The next several verses take us to the heart of the issues, where Jesus requires changes not just in actions, but in thoughts as well. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment’” (verse 21). Once again, Jesus shows those listening to him that he has an apt understanding of the old law and that he is quite familiar with Scripture. Yet Jesus offers some new insight to this old command. “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” (verse 22). Jesus wants us not only to have our actions under control, but our speech and our thoughts as well. This is incredibly difficult. I used to work in a warehouse, and sometimes I would work very late hours and get frustrated that while others were leaving, I was stuck working. I was very bitter and had some very negative thoughts. Sometimes I would be irritated at those who got to leave, which is ridiculous, but I was very selfish and not interested in anyone but myself. Now I never had murderous thoughts about anyone. I love the people I work with. And to me, something as small as thinking negatively about someone wasn’t as harmful as actually doing a person physical harm. And since I’m a very non-confrontational person, this is what I thought. Yet this kind of thinking goes directly against what Jesus says. Jesus recognizes that our actions are produced from pre-meditated thoughts. So the only way to get rid of the negative action is to get rid of the thought. Most people don’t see the harm in consciously thinking about negative or violent actions, because they don’t believe that those thoughts will ever translate into actions. Yet Jesus understands that in order for us to be truly pure, we must have our thoughts under control as well as our actions. Jesus didn’t want us to even be angry. He didn’t want us to insult are brothers. I get this picture of God asking us to write down what we think is acceptable when it comes to violence, and we have a council of men theorizing and throwing out ideas, and what they ultimately come up with is that murder is wrong, but thought and speech aren’t harmful. And God takes our idea, tosses it out the window, and tells this dumbfounded council that they shouldn’t even think about getting angry. This is why I love Jesus. His standard for morality was so much better than ours, and it required so much more. I try to control my thoughts, and it is very difficult, but I understand the importance of it now. Thinking poorly about someone over a long period of time can truly poison how you see that person, even if no action is ever taken. Jesus wants us to love each other, not in a corny way, but in a truly selfless way like he did. It’s why I try to stay away from gossip; it’s just too easy to paint a picture of someone in a moment of anger and then stubbornly cling to that thought because we don’t want to see that person in a positive way. And all of that comes simply from thinking about a person. We must take captive our angry thoughts and replace them with thoughts of love. I understand this is easier said than done. But if someone is making you angry, just think of all the times someone came to Jesus with a question or acted in a way that would have made you and me angry. How many times did Jesus get upset and start yelling at people who approached him during his ministry? Jesus was so much more loving than that. And I believe his heart was that we would look at him and then follow his example of love. Jesus understood that we would get angry with each other. Yet he was more interested in reconciliation than court justice. “So if you are offering your guilt at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to you brother, and then come and offer you gift” (verses 23-24). I really love this verse. Jesus’s heart for the church was that we could go there to worship him side by side and not be thinking about our jobs. Jesus absolutely desires a relationship with us. Yet he wants that relationship to be with people who are united in fellowship and love. At my church during worship, I’ve seen people go up to fellow believers and apologize before they keep worshiping. And I think that is what Jesus wants us to do. He wants us to be able to focus fully on him, to not have that nagging reminder in the back of our heads of the wrong that we have done towards someone else. It can be very hard to apologize to people because of pride, yet Jesus wants us to get past that pride and settle things with people ourselves, without residing to going into a court of law. “Come to terms quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (verses 25-26). What strikes me about this verse is that it places law totally into the hands of men. And we see what happens when men are in a place of total control. The man who stubbornly doesn’t want to talk to his accuser ends up in prison unable to get out. Now, I think a court of law can be a place where justice is sought after and found, but even in my idealized version of court, it still falls far short of God’s justice. We should always resort to looking to the heart of Jesus in settling disputes before we put it in the hands of men.
The next verses are the hardest for me to follow in Scripture. “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” (verses 27-28). Getting angry thoughts under control is difficult for me, but it comparison to what Jesus is asking here, it’s a cake walk. I let lust run unchecked for years in my life, and I still struggle with it. My struggle with pornography started in my early teens, and it wasn’t until quite recently that by God’s grace I was able to stop looking at porn. Why am I saying all this? Because shamefully, I couldn’t even put a figure on the amount of girls I’ve looked at with lustful intent on my mind. And I really didn’t see too much harm in it. I was a virgin until I was 21, and to me, that was a lot better than most guys my age. But again, Jesus has a better definition of what’s too much when it comes to sexual sin. It isn’t simply the act of adultery. It’s the thought of it. Which runs totally contrast to our society which pushes sex on us casually and finds us not trying too hard to combat that push. Sex itself is something most people my age are engaged in outside of marriage, so trying to stop having even lustful thoughts just seems ridiculous in the present age. Doesn’t it? I don’t think so. I just think we live in a culture that doesn’t want any self-control. With the availability of pornography and the lack of barriers people have, it’s hard to try to monitor our thoughts. Yet Jesus is clearly calling for that in this verse. It isn’t enough to be faithful to your wife; Jesus doesn’t want you looking at someone else’s Facebook profile because she’s an attractive female and just uploaded pictures of herself from her vacation. For Jesus, that constitutes being unfaithful. Yet I can see why Jesus commands this of us. I was in a relationship for 3 years, most of which I was sexually active with my girlfriend. I was faithful to her. I didn’t even like hugging or dancing with other girls. I thought that was enough, but it wasn’t even close. It became idolatry in my life. I was always thinking about sleeping with my girlfriend. And I think that’s the danger of lustful thoughts; we obsess over them and want so badly to make them realities we forget about everything else except our own satisfaction. That wasn’t God’s design for sex. I think God’s design for sex is about a husband and wife having a safe place where they can physically serve one another. I understand lust is a tough struggle, especially for men, but I hate when I hear that that’s just how God made man. I think we’ve just allowed ourselves to believe that as an excuse for our laziness in guarding our hearts and minds. For me, I had to learn how to control my thoughts, because that was the only way I could really be pure. It wasn’t enough to stop having sex; Jesus didn’t even want me to look at any girl and think anything sexual, because I’m not married. And in a world with many beautiful women, that is a hard task, one that I frequently struggle with. But Jesus wants my heart free from the brutal grip of lust, because it is only when that idol is removed that I can serve him effectively. Jesus understands that in order to remove these idols, action must be taken. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of you 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 goes into hell”. (verses 27-30). So what is this verse saying? I think it is calling for us to cut sin completely out of our lives. Easier said than done, right? But do we really want to battle and struggle with our sins when we could cut it out instead? I’ll give a personal example. I used to love playing Call of Duty. We’re talking 8 hours a day when I would finish with work, every day of the week. That’s a lot of time wasted. The crazy thing about this is that I didn’t even enjoy it at times. I mean, I would get really upset playing, because people better than me would beat me, and I would swear and grow angry and just be in an awful mood. And this is over a video game, something with no real benefits and something that is totally self-absorbing. Recently, I gave my XBOX away to support some people going on a mission trip. I don’t say this to flatter people or make them think highly of me. God in His goodness offered an opportunity for me to get rid of an idol in my life and use it to help others glorify Him by serving in another country. Why do I use this example here instead of for anger? Because I think they’re connected. Think of how stupid I was with my video games. I was so selfish and wasted so much time that could have been spent doing more constructive things. Yet God gave an opportunity to do something better with it. And I think it’s the same with sex. As a guy, I spend all this time thinking about women in an unholy way, and God obviously has a greater design for sex than that. So he offers us marriage. But I don’t think God wanted us to get married because we just want sex. Ask a married man if he struggles any less with lust in his life than any other man. Marriage isn’t a means to an end, because sex isn’t an end (at least not one that will leave you fully satisfied). The only real end to anything good in life is Jesus. Which makes me look at this verse differently. Jesus is offering himself in place of those members we’ve cut off. And we’re so afraid as men that if we give up our lustful thoughts and our arrogant claims of sexual success, we’ll be left with nothing. But lust is about control, and sex the way God designed it is about serving the other person. So really, the only reason that lust and sex are so closely knitted together is because we’ve strayed so ridiculously far from God’s intention for sex. Jesus talks about being in the dangers of the fire of hell, and I absolutely believe he’s telling the truth, because lust empties us out and leaves us with nothing. It caters to our selfishness and ruins marriage. I know from experience. I got rid of my XBOX because it was an idol, and I had to use some of the same strategies for getting over my addiction to lust. I stopped going on certain websites, even non pornographic ones, because they were making it harder to control my thoughts. Sometimes it takes the removal of something in order to be able to get rid of those lustful thoughts. I’d encourage everyone, and especially men reading this, to really ask yourself what your intentions are with what you’re looking at online, or why you go Hooters, or why you want to talk to that woman at your church who isn’t your wife. I’m not judging here; I just believe that it’s a slippery slope which can lead to something worse if it goes unchecked. Jesus isn’t being a killjoy here; he represents perfect love and he wants to bring us back to that, and we can’t dually serve our thoughts and Jesus. Similar to replacing angry thoughts, we must replace our lustful thoughts. Something that helps me is the verse which talks about offering our members as sacrifices to Jesus. I want to be in a place where I don’t have lustful thoughts anymore, where I can immediately push them out. It’s going to take time, but I firmly believe that Jesus is better than anything, even the cold comfort of lust. Jesus paid the price for my sin. That may garner some eye rolls because it sounds so cliché, but it’s important because I’m not trying to say I can make myself pure. Jesus already did that through his grace. Even if I’m short a few possessions which cause me to stumble, I’d rather have nothing in the world but Jesus than have everything in the world and be thrown into hell. If giving up my sexual thoughts means “losing” a part of myself, then so be it. Jesus is way better than any fantasy or thought I could have. He replaces those empty places with himself and shows me how to love others in a non-sexual and non-selfish way. We must start going to God diligently in prayer to purify our thoughts. We shouldn’t be justifying our sin; we should be turning away from our sin to Jesus. Idolatry is a hard thing to overcome. Yet by the grace of God it can be overcome, and we can trade our empty lust for the wonderful love that comes from following God fully. It’s hard to have the courage to rip out our sin, or to even want to turn from it. It’s so much easier to do whatever we want. But I promise you, the fulfillment that comes from Jesus will vastly outweigh anything we ever have to give up. Jesus wants to strip us down of all our sin until there is nothing left but a pure heart. When struggling with lust, try to remember that. And remember that that will look different than every idea and philosophy the world has on sex. It will be a difficult struggle. We must trust Jesus and know in our hearts that he is far greater than our physical struggles, and that by purifying our minds, we are giving ourselves up to Jesus with total conviction, and that he is far greater than anything our minds can come up with.