Anyone who looks upon a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This passage has been used to condemn everything from men drooling over bikini-clad babes at the beach or in The Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated to the eye-popping perusal of voluptuous centerfolds in girlie magazines. Some even go so far as claiming men shouldn't watch The Miss America Beauty Pageant because it's impossible for any red-blooded male to view a gorgeous lady scantily-clothed in a swimsuit without harboring lust. And don't even think about sneaking a peek at an Internet porn site. That, according to many, is the absolute depth of depravity.
All this begs three questions: (1) What did Jesus mean by looking lustfully at a woman? (2) What is lust and why is it wrong? (3) How far is too far?
Art College, Figure Drawing, And Lust
My first encounter with these ethical conundrums came when I was a freshman in art college. One of my required classes was figure drawing. I had no idea at the time what figure drawing was. I quickly found out, however, as an attractive female disrobed, front and center, in full view of a very attentive audience. For the next three hours, we were required to sketch this nude model in every conceivable position.
Because of my conservative upbringing, I was racked with guilt. I was seriously considering dropping out of college. But before doing anything rash, I decided to seek counsel with my pastor. He advised me to stay in college and get good grades. Regarding my sketching of nudes, he grinned. He saw nothing inherently sinful about this. He offered no explanation, and I never asked for one. From that day forward, I sketched and painted nudes, mainly female nudes, with no guilt or remorse whatsoever. As a side note, I know of one Christian art student who told me he put off accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior until he graduated from college simply because of his own conflict with this very same issue. I wonder how many others have done the exact same thing. Indeed, ideas have consequences.
Of course, I'm sure there were men in that classroom who did engage in lustful looking. But let's face it, a man can look lustfully at beautiful women who are fully clothed. A man can also look at a beautiful naked lady all day long without lusting. Otherwise, there would be no male doctors or gynecologists.
So when does looking cross the line and become lusting? Does a man cross the line into the forbidden zone once the looking becomes pleasurable? Perhaps the best way for men to avoid lusting is to pretend that all women are either ugly or plain.
What The Bible Means By Lust
Or, better yet, maybe the place to start is to take a close look at what the word "lust"means and consider how it was used in biblical times. Perhaps if we start there, we will have a clear understanding of what Jesus meant when He said, "Anyone who looks lustfully upon a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
The English word "lust" comes from the Greek word "epithumia." Epethumia simply refers to having "a strong desire;" nothing more, nothing less. So is Jesus saying it is wrong to have strong desires? Not necessarily. Having strong desires can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how those strong desires are directed.
For example, a Christian may have, and indeed should have, a strong desire to obey and please God. That is a good thing. Therefore, this is a good kind of lust. However, since the word "lust" usually has a negative connotation in English, the English translators have only translated the Greek word "epithumia" to lust when it has a negative usage. One example of good epithumia is found in Luke 22:15. Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples:
With fervent desire I have desired [epithumia] to eat this Passover with you (NKJV).
An athlete without a strong desire to win would probably seldom win in an athletic competition. To a certain extent, that kind of lust is a good thing.
On the other hand, a man who has such a strong desire for money that he robs banks is definitely crossing the line. Everyone is familiar with the commandment against stealing.
Coveting And Lusting: They're The Same Thing
It's interesting that the verb form of epithumia, "epithumeo," can also be translated "to covet." So to lust and to covet is the same thing. One of the Ten Commandments forbids coveting:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's (Exodus 20:17, NKJV).
Here we see a prohibition against coveting, or lusting after, anything that belongs to your neighbor, including your neighbor's wife. So when Jesus prohibited lustful or covetous looking, He wasn't really saying anything new. He was simply giving clarification on one part of the commandment against coveting. Some have suggested that it's only a sin to look lustfully at a woman if she is another man's wife. After all, Jesus was talking about committing spiritual adultery in the heart. So some contend that it's only possible for a man to commit adultery, spiritual or otherwise, with a married woman.
Of course, not everyone would agree with this assessment because not everyone holds the same definition of what it means to commit adultery. But this much is clear; both the Old Testament and the New Testament condemn adultery. There is no question that adultery is a sin, although we can, and I believe we should, vigorously debate what the precise definition of adultery is and why it is wrong. Once we clearly comprehend precisely what the exact definition of adultery is, then it logically follows that having a strong desire to commit adultery is wrong, whether or not that strong desire is ever acted upon. The same is true about murder and hatred. Hatred can and sometimes does lead to murder. Not only is murder wrong, but harboring thoughts that may lead to murder is also wrong. Therefore, it seems logical that having a strong desire to commit adultery is what Jesus was referring to. But the question still lingers: Is it possible for men, and perhaps I should also include women, to look at sexually desirable people, usually of the opposite gender, and thoroughly enjoy looking at them, without sinning?
This is a difficult question; there are no easy glib answers. But here are a few pertinent things to consider. Jesus was the only perfect man to ever live. He is also the only member of the Trinity that is both fully God and fully man. John 1:3 says:
All things were made through Him [Jesus], and without Him nothing was made that was made (NKJV).
How Does Jesus Look At Women?
Jesus created everything in the heavens and in the earth. That means that Jesus created Eve, probably the most beautiful woman to ever live, from Adam's rib. And I don't believe He wore a blindfold.
Now don't misunderstand; I'm not suggesting that Jesus had a body after His incarnation. John 4:24 says God is Spirit. Nevertheless, God often appears to men in the Old Testament in bodily form. These are known as "theophanies," or, in the case of Christ, "Christophanies."
"Ex nihilo" is a Latin term which means "out of nothing." This term is often used among theologians to express the idea that God created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. This contrasts with the notion that God created the heavens and the earth out of preexisting matter, sometimes referred to as "creatio ex materia," which is the creation of things out of preexisting matter. So although the matter from which man was created was created out of nothing, man himself was created out of preexisting matter. Man, and of course woman, were were not just spoken into existence ex nihilo. They were formed out of preexisting matter. Adam was formed out of clay; Eve was formed from Adam's rib. Genesis 2:7 says:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Some say this is just figurative language, but the text suggests that God, probably Christ Himself, actually formed them like a potter forms clay. In any event, Jesus surely saw Eve in her birthday suit. And I'll just bet He thoroughly enjoyed it.
Furthermore, Jesus, who is God, sees everything. If you crawl in a cave, go to the bottom of the sea, or fly to the moon, Jesus sees you. This means, every single time a beautiful woman takes a shower or has sex, Jesus sees it. Exactly how that works after the incarnation, I haven't a clue. But the point is, Jesus sees more naked women in a single day than any man sees in a lifetime; and that's an understatement. And who would have the audacity to suggest that Jesus the God-man, the only man ever to live a perfect life, is sinning by being the biggest voyeur to ever live?
So the main point here is that how much you look is not the problem. Neither is how much you enjoy looking the problem. The problem is how you look. Sinful looking has to do with the "quality" of looking, not the "quantity" of looking. Plus, it also has nothing to do with how much you enjoy it; it has to do with the way you enjoy it. Nevertheless, there is definitely a way to look at a woman that is sinful; otherwise the words of our Lord are pointless.
One person told me that it was okay for Jesus to look at lots of naked women because He had to. "But unlike us," this person said, "Jesus didn't enjoy it. After all, He doesn't have any hormones."
Personally, I think this line of argumentation is just plain silly. I can't say for certain whether or not Jesus has any hormones; the Bible doesn't say. But again, logic dictates that Jesus enjoys looking at gorgeous women every bit as much as anyone else and probably more so. Therefore, it's only logical that it is possible for a man to thoroughly enjoy looking at a wide variety of beautiful women without ever sinning. Otherwise, Jesus is the biggest sinner there ever was, which is both ludicrous and heretical.
So what was Jesus talking about? What does it mean to look lustfully upon a woman? And how is looking lustfully upon a woman the equivalent of committing adultery with her in one's heart?
Remember, to look at a woman "lustfully" is the exact same thing as looking at a woman "covetously." Again, to "lust" and to "covet" is the exact same thing. Since the phrase "looking at a woman with lust in your heart" carries so much baggage with it, and since the phrase "looking at a woman with lust in your heart" means the exact same thing as "looking at a woman covetously," and since it's easier to understand coveting things other than women, we can gain a clearer understanding of what it means to look at a woman lustfully if we examine what it means to covet things that belong to your neighbor other than his wife.
Exodus 20:17 says:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.
Scenerios That Clarify What Lust Is
Since the majority of people reading this probably don't own oxen or donkeys, let's consider things that most of us do own. After all, the prohibition against coveting does include "anything that is your neighbor's." Consider the following scenario:
Scenerio #1: Bob And John
A man, who we'll call Bob, is out of town for a week. During that time, Bob's neighbor, John, goes in and out of Bob's house. Knowing that Bob will be out of town, John helps himself to Bob's food, John watches Bob's TV, and John even drives Bob's car.
Question: Did John sin?
Answer: That depends on one critical factor. It is not necessarily a sin for John to go into Bob's house, eat Bob's food, watch Bob's TV, or even drive Bob's car ... if - and here's the critical factor - John has Bob's permission to do these things. After all, a man does have the right to share what he owns. Bob had the right to share his food and the use of his house, his TV, and his car with Bob. Bob also had the right to avail himself of John's hospitality. Perhaps John went out of town for pleasure or business. Perhaps John asked Bob to look over his house while he was gone. Perhaps he told Bob to help himself to his food. Perhaps Bob gave John permission to watch his TV and drive his car. As long as John did not abuse or misuse these privileges, no harm is done and no sin is committed. On the other hand, you wouldn't entrust these privileges to just anyone. Furthermore, if John oversteps his boundaries, he risks jeopardizing his friendship with Bob. Nevertheless, Bob has the right to set the parameters of those boundaries because Bob is the owner of his house and the food in his house. Bob also owns his TV and his car. So if Bob is going to allow John these privileges, there probably exists a certain degree of trust and perhaps a close friendship. You wouldn't just let anybody drive your car or watch over your house while you're out of town. Of course not.
So what does all of this have to do with looking at a woman lustfully in your heart? Simply this: Lusting or coveting is not just a strong desire. It is a strong desire to own or possess something unlawfully. Thoughts are proceeded by actions. If the action is wrong, then thinking about that action is wrong. For example, Jesus said:
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'
"But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Matthew 5:21-22, NKJV).
It should be noted that both the prohibition against adulterous thoughts and the prohibition against murderous thoughts were given by Jesus within the same context during the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7, are meant to clarify and expand upon the meaning behind the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. The idea is that not only is it wrong to murder your brother; it is also wrong to either think about murdering your brother or to harbour hateful thoughts that could result in murdering your brother. The same is also true concerning adultery. Not only is it wrong to commit adultery, it is also wrong to think about committing adultery.
Scenario #2: Bill And Joe
Now let's consider a second scenario. Bill has a very expensive and extremely luxurious Lamborghini automobile. All the neighbors are envious and dream that they could be the proud owner of a sporty car just like Bill's. But it's one thing to want a car like Bill's; it's another thing to want Bill's car, especially when those strong desires go a bit too far.
Take Joe, for example. Joe hates Bill simply because of his car. Joe would never think of doing something outrageous like stealing Joe's car. And he would never go so far as to even consider killing Bill or even hurting him. That's just not Joe's style. Nevertheless, Joe's hatred and animosity of Bill grows stronger and stronger every day.
"How unfair!" Joe grumbles. "I work just as hard as Bill, yet he's driving that fabulous vehicle while I'm stuck with this rundown clunker." Joe is so consumed with rage that it impacts everything he does in a negative way.
Scenario #3: Bill And Pete
Bill has another neighbor named Pete. Pete also hates Bill because of his car. Pete wants the whole neighborhood to know how he feels. Pete is too cautious to do anything immoral or illegal, mainly because he doesn't wish to invite the strong arm of the law. Plus Pete has way too much respect for such a fine piece of machinery. Pete wouldn't dream of doing anything to dent or damage this vehicle. His only motivation is to humiliate Bill in front of the neighbors. So what does Pete do? He does an impression of Elvis on the hood of Bill's Lamborghini.
Scenario #4: Bill And Chuck
Chuck, on the other hand, has no problem desecrating Bill's vehicle. So one dark and gloomy night, Chuck sneaks into Bill's garage and slashes his tires.
Scenario #5: Bill And Jerry
Jerry is another neighbor. He doesn't even know Bill. But what he does know is that this fine looking Lamborghini will bring top dollar at the neighborhood chop shop. So Jerry steals the car, sells it for parts, and pockets the cash. Nothing personal.
Scenario #6: Bill And Harry
Finally, there's Harry. Harry is so jealous of Bill that one night, as Bill drives his car into his garage, Harry, who is hiding in the bushes, leaps out and beats Bill to a bloody pulp with a crowbar, leaving Bill's motionless corpse in a pool of blood.
Clearly, all of Bill's neighbors are guilty of coveting, though each of them have allowed their coveting to accelerate to a different level. In the case of Harry, coveting turns to hatred, then finally to murder.
Thus far, we've seen that taking or using a person's property is not coveting or stealing if the owner of that property has given permission to the person who is taking or using his property. We've also seen how coveting can lead to other sins, ranging from hatred and resentment to disrespecting one's neighbor, vandalism, theft, and even murder.
However, we're not primarily concerned here with coveting (lusting after) your neighbor's car, TV, or tuna sandwich. We're simply trying to establish points of comparison with these other modes of conduct in order to clarify our understanding of what it means to lust after or covet your neighbor's wife.
Covetous Looking: How David Crossed The Line
One point of comparison is rather obvious. Just as coveting a neighbor's car can lead to hatred, envy, disrespect, stealing, vandalism, and even murder, the same can be said of coveting a neighbor's wife. Consider King David, who coveted Uriah's wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). David's desire for Bathsheba was so strong that he arranged to have her husband killed in battle. And of course, everyone is familiar with the story of Helen of Troy. Many men have allowed their strong sexual desires run amuck to the detriment of themselves and others.
Therefore, if a strong desire causes a man to sin, whether or not that sin is a harboring of hatred, jealousy, or animosity; or whether that sin leads to stealing, murder, vandalism, or simply a flagrant disrespect of one's neighbor, then those strong desires are sinful. This should be pretty obvious.
What Liberties Can And Should A Man Take With His Wife?
But what is not so obvious is this: what if a man gives another man permission to have sex with his wife? Is that a sin? Or perhaps he just gives permission to watch her do an erotic striptease. I mentioned the scenario of Bob and John. Bob gave John permission to eat his food, watch his TV, and drive his car while he was out of town. We observed that it was not a sin for John to avail himself of Bob's property because John had the permision of the owner to do so. And though it may be debatable whether or not a man's wife should be regarded as property, the commandment not to covet clasifies a man's wife as property, in the same category as his house, ox, donkey, and servant. So what if Bob had given John permision to have sex with his wife or watch his wife do a striptease while he was out of town. Would it have been a sin for John to avail himself of Bob's offer?
Some might say that such a question is just plain silly. After all, no husband would ever allow another man to do these type of things with his wife or girlfriend, especially if he genuinely loves her... right?
Wrong! There are thousands, perhaps millions, of such men who not only allow but encourage other men to have sex with their wives. They're called "swingers," or perhaps better known among insiders as "lifestylers," men who subscribe to the swinging lifestyle, also known as simply "The Lifestyle."
Swingers: Who They Are, What They're Like
Although it's impossible to know exactly how many swingers there are, here are a few estimates. Acording to an article about the sexual lifestyle,Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, says this:
Most major cities in North America and western Europe have at least one swingers' club in a permanent location (although they often keep a low profile to avoid negative attention); over 3,000 swinging clubs exist worldwide. Swingers also meet through lifestyle magazines, personal ads, swinging house parties, swinger conventions, and Internet sites.
The San Francisco Chronicle published an article entitled: "Partner swapping comes out of closet - Today's partner swapping is more upscale, perhaps more accepted" (Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer, Tuesday, July 9, 2002). Quoting Tony Lanzaratta, a former Los Angeles police officer who is executive director of NASCA, a national organization of swingers:
"The lifestyle tour and travel industry has more than tripled in the last five years." For instance, more than 4,000 swingers recently took over the 17-story Radisson Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla. Each January, about 2,000 swingers take over a Jamaican resort called Hedonism.
A 2000 study of 1,200 self-professed swingers found a cross-section of respectable America. "They're not that odd. They are Middle America: they're doctors, they're lawyers, they're school teachers," says Bellarmine University's Bergstrand, who co-authored the report (Suburban Swingers. A Newsweek Web Exclusive).
According to their research, up to 90% of swingers identify with a religion and up to 47% regularly attend their place of worship, which is higher than the norm. US swingers tend to be Republicans, middle to upper-middle class, middle-aged and over 90% white. They are less racist and less sexist than the general population. And although they uphold traditional relationship roles less than the population at large, they place the same importance on marriage and family life. The incidence of disturbed family backgrounds (a charge often levied by critics of swinging) is lower than average.
Now I know that, for most people, swinging just isn't their cup of tea. That's fine. But the real question is: Does the Bible allow for swinging? Most Christians would say "emphatically not!" Nevertheless, according to a survey taken at a Lifestyle Convention in San Diego, California in 1996, out of 3,500 peple from 437 cities in seven countries:
40 percent considered themselves practicing Protestants, Catholics, or Jews (Terry Gould, The Lifestyle. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books Ltd., 2000,
What Would Martin Luther Say About Swinging And Lust?
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant reformation, said it was okay for a man's wife to have sex with another man if he was impotent and she wanted children. According to Richard Marius:
Some of Luther's thoughts on marriage were radical. Suppose a man is impotent, says Luther, and unable to have sexual intercourse with his wife. He might give his wife her freedom and marry another. But at the very least he should grant her the liberty to have sexual intercourse with someone else. If she has children from such a union, the impotent husband should happily bring them up as his own. Luther, always conscious of appearances, suggested that in such cases the intimate arrangements be kept from the public at large. If the impotent husband should not give his consent, Luther advised the woman to run off with another man to some far-off place where she would not be known (Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: the Christian between God and death. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, page 260b).
I find it telling that three different seminary graduates I spoke with were not even aware of this teaching of Luther. This troubles me. If Luther was correct in this matter, and to me, common sense and logic should dictate that he was, then this begs another question: If it is ethical and biblically permissable for a wife to have sex outside of mariage for the purpose of producing children, isn't pleasure and becoming united as one flesh just as much a purpose for sex as procreation? Considering that we live in a day and age where sex is much safer than in Luther's time, and considering the advanced scientific research now available on sexual matters, I often wonder what Luther would think about swinging if he were alive today.
So when does looking cross the line and become lusting, the kind of lusting that Jesus warned against? Looking becomes lusting when strong sexual desires for a woman get out of control, directed towards actions that could lead to adultery.