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!)