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Part 19

23 Jun 2021

Matthew 5:27-30

Deep breath… I’m going to need to take this slow, this is a hard, biting passage of scripture. Jesus lays out here a challenge that can’t be ducked, dodged, or evaded in any way. A challenge that should strike awe, fear, and trembling into all of our hearts, particularly in the over sexualised culture in which we live.

I’ll just be straight up at this point. I’ve been stuck on this passage for a good while. I haven’t been able to get past it and move on. Nor have I been particularly clear about what I believe the Lord was saying to me through this text, and as such what I wanted to write, not so much because I have any more of a struggle in this area than anyone else, or that it is an area of hidden sin, but more because of the enormity of what Jesus is saying, the massive implications and challenge that this presents to us all.

We all lust in certain ways in our lives, no one is immune. It is a part of the reality of our physical embodied nature to desire sexual intimacy with another, and indeed, part of God’s good creation that it is so. But as with all that is sin, God’s good creation, purpose, and design have been twisted, distorted, debased, and abused. WE have become twisted, distorted, debased, and abused in our very nature as human beings, and as such, all of us experience our natural desire for sexual intimacy through the warped sense of our flesh, our sinful fallen nature.

None of us are free from this, none are exempt.

Who of us have not looked at a member of the opposite sex and had lust rise in their hearts as a result? Some of us even experience this with members of our own sex.

Who of us have never had lustful thoughts or images burst into their consciousness unbidden, unwilled for, and uncalled upon, as if they were being broadcast into our minds from a foreign source.

None of us are free from these experiences and it is evidence that at the core of our human nature, of who we are, something is rotten.

Here we see the flesh, our fallen sin nature in full view, and we are exposed.

Our guilt is without question and our judgment is just.

The doctrine of Total Depravity is one that needs no defending. Any attempt to argue otherwise is to engage in a bald faced lie and an act of self righteousness and self justification. It is to attempt to plead that we are not naked while, with shifting darting eyes, reaching for the nearest fig leaf.

None of us are free from this, and none can set themselves free from so deep and fundamental a distortion of our very humanity. We are bound by our sin nature which is totally opposed to God, and a continual fractured kaleidoscopic lens that distorts all that we see.

But it distorts because we were first distorted. What we are as human beings has become distorted through the fall described in Genesis chapter 3.

We are not in the state now in which, and for which, God intended us, over which He declared that it was good and very good.

The distortion of what we are is total, there is not a single area of our humanity, no faculty of our being that is not touched with this stain, that is not distorted by sin. We have no choice in the matter. Our wills are not free so that we may simply choose to be something other than what we are. We are bound by and slaves to our sin nature.

As I have said elsewhere in our travels together, what resource does the flesh have in order to overcome itself? The answer is obviously none.

So often I have heard the Sermon on the Mount preached and the key message we hear over and over again is that Jesus takes the Law of Moses and elevates it so that the standards are far higher, the bar set at an unattainable height.

The question that strikes me though, is why is the bar unattainable. Because, as we see just a few verses on from where we are reading, the standard set by Jesus is perfection. We are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (5:48).

Now I take perfection here to mean moral perfection. How could we possibly be expected to be perfect, that’s surely impossible right?

Wrong.

Human beings were originally created in that state and for that state. Human beings were made in the image and likeness of God for relationship with God, and to reflect His perfect character and nature to Him, to each other, and to all of creation.

That is the state in which human beings were created and how we are intended to live. It is the state from which we have fallen, and our fall has been great indeed, to the point that we are broken, fundamentally broken, and utterly incapable of fixing ourselves from our broken fallen sinful state.

No amount of legal observance, good deeds, positive thinking, or religious behaviour can free us from the reality of our fundamental brokenness that lies at the heart of what we are (have become) as human beings.

Hebrews chapter 4 verses 12-13 tells us that

“…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, perching to the division of soul and spirit, of lints and marrow, and discovering THE THOUGHTS AND INTENTIONS OF THE HEART. And no creature is hidden from his sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

This passage, and indeed the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, are so biting, so cutting, precisely because Jesus is exposing the depths of our depravity, it is total.

We might be able to kid ourselves that we are good, that at rock bottom human beings are inherently good, that it is only our behaviour that lets us down, however, kidding our selves is all it would be.

We may even be able to point to our behaviour and attempt to justify ourselves, demonstrate why we are right to behave the way we do, however, Jesus, the Word of God is revealing to us the true state of things.

God does not look at outward appearances but will judge by the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

Who can stand under such a standard of judgement? Who can say that they are free from guilt? Who can say that they have cleansed themselves from sin? No one.

The thoughts and imaginations of the human heart is wickedness from youth, as such we all stand condemned, we are all slaves to sin because our hearts are twisted, broken, sinful, and full of all kinds of evil.

A common mantra in the world we live in tells us that we are defined by what we do. However, the truth is precisely the opposite.

We are not defined by what we do, it is who we are that will determine what we do. As such, because there is a fundamental flaw at the level of who we are, a brokenness that skews the way we see and interact with the world, everything we do is stained by our fallen sinful nature, after all, as Jesus says, out of the heart (the seat of who we are) flow all the issues of life, and as scripture teaches, the heart is desperately wicked and deceitful. We can’t even know the depths of the wickedness of our own hearts.

To me, this passage, and the Sermon on the Mount as a whole can only lead to a damning diagnosis of the malady from which we all suffer, the extent to which we suffer it, and our total inability to pull ourselves up by our own moral or spiritual bootstraps in order to meet God’s righteous requirement.

There is a solution of course, in fact, the physician making the diagnosis is himself the cure, but we will have to come back to Him, how He is the cure, and the means by which this cure is procured and administered another time.

For now, I want to come from our wide angle lens and focus more narrowly on Jesus’ words regarding lust.

Sexual desire is such a normal and natural part of who and what we are as human beings. As I said earlier it is part of God’s good design and purpose in creation that human beings desire intimate physical relationship with one another. Because this is true, there is a genuine physiological aspect that plays into what becomes lust.

It is an inherent part of our design that both male and female members of the human race experience a desire toward intimate physical relationships and union with another through sex.

Here I think that a pause is in order so that we may consider the question of what we are as human beings, because how you answer that question will deeply impact how we interpret and respond to Jesus words regarding lust.

There are those that believe that human beings are primarily spiritual beings which are incased in flesh bodies. Upon our death we will be freed from the physical body to live eternally as a totally spiritual being.

In this view, the spiritual is eternal and good, while the body is temporary and evil. As such, people who hold this view tend to see sex as a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation only, but otherwise a dirty practice to be rejected.

I’m sure you can see how this position will influence the way we understand Jesus’ words on lust. I imagine many expletives following this text, DIRTY, FILTHY, SINNER, DISGUSTING, UNCLEAN etc etc.

Anything that brings pleasure in the body must be rejected because the body is evil.

At the other end of the spectrum is the position that there is no spirit, only the body. Human beings are solely and purely physical beings. As such, everything we do must have a natural/physical explanation. In this case the explanation is DNA. Our DNA makes us do everything, or as Richard Dawkins famously put it ‘DNA just is and we dance to its music’.

Under this view, our sexual desire is the result of our DNA following its programming to spread the ‘selfish gene’. Lust then is natural and there are no reasons not to pursue those desires to their fulfilment.

I’m sure you can see the inherent dangers in such a view.

Thankfully, these two positions are not the only options from which we must choose.

A third way is open to us, and according to this position human beings are not simply spiritual beings incased in flesh bodies from which we will one day be set free. Instead we are a composite creature comprising both the physical and the spiritual.

In Genesis chapter two we are told that God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

In creating us, God infused the dirt that He had fashioned into a clay sculpture of a man with His divine breath/Spirit. As such the spirit and the body are fused together.

Humans are both spiritual and physical beings.

Under this view, because we are a union of spirit and body, whatever we do in the body has a spiritual consequence, everything, in effect, is spiritual because every action has spiritual implications.

If everything we do has spiritual implications then that helps us to understand that all of life is worship. All of life is to be lived as an act of worship because all of life has spiritual significance and implications. There are no true dividing lines between the physical and the spiritual, or between the sacred and the secular. There is only that which can be rightly offered to God as an act of worship, and that which cannot.

Because these things are true, our God given sexual desires are part of His good creation. Sex is not just a physical act but, because of the kind of creatures we are, it is also a spiritual act which has both physical as well as spiritual implications.

Our sexual desires are to find their sacred expression within the context with and for which we have been made, as an act that is both physical and spiritual within the context of a life lived as an act of worship to God.

Of the three views we have covered, the first two suffer from the same error, but they commit that error in different directions. Both views end up denying something intrinsic to what we are as human beings, and in doing so reduce human beings to something less than what we were created to be.

Because they reduce us to something less than what God created us to be, both positions end up reducing us to a form of slavery. In the first case slavery to a distorted view of the body, the good, and the holy, and in the second, slavery to every whim and fleshly desire of the body.

The strength and freedom of the third position is that the solution isn’t simply a question of behaviouralism or licence. Instead we are to remember what we are and for whom as well as what we were created.

The body in this sense is not evil. Yes, we have all been infected by what the Bible refers to as the fall, and as such our very nature has been stained by sin. It is this sin nature that the Bible refers to as the flesh, but the flesh is not to be equated with the body.

The flesh is more akin to a virus that has infected a computer system so that all of the outputs the system was designed to produce are distorted and flawed.

The computer was designed to produce something good, beautiful, and true, however, its programming has been corrupted by this virus and so every operation is tainted, every product it produces distorted.

God has given us the proper context within which to legitimately express our sexual desires, within the context of marriage between one man and one woman. This is the right and proper context within which to express our sexual desires, which, rightly understood, are never simply physical, but an embodied expression of the spiritual union of those two people.

When we look with lust at another, we engage in a practice that implicitly violates their humanity and status as an image bearer of God, in fact, in doing so we also violate ourselves.

Why?

Because looking at another with lust fails to see them for what they are, instead only seeing them through the lens of the sinful desires of our hearts. They become an object of our sinful desire as opposed to a human being made in the image of God.

To look with lustful intent is to deny the full, true humanity of the one we lust after, effectively reducing them to something other than what they truly are.

It is a form of enslavement where we deny what that person truly is under God, we dehumanise them, and attempt to impose our limited and sinful definition upon them for the purposes of gratifying our sinful desires.

However, in doing so, we also deny what we are and dehumanise ourselves, reducing ourselves to something less than what we are, and in doing so making ourselves slaves to our base (debased) desires.

Lust enslaves because it reduces the other to something less than human while at the same time denying the fulness of the reality of what we are, a composite being comprised of both the spiritual and physical, redefining ourselves solely through our physical needs and enslaving ourselves to our lustful desires in the process.

Lust is a denial of their and our true humanity, and as such it is a violation of the image of God in which every human being is made. It is a far more serious issue than to simply have a wandering eye, or to engage in harmless fantasies. It is not a victimless crime even when conducted purely in our minds. It is a dehumanising act because even in doing so we reduce ourselves to less than what we are and seek to, in some way, redefine the other through the lens of our lust, objectifying and enslaving them and ourselves in the process.

Is it any wonder that Jesus words are so cutting and seem so extreme.

“If your right eye causes you to offend (become an offender) cut it out.”

Jesus is clear. Lust is a big deal because it is dehumanising, it is a redefining of what we are through the lens of our sexual desires and an imposition of a new definition upon ourselves and the other.

It is a prerogative solely belonging to God to define what He has made. In seeking to redefine ourselves and the other through the lens of our sexual desire we are in effect putting ourselves in the place of God, not only making slaves of ourselves and others, but implicitly taking the place of God in the process. It is an act of idolatry and false worship.

Jesus next statement is every bit as confronting, perhaps even more so.

“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…”

Now, this statement could have two meanings that I can think of.

Firstly, it could mean that if your right hand causes you to sin by reaching out to touch or take hold of the one over whom you’ve been lusting, then cut it off before you grasp the opportunity to fulfil the lustful desires of your heart.

Alternatively it could imply masterbation here.

Masterbation is not a subject raised in the church often, however, I believe that to be a mistake.

So many, even in christian circles, think that masterbation is normal and natural, a harmless way to ease the sexual tensions that are a natural part of life. I think however, that Jesus putting together the issue of lust and this injunction against the right hand, should give us pause for thought. (No left handers, you are not exempt from this injunction).

The act of masterbation is by definition a lustful act. At the very least, it is to indulge the sinful desires of our flesh, or more accurately, it is to take a right and God given desire and give expression to it in an illegitimate context.

The natural, God given desires we share for sexual intimacy have been given for the purpose of expressing both the physical and spiritual union between a husband and wife. As such, all sexual activity outside of that context is out of bounds, and therefore is sin.

Further, masterbation involves the imagination for the purpose of sexual stimulation, often focusing on another person seen through the lens of their sexual desire.

Again, to do so is a reduction of both who and what that person is. It is a dehumanising as,  an act of enslavement of the other, of ourselves, and is in the end an act of idolatry.

In fulfilling these sexual desires through masterbation we give full vent to the lustful desires of our hearts and, in the process, make ourselves slaves to those lustful desires, dehumanising ourselves in the process. Masterbation is a dehumanising act.

For these reasons Jesus tells us tells us that we would be better to cut off our hand than engage in such an act. Better to go to Heaven with one hand than to Hell with two.

Surely the severity of the consequences Jesus states should cause us alarm when thinking of these things. Surely the punishment is too great, eternity in Hell for lust, for masterbation?

Here I must state again the severity of the actions we are considering, denying the true humanity of the other, reducing them to less than what they are to fuel our sexual desire, the effectual dehumanisation and enslavement of another. The dehumanisation and enslavement of ourselves as we deny the fulness of our own humanity, reducing ourselves to the physical while denying the spiritual reality of what we are, and as such the spiritual implications of all we do. And finally taking the place of God in giving ourselves the authority and right to redefine the other and ourselves in accordance with and in the pursuit of our selfish sexual desires.

As followers of Jesus we are continually called to overcome the sinful desires of our flesh that wage war against our souls. We are no longer slaves of the Devil, nor are we to make ourselves slaves to our own selfish sexual desires. Instead we are to put to death the deeds of the flesh as we submit ourselves to being slaves of righteousness.

I think that, if we are to live this out faithfully, then we need to take seriously the natural urges that both men and women experience with regards to sex.

There’s a responsibility on the part of both the husband and the wife to ensure that the sexual needs of their spouse are met. This obviously only extends to legitimate sexual practices that embrace the fulness of who and what we are, physical/spiritual beings, made in the image of God. Anything that dehumanises by reducing or neglecting in any way the human dignity of the other is ruled out even within marriage.

I think that’s why Paul takes such a clear line regarding the marriage bed and the obligations that the husband has to the wife and the wife to the husband. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 Paul makes it clear that the husband and wife are not to deny each other sexual relations, so that they may avoid temptation to lust.

Paul goes so far as to say that the woman’s body is not her own with regards to sex, authority over it belongs to the husband. Likewise, the husbands body is not his own, authority over it belongs to the wife. As such, neither the man nor the woman are to deny each other except for a limited time for the purpose of fasting and prayer.

Paul gives these instructions so that “Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self control.” (V5)

When a husband and wife give themselves to each other in this way, it will act as a strong defence against lust and adultery of all kinds. It will also promote the unity and closeness of the marriage.

Now, a quick but important note. This approach illustrated by Paul can be taken advantage of and be perverted. However, as I’ve already stated here, the sexual union between the husband and wife is to be conducted in such a way as to reflect the loving character and nature of God in whose image each spouse has equally been made. The sexual practice should reflect the spiritual as well as the physical nature of what we are as human beings, and as such the sacred act that the sexual union is.

Sex is to be pursued in the same manner as all of the Christian life, thinking of others more highly than ourselves, and putting their needs above our own. Sexual relations should never be self serving, demeaning or dehumanising in any way, or an exercise in power, either positively expressed as domination, or negatively expressed as manipulation.

In writing all of this I can’t help but to have Ravi Zacharias come to mind. Perhaps here is another reason I have struggled to write this piece, knowing that it must surely at some point and in some way bring me here.

As some of you know, Ravi has been a big inspiration to me, particularly in my early walk with the Lord. I had the privilege of studying at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics which was a course run as a partnership between Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Wycliffe Hall, a permanent private hall of Oxford University.

I got to meet Ravi while studying there and to spend some time with him. Later I travelled  over a period of years as a speaker at the invitation of RZIM.

It’s not my intention here to explore the ins and outs of Ravi’s actions, nor is it to ask any questions about Ravi’s security in salvation. These are matters best left to the Lord. He will do what is right and His judgement will be just.

For my purpose here at this point, it is to hold Ravi up as a cautionary tale.

Ravi’s actions in the end were not where he began. As it has often been said, big things have small beginnings. Grievous sin starts with a small lustful thought.

Whatever we can say about Ravi, this is certainly true. Somewhere along the line Ravi flirted with lustful thoughts. He didn’t actively cut those thoughts off in their tracks or seek advice or prayer when he found himself plagued by them.

At some point the lustful thoughts were joined by opportunity, probably small, innocuous looking, easy to justify, and the snowball of besetting sin was sent careening with destructive force through his heart and life, the debris of which cast in every direction as shrapnel from a bomb, and many have been wounded as a result.

I have learned so much that is good from Ravi. Let’s take these final lessons that come from his life and apply them to ours for the safeguarding of our souls.

Don’t let lust take root in your heart. Don’t let it define you. Don’t give in to the temptation to redefine yourself or others on the basis of your sexual desires. Do whatever it takes, whatever you have to do to either cut lust off, or to give our sexual desire its legitimate expression within the context of a loving marriage and a life lived as an act of worship to the one true and living God made known in the person of Jesus the Christ.


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