How to Battle Lust
Some people think men are the issue here; that is, men struggle with this. I have had enough women approach me in their candor and talk about the issue that I don’t make that assumption anymore. What did we read? Plenty of internet pornography is viewed by women. Maybe it’s more out of curiosity, instead of men’s kind of looking, but maybe not — maybe not.
Women’s imaginations are different than men’s imaginations. Harlequin romance novels are not the same as Playboy, but they function the same. It’s just more relational, more contextual, more holistic. Women’s lusts are not as visceral and immediate and visual, but relational and situational and dream- and hope-oriented. We’re pretty different folks. But sin and this lusting thing can defeat both kinds of human being.
Here’s my definition of lust: pursuing illicit thoughts or images in the mind with a view to stimulating sexual pleasures, with or without external stimuli. You don’t have to see or touch or be around anything. Or you can be looking at a person or the Internet or whatever. So that’s my definition of lust. And the question is: How do you kill that? Because it’s illicit; it’s wrong. How do you kill lust? And the answer is: living by faith in future grace.
So let’s get specific here and analyze this a little bit. Lust grows out of suppressing the knowledge of God and his promises. Most people in the world don’t have a clue that that’s the case. And some Christians don’t believe that that’s the case. But look at these texts.
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires [or lusts of deceit]
What does that mean —lusts of deceit? It means you are believing a lie when you lust. It means you’re being deceived as you lust. And deceit always implies the departure from truth, some truth. What would that be? First Peter 1:14:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions [lusts] of your former ignorance.
Peter seems to be tracing my vulnerability to former lusts to ignorance of something. It says to me as a pastor: I need to rectify that. I need to constantly be rectifying this deceit and this ignorance because they really matter. Lust feels very much different from ideas in the head. It feels very much like convictions of the soul, but it is not out of touch with these.
My concern is not merely to provide some little short-term way to stop that, but rather to build a substructure of life into your mind and heart in relationship to what can be known about God and Christ and heaven and hell. The whole substructure is like a rising tide in a harbor where all the boats are down in the mud of lust, and instead of trying to get the cranes of tactics in there — lift that one out of the lust, lift that one out of the lust — the whole tide goes up, and all the boats float out the mud.
That’s the way I want to preach and teach and live. I want to create such an awareness of a deep knowledge of an allegiance to the superior pleasures of God in Christ, over against the dangers of hellish lust, that men and women find their boats floating free, and don’t as often need to use the crane of technique, just kind of a growing, abiding victory.
First Thessalonians 4:4–5 connects it with God.
Each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.
What’s he saying? He’s saying that if you yield to a life driven by lustful passion, you act like you don’t know God. If that’s true, then knowing God is a good strategy for overcoming lust. It is. Knowing God — I mean, really knowing him. There are a lot of guys and gals who, when they fight to fight, they try to bring some theological or biblical thought to mind and it doesn’t work. And they that doesn’t work. They don’t know God, how much effort have they given to really go deep with God, know God, have they’re mind full of God, and their heart full of God, and God’s beauty and glory and perfections becomes their treasure?
That’s the kind of knowledge he’s talking about here. If you want to play with God, you’ll be a sitting duck for every image that comes across the television and the internet. But if you stock your soul and mind with the fullness of biblical revelation about God, the boats will float.
Great and Precious Promises
Here’s a beautiful example of how future grace, the promise of all that God is for us in Jesus, relates to lust.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire [or lust]. (2 Peter 1:3)
His power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness. That would be good. I would like that. I would like that power to produce godliness in me. How does it come to me? He gives us some channels: it comes through the true knowledge of him. That’s amazing. Isn’t that amazing? Power for godliness comes through knowledge of him, and now it specifies the knowledge a little bit: “who called us to his own glory and excellence.”
So you read backwards and say, “OK, I want to escape this. I’m so sick of this in my life. I want out of this dominant power in my life.” It comes by promises, so that by them, you may become partakers and escape. By the promises we escape lust. This is future grace: all this glory, and excellence, and this knowledge of God that’s going to be now and more in the future granted to us for our enjoyment, is so superior that it severs the root of this lust. That’s the way that text works.
So fight lust indirectly as well as directly. Give yourself to reading, give yourself to study, give yourself to meditating, give yourself to memorizing, give yourself to savoring the beauties of God and pray like crazy that the Lord would open your heart to see wonderful things that feel more wonderful than the surge of this masturbation, or just looking, or more or illicit behavior like fornication, adultery, or fooling around at some kinky bar.
It’s a lie that losing sex is losing something essential. Fifteen years ago or so, there was a big rile in the Twin Cities in the newspapers about public advertising for condoms on television. And I wrote an article for the Tribune with two other pastors, arguing that that would not be a good idea: to put advertisements for condoms on the television. And so I got a call from the TV station and they said, “Can we come over and do a little interview about that?” They did. And I did.
Then the letters started to come both from the TV and the Tribune. And I remember one letter from a single man so clearly. I wrote to him and tried to minister to him after this. But he just said, “I can’t believe that you would tell me, as a single man, that I am not to experience the fullness of my humanity through sexual relations with my girlfriend without marriage. What if I have no partner? You’re going to tell me that I have to go through my whole life without sexual intercourse?” That was absolutely unimaginable to him. “I will not be human if I don’t have sex.”
And that really set me to thinking about what is human and how to think about that for single people because there are single people who, year after year, hope that they might be married, and it doesn’t happen for whatever reason. And they begin to think: “I may go to my grave and never have had sex. That doesn’t seem right.” I can’t remember all that I put in the letter to him. I think I might have it on file at home. I forgot to get it. But here is an important verse from Psalm 84:11:
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
Do you believe that? No good thing does he withhold from those who walk chaste and uprightly. Which means that if you are not married, and you walk uprightly in chastity, the Lord withholds no good thing from you. It would be far better for you never to have sex in this life, just like Jesus. I said to the man who wrote me the letter, “I hear you saying that you want to be fully human. I affirm that. I know one person who was fully human, Jesus Christ. He never had sex.” I think that’s a very liberating thought to single people, or at least it should be. Jesus Christ came into the world to model the infinite beauty and fullness of humanity. And he never had sexual intercourse. Therefore, you don’t have to have it to be fully human and what God wants you to be.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
That is an unspeakable promise: to see God. I remember in my teenage days of much defeat in this area, what began to triumph around 18 or 19 was the thought of what I was missing as I gave myself a way to lustful fantasies — what it did to me in blinding me from what I could see, but couldn’t see. In other words, if I gave myself away toward masturbation, the thought of seeing God or seeing people in their wholeness and their beauty and their uprightness made those lustful desires vanish. It felt like I was losing the sunrises. I was losing poetry. I was losing the possibility of someday having an upright and beautiful, eyeball-to-eyeball, personal relationship with a whole woman, and not just a body. All that began to just grip me as what I was losing and what I was blinding myself to as I gave myself away to lust.
That’s a gift of grace when you begin to cherish God more than those little blitz pleasures that are so fleeting and so unsatisfying in the end. Unthought lust will destroy the soul.
Warn Along the Way
Warnings are the flip side of promises. They are gracious. They make us scared, but Jesus uses them and we should use them.
I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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 5:28–29)
Have you ever thought that if you tear out your right eye, you can see her pretty clearly with your left eye, so it was no help to tear out your right eye. The reason that’s an important observation is because Jesus didn’t mean literally to tear out your right eye because it wouldn’t help with your left eye. He meant: Do whatever you must do to get this sight and temptation out of your head.
On July 20, 1993, Donald Wyman was clearing land near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania as part of his work for a mining company. In the process, a tree rolled onto his shin causing a severe break and pinning Wyman to the ground. He cried for help for an hour, but no one came. He concluded that the only way to save his life would be to cut off his leg. So he made a tourniquet out of his shoe string and tightened it with a wrench. Then he took his pocketknife and cut through the skin, muscle, and bone just below the knee and freed himself from the tree. He crawled thirty yards to a bulldozer, drove a quarter of a mile to his truck, maneuvered the standard transmission with his good leg and a hand until he reached a farmer’s house one and a half miles away with his leg bleeding profusely, farmer John Huber, Jr. helped him get to a hospital where his life was spared.
A man will cut off his leg to save his life. Will you cut off your leg and gouge out your eye to save your eternity? That’s what Jesus says. Be thrown into hell. We should fight this lust thing with hellish proportions — hell and heaven.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)
They want to kill you. They want to take you down. The statistic a few years ago was ten percent in our denomination in Minnesota had come down over this. Ten percent had failed to gouge out their eye, cut off their leg, and do whatever was necessary to find Christ a superior pleasure. They throw it away. They threw their marriage away, their ministry away, for that kind of pleasure — fleeting, hell-bound pleasure.
John Owen, bless his heart, the Calvin of England, said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” We don’t always succeed, but we better make war. The evidence of being born of God is that you make war on your sin. You don’t win every battle, but you make war.
A.N.T.H.E.M. is my acronym for how I fight in the moment of lust. I find it very helpful in the moment when the thought that you don’t want in your head comes in your head, and you’re trying to figure out how to get it out.