Jesus’ second everyday example of his reframed spirituality is an invitation to avoid adultery by loving another. Yes, you heard that right. When we are busy loving another, we do not commit adultery. Let me explain.
Adultery: Body vs. Heart
What Jesus actually says is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
This seems simple enough. Jesus is far more interested in purity of heart over checklist obedience. So instead of simply pointing to physical adultery, he addresses it at a heart level. At the same time, this basic reading ignores what it means when Jesus calls on us to be more righteous. If the verse invites us to focus on adultery of the heart over adultery of the body, this is a call to more as better, not more as different. So if we read this as Jesus making the Law that much harder to keep, it conflicts with the Beatitudes.
Things get even more complex when Jesus continues. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Most commentators argue this is nothing but hyperbole from Jesus. He is just trying to identify how seriously God is about our sexuality. But just like the opening phrase of the teaching, this too is problematic. After all, it contradicts the opening statement by attributing body parts to a heart problem. Your hand does not cause your heart to sin so cutting it off still leaves you with a sinful heart. In the end, any member you cut off leaves you with a sinful heart. This is not hyperbole, it is absurdity.
Still, this is what many churches teach and the consequences are disastrous. In January of 1998 I started a year long youth ministry internship. Since things went well, the congregation hired me full-time and I remained there until moving to St. Louis to attend Seminary in May of 2002.
When I arrived that first year, a number of adult leaders in the church already had plans in place to lead a month long “True Love Waits” program for the youth. In the following years, I took over the planning and leading of the event that became the most attended nights on the youth group calendar. Why the most attended? Because parents made sure their kids were there.
Initially, the events simply encouraged abstinence before marriage. Often they shared the horror stories and dangers of pre-marital sex. The idea was fear of pregnancy or a disease would keep teenagers celibate. But as I struggled with my own desires and as the Christian purity culture exploded with the publication of, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the events took on a new tone. We shamed human desire and sought to regulate bodies.
Assuming the boys were only capable of objectifying the girls, we required the girls to wear lose and long clothing. Instead of trying to avoid sex, I modeled the supposedly Biblical courtship where there was no kissing or anything that would stir up desire. Everything had to remain chaste until the wedding night. Then, somehow, everything we spent years shaming, was suddenly considered holy. Many who took purity culture seriously continue to struggle with their identity, sexuality, and relationships today. Those who rejected purity culture were often shamed away from faith. This is the church failing as salt and the stripping of blessed happiness.
The Heart and Spirit of Adultery
So how do we make sense of what Jesus is saying? Perhaps we begin by seeing a heart of stone as the member responsible for adultery. In the language of Abundance Reconstructed, heart is what interfaces with spirit, be it a spirit of power or love. A heart of stone, is a heart devoted to a spirit of power. In my experience, both talking with others and personally, adultery is all about power. It does not matter how much sentimentality is involved.
For some people, it is the power that comes with seducing another. Still others who feel marginalized at home, it is a passive aggressive way of attaining power over their spouse. For me, it was all about power over myself. I used others to make me feel whole. Often, it was about calming the chaos that came from simply being in a relationship.
That last line sounds strange, but to this day, authentic romantic connection stirs up past terrors. Most of them revolve around childhood abuse. For a long time, I failed to understand this. I just wanted the terror to go away and did the only thing I knew that would calm it. Ironically, the most loving thing I could have done, the thing I would do today, is acknowledge the desire to cheat.
When we take this statement back to where we started, we find ourselves in the exact opposite place. We shifted from hating out desires, seeking to shut them down and block them off, to being honest about them. Instead of repressing them we expose them. Not because they say something about our partner, but because they reveal something about us. Our desires reveal our story, our fears, and our insecurities. They show off our unlovable parts. In doing so, our partner has an opportunity to genuinely love us.
It makes me wonder if the real adultery is promoting purity culture and checklist obedience. After all, even if you keep your genitals to yourself, they fail when it comes to actually loving another.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.