That Verse About Lust. (Sermon on the Mount, Part 4)

In the last post, we began to unpack the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that addressed anger and lust, focusing primarily on anger. Some Christians call this portion of Jesus’ sermon “the Six Antitheses”, because Jesus repeatedly says “You’ve heard it said _________, but I say ________” as if Jesus is in opposition to what Moses originally stated in the Law. A more accurate view, however, is that this is more of an intensification. Jesus is saying that a person pursuing to live out the Kingdom of God should not just focus on modifying behavior, bur reallygo towards the root of the behavior- the mind and the heart. If you can renovate how you think and feel, the behavior will naturally follow.

This passage on lust is daunting. At first glance it reads like, “if you think a person is sexually attractive you’ve basically had sex with them.” That would be an impossible standard to maintain, generating a lot of private shame. That shame could lead to keeping any struggle with that type of lust completely private, and could also potentially lead to “well if I’ve already lusted in my heart and in God’s eyes committed adultery, I might as well actually do it.” Thankfully, the verse is more nuanced and more meaningful than that surface reading.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the actual verses, Matthew 5:27-28:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at another person with lustful intent has already committed adultery with that person in their heart.” (emphasis mine)

So, similar to how anger (harboring deliberate, hostile vengeance) can be damaging to the person’s soul and eventually play out in their lives, harboring lust in your heart can damage your soul, your character, and ultimately impact your actions. What is meant by lustful and what is meant by intent?

When we hear the word ‘lust,’ we naturally think it has to do with sexual desire. While that is certainly apart of it, that’s not really what Jesus is going for here. The Greek word here is epithumeo, which is the equivalent to the Hebrew word for ‘covet.’ To covet something means to yearn and long for something that you don’t have. When what you covet belongs to someone else and/or you have no right to have, it’s destructive. (The tenth commandment.)  When what you covet is another person, it is always destructive, because you have no right to ownership over anyone else but yourself.

Jesus uses the phrase “lustful intent”, meaning you are intentionally looking at someone or thinking about them in a way that craves to have them. This is not the same thing as seeing a sexually attractive person and thinking they are sexually attractive. It means that after you’ve recognized their attraction, you continue to look at them or think about them in a way that leads your mind to fantasies or action steps towards having them.

This is one of the reasons that pornography can be so dangerous. A person addicted to pornography is consistently, intentionally objectifying another person for their own pleasure. Over time, this creates a pathway and pattern to where every time you see someone in person that you find sexually attractive, your mind immediately goes towards the thought process of coveting them for your own pleasure.

Anger (deliberate, hostile vengeance) and lust (coveting someone that you have no right to have) are both toxic to your thought life and relational health because they violate one of the key foundations of faith- to love others as yourself.  It creates a distorted sense of ego and entitlement and prevents intimacy in relationships because you view other other person as an object for your wrath (anger) or an object for your pleasure (lust.) They are distorted, poisonous expressions of justice and connection, and to spend a lot of bandwidth and time letting these things fester in your heart will eventually lead to a lot of destructive and dangerous outward expressions.

Jesus takes our thought life and emotional health seriously. So should we.