[Click here to listen to a great sermon by Timothy Keller on this subject!]
I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Lust, in its narrow definition as related to sexual desire, can get a lot of attention, in teaching about the moral life. Rightly, we’ve left it to the last in this series! When Dorothy Sayers decided to write on the Deadly Sins, she wrote deliberately a book on everything but lust (she felt enough had been said), and called her book, The Six Other Deadly Sins.
Today, after the explosion of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and the continuing fallout from that, society still hasn’t really concluded what is right though it seems the door is wide open. Those of you who have been following the news this past week will know that the Anglican Communion has almost broken apart on questions around the issue of the expression of homosexual desire. Is that lust or is it not? And certainly our own congregation here at Holy Trinity is split on this question.
Lust is perhaps the most understandable human vice and in the Tradition of the Church has been seen as less destructive than other kinds of sin because of the aspect of mutuality and exchange – the giving and receiving that is a part of its expression: it is not wholly selfish, as are the cold hearted sins of the flesh like pride or vainglory or wrath or covetousness…
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy using images of the afterlife to describe our ascent to God in this life. His work is important because it is a summing up the Tradition of the Church to his day (written 1300-1325) about the moral life (still seen by some as perhaps the greatest work of Christian moral theology ever written). The first book, the Inferno, is a reasoned reflection on the depths of human sin from the least destructive to the most as he descends the circles in hell. He begins the first book of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, with the slip into hell in the uppermost level (the least destructive level) with a famous example in his time, Francesca da Rimini, who tragically fell into an adulterous relationship with her husband’s younger brother Paolo, as they were reading a romantic poem together. Dorothy Sayers says… “Tender and beautiful as Dante’s handling of Francesca is, he has sketched her with deadly accuracy. All the good is there; the charm, the courtesy, the instant response to affection, the grateful eagerness to please; but also all the evil; the easy yielding, the inability to say No, the intense self pity.”
In the Middle book, Purgatory, Dante has souls ascending to heaven on a mountain through various steps and being purged of the seven deadly sins – the lustful are not at the bottom of the mountain, as if it was the worst sin, but at the highest circle on the mountain, just before entering earthly paradise. And in that circle are people of varying sexual desires being purified in the flames as their love is perfected (see the flames on the top of the mountain?). Dante himself must pass through the flames, which he describes as hotter than melted glass, before he can ascend to Paradise.
I mention this, not to say that lust is not a deadly sin, but that in our over-attention to it, we might find ourselves being dragged into a hell on earth by other disordered passions more destructive to our souls such as covetousness.
Lust can be mixed up with other evils – such as seduction, when one misuses another’s weakness in this area to gain something from them, or, to express power over another, something incredibly destructive. These are much more serious perversions (Dante places such people in the lowest circles of Hell) because they involve the higher aspects of our reasoning soul in destructive acts. But let’s look at uncomplicated lust.
In its simpler form Lust has been understood in the Christian tradition as a misuse or misdirection of sexual desire, or an excessive love of the earthly good of sexual pleasure.
Sexual desire itself is a combination of desires – a desire for intimacy, for consummation, for union with a beloved to shatter the loneliness, a desire to hold and to be held, to know and to be known, to give a loved one pleasure and to receive pleasure from a loved one, a desire for a kind of death to selfishness, a desire to bring forth new life, a desire for children.
How can sexual desire be expressed in a way that is not hurtful?
The Bible has, in the Church’s history, always been understood to teach a very difficult lesson. I don’t feel at liberty to teach anything else than what has always been taught (nor do I disagree with it). So I beg your forbearance as we consider first what the Church has always taught and you can decide whether to accept it and you can give your reasons why we should change. This is what has been taught in the past (and what I say is actually in line with what the Church of England still teaches officially): that ultimately there are only two ways open for the healthy expression of sexual desire in our wilderness wandering in this life – either through marriage between a man and a woman or through the celibate life. As I say, it seems completely at odds with what most people think in the West, probably even most people within our churches today.
Jesus, when asked by the Pharisees about the allowance by Moses of divorce for any reason, recalled them to the ideal of Eden, the marriage between one man and one woman for life [Mt 19:4-6].
He speaks of adultery and fornication as an evil arising from the heart of fallen humanity [Mk 7:20-23] From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality (or fornication, from the Greek: porneia)…, adultery, (and he mentions the other deadly sins). All these evil things come from within and they defile a man.”
In the Gospel, Jesus is speaking to the Jewish people gathered around him. How did they understand “sexual immorality”? It meant for them sexual relations forbidden under the Law of Moses – any sexual relations outside of marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual), incest (as defined in Leviticus 18, and used in the Church of England Marriage Canon), and bestiality. St Paul uses this same term, “sexual immorality” (or “fornication”, from the Greek: “porneia”) warning against it in most of his Epistles as a sign of carnally minded behaviour (or acting according to our fallen nature) (1 Cor 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 10:8; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3; the same Greek term is used in Rev 2:14, 21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3, 19:2). In 1 Cor (6:18) St Paul says, Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. The Council of Jerusalem, referred to in Acts 15, without having to refer to the Ten Commandments as the way of love, it was obvious to them, reaffirmed the need to abstain specifically from “sexual immorality” (i.e fornication, or “porneia”).
Jesus also warns us that adultery is not just the outward act but is about the inward thoughts of our hearts, as we heard from the Sermon on the Mount in tonight’s second reading [Mt 5:27-28]… Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
So lust is about outward acts and the inward thoughts that go beforehand – they reveal the unfaithfulness of the human heart. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we are all caught up and we are all condemned under the high call of the Law of Moses, as understood and taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) – and we can all be freed and forgiven by the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We all need to live under the Mercy, daily.
We can see that some of these boundaries in the Bible to the expression of sexual desire have to do with the flourishing and perfecting of friendships and of Christian fellowship and with strengthening the institution of marriage. Marriage is a gift from God for the flourishing of family life, which is one of its principle fruits. Those outside of marriage are not to seize the gift of sexual relations given within marriage without also assuming the deeper responsibilities to a beloved and to society that are associated with marital life.
Marriage is a place where the mixed motivations of our hearts – lust (an excessive love of an earthly good) and love – are transformed, purified – the marriage service says that one of the purposes of marriage is “the hallowing (or making holy) of the union between a man and a woman.” The Bible, perhaps surprisingly, gives no clear instructions on how or how often couples should have sexual relations. The Song of Solomon uses the exalted language of poetry to speak of the beauty of earthly embodied love as a refection of God’s love for the soul. St Paul describes a mutuality in sexual relations (husband’s body is not his own but his wife’s, nor is the wife’s body her own but the husband’s [1 Cor 7:4]). There is a certain freedom within marriage, a great mercy and forgiveness as we stumble, and an assumption that we can figure out in time and in the light of God what is best and beautiful in this most intimate physical expression of love. In the traditional Marriage service, in giving the ring, the man vows to his wife: with my body I thee worship.
What about those people who are not married? (It is a lot of people: those who have not yet found a spouse, those who do not desire marriage or children, those who chose not to remarry after divorce or after the death of a spouse.) Jesus says to his astonished male disciples, if you don’t want to commit to one woman for life, you could choose to be a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven [Mt 19:1-12]. He also suggests there are some who do not wish to be married from birth or because of what another has done to them. (Are there not deep psychological insights being spoken here by Jesus and also by St Paul in the Romans reading tonight at 1:27?) Jesus says that in the life to come we will neither marry nor be given in marriage but will be like the angels. [Mt 22:23-33] And he says that the celibate life, the life of the angels, is possible for those who are called to live it – does he mean all those who do not feel called to marry? To the modern Western world this seems cruel and unusual. Does Jesus, our Maker, just not understand basic human psychology? Or have we misunderstood what he is saying?
The call to the celibate life is not a call to put eros, desire, love, to death, but to redirect that same longing, that same love towards God and one’s neighbour in non-sexually intimate ways. Can we be as fulfilled or is this a lesser life? Paul suggests it is in some ways preferable [1 Cor 7]. Jesus and his Apostles teach that all desire, all love, is one (as God is One). Our eros, desire, guided by and increased by grace, becomes the wind under our wings to ascend into the kingdom. What Jesus is suggesting is not inhuman, but in fact a new way of being and of understanding and dealing with human desire.
When one turns inwardly, in faithfulness, with purity of heart, we are promised by Jesus that our desire, our thirst, will be met by a spring of living Water welling up in us, renewing us inwardly, giving us new life – that is the consummation of eros (of desire or love) when directed to God.
The Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, had lots of lovers – she’d had five husbands and was now living with another man, but she was still waiting for Jesus to show her what she was really looking for. [Jn 4] It is the inward and upward call to find God, to know our citizenship is in heaven. It is not a diminishment of our humanity but fullness of being – being, acting, and knowing the world like Jesus – who, let us remember, lived a celibate life. [Eph 3:14-21]
The mystics certainly understood something about the consummation of love in prayer, about the experience not of a life of dullness or lack of love but of fruitfulness and even of rapture beyond words in the celibate life – read Hildegard of Bingen or John of Ruysbroek, or Theresa of Avila. Apart from rapture, look at the fruitfulness of the lives of the great teachers of the faith such as St Thomas Aquinas or St Augustine or St Theresa.
Physical sexual relations are in no way a guarantee of the very thing we desire – intimacy, the shattering of loneliness, a drawing closer with a beloved, deep friendship, the consummation of love – many couples live together for years and only grow apart despite being sexually active. This can be helpful for the celibate person to remember.
The call to be chaste, lived out in different ways either in the married state or as a celibate, is not easy for anyone – whatever your desire. Neither the call to monogamy nor the call to celibacy is “natural” for any fallen human being. It will become more difficult if we have been in the habit of continually stirring up sexual desire because we think, wrongly, that that is what it is to be alive (like, for example, the person who keeps feeding his anger by nursing inwardly on past injustices because with the adrenaline rush one feels a kind of liveliness). To live chastely, whether married or celibate, is a real dying or curbing of desire but it is done so that we might rise anew in Christ. In either state of living, no one is to be denied deep friendship or deep fellowship or deep love, but all are called to be chaste in the expression of their love.
How do we transform desire? (This is not about trying to make those with same sex lustful thoughts have opposite sex lustful thoughts, but about eliminating lustful thoughts for everyone.) How do we transform the soul that is a mixture of lust and love into pure love? The spiritual life of the Christian involves a certain dying to excessive or misdirected desire and a rising to new life – we look to the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross followed by His Resurrection as a pattern to follow. There are spiritual disciplines spoken of in Scripture and that have been found through the ages to be most helpful.
- Prayer and Fasting: The rationale for fasting from food in relation to sexual desire is this: We remove a bit of fire from the belly so that our (bodily involvement in) sexual desire is lessened, then, by grace, we can control it more easily with the rational aspect of our soul. Then when we return to full strength, we do so with a will strengthened by grace and a more lively prayer life.
- Guarding our senses: Jesus speaks about taking care in looking and in touching.
- Sight – If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…If we are struggling with chastity, take greater care in the kinds of images we see (never before have we been so confronted or had such availability to images!) and more importantly, and perhaps what should be given greater attention, is a careful scrutiny of the way we look with our eyes in our daily life at people or images, since they are all around us. When we see someone we find highly attractive, we remember the person is beautiful because God is beautiful and made the person so and God has a plan for that beauty and how it is to be enjoyed.
- Touch – Jesus also says, If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…again, just don’t touch if you are struggling with lust. [Mt 5:27-30] St Paul follows up on this in 1 Cor 7:1 (and in the context of the verses that follow). (In our Christian Classics Study Group we recently looked at Tolstoy’s short story of Fr Sergius, which includes an interesting reflection on this.)
- Prayer and self-reflection: For those who are married, Paul recommends mutually agreed upon times of sexual abstinence to pray – to learn about the conversion of love [1 Cor 7:5] – it is learning to take that same desire, that longing for satisfaction, and to direct it heavenwards. For those who are married or celibate, looking at your thoughts will help you see that the source of unchastity is not in the body but first in the thoughts of our hearts (Mark 7:20-23; Matt 15:19) – and so our prayers include a cry for the cleansing of the thoughts of our hearts. And we can give ourselves new and higher thoughts to dwell on.
Examples of chaste persons: It can be helpful to hold before our minds examples of chaste persons, whether single or married, for inspiration. For many, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the ultimate example of a pure heart.
- The circumstances of our lives: Monks are not allowed under Benedictine Rule to have a woman sleeping in the monastery overnight – not because the woman is a temptress, but because of the impurity of the monks minds that could be disturbed by lustful thoughts. So proximity has been recognized as one of the factors to consider – perhaps this is why single people often find more peace of heart living by themselves or not with those whom they would find sexually attractive, if they desire to be chaste.
As with an excessive attention to material possessions (greed), or to food and drink (gluttony), we are to restrain the expression of sexual desire not because it is bad, but because it has a particular end and purpose within the bigger picture of God’s plan for his Creation and our lives in it. Surely its physical expression cannot be separated completely from its procreative purposes (I’m not making an argument here against the use of contraception within marriage).
We are called to the temperate life because narrow is the gate, and difficult is the way, which leads to life, and there are few who find it. [Mt 7:14] We narrow the expression of our desire, we focus it, to walk the path that opens up into paradise, where pleasure can be our guide (Dante, Purg. Canto XXVII, 130-2). We come to a point where we only want what is right and then we can have whatever we want! (St John 16:22-24)
God would like to give us, the true riches, and to infill us with more love, with even more desire, when we are ready. But we need to rightly direct the desire we’re given now first. [James 4] What awaits us if we are faithful is a life of inner peace (even in the midst of suffering), of continual spiritual growth (growth in holiness), and growing love for God and the expression of love perfectly towards our neighbours.