What is interesting is that this debate has brought to mind that there is a larger subject under discussion here: what is the best way to avoid temptations? When faced with any physical temptation (alcoholism, drugs, sex/lust, gluttony), what is the best way to avoid it?
Most commenters seem to be focused (at least in the lust debate) on prohibition--that is, our focus needs to be on removing the temptation. If no temptation exists, then voila, we get no sin!
I find this argument to be wholly without merit, for several reasons:
1. Removal of all temptation is impossible.
You will never, ever ever, remove all temptation. Even if you are somehow able to get Christian women to switch from a two-piece to a one-piece, you still have all the non-Christian women, you still have immodest one-pieces, you still have advertisements on billboards as you drive, you still have commercials on TV that are inappropriate, you still have magazines that show too much skin, you still have internet access with all of its temptations, etc., etc.
Trying to reduce lust by getting one small segment of the population to cover their stomachs on the three days per year that they visit the beach is ridiculous. It's like trying to eliminate salmonella poisoning by making sure that everyone born in 1983 stops cooking with eggs: you are picking one tiny portion of a massive population, making one small change to it, and hoping that somehow it will magically change everything else.
We have to wake up, people. Lying to ourselves about our ability to change the culture won't help us at all. We live in a sin-cursed, depraved world. We always have, and we always will. The world has been filled with sex and violence since long before Jesus and will be until He comes back. We are warriors in Enemy-occupied territory, and our goal needs to be to focus on protecting ourselves, not to focus on the ridiculous notion that we can somehow talk the Enemy into not tempting us any more.
Temptations will be here, and to be honest...even if every attractive Christian woman in the world started wearing old-fashioned bathing gowns, it would not make lust significantly easier in our modern era of internet pornography and lewdness everywhere.
2. Even if we could remove all temptations, this will not diminish the frequency of sin.
As I wrote about in my book, as long as there is a demand in one's heart for sin, he will find a way to do it. History is rife with examples. Prohibition of alcohol failed miserably, actually increasing alcoholism as people began to buy cheap moonshine instead of having a beer. Muslim countries where women wear burkhas have brutal rapes too--indeed, there is no statistical correlation between the amount of clothing worn in a country and its lustfulness. Sailors put on a boat for months on end, and prison inmates with long sentences, have "switched" from heterosexual to homosexual (or at least, bisexual) to satisfy their cravings for lust, even though their visual stimuli to women was completely removed.
It is simple supply and demand: as long as the demand exists, the actions will still happen: limiting the supply will only increase the cost someone will pay to perform the sin (either literal money, or a "cost" in personal life).
The Bible talks a lot about self-control. Jesus talks about it (Matt 5:27-30), Peter talks about it (2Pet 1:3-5), Paul talks about it (Gal 5:22-23). Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and is to allow us to avoid temptations.
Trying to remove all temptations is NOT the same as exhibiting self-control. Let's use another fruit of the Spirit for example...take any of them. Is it mature to say, "I could exhibit Christian love as long as others were lovable?" Is it mature to say, "I could have joy as long as there was no suffering in my life?" Is it mature to say, "I could have peace as long as we remove any anxiety?" Is it mature to say, "I can be patient as long as I get what I want when I want it?" Is it mature to say, "I can be gentle as long as there is no one making me angry?" Is it mature to say, "I can be good as long as there is no temptation to be evil?" Is it mature to say, "I can be faithful as long as there is no other available choice?"
Of course not! So why is it okay to say, "I can have self-control as long as women don't dress in a tempting fashion?" Why do we treat self-control differently? We shouldn't. Just as with the other fruit of the Spirit, self-control must be able to be exhibited in the midst of the temptation, or it is not a discipline at all, and you haven't grown any closer to Christ in the least.
Does all this that mean I'm saying we shouldn't also focus on removing temptations? Of course not! Feel free to pray, as Jesus recommended, for God to keep us from walking into temptations--indeed, we should pray for that daily. What I'm saying that removal of temptations is not a necessity to having self-control, and existence of temptations is not an excuse to lack self-control. And further, I am saying that lust is a MUCH bigger problem than just "a natural reaction to immodesty," and (see the examples I gave in section 2 above) will NOT go away just because we improve women's modest dress. So we have to stop using immodesty as an excuse, and starting owning the problem--because we will never live in a world free of temptation from lust (or any other sin), until the Lord comes back. And one day He will fulfill those promises of a world where we have no temptation...but until then, He commands us to learn self-control.
My proposal for men
My proposal is that we do not spend our time hoping that the Enemy will not afflict us with temptations--because that is a losing proposition, and will be until the Lord returns--and instead start donning the armor we need to protect ourselves.
As my boss would say, it's time for us to "Confront the brutal reality"--and the brutal reality is that, no matter what we accomplish as Christians, in our society we will be tempted, and frequently.
My proposal is that we stop wasting so much energy trying to create a world free from temptation (which we will not achieve), and instead spend our energy creating men who are immune to the temptations.
By far, the most successful program in the history of the world for overcoming temptations is the AA program, which has helped millions overcome crippling addiction. Founded by Christians on Biblical principles, the 12 steps there are a great approach for anyone dealing with any temptation:
- Admit that you personally are powerless to overcome the addiction/temptation.
- Believe that God can restore you to sanity.
- Make a decision to turn your life over to God in this area.
- Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.
- Admit to God and to others the exact nature of your sin.
- Be entirely ready for God to remove these defects of character.
- Humbly ask Him to remove your shortcomings.
- Make a list of all persons harmed.
- Make direct amends to as many of them as possible, as long as it does not cause further harm.
- Continue personal inventory and when mistakes are made, promptly admit it (usually to a sponsor who has walked the same path).
- Seek prayer and meditation to God, asking only for His will and the power to carry it out.
- Practice the same by leading others who have the same struggle.
With all due respect, as long as we continue to blame women's dress for our lustfulness, we fail to go beyond #2 and #4 above--we do not believe that God is capable of removing lust as we are, but rather that temptations must be removed first, and in so doing we are not being "fearless" in our moral inventory.
A final word: men, I'm not speaking about something that I do not know. I struggled with lust in college, mightily. And the path I walked down--though I didn't know it at the time--was not far off of the 12-step program. While I still am not perfect, the successes that I have had with regard to gaining self-control in my life (not just over lust, but self-control in general) all began when I admitted that I was the problem, not the world around me. I could gain self-control from the Spirit, and not just hope to never again be tempted.
If you can't get to that point, then you will never heal. Of course women should make sure they are not tempting men, but that's an extremely minor part of the problem. And that is why I am so insistent that we stop telling men that they are mindless sex fiends who cannot help themselves if they see a woman in a bikini: it is not true, it is not biblical, and it keeps them from progressing down the path to healing.