Thursday, September 04, 2008

What is the sin of "adultery in the heart"?

Dr. P. linked to an interesting article by a former student of his, written on the topic of understanding Matthew 5:28. He makes a case that the better translation is not "whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart", but "whoever looks on a woman to lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart". The point of this exegetical move is first of all its intended accuracy to what Jesus said, and second to remove the burden (if it can be legitimately removed) of what Jimmy Carter once called the "almost impossible standards" set there, that we can stumble into sin but not deliberately. The post also discusses whether being tempted is, in itself, a sin.

I am not here taking exception with the translation issue, but I do take issue with the exegesis and theology. I do not think we can say that, in "looking on someone to lust", that the lust is blameless so long as it was not in the original intention when we looked. No doubt that having the original intention of lust and that driving the looking -- as in pornography -- is a deliberate sin. But Scripture has never limited sins to deliberate sins. The post makes the point that being tempted cannot be inherently sinful since Jesus was tempted. But this skips over the nature of temptation: that a temptation in this fallen world is a situation-specific pressure that leads to sin when it meets with an internal corruption in our nature or character and successfully rouses desire for what is wrong. Jesus did not have the corruption of nature or character, and being tempted was not sinful because the external pressure to sin is not sinful. However, when we are tempted it simply demonstrates that we already have the tendency to sin. As one of the ancient Christian writers has said, "How well I know: temptation came because I wanted it."

I think we have to acknowledge that Jesus teaches that not only should we not set out to lust and that the intention is wrong, but also that lust itself is wrong whether we intended it or not. Lust is a form of coveting, which is wrong in and of itself; lack of intent does not remove the sinfulness of the wrong desires in our hearts.

Some people are pained that Jesus set some "almost impossible standards" for us. I think this is entirely understated. Jesus has set some impossible standards for us, and told us: "With man, this is impossible; with God all things are possible." If someone has an instinct to justify himself by keeping the law, he will be driven to despair by commands like loving our enemies, not lusting, and not coveting. This is a healthy thing, and the healthy response is not to blunt the force of the law, but to use that force of the law to accuse and convict the evil inside us, condemning our wrong desires and nailing them to the cross.


ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Lust is a form of coveting...

This could easily be generalized to include much of the materialism in our culture. Then we could, for example, cite TV ads as bringing temptation into our living rooms. And, yes, we are open to this temptation because our culture teaches us to be so.

I used to covet owning a van. I finally got one. I thought that might come back to bring some destruction to me because of my coveting it. We did have two accidents with that van, but I'm not blaming God for that.

I hope I'm not cheapening your thoughts. I think you did a good job explaining it.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I don't know when wanting a van is "coveting" it. Usually "coveting" comes up for something that isn't a rightful object of desire -- like a neighbor's van. Maybe all "inordinate desires" as the ancients said count as some kind of coveting. But I doubt that there would be any cosmic payback; I guess the difference between karma and divine justice is whether there is a thinking, willing, loving God deciding and/or forgiving ...

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the van. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

I didn't just want a van because it would be practical for my family, which it was, but I would be jealous when I'd see another family with a van. My feelings were way beyond normal "wanting."

I've has a few times in my life when I've gone way out of my way to obtain a material object only later to have no real interest in it, in fact, in two cases I can think of, I haven't even used the things at all. This isn't about the cost, which was about $30, but about some kind of desire that came over me to own these things and then go to about a dozen stores to find them.

To get back to the lust aspect, is that what happens to people who seek out sexual encounters with women of the street or "escorts" when these same people could probably easily lure the woman in the next office.

Now, I haven't been in THOSE circumstances, so I can't speak to those feelings at all.

Drew said...

I blogged about this a few weeks ago here.

I think that this, with so much of what Jesus is teaching us, has to do with idolatry - how not to follow those things that stand in the way of loving God and neighbor. This is why the direction of the heart's motivation is so key for him since that is the source of life. So I think that it is beyond temptation here, but the removal of the boundary between a physical action and the intentions of the heart that is key.

Weekend Fisher said...


I get overcome by obsessions sometimes, but I'm more likely to be obsessive about work -- you know, a respectable obsession (not to say any healthier). Or competitive; I've got a wicked competitive streak that made me (really) intolerable, I think, before I became aware of it and started toning it down. I think it's all the same thing as far as "disordered desire" goes.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Drew

I'm betting that, when the veils come off at the end of the ages, I'll be shocked at how much I was still trapped in sin I never saw or recognized. Idolatry is so natural.

Thanks for stopping by.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

Interesting note: Mohammad got around the issue of "deliberate" and "accidental" lust with a general rule. He said, "The first look is forgivable, the second is haram." Basically if you look at someone with lust at first but quickly realize the error of your way, you're OK, but if you keep staring with lust you're in trouble.

Of course, this comes across as a bit like you're compromising with your sins, which is the wrong thing to do. Remember the story of the camel and the tent.

Weekend Fisher said...

I must've missed the story of the camel and the tent ...

I noticed you mentioning before that you used to be Muslim. For how many years were you in Islam?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF