In the face of sexual temptation, repression is a sure-fire failure

My first relationship to desire was to give in to it.

As a teenager in the early aughts, I believed that life was found by identifying my desires and rushing toward their satisfaction.

I played this out in academics and especially in sexuality. My life beat to the pulse of Ariana Grande’s chant, “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.”

The right response to desire was indulgence.

Unbeknownst to me as a nonChristian, the purity movement was running in parallel.

Those who experienced that movement from the inside have spent recent months breaking down its excesses and missteps.

Their conclusion (and mine) is that repression and avoidance are unbiblical responses to desire, no more Christian, perhaps, than my teenage, atheistic abandonment to it.

In the midst of these reoccurring public square discussions, the tension between libertinism on one side and repression on the other leaves most of us yearning for the reasonable via media, the middle way between failed extremes.

In that space, is there a scripturally sound theology of desire?

Yes. I want to suggest that Christian asceticism, ancient though it is, offers a way forward.

It uniquely treats God as the end, not the means, of desire.

It also circumvents the shortcomings of repression and avoidance.

Here, I’m not talking about biblically wise avoidance.

It is stupid and unsafe to put ourselves in places where we know we will be strongly tempted to lust or sin.

Temptation, while not sin, is not safe for us; Jesus commands us to pray that we would be kept from it. Similarly, Paul’s admonition to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) can’t mean any less than this.

Instead, I want to point out that repression and avoidance have a Christian name but a pagan lifestyle.

Both are tactical responses that center around willpower.

A person practicing repression might attempt to ignore desire in a “pretend-it-isn’t-there” way. Or he might avoid most contact with people he finds attractive.

Others are unwilling to acknowledge their sexual feelings at all (especially if one happens to be female or same-sex attracted), because that acknowledgment might bring shame from one’s community.

First, both of these tactics try to wrest reward from God through bribery. If you are sexually pure, goes the thinking, then God will reward you with a sexy, best-friend spouse.

This so-called “sexual prosperity gospel” is unbiblical and untrue.

Not only that, it’s devastating to young men and women who work diligently to be faithful only to come up empty-handed.

Like the uncured invalid at a faith healing, they’re left to wonder if the problem is with them.

Second, repression and avoidance strategies are often motivated by a desire to conform to social expectation.

But if pleasing pastors, friends, or parents becomes our primary source of motivation for sexual purity, we are deceived.

Just because the end product aligns with God’s commands doesn’t mean we are practicing Christian virtues.

This leads to a third indictment of repression and avoidance. Continue reading

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