by Al Maxey

Issue #96 ------- January 5, 2004
'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire
than to satisfy all that follow it.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
"The Way To Wealth" --- 7 July 1757

The Lord's Lust Passage
Asexual Aspects of Adultery

St. Augustine (354-430), in his classic work Confessions, observed, "My will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity. These were the links which together formed what I have called my chain, and it held me fast in the duress of servitude." The ancient Greeks had a saying: "Rule your passions or they will rule you." Augustine fell under the power of his passions, and experienced the "duress of servitude." In short, he became passion's slave. John Clarke (1596-1658) provided the solution in these brief words: "Bridle passions, and be yourself a free man."

The many lusts of the flesh, the passions and desires of the heart, often cloud the force of reason and leave us destitute of rational behavior and bereft of godliness and faithfulness. John Dryden (1631-1700) astutely observed that "Where passion rules, how weak does reason prove!" Our lusts and passions, if not properly harnessed, can easily run away with us, dragging us helplessly through the mire. "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). Our lusts can literally destroy us. Thus, gaining mastery over them is critical to our very survival, both here and hereafter.

A study of the biblical concept of LUST can be a fascinating endeavor .... and a most enlightening one. What many students of the Word do not realize is that the Greek word we translate "lust" is actually a morally neutral term. The word is epithumia (a noun) and epithumeo (a verb), and it simply means: "earnest desire; an intense longing for; setting the heart upon." This can be either positive or negative depending on the motivation of the heart and the object of one's desire. Jesus, for example, told His disciples, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15). This is the same word that is elsewhere translated "lust." Jesus had an intense longing, an earnest desire, to celebrate that final Passover with His beloved disciples. His heart was set upon that memorial meal with them. This was a good desire, because the motivation was pure and the object of desire was honorable. When Jesus said, "Many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see" (Matthew 13:17), He used this same word. When Paul told Timothy, concerning the aspirations of an elder, that "it is a fine work he desires to do" (1 Timothy 3:1), it is again the very same word. Time and time again this Greek word is used in a NON-sexual manner in Scripture. Thus, one should be extremely careful in assuming a sexual significance to this term in certain passages unless there is unequivocal evidence in the context itself that points to the fulfillment of one's desire being only of a sexual nature.

What many students of the Word fail to perceive is that not all "lust" (in the negative sense of that term) is sexual in nature. The "lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes" (1 John 2:16) may frequently involve asexual passions and desires. Thus, this notion that "lust" is always sexual in nature is not a biblical one. The same is true, by the way, for the Greek word moicheia, which is often translated in our English Bibles by the term "adultery." Some will insist to their dying breath, for example, that "adultery" must only and always denote sexual activity. This is simply not true, however. Both "lust" and "adultery" may indeed be asexual, or non-sexual, in nature. The reason the proponents of this view adamantly deny such, of course, is that it destroys their narrow theology with respect to divorce and remarriage. For their traditional teaching to be valid, they must have these terms (especially "adultery") signify ONLY an illicit sexual encounter. For it to be otherwise undermines the very tenets of their teaching. This is why they will typically attack without mercy anyone who even dares to hint that "lust" or "adultery" may be anything other than sexual in nature and practice.

Their misguided theology, however, faces a critical challenge in our Lord's "lust passage" -- Matthew 5:28. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated this truth: "Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." One of the readers of Grace Centered Magazine, for which I am honored to be a writer, sent the following email to the editor a few weeks ago (which was then forwarded to me): "I read Al Maxey's article on divorce, and I wondered if he has written on -- or would consider writing an article on -- 'the lust passage' (Matthew 5:28). It seems a very difficult passage to tackle .... I've personally struggled with this passage, and would also love to share an article on this topic with my visitors at my own web site." I informed these brethren that I would do just such an article early in 2004. This current edition is in fulfillment of that promise.

Looking To The Heart

Shortly before he was elected President, Jimmy Carter made a statement in an interview with Robert Scheer (Playboy, October 1976) that created a furor in the news media. He remarked, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something God recognizes I will do -- and I have done it -- and God forgives me for it." When his wife Rosalynn was asked what she thought of his statement, she simply stated: "Jimmy talks too much!" Be that as it may, he nevertheless openly admitted to passions in his life with which he struggled, certainly a condition with which we can all identify (although our passions may take different forms).

Let me ask a couple of questions that will have tremendous bearing on the interpretation of Matthew 5:28 --- Is it possible to "look upon a woman and earnestly desire her" in a way other than sexually? Is the ONLY desire men have for women SEXUAL in nature? I suppose that will depend to a large extent upon which men one interviews. However, is it even remotely possible that perhaps one or two men out of the billions upon this planet just might have a non-sexual thought now and then when looking upon a woman? Is it just possible that some rare bird out there might look upon a woman and earnestly desire her for some reason other than what sexual gratification he might gain from her body? The answer, of course, is YES. Therefore, we must acknowledge that one can indeed look desirously upon a woman and "commit adultery in his heart" and have that "longing" and "adultery" be entirely NON-sexual in nature. Thus, those who declare that adultery is always and only an illicit sexual act are proclaiming more than Jesus did. Indeed, they proclaim a falsehood.

It is a fact that one can "commit adultery" in his heart and never actually physically lay a hand upon the woman he has looked upon with earnest desire. Indeed, the woman in question may not even be aware she has generated adulterous feelings within this man. The Contemporary English Version has done an excellent job of capturing the meaning of Jesus' words in the Matthew 5:27-28 passage --- "You know the commandment which says, 'Be faithful in marriage.' But I tell you that if you look at another woman and want her, you are already unfaithful in your thoughts." There are many ways to "want" a woman other than sexually, and there are many ways to be "unfaithful in marriage" besides committing some illicit sexual act with one other than one's spouse. The notion of SEX literally has to be read into Matthew 5:27-28. Those who "earnestly desire" another woman (for whatever reason), who have "set their heart upon" one other than their covenantal spouse, are guilty of an inner breach of their covenantal vows. They have broken covenant in their hearts; they have committed moicheia ("adultery"). Thus, "adultery" may be committed alone in one's heart, and it may be entirely asexual. "Adultery" is the breaking of covenant, and it may be brought about by any number of attitudes or actions, sexual and/or non-sexual. To limit moicheia to merely one of many possible manifestations is to completely fail to perceive the meaning of the biblical term.

Jesus informs us that if we look upon another woman and earnestly desire her above our own spouse, then we have already, in our hearts, committed adultery (breached our covenant). Dan's deep longing for Cathy had led him to the point where he had "broken covenant" with Sally in his heart. He had replaced her with another woman as the focus of his affections and desire. Although entirely non-sexual in nature, and although never actually acted upon physically (Cathy never suspected his feelings), yet "adultery" had been committed by Dan. Yes, both "lust" (earnest desire) and "adultery" (breaking covenant) can indeed be asexual, and they can indeed occur only in the heart without actually physically involving another person (the object of one's longing). The reality is that these two Greek words have a very wide and varied "semantic range." This fact must be considered when seeking to interpret any passage in which they appear.

W. E. Vine, in his classic work An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, informs us that the Greek word moicheia has a broader sense than the sexual. For example, he wrote, "In Israel the breach of their relationship with God through their idolatry, was described as adultery." I think it is interesting, and highly instructive, to note that Vine does not really characterize the idolatry as constituting "adultery," rather it was the "breach of their relationship" with their God which was viewed as "adultery." Vine has captured the true concept behind this biblical term -- "adultery" is far more a "breach of relationship" (the breaking of a covenantal union) than any specific action or attitude which may have contributed to that breach. Vine goes on to say, "... so believers who cultivate friendship with the world, thus breaking their spiritual union with Christ, are spiritual adulteresses." Again, this Greek scholar has characterized "adultery" as "breaking union" with one to whom one is joined in some special covenant relationship. The "adultery" is not so much "friendship with the world," as it is the "breaking of union" which such attitudes and actions reflect. Yes, we often call such faithless acts (illicit sex, idolatry, etc.) "adultery," and the word can indeed be utilized that way, but the true concept of moicheia, as clearly seen when one examines the entirety of Scripture, is that it is far more than some isolated sex act, or act of unfaithfulness; it is more fully the "breaking" of a covenantal union or relationship which any number of actions or attitudes may bring about. By failing to perceive the genuine force of the word, we fail to truly perceive and accurately interpret the significance of the concept.

Kittel, in his massive work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, also clearly alludes to this concept of the term. For example, with respect to a passage in Revelation, Kittel notes, "The adultery with the prophetess mentioned in Rev. 2:2 is a figure for acceptance of her false teaching and the implied infidelity to God. The tekna of this adulterous relation are the followers of the prophetess" (vol. 4, p. 734-735). Kittel shows here that by embracing this false doctrine one is in reality severing his relationship with God. It is a breaking of a covenantal union. Thus, the adultery is not so much the embracing of falsehood (although that is involved), as it is the severed union with the Father which results. Kittel even points out, in an aside, that the word has been used figuratively to characterize "the intermingling of different races." Thus, some peoples regarded marrying outside of their own race as a "break" with their own people; a "breaking of fellowship." Again, it was not so much the fact that sex or marriage had occurred, as it was the RESULT of that sex and marriage with outsiders .... the real adultery was perceived as being a breaking with one's people.

In the four volume set: Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, the author (Dr. James Hastings) notes that "the essence of adultery" is when "any mode of conduct or actions" occurs which "sets at naught the mysterious relationship of marriage." Dr. Hastings correctly identifies the essence of adultery as being the "setting at naught" of the marriage covenant. He has looked beyond the specific actions themselves (and he implies there may be many such actions), and he focuses on the biblical concept that "adultery" is truly the breaking, or "setting at naught," or breaching, the covenant of marriage itself. R.C.H. Lenski points out in his commentary that a broken marriage is a broken marriage, regardless of the specific cause. He too understood the "essence of adultery."

In the classic work: A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, we discover that "any beclouding" of God's relationship to His people, which is depicted as a marriage, "becomes adultery." In other words, the focus is not so much on some specific act, but rather upon the fact than ANY action which "beclouds" this covenant relationship is adulterous by nature. Yes, sex is one such action. But, it is not the only action which can becloud or breach or destroy a covenant of marriage (or a covenantal relationship with one's God). Thayer declares that figuratively the word conveys the concept of "faithless to God, unclean, apostate." He further states that "Hebraistically and figuratively" it conveys the thought of "faithless toward God; ungodly." Even in these word choices, Thayer is striking at the very essence of the concept: it is faithlessness to one with whom one is in a covenant relationship. Again, the "adultery" is not so much the act itself, as it is the faithlessness of setting aside a covenant to engage in said act. It is far more the effect, or result, of the act, than the act itself (of which there may be many, and of great variety), that constitutes the biblical concept of adultery.

Concluding Reflections

All through the Bible we are taught that the HEART is where our God and Father is truly focused in His evaluations of His people. Repeatedly the Lord bemoans the fact that "this people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me" (Matthew 15:8). Lip service, and even various religious actions and activities, is totally worthless if the heart is not right. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, tells us that our words and actions (no matter how good) profit us nothing if our hearts are not motivated by love. In Matthew 15:18-19 Jesus discussed the ultimate source of our behavior: "But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart ... For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders."

I believe the point Jesus was truly making in Matthew 5:28 is that INTENT of heart is a powerful motivator. "Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." The point I think we often overlook here is that our actions come from within ourselves. Attitude begets action. If our intent is to break covenant with our spouse, the only thing we truly lack is opportunity. When/if that opportunity presents itself, and if our intent is still ungodly, we will submit our bodies to the intent of our hearts. As James declared, we will be carried away by our own earnest desires, and they will bring forth sin and death (James 1:14-15). However, even if the opportunity for physical action never presents itself, as long as the longing remains within our hearts, the "breaking of covenant" has nevertheless occurred in the sight of the Father, who judges hearts. This is why it is so critical that we guard our hearts, as well as our more visible actions. We may control the latter, but if we succumb to the inner lusts of the former we are just as much in jeopardy.

We must forever cast off this false notion that "lust" and "adultery" are only and always merely SEX ACTS. Both concepts may be expressed in the complete absence of any sexual aspect and activity. If we fail to perceive this spiritually significant aspect of these terms, then our theology will be seriously flawed, as is the case with many who promote their twisted traditional interpretations regarding divorce and remarriage. I pray this brief, and admittedly incomplete, study has motivated some of you to further reflection on each of these critical terms and their significance. It is time to come out of the darkness of a host of hurtful traditional misunderstandings and enter the light of God's Truth regarding these significant spiritual matters.

Reflections from Readers

From an Evangelist in Greece:

Happy New Year from our family, and from all the Christians in Athens, Greece, and also in Albania, Romania and Bulgaria. We love you, and we are glad to be associated with you. May all your wishes come true during the New Year!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Al, On your Reflections article -- Marital Motives: Covenant or Con? -- I can only say job well done. May the Lord continue to bless you and yours as you labor in His kingdom.

From a Deacon in New Mexico:

Al, The moral issue is the correct approach for this question (Reflections #95). We must accede to the law of the land, not attempt to defraud or manipulate for personal gain. If we truly love our Creator and His Son, we will accept His blessings in our lives while we live a legal and moral life. One point that may have been missed -- Failing to acknowledge the "marriage status," when presented with the opportunity to do so, can constitute sin by omission.

From a Minister/Author in Florida:

Al, Thank you for making this material available to all of us. I really appreciate it. So many good and godly responses to the questions that were raised. May the Lord continue blessing your ministry of faith, hope and love as you stay Jesus Focused, Grace Oriented and Love Motivated ... which is our motto in Life Communications.

From a Reader in Texas:

In general, I agree with your thinking on marriage and fraud. However, there is one area you failed to cover in that discussion. The medical side of life is very costly in America. Neither a man or a woman in later years can afford to give up good medical coverage that comes with pensions (especially pensions received by widows). Widows who have serious health problems and are either covered by military or executive level insurance policies cannot afford to forfeit those insurance privileges. Treatment of cancer of all types, or treatment of rarer health problems, is very, very costly. The issue in many cases is not that they don't want to get a license, but, rather, the need to have adequate health coverage for serious health problems.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I appreciate your putting this response together, and I think that defrauding is a key point. I was surprised, however, at the amount of space given to a discussion of what is a legal marriage. While common law marriage is accepted in some states, it's my understanding that some time must pass (maybe up to 7 years in some cases) before that marriage is accepted as legal. What about during the time that passes, even if it's just one week? Are these people not living in an immoral situation?

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Good answer, Al! I purposely didn't write in, in order to see what direction you might pursue in this study, but I give you high marks! I was worried at the beginning of your answer that the "non-legalists" were doing their best to justify sin by trying to find legal loopholes. (Rather ironic!) Anyway, "Man cannot serve both God and money." Sometimes we suffer persecution, and the confiscation of our goods, as we seek to follow God. I believe James and the Hebrew writer would tell these couples they are in good company. If these couples suffer undo financial hardship, their church families might also take a lesson from the early church in how to help them out. God's blessings and Happy New Year.

From a Reader in Alabama:

I thought your article on Marital Motives was excellent. Thank you for taking the time to do this study!

From a Reader in Texas:

The "integrity is costly" statement answers this question better than any from a spiritual and ethical standpoint (in my opinion). Someone once defined integrity as that which is done while no one is looking. Happy new year to you and yours from me and mine.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Thanks a lot for all your work on the marriage-pension question. In my wildest imagination I never imagined years ago such a medium where one could get so many ideas in such a short time. It was great to read all the perspectives these good folk have. I realized when I opened this "can of worms" that we could never get a "thus sayeth the Lord" answer, but we surely got a lot to analyze and consider. Thank the Lord for giving such a scholar as you the means to reach so many. Again, God bless you and this good work.

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