'Now I tell you, if any man looks at a married woman and sets his heart upon her, or a married man looks at another woman in this way, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'
This is a verse that most of you will familiar with, but not expressed like this. The familiar version goes something along the lines of “if anyone looks at a woman to lust after her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.
This touches on the whole area of desire and thought-life which a lot of people struggle with - particularly men, and especially younger men. If you are not in this category and this verse seems not very relevant to you, the chances are you will know some one who does struggle with this whole area, even if they dare not admit it to you! So even if it’s not an issue for you, it’s still worth getting a handle on what Jesus is talking about, if only to be able to be of help and support to those for whom it is, and also because there are more general lessons to be had here about handling feelings and desires.
My difficulty with the standard translation is that it does not help people in their experience of strong physical and romantic attraction that can come on involuntarily, but indeed can lead to them to feeling condemned with the sense that when they experience those desires in certain situations, along with the thoughts that go with them, they may well be falling foul of Jesus’ teaching here. This makes it much more difficult to share their struggles with others, for fear their thought-life be judged to be in a bad way. I’ve known Christian teachers and writers try to encourage openness by confessing that they’ve committed adultery in their heart many times. I’m not sure this helps openness; I rather think it sends the message to people that if they as teachers haven’t been able to get a handle on this, what hope is there for the rest of us? Such confessions would worry me if it weren’t for a strong suspicion that the people making them may have taken Jesus’ words the wrong way, no thanks to a misleading translation.
There are two key Greek words that are worth looking at. The first is 'guna' which is generally translated woman but is also the Greek word for a wife. Given that Jesus specifically introduces his words by flagging up the subject of adultery, it seems reasonable to me that he must have been referring, at least in part, to a wife – by which he must mean another man’s wife, given that a man can’t commit adultery with his own wife. We could also translate it as 'woman', since it could be referring to a married man who sets his sights on another single woman, (assuming we are dealing with a culture where polygamy is not legal and there is no possibility of him looking on her as a potential second wife).
The other Greek word, usually translated as 'lust', is 'epithumeo'. We tend to distinguish between lust and falling in love, but epithumeo would include falling in love. The implication of this is not that it is wrong to fall in love; the implication is rather that, if someone gets something going with some one else’s spouse, just because they are adamant it is not just lust but they are truly in love with each other, it doesn’t make it all right.
Epithumeo is derived from another word 'thumos', which means passion. The 'epi' in front of it is the Greek word for upon. Put the two together and we get a word which means, in the words of one of the standard Greek lexicons, to keep the thumos turned upon something - in other words not just to experience a desire for something, but to be set on that desire, that is to say, to set your heart on something. We could translate it as to covet, and indeed when Paul quotes the Old Testament commandment “thou shalt not covet”, epithumeo is the word he uses. Now I remember a band member in my previous church looking at a keyboard I had recently acquired from another friend, which was rather a nice looking thing, and saying jokingly “I covet your keyboard!” He was saying something like, I’d love to have something like that. But coveting something in a serious way is something else.
Let me give an illustration to explain what I mean: Last summer, we went on holiday to the place where I went to school. It’s a beautiful part of Cumbria, just on the edge of the Yorkshire dales, and I really enjoyed going back there. I remember thinking at the time, I would absolutely love to live here. It was not just the scenery, but I really liked the feel of the lively little town we were staying in, tucked under the large hill looming overhead, with the other fells all around. Suffolk is a lovely place, but I miss being near hills. That’s a perfectly natural desire, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. For other people, their ideal place might be somewhere completely different, perhaps on the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. But if I were to I move on from feeling that natural desire to live somewhere to setting my heart on it, going through my mind as to how I could make it happen regardless of any other considerations, such as how my wife felt, or whether it fits in with what God was calling me to, that would be to submit to that desire as a kind of authority in my life. The man who covets something won’t necessarily get what he wants, but if the opportunity presents itself he will take it; if he is resourceful, he will be working to bring about an opportunity about, to make it happen.
There’s no point in feeling guilty about a desire that comes upon us whether we like it or not. The thing that counts is not having a desire, which may well be something we can’t help, but whether we follow through on it. Martin Luther has an oft-quoted saying that we can’t help it if a bird comes a sits on our head, but we can stop it making a nest there. This is a helpful way of looking at it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we can flit the bird away in a moment and stop it coming back. It might hang around for some time. A man may find himself alongside a married woman at work he is very attracted to and with whom he has a real chemistry. As long as they are in contact, the attraction and the associated desire may well not go away - but he shouldn’t beat himself up about this; this does not constitute committing adultery in his heart. As we often say in this church, it’s not what you feel that counts, it’s what you do with the feeling. I can think of two woman I fell in love with in the course of my life before I met my wife, and I knew that the attraction was mutual. They were both single so adultery wasn’t an issue, but in both cases it became clear to me that it wouldn’t be sensible or right to pursue it. Coming to that realisation, and deciding that I wouldn’t follow through on it didn’t make the desire go away, but being clear about it made it possible to stick with what I decided. When we want to do the right thing by God, it won’t stop us being affected by desires we wish would go away; but He can help us to cope with them. When we want to do what is right and look to God for help, he can give us a proper perspective on our desires, so that we can remain in control and the presence of those emotions does not make us liable to do the wrong thing.