“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
In addressing the Sixth Commandment, You Shall Not Commit Adultery, we looked at the idea that human beings have been made in God’s image, and capable of entering into permanent, life-giving relationships of love. The most intimate of these we call marriage – and this is the proper and holy place for our most intimate expression of love: human sexuality. Chastity was explained to be the virtue by which we properly integrate our sexuality – neither having sex before marriage nor cheating on one’s spouse once you are married.
But there is more to chastity than simply abstaining from sex in these contexts. True chastity involves not only the choice not to do things that go against the goodness to which we were created – as Jesus explained during the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). And it is precisely here that the ninth commandment truly makes sense:
“The Ninth Commandment forbids, not desires per se, but rather disordered desires. The ‘covetousness’ against which Sacred Scripture warns is the rule of impulses over the mind, the dominion of urges over the whole person, and the sinfulness that that causes.” -YouCat 462
As human beings we experience the draw to be in exclusive, intimate relationships. This is a God-given gift, a fruit of being created in the image of a life-giving, loving Trinity. And be very clear on this: this is a good thing. To be married is a good thing. To love another is a good thing. To desire this feeling is a good thing. What isn’t good is when these desires become disordered, and that desire to love becomes instead a desire to possess or to use. Here, the loving desire for the good of another is replaced by its counterfeit, lust, which poisons our hearts and our relationships.
The big difference between the two is that love is selfless while lust is selfish. Love asks “what can I do for my beloved,” while lust asks “what can/does that person do for me?” Love empties itself to the other, while lust is always looking for more – because it can never be satiated. If you’ve ever seen Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Barbossa comments that all the ‘pleasurable company’ in the world couldn’t satisfy their lust – and though he blames it on the ‘curse’ he and his crew find themselves under, lust is never satisfied. Jesus calls us to love – and in this commandment, challenges us to turn away from lust. If we’re going to do this, be prepared for a battle… particularly since we live in a society that doesn’t see this as a battle worth fighting.
There are three main battlegrounds we need to be aware of in our war against lust: our hearts, our minds, and our eyes. Beginning in our hearts, we need to turn to God and ask for help in prayer. It is prayer that makes possible any decision you or I will make to live a pure life because it is God’s grace that can lead us out of learned habits of lust and to resist the various temptations we encounter almost everywhere. This battle begins on your knees. Our ability to maintain purity in our hearts and beyond is very closely related to the degree of intimacy we have with God. Remembering that lust is a disordered desire for intimacy, one of the best things any of us can do is latch on to the real thing – an intimacy that truly satisfies – so that we can clearly see the emptiness of the counterfeit. And remember that God wants us to win this battle, and will do His part, hearing ourprayer:
“When we turn to God with a sincere intention, he transforms our hearts. He gives us the strength to correspond to his will and to reject impure thoughts, fantasies, and desires.” -YouCat 463
The second battle ground is that of our minds. It may seem like many things fly through our brains over the course of each day, and that we have no control over what we think about. To a certain degree, this is true – much of what any of us thinks of may seem to come from nowhere. But when the thought appears, each of us has a choice. Do we entertain that thought of lust towards this good-looking person or do we let it go? YouCat explains that shame can help us in our battle for purity: “Shame safeguards a person’s intimate space: his mystery, his most personal and inmost being, his dignity, but especially his capacity for love and sexual self-giving… [it] protects something valuable, namely, the dignity of the person in his capacity to love” (YouCat 464). Consider that St. Luke writes that the things we say in secret will be proclaimed from the housetops (see Luke 12:3). Then, ask yourself how would the individual you are fantasizing about feel if they knew what you were really thinking? That shame can remind us about the God-given goodness of every single person we meet or even see. They are someone’s daughter, son, sister, brother, mother… and don’t deserve to be objectified in someone else’ mind. So while the first step of this battle is to get on our knees, step two is to be aware of the thoughts flying through our heads moment by moment. We need to choose not to embrace the ones that lead you to covet any other human being – particularly those who are not your spouse. (When we work at loving a spouse, we naturally learn to see and love the beauty rather than wanting to ‘use’ them for any reason. It’s just in the nature of love… but that’s another post for another time.)
The final battleground is that of the eyes. And this battleground is important, because what we take in through our eyes has a profound effect on our hearts and minds. If we stare and gawk at another, or spend time viewing pornography, it’s going to affect our ability to love from the heart. It’s going to add material for those thoughts we don’t need and can’t control. And it’s going to create a habit. Sirach 9:8 offers real practical advice here – we need to look away instead of looking at another with lust. Don’t stare at one who isn’t dressed modestly, appreciate but don’t dwell on the beauty of one who is good-looking (maybe say a prayer of thanks instead of making a derogatory comment), and don’t let pornography take root in our lives.
If you fall – as many of us do – don’t beat yourself up. Get up, and start over again – using the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as you need it (that’s why it’s there) – and learn to live. Recognize the battle you fight against lust, and that though it will at times seem hard or overwhelming, it will also absolutely be worth it both because it frees us to love as God intended us to. :
“When you decide firmly to lead a clean life, chastity will not be a burden on you: it will be a crown of triumph.” -St. Josemaria Escriva
Know that I am praying for you, as I know this battle well! For further reading on this topic, check out my refletion, “A Person First” with tips on how to overcome sexual sin.