Reprinted from Regent Business Review. © Copyright 2005. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
he week's been productive but exhausting. Mark has run nonstop for three days at this conference, meeting both clients and other industry reps. When he took this job, he was looking forward to adding travel to his responsibilities. It seemed important, fun, and even exotic. But life on the road was beginning to take its toll on both his marriage and his relationship with the kids.
Today at lunch he meets Linda, a confident woman who captivates him with her business savvy and quick wit, not to mention her short skirt. For much of the afternoon he keeps playing back their meeting and he can't help but fantasize about spending more time with her. Through sheer will, he breaks the chain of thought and focuses instead on the job at hand ?at least until the day's activities end.
Finally, alone in his hotel room for some decompression time, he drops heavily onto the bed and flicks on the television. Mark's assailed from every angle by sexually-charged images, both in commercials and regular programming, broadcast and cable channels. He is captivated by what he sees. Scanning the channels, he's drawn to content that progressively worsens. Memories of his meeting with Linda merge into the images on the screen. He's resisted this for months, but tonight he gives in and purchases access to adult content to satisfy his growing hunger for more explicit images. Guilt once again washes over him, yet he can't take his eyes off the screen.
"Who am I hurting? No one else is affected", he rationalizes, knowing full well that he's suffering from a debilitating double-mindedness. He's even taught about the problem to his peers in the men's group, but now those mere words are powerless to help him.
Mark is a born again Christian. Mark has a problem. And Mark is not alone.
While running for the office of President of the United States, Jimmy Carter received intense scrutiny for admitting to a reporter: "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. "I've committed adultery in my heart many times"1 This sincere and frank admission by a public figure was unexpected from a man open about his faith. His confession revealed a truth: Lust is a problem across society as a whole, regardless the depth of a person's faith convictions.
That was almost thirty years ago, but today the challenges we face every day in our jobs are much greater. Workplace attire is more provocative, the environment is more casual, we have the electronic availability of images, and nearly all forms of merchandising and promotion we peruse target our sexuality. All of these fan the flames of lust.
The Physiology of Lust
Although most people in America discount the loosening of sexual standards around us, we cannot help but be affected by them. Moreover, there is not just a cultural but a physiological basis for that problem, one that perniciously encourages participation in behaviors we call lust.
We are a visual society. From old adages like "a picture is worth a thousand words" to our modern obsession to document life graphically (birthday parties, vacations, school plays, etc.), we know that images evoke more than memories. They evoke sensations of the contentment and excitement we experienced that day. How? A solid line of research indicates that the human body has an internal reward system that creates gratification, but which, in the extreme, can also create addiction. Bodily chemicals encourage us to escalate our experience, whether we're playing video games, eating, gambling, lusting, or taking drugs.
Dopamine is one of these chemicals. Researchers at the University of North Carolina note that this "chemical trigger both precedes and proceeds from the pursuit of gratification";2 that is, dopamine is released before we do something potentially gratifying, as well as afterward. This is why our behavior can escalate so readily from observation to lust to affair: Dopamine gives us a physical "reward" that continually triggers the nefarious behavior.
Our initial attraction (or even the anticipation of attraction) releases a trace amount of dopamine in the body, similar to how adrenaline is released upon stimulation. As we entertain these pleasurable images (live, electronic, in print, or merely in our mind), more dopamine is released into our system, creating a desire for still more intake to get still more pleasure. To make this process even more threatening, research has found that regular introduction of dopamine into the system causes a desensitizing of dopamine receptors. In other words, just like heroin, cocaine or nicotine, we require increased levels of dopamine to reach the same level of pleasure as time goes on. 3
This could be one of the reasons that lust has become such a problem in our society. It is a spiritual problem for sure, but it is one that has a biological impetus that tends to move in one direction. Moreover, it's hard to turn it off in a society, as one would turn off a faucet, since dopamine responses appear to be passed along genetically. The power of this response varies from person to person, but we're all susceptible, as will be every generation to come.
So given this physiology of lust, it's no surprise that Christians, being merely mortal, experience problems in this area too. In a recent online survey of about 13,000 Christians (table below), both men and women responded to the statement, "I look at things I should not look at." The self-reported results are arresting. Fifty-three percent of women and 25% of men reported that they "never" or "rarely" look at things they should not look at. Thirty-eight percent of women and 48% of men said "sometimes." And about one in ten women and one in four men admitted they "often" do this. The research was conducted by a Ph.D., but one does not need a doctorate to know what's going on in these data. By our own admission, we have a problem controlling our eyes, especially us men.
The Theology of Lust
Independent of the physiological reasons, is there any question about God's standard of behavior? God, the Creator of men, women, and the marriage relationship, is crystal clear regarding the sanctity of human sexuality. Upon creating us, God set the standard of exclusivity, declaring: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Later, when establishing the rules for living through the Ten Commandments, God is unambiguous again: "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). The purpose here is to keep the husband-wife relationship pure and families intact.
Understanding our propensity to re-interpret God's law, Jesus eliminated any question about what this meant when he taught: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). The all-too-common practices of subtly scanning co-workers' bodies, lingering on lustful thoughts, and flirting despite our wedding rings elevates our desires above God's will. This is no small matter to Jesus. He punctuates the gravity of sexual sin in the next two verses by telling us to cut off (or out) the offending body part. Do whatever it takes to extinguish the behavior, He directs with customary hyperbole. From God's perspective, the sexual relationship between a husband and wife is a sacred trust, akin to the spiritual relationship between God and man, so do nothing to violate that trust.
Some Practical Tips to Combat Lust
So what's the answer to lust here? Beyond the "sheer will" approach attempted unsuccessfully by Mark, what practical steps can we take to combat lust at work? Here are several ideas:
Identify the triggers. Learn to recognize those times when your thoughts and imagination wander into dangerous territory. Specifically, determine the triggers that commence the cascade of thoughts. Is a trigger seeing attractive co-workers walk by your cubical? If so, position yourself so that you won't see them. If necessary, eliminate the distraction by rearranging the office furniture. Create a working environment that remains open, yet changes your view so that you can concentrate on the tasks at hand, not the travels of co-workers. If that's not possible, create an alternative view for yourself by putting a family picture in your line of sight.
Cut off access. Similar to limiting the triggers, minimize your exposure to temptation. If your problem is with porn sites, do not put yourself in a circumstance where you have private Internet access and moreover, install software that makes it impossible to view websites that engender lust. When you're placed in a compromising situation with an attractive co-worker, such as meals alone or traveling to a tradeshow, flee the opportunity by making a stand, or simply making alternative arrangements. When you explain that you are honoring your spouse by not going to lunch unescorted with someone of the opposite sex, many (though not all) co-workers will see that as a sign of strength and honor. Reducing opportunities for lust will ultimately reduce lustful behavior.
Plan for the inevitable. The axiom "proper prior planning prevents poor performance" applies here. When going on a business trip, plan ahead regarding how you will combat temptation. How will you deal with the TV? (One businessman we read about actually requests the TV be removed from his hotel room!). How many times will you call your spouse and when will you call? Have you allocated sufficient time for meditating on God's Word? Where are you meeting customers? Is there a chance you will meet alone with a client of the opposite sex, and do you need to come up with a contingency plan? Setting standards for traveling, meetings, social interactions, and counseling with the opposite sex go far to inhibit temptation. Billy Graham and Zig Ziglar take it as far as never driving a woman to the airport unescorted. It's remarkable how we can curtail temptation by simply planning to avoid it.
Be accountable. All of the above measures in some way honor God by making no provision for sexual sin. Another time-honored method (and one that is immensely powerful) is mutual accountability. Plain and simply, having an accountability partner or a group of peers who love you enough to ask the hard questions is invaluable. If you are not in one of these accountability relationships, find one. There are innumerable benefits, not the least of which is greater purity at work.
The Most Powerful Remedy: Divine Detox
Many people find practical tips like those listed above to be quite helpful. The real key to victory, though, is a deep relationship with God.
Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment" (Matthew 22:37). One of the lessons we can draw from this Great Commandment is that the most effective way to remain pure on the job (or anywhere else) is to ensure your spiritual "reservoir" is constantly full through the pursuit of a love relationship with God. When this reservoir becomes depleted due to lack of attention to the relationship (e.g., lack of prayer, worship, Bible reading, meditation, fasting, confession), opportunity abounds for sin to fill the void, particularly sexual sin. Sampson, David and Solomon are all prime biblical examples of good people who stumbled when out of fellowship with God. Joseph on the other hand provides the essential counter-example because he trusted in God for something better and demonstrated the potential for a full reservoir to defeat temptation (Genesis 39).
Be honest with yourself. Don't let your greatest challenges with lust on the job correlate with your times of inattention to God? Indeed, there are physiological explanations for what we experience with lust, but at the most basic level, this is a spiritual problem. If you really want to win this war (and that is a critical prerequisite for success) attack it with spiritual weaponry. To conquer lust on the job today, tomorrow, next week and next year, develop a deeper relationship with God. Seek divine detox for your ailment. No laundry list of practical tips will assist you without it.
1. Gelman, D. & Lallande, A. "The Great Playboy Furor," Newsweek, (4 October 1976).
2. See Wasowicz, L. "Brain Signal Prompts Addictive Behavior," United Press International. Available at www.medserv.no/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2120
3. See University of Texas at Austin. "Dopamine: A Sample Neurotransmitter." Available at www.utexas.edu/research/asrec/dopamine.html