How to Find Freedom from Lust
I was two years into my parish-based youth ministry job when we decided to do a middle school (EDGE) night on pornography. We would talk about it from a positive and life-affirming view of human sexuality. We split the guys and girls up so that we could talk more freely.
I took an anonymous poll with these 85 seventh and eighth grade boys. Out of 85 boys, 83 had seen porn at some point in their lives; 78 had seen it in the last 2 months; 76 in the last 2 weeks; and around 71 out of 85 had seen porn in the last 2 days. Talk about a train wreck!
Pubescent drives are intensely powerful, but they do not have to define us. The sins of lust are probably the most difficult to break once a habit has been established. Some young men progress from occasional use to habit to addiction to full-on compulsive behavior. My hope is to break the habit. Addictive and compulsive behaviors are way above my pay grade. But always remember the words of Pope John Paul II: "You are not the sum of your weaknesses and failures, but rather, you are the sum of the Father's love..."
First, we need the virtue of humility. If you have been looking at porn for years, then you will have to humbly accept that it may take years to undo the damage. This can be a source of tremendous shame for a teen trying to be a faithful Catholic, which is why we need humility to prevent us from giving up in the face of failure. Struggling against sin with God's grace is meritorious; therefore, it is a great act to start fighting back today, right now. Accept yourself and your situation as it is right now: you have sinned, you have fallen, but God Himself has won for you the grace to get back and get pure. "And hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5). Humility rewards a sinful soul with the grace of repentance, which is required work for someone seeking freedom.
Second, we need the virtue of courage. The devil will tempt you with thoughts that you will never be free.This is a lie. You already are free in Christ Jesus, you just need to start living in that freedom and develop that freedom all the more! Courage fights against cowardliness, which is giving in to temptation because you don't think you are strong enough to win. Courage also fights foolhardiness, which convinces you that you are strong enough to withstand everything. This is stupid. You are not bulletproof. In fact, you've been working on withering away what moral armor you had by a life spent in lust. Realize that, though you are not a coward, you will also not walk blindly into an ambush either. St Paul's advice, the shortest and most direct in Scripture (1 Cor 6:18), is to simply "Flee fornication!"
Humility is a virtue in truth. It acknowledges one's strengths and weaknesses honestly, with "sober judgment". If you willingly put yourself in places where you will be tempted to turn to porn, flee. Get out! Run! Courage means strength of heart. I promise you, it will take a lot of courage to walk away from situations that will lead you into sin. The Church has called such situations "near occasions of sin". Know them and avoid them. This is a crucial step to liberation.
Third, we need the Sacraments. Go to Confession regularly in order to fight this sin regularly. When you are doing your examination of conscience, spend time asking God to illuminate your understanding and your memories in order to know what are your triggers that send you to porn. If you know what triggers your lusts, you can begin to unwind it spiritually. You have to know and name your enemy if you are going to prosper over it. Confession fights off shame and guilt trips by keeping real repentance in our hearts and by hearing those sweet words from the priest and God: I absolve you of your sins. The enemy of real repentance is discouragement. Dis-couragement is a trick of the devil to keep you from receiving God's mercy. It is a pity-party ("Oh, how could I have done such a thing!" "How could I have fallen so far!") and it is useless to the fight. Discouragement is opposed to courage, so you know it isn't doing you any good.
The next, and most important Sacrament, is the Eucharist. Cling to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus! You turn to pornography because it's safe, it's familiar, it provides pleasure and makes you feel connected intimately with something, even though all of that is a lie, an illusion. Porn is pretend, an untruth that robs us of our dignity. When you turn to our Eucharistic King and fall in love with Him, you discover who Jesus really is: God made flesh made food, to save us, to nourish us, to become one flesh with us. In Jesus you have true and lasting intimacy, but it needs to be cultivated through prayer and silence.
The next time you are tempted to look at porn, fall on your knees, shut your eyes tightly in prayer, hold open your hands and lift them up to the Lord and say, "Lord Jesus, whatever I am looking for in this illusion of pornography, may I find its true intimacy in You alone."
Satan is trying to take you away from Jesus using porn. What I am telling you to do is to grab hold of that sanctifying grace and use these temptations to look at porn, making of them a springboard launching you into a greater and deeper relationship with Jesus. In doing this, you are robbing the strong man that Jesus already bound and imprisoned through His Paschal Mystery. Booyah!
Fourth, you must have accountability. Pornography is inherently selfish. It stirs up specific sexual tastes and preferences and then pushes the envelope as to what you find appealing. It breaks you off from others, even if you are watching porn in a crowded room. So another important remedy is accountability. We all need help from others to sustain our maturation in Christ. Find a brother or sister who can listen and keep confidence with you and who is not weirded out by praying and interceding for you then and there. Also, find a father or mother in the faith who can help advise and shepherd you through these struggles.
You probably also need to tell your actual father and mother, even though it might be incredibly embarrassing. Chances are they want to help you be free from this, maybe more than you want it for yourself! Either way, get at least two people you can talk to in trust, who will pray for you, and who will not be afraid to slap you around from time to time, or to intensely encourage you to find peace in the midst of temptation.
Fifth, you need to fast. Of all the spiritual practices, fasting is one of the most powerful, immediately felt, and readily accessible, yet we often ignore it. Fasting is all about growing your own soul. Fasting helps us with our ability to say "No" to a million little things so that we can say "Yes" to the most important things. Fasting is discipline. Here's why it is so important.
Imagine you are struggling with lust. You see a woman in the mall in somewhat revealing clothes and immediately your appetites kick into high gear, beginning the temptation. If you have given in for years to this temptation, chances are that you will be looking at porn before you go to bed that night. You haven't learned to say "No" with your flesh, even though the spirit is shouting it. The remedy? Develop self-control in other areas of your life that don't lead to big sins and conquer them. Fasting says, "I'm going to gather a bunch of little triumphs over my bodily desires so that I will have the strength to repeal big temptations." If you fail at a fast you are not in sin. If you fail at lust, you just might be in need of a trip to the confessional!
Fasting builds endurance and self-control. Self-control builds and matures into self-possession. At this stage your heart has broken the habit of lust. Sure it took a couple of years of successes and failures, but you grew in your resolve "to amend my life and to sin no more."
The final tool you will need in this fight is Scripture. No word is more anointed that those found in the Bible. There is a treasure chest of powerful verses that will speak to your heart. Maybe the ultimate source of lust in your life is fear, fear of intimacy, of commitment, of abandonment or of being alone. We all act and react in complex ways to fear. Read, repeat and memorize those passages that speak against fear. Self-doubt? Dis-couragement? Anxiety or depression? Scripture is filled with wisdom, not just knowledge, that can transform your heart into His Sacred Heart. Get the Bible, write down quotes that are meaningful, and pray through them slowly and frequently. In His anointed words, you will have strength again!
A final note: maybe your situation is more complex or difficult that what I just described. Maybe it is time for you to seek professional help. Many counselors and therapists are trained to help sex addicts, if indeed that is what you are. It never hurts to sit down at least once with a trained individual and get their suggestions. Sex addiction is still largely a punchline to a lot of people, but it's deadly dangerous. I have seen lives ruined by obsessive and compulsive behaviors by sex addictions: dads loosing their jobs, teens getting caught "sexting", husbands who have an inability to communicate or relate to their spouses intimately.
Before things in your life get too crazy: pray, fast, seek after virtue, stay close to the Sacraments and Scripture, and get some accountability. You got yourself into this mess alone, but you cannot save yourself. Get help and find peace again for your heart.