Handling Sexual Urges (Part 1)

Jo Johnson 1 month ago
Blog 4 mins
Found in: Sexuality

The apostle Paul, who wrote many of the letters in the New Testament, describes experiencing an inner battle despite his new identity in Christ. ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do’ (Romans 7:15).

By accepting Jesus as his saviour, Paul has been justified, declared innocent, but his sanctification remains incomplete.

In any given day, whatever our faith status, us flawed humans experience a complex array of physical and psychological urges which are often the cause of inner conflict. I get up with the intention of eating a healthy breakfast but open the fridge and experience a strong urge to scoff the leftover cheesecake.

All humans have unseen psychological experiences including thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories. An urge is an unseen psychological experience that often involves the complex interplay between all of the above. I see an advert for chocolate. I remember I have some in the fridge. My mouth salivates in response. I experience an urge to binge. 

All day long we experience urges. Some are positive, like the urge to call a friend or take a walk, and some are essential, like the urge to drink or use the toilet. 

If the consequential behaviour isn’t too harmful, it doesn’t matter if I give in to an urge. The occasional chocolate binge won’t kill me physically, psychologically, or spiritually. But some urges lead to sinful behaviour, actions that dishonour me or others, and, more importantly, God. 

If we keep giving in to sexual urges, we will eventually become dehumanised zombies without bodily control.

This is particularly relevant with sexual urges. We are told it is God's will for every Christian to gain control over our bodies in order to live sexually pure lives (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). This is for our good and to witness to the world. 

If we keep giving in to sexual urges, we will eventually become dehumanised zombies without bodily control. The Bible describes that state as being enslaved to sin (Romans 6:16). Each time we give in to an unwanted urge, we enhance its strength until the behaviour becomes habitual and life-limiting. In the end, it robs us of freedom and will ruin us spiritually, psychologically, and physically.

Urges are multifaceted but each will include at least one of the following components:

  • Cognitive – a thought/memory/image comes to mind 
  • Emotional – a feeling or sensation in the body 
  • Behaviour – the resulting action

Skills for handling urges

There are skills that can help. Like any other skill, they need practice to become automatic and useful in times of crisis.

In this post, I’ll share some strategies that are preventative, things to work on whatever your situation so you’ll be less likely to experience urges. In a second post, I’ll share a set of strategies that can be used when you experience an urge. 

Here are three preventative strategies. 

1. Connect with what’s important

The first skill necessary to manage an unwanted urge is to know why you don’t want to give in.

If you’ve already given in to an unwanted sexual urge, you’ll know the relief is short-lived and the subsequent shame and hurt is very painful.

Take a moment to write a few honest sentences in response to these questions.

  • What and who matters to me? 
  • What matters enough? What makes it worth learning to manage the urges?
  • Why does resisting this urge matter to me?
  • What is the cost (spiritual, emotional, physical and/or financial) of giving in to this sexual urge (short term/long term)?
  • If I keep giving in, what will life be like in five years' time? What will I have lost?

Add some supporting Bible verses and remember it is for your freedom that Christ set you free.

2. Feed yourself on God-honouring content

Our minds are unconscious hoovers that never stop, so sometimes an unprompted disturbing or sinful thought will pop into the mind without conscious effort, but there is a definite input/output correlation.

The content that is fed to the mind, changes it. This is why the Bible encourages us to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2). If we watch porn, indulge lustful thoughts, or objectify people as sexual objects, this changes our neurology. It won’t be long before intense and frequent sexual thoughts, images and urges dominate.

The good news is that the opposite is also true. If we watch, read, and talk about content that is true, honest, just, and fruitful, our minds will more frequently bring those things up, thus changing our neurology to help us.

3. Build a moment-to-moment awareness of what’s going on in your mind and body

Naturally, we spend a lot of time on autopilot, unaware of our thoughts and disconnected from the feelings and sensations in our bodies. Thus, we are more vulnerable to giving in to our unwanted urges because we don’t notice the thought and then the urge, and before we are aware, we’re indulging.

BOMB is a technique I use in my clinical practice with Christian clients. It’s great for building self-awareness but also for gaining stability when an urge feels stronger than you. Practise this technique frequently throughout the day and it’ll change your brain. It works best if you pair it with a routine activity, for example, practise it when you wash your hands or get in the car. If you practise a few times a day, after about three months you’ll notice you’ll be more self-aware and thus less vulnerable when urges come.

1. Be still and notice you’re breathing, you’re alive. Watch a few in and out breaths. We are not trying to relax, we are simply learning to stop and notice we are a living human, made alive by Jesus.

2. Observe your thoughts and feelings. Is your mind chattering or quiet? What thoughts do you notice? Are they honouring to God? 

What feelings are showing up in your body? Silently, put into words your thoughts and feelings by saying to yourself:

‘I’m noticing thoughts about work.’

‘I notice pain in my back and a feeling of anxiety in my chest.’

‘I notice an urge to look at content on my phone.’

‘I notice a thought that I won’t cope with this urge.’

‘I am having a thought that is not God-honouring.’

Often at this point the thought or feeling will remain strong. Noticing and naming takes you off autopilot and connects you with your rational self. In this moment you can pray and ask God to help you by his spirit.

3. Move your body. When Satan is messing with your mind, it helps to activate your body. Notice you have a body around your thoughts, feelings, and urges. Find your own way to connect with your physicality by moving.

  • Push feet into the floor
  • Breathe in some air
  • Shrug your shoulders
  • Nod your head
  • Stretch
  • Stand up or sit down
  • Shake or dance 

Notice you’ve got full control over your actions.

4. Bring yourself back into the present. Notice there’s life outside of you. Engage with the world around you by using your senses. Open your eyes. What can you see? Where are you? Listen for sounds. Smell, taste, touch. Notice what you’re doing right now, engage in it. Choose the most helpful action in this moment. Phone a friend, pray, get on with work, go for a run. Eat or have a drink. 

These are tools that can help us learn and prepare to navigate urges well. In the next post, I’ll share tools that can help us to handle urges well when they emerge.