A brother was goaded by lust and the lust was like a fire burning day and night in his heart. But he struggled on, not coming to meet his temptation nor consenting to it. And after a long time, the goad left him, annihilated by his perseverance. And at once light appeared in his heart.
Of all the sayings of the desert fathers, perhaps those on lust are the most relevant to our culture and world today. Our media has seized upon lust as a marketing tool, worsening the problem (though I doubt such a tool could be used in a different moral climate). I know people, indeed many Christians, myself included, who entered adolescence with little to no defense against such a vicious demon. Truth be told, many of us began the battle having already been defeated—it is a shame how early children become curious about sex. Even the strongest of soldiers can be defeated by sickness, sometimes much easier than any human enemy. In this case, all it takes is one older sibling or pseudo-role model to pass the disease on to those who do not yet even truly understand its draw, and a whole troop can be defeated even before entering basic training.
Nevertheless, I should stop myself before becoming too pessimistic. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overtake it” (John 1:5). There is no human being who is utterly bereft of the grace of God—otherwise they would not have life and breath. Even in the darkest places the Light of Christ can shine and light the way home.
In the case of lust, there is no easy way out, and it is by no means a matter of sheer willpower. Rather, it takes intentional struggle adequate to each moment of temptation. Willpower is the delicate fruit of discipline.
According to this saying, the brother defeated lust by “not coming to meet his temptation nor consenting to it.” This is far easier if one lives in the desert. Try “not coming to meet [your] temptation” as a high school sophomore. 50% of the population is your temptation, through no fault of their own, not to mention cultural influences. But, as is the purpose of this blog, living in the world ought not to prevent us from fleeing to the desert in our hearts. The brother may have even lived alone, yet he still needed to find a way to escape “meet[ing] his temptation.” Isolation does not magically defeat all temptation.
I think the most likely interpretation is that the brother defeated his lust through watchfulness: intentionally taking time to examine one’s thoughts and the causes of one’s actions. One of the first lies that we buy into in our spiritual lives is that we have far less control over our thoughts and feelings than is actually the case. As it turns out, every involuntary impression only pushes us to action, even mental action, after our willing consent. Ah! But we are back to the problem of willpower again.
To paraphrase Abba Evagrius of Pontus (AKA Evagrios the Solitary), we do not fall to lust unless we have first fallen to gluttony. If we cannot keep our hand out of a bag of potato chips, we won’t be able to control it elsewhere. If we cannot control our stomachs, we will not be able to control our— well, you know where that’s going….
First, we need a regular habit of fasting to counteract the gluttony that is most certainly already ruling us. It need not be severe: vegetarianism one day a week can take a lot of discipline for someone who is used to saying yes to every hunger. (This is an important point for teenagers especially, who may struggle with anorexia or other eating disorders as a result of a distorted self-image, though that is a much more complex situation and often requires professional help.)
Next, we need prayer. In particular, we need to develop a pattern of prayer at times we know we will be tempted. Morning and evening tend to be good places to start. Adding extra prayers before any leisure time would be helpful as well. Furthermore, we need words to pray: far better to be prepared and rattle off a prayer like a robot than to choke due to lack of spontaneous inspiration. Recite a psalm, say the “Our Father,” or just pray, “Lord Jesus have mercy.” Over and over again, as long as it takes.
Last, I would add, it does not hurt to have a few icons. Icons are meant to sanctify the eyes just as hymns sanctify our ears. This world is full of so many icons of evil, most of us cannot survive it without icons of Christ and the saints.
Once we have slowed down our thoughts through discipline and perseverance, we find that the lightless, darkening flame of lust begins to die and, through our increased contemplation of Jesus Christ and through redirecting all our thoughts to him, we find within ourselves that Light that does not burn us, but “shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overtake it.”