Sexual Temptation while Sleeping (And How to Fight It)

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”).

Conclusion

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.

4. Pray
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.

Pray Better: Paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer

Advice from Tim Keller:

The Lord’s Prayer may be the single set of words spoken more often than any other in the history of the world. Jesus Christ gave it to us as the key to unlock all the riches of prayer. Yet it is an untapped resource, partially because it is so familiar…How do we overcome the deadly peril of familiarity?…The Lord’s Prayer must stamp itself on our prayers, shaping them all the way down. There could be no better way to ensure that than Luther’s twice-daily exercise of paraphrasing and personalizing the Lord’s Prayer as introduction to more free-form praise and petition.”

Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, pp. 109, 118

Here’s my attempt of paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer this past Sunday at LBC:

Lord,

You are the Father of all Your people. We look forward to the day when will worship around Your throne with people from every tribe, nation, and language, proclaiming, “Our Father!”

May Your name be kept holy. May we bear Your name with integrity as we work, as we play, and as we live in the world.

We ask for Your kingdom to come. We thank You that You have brought us out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of Light, the kingdom of Your Son. Help us live as kingdom citizens even though we still live in a broken world. And we also look forward to the day when Your kingdom will come with all of its glory and splendor and Jesus will make all things new.

And while we wait for that day, we find that we encounter many troubles, trials, and difficulties here and now. May Your will be done on this earth. May we submit to Your will, O Lord, even when it is difficult and doesn’t always make sense to us.

We also ask that You would give us what we need for today–our daily bread. Give us not only the physical and material provision we need, but give us wisdom to make choices which honor You, patience to bear with others who sin against us, and grace to endure the troubles and trials of the day. May we be a forgiving people, for we have been forgiven much. Let us freely pass on Your costly forgiveness, which Jesus purchased on the cross.

Keep us from temptation. Help us learn to pray so that we will not enter into temptation. May we be watchful and faithful, alert to things which can derail our faith. Deliver us from the clutches of the devil as You already have delivered us from his servitude through Jesus.

The depth of riches of Your wisdom and knowledge are too great for us! How unsearchable are Your judgments and unfathomable are Your ways! No one has known Your mind fully, nor become Your counselor. No one has given You anything so that You owe them. For from You and through You and to You are all things. To You be the glory forever. Amen.

80-For-80 Initiative: 7/2-7/6

The 80-For-80 Initiative is 80 days of prayer for 80% of the church in Community Groups

WEDNESDAY, 7/2

Who to Pray for: CG Leaders, Mike & Melissa Tomasulo

  • Pray that they would grow in their love for God’s people
  • Pray for wisdom as the disciple their children
  • Pray for spiritual insight into their CG members’ lives

Scripture to pray:  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18)

 

THURSDAY, 7/3

What to pray for: That LBC would become a church “of” CGs

  • That the congregation would catch the vision of groups
  • That people would recognize the importance of groups
  • That group members would have their lives changed through encountering the gospel through groups

Scripture to pray: “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5)

 

FRIDAY, 7/4

What to pray for: The spiritual growth of our current groups

  • For passion for mission
  • For a deeper application of the gospel to all of life
  • For stronger relationships forged through groups

Scripture to pray: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (John 17:22-23)

 

SATURDAY, 7/5

What to pray for: A growing compassion for the lost and unbelieving

Scripture to pray: I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:1-3)

 

SUNDAY, 7/6

Who to pray for: CG Leaders, Howard & Debbie Kenworthy

  • Pray for their love of Christ
  • Pray for their love of community
  • Pray for their perseverance in faith

Scripture to pray: “This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:18-19)

80-For-80 Initiative: 6/26-6/29

The 80-For-80 Initiative is 80 days of prayer for 80% of the church in Community Groups

THURSDAY, 6/26

What to Pray for: Wise decision making for the future of Groups

  • Ask for the Lord’s wisdom and leading concerning groups
  • Pray for humility and openness to learn as we discuss the future of groups in the coming months

Scripture to pray: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30)

 

FRIDAY, 6/27

What to pray for: 80% of the church to be in CGs

Scripture to pray: “The gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:5-6)

 

SATURDAY, 6/28

What to pray for: 22 New CG Leaders

  • Pray that God would raise up the new leaders
  • Pray that we would all play our role in being responsible to disciple the new leaders
  • Pray for a willingness for long-time CG members to step out of their current groups and become leaders

Scripture to pray: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2)

 

SUNDAY, 6/29

What to pray for: 8 New CGS

  • Pray for 80 more people to become interested in groups
  • Pray for the gospel to transform those who join new groups
  • Pray for our church to be a welcoming place

Scripture to pray: “Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).

80-For-80: 6/24/14

The 80-For-80 Initiative is 80 days of prayer for 80% of the church in Community Groups

What to pray for: Please pray for myself and Heather

  • Pray that we should prioritize God in our new life stage as parents
  • Pray that I would lead groups with wisdom and humility
  • Pray for God’s strengthening of our faith

Scripture to Pray“Be we will devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4)

80-For-80 Initiative: 6/18-6/22

The 80-For-80 Initiative is 80 days of prayer for 80% of the church in Community Groups

WEDNESDAY, 6/18

What to pray: CG Leaders, Howard & Debbie Kenworthy

  • That they would be rooted in Christ,
  • Connected in Community
  • Engaged in Mission

Scripture to Pray: “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8)

THURSDAY, 6/19

What to pray: Unity in the LBC Body

  • United around Christ, not personal preferences
  • United to one another in love, not particular cliques
  • United for mission, to advance the gospel

Scripture to pray: “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13)

FRIDAY, 6/20

What to pray: Zeal for mission

  • That LBC would follow after God’s heart for the nations
  • That CG’s would bring the gospel to their neighborhoods
  • That many sinners would be saved through Groups

Scripture to pray: Jesus said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day,  and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47)

SATURDAY, 6/21

What to pray: Gospel transformation

  • To see CGs transformed by the good news
  • To have Groups understand more deeply what Christ has done for them
  • To love God out of gratefulness

Scripture to pray: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:23-24)

SUNDAY, 6/22

What to pray: CG Coaches, Bill & Irene Lee

  • To be strengthened in faith
  • Persevere in love toward God and others
  • Wisdom for coaching groups

Scripture to pray: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower/The righteous run to it and are saved” (Proverbs 18:10)

 

80-For-80 Initiative: Weekend, 6/13-6/15

The 80-For-80 Initiative is 80 days of prayer for 80% of the church in Community Groups

Friday, 6/13/14

Who to pray for: CG Leaders, Mike & Melissa Tomasulo

  • Pray that they would grow in their love for Jesus
  • Pray for wisdom in leading their group
  • Pray for their children to grow in the knowledge of the Lord

Scripture to Pray: “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9)

Saturday, 6/14/14

What to pray for: The salvation of many sinners from the surrounding area

  • That God would soften the hearts of the people of NJ
  • That God would bring repentance and faith
  • That God would use our church to further the gospel

Scripture to Pray: “Perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25b)

Sunday, 6/15/14

What to pray for: Pray for God to work in Lincroft, New Jersey

  • Pray for our witness to the Lincroft community
  • Pray that Lincroft would be filled with the teaching about Christ
  • Pray for Groups to be dynamic in reaching this area for the gospel

Scriptures to Pray: 

The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross (Acts 5:28-30)