Explainer
Creed
Seven Deadly Sins
6 min read

Lust: disordered desire

In the fourth of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Belle Tindall explores how Lust minimises or sensationalises sex and desire.
Illustration of Aubergine

In the Emmy-nominated HBO show, White Lotus, we’re introduced to three generations of a glamorous Italian-American family: F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco play a grandfather, father, and son, two of whom are in an ever-present battle with a sex addiction. Lust has made a home in this family, it has dug out and paved its own neuropathways, and ultimately blown these people apart. Scene after scene, we witness these men pathologically view women as nothing more than bodies to conquer, much to their own despair. You could say that Lust is the unseen, unspoken, yet undeniable villain of the entire series. We witness it obliterate relationships of all kinds and ultimately make way for danger and death to ensue.  

It’s a masterful case-study in how destructive of a force Lust can be when left unchecked, not only to the objectified, but also to the one who can’t help but do the objectifying.   

I conducted a little experiment in preparation for writing this piece, I asked five friends of mine who would not, and never have, identified as Christians, for the three things that they most associate with Christianity.   

Out of those five people, four of them mentioned Christianity’s rather peculiar sexual ethics. Now, I know that as far as research goes, this isn’t the most scientific finding. But it is telling. An article on lust may just be the least surprising thing one could find on a magazine site that offers ‘Christian perspectives on just about everything’. In popular culture and common thought, Christianity is to sex is what Jamie Oliver is to sugary drinks: an almighty party-pooper, a tiresome force that is out to spoil everybody’s fun. That’s largely a result of Christian sexual ethics being reduced to a set of repressive ‘don’ts.’  

  • Don’t have casual sex, or any kind of sex outside of the confines of marriage, for that matter. 
  • Don’t watch pornography  
  • Don’t explore self-sex 
  • Don’t talk about it  
  • Don’t think about it  

Just don’t. 

As such, Christianity’s view of sex has been regarded as square or prudish at best, and oppressive and cruel at worst. And here you are, having stumbled upon an article which is about to place Lust back in its familiar old ‘deadly sin’ category. Ground-breaking, I hear you cry. 

Well, allow me the pleasure of beginning this piece by saying something that is less predictable: Lust is not interchangeable with sexual desire. The two are not one and the same.  

Sex is good. Very good, in fact.  

According to the book of Genesis, the book that acts as the Bible’s start-line, it is one of the first instructions ever given to humanity. It’s an apparent component of our purpose (pre- ‘original sin’, might I add). We’re told to go ahead and multiply, to increase in number, to have sex. But it doesn’t end there. If it did, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Bible presents sex in purely practical and procreational terms. But, not so. From one biblical poem to another – this time, the Song of Songs. This book is nothing short of erotic literature, it is a fully-fledged sex-scene. The composition and inclusion of this book speaks volumes, it does away with the notion that sexual pleasure and desire are some kind of inherent evil. On the contrary, if it’s a biblical perspective that you’re after, here it is: sex was designed by God and gifted to humanity. For procreation, yes. But also, for pleasure, intimacy, and well-being.  

So, in summary: sex is a gift, a very good one at that.  

With that firmly in mind, let’s return to Lust. If Lust is not sexual desire, per se, what exactly is it?  

It is a perception of sex, and a corresponding desire for it, that has been either minimised or sensationalised. Sex is a gift, that is the Christian insight at least, but Lust wants to blur your vision, it wants you to believe that sex is either more or less than a good gift. Lust seeks to disorder your desire.  
 

To only desire one third of a person, to regard them exclusively as a body, is to undermine their full personhood. 

The belief that sex is inherently meaningless, that it can be devoid of any kind of sacred or unique value, often acts as a wide-open door to Lust. It is also the predisposition that tends to normalise Lust, allowing it to hide in plain sight. That is, until it has damaged us and/or others. Lust tells us that we can obtain a person’s body, without paying any heed to the rest of them. It lessens them in our sight, it reduces them, it de-humanises them. This may sound a little dramatic, but if we are the sum of our bodies, our minds, and our souls – then to only desire one third of a person, to regard them exclusively as a body, is to undermine their full personhood.  

A more subtle, yet just as pervasive, form of a disordered sexual desire would be to regard sex as more than a gift, to sensationalise it, to mistake it for love. Lust’s other tactic is to suggest that sexual activity is tantamount to value. It seeks to convince us that to be sexually desired is to be appreciated, and being sexually active must equate to being actively loved. Lust wrongly offers us sex as a source of worth, affirmation, and significance. In such cases, we may not be regarding someone as a means to a physical end, so much as a means to an emotional one.  

Whether its tactic is to minimise or aggrandise, Lust whispers in our ear, encouraging us to regard another person as an object to possess, a tool of gratification. All the while, telling us that it doesn’t matter, because sex doesn’t matter.  

As is the case with all of the deadly sins, it’s not that you possess them, as much as they begin to possess you. Lust can be a demanding master, indeed. Insatiable, even. And indescribably harmful.

The demand for restraint on the part of the powerful, purely for the protection of the poor and the vulnerable was nothing short of jaw-dropping. 

Lust has much to answer for. In its darkest and most insidious extremity, often intertwined with toxic perceptions of power, Lust has led to atrocities being committed against people who were ever-so-wrongly treated as objects.  

There is a reason that Lust is regarded as ‘deadly’.  

Tom Holland recalls that in Graeco-Roman households, for example, it was utterly taken for granted that the bodies of enslaved people were objects to be possessed, owned, and utilised for physical gratification. In fact, Holland recounts how their bodies were spoken of in the same terms as urinals. People were regarded as nothing more than literal places/products for their masters to relieve themselves. 

When placed in this context, the sexual ethics that were being adopted by early Christians were radical, not square. The very idea that there was something morally good about standing up against the whisperings of Lust was unheard of. The demand for restraint on the part of the powerful, purely for the protection of the poor and the vulnerable was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Historians note that as the Christian movement began to bubble up, so did a rather radical sexual revolution.  

Not quite so Jamie Oliver-esque after all. 

This revolution was fuelled by the idea of imago Dei, the notion that every person was made in the very image of the one who did the making. Therefore, every person is worthy of being treated as such, of being afforded unconditional dignity and worth, of being acknowledged for the uniquely valuable individual that they are. It was also, in part, a defiant re-enchanting of sex; it was a bold reminder that sex was always supposed to be healthy, enriching and inherently good. That it is precious and fragile, and therefore needs to be guarded with the utmost care. Such notions leave very little room for the reductive tendencies of Lust. Christianity, in its very essence, wages a war on such things.  

This is not to say that Christians have won such a war, nor have they always fought this war well. To say so would be telling only half of the story, and do a significant disservice to those, for example, who have had shame heaped upon them in the name of purity culture (ironically, a culture which was/is also fuelled by reducing a person to the sum of their body parts).  

But the war itself is one that is still worth fighting, surely? For the sake of others, ourselves, and sex itself.  

 

Article
Creed
Psychology
6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)