the Passover seder. Its use at Passover roots it in the foundation of the Jewish understanding of God’s covenant with Israel. Americans tend to read the book and immediately think about two secret lovers, but a closer look reveals two people so devoted to each other that their love creates profound intimacy. So, yes, the current of the book is erotic, but its channels are banked with covenant and intimacy. Thus, the book begins with the image that best captures simultaneously both eroticism and covenanted intimacy: the kiss.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–for your love is more delightful than wine. Song of Songs 1:1
You see, we think that sex and prayer are total opposites. In fact, they are very much related, and the core component that they share is intimacy. God actually created you to commune with Him, and the primary way that you do that is through prayer. And the exciting thing about prayer is that God likes to speak to you in continually new ways, which makes it a perfect fit for replacing your arousal addictions. Nothing can arouse the whole person in the way that the love of God can. His love not only never fails, but it is new every morning (see Lamentations 3:22-24). If you are addicted to gaming or porn, checking your phone or watching the evening news, or any and everything in between I have some good news. You were created to be deeply intimate with God, and nothing will stimulate and arouse your love like prayer. You can replace all of your arousal addictions with Him. And if you do, you will discover that He never plays the same clip twice.