Swimsuit Issue, Part II

Controlling thoughts isn't always easy. But it's necessary.
2001-03-16

Apparently, I'm becoming the queen of the two-part column. Once I get going on a subject, there's often a whole lot to say, and one column sometimes doesn't do it justice.

My most recent topic is no exception. In the last column, we were talking about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. When Christ said "any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart", he made it clear that chastity - and unchastity - don't begin with what we do, but rather in what we think. And deliberately seeking sexual stimulation, even via the imagination, constitutes a sin against chastity.

But there is another side to this, one that deserves attention as well. Last time, we were talking about people who are deliberately looking for sexual thoughts. But what about all of those sexual thoughts which come into our brains - day in and day out - uninvited? Are those sinful as well? And, if so, how can anybody get to heaven, ever?

First of all, it's important to understand that it's impossible to sin "accidentally." Sin has to be the result of free choice. Sin happens in the will, not the subconscious or the hormones or anywhere else.

God created us male and female. And he created us to be sexually attracted to each other. That's a good thing in marriage, where that attraction is supposed to be acted upon. Problem is, our hormones can't discern "spouse" from "non-spouse." And so, from time to time, we respond sexually to a non-spouse. We start to think about how using this person's body could give us pleasure. And therein lies the challenge.

Christians are called to rise above our baser instincts. That means that, when those thoughts pop into our brains, we let them go. We look past this person's sexual attractiveness, to see him or her as a beloved image and likeness of God. The sin of lust occurs when, instead, we deliberately grab onto those thoughts and say "I want to think about that some more." At that point, we are using that person to get sexual pleasure for ourselves. When we deliberately consent to those thoughts, when we start adding to the fantasy, we sin against chastity. As a student of mine once said, "It isn't the first look that gets you into trouble. It's the second."

Our emotional life, unfortunately, can also contribute to uninvited sexual fantasies. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in his excellent book The Courage to be Chaste, says that these fantasies often reflect the need for tenderness, reinforcement, intimacy and spiritual love. When we're not getting those, we tend to be more vulnerable to sexual fantasy. This causes many sensitive people to struggle with guilt, often unnecessarily. They think they're bad people just because these thoughts enter into their brains. They think that chastity means that their sex drive should go away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those involuntary thoughts are not in themselves sinful. Yes, they are invitations to sinfulness. (That's the definition of temptation.) But we don't sin unless we accept the invitation. We may be barraged by uninvited sexual thoughts all day long, but as long as we don't voluntarily consent to them, there is no sin. (Consent, according to Groeschel, means having the presence of mind to say, "This is sinful, but I'm going to think about it anyway.") Of course, those thoughts don't always go away so easily. They linger in the mind, taunting us. Trying to force them out of our minds is futile. (Have you ever tried not to think about something? The very act of trying forces you to think about it.) And violently forcing sexual thought out of our minds wouldn't be terribly healthy even if it did work. It's a form of sexual repression. Burying thought like that tends to keep them alive in the subconscious, where they can cause all kinds of mischief.

So what do we do? We don't give in and focus our attention on the thoughts, but neither do we fear them and try to drive them away. We simply acknowledge them as a part of being human, and then turn our attention elsewhere. We distract ourselves. (Groeschel points out that very few people are tempted during a fire alarm.) We ignore the thoughts, even as they clamor for our attention. Eventually, they go away.

It's also important to keep our lives in order. If loneliness or a need for intimacy is fueling our overactive imaginations, we need to change our lives, to satisfy those needs - in the right way.

Basically, it's not easy to ignore thoughts that promise us such pleasure. We need God's help. Chastity without prayer is impossible. All moral virtue involves turning away from short-term pleasure for the sake of long-term happiness. And that takes strength that we don't have on our own. Achieving internal chastity is not an easy task. For many, it is a lifelong struggle, fought day in and day out. Benedict Groeschel offers encouragement, saying "Every temptation resisted is a great act of worship of God. To put up with temptation and not seek the easy way out is a powerful acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God... Even if one falls later on, he has accomplished an act of obedient worship that will not be erased." (The Courage to be Chaste, p. 90.)

Resist temptation. It's not easy, but the rewards are huge.



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