This past Sunday I had the privilege of teaching at Harrow Mennonite Church, during a joint worship service with Harrow United Church. It was part of a seven week series called “Snakes and Ladders” which invites us to take a close look at the “Seven Deadly Sins” of Classical Christianity, and seven corresponding Virtues.
I worked with a story from Ancient Israel, about the exploitation of a woman named Bathesheba, to talk about Lust.
King David was hungry, for something. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was sad. Maybe he was lost, or lonely. He may not even have known what was really happening inside him. But he wanted… something. Maybe just an escape from feeling what he felt, whatever that was.
We all have times when we are uncomfortable in our own skin, and may feel tempted, to do something, even something ultimately cruel or unwise, if it will give us even temporary relief from the thing we don’t want to feel.
From the roof of his big house, David looked out over the capital city of the country he ruled, saw a beautiful woman bathing, and decided he wanted her. He called a servant, and ordered Bathsheba delivered to him, the way we might order a pizza, or shop online.
David must have had Ancient Israel’s version of Amazon Prime, because before we could say free shipping, his package had arrived. It is perfectly horrid to talk about a person, with her own life, in terms of goods bought and paid for, but that was the harsh truth of it.
David did not know this woman, whom he wanted to know, in a biblical sense. He could not have wanted Bathsheba in his life as a person, because he didn’t know her as a person. He had to ask his servants who she was. This was separate from relationship, separate from love, separate even from rational thought. What was this powerful urge, this itch that David was driven to scratch? Classical Christianity would call it lust.
Wikipedia says, “Lust is a psychological force producing intense wanting or longing for an object, or circumstance fulfilling the emotion. Lust can take any form such as the lust for sexuality, love, money or power.”
This is not the same thing as romantic love, or sexual desire. This is a distortion, a selfish misdirection of the powerful energies at work inside of us.
For a lot of its history, Christianity has given sexuality a bad rap. We have failed to make the needed distinction between sexual feelings and desires, which are natural, human, God-given, and “Lust”, which can drive us towards acting out in inappropriate ways that cause harm to others.
Bathsheba was literally objectified. She was treated as an appliance, a device David used to satisfy his lust. He saw a “thing” he decided he wanted, he ordered it, and used it.
David did not consider Bathsheba’s feelings, or wants, or needs. He was all about himself. Those who treat others so poorly should be held accountable, no matter who they are, or how much power they wield. Too often, people we know and love, men and women, boys and girls are hurt. Used and tossed aside.
Tibetan Buddhists have an image they use in their teaching and meditation they call the Wheel of Life. They teach that existence is cyclic, it goes round and around, and there are layers, or realms. We work our way up a ladder of the realms, learning the lessons we need to learn, until we achieve enlightenment. We don’t have to take the image literally, to learn from it.
Two steps below the human realm, is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. Hungry Ghosts are desperate, phantom-like creatures. They are shaped like big tear drops, with tiny heads, very thin necks, and huge bloated stomachs. They are described as having mouths the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain. The tiny mouth and thin neck makes eating and drinking incredibly painful, but they have these huge bellies to fill, so they are always hungry.
These creatures are metaphors for a miserable, grasping existence. Their insatiable hunger represents deep unmet needs, that can never be satisified, no matter how much food and drink is painfully forced down. There is something, or several somethings, these creatures needed in their life, and did not get, and they endlessly seek gratification to fill a hole left empty long ago. The huge bloated stomachs do not represent feeling comfortably full, but rather, achingly empty.
I first heard about the Hungry Ghosts when I listened to an interview with Gabor Mate’, a physician in Vancouver. He works at a harm reduction facility and supervised safe-injection site for drug addicts. He wrote about addiction in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He says the metaphor “speaks to a part of us that we all have, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we’re empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term, but we can never feel that or fulfill that insatiety from the outside. “
Mate’ went on to say “addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time.” He makes the challenging assertion that there’s no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There’s just a continuum in which we all may be found. They’re on it, because they’ve suffered a lot more than most of us. “
Mate’ thinks the capacity for addiction is born when crucial emotional needs are not met. The drug addict that seems to chase high after high is also seeking relief from inner pain. He looked at the stories of his patients, and noted the conditions of poverty, of physical and sexual abuse, and of emotional deprivation that made up their backgrounds.
Mate’ looks unflinchingly at his own addictions, to work, and success, and to shopping. He says that “Addiction is a poor substitution for love.” Mate’ grew up in Holocaust-era Budapest, and most of his family died in Nazi work camps. His mother survived to raise him, but they were physically starving, and in life-threatening situations until they escaped and emigrated to Canada. His mother suffered, understandably with depression, and was incapable of meeting his basic needs for love, and approval, and security.
As a physician, Mate’ says the parts of the brain circuitry involved with addiction respond to endorphins, the “brain’s feel good, reward, pleasure and pain relief chemicals. They also happen to be the love chemicals that connect us to the universe and to one another.”
I find it fascinating, that researchers have identified the brain chemistry at work when we feel love, and one-ness with the created universe. People become addicted to drugs like caffeine and heroin and alcohol and nicotine, and activities like acting out sexually, or gambling, or shopping, or taking part in extreme sports. These all produce dopamine in the brain, which in turn creates pleasure feelings that are a poor substitute for what we really need- which is love.
An overall theme for our summer services is that the “Vices” represent a distortion or disorientation of love. It makes me think of the old country song about looking for love in all the wrong places. https://vimeo.com/42747574
The corresponding “Virtue” offered this week is “Chastity”, or “Self-Control”. Chastity does not mean an absence of desire, or denying the part of ourselves that has longings. It means taking a breath, pausing long enough to ask ourselves, seriously, deeply, what are we really looking for, and is this the right place to look, the right way towards what we actually need.
The lust that many of us try to satisfy with the wrong things, is actually a spiritual hunger. It is our deep human need to experience love, and to truly be connected to a reality beyond ourselves, and beyond our own selfish desires. What we really need, even if we do not always remember it, is to be connected to God.