Sunday, January 07, 2018

On the Mount (12)

The question came right out of the blue.

It was entirely ingenuous, I think. There was nothing calculating about the teenage girl who asked it. I don’t think she was looking for a pass on any particular sin of her own; she was just curious how God works.

I was discussing a portion of the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday School — the part where the Lord says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I wasn’t trying to be especially relevant or anything, but you know teenagers.

So she says, “But if you’re already guilty before God just from looking, why wouldn’t you just go ahead and act on it then?”

Good question.

The answer, I suggest, is that indulging lustful thoughts and acting on your lust are two different sins.

Sin That Stays in My Head

If I indulge a lustful thought, I sin against God and I contaminate my own mind. Let’s not minimize it in any way: it’s wrong, and it’s very much to be avoided, so much so that the Lord goes on to tell his audience, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Like other, more visible sins, nursing illegitimate sexual desire in the heart puts a sinner in danger of hell and spoils a believer’s enjoyment of his relationship with his Saviour. It calls for repentance and needs forgiveness.

But assuming it ends there, well ... it ends there. Thankfully, the object of my thoughts hasn’t the slightest clue what’s going on in my messy head. She remains quite unaffected by my sin. The train wreck that is adultery happens on someone else’s track.

Sin Loose in the World

Alternatively, if I decide to act on the contents of my thought life and the feelings I’m having turn out to be mutual, that’s another story entirely. Now someone else starts sinning, and it’s my fault. On top of that, sexual sin violates the trust of any spouses involved and breaks vows made before God. Perhaps I provoke her husband to acts of violent revenge or murderous rage. Even unmanaged anger merits its own very severe judgment, as the previous few verses of the Sermon on the Mount declare. If so, that is on me, not just the woman’s poor husband.

Are there kids involved? If there are, you can bet they’re sinned against and deeply affected as well, even if they never find out about it: the secret hypocrisy of their parents is sure to taint the parent/child relationship. Further, when we become liars and cheats, we begin to believe others capable of lying and cheating too. We erode our capacity for trust, and we sabotage relationships in which the other party is often entirely unaware of what is motivating our suspicions and accusations. And don’t even get me started on sexually transmitted disease.

Sin that stays between my ears certainly makes me guilty before God, but there remain a number of very compelling practical and spiritual reasons not to act on my impulses. Once my sin gets out into the world to wreak its havoc, who knows where the damage ends?

Examining the Text

Once again we find ourselves at a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that seems impossible to adhere to with consistency. Discovering there are two possible ways here that we can run afoul of God’s will for our lives does not do much for our odds of success in keeping the Law. Adultery is tragically common; lust is ubiquitous. Few men on earth stand uncondemned by our track records. Exposing this reality to the light is surely one of the major purposes of the Sermon.

Here’s the entire related section:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Indeed. And while women may be said to lust in different ways than men do (for the most part), the act of coveting something to which we are not entitled is a well-established violation of the holiness of God, however it may manifest itself. What the Lord has to say here is not new … and it is universally applicable.

A Study in Hyperbole

I am convinced the latter few sentences of this section, commencing with the words “If your right eye causes you to sin”, are intended rhetorically. They are hyperbole. I’ve made that case elsewhere and I won’t beat it to death.

Sure, taken literally the Lord’s statements reflect a genuine, significant spiritual concern: it would absolutely be better to go through the remainder of your life eyeless or handless than to be cast into Gehenna for eternity; there is no disputing that. At the same time, I do not believe Jesus intended his followers to go around mutilating themselves. There have always been differences of interpretation among Christians, but if we believe that the Holy Spirit indwells every true believer in Jesus Christ and that part of his multifaceted work consists in leading and guiding those he indwells, the incredible rarity with which such acts of self-harm are committed by devout believers should strongly suggest to us that the Spirit of God has not historically made a habit of leading Christians to embrace a literal interpretation of this passage.

Taking statements like these rhetorically doesn’t mean we think the Lord was lying, nor does it mean that we are trivializing sin. Not at all. God gave his own Son to die for us on account of precisely these sorts of violations of his holiness. How could we dare minimize such a sacrifice by suggesting God is anything less than deadly serious about the danger of lust?

Whatever Measures are Necessary

What it means, I think, is that we ought read his words something like this: Take whatever measures are necessary in your lives to deal with sin, even if others would consider them extreme. The priority is eternity, not the present life.

Christians who swear off alcohol completely or stop going to movies or avoid listening to popular music are doing what they feel is necessary to deal with temptation. They are getting extreme about ensuring that their consciences are clean and that they do not displease God, taking the measures required in their own lives to deal with whatever sins tend to master them. Some of us feel such actions are silly, legalistic or unnecessary — and indeed, they might be unnecessary for us. If so, we should be very careful not to stumble our fellow believers by making much of the freedoms we enjoy in front of them.

How It Was and Is Heard

For the Jews who first heard Jesus’ teaching about lust, the most natural reaction was probably self-condemnation. “I have broken the Law,” thought the devout Hebrew, “and am in danger of the fires of hell.” That’s the first step on the road to the question of how such sins might be dealt with, isn’t it? Practically speaking, for a Jew under the Law of Moses, repentance meant offering a specific sacrifice and making a change of life habits that involved the regular exercise of the will. Like Job, a devout Jew might say to himself, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?”

Good call.

The Christian, on the other hand, recognizes that the once-for-all sacrifice for his sin has already been offered and accepted by God. He is free from the legal consequences of the occasional evil, covetous thought that crosses his mind. But that fact should not encourage us treat lust frivolously, or to grant it opportunity to let lust take root in our hearts.

Down to Brass Tacks

For Christian men, taking this passage seriously means — and I’m not kidding here — learning to avert our eyes like Job did; literally consigning underdressed and attractive women to our peripheral vision and making a conscious effort to look elsewhere out of a desire to please God. It’s a lot harder for lust to take root if we refuse to feed it. Do I need to mention TV, movies and the Internet here, even when the nudity is alleged to be “artistic” and “in the service of a good story”?

If that sounds over the top, maybe you would prefer eye-gouging? I’ll take “eyes right” over that any day.

For Christian women, assuming you care about the thought lives of your brothers in Christ, this means some serious reflection about what you put on when you leave the house. Again, I’m not kidding here.

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

To truly bear one another’s burdens is to consider the temptations our fellow believers might fall into and help them avoid the sort of incidental (or ongoing) thoughts that would trouble their consciences and damage their fellowship with the Lord. Paul told Timothy Christian women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control. I suggest there’s more than one reason for that. It’s not about being restricted by some obscure culturally-based command, and it’s not just about showing yourself to be different from the world. It’s an act of love to your fellow believers in Christ.

I’m not advocating the burqa here by any means, but if you think the way many Christians girls dress today is not a real, serious problem for us, I suggest you ask your father, your brothers or an honest male friend. You might be surprised what you hear.


  1. Amen Tom. Great points for both the guys and girls of today's Church to seriously take on to consideration.

    1. Thanks David. I actually get the willies making any suggestions at all to Christian women these days, though some sisters are tremendously gracious. Oddly enough, the Spirit of the Age does not easily tolerate the suggestion that a woman's clothing choices might negatively impact the rest of the planet.

      Men? Well, yeah, we are what we are ...