In the Face of Sexual Temptation, Repression Is a Sure-Fire Failure

How do we solve the problem of desire? Christian asceticism offers an alternative way.
In the Face of Sexual Temptation, Repression Is a Sure-Fire Failure
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Getty / Envato

My first relationship to desire was to give in to it. As a teenager in the early aughts, I believed that life was found by identifying my desires and rushing toward their satisfaction. I played this out in academics and especially in sexuality. My life beat to the pulse of Ariana Grande’s chant, “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” The right response to desire was indulgence.

Unbeknownst to me as a nonChristian, the purity movement was running in parallel. Those who experienced that movement from the inside have spent recent months breaking down its excesses and missteps. Their conclusion (and mine) is that repression and avoidance are unbiblical responses to desire, no more Christian, perhaps, than my teenage, atheistic abandonment to it.

In the midst of these reoccurring public square discussions, the tension between libertinism on one side and repression on the other leaves most of us yearning for the reasonable via media, the middle way between failed extremes. In that space, is there a scripturally sound theology of desire?

Yes. I want to suggest that Christian asceticism, ancient though it is, offers a way forward. It uniquely treats God as the end, not the means, of desire.

It also circumvents the shortcomings of repression and avoidance. Here, I’m not talking about biblically wise avoidance. It is stupid and unsafe to put ourselves in places where we know we will be strongly tempted to lust or sin. Temptation, while not sin, is not safe for us; Jesus commands us to pray that we would be kept from it. Similarly, Paul’s admonition to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) can’t mean any less than this.

Instead, I want to point out that repression and avoidance have a Christian name but a pagan lifestyle. Both are tactical responses that center around willpower. A person practicing repression might attempt to ignore desire in a “pretend-it-isn’t-there” way. Or he might avoid most contact with people he finds attractive. Others are unwilling to acknowledge their sexual feelings at all (especially if one happens to be female or same-sex attracted), because that acknowledgment might bring shame from one’s community.

First, both of these tactics try to wrest reward from God through bribery. If you are sexually pure, goes the thinking, then God will reward you with a sexy, best-friend spouse. This so-called “sexual prosperity gospel” is unbiblical and untrue. Not only that, it’s devastating to young men and women who work diligently to be faithful only to come up empty-handed. Like the uncured invalid at a faith healing, they’re left to wonder if the problem is with them.

Second, repression and avoidance strategies are often motivated by a desire to conform to social expectation. But if pleasing pastors, friends, or parents becomes our primary source of motivation for sexual purity, we are deceived. Just because the end product aligns with God’s commands doesn’t mean we are practicing Christian virtues.

This leads to a third indictment of repression and avoidance: One does not need Jesus Christ to practice them. Some Christians find that the right combination of carrots and sticks allows them to ignore their desire, or alternatively, they structure their circumstances so that desire rarely rears its head. Self-righteousness sets in and brings with it the impulse to advise others. Christ remains present in name only. He is seen as the one who will be disappointed at failure or who will dole out treats for good behavior. He is viewed only as the Judge when he himself should be the prize.

In other words, a system that doesn’t need Jesus is not meaningfully Christian. If his sovereignty is replaced by human authority, and if the goal isn’t him but sex—or for silver medalists, virginity—would anyone even notice if Jesus slowly disappeared?

Here again, I need to caveat that within a truly Christian view of sexual desire, avoidance of temptation and distraction from desire can in fact be useful tools. However, when we rely upon them solely, they fail; like branches ripped from the vine, they wither.

Finally, there is a fourth way that repression and avoidance fall outside of authentic Christianity: They carve out a huge gulf between singleness and marriage.

If your main recourse to sexual desire is repression or avoidance, singleness is a trap. When you only ignore, punish, or avoid these feelings, you set yourself up for fatigue, frustration, and failure. Many Christian singles feel this heavy yoke. Marriage, on the other hand, is treated like the Promised Land, the reward, the fulfillment of God’s purposes. To be married is to finish the brutal race of repression and avoidance and to finally be blessed.

This false dichotomy between marriage and singleness is deeply unbiblical. It also fails to acknowledge that marriage is a training space for desire. Married people face loss of desire for their spouse, aroused desire for those who are not their spouse, and breaks from intercourse for myriad reasons. Sexual dysfunction and even abuse are a painful, routine part of our fallen world.

Scripture proffers no false division: We see there that God honors both singleness and marriage. Jesus was a single man in a time and culture where marriage was functionally compulsory, and yet in Matthew 19, he affirms the goodness and honor of both godly singleness and godly marriage. Pitting these states against each other is profoundly unChristian.

In the face of these four-fold failures, I see a simple alternative: We need a distinctly Christian vision for how to live as embodied desirers in a fallen world. To put it more bluntly, we need Jesus Christ himself. Where he is, there is always hope and life.

Can Jesus be found in the practice of Christian asceticism? In her book, The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley argues “yes.” Some of her conclusions fall outside of biblical bounds. And yet with respect to desire, she opens up a beautiful scriptural vista.

Through a tour of Sigmund Freud, Gregory of Nyssa, and her own theological mining, Coakley prods her readers to consider that true asceticism allows a person to lift her gaze toward the only thing that truly satisfies desire, the only thing that remains when desire cannot be otherwise fulfilled: a vision of God. That vision can only be won through prayer and practice. Together, these habits help consecrate the desires of both married and celibate believers.

As Coakley provocatively puts it, “the reflective, faithful celibate and the reflective, faithful married person may have more in common—by way of prayerful surrendering of inevitably thwarted desire to God—than the unreflective or faithless celibate, or the carelessly happy or indeed unhappily careless married person.”

This, then, is the heart of Christian asceticism: that every desire be considered in light of the treasure and person of Jesus Christ.

First, we must consider each desire in context of what he has declared good and evil. We are sinful and broken; we are not reliable judges. Just because a desire feels right does not make it right. God has been clear, and we honor him when we flee temptation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, we must consider that each desire presses us not only toward its obvious end but also reveals that God alone is the true end of every longing. So yes, our desires are often thwarted, but that fact doesn’t doom us. Instead, even our unfulfilled yearnings can lead us toward the beauty and fulfillment found in God himself. He is the one who made us desiring creatures, because he, too, experiences desire. We are like him, and all our desires are ultimately pictures of what God-in-Christ longs to fulfill for us.

Some of our desires are disordered—warped by original sin. My own same-sex attraction is an example. Other desires are ordered in general but disordered by degree or distribution. A man’s desire for women may be ordered on one level but out of order with lust, adultery, or promiscuity. Either way, the gift of Christ is to be able to repent of sin, seek the Holy Spirit in the face of temptation, and take joy in an obedience that flows from the belief that we are fully known and fully loved.

Repression and avoidance are ultimately human-centered responses. They stuff desire, suffocate it, banish it, and yet rarely succeed at engendering true purity. By contrast, Christian asceticism reminds us that we are not stronger than desire and then invites us to cast our gaze toward the One who is. It asks the Christian to follow the sight line of desire—like looking down the barrel of a gun—and train it on what all desire is ultimately satisfied by: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Christian asceticism destroys the bribery system because we learn that God is the end, not the means. We learn to long for him, not purity for its own sake or satisfaction of sexual desire alone. Under this model, those in spiritual authority are not means to smaller ends but rather children of the same Father. Jesus stands at the very center, because Christian asceticism forces us to understand every desire in relationship to our Beloved. And as Coakley points out, it also levels the plane between singles and marrieds. All of us, paired off or not, find our thwarted desires consoled by Christ and provided for by him. We each find in his church myriad “yeses” to desire as we wait for the new heaven and the new earth.

In the end, sex is a gift, but it’s not the point. As Christians, we can mourn its loss or celebrate its presence. But when it moves to the center of our vision, either through indulgence or repression, we end up pursuing “Christian” goals through unChristian tactics. Jesus must be our vision, our great yes that balms the smaller no’s. Until he is enough, no other yes or no will be sufficient.

Rachel Gilson serves on Cru’s leadership team for theological development and culture. She blogs at rachelgilson.com and can be found on Twitter @RachelGilson.

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