Like any pastor I find myself talking with men about pornography and other expressions of sinful lust. Through the years I have found that there is a biblical framework that is often neglected when counseling through this issue. I have laid it out in some detail here, and I regret that it is so long. However, I post it because it has served to help many through the years. In short the post is broken into three parts: 1) What is Lust? 2) Where is it sourced? 3) How do I combat it? The answer to this is not to stop desiring things but to properly desire God. Hence the title, “Fighting Lust with Lust”. We combat sinful lust by fixing our “lust” upon the glory of Christ. In other words, we slay sin by savoring Christ.
Awhile back I preached a sermon in which I emphasized the deception and danger of lust. I regretted not being able to further develop the topic, specifically how to fight lust. The answer to lust may surprise some, but it is the answer and frankly the only answer to lust that ultimately works.
What is lust?
The word translated lust in the New Testament is epithumia. The word simply means ‘desire.’ This desire can be good or bad; whether it is good or bad depends upon how it aligns with God’s revealed will.
For example, we do not understand a potential elder candidate to be in sin who is desiring (epithumia) to the work of an overseerer (1 Tim. 3:1). In this case the desire is a God-honoring desire; therefore, it is not a sinful lust.
On the other hand, we have the sin of lust. In our greed we crave or desire something that is not consistent with what God has revealed or provided. Simply put, sinful lust is to desire something that we believe to be good outside of what God has called good. It is to put our own will and pleasure above God’s.
This is seen quite clearly through the example of sexual lust. God has said that sex is to occur within the framework of marriage (between a male and a female). Therefore, any sexual lust is a craving to experience the intimate pleasures reserved for the marriage apart from this sacred institution. Therefore, it pursues enjoyment apart from and in contrast to God’s clearly revealed will. When a man sits and quietly fixes his eyes and heart upon a woman (whether it be on a computer, television, photo, in person, or in his imagination) and then begins to desire her sexually, this is sinful lust. The man has lustfully craved sexual satisfaction apart from what God has called good.
So with this basic introduction and framework of lust established, let’s make some biblical observations about lust. We understand from Scripture that sinful lust is as much a part of our unbelieving lives as breathing (Eph. 2:3; Titus 3:3) and that it is not to be characteristic of the Christian life (1 Pet. 1:14; 2:11; 4:2-4).
- Jesus tells us that the nature of lust is demonic (John 8:44).
- The Bible reiterates that this lust is sourced in our own hearts and it fastens itself on stuff; people, things, and other expressions of vain glory (James 1:14-16).
- A desire for, a lust for stuff chokes out the Gospel seed (Mk. 4:19).
- The lusts of the world are clear, succinct, and doomed (1 John 2:16-17).
The Source of the Problem
So why do we sinfully lust? Everyone yells in unison “Sin!” or “Pride!” or “Greed!” or some other answer that we know to be true but too often do not understand how it works. My contention here is that if you do not know why and how your heart works you will not effectively wage war against its fleshly passions.
Why do we sit and meditate about how successful we will be? Or how people will like us? Why do we strain our necks to covet and long for what we do not have? Why do women envy other women’s beauty, style, wardrobe, sense of humor, mothering skills, or professional skills? Why does a man find himself sinfully staring at a woman who is not his wife? Why does he find himself daydreaming and fantasizing about how he would orchestrate his life if he were sovereign? It is because we are longing for something. We are have discerned that we are empty and now are seeking to fill ourselves up.
At the heart level there is an appraisal that takes place. Each one of us, whether a Christian or not, are governed by our hearts. It’s been rightly said that our hearts are the control tower of the person. It is the seat of our emotions and what governs our actions. Our hearts are confronted with stuff and they confront us with stuff. The natural fallen tendency is to appraise stuff through the lenses of self-exaltation rather than divine exaltation. We naturally fasten our lust upon that which seems to provide us with immediate pleasure, comfort, happiness, or honor. The shiny hooks of the enemy dangle before us in the form of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Our hearts are lured after what we want and think we need. Is this not your experience? It is also the testimony of Scripture (James 1:14-15; 1 Jn. 2:16-17).
When we are confronted by our hearts we are forced to make a choice between that which God calls beautiful and which our sinful hearts calls beautiful.
For example, consider the area of pornography. Here is the scenario men, you are working on or browsing the internet on your computer and have a desire to look at pornography. So you open up a web browser and go to a site in attempt to satisfy what you are craving. In doing this, realize that what has happened is that you have just declared that these images are chiefly beautiful and worthy of your desire. You have elevated your selfish lust to a position of supremacy above what God has called beautiful. You have exchanged the beauty of God for the beauty of a fleeting image. Your sinful heart has just robbed the glory of God of what is due him by ascribing glory and beauty to this image. God has not willed that you have expended your sexual passions on this image but rather to sanctify your passions and employ within the context of a marriage. The craving, appraisal, and exchange happen so quickly. And, the advancement in technology, it is increasingly easy.
Then the heart shows its ability to deceive and trick (Jer. 17:9-10). Men may begin to deal with their sin in number of ways (some become paralyzed by guilt, others work to rationalize, others begin thinking in terms of being a victim). However it is dealt with we mustn’t forget our Lord’s shocking and sobering statement that one who lusts is as guilty as the one who has actually engaged in the action (Matt. 5:27-28). Those entangled in the sin may look around to blame others but at the end of the day must realize that biblically speaking it begins with us. Everyone who succumbs to lust does so on their own accord.
James 1:14-15 – But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
Notice here that we are tempted when we are carried away and enticed by our own lust. We are drawn and lured after our own lusts. We are enticed by our unbiblical appraisals of stuff.
How serious is this? What does a full-grown seed of lust look like? Notice that the result of this lust is death. Our unbiblical appraisal of and pursuit of stuff has a declared end and it is death. Men, how would you change your viewing habits if as soon as you thought an impure thought you knew that you were going to simultaneously explode? I wonder how often ladies would sit and talk about how they wish they looked like so and so or be like so and so if they at once were to be struck dead? While it may seem like I’m engaging in some extreme examples that aren’t relevant, let’s remember that in matters of sin we are talking about death (Rm. 6:23).
We Esteemed Him Not
In light of the appraising that goes on, consider the Lord Jesus. The passage everyone needs to meditate upon when dissecting their lustful habits is Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53:2 – For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
Jesus, with all of the beauty of God in bodily form, dwelling among human flesh and he is, from a human perspective, devoid of beauty and unworthy of attraction. He isn’t attractive to the heart.
Doesn’t this get right at our issue? How does the incarnate Son of God compare with the beauty of this world? In heaven we will engage in unhindered worship of this same Jesus and there will be no longings for this present world, for all of our desires and longings will be terminating on their chief end Jesus Christ! He is, after all, the very source and expression of goodness. We will forever be with God, at whose right hand there are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:10).
Remember what happened to Christ as a result of him not being highly esteemed.
Isaiah 53:3, 5 – He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him… But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
As a result of this lack of esteem, desire, and attraction, there was a barbaric crucifixion. It is no different today. When you and I fasten our lusts upon something that is sinful then we are weighing Jesus upon the scales against these same desires. The result is that he is found wanting. We measure the object of our lusts as beautiful and the infinitely beautiful Son of God to be… unattractive.
We need to think in these terms as we quietly employ the lusts of your flesh. Any ‘innocent’ desires that are the offspring of our glory-starved hearts have a target in mind and it is, and always will be, the slaying of God and the usurping of his authority.
No matter what setting you find yourself in, you must battle your heart. You may say “I don’t struggle with porn.” Praise God! But friend, you do struggle with lust. Every one of us struggles with the continual waywardness of our own hearts and our insatiable desire for comfort, honor, and control. It was Calvin who said that the human heart is an idol factory.
Peter reminds us of the priority:
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”” (1 Peter 1:14–16)
If we do not know what our former lusts were, perhaps they are not former. The Christian life is a battle that is characterized by a tenacious, fanatical, and relentless pursuit of holiness. If we are not walking against the worldly and fleshly current in pursuit of holiness than perhaps we are lifelessly floating downstream.
So how do we fight this sinful lust?
Fighting Lust with Lust
We have looked briefly at what sinful lust is, seeking ‘goodness’ apart from God, and where it is sourced… in our own hearts. In conclusion, let’s think about the chief auxiliary in combating lust.
The title of this article is intended to make us think. As we considered the fact that lusts are desires, and in the Scriptures these desires can be good or bad, this depends on how they line up with the will of God. So how do we fight these desires? We do it with desires. Your chief defense against sinful lust is an all-out offensive of sanctified lust, if you will. It is to set our hearts upon the supremacy, sufficiency, and beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in this posture of continual satisfied delight in Jesus that the lusts of our flesh and this world evaporate into vapors like the steam on our morning coffee.
So here are some helpful tools in fighting lust:
Admit you have issues
Too many of us walk around thinking we are ok. Just because we are not in triage does not mean we are perfectly healthy. We are sinners who are saved by and absolutely dependent upon divine grace. We need this grace every second of every hour. Our hearts are continually fighting for airtime; we are to be continually waging war on our hearts.
I love to ask people, “How is the battle going?” The battle is for holiness and against the exaltation of self through our own sin. The Christian life is not a stroll through a field to pick flowers and sip lemonade; it’s a battle. We should be dressed in armor, progressing through the battlefield with a single-minded resolve and fully dependent upon our Commanding Officer.
Agree with God about his beauty
This is the key. God is the very source of beauty. Furthermore, he defines what beauty is. We have God revealing himself in the Scriptures to be the very pinnacle of beauty and in his beauty he eclipses all things. Contemplate the reality that God does not decay or fade, but he is just as fresh, beautiful, and glorious today as he was when Paul preached the glories of Christ, when Jesus walked the earth, when David penned his songs of praise, when Moses cried out for a glimpse of his glory, when Abraham believed, when Adam and Eve walked with him in the garden, when the angels sang of his glory during creation, and when the Trinity enjoyed eternal fellowship and worship prior to the creation of the world. Now add to that that his beauty will never fade away. He will always be this glorious, this beautiful, this appealing, this attractive! He is the eternal God whose beauty is eternally untarnished.
The Father has spoken from heaven as to his appraisal of Jesus. We have read of this divine endorsement of the Savior at His baptism,
Matthew 3:17 – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Further, Matthew writes that Jesus is the eternal delight of the Father with whom the he is “well pleased” (Matt. 12:18).
Friends, can we not find ourselves in agreement with God as to His beauty? We must come to the Word of God to have our minds shaped and conformed by God. He says he is infinitely beautiful and worthy to be the unceasing object of our satisfaction and delight. Do you agree? Can you look back at him and say, “This is my beloved Savior with whom I am well-pleased!”
If you do, then your cravings and lust for things of this world and of your flesh will be starved out by your relentless enjoyment and pursuit of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
You can throw your computer out the window, but that won’t kill your lust. You can never go to the mall, but that won’t kill your lust. You can cut out your eyes, but that won’t kill your lust. You can move to a cave in Montana, but that won’t kill your lust. You can employ legalism, but that won’t kill your lust. All of these things fall short because they are external amputations when we need a heart transformation.
Notice that the Apostle Paul tells believers to put off such things as lustful cravings (Col. 3:5-8).
Colossians 3:5–8 – Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
Notice that verse 5 says “therefore”. The action of mortification or putting to death the deeds of the flesh, to include sinful lust, pivots out of what has just been said. Notice what the verses just before say:
Colossians 3:1-4 – Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.
You are putting to death lustful passions with your ceaseless passion for Jesus Christ, “keep seeking the things above”… “Set your mind on the things above...” It is this seeing and savoring of Jesus Christ (as Piper would say) that brings about the holiness that is required. The mortification of sin, the putting to death of sinful lust comes from a persistent, relentless, intentional, pursuit of the things above. These are things that are consistent with the new creation inaugurated by Christ the King.
But there is more here.
You see in Colossians 3:1 there is another “Therefore” statement. What did he just pivot out of? Chapters 1 and 2 declare the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus over and against everything. It is as if the Apostle Paul has packed a semi-trailer full of Christological truth and then drove it to your house and dropped it in your living room. He means to make you marvel at the gloriously infinite worth of Christ!
And as a result, the Christian is to see that all of the apparent competition and rivals to Jesus are completely eclipsed by the his resumé! He is seen to be absolutely supreme and sufficient and so therefore the only choice for your worship. He is it.
To see Jesus as supreme and sufficient is to see everything else as insufficient and lacking. To see stuff as worthy of your lust (coveting, craving, etc.) is to see Jesus as lacking. To seek goodness outside of what God has called good is to appraise Jesus and find him lacking. We need to think like this. We need to live like this. Our lust for selfish pleasure does have consequences. Whether we are talking sexual lust, material lust, professional lust, or whatever, we are talking about the removal of attributes of God and the imputation of the attributes of supremacy and sufficiency to stuff, and this is the height of idolatry (Col. 3:5).
This is why it is so critical to be in the Word of God daily. To find ourselves in subjection to the Divine Word, that we might have our minds transformed and renewed according to the will of God, that we would think his thoughts after him, appraising that which is excellent and rejecting that which is sinful (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:1-2). Furthermore, we are to drive the Word deep into our hearts through prayer and contemplative meditation; for we are people who need our hearts broken and reminded of the absolute beauty and attractiveness of God that we might see and savor his supremacy and sufficiency in all things. There is little doubt that this is what Paul had in mind as he writes these words in Colossians 3.
Colossians 3:16-17 – Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.