Adultery in the Heart

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

‘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. 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 5.27-30

There are two main issues we need to think about today. The first is the question, Why is lust bad? And the second, How do we deal with it?

Before we tackle these vital questions, we need to backtrack. What is Jesus doing here? Why is he teaching in this way? Remember that his hearers had known the Law, but human nature is such that they had tried to find ways around it. They had taken the 7th commandment, ‘Do not commit adultery’, and paired it with the 8th, ‘Do not steal’. Now, of course, they were right; adultery is stealing. But the problem was that this leaves space for a great deal of immorality and rationalising of your wrong. And so Jesus interprets the 7th commandment in light of the 10th, ‘Do not covet your neighbour’s wife…’ (see Exodus 20.17). In fact, he uses the exact same language for ‘covet’ or ‘lust’. Why? Adultery was punishable by death, so to identify it with lust or covetous desire was to do something radical and shocking; it was to make us all guilty of adultery.

Why is lust wrong? If it takes place only in the heart, isn’t it harmless, like a victimless crime? Before we answer this, we need to recall that lust is not the same as attraction; perhaps it’s the same kind of difference between greed and hunger. Christians do not have a low view of sex as something dirty or degrading, but instead we have the highest view of sex. We don’t believe sex should be contained within marriage because we despise it, but rather because we consider it a sacred and powerful action that joins souls so that ‘the two become one flesh’. It’s not helpful, therefore, to make out as though all sexual desire is wrong or dirty or sinful; it isn’t. Lust is a perversion of desire, and that is what we must keep in mind. Here are a few reasons why lust is wrong.

1. Because of what lust reveals about your heart

Remember that our tendency is to externalise the Law, and make it about outward actions and appearance. We honour the letter of the Law, but not always the spirit. But God is interested in the heart, and doesn’t just pay attention to the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16.7). If God is looking at our hearts, then we know he’s interested in our desires and motivations.

Sin is born in desire. All sins begin in the imagination, as a temptation grows in the soil of your mind. So we cannot separate our actions from the desires that give birth to them; they are connected in a profound way. (Actions that are not born out of desire are accidents, which are not morally blameworthy.) If it is the desire or motive that makes an action right or wrong, then it follows that sexual sin begins in the heart as lust. ‘To the pure all things are pure’ writes Paul (Titus 1.15), but the very fact that we lust is evidence that we are not pure. Lust reveals our hearts.

2. Because you can’t control lust, it controls you

Lust is a parasite. As it grows inside you it gets hungrier and hungrier, and the more you feed it the more it grows. ‘For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…’ (Galatians 6.8). As we feed lust we are sowing to the flesh; the part of us that wars against God and his Law.

We think we can keep lust under control, but lust is subject to the law of diminishing returns — it demands more and more extremes in order to be satisfied. When we hear the occasional and tragic stories of celebrities who have overdosed on some drug, we know that this is the end of a journey that began much earlier with the first taste of that drug in a ‘safe’ amount. But soon the effect wore off and they needed more and more in order to reach the same high. Lust is like that. The first time you hold hands with someone you experience a thrill, but it won’t last. Lust will demand that you push the boundaries further and further back.

We experience this in our own hearts as individuals. But I would argue that this law of diminishing returns has been at work in our culture at large. The things that we once thought to be pushing the boundaries are now considered normal. We don’t even blink when we see soft porn on the sides of buses because we have become desensitised as we have immersed ourselves in all kinds of sexual stimuli; from TV to the internet to high street fashion. And so, as a culture, we have to keep pressing at the edge, pushing the boundaries back, in order to experience a thrill. All of this confirms what we’re saying: that lust controls us.

It’s interesting that while the world around us has largely rejected the language of ‘sin’, it has substituted the language of ‘addiction’. We talk about sex addicts and porn addicts. Why? Because even if we don’t like talking about sin, we recognise that there is a power in lust that we can’t control. (The difference in the language is this; that ‘sin’ feels more morally culpable, whereas ‘addiction’ is excusable — we are feeble creatures after all.)

Lust cannot be kept under control; it will control you.

3. Because lust is never just a private, personal thing

You may think that lust affects nobody else. But that is wrong on many levels. 

Lust affects others by changing you. It changes how you look at and treat others. It builds up like a toxic waste inside your system and spills into every part of your life. It causes you to withdraw, or it causes you to pursue sexual experience. It hurts your relationships, and in particular, it can make it impossible to enjoy true intimacy with a future spouse. You can’t switch it off when you decide to get married. And even if you are not engaging in any acts besides what takes place in your imagination, how do you know that you will not in the future? You have already crossed boundaries you didn’t want to cross, and so (once again), you are not in control here.

What does all of this mean? It means that we know, deep down, that Jesus is right, that our lustful hearts betray and accuse us. We may find endless ways of rationalising our wrong, but in the end we feel dirty because of the sinfulness of our hearts.

How do we deal with lust? Well, to use the language of the old theologians Jesus is telling us to ‘mortify the flesh’. Gouge out your eye. Cut off your hand.

While many people in the early centuries of the church took these instructions literally, that is exactly the wrong way to understand them. Jesus is showing us that sin is born in the heart; he would hardly then tell us that cutting off body parts will fix that. I think he wants us to ask three questions.

1. What are your triggers? 

John Stott writes, ’I doubt it ever human beings have fallen victim to immorality, who have not first opened the sluicegates of passion through their eyes’. That is to say, your heart is affected by what enters through the eyes. But even the blind may commit adultery by indulging in lust. So, we need to broaden our understanding of what might trigger temptation.

The proverb says, ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the issues of life’ (Proverbs 4.23). It means that we need to post sentries around our hearts to guard what goes in and what comes out. Our hearts are affected by many things, and we need to be more intelligent about what we let affect our hearts.

And so, when it comes to lust, you must start by asking yourself these kinds of questions: Where do you experience lust? When do you experience lust? With who? Why? (Are you more vulnerable when lonely, stressed, or what?)

It is far easier to avoid eating chocolate biscuits when you don’t have any in the cupboard. Often we trip into lust because we have not set a guard around our hearts. We walk stupidly into situations that are troublesome.

2. What is the cost of not dealing with this? 

Jesus uses the most threatening kind of language: it’s better to lose a body part than have your whole body get thrown into hell. Similarly, Paul says that those who indulge in sexual immorality (among other things) ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5.21). And elsewhere he says that ‘God is an avenger in all these things’ (1 Thessalonians 4.6).

Jesus wants you to make a calculation by asking yourself, Is it worth it? Do I gain more by holding on to my lustful pleasures? Or would I gain more by dealing with this?

3. What drastic steps must you take?

This is where the logic is leading us: to make radical decisions about how we live, what we do, where we go, what we look at, in order to put lust to death.

If we are not willing to make these decisions, then we are not serious about dealing with sin. Paul says, ‘I do not box as one beating the air’ (1 Corinthians 9.26). In other words, he doesn’t pretend to be serious about sin. Instead, ‘I discipline my body and keep it under control’ (v.27). He is saying, I beat myself black and blue, I inflict damage on my desire to do wrong, I make radical choices in order to fight sin.

Psychologist have identified a pattern that characterises engrained habits (both good and bad). They follow this sequence: (i) Cue; a particular location, emotional state, person, or preceding action. (ii) Routine; a sequence of behaviour that follows the cue. (iii) Reward; the rush of endorphins that seal the habit in your brain so that, next time you receive the cue, your muscle memory kicks in and you engage in the same behaviour to get the same reward. 

This often works in our favour. You experience the cue of thirst, you have a drink, you get the reward of satisfaction. It also works against us when we have ingrained, sinful habits.

By identifying the triggers — the sinful eye or hand — that provoke lust in our hearts, we must cut off the habit by destroying the cue. Dig it out at the root. How you must do that is your decision.

Jesus knew that his hearers would be experiencing deep conviction. That was his intention. But he didn’t want to leave us in a dark place. Remember how he began; ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ (v.4). It means: ‘It is good when you experience grief over your sin, because then you can receive a joy you don’t deserve.’ Jesus wants to save us from our sin, the sin he died for and atoned for that you might be free.