C.S. Lewis, Bob Newhart, Masturbation, and Those Damned Longings

If I had a nickel for every Christian guy that came to me for counsel about masturbation when I lived back in Orlando, I’d not need this pastoral housing benefit I’ll probably be losing pretty soon…

We, Christians, are great at pointing out bad behaviors.  We’re experts at diagnosis.  But our remedies often stink.  We’ll pile on guilt or give Gospel quick-fixes or raise expectations of some long-sought-after victorious Christian life.  But very seldom do we tell them to dive deeper into the very thing that repulses them.

Enter C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century writer and literary critic, who early in his faith (and probably later, too) wrestled with that great demon of masturbation, and lived to talk about it!  To a good friend (and presumed fellow masturbator), Lewis writes:

Lying on that study sofa…I had sensations which you can imagine.  And at once I knew that the Enemy would take advantage of the vague longings and tendernesses to try and make me believe later on that he had the fulfillment that I really wanted.  So I balked him by letting the longings go even deeper and turning my mind to the One, the real object of all desire, which (you know my view) is what we are really wanting in all wants…

As a Christian counselor, I’ve interacted with many Christian counselors who believe that our desires are the problem. This, in itself, is a much longer post worth writing.  In short, desire takes us into our deepest hunger, our original goodness, our truest selves.  Jesus was no prude.  He didn’t live to avoid wine, women, and song.  In fact, Jesus steps into the epicenter of desire, and points to its real origin.  In Jesus, we hear, “What you’re really looking for is…”

What many Christians offer to those who lust and masturbate and dream bad dreams is a kind of Biblicized version of Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” therapy session, one of my favorite moments of MadTV.  Watch it here.  We don’t deal with the underlying hunger and thirst.  We deal with what we perceive to be a sinful behavior.  And our call to “repent of our idols and believe the Gospel” can often be forms of sin-management.  Even David Powlison, a well-respected biblical counselor, steps in to this awful morass in his oft-forwarded article, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”.  He’s trying hard not to step into the same pit of behavior-and-sin management, but in his critique of “love-need psychology” he misses the point, saying, “But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.”

This kind of pessimistic hyper-Calvinism does not find its origins in Augustine or Calvin, or its more recent expression in C.S. Lewis.  It owes its origins more to the wormology of Puritanism more than anything else.  It devalues humanity to the point where it seems as if God cannot even look upon us – no-good, sinful creatures that we are.  I’m not buying it.  Gerald May comes much closer to a biblical understanding of humanity when he writes:

There is a desire within each of us,
in the deep center of ourselves
that we call our heart.
We were born with it,
it is never completely satisfied,
and it never dies.
We are often unaware of it,
but it is always awake.

It is the Human desire for Love.
Every person in this Earth yearns to love,
to be loved, to know love.
Our true identity, our reason for being
is to be found in this desire.

Sitting on his lonely couch, C.S. Lewis recognized his deeper longing for love.  He didn’t rack himself with even more guilt, saying, “Even my longing for love is an idol!  I’ll repent of that!”  In his longing, he found an inner navigation system reorienting him to God, the origin and object of his deepest desires.  The self-satisfaction of masturbation, though a temporary pleasure, couldn’t compare.  His heart expanded in love, and he found himself raptured by God’s love.

Lewis stands in the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and St. John of the Cross, and even anticipates what Gerald May writes, as he affirms the original goodness of the human heart, putting the doctrine of Creation where it rightly belongs…before the doctrine of the Fall.  He affirms the double-knowledge of Calvin, that looking within really leads us to look to God.  Calvin, you see, was influenced by the humanists in the best of ways, and his redeemed humanism ought to save us from the awful introspective and idol-driven dehumanizing of those who’d question every desire.

Longing is our lifeline to God.  Desire, if followed, leads us to the love that will satisfy.  So, don’t beat yourself up with too-much idol-talk.  And, curiously, you might even stop beating off.  (Yes, I said it…don’t beat me!) 

6 comments

  1. I _think_ that there is a difference between ‘need’ [Powlison] and ‘desire’ [May]. Seeing something as a ‘need’ can justify demanding it. And if it is not gained, things like anger and deep discouragement can follow. ‘It’s a need! There is no good reason why I shouldn’t have it.’ But there are many good desires – e.g., a spouse, good health, deep friendships – that may be withheld from us by Jesus, and yet we understand that those desires will be met – fully! – later, in the age to come. And so, we trust Him in the meantime. We do not disparage the desire. It is from God and is good. But we do not demand it now. Out of this there can be peace as we trust Jesus for the situation. This is not just theory. I write this as a widower.

    HLB

    1. HLB, I certainly agree that anger or discouragement can follow. This is where I think Lewis is helpful. Our longings won’t be fully met here. We’ll grieve and groan and lament. And, to be sure, we’ll do it poorly, at times. One writes talks of “dispossessive desire.” I like that. We are creatures who desire, but we hold things lightly.

      1. Excellent post. I’m probably missing the point (I’ll read it again)…but I’ve been chewing on Romans 5-8 lately and Paul speaks about “this wretched body of death” that we live in called the flesh. From my estimation, it appears that Paul wrestles greatly with the two laws at work in him (law of sin and law of God). He repeats that we’re no longer slaves to sin but now slaves to obedience (God), which leads us to righteousness. Ok, enough Christianese…

        I’m struggling with masturbation (sexual fantasy)…it wrecks my life today and is something I cannot put behind me (after years of trying). Computer accountability, filtering, counseling, addict groups…you name it…I’ve tried it.

        Today, I try to see it from Paul’s eyes. So then, I myself in my MIND am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature (fleshly BODY) a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:25).

        It’s so hard. Paul talks about us being slaves to obedience, not sin. Slaves to God, not our lustful desires…but yet…he does the things he hates. He fails to do the things he wants to do. I’m right there with Paul daily. WHO WILL RESCUE ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH???!!! God will…and already has.

        Thanks for the good post. Hope I don’t sound too preachy…

  2. Props for the Bob Newhart video. That was hilarious.

    I really like the phrase “sin management.” I hate the actual thing itself, but the first time I heard someone call all this guilt and shame and “I just gotta do better” and “I just need to” statements “sin management,” I realized how twisted that actually is, and how it misses the point.

    I’ve been steeped in theology since I was a kid; people have always been telling me what God is like or the answer to my problems is to “run to God,” and that frustrates me. “Running to God” is a metaphor. A metaphor for what? What do you actually do? Close your eyes and squeeze your hands together. Talk to the ceiling? Talk to a counselor? Talk to a priest? Talk to other people?

    Is talking really doing anything? Maybe I have problems in my life because of how I’m behaving, not because of how my thoughts are arranged inside my head.

    I think the best theology comes from people who actually have some kind of experience with God…something that powerfully rocks their world, like some moment of clarity or almost dying or finding themselves on their knees, weeping like they’ve never wept before and they can’t explain why. When they try to explain why, that’s “theology.” Someone trying to make sense of…God.

    I didn’t find that kind of appreciation for complexity in the churches I had growing up. It seemed more like a game of mental gymnastics and emotional inner sanctity.

    So, to hear a post like this is refreshing. Thanks.
    – Daniel

  3. I think that it is interesting that you point to God as the fulfillment of a longing you have. Instead of trying to squash and put down the feeling you hand it to God anc set your focus on GOD instead of the momentary longing. I like that! Instead of trying to repent of your idol focus you adjust the focus so that it follows a more normal course. Bravo for tackeling a very difficult topic and having a well defined answer. Well done.

  4. You are so right that so many seem to focus on the problem and “getting rid of the problem” rather than focusing on the solution and the one who supplies the solution. The Big Book of AA says, “But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly any exception, will be ABSOLUTELY UNABLE TO STOP DRINKING ON THE BASIS OF SELF-KNOWLEDGE. This is a point we wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash home upon our alcoholic readers as it has been revealed to us out of bitter experience” If I want sobriety, I need to focus on the solution, not the problem. Thank you CS Lewis for helping us see that we should indeed turn our desires toward our Lord and desire even more rather than try to desire our desires less.

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