Plucking Eyes and Cutting Hands
Recently, a young man went on a killing spree around Atlanta, Georgia, taking eight lives before he was apprehended on his way to commit even more murder. While much initial (and continuing) attention was shown toward the ethnicity of his victims, the perpetrator claimed his actions were his way of removing temptation from his life. He had been a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, and a few recent sermons from that church spoke of the “battle” between the church and the world. In predictable fashion and timing, this was presented as “hateful rhetoric” that likely emboldened the perpetrator to take such drastic action. In reality, the militaristic parallels contained in Scripture (and sermons based on that Scripture) are just that – parallels to spiritual conflict, not incitement to worldly conflict. (The messages from this church presented this appropriately; this devotional is not an attempt to correct those sermons.)
Invariably, I saw references to Jesus's words from Matthew 5, telling us we should take drastic action to prevent ourselves from sexual sin, being used as proof that there was a biblical basis for this man's actions. This could not be further from the truth; let's look at what Jesus actually said, and draw applications from it that demonstrate what He was telling His followers to do.
27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell."
Matthew 5:27-30 (ESV)
This comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in the middle of the section where Jesus presented the list of things “you have heard / but I say.” He clarified that many of the laws that observant Jews had always applied to actions or behaviors were actually matters of the heart. In this case, adultery isn't something you can avoid simply by avoiding the act (again, Jesus's point here is that it never was); rather, the desire to commit adultery is where the sin begins.
This is important, but it's also important to note what is not being said here; we want to be clear about what is actually sin, so we do not fall into either a permissive or legalistic trap. Jesus is not saying that suddenly noticing someone else's attractiveness is a sin. Rather, the sin comes in when we ponder satisfying (or actively satisfy) our own lusts outside the bonds and bounds of holy matrimony – the union of one man and one woman in which these desires are to be fulfilled, through God's design and according to His plan.
Continuing with the text (and the theme of “what was said vs. what was not said”), verses 29 and 30 have caused controversy ever since they were uttered. It is holy hyperbole? Was He serious? Pluck my eye out – really? Do those with the use of only one eye or hand not have to deal with lust as a sin? (Uh… no, that's not it.) I believe, from its context in the other statements Jesus made, He is using these strong statements to indicate how important this is. We might express this today as “If you can't get this under control, and it's your left eye that is causing you the issue, get rid of it!” This is not the only place in Scripture where sexual sin is treated as a “greater” sin than many others; Paul describes why in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him. 18Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:15-20 (ESV)
Christians are not sex-obsessed, nor are we focused on sex because our “repressive” teaching wars against our nature; rather, we understand that sexual sin has the unique capacity to destroy our bodies, which are (and should be treated as) the temple of the Holy Spirit. The marital union was given to us not only for our flourishing, but to be a lived-out expression of the relationship between Christ and His church; and, while not exclusively limited to the sexual freedom and fidelity that is a part of a Christ-centered marriage, it is certainly not less than that. Even the world realizes the unique, personal nature of this type of sin; the intro to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit begins:
In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous.
In this case, the “criminal justice system” and Scripture line up perfectly.
There is a sub-culture that talks about this a lot; it's known in Evangelical circles as “purity culture.” I think a better term would be “hyper-purity,” much as the “hyper-Calvinists” take principles expressed by John Calvin and crank them up to 11 (and beyond). Every Sunday, David French write his French Press newsletter on a topic where Christianity and our culture intersect, and he recently did a deep-dive on this hyper-purity culture. His conclusion, right up front, is that their beliefs are not true Christian beliefs. Paul's words on the seriousness of sexual sin are true; but, even still, God's grace is greater than our sin. While sexual sin will have negative effects in one's marriage, God is still the God Who says “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….” (Isaiah 1:18)
This brings us to modesty, a valid biblical concept that is too preeminent within hyper-purity culture. Their teaching puts the responsibility on women to not cause men to sin; but this misses the point. Yes, generally-speaking, men are visually-oriented – but, let me state unequivocally that this is immaterial to the discussion. Jesus's words have no such qualifiers, and Christians should strive to be faithful to His words. Immodest people do not create sin in others; Jesus's brother James explained it this way:
14But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
James 1:14-15 (ESV)
The problem is our desire, not the luring and enticement. Of course, this does not mean we can place ourselves where we know we will be tempted, then pray “Sorry, God” as we drift off to sleep. Rather, we can practically apply Jesus's words by removing ourselves from situations where our eyes or hands (and hearts) would be tempted to sin. Note that Jesus talks about removing our own eye and hand; He does not instruct us to physically “take out” others who may be tempting those eyes or hands. We are responsible for our thoughts and behavior, not those of others; our command to be holy is not contingent on those around us – including other believers – making it easy for us.
At this point, you may be sarcastically thinking “well, this is encouraging…” It isn't – but, on the other hand, in the full context of Scripture, it is.
5:8...but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
8:1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Romans 5:8, 8:1 (ESV)
These words from God through Paul, combined with those through Isaiah, should encourage us. While these sins are especially damaging, and may carry life-long consequences, none of them is beyond the grace of God. If we keep our eyes focused on Him, we may find that those eyes can be much less distractable; if we keep our hands busy about His work, they will not be as tempted to other pursuits. All the while, we trust His grace to transform our desires from our own to His.