What if the real reason that lust is bad really isn’t about sex?

i’ve talked about lust before on the blog–with the question “is lust really every man’s battle“? I’ve written that noticing is not lusting.

But my husband Keith wanted to chime in today, as he writes more for the blog, and share his perspective. And he’s got some cool insight about what the root of the real problem with lust! So here’s Keith:

Keith and Sheila in Chile

Keith and me in Chile, on our cruise a month ago, before the world changed.

I remember in university one of my professors talking about something called the “Madonna-whore complex”.

The concept is that men only see women in two ways – unapproachably pure or a tawdry tart ready for conquest. But more than pointing out that this was a restrictive view of female sexuality, I recall her strong overtones that men could only see women in sexual terms like this.

At the time, I thought this was completely ridiculous. I mean, I was a young man in my hormonal prime and I didn’t think of women like that!  Half my professors were women and I had no sexual thoughts about them. And not because I thought they were “madonnas”, but because I thought of them simply as people I needed to listen to and learn from. Similarly, half of my classmates were women. If pressed, I would have said that maybe one day I might hope to meet “the right one”, but I certainly didn’t spend my time categorizing them into whether they were possible sexual targets or too pure to even try.

Thirty more years of life experience have given me insight into why some people would believe men think this way.

There certainly seems to be an assumption in our society as a whole that it is natural and normal for men to see women purely as objects of sexual gratification. Hollywood jokes about strippers at bachelor parties as if that were no big deal. Places where women take their clothes off for men for money are called “gentlemen’s clubs” as if that pastime were something associated with refinement and nobility.  And of course, there is the multi-billion dollar pornography industry, whose whole point is to objectify women for men’s pleasure that quite tragically seems to have become mainstream.  The overall message in our culture seems to be that “men by nature want to look, so let them”. This kind of activity is portrayed as something that all men do and women just need to accept that.

Unfortunately, I think we have taken on some of this unhealthy mentality in the church with the whole “All men lust” theme that is preached from pulpits and published in Christian books.

Lust it seems is the universal sin that no man is free of. They make it sound like every man is either undressing every woman he sees in his mind or consciously battling the desire to do so with great difficulty.  But do we really think that 100% of men – Christian or not – are devoting mental energy constantly to fighting off these kinds of urges? And do we not understand what that must sound like to a woman? Let’s make sure we are not conflating normal biologic urges with sinful thought patterns. Sheila has already talked about how noticing is not lusting and I think it is so important for us to recognize the difference. The first is an automatic response, the second is what we do with our conscious brains.

Let me use as an analogy how we handle anger. If someone says something insulting about someone you care about, you will naturally feel anger.  That feeling is in itself not good or bad, what is important is how you deal with it. Do you give in to your base urges or do you do the right thing? In the same way, noticing that a woman is beautiful or has an attractive figure is an instinctual thing. It is not good or evil, it’s just biological. It happens in a part of our brains we don’t actually control.  However, once our conscious brain registers and starts to weigh in on the situation we can handle things in many different ways.  That is where morality comes into it.

And this is where I think the church is failing.  Because it seems to me that we teach the sin of lust is about a man’s eye coming in contact with a part of a woman’s anatomy rather than what is going on in the man’s heart. In my mind, lust is a sin because it diminishes and degrades women, making them objects rather than people.  If we focused on fighting that idea, I think we would have a much healthier view about lust and how to handle it than we seem to at present.  I want to give you three examples of how we currently see lust in the church and how it would be healthier to see it from this new perspective.

By teaching that lust is universal and is primarily a problem of men’s eyes coming in contact with women’s anatomy, we are teaching girls at some level that their natural female body is a source of evil.

First, Paige Patterson’s creepy comments about a 16-year old girl

Consider this video of a sermon from Paige Patterson (president of an SBC seminary at the time), where he tells a joke about a mother chastising her son and his friend for gawking at a sixteen year old girl. The punch line is when he rebukes the mother because the boys were just “being Biblicial”.  I find this video disturbing for a number of reasons. As I said above, noticing is not lusting, but we are still responsible for our thought life once the conscious part of our brain engages. In this case, the teenage boys’ conscious brains were engaged long enough that they were clearly seen to be gawking.  An appropriate response would be a gentle reminder to these fellows that they were not being respectful toward this young lady and an encouragement to a higher level of behaviour. That Reverend Patterson did not do so is concerning enough, but what is so much worse is how he states with rather disturbing relish that “she was…nice”.

Clearly in this encounter, his own conscious mind was quite engaged as well. It was certainly engaged long enough that he imprinted a clear memory of the scene, yet at no point did his conscious mind seem to register that he was a sixty-year-old man and she was a sixteen-year old girl! The letters of outrage that poured in after this video went up in 2018 eventually produced an apology from Reverend Patterson for using this illustration. But the fact that he was able to use it over his career without any fallout prior to that only shows how accustomed we in the church have become to the objectification of women.  How could a pastor talk like this and have it be seen as a humourous little anecdote for so long?

If instead we all recognized that objectifying and degrading women was the real evil in the sin of lust, this illustration would have generated the outrage it deserves the first time he said it instead of the laughter it received.

Second, teaching men to “bounce your eyes” causes more harm than good

This is typified in the book Every Man’s Battle. I read the book early in our marriage as I wanted to have as pure a thought life as possible, but frankly it turned me into a nervous wreck!  The concept is if you see something you shouldn’t, then bounce your eyes somewhere else.  But as soon as you focus on NOT thinking about something, you are already doomed to failure.  If I tell you, “Don’t think about a red barn”, what do you do? You immediately start thinking about a red barn! And after that, every time I ask you, “Are you thinking about it?” it pops back into your mind even if you had somehow how managed to get it out of there!

But the worst part about this whole “treatment plan” is that it perpetuates and reinforces this idea that the only way a man can look at a woman is sexually, which is manifestly not true. I have gone to art exhibits and appreciated the sculptures and paintings of the female form by Titian and the other great masters without being aroused or harbouring any thoughts that I would consider impure. I think most men have had similar experiences.

Yet this book and other similar teachings start from the assumption that a man cannot look at a woman in a way that is not sexual.  The fact that we add a “Thou shalt not look” to the mix does not change the fact that this approach completely degrades and objectifies women, reducing them to body parts, just like our pornographic culture.  I am suggesting instead a different approach – seeing women fully as people.  Imagine how much better a thought life we men could have if instead of telling ourselves “I shouldn’t look at that” (which clearly objectifies), we asked ourselves “Is the way I am looking at this woman respectful to her?” – which acknowledges and celebrates her full personhood. It just seems intrinsically healthier to me and it is so sad that this way of thinking is not more prevalent in the church.

Men of the church, can we not have a higher view of women?
Can we not think of them as the whole people God created them to be?
Can we not try to see them the way Jesus does?

Worst of all, we are making girls ashamed of their own bodies

The church is constantly warning women about the way they dress. Since all men lust, the teaching goes, women have to be careful how they present themselves, so as not to make men stumble. I have several problems here. The first is that I don’t recall Jesus saying “If your right eye causes you to sin, make sure that everything in your environment is adjusted so that nothing that would make you stumble comes into view.” He clearly puts the onus on the one looking rather than the one being looked at, yet strangely that is hardly ever talked about in churches.

The second is to relate my shock, frustration and disgust with the way that we are hurting young girls with this message. Our daughter Katie developed rather early. I was completely dismayed to hear that one of her youth leaders took her aside when she was 11 to warn her that she “had to be careful how she presented herself now so as not to make the men in the congregation tempted to lust”. Now Katie had never dressed in any way that was inappropriate, so the sole issue was that she had a nice figure and therefore the issue was her body itself.

By teaching that lust is universal and is primarily a problem of men’s eyes coming in contact with women’s anatomy, we are teaching girls at some level that their natural female body is a source of evil.  This is simply not acceptable.  Yet somehow it has become routine to teach little girls that grown men will lust after them based on how they dress rather than to teach grown men that they shouldn’t look at little girls!

The real evil of any sin is that it mars and diminishes God’s creation and lust is no different.

God has made a world that is meant to be beautiful, glorious and life-giving, but sin makes it ugly, shameful and soul-destroying.  Clearly, the pornography industry is an example of that. But in my eyes teaching an 11-year old girl to be afraid of her own body because adult men will be unable to control their thought lives because of her is just as ugly, shameful and soul-destroying.

Men of the church, can we not have a higher view of women?  Can we not think of them as the whole people God created them to be? Can we not try to see them the way Jesus does?  Let’s take the most extreme example. Imagine a young woman is dressing in a way that is clearly meant to be sexually provocative. Why is our first response as men not to want to help her to respect herself enough to present herself to the world in a way that upholds her dignity and worth as more than just a sex object?

I truly believe we can think about lust differently. And it starts with refusing to buy the lie that it is okay to objectify women.  All of us, both men and women, are designed to reflect our Creator.  Let’s see lust for what it is – the objectifying and degrading a woman who was created in the image of God and for whom Christ died. If we do, maybe we can prove my English teacher was wrong about men after all – at least about those men who have learned to see women through the eyes of Jesus.

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