Sunday, June 02, 2024

Flirting or Fleeing

Blog & Mablog is currently playing host to a back and forth on the subject of concupiscence, commonly known as illicit desire, the occupation with that which is intrinsically sinful. I link only to the most recent two instalments, which are beginning to skew a tad too technical for me. When a debate veers into Reformed tradition, “internal” and “external” temptation, sin vs. sinfulness, justification, sanctification, Augustine, John Owen and Ed Shaw’s book on same-sex attraction (reviewed here), Christians with little interest in theological minutiae eventually glaze over.

I plead guilty to being among them.

I don’t need to understand the history of thought on a subject to consider it, or identify the various camps into which those contemplating it have self-segregated. I certainly don’t need four or five new polysyllabic terms to use when I discuss it. I just need the nuts and bolts. This is an attempt at that.

Starting With Jesus

Let’s start with Jesus, because that’s always the best place. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” We could, if we so desired, ascribe our Lord’s sin-imperviousness to the unique condition of virgin birth, but we can quickly see that the absence of a sinful nature passed down from Adam is no protection from the defilement of considering wrong options, or even from succumbing to them. Adam and Eve were, like the Lord Jesus, unencumbered by the sinful nature, yet both were tempted, capitulated and defiled themselves. So that dog won’t hunt. We need a better explanation, and one that takes us somewhere we, as fallen human beings, can actually go, at least once in a while.

Let’s try this: some desires are not intrinsically sinful. Desires are not the problem. Effectual temptation comes when we are carried away and enticed by them. A lawful thing becomes unlawful not simply because we want it, but because of what we become willing to do in order to have the object we desire. Sex, totally fine. Clandestine sex with Bathsheba, a married woman, not so fine.

The Temptation of Christ

Satan understood this when tempting the Lord Jesus. Being crafty, he deliberately did not go for the obvious. He tempted our Savior with ordinate desires: hunger, acts of faith, ruling kingdoms. There’s nothing unlawful, illicit or forbidden about being hungry. Our bodies are designed to respond with various signs of distress when we don’t eat enough. There’s nothing contrary or rebellious about desiring God’s protection and care, and everything to commend it. No amount of trust in him is too great. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about desiring to rule the kingdoms of the world, especially when their subjects are harassed and helpless and you are the living remedy, sent by God and promised the kingdoms of the world by your own Father: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”

In every case, the attempt to corrupt the Lord Jesus was not in the object of desire presented, but in the danger of being carried away and enticed by a good thing to the point where one might consider performing an unlawful act in order to acquire it, the end somehow justifying the means, as we so often rationalize. Needless to say, our Lord did not take the bait offered.

Concupiscence Defined

Rationalizing evil to acquire good things is sin, but it’s not concupiscence. Concupiscence is the desire for something that is wrong in its very nature, not just under the wrong conditions or with the wrong motives, but in every imaginable scenario. These days, the English term is almost exclusive to the King James Bible, where it is one of several words, including “desire”, used to translate the Greek epithymia. The concept embodied in the English term has no one-for-one Greek equivalent, and perhaps concupiscence will cease to be a subject of lively discussion when the KJV no longer holds sway among evangelicals. Or not.

Either way, the KJV translators used “concupiscence” to translate epithymia wherever the desire in question appeared to them to be intrinsically unlawful. In its biblical usage, concupiscence requires law to reveal its evil. God has to speak first, calling a desire wrong, and concupiscence is the state of mind in which we contemplate doing it anyway. So Paul writes, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness [epithymia]. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.”

(To be clear, concupiscence, as conceived by the KJV translators, does not require we have received everything Israel did at Sinai or fully understand it; it only has to be a violation of some revealed truth so essential it cannot be denied. Gentiles can engage in the passion of lust, knowing neither God nor his law. The point is that the lusts they are passionately engaging in have been revealed by God to be sinful, which implies that any discerning, reverent mind, whatever the culture it comes from, would see them the same way.)

Right Thing Wrong Way?

Now, it should be obvious that if God has already said, “Don’t do it”, no further comeback is appropriate. God is God. He does not owe us explanations because we are too inexperienced, vain or corrupted to see the moral logic behind his commands or his wisdom in giving them. That was Eve’s problem. Satan shrewdly inquired, “Did God actually say?”, inviting the first woman to consider an option not lawfully open to consideration. This is the sort of thing the Lord Jesus never did, and it’s why Hebrews can say he was “without sin”, whether we mean rebellious concupiscence or plain old missing the mark.

Forgive me for all that foundation-laying, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Concupiscence is relevant because some Christians afflicted with same-sex attraction (though not acting on it, of course), are looking for permission from their fellow believers to contemplate the objects of their temptation just a little longer and a little more intensely. “Surely,” they say, “the attraction itself cannot be innately sinful. God made us this way. We can’t help who we are attracted to.” Then they slide in expressions like “beautiful man” (from a man) to see just how much they can get away with. (“Of course,” they would say, “I am talking about aethestics, not verbalizing, justifying or trying to perpetuate my lust.”)

But the problem is that some attractions are intrinsically wrong, and thinking about them is also wrong, period. There is no “right way” to think about something you have been commanded never to engage in.

Going Wrong Big Time

Here is where we non-same-sex attracted Christians can potentially go very wrong, especially women, who are the worst enablers of this sort of thing. The generous-spirited among us (and that’s not me) would like to say that same-sex attracted men and women are looking for something essentially good, but pursuing it in a wrong way. The problem is not concupiscence but ordinary missing the mark. “Those two men simply crave intimacy.” “Those two dear, troubled women are just looking for the protection and comfort no man has ever given them.” “You know, his mother protected him and his father never loved him. Poor fellow.” “He was looking for mentoring and guidance, and that evil teacher seduced him.”

Intimacy, protection, comfort and guidance are all good things, and God wants us to have them. The problem — or at least so we are prone to argue in our incomprehension of the reality of concupiscence — is really the defective methods these folks have developed to pursue objectives that are in themselves quite laudable and common to all mankind.

Some of this (very little, usually) may actually be true, especially in the case of troubled, naive teenagers with zero life experience and pagan society cheering on their mistakes as if they are heroic rather than tragic. But what some men don’t understand, and most women definitely don’t, is this: there is a state of mind in which intimacy, protection, comfort and guidance are the very last things you are looking for. You may even be quite willing to destroy whatever vestiges of them you have in your life simply for the sake of a physical thrill so intense many people have never experienced it. That ecstasy does not require a consistent object of physical attention, which is why so many homosexual males are wildly promiscuous. It does not require love or longing for anything more transcendent than the euphoric release of hormones and neurochemicals.

Concupiscence and Inevitability

The truth is, at least where males are concerned (the only demographic about which I can speak experientially), that the vast, vast majority of LGBTQ advocates are not pursuing intrinsic goods, or at very least, those are not the only things they are pursuing. They are after an ecstatic moment they will chase despite all the physical, emotional and spiritual damage it does to themselves and to those around them. Getting into that desperate state does not require you to be born that way. Like many other addictions, it is an acquired habit sufficiently desirable to pursue no matter the price you have to pay for it. We may as easily argue that coke addicts are “born that way”. Sure, because we live in a fallen world, they may have been born with a genetic predisposition to addiction thanks to the misconduct of their parents. That can never justify their society setting them up for disaster by introducing them to coke.

That is concupiscence. They don’t love an act in spite of it being wrong. They love it because it is wrong. This is why leftists have coined the word “transgressive” and use it as an unqualified positive. It’s a feature of the lifestyle, not a bug.

With regard to same-sex attraction, yes, it is a thing, and yes, it is intrinsically sinful in a way that ordinate hunger and thirst are not. But I do not think it is remotely helpful to accept the world’s frame and start talking about “orientation”, which, according to the current definition, is all tied up with the idea of sexual identity and self-identification. All these ideas carry a whiff of inevitability that, as Christians, we cannot and should not concede, even if those who suffer from them currently expect to do so for the rest of their lives. The fact is, they don’t know how they will feel ten or twenty years down the road. Nobody does. So-called experts tell us many of these desires are “fluid”, which is to say they come and go, and there is plenty of evidence they are right. This being the case, to call a desire you may not feel tomorrow your “identity” or “orientation” is to confer on it unjustifiable dignity and heft. For the Christian, it’s a set-up for excusing the indulgence of unhealthy obsession and the worship of another god.

Making It Worse

Human beings are creatures of impulse. I cannot tell you a thing about same-sex attraction, but I can tell you about anger, which, I suspect, is just as difficult an impulse to control as sexual desire. I struggled for the best part of two years with vengeful thoughts that popped into my head at the most unfortunate moments, thoughts that were wildly disproportionate in both intensity and the amount of time they consumed to the offenses that provoked them. “Do not let not the sun go down on your anger”? I let many suns go down on mine. I recognized my impulses as both unreasonable and wrong, but I couldn’t stop. I kept leaving them with the Lord, then finding them renting space in my head ten minutes later.

To this day, I can’t tell you about a “remedy” for such things. I just know that through the process of fighting those thoughts, denying their validity, avoiding situations that provoked them and persistently leaning on the Lord to change my thinking, one day the anger stopped and never returned. I was able to see the original provocation in perspective, consign it to the past and move on. I’m very grateful for that. I thank the Lord he relieved me of a burden I couldn’t shed myself with all the will in the world.

So I can’t tell you how to conquer your illicit desires, but I can tell you what would have made mine a whole lot worse. Talking about my anger to other people. Allowing myself to think about it without constantly checking myself with the reminder “This is wrong. Stop.” Giving my species of anger a name. Defining myself by it, thinking of myself as “a guy with anger issues”. Going to an anger management course and cementing the impulse as an ongoing and expected part of my life.

Learning to Flee

All these things make defiant thinking worse, not better. They are flirting with concupiscence rather than dealing with it in an appropriate and spiritual way. I think this is what Paul means when he writes, “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints”. This is not an issue of reputation or testimony, but one of purity of spirit and the maintenance of a good conscience. He says this in the context of conversation between Christians, not conversation about Christians by others. If our inordinate desires ought not to be named, then I am not helping myself by seeking out “emotional support” from other believers who say they are afflicted with the same obsessions, then endlessly comparing and contrasting our experiences. I am not helped by reading more books about my area of weakness. I am not helped by holding conventions to discuss them.

I am helped by fleeing concupiscent thoughts to the greatest extent I am able. So flee. Maybe one day, by the grace of the God, the impulse will flee too.

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