Yesterday on the Thirsting for Truth Live podcast, Alicia Franco and I discussed emotional chastity. As a guy, this is not a topic I frequent. That’s not to say I don’t believe it’s important. It’s just that, guys often struggle more with sins of action. We sometimes do without thinking where I think females often think without doing. Broadening the topic, I do think that men often struggle with wandering eyes and thoughts. We just don’t think of it as an “emotional” issue. I felt like I really struggled during the podcast because of the term “emotional chastity”. Having had some time to think about it, I think we need to drop this term in favor of something else. Emotions are natural reactions. Often, they are things that we cannot help feeling. Why would we need to be chaste with our emotions? Does this mean that if we feel a desire or some sort of sexual attraction to another that we are not being chaste? I think that, for many, the idea of emotional chastity is one that stems from a tendency of repression and false blame. I think that we fear that our desires and emotions are going to lead us into sin and that fear creates a suspicion of our emotions and desires. The problem is that our emotions and desires are trying to lead us toward a profound truth. Our suspicion makes that an extremely difficult task. However, those desires have a job to do. They have a mission given to them by God and they are intent on carrying out that mission. Therefore, the more we try to suppress our desires and emotions out of fear – the stronger they become – and that’s usually when people make big mistakes.
I remember when I was in college and I was in the midst of a great struggle with lust. It had such control over me that I couldn’t say no in situations where I didn’t want to engage in some lustful act. My desires were so powerful that I thought something was wrong with me. I really believed that I struggled in a way that other guys did not. My desires were so powerful that they led me through a desperate search for answers. I moved to a different city for a summer to try and rid myself of the opportunity of lust but that didn’t work. I remember trying everything I could think of to get out from under the control of my lustful desires. I always felt guilty and shameful after lustful actions but the next day I would write it off since the feeling of guilt was not as powerful. One night, after some promiscuous activity I decided to do as many push-ups as I could so that I could physically remember, in the morning, how I felt emotionally the night before. That wasn’t the answer. Other times, I tried writing myself notes that I could read the next day to help me remember. That didn’t work either. After exhausting myself with attempts to cure my issue, I decided to give God a shot. I had seen my father, and my grandfather, come back from a retreat and the transformation they had left a lasting impression. They weren’t different people after the retreat, but they wanted to be. I decided to go on a retreat and it turned out to be my first real encounter with God.
Over the next few years, I got into a relationship and was introduced to the “Theology of the Body” which taught me that sex, and marriage, proclaimed a great truth to world: that God is family and that the meaning of life is to be a part of the family of God. We’ve all heard the simple explanation of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, but one God. You may have even heard it explained that the love between the Father and the Son is so powerful, and so real, that their love literally is (not created) another person: the Holy Spirit. We understand the Holy Spirit to be the powerful love that binds the Father and the Son and that they are all fully united as one. I never understood this until I looked at it in light of sex and marriage. A man loves a woman, the woman loves the man, and the two can share a love that is so powerful, and so real, that in nine months their love may literally be another person. A baby is the embodiment of the love of a man and woman. While the man, woman, and baby, area all distinct persons they are united as one family. We’ve all heard that we were created in the image and likeness of God but few of us have heard it explained this way. We were created to be a part of this life-giving, self-donating, powerful family of love and THAT is where our desires our trying to lead us. I came to realize that this was why my desires were so powerful. I am a person who needs to know. I have a powerful thirst for truth and when I tried to deny myself I only became thirstier. My problem was not that I was desperately thirsty. My problem was that I didn’t know where to go to quench that thirst in the truest sense. If we seek to be “emotionally” chaste by becoming suspicious of our desires, or of our national emotional reactions when we see someone attractive, we will be utterly incapable of living out the call of chastity. If chastity is defined as the virtue of choosing to love someone despite sacrifice and suffering, then we have to learn to leverage those powerful desires to motivate us to train ourselves in the discipline of chastity.
If your eyes are wandering, then you should tame them. If you find your eyes rest heavily on the sacred parts of a woman’s body and lustful thoughts (or feelings) begin to take over your mind, then look away. But don’t stop there. Your curiosity and desire to know a woman intimately should help you recall that your desires can help motivate you to love that woman (and all women) as a member of the family of God. That love begins first with sacrifice. If after seeing her you can bring yourself to offer a prayer for her, to thank God for the reminder of such beauty in the world, or if you can use that moment as a reminder that her body is created with the ability to nourish and give birth to new life, then her beauty has served the awesome purpose of bringing you to contemplation and reflection. Your desires have done their job.
Do not be afraid of your desires or your emotions. Train them to work for you. If you can learn to impose your will by leveraging your desires – if you can do what you know you should do despite your feelings and despite great cost – then I would say you have met the measurement of what it truly means to be a man. Chastity is just a fancy word to describe that ability to impose your will to do good over your feelings when they dont match up.
So, what do I do with my eyes? I try to train them to look beyond what is easy to see. Just as a person may look at a discarded product with missing pieces and dream a vision of a successful business, we must envision the truth of our God given desires even when aspects of truth are missing.