Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Lust

Dorothy L. Sayers writes that a young man once said to her, "I did not know that there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six." The last of the warm-hearted sins is the most famous. And probably the most misunderstood. Because if you ask most people what lust is, they will say "sexual desires." And they would be wrong.

We have the same problem here that we had with anger. Anger is natural and can be a good thing. So is sexual desire. Without it there would be no human race. In fact, the very first commandment in the Bible is to "be fruitful and multiply." So the temptation is to say that lust is "excessive sexual desire." But that also is not quite true. People have different sex drives. In "Annie Hall" on split screen Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are asked by their respective therapists how often they have sex. Rolling her eyes, Keaton says, "All the time--2 or 3 times a week." Whining, Allen replies to the same question, "Hardly ever--2 or 3 times a week." The frequency is the same; their perceptions are different. If a couple is in sync on this issue, what someone else might consider excessive or insufficient is irrelevant. If we defined lust simply as an excess, it would be so subjective as to be useless.

One reason that sins trip us up is that they are cunning counterfeits of the good. Remember that God created everything good. Evil must therefore be derivative. It is the misuse, the neglect or the parody of good. So perhaps the way to delineate lust is to examine normal sexual desire. Sexual desire is good when it leads to or is part of a committed love relationship. In fact, during sexual activity the body releases the hormone oxytocin which causes the partners to bond. It's the same chemical released when a woman gives birth or a child suckles. The purpose is to bind people: lovers, parents, children. So when Jesus said that to look at a woman with lust in one's heart is the same as adultery, obviously he was not referring to looking at a woman and saying, "I would like to marry her and raise a family with her." He is talking about wishing to have the pleasure of sex with no strings attached. And that is the essence of lust.

Wealthy Romans of Jesus' time loved to feast. At parties and important functions they would serve more courses of exotic foods than anyone could eat. So after gorging themselves, some gluttons would go to the vomitorium and…you can figure out the rest. The point is, they were divorcing the taste of food from its nutritional function. And that's what lust is. It is separating sex from love. Comic book artist William Rotsler once defined sex as "a clever imitation of love. It has all the action but none of the plot." So why do we do that? Well, duh--it feels good!

My wife makes great chocolate chip cookies. But if she buys a bag of Ghirardelli's chocolate chips, she'd better bake the cookies right away. Because once the bag is discovered in the pantry, its contents will begin to disappear. As much as I love her cookies, I can't resist the temptation to eat the chips by themselves, even if it spoils the chance of my getting cookies. The pleasure of sex is the sugar and spice of relationships. Enjoying it alone ruins relationships.

But the taste tempts us. Advertisers know this and so they use sex to sell everything from deodorant to cars. Movie makers know this which is why almost all actresses get their start in Hollywood as eye candy rather than as real characters. Record companies know this which is why there are so few plain or ugly rock stars or rappers, leading one to conclude that musical talent and physical attractiveness must somehow go together. Only in opera, where one really has to be good and powerful without resorting to studio tricks, do most of the talented people look like regular folks.

And pornographers know that sex sells itself. In this industry, sex is even divorced from actual physicality. People will settle for mere pictures or images. C.S. Lewis said that if we went to a country where people would pay to see a man on a stage slowly lift the cover off of a plate of pork chops, we would conclude that there is something very wrong with the audience's appetite. Bill Cosby said that if you're really hungry, why would you pay to watch another man eat a steak? But when it comes to sex, unlike some other appetites, even the hunger, the lack and longing, feels good. And more to the point, some people will settle for fantasy.

Fantasy is the most dangerous aspect of pornography. It's not the sight of naked folks that warps minds, it is the unreality that goes along with it. We are usually presented with flawless people (and if they aren't, airbrushing and silicone will come to the rescue.) These manikins meet, are instantly attracted to one another, and are at it in less time than it takes most adolescent boys to work up the nerve to say "Hi" to a girl. No wonder these fantasies are so enticing. And it isn't just porn. A study found that on TV, 1 in 10 fictional couples who have sex have just met. In movies the percentage must be a lot higher. Even other animals generally have elaborate courting rituals. If asked point blank about the reality of such depictions, most intelligent kids would probably say they know it isn't like that in real life. But the constant bombardment of such images and scenarios must leave an impression. And kids are starting to think that casual sex is an early and expected part of dating, as opposed to something that is the consummation of a relationship built up carefully with the patient demonstration of understanding, faithfulness and committed love. Why eat your fruits and vegetables first when you can just have dessert right away? Why eat a meal at all when you can try living on pop tarts?

There are also the unreal expectations created. Wouldn't we all like it if our spouses looked a bit more like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt? Wouldn't we want our every intimate encounter to register high on the Richter Scale? The impossible standards set and repeated constantly in the media can breed a certain dissatisfaction with the real world.

The existence of cybersex is convincing proof that fantasy is one of the strongest elements of lust. People share a mutual fantasy while connected by nothing more substantial than electrons and touching nothing more sensual than a mouse. Here we have a simulacrum of sex that can be disassociated from sight, sound, smell, taste or touch--unless you count touch typing. I saw a BBC documentary on people addicted to cybersex and it struck me that what hooked them was the fact that all the inconvenient elements of a real relationship were dispensed with. One needn't bathe, dress up, decide on a mutually desirable activity, movie or restaurant, show interest in the other person's life or do anything other than get to the imaginary sex. Ours is an impatient and narcissistic culture. If they created a computer program to play the part of the other person, cybersex between real people would probably wither away. They are probably working on a video game version using Wii or Kennect technology even as we speak.

It is telling that the fastest way to deflate lust is to make it face the real world. If most sexual encounters were depicted realistically in films, TV and books, complete with fumbling with clothing, accidental hair pulling, and that sudden realization that you really should have gone to the bathroom first, they would come across as comic at best and as anti-erotic at the worst. Lust is a hot house plant that can't survive too much reality.

The antidote to lust is to look past appearances, however pleasing, and try to see the person whom God created in his image and for whom Christ died. If you can see his love, gentleness, patience and faithfulness in that person; if you catch a glimpse of his glory, a glint of his grace, it will be harder to reduce that person to a collection of body parts. The reason you didn't fall for someone who looks more like Angelina or Brad, one hopes, is that you saw and were attracted to the inner person. Sure, physical attraction might have kicked things off but only a fool keeps going out with a good-looking jerk. That's one of the good side effects of the church's emphasis on how serious marriage is: that it is "not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God." It sometimes wakes people up to the fact that the decision to make a relationship permanent will forever change their lives. It will bind them to the reality of who they are, who they are marrying and the fact that selfish fantasy must give way to the real and sometimes messy pleasures that can only be found and shared with another person. As sad as it is for the person left at the altar, when that happens it is a merciful near miss with misery. Better that the other person cut and run before your lives are inextricably intertwined than afterward.

And the vows that brides and grooms make come not from some killjoy church but spring from their own hearts. We just put the words in their Sunday best, so to speak. When you are in love with someone, you sincerely wish to stay with that person forever. You resolve to stick with that person regardless of the circumstances. You might even imagine yourself suffering nobly on their behalf. At least when you're young. As a home health nurse, I see a lot of older people who find themselves in a situation where they really are faced with sticking with a spouse in sickness rather than in health, for poorer rather than for richer…and I am amazed and pleased to see how often they rise to the occasion. They sacrifice their pleasures, their sleep, their privacy, their dignity and their illusion of self-sufficiency to care for a lover who may not be able to appreciate their efforts or reciprocate their affection. That is true love.

The obvious opposite of lust is not chastity but love. Lust is surface; love is depth. Lust is illusion; love is reality. Lust is temporary; love is eternal. True, Jesus says that in the afterlife we will not marry but that doesn't necessarily mean something less than the intimacy we have with our mate. Perhaps it means something more. After all, as the poets remind us, sex is the closest approximation in the physical realm to religious ecstasy. The Bible uses the image of married love as an analogy to our relationship to God. We are to treat our spouses as we would Christ and to act as sacrificially towards them as he did to the church. Our lives together are meant to be a mirror and a channel of God's love. That is why marriage is a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of and inner and spiritual grace. In heaven what is invisible will be visible. So the form of the sacrament will not be needed. The reality will be revealed. Our bodies will be transfigured. Why shouldn't the intimacy and love we have spent our lives building be likewise purged of their sins and imperfections and transformed into something stronger, purer and even more exciting? For if God created something as wonderful as sex for these merely physical bodies, what raptures await us when we transcend this limited realm of time and space and experience the undiluted beauty of his love?

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