“Do not imagine that you will overwhelm the demon of fornication by entering into an argument with him. Nature is on his side and he has the best of the argument. So the man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing. Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature. Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity.”
-St. John Climacus
Are You Ready to Admit That You Can’t Conquer Lust on Your Own?
Lust is that vehement desire for inordinate pleasures of the flesh. This sin threatens to hit us all where we live, since we all obtain life through the act of sexual union, and our powerful, species-preserving impulses toward sexual behaviors are under nearly constant assault from temptations to sins of lust in thoughts, desires, words, and deeds. To combat this powerful sin of the flesh will require far more than ordinary weapons. As St John Climacus makes clear, we will have no chance of winning this battle if we plan to rely on our own strength. Rather, the first step we must take and never step away from is to admit that we cannot do it alone and to ask God to strengthen us with supernatural, spiritual weaponry.
Examining the Conscience for Corrupted Concupiscence
The most obvious, direct, and pernicious enticements to lust, such as those of Internet pornography, have grown exponentially in recent years, and many men (and women), even those with informed consciences who know the dangers, struggle against their lustful addictions. Perhaps the most deadly consequence of lust in our modern world is the mind-boggling number of abortions performed in this nation today. Sex itself has become a god like Moloch, with innocent babes plucked from their mothers’ wombs for sacrifice upon its altar.
Still, even for those who would never consider seeking out pornographic materials or supporting abortion, our modern popular entertainment culture and media still surround us at every turn and threaten to engulf us in body and soul with blatant incitements to lust. They have become so highly sexualized for profit that our consciences may become numb, leaving us insensitive to the extent that we have become entangled within the countless tentacles of this deadly vice. We need to wake ourselves up and root out the lustful habits that may lurk within our souls with questions such as these:
- Do I thoughtlessly read modern books or watch modern movies that glamorize and glorify sinful sexual behaviors or listen to popular songs that promote illicit sexuality and besmirch the potential beauty and goodness of human sexuality?
- If so, do I tell myself that I ignore those bad parts and am not influenced by them? (That is not likely true, and even if it is, if I have paid money for such products, have I considered how I have helped the producers create more of such products potentially leading countless others toward sin?)
- Are there other ways that I put myself in the path of lustful thoughts and behaviors by the media I consume, the products I purchase, or the places I go?
- When I find myself entertaining lustful thoughts triggered by a person or an image I see or by a memory, do I enjoy and embellish the thought, or do I seek to dismiss it? Have I trained myself to see how such thoughts damage and dishonor the dignity of my state in life, whether single, married, widowed, or in the religious life?
- As for the precursors of lust, have I failed to fight the battles for self-control against gluttony or drunkenness that may fuel my tendencies toward lust?
- As for lust’s eight daughters, have I searched my conscience for instances of blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, selflove, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence of a future world? Even if I haven’t committed fornication, adultery, or other blatant sexual sins, have I done so in my heart? Have I dishonored my spouse by giving excessive attention to others of the opposite sex? Have I dishonored my single or religious state by similar thoughts, if not deeds? Have I rationalized sexual sins, substituted my own judgment for God’s? Have I thanked God for human sexuality, and shown gratitude and love for him by seeking to purify my thoughts?
Sacramental Healing of Body and Soul
Having examined our conscience for potential sins of lustful thoughts, desires, words, and deeds, it is time to seek out the sacrament of Reconciliation. God’s grace can forgive all manner of sexual sins if our repentance is genuine. We should remember that sins of lust can be very embarrassing and shameful because in them we allow ourselves to operate at the animal level, guided by the pleasures of sensation, rather than the restraint of our human reason. This is no reason not to confess them, however. Through confessing these sins, we acknowledge our weakness and ask for God’s strength. We should not worry much about shocking our priestly confessor either, for the priest is also a man, and throughout the history of the Church countless sinners have struggled with sexual sins and laid their hearts bare to Christ’s ministers. In fact, in addition to absolution, we are likely to receive wise counsel in dealing with the particular desires or deeds of lust that are weighing on our soul.
Other sacraments can help us battle lust as well. We need to recall that through Baptism we have become members of the Body of Christ, and our bodies have become temples of the Holy Spirit, temples we must honor. Through Confirmation we have been made strong to fight the good fight against all manner of vices. If we are married, we need to recall and employ the grace that God has given us through the sacrament of Matrimony to employ our sexuality as befits our marital state, in loving self-giving to our spouse with openness to new life. Those who have received Holy Orders need to recall that special graces that God will give them to prevail in a celibate state, both in exterior acts and in interior thoughts.
How to Keep Lust from Doing the Quickstep
As we have analyzed the various steps through which the first inklings of a temptation toward sin may mature into full-blown sin itself, we have tended to emphasize that stage after the first initial reaction, the stage we have called reflection (most akin to Climacus’s stage of coupling), in which we debate within our souls whether we will yield to the temptation and produce the response of sin. So powerful and quick-acting are the sensory stimuli (sights, sounds, smells) that lead to thoughts of lust that we might say that they do the quickstep, although theirs is a deadly dance.
St. John Climacus tells us clearly that we are not going to overwhelm “the demon of fornication,” by challenging him in an argument. Our reason alone is too limited. How many otherwise great wise men and women have been brought low through succumbing to the stirrings of lust without calling upon the grace of God? So, perhaps having just emerged from the sacrament of Confession, or having completed our prayers or devotional reading, we must not be overconfident that we will have the wherewithal to conquer the stirrings of lust the next time they knock on the door of our concupiscence. We need to trust in God, rather than in our rational powers alone.
So then, when we are first aware of the initial stirrings of lust, we had better immediately seek God’s help, perhaps by a prayer that is very swift and powerful, such as the ancient Jesus Prayer that the Desert Fathers were so fond of: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Hereby, we immediately call out for Christ’s help to cast out the demon of fornication, even though the demon might lie within our own concupiscence. Christ can cast out all demons and sins, regardless of their nature or origin.
But before the initial reaction, we would do well to remove ourselves, as much as is possible, even from those initial stirrings, by avoiding the near occasions of sins of lust, wherever they may lurk in our lives. Are there activities or places we would be wise to avoid altogether in order to withdraw ourselves from lust’s battlefield?
Prayer for Peace between Body and Soul
So great is our need for grace beyond nature in conquering lust that we have already touched just a bit upon prayer in our earlier battle-plan sections. The prayer that Christ gave us is also a powerful weapon against lust and her lusty daughters Christ bids us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Because of lust’s powerful “quickstep” action, this petition is especially relevant to temptations toward lust. When we ask God to help us stay clear of temptations, we must be mindful of what we ask and willing to do our part to walk our prayer talk, to line up the actions of our feet with those of our lips and literally to walk away from evils that will tempt us.
Temperance Tames Lust
Temperance is the cardinal virtue that controls our desires for concupiscible pleasures, and chastity is its specific allied virtue that takes on the battles of lust. The very mention of chastity may call to the minds of some an age-old weapon in the war against lust, that of “chastity of the eyes.” This idea again gets at lust’s swift movements within the soul and seeks to nip them in the bud. We are all called to the chastity consistent with our state in life, whether we are married or not, and by practicing chastity of the eyes we will help God help “deliver us from evil.”
First, we must train ourselves not to seek out images that will entice us to lust, be they virtual images on the computer screen, on the television, or on the movie screen, or real-live images on the beach, at the gym, walking down the street, or indeed, even in church.
Second, when we do encounter the image of a beautiful body, whether or not the person’s clothing is inappropriate for the setting, we need to recall that that person’s body is indeed the body of a person. Saint Thomas himself advised that “the most effective remedy against intemperance is not to dwell on the consideration of singulars.” No God-fearing person wants to be intemperate, unchaste, or lustful in general, but is drawn down that path by particular, individual lures to pleasure.
St Thomas would suggest that we focus on the opposite of those “singulars,” namely, “universals.” For instance, a man, instead of turning his eyes and imagination on this or that particular woman, can try focusing on “woman.” Instead of lusting after a particular woman, he can try focusing on her identity as a daughter or a sister, and perhaps as someone else’s current or future wife or mother. Instead of emulating the Don Juan-like “lover” who lusts after women but does not really love them at all, he can emulate the man who shows true love for women by honoring and respecting them.
Spouses blessed with the sacrament of marriage can treat each other with special loving attention as singulars.
Passionate Pursuit of Pure Pleasure
St Thomas was especially adept at practicing temperance because of his focus on the very highest of universals, the divine things of God Spiritual sloth, as we saw earlier, paves the way for lust and intemperance because “those who find no joy in spiritual things have recourse to pleasures of the body.” To curb lust then, let us focus most on the highest things of God, from which love, not lust, will flow Spiritual pleasures then are the “pure” pleasures of which we speak. When we are pure of heart we are in the best position to see God. When we strive to see God and to guide our lives by His light, we are in the best position to keep our hearts and bodies pure.
Christ Embodies Love over Lust
“‘Woman, behold, your son! Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” (John 19:26–27) These are last words of Christ that Archbishop Fulton Sheen said served as reparation for the world’s sins of lust In His death on the Cross, “in reparation for all the sins of the flesh, He is almost disposed of His flesh, for according to Sacred Scripture the very bones of his body could be numbered.” Christ, who had no sin, gave up all worldly attachments, including His own mother and His own flesh, for our sake.
Christ was made incarnate through the Virgin Mary and received no taint of Original Sin. Blessed Mary herself was graced by God with an immaculate conception and bore no stain of original or acquired sin, and yet both willingly suffered greatly from and for the sins of others. Neither of them sinned with lust, although their hearts went out to those who suffered from the vice of lust Christ dined with prostitutes and forgave the adulteress, although he bid them to forgo their sinful ways in order to follow him who is the true way. Unlike the others, including Judas Iscariot, He did not chide the sinful woman Mary of Bethany, who anointed his feet with her precious perfume Instead He said she had done a beautiful thing, and He blessed and praised her (cf John 12:1–8).
When we are tempted by those first stirrings of lust, we must admit our weakness and call out to God for help, and let us specifically call out as well for the help of His Son and for His Holy Mother. They will help us conquer lust, and if we should turn from their help and be conquered instead, they will ever stand ready to return us to our feet, dust us off, and re-arm us with temperance and chastity to reenter the fray.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Vost’s The Seven Deadly Sins, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.