By James Bryan Smith
Jesus knew how important sexuality is, how it can destroy life or enhance life. Unfortunately, it is often misunderstood, which contributes to our problem with sexuality.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28
This passage has led many to believe Jesus is saying that simply looking at a woman lustfully is the same as committing adultery. It certainly appears that way. But a closer look reveals something different.
The word that is used for lust in this passage is epithumia. This word had a very specific meaning. It does not refer to ordinary sexual attraction but to intentionally objectifying another person for one’s own gratification. When I discuss this issue with students, I describe it this way: Epithumia is not referring to the first look but to the second. The first look may be simple attraction, but the second look is leering. Lust does not value the person but mere body parts.
Epithumia goes beyond mere sexual attraction. It intentionally cultivates sexual desire for the sake of the feeling itself. It is the opposite of love. Love looks into the eyes; epithumia steals glances below them. Love values the other as a person; epithumia degrades the other. We must make a clear distinction between attraction and objectification, between feeling sexual desire and epithumia. When we fail to make the distinction, we adopt the first false narrative and think that sexual attraction is evil in itself.
One day I was walking on the beach with my brother, engaged in a deep conversation about God. A beautiful young woman in a bikini was walking in our direction, and of course we both noticed her. When she passed by we looked at each other and said, “Wow.” Now, had we sinned at that point? I don’t think so. If we had not noticed, we would not be sexual persons. The response was completely acceptable in my view. Now, had we turned and followed her, focusing our eyes on her body, dreaming of a sexual encounter with her, we would have sinned. We would have crossed over from simple sexual attraction to epithumia. But we didn’t.”
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
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