Carl Thomas joins The Redeemed Man podcast. Carl Thomas, who struggled with a pornography addiction for two decades before “getting free,” becoming an ordained pastor, and founding Live Free ministries to help other men stuck in a similar cycle of addiction.
A nationally certified neuro health coach, Thomas explains that porn is a symptom rather than a disease—“it’s just a thing that people turn to, like alcohol, drugs, overeating, or any number of things.” By focusing less on the shame aspect of addiction and more on the underlying issues that drive men to turn to porn as a distraction or escape, he says Live Free helps them break free of that dependency and gain a greater appreciation for the relationships and God-given blessings that truly make life worth living.
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Welcome and Introduction
I’m Paul Amos, founder of The Redeemed. I want to welcome to you tonight's webinar. The Redeemed is an organization of men and a community that have come together to discuss not only life's difficulties, but our triumphs over those difficulties today, and we're very blessed to have the opportunity to listen to Carl Thomas, who's here with us today.
Carl Thomas: Thank you for having me on.
What does redemption mean to you?
Paul: Well, thank you, Carl. We're going to start today the way we start with all of our guests, and just ask for a moment, if you could say, What does redemption mean to you?
Carl: Redemption. So in the Christian world, you get terms that end up getting loaded because of things people attached to it. So it can mean different things for different people. When I hear redemption, for me, it means basically, you're taking something or somebody that has kind of left the perfect, the realm of where they were supposed to be, God's good plan, if you will, and it's the process, or culmination of where they return back. We're turning back to the ideal.
And then for me, personally, redemption also carries with it this connotation of... then you do something with that. So it's, Hey, my story has been redeemed. I wouldn't say this is necessarily part of redemption, but when I hear the word redemption, the implication is, this is my story, it's been redeemed, my life’s been redeem, and I'm going to use that testimony to help other people do the same thing.
Paul: I love that the action orientation on the back end, that's required as a part of it, that I really like that definition.
If you would, talk to us about your story, if you're comfortable sharing, and a little bit of your background.
Carl Opens Up About Porn Use
Carl: I won't give you the full blown, not because I'm worried about any details. I'm pretty much an open book you'll find out. It's more just for brevity sake, I don't want to take an hour.
So, I’m 50 now. I've been free from porn for over 10 years. I got exposed to it when I was a kid, I don't know, eight or nine, something like that. Typical story. Friend shows you a Playboy magazine. That they hid in the woods. We're out of that age, but I don't know, it looks like you probably understand, never understood why people would hide paper products in the wet woods, but regardless. Saw a Playboy. Wow. Those look nice, right? And then just the kind of trickle down. Thankfully, I didn't grow up in the age that we find ourselves now we're broadband porn was just accessible everywhere. You had to actually work to get your porn. Bookstores, you sneak into the photography section, you do this and that because I've wanted more of what looked pretty good. Then got in high school, access opened up a little bit.
My dad got a black box, they’re completely irrelevant now, but back then, it was a scrambler, and so you could get all the channels, including the porn channel, so I used to watch those when my parents weren't around. And just one thing rolled into another.
Going to college gets worse, obviously at that time also access becomes more open, more available, more exposure. I can look at porn a lot easier now, and I haven't actually work for it. Then carried that into my marriage without my wife knowing, of course.
Then right after we had our first child, I confessed to her. I won't get into details on that confession, but it was just ridiculous, what motivated me to do it. Anyway, confessed to her. She took it very well. I don't know why she said, well, I know why she took it so well, she thought she knew something was up with me, but she thought it might be affair.
So she was almost relieved that it wasn't another woman. She thought, Okay, hopefully it's just going to go away right now, of course it didn't. So that continued for another, I don't know, four or five years, the whole trying to quit, then I don't quit. Trying to hide my tracks. Being honest, selectively.
Then I had a lightning bolt moment where just everything had arranged itself in my life perfectly, it was like the perfect storm. I just started going to seminary, even though it was an insurance agent, because I had this feeling and I was supposed to go in some form of ministry. I had no idea why, but I also knew that even though I had a lot of Bible knowledge, because of the way I was raised, I needed more.
I'm a big believer in, you should be prepped for the job you're going to take on, so I will put down some money and went to seminary to get my Master's. I found a really good accountability partner, right around that time. I heard a life-changing message from a guy who is a really good friend of mine right now, and then served on a mission trip. It is a mission trip, when people hear missions trip that involves a sex show, they kind of think, what? I went on a mission trip with an organization called XXX church, maybe we'll get into that later.
But at the training meal for that mission trip, I ended up talking to a guy who work with the organization, and he had no idea that the last time I looked at porn in two weeks ago. I had no business being on that trip, I didn't lie to get there, it was just one of these things where the checks and balances didn't work. It's supposed to screen out guys that are still looking at porn and didn't screen me out. So I got there completely honest. That's why I know it was a God thing and not that I put myself into that position.
He just said to me something about how he worked with a lot of pastors and had the unfortunate and unpleasant experience of having to suggest a lot of them should step back for a season when they got their life under control. To me, I was like, Wow, you mean that happens? I don't know, it just clicked. I realized I'm going to seminary, which I'm in theory following a calling, blah, blah, blah, and this guy who was probably 10 years younger than me, just told me without even realizing it, ‘Hey, bro. What are you doing? You're not ready to take this and you gotta clean up your own acts.’
So that just really hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a flip the light switch type moment, but not when you hear some people say I struggle in porn, and then I prayed to God and he took it away. It wasn't like that. I mean, I have been down this road for a while, ups and downs, trying to put pieces together to make things better.
It was a light switch moment in that I also had a new perspective and I started realizing that my pornography use wasn't so much about the shame or the guilt or any of that stuff. I mean, yeah, all that stuff sucked, but the real problem was that it was high jacking my life in that fact that if I wanted to keep going down that road, I couldn't go down this other road, which I really believe I was supposed to go down.
From there on when I would have these moments where porn was offered as a temptation, whether I was bored or whatever, the thought would come in my mind rather than just doing that short term...Is it worth it? I'm going to feel like crap afterwards, but it's going to feel kind of good. Yeah, maybe I'll just go with it. It was more, Hey, I know it's going to feel good, but it's also going to probably postpone all these things I want to do with my life. Is that really worth an organism? The answer is no. No, it's not worth it.
So it made the value proposition that porn offered me so much clearer. It just really made a crystal clear for me. If I choose this, I got to give up this. This is way better than this, so I'm just going to say no, because it's just not worth it.
Days turn into weeks, turn into months, turn into years, and then I got involved in ministry in this area, and here I am.
Sobriety vs Freedom
Paul: That's an awesome story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I want to pick up on one thing that you noted, and that was the difference between sober and free, would you mind spending a minute and just talking about that distinction in your mind.
Carl: So sobriety is important, and I think sometimes sobriety in today's modern pornography recovery world/culture, if you will, can get a bad rap with certain guys in this area. Oh yeah, I'm sober. Sober doesn't mean much if you're struggling, and I agree with all that, but there is element you do need sobriety. Sobriety is one piece of evidence that things are working in your life and it's also needed for healing. Your brain can't recover from the damage you've done to it until you get it off that junk. So it's needed for recovery, but it's also evidence that, things are starting to work.
I would never work with a financial planner, if he file bankruptcy every year. That's just crazy it. Well, if you know how to handle finances, you shouldn't be going bankrupt every the year. Same deal. Sobriety is a marker, but I've met many, many, many people over the years who would say they were sober. *Sidenote: people's definition of sobriety can vary because they're trying to define it however best fits their situation. Well, I'm sober, I don't look at porn, but I do spend half my day on chat rooms... Well, come on, dude, it's the same thing, but I digress.
I've met a lot of guys who are sober, but they are very much in the struggle, if you will, on a daily basis. They're walking a type wire, where it's like, I got to do this, I got to do that, I got to do my steps or 12 step, I got to do everything I can to try to keep my life on track and not go back. The temptation is always there. The fixation is always there, they're still thinking about.
Porn is still very much a part of their life, but it's more so in terms of its limiting things that they can do and not do because they're afraid you're going to go back. Versus free, which I think encompasses so much more. Yes, it's, Hey, I'm free of the behavior, but I'm also relatively free of the need for that behavior. I'm not saying that sometimes you're not tempted.
I'm also free of the shame that comes with it. I think that's important. I've met guys who say they're not tempted anymore, don't look at porn and more, but they'll never tell a soul that it was something they dealt with because they're still being hampered by the shame of that in that burden. I would say, Well, you're 70% there. For me, I'm saying that I don't define that as free, you're almost free, but shame still holding you back, and for me it's all that goes. The shame goes, behavior goes, the struggle or the feeling that you need to go back there on a daily basis goes, it all goes.
And that doesn't mean that we're perfect or that we're not going to have moments of temptation or we're not going to have things where something comes into your hands as well, I could go look at porn right now. Yeah, that's going to happen, right? But it's the difference between having that thought, entertaining it and dismissing it, versus having to be on guard against those thoughts every day, because you're very much still in a mental struggle, even though you're not actually engaging in the unwatned sexual behavior.
Paul: Wow, that's a great definition. And I can totally assimilate to the journey of getting to sobriety and then getting to freedom. That is a real stepping stone from one to the next that I can feel that in my own journey.
Well, tell us a little bit about XXX church. That was a multi-year venture for you and a big opportunity, they kind of, I think, laid some of the foundations for other things you're doing, so if you wouldn't mind, tell us about your adventure at XXX church.
Carl: Well, a venture is definitely the right word. The organization I dealt with, I had a lot of good stuff, I had some ups and downs on that organization. Always had a ton going on, so I went through seasons where the pressure seemed really high, I had to just manage a lot of stuff.
I came from the insurance industry and XXX Church just believed in my passion and they gave me an opportunity to lead a beta online small groups program. So they started a small groups program with one group and 6 dudes. They were like, Hey Carl, we think this could become a program, we'll pay you a couple hundred bucks a month to try to build this thing. It was like a freelance opportunity. I said, Sure, you don't even have to pay me, but I'll do it because I was eager to get into this type of ministry. So I did that for about a year, and we grew that program from one group to about 35 groups and from six dudes to a few hundred dudes. I think they saw that and saw the potential.
Out of nowhere after I quit my insurance job, thinking I was going to get another insurance job. Out of nowhere they come up with this offer. ‘Hey, you want to hire you!’ ‘Okay, to do what?’ ‘To go on our missions trips and to oversee our small groups program that you're already overseeing, but then we also want you to do handle on our websites.” Which was hilarious because I knew nothing about websites, I mean zero. Sure you have the right guy? Becasuse I don't know anything about it. ‘Oh, you'll learn. That's just how I roll. You'll either learn or you'll flush out and we'll find somebody else.’
They were a trial by fire type, so I jumped in and learned and then we got in digital marketing and all that stuff, and before you know it, six, seven years later, I'm handling pretty much all the digital aspects of the ministry building campaigns. I went from ignorance to being very well-versed in a lot of these things.
Then kind of hit a point where I just couldn't do it anymore. I was getting burned out, so I left to just do some solo stuff, not in the recovery world. They said, ‘Hey, would you still work for us freelance? So kept working for them freelance. A year later they come back and say, ‘Hey, we want you back full-time, but now we want you to just be the COO and run it.’ My wife and I had to pray about it a lot, we had to resolve some things that were part of the reason I left in the first place, but did that for another year and a half. Then Craig, the founder, let's just say he found a new path, I'll just leave it at that. He said ‘Hey, this is no longer my thing, I'm doing this other thing, and Carl, do you want to run with XXX Church? Sure. After a couple of months of us just kind of hashing it out, it was pretty clear it was not going to work out the way, we had both hoped, so he brought somebody else in to lead it, and I resigned again
That time when I resigned, he gave me the opportunity to acquire the small groups program that I built with them, into a new ministry. So at the time, I also was thinking about some other things about launching an app for guys in recovery. And so I launched Live Free as a 501c3 non-profit.
Our first resource was the small groups program that I had brought over from XXX Church, and then three months later, we launched the app, the Live Free Community app. That started doing well.
So a year, about a year goes by and just his last March, It was God for sure. But sometimes you're wondering if it's God or bad pizza, and I just texted Craig because I still had his number and I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with XXX Church these days? Any interest in letting us acquired from you? Yeah, let's talk. And then before you know it, a couple of conversations, a few emails back and forth, a couple of contracts, and within three weeks, XXX Church became a property of Live Free ministries.
So now we own and run XXX Church, we have the small groups program and the community app, and we have the Live Free wives program. So it's been a pretty crazy eight years, last two years have been really crazy, just seeing things happen and developed that you just never expected, certainly God moving in all of it.
People ask me these day what do you have planned for next year? I have no idea at this point. Because if you ask me that two years ago, I wouldn't have ever given you the road map that we have now. So what I have planned, I have ideas, are there is going to happen, I have no clue! I'm just holding on and enjoying the ride at this point.
Importance of Small Group Communities
Paul: That's awesome. Well, whether it was at XXX Church or whether it's at Live Free, small groups are clearly an essential part of your program and what you're doing. Talk for a minute about, the importance of being in a small group and what it does to have other men around you.
Carl: Yeah, so it's funny because we just have a blog post coming out on Live Free about small groups. Small group/support group, whatever you want to call it, in this area, recovery focus, not just, Hey, we're just getting together to talk about sports and read a couple of verses and drink coffee. This is kind of a recovery-focused community, small groups or even an online community. I think community is just essential to the recovery process, and that's not just my opinion, There's a ton of data and studies and experts, and the evidence is overwhelming that... You need connection. You can't do this alone. You've got to have other people in your life. And I think one of the reasons that so many guys fail in this effort, even though they might buy the book or they might buy the workshop, or even if they see a counselor, I think that's honestly why most guys end up failing in their efforts is because they're just trying to do this whole thing by themselves, keep it quiet, keep it solo. And you just can't do that.
You’ve got to have other people. And there's a bunch of reasons for that. I mean, obviously theologically, it's pretty clear in the Bible, God created us to live in community, he's a God of community. Theologically, there's no arguing with it, but even when you look at the neuroscience and everything like that, the way serotonin and oxytocin and these brain chemical transmits work in our body. So much, this is related to connection.
So much of addiction itself has to do with fear and lack of safety, and what makes us as humans feel unsafe is a lack of a tribe or a lack of community.
You’ve got to have that community, and then in terms of a small groups program, I think the reason that's so good is because in our case, we do weekly video meetings. One hour a week, but you're meeting with the same people, so you're talking about real life. Having accountability, and what I say accountability, I don't just mean you're showing up and giving a confession every week, and what I mean by accountabilities, you're sharing your life, good and bad, and there your friends or your group mates are there to not only challenge you, but also, celebrate with you when things are going well.
One of the biggest aspects that I think we miss out on when it comes to these types of groups is not just the benefit of showing up and being honest about our own struggles, but it's the opportunity to hear what other guys are learning and picking up on some things. For me it's that perspective shift, Someone saying ‘I know I look at porn every day when my boss yells at me. He's a tyrant. He always belittles me, he makes me feel horrible. He expects me to do crazy things, and I want to keep this job and I want to please Him, so I just can't take it. So I come home and I look at porn and masturbate to just kind of get away from it all.’ Right. And then they're a group and some other guy in his group is talking about his abusive boss, and he's saying, bosses shouldn’t act like that. I don't need to take that. I have skills here, I applied, and I found a job somewhere else and I have a great boss. I'm realizing that my boss's issues where my boss, not me. Now I'm with a good boss.
And another guy said, here going, I never thought of it that way. It's him, it's not me. I can't please this guy, why am I stressing out. Maybe the answer is not masturbating and looking at porn. Maybe the answer is, I just need to go find a new job and a new boss.
Right. So it's that interplay, confession, but also hearing what other people are saying. And then again, encouragement, challenging, man, this journey is. Recovery journey can be a beast, because there are setbacks. There's going to be setbacks, and nothing's worse than when you have four or five months under your belt and you're feeling like you're getting some real steam and then you just have a bad night, you feel lower than anything and so you need those people to step in and say, Dude, I know right now it stinks, but you're learning, you're growing. Don't give up . I don't want to say it's not that big a deal, but grand scheme of things, it's not that big a deal. You blew it, right, but you're doing all the right things about it, you told your wife, you're being accountable to us, you're showing up the group, you're being honest, you're processing what happened and learning from it.
Everything except the actual mistake has been a win, so just keep going, Man, I don't get depressed here, feel encouraged that... Yeah, you fell. But you've learned from it. And you're that much more prepared for the next time.
Complete Spectrum: Addiction to Freedom
Paul: Yeah, I hear you loud and clear. So you get guys who are on all elements of the spectrum between having not quite all the way to guys who've got complete freedom. How are you all talking to the group that's still trying to figure out how to quit, how to get off the initial stage of being addicted to pornography?
Carl: These guys are all mixed together, so every group, you're going to have your nubbes, you're going to have your guys that have been in recovery for a while and are still trying to figure it out. You're going to have your guys that, ‘Hey, I'm just showing up for the community and encouragement and the accountability, but I've been good for two years.’ And you mix them all together and that's great because everybody, even the seasoned guy, can still learn from somebody else.
What's good is for the new guys is they can look at the guy that's been down the road a little longer and having success. They can say, Hey, you know what, this guy is not superman, it's possible. And I don't have to keep buying into the line that this thing is not possible, it's totally possible. But when it comes to handling or dealing with guys that are kind of new and his journey, assuming they're in a group or in a community system, that's the first step for me is you need to get into some type of support community.
I honestly believe that's the first step, just get talking about it. It’s not going to get any better if you don't talk about it, you're not going to get the advice, you're not going to get fresh insight. You're not going to be able to learn new perspectives if you're just in your own little corner, that corner just never changes, it looks the same day-to-day. So you got to get a community. Once your in community, then it's Hey, you need to learn what is the nature of what you're dealing with.
To be completely frank, I see this happen far more with Christian men and non-Christian men, but there's almost a deep programming, it has to happen half the time when they come into our communities, because they come in with books that were written 20 years ago, and they have these ideas in their head that porn addiction and sex addiction is just because I'm horny and I can't control myself, and if I just lock everything down, I'll be fine and I just need to figure out the perfect solution to my problem. And they just don't understand. No, this goes way deeper than just, you have a nasty little habit, way deeper. It's not just a quick fix and there is no perfect solution, it's a process and its growth, and it takes time, and it's going to take a lot of effort, and it's going to take some sweat, blood and tears, but you got to get to the inner issues. The inner issues are the reason that you're going to do stuff in the first place. Trauma like past abuse, abandonment, almost every guy I ever dealt with who deals with this stuff usually has some sort of self-worth issue.
It's funny because you hear it a lot, Oh, I feel very shameful because of my addiction, and yes, your poor choices definitely increase shame, but there's also always a shame factor that's in there that's woven into their story, because that's kind of what led them to go down this path in the first place. There is shame they have to deal with.
So I'd say it's the first thing is just trying to get through to these guys and say, Man, it's not surface level, and that's why you're not ever seeing progress because you're just attacking the surface, we got to go deeper, we got to figure out the real issues, and you know what, if we start fixing that and we start working on that, I guess what the service level stuff will get better eventually.
Live Free Wives Program
Paul: One of the things I found it's so unique about your program and what you're doing is that you're also going after the wives and making sure they're not left behind in this whole process. Can you talk for a minute about your wives ministry and how you're approaching it.
Carl: It's actually being run by a woman, she's a rock star. I just wanted to launch it, but I'm a man. And quite frankly, I don't have the pedigree to run a women's program. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I can tell women how to run their life, so how to get somebody that can really handle the job, and we did that.
We have always been a strong believer in the fact that spouses, because my wife has been through it, they need support. My wife will say when Carl was dealing with it I felt all alone. I had no one to talk to, and that made it really rough. So spouses need support, they also need their own healing because of the betrayal they face because of the abuse they faced, mental abuse, if you will, or whatever. That creates scars in them. I say pain begets more pain, so if you felt the pain of your husband's with trail, that's going to create something in you that you might pass that pain on to somebody else in another form.
So there's healing that has to happen, unfortunately, for the spouses as well. So we have small groups for spouses but also have launched the Live Free Wives community, and that's an entirely free community. We don't want to charge spouses, we know that a lot of women are coming into this thing thinking themselves, this is my husband's issue, why to heck if I paying the price for this, We just want to give them a place to feel safe and get some good education and also have a really supportive community. We launched that back in December of 2020. And now we have 500 women in it, so it's just growing every month.
Paul: That's spectacular. Well, it's exciting what you're doing, it's exciting to hear about Live Free, and I want to thank you, call for taking the time to listen and speak to our audience today and give them some insight into how you're helping them become free and not just sober.
Thank you so much to all of our audience for being here tonight, we ask you to tune in every third Thursday for the wonderful webinar guests, just like Carl that we've been able to have one. We ask you to Follow us on social media, check us out.
Good luck and God speed.
Live Free: https://livefreecommunity.org/
The Redeemed: https://theredeemed.com/