Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lust: Sermon on the Mount (Leftovers)

(This post is the first in a series called Sermon on the Mount (Leftovers). Click this link for a brief explanation of the series.)

Jesus' teaching on lust is famous (or infamous!?). It is, like most of Jesus' ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, considered too high to attain. And indeed, almost every man on the planet does falls short of Jesus' standard: "... everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt 5:27-30) Yes, Jesus' standard is high, but He gives no indication that we are not expected to live just as He teaches.

If this is the case, how are we to fight the sin of lust? How can we obey God's commandments concerning sexuality?

My goal here is not to write a definitive work on lust. I could never write such a thing; I haven't conquered lust completely myself. As a fellow struggler what I can offer to any readers struggling with lust are some tools for the tool box-- things others have shared with me that I have found helpful. You could consider them (to use another metaphor) as tactics for victory in the battle.

And make no mistake, this is a battle. My assumption is that you already know this. Let's assume you are fighting on the right side (Who defines right and wrong for you? You don't think that you get to do that, do you?). Let's assume that you're not fighting alone (You don't think you can make it alone, do you?). Let's assume that you're using all the resources God has given us (You don't think He left us hanging, do you?). Any advice I might pass on in this post won't be much good if you're not living out these things. You must be a believing, baptized member of a Church, and you must be a person of prayer, seeking God in his Word and Sacrament. If you're fighting a war alone, on your own resources, you've already lost. (The following passages might be a good place to start for contemplation and discussion with friends: 1 Cor 13; 1 Thess 4:1-12; 1 Cor 6:12-7:40; 1 Tim 5:2; Ps 32; Ps 51; Proverbs 5-7; Prov 31:10ff; Gen 2:18-3:24; Eph 5:22ff; Rom 16)

So then, (moving away from the language of the battlefield and back to factory), here are some tools. As you face the broken places in your heart and see the problem of lust, pull them out as you need them, and pray that over time God will give you the wisdom to know when and how to use them:

1. You're not alone: I don't care how messed up you think your sin is: you're not alone. You can talk to your pastor and some of your friends at church about your struggles. Your pastor won't be shocked. I can tell you, after just a decade of ministry, I've heard everything. You are better off if you confess your sin.

2. Keep it in perspective: If lust is the only sin issue you are aware of in your life or if it's the only sin you confess, you are very likely ignoring other sins or thinking about lust in some inflated way. In some ways I  think the enemy can use our struggles with lust to distract us while he flanks us with untamed pride, vanity, gluttony, laziness or something of the like. I'm not saying you should ignore the battle with lust; just watch your back.

3. Broaden your definition of beauty: Lust keeps us from seeing the multi-faceted beauty of the object of our lust (whether a man or a woman). It over-simplifies beauty and dumbs it down. Every person on the planet has a rich and complex beauty that goes way beyond how they look or how they act sexually. There is just more to being human than these things. To be human is to have a body, yes, but also a soul: character, loyalty, creativity, humor, etc. Indeed, to think of a person only in physical or sexual terms is to dehumanize them, to treat them, as C.S. Lewis has said, only as an apparatus for your desire and not a whole person. Ask yourself: How else is the opposite sex beautiful besides in a sexual way? What is feminine beauty? masculine beauty? (Men, consider your sister and your mother's beauty. Women, consider your brother or your father's beauty.) In seeing beauty in this way, we might begin to see people as God does.

4. Consider your intent: Ask "Why am I looking?"  We can often fools ourselves into thinking that we are not struggling with lust when we are. Do you take second glances? What do you look at on the internet? on TV? Consider your intent. Examine what purpose you have in your glance or entertainment choice. Jesus says that looking at a woman "in order to" lust is committing adultery in your heart.

5. Remember lust is a mirage: Get back in touch with reality. All sin is a cocktail of atheism and narcissism; that is to say, it is a departure from reality. When we sin, particularly when we give into lust, we are acting like God isn't there and as if we are the center of the universe. In a moment or prolonged moment of lusting, we ignore or forget God's presence and plan.

Since He is everywhere, God is present while we are doing this. What is His response to our giving into sin, right there in front of Him? It may be worth your time to stop reading this and consider that for a moment. What is God's response as He sees you commit sin?

God's plan for sex is so much bigger and better than lust. Lust says "now," and God's plan for sexuality (true love) says "in time, in anticipation and with greater joy!" (Lust reminds me of Boone's Farm; godly sex is a perfectly aged merlot.) Lust says sex is about what I get; God says it's about what you give and how you give it. Lust feeds our narcisissm, but God's view of sexuality nurtures love for others.

The more we give into lust the less we are in touch with the reality of sex. Whether it is indulging with the eyes and mind or acting with the body, sex that is for our own sake (with no regard to God's boundaries) has drifted far from God's defined purposes.  Like a soul away from the body, it becomes an apparition of what it once was.  It's a mirage of love.

6. Ask yourself this question: "Do I really want this?" This is really a follow-up question for the last point. Do I want the paper-thin, false intimacy that lust offers? For any Christian, the answer, deep down (and you may have to go pretty deep) is "No." We do not really want childish, self-directed sexual pleasure. We really don't want to live in the darkness of ignorance and falsehood. We don't want the mirage.

7. Cultivate self-control in other areas of life: I highly recommend fasting. Learning to say "no" to the flesh when you fast is like practice in a safe environment. Learning to honor your vows to the Lord when they are self-imposed, public and of little importance (like giving up internet once a week or fasting from alcohol on weekdays) strengthens us to honor Him later with what is private, forced upon us and of huge importance.

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