“Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” To most men, this statement by Jesus seems unrealistic. Looking with lust is so big a part of their lives that to do otherwise seems impossible.
Count me among those who have been perplexed by what Christ said. However, that has changed. I now know that it is possible to avoid adultery in the heart. Here is how this works. Whenever I see a woman, or an image of a woman, which could stir a lustful reaction within me, I immediately stop this from happening. That is, I recoil internally from harnessing my desires and thoughts as a way to generate lust in my heart. This may include a variety of methods, whether by averting my eyes, redirecting my thoughts, switching the channel or turning the page, but the action is always the same. I recoil from sinning in my heart.
Most Christian men appear not to be taking these steps. Rather than obeying Jesus, they hear what He said and then do the opposite. Here are five reasons for this disobedience:
1) Misunderstanding the nature of lust
The way lust works is often misunderstood. Lust is commonly described as being the same as strong sexual desire. However, this description of lust leaves out the key fact that the object of this desire is forbidden to us. Strong sexual desire for one’s spouse is not the same as lust for someone else. In fact, lust is more than mere desire because it has within it an element of fulfillment. It is like drinking from a cup, not merely thirsting. Here is a better definition: “Lust is gaining sexual gratification or a ‘buzz’ from anyone or anything except your wife.” (note: read here if you want to better understand lust)
This definition draws the line at the earliest stage of sexual arousal, exactly where Jesus zeroed in. It recognizes that when we lust, we are not passive participants, but rather, actively engaged as we fix our attention on a woman, an image or a fantasy. Unfortunately, even in the Church, many assume that the buzz is not lust and just an unavoidable reaction to temptation. As a result, they consume all available eye candy much like everyone else and treat it as a risk-free source of pleasure, both harmless and fun. This overlooks the fundamental role that lustful looking plays as the earliest and most critical stage of lust. Our minds are able to generate powerful images and fantasies. Looking lustfully, even briefly, harnesses this ability in a way that is unacceptable and sinful. It does not stop there.
Once we have begun, the seed is sown for an ongoing harvest of “blowing it” in ways that are not as easily minimized. Waiting until a later stage before we care to call it sin means that we are missing the obvious. Since we initially brought lust into our lives as a playful pet, we should not be surprised when it grows into a ferocious animal. Rather than being puzzled by our condition, we should heed the words of our Master, retrace our steps, and be aware that lustful looking is the point at which we started to sin. This awareness of when we are engaged in lust is central to any plan for gaining victory. The only effective response to this as to all sin is to immediately repent, confess and receive forgiveness without letting it take root.
2) Refusing to believe that obedience is possible
Tragically, most men are resigned to the false idea that they are “hardwired” to lust. This causes them to conclude that the standard laid down by Jesus is both unnatural and contrary to how we are designed. However, since we routinely stop ourselves from obtaining a buzz from a family member, such as a sister or daughter, we know that we are not reflexive when it comes to lust. In fact, a simple test of obeying our Savior’s commandment as to lustful looking will quickly reveal that we can apply the same sort of discipline whenever we face the temptation to lust. With some practice, each of us can quickly learn to separate visual or mental stimuli from feelings of sexual gratification.
It is not long until we become acutely aware and distressed whenever the “way” we look has crossed the line. Being “in Christ” means we are dead to sin. Stopping ourselves from lusting is a great way to demonstrate this truth for ourselves and to learn that we have already been empowered to turn from sinning if that is what we choose to do. If you have been in a long struggle with lust, the prescription of eliminating lustful looks may seem simplistic and inadequate even though our Savior mandates it. Nonetheless, rejecting a habit that we may have practiced since childhood by bringing our eyes into obedience to Him is an amazingly effective solution.
One reason that some Christians reject this approach is that they view sexual purity as something that God and not they must establish. While they would not condone other sins, like stealing, they somehow have been convinced that lust is different. Unfortunately, victory over sin is not automatic. Rather, as with other sins, this thorny bush must be thoroughly uprooted. Otherwise, it will entangle and prevent us from being fruitful. Far from making us prideful, succeeding in this must cause us to say, “we are unworthy servants, since we have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Obeying the law of God in this regard strengthens us, since it means we are performing in the way we were designed. Our Christian life is meant to be one of exploring new and exciting possibilities and fully utilizing all of our capacities as we walk “in Him.” We are unable to flourish in this new life if we persist in the sin of lust, as it will relentlessly occupy our thoughts if given an opening.
3) Thinking there is a better way
By focusing fully on the lustful look, Jesus did not ignore all the other lustful behaviors in which men regularly engage. Instead, His teaching directs us to where the battle is won. Unfortunately, rather than choosing to permanently close the stable door as He taught, many of us opt to busily chase and corral runaway horses on a daily basis. Both the world and the Church suggest that by sheer determination, we can turn off harmful habits such as viewing pornography, dabbling on the Internet and masturbation.
To this end, they commonly recommend the help of counselors and support groups and various regimens and techniques, like installing Internet filters or avoiding R rated movies for this purpose. Unfortunately, these approaches do not directly address the real issue. Since it is lustful looking that creates our irresistible and ongoing cravings for more, striving to change other behaviors instead is as ineffective as mowing the lawn to get rid of weeds. Getting to the root of the problem requires making a covenant with our eyes to not “look lustfully” as Job described (Job 31:1).
If we eliminate the fuel, the fire will die. Those who fail at reigning in “addictive” behavior should make this their first step. Once lust has been set loose, fighting off its demands by means of our feeble willpower is impossible. That is why we should not borrow from the world’s playbook, which assumes that men can curtail their behavior to some degree without fully eliminating lust. This approach is coupled with surprise at those who tumble over the cliff. We are all painfully aware of the many who have shipwrecked their lives because they could not maintain rules of conduct.
The problem has become especially pronounced as the morals of our culture have spiraled steadily downward. Few sexual activities are taboo and almost anything goes if it feels good, especially if it is make-believe. In this environment, establishing a comfort zone with some but not too much lust is problematic. Christians are prone to take a more religious approach. They believe that they can keep lust in check by depending on religious activity. Through increased prayer, Bible reading, fasting, Church attendance and mutual accountability they hope to overwhelm the sin brooding in their hearts.
Certainly there is much to be gained from all of these practices, but they cannot take the place of obeying our Savior’s clear directive to eliminate lust. In fact, maintaining outward appearances without zero tolerance in our hearts results in hypocrisy and weakness when we are tempted. Of course, anyone walking in victory will do all he can to avoid temptation. We are the light of the world. Darkness has no power unless we make a place for it in our hearts and minds.
We must not give in to lust regardless of our levels of stress, our spiritual mood, the state of our relationships, or the temptations we face. Jesus delivered His clear-cut standard as part of His Sermon on the Mount. This great message and blueprint for how we are to live, ends with the sobering parable of the man who built his house on a foundation of sand, and a warning. If we hear His teachings and do not obey them, we will collapse when the storms of life envelope us. On the other hand, if we love Him, we will obey His clear call for inner righteousness, build on a stable foundation and be secure in the time of peril.
4) Not acknowledging the danger and dreadfulness of lust.
Maybe you are unconvinced. Like many men you may think that a little bit of lust is unavoidable, all the while being acutely aware of where too much of it can lead. Heartbreaking tales of broken homes, careers, and lives are sadly familiar. Lust can be a wrecking ball in a man’s life, bringing complete devastation. However, none of us expects this to happen to us and usually it doesn’t. Instead, the norm is to incorporate lust into our lives at a “safe” level. We keep this carefully tucked away and are quick to turn back whenever it seems to get out of control. Instead of a deadly disease, it more closely resembles a low-grade fever or chronic condition. However, nurturing lust at this level will nevertheless still cause significant damage. First off, sexual impurity inevitably injects duplicity into our lives.
Jesus deplored hypocrisy more than any underlying sin. If we are Christians who harbor sexual fantasies, we are hypocrites- double-minded, unstable men. Most men are said to think about sex once every ten minutes. If we have allowed lust a foothold, we can readily identify with this statistic. Even while we are professing our faith and acting clean on the outside, we are actually “dirty cups” on the inside. Jesus sees inside the heart and knows our thoughts. He demands that we maintain an inner purity that would leave us unafraid to have our thoughts read by anyone.
An even more grievous consequence, however, is that our choosing to lust means breaking the greatest commandment. We are told to love God with all our hearts, our minds and our strength. Giving in to lust hijacks our thoughts and creative energies and displeases our Father who demands the attention we expend as we chase sinful desires. Is it any wonder that our walk with God is uncomfortable and our spiritual lives stunted? Our powerful imaginations and intricate thought lives were designed for God’s kingdom. They have a part in His plan. Why turn these faculties over to sin? Once we make room for lust in our lives, it will assert its power unexpectedly, even at those times when we desire to draw close to God. Knowing that we can overcome but choosing not to has ominous implications.
We dare not overlook the rest of what Jesus taught on this subject in Mathew 5. His provocative suggestion that we pluck out our eyes if they cause us to lust is meant to alarm us and makes perfect sense if, in fact, our eyes were the problem. However, we know that our eyes are not the problem. Instead, it is our determination to employ our eyes as a means to lust that is so grotesque in His sight and dangerous for us.
We must keep in mind that the wages of sin is always death. We will reap what we sow. Assuming that we can engage in lust and yet escape the consequences is foolish. Sin always results in death. Our lust may be killing our relationships with our wives or obliterating our testimony before those who know us. It certainly will stifle our prayer life and a closer walk with God. We should not act surprised by the resulting havoc or delude ourselves into thinking that receiving forgiveness is equivalent to obedience. God has not suspended the law of the harvest.
The poster boy for this truth is King David. The sin of lust produced tragedy in his home and in his kingdom. Despite his repentance and determination to obtain a “clean heart”, the consequences of his sin continued. Should we hope to escape a similar fate? Turning away from our sin and living our lives in Christ is what we are repeatedly told to do. If we don’t, be assured that our sin will find us out.
5) Lacking clear teaching and models of sexual purity.
Admittedly, this approach is not commonly taught. Yet, treating lust this way is neither radical nor rarely practiced. Questioning men who have a deep walk with God will reveal that they habitually recoil from the lustful look. Typically, they will have adopted this habit early in their Christian walk and are unaware of how this differentiates them from those stumbling around them. As a result, these same men are not passing along practical teaching about lust and the means of overcoming it as Jesus taught causing many to flounder unnecessarily.
Although I paid more than average attention to this issue during fifty years as an active Christian, I still failed to learn these truths. My past ignorance makes me sympathetic to those who are confused and frustrated by how their faith seems powerless in helping them overcome lust. Perhaps those who have been trapped and then escaped are best equipped to help others. This is what David wanted to do. After Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin, he cried out for a clean heart and hoped that at some point, he could teach “transgressors their ways” so that “sinners will turn back to you” (Ps 51:13).
Those who disciple others after gaining victory can demonstrate that lust is not an unconquerable force, but rather, just one of many sins from which we can be freed. In order to help others, it is essential that we model success and transparency while relying on resources that take a non-compromising approach. Standing with Paul as ones who have been delivered from doing that which we hate can open the door for others. The entire Biblical message relating to sexual sin is a call for uncompromising purity and inner righteousness, qualities the evangelical church has had in short supply.
As the teachings of Jesus and the apostles emphasized, there is a constant temptation to retreat into legalism, which substitutes outward rules in place of obedience and forms a cloak for an unrighteous heart. Observing a slippery set of man-made rules cannot eliminate the lustful look. Righteousness can only be established at a much deeper level where we refuse to fool ourselves, and choose to turn from our wicked ways and thoughts. Only then will the meditations of our hearts become acceptable to Him. Certainly, demonstrating power over sin accomplishes much more than angrily scolding or blaming the decadence of our society. After all, if Christians cannot resist temptation, why shouldn’t the world keep catering to them? We may even help turn the putrid tide rising around us once we stop ingesting eye candy, reflexively resist all sexual temptations and deny ourselves illicit gratification.
Being obedient in this regard does not doom us to a life of deprivation. Rather, it frees us to walk in and enjoy the deeper pleasures God has for us. Obedience also opens us up to more of the Sermon on the Mount and its claim on our lives. Our world, including those who embrace competing religious claims, will only notice the difference when we really are different in our innermost being.
By Jim Vander Spek
Note: This article was posted elsewhere and read by many long before I wrote the book, Overcoming Lust, in which these ideas are expanded upon. It continues to sadden and disturb me that the five reasons described above continue to hamper many from entering into freedom from sin.