The beauty of godliness is that it stands under pressure. Godly men and women don’t shrink back in the face of adversity; they rise up. They trust God and love others even when it is hard. They rejoice, endure, and hope in suffering as God strengthens them by his love (Rom 5:3-5). God is glorified when his people stand under pressure, and he is at work fashioning us into men and women with that kind of character.
The ugliness of sin is that it can only do what is easy. It offers cheap joy, but makes us into people who crumble at the slightest pressure. It gleams like a valuable jewel at first, but slowly poisons our character. Sin destroys our ability to do anything worthwhile by destroying our ability to do anything that is hard. It erodes our courage to love and saps our strength to sacrifice. It makes us pathetic, weak, and boring. The more we understand the diverging destinations of these two paths, the more we will prefer the hard road of holiness over the easy road of sin.
In this article, I want to apply this idea to our battle against lust. In particular, I want to contrast the difficult beauty of God’s design for sex within marriage with the empty promises of lust. My hope is that as we see the wisdom and goodness of God’s way, we will learn to not just fight lust, but to truly prefer purity in our hearts.
The Difficult Beauty of Marital Intimacy –
In his excellent book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller shares a quote from author W.H. Auden:
“Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate”
What does Auden mean? He means that while romance may feel invincible in its early stages, it is still shallow and fragile. When you’re swept up in powerful emotions, it’s easy to serve your significant other and look past his or her faults. It’s easy to make sacrifices and big promises. But you still have an idealized picture of the other person. You’re still carried along by the rush that the one you love loves you in return.
Marriage takes that initial love and tests it with time, circumstances, and each spouse’s personal failures. As time goes on, feelings fade and faults emerge. Hardships strain the relationship. At times, affection for the other spouse might seem to vanish all together. But the difficulty of marriage, Keller and Auden argue, produces an “infinitely more interesting” — an infinitely more worthwhile, beautiful, and desirable — kind of love. Why? Because marital love is forged through blood, sweat, and tears. It grows through self-denying commitment and sacrificial love. It is carefully cultivated with patience, perseverance, and prayer. And because of that, marital love is far deeper and more mature than that of any passionate affair.
Keller, reflecting on how his relationship with his wife has grown over time, writes this:
When Kathy first held my hand, it was an almost electric thrill. Thirty-seven years later, you don’t get the same buzz out of holding your wife’s hands that you did the first time…[but] there is no comparison between that and what it means to hold Kathy’s hand now, after all we’ve been through. We know each other thoroughly now; we have shared innumerable burdens, we have repented, forgiven, and been reconciled to each other over and over again…When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you will all your strength and flaws, yet commits him- or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience…To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is…what we need more than anything.
Something resonates in me when I hear Keller describe his relationship with his wife. There is something so right about this kind of love — a love forged in difficulty that strengthens us for any difficulty. Somewhere deep inside I know I am made to love and be loved in this way. And, at root, I recognize that this is because marital love in its purest form is a “lot like being loved by God”
The Difficult Beauty of Physical Intimacy
It is important to understand marriage because God designed sex to mirror both the difficulty and beauty of the marriage relationship. If we are to experience the joys of being united in sex, God tells us we must also embrace the hard work of marriage. We must relinquish our freedom and be “willing to unite with [a] person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally” through the marriage vow. Once we are married, we must put in the hard work that makes true intimacy possible — the sacrifice, the selflessness, the repentance and reconciliation.
But within this context of committed love, sex becomes something beautiful and meaningful. Keller continues:
…Indeed, sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” You must not use sex to say anything less
Physical intimacy reflects the deep intimacy of the marriage relationship. Just as the couple has joined themselves in every area of life and become one, in sex they experience deep joy in joining physically and becoming one flesh. Just as each spouse places the others interest above his or her own, in sex each selflessly seeks to bring enjoyment to the other (1 Cor 7:3-5). Just as in marriage there is joy in being fully known and truly loved, in sex husband and wife experience joy in being naked and unashamed (Gen 2).
God’s, in his design for marriage and sex, takes our fragile love and makes it strong. We enter marriage as selfish people who struggle to love when our feelings falter, or when trials come, or when our spouse lets us down. But through the crucible of marriage, God makes us into people who can love and stay committed through every obstacle. Marriage creates beautiful character in us. In Keller’s words, it “liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us“
Now, compare all of this with the cheap pleasure of lust. Lust promises an easy and endless supply of instant gratification. It is divorced from relationship so it requires none of the sacrifices or hard work of commitment. It allows us to be selfish and isolated while still enjoying the pleasures of sex. It offers an escape from the difficulties and pressures of life. But it comes at the cost of our character. Lust destroys our ability to commit to a real life person who is imperfect and inconvenient. It destroys our ability to see those of the opposite gender as image bearers of God, not objects for our selfish desires.
The Difficult Beauty of Purity –
If you’re like me, you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s all well and good for married people but what about those of us who are single?” It’s easy for us as single people to envy our married friends. After all, while married couples must fight for purity, they can fight together with the one they love. They are able to enjoy the hard-fought benefits of physical and relational intimacy. But single people must fight for purity alone without a guarantee of ever being married.
But that question misses the point. Marriage and singleness are different. Marriage has its own unique difficulties (think about that married guy who doesn’t play basketball with you anymore) and singleness has its own unique benefits (go read 1 Corinthians 7). Regardless of whether we follow God’s design through marriage or chastity, obedience to God is better and more beautiful than lust.
Like marriage, fighting for purity as a single person is difficult. The tempter often comes when we feel most overwhelmed and lonely. In our weakness, he offers us an escape from the painful realities of life in a moment of pleasure. He offers control and power for our feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and insecurity. God’s way is so restrictive, he whispers, who would blame you for giving in? Life is so hard. You deserve it. Just this one time. No one will ever know.
And yet, as I understand the meaning of marriage, I realize that purity, even as a single person, is so much more beautiful than the enemy’s lies. Marriage and chastity produce the same godly character in us as we trust God. Both produce courage and sacrificial love. Both teach us to die to ourselves and consider others more important. Both build our ability to hold on to convictions and commitments even when circumstances are hard. And because of that, both marriage and chastity are equally beautiful in God’s sight, and should be in ours too.
Slowly, I am learning it is much better to turn to God and wait on him when I feel faint. It is much better to trust him to either provide a spouse or sustain me in my singleness. It is much better to treat my sisters with dignity and respect, especially when no one is watching.
Someday, Lord willing, I hope to be husband. If and when that day comes, I must be a man of character. I don’t become that kind of person over night or simply by getting married. I am forming my character right now . Nor am I waiting until marriage to exercise committed sacrificial love. God calls me to practice and grow in that kind of love now, in actively serving others and fighting temptation.
Difficult Beauty and the Good Tension – The more I understand the beauty of holiness, the more I want to pursue purity and leave behind sin. However, at the same time, I am painfully aware of how helpless I am to follow God’s design. I want to be steadfast in trials, but I am swept to and fro by the tides of circumstance. I want to be selfless, but constantly find that I am selfish. I want to learn to commit unconditionally, but instead see my tendency to draw back when others have nothing to offer me.
I find myself in the tension between loving what is right but finding myself unable to carry it out. And yet, I think it is good to live in this tension. Why?
First, this tension reminds me constantly that God is good and I am not. In his good design for marriage, I see that he is the Good Designer who perfectly demonstrates sacrificial and committed love at the cross in the face of the greatest adversity. As I labor weakly to imitate this difficult love, I gain a fresh appreciation of how hard it must be to love me. And as I fail over and over again, I experience from God the very thing I am unable to do — as I fail to show committed and sacrificial love, he shows me committed and sacrificial love.
Second, this tension reminds me that I must depend completely on him for strength. If godliness was easy, I could do it by myself. If godliness wasn’t beautiful, I could pursue another way. But godliness is impossibly difficult, yet irresistibly beautiful, so it draws me to God, the only one who can give me the strength to do what he commands. And because he gives the strength, he gets the glory in leading me to what is good.
By living in this tension and letting it direct us to God for forgiveness and strength, God can begin slowly reforming our hearts. Lust often feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Like no matter how far we run, it will eventually drag us back into its pit. However, as we trust in God, he can change us to love what he loves, and hate what he hates. He can give us the power to put lust to death.
Difficult Beauty in the Big Picture – Finally, I’ve found it helpful to take this pattern of difficult beauty which we see in marriage and apply it beyond our battle against lust. We’ve seen that the root cause of lust is a failure to trust God in hardship to provide for our needs and be our joy. That is what breaks marriages apart. That is why we give in to lust. When the going gets tough, we doubt God and resort to our selfish, self-protective ways.
Lust is one symptom of this deeper problem, but this root manifests itself in many different ways besides lust. Two months ago, I wrote about how I resort to cynicism to protect myself from getting hurt. Last month, I wrote about how I resort to procrastination when I feel overwhelmed and fearful. And beyond that, I can think of countless other escapes I turn to in order to deal with adversity.
All of these sins follow the same pattern of lust. They promise an easier way: a way to protect myself, a way to shy away from hardship. But they are always hollow. They fail to produce joy or character in us. Whereas God takes us straight into the heart of the storm, but his way ultimately produces lasting joy and character.
It’s helpful for me to see lust in the big picture. For me, it’s easy to make lust the central issue of sanctification. So that if I’m doing well with purity, I feel close to God but if I’m doing poorly, I’m despondent. But understanding the deeper root of lust shows me that I’m not necessarily doing well just because I haven’t fallen into temptation. I must look where I’m turning to when I’m under pressure. I must see if I’m exercising courage and love in other areas of life.
And when I fail in purity, understanding the root problem helps me to have a deeper repentance instead of just a hazy cloud of guilt and shame. It helps me to examine why I gave in to lust and how that reveals areas in my life where I am failing to trust God. At the same time, seeing the root cause helps me to have a deeper repentance for sins I might otherwise be apathetic about. More “respectable” sins like fear, anxiety, or cynicism which are less obvious, but just as damaging to my relationship with God.
Not only that, I can take the lessons learned from this post and apply it other areas of my life. When I am lazy, for example, I can learn to see the beauty of faithful hard work and the emptiness of sin. I can grow in my appreciation of God who is perfect in all his attributes. I can lean on his strength to help me in my weakness and for forgiveness when I fail. And, through his grace, he can help me to change.