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How to Bounce Back After a Relapse (Spiritual + Secular Approaches)

porn / nofap relapse symbolized by the wrong way sign..
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. (Oliver Goldsmith)

Relapse, or moral failure, is not a good time.  There’s the pain of conscience reminding us we did something wrong. There’s the pain of having wasted time and energy. There’s the pain of knowing we took an action that was not in our medium or long-term self-interest. There’s the pain of the effect our action might have on the people we love. If we are spiritual, there is the pain of having grieved the heart of God (Ephesians 4:30). I did what I did. The question after the fact is always, what do I do now?


You are only as strong as you are honest.

Craig Groeschel

I learned early on in my faith that I healed as I revealed.

Kirk Franklin

For a believer, confession is the first step in the process of restoration. 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.” There is also utility in confessing our sins to someone we trust, like an accountability partner. James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Indeed, the healing power of confession works in mysterious ways.  

We confess to God for forgiveness, but James says we confess to people for healing.

Craig Groschel

However, the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of lust don’t always disappear immediately after confession. Besides letting time pass, there are other steps we can take to accelerate healing in our hearts, minds, and relationships.


The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.

Oliver Goldsmith

Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.

C.S. Lewis

Meditation consists of stopping and thinking about what happened– and what, specifically, went wrong. In meditation, we become intimately acquainted with the nature and consequences of our mis-takes, which makes us less likely to repeat them in the future. We gain insight into our characters, motivations, and weaknesses, which can inform our battle plans moving forward.

For example, if I relapsed after a late night of scrolling, I may make a habit of going off the grid during off-peak hours, a kind of intermittent fasting from technology. Or, if I relapsed while studying or working under stress, I may limit myself to shorter sessions, seek out social environments, and learn to step away if the urge gets too strong.

When we study our relapses, we learn from history and glean wisdom from our biographies. On the other hand, when we do not stop to reflect on our mistakes, chaos and confusion reign. 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

In the ancient world, there were a number of penance rituals that people could perform after making a mistake (e.g. fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, charity, etc.) The Hebrews, for a famous example, had an elaborate sacrifice system consisting of mandatory and voluntary offerings. The purpose of penance, as I understand, is to deepen and accelerate the process of restoration. Penance and its secular counterpart, changing the reward, which I elaborate below, retrain the brain to view the problematic behavior through the lens of its consequences—that is, as painful rather than pleasurable.

Note: I disfavor the word punishment in the context of penance. To my mind, punishment breaks down, whereas discipline builds up. I like to think of penance in terms of restorative action. While forgiveness comes from confession, restorative action can retrain the way our brains perceive the offensive act. 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 is effective at getting me back on track in terms of sexual integrity, as well as praying and meditating with intention.

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 aim, as iterated above, is that our brains will come to identify the undesirable behavior with negative consequences and will stop motivating us to engage in it in the future.

A Word on Streaks

Day one after a relapse is a pivotal crossroads at which temptation is greatest and past progress hangs in the balance. Day one determines whether our failure was a hiccup in the road or if we crash and burn off the side of the mountain. Indeed, for a few days we are especially vulnerable and must be doubly vigilant to avoid binging and wiping out hard-earned gains. 

The truth is that personal progress is rarely linear; rather, it is a series of ups and downs, with higher peaks and valleys and greater rises than falls. When we bounce back from a relapse, we continue on a path of steady, if fitful, progress. On the other hand, when we yield to defeatist impulses, we run the risk of hitting rock bottom and truly having to start over again.

Instead of counting the days of a porn-free streak, consider focusing on more qualitative measures, like discipline, relationships, and emotional health. While it is possible to drive up a porn-free streak through brute force or dumb luck, the latter will eventually prevail and are the surest indicators of long-term success.

Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.

Denis Waitley

In sum, while failure is disappointing, it presents an opportunity to come back wiser and stronger. By confessing, meditating, practicing penance, and changing the reward after a relapse, we accelerate healing and catalyze personal growth. Armed with new knowledge and emotional strength, the restored is much better equipped to avoid mistakes in the future.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill

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 their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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