Thursday, December 29, 2005

Men Behaving Badly-- The Sad but True Story of Lust

The statistics alone are staggering and depressing, but they tell only a small portion of the story. The recent Lilly funded study shows that men are 4 times more frequently visiting 'adult' web sites than women. This of course comports with the fact that men are enormously more likely to view pornography, including child pornography than women. Every study done of this of which I have ever been privy to, shows how overwhelmingly male- dominated this behavior is.

Then of course there is the fact that over 90% of all rapes are perpetrated by men. The statistics are about the same when it comes to other forms of sexual abuse including abuse of spouses or children. The most recent survey I saw indicated that one out of every three women in church had been abused by father, brother, husband, boyfriend, somewhere along the line. This is of course one of the main reasons why so many women, including Christian women, have a hard time dealing with men touching them. It is not because they are mostly 'frigid' as the stereotype often suggests. What all these depressing studies lead to is one conclusion-- male lust is at the root of many, many of our social problems, both inside and outside the church.

Of course, our culture is prone to see lust as something 'natural', and it has a difficult time distinguishing lust from love, but then our culture lacks a concept of the difference between human nature as God created and intended it, and fallen human nature as we now experience it. Fallenness affects all our relationships. Grace is something we not only need in the depths of our souls as individuals, its something we need in the working out of all our relationships as well. Lust can be overcome and transformed by love, self-centered and objectifying behavior can be transformed by grace into other-centered truly personal behavior. But it does not happen automatically just because a person is a Christian. It requires prayer,group reinforcement, and accountability to mention but two factors.

Just so I am being clear, lust is by definition a strong desire for sexual contact with another person which objectifies the other person and treats them like an object, (an object of desire), rather than as a person. Whenever a 'thou' is treated like an 'it' objectification has happened, and it is a terrible sin, a trivialization of another person created in God's image. Again, to be clear, I am not saying that sexual attraction isn't a God given thing. It is. But attraction is not the same thing as lust which entails the desire to use another person to satisfy a personal craving. Lust is essentially self-centered, but the love the Bible talks about, even when it involves sexual attraction is essentially other-centered, and is self-sacrificial.

Of course one could reduce this discussion to the level of chemistry, and talk about testosterone and what it does to a man, just as we could talk about estrogen and women. At the chemical level, it is perfectly clear that there are some basic differences between men and women. What is interesting about the Bible is that it does not allow either men or women off the hook because of chemistry. Indeed it holds both to the very same high standard of moral rectitude.

And it is not like we don't have plenty of warnings, both general and specific in the Bible about male lust and the havoc it causes in human relationships.
Let consider just a couple of texts, one general, one more male specific.

We could talk at some length about what James 1 says about a and perhaps the primary source of temptation, namely our own inner desire or lusts, but I want to concentrate on James. 4.1-4. The Greek concept of 'epithumia' is an interesting one. It refers to strong, sometimes even over-powering desire. Here in James 4, the author says that it is this inner desire which is the source of all sorts of strife, mayhem, wars etc. This is quite similar to what Jesus says in Mk. 7 about the human heart being the source of war, adultery and other sinful passions. Notice how both James and Jesus expect the audience to be able to control these passions. James in fact connects such control with the taming of the tongue as well, which can incite such passions. Of course our culture just pours gasoline on such flames with all the glorification of lust, sexual infidelity and related sins not only on soap operas but in prime time dramas, movies, and sadly even children's cartoons.

Such Scriptures indicate that the source of the problem is primarily laid at the door of the individual human heart, not at the door of the Devil, or one's upbringing, or a host of other possible sources.

A more specific form of this sort of critique can be found in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus deals directly with male lust, and here a proper translation is crucial. Mt. 5.28 is the text I want to focus on. Throughout this discussion Jesus has been focusing primarily on male behavior since only males could usually initiate a marriage in Jesus' world, or divorce someone, or initiate an act of sexual infidelity, including adultery. It was a very male dominated culture, and so Jesus hold's men even more responsible for their sexual behavior. He does not like the 'old double standard' when it comes to such behavior. (see my Women in the Ministry of Jesus on these texts).

There is debate about the proper translation of Mt. 5.28 but what is not under debate is that the man is the one being discussed at the outset with reference to lust-- the text can be translated two ways "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already commited adultery with her in his heart" or it could be translated "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already led her astray into adultery in his heart". Jesus here clearly lays the source of this problem at the door of male lust, not as was usual in that culture (and ours) at the the door of women being temptresses.

Male lust is not viewed as 'natural' it is viewed as 'sinful'. Usually commentators remark on how sin here is seen as existing not only in acts, but also even in thoughts or desires. This is correct. But there is much more to this text. Of course if this teaching goes back to Jesus it was likely first offered in Aramaic, and in that language the second translation offered above is more likely to be closer to the original.

Here the issue is with the male's responsibility not to lead women astray into adultery. This presumably includes young men as well, as various of Jesus' disciples were young. It takes seriously the fact that men are more likely to be guilty of lust, and more likely to initiate immoral sexual activities on the basis of it. Even the most recent surveys of sexual activity amongst teens show that men are much more likely to pressure their girl friends for sex, than the other way around. Apparently the problem of 'men behaving badly' in regard to matters sexual begins earlier in life than we might like to think.

So how do we deal with this enormous and too seldom discussed (in the church) problem of male lust? I would suggest, several first steps.

Firstly, we have already seen a movement of the Spirit through the Promise Keepers movement to hold men more accountable for their responsibilities to be faithful in their relationships, particularly in marriage, but not solely in that sphere. This is a good thing, and it could be pressed towards a second step-- local churches could extend this sort of accountability structure by setting up ongoing small groups to deal with this issue of lust control.

Secondly, ministers need to teach on this issue, and it would be good to have honest testimonies in church about how lust was overcome in one way or another. Recently I was in a church in Dallas where they had a very effective drama on pornography and how the desire at the root of this problem could be doused and damped down on a regular basis. This was followed by an honest testimony of a couple about how they dealt with the issue. This same sort of thing could be done in Sunday Schools and Worship services more widely to give this sin a public name and public face and unmask it. This in itself would raise consciousness and awareness.

Thirdly, I think it is mandatory, as we go into yet another new year in a culture saturated with sexual sin and its temptations, that we think hard about a public call to self-examination, confession, and repentance in these matters. Lent would be a perfect season for having more than one penitial service, times when people could come to the altar and confess.

Fourthly, the church needs to embrace sinners in their struggles and hold out a hand of support, not point fingers. It needs to be clear that that all are welcome to come to the church 'as they are' but that no one will be allowed to 'stay as they are', and this of course includes males and perhaps especially male leaders in the church when it comes to lust. There is an inherent problem too seldom recognized that in the church we blur the lines between professional and personal relationships which makes it difficult to deal with these sorts of issues. We need to be aware that sexual harassment is only one form that lust takes.

Finally, if we truly believe that God's grace is greater than the scope of our sin, we need to get real about sin in the church, not just in the world and trust that God's transforming grace can do 'exceedingly abundantly more than we could hope or ask'.


yuckabuck said...

Patrick Carnes identifies one of the core beliefs of the sexual addict as the belief that "Sex is my greatest need." (See his book Out of the Shadows) I have found in my own life that this is true.

It has been pointed out that the Lord told us "Thou shall not covet" because anytime we covet, we are in fact questioning whether God really knows how to provide for us. The man giving in to lust believes that it is the need that needs filled at that moment above anything else, and that he must use some "unordained means" to fill the need because God has not been a good enough provider to properly meet the alleged need. (In other words, the roots of lust lie somewhere near the roots of "worrying over what you will eat or drink," as in Matthew 6:25.)

This is where what Paul calls "the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2) can help us. The church can help men to see that God Himself is our greatest need, and that He does provide all that we need, when we are seeking His Kingdom first.

I agree that the Bible does not allow us an excuse of claiming that we have "an addiction" which we are powerless to control. Jesus said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (Matthew 15:19). For an understanding of "addiction" that is right in line with this view, see Stanton Peele's book The Truth About Addiction and Recovery (written with Archie Brodsky).

Peele wanted to show that "addictions" were not diseases, but were really a reflection of what we "valued" in our hearts. To make his point, he wrote a book showing that "love" can be an addiction too, proving that the addiction as disease model was out of whack. The counseling community missed the point, and said, "Hey, what a great idea. We'll talk about love and sex addiction as well!" And now we have all these people going around saying, "I can't help myself. I have a sexual addiction." God help us!

DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am glad that you are bringing these statistics to your readers. The evidence is appalling, and once sensitised to this issue it is equally appalling to discover just how deeply sexual objectification is rooted in Christian circles.

I do have one question. You talk quite positively about the Promise Keepers movement and I do agree with you that it is important for men to be held accountable in their marriages. However, there is a strong "neo-fundamentalist" element to the Promise Keepers that I think actually furthers the perpetuation of cycles of violence and exploitation that are imposed on women. I wonder if you could comment on this.

By the way, any Canadian readers of this blog would greatly benefit from a book entitled, "The Story of Jane Doe: A Book about Rape", which does an excellent job of showing just how deeply and systemically sexual violence is rooted in our culture.

Grace and peace,


Ben Witherington said...

Dan: I am not sure what elements you have in mind. If it is the traditional view of a husband's headship, which takes liberties with what the Bible actually suggests on this matter I share your concerns.

Ben W.

DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

Yes, that was basically the area that concerns me. I think of the likes of James MacDonald and how influential they are in Promise Keepers and I worry that the result is a deepening of the oppression of women cloaked as something that holds women in high regard.



Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

Wonderful article! Sad and alarming, but well said.

see-through faith said...

great post!

I want to say that for all the acceptance of lust in society, within church there is still such a lot of shame attached. The fact that a couple in Dallas were freed enough to witness about it is hugely encouraging.

I dont have the statistics to hand, but the number of ministers involved in pornography (internet mostly) is alarming. I wonder what is being done to help in this area. I know of nothing in Finland for male or female pastors.

I know of two Anglican priest who have been addicted to pornography - one male one female. Their struggle against it is not simply mind over matter. I also dont know what their sex life within their marriages is, but there is good sex and less good.

I'm about to review a book called sex and love:in intimate relationship and may get some more insight as to why healthy intimacy is so hard for us all - even for Christians. The review will be on my site but later this month

thank you for blogging on this.

Michael said...

At one time I considered lust to be solely appropriated to a sexual desire, but I wonder if the word is not more broadly applied to an intense desire for anything one cannot - or should not - have.

One pastor spoke of a need to taste of the "forbidden fruit", those things not exclusively sexual that command our attention. The idea is that we might be able to take hold of something we should not have. It is in this "secret" desire where we find ourselves most often trapped, whether we are talking about money, hetero-, or homosexual desires.

Big Ben said...

The human race are animals. Men are lustful becuase it is the ultimate goal of man to keep mankind alive. To have sex as many times as possible will create more children and that is in the interest of mankind.

I am not a Christian but did attend a Baptist University, the hipocracy I saw was apalling.

I am a very moral person, I do not steal, I do not do drugs, I do not litter and I treat people fairly and justly. I do think lust and love are intertwined and lust is not something sinful or disgusting.

I would say pornography prevents more rapes than causes then becuase these man (or women) can get their Jollies at home in front of the TV rather than seeking it elsewhere.

Matt said...

while i agree that males must own a great part of the responsibility for the lust epedemic, i also want to share my thoughts (as an often struggling, married, Christian man) on a part of the problem that to me sees even less light of day than unquenchable male lust.

it is too easy to look at men as simply over-sexed freaks, who live and die for intercourse, caring not who they hurt in the processs. and there are many men like that; each of us, actually, in our darkest moments, are that man.

however, for a married man at least, a failure on the part of a wife to "respect her husband" (ephesians 5) can have an emasculating effect. one response to this is a dabbling in pornagraphy that too quickly becomes addictive.

why pornagraphy, though? well, simply put, the women there seem to be very interested in and turned on by us. sure it's fantasy, not reality, but the emasculated man with low self-esteem, watching the illicit images, is allowed to be (even if just for a few minutes and only in his own mind) "a real man," someone who drives his lover wild. an element which is sadly not often the case in marriage, sometimes particularly Christian marriages.

now, to be fair, there are many valid reasons why a wife may have great difficulty respecting her husband, just as there are manifold things that keep a wife from following paul's advice in 1 corinthians 7 to give her husband his conjugal rights.

yet, paul understood what many women (particularly Christian women) do not seem to get, namely, that sex with one's husband, even when it's difficult, can keep keep satan's temptations to go elsewhere at bay (1 Cor. 7:5).

this does not let men off the hook, though. as has been emphasized in other postings, men have a responsibility to not cheat, whether mentally or otherwise, a responsibility that can only be acted out with the power of God's Holy Spirit.

i just wish that Christian men and women (especially husbands and wives) could come a little closer to meeting in the middle, helping one another out in this terribly deceived sexual culture we find ourselves in, for we will be a lot stronger as friends (and even lovers within marriage) than as enemies.

matt varnell

Michael said...


Very well said. You bring some points that I had not considered. In fact, as much as has been written on this topic, I don't recall ever seeing this particular perspective. Lots to think about!

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you Matt for your sharing on this subject. There is some truth to what you say. The deeper issue here however is being self-evaluative enough to discern the difference between licit and illicit desires, appropriate and inappropriate wishes. Some of these need to be quenched, some need to be properly directed. It is a complicated matter.

I also want to thank 'Big Ben' for sharing, and providing a different perspective, even though I certainly do not agree with the theory that viewing pornography helps prevent sex crimes!

patrick said...

The problem of lust has always been a serious challenge. But I think the church is still treating it as only a serious problem, yet in the past 60 years there has been a "perfect Storm" that has made it a thousand times for dangerous.

On biogical level, medical improvements have taken out the fear of STD for many. Even with all the problems of AIDS, younger generations feel less fear and are confident that medicine will cure or control it. With easy contraception, sex has been "freed" from the hassles pregancy. This is a big change that has not really been taken seriously.

On a social level, most sanctions against sex outside of marriage have been taken away. Easy divorce, acceptance of cohabitation, and other changes in society have a profound affect. Then you add the "new" social norm that all that matters is not to hurt anyone and have mutual consent...this permeates advertising, movies, tv etc and the wild fire spreads. there is a whole generation of single parent children, whose views of adult sexual behavior has been formed by shows like Cheers, Friends, Will and Grace.

Society is very hypocritical with sexual acting out. and most of us are guilty bystanders, at least, in the hypocrisy.

then there is a multi billion dollar business offering every fantasy with just a click on the web.

So you add all this up, with a wounded human nature to start with, and it is a whole new ball game and the church is still back in the old game.

Also I think that longevity has its challenges that are not oftened addressed. I have know people in the ministry, who never could have imagined ever looking at pronography.....yet they hit mid life, are a little burned out, suffer mild chronic depression, and feel more and more isolated....then before they know it they are caught in a trap that would have seemed impossible 20 years before. sexual acting out at 20 is very different than at 50 for some and it is not just that simple to get a handle on it.

I am not making excuses for lust and the only cure for sin is real repentance, but living in the US in the 21st century is a whole new ball game and i just do not see the church really getting a handle on this.

It is to the church that the world must look to see the New Man/Woman, to find the joy and vitality of real purity. this lack of purity that comes from new life in Christ is what the world demands before it will take our words seriously.

Sven said...

Thankyou for a lucid and challenging article.

It's right to point out that sexual sin really begins in the heart and mind before it is enacted physically, but (without trying to justify it) I wonder if perhaps too often the battle is pitched as being a spiritual one only.

What I mean is, sexual urge and desire also seem to be so bound up with our physicality and bodily nature, and it can be this which is often so dominating and driving in sexual sin rather than cherishing sexual sin in our hearts first.

It is clear from scripture that sexual sin cannot be tolerated or excused, but how can we tie this in a helpful and biblical way to the idea that our physicality and bodily nature is still corrupt and part of this present evil age?

Ben Witherington said...

Sven, thanks for your comments which raise helpful points. I agree that in some case lust may begin from a physiological reaction without any real reflection or nursing along some lust in one's mind. We do indeed live in mortal and fallen bodies, and we are in various respects pyschosomatic wholes, not just inner and outer parts. The body affects the mind and vice versa. Having said this, the mind is the control center of the personality. When one has some particular physical or visceral reaction to another person, or an image, or the like, one still has a choice and a chance as a Christian to decide what one will do about that physical reaction. Will you indulge it, or will you react appropriately, take oneself out of the immediate contact with the the stimulus, whoever or whatever it was? If you really believe that inwardly we are being renewed by the Holy Spirit, which I certainly do, then that includes the mind, the will, the emotions, the memories and the like. We must be wary of those who claim that the body makes a Christian an offer he or she can't refuse. This is certainly not what the NT suggests.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Theo. researcher:

Thanks for this. If you did not delete it then I wonder who did? In any case, I am glad it is gone because there were four or five major mistakes and misrepresentations.

One of the issues I would urge you to think about is what it is that is actually said in Romans 4, and here I would point you to my Romans commentary, which you might actually enjoy reading most of.

Paul says that Abraham's faith was reckoned or credited as righteousness. This is a very different matter than saying Christ's imputed righteousness counts as our righteousness. I have a detailed discussion of this in my Romans commentary, and came to the conclusion that Romans in no way supports the notion of Christ's righteousness being imputed to us. You will be interested in the history of the discussion in the church on this matter. The early Reformers clearly diasgreed with most earlier commentators on Romans on this point.

I have no problems with vigorous debate on this issue, and you are welcome to disagree, but it is important not caricature the other person's view.

God bless,

Ben W.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for this. I have just been reading this article from Chirstianity Today.

I would agree that there is a connection betwee male dominance and physical abuse.

On another point, are Christian men not aware that 'power is an aphrodisiac'. Therefore the less power a woman is accorded, the less interest she has in intimacy. This may be an oversimplification but I think worthy of consideration. There is a comment on this post to that effect.

Even reading an article on male 'headship' can dampen a woman's spirit.


elizabby said...

Good stuff - I never really thought about this much before (being happily married and not a man). You are very insightful to see this and brave to write about it and risk being accused of having affairs (or worse). Kudos to you!

I would like to see your stuff of male headship though, since you mentioned you have some, and this is an issue I struggle with bringing a Godly balance to. Can you point me towards some of your essays (online) if possible? Thanks.

Ben Witherington said...

This seems to be, not surprisingly, a discussion which has no end.

Firstly to Dave I would say, that you seem to associate seeing partial parts of the human anatomy of the opposite sex with lust. Why is that? You need to ask yourself this question.

For example, if you go to an art museum and see such things, do you immediately assume that they were created to engender lust or reflect lust in their creator?
Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't.

My point is just this, you may be right about some of the intentions of the maker of the Fantastic Four movie, as it did appear that in a few places they went out of their way to show bits of the female anatomy. The real question is whether you can weed the wheat from the chaff in such a film, or you think it is necessary simply to swear off any movies that have any objectionable content. I do not, I look rather for the redeeming value in the film. If a film has none, or is anti-Christian, then I will say so. This film did not fall into that category.

I certainly agree that "whatever is not of faith, is sin" for the person in question. For me personally, I didn't find any of those scenes in the Fnatastic Four tempting, in fact I found them mostly ridiculous. Different persons will react differently to such things.

In regard to the question about resources on male headship and this sort of question see my Women in the Earliest Churches volume or at a more lay-friendly level Women and the Genesis of Christianity.



Ben Witherington said...

You know actually I think what primarily needs to happen is what this particular blog discussion is all about--- calling Christian men to accountability on this matter, men over whom pastors and Christian leaders have some authority, unlike our relationship with the media.

And my concern chiefly is that Christian men learn how to treat women with respect as human beings, not primarily as means to some end, whether it involves lust or not.

Frankly the truth is that seeing most human beings without clothes who are not models or movie stars is as likely to provoke disgust as lust--- most of us do not exhibit the body beautiful, including most women.

So, again I think you need to rethink about the relationship between nudity and lust-- the problem primarily lies with the lust, not primarily with the nudity. Having spent time doing Christian work in African cultures this is perfectly clear to me.

It becomes less clear in America where we have various aberrant views about the human body. Modesty is a good thing, and it is a virtue Christians can model for others. But its not really the primary solution to the problem of lust--- that requires direct dealing with the hearts of human beings.