If a person does not first lust or desire, he will not fall into adultery. But how does he guard against falling into lust? The early Christians pointed out three safeguards:
1. Take Jesus’ Words Seriously
The early Christians took Jesus’ words about lust very seriously.
Athenagoras told the pagans, “We are so far from practicing promiscuous intercourse that it is unlawful among us even to indulge a lustful look.” Theophilus, another second-century Christian, writes, “Concerning chastity, the Holy Word teaches us not only not to sin in act, but not even in thought. We are not to think about anything evil in our hearts, nor look on another man’s wife with our eyes to lust after her. Accordingly, Solomon, who was a king and a prophet, said, ‘Let your eyes look straight ahead, and let your eyelids look right before you. [Prov. 4:25-26].’” Hippolytus explains, “You may say, ‘What harm is there in the eyes, when there is no necessity that he who looks should become defiled?’ In answer, Jesus shows you that desire is a fire. …Even though a man escapes the temptation [of adultery], he who looks upon a woman does not come away pure of all lust. And why should someone incur pollution when he can be chaste and free from pollution? Notice what Job says: ‘I made a covenant with my eyes, that I should not think of another man’s wife [Job 31:1].’ Job well knew the power of lust. For this reason, Paul ‘disciplined his body and brought it into subjection [1 Cor. 9:27].’And, figuratively speaking, a man keeps a fire in his bosom when he permits an impure thought to dwell in his heart.” Origen writes, “Chastity must begin with the inner man. It will then undoubtedly extend to the outer. For if someone does not previously commit adultery in his heart, he will be unable to commit adultery with his body. … In this way then circumcision of the inner and outer man should be understood.”
Adultery is only the fruit of lust. Lust is the evil root from which adultery grows.”
2. Do not look at immodestly dressed persons.
To be sure, the ancient world did not have modern media with its sensuality and nudity. Nevertheless, the world of that day provided plenty of opportunities to view nude or immodestly dressed women (and men).
For that reason, the early Christian writings contain numerous warnings against going to the public baths when members of the opposite sex were present. Cyprian writes, “Do we believe that a man is lamenting with his whole heart … who from the first day of his sin daily frequents the bathing places with women?” And again, “What of those virgins who patronize indecent baths? ….They who disgracefully look at naked men and are seen naked by men—do they not afford enticement to sin?”
Just like the theaters of today, the theaters and spectacles of the ancient world were typically indecent. The Apostolic Constitutions instructs, “Avoid indecent shows, that is, the theaters and the pagan ceremonies.” Tertullian writes, “Are we not commanded to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, we are excluded from the theater, which is immodesty’s own peculiar home. …Is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things that defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in his eyes and ears?” Novatian laments, “I am ashamed to talk about the things that are spoken on the stage. In fact, I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the deceitful arguments, the cheating of adulterers, the immodesty of women, and the indecent jokes.”
3. Avoid obscene talk.
Talking about the opposite sex in a sensual or obscene manner invariably leads to lust. Paul admonishes us, “But let not fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness even be mentioned among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but instead the giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4). Obscene jesting and talk can lead to obscene thoughts.
The Didache counsels, “Do not be lustful, for lust opens the way to immorality. Be neither a filthy talker nor a person with wanton eyes. For adulteries originate out of all these things.” Clement of Alexandria writes, “We should not smile at what is disgraceful. Rather, we should blush, lest we seem to take pleasure in it by sympathy.” And again, “We ourselves must entirely abstain from filthy speaking. And we should stop the mouths of those who practice it by stern looks and by turning our heads.” The Apostolic Constitutions teach, “A Christian who is faithful should neither repeat a pagan hymn nor sing an obscene song.”
Lust is the opposite of love.
The greatest command according to Jesus was to love God and love others. [Matthew 22:36-40] It is easy to think of lust as a harmless indulgence. But Jesus tells us to pluck out our eyes rather than look with lust. Lust is an inherently selfish desire, completely at odds with Christ-like, sacrificial love. This is why we must take Jesus’ words seriously, avoid ogling, and speak with grace rather than obscenity. We cannot express sacrificial, Christlike love while looking with lust.
This blog was adapted from David Bercot’s Commentary on Matthew. For citations of early church quotes, see Matthew 5:27-28 in Bercot’s commentary.