The Deadly Sin of Lust
Through this series I’ve tried to demonstrate the importance of clarifying some terms – that greed is not the same as gluttony, that envy is different from jealousy. There can be a similar semantic problem with ‘lust’. I’ve heard too many talks about marriage in which the speaker (always a man) describes how he lusts after his wife. I know what communication is being attempted here: expressing a strong (sexual) desire for one’s wife, which helps keep the marriage spicy and prevent wandering thoughts and hands towards other women. The problem though is that lust is plain and simple the wrong word to express all this.
Desire (like jealousy) can be either good or bad, depending on the object towards which it is directed. Lust (like envy) is always bad. Lust is the illegitimate desire for something to which we are not entitled; which means it is actually impossible for me to lust after my wife, as to her I am entitled.
But misuse of the word is not so serious a problem as lust itself. We can all recount stories of people who have got into trouble because of lust – church leaders who have experienced ‘moral failure’; parents who have got divorced; the friend hooked on porn. We’ve all read the books and blogs warning us against the dangers of lust. And we are all confronted each day by a multitude of images and scenarios that can provoke us to lust.
The particular power of lust is that it can be aroused in an instant by images that pass before our eyes. In our pornified culture none of us can avoid looking at porn: some people don’t wrestle with sexual temptation to any great degree, but many of us do, and it doesn’t always take very much for lust to be stirred. Sometimes that glance of the eyes can lead to actual interaction of the glands. Samson ‘saw’ a prostitute and ended up sleeping with her (Judges 16:1). David saw Bathsheba and the rest is history (2 Sam. 11). Even if glance doesn’t lead to physical action, Jesus raised the stakes on this one by saying that to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery with her (Matt. 5:28). Every ‘Lusters Anonymous’ meeting would begin with the confession, “I am a pornographer and an adulterer”, and most of us would qualify for such a support group.
The real power of lust doesn’t lie in the connection between eye and brain and gonads, but in the comfort lust pretends to offer. It really is a question of the affections – a question of love. This is why John writes:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
John makes it binary: God’s love, or lust.
Aquinas put it this way: “Man cannot live without joy; therefore, when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.” If we are not living in the Father’s love, lust will fill the vacuum.
The warfare attrition of the Christian life can make us vulnerable to lust. One of the most dangerous places we can find ourselves is in a place of boredom. It is very possible to be very busy, but still bored. It is very possible to be very busy ‘about the Lord’s work’ but to have lost love for God and be dying internally from boredom. Busy but bored people are prime candidates for the deadly sin of lust. Lust offers the promise of excitement.
Busy and tired people are also vulnerable to lust. Lust offers the promise of escape. A few minutes drifting away in sexual reverie, a quick google of something sexy… so easy, so tempting, so energising…
Busy and stressed people are also prone to lust. I’m sure some of those high-profile pastoral sexual implosions have been the result of overworked, overstressed men desperate to find a way out but unable to do so. If you are leading a large church or Christian ministry and no longer want to, how do you get out of it? It is not easy. Lust is the ultimate self-eject button. Develop a porn addiction, have an affair – hey it’s fun, and one day you’ll get caught, and then you’ll get kicked out. Job done.
Busy and self-important people are sheep to lusts shearing too. Lust is the desire for something to which we are not entitled, but self-important people feel entitled. Feeling entitled is deadly.
Like all the deadly sins, lust is often subtle and insidious. It is always crouching, ready to pounce, to get us when we least expect it. Accountability can help. Support groups can help. Learning to keep our spiritual armour permanently on certainly helps (Eph. 6:10-18). In the end, though, as with all the deadly sins, we will only walk free of lust when we are walking in love with God. Aquinas was right, we need joy – and Jesus promises it to us, a joy that offers more than the addiction of carnal pleasures.