A young, very happily married reader working for the defense of our great country writes:
I am having a real struggle with impure and lustful thoughts, and I was wondering if you had any advice on how to avoid these sorts of thoughts. I’ve been reading some of your writings on how repressing these types of things is not the way to go, but I don’t think I have completely understood. If you could give me some practical advice, I’d really appreciate it.
Thanks for that. I’ve been meaning to put something up about just this topic for some time. I’m putting this in the priestly celibacy series, as I think some of our priests and bishops would appreciate this post as well, not to mention specifically some of the spiritual directors and confessors in our seminaries.
First off, let’s clarify the terminology. A “struggle” should refer to temptation. One can be victorious or a failure. Never confess: “I struggled with impure thoughts.” The confessor will think that you mean that you failed with the struggle, when you might just be asking his advice.
Having said that, I have to encourage you. Very few these days would be in any kind of struggle at all, just caving in to such thoughts and, often, consequent actions.
The reason for no struggle is the dumbing down of a sense of sin in society and among many members of the Church, not excluding some priests and bishops (as we found out with the German bishops recently and so many times with USCCB film reviews).
The dumbing down of a sense of sin started in a big way in the 1950s with the over-optimism of biological/psychological/spiritual evolution that all would be O.K., and we shouldn’t be concerned with “negativity,” all was nice, free and easy, you know, like at Woodstock. Those were the days which paved the way for many today to be convinced that they were now “mature” and “balanced” and well able to watch all sorts of “artistic skin flicks”, you know, “erotica”, that socially acceptable, sophisticated porn which we won’t call porn, but rather “mature”. Those rejecting such trash were mocked also in seminaries.
So, erotica, soft porn, porn, snuff films — all a progression in the same line — just with varying degrees of intensification, is pervasive, everywhere.
- From the world, unwillingly: Society can be pretty agressive with foisting impure and lustful images upon the masses, on occasion with billboards, sometimes in lyrics of songs, more frequently now on television at any time of day or night, pretty much everywhere on the internet. And so on. Impure and lustful images are registered by the brain whether one likes it or not.
- From the world, willingly: Of course, unwillingly happening upon an impure and lusty image is a matter for an examination of one’s conscience. If you know that certain television stations or internet sites will put out rubbish when you least expect, do you rationalize this, making excuses? “But everybody goes to this site and watches that program!” Nope. Everybody doesn’t. Some people are so disgusted with the disrespect of men, women and children that, out of love of God and neighbor, they do not watch programs with side bits of erotica or porn whatever else. There is much subliminal rubbish even in the “plot” lines of otherwise pretty clean shows. It all takes a toll. How one chooses to be entertained says much about a person. Is it all passive entertainment, or do you have to do a bit of work, as in reading good books? Great people make their entertainment, and love it, loving life. Those who busy themselves with trash in / trash out entertainment can hardly avoid the trash out bit.
- The flesh: If one has ever had experience of any impurity or lustiness whatsoever in whatever way, such memories can work on the brain combined with everything from the world, willingly or unwillingly. The least expected thing can trigger such memories, and with such subtlety that one cannot even pinpoint what it might have been which set off impure and lustful thoughts. The brain is pretty awesome. It’s made to remember. It can be abused.
- The devil: Of course, Satan’s minions can crank up any of the above. It’s so simple to do to weak human beings. A joke for them on our Lord. Satan couldn’t care less about us. If he bothers us it’s out of hatred for our Lord, who loves us so much.
But, in the end, what is wrong with erotic, porn or any lusty and impure image? What’s wrong? Disrespect for the human bodies of men, women and children, and their souls, for one thing. Instead of agility of heart and soul and mind, one pretends to have power over others, abusing them, using them for one’s egotistic self. It is like killing the other person, owning them, stomping them into the ground. It’s all about power.
When sex is not for life, open to life, in marriage, with respect for the other, then sex instead tends to death. One pretends to have absolute power over the other in a way that denies what sex is all about. Again, it’s all about “power”, but the power of absolute cowards. Let’s repeat that: absolute cowards.
At any rate, even having lived a life of chastity, one can still have encountered impure and lusty images which might invade one’s mind when one least expects. One doesn’t want to bother with such things, and has two options:
(1) One can attempt to repress the fact of such an event. “I was never even tempted!” This is just stupid. It’s not facing reality. This is the option of the coward. This kind of thing always explodes into worse unchastity or in some other way, perhaps, for instance, arrogance. Not facing the reality of weakness of man after original sin always makes things worse.
This is different than avoiding impure and lusty images, which prudence comes, instead, from a healthy recognition of the weakness of our fallen human nature, and is to be commended. Those who do this have other things with which to fill their minds and hearts and souls, such as love of God and love of neighbor. The Legion of Mary, so trashed by liberal priests I have known, started with a mission to prostitutes in brothels, to get them out of such a life. Pretty cool, huh?
(2) Instead of repression, one can face the fact that one is vulnerable to impure and lusty images. And everyone is vulnerable to some degree in this way, a fact I’ll write at length about, please God, in the popular commentary on my thesis on Genesis 2,4–3,24 (see the My Books page). Facing this fact of vulnerability doesn’t mean not distracting oneself from such thoughts. If you want, practical advice, there it is. No daydreaming about such things! As our Lord says, one can also commit adultery in one’s heart, which is always such a violent sin, turning one into quite the obnoxious abusive monster. One can also turn to the Lord and ask Him, with all the reality of non-denial, for strength that He alone can grant.
What is that strength? It is love for one’s neighbor, for men, for women, for children, knowing that behind each lusty or impure image (whether from published porn or one’s own imagination) stands a real man, woman, or child, or, if a creation of one’s imagination, a symbol of any real man, woman or child. The Lord will grant us the grace to respect others, to love others as He Himself has loved us. He takes us where we are at and, changing us by grace, He enables us to live enthusiastically, joyfully, strongly, a life of perfect chastity, whether married and begetting children, or married to the Church, as priests and religious, never having us deny our need of redemption, but having live in humble thanksgiving before Him.
If one starts to get to know our Lord, one will also start to have a sense of what He does for us. When we have a sense of what He does for us, for me, then one sees this possibility also for others, seeing in men, women and children His love for them, His ability to take them to Himself, their capacity to reflect the beauty of the entire universe and much more, the capacity to reflect the very love of God. It is at this point — when one is in humble thanksgiving before the Lord — that one begins to grow humanly, that is, to have a proper respect for others. This doesn’t permit one to be so “mature” as to freely view erotica and porn, as some think, but to be indignant that others are being hurt in this way, and wary that one might hurt oneself in this way. It is always hurtful to oneself to be disrespectful of others. It’s always helpful for onself and others to recognize that our Lord — while hanging in bleeding shreds of flesh on the cross — consecrated our bodies in this way to be the temples of the Holy Spirit, He who provides the chaste with agility and freedom of heart and soul and mind.
An important distinction: Just because a lusty or impure thought comes to mind does not at all mean that one is in sin. A struggle is not a sin.
For the pure of heart, this can be an occasion of virtue, carrying the cross well, learning in this to look to our Lord all the more simply, in humble thanksgiving.
For the impure of heart, such can be an occasion of vice, a rejection of the cross, learning to look to one’s egotistic self at the expense of others all the more thoroughly.
But it’s the same lusty and impure thought.
That distinction has helped untold multitudes in my priestly ministry to get out of a vicious cycle:
- Impure and lusty thought.
- Following the impure and lusty thought, even unto impure actions.
- … which bring more impure and lusty thoughts, more depression, and so on.
To break the cycle, one needs not to repress one’s cross, such thoughts in all denial, but, recognizing the fact of them, to take them up as the cross, shouldering this cross, not looking at it, but rather, as our Lord also commanded, looking to Him, following Him with that cross that we carry. That cross reminds us of our need for His love, His goodness, His kindness, knowing that we are bereft of that on our own. We follow Him enthusiastically, like men after their leader into a life or death battle. We see His wounds. We know how serious the battle is. And the battle is that serious. If one could only see the wrecked lives and wrecked marriages because of erotica and porn. If one could only see the absolute hell of those men, women and children who are the subjects of the porn. If one could only see what happens to men, women and children when some people who crank up their impure and lusty images, dwelling on them, turn into monstrous abusers of others in whatever way.