Lust. What comes to your mind when you read that word? As a general rule, I expect that there are strong trends (a.k.a., stereotypes) related to gender. For men, lust refers to sex and women and a more or less uncontrolled passion for both, manifest along a continuum from an “innocent” gaze to fantasy to pornography to lasciviousness and promiscuous living. For women, the perceived difficulty with lust stems from the fact that the men in their lives have a problem with lust. Jesus had a problem with lust, too. “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”1
For thousands of years, lust and sex have gone together like wind and rain, and that is how Satan would like to leave it. He found a veritable gold mine in this linkage, an apparently invincible weapon in his effort to destroy men. “Thou shalt not lust for women” is the refrain he repeats in churches and Sunday school classes and Bible studies around the world. Satan is not trying to be helpful; he knows full well that most men will not be able to obey and the more they hear the command, the more defeated they feel. The struggle against sexual lust was made even more intense and serious when Jesus made it clear that a great deal is at stake: the holiness of God and the very integrity of male/female relationships.2 And, so the war is constantly fueled and fought. Men fight battles against lust with ferocity; some are won and most are lost. The war is all-consuming and the cost inestimable. Intense focus and immense energy are required for survival, never mind victory.
While the war against sexual lust rages on, other fronts in the war against lust are ignored. Watching how other Christians around me behave and what they value and what the church preaches, I have concluded that no defenses whatsoever are mounted on any other fronts in the battle against lust. Those skirmishes are simply given over to the enemy, as if they don’t matter. No one is paying attention… at all.
What other battles? What are you talking about?
You are making my point. Yes, indeed, there are other fronts in the war on lust. There is lust for money3 and lust for miracles.4 In fact, it would appear that one can lust after anything.5 The war on lust is much more broad than we think. While we are focused intently and solely on a parochial battle against sexual lust off in a corner somewhere, the enemy is systematically destroying us on multiple fronts. Satan’s approach to humanity is the same as General Powell’s stated strategy for decapitating the Iraqi army: “First we’re going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it.” And just like the Iraqi army, we have no idea what just hit us.
It would be generous to say that you are not being convincingly lucid with your “argument”.
I pointed out previously that legalism has Christendom by the throat. The war on sexual lust is a prime example. The legalist reads Jesus’ words about lusting after women and, in his prayer, resolves, “At all cost, I shall not lust.” Some legalists lose their resolve as soon as they get off their knees. For others, the maiming blow comes an hour later. Others fight the good fight for a week, only to fall in the end. In the never-ending pursuit of sexual purity, spiritual and physical resources of every sort are diverted to the war. All manner of legalistic strategies have been devised for avoiding and addressing lust. (Google returns over 3 million hits in response to “avoid lust”.) Curiously, this all-out effort is mounted for a war that…
…misses the point.
Jesus frequently used common, but specific, struggles to highlight more general problems. For example, he told his disciples,
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court.”6
On the surface, it would appear that Jesus is saying that murder and anger are the same thing. More to the point, we often strictly interpret his pronouncements as “Murder occurs when someone is angry. Period. Likewise, adultery occurs when one commits sexual lust. Period.” But, was Jesus really being that specific? Murder represents the outcome of anger, but can murder be committed by other similar behaviors, too?
In the Old Testament, we read “Thou shalt not commit murder,” and a host of laws that accompany this seemingly simple statement, so that we can be exactly certain what the sixth commandment means. When we move to the New Testament, Jesus expands the Law. He does not throw out the Law,7 nor does he add detail, that is, more laws to explain the laws that are already on the books. Instead, he introduces a generality, but he does so by citing a specific example: “You know how when you get angry at somebody? That’s murder!” The legalist subconsciously figures, “I am being commanded to avoid murder by not to getting angry. Thank God, malice is just malice, not murder.” I am certain that Jesus would disagree, “That’s not what I meant. I was using ‘anger’ as a simple but widely appreciated example to make the broader argument. Whenever you get angry or jealous or envious or greedy, you are committing murder. Why? because those attitudes do great harm to relationships with other people. Think carefully not only about how you behave toward others, but how you think and feel about them.”
We can follow a similar line of thinking about lust. Jesus had no intention of restricting the definition of lust to the context of sex and women. For certain, sexual lust is a fantastic example. But, it is very likely that when Jesus spoke of adultery, he was thinking about more than just the flawed, broken relationship between man and wife. Adultery, as a metaphor, was used ad nauseum by Old Testament prophets who railed on Israel regularly for ignoring Jehovah and running off with other gods. “They play the harlot continually,” Hosea cried.8 I can hear Jesus saying, “You know how when you lust for women, you are actually committing adultery? The fact is that when you lust for any created thing, you are committing adultery, running off with things that are more exciting for you than God Himself.”
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.9
There is no reason to believe that the apostle John, when using the phrases “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes,” was referring strictly to sexual lust. Men (and women!) lust for all sorts of things. Cars, houses, clothes, food, perfection, obsessions, i-phones, power, recognition, honors, sex, body image, natural beauty, talents, art, spouses, churches, jobs, vacations, work, money. The list is endless. Lust is everywhere: all that is in the world. Lust has one important result: it sucks us away from God and puts us on an inexorable path to destruction. Yes, sexual lust has this effect, but so does lust for anything else.
The apostle John puts a laser beam on the consequence of lust. When we lust, we commit adultery against God, our Creator, our Lover, our Savior. All that is in the world and all that for which we might lust is going to disappear one day soon and when we lust, we go after the temporary and forsake the Absolute. According to John, this puts our very lives at great risk. Indeed, the apostle Peter rendered one of the most sobering warnings in all of Scripture: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.”10
Give me a break. My problem with lust is not that extensive!
Really? Here is the test: Where is your treasure?11 I suppose that most Christians would immediately recite the sentiment reflected in Job 22, “God-Almighty is my treasure. All that I own is God’s.” But, which one of those Christians could lose their i-pod or their job or their notebook computer or their house or their favorite Bible, and not miss a heartbeat? …or their health or their bank account or pay equity or their respect or recognition for a job well done? …or anything else they believe they have a “right” to? Furthermore, it is one thing to have such things taken away. Here is the real test: Give your so-called not-treasure away.12 Can you do it?
It is not nearly as easy as it sounds.13 I can’t even lose my screwdriver and not get upset! Lust for created things is extraordinarily powerful, considering that it destroys souls. Unnerving is the fact that lust is so subtle that most of us do not even notice when it is happening. Not only do we have an inexplicable drive to lust for created things of all sorts, but that drive is answered not by gratification and contentment, but by war. And, Satan is winning this war in spades.
There is but one simple weapon in this battle, one that is implied in Peter’s appeal to us as aliens and strangers: Whenever I am tempted away from God, I ask myself, “What do I really want? That…or God.” I must ask myself this question a million times a day, for the world is a very tempting place and my soul is very weak and vulnerable. For such a simple question, the answer is never easy… or certain. And too often, the honest answer is that I want that. How pained He must be.14
It is a certainty that we need a savior far more than we can even imagine.
1 Matt 5:28
2 If you have concluded that I am overstating the all-consuming nature of this war, just ask a group of Christian men what sin they struggle with the most. I can guarantee both the answer and the fact that it will be unanimous. A Christian woman who had previously been a devotee of pornography travels the evangelical church circuit doing seminars. (I’m sorry that I can’t remember the reference and I did not bookmark it, on purpose.) Her surveys indicate that, in the typical church, 2/3 of men and, perhaps surprisingly, 1/3 of women regularly view pornography on the internet. This is part of the “inestimable cost” to which I refer in the text.
3 I can see this is an old habit with you; you reek with money-lust. (Acts 8:20, The Message)
4 All you’re looking for is something to titillate your curiosity, satisfy your lust for miracles. (Luke 11:29, The Message)
5 You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. (James 4:1)
6 Matt 5:21-22
7 Matt 5:17
8 Hosea 4:18
9 I John 2:15-17
10 I Pet 2:11. In the economy of the Kingdom, souls are far more valuable than bodies. Jesus said so much: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:26) This issue was discussed in the post what of the soul? The immeasurable value of the soul makes Satan’s attack on it all the more concerning.
11 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt 6:21)
12 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.” (Matt 19:21-22, emphasis mine)
13 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:23-24)
14 Again and again they tempted God, and pained the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 78:41)