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“Ask a Priest: Could One Impure Thought Really Doom Us?”
Q: My question concerns Jesus’ warning that to look lustfully at a woman is already a form of adultery — an adultery of the heart. The problem with this is that we men, whether sexually active or not, have a libido, the existence of which we simply cannot deny. Am I seriously to believe that a sexual thought swimming in my head in my idle moments could be a slippery slope to hell? I sometimes ask myself why God didn’t create us as eunuchs who could be programmed to be aroused only when one has a desire to reproduce with one’s lawfully wedded wife instead of a sex drive that could potentially mess up our lives here and could be a slippery slope to hell. Whenever I think about this matter, a song called “One Slip” by Pink Floyd comes to mind, the chorus of which goes: “One slip, and down the hole we fall / seems like no time at all. / A momentary lapse of reason / that binds a life to life: / a small regret we won’t forget. / There’ll be no sleep in here tonight.” – P.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The short answer to your question is: yes, and we can link the problem to original sin.
We inherit a damaged human nature from our first parents, and part of the fallout is that we suffer from disordered passions. That is why temptation in the area of purity is such a constant in the lives of many people (especially men).
Everything God creates is good. And part of his gift of sexuality is one of the great ways that mankind participates in the creative process of God. The problem with sexual temptation isn’t God, it’s our fallen human nature.
What that demands is a serious effort to work on the virtue of purity. Here it is wise that a person doesn’t give himself too much slack. Purity demands self-discipline, prayer, and humility. It isn’t impossible, since God will give us the grace we need to attain this goal.
The struggle for purity is part of the journey toward real maturity. Pope St. John Paul II used to say that, before a person can give himself to another (as in marriage), he has to be in possession of himself.
We want to be careful in this area, given that our behavior can affect our eternity. Jesus’ words need to be taken seriously.
Having said that, it might be useful to make another distinction. When Jesus is referring to a “lustful thought,” he is referring to a lustful desire that is recognized, accepted and consented to. That constitutes a sin, even though the sexual activity only took place in our imagination, because it is a willing acceptance of a wrong and self-centered use of one’s sexuality.
Many times, however, sexual thoughts enter our minds without our inviting them. An image, a memory, a desire — these can pop up out of nowhere. In this case, they are not yet sins, but only temptations. The moment of truth arrives when we become aware that they are entering our minds and vying for our attention.
If we reject them, renewing our commitment to follow Christ and his wisdom also in this area of our lives, we win a victory for Christ’s Kingdom and grow in virtue. When we accept them and consent to them, entertaining them and willing indulging in them, we are committing the sin. This is an important distinction, and I hope it helps you understand Our Lord’s teaching more deeply.
And if we need motivation at the human level, just think about the way we would want men to treat our wives or mothers or sisters or daughters.
(For more reading see The Courage to Be Chaste)