“Temptation ends about half an hour after you die.”
I’ve heard this adage used by many people who have lived long lives and have come to realize that temptations don’t just go away after a while. Now, of course, they haven’t died yet, but the point is taken. Temptation doesn’t just go away. Sometimes really simple things, which don’t seem to need to be said, need to be said. Temptation won’t just go away.
Temptation—sexual temptation for our purposes here—isn’t something that comes around during adolescence and leaves as a person passes into adulthood. Rather, ways of combatting temptation need to be mastered and powers need to be activated and strengthened within a person so that temptation doesn’t get the upper hand. Saint Paul puts it well: “I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26).
I pummel my body. I subdue it.
A brief sketch of the hierarchy of the human person is helpful here. God is meant to govern me, primarily as His truth is received by my intellect. My intellect is to govern my will which reaches for the good. The lower parts of me, such as the emotions (passions) and my body itself, are to be subjected to my will as the intellect governs all. Simple, right?
Because of the Fall of humanity, there is a disorder within us. Our bodies and emotions fight for control, trying to win over the intellect and will, so that we would go for what is pleasurable, rather than to go for what is truly good. Instead of God governing me by my intellect by receiving the truth, my body and emotions try to govern me, even if it means to be at odds with the truth—to be at odds with God. Not cool.
So, Saint Paul is indicating to us that we need to receive the truth, choosing and acting (with the will) in accordance with the truth, which means that we will need to deal a blow to our emotions and body. Sounds too rough, right? Well, whatever it sounds like, it’s Gospel truth. We need to pummel our bodies. Saint Paul goes on at length about this. I’m thinking of the Letter to the Romans, especially Chapter 6 (read the whole chapter). To pull a lengthy excerpt from chapter six:
“Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. … Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:12-14, 16-18).
We can either be slaves to our emotions (passions) and body, or we can become slaves of obedience and righteousness. It’s one or the other.
We can now dismiss the idea that we can give in to sexual temptations for a while and that they will pass away with time. In fact, the more that we give in to temptations, the harder it will be to not give in to them as time goes on.
Every act we perform matters.
Repeated actions lead to them being repeated more easily again. Repeated actions become habits (either good or bad). Habits cultivated become engrained in us either as virtues (good habits engrained) or vices (bad habits engrained). Virtues and vices become second-nature to us; they become the way that we act. They all begin with single actions, repeated.
Young people often shoot a basketball poorly at first. They allow their posture to simply throw the ball toward the hoop, without any particular structure. They are to learn how to hold their hands and arms so that the shot goes up in a consistent manner each time, thereby giving them the best chance to get it in the basket over and over. Many a kid there is who allows their elbow to swing wide, and their shot is not consistent.
Coaches, if they are wise, will force the kid to bring the elbow in, so that the shot goes up with consistency each time. If the child learns this early, the shot will be better off. If a kid doesn’t learn this young, later in the career a coach may easily come along and force them to fix their shot. They will have to work hard to undo what they had learned so that they can learn to do it a different way—a better way. In the meantime, their shot will suffer immensely as they have to learn a different way, which will seem harmful (as far as results go) until the new habit is put in place.
So it is with the moral life.
People ought to learn from their youth how to pummel the body and subdue it so that the emotions (passions) and body don’t exercise authority over their ability to choose what is truly good. If not, they will learn ways and patterns of acting which are not helpful and will have a hard time later correcting themselves.
All moral actions begin in the mind. They don’t "just happen." Something is presented to my mind, either taken in through the senses or brought back to my mind via memory. The mind then attaches itself to the idea or dismisses it. If the mind allows the idea to be engaged, the entertainment of it begins a process of deliberation (interior act), which then leads to planning (interior act), which leads to the execution of an exterior act.
I see an apple. I think about the apple. I think I would like the apple. I decide to take the apple. I take the apple. I eat the apple. I draw out all of those particularities because they all are certain movements of moral actions. When it comes to sexual temptation, it begins as a simple stimulus presented to the mind. It is there, right away, that the battle needs to be won. If not, the stimulus will be entertained, delight will begin, plotting will ensue, choices will be made, and external actions will come about.
At every stage, choosing takes place.
The further along I am in the process, the harder it will be to stop the process. A person who allows an impression to remain in the mind for any length of time will begin to desire it, and it will be harder to stop. A person who lingers in desire will begin to chart a course of action via deliberation, and it will be even harder to stop. A person who goes through all of these steps is a fool to think that they can allow all of this interior acting to take place and then somehow to magically not want to continue through to some sort of exterior action. (I call the interior movements "acting" because external actions aren’t the only actions we make—we are morally responsible for the chosen interior actions which lead to any exterior acts.)
All of the above—the sketch of the hierarchy of the human person, the sketch of habituation, and the construct of the moral act—are extremely important to understand if a person is going to be successful in fighting against sexual temptation. To pummel the body and to subdue it begins in the mind. And so, if a young person is going to be victorious, the first battle to win is what is allowed to be in the mind.
Custody of the eyes is extremely important. Custody of the imagination is extremely important. Custody of emotions is extremely important. If the first battle is won, the others will be possible as well.
Maybe now the terrible old idea that "I can look but I just can’t touch" is seen for what it really is. If I look, then I have now brought something into my mind. Then what? Well, looking leads to touching. That’s why it’s a terrible old idea and terrible advice to try to live by. If it is the case that “temptation ends about half an hour after you die,” it does not have to be the case that sexual sin ends about half an hour after you die.
In fact, victory can be had now and all along the path of life, as long as you pummel your body and subdue it, at every step taking authority over what is in your mind, what is pondered and desired, what is deliberated and planned, and what exterior actions come about.
STRIVE: A 21-Day Detox from Porn
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