I cannot imagine I have anything original to say about this topic, nor should I. The problem of lust as long been the bane of many human lives. It has destroyed families, ruined lives, and caused general guilt and shame to countless people.
Rather than catalog each sexual sin and why it is wrong, I will instead focus on the lusts in the heart. Yes, having sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin and therefore worse than struggling with a lustful thought. But if we can heal the disease at the source, we can keep it from becoming malignant. A person may avoid sexual contact with another (maybe not for lack of trying) but still have lust gripping their souls. But if a person can be free of lust in the heart, then it will keep them from committing mortal sin with another.
This sin itself as not changed. What has changed is the cultural intensity. Since the sexual revolution, sins that once remained private are now mainstream. What once brought shame is now an object of pride.
To be clear, we should not act as the elders who wanted to stone the adulteress to death for her sin. But even Christ acknowledged that she was not living the right way when He said to her “Go and sin no more.”
There are also several difficulties in speaking about this subject as opposed to others. A frank discussion about a person’s anger problems can be a path to healing. But a frank discussion about sexuality can actually lead another person to lustful thoughts.
CS Lewis and his best friend Arthur Greeves would share all of their secrets with each other as young men. To unpack the hidden burdens of the heart can be a great relief. But they also shared with each other their personal sexual fantasies and desires. It was something both men later regretted as it only served to stoke those illicit desires in them rather than relieve them of its pressures.
When talking about sexuality, we have to realize that if we get too specific with some people, this will only strengthen their lusts. And to make matters worse, everyone is the not the same in this regard.
We can easily say that we should avoid viewing pornography. But for some, regular television or music videos on youtube may provide too much temptation for some. I remember someone once got rid of all of their comic books because they found the images too tawdry Some may think this an overreaction if they do not find drawn images like that stimulating. But to this person, it may be too much to handle. Everyone’s temptations and triggers are different. This isn’t to say that we should be puritanical in our speech and avoid talking about this sin. We simply must do it with caution.
And before we speak about it, we must do our best to live chaste lives. We must model chastity. Of course, this is easier said than done. A priest once said to me that many priests experience their strongest sexual temptations during mass. The Devil knows that this is a sensitive point for many of us and the guilt regarding our failings here is deep. A famous theologian said of his struggles with pornography that it “sapped all of my spiritual strength.” The percentage of Catholics who habitually look at pornography, even Catholics who regularly attend mass, is staggering.
Many blame our toxic culture. And to be sure there are those who are constantly pushing the envelope of sexual degradation and exploitation in our media. The young are especially susceptible to this because this is the culture in which they grow. In The King and I, the children of Siam disbelieved the reality of snow because they have never experienced it. When adults try to explain to teens and children that the overtly sexual elements of our culture are not appropriate, all they may hear is the “Back in my day…” speech that makes us sound and feel out of touch.
So what is the solution?
There are several. And wiser people than me have written about it. But one thing that any good solution should have is this: a return to the Lordship of Jesus.
It can be helpful to acknowledge the problem head-on. Realize that people not only are assaulted with lustful image constantly, but they have much easier access to pornography than ever before. Each evolution of media has made this easier from magazines, to theaters, to VHS, to cable, to the internet, and now smart phones. With this constant access to temptation, the struggle can seem overwhelming. And one does not need even external pornographic material to struggle with lust. The problem of self-gratification can be especially daunting since the feeling is so overwhelmingly intense and the temptation here is always present. For many, it feels like being chaste is a constant battle where they have to be on defense every second because the slightest move to let down your guard will result in failure.
Once we acknowledge this problem we can all realize that we have no illusions about where we stand as a culture. Now we must, as I said, return to Jesus.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but I am shocked by how many people struggling with lust turn to other methods of trying to overcome the sin. Some try positive and negative reinforcement. Some try cutting off access to their temptations. These are good tools, but they will fail without the underlying help of the Lord.
As I wrote in my previous article, we cannot overcome our sin without His help. But we sometimes have so much guilt about this that we might feel inordinately distant from Him. The big mistake (whether this is conscious or subconscious) is to try and fix the problem first before we feel worthy to enter back into relationship with God. But this relationship is the only thing that will heal us.
Jesus said, “When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there, and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Lk 11: 24-26)
If we only empty the sin from our souls and do not fill it with something else, that evil will return stronger. We must fill our lives with Christ’s presence
And overcoming lust can occur by placing something greater in front of it. CS Lewis once wrote that erotic desire “ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god.” When we displace it as the main means to our happiness, we can place Christ on that throne.
Our lusts remain hidden, we think, from all. But Christ knows them. When we are in the midst of a great temptation, it is helpful to remember His presence, not necessarily as a judge but as an advocate. He wants to help us from our sin. He wants to fill the emptiness of our hearts, the emptiness we are trying to fill with sexual gratification, with His holy and eternal love.
Once we accept this love (something that is not a simple “one-and-done” moment but a constant re-dedication) evil things begin to lose their power. And when that happens, we can use God’s gift of sexuality the way He intended: as a means to reach out to another and be joined in love.
Some find this distinction between love and lust confusion. But the best way I can put it is this:
Lust can’t wait to get.
Love can’t wait to give.
© W. L. Grayson, 2017