Adultery in the Heart
Adultery in the Heart
St. Matthew 5:27-30
by William Klock
Last week started our look at Jesus six practical, real-world examples that show us what it means, what it looks like, to follow his lead. He had told the people that he came not to abolish, but to fulfil God’s Law. Jesus tells us, if you are going to be my follower, you will delight in keeping God’s Law too. And yet everything he was teaching was in opposition to what the current teachers of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees, taught about it. The rest of Chapter Five is Jesus’ explanation of how the scribes and Pharisees missed the point – how they had come to the point where the letter of the Law was all that mattered and that the spirit of it – the heart and motivation behind it – didn’t matter anymore.
Last week we looked at murder – something we should now see we’re all guilt of in our hearts. He picks another one for us today – one that is at least just as apt for us as the first one was. If you have your Bibles, look at Matthew 5:27-28. Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you thateveryone 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.
Do you see Jesus repeating the pattern here? “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Yes, the Seventh Commandment says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but Jesus is talking about what the Pharisees taught about that commandment. Last week we looked at what they taught about murder. They asked the natural question, “What constitutes murder?” But then they took the literal dictionary definition and narrowed the commandment down to that alone. It was okay to hate, to insult, and to destroy a man with words – just so long as you didn’t kill him. Well they did the same thing here. They asked, “What constitutes adultery?” and they narrowed the commandment down to dictionary definition – to the act itself.
The Pharisees’ problem was that they picked the Law apart. When they first started out after the Maccabean revolt, the Pharisees came up with their own set of rules, but the point was that they studied God’s Law and then developed a system to assist them in keeping it. But by Jesus’ time, that man-made system had replaced the Law itself. They were more concerned with their own rules than with the Law. They were so focused on the individual trees, if you will, that they couldn’t see the forest anymore. And that’s exactly what’s going on here. Jesus’ first example about murder was somewhat subtle. The Pharisees were right in focusing on the command not to murder, but they missed God’s commands throughout the rest of the Old Testament that tell us to love our neighbour. In his second example, Jesus shows us just how blind the Pharisees are. They read the Seventh Commandment literally and rightly concluded that the physical act of adultery is wrong, but they completely miss the Tenth Commandment just a few words down the page: “Thou shalt not covet.” They were so focused on the one tree that they couldn’t se the one right next to it! This was the same mistake that St. Paul confesses to having made. Think about it. Where does adultery start? It starts when you covet a man or a woman who isn’t yours to have. If you start with stamping out the sin of covetousness, adultery won’t be a problem. For that matter, if you stamp out the sin of hate, murder won’t be a problem either. The Pharisees were so focused on the Law as actions, that they forgot the subtle sins of the heart that bring about those actions.
The Pharisees’ problem is just as much our problem too. Every time we forget that we are sinners saved by grace through faith, we default back to our fallen natural inclination and we try to please God, we try to earn our salvation, by doing good works. We reduce the faith to a set of rules, to a set of do’s and don’ts, and think we can set ourselves right in God’s eyes. We look at the people around us and say, “I’m keeping the rules better than they are.” And so Jesus says to us here the same thing he said to the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). We’re inclined to think, “As long as I don’t commit the physical act of adultery I’ve kept the Law.” But Jesus says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus stresses to us the exceeding sinfulness of sin. The whole purpose of the Law, St. Paul tells us, is to show just how sinful sin is. But like the Pharisees, we misunderstand the Law and effectively nullify its message. I’m not sure that we have anywhere such a plain exposure of what sin really is than Jesus gives us here.
Think about it this way. Leviticus 20:10 tells us the penalty for adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” “Wheh! I’ve never done that, so I’m okay,” we might say to ourselves. But Jesus says that we’ve committed the sin of adultery in our heart if we even look at another person lustfully. Just as we’re all guilty of murder in our hearts, we’re all guilty of adultery in our hearts. Just like murder in the heart, adultery in the heart is a serious thing – it’s not something we can blow off as no big deal.
Part of our problem is that our culture doesn’t make obedience to God easy. In fact, it tends to desensitise us to this kind of sin. Ad agencies seem to sell virtually everything with sex. Books and magazines are filled with the salacious and perverted. Most of the secular music on the radio focuses on relationships between men and women, usually in terms of satisfying sexual and physical desires. Movies, TV shows, and video games celebrate infidelity and every sort of sexual immorality. And of course the other big one: now you can access every sort of immorality on the Internet completely anonymously and in the privacy of your own home. We’re bombarded with sex every day of our lives. Sometimes there’s not much we can do to avoid it, but all too often we allow it into our lives by what we read, what we watch, what we buy, and what we do on our computers. The influence is subtle and slow. Have you ever been watching a movie where a man is torn between his wife and another woman and you find yourself rooting for him to ditch his wife? It happens and, I think, that illustrates just how much our culture has desensitised us. We think, “It’s not real. It’s just a book or a movie.” And yet the plots of the books and movies subtly form what and how we think about sex and marriage. Fashions that would have been a scandal twenty years ago become common, and before long Christians adopt them uncritically. And so when we’re tempted to think it’s no big deal, we need to remember what Jesus’ says to us, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And the opposite applies as much to women as it does to men. Jesus reminds us that God’s Law demands purity and integrity in our hearts and in our thoughts about others.
I’m sure this has always been a problem, but it seems to be more so for us in the present because our culture is so sex-obsessed. I think that evangelicals think that we’re somehow insulated from the culture around us, but that simply isn’t true. Surveys show that more than half of men in evangelical churches regularly look at pornography – and that many of them are clearly addicted. Pastors aren’t completely free from that statistic either. I’ve said before that our tendency, even as Christians, is to live in outward conformity to Gods commands, but that if we can get away with something in secret, we often will do so. Thanks to things like the Internet, it’s all too easy to get away with sin in secret. More than ever before, sinful sexual relations (whether in the mind or acted out in real life) have become the door through which Christians walk to their own destruction.
God did make men and women to be attracted to each other, to need each other, and to be in relationships with each other that are physical and spiritual. God has given us the gift of being able to make more human beings in the context of the closest imaginable human relationship that is both physical and spiritual. God’s gift of sexuality is unequivocally good.
But the primary reason that God gave us this gift is for companionship. The purpose of marriage isn’t children, it isn’t sex, it isn’t self-fulfilment – it’s companionship. God put Adam to sleep and created Eve from his rib, then brought her to Adam as his wife. Why? He says himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It’s within that bond of committed fellowship that family life is to be established, and our sexual instincts are to find their fulfilment.
That starts with a life-long commitment to being “one flesh.” The writer of Genesis tells us, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). We breach this commitment at our own peril! Adultery violates the holy thing that God himself has established. It not only violates the Seventh Commandment, it involves disobedience of the Lord we are to love and worship. It involves theft of another person’s companion as a result of our covetousness. The movies portray it as an exciting lifestyle, but in fact its pleasure is that of theft and idolatry. It’s ugly to the core and we’d see it that way, whether we do it in reality or in our hearts and minds, if only the scales that blind us and the foolishness that desensitises us could be cleansed from our hearts.
If those scales would fall off our eyes, we’d be able to see why adultery is so serious a thing. It shatters lives, it disrupts and even destroys families, and it despises God. God wanted to make it clear just how serious it is, so in Leviticus he commanded the death penalty for it.
The question for us is, how can we live in our culture and keep ourselves faithful to what God commands? Jesus gets to the heart of it when he warns that we need, first and foremost, to guard our hearts.
We have to appreciate the gift God has given. There’s nothing wrong with looks, and gifts, and graces. Jesus isn’t forbidding looking. He’s forbidding lusting looks. Cloistering ourselves away from the world so that we won’t be tempted by the sight of the opposite sex isn’t the answer. Every time we try to remove ourselves from the world to avoid one source of temptation, we simply introduce another of a different kind. Jesus is telling us that we have to commit ourselves to living within the boundaries God has placed around us.
If we’re men, we need to say with Job, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1 NIV). Women need to make a similar covenant with God. We won’t play with our own emotions and we won’t play with the emotions of others. We need to commit to treating our Christian brothers and sisters as just that: brothers and sisters in complete purity. Only within the context of marriage will we share our sexuality.
How can we keep ourselves pure? Let me suggest four things:
First, realise where your yielding to sinful lusts will lead you. Jesus says, “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Hell is the direction in which sin leads us. I’m not sure we remember this as often as we should. We don’t talk about Hell very much and I think, for most of us, even evangelicals, while we may believe that Hell exists, it might as well not for all that we talk about it. And maybe that’s why we lack the commitment we should have to Christ. We don’t realise what it is that he has saved us from. The wrath of God is a horrible thing, but we focus on it so little that we forget the horrors that would await us were it not for Christ. So first, remember exactly where your sin leads and fix that in your mind.
Second, deal with the real cause of your sin. Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, or if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Jesus isn’t telling us to literally gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands. If you gouged out your right eye, it wouldn’t stop you from sinning with your left, and if you gouged them both out, you could just as easily sin with your imagination. His point is to deal with the real cause of your sin. Sin is a drastic thing, so we have to take drastic measures. Don’t pamper your sin. Don’t flirt with it. I had a roommate in university who was convicted of his addiction to pornographic magazines, so he cancelled his subscriptions to them, but promptly went to the mall and picked up catalogues from the local lingerie and swimsuit stores – and for all intents and purposes they might just as well have been pornographic. He was being very much a Pharisee. He was living up to the dictionary definition of pornography, but what he wasn’t dealing with his sin of looking at women lustfully. You see, we tend to rationalise our sin or we draw arbitrary lines between what constitutes sin and what doesn’t – we ask, “How close can I get without actually sinning.” And when we do that we’re looking only at the letter, not at the spirit. We like to nibble around the edges of our sin. Stop! Don’t pamper your sin. Don’t flirt with it. Hate it. Crush it. Stamp it out! St. Paul told the Colossians, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
And don’t offer substitutes to God. Don’t offer to give up one sin that isn’t that big of a deal to you so that you can keep the one that is. And don’t try to substitute good works to somehow make up for you sin. Don’t bargain or negotiate with God. Don’t say, “God, I’ll read my Bible twice every day to make up for my sin. God, I’ll pray for everything on the church prayer list three times a day to make up for my sin. God, I’ll tithe 15% to make up for my sin.” We’ll do anything to get out of giving up our right eye. But Jesus’ point is that you can’t sacrifice something else – you have to sacrifice your sin. Failure to gouge out the source of sin can’t be remedied by substitute offerings or obedience or sacrifice.
Third, you know the source and cause of your sin and you know you have to get rid of it. Do it now! No matter how painful it is, gouge it out or cut it off immediately. Jesus’ example of an eye or a hand is nasty to think about, but it makes the point. Other writers in the New Testament refer to this as mortification – it is mortifying, literally. The fact is that getting rid of the source of our favourite sins can be almost as bad as gouging out your right eye. You’ll probably have to deal with withdrawl symptoms and it might mean making a major change in your life. The consequences might seem unbearable, but the drastic nature of the cure tells us something about the radical danger of sin. Sin is nothing over which we can negotiate. Obedience can’t be negotiated and neither can heaven or hell.
Let me give you an example of what this means. One man told me that years before he had had an affair with a co-worker. When he came to his senses, he realised that the only remedy was to quit his job – to put her out of his life. After he confessed his sin to his wife, he burned everything associated with the other woman, he went with his wife to see his priest and handed over the woman’s apartment key for the priest to dispose of, and the next day he quit his job. Not only was cutting off the sinful relationship terribly painful, but the man, in removing the source of the temptation, put his very livelihood on the line – but God took care of him. In contrast, cutting off an Internet connection or cable TV, cancelling a subscription, or taking a different route home from work to avoid temptation are relatively minor things. But again, do whatever you have to do to remove sin’s source from your life.
Finally, remember that your lust doesn’t define your life. The man in my last example struggled for a long time because so much of his identity was tied up in the affair he’d been having for years. He just couldn’t imagine cutting it off. What it took was for him to realise that the affair wasn’t the end-all-be-all of his existence. He had forgotten all the things he had given up in order to have the affair in the first place – not least of which was his closeness to God. Jesus says, “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
You see, the world, the flesh, and the devil have a tendency to blackmail us when we’re caught up in a specific sin. We think, or Satan says, “Sure it’s sinful, but if you deal with that sin the way Jesus tells you to, what will you have left? Think about the long road to spiritual recovery. Think of the humiliation if you have to tell other people or if you need accountability. Think of what you’ll lose if you say no to the sin.” We become so attached to our sin that it becomes all-consuming. It demands all we can give. And yet all we can give is what is demanded by God.
And so Jesus gives us hope. He gives us a new perspective on the problem. He says, “Gouge out the eye that causes you to sin, but in doing so you save your life.” Yes, that sin may forever be burned into your memory, even after God has forgiven it. But as you deal with the source of that sin, you take steps toward life and steps away from the doorway to death. Jesus tells us, “Don’t be deceived into a hopeless abandonment to sin.” St. Paul gives us some encouraging words in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Please pray with me: Our Father, you created us for purity, but in our rebellion against you we have allowed what is impure into our hearts and minds – and often into our actions. We thank you that through Jesus Christ we can find forgiveness of our sins. Give us the grace to put our sins behind us, no matter how difficult or trying it may be. Assist us with your Spirit to clothe ourselves with purity that we might be ever more and more like your Son, Jesus Christ. We ask this in his Name. Amen.