For twenty years now Christians have been inundated with news about “every man’s battle” and how every man struggles with lust.
But what if our approach is part of the problem?
I believe that because we talk about how all men struggle with lust, we’re creating the situation where most men struggle with lust.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s likely why I’ve found that men who became Christians after their teen years seem to struggle with porn and lust far less than guys who grew up in the church. They weren’t taught that lust is normal. They were taught, in general, that respecting women as whole people was normal.
That’s condition #1 that can lead to lust. Here’s condition #2:
Churches are so afraid of lust that they often do their best to separate men and women.
But men are more likely to get aroused when they focus on certain body parts rather than when they focus on the whole person. Get to know a woman in context, learn to see her as a person, and lust is far less common. What if our two solutions to lust–talking about it all the time and separating men and women–are both making lust more common?
The idea that “all men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle” is one of the toxic teachings that we measured in our survey of 20,000 women, the results of which are coming out in our book The Great Sex Rescue, launching March 2. Each week leading up to the launch we’re focusing on a different teaching that has messed up sex for couples, and this week it’s all about lust being every man’s battle.
The Great Sex Rescue
Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?
Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.
It stands to reason, then, that if we change the expectations around lust, and if we help men and women develop relationships that are focused on seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, then we can start undoing some of the serious damage this message has done.
I wrote about this a few years ago, but I’d like to rerun that post today, because it fits in so well with our podcast discussion last week on how not all men struggle with lust! Plus I’d like to expand on one of these issues in particular in tomorrow’s post!
So let’s look at 12 ways to help men overcome lust:
1. Stop talking about “every man’s battle” and start talking about Christ in you
Yes, many men struggle with lust. But not all do. And whatever we focus on expands. Are we focusing on the sin, or are we focusing on Christ? In the parable of the sower, many seeds failed to grow well because they were choked by the weeds. Instead of focusing on the sun, they looked at all the trouble around them. When we make lust sound like it’s inevitable–like it’s something that every guy will face and will never really defeat–then we lose the battle before we engage.
But if we teach people to look to the power of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of their lives, then they will feel like the battle with lust is one that they can win.
2. Treat men who don’t struggle with lust as the ideal, not as bogeymen who don’t exist
When I make a comment that I know men who can go to a beach and not lust after anyone, I am often told that I am wrong. I don’t really know those men’s hearts. I am a woman and I don’t really understand, and those men are lying to me. All guys struggle.
And I am often told this by Christian leaders. As we show in The Great Sex Rescue, our evangelical best-sellers state that all men struggle with lust, and even that your husband will lie to you about this.
Jesus did not struggle with lust. Paul did not struggle with lust. As I showed in my Every Man’s Battle series, the Bible presents a lust-free life as the normal condition for a redeemed man. So let’s start talking about real men being men who see women as whole people, not real men being men who struggle with lust.
3. Stop telling teenage boys that they will definitely struggle with lust and porn
Boys need to be equipped to deal with the pull that porn may bring, and they need to be told that they may struggle when they start to notice girls’ bodies.
But let’s not make the mistake of portraying the problem as bigger than the solution.
Yes, they may struggle–but they may not. And Jesus is bigger than any of their temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13). Warn them about the temptations, yes, but always temper that with the bigger idea that they can battle and win anything with the Holy Spirit’s help. Pair any teaching about lust with stories about guys who have victory.
Boys need to be equipped to deal with the pull that porn may bring, and they need to be told that they may struggle when they start to notice girls’ bodies. But let’s not make the mistake of portraying the problem as bigger than the solution.
4. Draw a distinction between lusting and noticing a woman is beautiful
Too many boys think there are only two alternatives: either you find a girl ugly, or you are lusting. But what if there’s another option? What if you simply notice a girl is attractive, and it doesn’t go any further? Let’s be careful not to confuse noticing beauty with lusting. If we make boys and men believe that if they see something beautiful they must automatically turn away because that’s just plain dangerous, then they’ll be constantly paranoid and never able to have normal conversations with women.
We also need to tell them that normal sexual desire and normal feelings are not lust. When a guy starts having sexual feelings, it does not mean he is sinning. When we heap guilt when there is no sin, we make it seem as if it’s impossible to overcome real sin.
You May Also Enjoy:
- Noticing is Not Lusting
- The Noticing is Not Lusting Podcast
- What if Not All Guys Struggle with Lust (podcast)
5. Stop warning women and girls not to “cause men to sin”
When my daughter Katie was 11, she was warned by a kind-hearted Sunday School teacher who meant well that now that she was developing, she was going to have to watch what she wore, because men might look down her shirt.
It took quite a while for her father and I to calm her down and convince her that not all adult men at our church were perverts trying to see her new training bra.
We frequently blame women’s and girl’s clothing choices for causing men to sin–even if those girls are only 13.
When we talk about women causing men to sin, we lay the blame for lust at women’s feet and make it less likely that men will feel the need to fight lust. It’s a losing battle, and only women’s actions can keep men’s thoughts from straying. As I’ve shown before, that’s entirely unbiblical. If an adult man is lusting after my 11-year-old daughter, I’m pretty sure I know who is to blame. And if a guy can’t worship God because a female seeker has come to church in a tight sundress, then the problem is not with her. We need to be very, very clear about that. The “don’t be a stumbling block” issue doesn’t mean that women bear the responsibility for men’s sin.
You may also enjoy:
- Why Every Man’s Battle Backfires
- Let’s Put the Modesty and Stumbling Block Debate to Bed for Good (podcast)
- Why Don’t Be a Stumbling Block is a Bad Modesty Message
6. Start talking about how all of us should respect ourselves and honour God in our clothing choices
At the same time, all of us can honour each other in how we dress. But we can do this without laying the blame for sin at women’s feet. Let’s change the conversation so that it’s no longer about “stopping a guy from stumbling” or “not causing him to sin”, and it’s instead about honouring God.
If we all asked these three questions:
- Who am I dressing for?
- What is the first impression someone looking at me will have?
- Am I a good ambassador for Jesus? Do I look approachable, friendly, and appropriate?,
then we wouldn’t have problems with how people dressed (see these better modesty guidelines!).
7. Make any dress code rules apply to both genders.
When we make dress codes only for women, we reinforce the idea that women are dangerous and men will lust if women don’t behave. Besides, men can make inappropriate clothing choices, too. That’s why those three questions should also apply to BOTH men and women, to BOTH girls and boys.Sure, maybe a crop top may give a bad first impression to people, but maybe slouchy jeans would as well! If we are going to make dress codes, then they should not be focused on only one gender. They should focus on how all of us can honour Christ and each other and create a welcoming environment.
8. Make sure there are strong female youth group leaders
As soon as boys enter puberty and start having sexual thoughts, it needs to be reinforced to them that females are more than just objects of sexual temptation. They are people who can lead; who can be respected; who are wise.
9. Encourage more co-ed church activities to make it easier for strong, platonic friendships to form
Too often churches gender segregate most activities, especially for adults. But the more we separate the genders, the more we define ourselves almost entirely in terms of our gender. We don’t see each other as people; we see each other as men and women. It is healthy to develop friendships with the opposite sex that are platonic.
10. Honour women for their intelligence, ideas, and creativity
Similarly, don’t relegate women to only childcare roles or roles where they serve men. Put women on some committees and listen to their ideas. Make it normal that your church sees the whole person that God created, rather than sees her simply as an appendage for men or as an object that men may use or be tempted by.
11. Do not put up obstacles to women breastfeeding in church
A side-effect of all this modesty talk is that women’s bodies are seen as sexual. No matter what. So breast-feeding in church is often off the table.
Interestingly, it is only in church today that this is the case. This gives the impression that while “the world” thinks breastfeeding is okay, we Christians know that breasts are really off-limits, because they’re absolutely and inherently sexual, all the time, even when an infant is attached to them.
It sexualizes women’s body parts all the more.
Let’s make the expectation that men can be real men and honour women, especially when they are feeding children.
12. Do not try to keep young boys from seeing our culture
No matter how many “t-shirts over bathing suits” rules you try to enforce, your sons live in the real world. They’re going to see models in lingerie stores in the mall, they’re going to grow up to work with women who wear tight or low-cut clothing, and they’re going to go to the beach where girls are running around in bikinis.
When you shelter kids from things, those things become taboo. And when something is strictly forbidden, it ironically becomes the spotlight (the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon.) If you are constantly avoiding anything that could “cause your son to lust”, or make a fuss or get offended when any girl is wearing something inappropriate, you’re doing your son a disservice. Instead, ignore it, walk by the potential distraction, and keep your conversation or activity going no matter who or what’s around. That teaches your son, “It’s OK if there are attractive girls around–they don’t need to be the focus. They have no power, you can make that decision yourself.”
I believe that if we change the expectations around lust, we can free both men and women.
I’ve talked about how the “men are visually stimulated” idea has been wrongly twisted to say that all men will inevitably lust over women they see in passing. I’ve talked about how women have the right to expect that their husbands won’t lust.
I’d like to end today’s post with an observation a male commenter left a few years ago on my post about how we’re abusing the Christian modesty message. I think it’s very insightful, and a great way to wrap all of this up:
I was in my early twenties before I could look at a young woman without some sense of paranoia that I might end up stumbling. After all, I was trained all of my life that there was a fine line between finding someone to be beautiful and turning her into a sex object in your mind. In fact, it was much better that I avoid the line altogether and, somehow, refrain from allowing myself to find a girl attractive until the wedding night – at which point I was expected to go from hiding in a cave to launching into space. I was taught, like most Christian boys, that we are not really in control of our sexuality or desires. Avoidance is the only option – something that is impossible in modern times.
Of course, the female body, in certain contexts, was meant to be titillating. It was also meant to be simply beautiful. When I am entranced by a sunset or left speechless by the Rockies, I am not tempted to objectify them as something I want to conquer, own, or plunder. I simply appreciate the beauty of God’s handiwork. Can I not do the same with women? Can I not see them as beautiful, appreciate that, all without objectifying or lusting after them?
Yes. Yes I can. I know because I do.
Instead of doing some odd head dance in a mall to avoid seeing anything attractive, I can look the world full in the face, appreciate its diversity, nuances, and beauty, and rejoice in the same. Victoria’s Secret stores, once seen as a black hole of evil, no longer bother me. Of course, it is certainly helpful that everywhere I go doesn’t look like the beaches of Brazil. However, unlike what I was taught, I am in control of my sexuality. I decide what to do with what I see – to be saddened, to objectify, to sexualize, or to simply see as beauty. I can pass by or interact with someone I find attractive without turning them into an object of sexual desire. I am a man redeemed by Christ. Not a boy who can’t help what he thinks about what he sees.
So, to the church, stop telling me that I’m a helpless sex fiend who’s better off with a blindfold. Teach me of beauty apart from sexuality. Teach me that my mind can be used to see women as imago Dei rather than objects of temptation. Teach me how to control what I do with my thoughts and what I see rather than sending me on a lifelong fool’s errand of avoiding all thoughts and keeping my eyes on my feet (or in space). Teach me strength and mastery rather than cowardice. Teach me these things and you might have less men who live with the idea that they are one-thought creatures, and less women who are shamed into hiding.
What do you think? Would these steps make the lust problem better? Is there one you would add, or one that stands out? Let’s talk in the comments!
(Interestingly, the first time I ran this post, 80% of the comments revolved around one particular point. I’m curious to see if that happens again, because tomorrow I want to focus on that point particularly!)
Other Posts in our Every Man’s Battle Series on Lust:
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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