[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Lust.”] Yesterday, as part of our Seven Deadly Sins series, I preached on lust. When we drew lots for our preaching assignments for this series—and we actually did put names in a bowl—I knew I was fated as the one getting married this summer to get Lust—I mean, to preach on Lust … you know what I mean! Because we all know that single people deal with lust and then when you get married, you now have the appropriate outlet and so are completely freed from it and have the objective perspective with which to help everyone else deal with it. Right?
Of course not.
You may be a little apprehensive because your experience of the church or of Christians is one where there’s been an overemphasis on sex and sexuality and personal holiness and so-called private matters, and a lack of conversation about systemic injustices. You might point out that Jesus talked more about money and the poor than he ever did about sex. You might argue that Jesus called out hypocrisy and pride and greed far more than he did sexual immorality. And you’d be right on both counts.
But Jesus also didn’t dismiss sex as unimportant, so while I don’t want to put too much weight on sex and lust, I also don’t want to put too little weight on them. Both extremes are tempting and both are, I believe, wrong. The Christian worldview is one that truly understands the value of sex. The Bible contains Song of Songs, a whole book extolling the joy of sexual pleasure. God created sex to be a very good thing, one of the best things, in fact—both in terms of its power as an intimate and vulnerable expression of love and in terms of its potential for people to create life.
Frederick Buechner has some helpful things to say on this in Wishful Thinking:
Sex is not a sin. … it’s not salvation either. Like nitroglycerin, it can be used to blow up bridges or heal hearts. … Our society is filled with people for whom the sexual relationship is one where body meets body but where person fails to meet person; where the immediate need for sexual gratification is satisfied but where the deeper need for companionship and understanding is left untouched. The result is that the relationship leads not to fulfillment but to a half-conscious sense of incompleteness, of inner loneliness, which is so much the sickness of our time.
This is how I understand Lust:
Lust is what happens when the good, God-given desire to love and be loved is deformed and warped into being about self-gratification.
Last summer we did a series on identity and relationships, and we called it To Love and Be Loved, because that is what we were created for as human beings: to love and to be loved. Love is at the core of our identity, for we were created in the image of the God who, the Bible tells us, is love; the God who is three-in-one, a community of love; the God who loved us so much that he gave us free will to choose to love him back or not, and when we didn’t, continued to love us so much that he came in the person of Jesus to win us back.
Now, the image of lust in our heads may be some guy who can’t help but ogle every girl that walks by; or who’s trapped at home by his pornography addiction; or whose sexual escapades end up bringing down his marriage and destroying his career. The typical understanding of lust is of an overwhelming desire, particularly a sexual one, to have another person—it’s about possession, about control of the object of one’s desire. We usually think of it—at least in this way—as something that afflicts guys more than girls. And it’s true, for instance, that men form the overwhelming majority of pornography users; it’s true that we still inhabit a patriarchal society where we need to have conversations about misogyny and harassment spurred by hashtags like #YesAllWomen.
I think this—maybe more typical—kind of lust is the desire to love that has become deformed into being about self-gratification. So instead of seeking the good of the other person, which is what love is, we seek the good of ourselves, right now. Instead of wanting to give of ourselves to the other person, we want to have the other person for ourselves. See the difference? See how easily the shift happens?
I think there’s another kind of lust, though, and this kind happens when the desire to be loved becomes warped into being about self-gratification. Instead of wanting to be loved unconditionally—to be known, flaws and all—we seek to be wanted so that we might be affirmed, we desire to be desired by another person, by any other person, because, if we’re being honest, of our insecurities. My friend Catherine wrote a blog on lust, and she posed this question: “Is it possible that the all-consuming desire to be desired is just as lustful as the all-consuming desire to have?”
In other words, some of us may not struggle with a fixation on an object of desire; it just may not be a strong temptation. Instead, though, we may struggle with wanting to be the object of desire. So you dress a certain way, you act a certain way, you say certain things, you live in such a way that someone—maybe even anyone—will want you, will want to be with you, will bestow upon you the label “desirable.” You want that person to notice you, to give you a second glance; you want people’s eyes to be drawn to you when you walk in the room.
We all desire to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen; and God put that desire in our souls. But in our fallenness and in our fallen world, these desires become warped and twisted; in our fear and our frustration, in the waiting and the wanting, these desires become deferred and delayed and, as we are distracted from the joy we have in Christ and our focus is drawn to the things we lack, our desires find their fulfillment, we think, in lust—either the kind that seeks to possess or the kind that seeks to be possessable, to coin a term. Only it’s vapor, shadow, fog; it’s not substantive, it’s not truly fulfilling, and in fact, it leaves us emptier and lonelier and less human than before.
2 Samuel 11-12 tells the story of David and Bathsheba. David was the king of Israel, shepherd-boy slayer of Goliath, musician, poet, warrior, victorious in battle, loved by his people, favored by God. When we join the story, David was at the height of his power; and yet what follows marked the beginning of the end for him.
We find David napping on his roof one afternoon. His armies are out demolishing the enemy so he isn’t particularly needed at the front lines. But he gets up from his nap and, from his vantage point, sees a beautiful woman bathing in a nearby house. Verse 3: “David sent someone to inquire about the woman.” He desired her for himself so he sent someone to find out more about her. He was interested in adding her to his royal harem. For David to add to his harem was acceptable in the culture of the day, but even in that culture and in that day, the etiquette was that she had to be unmarried in order for this to be okay.
But word comes back: “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Eliam was the son of one of David’s closest advisors, and Uriah was one of David’s best fighters, one of his friends. That should’ve been it, but instead David’s desire for her overwhelms any sense of propriety. His need to have her for himself overwhelms his responsibilities as a man, as a friend, as a leader, and as God’s anointed king. His lust leads him to do what he knows at some level is not right: he sends for her and sleeps with her. Lust does that:
- removes our perspective,
- causes us to focus solely on the here-and-now, on what we’re going to get out of it right now,
- blinds us to the consequences, to the objective reality, and to the big picture.
If David was truly loving his neighbor, he wouldn’t have summoned her to his palace to sleep with her, knowing she was married, knowing he was abusing his position of authority. He might instead have said, “Her husband is one of my dearest friends and he’s risking his life on the battlefield; how can I help his family? How can I give to this family? How can I repay this family for their service?” But Lust doesn’t really like us thinking objectively; Lust doesn’t really let us think objectively. Lust is focused on self-gratification right now, whether it’s:
- indulging yourself with pornography because you’re feeling lonely or
- making out with some random person because you haven’t experienced intimacy in a long time or
- sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be sleeping with or staying in a relationship that’s not right for you because you just want to be close to someone.
Those are all natural feelings because, like we’ve said, we are made to love and be loved. But God designed us first and foremost to love and be loved by him, to be in relationship with him, and when we forget that, when we lose sight of that, it’s easy for those feelings to become self-serving, to become about sating an immediate need, and our desires get warped.
When Bathsheba finds out she’s pregnant, she tells David; and David, in a panic, calls Uriah back from the front in hopes that he’ll sleep with his wife and thereby cover up David’s infidelity. But Uriah demonstrates his integrity; he says, “My compatriots are sleeping in the fields, risking their lives; how can I go home and lie with my wife as if nothing is going on?” (vv.11-13). David even tries to get him drunk, but still Uriah refuses to go home and sleep with his wife. So, vv.14-15:
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab [the commander of his army] and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
And that’s what happens: Uriah is killed. David is supposed to be one of the heroes of Scripture; at one point, early in his life, he’s described as “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet here in this moment, his lust became so great that it not only led him to commit adultery and betray one of his friends, but also then to lie and to commit murder, all to cover it up. That’s what we mean when we say the Seven Deadly Sins have a generative effect: they give birth to more and more sin.
The first time I dated (or even kissed) a girl, I was 19 and in college. The first time I saw a picture of a naked woman, though, I was 13 or 14. A couple friends and I were hanging out after school and they had pooled their money together to buy a dirty magazine. I saw something I’d never seen before and, being a kid pretty much raised in church, I knew I was seeing something I didn’t need to be seeing. But my curiosity was piqued and going through puberty only helped to exacerbate and escalate the situation.
Part of the reason—and I wouldn’t have been able to diagnose this at the time but can with hindsight—was the desire to love and be loved: I wanted to be with somebody and I wanted to be wanted, neither of which seemed to be getting any closer to being fulfilled, neither of which I seemed to have any control over. I mean, you can’t make someone interested in you; you can’t make someone date you; you can’t make someone fall in love with you. And so I turned to what I did have control over—self-gratification. For me, there were both kinds of lust: the kind that desired to possess and the kind that desired to be possessable.
By the time I was in college, even though I’d recommitted my life to Christ after a couple years of drifting, I was addicted to pornography. I don’t know that I would have called it an addiction at the time, but that’s what it was: giving in to temptation, the temporary thrill, the shame and the guilt, the confession (I had Psalm 51 pretty much memorized and not for reasons I wanted to share with anyone), the promise to God and to myself that I would never do it again, that I’d be better. And I would be for a day or two or even a week or a month; and then I’d let my guard down and slip up and go through the cycle all over again. I really didn’t think there was a way out; I really didn’t know how to get out—even though I was praying about it, even though I was genuine and sincere in my desire to be free from it. Romans 7:19 described my life:
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
So there I was: I’d just started leading worship at church, earnestly seeking to follow Jesus with everything I had; and yet I was enslaved by an addiction that I felt like I had no control over. I would lie about what I was spending my time doing, I’d lie about why I was so tired. Every time we sang in church about surrendering to God or talked about confessing our sins to God, I knew what I needed to give up, I knew what was holding me back.
Statistically speaking, there are an average of 28,000 users watching porn online every second. 1 out of every 8 websites, 1 out of every 4 web searches, and 1 out of every 3 downloads contains adult material. This is the world we live in now, where our sexual expectations and attitudes are impacted by what we see in movies, on TV, and on the internet—or by what our loved ones and significant others are seeing or have seen. Rebecca DeYoung, who wrote a book on the Seven Deadly Sins, said,
When we misuse something habitually, we find we lose our ability to appreciate its true goodness. … Sex loses its flavor. What once was titillating quickly becomes boring.
She talks about pornography use as an example, where you start with tiny forays into that world but the more you’re exposed to it, trying to feed an appetite with something completely insubstantial, the more desensitized you get, and the more you need something more ‘exciting’—at least that’s how you think about it when your desire has become warped. I know what she’s talking about; I’ve lived through that.
For how many of those 28,000 online users do you think we can trace their behavior back to a desire to love and be loved? For how many of the millions of other people (and perhaps this might include us, if we’re not in that first category) whose symptoms we might describe as ‘milder’—just hooking up, just making out, just showing a little more skin, just being a little more flirty with … well, everyone—for how many of those people do you think we can trace their behavior back to a desire to love and be loved that has become twisted into being about self-gratification, about using any means necessary to try to find some satisfaction right now?
The turning point for me, the answer to my prayers, came in the form of the guy who’s been my best friend for the last twelve years. Some of you met Tim; he was my best man at my wedding a few weeks ago. We met at church; we were both at the same university—he was studying medicine and I was studying law. And in summer 2002, we both ended up going on a mission trip to Uganda; it was my first.
While we were there, we got to know each other, and we discovered how similar we were—in our temperaments, in our family backgrounds, in our hobbies … and in our struggles. I remember that feeling of a weight being lifted off my shoulders when I realized I wasn’t the only one dealing with this kind of stuff, when I realized I could talk about it with someone. Shame loves the darkness of isolation because that’s where it thrives; sin would prefer that you never talk about it because then you’ll never confess it and then you’ll never deal with it. That’s why confession is such a key part of the healing process, because you have to name something—to diagnose something—before you can properly deal with it.
Tim and I prayed for one another, encouraged one another, and challenged one another—we texted, we emailed, we called, we got accountability software reports, we called each other out when we saw sketchy websites listed. It took many years, many false starts, much prayer, and much support but, by the grace of God, we got clean.
Somewhere along the way, God helped me understand that while the physical manifestations of Lust need to be dealt with, Lust is far more than just a physical problem. And so also the solution is more than just a physical solution—“Don’t have sex” or “Don’t dress so scandalously” or “Stop using porn.” At the root of Lust is the desire to love and be loved—and our souls were created first and foremost, before any human relationship, to love and be loved by our God. So you can address the physical problems all you want but if the deeper desire to love and be loved by God is never met, you’ll continue to seek things that don’t satisfy. Over the years, God has taught me to pursue Chastity, which is an old-fashioned word that might bring to mind images of sexual repression and frigidity; but Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal. (Letters & Papers from Prison, 163)
And that goal is the pursuit of God. Chastity is not just about saying no to bad things but about saying yes to the really good things; it’s really about “purity of heart,” as in “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Later in Matthew 5, Jesus talks about lust, and many translations of the Bible have him saying, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And I used to think, How do I control that? One book I read suggested that any time there’s a chance you might lust after a woman, you should do your best to avoid looking at her. Which would make interpersonal communication very difficult and awkward, and is really unfortunate for women because they really don’t have that much control over or have any idea what I’m thinking.
But the Greek actually reads more like this: “Everyone who looks at a woman in order to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There’s a decision of the will there; there’s a choice about what you do. And that fits much better in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus talking about the kind of life you’re choosing to lead, and it fits much better into the picture of the life God desires for us, which is a life in which we choose to follow Jesus every day, every moment, every breath, and in the face of every temptation.
And let me tell you: life is so much fuller when my thoughts and appetites are subordinated to the service of Jesus, when I understand their proper place—under my control rather than in control of me. Life is so much more when I not only understand but also live in the reality that, as the wise Matthew Watson put it, Jesus is not only my Savior from my sins but also the satisfier of my deepest desires, and the deepest desire of all, I think, is to love and be loved. C.S. Lewis wrote:
We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. … If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)
In his book The Great Divorce, Lewis writes about a man with a lizard on his shoulder. The lizard represents Lust, a warped desire that has in turn warped its bearer—the man walks with a limp, the lizard constantly hissing things in his ear. An angel approaches the man and offers to quiet the lizard, but it will mean killing it. The man recoils. The lizard has been his companion for too long; he stammers excuse after excuse and rationalization after rationalization. “Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll be able to keep it in order now,” he says. “I’m not feeling too well today; perhaps another day,” he says. The angel says to the man, “I cannot kill it against your will. … Have I your permission?” The man wrestles back and forth, the lizard on his shoulder whispering warnings about what will happen if he gives it up, if he allows it to be killed; whispering empty promises: “I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams.” But finally, the man, in a great wrench of will, gives the angel permission. Lewis writes:
Next moment, the [man] gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The [angel] closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed on the turf.
Both man and lizard appear to be dead. But in the next moment, the man rises, brighter, stronger, more solid. And at the same moment, the lizard too is raised but it has been transformed into a beautiful stallion. The man’s sin-warped sexuality has been redeemed through death and into new life. This is the power of the love of God. Lewis writes:
Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it is now. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. … Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.
I truly believe that, and I have experienced that; and so the first and most important step in all of this is to give your life and your desires to God, whatever state of deformity they may be in, whether you think they’re only scuffed or slightly bent or full-on and maybe-irretrievably warped. Let him kill what is deadly to you and redeem what is true and breathe new life into dry bones. I have a lot of other suggestions I could give:
- get connected to other Christians, don’t let yourself be isolated, join a small group where you can confess your problem and be held accountable;
- set up accountability software or an internet filter—the physical manifestations of Lust aren’t the main thing but they aren’t nothing;
- be intentional about the things you choose to consume, the people you choose to hang out with, the stories you choose to believe;
- know what makes you vulnerable—how many of you know the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired)? That’s when we most often tend to give in to our temptations.
Lust is what happens when the good, God-given desire to love and be loved is deformed and warped into being about self-gratification. So I invite you:
Love God and be loved by God.
Ask God to fulfill your desire to love and be loved; ask God to redeem and transform and heal the broken parts of your life; choose to give your life and your desires to God first, and then see what God can do. I promise, I promise, I promise, it will be glorious.
Jesus, you came to save sinners and to rescue the lost and to heal the sick and raise the dead. And God, that’s us. So help us, please. Heal our souls. Restore our hearts. Mend our warped desires. Fill us with your Spirit and bring us back to life. In your name and for your sake, we pray all these things. Amen.