Question

I am a recovering addict, but I seem to never be able to overcome lust. My earliest memories are about sexual things and I have struggled with pornography off and on my entire life. Sometimes I do great and other times I have really messed up my life and the lives of my loved ones. No matter how well I’m doing I cannot seem to overcome lust and frankly I don’t know what success looks like. I can look attractive women in the eye and I can appear to be healthy, but I want to be healthy on the inside. What are healthy/righteous thoughts when you encounter someone you find attractive? What are healthy/righteous thoughts when you encounter women dressed (undressed) on purpose to get the looks and attention they want and you find yourself wanting to participate? What does righteous/healthy thinking look like? Are there some guidelines? I can be with my wife and sometimes not check out other women, but it takes every ounce of strength I have, and it doesn’t last long, but I want to be able to live with integrity and really not check out other women. I would like to be able to not want to. Is that even possible?

Answer

You’re wise to work on eliminating lust from your life. A life filled with lust is an empty life and leaves us chronically unsatisfied. It also distracts us from reality and keeps us focused on what we don’t have. Even though your struggle is specifically around sexual lust, it’s important to recognize that lust also shows up with food, money, power, and other mood-altering experiences. The principles we’ll discuss apply to eliminating all forms of lust.

First, it’s important to recognize that even though you’re working to eliminate lust from your life, it’s impossible to eliminate your fallen and weak nature as a human being. Lust is intentional while weakness is built into our very existence. Dr. Wendy Ulrich teaches that weakness isn’t the same as sin.[i] She reminds us that the Savior is the author of weakness while Satan is the author of sin. In Ether 12:27 we learn that the Savior gave us our weakness. Note that the word “weakness” isn’t plural. It’s a state of being, not a list of behaviors you’ll conquer. While we should continue to work on overcoming our personal struggles, it’s important to recognize we are weak and need a Savior. This is important because we often beat ourselves up when we haven’t completely conquered specific weaknesses. Instead, the Lord is inviting us to recognize that weakness isn’t something we overcome, but a condition that reminds us to turn to Him so he can give us strength and power.

Often people make excuses for their poor behavior and pass it off as something they can’t control. They might say, “Well, I’m only human,” or, “Nobody’s perfect,” and continue forward with behaviors that keep them stuck and continue to do harm.

Being weak and fallen doesn’t mean that we don’t keep working hard to lift ourselves above our baser instincts. Just because I have an impulse doesn’t mean I should keep doing it, especially when it’s at the expense of my well-being or the well-being of others.

Sexaholics Anonymous, a 12-step recovery fellowship, defines true sobriety from addiction as a “progressive victory over lust.”[ii] I believe that anyone who wants to live a life of integrity will discipline themselves to root out all forms of lust, especially lusting after other humans. This is a long-term commitment of progressing toward a better and higher way of living. Even though we are weak, it’s possible to reign in our impulses and live a life free from lust. Just because you might feel tempted to act on your impulses doesn’t mean you’re powerless to do something about it. In fact, your desire to overcome lust is a sign of your desire to overcome the “natural man” and submit to a better way of living.[iii]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland provided a thorough explanation about the destructive nature of lust:

“Why is lust such a deadly sin? Well, in addition to the completely Spirit-destroying impact it has upon our souls, I think it is a sin because it defiles the highest and holiest relationship God gives us in mortality—the love that a man and a woman have for each other and the desire that couple has to bring children into a family intended to be forever. Someone said once that true love must include the idea of permanence. True love endures. But lust changes as quickly as it can turn a pornographic page or glance at yet another potential object for gratification walking by, male or female. True love we are absolutely giddy about…we shout it from the housetops. But lust is characterized by shame and stealth and is almost pathologically clandestine—the later and darker the hour the better, with a double-bolted door just in case. Love makes us instinctively reach out to God and other people. Lust, on the other hand, is anything but godly and celebrates self-indulgence. Love comes with open hands and open heart; lust comes with only an open appetite.”[iv]

Your weakness as a human being may automatically draw you toward seeing others as objects of lust. However, you are completely in control of how you respond to these impulses. The impulses may not be intentional, but your response to them can be managed. I love the movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” which is based on the life of the brilliant mathematician, John Nash, who is tortured by mental illness, complete with hallucinations and delusions. In the closing scene of the movie, John is leaving the stage after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and notices the figures from his lifetime of hallucinations standing off to the side. Even though he’s had successful treatment and is functioning at a much higher level, he is still plagued by these hallucinations. The difference, however, is that he can now peacefully acknowledge the reality of these mental apparitions and move on without reacting to them.

Likewise, the men and women I’ve worked with who have become progressively victorious over lust respond in a similar way to their unwanted sexual impulses. They don’t chastise themselves for having weakness and, at the same time, don’t engage with the sexual thoughts and impulses. When we misunderstand our fallen nature and go into self-chastisement and shame for having weakness, this actually escalates our tendency to go toward the very thing we’re seeking to avoid. Next time you feel yourself wanting to lust, take a deep breath, peacefully acknowledge your weakness, and gently move on. Fighting these impulses from a place of fear and shame will only strengthen their hold on you.

Here are some other ways you can manage the lustful thoughts that surface in your mind:

  • Breathe deeply and relax so you don’t engage your fight/flight/freeze instincts and lose your ability to think clearly about your next options. While saying a prayer and singing a hymn are often recommended as front-line steps in avoiding temptation, I find it more helpful to not do these things in a reactive fear-based manner. Instead, calm your physical system first and then decide what behaviors will help you redirect your focus and attention.
  • Recognize that noticing attractive people isn’t the problem. Attractive people, both men and women, naturally grab our attention. When you see someone attractive, you can acknowledge the truth of what you’ve seen and then keep moving on without increasing the level of sexual energy. As the 12-step saying goes, your commitment is to “stop and then stay stopped” by refusing to stare.
  • Fixating and lusting is about the objectification of others. Seeing others as whole people is a discipline that goes beyond sexual lust. Make a regular habit of getting to know people beyond one-dimensional labels and judgements. We can all work to create a world of meaningful connection instead of judging and putting each other in narrowly defined boxes.
  • Continue working in therapy to identify why you mood alter with objectification and lust. The roots of lust and objectification aren’t always obvious and doing deeper healing work with a competent professional can be life changing.

Even though none of us want to be weak, we can know that our weakness doesn’t have to destroy us or others. Making peace with our fallen natures doesn’t mean we give up and give in. Instead, we don’t panic every time we struggle with weakness. We acknowledge our weakness, breathe, submit to our Savior and stay “watchful unto prayer” so we aren’t “led away by the temptations of the devil” and allow our weakness to be exploited by the great destroyer.[v] Stay with your commitment to be a man of integrity and discover that you can rise above your weakness and not give into every impulse and desire that would bring you down. 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available on his website www.geoffsteurer.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
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[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2015/04/it-isnt-a-sin-to-be-weak?lang=eng

[ii] https://salifeline.org/progressive-victory-over-lust-true-recovery/

[iii] Mosiah 3:19

[iv] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/04/place-no-more-for-the-enemy-of-my-soul?lang=eng

[v] Alma 34:39