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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 5:27-30
August 18, 2013 - Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         “Men think about sex every seven seconds.” As the joke goes, one wonders what they think about the rest of the time. But that statistic, which implies men think about sex 8,000 times a day, has no scientific basis. A recent study at Ohio State shows the median for college men was about 19 sexual thoughts a day. For college women it was about 10. And, as it turns out, those college men thought about food and sleep just as much as they did about sex. It’s still not a very flattering picture of the male psyche, but it’s a far cry from the every-seven-seconds myth.

         Though it’s an urban myth, that fake statistic about the frequency of men’s sexual thoughts may be a recognition of the problem Jesus was concerned about when He warned us against lusting after someone “in your heart.” Honesty forces many of us to admit it happens way more than we would like and that it is a constant temptation.

         That’s why Christians added lust to the list of deadly sins. Jesus used the extreme language of gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand to avoid that sort of sin in part because lust clearly leads to further, horrible acts. Ariel Castro is a poster boy for lust gone wild. Standing shackled in a courtroom, accused of kidnapping, raping and imprisoning three women, Castro said, “I believe I am addicted to porn, to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”

         Lust belongs on the list. It is a deadly sin, a capital sin which leads to others. But we Christians often make a mistake which is echoed back by people around us. We behave and talk as though sexual sins were the worst. But that’s not good theology. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual”[1] He goes on to list evil ways in which we put other people down and elevate ourselves.

         Look how Jesus spoke to different sorts of sinners. He was quick to forgive the woman at the well who had several sexual partners and the woman caught in adultery. He ate meals in the company of prostitutes. But His harshest and lasting condemnations were reserved for supposedly spiritual people who were proud and stingy and unforgiving.

         In trying to relate to and care about people who seem caught up in lust, whether it’s co-habiting college students or gay friends and co-workers or young men addicted to Internet pornography, let’s remember theirs are not the worst sins. Let’s remember how much grace Jesus had for that sort of sin. At the same time, let’s not forget it is a sin and an extremely prevalent one at that.

         Lust is not the worst sin, just the most popular. So suggests Peter Kreeft in his book, Back to Virtue. Our society is absolutely saturated with lust. It’s almost as if it couldn’t get any worse. I said those same words preaching on this topic 17 years ago. I can safely say it’s gotten worse and getting worse still. What none of us could quite foresee back then was the impact of the Internet. I thought then about books and magazines and movies, but who would have known that many of us would now be carrying around small devices that offer endless temptation to lust, an endless variety of pornography over the Internet.

         Easy access to pornography through the Internet is a 10 billion dollar a year industry. Much of that is advertising revenue which means a huge amount of pornographic material is free, available at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. 12 percent of all Internet searches are for pornography and that becomes 20 percent on mobile devices.

         It’s not just that pornography leads to horrific deeds like Ariel Castro’s, although use of pornography is clearly correlated with increased likelihood of using various forms of sexual coercion and with the commission of rape. Viewing pornography on-line is also connected with marital problems and divorce. In 2002, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers determined that “obsessive interest in Internet pornography” was a factor in 56 percent of its divorce cases the prior year.

         Jesus is talking about us. He amplified the Old Testament command against adultery to include “mere looking,” as we might call it, because He had in mind all the pain and agony caused by unrestrained lust in human life. So in verse 28 He said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Some of us should be more worried when we hear this than we are. Others of us should be less worried than we may be. It’s not just a single look, not just a glance. It’s how we look.

         The essence of lust is the desire to have, to possess. “Lust” is not a bad translation of the word in this verse. It’s about as close as we come in English. But it’s not just feelings of desire Jesus is talking about. It’s taking that desire, that person into your “heart.” The word “looks” here is not just a casual glance. It’s in a tense and form which means to keep on looking. Which is exactly what modern pornography wants us to do.

         The scene we have to imagine from Jesus’ time is a man ogling a pretty face or nice hair, because women kept pretty much covered in those times. He might imagine what she looks like beneath her clothes or what it would be like to have her in his bed. But many of our current temptations to lust leave nothing to the imagination. We can place ourselves in virtual reality where we feel like we already have what we’re looking at.

         In one of those quotations no one can actually find, Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.” Jesus is not condemning us for noticing a pretty figure or a handsome face. He’s telling us not to keep on looking, not to continue dwelling on faces and bodies which are not ours to have, people who are not married to us.

         Lust should be like an unwelcome guest. You may not be able to stop it from knocking on the door, but you have more control over whether you open the door and invite it in to stay for supper. The problem is that lust is addictive. Each time you do open the door, you increase its attraction. Each time, lust stays longer, devours more of your heart, and does more damage.

         The attractive power of lust comes from the fact that sex is good. God created us male and female, created us to be attracted to each other. And He said that creation was very good. Sex is a good thing meant to be one of the bonds holding together the very first institution on earth, the human family. Sexual attraction is part of what it means to be human. God wants a husband and wife to desire each other.

         Lust takes that good desire and moves it out of bounds. Richard Foster said, “Sex is like a great river that is rich and deep and good as long as it stays within its proper channel. The moment a river overflows its banks, it becomes destructive, and the moment sex overflows its God-given banks, it too becomes destructive.”[2] Ask people in northern India about the destruction caused by rivers overflowing. As any number of spouses and children about the destruction caused by sex overflowing its God-given boundaries. Some of you sitting here could tell those stories.

         The Bible and God are not opposed to sex. It’s His beautiful creation. The Bible and God are opposed to lust, to sex out of bounds, to all that which drives us to seek sexual intimacy outside of the channels God cre­ated for it, outside of marriage.

         Jesus knew that lustful look can be the first trickle of a flood, of the flow of desire rising beyond God’s boundaries. So He goes on here in verses 29 and 30 to warn us in the most extreme terms. To avoid the sin of lust, he says, if you are sinning by what you see, then gouge out your eye. If you are sinning by what you touch, cut off your hand.

         Let’s think about how we read Scripture. Some Christians will tell you every word, every sentence is literal truth. That’s a good way to avoid missing important facts like that Jesus is God or that He rose from the dead. But it’s not a good way to interpret everything we read in the Bible. Almost no one thought Jesus wanted anyone to actually do what He says here. One sketchy church father in the third century cut off the part of his body most relevant to lust. Not too long after the Council of Nicea prohibited that kind of mutilation.

         Jesus wasn’t giving us some horrific, radical way to cut lust out of our lives. He was warning about its power. Lust blinds us. Look at people who have affairs or who get addicted to pornography. You wonder, “What could she, what could he have been thinking?” Think of Anthony Weiner. Elected 7 times to congress, a wife who loved him, all kinds of respect and prestige. Yet he threw it all away in lustful flirtations on Twitter. Lust blinds you to the consequences. Jesus wants to reopen our eyes to the damage lust can do.

         No matter what the entertainment and pornography industries want you to believe, “looking with lust,” as Jesus calls it, is not a victimless crime. It ruins you personally, making you much less than God meant you to be. And it ruins those around you who trust you. And if you exercise lust through pornography you are participating in ruining the lives of the people who are put on display for you. Please don’t go see it, but you might read a review of a new movie about the woman who was Linda Lovelace and how her creepy boyfriend enslaved and beat her to make her a prostitute and then a porn star. You might never touch one of those women on film, but you are doing them violence just by watching.

         So verses 29 and 30 are warnings about the awful cost of lust, what it would take to pay for and avoid those sins if it were only up to us. You find the same sort of thing in Paul’s warnings in the passage we read from I Corinthians 5. “Hand over to Satan” that man engaged in sexual sin “for the destruction of the flesh.” Paul means the destruction of evil desire, of lust run rampant and destructive even among Christians.

         What Jesus says here about looking lustfully is meant to humble us, to make us realize almost none of us are guiltless in this area of life. We can’t just point fingers at Anthony Weiner, or at gay people, or at the person actively and openly committing adultery. No, too many of us have at least a few birds in our hair.

         That’s why Paul says in I Corinthians 5:6, “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” A little lust can ruin a whole Christian life. Think about stories you’ve heard and you know that it can even ruin a whole church.

         So Jesus wants us to cut lust out of our lives. Paul says, “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.” But how? If you are male, it’s almost certain you’ve struggled with this. If you are female, you might want to take stock of what your thoughts are when you read a romance novel or watch a contemporary romantic comedy where everything aims at getting a couple in bed together. How do we escape? How do get free from the trap of lust which blinds us and maims our lives?

         Jesus knew that no one could sacrifice an eye or a hand. But what He said was true. It takes a sacrifice like that. Which is why Paul follows up his call to clean out the old yeast and be pure and unleavened like the Passover bread by saying, “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed for us.”

         Christ was sacrificed for our sins, for all our sins, including lust. He died not just so that our sins could be forgiven, but so that we could be set free from them. The power of Jesus Christ can set you free. And the only way to be free, the only salvation from lust, is through Jesus.

         You probably already know you can’t do it by will power. Even as a Christian you may have tried and failed over and over. Our only hope is in a God who knows us and loves us and keeps on forgiving us and helping us start over. I pointed out how compassionate Jesus was with those who struggled in lust. Jesus also told us about a young man who went off and wasted his inheritance in lust, spending his money on prostitutes. Yet a loving father welcomed him back and restored him to his place in the family. That’s our God.

         We need both the warning and then we need the grace. Grace is meant to both forgive and change us, to set us free from lust. Please don’t hear a false promise. The recent news about Christian ministry to gay people makes it imperative that we don’t offer false hope. Freedom from lust is not freedom from desire. There will likely never come a point when you aren’t tempted by sexual desire, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual. Freedom from lust in Christ is about a life where those desires come under His rule, where the birds no longer find a home in your hair, and especially not in your heart.

         Like I said about anger, I’d like to offer help to anyone who is struggling. Lust through pornography is an easy secret to keep for awhile. But it will show up. Your life will be worse and maybe much worse if you keep your secret and keep lusting in that way. It will be hard, but you can be free if you will confess to another Christian, if you will let yourself become accountable to someone else.

         Some things may need to go, maybe not an eye, but an Internet connection that makes lust too easy. Maybe you need to give up television or movies for awhile, or maybe a favorite author who slips in a little too much racy stuff. Struggling with lust as a teenager I once packed up a whole shelf of science fiction books and gave them away because there were just a few too many enticing passages in them that I kept going back to.

         Ultimately, though, it’s not your sacrifice which will triumph. It’s that Christ was sacrificed for us, that He gave His life for us which triumphs over lust and over all our sins. We give up what we need to because He gave up everything for us.

         And let’s not forget that the aim of all this sacrifice is life, good life which enjoys and celebrates God’s good creation. On earth the aim is faithful marriage and honorable single life. In the next life, the aim is what Jesus offered when He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We give up our desires and purify our hearts to that end, to be in the presence of our beautiful God who is what we truly desire. Our psalm writer prayed, “Restores, O Lord God almighty; make your face shine upon us.” That’s what we all really desire: to see the face of God.

         That divine aim and reason for purity show up in the two main characters of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. We tend to focus on Frodo who was horribly tempted by lust of a different sort, lust for the power of the Ring he carried. With what has to be understood as divine help, Frodo gave up that desire, though it did cost him part of his hand to do so. Frodo stands as an emblem of the great and beautiful struggle of the person called by God to be alone and single in this life for the sake of God’s calling.

         The other figure is more like many of us. Sam Gamgee is a plain, simple fellow, who has his struggles with anger and pride. And he was also tempted a bit by lust for the Ring. But Sam always seems to be set on going home, to the girl he left behind, who becomes his wife. He comes back from the war of the Ring a great hero, but chooses to remain a quiet figure in the background. You might imagine he could have had his pick of as many hobbit girls as he liked. But he stays faithful to his beloved Rose.

         So the ending of all the adventures of Tolkien’s epic, of all the battles and sacrifice and struggle against temptation goes like this. Sam sees Frodo off on his last journey, into the west, into the presence of God, if you will. Pure of heart, Frodo is going to see God. But for now Sam, pure of heart, simply goes home, and we read,

…he went on, and there was a yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
         He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

         Jesus did not warn us against lust because He wanted us to live shrunken, ugly, repressed lives of unhappiness. He warned us and He helps us in our struggle because He wants to bring us back to where we belong, to the deepest happiness and joys there are. You may be single like Frodo or married like Sam, but whichever it is, God wants to give you all you truly desire if you will only let Him, if you will only seek Him.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), p. 94.

[2] Money, Sex and Power (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 109.

Last updated August 18, 2013