Why willpower alone is not enough
SOURCE: Adam R. Holz/Discipleship Journal
The young man looks at the pile of work on his desk and takes a deep breath. With dread, he thinks about the deadline that looms on Friday. The pressing tyranny of so many things to do day after day has begun to wear on him.
As he heads to the kitchenette for another cup of coffee, a coworker steps out of her cubicle in front of him. He notices her clothes, or more specifically, how they fit her. In an instant, his thoughts race into forbidden territory as his glance sweeps over Marcia’s body.
“Morning, Sam,” Marcia says with a friendly smile.
“Morning, Marcia,” Sam replies according to script, unable to look her in the eyes.
Sam and Marcia discuss the morning’s non-news, the mundane stuff of casual conversations between coworkers. Almost unconsciously he watches her as she turns to leave the kitchenette.
As soon as she disappears around the corner, Sam realizes he’s fallen again. Despite his pleas to God and his vows to try harder, to do better, still his eyes wander. Like Peter after the cock crowed, Sam is filled with remorse. Back at his desk, he quietly pleads, “Forgive me, Lord.” But he neither feels forgiven nor has much time to think about it as he picks up the next invoice to record in the ledger.
Anatomy of Lust
Many sincere followers of Christ struggle with lust. What, exactly, is lust? Webster’s defines it as an “unusually intense or unbridled sexual desire.” In Ephesians, Paul says that lust characterizes those without Christ:
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.—Eph. 4:18–19
Paul also wrote, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3).
These passages paint a dark picture of the person trapped in lust. Though Paul was talking about unbelievers, when believers give in to lust regularly, our souls are similarly darkened. We grow insensitive to sin and increasingly pursue fleshly gratification. Lust promises satisfaction but never delivers. Instead, we’re left with a driving hunger for more.
People who struggle with lust may be tempted to wonder, Is obedience in this area of my life really possible? This has been a pressing question for me. I’ve had seasons of consistent obedience as well as failure. I wish I could say that I have “arrived” when it comes to defeating this demon. But I have not discovered the silver bullet that will permanently vanquish lust from my heart, mind, and eyes.
However, I have begun to see that dealing with lust demands a deeper examination of the core beliefs from which our sinful choices spring. We can make important behavioral changes—such as memorizing Scripture and seeking accountability—but still fail to look carefully at what’s really going on in our hearts. To experience lasting change, we must recognize that sexual sin springs from wrong beliefs about God, about others, and about what will ultimately satisfy our longing.
What drives us to choose something that so consistently fails to satisfy, something that heaps debilitating shame upon our lives? God has created us with a natural desire to experience intimacy. Lust is a debased form of this desire to connect with others. We want other people to understand what’s going on inside us. Lust, however, mistakenly elevates the sexual component of intimacy. It twists and warps our hearts into the tragic belief that sexuality—and fantasy—is the chief means to that end.
Lust also reveals a stunted belief in God’s goodness and His ability to meet our needs. Throughout the Bible, God has promised to fill, satisfy, and sustain us. Isaiah 51:12 says, “I, even I, am he who comforts you.” Zephaniah 3:17 describes God’s passion for us in poetic terms: “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” David spoke of God’s love for him: “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you . . . My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Ps. 63:3, 5). In Ps. 16:11, David also said, “You will fill me with joy in your presence.” Finally, Isaiah wrote about how God has designed our relationship with Him to quench our deepest thirsts. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Is. 12:3).
The New Testament echoes the Old in the ways it describes God’s promise to satisfy us. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). Paul wrote, “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19, NRSV). Paul repeatedly described believers as heirs to the inexhaustible riches of a Father God who loves us passionately. We are children of the King!
And yet we sometimes choose to live as paupers, rooting around desperately in the trash instead of dining on the rich fare He offers His children at His table. If we capitulate to the siren song of the flesh, distortions and lies creep into our thinking in subtle ways. Enticing but life-sapping alternatives to His goodness always crouch in the shadows of the soul, seeking to seduce our heart’s attention. Whether we realize it or not, we begin to rationalize our sin.
We may think, I’ve sought to serve Him with all my heart for many years, but still He hasn’t brought me a life partner. It doesn’t matter if I indulge this lustful thought a bit. God knows I’m a sexual being. I deserve a bit of comfort. Instead of recognizing our sin for what it is, we come to see it as a right. We squint at God, viewing Him as a stingy miser who has established unreasonable laws to keep us from what we think will satisfy us. Lust is born the moment we choose to meet our needs our way instead of trusting God to be true to what He’s promised.
Maybe we don’t vocalize those thoughts. But when we choose lust, our actions uncover what we believe. We have essentially said to God, “I really don’t believe You can satisfy my deepest needs, and I’m tired of waiting. I am going to have what I want, on my terms, right now, and I’m not willing to wait for You to fulfill my desires in Your time.” Lust, then, is the wicked child of unbelief.
That’s why willpower alone can never be the ultimate solution to the battles we wage against the lusts of our flesh. I may vow, “I’m never going to do that again.” But that momentary intention does not get at the root of the problem: my unbelief in God’s goodness.
Instead, I must recognize that one key to resisting lust’s lies is learning to go to the Father and praying in faith, “Lord, You have said that You delight in me, that You love me, that You want to comfort and fill me with Yourself. You have said that You alone are life and that Your love is better than anything we might experience in this life, including sex and my fantasies about it. Father, help me to trust You in this moment of temptation. I believe in Your ability to fill and satisfy me.”
Peter said that if we take God at His word, we will experience freedom from the shackles of sin and we will know Him intimately. “He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4).
In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, a once proud and noble king slowly goes insane, slipping into deep paranoia about those close to him. One of Lear’s friends admonishes him, “See better, Lear.” Like the senile Lear, we, too, need to see better. Not only does lust reveal unbelief, but it also demonstrates that I see others only as objects of gratification, not as individuals whom God has lovingly created in His image.
How can we begin to see people as God sees them? By allowing Scripture to saturate our hearts. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, God’s Word will transform our perspective. As we read and meditate upon it, we see what He values and discover how He wants us to relate to others. He uses His Word to rewire our perspective on reality, giving us new eyes to “see better.”
All of Scripture pours forth God’s love for each individual. A couple of passages, however, stand out regarding the way we see people. One important thing to reflect upon is that every person has been made in God’s image (see Gen. 1:27). David describes God’s craftsmanship in Ps. 139:13–16:
You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful . . . My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Every person has tremendous dignity and worth simply by virtue of being created lovingly by God. We can begin to combat lust by asking God to help us remember and believe, deep in our hearts, that each individual is a unique and wondrous creation who bears His image. When I lust after a woman, I do violence to her dignity by failing to see her as a whole person and respect her as an image bearer of our God. Over the last couple of years, this truth has significantly changed the way I see people.
Another passage is one of the most familiar commands in the Bible: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12). As a man, I’ve rarely been on the receiving end of lustful glances. However, one experience showed me how ugly, how selfish, how disgusting my lust is.
On a weekend trip to Santa Fe with one of my best friends and his wife, we discovered a club that featured a different kind of music every night. We enjoyed a delightful evening of jazz and returned the next night to see what else was on tap.
When we walked in, I noticed that everyone sitting at the bar was male. My friend whispered to me, “This feels weird.” He was right. Several male couples openly expressed their affection for one another on the dance floor. Recognition dawned: It was gay night.
By the time my friend and I turned to leave, three men at the bar were openly sizing us up. No veil of shame or embarrassment cloaked their hungry eyes. I remember how disgusting it felt to be seen as a steak on a platter. Almost immediately, however, a familiar voice said, “Adam, how often do you do the same thing?”
I try to remember that sense of violation. I try to remember because it’s not the way I want to be treated, nor is it the way I want to regard any woman. By God’s help and power, I am learning to see better.
Intimacy and Community
Earlier I commented that lust is a misguided attempt to meet our legitimate needs for intimacy. We may think the key to escaping lust’s tenacious grip is paying more attention to private spiritual disciplines. While this is important, I believe another crucial component is often overlooked. Those who struggle with lust must experience wholesome intimacy within the context of a loving community. We need to be with others who love us deeply, yet not sexually. We need to receive their affirmation, their affection, their love, and their touch.
Genuine community is built upon a willingness to take off our masks in front of others. Though we need to be careful to do this in appropriate settings, such as in a small group or even with one other person, it’s critically important that someone knows who we really are.
Moving toward that kind of honesty is never easy, even if someone else has taken the risk first. But often, we will have to be the one who steps forward, takes the risk, and talks openly about our sin.
Proverbs 28:13 describes the healing process that takes place when we confess our struggles to an accepting community of believing friends: “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” I’ve sometimes failed to live up to the standards of purity God commands of us. Each time, I experience a tortuous descent into self-loathing, a crippling burden to bear alone.
Even after I’ve confessed my sin to God, I can only find complete freedom from my shame by confessing the whole truth about my choices to several men I trust. In doing so, I’ve never failed to experience the mercy about which the writer of Proverbs speaks.
The freedom and healing in confession come from knowing that others have glimpsed the dark places in our hearts yet accept and love us anyway. God graciously uses other believers as vessels of His mercy and grace, reminding us through them that forgiveness is real, that it is our birthright as His sons and daughters.
Hope for the Battle
When we find ourselves giving in again to lust, we need to look beyond the behavior itself to what’s going on in our hearts. Lust is a clue that something about the way we’re approaching life is not right.
If you’re wrestling with this sin, consider how you’re seeing God and others. Do you believe God is capable of meeting your needs? Are you carving out time to know Him in increasing intimacy through His Word and prayer? How are you looking at other people? Are you seeing them as image bearers of God or treating them as objects? Are you sharing your heart with others, letting them see your struggle, and receiving the gift of their prayers and willingness to listen? Or are you in hiding?
Paul’s promises about God’s work in my life give me hope for this ongoing battle. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). By His grace, I recognize His tremendous Father-love for me more each day. As I do so, His eyes become mine, and I see other people from His redemptive, life-giving perspective, instead of viewing them through the warped lenses of lust.