I recently heard a reading of this essay by Reinhard Hütter, and I was able to find the original publication online. As a pastor, I have counseled many Christians who struggle with pornography, and I know that there are many more brothers and sisters who are in the same bondage. Hütter points us to, what I believe is, a key misunderstanding that many Christians labor under when trying to battle with this sin-That is, they never look beyond the fact of their temptation to lust to see the real root of their problem, which, Hütter sees is the vice, or sin, of spiritual apathy. He tells us, “For spiritual apathy first leads us to despair of God’s love and mercy and eventually issues in a sadness that will always cause problems.”
Hütter’s article is laden with Latin terms, philosophical jargon, and the like. Nevertheless, despite the technical nature of the work, there are many helpful insights to be gleaned from his essay, and I offer this edited version to you in the hope that God may use it in your life. For, as Hütter reminds us, “Because the root of the problem is a spiritual one, the healing from the addictive behavior will ultimately be overcome only when the negative spiritual root, [spiritual apathy], is eradicated.”
A SPIRITUAL ANALYSIS OF AND REMEDY FOR LUST OF THE EYES by Reinhard Hütter
A uniquely toxic combination of the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh has become an almost normal component of everyday life: the perturbingly pervasive use of pornography in general and internet pornography in particular, with its dangerous addictiveness and its lethal effect on the Christian spiritual life. To comprehend the spiritual roots of this crisis, we need to recall an all-too-forgotten vice, usually called “sloth”, but better rendered as “spiritual apathy.” Spiritual apathy forgoes friendship with God because it despairs that experiencing God’s love and friendship is possible.
Spiritual apathy creates a void that we try to fill with transient rushes of pleasure—primarily sexual indulgence—to ward off the dissatisfaction of life bereft of its very center. But the illicit imitations that promise the rushes of pleasure we seek betray us. They cannot fill the void created by the loss of our transcendent calling to the love and friendship of God. Rather, they only increase the craving to fill the void we cannot fill, breeding compulsion and intensifying spiritual apathy, thereby encouraging its most dangerous shoot to spring forth: despair.
Christian spiritual wisdom has always regarded spiritual apathy as a vice that, unchecked, will eventually prove deadly to the Christian life. For spiritual apathy first leads us to despair of God’s love and mercy and eventually issues in a sadness that will always cause problems. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas observes, “No human being can long remain pleasureless and sad.” People engulfed by the sadness to which their indulgence in spiritual apathy led them tend to avoid such sadness first by shirking and then by resenting and scorning God’s love and mercy.
The vast numbers of persons who, unbeknownst to themselves, are indulging in spiritual apathy, despair of and eventually come to resent the very dignity of the human person that pornography treats with contempt.
This spiritual apathy breeds other vices. Gregory the Great famously assigns six daughters to the vice of spiritual apathy: malice, spite, faintheartedness, despair, sluggishness with respect to the commandments, and—most important for our concern— “the roaming unrest of the spirit.” This roaming unrest of the spirit takes initial shape in another vice, one hardly recognized as such anymore, and that is the vice of vain curiosity, or the lust of the eyes. Fueled by spiritual apathy and elicited by the roaming unrest of the spirit, vain curiosity takes the first allegedly innocent step that all too soon leads to the regular, then habituated, and eventually compulsive practice of pornographic voyeurism. When considering the vice of vain curiosity, Thomas Aquinas offers a brief but profoundly pertinent remark: “Sight-seeing becomes sinful, when it renders [one] prone to the vices of lust and cruelty on account of things [one] sees represented.”
Christian spiritual wisdom has long taught that the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh feed each other. The lust of the eyes inflames the lust of the flesh, and vice versa. St. Augustine offers a first step to understanding why the consumption of internet pornography can easily lead to the slow destruction of moral self-possession. “The truth,” he writes, “is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress.” Lust indulged and habituated gathers such strength that it takes on the nature of a certain kind of necessity that compels the will in such a way that we mistake enslavement for freedom.
What seems most characteristic of the compulsive consumption of pornography is that the consumer no longer finds any lasting pleasure. All he has left, when the act is completed, is a craving for stimulating a desire that will always remain unsatisfied. What is to be learned from the testimonies of pornography’s users is the important fact that, contrary to prevailing cultural assumptions, the lust of the eyes is not a “hot” but rather a “cold” vice. It arises from the roaming unrest of the spirit rooted in a spiritual apathy that, again, despairs of and eventually comes to resent the very transcendence in which the dignity of the human person has its roots. The lust of the eyes that feeds on Internet pornography does not inflame but rather freezes the soul and the heart in a cold indifference to the human dignity of others and of oneself.
St. Thomas writes, “If the human mind delights in the spiritual union with that to which it behooves it to be united, namely God, and refrains from delighting in union with other things against the requirements of the order established by God, this may be called a spiritual chastity This spiritual chastity arises directly from faith, hope, and love, which unite the human mind to God. Spiritual chastity preserves the union with God and thereby offers the most salient protection against spiritual apathy.
In the order of action, conjugal chastity realizes one’s own human dignity and acknowledges the dignity of one’s spouse. More comprehensively, it is the chaste person whose gaze can genuinely behold and affirm the dignity of the other. It is the chaste person who is free from the lure of the enticing, the titillating, the demeaning, the base, and who consequently can exercise true and perfect prudence. (Prudence is moral wisdom: to be prudent is to follow the right course of moral action.)
Because the root of the problem is a spiritual one, the healing from the addictive behavior will ultimately be overcome only when the negative spiritual root, spiritual apathy, is eradicated.
Brothers, fight to keep yourselves in the love of God.