In the Face of Sexual Temptation, Repression Is a Sure-Fire Failure

How do we solve the problem of desire? Christian asceticism offers an alternative way.

My first relationship to desire was to give in to it. As a teenager in the early aughts, I believed that life was found by identifying my desires and rushing toward their satisfaction. I played this out in academics and especially in sexuality. My life beat to the pulse of Ariana Grande’s chant, “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” The right response to desire was indulgence.

Unbeknownst to me as a nonChristian, the purity movement was running in parallel. Those who experienced that movement from the inside have spent recent months breaking down its excesses and missteps. Their conclusion (and mine) is that repression and avoidance are unbiblical responses to desire, no more Christian, perhaps, than my teenage, atheistic abandonment to it.

In the midst of these reoccurring public square discussions, the tension between libertinism on one side and repression on the other leaves most of us yearning for the reasonable via media, the middle way between failed extremes. In that space, is there a scripturally sound theology of desire?

Yes. I want to suggest that Christian asceticism, ancient though it is, offers a way forward. It uniquely treats God as the end, not the means, of desire.

It also circumvents the shortcomings of repression and avoidance. Here, I’m not talking about biblically wise avoidance. It is stupid and unsafe to put ourselves in places where we know we will be strongly tempted to lust or sin. Temptation, while not sin, is not safe for us; Jesus commands us to pray that we would be kept from it. Similarly, Paul’s admonition to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) can’t mean any less than this.

Instead, I want to point out that repression and avoidance have …

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