Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Thursday, October 10, 2013

You Have Heard It Said

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

He was a gifted man in a small, slight frame trimmed by a charismatic personality.  Everyone knew that he had been called to the ministry, and he was recognized as a remarkable, advanced student at Bible College.  He became a faculty favorite and married the president’s daughter.  With a post-graduate degree, he divided his time between pastoral duties for a local congregation and teaching at the college.  Then he got the call to a large, prominent and politically important church in the district.  He was to replace a pastor who had fallen and bring healing to the Body. 

For a while everything seemed to go according to plan.  The church regained its footing and began to get over the sordid episode with the previous occupant of the pulpit.  The new pastor – let’s call him Moe – ministered effectively and was regarded as an outstanding preacher and teacher.  He was in demand throughout the district to preach for youth rallies and other special meeting.  Within a short time he was elected to an overseer position. 

I knew Moe, as I had known the man, Jim, who preceded him, though I did not attend that church.  Jim was a deeply flawed man who abused his position and had a history of adulterous relationships that were covered up because of his connections.   Moe was an arrogant little twit, but I never had the impression that he was perverted.  He was weak. 

I take a backseat to no man when it comes to having inappropriate thoughts about women in church.  I admire good-looking women, and they usually deck themselves out nicely on Sunday morning.  Still, if she had not been a singer, I would never have noticed the woman who brought Moe down.  She wasn’t hard-looking just bland.  After a week or two alone on a desert island with her, I might have said, “Whatever”, but I would never have been enthusiastic.  Maybe Moe loved her voice.  In any case, he wound up being chased through the streets – quite literally – by the woman’s large, semi-muscular husband. 

The church hung its head and found the nearest thing to a eunuch available.  He’s a good guy.  He’s still the pastor there after a quarter century. 

Meanwhile, poor Moe saw his life, ministry, and marriage wrecked.  He went through some ministerial rehabilitation and restoration.  Eventually he became a military chaplain and continued in what was probably his true calling, teaching courses at Bible College.  I heard that he committed suicide.  I looked him up on the web.  The funny thing was that so many people had good things to say about Moe, what a wonderful teacher he was, how he had helped them with a particular course.  To me, having not seen him since the arrogant twit days, it seemed strange that he would be – there’s no other word for it – so revered, yet so lost and in so much pain that he took his own life. 

I won’t pretend that I understand what happened to Moe, but his case gives me grounds for speculation on something I have considered for a long time.  The passage at the top comes, of course, from the very lips of the Lord Jesus as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  My wife used to quote it to me quite frequently.  Thank God for mirror shades.  I’m not going to excuse my glances at pretty things.  I agree that it is disrespectful to my wife.  However, the point Jesus was making parallels the statement He made equating anger to murder:  You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

If you think you are so perfect that you can be admitted to heaven on the basis of your exemplary behavior, Jesus has bad news for you.  If you ever so much as get mad at your stupid brother or call some fool a fool, you’re out.  The perfection and holiness of God is too extreme for humans to approach.  We are doomed – apart from Christ.  He has, though, made a way for us.  That’s the lesson Jesus is driving home in the Sermon on the Mount.

Once a man becomes a Christian, he has the power to overcome sin.  The Cross not only delivers us from sin’s penalty but from the bondage of sin.  And right here is where I believe a lot of people – perhaps people like Moe, despite their intelligence and knowledge, get into trouble. 

First, ask yourself what the word “temptation” means.  I’ll tell you another story.  I was working in North Texas for a rather small company, and we had some statisticians.  One was a little brunette Texas girl who had just gotten her Masters in Stat from SMU – a smart girl, and just as cute as she could be.  Maybe she had been a cheerleader.  She could have been.  I was older and kind of a big brother figure to her, and she was in my office working on something one day, chattering like a mad monkey at the same time.  She was talking about her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband.  She said that one of her friends insisted that men will always look at a blonde first.  My brunette statistician did not believe this and countered that her boyfriend would notice her before any blonde or any other girl – except she admitted matter-of-factly, someone like Grace.

Grace worked in our data processing unit.  I don’t know her ethnicity, maybe some Native American, maybe a touch of African, but she was for sure not a blonde.  She was incredibly gorgeous.  She may be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen at really close range.  It wasn’t make-up.  It wasn’t lighting.  It was just pure pulchritude. 

Conversely, as I note frequently, apart from my grotesquely huge head, I am remarkably average -- hardly a man most women find attractive.  But I was always joking with Grace and kidding her about stuff like her hair – which was beautiful, because it was better than staring at her dumbfounded as some of the other geeks did.  You could say that we developed a casual, work-based rapport.  I never really thought about it until one day Grace came into my office to ask if I had jumper cables.  Her car would not start.  I did have cables because I drove a rather questionable vehicle myself back then.  We went down to the parking lot.  Her car was headed into a space, so I pushed it out to where I could get close to it, pulled my car up, and got her started.  After disconnecting everything, I stepped over to her door to remind her not to stop on the way home.  She was wearing a dress, and it was pulled up – higher, I thought, than would be necessary to operate the gas and brake.  I looked up quickly at her smiling, glowing, angelic face.  She told me that she didn’t know how to thank me.  She didn’t know what she would have done.  Her husband – she was married and had a couple of kids – was “nine hundred miles away.”  I remember that to this day because she repeated it a couple of times and because, as John Kerry will attest, stress sears images and phrases into your memory. 

I replied that I hoped someone would do the same for my wife in a similar situation, reminded her again not to turn off the engine until she got home, and walked back to my car wishing I had a way to kick my own stupid butt for not offering to follow her home to be sure she made it.  Really, Lord, I said, Was that necessary?  Did You have to do that to me?

Grace was a nice girl.  I’m sure it was all perfectly innocent on her part, but I was tempted.  That’s what temptation means, to want to do something you know you should not do.   Wanting to kill someone and run them through a wood chipper is not the same as killing them.  It’s a bad thing, but it is not murder.  Lust, like anger, is bad, and needs to be repented of, but it is a lot closer to temptation than to adultery.  Dwelling on wrong things can get us in trouble.  That’s why we shouldn’t do it.  We should also not make the mistake of making a thought morally equivalent to an action.  It is a lot easier to repent of and correct lust and anger than adultery and murder.  Fewer people are involved. 

I think there is a possibility that Moe killed himself because he confused temptation with sin.  When he was tempted to sin, he felt that he had already failed.  When you do that, you risk minimizing and trivializing the action of yielding to the temptation.  I’m already over the edge, I might as well enjoy the free fall.  No.  Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet He was without sin.  That is not to say that the Lord ever had an impure or inappropriate thought.  He didn’t.  He was, however, tempted to think on things He should not.  He was offered the deal.  And rejected it. 

Sitting alone in a room staring at images and dwelling on fantasies is going to twist a person in a very bad way, perhaps to the point of the soul’s destruction.  The temptation begins before that.  Temptation is an opportunity as much as a test.  And, naturally, this isn’t limited to lust or anger, it’s true of any challenge we face.  A temptation gives us the opportunity to experience the desire and to renounce it.  Just like lifting weights, every repetition makes us stronger, and -- this is the heart of my overlong ramble – it is in renunciation that we attest to the genuineness of our commitment to God.  We should never think, in other words, that the fact that we had to renounce and turn away from something we wanted means that we have failed. 

I know I am stating the obvious, but the mental operations even of Christians have become so distorted as to make desire a mandate and a commandment to the point that we think it requires expression.  Yet all I ever have to do to please God is say that as much as I would like to do that, I am not going to.      


John Lien said...

Good stories. Anonymity can be very helpful.

I have interpreted the Matthew passage to be more of the case where even by thinking about it, you have sinned -a la Moe.

My thought was Jesus was trying to get the point across that sinning is more digital than analog. Probably to keep us from ranking and averaging and comparing to each other.

I do like your take on it though. Less impossible.

mushroom said...

You're right. It is "sin is sin". The Catholics have a phrase something like "the near occasion of sin". That mostly everything.

But Paul, in Romans 7, talks about how his problem was sin -- as a principle -- in him doing what he did not want to do.

The advantage Jesus had -- and it is incalculable -- was that He had a human nature but not a fallen one. He alone since Adam was not conceived in sin.

You and I were so conceived, so born as rebels, and so born to struggle with all the urges and impulses of the old Adamic nature and the "mind of flesh".

Even when we are born again and the old man is somewhat disconnected, he's still talking and still thinks he's in control. That's where our battle is enjoined, and where we are called to stand in faith.