“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” [Matthew 5: 27-28].
November 1976, Playboy Magazine, interview with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter:
“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
Playboy rushed this issue to the newsstands one month early and when people opened the pages, these words became headline news in that 1976 world.
I open with this historical episode to introduce the Seventh Commandment which says “You shall not commit adultery” [Exodus 20: 14]. Moses gave this law to the Israelites with no explanation, which could possibly mean that they understood what it meant at that time.
Times have changed…
Just as I wrote in comments on Commandment Six regarding “Thou shall not kill,” this commandment is also much more complex today than in Old Testament times. Polygamy was allowed by God in the Old Testament, but never endorsed by God [for example, King Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines]. Some people practice polygamy today with the justification that added spouses are legally included in the marriage [ e.g. fundamentalist groups of Latter Day Saints]. Divorce has muddied the waters today, with adultery outside of marriage prohibited but divorce and remarriage is legal. Jesus is very clear in Luke 16:18 that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.” The marriage bond is supposed to last a lifetime, so modern divorce does not really release one from the responsibility to be faithful to the original spouse.
And then we have Matthew 5:27-28.
I know I am dating myself but when Carter came out with his statement in 1976, many did not know what he meant. I find it interesting that he never tried to “clean up” his comments, “walk them back” or retract them. He just let them stand as they were. But what did he mean when he said “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust?”
For many, the Seventh Commandment seems to rest on that word.
John Stott in his book Basic Christianity has very strict boundaries for sexuality. Avoid situations where lust can occur. [Adultery] “includes any sort of sex outside the marriage relationship for which it was designed. It includes flirting, experimenting, and solitary sexual experience. It also includes sexual perversions, for although men and women are not responsible for a perverted instinct, they are for its indulgence. It includes selfish demands within wedlock, and many, if not all divorces. It includes the deliberated reading of pornographic literature and giving into impure fantasies” [Stott, 67-68].
It seems to me that President Carter may be in trouble in John Stott’s view.
Maybe many of us are…
Today in our much more sexualized world, temptation seems to be everywhere. It is so easy to find temptation within easy reach [a pick on a streaming movie service, a video on a computer screen]. Literally I could quit writing this blog and see pornographic material in seconds. Considering Stott’s very strict advice above, it is hard to avoid sexual material altogether, so what are we supposed to do?
The Bible acknowledges the pleasure of sex in the sexiest book of the Old Testament, Song of Solomon. So let’s not say that we should avoid sex altogether. One can turn to many places in that book and see evidence that God does not hate sex between a man and a woman; after all, He created sex. Before we take Stott’s words totally to heart and say that all sex is bad, we should address God’s feelings toward human sexuality further. Some feel that the author of Song of Solomon* is expressing God’s love for the Israelite people or that the book is an expression of God’s love for people in general. Others take it for what it is: the poems celebrate desire, physical beauty, depict sexual scenes, and talk about the glory of sex. In short, it is sex from a Holy point of view. It is not lust.
How can we have that point of view?
The answer is to confine sexual activity within a marriage.
Even though sexual temptations in this world abound, it is worthwhile to fight them. Sex within the boundaries of marriage can be joyful, desirable and downright pleasurable if the element of guilt is removed. Individuals with open sex lives are aware of the serious jeopardy that can occur: “Lust not after her (a loose women) neither let her capture you with her eyelids…Can a man take fire into his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” [Proverbs 6: 25, 27]. This is only one of many times when the Bible warns us about sex that goes out of bounds.
But why is God so intent on encouraging joyful sex within a marriage?
God has a vested interest in promoting the institution of marriage. It is a building block of His creation and His society. One can turn to Genesis and see that God made man and woman to complement one another. Marriage is the vehicle to preserve the human race. It is obvious that all the admonitions against adultery center on the sacred nature of marriage.
Another reason for the sacred nature of sex within marriage can be found in the attitude that God had toward the Israelites. These chosen people were to be God’s holy examples. God did not want His people to copy the adulterous practices of every culture that the Israelites encountered. It is true that in the lands where the Israelites lived, sexual practices were not confined to marriage.
Now let’s be reasonable. With the nature or men and women, is it highly probable that we will win all the battles for sexual temptation all the time?
The answer is no.
Maybe that is what Jimmy Carter was admitting when he said he looked on a lot of women with lust. I am sure that Rosalynn Carter was not pleased to hear that her husband committed adultery in his heart. Maybe he was admitting that it is hard to keep watch over his eyes and other senses. Maybe he was saying it is hard to have self-control. Being a public figure, maybe he was admitting that he found himself with people who had very different attitudes toward sexuality and it was hard to always push them away.
I am sure that his controversial interview in 1976 shocked many self-righteous people. After all, Carter has been a Sunday school teacher in his Baptist Church for many years [he certainly was in 1976].
But maybe it was a breath of fresh air for many, an honesty that many people probably need to admit. Matthew 5: 27-28 is a high bar for anyone to reach and if many would make a totally honest admission, it is hard to reach that standard one hundred percent of the time. It is hard to be a “perfect” Christian and maybe Carter was trying to say I try to be perfect but I am not perfect all the time. Too often Christians get so caught up in the façade of perfection and they never let people see who they are, warts and all.
And Christians do have warts…
Carter knows that he is washed in the blood of Christ and by admitting to shortcomings he was not saying that I am unrepentant. Unrepentant adultery is the sin that can drag one down permanently. Any sin that a Christian commits can be forgiven when a Christian repents. Sexual temptation is all around us in this world today and to fight it is to be in constant combat. No soldier wins every battle every time.
I once had a wise man tell me this about sexual temptation. “Sexual temptation will occur and the human response is inevitable. The key is to think of these instances as birds flying over your head. Just because a bird flies over your head don’t despair. Despair comes when you invite the bird to nest on top of your head and he decides to take up permanent residence.”
*Most theologians do not attribute an author to this book.