In six statements in Matthew 5, Jesus challenges the morality of his time in favor of a life of surrender to God. These challenges are about big issues—violence, sex, relationships, truthfulness, submission, and vengeance. These statements provoke deep feelings, but to live God’s way we must rise above feelings and follow what is right.
Rising above our feelings is going to make us unhappy. Self-control isn’t fun! But self-control is freedom. The greatest tyrant you will ever overcome are your own appetites. Is an addict free? An addict is a prisoner of his or her own desires. Only when we learn to overcome our desires can we be really free.
What do you really want out of life? Would you like to be able to run a hundred-yard dash? Would you like to be thin again? Would you like a college degree? Without self-discipline, these are just idle dreams. Our inability to say “no” to our temporary appetites keeps us from being what we want. Without discipline, we aren’t free to be better.
To enter the kingdom of God, we must surrender ourselves to God. But we can’t surrender what we do not own. Without saying “no” to our appetites, we cannot say “yes” to God.
Paul says in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you brethren by the mercies of God that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.” We can’t give our bodies to God if we don’t own them. Otherwise, our “living sacrifice” just keeps crawling off the altar! Unless we learn to resist our urges we surrender to the kingdom of flesh, not the kingdom of God.
In this passage, Jesus talks about one of the hardest appetites to master —sexuality. Since the 1960’s, the Sexual Revolution has dominated our culture when it comes to the way we view sex. This revolution can be summarized in three statements that most of our culture believes without question:
1. Sex is an irresistible urge
2. Sexual behavior is dictated by nature, not choice.
3. Sexuality is amoral, since it cannot be helped.
These three ideas have been around forever, but they have been affirmed and amplified through the persistent and one-sided voices of the media and entertainment and society at large. Most people growing, Christian or not, believe them today, and even accept them as “common sense.” They cannot imagine how anyone could not believe them.
The effect of this has been devastating to us. The vast majority of young people today have sex before marriage. The divorce rate among first time married people is around 40 to 50 percent. It is much higher for those who have been married before. Pornography, with its objectification and exploitation of, is the most popular side of the internet, and has a huge hidden effect on modern opinions.
It’s a huge problem for the church. The children of the church are being forced to choose between “common sense” of our day and the teachings of the church. Most choose the culture over God. Ultimately, they abandon the church and religion.
It’s also a huge problems for individuals. Most of the cases of poverty that don’t involve drugs or mental illness come from unwanted pregnancies with deadbeat dads. Many strong, brave women find themselves raising children fathered by men who accept no responsibility for the results of their sexual behavior. Forty-one percent of all children in the US are born out of wedlock. I am convinced that if the world practiced Biblical chastity, poverty in America would decrease by at least sixty percent.
“So you have heard” Jesus would say, “But I say to you” something entirely different.
The teaching of Jesus on sex goes like this:
1. Sex is a good and powerful urge, but a irresistible one, beginning in the mind and ending in the body
2. Sexual behavior is a matter of choice.
3. Sexuality is a key to learning self-control in all areas of life, inside and outside of relationships., and is of great importance.
The Sexual Revolution was right about one thing—sex is a powerful, universal urge in almost all of us. Anyone over twelve or thirteen knows this. It is a God-given appetite, meant as a way to express affection and procreate the species.
Without sexual appetites, none of us would be here! Not only is it powerful, it is also good. Sex is a gift, not a burden.
In this, it is no different from any other appetite inside of us—food, intellectual stimulation, the desire for other people.
But just like any other appetites, it must be governed, and it can be governed. Sex may be powerful, but it doesn’t have to be our god. Generations of faithful Catholic priests, nuns and monks have shown us that it is possible to have happy, fulfilling lives without sex. Most generations of our ancestors found it possible to live without sex until marriage. For thousands of years, people have known that we have a choice in sexual behavior. And even though there have always been people who were promiscuous. It’s mostly our modern culture that fails to recognize the possibility and the value of sexual self-control.
But the sexual urge was no less powerful to the ancients as it is today. But unlike us, they didn’t teach that is was irresistible.
One way the ancients tried to deal with was to restrict sexual behavior but ignore sexual temptation (we do the same thing, by the way). Keep it in the mind, but not in the body.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did this with a literal reading of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Ignoring whatever else the Bible said about not having any other rulers but God, and the many places where the Bible condemned looking at other women, they focused on this one restriction. As long as you didn’t actually commit the act with someone else while you were actually married, or with someone who was also married, then there were no restrictions. Prostitutes and concubines were really not adultery to them, as long as you owned them. This was a gross exploitation of women’s bodies, but as long as they didn’t do it with someone else’s wife, it was ok to them. They were constantly finding ways around the narrow confines of monogamy.
But sex is about the heart, not just the body. The heart follows the body, and the body follows the heart. Sexual behavior originates inside our minds. If we don’t find a way to control our minds, then our bodies will follow into adultery. If you spend your time ogling other women, you are committing mental adultery.
This isn’t really about sex, though. It’s about obedience to God. The same thing can be said for all the appetites that would control us. If we let our minds fantasize about things, our fantasies will control us. We may have been taught to avoid pornography and Playboy, but we feast on fantasies of food, and see nothing wrong with a Dunkin Donuts commercial, which stimulates our appetite for unhealthy food, or in the Lexus commercials which stimulate our greed. If Jesus were speaking these words today, I think he would say whoever looks on material goods or gluttonous food with lust in his or her heart also commits spiritual adultery from God.
“Lust” is an interesting word in Greek. It’s epithumia. Thumia is a feeling or passion. The English word“enthusiasm” comes from it. Epi means an overwhelming uncontrollable passion. Any uncontrollable passion or desire is lust, whether it be for food, money or women. Thumias are usually for good things. Sexual desire is why we get married and start families. But when we recon our thumias to be epithumias, then they control us. Keeping thumias from becoming epithumias is what self-control is all about. Thumias drives us to do what God wants. Epithumias drive us away from God.
God wants our ultimate passion to be for Him. The promotion of passion for Him in our minds is a decision we make. We can stimulate a passion for God or we can stimulate a passion for sex. We deny our passion for sex, food, and money when we refuse to fantasize them. The passion is there, but we refuse to dwell on it. Luther said that we can’t keep birds from flying overhead, but we can keep them from nesting in our hair. We can’t keep thoughts out of mind, but we do have a choice whether or not to dwell on them. We can say to ourselves that sexual thoughts are good, but just not now. We save them for the proper time within marriage, at the proper time and place.
If you don’t want your thumias to become epithumias, don’t feed them. You control what your mind dwells upon. The choice of thoughts are up to you.
To keep our passions in their place, God encourages spiritual exercises to develop self-control. The practice of chastity—sexual restraint-- prevents us from being mastered by sexual desire. The practice of fasting prevents our being mastered by food. Sabbaths prevent our mastery by work. Tithing prevents our mastery by greed. The goal of these disciplines is to put God first in every area of our life.
How important is this? Jesus tells us in verses 29-30.
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. 30 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.
Jesus doesn’t really want us to mutilate ourselves. He is demonstrating the comparative value of God over everything else. It’s better to lose a body part than offend God. If you have to give up satisfying your sexual appetite or your favorite food to keep pure—then do it. It’s a good trade.
Jesus really doesn’t want us to maim ourselves. What He wants is for us to come to Him and seek his help in resisting sin. Losing a body part won’t help us be more holy, but seeking His help will bring us success. Jesus has the power to help us put our appetites in proper balance.
Cutting off your hand to get self-control just doesn’t really work. If our hearts aren’t changed, we won’t change. Until we change our ways, our lives will not improve.
The power of the Gospel is that God can change our hearts so that we can master our bodies and our thoughts. When Christ comes into our lives He gives us the power to resist temptation. Don’t believe the lies of the world that says we must give in to lust. We will never be free or our desires, but we can be free enough to say “no” by the power of Christ.