Lust & Chastity

Yes, it’s the very last episode in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, and it’s time to talk about lust and chastity. I promise not to be like the P.E. teacher in the teen classic movie, Mean Girls (or really in every teen movie) who just is like “don’t have it!” Despite the popularity amongst many Christians of abstinence-only sex education, there’s a very good reason why in the ancient tradition, the remedy to lust is not abstinence, but chastity, which is quite different. It’s also not modesty, take note, and I’m going to think about that more in a minute.

What is lust? Lust is disordered sexual desire: inordinate, for the wrong people, at the wrong place and time, obsessive or possessive, or sexual desire ordered towards power or pleasure and not loving intimacy, and so on… Medieval English folk usually called it lechery. 

Today we live in a funny complex relationship with lust. It’s the vice that the church has now been fixated on for a while, especially regarding the so-called “culture wars.” DeYoung points out how the church often centers sex in its discussion of “culture,” when in reality scriptures so often point us towards greed or idolatry in discussions of culture. Curiously, many Christians enthusiastically defend an unabashedly lecherous ex-president. Christians are now dealing with (or worse, avoiding dealing with) the very real, very awful pain of sexual disorder rampant in all corners of the church, from clerical child abuse to #metoo to the pornography epidemic, human trafficking, and abortion. There are very different sexual ethics on offer out there, that state their claims to being healthy, ethical and moral (and these are clearly simplifications but give the broad contours).

Jesus himself discusses lust and the actions that ensue from lust very little, other than his famous suggestion to cut out your eye when it leads you to lust. So we know it’s bad, and Jesus thinks it is bad, but it’s not high up on his list of priorities. Paul talks a little more about it, but his words are famously rather vague and have inspired a whole empire of treatises and argument that people follow in wildly varying ways, as we can see.

The ancient scheme of the vices reflects this lesser importance (though not lesser pain); I haven’t been ordering them willy-nilly in this series, but following the ancient order in which pride, anger, etc. begin the vices, and gluttony and lust end them. Here’s why they ordered the vices that way: these vices of the body can be easier to spot and easier to supplant with virtuous habits than those very spiritual vices that begin the list. Moreover, it’s often pride or anger or avarice lingering behind those bodily vices like lust and gluttony themselves that are wreaking the devastation. But we have a hard time grasping this, because the bitter decaying fruits of lust are so painfully obvious in ways that pride’s are not. We see the destruction of marriage and community through adultery with horrific clarity. We rage and weep over the abused child or woman and the long-term spiritual, mental, and physical damage that follows. The church dimly recognizes that cultural attitudes about sex outside the church are pretty rotten, and less fully acknowledges the rottenness comes from within, too.

So in this episode, I want to think about the core issue of our attitudes about our bodies and desire rather than specific acts. The basics: sex itself is not bad, just like the other bodily pleasures of food and drink, material goods, etc. It’s a gift from God. Full stop. Yet like all gifts, we can elevate it, desire it, shape our lives around it in a way inconducive to our full flourishing as created persons in community. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Like nitroglycerin, it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts.” Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung asks a great question: “How should our sexual desires serve our full humanness?” (195) I like her word “serve.” Sexual desire neither signifies our full humanity nor undermines it. In its proper place, our bodies and their functions and pleasures are more gifts that can help us become more human, more like Jesus in learning to love a person. Sex is interpersonal, social, spiritual and physical. Lust as bodily desire that has become out of joint is a barrier to us truly loving Jesus, our neighbor, and ourselves, while chastity, its virtuous counterpoint, heals and builds bridges. Chastity fosters loving families (through both bonds of blood and friendship) and forges bonds of intimacy and joy.

Lust, like gluttony, grows as you feed it. The less one curbs lust, the more it overwhelms a person. Again, pornography is an instructive example. The increasing violence of pornography alongside its increasing availability is well-documented. One needs more and more to feel turned on, to reach some form of satiation outside of true intimacy. This excess-oriented tendency of lust is also why medieval writers encourage being careful of the friends and acquaintances you keep in their consideration of lust. If you’re egging one another on in exploits of lust, unsurprisingly, you’re going to keep struggling even if you’re not acting upon it. If you’re consuming extremely provocative or explicit TV shows or books on a regular basis, those desires are going to be easily, regularly accessible in your mind. This looks different for all types of people, of course, but it’s the practical knowledge about lust that medieval people share with us. 

Importantly, as the medieval penitential writers knew very well, the actions of lust are far down the list of lusty items. The first and foremost lustful movements happen in your mind. Like gluttony, lust is “reductive” and “strips sexual pleasure-seeking down to individual gratification, apart from a love relationship to a person” (DeYoung). Lust narrows a person down to a pleasure receptacle. You don’t need to know anything about them, you don’t need to care for them, they don’t even need to be in the room with you. This is obviously the premise of pornography. Objectification is also why a consent-based ethics of sex is not enough. Broader secular culture teaches that anything and everything sexual is permissible and ethically cool, as long as you receive and give consent. Christine Emba’s excellent recent article in the Washington Post lays out very clearly some of the problems with centering all sexual ethics on consent, and the fuzziness of consent. This centering doesn’t do enough to prevent objectification in our pursuit of sexual pleasure.

DeYoung has a great expression of lust versus love that I want to quote at length:

 …because human beings find true fulfillment in love for God and for each other, sexual expressions of love require real persons. They demand a fully human encounter, not simply a useful or pleasurable exchange. They require the freedom to give ourselves to each other, and the willingness to graciously welcome another person in…To strip human sexuality of its link to love can make access to sexual pleasure safer and easier, and ostensibly and superficially under our control, perhaps, but the safety we seek in prideful self-provision also walls us off from what we really need.”

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices

The mechanics of lust are fairly simple. The writer of The Book of Vices and Virtues notes that lust begins in “foolish looking” or “foolish listening.” It escalates to foolish talking and touching. But more so, the foolish looking and hearing, the ill-advised sensory input, ends in a receptive mind, a mind ready to “delight privately,” as the book says, in these sights and sounds. Though this is simple, there’s a lot here to digest.

First, the Book’s choice of “foolish.” Lust so often starts out with foolishness. There are a lot of statistics out there about pornography, the ultimate self-gratifying, person-reducing pleasure seeking. People tend to watch porn when they’re stressed, tired, or struggling. Unsurprisingly, this is also often how affairs start: marriage feels like a chore or burden, you’re super stressed, you’re seeking some kind of escape or outlet. We are more open to folly and bad decisions when we are not taking care of our bodies and minds, or when we are avoiding the real challenges of faithfulness. 

Secondly, ready to “delight privately” is worth unravelling a bit. Private delight is at the core of lust. It’s the pleasure that is yours alone and foremost, secret, not to share. It’s putting your sexual desires before all other considerations. In contrast, intimacy entails shared delight. This desire for “private delight” is also why, despite many years of absolute loads of Christian fixation on modesty, modesty is not the remedy to lust. A mind ready for private delight will take anything—a Victorian ankle emerging from swathes of massively modest dress—for its solitary pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in modesty for both men and women, in a wide variety of shapes and forms (like all virtues, it’s not one-size-fits-all, shorts shorter than a four inch inseam are immodest, hard and fast rules). The idiotic refrain “modest is hottest” reveals the paucity of how a lot of Christians treat modesty and the sick core of lust’s private delights. It short-circuits modesty back into sexual gratification, a man’s sexual pleasure in a woman’s dress. A shortsighted emphasis on modesty also places the blame for other’s lechery onto the person whom they are depersonalizing. This is the old, disgusting idea that by showing skin a woman was “asking for it.” If modesty defined narrowly as showing less skin were the antidote to lust, however, no sexual excess would have existed from about 1830-1920, a period where women showed very little of their bodies indeed. Yet we know it did. 

As humans, we are called to be formed into people who view others not as objects for self-gratification or even self-fulfillment (how many see marriage now), but as other beloved ones. Sexual self-gratification and sexual shame, both rooted in lust, makes it very hard for us to see the belovedness of ourselves and others. I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, which depicts the absolute ravages of shame after fornication. Arthur Dimmesdale is destroyed by his secret sexual sins—not by the sex act itself, but by his terror of revelation and his massive guilt. The affair between himself and Hester Prynne is even never discussed in the book.  Very often Christians live more on the Dimmesdale side of things than the sexual gratification side of things, but that does not help destroy the costs and pain of lust at all.

Chastity—not modesty, not consent-based sexual ethics, not sexual shame, not even celibacy or virginity—is the counterpoint to lust and its depersonalizing evil. Chastity can include some of these at times, but it is its own, bigger and broader virtue. Chastity is quite difficult to define; I was having trouble finding a pithy definition in the sources of the past. Thomas Aquinas defines chastity as the process of making “venereal pleasure,” as he calls it (unfortunate translation there), subject to our reason. I would add, subject to our expansive love for one another and ourselves as people of Jesus.

The absence of chastity is not being too weak or lusty to save sex for marriage, or something like that, as it is often framed. The lack of chastity happens within marriages, as one partner elevates their pleasures over the other partner’s experiences. We see this in pornography use and also what might be called the “smokin’ hot wife” rhetoric that emerges from certain churches all the time, recently documented in Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, a church where women are told to give their husband whatever sexual favors they please, despite their own lack of comfort. Chastity has gone wrong in many places because we have demanded it of certain people and not of others. We have asked it of women and not men, or of gay folks but not straight folks, or of single people but not married people. In our mission to recognize the image of God in each person, we are all called to chastity. 

Chastity has also gone wrong because we have placed the burden of our temptations upon others, demanding modesty or particular behaviors. A famous example of what some consider chastity is the Billy Graham rule. The famous evangelist was never alone with a woman privately except his wife. This practice may not be necessary at particular moments and places (one is always welcome to flee from temptation). Yet such a hard and fast rule tends to transform women from full individuals to constant sources of danger and sexual temptation. 

G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful description of chastity:

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.

G.K. Chesterton, “A Piece of Chalk”

We must substitute the depersonalizing but pleasurable power of lust with something better, more radiant, more real, not just by stigmatizing human bodies or abstaining from sex. 

Chastity is more like courage or devotion, even hospitality, than modesty or a rule-oriented set of practices. It’s more like love than mere abstention. I think the closest we get to witnessing chastity in people is not as a blanket set of behaviors. It’s in individual marriages or shining individual persons: a marriage that radiates power and peace together through their mutual trust in each others’ faithfulness and troth to one another. Chastity of course appears in a life of celibacy as well: we witness the willed devotion of a person to seeing other souls truly and then resisting the urge to use them, despite their lack of sexual gratification that the culture considers impossible to live through. These people, single, married, in religious orders, or out in the world, are safe havens, because you know they will not put their pleasures above your personhood, not even in the littlest and most inconsequential ways. Their chastity is radiant and welcoming. 

What practices foster chastity, according to our medieval friends? There are some weird and highly unhelpful medieval tips, like avoiding moist foods. But there are some good ones too: keeping well your senses, for instance. Fleeing friends who lead you into doing things that you are uncomfortable with or don’t like. Watching your own language. The real action of doing good deeds for other people helps you to see God in them, and helps you to foster that love and grow it in moments when you are not tempted by lust, so that you can faithfully practice chastity when push comes to shove. Fasting helps, as gluttony and lust work in similar ways. And prayer. 

Thanks for listening, friends, to this series. I really hope that it was helpful and insightful for you, not guilt-inducing or confining, but freeing as we explore together what it might mean to imitate Jesus in our different, beautifully crafted lives. I do not ask this often, but if you’ve enjoyed this series, I’d really appreciate your financial support to keep this podcast alive and kicking. You can contribute to my book-buying and website-hosting fund, at I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this or any other episode. You can find me on Twitter @gracehammanphd or Instagram @oldbookswithgrace.

The podcast will take a break for a few weeks and return in May with some really exciting new guests. Thank you again for listening and walking with me through some past ideas of the good life to examine what can form us now towards a life that loves others well. 

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