Temptation and sin are different. Jesus himself was tempted, but was without sin. That's what we should aim for–to be without sin in the face of temptation. Temptation often morphs into sin of impure thoughts or sinful action when given the opportunity and elements to grow. Because we want to please God and avoid sexual sin's destructive effects, we should do everything we can to overcome temptation.
Below are some steps we can take to overcome sexual temptation.
No Nests. Speaking of dealing with sexual temptation, Martin Luther once said, “You cannot keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.” He wasn't saying, "look but don't touch." Luther was saying something like, "see, but don't look." He was helping us understand that noticing beauty is natural–or at least somewhat unavoidable. Dwelling on it, however, is dangerous.
If we nurture sexual thoughts about someone other than the one we are in marital covenant with, we are feeding desires in us we don’t want to feed. We are spending sexual energy and intimacy on someone else that is meant for our spouse. If you are married, this will hurt sex within marriage and it will fan into flame desires that you don’t want to fan. If you are single, this makes an already challenging struggle all the more difficult. It also cultivates habits that will follow you into marriage.
Remember Joseph. Sometimes just getting out of there is one of the wisest things you can do. We often think of Joseph's fleeing of Potiphar's wife when we talk about fleeing sexual sin. Truth is, Potiphar's wife came at him "day after day." Nothing in the text says or implies he was tempted. Nevertheless, he bolts…wisely. The reason he gives is vital: "He (Potiphar) is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)
Don't hire people you find attractive. If you're at the beach or pool and someone you find alluring lays their towel down near you. Move. Take off your sunglasses, so you won't be tempted to glare in secret. Or, bail. Proverbs asks a great question: "Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?" (Proverbs 6:27) That's a rhetorical question 🙂
Focus on your own struggles, not those of others.
I know there some who would say Christians should never go anywhere they might even have the opportunity to be tempted. Such will never happen, which is why developing an immune system of sorts to sexual temptation is a wiser way to approach life than isolation. You'll have to go to school. You'll have to work. You'll have to leave the house at some point. There are other people in the world walking around dressed in ways intended to tempt others because it makes them feel good to be wanted. This is just reality.
If we are always isolated, we will never acquire the ability to be Christ in the world. We'll, at best, be Christ in isolation–when the world needs Christians willing and able to eat with tax collectors and sinners. For some, isolation may be the right move. However, it isn't necessary for everyone. We Christians don't need to bind rules on people God hasn't bound or preach that all Christians should stay away from this or that–when God hasn't forbidden this or that. We need to be wise, and care enough about our sexuality to do what needs to be done to keep ourselves pure. This means more than avoiding temptation, which is impossible anyways. It means learning to overcome temptation as we go about living as Christians in the world.
Francois Fénelon takes a very practical view of this: “The invalid who cannot walk without a cane cannot let anyone take it away from him. He feels his weakness. He fears to fall, and he is right. But he ought not to be upset to see a healthy and strong man who does not need the same support. The healthy man walks more freely without a cane. But he should never be contemptuous of him who cannot do without it.”
Deal with underlying issues. Many chronic struggles with pornography or promiscuity involve issues that go far beyond lust. It's important to deal with those–the dysfunctional marriage, the family-of-origin issues, or the emotional desires met by indulging the physical. A good Christian counselor can really be of benefit here. However you do it, get to the underlying issues.
Pay proper attention to your walk with God. The reason Joseph gives is that his adultery would be a sin against God. His desire to honor God trumped what Potiphar's wife (or perhaps his body) wanted him to do. You've heard it said, "The best offense is a good defense." The opposite is also true. The best defense is sometimes a good offense. A good offense is cultivating a rich spiritual life that leads us to live with an awareness that our bodies are not our own and a thirst for God's abiding presence. Just as weeds are less likely to grow in healthy lawns, a vibrant spiritual life will help crowd out temptation and potential sin.
The next post in this series: Recovering from Sexual Sin