Thoughts on Lust and Purity

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse
Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

The call to worship for some of us in conservative Evangelical circles seems to be the  exaltation of emotionalism, ignorance, and false modesty; nothing more than doctrinal confusion and an unconscious, existential dissatisfaction with the Godhead.

The advocates of the Sexual Purity Movement and their interlocutors cry out, “Jesus, don’t let me die before I’ve had sex,” and not “Heavenly Father, let your will be done.” After listening to an interview for a new documentary on “Evangelical culture” regarding this issue, “GiveMeSexJesus,” I reflected upon my own perspectives on the nature of lust, and what it represents in our contemporary social milieux.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis observed that eros can become the pursuit of Venus. Evangelical culture, in this respect, is virtually indistinguishable from the mainstream; save the remnants of unproductive shame and misplaced anxiety. Lust and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible because Christianity is a religion of weakness, suffering, and self-sacrifice. Lust is a religion of narcissism, self-service, arrogance, and wish fulfillment in the most carnal sense of the phrase.

A perpetual devotion to slavery-of-self invokes the highest articulation of self-loathing and disdain for the establishment of community and friendship in the body of Christ. Lust must be none other than the worship of the impossibility of the enthroned-yet-enslaved self, the unauthorized emancipation of the self to the self for the self in spite of and in disregard of God and neighbor.

The ubiquity and (seeming) victory of the standard evangelical narrative of “abstinence until marriage” presumes that the narrative is correct in its presuppositions. That God desires marriage for men and women today in the New Covenant is not properly basic nor is it explicit—any more than God desires one to any particular vocation and ministry. That the character of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments would desire for humanity to create for themselves more angst than necessary is unintelligible. That every single person who sees the light of Christ is deterministically injected into a pseudo-scriptural grid of familial necessity is a burdensome addition to the law of God.

The popular conception of romantic love is really a rationalization of something far more complicated; an illegitimate quest for satiating desires that grow from inconsolable loneliness. There is at the altar of lust, a refusal to accept the beauty of legitimate actualization; a refusal to accept the radical and transformative immanence of God who resides within us, a God who is with us, by us, and most important, for us—as Barth famously said.

The English poet Robert Browning wrote “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” in 1855. The following stanza comprises lines 37-42:

Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?

The speaker articulates notions of ethical uncertainty to non-existent interlocutors, suggesting a deeper, philosophical non-resolution to the superficial predicament of the quest narrative, which I believe is literally resolved by Roland’s arrival at the Dark Tower in the final stanza of the poem.

The tension between the resolved and unresolved communicates to the reader a sense of the Roland persona’s hopelessness and fatalistic outlook on existence and humanity’s interaction with the world around him. Seeing the human battle with lust as “the long suffering quest” misunderstands and fatally reduces the Gospel to its gifts. It fatally misunderstands the trajectories of the possible by delimiting our existence to sets of behavioral patterns and norms to be followed. What God can do instead of God’s self.

All around us we see failure in this regard, “their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best,” and we ask ourselves, “should I be fit” to finish the bloodied and mired quest that results in viewing the work of the Holy Spirit as the Bad News of an angry, scornful God. The material quest for satiation of lust is the rejection of the promise, the coming fulfillment of all things that the sacraments convey—pointing toward our ultimate reconciliation and the reconciling work that the Lord is working today.

The religion of the sexual purists is that of fetishizing the marriage bed, of fetishizing the institution of marriage as something more than it was intended to be—a metaphor for the love of God.

“Humankind was not meant to be alone,” and in Christ, we have our ultimate satisfaction. In spiritual friendship, in relational ministry, in our homes and our workplaces, we find our joy exalted in the objective subject, the totalizing object of our faith, who is the Lord. In Christ, “we live, and move, and have our being.” The ontological and existential blindness that comes from interpreting the human interaction with lustful desire as a quest demeans the already unnecessary loneliness of those in the church.

The solution to lust is the gospel, and the practical fulfillment of the gospel is spiritual friendship in community with the saints. It is the embodiment and (active/passive) reflection on/of God’s unique love to others made in God’s image. We find ourselves delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of Christ (Col 1:13). This translation is no more experiential than it is ontological. The vine described so beautifully in John 15 is a living vine, and it does not wither. The trauma of God’s holiness, the dialectic of his otherness and inconceivable love leads me to question the wisdom of investing our whole selves—the act of seeing who we are—in non-material discursive categories; in sexual identities and genders instead of as people in Christ with a directive to enjoy God forever.