Posted on March 22, 2013
‘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 lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. -Matthew 5:27-30 NRSV
I have heard sermons on this passage that extended the analogy backwards in the text, implying that one ought to cut off one’s -ahem – if one had lust issues. I’ve heard some really judgey ones that emphasized the worminess of humans compared to the mega-superior and easily offended God. And then there are the scores of sermons that fall in the middle, implying that one ought to work extra hard in order to change one’s habits, so as not to be led astray by them.
But if we start with the prayers of the church, and the description of God as “great and greatly loving humankind,” maybe we can see something different here. Like, again, Jesus’ sense of humor. The wit here doesn’t set you up to cringe and hide your hands and eyes, worried that you are going to have to maim yourself for holiness’ sake. No, it is meant to highlight our tendency to blame the body for the afflictions of the soul. “What? Jesus, that’s crazy! My hands and eyes don’t cause me to sin! It’s my thoughts that cause me to sin.” (Perhaps you might say, “my will causes me to sin,” but the idea and question of will is too broad to tackle right here. Let’s start with thoughts.)
And Jesus is all, yes, exactly. There are ever so many examples in recent headlines of persons blaming one another for their own bad behavior, when the fault lies in the thoughts and actions of the person acting. Jesus would not truck with men who blamed women when the men thought to kill women or when the men decided to think of the women and treat the women as objects to be dominated instead of persons worthy of honor. Instead, he unwound the web of deceit and laid the blame right where it should have gone: in the perverse minds of the ones belittling and controlling the others.
So, if your hand causes you to go astray, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stray, pluck it out. If your thoughts cause you to stray, discard them.
There is a term in Orthodox Christianity for those thoughts that ought to be cut off. They are called logismoi, or little thoughts. They are little, not because they are insignificant or unimportant or not dangerous, but because they are the seeds for all kinds of trouble. You can go read lengthy tomes on the subject elsewhere. Here, I’m going to tell you how we fight the logismoi in our household.
First, what are these thoughts that ought to be plucked out? To summarize, they are in three types:
Comparisons: There are loads of studies telling us what the wise men and women of old held to be true, that we are not so happy when we compare ourselves to others. We look worse in incomplete mirrors. We also become discontented with the good in our lives. We may be tempted to try to assuage our bad feelings by downplaying the goodness in others. (There’s a fourth C word that gets you out of the comparison cycle – calling. You can be called out of bad situations or habits, and then you might find examples or another C word – compassion! – to help you along the way.)
Complaints: “But aren’t the Psalms full of complaints,” justify the complainers. Yes. They are full of complaints to the Lord, and they serve as an example of how to turn this bad habit into prayer. But on the whole, we complain when we feel powerless. A more helpful Psalm than one of the complaining ones might be, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” If there’s really something to complain about, then there’s something to give thanks about, too. If you can give thanks, you might clear your ears and eyes to hear and see the help that’s on its way. Or maybe you will see the path that your feet can take.
Condemnations: These thoughts are the worst. They rob us of our view of God as one who loves us and loves us and loves us. They try to make us think that we are not worth the space we take up, that we are unlovable, not important, not valuable, not worth the effort. Dear ones, they are lies. And they are lies if they come through your mind applied to someone else, as well.
All of these bad little thoughts deserve to be cut off, like the proverbial hand or eye. They lead to depression, bitterness, hatred, and all sorts of sin. They lead to despair and arrogance. They lead to the self-delusion that allows someone to say to himself, “I deserve to take what I want from that woman, because she is not important, and I will prove it with violence.” Thus the context of the saying, juxtaposed with a warning against lusting against a woman in one’s heart.
Lust is not really about wanting to have sex. It’s about wanting to exert one’s will over someone else through the use of violence, against the consent of society and the other person. It’s a fundamental disrespect of human dignity, and it goes against God’s love and love and love of all humans. (Then what word do you use if you want to have non-violent sexual encounters? Probably love, but if you use “lust,” be aware that its secret meaning in theology is “intention to dominate [violently, though not always with sex acts].”)
So, besides just noticing the bad thoughts and learning not to believe them, what gives?
Gratitude is the biggest habit changer. Taking time to be grateful in any situation, even if our feelings are not settled or are contradictory, is what sets us off in a good direction. Like, “If your hand causes you to give thanks, give that hand a high five! If your eye makes you grateful, wink at it!”
There are lists of good things to think about if you need help to get started (see below), but wherever you are is the real best place to start. Because wherever you are, that’s right where God is, loving you. I know that can sound Pollyana-like, especially if the bad thoughts have kicked in, trying to convince you I’m just blowing rainbows out my, etc. But trust me, though I don’t go into details here on this public blog about writing, I have been in some very bad, dangerous, scary, dark places, and my mind has even stuck there in some of them for years before I learned to tell and thank my way out. In the literal bottom of a trash can, I was grateful that I knew I didn’t belong there. On the literal other side of a loaded gun, I was grateful that I knew I didn’t belong there. (And in that case, I was grateful to have been sober enough to unload the gun and hide the bullets as soon as the aggressor was distracted! I said gratitude, not passivity!) I have sung and held hands and prayed and blessed when death was in the room. In short, I feel confident that God is truly loving you right now, right where you are. I have read and studied it, I have prayed it, I have lived that truth, and I have seen it lived graciously by others!
The whole church has Lent this week, East at the beginning, West near the end. I hope that this little talk helps you along in your journey, and that one thought takes root in your mind this week: You are so, so loved.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. -Philippians 4:4-8, NRSV