Not all sexual desire is lust. God made sexual desire. It has its good place. In fact, it can become an act of worship in the temple of marriage. But lust is a sexual desire gone wrong. Here is my definition:
Lust is a sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God, disregards the promises and the warnings of having or losing the beauties of Christ.
The lusted after woman or man in your head or on the screen or on the street is dishonored — not treated as a sacred, precious, eternal person in the image of God, whose eternal destiny is always paramount, and whose holiness we either long for or ignore. Then the only way that kind of dishonor can daringly be carried out and hold sway is by disregarding God while we are in the sway of lust.
‘You Are Not Addicted’
Ponder with me for a few minutes the natural and the spiritual role of self-control in relation to lust. Addiction, I think, is a relative term. I would stake my life on the guess that in this room no one is absolutely addicted to pornography or any sexual sin. None of you is. What I mean by this is: if the stakes are high enough and sure enough, you will have all the self-control you need to conquer any sexual temptation.
For example, tonight, if you are feeling totally in the sway of a sexual desire — more blazing, more powerful than you have ever felt it in your life — and you believe you cannot resist the temptation to look at some nudity online, and suddenly a black-hooded ISIS member dragged your best friend or your spouse into the room with a knife at his or her throat and says, “If you look at that website I will slit this throat,” you will have self-control. You are not addicted. You won’t click.
Or if a man walks into the room and says, “If you look at that nudity, I will not give you the million dollars that I have in this bag, cash, tax-free. But if you do not look at that nudity, I will give you a satchel with one million dollars in cash,” you will have total self-control. The fact is 99 percent of those who give way to lust in pornography or fornication or adultery are not decisively controlled by their sexual desire; they are decisively controlled by what they believe: what they believe will happen if they act on the lust or don’t. That is what controls them: what they believe, not the sexual desire. That is the excuse.
The decisive issue is whether they believe the stakes are high enough and sure enough: If they are sure the friend will die a gruesome death, they will have self-control. If they are sure enough that the money in there is real and it is really tax-free and it isn’t stolen goods, they will have self-control.
Now nothing I have said so far is distinctly Christian. That is just the way human beings are wired. Self-control was a stoic virtue before it was a Christian fruit. And there is nothing distinctly Christian about self-control. And yet Paul lists it as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). The Spirit produces self-control in the believer so that the action of the self-controlling No is brought about by the Spirit. Control your lusts — for the Spirit is controlling them through you. Isn’t that the paraphrase of Philippians 2:12 applied to the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Exert self-control, because the Spirit is awakening, creating, self-controlling you.
The blood of Christ, the blood of the new covenant, secures for us Christians the working of the Holy Spirit. That is the meaning of the new covenant: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). He died to make that happen. That is the new covenant. This is the blood of the covenant. He works, and we act. His working appears in our acting. He creates the miracle; we act the miracle of self-control.
But the Holy Spirit doesn’t produce the same thing the Stoics did, even though egkrateia in Greek, or self-control in English, is the same word used by Stoics then and now. The Holy Spirit doesn’t create that. We don’t hire God to produce the same things the world can produce. What good would that be? The Stoics did not depend on Christ and they did not live for the glory of Christ. But the Holy Spirit is given because Christ died to purchase him for us, and he is given to glorify the Son in us (John 14:6). The blood of Christ was the price of our self-control, and the beauty of Christ is the mission of the Spirit in us. The blood of Christ purchases the presence of the Christ exalting Spirit, and the Spirit is there to exalt Christ in all that we do, including self-control.
From Bondage to Purity
Therefore, the way the Spirit produces self-control that is different from the world’s self-control is that the Holy Spirit produces self-control in the believer by revealing the beauties of Christ to our souls as supremely beautiful, supremely satisfying. He removes the hardness of heart and the blindness of the soul, so that it can see and savor the beauties of Christ for what they really are.
And what he shows us through the word of Christ is that the all-satisfying beauties of Christ can be lost forever in the bondage of lust, or they can be enjoyed forever in the purity of heart. That is what he shows us. That is how he works the miracle in us. He shows us that the day is coming and now is when we will enjoy Christ with the fullness of joy that outweighs every possible pleasure of lust.
Which brings us back now to ISIS and the million dollars. He is about to slit the throat of your best friend or about to give you a million dollars. And the Holy Spirit, in this analogy shows us that the stakes are much higher than that. That is what he reveals to us: that the stakes, as we face the temptation of lust are higher. The beauties of Christ, he reveals, can be lost forever in the bondage of lust, or enjoyed forever in the purity of heart. Which means that the Holy Spirit, by the word of Christ, reveals this:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)
That is the final ISIS slit — but way worse. And the Holy Spirit brings to your mind: You can lose everything of Christ in the bondage of lust. And the Holy Spirit reveals to us the other word of Christ:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
That’s a reward forever and infinitely superior to a measly million dollars for which every one of you would have self-control. It is just what we believe. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. He creates the miracle; we act the miracle. He creates it by opening our eyes to see the beauties of Christ: that they can be lost forever in bondage to lust, or they can be enjoyed forever in the purity of heart.