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What To Do After I Relapsed And Watched Pornography? (Spiritual + Secular Approaches)

porn / nofap relapse symbolized by the wrong way sign..
No failure is final, unless we choose to give up.

Recently, I missed the mark. I watched pornography. It didn’t last long, but the damage was done. The question after the fact is always, what do I do now? There’s the pain of your conscience telling you you did something wrong. There’s the pain of wasting time and energy. There’s the pain of knowing you took an action that was not in your medium or long-term physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual self-interest. There’s the pain of the effect your action might have on the people you love. If you are a Christian, there is the pain of having grieved the heart of God (Ephesians 4:30).


For a Christian, confession is the first step in getting spiritually restored. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus said to pray, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The same word of faith with which God created the world is the medium through which we receive forgiveness. There is also utility in confessing our sins to people who have earned our trust, like an accountability partner. This can be another initial step in the process of restoration.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

James 5:16

However, there are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences of the mistakes we make —like watching pornography–that don’t always disappear after confessing to God or another human being. In addition to fessing up and letting time pass, there are steps we can take, spiritual or otherwise, to accelerate the process of getting restored in our hearts, minds, and relationships.

Quite Reflection And Meditation

Quite reflection (aka meditation) is a big tool. I’m talking about stopping and reflecting on what happened–and what went wrong. Quite reflection enables us to process the situation in an appropriate and timely fashion. In quiet reflection, we become deeply acquainted with the nature and consequences of our mistakes, which makes us less likely to repeat them in the future. We also learn about our character, motivations, and weaknesses, which we can take into account in future battles for sexual integrity.

When we do not stop and reflect on our mistakes, chaos and confusion in our hearts and minds is the end result. Chaos and confusion, rather than leading us to make better decisions in the future, tend to send us on a downward spiral. For more on this idea, see Sit Down And Think About What You’ve Done.

Penance: voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.


Penance And Restoration

Penance happens when people take the process of restoration to another level. In the Hebrew Bible, people would perform sacrifices for sin, some required and some voluntary. In many cultures, there are rituals of penance that people opt into after making a mistake, whether that’s fasting, prayer, enduring some hardship, or abstaining from some privilege. The idea of penance, as I understand, is to accelerate the process of restoration.

Note: I don’t like the word “punishment.” To my mind, punishment breaks down, whereas discipline builds up. I like to think of it more in terms of taking restorative action. Taking restorative action after relapsing, with a heart of self-love, shows that we take the issue seriously and value our own healing.

For example, I have found that fasting after falling into temptation can be very effective at getting me back on track in terms of sexual integrity, as well as praying and meditating more than usual. It’s not about ingratiating ourselves with God. It’s about purifying our hearts and rooting out the evil within us.

For you [God] will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:16-17

Changing The Reward

There is a similar concept in secular psychology that Dr. Trish Leigh refers to as “changing the reward.” The idea of “changing the reward” is to transform the positive association our brain has with the problematic behavior to a negative one. Dr. Leigh says, for example, that “[after watching pornography], we may consider revoking some privilege, like going out to our favorite spot, or donating to a political candidate we don’t like. Something negative [without going overboard], that can get us back on the right track” (healing the brain from pornography). The end goal is that our brain will come to identify the undesired behavior with some negative experience, and will stop motivating us to engage in it in the future.

In sum, the goal of meditation, taking restorative action, and changing the reward after a relapse is to accelerate the process of healing and to prevent oneself making the same mistake in the future. It’s about going on the offense to deal with the consequences of our mistakes rather than entrusting the process to time or chance.

Whenever I relapse, I also like to tweak my processes. If I slipped up late at night, or was spending too much time on my phone, or wasn’t tending to my mental, physical, or spiritual health, then I take it as an opportunity to make improvements in those areas. This gives me added confidence to move forward, this time with optimized processes and a greater probability for success.

How we respond to failure is the difference between getting caught in a vicious cycle and getting back on the right track. No failure is final, unless we choose to give up.

If you liked this article, check out A Prayer For Purity (Psalm 51). For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of our lives. I got my B.S. from Georgetown University and my M.A. from The Ohio State University.

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