byFaith | Fall 2009
By Alan Dowd
A pastor once surprised me and the rest of the men’s conference by telling us something we already knew: “Ninety-five percent of men struggle with lust,” he said, before adding wryly, “The other five percent struggle with lying.”
All joking aside, the Bible reminds us that men and women alike wrestle with this deadly sin—and all of us bear the scars.
If Jesus Talked About Lust, Then So Can We
We tend to forget that Jesus talked about lust in His greatest sermon and about lust’s accomplice—temptation—in the prayer He taught us. If He could talk about these partners in crime, then so can we.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus instructs us to ask God to “lead us not into temptation.” He knows how weak we are, how helpless to resist the enemy’s lures. And He knows the power and cunning of the enemy—that he can prowl around like a roaring lion, slither through tiny cracks like a serpent, even masquerade as an angel of light. In short, once tempted, we’re on the enemy’s turf, and that’s deadly territory. So, given the enemy’s strength and our weakness, Jesus tells us to steer clear of the danger zone altogether.
During the Sermon on the Mount—just before His teaching on how to pray—Jesus offers a glimpse of the vast difference between His definition of purity and ours. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’” He observes, referring to how the scribes and scholars—and you and I—want to interpret the Law. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The enemy tricks us into defining sin narrowly. If lust is a small indiscretion, it’s not going to do us much harm, let alone bother the God of all creation. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus sets the standard high by defining this sin broadly. Lust is a form of adultery, He declares. Try as we might to reassure ourselves that the two are vastly different, they are not. From God’s perspective, they are the same—and He makes the rules.
Perhaps He sets the standard so high to remind us that surviving the struggle is impossible without His help. He knows because He has known humanity—and our struggles—from the very beginning.
The Death Sentence of Lust
“Surviving” is the right word, because Scripture tells us that lust often leads to death.
When Eve and Adam gave into the serpent’s temptation and ate of the fruit, it was certainly a form of infidelity—they were unfaithful to God—and arguably a kind of lust. This may sound like a stretch. After all, the primary definition of lust is “intense sexual desire or appetite.” But hear me out. Another definition of lust is “a passionate or overmastering desire or craving.” That’s exactly what took hold of Eve as she stared at the tree.
After some prompting from the serpent, Eve “saw that the fruit of the tree was … pleasing to the eye.” What she saw wasn’t sinful. After all, the tree was created by God. The fact that she saw it wasn’t sinful either; God placed the tree “in the middle of the garden,” where Adam and Eve could see it all the time. But how she saw it was indeed sinful.
Lured by the serpent’s promise that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God,” she wanted the fruit for her sake, to satisfy her desire. The fruit was beautiful and good, but Adam and Eve’s actions turned it into poison. The poison took away their innocence, separated them from God, and ultimately led to death.
“To dust you will return,” God declared after they succumbed to temptation and to the lust for power, for carnal things, for the kind of experiences from which God wanted to protect them. It pays to recall that what finally pulled Eve into the darkness was the serpent’s promise that she would know good and evil.
The story of Potiphar’s wife not only serves as a reminder that both sexes are susceptible to the poison; it also belies the notion that lust is largely a modern problem—the byproduct of hyper-suggestive music, sex-saturated movies, and the seedy side of cyberspace.
Genesis tells us that “Joseph was well-built and handsome.” Potiphar’s wife “took notice of Joseph,” and with a brazen bluntness befitting today’s popular culture, she demanded, “Come to bed with me!” Joseph refused, but his refusal further whet her appetite. She chased him, tearing off his clothes and repeating her lustful demand, “Come to bed with me!” When he refused again, she lied to her husband, and Potiphar banished Joseph to prison. Her lust led to a figurative death for Joseph. The fact that God made the most out of such a terrible injustice does not diminish the reality that this woman’s lust deprived Joseph of the life he was living.
As with Eve and Potiphar’s wife, David’s struggle began with something that is not, in and of itself, sinful. For Eve, it was a beautiful piece of fruit; for Potiphar’s wife, it was a handsome man; for David, it was a “very beautiful woman” named Bathsheba.
He saw her bathing late at night. Given that he immediately summoned her to his room, it’s safe to infer that temptation quickly gave way to lust—the adultery of the heart. And the adultery of the heart opened the door to the adultery of the flesh. To be sure, what David did in his heart when he saw Bathsheba bathing was different than what he and Bathsheba did together. While the damage of the first sin was confined to his relationship with God—which is no small matter—the damage of the second spread to many other people. Perhaps the point Christ is making about temptation, lust and adultery is that one leads to another. One makes the other much more likely, as we learn in David’s story.
It’s worth noting that David was not where he was supposed to be. The passage in 2 Samuel 11 tells us it was spring, “the time when kings go off to war.” Yet David, the king of Israel, “remained in Jerusalem.” Bad things happen when we wander from where we belong. David’s fall reminds us that we make the enemy’s job easier when we stray into these danger zones. Because he wasn’t where he should have been, David walked into temptation. Because he gave into it, he lusted. And because he lusted, as one scholar bluntly notes, “David becomes guilty of breaking the sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth commandments.”
The pattern held again: David’s lust brought death, first to Bathsheba’s husband and then to David and Bathsheba’s son. And the poison spread throughout David’s family. Amnon, one of David’s sons, lusted after Tamar, one of David’s daughters. Echoing the selfish words of Potiphar’s wife, Amnon demanded, “Come to bed with me.” Tamar refused. But Tamar’s words were no match for the poison, and Amnon, driven “to the point of illness” by lust, raped her.
The assault left Tamar “a desolate woman.” I imagine her as distant, joyless, deadened. To add further insult to the injury, Tamar’s father did nothing to avenge her or defend her honor. Perhaps David’s own struggle with lust kept him from doing the right thing. Whatever the cause, the consequences of Amnon’s lust and David’s inaction were devastating.
The Bible tells us that Absalom—David’s son and Tamar’s brother—plotted for two years to kill Amnon. After the deed was done, Absalom carried out a coup against his king and father, triggering a civil war that claimed Absalom himself.
Again, lust led to death.
The story of Herod and Herodias is laced with lust. Matthew’s account tells us that Herod had taken Herodias, his brother's wife, as his own. Although Herod had John the Baptist arrested because he spoke out against this unholy marriage, Herodias could never persuade Herod to kill John—until she used her daughter as a sexual lure.
Salome was the young woman’s name, and with Herodias’ encouragement she danced for her step-father. “Her dance was unquestionably lascivious,” one scholar says. And it gave her control over Herod. “Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’” Herod complied. And again, lust led to death.
Jesus dealt with the consequences of lust. The Samaritan woman’s days and nights were shaped by loveless marriages and lust. But when she encountered Jesus, she found the waters of new life. The woman caught in adultery lived as a prisoner to the lust of others. But when a mob tried to stone her for her sin and someone else’s, Jesus protected her and gave her a chance at new life.
The Road to Spiritual Death
We could go on: Samson’s lust for Delilah led to ruin, Solomon’s countless bedmates led him to idolatry … . These examples show that lust can kill in many ways. If the physical consequences of lust are bad, the spiritual costs are worse.
First, lust—like all sin—fractures our fellowship with God. When lust takes hold, we avoid God, we cut ourselves off from the source of life, we relive that painful shame that Adam and Eve experienced first.
It may turn worship into an empty charade for some, while it may force others to avoid worship altogether. Either way, the result is a win-win situation for the enemy: Not only does he claim victory by drawing us into sin, he adds to his victory by convincing us to stay away from the Father.
Second, lust distorts our vision and leads us to see people as objects instead of what they are—unique masterpieces created in God’s image. The result: lifelong scars on the Josephs and Tamars of the world, crippled marriages as the Potiphars of the world obsess over their supposed inadequacies, vicious cycles of selfishness and shallowness as the Herods of the world teach the Salomes that their worth is determined by their bodies.
Third, lust badly weakens our witness. For those who try to live the Great Commission and witness in spite of their struggle, the enemy reminds them they are hypocrites and frauds. Others, like David, remain silent, hoping not to compound the sin of lust with the sin of hypocrisy.
Finally, lust tarnishes the temple. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. When we accept Christ as our savior, we invite the Holy Spirit to take up residence inside us. At that moment the Spirit begins to renew our minds and to clean us up from the inside out. Yet the residue of sin remains.
In Paul’s letter to Philippi, where he warned about those whose minds are on “earthly things,” whose “god is their stomach,” he wasn’t only talking about gluttons; he was also talking metaphorically about all who are governed by the flesh. However, the Spirit never gives up on us, which is good news, since it looks like the housecleaning He began when I was saved will take a lifetime.
The Good News is Good News
Whether you are an Eve or a Potiphar’s wife, a David or a Herod, a Salome or a woman at the well, a Joseph or a Tamar, Christ offers forgiveness, cleansing, and understanding.
The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “tempted in every way,” which means He knows how the enemy lures us. The God-sized difference between Jesus and me is that He never gave into the tempter. Even so, “Because He himself suffered when he was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.”
How does He help? He offers us five ways to overcome temptation—and one way to be made whole when we lose the battle with temptation:
Like the woman at the well, when we spend time with Jesus He shows us the difference between love and what masquerades as love, between our little definitions of good and His.
Perhaps we are too familiar with the One who stooped low to call us “friend” to notice that He is perfectly pure. He’s so holy that our ancestors dared not pronounce or write His name. His law is so perfect that we cannot even keep the letter of it, let alone approach the spirit of it.
By encountering Him, we start to grasp this holiness. And in this, we start to die to sin. As Paul explained—perhaps mindful of his own struggles with the flesh—“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do … . For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
Who can rescue Paul—and us—from this lifelong struggle, “from this body of death”? The One who knows all our struggles, the One who is remaking each of us in His image.
Knowing the Word
The Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword,” as Hebrews explains. “It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Jesus quoted the Word when the enemy tempted Him in the desert. Each time the enemy whispered a lie, Jesus answered with the Truth. We need to become that familiar with the Word—and with Jesus.
Calling for help
Paul reassures us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” By instructing us to ask Him to “lead us not into temptation,” Jesus underscores the enemy’s strength, our weakness, and—most important of all—His sovereignty. It’s as if Jesus is saying: “Instead of asking for strength to overcome temptation, let me help you avoid it.”
In the same way, we should not lead others into temptation. I once loaned a movie to a friend. I thought it was just a silly satire of everyday life. But it included a suggestive scene, and to my friend it was a temptation to sin. He called me on it and was right to do so. I immediately felt convicted, recalling something Christ said about millstones around the neck. It made me ponder my role in spreading the poison, even if unwittingly.
Paul reassured the believers in Corinth that when we are tempted, God always will “provide a way out.” Likewise, in a letter to Timothy, Paul counseled his young brother in Christ to “flee the evil desires of youth.”
My father recalls a wise word from his Catholic upbringing: “Avoid the near occasions of sin.” In other words, avoid the things, places, people, and activities that trigger lust.
Putting on armor
On those occasions when we are tempted, Paul reminds us that God clothes us with armor to withstand the enemy’s schemes. Paul was right to invoke the image of battle. After all, the enemy wages war with God through us. In fact, we are the battlefield.
The helmet of salvation reminds me that I am a sinner saved by an incredible act of love. It covers my mind, which directs my thoughts.
The Lord issues me the shield of faith to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”—all the lustful lures he fires our way. Without the shield—without my faith—I am defenseless. But with just a mustard seed’s worth, Jesus can move mountains of temptation.
The breastplate of righteousness protects my heart. Proverbs reminds us that the heart is “the wellspring of life.” Its waters can be pure or poisoned.
Like the author of Hebrews, Paul equates the Word with a sword. We can only use it to fend off the tempter if we know the Word.
The belt of truth holds everything else in place. Knowing the One who called Himself the Truth helps me steer clear of danger zones and discern love from lust.
God fits my feet with the gospel of peace. I should bring peace—rather than the enemy’s poison—wherever I go.
The final piece of the arsenal is prayer. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions,” Paul pleads.
The armor does more than just protect. It also covers me in such a way that, miraculously and mysteriously, the Father sees the Son when He looks at me. He doesn’t see my failures. He sees the One who defeated the tempter and did what Adam and Eve failed to do.
Speaking of failures like Adam and Eve and you and me, God knows we will sometimes drift into the danger zone and lose the battle. When that happens, we need to ask for forgiveness and get back on track as quickly as possible. David offered us a roadmap in Psalm 51. We should think of David’s words as an assurance—not as a license to keep sinning. God is not a hapless pushover.
The 95 percent of us who struggle with this thorn should remember Job and David.
The saintly Job was a model of purity and perfection. “There is no one on earth like him,” God said of Job. “He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” In fact, Job made a covenant “not to look lustfully at a woman.”
David, on the other hand, looked—and then some. His lustful eyes led first to adultery in his heart, then to an affair, and ultimately to death. He was anything but blameless. Yet somehow, God called David—not Job—“a man after my own heart.”
God gave David this special recognition with complete foreknowledge of what David would do with Bathsheba and fail to do to Amnon. But why? Why would God honor this deeply flawed man with such a title? Perhaps it was because God also knew that buried beneath David’s lustful flesh there was “a right spirit,” “a broken and contrite heart” that wanted to please his Lord. If there was hope for David, there’s hope for the rest of us.