Things were going splendidly for the folks in the crowd. The weather was decent and everyone could see and hear the renowned rabbi clearly. The bowl-shaped area Jesus had chosen to deliver His sermon in couldn’t have been more suitable. His opening words, wherein He assured them they were blessed no matter how troubled/oppressed they might feel, put everybody at ease. But then He shocked them by preaching that hating somebody was equal to murdering them! “Say what?” But Jesus was just getting started. He then informed them that intentionally fantasizing about having sex with someone other than their spouse was the same as doing the deed in the flesh. Jaws dropped right and left as He announced, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). No doubt the majority thought, “You gotta be kidding! You mean I’m not even allowed to partake in a little taste of sin within the privacy of my own brain? Maybe I didn’t hear you right. What the…?” Sadly, too many of us still want to pretend He didn’t say what He said on that hillside.
Of course, for Jesus to bring up sex at all was a surprise. One just didn’t go there in those days. But Christ knew the content of His Sermon would be relevant in every future era and that illicit sex would continue to be a huge problem in society. He was teaching we must treat adultery in the same way we’re to treat murder. The fact that we don’t literally act out the sin doesn’t let us off the hook with God. We’ll be held accountable for every thought we choose to entertain. Whether we like it or not, we are what we think. Jesus was demolishing the false notion that we can remain righteous in the eyes of God as long as we successfully hide our sinful inclinations in the shadowy corners of our craniums; that those who sincerely regard themselves as being super fine people are fooling themselves if they think they can mentally undress a coworker or someone attractive they spot in Walmart, imagine doing whatever they want to them and technically still be considered pure as the driven snow. Christ said it don’t work that way and there’s not one of us who doesn’t get what the Master was on about. Dallas Willard wrote, “Jesus’ teaching here is that a person who cultivates lusting in this manner is not the kind of person who is at home in the goodness of God’s kingdom.”
Then as now, those who protest what Jesus said about sexual lust don’t have a leg to stand on because the concept is nothing new. Many scholars deem the book of Job to be the oldest in the Bible so the principle of exercising self-control over one’s thoughts is well-established. Job vindicated himself by claiming, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I entertain thoughts against a virgin? What then would be one’s lot from God above, one’s heritage from the Almighty on high?” (Job 31:1-2). He knew the omniscient God was aware of everything that went on inside his skull and he knew intuitively that the lame excuse of “I was just looking” wasn’t going to cut the mustard. He said, “If my heart has been enticed by a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbor’s door, then let my wife turn the millstone for another man, and may other men have sexual relations with her. For I would have committed a shameful act, an iniquity to be judged” (Job 31:9-11). Did he set his moral bar incredibly high? Yes. Does God expect us to follow Job’s example? Yes. We must accept the profound truth that our Father in heaven wants all we are to be holy. That includes our thoughts, whims, daydreams, wishes, etc. A Christian’s focus should be aimed solely on imitating our Savior’s unblemished purity. Is it difficult to do that, especially when it comes to reining in sexual urges? Is the sun hot? In today’s “anything goes” world nothing’s harder. Jesus wants us to be ever mindful of our “heart condition.” He taught in Matthew 5:28 that men who intentionally ogle a woman for the primary purpose of lusting after her are guilty of committing adultery; that they’re no different from a thief who won’t hesitate to snatch a purse if the right situation presents itself. They’re not concerned about the harm they’ll be causing the victim (or themselves, for that matter). Their only worry is getting caught. In the case of a “leerer”, they don’t realize the damage unrestrained lust does to one’s soul.
The widespread acceptance of graphic pornography is a tragedy. Mankind has released into circulation the most insidious of morality-corroding viruses we’ve ever encountered. Somehow the secularists persuaded the masses to believe that unadulterated freedom of speech renders the classic term obscene overly restrictive; that unfettered liberty means everybody should be able to view anything they darn well please as long as they’re not hurting anyone; that the stigma of adultery in general is a passé concept because there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about any two (or more) consenting adults deciding to “get jiggy with it.” The devil couldn’t be happier with how things are going in the sex arena. The free availability of all varieties of pornography via the internet and the total lack of organized resistance by the Christian community to halt obscenity’s decriminalization in the courts has made Satan’s job a cinch. He doesn’t have to lift a finger in order to infect impressionable minds with the most spirit-killing filth human beings are capable of producing. The irony is we’ve brought this destructive plague upon ourselves. Even as recently as 50 years ago a publisher could be sent to prison for distributing photos featuring frontal nudity. Nowadays the very idea of being punished for that sounds ludicrous.
What the fan of porn conveniently refuses to even ponder for a moment is what they’re actually gleaning pleasure from indulging in. Do they comprehend they’re witnessing a barely-legal girl or boy possibly being coerced into doing something horribly demeaning? That the participants might be doing what they’re doing because they’re desperate to feed their drug habit? That they could be disillusioned souls with no self-worth, being callously used by degenerates because there’s easy money to be made? Does the porn viewer rationalize all this by deeming them deserving of disgust because “nobody made them do those things”? The disassociation factor involved in smut-viewing is one of its premier attractions. One doesn’t have to feel anything whatsoever about the persons involved because somehow they’re not really real. They’re just a means to a self-gratifying end. Willard wrote, “Pornography lives in the hostile and degraded imagination along with ‘adultery in the heart.’ Jesus’ teaching here reaches the depths of the human soul and body and makes us aware of dimensions of real or possible darkness within us that, like Job, we must simply stay away from.”
Now, having said all that we mustn’t take what Jesus was teaching to erroneous extremes. He didn’t say sexual desire is, in and of itself, any more sinful than anger is. Our Creator God didn’t make a mistake inserting those components into our basic DNA strands. When they fulfill their intended function they’re actually good things. Therefore to merely consider someone sexy or alluring or even to be tempted to fantasize about them isn’t the same as committing adultery. Those are natural instincts designed to keep the human species going. No, sin happens when we give in and willingly go where they’ll lead us. Jesus wasn’t saying committing adultery in one’s heart is unavoidable, either. He Himself experienced temptations in the wilderness yet didn’t succumb to sin. What Christ was warning us against was the desire to desire. He was talking about the slobbering lechers we can turn into if we don’t keep a tight lid on our libidos. Sadly, we all have the potential to become men or women who, with “…their eyes, full of adultery, never stop sinning” (2 Peter 2:14). I know it’s hard for some to fathom but sex addiction is a serious problem. It’s every bit as crippling and debilitating as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Yet, like most compulsive habits, it’s something a person invites into their life. They discover a fondness for how certain behaviors or things make them feel and, over time, the pursuit of that feeling becomes an insatiable obsession.
But, again, we mustn’t overlook what Jesus was really trying to get us to savvy in His startling statement about adultery. It’s entirely possible to force ourselves to abstain from ever “looking at a woman to desire her”, then act like we’re holier than thou and still not eradicate the sin we’re allowing to maintain a presence in our heart. I know of what I speak because for decades I was enslaved to my severe lack of sexual integrity. I was raised in a Christian home and learned right from wrong but when I hit my teens I found the guilty pleasure skin magazines enhanced irresistible. My hankering for “dirty pictures” expanded exponentially from there. I became so fixated on concealing my fascination with that forbidden fruit I allowed it to become a lifelong secret hobby. I was smug about it, too. I figured I had it under wraps so I reasoned Jesus’s admonition about “looking at a woman to desire her” didn’t apply to me since I wasn’t harming anyone around me. Wrong.
Long story short, in 2009 my wife discovered my covert pastime and it nearly destroyed our marriage. That’s when I finally stepped out of denial and began attending Celebrate Recovery meetings. Eight years later – even though I’m definitely a “work in progress” – I’m no longer bound and chained to that sin. Breaking the habit was actually the easiest part of the process. Thanks to the CR ministry I’ve developed an instinct to detect temptation before it attacks and I’m thus able to ward it off – most of the time. The real challenge is to rid myself of the persistent “want to” that continues to haunt the hallways of my heart. Some of my small group friends who suffer from the same affliction have found relief by effectively blocking all access to adult sites on their devices. But, being gifted with a vivid imagination that loves to fantasize, that tactic won’t work for me. No, what I must strive to do – one day at a time – is to become more like Job, a man who knew that only through self-imposed discipline and the power of God could he overcome his weakness for the flesh.
In his excellent book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, Steve Gallagher described what happens to those who get ensnared by porn: “As time progresses, many things begin to happen in the sex addict’s life. His sense of confidence and self-worth continually diminish, and the emptiness inside of him is magnified. As a result, he begins an intense and desperate search to fill this void in his life. Since sex has been his personal elixir to which he’s turned during previous times of despair, just as a drunk turns to his liquor bottle, the sex addict will pursue the object(s) of his desire. Unfortunately, after fleeing to sex to find comfort or simply a ‘quick fix,’ he only manages to heap more shame and despair upon himself – the pit becomes deeper, the darkness even blacker. …He starts building up walls around himself, alienating himself from others. …The sex addict will also become very critical and judgmental of those around him. Inside he knows that what he is doing is wrong so he lashes out at others with criticism.” I’m ashamed to admit that’s who I used to be.
As I mentioned in my previous essay (re: what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount about anger and contempt) Christ wasn’t trying to establish new laws. Instead He emphasized that even though the Pharisees were downright fanatical when it came to religiously following all the commandments, their hearts remained clogged with selfishness and greed. It was normal in that age for public speakers to employ wild exaggerations to either drive a poignant point home or to inject a dose of humor. (i.e. Jesus’ wooden plank jutting from one’s eye socket, a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, etc.) So when Christ proclaimed, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30), He was most likely illustrating the drastic measures one may need to employ in order to get rid of unbridled lusting. Since this is a mental defect more than a physical one He obviously wasn’t encouraging those plagued by it to chop their head off but He did want them to understand how serious they should take the matter.
It comes down to who you are on the inside and what you’d do if God were to look away for a little while. Jesus knew full well gouging out eyes and amputating hands won’t fix what’s broken in us. As He told His disciples, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). Willard wrote, “The goodness of the kingdom heart, by contrast, is the positive love of God and of those around us that fills it and crowds out the many forms of evil. From that goodness come deeds of respect and purity that characterize a sexuality as it was meant by God to be.”
I’ve learned from experience in dealing with myself and through counseling others that only by surrendering one’s sinful heart to Christ can a person be cleansed of iniquity. But hard core, persistent patience is required. Gallagher wrote, “God can change a man in an instant, but it takes time to build character.” William Barclay opined, “Grace is not only a gift; it’s a grave responsibility. A man can’t go on living the life he lived before he met Jesus. He must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness. The door is open, but the door isn’t open to the sinner to come and remain a sinner, but for the sinner to come and become a saint.” Amen to that.