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“Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1

*If new to this series, please see the introduction.*

Matthew 5:27–28: Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

“You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Standard Interpretation(s)

The ordinary interpretation of this passage is that lust is equivalent to adultery; that is, if a man sexually desires a woman, he has already committed adultery with her in God’s eyes. This interpretation is reflected in the following translations:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NIV)

“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 for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NASB)

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (NLT)

“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.” (NRSV)

Many churches (especially within Evangelical circles), emphasize this verse to adolescent boys, warning them that if they so much as think of a woman in a sexual manner, they’ve already sinned, that they’ve already effectively done the deed with her. Such an interpretation often works hand-in-glove with the common idea that Jesus “intensified” the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, setting a higher standard in order to show that no person could actually live up to God’s standards, showing that a person could only be saved by recognizing the impossibility of righteousness and then receiving forgiveness (a subject that will soon be addressed on this blog). So the common teaching is that sexual lust is absolutely evil—equivalent, even, to the actual act of sexual sin.

Another very popular way of reading this verse is to understand “lust” as indicating misplaced or overly robust libido; that is, “lust” is seen as illicit sexual desire. For example, here’s a recent (and quite common) response to the question of what lust is from a message board conversation I had some time ago: “I take lust to mean wanting something more than you should in an unhealthy way.”

This conception of “lust” often overlaps with the prior interpretation, to the effect that the young man is told, “Of course you will recognize that a woman is beautiful—that’s natural and unavoidable—but the moment your thoughts become sexual in nature, you’ve lusted, and that’s as bad as actually committing adultery.” Despite its popularity, this interpretation is imprecise, even flat wrong, and leads to surprisingly harmful consequences, making it a great candidate to start this series.

Lust or Covet?

The first thing to understand in this passage is that Jesus is in no way intensifying the Law here, nor is he saying anything new. What’s that, you say? The Law doesn’t forbid lusting after a woman? Well, as it turns out, the Greek word usually translated “lust” in this passage (ἐπιθυμέω; epithumeô) happens to be the same word used to translate the Hebrew word for “covet” (‏חמד) in the Tenth Command in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which says:

οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου. οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ πλησίον σου οὔτε τὸν ἀγρὸν αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὸν παῖδα αὐτοῦ οὔτε τὴν παιδίσκην αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ βοὸς αὐτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ ὑποζυγίου αὐτοῦ οὔτε παντὸς κτήνους αὐτοῦ οὔτε ὅσα τῷ πλησίον σού ἐστιν. (Ex 20:17 LXX)

You will not covet your neighbor’s wife. You will not covet your neighbors house or his field or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or any animal which is your neighbor’s.”

Sounds an awful lot like what Jesus says in this passage, doesn’t it? They’re even more alike once one realizes that the Greek word for “woman” and “wife” happens to be the same. In this passage, Jesus reminds his audience that the Law not only prohibits adultery, it prohibits coveting. This is not so much an intensification of the Law as it is a reminder of what the Law already says. And just as the Law itself was intended to be fulfilled, Jesus intends his words here to be followed (and that following them is entirely possible).

Another important point is that the command does not forbid recognition of quality or even desire itself (such would be nonsense) but something else: it forbids the action of coveting (hence the verbal form). “Lust” or “desire,” even the sexual variety, is nowhere forbidden in Scripture, nor is it equated with sin, only with the potential to sin (cf. James 1, where lust leads to sin but is not itself sinful). It is also important to note the distinction between the verbal form and the nominal form: when the Hebrew חמד or Greek ἐπιθυμέω are used as verbs in the OT, it denotes desire directed at obtaining the specific object in question and not merely the existence of the desire itself. This fits well with the Tenth Command, which is perhaps best understood as forbidding fixing one’s desire upon obtaining something that is not rightfully one’s own. In order to explain this point more adequately, a fuller discussion of the meaning of “lust” (Gk. ἐπιθυμία; epithumia) in the New Testament and the culture of that period is necessary.

Drives and Desires

One misconception that should immediately be eliminated is that “lust” (ἐπιθυμία) is a specifically sexual term. In fact, the word simply refers to a strong, passionate desire, used either of sexual desire or of a strong desire for something non-sexual. Stepping back further, in Platonic thought, ἐπιθυμία (epithumia) is the lowest part of the human soul—representing the connection of the soul with the fleshy, bodily part of the person.

Background: The Platonic Soul

 

For those non-Platonists out there, this requires further explanation. Platonism explains human thought and action by dividing the “soul” (or life-force) into three bust of Platoparts, each of which is personified as a separate agent in itself.

The highest part is the “mind,” “intellect,” or “reason” (νοῦς, nous; sometimes λόγος, logos), which is the part associated with thinking, theorizing, believing, meditating, contemplating, etc. This part is concerned with things like truth and knowledge and the highest aspects of human life. This part is represented in the human body by the head, which is the highest part of the body, stretching towards the heavens. In the Republic, this part is identified with the philosopher/rulers who are the natural and proper leaders of the ideal city-state, while it is identified with the world creator “demiurge” in the Timaeus.

As mentioned above, the lowest part (ἐπιθυμία, epithumia; note that this is the same root as the word for “lust”) is the irrational seat of appetite, the source of human drives for pleasure, including desires for food, drink, sex, and pleasure. Socrates calls this part of the soul “money loving,” since money is typically required to satisfy all its primary appetites. This seat of the appetites was also referred to as the “flesh” in the ancient world (σάρξ; sarx). Because this part of the soul is non-rational, it is unlimited in terms of what it desires—necessary, frivolous, or even unlawful/illegal/sinful. Take food, for example. When a person is hungry, it makes no difference if the barbecue smell is coming from the neighbor’s house—it still stimulates the desire for that food. The desire for food is necessary inasmuch as the body will die without food, but the appetite does not simply restrict itself to what is necessary.wild stallion rearing up

Instead, a person may desire extremely expensive food (unnecessary) or, in extreme cases, may desire to eat something improper (i.e. a child may consume his feces or an adult may suddenly desire to eat a child). Since it is prone to run amok, the appetite part of the soul must be governed by the higher parts of the soul to keep it in check. This part is represented by the lower parts of the abdomen (including the genitals) on the human body, while it is identified with the merchant/craftsman (money-making) class in the Republic. In Parmenides’ charioteer analogy, this part is likened to a wild stallion, powerful but undisciplined.

The middle part of the soul is the “spirited” or “emotional” part of the soul (θύμος, thumos; a word often denoting “heart” in Greek), the mediator between the higher and lower parts of the soul. This part is the seat of the will and courage and can be shaped through education and training. It is represented by the chest/heart area on the body and the warrior/soldier class in the Republic.

These three parts operate in harmony (likened to a harmony of three musical notes, each necessary to the song),with the ideal scenario (following Parmenides’ analogy of the charioteer) being that the mind govern the other two as a charioteer, with the “spirited” will as the lead horse and the appetite as the second horse, being governed by the union of the higher two natures. On the other hand, the danger is always that the appetites will gain the “spirited” part as an accomplice and overpower the will, leading to reckless action. Plato thus sees it as critical that the mind retains the allegiance of the will, giving it direction and controlling the appetites.

Greek charioteer Parmenides

So to summarize: the presence of “lust” or “desire” is an assumed part of each human person—deriving from God-given bodily desires that are amoral in themselves, neither inherently sinful nor entirely depraved. As such the presence of such “lusts” is in no way sinful; it is simply a part of being an embodied person. But directing these desires towards taking, obtaining, or enjoying what is not lawful is forbidden—that action (itself an act of the will) is forbidden by the Tenth Command and is sin.

Back to Matthew 5:27–28

Now that we’ve established a bit of the history of the key term in question, we can return to Jesus’ saying in Matthew with a little better context. By now we should understand that, in contrast to the English term “lust,” which has come to be a pretty much entirely negative term—which is why it’s so amusing to say, “I’ve been lusting for this pastry all morning”—the Greek term (though having a somewhat negative tint) is not always negative in the same way, instead being indicative of strong urges or drives, which the New Testament does not condemn in themselves.

Jesus is even able to use the word of himself:

“And He said to them, ‘I have longed [ἐπιθυμέω] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer!’” (Luke 22:15)

Similarly, other non-negative uses of the word:

“For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men lusted [ἐπιθυμέω] to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Matt 13:17)

“And [the prodigal] longed [ἐπιθυμέω] to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.” (Luke 15:16)

“… and longing [ἐπιθυμέω] to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.” (Luke 16:21)

Again, I am not to saying that there was never a negative connotation to ἐπιθυμέω/ἐπιθυμία. But it is critical that we make the distinction between a condemnation of desire and a prohibition against coveting forbidden things, including one’s neighbor’s wife. Now we’re finally ready to look at the verse itself.

The Grammar of Matthew 5:27–28

The other major mistake in the interpretation of this verse (and many translations, as shown above) involves misconstruing the grammar. The Greek does not say, “look at a woman with lust” or “look at a woman lustfully,” as though it were describing the manner of looking. On the contrary, Matthew uses a grammatical construction here that combines the preposition πρὸς (pros, pronounced “pross”) with an articular infinitive in the accusative. Matthew uses this construction four other times, and each time it denotes the purpose of the action:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be noticed by them.” (Matt 6:1)

“… First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles in order to burn them up ….” (Matt 13:30)

“But they do all their deeds in order to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.” (Matt 23:5)

“For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it in order to prepare me for burial.” (Matt 26:12)

So it is clear that the grammar is reflecting purpose: “anyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her.” (“Covet” is preferable here in part because “covet” better reflects the intentionality reflected in the passage.) This is a critically important point; Jesus is not suggesting that any sexual thought or inclination towards a woman is sinful. Nor is he suggesting that such thoughts or attractions being triggered by a look are sinful. The look is not the problem (nor is the presence of a beautiful woman, which some of that day tended to blame as the real problem); no, these are assumed. What is remarkable (given the popular misinterpretation) is that Jesus likewise assumes the presence of sexual desire in the man as a given, and that sexual desire isn’t seen as the problem. Instead, Jesus addresses the matter of intent, of volition, the purpose of the look. The issue is not the appetite itself but how a man directs this natural appetite and inclination. (I’m reminded here of the old saying: If you’re a young man on a beach and a beautiful woman in a bikini walks past and you don’t feel any sort of excitement or attraction, it’s not because you’re spiritual, it’s because you’re dead.)

This fits well within the immediate context; throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is pointing out the root causes of the sins enumerated in the Law. Yes, adultery is a sin, but the sin has entered the heart the moment one determines to seek it out. The moment a man even looks at a woman for that purpose, adultery has already polluted the heart. This is the line between natural sexual attraction and the “coveting” prohibited by the Law: the Law forbids directing one’s desire towards that which is not lawful. Jesus does not condemn the desire but the action taken on the desire.

In modern terms, it’s the difference between seeing a woman and being attracted to her—a natural part of the God-created appetite and a good indicator that one is alive—and actually considering or seeking an illicit activity. In fact, in modern terms, the saying could be taken like this: “Obviously, having extramarital sex is wrong, but the moment you decide to start down that path, adultery is already in your heart.”

Finally, Jesus does not say that the thought and the action are equivalent, as is often taught. The passage does not say, “Once you’ve thought it, it’s the same as actually having done it.” That very notion is absurd! Rather, Jesus says that adultery has been committed in the heart, that the will has already bent itself towards adultery. Again, the emphasis is on intent—that is, without the decision to move towards adultery, the act would never be committed. Therefore, Jesus says, deal with the primary problem of intention and adultery becomes a non-issue. As will be shown below, the suggestion that the thought and action are equivalent can cause much harm.

Why It Matters

The biggest problem with the way these verses are usually explained is that it misplaces the focus away from the will, from the commitment of the heart, towards a condemnation of the natural desires human beings are created having. Young men in many churches are effectively told that there is something inherently sinful in their sexual impulses. There are several results that typically follow from this:

  1. A great deal of self-defeat and guilt about sexual desire is a problem in much of the church. Young men are often entirely consumed with their efforts “not to lust,” as though focusing even more attention on the matter of sexual desire would actually help things!
  2. In the same vein, I have even had married men talk to me about how they try not to “lust” for their wives! This stems from the misguided idea that if their desire for sex is simply because they’re “horny,” there’s something inherently wrong with that, something to feel guilty about. (In contrast, look at the way Paul approaches marital sex in 1 Cor 7; he seems to present it as the necessary and acceptable cure for “being horny.”) Talk about a way to take some of the joy out of marriage and substitute defeat and guilt!
  3. Many young men simply give up the fight, reasoning that if they’re already guilty of sexual sin because of their thoughts, they might as well go ahead and enjoy the real thing. You’d probably be surprised how often this is the case. (Again, this result is quite related to the poor theology that suggests the Sermon on the Mount presents some impossible to achieve standard. The obvious conclusion is to ask why anyone should try to live up to it, since one’s salvation isn’t determined by doing this stuff anyway, only how one believes.)
  4. Some who understand this passage to be a condemnation of lust actually reason that they can have extramarital (or at least premarital) sex as long as they “don’t lust.” Following is an actual quote from a message board discussion on this subject:

    “The only reason to wait [for marriage for sex] is if you believe you have a soul mate out there. I don’t. I know the bible [sic] fairly well … and have yet to find where the bible [sic] says it is wrong to have sex with more than one person or have sex before marriage. Adultery is having sex with someone elses [sic] partner which is wrong and you can have sex without looking at someone lustfully. I don’t know anywhere in the bible [sic] where it says it is wrong for two people who care about each other to have sex.”

    As amazing as this interpretation is, this is certainly not the first time I have heard or seen that interpretation—that it’s okay to have extramarital sex as long as one doesn’t “lust.” As we’ve seen, this entirely misconstrues what “lust” is (having sex without the desire for it is generally called rape), but it is an excellent representative of how harmful the common teaching on this passage can be. (See this post for a discussion of the fallacy of searching for the soul mate in much of American Christian culture.)

Summary

So to sum it up, Matthew 5:27–28 is not a condemnation of lust or sexual desire, nor does it mean that every red-blooded male necessarily sins every time a beautiful woman walks into a room (or onto a movie screen or anywhere else she may appear). On the contrary, “lust” itself is not a sin but can lead to sin if it is not properly governed and put under the authority of the Spirit (cf. James 1). Instead of focusing on “lust,” if this passage is to be correctly taught, the emphasis should be placed squarely on the will: that is, “What is the proper response to sexual desire?” There are proper outlets for sexual desire, but it is the exercise of the sexual appetite outside these confines is the problem. Even prior to actually committing the act, once the will has turned towards illicit behavior, sin has already entered the heart and, once fully conceived, will bring forth death.

Part of the payoff for properly understanding these two verses is the understanding that the requirement they set forth is neither impossible nor unreasonable. There is no requirement to somehow lose the drives that we were born with, nor should there be any guilt for having them. On the contrary, it is a matter of the commitment of the will, the orientation of the heart, that Jesus is discussing. It is the covetous look that is forbidden, not lust or desire itself. That is, Jesus forbids fixing one’s desire upon a woman (or man) that is not rightfully one’s own. This requirement was not set forth to show how impossible it is to live up to God’s standard. The standards set forth here are intended to be lived.

Comments

  1. Kyle Leaman says:

    Great breakdown Jason. An important verse to get right, as it not only helps struggling Christian men but also doesn't set up unnecessary hurdles for non-Christians contemplating Christianity. Of course it has the advantage of also being accurate and truthful…and you know what they say about truth…

  2. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I've found it helpful to compare Matt 5:28 πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν to the Tenth Commandment (Exod 20:17 LXX): οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου. I don't really see Jesus going beyond what was already taught.

    So I would endorse your view: In this case, it would probably be appropriate even to translate this verse "in order to covet her," rather than "to lust after her," in part because "covet" reflects intentionality reflected in the passage.

  3. Jason A. Staples says:

    Good point, Stephen. The more I've looked at this passage over the years, the more I've connected it with that also. And the nice thing is that "covet" carries closer to the proper connotation in English than "lust," which is associated more with the drive than an intentional action.

  4. It’s a real shame that Megan was dropped from Transformers 3. But I wish her the best with her next movie.

  5. Bible Study says:

    As long as Satan can have one to trust in their own works of righteousness in the flesh, he can defeat them. The only way to overcome the defeat Satan offers is to trust in Jesus alone for salvation. Romans 8: There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

  6. Thank you soo much for this critical analysis and explanation of the Scripture. So many lies and untruths have been taught because of a failure to understand correctly. Thanks again and Shalom

  7. Great and thorough article

  8. I came across Matthew 5:27-30, asked Google ‘how does one live up to it?’, and found this page and your site. I can’t tell you how much better I feel after about myself and my faith in God after reading your explanation. It is so well reasoned and clearly written too! I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much, Jason and God bless you.

  9. Hi Jason,

    I thought that article was fantastic. Would you say that masturbation was one of the proper outlets for sexual desire you mentioned, or would the accompanying fantasies with this act render it as adultery that Jesus speaks of above?
    Would be great to hear back from you on this.

    • Good question, John. While I don’t think the Bible condemns masturbation (the usual interpretation of the Onan story doesn’t get it right), it also doesn’t seem that masturbation is “one of the proper outlets,” either. Actually, Matthew putting “and if your right hand causes you to stumble” immediately after this statement about coveting a woman may be seen as an indirect reference to masturbation. It’s not entirely clear, but it’s the closest thing in Scripture you’ll find to a statement about masturbation. Given the general outlook on sex in Scripture, though, I’d say masturbation would not be included among the “proper outlets,” which are limited to heterosexual marital relations whenever discussed.

      • That’s really interesting, I’d never thought of it that way before. In fact I don’t even think it struck me at all why Matthew said “and if your right hand causes you to stumble”..it’s like I’ve never read that bit! Thanks.

        I guess it was in another article that you wrote about your personal experience as a formerly single guy; would you say from your experience that nocturnal emissions were sufficient during that time to ‘satisfy’ the sex drive, and that maybe the sex drive is just a drive that pushes us towards intimacy with others & doesn’t really ‘need’ to be satisfied in a sexual way? I apologise for coming back with another question & maybe going off on a bit of a tangent!

        I really appreciate you taking the time to reply back by the way, that was much appreciated.

        • On the one hand, no, nocturnal emissions are insufficient to “satisfy” the sex drive in the same way that getting nutrients through a tube “satisfies” the desire to eat. But on the other hand, yes, nocturnal emissions can be (and were for me) sufficient as a single person, although I think it’s much more difficult to stop masturbating once one starts than it is never to start. I do think we as a society place significantly too much emphasis on the need to be “sexually satisfied.” It’s good to have sexual satisfaction, but it’s not a necessary condition for a quality human life.

          • Thanks again for your reply, and your honesty.
            Definitely food for thought.
            Take care.

  10. Finally, something about this passage that actually makes sense!

    I’d like to thank you for laying out what the original Greek says about this particular passage. Because I don’t know ancient Greek (and haven’t had much time to learn it) I could never look up much for myself. This interpretation actually makes sense though. I was beginning to wonder why God would condemn me for a feeling He created me with… This actually makes sense though. Thanks for clearing this headache up.

  11. Since you proved that it means “in order to covet her”, and The Ten Commandments are Commands(not intentions or desires, etc), and since as this guy suggested command 10 covet could mean ‘Take’ – http://Goddidntsaythat.com/2011/03/02/the-ten-commandments-dont-forbid-coveting/

    and since the 10 Commandment which says, Thou Shall Not Steal in Hebrew can mean Kidnap.

    And since deuteromony has avah as desire and chamad again in other places has suggestions of take(steal) I have come to the logical conclusion that these are The True 10 Commandments:

    1, You shall have no other gods before Yahweh(The True God, The Trinity of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit)

    2, You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

    3, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy

    4, You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

    5, Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

    6, You shall not murder.

    7, You shall not commit adultery.

    8, You shall not Kidnap

    9, You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

    10, “You shall not take(steal) your neighbor’s house. You shall not take(steal) your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

  12. Wrote a post on my blog, check it out, Courtesy to you for helping me – http://savedbychrist94.blogspot.com/2013/01/true-ten-commandments-and-matthew-527-28.html

    This is my first day starting Koine Greek(Bought Basics of Biblical Greek ‘Grammar’ by Dr. William D. Mounce and I already know most of the alphabet, studying it you are correct, it means in order to.(because of πρὸς(pros) and THEN comes τὸ(to)

    Now I know what the True Ten Commandments are and an sure that looking at a woman isn’t a sin.

    God(The Father, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit) Bless you Jason Staples, you helped well.

  13. Great article…I wish Christians like yourself who understand that English words often times horribly translates the Hebrew and Greek would look more into the passages that condemns “homosexuality” I’m a gay christian and I have found through my research that the bible does not condemn 2 men or 2 women in loving committed relations but rather was condemning the sex rituals done by pagans.

    • But the Bible does clearly condemn homosexuality in this verse:

      Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, (I Corinthians 6:9 NKJV)

      The meaning is quiet clear. People who lead lives like those mentioned in a continuos fashion are people who have not experienced a transformation by the saving power of Christ. (Aka, they aren’t saved, and therefore are not headed to heaven) I am not here to condemn you, but to tell you the truth. Please search this following link and read the article carefully. I’m praying for you man.

      http://carm.org/bible-homosexuality

  14. Thanks for your thoughtful article! It really helps me understand this passage better, and relieve me from the guilt of feeling attracted to beautiful women. However, I have a question: the common belief is that porn is bad because it will cause lust, and lust will lead to sin. After reading this article, it seems like if one does not act on the lust (like masturbate, or go have sex with prostitute etc), it will not lead to sin. If this thinking is true, then does that mean it’s OK to watch porn? That doesn’t sound right to me. Am I misunderstand something? Thanks!

    • I don’t think this verse could be rightly interpreted as a license for pornography, as the important aspect here is the intention behind the look. Once a person has decided to look in order to gain some sexual gratification from that source, it would seem to me that coveting has begun.

      • Thanks for you reply Jason! I wouldn’t think watching porn is justified either – it’s debasing anyway. Could you share your thoughts about “lust of the eyes”, i.e. what is this lust referring to, and if I enjoy nude art (the intent is to appreciate the beauty of female, not to get sexual arousal), and I find the model to be beautiful/attractive, does it fall under lust of the eyes?

        • Jesus was pretty clear why He used lust instead of covet. He was addressing our sinful nature. Lusting after someone is not the same as wanting to possess someone. It is merely for the sake of temporary pleasure. Paul said he beats his body into submission. We can only do this with the help of the Holy Spirit.

          Yet I believe that Jesus teaching was of a higher moral standard.

  15. This is the best article I’ve read on this subject. I would recommend it to others who, like myself, have had a difficult time gaining a realistic, working biblical perspective on distinguishing between sinful lust (the choice to sin by looking at someone IN ORDER to lust after or covet them) and mere amoral (intrinsically neither morally right nor morally wrong) sexual attraction.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this research with the rest of us!

  16. Thanks for posting on this issue. Currently, I’m REALLY wrestling with this verse. My unfortunate logic through growing up in the church in the South has pushed me towards the “even looking at a girl lustfully is adultery” POV, even though I know it’s not the right interpretation. I have such a hard time reconciling myself on the matter still. Years of shame and guilt and beating myself up have done a number on me. Even after reading this, I am still having a hard time reconciling this. My mind works inasmuch if i can think myself into something, i can think out of it.

    Jason, I’m going to read this again in hopes of garnishing more, but could you give me something that might help me have that “click” or “ah HA” connection with what I feel & what Jesus says? I almost feel spiritually paralyzed by the whole thought process :(

    • As far as the “ah-ha” kind of thing, I’d suggest the following: It is all about the intention, the purpose behind the look. Jesus does not forbid a look, nor the desire. But he declares that looking as the first step towards satisfying that desire to be sin.

  17. Hi Jason, thanks for the article, I found it to be quite informative and should help greatly in eliminating the guilt/shame I feel when I notice someone and am immediately sexually attracted to them. I do have a couple of questions though. To provide some background info so you know where I am coming from, I am a 21 year old Christian male, single, unable to get married anytime soon due to various reasons, and I have been addicted to pornography and masturbation since age 10, and am struggling to overcome it and to determine what exactly is acceptable and unacceptable for a Christian single.

    What I understand you to have been saying is that seeing an attractive woman and experiencing feelings of sexual attraction and having thoughts pop up like “wow, she is attractive” is not itself a sin (please correct me if I am wrong).

    Do intentional thoughts constitute an illicit behavior? For example, ruminating on how attractive someone is for the sexual gratification such thoughts provide without having any intention to have sex with them or to pursue them in any way?

    What about if the someone in question is merely a fabrication of ones imagination and does not/has never actually existed in the real world?

    You stated in an earlier response to someone else that masturbation is not a proper outlet, but it isn’t directly condemned either, though it does appear to be warned against. Is it reasonable to then conclude that while masturbation can be dangerous and can possibly lead to one sinning, the action itself is morally “neutral”, so to speak?

    In another earlier response you stated that “Once a person has decided to look in order to gain some sexual gratification from that source, it would seem to me that coveting has begun”. What if the source in question is not another human being? For example, sexually explicit literature instead of visual pornography?

    I’m sure you are very busy and probably won’t have time to answer my questions but I thought it worth asking anyway.

    Thanks again for the article,

    • Niix, I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply to this. I’ve been mulling over the best way to respond since you posted this, as your question obviously involves more than just simple historical interpretation and I want to give as good a reply as possible.

      I think it’s fairly clear that Jesus wasn’t forbidding the experience of sexual attraction or suggesting that it is sinful.

      The other questions are a bit more difficult. First of all, I think sexual addiction is an example of sexual brokenness rather than wholeness. I also don’t think there’s much question that Jesus would have been very opposed to pornography, as it is the very embodiment of covetous sexual outlet. Pornography is fundamentally opposed to the self-restrained sexual ideal Jesus advocates. There are numerous other problems associated with the pornography industry on the social justice side; helping provide a market for it through consumption of it is indirectly to increase sexual immorality and injustice.

      As for imagination on the basis of literature, etc., such a thing is empty at best and again does not exemplify the sexual ethic Jesus advocates.

      With respect to far-reaching conclusions, I think the better approach is to pursue the ideal rather than aim for the low boundary. I understand that you have no immediate opportunity to get married, but I can say with some confidence that your addictions in this area will not be ideal baggage to bring into a marriage, nor are they examples of the free and whole life of which Jesus promised. As such, your best bet is to do everything you can to break these addictions, seeking whatever help you can in order to do so.

      I hope this answer helps somewhat; I’d be happy to respond more thoroughly (and more quickly) if anything is less than clear.

      • Thanks for the response Jason, I appreciate you taking the time to think about my questions. I have to agree with everything that you said. I’d come to similar conclusions myself, I suppose I was hoping that I was wrong, that there was some “wiggle room”, so to speak. No such luck. Anyway, thanks again for the response.

  18. Jesus said not to lust after a woman- think sexual thoughts about. This is not complicated, and people like you try to twist it. your way of thinking is wordly and carnal, and very male. lust may be a part of human nature, but human nature is fallen. why must people try to find excuses? you seem to suggets that lust is ok as long as you dont intend to act on it. so a man could fantasize about a woman, another man or a child, and its fine if he does not act on it. jesus is just as concerned with the heart as well as our actions. by the way there happen to be Asexual people, who do not have such desires. they are no more abnormal than anyone else. you are not a christian.

    • Stefany says:

      Melanie i agree 100% with your comment and couldn’t have said It any better myself. People should stop trying to make excuses for the behaviors that go against God’s teachings and start trying to actually change and follow the right path, against temptations.

      • Do you think it is important to properly understand what Jesus says in this verse in order to know “the behaviors that go against God’s teachings”? If so, how might one go about properly understanding the verse?

        • Alfred Sturges says:

          What this is saying is that if you look upon a woman with a desire to perform a sexual act with her then you have committed adultery in your heart. Does that fit your use of the word covet? In english we call looking at a woman with a desire to perform a sexual act lust. So the translators are right to use the word lust. In the context of adultery we should not assume that someone is looking to covet another man’s wife because of her domestic skills.

          The question your article raises is can we look but not touch. Well, if you are looking and thinking you would like to have sex with her then you are looking with a desire to commit adultery. Jesus calls that committing adultery in your heart. Just because you place a line between looking and touching doesn’t mean you don’t have a desire to touch, it just means you have restraint. And unfortunately just because you only play the fantasy out in your mind that doesn’t excuse you from having committed adultery in your heart.

          • That’s a very interesting interpretation, but it doesn’t seem to be what the Greek actually says, which is a bit of a problem, don’t you think?

          • Alfred Sturges says:

            There is someone who might be able to settle this for us: St. Chrysostom. As an early doctor of the church and lover of the greek language we should expect him to know the meaning of this verse.

            From his commentary (http://www.one-fold.com/Resources/Chrysostom/npnf110.pdf page 213):
            For beginning from those passions, which most belong to our whole race, anger, I mean, and desire (for it is these chiefly that bear absolute sway within us, and are more natural than the rest); He with great authority, even such as became a legislator, both corrected them, and reduced them to order with all strictness. For He said not that the adulterer merely is punished; but what He had done with respect to the murderer, this He doth here also, punishing even the unchaste look: to teach thee wherein lies what He had more than the scribes. Accordingly, He saith, “He that looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her:” that is, he who makes it his business to be curious about bright forms, and to hunt for elegant features, and to feast his soul with the sight, and to fasten his eyes on fair countenances. For He came to set free from all evil deeds not the body only, but the soul too before the body. Thus, because in the heart we receive the grace of the Spirit, He cleanses it out first.

            In comparison with his interpretation I find my interpretation to be too weak. Those who “hunt for elegant features” are the ones who stand accused of committing adultery in their heart, not only those who look with sexual desire.

    • I cannot believe how many guys are agreeing with this article…. Lusting after another woman is adultery. Period. Do not look with sexually impure thoughts on any woman (besides your wife which in this case is not impure…) How can you misread this? It’s so clear…. Thank you Melanie and Stefany for replying…. You should look at all women like sisters and mothers not as sexual bait…. Please look closely at Jesus teaching…. You are to be one with your wife and only your wife. In what world would Jesus accept a man cheating on his wife either with his imagination or in real life? What a joke. You boys need to stop looking for loopholes to sin…. Stay out of the grey if there is any question. Don’t swim in it. Can you honestly pray about it and feel at peace that God allows you to look at women this way? Especially if you are married or the lady is? And what woman would want a husband who ogled at anything and everything with breasts? I honestly don’t think God would want women to put up with that. It’s disgusting. Grow boys and be the men God has called you to be and you will have a sexually fullfilling marriage.

      • Hi Lucy. Your response bothered me and, to be honest, I felt it was a little foolish. May I ask what you were hoping to accomplish? If the tides were turned, would you have found your response helpful or constructive?

        Think about this…What was Adam’s reaction when he saw Eve? God made men to notice when women are beautiful. I am married now, and before I was married, I often noticed how beautiful and attractive my future wife was. I also looked forward to having relations with her….it’s not like something magical happened when we got married and all of a sudden she became beautiful to me. She was beautiful all along. This is why I honestly believe it’s okay for single men and single women to find one another attractive.

        Additionally, I don’t judge my wife when she struggles during certain hormonal changes every month or when her emotions were changing throughout her pregnancy. Some of her thoughts and actions were very difficult to deal with. I am patient with her and pray for her. The men reading and responding to this article need that same consideration. At least they are speaking up about this topic and walking in the light.

        Your response is judgmental and not encouraging at all. It’s surely not spoken out of love. I don’t think men are looking for a loophole. I think we are openly discussing the difference between noticing a woman is beautiful and coveting that beauty for ourselves. Many men, including myself, live in shame for thoughts we can’t control because of how the church typically presents this topic. I would agree that it’s a fine line, but I would ask you to think about how you addressed these men. Are the “boys” you refer to in more sin than you being judgmental towards them? God called men to be leaders, so i’ll take the high ground on this one and pray for you along with everyone else included in this post. I pray that God helps you grow in your love for His people. We are all sinners and are on a road to healing and sanctification.

  19. What a great article. I understand some people might not agree with it, but I actually do. It’s of utmost importance that we understand scripture correctly. It looks like a couple of women posted about how a man’s natural desire to look at a woman should be considered sinful. Well, I would have to ask them this….are you married? If not, wouldn’t you like your future husband to (in some way) desire you, or be attracted to you? If you are married, was it sinful for your husband to desire to marry you so he could eventually enjoy the benefits of being married? Telling a man that his natural reaction to a beautiful woman is sinful is like telling a woman her feelings during that time of the month are sinful even if she never acts out in anger. It’s all hormones.

    I’m glad in the comments Jason rightly called out the sinful behaviors that tend to follow wrongly desiring women, but desiring in itself is not a sin….especially for single men to desire single women….it’s one thing to walk up to a house for sale and think ” I would really desire to live here”. It’s a totally different thing to look at your neighbor’s house that isn’t for sale and be pissed off that you can’t live in there house.

    I believe the ultimate point of this passage is that many people thought they were righteous because they did not participate in certain sins. Jesus was simply trying to communicate that even the moral cream of the crop still need a Savior (and even more so because they are blind to their own pride).

    Be careful not to judge, or you’ll bring judgement on yourself. Instead pray that we may all strive for holiness and trust that our only hope, despite how “good” we live, is in Jesus. We all need Him every day so that we may live our lives and finish well.

    The God tells us through his word to be free from concern, not to worry, and that nothing can separate us from His love.

    • Thanks for the response.

      One thing I think is worth pointing out, however, is that the verse you’re referencing when you say “nothing can separate us from his love” does not actually say that. It actually says, “No creature (or created thing) can separate us from his love.” That is not quite the same thing as “nothing,” and the distinction is worth noting, as it is very clear throughout scripture that sin both can and does separate a person from God’s love. Sin is neither a creature nor a created thing—it’s more of a non-thing—so Paul’s language there is careful for a reason.

      • John Buta says:

        Hi Jason,

        Id have to disagree there. While you’re reading of that verse is correct, you’re belief that sin can separate us from Gods love is way off point. God is love, and he loved us even while we were his enemies. Now he lives in us, how much more should we rejoice that sin cannot separate us from his love (Hebrews 9:28) To say that sin can separate a person (i believe we are referring here to a christian), from Gods love, is like saying we can sin the Holy Spirit out of us.

        • Don’t forget the rest of Hebrews (most notably Heb 6 and 10:26–31), which addresses that very question with quite strong warnings. Likewise, Paul warns Gentile believers that they can be cut out of the tree if they are disobedient/unfaithful (Rom 11), while Ephesians warns against grieving the holy spirit for this very reason. There’s no question that the New Testament regularly warns that disobedience or unfaithfulness can separate even the elect from God.

          • John Buta says:

            Thank you for the reply Jason. Sorry to go off topic on your blog!

            Id have to say that Romans 11 is more a warning to the Gentiles about becoming too proud (11:18-20), than a warning to be obedient & faithful or else. They were becoming arrogant toward the Jews (11:18), because now they were saved by God, and the Jews weren’t (11:20). They were being self righteous, and Jesus has never condoned self-righteousness (Luke 18: 9-14), not now, and not then.
            That’s why Paul likewise has such strong words for the Gentiles (Romans 11:22). Its easy to read into that verse a strong, personal, warning for ourselves though, that we need to do something to continue in Gods kindness or we’re getting the cut. But we shouldn’t. We should be reminded that the only requirement to stay a branch in Jesus’s tree, is that we believe (11:20). Nothing more, nothing less.
            And that’s the problem with self-righteousness, its unbelief; its self focused, not Jesus focused, and its leaves room for boasting, and no room for a Savior. Hopefully those gentiles got the message in Paul’s 3rd Chapter (v.27) where he writes, “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith.”
            If we go around swallowing every pill Jesus or Paul intended for the self-righteous, we’ll end up feeling insecure in our Father’s love, and working out of fear that we might get pruned next time the Gardener comes round to check on our performance.
            Perfect love casts out fear though (1John 4:18), and in the words of Paul to the Corinthians:

            “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Cor 1:8-9)

            I would really really love to discuss this further, and get back to you on the passages from Hebrews.
            If its better though, i can email you personally & we can continue to talk that way instead of going into it via the post you have written? I’m happy to have this reply not shown in the comments section & continued via email.

            Warm regards

            John

            p.s. hopefully my email address should be given to you through this comment, if not its: john.buta@yahoo.co.uk

  20. Maybe I’m thinking about this too much, but in Isaiah 53 it says that their will be nothing in Jesus that we should “desire” him. If we use your definition, that would mean that (if he wasn’t ugly) we would “desire to possess” him (whatever that means). Am I getting something wrong here?

    • Good question. This is a good example of the fuzzy nature of language, where individual words can have different nuances depending on their context. In that context, the Hebrew word is best understood as “desire” or “take delight in.”

      • Imteresrting article. so why do you think Jesus uses the word adultery? the word implies one or both people are married.. If it was all encompassing, I wonder why Jesus didnt say commits fornication or sexual immorality? Anyone?

        • Technically, the word “woman” here (Greek γυναῖκα) implies a married woman; it’s also the standard Greek word for “wife.” So “adultery” makes sense in that context.

          In addition, fornication and other sexual immorality is not mentioned in the Decalogue, which Jesus seems to be operating within here. Other forms of sexual immorality are addressed elsewhere in the Torah (and in early Christian ethics) but those don’t really seem to be addressed here.

          • Lee Weaver says:

            The reason for the use of adultery and not fornication is because fornication infers all acts of sexual improprieties, i.e., homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy… Adultery is the only act of fornication that can occur between a male and female. Therefore, to use the word fornication itself would not, in its rightful definition, ever be applicable.

  21. Jason, your article is really interesting and enlightening for many reasons, but I’m just going to throw in a woman’s perspective here, one who grew up in the same Christian culture that seemed to teach young men that there sexual drives were entirely sinful.

    And, it’s this: we, the girls growing up in that culture, were strongly encouraged in the ways of modesty because we were taught that we had *so much* responsibility when it came to our brothers’ struggles with lust. It’s like the burden of their visual, highly sexual, drives were placed right on top of our closets and wardrobes. And, for girls who are still getting used to their transitioning bodies, surrounded by oppressive messages from the world about body image, having to own the burden of our struggling Christian brothers was just… a lot, too much. Whether from the world (because no fourteen year old measures up to the standards in the magazines), or from the church, the message we received, albeit in different packaging, was that we had much to be ashamed of.

    While I still believe, and practice, the principles of modesty, I’m so much more aware of the burden that was placed on us, and I refuse to carry it any longer. Yes, I don’t want to “make my brother stumble,” but I also now know that he’ll “stumble” if I’m wearing a parka and is intent on “stumbling” (to use the language that was tossed around so much). His struggle is his, and I don’t have to own that burden. My reasons for modesty, now, are motivated by what makes me feel good about myself, and how I carry myself with dignity– and the end results (the clothes I choose) are pretty much the same. But the shame and the fear of inciting someone to lust? I’ve let that go.

    • April, thanks so much for this comment, as it brings in a whole other side to this discussion. It’s really unfortunate the way well-meaning teaching can really paralyze both sexes with shame and guilt. I really appreciate the perspective you’ve added here.

    • ericfree_free says:

      dressing modest produces a greater chance to not be proud and arrogant with looks…after all we all have poop lingering in our bodies throughout the day…modesty isn’t just helpful for lusting men…but also for yourself so u wont be proud…either way none of us are god and we cant get around our conscience…god know your desires…we cant outsmart him…please don’t try to bend the topic of how dangerous sin is…lusting greatly is still horrible…it says renew your minds…that way u wont lust as much and commit fornication as much hopefully not at all.marriage is the cure for lust as paul says if im not mistaken

  22. thrifty jim says:

    Why would jesus condemn man for doing what GOD wired him to do?man was created to desire woman for the sake of breeding.otherwise a man would not give a woman the time of day.something has to bring him back home.modern day”Christian women”have taken on a worldly feminist view wich is rebelious.

  23. It’s also important to note that single women often (though not always) dress and wear makeup in order to attract men’s attention, so if that causes men to lust, then single women must bear a greater share of guilt for attracting men’s attention. I think that the author has clearly shown that sexual attraction is not sin, at least from the Sermon on the Mount. Attraction by women towards men is generally sexual and is really part of God’s plan. Wives are supposed to attract their husbands sexually and vice-versa. It isn’t something that happens suddenly once the preacher says, “I do,” but begins from some earlier time. Even during arranged marriages, the prospective spouses saw one another and were allowed to determine if there was sufficient sexual attraction for a marriage or else the whole thing would be called off.

    Wives generally want to be seen as attractive while in the bedroom and it is quite appropriate for husbands to desire their wives and for wives to attract/arouse their husbands by being seen naked. That is God’s plan for the bedroom.

  24. John DelHousaye says:

    Jason, thanks for your insight. Have you considered this reading: “But I say to you: anyone who looks at a wife so that she lusts already committed adultery with her in his heart”?

    πᾶς ὁ βλέπων may be the understood subject, but the explicit subject of an infinitive clause is in the accusative case—αὐτὴν. Wallace calls this the Accusative Subject of the Infinitive (1996, 192). This reading presumes it takes two to tango: another man’s wife responds to the lustful gaze with a similar desire.

    I was curious if you had an opinion. Preparing to teach a course on this.

    Blessings,

    John

    • It’s an interesting thought, but I don’t think the reading can work. Accusative-Infinitive construction is used for paraphrase or indirect quotation, which is not the case here. Instead, we have an articular infinitive followed by the object in accusative. The translation is thus a fairly straightforward, “Everyone who looks at a wife/woman in order to covet her…”

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope your course goes well.

  25. Hey Jason, thank you for the very clear explanation of this passage. I will have to think very often of it, because me myself have been haunted many many times by the wrong interpretation of it in my daily life.
    Am I allowed to print a copy for my self?
    Again, thank you very much !

    Blessings,

    Edwin

  26. Mary Ann Bullard says:

    I’ve read some garbage before. And as it may, I am continuing to read more garbage.
    The way humans twist the word of God to benefit them, is quite disgusting and very unfortunate.
    To the males who agree with this untruth, please pray to the Lord about it and see His guidance in this area. Men will write articles like this to mislead you and cause you to fall further away from God. I find this “interpretation” if that is what you call it, so hard to believe. Especially when a prominent character in the bible, Job, stated: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” Job 31: 1
    We’re talking about a man so well promoted by God. A man who was considered righteous. I just can’t imagine the Lord agreeing with this article.

    If you have a hard time keeping your eyes off of women, here’s a good solution.
    The answer is Jesus.
    He preached so much about sex and money. Because He knew people would twist His words to make their sin seem less apparent. He knew someone would disagree with Him and try to use his ministry to promote their immoral behavior. But I want to warn you all….don’t make excuses and agree with people are misunderstood to continue in your sinful behavior.
    God does not reward the ungodly.
    Adultery is a matter of the heart. You can “reinvent” the meaning all you want, but Jesus knows your heart. And each of you should honor him with your heart, as well as your eyes.
    FLEE from the devil and his schemes. Flee from the idea that it is okay to “lust” after another woman (outside of your marriage of course! LOL)

    My prayers are with all of you.

    • Hi Mary Ann, thanks for the comments. How would you define ἐπιθυμέω then, and on what grounds? The post does its best to explain what Jesus said and what it means in context. If you are to disagree, you may want to explain what Jesus said and what it would mean in context. Simply stating something does not make it so; do you have a basis for your comments?

      Also, for what it’s worth, you didn’t cite Job 31:1 precisely. A more precise translation of that verse says, “I have made a covenant with my eyes. How then could I gaze upon a virgin?”

      You also seem to have badly misunderstood the post. Nowhere does it say what you suggest it says.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] seem to be borrowing from the Platonic notion of the soul as well, which I covered in some detail here (scroll down until you see the bust of Plato). This shouldn’t be surprising, as that’s [...]

  2. [...] “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1 | Professor Obvio… __________________ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – PHILIPPIANS 4:13 Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. – Proverbs 16:3 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – JOHN 3:16 [...]

  3. [...] more on this topic, I suggest reading “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1.  It’s pretty straight cis male-centric, though, so keep that in mind as you read–not [...]

  4. […] The misinterpretation of Matthew 5:27-28. […]

  5. […] of natural, God-given automatic reactions.  Jason Staples has a wonderful (if a bit technical) article explaining how this has been […]

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