How to Handle Temptation (Matthew 5:27-30)
Big idea: Jesus calls us to a serious standard and strategy in our sex lives, because of what’s at stake.
We’re coming close to the end of our sermon series called God Loves Sex. The entire premise of this series is, as the title implies, that God is very pro-sex. But we’ve also seen that sex is a very powerful thing, and that we have an enemy who wants to take all of God’s gifts, including this one, and turn it against us.
So, contrary to what you might think, Satan hates sex. Satan wants to corrupt sex and turn it from being one of God’s great gifts into a weapon against our souls.
And so, as we’re coming to the end of our series, we need to face a very practical question: how will we handle sexual temptation? Notice that I’m not asking how you will handle sexual temptation if it happens. I’m asking how you will handle sexual temptation when it happens. We’re all going to be tempted differently, but we’re going to be tempted. And so it’s important that we realize this, and we take the danger seriously.
So let’s look at what Jesus has to say. We can summarize his teaching in this passage in three main points. I’ve stolen this breakdown of the points, by the way, from an excellent book called Finally Free: Fighting for Purity With the Power of Grace.
Jesus calls us to a serious standard.
If you have a pulse, and you live in today’s world, you will at some point have to wrestle with how far to go in the sexual choices that we make.
We’ve already seen that, because God loves sex, he gives the green light to passionate, sensual, satisfying, and joyful sex. As we saw the first week, there’s a whole book in the Bible about this. We would fog up the windows if we read some of the Bible’s passages on how and why sex should be enjoyed. The Bible gives a big green light to married sex.
We’ve also seen that the Bible gives a red light to other kinds of sex. It’s not because God is anti-sex. It’s because sex is so powerful. It’s a gift to be protected. So we’ve seen that the Bible calls us to protect sex by setting boundaries around it. We’ve seen that the Bible calls us all — married, unmarried, straight, gay, whatever — to deny our natural desires, and to conform our lives to the gospel. This doesn’t come naturally to any of us.
But what about the yellow-light areas? What about some of the choices we could make that are in between? For instance, what about watching TV shows with nudity and sex, or checking someone out? What about the yellow-light areas of our sex lives?
Look at what Jesus says in verses 27 and 28:
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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
What’s interesting in this passage is that Jesus begins with the red light issue: committing adultery. We already knew what he would say about this one. God is never for cheating against our spouses. It’s a deadly act, and the consequences are serious. I’ve seen this recently with a couple of my friends who have lost their marriages, their reputation, their legacy, and even their jobs as a result of adultery.
But then Jesus goes to the yellow-light issue. He says that when we look at someone with lustful intent — when we want something sexually that God has forbidden — then we’ve already crossed the line.
I want to be very clear about what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying that lust is as serious a sin as adultery. It’s clearly not. Adultery is much more serious, and the consequences are far more damaging. So he’s not saying that they’re the same. What he’s saying is that they’re both sinful, and that there’s no such thing as a small sin.
That’s pretty huge. It’s not the only place that the Bible sets this standard, either. Paul writes to the Ephesians, who lived in a sex-crazed city, and said:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Ephesians 5:3 NIV)
The standard is this: eliminate adultery and sex outside of marriage. But don’t stop there. Jesus and Scripture call us to eliminate any kind of impurity in our thoughts and actions.
We tend to think of lust as being okay in small quantities, a little like chocolate cake. You know when you’re trying to avoid sugar, but then someone offers you this amazing dessert and you can’t resists. You have a bite or two, and then stop, and feel pretty good about yourself.
That’s the standard we normally think of when it comes to lust. Enjoy a little, and then stop before things get out of hand. But that’s not the standard that Scripture sets. It says that there shouldn’t be even a hint. This means that there shouldn’t be any place for lust in our lives. We have to set the standard so that we tolerate nothing.
What’s the big deal with lust? Why does the Bible set such a serious standard when it comes to sexual immorality?
About a month ago, we were going to have family up from the States. One of the young family members has an allergy to peanuts, coconut, soy, eggs, and tree nuts. The week before he came, we went through our entire kitchen and removed everything that contained any of these ingredients. We were serious about trying to remove any allergen, because we didn’t want him to have an allergic reaction in our home.
By the way, you’d be surprised how many products in your kitchen have one of these ingredients!
I thought of this last week when I read about an incident that happened in Québec. A diner at a restaurant told the waiter about his food allergies. The waiter served him something that caused an allergic reaction. The diner was taken to hospital. He was in a coma for two days, suffering cardiac arrest on the second day, and spent a total of five days in hospital. Police are recommending criminal charges against the waiter.
You don’t mess around with food allergies, and you don’t mess around with lust.
When it comes to sex, Jesus understands that even a little bit of lust can entice us and draw us away. Just this week I happened to read this from one of the Puritans:
It is a sad thing to depart from God for a trifle. It is the greatest folly to venture hell for a small matter, and to break with God for a little … For the love of one little sin, some of have lost God, and their souls forever. Many times small sins are more serious. Great sins startle the soul, and awaken it to repentance, but little ones breed and work secretly until they trample the soul. Sin grows by degrees until you cannot prevail over it. (Thomas Brooks)
At the very heart of lust is a a desire to rebel against God, and that is not a small thing. It’s for this reason alone that we have to deal seriously with the issue of lust.
But it’s not the only reason. There’s something about the very nature of lust that is a threat to our souls. One writer puts it like this:
One of the reasons God calls us to cleanse our lives of lust completely is because He knows that lust never stays at the level of “just a hint” … Lust can never be quenched. As soon as the object of lust is attained, lust wants something more….
Even when you indulge in every kind of impurity, you’re still filled with a continual lust. You won’t be able to fantasize enough to quench lust. You won’t be able to sleep with enough people. You won’t be able to view enough pornography. You can gorge yourself on lust, but you’re always going to be hungry. You’ll be trapped in a never ending pursuit of wrong desires— always reaching for something that cannot be grasped.
God says “not … even a hint” because you can’t give in to lust’s demands and hope to pacify it. It always grows. And as it does, lust will rob you of your ability to enjoy true, godly pleasure. You can’t bargain with lust and come out a winner. (Joshua Harris, Sex Isn’t the Problem)
So that’s the standard. It’s a serious one. We need to be as serious about eliminating lust as we were when we were getting rid of the allergens in our home the other week.
Jesus calls us to a serious strategy.
When addressing the matter of lust, Jesus exhorts his disciples to take concrete steps to battle this— to take severe, ruthless action to avoid lustful activity. Look at what he says:
If 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. And 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 5:29-30)
How seriously should we deal with lust in our lives?
I think I’ve used this with you before. Imagine if you got in your car to drive home after the service. After a while, you look over and see a venomous snake sitting in the passenger seat. It’s unlikely, but work with me. How long would you wait to deal with it? My bet is that you wouldn’t keep driving. You would pull over instantly, and block traffic if you had to, and get out of that car. It’s a danger that would call for severe, ruthless action.
How seriously should we deal with sexual sin in our lives? Jesus says in this passage that we should treat it as a clear and present danger to our souls, and that we should take immediate, severe, and ruthless action to deal with it.
The language that Jesus uses is actually shocking. He talks about tearing our eye out, or cutting off our right hand. Before we go too far, we need to understand that Jesus is using a metaphor here. The real problem is never with our eyes or our hands. The problem goes much deeper: our hearts. Jesus is saying that we should take whatever action is necessary to control our natural passions that can easily flare out of control.
One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on temptation is this one: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” (John Owen). Every time, when we face temptation, we have to look at the sin, and look at ourselves, and realize that only one of us is going to get out alive. If we allow the sin in, then we have to know that the sin has our death as its target. Don’t even let the sin in, because if you do, it’s like you’re inviting death in itself.
So take radical measures. Get tough with your sin. Don’t take half-measures. Do whatever it takes to avoid the sin and to starve your temptation.
How do we apply this?
I think one of the best ways to apply this is to pick a time when we’re not feeling tempted. And then we should give some thought to why we’re tempted. The sexual temptation is sometimes because of the sex, but usually there’s something a little bit deeper. It’s a way to deal with stress, or anger, or boredom, or hurt. It’s an attempt to deal with some pain or problem in our lives. It’s usually an attempt to anesthetize our souls. Identify what’s leading up to the problem, rather than just dealing with the problem itself.
Then we should probably look at the ways that we’re likely to struggle. Most of us are fairly predictable. We tend to fall in the same way. One of the smartest things we can do, when we’re not struggling, is to identify how we fall, and to come up with a plan to neutralize that danger. It’s amazing how obvious some actions can be. For instance, there are ways to install filters on the Internet. We can remove certain apps from our devices. We can avoid certain places or circumstances that put us in the path of temptation. Get rid of the yellow-light areas, not just the red-light areas in your life. Don’t take half actions. Take strong actions, because this is a serious issue.
Take radical measures in your thought life. Take radical measures in how you spend your time. Take radical measures in the availability of temptation. Amputations hurt, and this may hurt too. It’s worth it. Eliminate these dangers in your life.
Then we can get help. One of the worst ways to fight this is to fight alone. Not everyone should know your battle, but someone should. You should have at least one or two people in your life who know the worst about you, but love you anyway.
Finally — and this is key — realize that you won’t conquer this without Jesus and his grace. I agree with Heath Lambert, who wrote, “Every strategy you employ in your fight for purity must be grounded in the grace of God in Christ if it is to lead to lasting freedom.”
Here’s the last thing you should do when you fail: beat yourself up and feel miserable. Here’s the first thing you should do when you fail: run to Jesus and confess to him. When we fall, fight self-hatred. Confess to God, and confess to a friend. Run to God.
A blogger wrote a helpful post called “Seven Things to Do After You Look at Pornography,” and he concluded with this:
Remember this: God loves you so, so much…He does not abandon the sinner. He does not depart from the indulger. Wait in his love. “Build yourselves up . . . in the Holy Spirit”: “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:20–21). Know the difference between the God-mask Satan would wear to deceive you: disgusted, distant, unavailable, disinterested, and remember the face of your real God: loving, patient, working, unsurprised, unrelenting, unwavering in his grasp on you. He won’t let you go.
Jesus reminds us that there are serious stakes.
Friends, the reason that we have to take this so seriously is because it’s so important. Jesus says in this passage that our very souls are at stake. Billy Graham once said, “Win the battle against sex and you win the battle of your life. Lose it, then you lose the battle of your life.”
John Piper, a pastor, once spoke to a conference of young people, and he said this:
The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.
I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.
When we fall in this area, there’s much more at stake. It’s not just the danger of sexual sin; it’s the danger of a soul that becomes increasingly dead to God, and a soul that slowly begins to shrivel without us even knowing it.
Jesus calls us to a serious standard and strategy in our sex lives, because of what’s at stake. And he also calls us to his mercy, because he’s the friend of sinners, and he’s never once turned away a person who’s come running to him.
Father, today we want to take two things seriously. First, we want to take sin seriously. We want to do this because that’s what Jesus does. He leaves no room for trifling with sin. Sexual sin and every other form of sin is deadly. And so we want to confess to you that we haven’t always taken it seriously. Help us, Father, to listen to what Jesus says, and to take radical action to deal with this in our lives.
But Father, we don’t just want to take sin seriously. We want to take Jesus seriously. And so today, we run to his grace. Help us to think about Jesus more than we think about our guilt. Help us to understand that we can never have too much Jesus or too much grace. Help us to lay hold of your forgiving and transforming grace. Help us to realize that Jesus’ power to change us is stronger than sin’s power to destroy us.
May we treasure you above all things as we look at Jesus. We pray this in his name. Amen.