One thing to consider about lust, is that not everything sexual is lustful or wrong. Certainly, God made sex, and called it good. He designed it to be something to strengthen the bonds between wives and husbands. That means that God also made our sexual desires. It is the temptation to think about or act on these desires outside of of marriage that is the problem

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MATTHEW #16. Matthew 5:27-30

In college I had a friend who was a Muslim. During my Senior year the church I belonged to sponsored an evangelistic crusade in town. I took the training to be a prayer counselor. Afterwards I went to Anup (not his real name) and told him I wanted to ‘practice’ for the crusade. I asked him if he would pretend to be someone I was sharing the gospel with. The result was a number of extended conversations about God, Christianity and Islam that lasted until we graduated. In a weird sort of way, he began to see me as some sort of spiritual authority, and he would come to me for guidance in his practice of Islam. The strangest situation was when he came to me during Ramandan, a period of special holiness for Islam, lasting forty days. Anup had been fasting during this time (he didn’t eat while the sun was up). He pulled me aside at dinner (the sun had gone down) and told me he had recently gone to a strip-club. He asked me if I thought that was OK during Ramandan.

My friend’s question really helped open up the nature of Islam (and most other religions) to me. You see, he was fasting and keeping external regulations, staying outwardly faithful to his fiancée in Indonesia, but he genuinely didn’t know whether it was right or wrong to watch women strip in front of him. And frankly, he seemed mostly concerned that it might be wrong during Ramandan – he didn’t seem concerned about the rest of the year.

This, in some ways, was the attitude of Jews in Jesus’ day about sexual morality. Under the auspices of this law, people were walking around with their hearts consumed by lust, and yet they believed themselves righteous because they never actually committed the act. Jesus turns all this on its head when he says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matt 5:28). What Jesus is saying is that God is concerned both with external actions, and with the state of our hearts. Avoiding adultery is a good thing – and committing adultery is a sin. But sin begins in the heart, and often we allow “heart-sin” to exist happily within us if it doesn’t lead to external sinful actions. Jesus affirms, however, that God sees what is in our hearts as well (see 1 Samuel 16:7).

Let’s consider an example. In our house, there are consequences when one of our children strikes another person. One day a number of years ago, I noticed my oldest child arguing with her younger sibling. The argument grew heated; reason failed to convince. Finally, in anger, she took a swing at her brother. My oldest daughter is many wonderful things, but at five years old, she wasn’t very coordinated. It was a clear miss – no part of her body even touched her brother. However, clearly she intended to strike him and hurt him. I gave her exactly the same discipline I would have given her if the blow had connected. The reason for this is that the real problem was in her heart – deep inside, she wanted to hurt her brother. Whether or not she actually did hit him, she certainly wanted to, and that constitutes a problem in her heart. Outwardly, she was righteous. She had not hit her brother. But inwardly she had given in (in that instance) to sin.

In the same way, that is the problem with lust in the heart. Outwardly, the lustful person may be righteous, but inwardly, he or she has given in to sin. Now obviously, the external consequences of inward lust are far less than actual adultery. Inward lust does not usually wreak such destruction on relationships as outward acts like adultery and fornication. However, spiritually speaking – that is, in the eyes of God, a sin is a sin, whether it is committed only in the mind, or committed outwardly as well.

And there are consequences even to inward lust that is not acted upon. It can corrupt us into accepting standards other than God’s. It can interfere in the physical relationship between spouses – both as a result of guilt, and as a result of desiring physical intimacy with people other than one’s spouse. And there is always the danger that it will lead to the outward actions of physical adultery.

One thing to consider about lust, is that not everything sexual is lustful or wrong. Certainly, God made sex, and called it good. He designed it to be something to strengthen the bonds between wives and husbands. That means that God also made our sexual desires. Just as it is isn’t wrong to be angry, and yet anger creates all sorts of temptations, so it isn’t wrong to feel physically attracted to someone – even if you aren’t married to them. But those attractions do create all sorts of temptations. Focusing on that attraction, thinking about it, nurturing it, imagining what it would be like to be with that person – that is where the problem comes in. That is lust. Following up on those temptations – either in reality, or even just in the mind, says Jesus, is a sin.

So, like with anger, we need to deal with it before it becomes sin.

So how do we avoid lust in the heart? I will confess that for many years, I believed this to be practically impossible. Lust was one of my biggest struggles. I am still not immune to it, however, God has changed both my mind and my heart concerning the possibility of conquering lust. He can keep us from giving in to the temptation to lust. We can help him to do so when we do the following things:

First, surrender your heart completely to Jesus. If there is any corner of your heart where you still “hold out” against God, then that corner can easily become a foothold for the devil. Ted Bundy, the famous serial killer who raped and killed at least 28 women and girls, granted an interview to psychologist James Dobson, just one day before Bundy’s execution. Bundy offered some chilling insights:

I wasn’t some guy hanging out in bars, or a bum. I wasn’t a pervert in the sense that people look at somebody and say, “I know there’s something wrong with him.” I was a normal person. I had good friends. I led a normal life, except for this one, small but very potent and destructive segment that I kept very secret and close to myself.

There was an area of his life that was out of God’s control, and ultimately it led to the destruction of dozens of lives, including his own. If we have some area of life that we withhold from God, it gives Satan a stronghold – that is, a limited area where he still has power to control. It is almost impossible to resist temptation when there is a stronghold related to that temptation. For instance, suppose I have made some sort of inner commitment that I will never allow my emotional or physical needs to go unmet. That means that if God desires to meet those needs in a way that I don’t understand, I will say no to God – and by doing so, I have given the devil an opportunity. It’s very hard to say “yes” to God, when deep down, you are still saying “no” to him. So we need to surrender everything to God. If the Holy Spirit brings to your attention something that you have not surrendered to God, then take a moment to confess it as a sin, and receive God’s forgiveness, and then surrender that area.

Second, control your eyes. Jesus said “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell,” (Matt 5:29). Lust is fueled by the imagination, and the imagination is fueled by what we see, hear and read. So if you want to conquer lust, you need to control what you look at, listen to and read. I recommend EXTREME caution in choosing which TV programs and movies you watch. Perhaps this sounds a bit overly cautious, but I would be in good company if I said “It is better for you to lose the choice to see an ‘R’ movie than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” TV and movies will be a problem for some people and not for others. Please don’t try to deceive yourself if you suspect that what you are watching might contribute to your struggle with lust. Be careful of the magazines you read, and the web sites you visit. Certainly there is no other purpose for pornography than to feed lustful desires. Even publications which are not overtly pornographic often use sexually stimulating images and stories to sell the magazines. This is not something to “play around” with. Far better for you to go through life not seeing the movies and TV programs that others see, not reading what others read, not going to the places they go, than for you to end up trapped by lust, and going to hell.

It seems to me that when it comes to lust, men tend to be more susceptible to visual stimulus than women. Women are tempted to lust also, of course, but the visual part of it is more likely to be a problem for men. Part of that is simply biology. I think it is normal and natural for most men to notice attractive women. One look at an attractive woman is simply a biological reaction for men – not necessarily lust. The second look, and the other looks and imaginations that follow it, are what constitute lust.

With this in mind, I strongly encourage women to think carefully about how to dress. It is certainly OK to look nice. However, sometimes it is easy for women to cross the line between looking nice and becoming sexually provocative. I personally think many women don’t realize how much men are affected by what they see. If you aren’t sure if you are crossing the line with what you are wearing, ask your husband, or brother or father if he would be comfortable having other men see you in what you are wearing. Men, be honest in your answers to this, and women, please believe what your men tell you about it.

Third, become accountable to another person. Because it is a sin of the heart, lust is usually a “secret sin.” Of course, no sin is secret from God, but it is often secret from others. The problem is, secrecy gives sins power. The apostle John writes:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin,” (1 John 1:7).

“Walking in the light” includes confessing our sins to each other (see 1 John 1:8-10, James 5:16). When someone else really knows your sins (i.e., you have confessed them to someone) and has given you assurance of God’s forgiveness, those sins lose their power to hold you. You don’t need to be like a politician, afraid that some thing from your past might be dug up to ruin you. Instead, if you have a friend whom you regularly confess to, everything is already “dug up” and there’s no secret sin that no one knows about. You’re free! Not only that, but it is always helpful to have someone praying for you, and to know that he or she is going to ask you about your struggles. Please use common sense in finding someone to confess to, and to be accountable to. In this situation, men should be with men, and women with women. It is often good to confess things to your spouse, but it is almost always beneficial to have someone else, of your same gender, to talk to as well.

Fourth, limit where and when and how much you drink alcohol. Alcohol is not your friend when it comes to lust. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and resistance to temptation. People do things under the influence of alcohol that they would never do sober, and many people regret it very much afterwards. Scripture is very clear that you should never drink enough to let alcohol affect your judgment. It is a really bad idea, and a sin, to get drunk at all (in case you didn’t know, you kill approximately 10,000 brain cells every time you get drunk). It is even worse if you are having a few drinks with friends of the opposite sex to whom you are not married. It’s true, perhaps nothing bad will happen, but certainly, nothing good comes from it. At best, you might manage to avoid a worse situation. But the “worse” possibilities are almost endless. A little booze with friends could end up with you contracting a disease, or destroying your marriage, or having a baby with someone you don’t even love.

No one ever looks back on their life and says, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time getting drunk with people – maybe I could have had more meaningless drunk-sex that I hardly even remember, with people I really don’t care about, and maybe even picked up a disease or two.”

Now, as with all sins, there is grace. Remember, Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. On the one hand, that means that the standard does not change. But it also means that he has fulfilled the law for us. In other words, through Jesus, we are forgiven for failing in this (or any) area. We are cleansed from our sins and made holy. Certainly, we should not take that as an excuse to just keep on sinning, but when we do sin, there is grace and forgiveness and healing. And through Jesus, if we allow him to work in our hearts and lives, we can learn to walk a different path, and let him work his holiness out in our lives and behaviors. That is his desire and his plan.

Let the Holy Spirit keep speaking to you through the scriptures today!

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