I think there’s still a lot of stereotyping and denial in the Christian world about what lust is and who participates in it.* “Girls don’t lust” – this is only beginning to break down. “Lust is pre-marital sexual activity, masturbation, pornography, sexual fantasy” – well yes, but lust is a lot bigger than that. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins – seven categories of sins which 99.9% of people often commit.
I’m sure my friends, if they knew what I’d been reading, would think I was an unlikely candidate to benefit from, let alone need to read, a book on lust. I’ve never desired anyone other than my boyfriend. Guys topless, even in just swimwear/underwear, don’t turn me on. I’ve never watched pornography. I’ve never had sex with anyone. Aren’t I a virtuous Christian? 😉 No issues with lust. …
Uhm, well, actually, that’s not true. My fellow Christians, we must recognise the reality: lust pervades our modern world, and we are utterly emeshed in it. Provocatively dressed or semi-clothed women and men everywhere from the pavement to adds slapped on buses and billboards; seductive Facebook and Instagram pictures; nudity and sexual scenes and comments in most TV shows and films: even if we stay on the “right paths”, it’s almost impossible to escape our culture’s obsession with lust. And very few of us participate in no way. How many of us have never dressed provocatively or insensitively (short skirts, or low-cut tops, or tight clothing for women, and going topless, or with trousers falling down and boxers showing for men), tempting those around us into sinful desires? (And what an unloving thing we do here – being a stumbling block rather than an icon of Christ to our brothers and sisters.) How many of us have never crossed the boundaries we set in relationships of absolutely pure and healthy physical affection? How many of us have never posted provocative pictures on Facebook, potentially again leading others to stumble and fall? These are just a few examples of participation in lust that is often, and harmfully, overlooked, but is a sin in almost all our lives. And this doesn’t even touch upon things we know to be sins e.g. who has never let their thoughts wander too far? Not many people. So fighting lust is a battle every Christian should be engaged in. We need to open our eyes, and face the hard, cold light of day.
In this respect, I think Joshua Harris’ Sex Is Not The Problem (Lust Is) is spot on and really helpful. It unashamedly confronts the reality of the extent of lust in the world around us, and in our own attitudes, thoughts and behaviours. It presents lust as a problem for Christian women as well Christian men. And it presents this fight against lust as a lifelong battle for purity. His definition of lust is really helpful too, cutting through the tortuous arguments and rival definitions that have too often lead discussions of this issue astray: ‘Because the possibilities are endless, I have a simple definition for lust: Lust is craving sexually what God has forbidden’.
There are aspects of this book that I strong disagree with, and think are deeply questionably and unhelpful. Briefly…
1) The strongly modern Calvinist theology, which takes up the whole of Chapter Three, and pops up again and again throughout the book: the idea that our works count for nothing; that we are already saved no matter what and battling sin is simply about sanctification; that the Bible and the Bible alone contains all authority and truth in all its fullness. Harris, unsurprisingly, actually contradicts himself in the final chapter, when he then presents works as something which do have a role in our salvation or condemnation.
2) The lack of a deep understanding of physical holiness, the nature of Christ, the nature of the incarnation, as shown for example in Harris’ shocking asserting that Christ too felt sexual desire – all the more baffling since he is a self-professed ‘sola scriptura’ Protestant, but the Bible says nothing of the kind (Hebrews 4:15 does not say this. Is it talking about ‘tempting’ or ‘testing'[which is not necessarily interior temptation]? If it is talking specifically about tempting, are they interior temptations [wicked desires] or exterior temptations [the presence of the devil and wicked spirits and also the difficult circumstances of life in this world]? There is no resolution to these questions by sola scriptura, thus it cannot and should not keep being asserted by Protestants, as so many nowadays do, that Christ felt sexual desire – this seems to have turned into an unquestioned Protestant cultural myth!) These are big issues, and while there are many useful gems to be pulled out of the book nonetheless, I strongly disagreed with and was disappointed by these passages and overtones.
What were the gems? …
a) The hard-hitting and honest nature of this book. I was convicted, enlightened and inspired by a lot of what I read here.
b) An insight into the kinds of things most men and some women struggle with. I’d never thought much before about the fact that what I wore on beach holidays or photos I shared could lead other people into temptation. I’d never understood and empathised as fully with the fact that most guys (and probably many girls) face a daily struggle with sinful sexual desires due to the barrage of sexualised imagery and behaviour in our culture, and that most guys do really struggle with and sometimes fail at guarding their eyes. All of this was presented in a way that wasn’t “too much information” or at any point explicit, which was really good. And Harris also gave an impressively honest insight into his own issues with lust as a happily married man, which was a useful realistic picture of issues couples often confront in marriage.
c) The really practical nature of much of the book. Harris gives instructions, tips, questions to think about, activities to do. He has a separate chapter on lust & the internet, and a separate chapter on masturbation, for those who struggle in any way with those issues. He even has a list of Bible quotations that are helpful to memorise to fight the lies the devil tempts us to believe – unfortunately the translation he uses is really loose, and it’s questionable whether some of the quotes mean what he suggests, but overall the list and the principle is a very useful one.
d) Its readability. It’s an engagingly written book for the most part (apart from the chapter on Calvinist theology, which felt like a crib sheet), almost a page turner. This is one thing Evangelical authors and the Evangelical book market have really mastered – the “pop theology” genre, which is comprehensible, engaging, and easy to read.
‘So what is God’s standard when it comes to lust? How much lust does God want us to allow in our lives? Are you ready for this? The answer is not even a hint. That’s right. Nada. Zip. Zero.’
‘A lot of us have developed a diet mentality toward lust. We really want to cut back on lust because we know it’s not healthy and it makes us feel bad. But like some rich, calorie-laden chocolate dessert, lust is just too tasty to resist completely. Surely God will understand if we break our diet and nibble a little lust now and then (get too intimate on a date here, watch a questionable movie there, or indulge in an ungodly fantasy).’
‘John Piper explains lust with this simple equation: “Lust is a sexual desire minus honor and holiness.” When we lust, we take this good thing – sexual desire – and remove it from honor toward fellow humans and reverence for God.”
‘My bigger outbreaks of sin are usually triggered by smaller sins that I wasn’t diligent in guarding against. I’m talking about the daily, even hourly decisions of what to watch, read, listen to, and allow my mind to think about and my eyes to rest upon.’
‘Don’t be deceived and think reading this chapter has changed anything about your life – change will occur as you obey. It’s not enough to hear the truth and agree with it; we have to do what it says (see James 1:21-22).’
‘If we’re to honor God with our entertainment choices, we must be willing to carefully evaluate how what we watch affects our love for God. We must be willing to wrestle with our standards and often refuse to watch what others think is permissible.’
‘The difference between the person who grows in holiness and the one who doesn’t is not a matter of personality, upbringing, or gifting; the difference is what each has planted into the soil of his or her heart and soul.’
‘Where do we plant these seeds that will change our future for better or worse? [St] Paul presents us with two fields. One represents the Spirit and a life lived to please and obey God, the other represents our sinful desires, or the “flesh” [Galatians 6:7-9]. Each of us can choose which field to plant seeds in. On any given day, or in any given moment, we can walk from one to the other, kneel down, and sow seeds in either one. When it comes to the flesh, we do this by indulging in a lustful glance, a sinful fantasy, or a movie loaded with sexual innuendo. We might think of these acts as harmless little flecks of dirt we can just brush off every so often with no real damage done. But God is telling us here that our sinful thoughts and deeds are actually seeds that land in the soil of our flesh. They don’t go away once they fall. They take root. They grow up. And eventually they become a great harvest of spiritual death. John Stott writes, “Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness.” ‘
‘Don’t become weary. As you sow to please the Spirit, a harvest of righteousness will begin to grow. It might not come up overnight, and at times you may feel like you’re not changing at all. But you will be.’
[* As this is potentially a sensitive topic, I think it’s worth saying explicitly that this post/review is intended as a dialogue with those communities and individuals who share similar Christian beliefs and ethics to my own, responding to some of the writings and talks on this topic that are being produced in these contexts. It is not intended in any sense as a judgement of those who hold different beliefs and values to my own and behave in different ways. I respect their right to hold their beliefs and act freely as they deem right. It is not for me to judge anyone. It is my wish and duty to love and respect every person and to treat them with honour.]