Fighting for sexual purity is absolutely crucial, especially for young men. It is a difficult fight, but one every Christian is capable of winning through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more discouraging, however, than fighting for purity and thinking you’ve won that fight, only to be besieged by temptation randomly. One particular area of temptation can happen while sleeping. Mature Christians who are walking in habitual purity can face an onslaught of sexual temptation while unconscious in sleep.
Help for Christians walking in habitual purity but still besieged with sexual temptations, especially while they sleep, comes from an unlikely place…St. Augustine. What could an early church father from the third century actually teach us about the very real temptations we face? A lot, actually.
In his book, Confessions (Book X, section 59), Augustine speaks at length as to the problem of sexual temptation during sleep. Augustine first goes onto to explain God’s design for sexuality and then states the problem.
Quite certainly you [God] command me to refrain from concupiscence [strong desire/lust] of the flesh and concupiscence of the eyes and worldly pride. You command me to abstain from fornication, and recommended a course even better than the marital union you have sanctioned; and because you granted me the grace, this was the course I took even before I was ordained as a dispenser of your sacrament.
Yet in my memory, of which I have spoken at length, sexual images survive, because they were imprinted there by former habit. While I am awake they suggest themselves feebly enough, but in dreams with power to arouse me not only to pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent. So strongly does the illusory image in my mind affect my body that these unreal figments influence me in sleep in a way that the reality could never do while I am awake.
According to Augustine, the Scriptures teach us to abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:8). Augustine goes on to that marriage is God’s idea and design but he did not pursue marriage after becoming a Christian because God’s grace sustained him. Although Augustine was walking in habitual sexual purity, he was still tempted sexually.
In his memory, Augustine says that images were, “imprinted there by former habit.” Because of his past actions, the sexual images are retained in his memory. Now, when Augustine is awake, he can easily fend off sexualized thoughts. He knows that they are wrong and turns from them. But when Augustine goes to sleep, however, something different happens.
These sexual images which have been stored in his memory “come alive” and arouse him in his sleep. So much so they seem to break down his defenses and could possibly cause him to masturbate–“[these sexual images cause] pleasurable sensations but even to consent, to something closely akin to the act they represent.” Augustine realizes that while sleeping these images can influence him in ways that they could never do when he was awake.
So what gives? Does Augustine somehow become a different person when sleeping? Does his reason which controls his actions go to sleep too? Here is his answer:
Surely this cannot mean that I am not myself while sleep, O Lord my God? Yet the moment of passing from wakefulness to sleep or back again certainly marks a great change in me. What becomes then of my reason, which enables me to resist these suggestions in waking hours, and remain unshaken if the actions themselves intrude upon my attention? Is reason shut down along with my eyelids? Is it lulled to sleep with the body’s senses? Surely not, for how can it happen that often we do resist even in dreams, remembering our commitment and standing firm in complete chastity, giving no consent to these seductions?
There is, notwithstanding, so wide a difference between the two states that even the opposite occurs we return to peace of conscience on awakening, for the very difference between sleep and waking is obvious enough to convince us that we did not really do the disgraceful thing, even though we are sorry that it was in some sense done in us.
Augustine stays himself while sleeping, of course. Yet going to sleep, does mark a great change in him. His reason doesn’t go to sleep either, because sometimes in his dreams he is able to remember God’s word and resists giving into the sexual temptation represented in his dream. Yet, there still is a big difference between being awake and sleeping. So even if we have sexual intercourse with someone in a dream, we realize upon waking that it wasn’t real. We do lament, however, that in a certain sense there was some sort of sexual actions taking place in us.
So what can we do with this? If we are in a “weakened” state due to being asleep, is there any hope for us? For Augustine it all comes down to God’s power and grace:
Is your hand not powerful enough to heal all my soul’s ills, all-powerful God, and by a still more generous grace to extinguish unruly stirrings even in my sleep? Yes, Lord, you will heap gift after gift upon me, that my soul may shake itself free from the sticky morass of concupiscence and follow me to you. As for those foul obscenities in my dreams, where bestial imaginations drives the flesh to the point of polluting itself, grant that this soul of mine, through your grace rebellious against itself no more, may not even consent to, still less commit them. You are the Almighty, able to do more than we ask or understand, and it is no great task for you to make provision that nothing of this kind shall arouse the least sensual pleasure–not even such slight titillation as may be easily restrained–in a person of chaste intention while he is asleep, and this even in the prime of life.
But now that I have declared what I still am in this area of my sinfulness, speaking to my good Lord and exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me, while deploring my unfinished state, my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection, until I attain that utter peace which all that is within me and all my outward being will enjoy with you, when death shall be swallowed up in victory.
God is powerful enough to do anything–even to remove these sexual temptations while we are sleeping. God can also choose to be gracious toward us and exercise His power to remove these temptations. Yet, Augustine acknowledges that while God’s grace that given him growth (“exulting with trepidation in what your gift has achieved in me…”), he also acknowledge his remaining sinfulness and that he is still a “work in progress.” God has not chosen to fully remove these temptations from his life (“my hope is that you will bring your merciful dealings in me to perfection”).
So what can we do when tempted sexually while asleep? Following Augustine’s example here are a few things:
1. Admit you’ve been scarred
Augustine’s observation long-ago that sexual images have been imprinted in his memory has been confirmed by the neuroscience. This is Augustine that we’re talking about here. The most influential theologian in all of history. His writings have influenced the church for 2,000 years on the topics of free will/predestination, Bible interpretation, and church/state relations. Yet, Augustine admits that his mind has been messed up by his former sinful behavior. We should be able to admit that too. It is cause for lament. Our sinfulness in the past is causing us continue consequences and temptations in the present.
2. Recognize God’s sovereignty and grace
God could remove your sexual temptations if He wanted to. Sometimes in His unknowable sovereignty, He chooses not to relieve us of our temptations. But we must not doubt God’s goodness. The book of James asserts that, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (1:13). So if God chooses not to abolish our sexual temptations, He must have a good reason for not doing so. We may not be able to comprehend that reason this side of eternity, but it most certainly is there. And it is good.
3. Recognize that being asleep is different
Augustine acknowledges that sleep is a different state than being awake. Although you may feel bad about having sexualized dreams or being aroused while asleep, it is not necessarily a sin. These things are probably a result of your past choices, whether from viewing pornography, having illicit sex, masturbating, or a combination of all of them. It is occasion for lament (“O wretched man that I am!”), but not necessarily for heaping guilt upon yourself. We must remember the gospel: all of our sins have been paid for by the crucifixion of Jesus. God is still at work within us and will not cast us off because of our sins. We are “in Christ.” All of the goodness of Jesus rests upon us. God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not struggling with our sexualized dreams.
Augustine asks God to take away his sleeping sexual temptations. We must ask too. God, in His grace, may relieve us of these things. We must also pray for strength to fight these things even if the fight doesn’t always seem “fair” because we’re asleep. Fight on anyways.