Lust

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 5:27-30

Jesus puts his finger on the cause of the whole problem. The mess about sex is inside of us. It’s inside our minds. The problem, Jesus says, is lust, that is, wrongly directed desire.

We come today to the last in a series of programs about the seven deadly sins. And the final sin to consider is the sin of lust. At least with lust I don’t have to deal with any unfamiliar terms or concepts. I don’t think I need to define it for you. In this series of messages I have regularly been quoting from a little book on the seven deadly sins written by the brilliant Dorothy L. Sayers. She tells in her preface the story of how she gave a speech one day in which she made reference to the traditional seven deadly sins. Afterwards a young woman came up to Sayers and said to her in all seriousness, “You mean there are seven deadly sins; what are the other six?” so Dorothy Sayers decided to write a book explaining the nature of these sins, which she entitled, The Other Six Deadly Sins.

I’m sure that many people still today think that sexual misdeeds are the only sins Christians care about. The Christian church is regularly accused of being obsessed with sexual sins, as though we thought that lust was the only serious sin around. We don’t, and it isn’t. It is only one of the deadlies, but it is sin and it is serious, and so we consider it now.

ADULTERY AND LUST

In thinking about the sin of lust and how to combat it, we turn to a key passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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 lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:27-30, nrs

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking to his followers about the law of God. He’s already told them that they have to be even more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, a statement that must have shocked and unsettled them, for the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was legendary. These were the religious professionals, the leaders who claimed to be most serious about obeying the law. But in an odd sort of way that was the very thing that led them astray.

Because they were so serious about scrupulously keeping the entire law, the Pharisees tried to make the law easier to keep. They developed long lists of rules, prohibitions, and commands that were possible to obey if one were careful enough. So, for example, when the law said to do no work on the Sabbath day, the scribes and Pharisees very carefully defined exactly what constituted work – just how far people could walk, how much they could pick up, just what they could and couldn’t do, right down to the smallest detail. And when the law forbade adultery, they talked about which sexual relationships were permitted, and which ones were punishable. (As you might have guessed, men got off considerably easier than women.)

But Jesus’ attitude toward the law was very different. He doesn’t talk about ways of interpreting it that made it easier to keep. Instead, he taught the inner meaning of each of the law’s commands, thereby showing how impossible it is for anyone to fully keep them. Imagine that you lived in a land where everyone was always sick and no one had ever seen or met a healthy person. If you were a native of such a world, you would think that being sick was the natural and normal human condition, that, in fact, sickness was health. For that matter, you wouldn’t even realize that you were sick, unless someone could show you what a healthy human being was actually like.

That’s what the law does for us in moral terms. Its first purpose is to show us just how sick we are morally, how far we fall short of spiritual health and wholeness. The law is like a mirror held up before our conscience, revealing the flaws and failures we otherwise wouldn’t see. It’s like one of those miniature cameras that goes inside the human body and shows details that otherwise remain hidden – except that it navigates within our souls.

Jesus brings all this out in his explanation of the true meaning of the law’s commands. When the law says, for example in the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” forbidding all sorts of elicit sexual behavior, we’re likely to say or think to ourselves, “O.K., I haven’t slept with anyone other than my wife, so I’m good on that one.” But then Jesus steps in. “Wait just a minute. Before you go on congratulating yourself on your moral excellence, let me tell you what that command is really getting at. It also has to do with your thoughts and fantasies. You may think you can avoid adultery by defining it narrowly,” Jesus says, “but I’m telling you that you’re committing a kind of adultery every time you indulge in lust.”

You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

SEXUAL PURITY

Jesus’ teaching about sexual sin contrasts not only with the attitude of his contemporaries, but even more with modern views about sex. If anything runs more contrary to our culture’s ideas than this teaching about adultery and lust, I have yet to hear it. Ever since Sigmund Freud, people have said that our problems with sex have been caused by repression. If only we could become liberated, shed all the old taboos and misplaced guilt, and enjoy “reproductive freedom,” if we could only learn to be comfortable with our bodies to enjoy and celebrate our sexuality, if we could just jettison the Victorian prudery and be fully modern in our outlook and thinking, then we would experience the pleasure of sex without all the problems.

But I don’t think it works that way. Despite the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century, despite medical technologies that can “solve” the problem of unwanted pregnancies, despite a loosening of traditional moral standards that would have astounded people just a generation ago, sexual immorality remains as much a problem as ever. Indeed, in an age of AIDS, mass abortions, soaring divorce and illegitimacy rates, rampant pornography, and sex scandals within Christian churches, I’d have to conclude that it’s more of a problem than ever.

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up, [wrote C. S. Lewis in one of his broadcast talks] but for the last twenty years [and incidentally, Lewis was writing that sixty years ago!], it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long, yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right, but it has not. I think it is the other way around. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.

Wise words from a profound Christian teacher! And Jesus puts his finger on the cause of the whole problem. The mess about sex is inside of us. It’s inside our minds.

The problem, Jesus says, is lust – that is, wrongly directed desire. The Bible teaches that sex in and of itself is good, like all of God’s gifts, provided it is used in the way God intended. And the Christian rule, which is here reinforced by Jesus, is simple: Sex is for marriage and for marriage alone. We are not to alter or violate the rule in any way, even by what we might claim to be the harmless alternative of indulging our taste for sexual fantasies. Lust is not harmless. On the contrary, Jesus identifies it as sinful, precisely because it is so harm-full.

Lust harms others. Lust, along with pornography, the industry that both feeds and stimulates it, treats people as objects, as things to be used and consumed and then discarded. Lust isn’t interested in persons who are made in the image of God, only in bodies used to satisfy one’s appetite, as if a person were no more than a means to an end.

But lust is not only harmful to others; it is harmful to us as well. Sexual fantasy can become an addiction as much as food or drink or drugs. And like other addictive things, it enslaves us and subjects us to the law of diminishing returns, so that we continually need more and more stimulation in order to reach a comparable stage of excitement. Lust encourages us to divorce sex from its God-intended context of marriage; that is, from the life-long, mutual, faithful commitment of love between one man and one woman. Ironically, trying to enjoy sex by itself will not only prevent us from experiencing the deeper and richer joy of the love of marriage, the covenant commitment. It will eventually rob us even of the capacity to find pleasure in sex.

THE HARD WAY OF DISCIPLINE

So what are we to do? Here is yet another command that we discover ourselves to be breaking all the time. We can cry out for mercy certainly, but Jesus also shows us a way of escape, although I have to warn you, it’s a hard way.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away . . . And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(vv. 29-30)

These are dramatic, even shocking, figures of speech. And I think that Jesus is speaking with deliberate exaggeration; he doesn’t intend us to take him literally. He’s not recommending that we mutilate ourselves, although there have been on some rare occasions overzealous and unbalanced Christians who have taken him that way and have actually tried it.

No, what Jesus means here is that we must fight to control ourselves; we must strive for self-discipline. He tells us it will be no easy battle. It will be difficult. It will be painful, but we have to be utterly ruthless about it. There is a place for hard-nosed fighting in the Christian life (and it’s not fighting against other people). It is fighting against our own internal passions. The principle here is that just as the root of sin is internal (rising from our fantasies and desires), so the root of self-control must be as well. Sexual discipline begins with the control of our eyes, that is, of our imagination and of our thoughts. “Whenever men and women have learned sexual self-control in deed,” writes one great Christian teacher, “it is because they have first learned it in the eyes of both flesh and fantasy” (John Stott).

So Jesus’ suggestions are intensely practical. “If your eye causes you to sin,” he says – if your sexual struggles are related to things that you are viewing, to the television you watch, to the books you read or the magazines you look at, to the internet sites you visit – then “tear it out and throw it away.” In other words, stop watching. Don’t look. Get rid of the pictures. “If your hand causes you to sin” – that is, if you find yourself getting into trouble because of what you are doing, because, for example, you find yourself continually going back to your local video store and reaching for a certain kind of title on the shelf – then “cut it off and throw it away.” Because, as Jesus goes on to say very solemnly, it is better to be partially deprived than to be entirely damned.

Now what Jesus is telling us here about personal morality sounds a lot like the modern slogan “Just say no.” And that’s what we here in America have been trying to tell our school children about things like drugs and sex. Unfortunately, what we don’t tell them is how. Where do you find the strength to just say no? Christians have an answer. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to imply that this is an easy answer. I don’t mean to say that the battle against temptation, including sexual temptation, will be quickly won for everyone. But the gospel does give us a resource that the world doesn’t understand – and that resource is Jesus himself.

Jesus is the grace of God that has appeared for the salvation of the world. He teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives, as Titus 2:11-12 says. If you come to him in faith, if you yield your life to his lordship and open yourself to his Spirit and pray consistently for his power to make you holy, he will. Your struggles with sin, and mine – not only with this deadly sin of lust but with all the deadly sins – will not be ended all at once, but they will end eventually – in victory. We can experience the joy and peace of living a self-controlled, upright, and godly life by the grace of God.