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11 June, 2009

Philip Boobbyer (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Philip Boobbyer (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

According to a recent British poll, the average teenager spends an hour and forty minutes a week searching for internet pornography. Doubtless, huge numbers of adults are doing the same. Does it matter?

There are voices telling us that what we do in the private world of our imagination does not matter. The argument is that the border between public and private can be carefully policed; what we think about need not have any repercussions. Falling to a temptation here and there is perfectly safe. In any case, if we allow ourselves some private indulgence, we can keep it a secret, so our reputations will remain intact. And of course, everybody does it. Don’t they?

But these are lies. As the Emerson quotation indicates, thoughts can easily become actions. Indeed, human nature is an integral whole, and what happens in one part of it easily spills over into another. Crossing moral boundaries in one area of life easily leads to the crossing of boundaries in others. Furthermore, a corrupted imagination warps our thinking, and damages our relationships.

Doubtless most people have experienced the dynamic by which temptation leads into sin. Augustine described it as ‘a thought, a picture, a fascination, a fall’. Can this process be stopped before it reaches its end? How do we resist the constant onslaught of impure images on the imagination?

The spiritual masters consistently suggest that we turn away from temptation rather than try to combat it directly. In Holy Living the Anglican writer Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) advised that ‘when a temptation of lust assaults you, do not resist it by heaping up arguments against it, and disputing with it, considering its offers and its danger, but flee from it, that is, think not at all of it; lay aside all consideration of it’.

Writing in a similar vein in his ‘Address to the Man who is Down’, the Scottish scientist and writer Henry Drummond (1851-1897) emphasised that unhealthy passions and selfish interests lose their strength and wither away when they are not expressed. He also wrote that it is not enough to live negatively, but that we must surround ourselves with ‘beautiful things’, ‘holy memories’, and ‘high ideals’.

I was much influenced by a Canadian doctor, Paul Campbell, who said that, faced with temptation, we should seek to draw on God’s strength rather than our own – praying with phrases such as the following: ‘Lord, thank you for the temptation I am facing, for it means I must turn to you; I can’t deal with it in my own strength, so please come and overcome it in Your power’.

Someone might say that this all leads to repression; desires that are not expressed are simply pushed away in a psychologically damaging way. Certainly, there is a cost to ignoring healthy feelings and longings. However, even when our desires are good in themselves, there can still be a right and a wrong time to express them. Furthermore, some desires are simply not right at all. Desires unchannelled by discipline easily become masters, and come to dominate our lives. This is not just a personal matter, for when addictions and immoralities become widespread, society itself is affected.

In fact, there are many desires competing for attention in our minds, and we have more control over which ones to favour than we often realise. Feelings come and go, and not all of them have to be satisfied. In his book, Renovation of the Heart (2002), the American philosopher Dallas Willard argued that people today often ‘cannot distinguish between their feelings and their will, and in their confusion quite commonly take feelings to be reasons’. But, he says, there is an ‘order among feelings’, and when we ‘cultivate with divine assistance’ the feelings that should be prominent in our lives (those associated with love, joy and peace), our inner life starts to function in the right way.

Let us not forget then the liberation that comes from not giving in to our temptations. It is a key to discovering the inner, spiritual freedom that we often long for. Our imaginations will then have the energy to rest on what is true, good and beautiful. God Himself can become the focus of our attention. That in turn brings peace of heart. As the prophet Isaiah explained (26.3): ‘He will keep him in perfect peace, whose imagination is stayed on Thee’.

Philip Boobbyer
School of History
University of Kent

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