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
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” He goes on to list evil ways in which we put other people down and elevate
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
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.” 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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj