Imagine Lust

A Lost Weapon in the Fight for Purity

A TV with no remotes. A theater with no exit. A dream with no waking. Such can the imagination seem in the midst of lustful temptation.

Many are familiar with the mumbled no, the shake of the head, the attempt to turn thoughts elsewhere. And perhaps just as many have felt the persistence of dark ideas, the return of images unwanted. We wandered into this theater of the imagination so easily, but now we can’t seem to find the way out.

How do we wake from this dream and break this imaginative spell? Many strategies may prove useful. Rehearse God’s promises, pray earnestly, sing a hymn. Or, less spiritual but still helpful, get outside, do push-ups, call a friend. Francis of Assisi once counseled a brother to throw himself into a freezing river, which he did. No doubt that would work.

Alongside these approaches, however, Scripture offers another. Instead of trying to shut down the imagination, engage it. Take this theater, which lust has so often wielded against you, and wield it now against lust.

Guard Your Mind

Perhaps no book teaches us how to wield the imagination against lust more than Proverbs does. Especially in the father’s words to his son in chapters 5–7, the book fills the theater of the mind with images designed to strip lust of its strength. Consider, for example, the father’s warning against the forbidden woman in Proverbs 7:25–27. He begins with a simple command:

Let not your heart turn aside to her ways;
     do not stray into her paths.

Here is well-worn wisdom for resisting lust, wisdom we have likely heard many times before (and probably can’t hear too often). As with so many sins, the battle against lust is often won or lost at the start. Once the heart has turned aside, once the feet have strayed, we bring them back only with great difficulty. The road to the forbidden woman’s house runs downhill in every direction — and every road back is an upward climb. Far easier, then, to turn and flee at the head of her street than over the threshold of her home.

“As with so many sins, the battle against lust is often won or lost at the start.”

So far, so good. But how do we turn away at these crucial moments, as the wisp of a thought begins to form? Again, many strategies may prove useful. But here, the father bids his son to do something counterintuitive, even seemingly dangerous: imagine lust. Don’t simply look away, but look even more intently, beyond the temptation, to see what really lives behind the door of dark desire.

Theater of Faith

After commanding his son not to stray in verse 25, the father fights image with image:

For many a victim has she laid low,
     and all her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
     going down to the chambers of death. (Proverbs 7:26–27)

The word for at the start tells us that what follows gives the reason, the great why, for stopping lust before the first step. And this why is not just a logical argument (though it is that too), but an image, a scene — a different story on imagination’s screen. Before, the son had seen the forbidden woman dressed scantily on the corner, her couch covered with linens, her bed perfumed — lust wearing makeup (Proverbs 7:12, 16–17). Now, he sees her black-robed and holding a sickle, her couch a sinkhole to hell, her bed an open coffin.

What is this father doing? Perhaps he remembers how, in the beginning, our first parents fell not merely by argument but by image: an image of a good tree, a wise self, and a withholding God (Genesis 3:4–6). Perhaps, closer to home, he remembers how the mighty David fell, in a moment, by a sight that remained on the surface, a figure that filled the mind (2 Samuel 11:2–3).

Either way, he knows the power of image, for both good and ill. He knows that, though imagination cannot substitute for faith, yet faith feeds on true images of God, self, and the world. Faithful imaginations remind faith what’s real — and what’s not.

Conceivably, the son in Proverbs 7 could have said no to the forbidden woman even if he failed to see the grave behind her door — just as Eve could have said no to the serpent even under the sway of his false images. The will may say no for the moment, even when the imagination is held captive. But long-term, those who say no on these conditions lose even if they win, for today’s corrupt imagination is tomorrow’s corrupt heart, corrupt will. Self-control cannot live long in a theater filled with lies. For as the imagination goes, so goes the man.

Come then, along with this father and son, and imagine.

Imagine Lust

There you are, sitting at your desk or lying in your bed, when a figure begins to call from the corner of your mind. An image flickers. A thought starts to take shape. But then you imagine: Who is this forbidden woman, this lady lust, this whisper in the dark?

Though her lips drip with honey and oil, she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a sword (Proverbs 5:3–4). The very opposite of medicine, she leads with pleasure and ends with pain; she pledges healing and slashes instead. Beyond her, you see her former “lovers”: retching, writhing, bleeding, dying.

She is a hidden snare, an invisible cord (Proverbs 5:22). Carried on by “just this once” and “just a little more,” her victims find their foot caught, their wrists wrapped. They promised themselves one visit to her home. Now they find they cannot leave.

She is a butcher and a hunter (Proverbs 7:22–23), the catcher of simple animals who see the meat and miss the hook. The man who follows her path walks as vulnerable as a stag seen from the other side of a bow. “He does not know that it will cost him his life” (Proverbs 7:23).

And then, as our passage puts it, she is death’s reaper, Sheol’s usher, mistress of the grave (Proverbs 7:26–27). With every stolen pleasure, she digs your grave deeper, carves another letter on your headstone, pounds another nail into your coffin.

Wormwood and sword, snare and cord, butcher and hunter, reaper and undertaker — here is the face of this seductive killer, the true face a wise father shows his son. Of course, a man may see lust as such and still fall into her arms. But he will have a harder time imagining himself lying down on a linen-covered couch: to get to her, he will have to climb into his grave.

Imagine Purity

God made the imagination for more than grim warnings, however. In temptation, faithful imaginations will not only look past the apparent beauty of lust; they also will look past the apparent homeliness of obedience. They will imagine purity.

The father sets the two imaginative tasks side by side:

Let your fountain be blessed,
     and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
     a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
     be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
     and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Proverbs 5:18–20)

“Self-control cannot live long in a theater filled with lies. For as the imagination goes, so goes the man.”

The antidote to sinful intoxication is not mere sobriety, but righteous intoxication. Fight imagination with imagination — and for those who are married, begin with your spouse. Imagine the beauty of your marriage bed. Remember “the wife of your youth,” whose lips drip with honey that never sours, whose hands hide no sword, whose face gets lovelier the longer you look with faithful eyes. And do this “at all times” and “always.” Keep the theater of your mind filled with an intimacy guarded by vows.

That said, not all — and not most — who battle lust are married. And what’s more, Proverbs holds out a more powerful purity even for those who are married.

Imagine Him

Alongside “the wife of your youth,” the father counsels his son, again and again, to imagine another figure — better than a spouse, more pleasurable than married love: wisdom and, beyond her, the God she gives us.

The path of God-fearing wisdom, even the path of celibate God-fearing wisdom, is “more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 3:15). She gives a smooth road, a fearless way, sweet sleep (Proverbs 3:23–24). Indeed, “her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). Whatever road of wisdom lies in front of you, however austere it may seem, you will find in the walking of it pleasantness and peace — pleasantness like Eden’s lawful fruit, peace like quiet streams in the land of the living.

Because all of wisdom’s paths lead us to the God who made them — more than that, the God who walked them himself, pure and happy and far better than anything forbidden. He is our glory and joy, our dignity and delight, the face meant to fill the theater of our mind. His fellowship is lust’s worst loss, purity’s greatest prize. He is Jesus.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Imagine that. Imagine him.