Lust is and isn’t

The discussion around Modesty is an interesting test case for our understanding of 1) rules/laws/guidelines/grace and 2) sexuality; and it has been formative, and reflective, of my own personal relationships to those things (and, you know, people and God). I’ve also been a little disturbed by the arguments of some people whose conclusions I agree with, and challenged by some of those I disagree with.

I offered my impressionistic/narrative/personal take last week. Purely in the interest of collecting my own thoughts, I’ll be working through some more systematic ideas in a four-part series now, using the Modesty issue to frame some other stuff about rules, grace, sexuality, and community. You can start at the beginning here.

Lust is a weird thing because no specific “instance” of lust actually causes harm to anyone else. Most of the world sees those thoughts and fantasies as harmless little self-indulgences, because no one has to know about them. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that those thought patterns do affect other people. Objectifying people in your mind changes your relationships with them, even when you think it doesn’t.

It’s also, of course, a weird thing because sexual desire is something you can’t necessarily control, and Christians for 2000 years have done a terrible job of distinguishing between attraction and lust. In making this distinction, I would relate lust to covetousness. It’s not a bad thing to look at Skipper’s boat, admire Skipper’s boat, and momentarily wish that you, too, had a boat. It is a bad thing to dislike Skipper for having a boat, to indulge thoughts of taking or sinking Skipper’s boat, and it’s a bad thing to make friends with Skipper for the sole purpose of borrowing his boat. Lust, like covetousness, has an element of violence to it, of taking something that isn’t mine – in this case, by using a person or his body, taking him for granted as a thing that exists for my pleasure, rather than regarding him as a whole person (body+soul), recognizing him as a gift, and being thankful for whatever he chooses to share with me.

Some people are trying not to “lust” because they want to check off the Advanced Level Holiness List, and some of those people think everyone should be trying to help each other do the same. This is how the Modesty Rules were presented to me as a teenager: “When you wear spaghetti straps you are un-holifying your brother.” Basically, these dudes would have gotten their check marks for the day if I hadn’t violently ripped them away by having shoulders in their vicinity.

At its best, that attitude ingrained a terribly damaging failure to distinguish between attraction/desire and lust. It teaches our youngest Christian men and women that their embodied relationships with each other are inherently dangerous, unpredictable, and adversarial.

At its worst, it pridefully assumes that my lust primarily affects me, that the real crime here is my lust making me feel distracted or helpless or dirty or a failure. I think this is where the issue becomes really, really inescapably gendered. When the average man talks about “lust” in relation to himself, he tends to talk about uninvited thoughts when he’s spending time with a female, or about fantasies he knows he shouldn’t indulge. It is easy for him to feel like a victim in some sort of struggle he needs “help” with, and then wonder why it’s such a big deal for others to give him that.

When the average woman thinks of lust, she’s reminded of hundreds of catcalls, looks up-and-down, and uninvited comments; several unwanted touches; and the sections of town she can’t walk in because she’s been followed by men in cars. If she’s very, very lucky, this is all she has to remember when the subject of violent sexual objectification comes up.

Women know – in a way that most men can’t – that once we distinguish attraction from lust, there is no such thing as “harmless” lust

My lust – my failure to see and love a person as fully human – is not simply a mark on the naughty list, not just a wound to myself. My lust primarily affects all the people around me. It treats them as sexual objects rather than human agents and thereby strips them of their power to determine what happens to them and their bodies. And that is what makes so many people so terribly angry about this. It is not just silly but also arrogant and uncompassionate to “ask” someone for their “help” not getting disempowered, used, and stolen from.

But, damaging as lust is (despite our culture’s insistence that it’s no big deal), I think all the emphasis on not lusting has misdirected a lot of energy. Let’s stop asking ourselves how to not lust; you can’t really “not lust” in the same way you can not commit adultery. Whether or not you objectify the attractive person you see on the sidewalk at any given moment isn’t really a decision you make. Instead, it’s about what kind of person you’ve chosen to become – your habits of mind and the way you choose to approach every human being you see. And that, Jesus explains, is the true fulfillment of the law.

Sexual holiness is not just a matter of lust management. Let’s start asking how to approach our relationships, including our sexual attraction, as humble and loving people.

I’ll be fleshing that out (haha) tomorrow.
Part 1: Modesty on the Mount
Part 2: Lust is and isn’t
Part 3: Sex in community
Part 4: Building up

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4 Comments

  1. Jacqueline in Atlanta

     /  July 9, 2013

    And that is part of why it is so hard to define Art. What is a beautiful painting or sculpture to one person is a temptation to another. Does that mean a “Christian” gallery would have no nudes? (probably, if it were owned by a _____ fill in the denomination of your choice, here)

    Two people view “David”, the sculpture. One is spellbound by the masterpiece. The other only sees the . . . grape leaf. Is that the fault of the sculptor or is there a difference in the viewers?

    I believe that is why Paul told us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The glass of wine that delights one mocks another. And on and on it goes, not just sex, but all of life which can be gifts from God or tools in the hands of the Tormentor.

    Do I wake up every morning and seek the Mind of Christ? If I do, I will delight in every circumstance and see people through his eyes.

    Reply
  2. Rusty

     /  July 9, 2013

    “Whether or not you objectify the attractive person you see on the sidewalk at any given moment isn’t really a decision you make. Instead, it’s about what kind of person you’ve chosen to become – your habits of mind and the way you choose to approach every human being you see.” This isn’t entirely true. I have never forgotten what one of my theology professors told me. He said that we have thoughts of evil and evil thoughts. The former is uninvited–as lust often can be–and we can choose to dismiss it and redirect our attention. Evil thoughts come either when we dwell upon those thoughts of evil or premeditatively desire to think in ways that are harmful.

    And what about lust within a marriage, for example? Is that wrong? Isn’t that simply each person exploring one’s sexuality? A healthy sex life is usually part of a happy marriage, and lust is often a part of that. Here, each partner is not using lust to objectify but to enhance the happiness of the relationship. Paul told the Corinthians marrying was good because it helped one direct sexual passions in a positive way, which reduced the desire to lust after another.

    I believe part of the difficulty with lust is understanding the word itself. Merriam-Webster.com defines lust as “intense or unbridled sexual desire” but also defines it as lasciviousness. And the Merriam-Webster Learners’ Dictionary, which is intended for people learning English as a second language, defines lasciviousness as “disapproving: filled with or showing sexual desire.” But lust also means “an intense longing” or “enthusiasm.” It is a word usually used in the negative sense only rather than in the positive.

    Reply
    • Rusty, I love your point about thoughts of evil vs. evil thoughts. It’s a similar (but not identical) distinction to that I want to make here. Some of us need to make a clear distinction between desire or attraction (a good thing in a relationship or especially a marriage) and lust (objectification), because we’ve gotten a really murky definition of this “lust” thing Jesus is so dead-set against. Because I really don’t believe Jesus meant for us to stop noticing attractive people or to turn off our sexuality.
      It might be easier for me than for more sexually/visually-driven people to make that distinction between attraction or desire and lust; but that’s one reason I’d rather focus on having whole, healthy, loving relationship to our sexuality and to others. So we don’t have to go around lust-policing ourselves and beating ourselves up about things.

      Incidentally, after I posted this and before I saw your comment, I was thinking about the possibility of lust within a marriage. We don’t often talk about the fact that you can objectify or use your husband/wife sexually; but it seems more likely that someone who has failed to distinguish between attraction and objectification *before* marriage will mistake objectification of their spouse for a good, healthy sexual relationship.

      Reply
  3. “It’s not a bad thing to look at Skipper’s boat, admire Skipper’s boat, and momentarily wish that you, too, had a boat. It is a bad thing to dislike Skipper for having a boat, to indulge thoughts of taking or sinking Skipper’s boat, and it’s a bad thing to make friends with Skipper for the sole purpose of borrowing his boat.” I think that’s a helpful illustration.

    Reply

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