Sunday, 23 March 2014

Lust and Chastity

Lust and Chastity

A couple years after I became a Christian I spent a month at a retreat center- actually at Kingsfold, which is where we are going this week for our parish retreat.  I spent three weeks in a fasting cabin there. It was one of the most important times in my life. That amount of time separated from television, radio, magazines and the general culture provided time for me to think about who I was and who God is. The solitude and silence allowed me to hear deeply into my own soul. It was a time when I heard God and my own thoughts very clearly.
            There was a lot that came out of that experience for me. One particular experience happened when I left the retreat center to go back home. I stopped at a gas station and I remember looking at the magazine rack and being shocked at the blatant sexuality. There were some images that were especially obvious like the one showing a woman in a bikini showing off a hot rod, but even other covers that didn’t show any skin still showed a particularly gaze coming from the eyes of the model on the cover. The look was sexual and expressing desire.  When I was away from the media for a month I suddenly realized that I was immersed in an overly sexualized culture that was manipulating me. It’s not like that it was a complete surprise, but I didn’t realize how deep and subtle it could be. Our culture permeates us with sexual images and messages that tempt us to lust.
Our culture exaggerates the importance of sex in life and fools us into believing that our happiness depends on being forever sexually attractive and sexually active. Thinking about our sexual desires, C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity asks us to imagine a culture where people gather around a covered dish. The cover is slowly lifted while people hoot and holler. The cover is finally lifted to reveal a porkchop.  Now we might suspect that these people are starving. So then we look into their culture to see if they are a starving people. If we find that in fact they are not starving and are actually eating quite well, we would suspect that something has gone wrong in their desire for food.
            Now we imagine that instead of a porkchop, say we have under the cover, a naked woman. It is an image of strip clubs and the pornography industry. Mix these influences with all the sexual images we are fed everyday, especially through the media- is this evidence that we are sexually starved, or that something has gone wrong in our sexual desire? I would imagine that it is plain that something has gone wrong with our desire.
            To strengthen his argument, Lewis points out that if a young man were to obey all his sexual urgings in a pre-contraception environment, he might well populate a small town quite quickly. Isn't this evidence that our sexual desires have become twisted in some way? Our desire is out of line.    
            The result of this twisting is that we can end up treating each other as objects for our own personal sexual gratification. We forget that we are persons to be respected and valued, not to be used and abused for our own selfish use.

            Lust is an excessive love of the pleasures of the flesh. It is usually focused on sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure itself is good and a gift from God, but sex out of its proper context can become dangerous to us and to others. Lust is inherently selfish. Like other sin, lust is a kind of idolatry. It makes sex into a god, and like all idolatry the idol can never fully deliver. Lust asks of sex something sex can’t deliver. Movie after movie shows lust and romantic love as a cure-all for life’s problems.  Like other sin it acts like an addiction. The more we give-in the more the tendency towards the sin is strengthened in us.
            Lust has an incredible power to corrupt even otherwise very moral and respectful people. Just watch the news and you will hear a seemingly unending list of respected people that have succumbed and had their lives drastically affected by Lust. Lust leads us to irrational and unethical behavior.  

            Lust has real consequences, but these consequences are often hidden from our otherwise rational minds us when we are caught in it. Lust blinds us to the voice of reason and suppresses our desire to do what’s right. Lust will act like an addiction- to the outside observer the person seems to act in irrational, immoral, and in self-destructive ways. Lust will make us believe we are in love, but it will hide our true motives, which might be sheer selfish sexual pleasure.   Lust exaggerates the attractiveness of the object of desire and when the desire is indulged, it leads to disappointment.  Lust may lead to adultery, which effects spouses, children, parents, extended family, and friends. Lust might also lead to a child being conceived in an unstable relationship. Lust also has other more violent consequences.  It is estimated that in the United States between 25% and 40% of women will be sexually assaulted by a man in their lives and many of these assaults will go unreported. Sin will often lead to more sin. So in King David’s life lust for Bathsheba led to the murder of Uriah to cover it up.  
A major source of lust in our culture is pornography. Pornography distorts sexuality by giving unrealistic images of what people look like, and what healthy sex looks like. Pornography viewing results in ‘diminishing returns’. The more one consumes pornography the more one needs to consume get the same effect. But, that’s not enough it will have to be more extreme (or even violent) to get the same effect. Pornography Ignites lust in people and leads to a distorted sexuality.  
The psychologist Solomon Schimmel says, “To produce pornographic films and books which create distorted feelings about sex and incite some people to crimes of lust, is sinful if not criminal. To use sexual suggestion to induce people to buy alcohol, tobacco, or other products makes sex a tool for exploitation and frequently degrades women. All of these are psychologically and morally destructive. What often lurk behind impassioned advocacy of sexual liberation are lust and greed. Interestingly, feminist critiques of the advertising and media industries; depiction of women as primarily sexual objects converge with the objections of conservative religious groups to the sexual suggestiveness of advertising and films.” (Schimmel 129)
Sex is meant to reinforce and strengthen a truly loving relationship, but Lust tends to objectify the other person and loses interest when the desired pleasure is attained. Solomon Schimmel compares love to lust saying, “Love is firm in the face of obstacles. This is because it is joining of personalities, not bodies. Aging, loss of exterior beauty, illness, or misfortune do not diminish love when the emotional bonds upon which it is based remain intact. Lust is transient, fickle, and egocentric. Love is permanent, steady, and altruistic. Lust uses another’s body to satisfy its appetite for pleasure. Love gives of oneself, soul and all, to make another happy.” (Schimmel p 122).

Best thing to cure the disease of lust is to attain chastity by understanding the role of sexuality in God’s bigger picture and plan. Chastity is sometimes equated in peoples' minds with celibacy- which is abstaining from sex entirely. That's not exactly what I mean by 'chastity'. It is that for some people, but not all. Similarly, chastity is also sometimes described as a kind of fasting, except instead of food or chocolate you abstain from sex. That's not what I'm talking about either.
            Here's how one theologian puts it “Chastity is the virtue by which a person integrates his or her sexuality into his or her own Christian life” (Lower, Boyle, May- Catholic Sexual Ethics). That means it is a discipline for both single and married people. It's how we integrate our sexuality into who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do. How we express our sexuality will be different depending on what we have been called to do and who God has called us to be. It fits onto our lives as a part of the whole.
The virtue of chastity is formed in us through Jesus who taught us to watch our hearts, which is where the root of lust and all sexual misconduct begins.  Sexual sin begins with a thought and if it is not addressed then it may lead to more thoughts, and then habitual thoughts, and then actions, and then habitual actions, and before we know it our life and character are coloured by it. Jesus rightly advises us to deal with lust when it is just a small thought in our minds. It is easier to deal with a spark than a forest fire. This is also easier said than done. We should remember too, that Jesus does not condemn us for having any sexual thought, or for looking at a beautiful person. Jesus warns us about looking for the purpose of lusting.   
This is also difficult because we are fighting against the promptings of the media and advertising all around us. This is no small task. It is no less than resisting a major current of our culture. What would be helpful is to aim to exercise modesty in dress, demeanor, behavior, thought, and word. This can help stop many initial thoughts. In modesty we avoid causing someone else to be unnecessarily tempted, and we should also avoid situations that might cause us personal temptation- whether that be television, the internet, instant messaging, particular acquaintances, particular places, or anything else that might cause temptation to arise within us. In avoiding temptation we should take that energy and direct it to other non-sexual activities. We are advised to flee from temptation when we notice it because most of us are not able to withstand it. The strongest among us are still susceptible. We should fight this even if it means deep sacrifice. I know of one spiritual advisor that recommended to someone tempted by pornography that they get rid of their TV.
            The ultimate cure, though is not merely to run from pornography but to find a pleasure greater than the pleasures of the flesh to devote yourself to. When we seek God’s Kingdom first, then life will order itself properly.  Where you concentrate your attention matters. The Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen says, “Think about your mouth for five minutes and you will have an undue concentration of saliva. Think about your heart for five minutes and you will believe you have heart trouble, though the chances are nine out of ten that you have not. … The balance and equilibrium of the whole system is disturbed when an organ is isolated from its function in the whole organism, or divorced from its higher purpose.” (Sheen p.31). When we focus on the Kingdom we are focusing on our true and original purpose. If we focus on physical pleasure it is insatiable (like greed for money). It will never be fulfilled. If you think it will be fulfilled all you have to do is look at the lives of those who indulge in their lust. Do they look fulfilled? More often they look like they are desperate and addicted.  
            The assumption of the Bible and Christian Tradition is that the context for sex is marriage. This isn’t about God trying to ruin anyone’s fun, it’s about where sex belongs and what it was made for- Where it is of most benefit to us and to the Kingdom. The Bible and tradition of the church has given a few basic purposes for sex, which is to be practiced in the context of marriage. Sex unifies a couple and drives them together even on a chemical level, and provides them with a healthy context to fulfill their natural desires. A married couple symbolizes God’s love and desire for His people in a sacramental way- the couple representing Christ and the Church (Eph 5). Sex also leads to the birth of new human beings and this should not be underestimated in our post-contraceptive world. We are biologically dealing with the context for procreation.    
Chastity is the virtue whereby we keep our sexuality in the context for which it was designed. Chastity is not an end unto itself, rather, it is a practice that helps us draw closer to God as we live a life that is more in tune with who God created us to be. Chastity puts sexuality into perspective. It helps us keep our priorities straight. And so, Chastity is a practice for both single and married Christians.
Chastity trains us in love. Chastity teaches us that there is more to human relationships than sex. Chastity teaches us that intimacy is different than sex. Chastity teaches us to not objectify people. Chastity teaches us to live in freedom, rather than being enslaved by our sexual desires.
Chastity, especially in the context of a marriage (a high-commitment covenant relationship) trains us to love even when we don’t feel like it. Love is beyond our own grumpiness, or our state of digestion. While the romantic feeling of love is important, that is not all love is. Love is also an action and a commitment. Chastity teaches us to become less-selfish and more generous and self-controlled as we are also living for our spouse and possibly children. We also learn to be more courageous because we understand that others rely on us.
            Through God’s grace, the Virtue of Chastity will become a part of who we are. That means someday it will be less of a struggle and we will have peace and tranquility in our lives as we become more who God created us to be as our sexuality finds itself integrated into our lives in a healthy balanced way.

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