“How We Can Overcome a Lust-Filled World,” Liahona, June 2022.
Dan (name has been changed) was seeing me for professional counseling. “I try to live the commandments,” he said, “but I am constantly tempted by sensual distractions. I recommit but get worn down and occasionally end up letting my guard down. I am not going to pornography sites, but I become hypnotized by inappropriate images that seem to be everywhere. My wife is hurt, and I am tired of trying.”
Perhaps you have felt something similar. Dan’s struggle is common. Many of us live in cultures that have become preoccupied with sex and saturated with sights, sounds, and ideas that misrepresent the sacredness of the body and the divine purposes of sex (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). Because of the internet, there has been a rise in both occasional and compulsive pornography use,1 as well as associated moral challenges.
As a therapist, I have worked with many who struggle to rise above the temptation to indulge in lustful thoughts, objectification of others, lewd media, or various versions of what the scriptures call “lasciviousness” (Jacob 3:12; 4 Nephi 1:16). Though the world trends downward, the Lord asks His disciples to live standards of moral integrity (see 3 Nephi 12:27–29; Doctrine and Covenants 42:23).
How can we strive for a high standard while navigating these challenges? How can we decrease discouragement and increase commitment?
With Dan, it was helpful to distinguish temptation from sin, understand shame and the power of agency, and learn to rely more on the Savior’s grace.
Dan had righteous desires, but he felt like he was failing. He was ashamed, in part because of his ongoing temptations. Like many, he thought that because he had given in to some temptations, he might as well give up.2 While guilt is an important feeling that motivates us to repent, shame can have the opposite effect, leading us to give up. This is particularly damaging when we mistakenly believe temptation is a sign of weakness.
It isn’t a sin to be tempted or experience physical sensations.3 Sexual feelings are a divine gift4 that, when used appropriately in marriage, bring husband and wife happiness and connection.5 These physical responses are strong, sometimes triggered by body shapes or behaviors. In nature this is called an ethological reflex, where a posture or expression causes an automatic reaction. When one is passing people on the street, for instance, a hostile glare provokes a different physiological response than a welcoming smile. Sensual images can elicit powerful reactions as well. These feelings and the temptation to act on them are not sins, and if their invitation is ignored, the feelings eventually pass. However, if they are pursued, the feelings strengthen.
Sin occurs when we choose to entertain, cultivate, or act on the temptation to do something we know we shouldn’t. Because of moral agency, we can choose not to act on temptation, even when it’s difficult. This is what Alma was instructing his son to do when he told him to “go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself” (Alma 39:9). King David could have chosen to turn away when he saw Bathsheba, but instead he dwelt upon the temptation and then escalated his immoral behavior (see 2 Samuel 11:1–16). Even Jesus was tempted (see Hebrews 4:15), but He “gave no heed” to temptation (Doctrine and Covenants 20:22). As the old saying goes, you may not be able to stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop it from building a nest.
With help, Dan learned not to panic when tempted but to acknowledge his feelings, then choose to move on to healthy behaviors.
The Lord summarized the harms of lasciviousness, saying, “He that looketh on a woman to lust after her, or if any shall commit adultery in their hearts, they shall not have the Spirit, but shall deny the faith and shall fear” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:16). Habitually focusing on the world causes spiritual “blindness” (1 Nephi 15:24), which is a good description of how judgment becomes impaired as lusts are pursued. If this continues, the body develops habits that can become “strong cords” (2 Nephi 26:22) that are hard to break because of both the pleasure payoff and the relief from the cravings.6
Feeding the carnal appetite dulls spiritual senses and starves faith. Disciples who are repeatedly pulled into lasciviousness often fear they are unworthy to serve and lack spiritual confidence (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:45). Lusting for the world can also erode true love and leave a spouse feeling used or neglected.
With the Spirit’s help, we can recognize dangers early and choose environments and behaviors that are consistent with covenant values (see 2 Nephi 2:14; 4:18). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counseled those struggling with lust to “start by separating yourself from people, materials, and circumstances that will harm you. As those battling something like alcoholism know, the pull of proximity can be fatal. So too in moral matters.”7
Dan began avoiding the use of electronic devices when he was susceptible to temptation, such as when he was alone, tired, or stressed. He passed on problematic TV shows and other entertainment and instead spent time connecting with others. He strengthened his spirit by spending more time in the scriptures, journaling, improving his sleep, and exercising (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:124).8 These important principles can help each of us decrease temptations and increase strength, especially when practiced consistently over time.
The work of discipleship can be hard, and even a strong resolve can burst like a bubble when bumping into worldly enticements. When a lapse happens, it is helpful to get right back on track rather than wallow in discouragement.
The Lord’s mercy is great, and He promises to forgive “as often as [His] people repent” (Mosiah 26:30). Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles described the immediate impact of turning to the Lord: “Even if we’ve been a conscious, deliberate sinner or have repeatedly faced failure and disappointment, the moment we decide to try again, the Atonement of Christ can help us.”9
The Lord wants to help all of us in this process of being “born of God, changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness” (Mosiah 27:25). President Russell M. Nelson promised:
“[Jesus] stands with open arms, hoping and willing to heal, forgive, cleanse, strengthen, purify, and sanctify us. …
“Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind.”10
Through coming unto the Savior and doing the work of discipleship, Saints can overcome the world and its moral challenges.