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The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust


Matthew 5:28

2nd Samuel 11:2-5; 12:1-7         Ephesians 5:3-5        John 8:2-12


I: — The child loves her pet rabbit. In fact she never speaks of it as a rabbit.  She insists it’s a bunny, not a rabbit.         (There’s a big difference, you know, between a bunny and a rabbit.) Along comes a thoughtless adult who prides himself on his superiority and sophistication. He looks at the bunny and says, “Where did you get that thing?         It’s only a rodent, you know, nothing more than a rodent.”   The child is heartbroken, angry and frustrated at once.         Even as she knows she’ll never be able to convince this oafish adult that her bunny isn’t “nothing more than a rodent”, deep down in her heart she knows that her beloved bunny can never be reduced to his front teeth. She knows that if she ever regarded her bunny as nothing more than his front teeth, her dearest treasure would be worthless.

Love recognizes worth.  Love cherishes worth. Love magnifies worth. Love never says “nothing more than”. Love never cheapens worth until something precious is a throwaway item to be discarded without a second thought.

Lust, however, is just the opposite.  Lust degrades and keeps on degrading until something is disposable.


II: — Before we proceed with the distinction between love and lust we have to say something about human libido. We have to acknowledge that when God creates item after item, each time pronouncing it “good”; when God creates man and woman and then pronounces them “very good”, the “very good” includes human libido.   When the book of Proverbs speaks approvingly, glowingly, of the mystery of “the way of a man with a maid”, Proverbs is underscoring the declaration in Genesis: human libido is God-ordained and therefore good.

At the same time, we must understand that human libido serves human intimacy in the first place.         It’s different with the animals: in the animal world libido serves reproduction, and reproduction only.  In the human world libido serves reproduction, obviously, but not reproduction only and not reproduction primarily.  In the human sphere libido serves the fusing of a man and a woman. The nature of this fusion is a union that aims at, intends, lifelong fidelity in a relationship so very intimate, intertwined, interpenetrating that it can be terminated only by death. Libido serves this end. Libido serving any other end is what we call lust.

Love exalts humans; lust diminishes humans.  On the one hand lust reduces the person who is lusted after to a tool, a toy, a play thing that we can exploit and exploit and then discard. On the other hand lust also reduces the person who lusts to one appetite, one craving.  Love is always concerned to see the whole person thrive.  Lust reduces the whole person lusted after to one aspect of her even as lust reduces the person lusting to one itch.

Not so long ago an Argonaut football player was interviewed following a Toronto victory. He was exhilarated with the victory and his part in it.  He concluded his interview as he said to the reporter “Now I want a woman.” But he didn’t want a woman. A woman, after all, is a person, a human being of intelligence and profundity and mystery; a human being made in the image of God whom we can’t violate without violating him and without violating ourselves.         The Argonaut player didn’t want this; he wanted his itch scratched.


II: — Really, it’s not as difficult to distinguish love and lust as some people think. In fact there are several telltale features that identify love unmistakably.

[a] In the first place love has inherent durability.  Love lasts beyond ten minutes not because love ought to last but because it’s love’s nature to last.  Love doesn’t flit, like a bee flitting from one flower to another, extracting whatever it can before alighting on the next flower for the next extraction. Love doesn’t alight and leave, alight and leave.         Love has inherent durability.

Lust, on the other hand, dies at dawn.  It may quicken the next night, to be sure, but just as surely it dies the following dawn. Jean Paul Sartre, French philosopher and novelist, used to speak of lust as a “mere twitch.” Love, however, doesn’t twitch; love lasts.

A major ingredient in love’s perdurability is romance. Romance is hard to find these days. There’s no time or place for romance when the casual relationship moves to the bedroom by the second date. Several years ago when the Shepherd family was camping in a provincial park on the shore of Lake Ontario I noticed that there were no young couples strolling up and down the beach hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm.  Romance had disappeared. Courting had disappeared. Enchantment, stardust, charm – all of it was gone.  Of course it’s gone. Romance and courting and enchantment are long gone when 18-year olds are seen emerging from the tent the morning after.

Tragically, if there’s no romance when we are 18, there will be none when we are 28 or 38 or 48.  Romance lends love resilience and rigour.

[b] A second feature of love, identifying it as love for those in love and for those who see others in love; a second feature is interwoven, intertwined involvement.  Rebecca West, a British novelist with much to say, maintains that love is a journey into another land.  Two people who have pledged themselves to each other and become fused in a relationship that aims at being terminated only by death; two such people know that their life together is a land that awaits them, a land to be explored and shared and enjoyed together.  Lust, however, isn’t the slightest bit interested in exploring a new land over the next several decades.  Lust laughs off any talk of a new land.  Lust has no concern past tonight, and even then no more than a concern with tonight’s tool or trinket or toy.

Everyone appears jarred when the 30-year olds who have been married only three years decide to end their marriage. Three years ago they assumed that the huge attraction they had for each other on one front in life, the sexual, was so huge that there was neither time nor inclination nor perceived need to explore other life-fronts.         Relatively quickly (within three years) they concluded that their lives overlapped virtually nowhere apart from the sexual.  Lacking large areas of overlap in their lives, they concluded (correctly) that they had little in common; too little, in fact, to sustain a union. Lacking significant areas of overlap in their lives, they quickly got to the point where they couldn’t see anything in each other, or what they saw they didn’t like. A new land to be entered upon and explored and enjoyed together?  “Mythic lunacy” they now sneer cynically.  Romance always entails adventure.  They had never considered adventure.  All they had ever wanted was libidinal relief, only to learn that this alone won’t sustain a union.

The opposite of interwoven, intertwined involvement isn’t uninvolvement. The opposite of such involvement is emptiness.  Those who fail to grasp that love entails profound involvement don’t find themselves “free” in any sense; they find themselves in a desert.

[c] A third telltale of love is loyalty.  Loyalty, like romance, is increasingly hard to find.  Are people less loyal than they used to be?   Plainly yes. The real tragedy, however, is that they are less able to be loyal.

There is a truth here we do well to note everywhere in life.  The student who abandons the discipline of study; or the student who never develops the discipline, the healthy, helpful routine of study soon finds herself unable to study. First she doesn’t, then she can’t. If the athlete decides to give up training for six months on the assumption that he can recover competition-level conditioning three days before the event, he finds that he can’t recover it in three days.

The worst consequence of disloyalty isn’t that we have been disloyal (serious as this is); the worst consequence is that we’ve diminished our ability to be loyal. This is much more serious. Unfaithfulness doesn’t mean that all our love has been withdrawn on one occasion.  Unfaithfulness does mean, however, that our capacity to love has eroded significantly. The next instance of unfaithfulness or disloyalty, anywhere in life, will erode it more and then more again (unless of course someone perceives what’s happening inside him and is frightened enough to do something about it).

I find contemporary Christians naïve right here. We ought to look back to another feature of mediaeval understanding, what our 13th Century foreparents called “habit”.  They had in mind the Latin word “habitus”.         “Habitus” doesn’t mean what the English word “habit” means. The English word “habit” means “unthinking repetition.”  At best it means “unthinking repetition”.   At worst “habit” has to do with “habituation”: addiction.         The habituated person is the addicted person.  In mediaeval theology, however, “habit” (“habitus”) meant “cumulative character”. Temptation resisted in this moment is important to be sure, if only because sin has been averted in this moment. But temptation resisted in this moment is vital for another reason: temptation resisted now forms and forges character wherein the same temptation, encountered again, will be more readily identified and more easily resisted. Resisted again, it will then be even more readily identified and even more easily resisted. There is a cumulative gain here as character is deepened and strengthened and made ever more resilient. This is what our mediaeval foreparents meant by habit/habitus.

It all means this: the singular act of loyalty today is the first brick in the edifice of loyalty.  The singular act of loyalty, in other words, is never merely singular: it’s one more building block in that fortress which will soon be found repelling assailants and repelling them for life.

In other words, just as it’s tragically possible to erode one’s capacity for loyalty or truthfulness or withstanding frustration of any sort, it’s also gloriously possible to enlarge one’s capacity for loyalty or truthfulness or withstanding frustration of any sort.

Loyalty, truthfulness, the capacity to withstand disappointment and pain and hope-not-yet-fulfilled; these will ever be one of the marks of love.


III: — What is a Christian response to all of this? How are we to situate ourselves in the midst of a society that appears largely indifferent to the deadly sin of lust, and therein advertises itself as mindlessly superficial compared to our mediaeval foreparents who at least could recognize it for what it is?

[a] In the first place we are going to do what Christians should do in any case, in all times and places, concerning anything: in the words of the apostle Paul, we are going to speak the truth in love.

There are two deficits that mustn’t be found in us here. One deficit is speaking the truth but not speaking it in love.         Here the truth is used as a hammer whereby we can bludgeon those who don’t agree with us. Or the truth is used as a sword whereby we can defend ourselves when we feel ourselves under attack – the sword being the weapon of choice to those who are somewhat insecure in themselves and perhaps not quite convinced that the truth of the gospel is true.  To say that we should speak the truth in love is to say that we shouldn’t be shrill. We shouldn’t carp.

But if we shouldn’t carp, neither should we cower. In other words, the second deficit shouldn’t be found in us either; namely, failing to speak the truth. Of course we ought not to brutalize others with the truth; but neither do we apologize for the truth. And for this reason we shall not be cowed concerning the distinction the gospel makes between lust and love, why the former is deadly sin and why the latter is the fulfilment of all that God requires of us.

According to the gospel, marriage remains the context for sexual intimacy. I do not apologize for saying this. According to the swelling army of sociologists, pre-marital co-habitation does not increase one’s likelihood of remaining married; it decreases it. According to self-evident logic, there is no more “trial marriage” than there is “trial parachute jump”. Once the parachutist has jumped, it’s not a trial of any sort; it’s the real thing. Until the parachutist has jumped; as long as the parachutist remains in the airplane, he hasn’t jumped in any sense.  In the same way trial marriage is an oxymoron, an inherent self-contradiction. Until we have committed ourselves irrevocably in marriage, we aren’t “married” in any sense; once we have committed ourselves irrevocably, there’s no “trial” aspect to it; it’s the real thing.

I shall not fall silent on the fact that the single largest reason for infertility in women is pelvic inflammatory disease (disease whose incidence is sky-rocketing), and the single largest reason for pelvic inflammatory disease is promiscuity.  I don’t intend to beat anyone over the head with this, but I also don’t see why I should pretend anything else.

To be sure, we must speak the truth in love; and in order to speak the truth in love we have to be ready to speak the truth.

[b] What is a Christian response?  In the second place we should remember that everything we’ve talked about today is so very riddled with anxiety and guilt for so many people that we must hear again the gospel incident where some men bring to Jesus a woman they have found committing adultery, “in the very act”, they tell our Lord. They remind our Lord that the Law of Moses requires the death penalty, and then ask him, “Now what do you have to say?”         It’s a trap question. The men don’t really care about the law of God or about the woman who has violated it. They care only about their own venomous hearts and the hostility they cherish concerning Jesus. They want to trap him.

If Jesus says “Stone the woman”, the Roman police will arrest him since only Roman courts can impose the death sentence in Roman-occupied Palestine . If, on the other hand, Jesus says “Let her go”, these men will accuse him of blasphemy, since he has denied the law of God to be God’s law.  It’s a trap.

Jesus, as always, doesn’t reply to their question. Instead he bends over and writes with his finger on the ground.         With his finger.  Every Israelite would have known what he was doing.  God was said to have written the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets with his finger.  As Jesus writes on the ground with his finger, he is doing two things: he is reinforcing the commandment forbidding adultery, and he is claiming for himself that authority which belongs to God alone.  Then Jesus straightens up, looks at the men who are out to “get” both woman and him, and says, “If any one of you men thinks yourself to be without sin, you pick up a stone and throw it at her.”   The men slink away.

What’s happened here?  In writing with his finger on the ground and in thereby claiming to speak and act with the authority of God, Jesus has upheld the commandment forbidding adultery in the context of a woman who has committed adultery. Therefore she stands condemned. Nothing else can be pretended. She stands condemned by God, since only God can condemn.  Then Jesus announces, “I don’t condemn you.”   The condemnation the woman deserves has been rescinded, rescinded by the only one who can rescind God’s condemnation, the one who is God-with-us. Finally Jesus warns her, “Never, ever do it again.”

All of scripture either anticipates the cross or looks back to the cross. In the incident we are probing the cross is anticipated.  Jesus rescinds the woman’s condemnation knowing that he will shortly bear in himself the condemnation that all of us deserve.

Today’s sermon concludes the series on the mediaeval catena of The Seven Deadly Sins. After one and one-half of months of investigating sin we should depart the series with several points in mind:

-sin is lethal at any time and therefore deadly at all times;
-sin merits condemnation just because the claim and commandment of God cannot be relaxed;
-yet sin’s condemnation is borne by the crucified who sets us free to sin no more just because the pardon he, the Son of God, pronounces upon us is ratified by his Father in heaven.

In short, you and are I summoned henceforth to die to sin just because someone who loves us more than he loves himself has already died for it.


Victor Shepherd
March 2006