“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28 ESV)
Biblical scholars agree that the language “looks at a woman with lustful intent” reveals not just desire but the action of enticing the object of our desire to desire us. The heart of adultery is longing to receive validation, to be desired by another. This helps explain why so many of the situations involving marital infidelity that I encounter in pastoral counseling revolve around a spouse that feels someone else finally “gets them.” The intense loneliness possible within marriage, so this line of thinking goes, could be resolved if only they were free to pursue a person that desires them fully. At a more basic level lust longs to bring someone or something into our influence, our control, in the hopes that it will satisfy our craving. What Jesus does is move the discussion to the heart, beyond the particular circumstance. In fact Jesus does not deal with all the mitigating factors a person might face: their spouse is no longer physically attractive to them, does not have the same sense of humor, nags them, does not fulfill their sexual needs, does not connect with them emotionally, etc. All these things can produce real distress, but Jesus does not directly address those issues.
Jesus’ hearers are forced to consider that they have believed a lie, that longing after a new person’s attention will not likely satisfy their lusting hearts. Being “in love with love” will not make them happy. The greater tragedy than not getting what you want: to get what you want and find that it does not satisfy. Jesus is so strong on this point that he gives an obviously hyperbolic example: you might as well put out your eye if it could keep you from this degrading downward spiral of lust. The intense dissatisfaction and longing will eat you alive, cripple you just as sure as losing an eye or an arm.
But what are those heartsick and lonely, and broken, sinners supposed to do in a church that is hyper-sensitive to the stigma of sexual sin? For those who have lived a life captive to lust, who have become regular users of pornography, or have failed to maintain the exclusivity of their marriage, most Christian responses are brutally shaming: if only you could see how disgusting your behavior is you could stop doing what you’re doing. This response is an awful abuse of someone who is already a bruised reed. Short of an environment where we can grieve our neediness and repent without degradation and shame, our options are to hide our sexuality or to lie about it. Thankfully God has given us the ideal environment for following this difficult command: the love of the self-giving God.
Instead of chiefly trying to apply the “stop it” strategy for sin that we typically encounter in Christian circles, the Scriptures instead teach us again and again that we have been united with Christ (Rom 6.5), having received every dignity of the children of God (1 John 3.1-2). We have received the righteousness of Christ in exchange for our shame (2 Cor. 5.21). We have been given a treasure so great that we have been freed of digging any further (Matt. 13.44). Though the temptation to sexual sin will continue it will be helpful to the person who struggles in this area to fight this battle with weapons that are not so double-edged. Put another way: the church cannot continue to tell the wounded to heal themselves. Healing may be irregular, maddeningly slow in coming, and painful. But if it comes at all it comes from our union with Christ and from feasting on that union.
This soul-healing paradigm is also the proper environment for a discussion about the situation of divorce and remarriage that Jesus uses to apply his teachings on lust. In verses 31 and 31 Jesus says:
““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31–32 ESV)
In the Old Testament a progressive and compassionate provision existed among God’s people, unique to the surrounding nations, that men could not simply divorce their wives without taking responsibility for their actions. In the world in which the OT was written it was possible for a man to simply grow weary of his wife and declare her forsaken. The stigma that attached to these women made them untouchable targets of exploitation. The decree that one must sign a certificate of divorce created the beginnings of a protected class for these women. In a fashion typical of God's law god’s people were to move a degrading human condition toward the direction of human flourishing.
Jesus is raising the expectation even higher in these verses. He is speaking to some who would seek divorce because of a loss of attraction or a lust that makes one want to dispose of the other. While the Scriptures clearly give further potential causes of divorce (e.g. abuse and abandonment of a spouse) this passage is dealing with consequences of lust: sometimes lust un-ties a marriage. Because of the environment of the self-giving God Jesus can say that you must not only live in the bonds of marriage, but those bonds must also be faithful ones. In this case, a man’s love for his wife should move from self-serving (is this person the best person for me?) to self-giving (how can I give this person my best?). The self-giving God, who casts himself into the darkness of insecurity and shame that drives lust, has taken away our curse (2 Corinthians 5.21) and has instead given us his wholeness. This is a game changer. It is a feast of validation for the lust-hungry. This means that to be self-giving in marriage (indeed in every human relationship!) I do not risk my wholeness, I do not risk being made worthless through serving my spouse. My union with Christ underwrites every expenditure I make on behalf of another human being.
All of this means that the Church is the one organization most equipped to shape truly self-giving and beautiful marriages, and the one organization most equipped to embrace the one who falls on the belittling battleground of lust. The Church defends and embodies the truth of Jesus the Christ who is all, and in all, for our sake. May New City Presbyterian Church be such a community for such a people in such a day as this.