Every first Sunday of Lent the Gospel reading at Mass tells the story of Our Lord’s temptation in the desert. Satan tried to bring down Jesus by using three tactics:
1. The temptation of breaking a fast.
2. The temptation of testing God.
3. The temptation of worshiping a creature.
Curiously, one card that the devil didn’t pull from his deck, a card that served him well for centuries, was the temptation of lust. Indeed, he has laid to waste a countless number of souls through sexual temptation; especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But one has to wonder why the Evil One did not at least try to use this effective instrument of getting Jesus to sin. After all, Proverbs does say that “Lust indulged starves the soul.” Nevertheless, there is a good reason why Satan didn’t take this approach. And the reason speaks to the nobility of sexual purity (or chastity) and how it is the bulwark of the soul.
Satan knows that a man trained in the ways of chastity cannot be taken down with one or two swipes. After all, if Christ was disciplined enough to fast for forty days he would not be so vulnerable to the temptations of impurity. As Philo said, a first century Jewish philosopher, if you can control your stomach, then controlling the organ below your stomach is that much easier. Indeed, fasting and the practice of chastity are interrelated.
In any case, time in the desert was not on Satan’s side. He had to choose a temptation that would have an immediate impact. But for the onslaughts of lust to corrupt or seduce a man established in sexual purity, time and repeated efforts are needed. More often than not, a frontal attack is not as effective as striking at the side or periphery; that is, where one least expects to be stricken. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that instead of kicking down the front door- which would undoubtedly draw a lot attention and even resistance –the intruder is more successful by gaining entrance into the house through the side window.
In the twentieth century, for instance, promiscuity and wide spread addiction to pornography didn’t just happen overnight. It began in the 1930’s with the acceptance of birth control as being morally acceptable. Then in the early 1960’s, the pill was introduced to the market and the practice of it became widespread. In the late 1960’s all hell broke loose with the Sexual Revolution. From there divorce, homosexuality, unwed motherhood and abortions became socially acceptable. The world was no longer the same. But keep in mind that it all started with the seemingly harmless use of birth control from the 1930’s to the 1960’s that the foundation for the cultural change was quietly laid.
We can find a similar parallel with individuals. Innocence and sexual purity is not bulldozed over as it is chipped away a little at a time. Sexual images and thoughts can be wholly involuntary; indeed, they can invade the mind uninvited. But in the end it all depends on how a man responds to it that will lead him to the slavery of lust or that interior freedom that sanctified souls enjoy. Sin only enters the picture ever so subtly when such thoughts or images are held on to, delighted in or indulged to the point of fantasy. When lust is not nipped in the bud or pulled up from its root, it grows in strength. And just as drug addiction or alcoholism can be a cruel master, so too can the daily vice of lust.
Our Lord, when speaking of sexual temptation, used violent imagery. He said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If you hand causes you sin, cut it off. Whatever be the cause of lust, a passive approach will not do. Although sexual temptation persists over time in quiet and subtle fashion, the response should immediate, resolute, reasoned through and prayed about. Too few men think through the consequences and the implications of lust and its empty promises. But thinking it through and praying it through it essential.
Every avalanche begins with a snow flake. You may have heard the saying that to sow a thought is to reap an action; to sow an action is to reap a habit; to sow a habit is to reap a character; to sow a character is to reap a destiny. As such, we cannot dismiss the importance of each individual snow flake. That is to say, each sexual image or thought can be an occasion of merit by mentally turning away from it or it can be an occasion of sin by turning towards it and taking delight in it. Indeed, each one can strengthen or erode the soul. And just as lust indulged strengthens lust, to resist it strengthens chastity.
Whatever struggle is required to better attain the virtue of chastity, it is worth it. The benefits are many. Without sexual distractions and entanglement one can better judge relationships for what they really are. Red flags in relationships, character flaws in a prospective spouse and serious incompatibilities are more easily discerned when one is sexually pure for God’s sake. Just as important, the virtue of chastity makes room for the spirit of sacrifice and a readiness to give of oneself. Such a person is in a better position to love, to serve and to resist the devil as Our Lord did.