How Lust Affects Love


People have told me that Christians consider lustful looks and thoughts sinful, even "mortally" sinful! That's ludicrous. How can looking at another person be a sin? If I am not hurting anyone, what wrong am I doing? Are you saying that the beauty of the human body is so bad that looking at it is sinful?

Should Celibate Priests Tell Couples What to Do with Their Bodies?

Sam: JP, I hope you don't mind if I am frank with you.

Father JP: Don't worry, Sam, I can take it. I'd rather you be frank than mask your real thoughts and concerns.


Sam: OK. My main problem with the Catholic teaching on sexuality is that it is not realistic. It expects normal people to behave like robots with no emotions. That's because those setting Church policy are celibate men. They have little or no experience with sexuality and love and they repress their natural feelings. What is an unmarried celibate man, who doesn't even date, doing telling married and dating couples what to do with their bodies? It's like a bus driver telling a surgeon how to do open heart surgery.

Father JP: First, Sam, Catholic teaching on sexuality doesn't depend on celibate priests alone. Our beliefs come from God and originate in the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was those Jewish priests — who happened to be married, by the way — who handed those teachings down to us.

Second, priests do have a lot more experience than you think. In hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction, they deal with moral dilemmas from all sorts of people: from the five and six-year-olds to people in their seventies and eighties; male and female; married and dating; single mothers and fathers, and those living in all kinds of sinful or saintly situations. Priests experience quite a bit in a very short period of time, like a doctor in a residency program. Seminary training helps priests give consistent advice in these very diverse cases.

Just because a priest hasn't experienced something firsthand doesn't mean he can't give good advice. Does a doctor have to go through cancer and its treatment to identify and cure it? Does one have to have abused children or do drugs to be able to tell someone else that it is wrong? Do teachers have to visit Japan, India, or Nigeria to be able to teach their students about the history, geography, and culture of these countries?


Sam: No, of course not.

Father JP: Then why must we say that a priest has to be dating or married to give advice to those who are dating or married? Many good coaches of college and professional sports never played the sport competitively.

Besides, celibate priests are not emotionless robots. We deal with the same emotions that you do. We feel the same attraction to beautiful women, and we, too, struggle to keep these emotions from controlling the decisions we make and the life we live. This gives us a certain freedom to integrate — with God's help — that dimension of our lives into our vocation to love God and others.

Priests are called to love the people whom we are called to serve with a father's heart. We try to be understanding of their frailties while encouraging and challenging them in their struggles.


Why Is Judeo-Christian Morality So Negative?  

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...

Sam: But JP, you must admit that Christian morality seems awfully negative and strict: You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal, cheat, or lie. Wouldn't it be easier to say You shall have no fun? And when it comes to something so positive, so intensely enriching and fulfilling as expressing one's love in sex, Christian morality is full of old-fashioned, negative hang-ups:

  • No sex before marriage.
  • No extramarital affairs.
  • No passionate caressing and kissing outside of marriage.
  • No contraception, even within marriage.
  • Even, no thoughts and desires for sex!

I don't mean to offend you, JP, but it seems as though "moral" people like yourself just don't know how to enjoy something good like sex. You seem to treat it as if it were something dirty or evil — something you want to hide or keep in the closet. Why?

Father JP: Sam, you're right! If Christian morality were just a collection of negative precepts, then it would be empty. I would be the first to join you and the masses in rejecting this teaching and embrace the so-called "free love."


Sam: You would?

Father JP: I said I would if Christian morality were just a collection of negative precepts. However, I have found it to be much more than that. In fact, the more I talk to people like you who challenge me to think and to delve into the notion and meaning of true love, the more I discover the wisdom and consistency of what has been taught and lived for thousands of years. It was just a few years ago that our society decided to jettison the wisdom of years of experience. What is considered Christian moral teaching was Jewish moral teaching thousands of years prior to Christ. The Jews claimed to have received it from God, but it is more than just a claim because in it there is clearly something special, something "divine." The wisdom of Christian and Jewish moral teaching can be seen as both true and beautiful, even by non-Christians and non-Jews.

But, Sam and Margie, do you really think you are ready to discover the truth and the beauty of pure love? Are you up to the task?

Margie: Yes, I am.

Father JP: And you, Sam?


Sam: I'm ready to discuss this, but I want you to know that I'm not a pushover. I won't accept platitudes or rules for rules' sake, or some kind of partial or theoretical truth about love.

Father JP: You know, we are not talking about just some theoretical truth. This teaching on love requires action; it entails a call to live it. If you see the truth in it — in fact, in order to be open to see the truth in it — you must be ready to try to live it.


Sam: Yes, I'm aware of that. I wasn't born yesterday! But on the other hand, if it is not true, then living a so-called "moral" life is foolish, one of the most foolish things in the world. Something that I hope Margie will realize. Margie, are you ready for this?

Margie: Well, I've made some mistakes in the past. I feel I've lost part of my innocence, which I would really like to recover. I don't know if that is possible, but certainly I want to make sure that I do not lose any more of it. That's why we're here.

Father JP: Well, I admire your forthrightness and willingness to discuss these things. I pray that each one of us will have the strength of character not only to hear each other out, but also to live out the consequences of the truth we discover.


Negative Precepts Reflect Positive Values

Sam: Getting back to my question, then, why is Christian morality so negative?

Father JP: Let's take a look at the Ten Commandments. Are they really so negative? Can we not glean some positive teaching or value from them? For example, doesn't the commandment, "You shall not kill," tell us something positive?

Margie: Sure it does — it tells us that life is precious.

Father JP: Exactly! Human life is precious. In fact, it's not only precious — it's sacred! By this commandment, God tells us that the dignity of each person is so great that he will severely punish us if we disregard its sacredness.

You could look at it another way. Often we hear reports that a certain behavior is unhealthy, for example, that regular smoking will decrease your life expectancy by X number of years. These reports usually conclude by condemning the unhealthy behavior: "Don't smoke; it'll kill you."

If someone were to do a controlled study on the life expectancy of murderers and just happen to discover that murderers — on the average — lived 18.7 years less than the population as a whole, perhaps that report would conclude, "Don't kill others because it'll kill you." Perhaps such a report would have little effect on die-hard murderers. However, it might motivate someone to think twice before following through with shooting another human being.


Headlines: Murderers Have Reduced Life-Expectancy of 18.7 Years

Sam: It's hard for me to imagine people thinking about how long they're going to live while they're planning to murder someone.

Father JP: You're probably right. However, if we consider our eternal life expectancy, how a particular action may affect our lot after death, then the fear of losing heaven and suffering eternally may motivate a few more individuals.


Sam: That's if you believe in God, heaven, and hell.

Father JP: True. You can argue that if God does not exist, then nothing would be immoral; one could do anything he wanted — steal, murder, abuse women or children — with no fear of eternal retribution. The point I was trying to make is negative precepts do reflect positive values. "You shall not kill" reflects the sacredness of life while warning us of potential negative consequences by choosing to ignore that sacredness.


Sam: I'm not saying that it's OK to murder or abuse children. Those things are wrong. But let's be real. It's easy to show how murder harms the person killed, his family, and society in general. Sex between consenting adults doesn't hurt anyone. Sex is not bad or dirty. It's good — very good. So why does the Catholic Church look down on it?

Father JP: Sam, let me ask you this: would you say that it doesn't matter if the woman you marry has had sex with another man?


Sam: Well, it would be nice if I was the first one in her life, but I wouldn't hold her to a higher standard than I would myself. So it wouldn't bother me if she had.

Father JP: What if her previous sex partner was one of your best friends?


Sam: That might be a little different, but I think I could handle that.

Father JP: How about when you are married and your friend comes over to visit? You don't think it would affect how you viewed your friend or how he viewed you? You don't think it would affect the way your friend and your wife interact?


Sam: Well, you're right, it might put a damper on the friendship a bit.

Father JP: Taking this a step further, what if the person your wife had sex with was your brother or even your father? Or what if this man had genital herpes, or HIV, or some venereal disease? Would any of this matter?


If only you were Charlie...

Sam: Well, yes. I don't think I'd marry her under those conditions.

Father JP: Let's suppose your wife-to-be didn't fall under any of those conditions. However, she occasionally experienced uncontrollable flashbacks of sexual engagements that she had with previous partners. This occurred especially when she was sexually aroused. Would that affect your decision to marry her?


Sam: That would be difficult to deal with. Making love with a woman I knew was thinking about someone else would be kind of repulsive.

Father JP: You seem to be saying, then, that a woman or man who is not a virgin — at least under certain circumstances — is damaged goods, and that somehow she or he has been victimized by her past sexual experiences.


Sam: But these are extreme examples.

Father JP: Perhaps, but they do occur and much more frequently than you think. Moreover, perhaps less extreme sexual experiences inflict lesser damage, but they still cause damage.


How Lust Affects Love

Impure Glances

Sam: JP, that's hard to prove. It seems that you're putting up a smoke screen to cover up the negativity of Christian morality.

For example, one taboo that exemplifies the negativity of Christian morality is the commandment against certain glances and looks. People have told me that Christians consider lustful looks and thoughts sinful, even "mortally" sinful! That's ludicrous. How can looking at another person be a sin? If I am not hurting anyone, what wrong am I doing? Are you saying that the beauty of the human body is so bad that looking at it is sinful?

Father JP: Sam, the Judeo-Christian tradition has always considered the human body as a beautiful masterpiece of God's creation. It is something good. However, one can distort and abuse something good by using it as an object of one's own selfish pleasure.

Let's try to put the question of lust in the context of a human relationship. This example may help. Let's imagine a young couple in love. In fact, we can imagine you and Margie walking down the street together holding hands, conversing, having a great time together.

Margie: We do that all the time. Just being together is something special.

Ugh... I thought you loved me.

Father JP: Now imagine that as the two of you walk down the street together you happen upon an immodestly dressed woman. Now this scene is fictitious. I am not saying that this is what you would do, but let's suppose, Sam, thinking that it means nothing, you take a glance at the immodestly dressed woman. Then you start admiring her, turning your head and following her with your eyes — and bang! You run into a telephone pole!

Now, Sam, how do you think Margie would react? What would she think?


Sam: She might laugh or think, "Ah, he deserves it."

Margie: Laugh? No way! I'd be livid!

Father JP: Now remember, we're just imagining. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Margie would be hurt and rightfully so. She could be so hurt that she would walk out on you right then and there.


Sam: Aren't you going a bit far? Is it really such a big deal?

Margie: Oh yes, it is! Sam, it would mean that you... well it would be as if...

Father JP: It would be as if you had been unfaithful to Margie, unfaithful with your eyes. We could consider it a "mortal" sin against her, because it would or could kill your relationship with her.


Sam: But wait a minute, JP. I still think you're going too far when you say that any glance at a beautiful woman is seriously sinful. Yes, I see how looking at another woman could hurt Margie, and I would never knowingly hurt her. The important thing seems to be to avoid hurting the person you love. I don't see anything wrong with "feasting" my eyes on a woman's beauty, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone. Why else would God make the woman's body so beautiful?

Father JP: Sam, there is nothing essentially wrong for a married man to "feast" his eyes on his wife's bodily beauty. It is part of his love and may even enhance his love for her. Nor is it wrong to appreciate the bodily beauty of women in general. That is why the Catholic Church sees nothing inherently wrong with nudity in art. When nudity in art avoids the erotic — that is, avoids directly stimulating the sexual appetites — it can be something good because it helps us to appreciate the beauty of God's creation and how God made woman for man and man for woman.

For example, if the two of you were visiting a museum together and you were to stop and admire an ancient Roman statue of a nude woman, how would you react, Margie?

Margie: I don't think it would bother me at all. I just can't see getting hurt over a statue — unless Sam started really "feasting" his eyes on the statue to the point of lusting over it. But it wouldn't offend me as much as disgust me.


Sam: Margie, that would be sick. I'd never do that.

Margie: I hope not.

Wow, you bet I love art!

Father JP: What is important here is what we say by our action. The reason why looking at a statue doesn't affect your relationship is because the statue is not directed toward any particular person. Do you know any woman who would think that her boyfriend was being unfaithful to her with his eyes by admiring the beauty of women reflected in a statue? Do you think that she would feel that now she was competing with a statue for her boyfriend's love and attention?

Margie: No, of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Father JP: So, Sam, we agree that nudity in art is not in itself immoral. In what other occasion would you find "feasting" your eyes on another woman not hurtful to Margie and your relationship with her?


Sam: Well, if I were just hanging out with the guys admiring pretty women, as long as Margie wasn't there. You know — doing the typical male thing of admiring beautiful women. It wouldn't be directed against Margie.

Margie: (with surprise and almost anger in her voice) Do you think it would be OK just because I wasn't there?


Sam: Oh, Margie, I didn't mean it that way. I was just proposing a hypothetical example for the discussion.

Father JP: Margie, have patience with Sam and me. We men often propose "theoretical" arguments without realizing how severely it could affect our relationships. That is why I like discussing these matters with you and Sam together, because that makes him think twice about "theoretical" attitudes that actually affect your relationship.

Margie: OK, Father JP, I'm sorry. I guess I'm a little sensitive about these matters.

Father JP: No, you are not too sensitive at all, Margie. As I said, I think it helps us have a more honest discussion.

Let's go on. Sam, let me propose another hypothetical example for you: What if you and your buddies were to go to a topless bar without Margie knowing it? Do you think it would not affect her and your relationship with her just because she wasn't present? And what if she were later to find out, perhaps because she just happened to see you walking out or one of your buddies ended up telling her. Would that not hurt her and your relationship with her?


Sam: You're right there, but that is extreme and raunchy behavior.

Father JP: It is true that I may use more extreme examples to illustrate the principles. Don't you think it makes a difference to Margie how you behave even though she isn't present? Do we need other examples to prove the point?


Sam: OK, you're right. It does make a difference, though I wouldn't think that it could do that much damage. But now that you mention it, it does kind of make sense.

Margie: Father JP, you said that it is OK for a husband to "feast" his eyes on his wife. But isn't that also lust?

Father JP: That's a very good point, Margie, one that many people miss. If a man looks at his wife as a mere object of sexual satisfaction, then it would be sinful lust. In such a case, it doesn't matter whether the woman is his wife or not, because it disregards her dignity as a human person.

However, if he looks at his wife's beauty in a way that draws him to appreciate her free and complete gift of herself to him, and if it draws him to give himself more generously and unconditionally to her, that is, even without the condition of the sexual union, then such a bodily attraction can be something good, conducive to a happier marriage, because it respects her dignity as a person and leads to a more complete self-giving.

In the book of Tobit, the angel Raphael warned Tobias:

Hear me, and I will show you who are those over whom the devil can prevail. For they who enter into matrimony in such a manner as to shut out God from themselves and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and the mule which have not understanding, are those over whom the devil has power. (Tobit 6:16-17, Septuagint)

Of course, this kind of lust is not limited to men. The same could be said of a woman "feasting" her eyes on her husband.


Sam: But, JP, do you really think your God cares about all this? Doesn't He have more important things to deal with in the world?

Father JP: Sam, this is the logic of love. God truly loves each one of us much more than any woman could love a man. The Jewish Scripture says that He is a jealous God (Deuteronomy 4:24) worthy of all our love. What do we say to God when we look at a woman with lust in our heart? Are we not saying to Him, "Guess what, Lord, you have competition and you happen to be losing that competition right now." How do you think it would affect our relationship to Him?


Sam: I guess He wouldn't like it.

Father JP: That's quite an understatement. To guard one's eyes and one's heart is an expression of love, not a fear of tainting oneself with something dirty. This is why Jesus stated the matter so forcefully to His followers:

You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)
Jesus is explaining in a clear and graphic manner what God had already laid down in the Ten Commandments given to Moses:
(Exodus 20:17, cf. Deuteronomy 5:21)
The Psalms also convey this beautiful message where God says:
(Psalm 101:2-5)
Sirach warns of the danger of lust:
(Sirach 9:5, 8)
In another place, the Psalmist asks God to help him preserve his love for God:

For people in love, every action impacts their relationship, even short glances. The struggle to acquire self-control over one's eyes and over one's thoughts is a great manifestation of someone who truly wants to love another person and to show his or her love for God completely. Anything less is not love.

Saying "I Love You" with Your Eyes

Sam: That's all fine and good, but, JP, it's still fairly negative. The constant preoccupation with not offending God or the person one loves seems just too obsessive.

Father JP: True, but we haven't finished the argument yet. Let's recast our example in a positive light. Go back to the scene and imagine you and Margie — that young couple in love — walking down the street together. Again, you're holding hands and conversing, having a great time. Now as you walk together, again you happen upon that immodestly dressed woman. This time, however, you don't look. Imagine, Sam, you just continue walking as though you didn't even notice the other woman. Perhaps you turn instead and look into Margie's eyes.

How would she react? Do you think Margie would notice?

Wow! How his eyes love me!

Margie: You bet I'd notice. It would be as if Sam said, "Wow, you are really special!"

Father JP: Yes, indeed. It would be as if he were saying, "Margie, I only have eyes for you. I only have a heart for you." By not looking, Sam, you can say a lot. In fact, that not looking says more than repeating, "I love you, dear," hundreds of times. It means so much more.

Now if God really loves each one of us more than any woman could love a man, then our struggle not to look at impure sights, or our struggle to avoid impure imaginings and fantasies is seen by God as a positive act of love. This is why we can say with the Jewish Psalmist, "My eyes are ever toward the Lord" (Psalm 25:15).


Sam: Margie, I can't say whether God exists or not. Even if He were to exist, I don't know how much He would care about my thoughts and imaginings. But I want you to know that if I have ever slipped up here and offended you — and I am sure I have — I want you to know that I am sorry. Please don't hold it against me.

Margie: Of course I forgive you. Do you forgive me for any time I may have offended you unknowingly?


Sam: (half-jokingly, half-seriously) I do this time but remember, even God gets jealous!


Christians Should Not Be Afraid of Temptations

Father JP: Yes, this is what the logic of love is about: controlling or failing to control our eyes and thoughts does indeed affect our love.


Sam: I think I get your point. Still, it's neurotic to worry all the time about what we see and what we think. Let's face it, temptations are part of life.

Father JP: That's right. Yet, true Christians are not neurotic people because we don't fear temptations. In fact, we can even look forward to them. Temptations are opportunities to say, "I love you" to God and to the people we truly love. As long as we ignore temptations and move on, as long as we do not entertain the temptations but turn toward the person we love, then we avoid sin and make a great affirmation of love.


Sam: You say we should look forward to temptations? That sounds sick.

Father JP: We shouldn't deliberately put ourselves in situations that could lead us to sin, but when such situations arise without our looking for them, then we can seize the opportunity to manifest our love to God and to the person we love.

In other words, you would not take Margie into a topless bar just to show her that you won't look. However, when you encounter an immodestly dressed woman, you can take advantage of the opportunity to show your love for her in a way that means much more than any external act of affection. You can look forward to that!

Margie: But, Father, sometimes I feel like I sin in my thoughts, even though I think I've rejected them. I don't feel like I'm loving Our Lord. And what if I have thoughts for Sam?

Father JP: I could answer that question now, but we've covered a lot already. Besides, some things, which belong to the intimacy of our conscience, are better dealt with one-on-one when we go to confession. Margie, after your next confession — if you want to — just ask to talk about this topic in more detail. Then I will give you some advice to help you improve your personal relationship with God and your relationship with Sam in this regard.

Margie: OK, Father, I'll do that.

Father JP: Sam, maybe you, too, would like to come in sometime to chat one-on-one without Margie, to deal with some more personal topics, things having to do with you and God.


Sam: JP, I don't know about that. I came here to deal with my relationship with Margie. My relationship or my lack of relationship with God is a different matter.

Father JP: I'll respect that. I just want you to know that I am available. I hope this conversation has given you some things to think about.

Margie: Yes, Father, it has. Thank you.


Sam: It has, but I still have other questions for you.

Father JP: Great! We will tackle them next time.



Rev. John R. Waiss. "Is Christian Morality Negative?." In Couples in Love: Straight Talk on Dating, Respect, Commitment, Marriage and Sexuality (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), 22-30.

Reprinted by permission of Rev. John R. Waiss. All rights reserved.


Fr. John R. Waiss resides in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of Couples in Love: Straight Talk on Dating, Respect, Commitment, Marriage and Sexuality and the co-author of Letters Between a Catholic and an Evangelical.

Copyright © 2003 Crossroad Publishing

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