Over the next few day, I'll be re-posting articles authored by Shepherd's Staff board member Jim Vander Spek. The topic? Lust.
For more than sixteen hundred years, lust has been identified as one of the seven classical deadly sins. This list also includes greed, gluttony, pride, sloth, anger and envy. Like these other vices, it does not command much of our attention. In fact, lust is generally misunderstood and ignored even though its affects ravage the lives of many around us.
What is lust? Most would simply describe lust as an overwhelming sexual desire. However, this is not the meaning it has for Christians. For us, intensity is less of a concern than the direction in which our desire is pointed. When our focus is directed towards that which is forbidden, then it is lust. Engaging in lust must be recognized as more than mere desire, since it provides an illicit form of gratification by itself. By it, our thirst is temporarily quenched.
Granted, every day, common lust is frequently looked at as nothing more than a natural human appetite and a harmless, passive source of pleasure. This is not the Biblical view, where lust is strictly condemned. If we were hardwired to lust, as some believe, we would be powerless to eliminate it. We would also not know what to do with the teachings of Jesus. Consider His words:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)
Although this passage is well known, it is generally misunderstood in one way or another. In fact, many consider it to be so harsh and unreasonable that they simply set it aside. Thus they ignore, to their peril, specific teaching about a problem that is plaguing our society and the Church. Voyeurism is epidemic. With the rise of Internet usage and the privacy it affords, the practices of viewing pornography and masturbation are increasingly prevalent. Jesus is unmistakably addressing these practices directly when He suggests amputating our right eye or our right hand if they cause us to sin.
Unfortunately, without correctly understanding this passage, we might come to one of two wrong conclusions. First, we could assume that Jesus considers self-mutilation to be a viable solution to lust. Being blind and without hands would certainly interfere with our ability to sin in this way. Yet, instinctively, we know that this is not His intention. It is impractical and outrageous on the face. Besides, blind, handless men still lust.
On the other hand, it is just as wrong to conclude that He is exaggerating or speaking allegorically. It may seem odd being told to maintain complete abstinence from lustful thoughts, especially in such graphic, shocking language. However, rather than smoothing over what Jesus says, we had better think hard about how to obey. Clearly, He leaves no wiggle room. Lust must be eliminated from our lives or the consequences of continuing in it are too awful to bear.
The Greek words for lust are epithumeo and epithumia (as a noun), which come from root words meaning, "to feel upon." It is also frequently translated "to covet." Jesus in Matthew deliberately utilizes language from the Greek Old Testament translation of the tenth commandment. There, we are forbidden to "feel upon our neighbor's woman" as one of the ways we should not covet. Any woman who has been "felt upon" in an unwelcome manner would appreciate the root meaning. Jesus elevated this particular kind of coveting to a level unlike any other. He plainly taught that feeling upon a woman who is not your wife is a sexual sin equivalent to physically committing adultery.
Perhaps this is what rubs us wrong. Lust consists of a form of sexual pleasure that is readily available, intensely private and generally not resisted. It is that inner buzz that draws one to an advertisement or to a particular television show. Such casual objects of lust, or "eye candy," are of a type that we simply do not want to consider as improper.
Of course, giving in too much is a recognized problem. Many make lust their primary thought meditation. Using modern technology, objects of desire can be thrust in front of the eyes with a variety and intensity that has never been imagined before. Sexual sin has led to unhappy marriages, broken families and devastated lives. As they become consumed by what they consume, some want to get the genie back in the bottle but don't know how. Internet filters, accountability, twelve step programs, intense prayer and Bible study are recommended but generally fail.
Many counselors, including some who come from a Christian perspective, see their job as helping others to achieve "sexual sobriety." This secular term, which is used by Sexaholics Anonymous, describes the state where one does not masturbate, view pornography or engage in illicit sex. Sadly, the root problem of lust gets no mention. Sexual sobriety may be readily described as cleansing the outside of the cup while on the inside remaining full of self-indulgence.
Before we can overcome lust we need a clear definition. Consider this: Lust is gaining sexual gratification or a buzz from anyone or anything other than your spouse. This may appear narrow and confining, but seems closest to what the Bible is talking about.
Key to a proper understanding of the teaching in Matthew is to recognize it as a challenge. If our eye or our hand is causing us to lust, by all means, get rid of it. With this challenge, Jesus forces us to admit that it is not an eye or hand problem. Rather, it is a heart and mind issue.
Jesus calls the hand and eye "members." Paul, in Romans 6-8, uses the same expression. Not coincidentally, he also writes quite a bit about "lust" there as well. Likely, the underlying sin that Paul is referencing in this passage where he anguishes over doing that which he does not want to do is the common, tenacious sin of lust. How would I know not to lust if the law did not say "do not lust?" (Rom 7:7)
Paul's straightforward, practical solution to our dilemma is to declare unequivocally that Christ has made us alive and free. Within that position, we are to live in freedom by committing our members to righteousness. Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. (Romans 6:13)
All who are in Christ are able to do this. Apart from Him, even a successful elimination of lust would merely make room in our hearts for other vices. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man. (Mark 7:23) Once we had little choice, since our members were slaves to uncleanness. But now, having been made free in Christ we are able to present our members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. (Romans 6:19)
Paul also acknowledges that some choose not to do this and transparently confides his own wrenching struggle with sin in Romans 7. Willingly using our members for lust enslaves us again. This is a dangerous, fatal course. Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey? (v.16) For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:3) The inevitable tragic consequences of willful sinning are identified by Paul as another law in my members. In fact, it is the law of sin. (Chapter 7:23)
No longer using our members, eyes and hands, to enable sin is a deceptively simple, yet effective solution to overcoming the debilitating sin of lust. This is how it is done. When we are confronted with something that could create a buzz, we forcefully stop this from happening. We deny sin any foothold, whether by turning our heads, redirecting our thoughts or other deliberate action. By this, we discover that lust is not spontaneous or automatic. Instead, it is a choice, exactly like the choice we make when we recoil from lust in regards to a family member.
Changing our reasons for looking will necessarily change our viewing habits and make us more sensitive to the wiles of the evil one. This is all to the good as we commit ourselves to righteousness and employ our members to this end. I admit that acting in this way can be awkward initially. However, it becomes automatic with practice. As we root out lust, other sexual sins fade away as well, allowing us to naturally act and increase in righteousness. Best of all, the Spirit of Christ is working in us to accomplish this precise purpose.
Note: Dallas Willard needs to be credited for his insight regarding Matthew 5:28. I recommend his book, Renovation of the Heart. Also, I thank Fred Stoeker for his definition of sexual purity in his book, Every Man's Battle, which contains much practical help in overcoming lust.
If you are having trouble in dealing with sexual sin and need help, I urge you to look into Setting Captives Free, which offers a free, highly interactive on-line course called The Way of Purity, see link below. At this site, you will find testimonies, mentors and other terrific resources. http://www.settingcaptivesfree.com/course