Gen. David Petraeus has received more attention in one week for unfaithfulness to his wife than he did over a long career for faithfulness to his country.
It’s a sad commentary on human nature. People secretly love to see a hero fall.
Friends and co-workers initially expressed disbelief at the news of the general’s infidelity. His friend Col. Steve Boylan (ret.) said, “I would never have expected it. ... I was in disbelief, and probably in denial.”
How could this soldier’s soldier, a paradigm of honor and self-control, allow himself to engage in behavior that was sure to damage his marriage of 38 years, likely to wound his children and capable of destroying his brilliant career? What was he thinking?
The answer to that question, which has important implications for the rest of us, is: he wasn’t. The general got into this mess because of desire, not reason, and desire is intrinsically irrational.
We may use reason to defend our desires, but desire will never use reason to defend us. It is simply incapable of it. It exists only to be satisfied.
Desire may or may not be evil, but it is always powerful. Knowing this, St. Peter warns Christians: “Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” Because those desires (or “lusts”, as older writers preferred to call them) “ignore” reason, reason is incapable of ruling them. The only thing capable of that is an even stronger desire, which explains why the person is blessed who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness.”
It is unfortunate that in current usage the word “lust” is synonymous with inordinate sexual desire. The word is not nearly so specific. It can refer to any strong desire, even a noble one, though it usually indicates a destructive or sinful craving.
In the Bible that craving may be for possessions, money or for an extravagant lifestyle. St. Paul had seen these kinds of lusts enslave a person, and describes those in such a state as “unthinking” or better, “mindless."
People have called Petraeus’ infidelity an indiscretion, but that is to misuse the word. He could have been more discreet but would still have been just as wrong. Petraeus himself was closer to the truth when he said he “showed extremely poor judgment.”
But that’s the nature of desire. It shows no judgment.
Perhaps the most incisive treatment of the subject of lust occurs in the letter St. James sent to messianic Jews during one of the earliest periods of anti-Christian persecution. In it he describes temptation as a process with identifiable stages.
In the first stage, the person is “lured away” and “enticed,” by a strong desire. He or she follows that desire to see where it will lead.
In the second stage the desire secretly “conceives” a thought, which grows into a vision and finally a plan.
In the next stage, the desire “gives birth to sin.” The desire has now traveled from imagination to action. Ironically, as soon as the desire is acted upon it begins to wane.
The moment of its realization marks the onset of its decline.
And so the final stage of this all too familiar process is “death." Perhaps a spiritual death is in mind, but certainly the death of the desire itself is included.
The behavior may survive as an addiction, but the desire itself will eventually pass away.
We’ve experienced this progression often enough in our own lives to know that Petraeus’ failure is not unique. Instead of rushing to condemn him, his fall should send us scurrying to heaven, to acknowledge our own vulnerability and ask for divine assistance.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.