The voices of lust are varied—young and old, male and female, single and married—but all of them are strained, brittle, and sad. The forms of lust are many—pornography, fantasy, flirtation, sexting, ogling, innuendo—but all of them are damaging. And we haven't even talked yet about what happens when those desires give way to action.
Of the seven deadly sins, lust is the most shameful. It's so personal and so humiliating. We get used to the other sins, convincing ourselves that our greed, sloth, or anger isn't so bad: that our heart's in the right place, that we can keep it under control. But lust brings us to our knees in defeat; it fills us with remorse. We're ashamed of ourselves and afraid of where it could lead if we don't get control of it. But how do we get control of it when it burns so deep, when it's fanned into flame by our hyper-sexualized society?
Of all the sins, lust is surely the most difficult to talk about. So far in this series, I've been fairly forthcoming about my issues with these sins—first pride, then anger. For some obvious reasons, I'll do less of that this time. By God's grace, there's nothing I might tell you that you would find especially alarming or disturbing. Lust is not at the top of my list of sins to contend with, but it's surely there, along with the other six, lurking in my soul.
There's an often-told story about an aged professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was counseling a young man who was struggling with some of these issues, even as he prepared for a life of ministry. This particular professor was highly regarded for his godly character and pastoral wisdom. At one point, the seminarian asked, "At what age will lust no longer be a problem?" The professor replied, "I can't say exactly, but it must be sometime after 82!" (Which, of course, was how old the professor was!)
This is simply to say that no one is immune to sexual temptation by virtue of their age, gender, or profession. I'm not going to spend a lot of time documenting the problem. We know the frightening statistics. We've heard the sad stories. We know how pervasive and pernicious the problem is. And we've all felt the shame associated with it.
We need to spend a few minutes defining what lust is and why it's so deadly, but I want to spend a bit more time on the solution side of the problem, focusing on the "lively virtue" we'd like to discover and the "healthy habit" that can help us get there.
We've learned that humility is the virtue corresponding to pride and that we get there by the habit or practice of worship. We've learned that righteousness is the corresponding virtue to anger, and that prayer—honest, even angry prayer—helps us get there. You may be able to guess what this week's lively virtue will be, but I can pretty much guarantee you'll be surprised by the healthy habit.
What, and why?
Let's begin by understanding what lust is and why it's so deadly. The first thing we need to say is that sex is good. The human body is beautiful. Intimacy is a treasure. Pleasure is a gift from our Creator. It was God who made us this way—male and female. It was God who gave us body parts that produce life and give pleasure. It was God who placed a mysterious drive within us that we call "libido." No one knows exactly what libido is—but you know it when you feel it, and you miss it when you don't. It makes you feel alive.
We're glad for that drive. We're thankful for our sexuality: for the thrill of a kiss, the tenderness of a touch, or that magical moment when eyes meet across a room and something stirs deep down inside. So why is lust a problem?
Lust is a problem because it perverts all that. It twists something beautiful and satisfying and life-giving into something disfigured and disappointing and deadening. I'm going to define lust as "excessive and demeaning sexual desire." Listen to these words from the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
These verses are telling us that something has gone wrong with human desire, with the life-giving drive God placed within each one of us. Lust is desire run amuck and out of control. It's like a car crashing through the guardrails or a river overflowing its banks.
But lust is not only excessive. It is also demeaning. It strips sex of its power, beauty, and meaning. I've never been to a strip club, and by God's grace, I never will. But they are aptly named because they "strip" sexuality of everything good. Notice the language Paul uses—it "separates" us from the life we were made for.
First, lust separates sex from relationship. Sex was meant to draw us into relationship—deep and lasting relationship—with another person. The very language we use to describe it, "intercourse," demands another party. It was pure genius on God's part to design us this way, to place within us an appetite for relationship as powerful and pleasurable as our appetite for food—and maybe more so! Sex drives us toward deep, intimate, and lasting connection.
Lust does the very opposite. It isolates us. It violates boundaries. It tears relationships apart. That's what Jesus was getting at when he said, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). He's saying that the person you are looking at and longing for doesn't belong to you. You don't have a relationship with them; you're just using them for your own pleasure and violating any commitment you (or they) already have to another person. Lust separates sex from relationship. No wonder it leaves us feeling more lonely and isolated than ever.
Secondly, lust separates giving from getting. Sex was designed for giving as well as receiving. We give our bodies, our own selves, to another person for their pleasure and satisfaction. We make ourselves vulnerable. We satisfy their needs. We take a risk. That's why sex is best in the safety and security of marriage.
Listen again to Paul, this time in his letter to the Corinthians.
Sex is a mutual expression of love and delight, of service and satisfaction. Lust ignores all that. There's no giving in lust. There's no risk. There's no vulnerability. No wonder it leaves us feeling so empty, so selfish.
Thirdly, lust separates body from soul. Human beings are whole persons—body and soul, material and spiritual. Take away the spiritual side, and we are just animals, which is exactly how sex is described in a lot of popular music: like animal behavior. To be human is to be body and soul. Listen again to the words of Paul in that same letter.
Notice he doesn't say your soul is the temple of the Holy Spirit—your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Seriously? This bag of brittle bones and sagging flesh is where God chooses to make himself at home, visible, and accessible to the world? What we do with our bodies matters. When we degrade our body, or someone else's body, we degrade the very life of God within us. Lust separates body from soul. No wonder it leaves us feeling so ashamed, so unholy.
Remember what we said about libido, the sex drive? It makes us feel alive. It makes us feel human. It makes us feel male or female. But look what lust does. It kills. It separates us from the source of life and leaves us feeling empty, isolated, and far from God. No wonder they call it a deadly sin.
All this is to say that lust is dehumanizing—to us and to those we make the object of our lust. And instead of making us feel more alive, more sexual, and more satisfied, it leaves us feeling less of all those things. Clearly we were made for better than that; we long for more than that. What we were made for, what we long for, is love.
Lively virtue: love
You may have guessed that love is the lively virtue that corresponds to lust. We thought about words like "purity" or "chastity," which certainly could fit, but they seemed too narrow, too focused on restraining our sexuality rather than expressing it. I chose love to remind us that sex isn't primarily about pleasure, but about relationship. It reminds us that we were made for deep, intimate, mutual, satisfying, whole-person relationships—with God and with other human beings. The sexual act is simply the most dramatic and vivid expression of relationship.
But there are many other ways to discover deep, intimate, mutual, whole-person connection with other human beings of both the same and opposite sexes. You don't have to be sexually active to be sexually alive. You don't have to take your clothes off to prove you're a man or a woman.
Any time you express your maleness or femaleness—by the way you dress, by the way you see the world, by the way you relate to the opposite sex—you are being a sexual person. You are affirming, celebrating, and feeling your maleness and femaleness. And while sexual intimacy is not wise or safe outside of marriage, there are other ways to enjoy deep and satisfying relationships with people of the same and opposite sexes.
We'll come back to this in a minute, but I want us to understand that sex is primarily about relationship, not pleasure. God, in his wisdom and goodness, made it pleasurable and exciting so we would pursue it. But ultimately, it's meant to point us to the beauty and wonder of loving and being loved by another person. Lust, of course, is devoid of love. It is the ultimate expression of selfishness.
Fasting and feasting
"Well, that sounds very lofty and wonderful, pastor," you might be saying, "but how do I get there? What's the remedy for lust, beyond a cold shower and a filter on my computer?" I don't mean to minimize some of these practical safeguards that we turn to in our battle with lust, but we've all experienced too much defeat in this area to settle for those. We need something stronger to deal with this one.
I told you our answer might surprise you, and it's going to take a minute to explain, but here goes. I'm actually going to offer two, but they are related. The healthy habits that get us from lust to love are fasting and feasting.
No, I didn't get my sins mixed up—it turns out that lust and gluttony are close cousins. Both have to do with appetites, with desire for good things gone out of control. In fact, at one point in Scripture, the apostle Paul actually links the two. He writes to the Corinthians: "I will not be mastered by anything. You say, 'Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.' The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (1 Cor. 6:12b-13). He affirms the body-soul connection we talked about earlier, and he suggests that gaining control over our bodies is essential to both physical and spiritual health. So what do fasting and feasting have to do with overcoming lust?
Fasting is the spiritual practice of saying "no" to something good so you can say "yes" to something better. When we fast, we are reminding ourselves that we were not meant live on bread alone, but on the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. When we skip a meal for spiritual reasons, we are simply saying, "Lord, I want you more than I want lunch." If you have ever done that even for a meal or two or three, you've discovered that communion with God is way more satisfying than a sandwich! When we give up listening to the radio for 40 days, we are simply saying, "Lord, hearing from you is more important to me than listening to music." We create some silent space for him to speak into. If you've ever tried that, you know that the voice of God is far more beautiful than any Top 40 tune.
Fasting exercises the "no" muscle. It teaches us and trains us to say "no" to something good so we can say "yes" to something better. If you can learn to say "no" to that donut sitting on the counter, you can say "no" to that website that pops up on your computer. If you can say "no" to a second helping of pasta, you can say "no" to a second look at that man or woman.
But if your only strategy for beating lust is to say "no" for as long as you can, then it's only a matter of time before your "no" wears out or an overpowering temptation comes along. The only way to defeat any kind of temptation is to have a stronger "yes."
This has been a very powerful principle for me over the years. When I'm tempted in this or any other area, I remind myself in that moment that I have a wife I love and cherish with all my heart, I have kids and grandkids who look up to me, and I have a congregation that's counting on me to be right with God. Their love, respect, and trust is so much more valuable to me than whatever few moments of pleasure some lustful indulgence has to offer. So I'm able, with God's help, to say "no" to that temptation so I can say "yes" to my wife, children, and ministry. I've found that I'm better able to do that when I've practiced saying "no" to other things through seasons of fasting and self-denial. Dallas Willard used to say you should make yourself say "no" to something every day, just to stay in shape!
Notice Paul has zero tolerance for sexual sin, and that needs to be our standard as well—like the recovering alcoholic who knows he can't have even one drink. We need to use that "no" muscle and strengthen it through the discipline of fasting.
But notice that his final word on the matter is that in place of those things there is to be thanksgiving, which leads us to the second healthy habit: feasting. What we mean by that is feasting on the good things of God. Lust is fundamentally about desire: the God-given desire for beauty, for pleasure, for intimacy. When our souls are starving for those things, we will grasp at any quick fix to fill the void—a few moments on a website, a flirtatious exchange on Facebook. But it's like wolfing down a donut when what we really need is a meal.
One of the ways to deal with lust is to fill our souls with things that really satisfy these God-given desires.
Feast on beauty. We take delight in the human body because it's beautiful to behold; it pleases our senses and stirs our imagination. The human form is beautiful. But so is a sunset, or a Rembrandt, or a tastefully-appointed home, or a well-tailored suit, or a string quartet, or a crocus pushing its way up through the soil. Learn to feast on the beauty of the world around you. Take a walk. Go to a museum. Watch a good film. Buy some new earrings. Splash on some cologne. Our senses were made to be stimulated by beautiful sights and sounds and smells and our God-made world is full of them.
Secondly, feast on fun. Pleasure is one of God's good gifts. We were made to smile, laugh, celebrate, and feel good. Sex is fun: It's exciting and unpredictable. But so are lots of other things. So find things that make you laugh, that make your heart pound, that call for some reckless abandon. I'm convinced that one of the reasons men get in trouble sexually is because they don't have enough adventure in their lives—nothing to get excited about. So hit the slopes. Go fishing. Take a road trip. Join a softball league. Run a 5K. Build a deck. Buy a Harley. Rototill the backyard. Whatever!
Finally, feast on relationships. Fill your life with people—family, friends, neighbors, small groups, mentors and mentees, whatever. Sex reminds us that we were made for connection, for intimacy, for companionship. But there are lots of ways to experience those things—even with members of the opposite sex—without being sexually involved. If you're single, then get out of the house. Meet people, join a club or a cause or a mission, go on a date, take a group vacation. Invest in a few deep friendships: people who want to know you and be known by you. If you're a married couple, remember to include single people in your social life. Let them share and enrich your family's life.
Fasting and feasting: These are the healthy habits that can help you exchange lust for love. I realize we haven't talked much about the traditional methods for dealing with lust—getting a filter on your internet, not staying up alone late at night, allowing your spouse access to your email and social network, having an accountability group.
All these things are helpful in dealing with lust. But the surest way to say "no" to sexual temptation is to be so busy saying "yes" to God and his gifts that you have no time or energy or interest in the cheap thrills and tawdry trinkets that lust has to offer.
A couple of closing thoughts. First, a word to parents. Talk to your kids about these things. Don't wait for them to bring it up; you take the initiative. How early should you start talking about sex? Early enough so that they hear it from you first. And keep talking about it as they make their way through middle and high school. They'll moan and groan and look for the nearest exit, but talk about it anyway. I used to take my boys out for a burger, trap them in a booth, and bribe them with an ice cream sundae—whatever it took. Ask them how they're doing, what pressure they're feeling at school. Tell them you're praying for them—and that you're tempted sometimes, too.
And finally, a word to those who are already in trouble in this area, who have failed miserably, and who wonder if they will ever be free from the grip of lust. Know there is hope in Christ. He is able to forgive—even for the hundredth time. He is able to heal—both your wounds and the wounds you have inflicted on others. And he is able to help—by filling your life with beauty, joy, and love.
We began this message by talking about the voices of lust—young and old, male and female, married and single. There are real people behind those voices: people like you and me. One voice was that of a 50-something married man, who was literally brought to his knees in shame and defeat by sexual sin. Let me finish by reading the rest of his story.
The crisis came when some of my double life came to light, and for some reason, this time I chose to reveal the whole story rather than cover up. Hearing myself talk about the years of pornography, infidelity, deception, and selfishness, I was appalled at the person I had become. I had hit bottom. My marriage was at risk, and I resigned from my job. But to my amazement, the people I shared with were not condemning. Rather, they lifted me up to God. I was faced with the choice then between the wages of sin or a new path: one that leads to life. I realized God is real, and he is active within the souls of those who believe.
From that point forward I started attending church and a recovery group, studying the Bible, and seeing a Christian counselor. I am very grateful to the church and to the group: Most of us who have struggled with lust feel our kind of brokenness is ickier than the others', but I have only experienced acceptance, support, encouragement, and godly people in this place. About one year into my recovery, my wife and I renewed our vows in a church, with God at the center. Real miracles are possible. Shortly thereafter, I was baptized. I now support and sponsor the recoveries of several of my brothers, and I am actively seeking Jesus' character to be more and more formed within me. I am now celebrating recovery over sexual brokenness.
May you too find freedom from lust and fullness of love as you fast from lesser things and feast on the good gifts of God.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.