It’s a supercharged word, one with power to stir up all sorts of things in our hearts when we hear it. That’s because for Christians who are seeking to submit our sexual desires to God, struggle and failure in this deeply personal, deeply significant area often brings with it an equally penetrating sense of shame and, at times, futility.
And let’s face it: Living a self-controlled and godly life in our hyper-sexualized culture is no small thing. We live in an era in which the idea of restraint, of reining in our sexual desire for some higher purpose — whether living chastely as singles or living faithfully as marrieds — seems a quaint throwback to a bygone age.
Old-fashioned as self-control and purity may seem to those outside the faith, however, Scripture clearly teaches that what happens in our hearts, sexually speaking, matters to God. In Ephesians 5:3, Paul exhorts, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Two verses earlier, he’s given us an alternative vision: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
So what does it take to experience consistent obedience in this thorny area? That’s a question I’ve grappled with for 25 years. My battle with lust began in college, when I submitted my life to Christ and began for the first time to combat this temptation. And even though I’ve been happily married for eight years, marriage doesn’t automatically mean that skirmishes with this wily temptation are forever a thing of the past. What I offer here is not a silver bullet, then, but a distillation of several decades of thought on this subject.
We need a strategy that deals with our behavior in the moment, one that deals theologically with our hearts, one that’s relationally grounded and one that seeks to deal holistically with our appetites if we hope to experience lasting freedom.
Lust happens when we notice the sexual attractiveness of another person’s body and then choose to fixate on it. I don’t believe the initial noticing is, generally speaking, where lust is born. It’s in the second thought, the second moment in which we choose to indulge our eyes that we cross the threshold into sinful thinking. So, at the most basic level, the first thing we need is something that helps us redirect our eyes and our thoughts — to change our behavior — between those first and second moments.
Pragmatically speaking, nothing helps me do that better than Scripture. In college, I had to walk through an expansive lawn to classes each day. In late summer and late spring, students — lots of students — sunbathed there. It felt like a spiritual minefield. Early on, I memorized Proverbs 4:25: “Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.” I would literally recite that verse mentally dozens of times daily, and it strengthened my resolve not to capitulate the omnipresent temptation of lust.
Second, we need to submit our hearts honestly to God in moments of lust. That includes confessing (“Lord, I realize my gaze lingered on that person too long just now”), honest acknowledgement of our desires (“Father, I long for intimacy and pleasure and a sense of connection with another person”), asking God to help us see others as He does (“Lord, please help me not to lust, but to see that person as You do”) and asking for strength to resist (“Father, please help me not to choose to look lustfully at someone else”). Those are all prayers that can be prayed in the moment, as well as after the fact, as we seek to submit our sexuality to God.
Third, the battle against lust is by its very nature an isolating one. That makes talking about it with a trusted friend critically important. The aftermath of lust is always shame, because in our hearts we intuitively know it’s a damaging, ugly thing to objectify another person. So we need to talk about it with others who are on the road and in the battle with us. Confessing our sins opens the door to receive God’s abundant grace through another person.
Proverbs 28:13 tells us, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” Confession in close relationship enables us to experience mercy and grace, I believe, in a way that confessing to God privately, on our own, may not. Those relationships are also the place where we pray together for resolve to resist temptation the next time.
Finally, as I’ve gotten older I’ve increasingly realized that our appetites are holistically related to each other. Put simply, if my appetite for food or material things or passive media consumption is out of control, there’s a pretty good chance that my appetite for sexual things may be disordered as well. Conversely, to the extent that I’m trying to purposefully live within healthy limits when it comes to those other appetites, that discipline tends to spill over, in a positive way, when it comes to resisting inappropriate sexual thoughts.
Lust can be a pesky, unwanted interloper in our spiritual lives. There’s no easy, foolproof or quick fix. But I believe that progress and consistent obedience in this area is possible, to the extent that we’re willing to combat it with the four-pronged approach I’ve outlined above.
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