Monday, May 07, 2007

Whose problem is lust?

Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt. 5:27-28)

So Jesus has a pretty high standard for keeping our hearts on the straight and narrow. He doesn't mean that a man can't notice a woman's beauty. He means that dwelling on a woman's (not one's wife's)physical attributes and allowing one's imagination to go wild about what he might do with her, is deadly sin. He understands the struggle we all have with lust, and particularly that men have with visual stimulation, and he doesn't make excuses -- to entertain the thought is like doing it. Guard your heart! Discipline your thoughts, because the road goes to destruction.

But notice what advice Jesus gives:

"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. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matt 5:29-30)

It isn't that Jesus wants us to practice self-mutilation; this is hyperbole designed to get us to see how serious entertaining sin is. Jesus instructs us that we need to know where our weaknesses are and discipline ourselves to avoid falling into sin -- the Holy Spirit and we ourselves are the ones who know those weak points, and we are responsible to God for them. And we ought to understand that it is so serious, it is worth the pain that restraining ourselves costs us.

But, notice what Jesus does NOT say: he doesn't say, 'therefore, closet your women away so that no one may look at them.' Nor does he say, 'so caution women always to wear long robes so as not to inflame men.' Nor does he say, 'so avoid being with women, so that you can never be tempted.' Jesus instructs the one who struggles with lust to struggle with themselves, not to put boundaries on others.

Why? Because lust (as with all sin) is a problem of the heart, not any other organ. If a person is entertaining lust, that person can be just as easily inflamed by the shape of a woman though a robe, or even just the memory of a woman if he has managed to stay away from them. Lust will find a way into his heart if he is open to it. Corralling women won't solve his problem; what he needs is a makeover of his heart.

In the same way, a woman's sin enslaves her heart - and if it is not lust, perhaps it is gossip or hatred of a neighbor. The sin resides in her heart even if she does not have a phone or lives on an island -- it is the sin that needs to be dealt with, not what others do.

When we locate our sin problem with what someone else is doing, we demonize them, as has happened to women over the ages (read some of the early church fathers on Eve!). It is tempting then to turn them into the problem, without ever dealing with the problem in our hearts.

When we locate our sin problem in someone else, then if they don't do what we think they should do, we give ourselves freedom to sin. In some cultures, then, it becomes logical that an uncovered woman is an invitation to rape -- her lack of covering translates into an invitation. The sin is not the lustful man's; it became the responsibility of the woman to restrain his behavior.

It isn't that Jesus condones women being immodest or in other ways making life difficult for visually-stimulated men. Jesus calls all of us to holiness and there is no defense for failing to "love one another" by flagrantly inviting men, by what we wear, to lust. But Jesus locates the problem of lust, as with all sin, in the heart of the sinner. He both pins responsibility for our own sin to each of us (and then invites us to himself so he might bear it on the cross) and frees us from the impossibility of keeping others from sinning when they would rather make us responsible.

Now, I don't mean to make light of the struggle this issue is for men who wish to be holy, to keep their hearts pure and their marriage vows intact. I do know how assaulted they feel on every front, particularly with Internet porn so hard to avoid, and with soft-porn billboards everywhere on city streets and the back covers of magazines. But I am surprised, as I read this scripture today, that Jesus avoided placing the solution on the backs of women, even though culture (particularly church culture!) almost always goes there. Why do we place the responsibility for keeping teen guys from lusting, on what the girls wear in the pool?

Now, wait -- I'm not blind. I get it that the girls also need to taught to have mercy on their brothers in the Lord. They need to be honestly confronted on what invitation they mean to send, and whether that is holy in the sight of the Lord. But that's a lot harder than issuing a rule that the girls all have to cover up, and leaving it at that. Those who make such rules don't think about what unconscious untruths they are telling the girls about how God feels about their bodies (or the boys, about where God thinks the responsibility for the sin of lust lies). May we be more careful in the way we think and talk about this subject, that we remember that our problem is slavery to sin, and that the solution lies in freedom from sin, not in enslaving anyone else.

Jesus loves me, this I know - he knows the pitfalls for all of us, and lifts each of us up. May we fall further in love with Him.