As we saw in the last article, when rooting out entrenched sin in our lives it is easiest and most effective to start with bodily temptations. It is never easy to rid ourselves of these sins, but the growth you experience in overcoming these temptations lays the groundwork for dealing with the more subtle and difficult to manage sins of the mind and heart. As we have seen, the first sin we should work to root out of our lives is gluttony; the second is lust.
Like gluttony, lust is a sin of the flesh, and it is a corruption of a good gift from God. Used properly, sexual activity produces deeper emotional bonds between husband and wife and may result as well in procreation. These are critical elements in the Cultural Mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. To put it differently, sex was God’s idea, and He designed it for our pleasure and made it an essential part of our responsibilities on Earth.
The corruption of the physical dimensions of sex was the focus of this item in the original list of the logismoi (sinful thoughts or temptations). Instead of lust, the term used was fornication, that is, any sexual activity outside of conjugal marriage.
Fornication is a more serious sin than gluttony even though both are sins of the flesh. Genesis tells us that in sexual activity, a man and a woman become one flesh. This union has multiple dimensions.
- Biologically, the reproductive system is the only incomplete system in the body; it only becomes complete when a man and a woman unite sexually. Only in this way can the reproductive system do what it was designed to do.
- Psychologically, sexual activity releases oxytocin, especially in women and especially the first time she has sexual intercourse. This is a hormone that creates deep emotional attachments. Repeated sexual activity with the same person reinforces this bond; sexual activity with different men weakens the effect of oxytocin until sex is no longer as effective at uniting people emotionally and spiritually.
- Socially, the stable husband and wife union with the possibility of children is the building block of community and the foundation of the Cultural Mandate, God’s purpose in creating humanity.
- Theologically, Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God. God is a community of three co-equal, complementary persons. The one flesh union of husband and wife provides a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional God—two co-equal, complementary persons united as one.
For all these reasons and more, fornication is a serious sin that not only offends God, but hurts us, our partners, and society.
Fornication and Lust
According to Jesus, however, lust as an attitude of the heart and mind is just as corrupting to our souls as illicit sexual activity. This was a new idea in Jesus’ day, though it shouldn’t have been. The Old Testament tells us repeatedly that God doesn’t only look at our external behavior but searches our hearts and looks for purity there. That is the point of the Tenth Commandment—God expects our thoughts and desires to be pure and rightly ordered, not just our actions.
When the early theologians redefined the logismos from fornication to lust, they recognized that the internal dimensions of the sin were just as important as the sinful acts that follow. In fact, it is out of the thoughts that actions flow, and so lust is the root of all forms of sexual sin.
Just as gluttony has both a physical component in our actions and an internal component in our attitudes toward food, the same is true for lust. Perhaps because unlike food, sex is not a biological necessity, the internal is a bigger factor in lust than in gluttony, and this makes the sin that much harder to deal with.
To make matters worse, in the wake of the sexual revolution modern American society has become a sex-saturated culture. Commercials have used sex to sell for as long as there have been advertisers, but they are getting more explicit. Plots of books, movies, and television shows regularly include sex between unmarried consenting adults, and Oscar nominations now include sex between adults and minors, and even “interspecies romances,” in other words, bestiality (“Call Me by Your Name” and “The Shape of Water”). “Game of Thrones” is one of the most popular shows on television today, and it regularly features nudity, sex, and rape. Pornography is ubiquitous, and its documented effects on our brains and our social relations have led some jurisdictions to label it a public health crisis.
The logismos of lust is almost impossible to avoid and is actively celebrated in our culture despite all of the secular evidence of the harm it has done to us.
So how do we deal with it?
The battle against lust has to be done on several levels simultaneously. We need to deal with both our actions and the inner attitudes that fuel them.
If you are engaging in fornication—sexual activities outside of conjugal marriage—you need to repent and stop. If you have any doubts about God’s sexual ethics, spend time with the Scriptures and prayer to clarify your understanding.
If you don’t like what you see, you need to determine whether you are going to trust your thoughts and desires and your culture above Scripture. If so, you need to ask yourself what your god truly is.
To move ourselves away from lust and toward purity, we need to begin with our minds. An essential step here is to avoid things that encourage us to lust. Probably the most common example of this is online pornography. Subscribe to a program such as Covenant Eyes that monitors your online behavior and reports questionable sites to an accountability partner. If it will not prove to be a temptation to you, it is also worth looking into the effects pornography has on the brain, its connection to human trafficking, and other things that will help you understand just how evil the industry is.
Along with external accountability, we need to develop new habits of thought. When you are caught up in any passion or sin, your brain rewires itself to reinforce those behaviors. The more you do it, the more emotional intensity is involved, the stronger and more lasting the neural pathways become. This explains why it is so difficult to break bad habits. The only solution is to develop new habits to replace the old ones. Over time, the old pathways weaken and new ones gradually take their place.
Scripture is a powerful tool in resisting temptation. Memorize and recite key verses that relate to mental, spiritual, and physical purity when temptation is near. It’s best to do this at the first hint of trouble or even before. If you know that going somewhere frequently gives opportunity for lust, but you cannot avoid going there, pray and recite Scripture before you arrive and as you enter. When possible, speak the verses out loud. If you cannot predict when temptation will strike, at the first hint of trouble, arm your mind with the Scriptures you have learned to prevent the logismos from taking root in your mind.
The onset of temptation can also be used as a cue to practice a new way of thinking and acting. For example, on seeing a beautiful woman who, through no fault of her own, could spur lustful thoughts, you could choose to pray for her: “Thank You for this woman’s beauty. Bless her this day and draw her closer to Yourself.” To further drive home the point, you could add, “My name is __________. I am a child of God and a servant of Christ. I am called to holiness. I love God. I love my wife. I love my daughter and my son.” Making this a habitual response can short circuit lust before it moves on to sin.
When you fail, the best thing you can do is find someone you trust to whom you can confess your sin. The modern idea of accountability partners is built around this idea, but the ancient Celtic practice of the anam cara, or soul-friend, is even better. A soul-friend is someone who cares for your soul as much as her or his own. This kind of deep friendship takes time to develop and has many dimensions. For present purposes, however, the critical thing is to find someone with whom you can be brutally honest about your struggles and failures. Secret sins thrive in secrecy: confessing them brings them into the light and breaks their power over us. Confessing our sins to God gives us forgiveness; confessing them to one another brings healing.
The Limits of Our Ability
Ultimately, however, none of these practices will solve the problem of lust. The ancient monks who studied temptation argued that for many sins including lust, the best, most effective practices will only show us the limits of our ability to control sin in our lives. They may mitigate the effects of sin on our lives and lessen its control, but they are incapable of rooting it out completely.
For that, we need grace.
When we get to the end of ourselves, when we admit our inability to control sin, we are forced to rely on God to do it for us. The first two steps of the Twelve Step Plan pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous carry a great truth: we are helpless before our sin, but God isn’t, and He can give us victory.
Nonetheless, our actions are important. They are the means God uses to build the virtue of chastity into our lives. Chastity is not the same as celibacy. It is rightly ordered sexuality, inside and out. That means celibacy for the unmarried and monogamy within conjugal marriage, and inner attitudes toward sex that honor the purposes for which God gave it to us. As we work to rightly order our hearts in the area of our sexuality out of love for God and neighbor, we grow in character and provide the environment for God’s grace to work in our lives.