Edwardsian Anxieties: Lust?

edwards woodDid Edwards struggle with lust? Even without any conclusive evidence we could probably still suggest yes. After all, he was a man. Some scholars, however, have suggested that perhaps his struggle with lust was even more heightened than simply that of a common man. George Marsden makes several comments about Edwards struggle with sexual lust. If Christians today are somewhat hesitant to discuss their sexual struggles, it’s safe to say that the Puritans were even more discreet. However we interpret the allusions to sexual temptation, Edwards took seriously these stray thoughts. Edwards’ efforts to control his thoughts is a good model for young men today.

It’s important to note that we do not have original copies of Edwards journal entries. Most of what we have are transcriptions from later admirers of the great theologian. Had Edwards been forthright in his journals about any struggle with sexual sin it may have been edited out or revised to be more suggestive. Even if he had not, however, there are reasons to suggest that perhaps Edwards did indeed have a particular battle against lust. There are times where he writes in his journal of sinful thoughts overtaking his mind, such that he has trouble dismissing them. George Marsden writes:

His fretful disposition plus his pride and the resultant attitude toward others were the sins he combated most openly, but we can be sure that he was also fighting sexual desires, even if he did not directly record his struggles with those temptations. One possible allusion to such enticements is in entry on a Saturday morning in July: “When I am violently beset with temptations, or cannot rid myself of evil thoughts, to do some sum in arithmetic, or geometry, or some other study, which necessarily engages all my thoughts, and unavoidably keeps them from wandering” (July 27). (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 56)

The sense of overwhelming temptation compelled him to engage his mind fully in some other healthy, distracting activity. He would not allow himself to be swept up in the sinful thoughts of his mind, countering them required serious engagement of his thought. Far too often young men today indulge in those thoughts, or wish them away, but are unwilling to do anything to change those thoughts or work them away in a healthy mental business. Edwards would not indulge.

Regularly he wrote of an active mind being a means to escape sinful thoughts.

Sabbath morning, Sept. 1. When I am violently beset with worldly thoughts, for a relief, to think of death, and the doleful circumstances of it.

Thursday, March 7. I think I now suffer from not forcing myself enough on religious thoughts

Saturday night, June 8. At Boston. When I find myself listless and dull, and not easily affected by reading religious books, then to read my resolutions, remarks,      reflections, &c.—One thing that would be of great advantage to me, in reading to my profit, would be, the endeavouring, with      all my might, to keep the image and picture of the thing in my mind, and be careful that I do not lose it in the chain of the discourse.

Engaging his mind in more godly thoughts was the means to fighting his sin. Of course Paul acknowledges this clearly in the Scriptures. We are transformed, how? We are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). This was his manner of dealing with sin. Marsden again comments:

Although Jonathan was guarded in his diary, he occasionally alluded to the problem. In November 1725 he observed, “When one suppresses thoughts that tend to divert the run of the mind’s operations from religion, whether they are melancholy, or anxious, or passionate, or any others; there is this good effect of it, that it keeps the mind in its freedom. Those thoughts are stopped in the beginning, that would have set the mind a-going in that stream.” In dealing with any of these three recurrent psychic distractions, “melancholy, anxious, and passionate,” his most typical cure was to keep driving himself to work his way out of it. (107)

To battle passionate thoughts, then, Edwards sought to actively engaging his mind in working towards the things of God. What was true of idle hands was equally true of idle minds, so Edwards would not let his rest until it had fought sinful thoughts with godly thoughts and conquered desire. It’s a lesson many mentally lazy young men today can learn from.

Whether we conclude that Edwards struggled with lust or not we may draw helpful practices from him. Edwards would not allow his mind to wander, to drift, to default into some passive state. Far too many young men that I counsel live their lives in a passive state. They are affected constantly by lustful thoughts because they never engage their mind in anything better, they never go on the offensive to attack lustful thoughts with godly thoughts. The Psalmist asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” He answered, “By guarding it according to your word” (Psalm 119:9). Do you want to fight lustful thoughts, take a play from Edwards’ book: actively engage your mind in the things of God. It will not be easy, but don’t settle for anything less than victory over sin. If Edwards did struggle with lust, it seems from his journals that he genuinely struggled with it. Far too many young men I know don’t “struggle,” they simply lust. Edwards can model a fighting mind for us here, follow his example.

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