The following post is part of a guest series by Jason Liske of Ascending Mount Carmel. Jason is also a freelance writer and social media contributor at Monkrock. You can read more about him here. The following post is used with permission.
The seven deadly sins, as we now know them, can be thought of as seven of the most terrifying and fearsome enemies on the spiritual battlefield. Though originally listed as eight sins in the monastic writings of Evagrius Ponticus and St. John Cassian (sloth and despondency were separate, for example), we now generally know them as seven – lust, greed, wrath, gluttony, sloth, envy, and pride. Each one is a ferocious foe, and I know that for myself, these sins have wounded, terrified, and overcome me often. Therefore, over the next little while, I will be taking the time to analyze them each, and offer some help in combatting them.
The first sin that is to be analyzed is lust. In my own observation, lust seems the most obvious of the seven deadly sins, and also the one that can overcome the unwary Christian soul like a flash flood. But it is insidious too, not only attacking like a blitzkrieg with its temptations, but also worming its way underneath the skin, planting seeds of temptation everywhere, sometimes leading the soul down little steps towards it before finally administering a fatal wound.
Lust, as St. John Cassian relates, must be “fought in both soul and body,”1 as it is often “aroused apart from any desire of the will,”2 hence the intense frustration and despair that can result in the Christian when one is confronted with it. One day, the Christian is going along fine in their spiritual life, before a simple image or phrase weakens and batters the fortress of Christ within the heart. Many times, the Christian soul falls into some kind of mortal sin, giving up in the wake of the relentless assault on the senses that they find themselves either subjected or in some cases drawn to.
For souls prone to falling into sins of lust, our age is a brutal one. In some ways, the effects of lust are almost inescapeable these days – “Sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times. The Victorians pretended it did not exist; the moderns pretend that nothing else exists.”3 (Ven. Fulton Sheen)
The topic of sex, for better or for worse, absolutely dominates many a conversation, and for someone prone to falling into sins of lust already, daily life can become quite hellish. It is not that one needs to be some kind of nymphomaniac in order to feel like this – many simply succumb to sins of lust because of the overwhelming advertisements in imagery, in attitudes and fashions, in language and all the rest that so constantly blare in the face of the individual. This all awakens the passions of the individual that seem to be already latent, like burning embers suddenly re-ignited. “The impure spirit has a strong influence only on the passionate,”4 (Seraphim of Sarov) and as many souls fall into this category, they are therefore “more susceptible to occasions of this sin than straw is to fire.”5 (Dom Lorenzo Scupoli)
Lust offers a quick solution to the already-numbed out soul of modern man living in the post-Nietzschean era – instead of facing the existential crisis of human existence in any small manner, instead of facing reality, hardship, suffering, fear, woe, or anything else, man can temporarily “forget his emptiness in the intensity of a momentary experience.”6 (Ven. Fulton Sheen)
Like its sister sin, gluttony, lust allows a soul unable to confront the reality of life with a brief escape. Indulge in lust, and all of life’s troubles and worries disappear for a moment – only to reappear again unchanged, and with one’s soul in a state of peril. Like many sins, lust is often not fallen into because it is somehow awful and hurts; no, it offers us something, and we think we benefit from it. I assume it is like taking drugs – no one would do drugs if there was not some kind of benefit that, at the time, they thought outweighed the risk. In this case, lust offers that high, seemingly without any responsibility, worry, or effect.
The reality, of course, is much different. Indulging in lust of any kind has a kind of hollowing-out effect on the soul – it sells the person out for all they are worth, simply in order to feel good for a little while. Such is the desperation of our age, and the human condition. We want to feel good at any cost, and to openly deny oneself the pleasures of lust for a higher cause is looked upon as some form of insanity.
Surely, lust is not an easy sin to combat, especially in our age. Our passions are easily inflamed, and what was once a thorny and dark path that we refused to walk down suddenly becomes a slippery mudslide into a trap. Sins of lust are often addicting – witness the lives of those who indulged in pornography for years, only to find their brains engraved with the “devil’s iconography.” (Fr. Seraphim Rose)
Witness the broken marriages due to adultery, the broken hearts due to one-night flings and selfish relationships, the broken souls of those caught up in addictions to masturbation and pornography; the effects of lust are obvious. To be sure, it is one of the most blatant and forward of all the enemies of the Christian that populate the spiritual battlefield of today (and frankly, of history as well).
When I begin to contemplate the remedies and weapons available against this deadly sin, I am reminded of an affecting story I once read. It says: “A certain youth sought to renounce the world, and having many times left the world for the monastery, thoughts came back to him speaking to him about worldly things, for he had been exceedingly rich. Leaving one day, he walked around and stirred up a lot of dust, for he would turn back again and again. He suddenly undressed, threw away his clothes and ran naked as fast as he could to the monastery. The Lord revealed this to a certain Elder, saying, ‘Arise and receive my sufferer.'”7
In the story above, despite its mention of material wealth, I see the struggle with lust encapsulated. Again and again, we might often fall into the addictions of lust or its temptations and lures. But in the end, it is the pull of God’s grace and the sinner’s “yes” to that grace that triumphs. We see a kind of violence in the depiction – the youth strips himself utterly (in this, I see it meaning that he strips himself of the cares and attractions of this world), and runs to his Father’s house to seek solace there. We see this kind of action recommended to us precisely in the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, who admonishes us to run to God when we are confronted with temptation as a child would run to its parent for protection from a wild animal.
It seems to me that it is an act of the will to embrace the grace of Christ rather than to fall into sin that saves us when we are assaulted by this enemy. Christ constantly offers us His hand, telling us to “Watch and pray, that [we] may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing enough, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41).
1 – Institutes, “On the Eight Vices”
2 – The Call of Silent Love, 13:A:2
3 – Peace of Soul, VIII
4 – Spiritual Instructions, 29
5 – The Spiritual Combat, 19
6 – Peace of Soul, VIII
7 – qtd. in Little Russian Philokalia – Vol. 5: St. Theodore of Sanaxar, pg. 90