Something is twisted in the way we think about sex. Oxford/Cambridge professor C. S. Lewis pictured the situation for us: "You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act ó that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?"
Now some think is this not a problem. After all, it is only thinking, not doing anything.
WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT
Three hundred years ago, Thomas Traherne said, "As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well." Two thousand years ago, Jesus said, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders" (Matthew 15:19). Although psychologists take fantasy seriously, our permissive society doesn't: "Think anything you like. Just don't do it if it hurts somebody." We let civil law become our moral code. Civil law only regulates outward behavior. The moral code controls inward thoughts. In his commencement address at Harvard University Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitszyn charged that the Western world has honored the former but neglected the latter. He said, "I have spent all my life under a communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either."
Our modern world has separated thought from behavior, attempting to give freedom to what we think and restraint to the way we behave. With uncensored liberty, our advertising, entertainment, art, literature and movies inflame our appetites and suggest that discipline and self-control are unhealthy, if not down-right unamerican. Meanwhile our crowded jails and mental hospitals collect the casualties of our moral disintegration. We are neither healthy nor law abiding.
For the sake of both our social order and our individual welfare someone needs to proclaim, "You are responsible for what you think as well as for what you do." Early Christian theologians cataloged seven deadly sins. They called them deadly because they are states of mind which lead to sinful behavior: lust, anger, gluttony, covetousness, envy, sloth and pride. They are not things we do. They are things we think and feel. And they make us miserable.
WRONG THINKING ABOUT SEX IS SIN
Fortunes have been made by those who deal in lust. Junk bonds and cocaine are nothing compared to the commercial appeal of lust. A recent study shows 94% of sexual activities in daytime soap operas involve partners not married to each other. No wonder it is becoming acceptable as normal human behavior.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the talk show sex expert, said on the NBC Today Show, "Previous generations didn't talk about sex; our generation doesn't talk about morality." Let's hear what Jesus had to say about lust. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I say to you that every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28).
How many of you have never committed adultery in your heart? Just as I thought: we're all a bunch of sinners! Jesus never lets us point an accusing finger at someone else. He makes us think not in terms of "they" but "we," not those sinners but us sinners, not their problem but our problem. He did not say, "Watch and pray lest you fall into sin." He said, "Watch and pray lest you fall into temptation" (Matthew 26:41). Why? Because all of us are apt to fall.
Jesus did not forbid every pre-marital or extra-marital sexual thought, but only those which "make you stumble," those which are disobedient and dishonorable to God and demeaning and destructive to people. Nobody should feel guilty for having a sexual appetite. But only a fool would deliberately intensify an appetite for what is forbidden. Uncontrolled lust is a cannibal committing suicide by nibbling on himself.
C. S. Lewis said, "What you think is one thing; what you imagine while you are thinking is another." Although Jesus speaks specifically to men whose imaginations are likely to cause sinful behavior, his words apply also to women who may not be as prone to sexual fantasy themselves, but who often flirt with the fantasies of men.
How then can men and women control sinful sexual fantasies? Jesus suggests, "If your right eye makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30). Jesus (and good sense!) demands that we eliminate anything that causes us to sin. I believe his advice is meant to be taken seriously but not literally. After all, we can see as much with our left eye as with our right and do as much with our left hand as with our right. Sin is in neither our eye nor hand but in our heart.
Notice that this is do-it-yourself surgery. Nobody should amputate his brother or sister's hand or eye. Jesus' principle (that we cut off anything that causes us to sin) does not impose a uniform code of behavior on everyone. What causes me to sin may not cause you to sin. We need to be aware of our own vulnerability and regulate our thoughts and circumstances accordingly.
How then can we cut off sinful thoughts? How can we get rid of degrading thought patterns? The harder we try, the harder it gets. If I were to ask you to try very hard not to think of dill pickles, the one thing you would be sure to think about would be dill pickles. How, then, can you control your thoughts? I suggest four surgical tools. Some are more helpful than others. Use whatever works for you.
The first tool is laughter. Sexual appetites are more quickly robbed of their power over us when we treat them with humor than with reverential gravity.
The second tool is confession (See James 5:16). Lust is an oft disguised and hidden enemy which cannot stand exposure. Get honest with God. Agree with him about your true condition, your real thoughts, your actual behavior. Remember, God forgives sins, but he doesn't forgive excuses.
The third tool is love. Self-serving lust can be dethroned only by a stronger love which seeks the welfare of others (See Matthew 12:43-45). Lust is not love. Lust wants it, the thing itself; love wants the beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure that occurs within one's own body. It has often been said that a lustful man wants a woman. But that is not what he wants. What he really wants is a pleasure for which the woman happens to be a convenient piece of apparatus. Lust is what makes people want sex even when they have no desire to be with each other.
Desires donít go away just because you want them to go. They donít disappear like a burst bubble when you pray, but they do tend to fade into the background when they are displaced by stronger desires. Love is what makes people want to be with each other even when they have no desire for sex. Paul prescribes, "Fill your minds with those things which are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable" (Philippians 4:8).
You are what you are and where you are because of what goes into your mind. Garbage in, garbage out applies to your thinking. That should make a difference in the kind of movies you see and the videos you rent.
The fourth tool is sacrifice. You can be free only by distinguishing the good (your right hand and eye) from the best (your whole body). If necessary, you must be willing to give up attractive friends and circumstances for something better: peace and wholeness with God.
Like a rash or mosquito bite, the more you scratch lust, the more it itches. The road to hell runs through the valley of self-indulgence to the canyon of self-enslavement. Those who travel it are prisoners of their appetites who would burn down a cathedral to roast a hot dog.
You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are! The wise Solomon said, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7). None of us is what we ought to be, but all of us can be better than we are. We just need to "let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight." And there is no way on earth we can do that except the Lord be "our strength and our redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).