This morning, we come to a close of our study of the Seven Deadly Sins, as we take a look at the sin of lust. 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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Let me tell you about a family that owns a little rabbit named Hoppy. Hoppy lives in the backyard in a cage made out of chicken wire. This cage has four walls and a roof. Hoppy can move around quite a bit inside his cage, but his freedom of movement is obviously restricted.
Naturally, Hoppy would love to get outside the wire cage and go explore the neighborhood. He wants to get out, but the family doesn’t let him out because they know something he doesn’t know. You see, unbeknownst to Hoppy, there are a number of cats in the neighborhood who would just love to get at him and turn him into Tender Vittles. So, even though Hoppy doesn’t understand, they keep him in that cage, not because they’re mean and want to deprive him of the fun of exploring, but they do it for his protection.
The story is pretty much the same when it comes to human sexuality and the rules that God has placed around it. The guidelines and the restrictions we find in the Bible aren’t there because God is a killjoy who doesn’t want us to have any fun. Rather, God knows what we need because he made us. He knows how powerful sex is. He knows what effect it has on us if it is removed from the context of marriage. So, the rules God has given us are not given because he’s mean and he wants to deprive us of the fun of exploring. Rather, they are given for our protection because God loves us and wants what is best for us.
It’s unfortunate that, throughout history, some Christians have taken views on sex that are unbiblical. Seeing the great power of the sex drive and the damage it can cause, Christians have sometimes concluded that sex itself is evil and should be completely condemned and avoided.
Origen, for example, who lived during the early part of the third century strongly believed and taught that sex is evil. Augustine, a respected church leader at the turn of the 5th century, said that sex was part of the fall in Genesis 3. But they were both wrong.
Sex is good, because God is the author of sexuality. The Hebrew writer says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” (Hebrews 13:4). God made us male and female. He’s the one who came up with the idea of sex, and young people especially need to hear that sex is a gift from God. They’re going to hear about sex anyway, so they might as well hear the truth that it was God’s idea.
The Sin of Adultery
God gave us this gift of sexuality and he said that it is to be enjoyed fully in marriage. But, when it describes sex outside of the marriage relationship, the Bible uses such terms as adultery and fornication. In its most technical sense, adultery means sexual intercourse between a man and a woman where one or both of them is married to someone else, and fornication is the broader term to describe any sexual immorality.
And on the subject of sexual sin, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” This commandment went back to the seventh of the ten commandments, and throughout the law of Moses, adultery is always portrayed as one of the most despicable of sins, one in fact that was punishable by death.
And throughout the New Testament, prohibitions against sexual immorality are every bit as clear as those of the Old. I Corinthians 6:9 lists those who will not inherit the kingdom of God and that list includes fornicators and adulterers. In Hebrews 13:4, we read that “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
In I Thessalonians 4, Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (I Thessalonians 4:3-5)
So it is obvious that sexual purity involves restraint in our actions. And, for a Christian, it’s very simple. It is either sexual fulfillment in marriage, or complete abstinence. Those are the only two choices for a child of God. That may sound prudish and Victorian in our society today, but those are the only two options that God has given us.
Scripture is clear – there is to be no sex outside of marriage. Someone may question that and want to know, “Why would God say that?” And again, it’s because he wants to protect us. God knows that used improperly, sex can destroy us physically, emotionally and spiritually.
In some cases, the way sexual immorality can affect us is obvious. In the story of David and Bathsheba, David’s infidelity cost Uriah his life, it cost Bathsheba the death of her husband and child, and it cost David a painful break in his relationship with God and the loss of a son.
But the damage didn’t stop with those directly involved. First, David’s army and then his palace servants and eventually all the people saw their king willing to sacrifice his obedient subjects to his own selfish desires. Trust was broken, loyalties undercut, and relationships at all levels damaged.
You see, even if we are not directly burned by its fire, the smoke of sexual immorality can cause damage far and wide. Teens who have premarital sex early struggle with depression, young adults who live together impair their chances of stable marriages later, sexual abuse and affairs can rip families, churches, and communities apart. We often live with sexual immorality’s collateral damage for a long time.
So, to protect us, God has placed limitations on it. He has told us that sexual relations are reserved for marriage. Enjoyed there, it’s wonderful. But outside of marriage, it is sinful.
Our society, however, exerts tremendous pressures against that kind of purity. The sexual pressure is especially strong on our young people because we live in a day of virtually unbridled indulgence in sexual passion. It seems to be the almost uninterrupted theme of our society’s entertainment. Think about all the television shows, all the movies, all the music that encourages us to indulge in sexual experience. The advertising industry uses sex to sell its products. Even the Internet is absolutely full of garbage that is only a mouse click away.
Throughout our society, promiscuity has become the standard, while chastity and moral purity are ridiculed and laughed at. And if you don’t believe that, then you weren’t paying much attention to the news a few years ago when quarterback Tim Tebow was absolutely ridiculed by everyone because he publicly stated that he intended to remain a virgin until marriage.
Young people are caught in the middle of all those influences. Then add the impression that “everybody’s doing it” and a teen can feel very much out of place when holding onto the notion of remaining a virgin until marriage. Polls show that well over half of all college students are sexually active, and such statistics leave young people with the impression that they’re missing out on something if they’re not a part of it.
In response, those of us who are older Christians have sometimes called for the right behavior for the wrong reasons. We tell our teens, “Don’t have sex before marriage. You might get pregnant. You might get an STD. You might get a bad reputation.” But the problem is that birth control has reduced the chances of conception, condoms have reduced the fear of STDs, and society’s views on fornication have taken away the fear of rejection. So those reasons don’t hold much water for a teenager.
The truth is, though, that none of those things have anything to do with why Christians should stay pure. Our actions should come not from fear of getting a disease, but from an intense desire to please God, and the knowledge that God knows what is best for us. Paul addressed this issue in I Corinthians 6:14-17:
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
Paul said that each one of us is a part of the body of Christ. We belong to Christ. We’ve been united with him. We’re committed to following him. So, Paul continues in verse 18:
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:18-20)
Our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit, and we cannot use them immorally because of what we’ve become. And so, regardless of how much a couple may be head over heels in love for each other, sex outside of marriage is forbidden by God.
But some Christians would say, “Yes, I know fornication is wrong, but I need to know, how far is too far? Where’s the line? As long as we don’t commit the actual act, as long as we don’t go “all the way”, then I don’t think it’s wrong.
But Jesus said sex isn’t just pulling back the sheets on a bed. It’s a matter of the mind and the heart, and you can sin without actually committing the physical act of adultery.
The Sin of Lust
After saying that adultery was wrong, Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
I should mention here that Jesus speaks only about men being guilty of lust. It is possible, of course, for a woman to be guilty of lust as well, but I would say that this is a sin that more men struggle with simply because men tend to be more visually stimulated than women do.
But Jesus said the problem starts in the heart. We often blame our failures on outside influences. But Jesus said we need to take a look at what’s on the inside because that’s where the problem lies. So, Jesus said, “Even if you haven’t actually committed the physical sin of adultery, there may be a problem with lust and that’s where the problem really lies.”
We need to guard against making lustful desire a habit. But for most of us, lust feels more like an uninvited demon who has taken over our lives, and once we see if for what it is, we want to escape from it as much as anyone else does.
I love the story I heard about two Christian men walking down the road, a 30-year-old and an 80-year-old. As they walked down the road together, a young woman in a low-cut dress and short skirt walked past them in the opposite direction. After a few moments, the 30-year-old said, “You know, I’ll be glad when I get old enough that I’m no longer tempted to have impure thoughts about women.” The 80-year-old said, “Me, too.”
Sexual desire is a powerful thing, and we often underestimate its force and hold on us until we’re in the heat of the moment. So, lust is a big deal, but people who struggle with it also tend to feel a lot of regret and shame. I think maybe we’ve made it even worse, because we’ve sometimes tried to make this passage mean more than Jesus intended it to mean. And as a result, we have made people carry around a lot of guilt because they thought they were guilty of lust simply because they had a sexual thought.
It’s not the temptation itself that is a sin. I think it’s similar to the sin of anger. Remember, earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus said, “Don’t be angry with your brother” but we know that the feelings of anger are going to come, there’s not much we can do about that. Someone walks up and punches you in the nose, I can pretty much guarantee that anger is going to be among the many emotions that you’re going to experience.
The important question for us as Christians is, “What are you going to do about it?” Are you going to allow that anger to flare up and respond in a violent way, or maybe let it develop into bitterness and resentment, or are you going to deal with that anger in a godly way?
I think the same thing holds true with lust. I don’t think Jesus is talking about our reaction to an unexpected and unavoidable exposure to sexual temptation. When a man happens to see a woman who is provocatively dressed, Satan will tempt that man with lustful thoughts. But the important question for us is this — what are you going to do with that thought?
A Christian has two choices — he can either allow that thought to simmer and continue to look in order to satisfy his lustful desires or he can make every effort to resist temptation and turn his gaze and his thoughts elsewhere. I’m sure you’ve all heard the old saying, “God doesn’t keep the birds of temptation from flying over our heads. He only asks that we keep them from building nests in our hair.”
And I think Jay Kesler described it well when he said, “It’s one thing for an evil thought to flash through our minds like an uninvited guest. It’s something else, something I’d call sin, when we welcome it, feed it, and entertain it for the evening. We might let our mind go, imagining, fantasizing a bit about how, where, and what if.”
King David, for example, does not seem to have been at fault for seeing Bathsheba bathing. There’s no indication that he intended to be a “peeping Tom”. Bathsheba apparently was in plain view as David walked on his palace roof. But David’s sin was in dwelling on that sight and giving in to the temptation. He could have looked away and tried to put it out of his mind. But the fact that he had her brought to his chambers and committed adultery with her tells us of the immoral desire that already existed in his heart.
In fact, a good translation of Matthew 5:28 would be, “Whoever looks at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her…” I think the way that’s worded is significant.
Lust isn’t just seeing a beautiful woman and finding her sexually attractive. Jesus is talking about a man who looks so that he may satisfy his evil desire. He’s talking about the man (or woman) who watches movies or selects TV shows or surfs the Internet knowing that he is going to be stimulated sexually, who goes to a beach known for its scantily clad swimsuits, or who does any such thing with the expectation and desire of being sexually stimulated. The person who struggles with the problem of lust will always seek to find ways to satisfy his eyes.
Sexual desire and pleasure are meant to be a part of good sex. Sexual pleasure is designed by God to accompany sexual activity. The problem with lust is that it reduces sexual pleasure to one’s own gratification
Sexual desire is meant ultimately to bring us into a union of intimacy with another person. It has the power to bond a man and a woman together in love. As Paul says, it joins two people together into one flesh, creating and strengthening and symbolizing a union of lifelong love.
But lust, by contrast, makes sexual pleasure all about me. Lust is focused on self-gratification. And, in that regard, the sin of lust is very similar to the sin of gluttony. Both of them take something that God designed pleasure and turn them into something that provides nothing other than pleasure. Just as a glutton sees food as only a means for filling himself with comfort and pleasure, so a lustful person sees sex and sexual objects only as a means of providing pleasure to himself.
What We Can Do?
If lust is a struggle for you, then what can you do? Allow me to offer a couple of suggestions.
- We need to stop feeding our lusts
Lust finds its pleasure primarily through the eyes. So, what sort of images fill our minds and feed our hearts every day?
Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30).
Let’s not misunderstand what Jesus meant as some Christians did in the early church. There were some of the early Christians who mutilated their bodies, taking this quite literally. Origen is an example of someone who dealt with lust by castrating himself.
It should be obvious that Jesus isn’t speaking literally because the point he was trying to make has to do with the condition of the heart. I heard about a man, I suppose in one of the Middle Eastern countries, who was caught stealing, and so they cut off one of his hands. Sometime later, he was caught stealing a second time, so they cut off his other hand thinking that would surely take care of the problem. But, to their surprise, the man was caught stealing a third time, using his teeth to take items. The point is, no matter what part of your body you caught off, it doesn’t deal with the problem, because the problem is the heart.
Jesus is using hyperbole here. That is, he was exaggerating to make a point. Now that doesn’t diminish the urgency of what he says. Sometimes I think we read this passage and we say, “Oh, he doesn’t mean that literally!” and so we just sort of ignore it altogether. But Jesus uses some very powerful language to get the point across that we are to do everything we possibly can to get to heaven.
Let me put it in modern terminology. If cable TV in your home is causing you to lust, then get rid of cable TV. If the Internet is causing you to lust, then shut off the Internet. And if someone says, “That sounds a bit drastic”, then I think Jesus would say, “Better to go into heaven without your cable TV and your Internet connection than for you to go into hell with them.” Whatever it takes to bring your mind and your life into line with what God expects from you, you better be willing to do it, or you don’t stand a chance! And there are some Christians who are in danger of losing their souls for an eternity because they stubbornly refuse to give up some lustful pleasure in their lives.
Now obviously, getting rid of harmful influences will not change a corrupt heart into a pure heart. Outward acts cannot produce inward results. But just as the outward act of adultery reflects a heart that is adulterous, the outward act of forsaking everything that is harmful reflects a heart that hungers and thirsts after righteousness. The outward act is significant because it comes from a heart that seeks to do God’s will rather than its own.
Now, I don’t want to even begin to try to lay down any specific rules about what books you can and can’t read and what movies you can and can’t watch. But you know you, and you know your weaknesses. And if you are engaging in any activity that is feeding your lusts, it’s like trying to put out a fire while you’re throwing lighter fluid on at the same time. You can’t do it.
Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman?” (Job 31:1). Job knew the importance of being careful what he was looking at. So, he determined in advance to guard himself by making a covenant with his eyes not to gaze at a woman who might be a temptation to him.
A lustful heart is eager to expose itself to lust-satisfying situations. But the flip side is also true. A godly heart tries to avoid those situations whenever possible.
If we do not consciously and purposely control what is around us, where we go, what we do, what we watch and read, then those things will eventually control us. The first thing we’ve got to do is to make a conscious effort to stop feeding our lusts.
- We need to learn to replace lustful desires with something positive
Paul said in Ephesians 4 to take off lying and put on truthfulness. And you’ve got to do both those things. You put off the bad, but you also put on the good.
Remember the story of the man in Luke 11 who had an unclean spirit cast out. “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26).
The point of that story is, if we try to get rid of evil in our lives, but we don’t replace that evil with something good, then all we’ve got is an empty house, ready and waiting for the evil to come back again. We can’t just get rid of lustful desires — we’ve got to replace them with something else – maybe a physical activity that’s good or reading something that’s good – a focus on God and godly things.
Because the important question is not, “How far can I go on a date without crossing the line of sin?”, but rather, “How can my life—my thoughts, my choices, my emotional responses, my conversation, and my behavior—make me a person who reflects the nature of Jesus Christ?”
As we close, there’s something I think all of us need to be reminded of. I’m aware of how Christians frequently struggle with lust, and I want you to understand that God doesn’t reject people who struggle. That’s true of this sin, as well as any of the others we’ve talked about. The problem comes when we stop struggling and we allow that sin to take control.
This week, may your prayer be, “Search me, O God, and see if there is any lust in my heart.”