08 November 2013
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.
- James Frank Solís
- Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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