Reading Time: 7 Minutes
In 1976 the then Presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, was interviewed by “Playboy” magazine. He was asked if his strong religious beliefs would make him a rigid and unbending leader. Carter’s response almost cost him the election. The following paragraph is what got so much attention.
Carter said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes that I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”
The passage that President Carter was referring to is the next theme in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said,“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” (Matthew 5.27-28).
It is interesting that the Presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, was condemned by the public for his remarks, but forgiven by the very One who spoke about lustful thoughts. Having said that, why did Jesus address adultery and lust like he did?
Jesus knew better than anyone else that actions begin with thoughts and the imagination. The Psalmist wrote about people conceiving evil in their hearts before they act on it.
“They plot mischief while on their beds;
they are set on a way that is not good;
they do not reject evil.” (Psalm 36.4)
Concerning lust, Billy Graham said, “You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head. You can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”
One of my seminary professors used this illustration to clear up the understanding between lust and desire. He said, “I like ice cream. If I see you with an ice cream cone, it may generate in me a desire for ice cream. That is desire. If I see your ice cream cone and begin to make plans to get it from you, that is lust.”
Take Lust Seriously
A man was heard saying, “God and I have a deal. He likes to forgive sin and I like to sin.” It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that this is not the approach to lust that Jesus took.
Jesus made it perfectly clear that lust needs to be taken with absolute seriousness. He said, “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 5.29-30).
Jesus is clearly not counseling us to poke out an eye or to cut off a hand. People can lust with one eye and one hand just as easily as with two. What is he saying?
Going back to Billy Graham’s illustration, we can’t keep the bird from flying overhead. However, Jesus clearly wants us to not let it build a nest in our hair.
Everyone will probably have a different response to Jesus’ admonition and Graham’s wisdom. We all do well to evaluate whether people, places, things, and situations may be occasions to let lustful thoughts consume us.
Are there some things that we can do to eliminate some of the these temptations from our lives? If so, Jesus strongly advises us to do so.
There are two dangers to avoid, as we approach what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. One of my friends from another church illustrates something we should avoid.
While driving to work one day, my friend, who had a long-term smoking habit, threw his cigarettes out the window and never smoked again. He became very proud of his ability to quit smoking. I often heard him say with considerable pride, “That’s what I did. I just quit. You can do it too.”
Other friends of mine have tried to quit smoking over-and-over again. Their experience of one failure after another has left them with a feeling of hopelessness. I have heard several people at Maywood Baptist Church say, “I quit meth easier than cigarettes.”
If we are victorious in our own will-power over issues such as lust and addiction – as well as other areas in the Sermon on the Mount – we can be puffed up with pride like the Pharisees. If our experience is one of failure, we may be full of frustration and despair.
Jesus tells us that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20). The righteousness that Jesus calls for is neither one that is achieved or failed in our own strength. Rather, it is a righteousness that is received by the power and work of God’s Spirit.
Jesus’ words make it clear that there is serious and sacrificial work to do on our part. Gouging out an eye and cutting off a hand is both serious and sacrificial. Giving up people, places, things and situations is often extremely hard.
However, we are not alone. When God asks something from us, he always supplies the power to do it. How might these two aspects work together to give us victory.
Suppose you ask a child to try drawing a picture. As the child makes her best effort, you place your hand over her hand to help her get a feel for the process of drawing.
As we attempt to obey Jesus’ message about lust, the Spirit puts his “hand” on top of our efforts to guide us and empower us to victory.
Jesus uses some very serious language about lust in this passage. As we take his message to heart, there are some things we may consider doing in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.
— People: There may be some people we need to avoid as part of our effort.
— Places: Another possibility is to choose to not go to places where lust is generated for us.
— Things: There may be some things we avoid, such a cell phone videos.
— Situations: We may need to avoid boredom and stress as we seek to follow Jesus’ directions.
What can we expect from the Holy Spirit? Paul wrote, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.13).
The Spirit works two ways in us. First, he helps us want to do God’s will. Second, he enables us to do God’s will. Let’s choose to cooperate with God’s Spirit, as he works in us.
Dear Jesus, thank you that you desire life for all of us. Thank you that you give us both grace and direction. We receive your forgiveness for lustful thoughts and action. We also receive the power of your Spirit to work with decisions we will make to gain victory.