Q: I’m worried that I’m going to cheat on my wife. I don’t want to, but I can’t stop looking at other women. At the gym, at work, even at church, I find other women attractive and wrestle with sexual thoughts. I’m worried I might have an undiagnosed sex addiction. I want to be faithful to my wife and I know it’s a sin to look at someone to lust after them. How can I stop?
A: First of all, thank you for reaching out. If it makes you feel any better, most people who strive to live the gospel have wrestled with this very issue. Remember what Paul taught: “There hath no temptation taken you but such is common to man.” Then he follows with a powerful promise: “But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Now, we need to accurately identify here what is temptation, what is sin, and what is okay. There is much confusion on this issue. Is it sinful to be attracted to someone other than your spouse? What does the Savior mean when he says “whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery already with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28)?
What does it really mean to lust after someone?
In high school my best friend’s dad was our bishop. Our group of young men approached him, quite worried that we were toast because we spent every day as hormonal teenagers “checking out” girls. What did it mean to “look upon a woman to lust after her?” Was it wrong to find them physically attractive?
I’ll never forget his answer. “We’re designed to be attracted to one another. There is no sin in attraction. There is only sin in lust.” So what’s the difference, we asked. “If you admire a person’s beauty as one of God’s creations, then you can recognize physical appearance as attractive, but you’re also seeing the whole person—heart, mind, and talents, not just an object to satisfy your passions. If you’re entertaining sexual fantasies, if you’re self-stimulating while thinking of them, if you’re fixating on body parts instead of respectfully considering the whole person, then you’ve passed from appropriate attraction into lust.
Feelings just are. It’s what we do with them that matters.
When I was in the Missionary Training Center, I had a bishop who gave the following speech:
“Now Elders, there are some things you may need to confess to me. Let me tell you what you don’t. I had a missionary come to me once in tears, stating that he was unworthy to represent Jesus Christ. I braced myself for confession of some major sin. He confided that he found some of the sisters attractive and kept having sexual thoughts about them pop into his brain. He felt he’d dishonored their calling and his own. ‘Are you letting these thoughts play out, or are you chasing them off?’ I asked. He replied that he was replacing them with virtuous thoughts. ‘Well congratulations, Elder, you’re a 19-year-old male! Those thoughts are natural, but we’re called to overcome the natural man. You have not sinned by being tempted. You may be tempted your whole mission, even your whole life, but that’s not the same as sin.’”
Trying to be like Jesus means wrestling with temptation.
There is no sin in temptation. Paul taught that “Jesus the Son of God . . . was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14-15). Think about that. Jesus was tempted “in all points.” Nothing could be a temptation unless there was a part of Him that wanted to do it or was drawn to it. Yet He overcame and never sinned. While all of us do fall and need a Savior, learning to overcome the pull of temptation is part of discipleship.
What does this mean for us? We are not wicked just because part of us is drawn to wickedness. A fictional character spoke a very real truth: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). That’s a true gospel principle.
Speaking of righteousness vs. sin, Lehi taught that “man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16). Being enticed by natural sexual attraction is part of the mortal experience. But our passions and desires are to be kept within the Lord’s bounds. “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man, and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love” (Mosiah 3:19)
How do I stop?
First of all, let’s not stress over things that are not sinful or even temptations to sin. You will find persons attractive other than your spouse. Almost everybody does. Recognizing this in yourself, then moving on with your life, will keep you from giving this more power than it deserves. What it looks like is saying to yourself, “Wow, that’s a beautiful woman. Yep. Aaaaand moving on, because my heart and commitment are with my wife. My wife’s so wonderful. I wonder how many things I could name right now that I love about her.”
Finding other women attractive doesn’t mean that you’re going to have an affair. It doesn’t mean you’re a sex addict (though if that’s a worry, let’s talk). It means you’re a human being, and we’re wired to be attracted to one another. That is not the same thing as looking lustfully on other women, flirting with them, entertaining fantasies about them, or otherwise crossing lines from which you may not come back. Are you staring at body parts? Objectifying a complete person? Engaging in self-stimulation? Having interactions with another person that your spouse would not be okay with? Carrying on secret connections? It’s time to redirect. It’s time to repent. It’s time to refocus on your marriage.
“Bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12). A bridle is used to stop and direct animals such as horses. Stop lustful behaviors. Direct your sexual energy towards your spouse, but do so in a way that is respectful to her desires, her timeline, and her need to be respected. Never let your passions run rampant (being inconsiderate, controlling, or selfish), but instead bridle them, direct them towards thoughts and behaviors that allow you to be filled with love.
“He that looketh upon a woman to lust after her shall deny the faith, and shall not have the Spirit; and if he repents not he shall be cast out.” That’s what Christ commanded in Doctrine and Covenants 42:23. But how? How do we repent? How do we gain power to stop looking with lust? The Master himself answered in the preceding verse: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”
A general authority’s advice on overcoming impure thoughts.
Elder H. Burke Peterson had marvelous advice for any wrestling with impure thoughts:
“Now, if you have this problem, let me give you hope and a plan of attack. Go to your parents or your bishop for help. Go to the Lord. Stopping the activity and cleansing the spirit of these impurities will not be easy. It will not be quick, but it can be sure.
“The secret to cleansing our spirit of whatever the impurity is not very complicated. It begins with sincere, heartfelt prayer every morning and ends with prayer every night. This is the most important step I know in the cleansing process. It may simply be a prayer for strength to turn from bad habits, or a prayer that sin will be distasteful to you.
“Meanwhile, remember that not all prayers are answered the same day or even the next day. Sometimes it takes a long time. If you have tried and have given up, I plead with you to try again and again and again. Our Heavenly Father will not forsake your efforts if you persist.
“The second step in this plan of attack is to gain an added measure of spiritual strength through a daily study of the scriptures. Your study need not be long, but it should be every day. If I were you, I would read the scriptures tonight and never let a day pass without reading in them, even if only for a few minutes. The scriptures will assist us to overpower darkness with light.
“The third step that I would counsel is: when necessary, receive the blessing that comes in the confession process. Too many are harboring the inner feeling of guilt resulting from unrepented mistakes. Part of the repentance process is confession. If you happen to be one of those who has this need, I plead with you to go see your bishop before the sun sets tomorrow.
“I testify that the Savior is at the head of this work.” —(Leave it Alone, Ensign, January 1995)
To his witness I add mine of the same.