Before we begin talking about lust, we need to talk a little about sex. Hugh Hefner didn't invent it. Neither did Hollywood. Nor the authors of the Kama Sutra. God created sex, and like everything He made it was beautiful.
He didn't waste any time getting to it either. Merely two chapters into the Bible and we find Adam and Eve walking around naked, feeling no shame, at total ease with their own bodies and each other's. There was no reason for shame. They were the handiwork of God, created in His image and likeness.
Then the devil got into the act and messed it all up. That's his special talent: messing things up. Our special talent is that we let him mess them up so easily. He got Eve to lust after the fruit without too much effort, and then he got the rest of us who followed to lust after everything—and everyone—else, again with hardly any effort at all. All we need to do is take a look at our lives and see how easily we open the door of our hearts to temptation, especially sexual temptation.
And it is insatiable. Dangerously so.
How an Eskimo kills a wolf
I am reminded of a story I read about how an Eskimo kills a wolf. The account is grisly, but it offers an insight into the all consuming, self-destructive nature of lust. "First, the Eskimo coats his knife blade with animal blood and allows it to freeze. Then he adds another layer of blood, and another, until the blade is completely concealed by frozen blood.
Next, the hunter fixes his knife in the ground with the blade up. When a wolf follows his sensitive nose to the source of the scent and discovers the bait, he licks it, tasting the fresh frozen blood. He begins to lick faster, more and more vigorously, lapping the blade until the keen edge is bare. Feverishly now, harder and harder the wolf licks the blade in the arctic night.
So great becomes his craving for blood that the wolf does not notice the razor-sharp sting of the naked blade on his own tongue, nor does he recognize the instant at which his insatiable thirst is being satisfied by his OWN warm blood. His carnivorous appetite just craves more—until the dawn finds him dead in the snow!"
This is what happens to us when we give in to lust. A man I met during one of my travels told me the story of his rapid progression into degeneracy. "It began with stuff I read in books," he confessed. "The descriptions of sexual encounters would arouse me and I would masturbate. Then I began spinning my own fantasies, each one wilder than the one before. Soon, this wasn't enough and I wanted the real thing. I got into one relationship, then another, and another. None meant anything beyond the sexual acts, which grew increasingly perverted and warped. I began despising myself and my partner and the sex began to reflect that, getting cruel and degrading. It makes me feel sick, but I can't stop. I feel like I am dying inside ...." He was dying, like the wolf, a victim of his own lustful appetite.
The story is common to many of us. Strangely, though, the devil has managed to convince us that these depravities are as natural as eating or drinking or sleeping. It isn't. Author and preacher Richard Exley writes: "Lust is not the result of an overactive sex drive; it is not a biological phenomenon or the by-product of our glands. If it were, then it could be satisfied with a sexual experience, like a glass of water quenches thirst or a good meal satisfies appetite. But the more we attempt to appease our lust, the more demanding it becomes. There is simply not enough erotica in the world to satisfy lust's insatiable appetite."
What Scripture Says
Scripture is very clear about what God thinks of sexual immorality and the consequences thereof. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, warns them to flee from sexual immorality. "All other sins a man commits," he writes, "are outside his own body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple to the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. You are not your own" (1 Corinthians 6:18-19).
In his letter to the Galatians, he warns of the consequences of such immorality: "Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (cf Galatians 5:19-21). Most of us pay little heed, accelerating on our path towards self-destruction. How do we stop?
Lessons from King David
We can learn a few lessons from people in the Bible who gave in to their lust. One was King David. The second book of Samuel tells us the sordid story of how David gave in to his lust when he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing. It was an act that eventually led to the murder of Bathsheba's husband and other even more horrific consequences, but what is educational are the circumstances that led to the act.
The story begins in classic style: "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem" (2 Samuel 11:1).
Leave aside the suggestion that there were apparently seasons when kings were supposed to wage war, the question that comes to mind here is what King David was doing at home when his army was out fighting? In the old days David would have led his men into battle, but the king had obviously become a little indolent, preferring to take leisurely strolls on the roof of his palace and spy on women bathing rather than dorn armor and do noble deeds that were really kingly. His had become an idle mind.
An idle mind is the devil's workshop, and whenever we are unoccupied, our minds become a veritable playground for the enemy. I don't need to validate this statement; I am sure we can all attest to this truth from personal experience.
What's the solution? To keep ourselves busy. And if we can't, to fill our minds with good thoughts. "Whatever is true," Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
Sin always begins in the mind, and while we can't always control the initial wave of thoughts that sweep over it, we can control how we deal with them. When it comes to lust we have to be ruthless in cutting off the thoughts the moment we recognize them as bad because, as we saw earlier, if we allow ourselves the slightest leeway, we're on a slippery slide straight into the arms of the devil.
Most of us have trigger points and we need to be aware of them. Does the sight of the skimpily clad men and women in Baywatch make you drool? Don't watch it. Or the Page 3 girls in the tabloid section of the newspaper? Skip past that section. Or chatting on the Internet? Kill your MSN. It can be anything. I know a man who used to get aroused reading comic books: Betty and Veronica used to stir him up!
Jesus told us in no uncertain terms what needs to be done. "If your hand or foot causes you to sin," He said, "cut it off and throw it away." He recommended we do the same thing with our eyes (cf Matthew 8:18-19). Translated, this means: Do not watch/listen/read/browse anything on television/radio/books/magazines/internet that could nourish impure thoughts, feelings or fantasies. And that includes Archie comics if they mess up your mind.
Lessons from the Woman at the Well
We can learn an even more important lesson from the Samaritan woman Jesus met by a well.
One day Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea when he stopped by a well for a rest. While he was there a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, and after a brief exchange of words involving "living water", Jesus told her to call her husband and come back. The woman said she had no husband. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband" (John 4:18).
The woman was suitably impressed—as, I am sure, are we—but the point I am trying to make is not Jesus's word of knowledge, but the lust on display here. And the cause for it. The woman's heart was empty and she was trying to fill the emptiness with men—six at most recent count—and not quite succeeding.
Most of us have empty hearts similar to this woman's and we too try filling it with whatever we can. Sex seems the number one choice and we can blame it on the world. Everything around us, from television and the internet to billboards and drugstore magazines, all blare one constant message: lust, not love, will fill your heart!
It doesn't. It can't. Sex outside the God-given context of marriage just leaves us emptier than ever. So does any other thing that comes from the world. The only thing that can truly fill us is the living water that Jesus promises will become in us "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (cf John 4:14). This living water is the Holy Spirit (cf John 7:37-39) given willingly to anybody who asks (cf Luke 11:.9-13). Drink of it.
No Greater Commandment
A teacher of the law once asked Jesus: "Which is the greatest commandment?" Jesus answered: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.' There are no greater commandments than these" (Luke 10:27).
For a period during her years in the cloister, Mother Nadine took the place of the superior of the cloister when she had fallen ill. During this time she had the opportunity to see the sisters one-on-one and while she noticed that they all struggled with trials and temptations, the sin of lust never came up. The reason, she eventually realized, was because they spent all their time following Jesus's commandment. Loving Him and loving each other.
For someone who tries to live a holy life, there is the temptation to close themselves up as a defence against lust. I knew a young man who used to do this. He used to struggle desperately to lead a chaste life, and when he failed, he would closet himself in his prayer room for days on end. The solution worked extremely well—as long as he was in his prayer room. When he came out, he would succumb again.
Many of us make the same mistake. The trick is not to cut oneself away from loving, but to love more, ensuring that it is a pure love, a godly love! You can gauge if your love is godly or not by simply examining the selfishness/selflessness quality of what you feel. True love always puts other people above oneself, while false love looks primarily at the fulfilment of one's own needs. Taken in the context of this subject, if you really love someone of the opposite sex, you will do your best to make sure that s/he remains the pure temple of God that s/he was created to be. However, if your love isn't real, you will only think of her as an object of desire created to satiate your own appetite.
Don't Turn Tempter
Even as we try to arm ourselves against temptation, we need to make sure that we don't become tempters ourselves. Jesus warns: "Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!" (Matthew 18:7). Here are a few things we can do to protect others. Dress modestly. Avoid foul language and coarse humor. Don't be too touchy-feely in your contacts with members of the opposite sex. Avoid the subject of sex in conversation and in correspondence. Be cautious about the type of eye contact you make. Pray.
The Virtue: Chastity
Newspapers recently reported a thirteen year old East Sussex schoolboy as Britain's youngest father. Alfie Patten made his girlfriend Chantelle Steadman pregnant when she was 14 and he was just 12. It shocked everybody in England (and hopefully everybody everywhere else) but should it really have come as a surprise?
We live in a culture where virtues are universally resented, and chastity is perhaps the one resented the most. It is not seen as something that is good, noble or life-giving, but is portrayed, rather, as something that is harmful! The reasoning is that since sexual desire is natural, it is bad to restrict it in any way. Another argument is that chastity is the enemy of love. If two people love each other they should be able to express that love. It all sounds reasonable enough on the surface, until we examine what love itself is, and how it relates to sexual desire.
Karol Wojtyla, in the book Love and Responsibility that he wrote before he became Pope John Paul II, says that one of the main reasons we view chastity with such suspicion is because we associate love primarily with the emotions or the sexual pleasure that we receive from a member of the opposite sex. "Such emotions," he writes, "give love a ‘relish', but do not always contain its objective essence, which is inseparable from reciprocal affirmation of the value of the person. It is impossible to judge the value of a relationship between persons merely from the intensity of their emotions. The very exuberance of the emotions born of sensuality may conceal and absence of true love, or indeed outright egoism. Love is one thing, and erotic sensations are another.
"Love develops on the basis of the totally committed and fully responsible attitude of a person to a person; erotic experiences are born spontaneously from sensual and emotional reactions."
While sensual desires and love are not mutually exclusive, these responses do not represent love itself. What does represent love is a desire to do what is best for another person and the desire to help the other person pursue what is best for them. When we give in to sensual desire, we are often so thrilled by the pleasure that we obtain, that we are tempted not to follow through and grow in real love. Many people get stuck here and never experience the deeper meaning of real love. As the intensity of such emotions can't be sustained over a period of time, the feelings of "love" that one professes to feel begin to diminish, with the result that one begins to seek someone else to provide the thrill of the sensual and emotional experience.
Through chastity, however, our love can grow properly and meaningfully, because we can look at a person as something more than an object for our self gratification, be it of heart or body. We can see them in their full value. Wojtyla writes: "The essence of chastity consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex'."
Chastity will also help us to deepen our relationship with God as it makes our hearts pure. And blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).
The Gift: Fear of the Lord
I recently watched a wonderful program on the cosmos and couldn't help but be awed at the realization that if the universe was so great, how much greater our God. And, despite our own insignificance—if we look at ourselves in relation to the canvas of the universe, we're just a minute speck—we seem to think ourselves as masters of this universe. We're not. God is. And it helps to have a healthy fear of Him, because as Scripture says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10).
There are many Christian leaders these days who tell us that we don't have to be afraid of God because his mercy is great. This is true, but it isn't the complete truth. Yes, God's mercy is great indeed. It is vast. It is ongoing. It is limitless. Yet, it isn't "infinite" as we commonly understand the word to be. God's mercy, when not applied for reasons of sovereign grace, is dependent on the nature and sincerity of our repentance. True repentance involves turning our backs totally and completely on sin, which isn't possible unless we understand the holiness of God who finds sin repugnant in all its ways and the horrific consequences that await those who continue to dwell in it shamelessly and mindlessly. What are the consequences?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs" (CCC 1035). Without God we lose out on life and happiness, and not to have this for all eternity is something to really be afraid of. Is it worth sacrificing this for the momentary pleasures of the flesh that we obtain by sinning sexually? It's something to really think about.
May the Spirit be with you.