by Dr. Dan Allender
church pianist arched her back and stretched her arms in preparation for
the opening hymn. The man in front of me didn't miss one movement. His
wife, painfully aware of the object of his gaze, jabbed him in the side;
he shot back angrily, "I wasn't looking at anything." His remark
seemed well-rehearsed, perhaps from countless other occasions of being
caught stealing looks at attractive women. The couple's hurt and anger
betrayed the endless cycle of accusation, defense, guilt, effort,
helplessness, and failure so often associated with struggles of lust.
is a battle for us all. Christians--both men and women--have struggled
with it for generations. Many have measured their or others' spirituality
on the basis of their freedom from lust. Yet for all the interest focused
on lust it would seem that we ought to be far more clear about the problem
and its solution. What exactly is lust, why is it so hard to change, and
how can we deal with its power to shape our lives?
The Color of Lust
most people have come
to equate lust with sexual desire. In many cases in Scripture, lust does
refer to illicit sexual desire (1 Pet. 4:3). Consequently, if we are not
struggling with illicit sexual thoughts or behavior, we assume we are free
from lust. Nothing could be further from the truth.
the word in the New
Testament that is translated "lust" means strong desire. The
word can be used to describe a legitimate, godly desire. Jesus said to His
disciples: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you
before I suffer" (Lk. 22:15). Elsewhere Paul said he strongly desired
to depart this life to be with the Lord (Phil. 1:23), and yet he also
strongly desired to be with his friends (1 Thess. 2:17). Strong,
passionate, eager desire-- or lust-- is not inconsistent with God's
purpose for our lives.
on the other hand we
know from the Bible and from experience that strong desire, or lust, can
be immoral and destructive. I spoke to a thirty-five-year-old man,
"Craig," who had fought an obsession with pornography since he
was eight years old. He was alternately victorious and then overwhelmed by
his lustful desires. His occasional lapses endangered his ministry and
threatened his relationship with his family.
but this man's battle
with lust was not confined solely to sexual pictures and mental images. In
fact, his lust manifested itself in workaholism, extreme absorption in
hobbies and reading, and an obsessive desire to please others. To focus
too narrowly on his sexual lust would have caused us to lose the bigger
picture of his battle with addictive desires.
struggling with the desire to have a fifth child. Every time she saw a
newborn baby, she ruminated and obsessed about how to convince her
husband. She lusted after being pregnant. Her battle was not sexual, but I
would suggest she had just as great a problem with lust as the man who
struggled with pornography.
When Desire Goes Awry
when does lust become
destructive? Destructive lust is any consuming desire that is either out
of bounds or out of balance.
an out-of-bounds lust
is a desire for any person or object or idea that is inconsistent with
God's expressed desire for our life. To feel sexual desire for our spouse
is appropriate; to covet our neighbor's wife is an illegitimate desire.
an out-of-balance lust
is any legitimate desire that blocks our ability to serve God and others.
For example, a student who is so consumed by getting good grades (a
legitimate desire) that he is unable to spend time pursuing God is
consumed by an out-of-balance lust. Likewise, a neighbor who can't say no
to her friend's desire to go to a movie is equally imbalanced in her lust
defined in this way, no
one is free from the battle with lust. Why do we battle so often with its
forces? And why do those battles yield so little fruit and victory? In
other words, why is lust so hard to change?
The Power of Lust
the answer to those
questions requires a more thoughtful analysis of the design and function
of lust. God made us with desire--desire for intimate relationship with
Him and for meaningful service in His world. The Fall perverted those
desires. The quest for intimacy was replaced by a desire for its quickest
counterfeit: illicit sexual pleasure. Our God-given desire for meaningful
service was twisted to a lust for power over others. The longing for
impact became a lust for control.
appeal to us because they seek to replace God and His high standards with
something that is familiar and undemanding. Paul says fallen man did not
worship God but replaced Him with the creature (Ro. 1:18-23). The creature
does not require repentance or gratitude. The creature does not demand
brokenness or service. Creature worship only requires denying the true
emptiness inside and hiding the shame that arises in turning our back on
God and others.
why is that form of
lust so difficult to overcome? Because it is the best alternative to
satisfying our empty hearts without dependently bowing our knee before
God. Changing it not only requires giving up something that has worked, to
some degree, to fill our empty hearts, but it also necessitates embracing
a God who invites us to experience what we deeply despise--brokenness,
poverty, weakness, and dependency. In the face of a walk through the
valley of the shadow of death, an addiction to pornography, a fifth child,
or saying no to a friend seems like a lark in the park.
even if the lust is
destructive and life-threatening it may be preferable to a God who calls
us to love those who harm us and serve those who in fact are below us.
True worship is too costly; creature worship is--at first, at least--less
Two Faulty Strategies
what is required to
deal with our battle with lust? Let me first take a look at two
contemporary Christian routes for dealing with lust that at times make the
problem worse. These two routes--self-denial and self-enhancement-- offer
some help, but often lead to even greater struggles with lust and
addiction. Craig eventually followed both of these paths.
as a new Christian,
Craig viewed the struggle with lust as an overwhelming desire for sexual
pleasure or relief. He saw the real enemy as sexual thoughts and feelings
and the cure as merely choosing the right procedure for conquering his
lust. The victory came when he felt sufficiently guilty over the thoughts,
avoided the opportunities for lust, and chose to discipline his wandering
sadly, the fruit of
this view is often self-hatred, shame, and contempt--which lead to
increased sexual struggles. After decades of failure many with this view
either conclude they are oppressed by demons or doubt their salvation.
another approach to
lust is found in an adaptation of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step
recovery process. This approach sees lust as a symptom of deeper hurt. The
cure is to admit that everyone is addicted. Once denial is removed then
the shame of feeling deficient can be eliminated and the real roots of the
problem--loneliness, insecurity, and past trauma--can be healed and the
while the first
approach to dealing with lust often encourages self-hatred and denial, the
second approach may increase self-absorption. When Craig adopted this
approach he gained more control of his sexual lusts. But he then struggled
with new, equally strong addictions. He became a groupaholic, attending
several recovery-type groups per week.
he was also a
selfaholic. He became absorbed with making sure no one violated his
personal desires. He began sharing his feelings whenever he wanted to, no
matter how inappropriate it was. He lost a great deal of sensitivity and
care for others.
craig acknowledged that
he had turned from a man who lacked a self to one who put self above
others and ultimately above the God who called him to serve.
Unfortunately, he never looked at the deeper structure of sin involved in
his lust. In part his efforts to control his lust were God-honoring; on
the other hand he never faced the fact that his lust was far more than
merely a struggle with sexual thoughts.
Why Discipline Isn't Enough
lust is a failure to
exercise the will toward righteousness. People who battle any form of lust
must work at strengthening their wills. But it is never enough merely to
address one's lack of discipline. It is crucial to view lust as a product
of hatred: hatred of our loneliness and our circumstances and hatred of
the God who requires us to love in spite of our pain. Lustful addictions
are the vehicle to flee from the ache and use our helplessness as an
excuse not to love others and God.
what is required for
destructive lust to be transformed into passionate, lively, and loving
desire for God and others? I don't believe there are pat answers or even
easily-articulated steps that relieve our battle with the flesh. The
ultimate cure is Heaven; until then, all change and certainly all steps
are mere approximations of what is involved in knowing God and being
transformed by His presence. Yet I can offer a few tentative thoughts to
help begin the process of change.
1. Face the problem. Addictive lust feeds on
the darkness of denial. "I'm not an alcoholic. I just drink to sooth
my nerves--or to feel more relaxed." "I may masturbate a lot,
but doesn't everyone at one time or another?" "I know I work too
late, but it's only until I get more settled in my job." Deception is
the ally of lust in that it allows us to serve both mammon and God and
make it look as if all is well.
for example, Diana
viewed her desire for a fifth child as natural and reasonable. Beneath the
surface, however, her motives were less than pure. Another baby would keep
her from facing the eventual loss of her youthfulness and worth as the
mother of young children. And as a busy mother, she would not need to face
the growing distance in her relationship with her husband. Her rage at his
unwillingness to have another child masked the loneliness she felt in
their marriage. Every lustful obsession serves the desire to be satisfied
apart from God. If change is to occur, denial must be lifted and the ugly
parts of our soul exposed.
2. Wrestle with your heart as well as your
without question, lust
will not be changed without a willingness to discipline the will. I must
be willing to fight, scratch, and claw toward holiness (1 Pet. 4:1-3). If
I can't say no to the temptation to eat, then I ought to avoid situations
where my lust will be given room to flourish. I must make the right
but choice is not
enough. More is required than merely the effort to avoid lust and focus on
godly desire. We must repent of the deeper issues that are feeding our
lust. But one cannot deeply repent of what is unknown. We need to pray
that God will reveal the secret things of our hearts (Psalm 139). Some of
the subtle categories of the heart to be considered when dealing with a
tenacious lust problem are these:
What is the context for my struggles with
lust? Many find that lust is more severe after a stressful event, such as
a failure or success. It is very important to keep a journal that records
the experience of lust, the context, and the battle to deal with both the
heart and obedience.
What significant current or past wounds am I
ignoring in my struggles with lust? Many times a lust problem is easier to
bear than a deep wound that seems impossible to erase. For example, Craig
found that he often gave in to sexual fantasies after phone conversations
with his critical and demeaning father. His sexual addiction masked the
lonely wounds and anger related to his parent.
What do I feel unable to do or be because of
my struggle with lust? Sadly, a struggle with lust may subtly serve as an
excuse for choices that may seem more frightening. Craig refused to honor
his father by talking about their relationship. He quietly endured his
father's reproach rather than praying and agonizing over what God might
have him do to deepen his love for his father.
repentance in the
ongoing process of sanctification is not a once-for-all event. As we face
our denial and repent of our rebellion against God, then we will find
greater insight and increased sorrow over sin.
3. Learn to love. Honesty and repentance are
crucial to change. The ultimate antidote to lust, however, is love. It is
very, very difficult to destructively lust after someone you love. It is
very hard to lust after something that does damage to someone you love.
Lust is a consuming and absorbing possession of someone in order to dull
our own pain rather than a delighting in and enhancing of another.
an engaged couple may
look at one another with enormous passion and keen anticipation of their
merger as one flesh, but if love prevails, then they would refuse to do
anything that would mar their individual or corporate beauty. In the same
way, a man and woman who work together may enjoy one another's physical or
personal beauty, but if love prevails, then each will long to increase one
another's beauty rather than stain it by the violation of destructive
it is tragic that many
men attempt to deal with lust by avoiding rich, intimate, and honorable
relationships with women. They believe that distance insures safety; in
fact, reserve only seems to increase private fantasies. The only real
safety net is love.
in Phil. 4:8 Paul tells
us to meditate on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, and lovely.
Somehow being caught up in that which is lovely is incompatible with the
ugliness of destructive lust. Ultimately, the fairest and most lovely of
all meditations is Jesus Christ.
paul says that
deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the
light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of
lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is
captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of
freedom from God's wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to
live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will
have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of
behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire
to love (Lk. 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our
desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and
privilege to encounter.
Lusting for Godliness
unfortunately, we will
battle with lust for the remainder of our lives. But with hearts redeemed
by the gospel, we will be freer to turn toward the path of beauty rather
than pursue the track of hatred.
the passion of the
gospel will eventually overrule and defeat the destructive lust of
consumption. The pursuit of holiness will become far more than a desire to
do right but a desire, or a "lust", for the character and beauty
of God. In that sense, the gospel frees us to lust after what our hearts
are made for, godliness, rather than after that which leads to decay,
death, and despair. Godly lust leads to life. In that sense, go and lust
DAN ALLENDER, Ph. D., is a member of the
Advisory Board of HARVEST USA. He teaches in the Counseling department at
Western Seminary. He is the author of The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult
Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (NavPress, 1990) and coauthor, with Dr.
Larry Crabb, of Encouragement: The Key to Caring (Zondervan, 1986).
Feel free to contact
Harvest USA for any reason at [email protected]