Last week I found myself engaged in a rather contentious debate with a Twitter user who seemed incapable of understanding that Jesus taught us that sin is a matter of the heart, comes from the heart, and is overcome by gaining a new heart.
What He Really Meant Was . . .
Sometimes Jesus said things that leave us scratching our heads in a state of bewilderment, wondering what he meant. A prominent example of this is what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about gouging out our eyes and cutting off our hands.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body 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 part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
– Matthew 5:27-30 (NIV – 1983)
In moments of religious fervor, well-meaning but unstable men and women pursue holiness through self-mutilation, believing they are fulfilling the will of Christ through an ascetical eradication of some sin from their lives. ABC News and Reuters report that a man in Bacolod City, Panama was found in a pool of blood after emasculating himself with a machete, believing that his genitals were driving him to sexual sin.1 Associated Press reports a man in Hayden, Idaho used a circular saw to remove his hand.2 The Daily Mail reports a man in Viareggio, Italy gouged out both of his eyes during a Mass at Sant’Andrea church.3
I have heard numerous sermons, and read an array of interpretations of this rather shocking teaching from Jesus. These range from accusations that Jesus was an idiot for suggesting the removal of eyes and hands, to various figurative interpretations, and even the suggestion that Jesus was being manipulative by trying to articulate the seriousness of sin through the use of shock value and hyperbole. Others suggest that Jesus was trying to emphasize the gravity of anything that negatively impacts our intimacy with God. This view holds that such hindrances should be removed from our lives, but that Jesus was not telling us to cut off our hands or gouge out our eyes.4
My “Radical” View
I vehemently disagree and propose that Jesus was absolutely speaking literally. If my eye causes me to sin, then I should remove it, without hesitation. If my hand causes me to sin, then without question, I should remove it. That is literally what Jesus said, and it is literally what he meant.
At this point, it seems prudent to make full disclosure by telling you that I am typing this with two hands, complete with eight fingers and two thumbs, and that I am reading what I type with two eyes, albeit eyes that make use of corrective lenses. So how can I say so confidently that Jesus’ comments are to be taken literally? It is because I know that the sin in my life has nothing whatsoever to do with the power and influence of my hands and my eyes.
Will any one of us assert that a man with failing eyesight, or total blindness, cannot, or does not, lust after women? Did the Panamanian man above, who emasculated himself, cease lusting because of the barbaric act he committed against his own body? Can a man who shoplifts with his right hand solve that problem by amputating the offending hand?
Look closely at what Jesus said. If my eye causes me to sin. My eye is not my master. It causes me to do nothing. The eye is my servant. It works on my behalf, allowing me to see those things at which I choose to let it look. The term Jesus uses for “cause” is σκανδαλίζει (skandalizei), which carries the idea of provocation, almost as though my eye or hand were baiting and setting a trap for me. Such an assertion is absurd, and Jesus knows it.
Let us paraphrase Jesus’ words.
If you really believe that your eye is what causes you to lust after another woman, by all means, solve that problem by removing your eye. Likewise, if you truly believe it is your hand that takes control of your will, and causes you to steal bread, or to grope another man’s wife, cut off your hand as quickly as possible, and be done with that sin.
The Christ-follower knows that sin is not a matter of the eye, or of the hand. Sin is a matter of the heart. Lange said, “The heart is the centre of life, and the seat of feeling and desire.”5 King Solomon knew this as well and taught us that as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.6
The entire Sermon on the Mount is a treatise on the condition of the human heart. There, Jesus spoke of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting after righteousness, those who are merciful, peacemakers, and pure – all of these reflecting issues of the heart.7 He spoke of murder but demonstrated that anger and hatred in our hearts is the real issue.8 He brought up adultery but showed us that it was merely symptomatic of lust and impure desire in our hearts. Divorce is a demonstration of dissatisfaction in the human heart. According to Jesus, the Law permitting divorce in Deuteronomy twenty-four was written specifically because of the hardness of our hearts.9 Giving to the needy, praying, and fasting in dramatic and public ways belies a heart of self-aggrandizement, rather than a heart of humility.10 Valuing temporal, tangible possessions over heavenly, spiritual treasures reveals our heart, for where our treasure is, our heart will be also.11 Judging others, loving my enemies, worry, trust, and envy, all stem from the heart.
It is in this context that Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” but who is that? Who among us can raise our hand and say, “Yes, yes that’s me. I’m pure in heart.” The prophet Jeremiah told us that the heart is desperately wicked.12 We lie to ourselves, and we lie to others. Perhaps the pure in heart are those among us who have reached the point of such spiritual poverty that we can admit that our heart is anything but pure.
Our Hearts on Trial
Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.13
In the courtroom, I can be charged with murder for shooting a man in the chest. If the evidence is compelling, I am convicted and sentenced. But Jesus has blurred, if not actually erased, the line between the courtroom and the craving. In the craving, from a legal standpoint, no crime has been committed. I can hate the man, despise him, and even wish he were dead, but until I pull the trigger, the law will not convict me.
Jesus spoke the alarming statement regarding our hands and our eyes in a context of adultery, which, to every listener in the audience, was a legal matter involving physical activity and required a minimum of two persons. Jesus moved the issue from the courtroom and the bedroom to the heartroom and the headroom. Removing specific parts of my body does not in the least quench the driving heart passions those body parts feed. The root of my profane disposition is found in the core of my heart.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;”
– Matthew 15:7-8, ESV
These are strong words from Jesus. The Pharisees had come to him asking why his disciples violate tradition by not behaving as the tradition of the elders directs them to behave. Jesus answered their question with a question, asking them how it is that they violate the very command of God simply because tradition says they may do so. The Pharisees had the idea that if an unholy desire was kept in the heart and not acted upon, then somehow God could not see or hear that, and would disregard it. “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.”14 Jesus has obliterated this teaching, moving our focus from the action to the appetite for that action.
The line of reasoning above is what allowed the Pharisee in Luke 18 to declare that he was not an adulterer because what happened internally did not really matter. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’”15 Remember the trouble Joseph ran into when Potipher’s wife saw him and having seen, desired him. “It came about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me.’”16 Furthermore, recall that David, while walking on the roof of his palace, saw the wife of Uriah bathing, lusted after her, sent for her, impregnated her, and ended up murdering Uriah and taking Bathsheba to be his own wife.17
For those who would live a disciple’s life, the issue is not what I do. The issue is what I want to do. According to Jesus, I can commit adultery when I am completely alone because adultery happens between my ears. I can murder while sitting unaccompanied at my dining room table, as I hate the man or woman who wronged me earlier in the day. Thus it is not my eye that needs to be disciplined or removed, nor is it my hand that must be cut off. What I need to do is to circumcise my heart.18 Where the Pharisee defined righteousness as engaging in specific activities or actions, Jesus defines righteousness as reorienting my heart, by changing the appetites of my heart.
Guarding Our Hearts
When I sign a book for a reader, it is common for me to inscribe, “Guard your heart with diligence, for it is the wellspring of life,” from Proverbs 4:23, just above my signature. This is easily one of my favorite verses, and the truth it conveys about protecting our hearts is confirmed throughout scripture. God is always concerned with the inner man.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
– Matthew 23:25, NIV – 1983
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
– James 4:8, NASB
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
– Matthew 5:6, NIV – 1983
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
– Matthew 5:8, NIV – 1983
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
– Hebrews 4:12, NASB
Returning to the idea of diligently guarding our hearts, the Hebrew term רנָצַ (nâtsar) embodies the idea of protection and preservation. It is to watch over something or someone in order to guard that thing or person from danger. Psalm 119 uses the term repeatedly to stress the importance of guarding and protecting God’s statutes, precepts, and testimonies. This same diligent protection is to be applied to my own heart, and in pursuit of that protection, the Christ-saturated man or woman will strive to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.19
Jesus provides some clues as to why the heart is the wellspring of life and why it is worth guarding.
The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.
– Luke 6:45, NASB
This is said directly on the heels of noting that bad trees do not produce good fruit. Neither can a bad, unprotected, corrupt heart produce a pure life.
When we look at the Shema Yisrael, we see that God’s concern with our hearts spans the testaments. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”20 This is what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment of all.21 Since that is the case, if I cannot do anything else well, I would be on a good path to pursue loving God with all my heart.
Pursuing and establishing intimacy with God is a matter of the heart. Indeed, finding God at all is a matter of our heart’s longing to do so. “But from there [lands where they were held captive] you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.”22 “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”23 It is with the heart that we believe and are justified.24 It is holding to sin in our hearts that hinders our prayers.25 It is not our actions, but our hearts that condemn us before God,26 because the thoughts of our heart define who we are.27 The mouth speaks what the heart holds.28
The disciple of Jesus Christ recognizes that the real battle lies not with our hands, our eyes, or our feet, but rather with our thoughts, motives, ambitions, and values, because when God has hearts and minds, our hands and feet will follow.
1. Reuters, (December 7, 2012). Filipino Cuts Off Penis in Fit of Religious Fervor. Retrieved 04/07/2016 from http://www.answering-christianity.com/slice_off_penis.htm
2. Associated Press, (January 9, 2008). Idaho man cuts off hand, microwaves it. Retrieved 04/07/2016 from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22573021/ns/us_news-life/t/idaho-man-cuts-hand-microwaves-it/
3. Pisa, N., (October 3, 2011). Worshipper rips out both eyes in Mass with his bare hands. Retrieved 04/07/2016 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2044605/Horrific-scenes-British-born-worshipper-tears-eyes-Mass-BARE-HANDS.html
4. Lacich, D., (August 26, 2009). Provocative Bible Verses: Cutting off Limbs for Jesus. Retrieved 04/07/2016 from https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/provocative-bible-verses-cutting-off-limbs-for-jesus/
5. Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (p. 114). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
6. Proverbs 23:7
7. Matthew 5:3-10
8. Matthew 5:21-22a
9. Matthew 19:8
10. Matthew 6:1-18
11. Matthew 6:18
12. Jeremiah 17:9
13. Emerson, R. W. (19813). Essays and Lectures. (p. 337). City of Westminster, London: Penguin Putnam
14. Psalm 66:18 (NASB)
15. Luke 18:11 (NASB)
16. Genesis 39:7 (NASB)
17. 2nd Samuel 11:1-27
18. Jeremiah 4:4, Romans 2:29
19. 2 Corinthians 10:5b
20. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NASB)
21. Mark 12:28-30
22. Deuteronomy 4:29 (NASB)
23. Jeremiah 29:13 (NASB)
24. Romans 10:9
25. Psalm 66:18
26. 1st John 3:21
27. Proverbs 23:7
28. Matthew 12:34, 15:18