The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust

The word “lust” is most often used to refer to excessive or disordered sexual desire. However, because it is rooted in the Latin word luxuria (which refers to extravagant, excessive, or even riotous behavior), we sometimes hear it used in other ways. For example, someone may be said to have a “lust for power.” In the realm of moral and spiritual theology, though, we have come to restrict the word to sexual matters. This is especially because we have specific words to describe such excesses gluttony and greed.

Lust defined – For our discussion here we will define lust as disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of, sexual pleasure (see Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2351).

Of itself sexual desire is a great good, and an essential one upon which depends the future existence of the human race. As such it is also related to the common good and is among the greatest of goods since human life comes from it.

It is for this reason that St. Thomas numbers lust (objectively speaking) among the mortal sins:

The more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves one to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason be forsaken. Now the use of venereal acts, as stated in the foregoing Article, is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything be done in this connection against the dictate of reason’s ordering, it will be a sin. Now lust consists essentially in exceeding the order and mode of reason in the matter of venereal acts. Wherefore without any doubt lust is a sin (Summa Theologiae II, IIae 153.3).

Lust is either an inordinate desire or a disordered one (often both). To say that sexual desire is disordered means that it is not directed to its proper purpose or end. The Catechism says, Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes (# 2351). To say that it is inordinate is to say that it is excessive, that the desire for sexual pleasure is over-the-top; it becomes a distracting, even consuming thing. This usually results from overindulging sexual desire and it can set forth an addictive process in which more and more sexual pleasure is “needed” to cool its flames. On this level, lust can become destructive to an individual, to others, and to a society as a whole.

In our time it is difficult to overstate the harm caused by the widespread tolerance and celebration of lust and promiscuity. The acceptance of pre-marital sex (fornication), cohabitation, abortion, and pornography has led to sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, the sexualizing of children, single motherhood, absentee fathers, teenage pregnancy, sexual confusion, divorce, and finally the incalculable harm caused by the fact that more than half of children in the United States are not raised in normal family settings. As is common with adult misbehavior, it is the children who pay the highest price.

The most fundamental damage that widespread promiscuity has caused is the destruction of marriage and the family. Marriage rates have dropped dramatically in the Western world with the outright celebration of lust in music, movies, popular culture, and pornography. The widespread promotion of contraception has also perpetrated the lie that there can be sex without consequences.

As a result of this widespread promiscuity and uncontrolled lust many families are in disarray due to divorce, remarriage, single motherhood and absent and passive fathers. Because marriage and the family form the foundation of culture and civilization, our current path is a civilization-killer. Yet very few today seem to have a mind clear enough to recognize the path we are on and to repent.

St. Thomas provides a clue as to why this is so and also describes an additional harm caused by lust: the loss of a clear mind. He writes,

Now carnal vices, namely gluttony and lust, are concerned with pleasures of touch in matters of food and sex; and these are the most impetuous of all pleasures of the body. For this reason, these vices cause man’s attention to be very firmly fixed on corporeal things … [As a] consequence man’s operation in regard to intelligible (obvious) things is weakened,

[This is caused] more, however, by lust than by gluttony, forasmuch as sexual pleasures are more vehement than those of the table. Wherefore lust gives rise to blindness of mind, which excludes almost entirely the knowledge of spiritual things, while dullness of sense arises from gluttony, which makes a man weak in regard to the same intelligible things.

On the other hand, the contrary virtues, viz. abstinence and chastity, dispose man very much to the perfection of intellectual operation. Hence it is written (Daniel 1:17) that “to these children” on account of their abstinence and continency, “God gave knowledge and understanding in every book, and wisdom” (Summa Theologiae II, IIae 15.3).

Yes, along with indulged lust comes a darkening of the intellect. St. Paul notes the same thing:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness … they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity for the dishonoring of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie … for this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Likewise, the men abandoned natural relations with women and burned with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:18ff).

In our times a darkening of the intellect has come upon many, who cannot and will not see that widespread promiscuity has caused great harm and threatens our very future as a culture and civilization.

St. Thomas also enumerates the following “daughters” of lust. While there is not time here to elaborate on them, you will see that they well describe some of the characteristics of our time:

Blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world (Summa Theologiae, II, IIae, q. 153.5).

You can read St. Thomas’ more complete description of them here: The Daughters of Lust.

I would like to finish this reflection on lust with the paradoxical conclusion that while it is often regarded as less serious than sins against the spirit (even by traditional theologians), lust is capable of causing some of the greatest harm because it drives us downward into the flesh such that the light of reason is dimmed and the very light of truth seems obnoxious and intolerable.

Sexual desire is a beautiful gift of God and is necessary for our survival, but the corruption of the best things is the worst thing. It is far worse to damage a precious work of art than an ordinary trinket. Damaging the beautiful gift of sexual desire and longing for intimacy also damages the precious gifts of marriage and family, the basic unit of civilization. To divide what God has united (sex and marriage, marriage and children, husband and wife) is a kind of nuclear fission that has enormous destructive potential. Only the “control rods” of chastity and purity can contain the destruction we have set loose. Only a recommittal to not separating what God has joined can end the inevitable destruction caused by unrestrained lust.

Next week we will begin a series of posts examining the virtues, of which charity is one, that help us to counter the seven deadly sins.

7 Replies to “The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust”

  1. Yes, lust is certainly deadly, and it is terrible in all the ways that you describe. While it’s good to draw attention to a culture that denies the existence of sin in just about any form, what about solutions? Many men are aware that lust is bad for them and purity is good for them, in the same way we know that excessive ice cream is bad for us and broccoli good for us. But this awareness alone does little to help us actually overcome the sin.

    When we go to the doctor, we should expect more than to hear that our condition is bad. Hopefully we also hear of a remedy. What’s the Catholic solution for sinful behaviors that have become like addictions?

    1. Their corresponding virtues, of course. I believe Monsignor will be touching on these next week.

    2. A solution I know works is committing to a daily rosary, begging God to provide grace to overcome this vice, and avoiding the near occasions of this vice and its temptations. This last part means one avoid things others may find harmless. But one must fill the “void” with something which may initially seem bitter, whether reading the lives of the saints, scripture with Catholic commentary, or taking up the study of some worthwhile discipline, one must replace a past life’s false joys with the joys that are in conformity with the will of God…Our sanctification. The above just a layman’s opinions.

    3. Hi Jeff,

      Like many men, I struggled with this sin for a long time but, for the most part overcame it. The antidote lust is chastity, which I’m guessing based on your comment, you already know that. The question is, “how to get there?” If you are Catholic, I would never underestimate the power of frequent Confession as well as prayer in overcoming this sin. It’s hard sin to overcome, especially with the constant barrage of sexual content on television, movies, advertising, internet, etc. I find what can make it even more difficult is having a past history of sexual encounters outside of marriage. Start with a good Confession, earnestly seeking forgiveness and frequently in prayer, ask the Lord for healing. Be patient, and remember that the Lord loves us and knows our struggles. If you fall, don’t give into the despair that comes from the devil. Continue to pray about it and continue to return to Confession. It’s in that beautiful sacrament that we find His mercy and His love. He is the doctor that heals and frequent Confession does bring about transformation. It may take some time, or even a long time to overcome, but don’t give up. On the practical side, it’s important to know yourself. Avoid the situations that lead to temptation. Don’t even flirt with the sin (pun not intended) as the evil one will use that against you. Also try to remember that the people that we lust for belong to God and we should not make them into objects. We live in a broken world and while I seldom struggle with that sin anymore, I must always remain on guard and if I find myself in sin, I know the remedy. I continue to pray for chasity too, and continue to ask the Lord to transform me further. I cannot do it without Him and for me when I do fail, it is almost always when I try to do it on my own. Peace!

    4. Yes, lust is certainly deadly. . . . But this awareness alone does little to help us actually overcome the sin. . . . Hopefully we also hear of a remedy. What’s the Catholic solution for sinful behaviors that have become like addictions?

      Sexual desire is certainly a very powerful dynamic, for both males and females. So powerful that it is sometimes overpowering, with a healthy sexuality (loving, within marriage, etc.) descending into lust, objectification, infidelity, etc.

      There are a variety of things that a person can do when infected and possessed with lust, as people here have already suggested and you probably already are aware of. Avoid situations that might trigger lustful thoughts, desires, actions. Put up good, healthy and holy images and reminders, like an image of our Blessed Mother by the computer screen. Keep active in other activities to keep your mind occupied and on things other than sex. Prayer, Confession, a penitential acknowledgement that sin does not “just happen,” but happens because of our own free choice of the will, such that one needs to work harder at self-discipline and say, “no,” when impure desires try to enter into our heads. One can easily avoid sexual activity outside of marriage simply by keeping his pants on.

      There are many things that one can do, but I must say — and you may not like to hear this — but when it is all said and done, it is impossible for you or I or any of us to fully and finally overcome lust or sexual impurity in all its various permutations. We can never defeat it. Sorry, but it can’t be done.

      The sexual urge and drive and biological imperative to perpetuate the human species is simply too strong. And then added to this part of our God-created human nature to “be fruitful and multiply,” is of course our fallen condition in sin. So — it is humanly impossible to overcome this lust.

      But while you are pondering that, before you become dejected, remember that “nothing is impossible with God.” We humans can never fully defeat lust, but the Lord can. And it is only by the power of grace that lust is defeated. Grace is the only thing that is powerful enough. And if one truly seeks it and fully opens his or her heart to it, this grace will be granted. The question is — do we really want it now? Or like Augustine, “not yet”?

      If one truly wishes to be rid of the demon that is lust, etc., then the solution and remedy is, like Augustine also said – do what you can, as much as you can, and then ask God to provide the rest of the power that is needed. Then the evil will be defeated. The wrongful desire will be gone. The wrongful thoughts will be replaced by good and healthy ones.

      But just be cautious and careful because months or years later, after a long period of happy chastity, since evil is always looking for a way in, at a moment of weakness that demon might whisper in your ear. And you will need then the will and fortitude to knock it away.

    5. I was just talking of this to a group last week. My experience, as lust was in addictive sin for me is that I need to surrender to God and reach out for His help instead of fighting the lust directly. Just as a drowning man in stormy seas has little benefit from fighting the waves directly but can do better by reaching out to the coast guard life raft thrown him, so I do best by turning to God and begging His help when tempted by lust.

  2. Thank you all for your words of wisdom on this topic. Those of us who struggle with this sin of lust – this is our cross. It is mine and it’s a heavy one when in season. I have been chaste for five years now. And I am still struggling. The season of temptation is always in season. Dawn Eden’s “The Thrill of the Chaste” made a significant impact on my life as well as the resources she recommended. Following Jesus Christ in today’s society is so radical. It is so hard. It can be isolating. The very core of our being is love. We want to be loved and fear of not being loved is a real fear. This is evidence of my mistrust in the Lord’s love for me. I pray to God I come to know the love He has for me.

    Timothy Keller’s “The Prodigal God” recently spoke to me about this. An excerpt from Chapter 7 of his book states, “…the solution to a bad marriage is a reorientation to the radical spousal love of Christ in the Gospel. Thou shall not commit adultery makes sense in the context of the spousal love of Jesus, especially in the cross when He was completely faithful to you. Only when you know the spousal love of Christ will you have real fortitude against lust. His love is fulfilling which keeps you from looking to sexuality to give you what only Jesus can give. What’s the point? What makes you faithful or generous is not just a redoubled effort to follow moral rules. Rather, all change comes from a deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the Gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart change will be superficial and fleeting…”

    St. Thomas Aquinas please pray for us.

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