At the dawn of the surprise-hit series Downton Abbey Mary Crawley has a momentary and tragic fling with a guest staying at her family’s estate. Opportunity presents in the form of the dashing Turkish envoy, Kemal Pamuk. Lust prevails, and her moral failure and the threat of its scandalous exposure form a good bit of the dramatic pulse that drives the story forward, particularly as it amplifies the romantic tension between Mary and cousin Matthew Crawley, the family heir.
In time Mary must — spoiler alert! — admit her wrong to Matthew, who then asks if she loved Pamuk. Mary dismisses the passion as if it didn’t matter. She answers that it was only lust or the need for excitement.
Now, see yourself in Mary for a moment. Isn’t that like life? In one moment lust is an overpowering emotion; in the next it’s nothing. But if it is nothing, does it have any power to begin with? Or is the reality that lust and our other passions only possess whatever power we ascribe to them? They are only as strong as we allow.
The power of seduction
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was known as il duce, which means “the leader.” The word is the same that forms the root of our word seduction. To be seduced means to be led or even dominated. Our culture portrays seduction as prelude to romance, but in reality it’s a power negotiation in which one person surrenders control to another.
The dynamic that plays out between people works in our own divided selves. Who will lead (to use the Apostle Paul’s language) the Old Man or the New? We want what’s right, but we sometimes — maybe oftentimes — succumb to our passions nonetheless. We play Mary to many Pamuks.
It’s a copout to say the temptation is too strong. Aside from the scriptural witness that God does not test beyond our abilities (1 Cor 10.13), we cannot discover the real strength of our passions if we simply succumb to them. “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is,” writes C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. “A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. . . . We never find out the strength of an evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it. . . .” And so we must determine, whatever the trouble or cost, to kick Pamuk out of our room.
At the most basic level resistance starts with distancing ourselves from tempting stimuli, just as Joseph did when he ran away from Potiphar’s wife. Don’t think it wasn’t a struggle. Scripture gives us no window into his mind, but work from your own impulses and desires. Without sounding needlessly crass, here’s a young man in his prime offered sex by “the loose woman” who promises “adventuress with her smooth words” (Prov 7.5). You can easily imagine Joseph’s internal battle. He only prevailed by running the other direction.Benedict of Nursia was tormented by lustful thoughts so powerful “he could scarcely endure the fire,” as his biographer Gregory the Great said. To quench it, Benedict distracted his troubled mind with the medieval equivalent of a cold shower: he jumped naked into a thorn bush (The Life of St. Benedict 2.1-2).
Joseph and Benedict model Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Leaping into a briar patch may not be the ticket for most of us, but we can consider finding accountability groups, unfriending people on Facebook, installing filtering software on the computer, and so on. Rather than succumb to their passions, desert monks were known to stay up all night in prayer. Don’t rule out that option. Our sin is no less serious than theirs. Whatever the approach, the point is to intentionally deprive the flesh, to discount its desires.
Our denial of fleshly provision can be as varied as our passions. But whether it’s gluttony or gossip or pride or anger or all of the above, it’s up to us to employ evasive maneuvers when encountering tempting stimuli. We need to find what works and use it.
And then we need to deal with why we find certain sins stimulating in the first place.
What’s tempting about temptation?
The short answer is that we are out of whack. We fall for Pamuk and linger with Potiphar’s wife because our desires do not match God’s design. That misalignment is not permanent. It can be changed over time by prayer and fasting, almsgiving and worship, psalmody and scripture-reading, cultivating silence and other penitent and ascetical efforts.
Repentance realigns us, though not instantaneously. Years and even decades knowingly or unknowingly cultivating bad thoughts and behaviors make it hard to throw them off in a moment. When we resist our passions, we find out just how resistant they are, particularly the habitual ones. Some of them are monsters, but take heart: Goliath was big, too.
When contemplating the challenge, I find these words from John Climacus encouraging:
Do not be surprised if you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honor your patience. While a wound is still fresh and warm, it is easy to heal; but old, neglected, and festering ones are hard to cure, and require for their care much treatment, cutting, plastering, and cauterization. Many from long neglect become incurable, but with God all things are possible. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent 5.30)
We need Jesus
“With God” is key. We cannot conquer our passions on our own. It takes Christ’s help to succeed, which is why Paul prefaces his admonition by telling us to put on Christ. The phrase hearkens back to our baptism, the moment when we sacramentally put on Christ and are taken up into his life (Gal 3.27). Participation in the life of (and in) Christ is prerequisite to defeating our passions in any meaningful way.
If our passions draw their strength from our ascription, then we deny them power as we ascribe more importance to our relationship with Jesus and his church.