20 December 2013

Lust, Part 2

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (16)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to watch much television, virtually none at all on school nights during the school year, and an hour or two in the evenings during holidays—certainly not as much as my friends watched. If the television wasn't already turned on when they arrived home from school, it was turned on almost immediately afterwards. It wasn't that my parents thought television was evil. It was more that they hadn't grown up with it; and when television arrived only the relatively well-off had it. My parents just thought I had more important things to do than sit mindlessly and passively in front of a television set. Consequently, my friends often looked at me like a foreigner because I hadn't seen the programs they had done.

As a result of that early experience I've never really been much of a television viewer. To this day, I really don't watch much television; and if the television is on so is my DVD player. I don’t have cable or dish, and there are only about five broadcast shows I follow with any regularity; and even then, I don't pay much attention, because I'm usually reading, the television serving mostly as background noise.

What always strikes me on the rare occasions when I come across TV shows that I don't follow is the extent to which sexuality has come to dominate the airwaves. No shocker there. Lust has always been popular and found expression in the arts. Promotion of illicit sexuality on television is nothing new, at least not in my experience. I would say the illicit sexuality on television in my youth was tame by comparison with today. For example, I recall an episode of the series, “Hunter”, in which a woman, dealing with the shock of the loss of a loved one, informs Rick Hunter, standing outside the door of his home, that she “needs to be with someone”. They go inside and the door is closed; the viewer, it's assumed, needs no further exposition. Things are a bit different today. Clueless viewers require further exposition.

There were limitations on what is acceptable and what is not. Now, it seems as if the writers of television shows have no idea how to write a story if they cannot parade, glorify and normalize illicit sexuality—and as much of it as possible. Every program seems driven to push the boundary further and further. This trend, not surprisingly, culminated in a series entirely devoted to normalized illicit sexuality: “Sex and the City”. (Movies, of course, were gone long before that, beginning, in my viewing experience, with “Animal House”.)

Of course, sexuality on television and in movies isn't just there. We are not assaulted with mere images of illicit sexuality. In those images, we are also presented with a message of sorts, a set of attitudes regarding sexuality. Illicit sexuality is virtuous, or even morally neutral, except maybe for adultery (depending upon whether the viewer likes the one being cheated on). Being virtuous or neutral, the open display and normalization of illicit sexuality is entirely understandable. People who engage in it are morally outstanding people, who genuinely care about their multiple partners, and are engaging in responsible, mature, adult behavior. To complain, or not be all for it (that is, to be a prude) is a vice. Now-days, chastity, not lust, is the vice. It's unhealthy. At a certain point, we just need to be “taken”.

Naturally, in this day and age, one doesn't have to own a television to get caught up in these messages. Advertising, fashion, music—all of these things conspire together to assault us in just the same way as television and movies. (If not for sexuality, Carl’s, Jr. wouldn’t be able to sell a hamburger.) Wherever our eyes and ears are, there, it seems Lust, like a lion, is lying in wait, its desire, to devour us.

The society in which we live, obviously isn’t bothered by it much, but it is a serious matter for Christians. At times, I think Christians are becoming numb to the sexual illness by which we are surrounded, so numb, in fact, I doubt very many understand the extent to which we are surrounded, or even consider the fact that we are unable to convert the culture because the culture has converted us. Even if we do not—yet—engage in the same activities (except perhaps in our attire), we are being sucked into the current, and opening up ourselves to powerful temptations. We may be subjecting ourselves to far too many harmful images and ideas, all the while insisting either that (a) there is nothing to worry about (and those who insist otherwise are prudes who need to read Song of Solomon) or (b) we can handle it because, after all, we are adults. St Paul, on the other hand, teaches us such enticements are sinful and we should run from them. As he explains, “Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6.18). Not only does it appear many of us are not running away, and, consequently, falling in the face of temptations, but actually embracing these temptations, seeking them out, and yielding to them, committing the same acts as the world, which I mentioned in Part 1.

How does one sin against his own body? Sex intimately engages our bodies and looses our emotions and our minds. Something very powerful is released when two people expose themselves to each other in the way they do in sexual intercourse, risking everything they are. For what purpose do we seek to release that power? Yes, of course, there is pleasure involved, but is that alone the explanation? The required explanation will have to tell us not only why we engage in it, but why it is such a unique sin.

Answering the question, why we seek to release the power of sex, will show us why sexual sin, in which so many proudly participate, is the ultimate transgression, the one St Paul tells us to avoid.

To understand sexual sin, as indeed with most elements of Christian theology, we have to consider the opening chapters of Genesis, where we read that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree from which they were forbidden to eat, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3.7).

What was it about this disobedience which made them feel exposed to each other? We should recall that God's purposes in creating was to make us one with him, to have us live in unity with him and each other in the same way as the members of the Holy Trinity live with each other. Union with God, fellowship with Him, is a connective theme in all Christian theology. As John Murray writes, in Redemption Accomplished and Applied:

 “[Union with Christ] is an important aspect of the application of redemption and, if we did not take account of it, not only would our presentation of the application of redemption be defective but our view of the Christian life would be gravely distorted. Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ” (161).

All explanations of spiritual matters are grounded in this truth.

Union with God also helps us understand why sexual immorality is the most regrettable sin. It is clear that before they exalted their own wills above God's and attempted to seize control of their lives, Adam and Eve walked with God, living with Him, as we might say, “in the heavenly places” (see Eph. 2.6). God had created them in His image, endowing them with every faculty they required to grow into unity with Him, with each other and even all creation (over which He had given them dominion).

Think about how Adam must have seen Eve when he first laid his eyes upon her. He looks at her and says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh....” At that moment in history they are living in intimate fellowship with God. That fact has to be taken into account, or we will think Adam is simply emoting, rather than saying something of ontological import. Adam is saying something about the way he truly sees Eve: as an extension (in the best sense) of himself. She is not, like he is, made directly from dust. She is fashioned from one of his ribs. She is something of a clone. And as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, she is truly him—and vice versa.

But since this awareness is possible only in the life of fellowship with God, it also means that something of cosmological import transpires at their rebellion, an insight I believe is lost on us due to the inroads of anti-supernaturalism and anti-mysticism. Their perception of oneness and unity with each other; their perception of being extensions of each other—these were lost in the Fall. And they were lost because they were the result of unity with God. When they broke that fellowship, they lost the source of their intimacy with each other. This is all the more tragic when we contemplate that they must surely have thought all would continue as it had done previously, as if God were incidental to it all. Life, they must have thought, would be the same, but without God as their sovereign. They would be equal to him in power, wisdom, knowledge and glory. They too, in short, would be gods. They may even have thought that by eating the fruit and, as the serpent said, becoming like God, they would thus be brought into more intimate fellowship with God. But one does not become closer to God by disobeying him.

They did not merely feel the loss of communion and intimate fellowship with each other, with God and with creation. One can truly say that they saw it, as well. They knew, or experienced, shame in their nakedness. Previously, as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, when Eve felt Adam's eyes upon her, it was like looking at herself. But now, he looks upon her and instead of seeing himself in her, instead of seeing his bones and his flesh, he sees an object, removed and distant from him, perhaps even a stranger, unknown and unknowable to him, at least not knowable the way she had been previously. Each now feels alone. I doubt we can comprehend all they must have felt at that moment. All they did, physically, was eat a bit of fruit, and the cosmos changed. And the cosmos changed because their relationship to it, through God, had changed.

Sin results in disintegration, as God looses the life-giving and preserving bond between himself and his image-bearers, which further results in a rift between them and the creation over which they have dominion. Life ceases and they begin to die. Again, they surely must have thought life, including the nature of their fellowship together, would continue unchanged, but without the necessity of obedience to God. Oh, he would still be around, of course, but they would be like him. Knowing good and evil, they would be, as St Peter would put it thousands of years later, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4), without having to be in union with God. They could not have been more mistaken. Even the ground, which once brought forth fruit and vegetation without the slightest effort on Adam's part, would produce only "thistles and thorns" without tremendous sweat-producing labor, with no real assurance that even the sweat of his brow would yield anything at all.

And so, after their rebellious act, they begin to die, eventually to return to the dust which God had animated. They had been created for the purpose of being one with God (on His terms), who had filled their beings; but now He has withdrawn from them. Their meaning; their purpose; their source of life--all are gone. All that is left to them for fulfillment, for filling up the emptiness of a space once occupied by God, is a world of objects. Once, Adam looked to God for sustenance; now he must look to plants growing in the ground, waging war against thorn and thistle. Eve once looked to God for the fulfillment of her desires, now she must look to Adam who, though the very source of her being, has become a stranger to her.

Of course, God did not leave them in that condition. Union with God has been maintained, in types and shadows, through covenants. Now there is still the possibility of a fuller expression of union with God, here and now, through Jesus Christ, by the mediating power of the Holy Spirit (see WCF 21). And we should be grateful to Him for that.

For those who choose to live without God, there remains only the cold world of objects, and the attempt to achieve union with those objects through various idolatries. Their only hope of union is a distorted form of what God desires for man. So when such men and women look upon each other, they do not see one with whom they can achieve spiritual union and divine oneness. There is only an object they can use to bring momentary pleasure to the emptiness; or they become and permit themselves to be objects, used to bring momentary pleasure to another. (Recall Fincher's acknowledged objectification of "the beautiful body" before her, which I mentioned in Part 1.)

Sexual immorality is the ultimate perversion of God's intention for man. In the sexual act, two human beings completely expose themselves to each other, body and soul, in an act which is intended to be part of a relation which is a “type” of the relation between Christ and his Church (see Ephesians 5.22-32). In the intended (marital) relationship between a man and a woman, two people travel a “sacred” path toward spiritual growth in the kingdom of God which, through trust, self-denial, and openness, will lead to oneness. Both risk everything they are and have been until their union in marriage, each for the sake of the other; each one sees the needs and the desires of the other as paramount.

Those who commit sexual sins take the same risks; but they do so for their own purposes: personal pleasure and fulfillment of their own intentions, rather than the fulfillment of God's intentions. They turn a potentially unifying (and self-denying) act into self-gratification. (One should admit that this is something most humans do with most things, including professing Christians, mostly as the result of shoddy teaching and preaching, by shoddy teachers and preachers.) People in such relationships, to the extent they have relationships, will talk about their commitment to one another, but until their minds are joined together in the single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God, their commitment can only be to their individual sexual gratification. And when that is over, so is the commitment.

Of course, this happens to Christians as well. We know that God has redeemed us and set us free from self-love. We may acknowledge that we are no longer slaves, relating to other people as to objects. But the allure of sexual sin is so strong because the physical union of bodies is a successful counterfeit of true oneness. It grips and claws at us because it promises to fulfill a very legitimate desire, the desire for union with another. As a union of two bodies, which union in marriage is a type of our union with God, sexual union is an act of worship, but by virtue of taking place outside the bond of matrimony, it is an act of idolatry. In the idolatrous act, the “typical” nature of the marital union is denied and the participants both idolize each other’s bodies (in the truest sense of the term) and in turn present their bodies as objects of worship, used for pleasure, thus sinning against their own bodies.


With the “scene” thus set, we are now prepared to look at solutions suggested by the desert fathers in comparison with Reformation thought.

Desert Theology for Reformed People, Part 15
08 November 2013

Lust, Part 1

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (15)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

As I said last time monks did not struggle with lust as much as we might think; for them the problem was anger. It's probably difficult to believe, given the circumstances, that lust would not be a big problem in such an environment, especially for men. But, especially during the time period and geographical locale I have foremost in mind (i.e., the first millennium in the middle eastern deserts), the living conditions of the sort of men and women we're talking about were quite severe.

Calvin, who otherwise has little praise for the monastic life, and writing about these men and women, describes something of these conditions (in his Institutes, Bk iv, ch xiii, 8, emphasis added):

[L]est any one defend the monachism of the present day on the ground of the long prescription, it is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practiced by the monks then resembled that which the [Spartans] are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age.

A discipline more rigorous than the Spartans'. That is saying something.

But what have harsh conditions to do with sexuality and lust?

Reflecting upon the experience and effects of hunger, in a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, in his Man's Search for Meaning (52) writes:

Undernourishment...probably...explains the fact that the sexual urge was generally absent. Apart from the initial effects of shock, this appears to be the only explanation of a phenomenon which a psychologist was bound to observe in those all-male camps: that, as opposed to all other strictly male establishments—such as army barracks—there was little sexual perversion. Even in his dreams the prisoner did not seem to concern himself with sex, although his frustrated emotions and his finer, higher feelings did find definite expression in them.

“Generally absent” may describe the sexual urge in harsh conditions, especially those of a middle eastern desert monastery or a Nazi concentration camp; but in the relatively easy, pleasure-filled life most of us live, “generally absent” is not an applicable term. In a society, such as ours, in which sex can sell anything, including hamburgers, the more appropriate term for describing the sexual urge is “central preoccupation”. If, as C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues,” then lust is the most popular passion. And so it seems to be.

In a culture as materialistic as our own (in the philosophical sense), bodily pleasures seem as close to a spiritual (or even mystical) experience as one may ever get. For materialists, spiritual unions being out of the question, union of one body with another is virtually a religious experience. Sensuality is religious experience. And sexual intercourse is an act of worship.

Of course, in dealing with lust we really need to know what it is, and what it isn't. I'll say more in a subsequent post, but for now, it would be a mistake to understand lust as simple sexual desire. If we make that error we will not deal with it effectively, because we will not see it for the sort of problem it is. After all, without sexual desire, the human race would go extinct. Moreover, sexual desire per se is never treated in Scripture as a sin. The most famous source for this understanding is, of course, The Song of Songs. What is treated as sin is sexual intercourse outside the bounds of matrimony and the desire for intercourse outside those bounds.

We are concerned here with lust as the sexual desire for someone other than one’s spouse. And I don’t think we'd be mistaken to say not only is it sexual desire for another to whom one is not married, but sexual desire for another whom one has no desire to marry. In a word, a desire to copulate and be done. (And we have so many colorful ways of putting that.)

Our sexual appetite, says Lewis, “is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.” He continues, saying:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us? (Mere Christianity, p. 89)

Lewis goes on to consider the possibility that such a show would be evidence of famine, concluding that the hypothesis is easily tested by seeing if in fact people are starving. Clearly, we are not experiencing a famine of sex. We’re having lot’s of sex—everything from friends-with-benefits to spouse-swapping, hotwifing and cuckolding, and, of course, good, old fashioned, heart-breaking adultery. Yes, we’re having lots of sex. We’re starting earlier and earlier, and stopping later and later. And we’re having it for at least 237 reasons having little or nothing to do with marriage, love or even the least bit of affection and much, much less for the desire of children.

Now, what is the problem with lust? The way some approach the subject, while it is a problem, it really isn't much of a problem, certainly not a deadly problem, a “prelude” to a problem, perhaps. And to the extent it is acknowledged as a problem, it isn't very clear what the problem really is. For example, Jonalyn Fincher, in a Christianity Today article, "Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman", writes:

I am one of those women who have found myself struggling with lust. I am not addicted to pornography, but I am distracted to lust after handsome…men.

When a beautiful man or woman passes me and my husband on the street or monopolizes our time after a speaking event we both code awareness to each other. We use our eyes to say, "Yes, this is a beautiful body in front of me, but no worries. My appetite has been cultivated for you."

This discipline didn't start so easily.

I've learned to want my husband's frame, his uniqueness. I've learned to seek that look, to develop a taste for his body and soul.

But I still notice beauty, in men.

Talking about the beautiful people around us allows my husband and I to both safely confess and grow into desiring each other. It also means our temptations are never faced alone.

I have no intention of denigrating this, but frankly I think this treats lust as a difficulty to be managed or, as she put it, a distraction, rather than a danger needing to be assaulted. (We are talking about “evil thoughts” or “deadly sins”, after all.) The closest Fincher comes to acknowledging lust as a danger is to intimate its possibly leading to sexual addiction. The inevitability of lust seems a foregone conclusion. We can't help it; we can't stop it. We will always lust. We just need to manage it. We'll just have to talk about it and confess it. Not entirely bad advice, of course; it is better than mounting no resistance whatsoever. But even that much does not treat lust as something dangerous, even deadly.

In another article on the same subject, and in which she treats lust as a danger, she tells of lunching with a friend and during the course of the meal, lusting after a stranger in the restaurant, attempting to catch his eye, distract him and “check him out a lot more” but not, naturally, “to tell him about Jesus.” She writes:

Typically in situations like these, my first response is some serious reining in and self-talk. Something like, “Jonalyn, that’s wrong. God doesn’t want you to think of him like that, stop it right now.” You know the ol’ accountability line.

But...I steered around my blamey self talk and prayed instead, “Jesus, I invite you into my lust.”

And I went back to my conversation with my friend.

Note her use of two phrases: “the ol’ accountability line” and “my blamey self talk”. Frankly, this is not someone who is takes her lust very seriously. Not as seriously as the desert theologians would have us do. For those of us who are reformed, not as seriously as the Westminster divines would have us do. (See the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 137 through 139.)

Would Fincher be as dismissive of murderous thoughts? What she tells us of herself here is that she sits in a restaurant, trying to get another man’s attention for purposes of signaling to him her sexual desire for him, and (if she were brutally honest with herself) her sexual availability. Not, of course, that she’d really ever do it, only attempt to communicate, even if non-verbally, that she’d like to do it.

That said, Fincher does identify a weakness of standard “accountability guidelines”. In the same article, she goes on, offering a different approach:

Often, accountability guidelines for ending lust focus on guarding our eyes from even looking or noticing beauty. But this feels Gnostic to me, a method of denying the inherit [sic] beauty in healthy men (and women’s) bodies. I want to be free to notice beautiful men and I want Dale free to notice beautiful women. This allows me to thank God for his creativity.

[***]

Neither Dale nor I have stunning gams, but we love noticing others who do. And in the process, my lust isn’t incited. I’m observing the art of God around me and sharing it with my husband. God called us very good. I’d have to agree.

If we find our admiration turning into covetousness, I’d recommend this relational approach of inviting Jesus into the moment. Asking for Jesus to abide in us reminds me of Jesus’ words, “Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).

No matter where you struggle with lust, invite Jesus to abide in you. Jesus is stronger than I’ve been or any other method I’ve tried.

Perhaps it is fine that we take notice of those—male and female—who have stunning gams; and maybe we truly are merely “observing the art of God around [us].” But then, maybe not. It is true, God called us very good, but in doing our theology we should take note that this pronouncement was made before we died in Adam. We might also note that immediately after their eyes were opened, Adam and Eve's first inclination was to cover up. (More about that in Part 2.) We, on the other hand, can't wait to uncover, or for others to uncover, if not entirely, certainly as much as we can get away with doing. The life we live now is a life of redemption. True, we are redeemed; but we have not been transfigured just yet. Having raised that point, however, it is certainly true that inviting Jesus into the moment is the right answer. And, in fact, by virtue of our union with him, he is always with us so all we really have to do is not invite him into the moment, but rather acknowledge his ever-presence and look to him in that moment.

However innocent Fincher’s “noticing” of God’s creativity, this notice still involves objectifying someone and treating them as existing to gratify the senses. Eye candy. Call it “art” if you will, but that changes nothing. Pornography is called “art”. “A rose by any other name” and all that. As we’ll see in a subsequent post, this objectification is part and parcel of our lust problem. In fact, without this objectification (something we are more practiced in doing than we might know) there could be no lust problem. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Fincher's approach here (an attempt to avoid what she thinks is Gnosticism), in comparison with the desert fathers', is a palliative instead of a cure, skirmishing and holding ground rather than attacking and conquering. And this is because she mis-diagnoses the condition, and that, in turn, is because she is trying to avoid “blamey self talk”, something we should most definitely not avoid when we truly are blame-worthy, or even if we merely think we might be blame-worthy. Lust, as she is treating it, is really more of a “pain” to be managed, rather than an evil, deadly passion (or sin) needing to be destroyed, or a disease to be cured. The fact is, her method, while there certainly is nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes, falls short of what we need to do, which is to put to death the deeds of our bodies (Romans 8.13), including lust. Fincher will have us keep our lust very much alive, but just give it a new name and put it on a hopefully stronger chain. Would she be as relatively careless about murderous thoughts? I suspect not.

The real problem is not the iterative and occasional struggle with lust such as Fincher describes. The real problem is that we imbibe a great deal of what Western, specifically American culture dishes out. We watch many of the same television shows as non-Christian America. We see many of the same movies as non-Christian America. We listen to much of the same music as non-Christian America. Much of that media contains some form of sexuality. Like high fructose corn syrup, it’s in just about everything. Possibly then we have therefore the same pre-occupation with sensuality and sexuality as non-Christian America, even if we are not always conscious of it. It can be to us just as much a passion as for any other American, as Fincher demonstrates. Sexuality has been normalized; and this normalization is a problem.

If an approach like Fincher’s can be characterized as really more like pain management or holding, then desert theology, in contrast, seeks cure or conquest. Fincher would have us play defense; desert theology would have us take the offensive. For example, John Climacus wrote:

He who has piously destroyed within him the three passions [of gluttony, cupidity and vainglory] has destroyed the five [of lust, anger, despair, despondency, and pride] too; but he who has been negligent about the former will not conquer even one passion. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 26, 2)

We now come to the question, How then do the desert theologians counsel dealing with lust?


Before we can really answer that question, however, we need to spend some time reflecting upon a “theology of lust”. Sexual sin, as we’ll see, is unique and requires some analysis.
31 January 2013

Little-known secret: Many (if not most) intellectuals are not lovers of freedom, especially if they live off or otherwise benefit from government largess; so this, while interesting, is really no surprise. Those intellectuals who really are crazy about liberty are usually something else first, and intellectuals second...or third. Hans-Herman Hoppe suggests that the freedom-loving intellectual should really be called (I love this part) "an anti-intellectual intellectual".

And you haven't lived until you've read Hegel's transposition of the need for freedom of thought into a requirement that it be "protected" (I love it when they talk like that) by the state. (That's in his PHILOSOPHY OF LAW, section 270. Enjoy--or not.) I'm certain, it's one of those collective-action-to-protect-individual-liberty kind of things.

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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