Jesus has been addressing the heart issues with His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew chapter 5, He has already explained that righteousness is something that comes from the heart, and not just some external action that a person performs. However, the Pharisees looked at the commandments, “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” as referring to only an external act. Jesus again in Matthew 5:27 tells them, No! He proceeds to teach that these commandments deal with much more than action alone, but also heart attitude. Note what Jesus teaches. In verse 27, Jesus declared, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than your whole body be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than your whole body to be cast into hell.” Then Jesus said, “Furthermore”, which revealed that the next statement was directly connected to what He had just stated. “Furthermore, it has been said, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Therefore, according to Jesus, what was the true intent of this commandment, “You shall not commit adultery?” What was God’s intent in giving this particular command? God wants to deal with lust within the heart of man. Lust is what would cause someone to commit adultery, and to break their marriage vows. Jesus again is after the heart. If you can overcome the lust of your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, you won’t commit adultery or break your marriage vows. Make the decision today to allow God to conquer your lust. He wants to set you free from your lust. Unless the Lord liberates you, lust will conquer you. Don’t allow lust to remain unchecked within. It will destroy you and your relationships.
How fundamental is the issue of your desires? Consider the tenth commandment. This commandment sums up the importance God places on this issue. God said in Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Note that God had already commanded them not to commit adultery, which would be caused by coveting another man's wife. God addresses the issue lust and covetousness again in this final commandment because it is central to obedience to all of His commandments. To covet is to desire or lust after someone else's possessions, position, or anything they have. Jesus had to explain this because the religious teachers and the people in general had misunderstood this truth. They read the Ten Commandments and thought these only related to external actions.
Now, why am I so sure that covetousness and lust are synonymous terms? In James 4:2-3, James connects these two concepts. He declared, “You lust and you do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war, yet you do not have because you do not ask. You do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” James clearly connects this idea of lusting and coveting in his letter to the church. He also includes anger and murder in this passage. Isn’t it interesting that James connects these two issues just as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.
Lust and covetousness is a desire within our hearts for something to satisfy us. But, they cannot satisfy the human heart. However, James explains where and how we can be satisfied. He said, “You do not have because you do not ask." James believed that prayer was the ultimate means for mankind to be satisfied. This is a very simple concept. When I connect with Him, I will be satisfied. Prayer is where the power will be found to control the lust that is within my soul. When I receive His power within, my flesh cannot control me anymore. Here is where I find that victory to overcome the power and tyranny of the flesh. God knows that lust can never satisfy me, so He reveals the means to find satisfaction, prayer!
Misconceptions about this text
Now before we go any further in this particular text, and explaining how to overcome your lust, I want to address two misconceptions over this passage. These are two misconceptions I have had people ask me about over and over again. Understanding the answers to these misconceptions is essential for understanding these verses.
The first misconception comes when people ask me, “If I have already committed adultery in my heart, why shouldn’t I just go and commit the act of adultery? If God looks at the lust of the heart and the act the same, why not just do it?” Have you ever heard anybody question God’s word like this? It really is a great question. So, let me answer it. Why should you not commit the act of adultery, when you are struggling with your lust? Because this is the very thing that Jesus is trying to help you avoid. He does not want us to commit adultery. In fact, Jesus is trying to get at the heart of adulterous relationships which is lust. He wants to deal with the source of the problem, not give someone an excuse to violate His commands. Jesus is simply saying, “Look, I am holding you responsible for what is going on in your heart, as well as what goes on in your behavior. Deal with the enemy within so you won’t participate in an immoral behavior.” Remember, the action is always worse than the thought, and that is clear from Scripture. In the Old Testament, it teaches in that, “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination” (Prov. 15:26). So, God from the beginning of time has made it clear that my heart and thoughts are important to Him. Why is He so concerned about my thoughts? It is obvious that the action is always worse than the thought. Billy Graham put it this way, he said, “There is a difference between window-shopping and stealing.” Would you agree with him? Think about it. Would you want somebody who is window shopping and coveting in their heart to go to jail? Or, should someone only go to jail for stealing? The action of stealing is always worse that thinking about stealing. Take this concept back into our previous study concerning anger and the commandment to not murder. Should somebody go to jail because they have anger in their heart, or only if they take the action of murder? The action is obviously worse than the thought.
This first misconception originates from another misconception that all sin is the same. Have you ever heard someone say, “Sin is all the same?” Well, they are wrong. All sin is not the same. The Scripture is very clear about this fact. In John 19:11, Jesus spoke to Pilate and said, “You could have no power at all against me unless it had been given to you from above. Therefore the one who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” So, according to Jesus is there a greater sin? Yes, absolutely! Jesus here is making it very clear that the Pharisees and the Sadducees had a greater sin, because they knew much more about truth than Pilate. The Pharisees knew what the Scriptures declared and they purposed to destroy Jesus out of envy and jealousy towards Him. Therefore, when people say to you all sin is the same, explain this verse to them. Explain that actions are always worse than the temptation. That God holds us responsible for both the thoughts and the actions. He wants to conquer the issues in our hearts so we won’t have to worry about ever committing the action.
The second misconception is voiced by people when they ask, “Can I divorce my spouse if they have lusted, but not actually committed adultery?” The answer is no! A person who asks this question believes the first misconception and is usually just looking for a loophole so they can get out of their marriage. You cannot divorce your spouse because they lust any more than you should divorce them for coveting things, which is idolatry. If you could divorce your spouse for lust, then there would be no men or women married, because everyone has lustful thoughts for something. The Scripture says, “The eye man is never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20). Do you see the reason why human beings are lustful? We are simply not being satisfied by the Lord. David believed that God would “abundantly satisfy” anyone who would simply “drink” from His living waters (Ps. 36:8). Jesus said the same to the woman at the well when He responded to her question about being thirsty. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14). The natural man cannot be satisfied apart from the living water of His Holy Spirit. If you are thirsty today, come to Him and He will satisfy you with His life.
To get back to the question of can you divorce you spouse because he or she is lusting but has not committed adultery; look at the context of Christ’s statement. The answer to this question is right here in our text. Jesus made it very clear. Notice in verse 32, Jesus said, “But I say to you, that whoever divorces his wife for any reason, except sexual immorality.” It doesn’t say here for any reason except lust in your heart, or because they got an anger problem. No, He said for any reason, except sexual immorality. The sexual immorality He refers to is adultery. Therefore, there must be actual adultery for divorce to be warranted.
You can see this same truth taught in the Old Testament commandment as well. In Deuteronomy 22:14, there is a discussion of the truth of a woman's virginity. If a woman’s virginity is called in question after she marries a man, notice what the Scripture states. She must be charged with “shameful conduct,” not lust, but actual conduct. In other words, there had to be proof that a woman had actually committed sexual immorality by fornication or adultery. So, Jesus is clearly talking about sexually immoral conduct.
Is this issue of lust only a man’s struggle, or do women battle here too? Many times in marriage counseling, a woman will say to me after I quote this verse in Matthew 5 about lust, “That’s right, men are always lusting. Men are beasts. Sex, sex, sex that's all they think about. What is their problem?” Let me say, ladies your heart is in the very same place. You may not lust after the same things as a man, but you also lust. If I don’t affirm this point, you ladies will not take seriously what I’m about to say and apply it for your own life. You will think this is great information for my husband or my brother, but this passage does not apply to me. But, it does! Every person in the very center of their being is lustful and covetous. We all have our idols. You may have different lusts but you lust just like every man. Remember, what James 4:2 declares? Speaking to the entire church of both male and female, he said, “You lust.” James makes no distinction between male or female. Male or females can lust sexually, or power, position, pleasure, fame, things, or for whatever you think is going to make you happy. Everyone lusts and desires for something, so ladies you should also give heed to this encouragement. Note that in James 4:6 he gives the simple solution to lust is that “He gives more grace.” There is the answer to our covetous lustful hearts. It is God's grace! His grace is abundant and open to all who call upon Him.
How to overcome lust
Now let me discuss with you the very important issue of how God can help you to overcome your lust. Let me give you seven very important principles that will explain to you how to overcome your lustful heart.
1. Don’t incite lust.
The first issue you should be concerned about is not inciting lust within yourself. You have heard the saying, “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot?” If you do things that stir up your own lust, you are shooting yourself in the foot. You are hindering yourself. You may wonder how someone stirs up and incites lust within themselves. When I talk with people in counseling who are struggling with lust I asked them several questions that are many times the source of their problems; “What kind of movies or television shows do you watch? When suggestive commercials come on, do you watch them or turn the channel? Do you read non-Christian romance novels with lustful story lines? Do you view Internet pornography? Do the people that you spend a lot of time with, are they encouraging you to righteousness or do they stumble you by their conversations or actions?” All of these issues can and will incite your lust within. This is why Paul counseled Timothy, “Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). Underline that phrase, “with those.” What you do and who you spend your time with will either help you or harm you in your pursuit of righteousness. Find those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart and make them your friends. These friendships will help you flee youthful lusts. Remember, in Proverbs 5:8 Solomon said to his own son concerning immoral women. He encouraged him, “Remove your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house.” You must remove yourself far from whatever is inciting lust inside you. Therefore, examine your life and determine if you need to flee any behavior, thoughts, places, or friendships that incite lust inside you.
2. Radical steps must be taken.
Second, if you want to stop inciting lust within your own life radical steps must be taken. Jesus made this point clear when He said in Matthew 5:29-30, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” These passages are some of the most misunderstood in the Bible. What did Jesus mean by these words? Does Jesus want you to take a saw to your arms and legs, or a poking instrument to your lustful eye? Absolutely He does not. Why? It is obvious that a one-eyed person can lust just as much as a two-eyed person. In fact, a blind person can lust just as much as seeing person. Why is this true? Lust is in your heart. So, what is His point? Jesus is speaking in a spiritual sense about how you must deal with whatever stumbles and offends you. You need some radical surgery. This is hyperbole. Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration. To make a point Jesus used this technique in His teaching many times. Hyperbole, always makes you stop and think, “Wait a minute, what does He mean? Does Jesus really want me to hack off my hand or poke out my eye? Of course not! Hyperbole is used as a rhetorical tool to draw attention to and emphasize the point you are attempting to make. Therefore, what was Jesus trying to emphasize? He wants you to compare the value of the physical with the eternal. He asked the question twice, “is it more profitable for you.” In other words, are two hands more important to you than going to hell? Wouldn’t it be better to be limbless and go to heaven than it would be to have all of my limbs and go to hell? Would it not be better to have no eyes and go to heaven than to have both eyes and go to hell? Jesus is contrasting the profitability of the temporal verses the eternal. He is encouraging us to compare the benefits of what I do today with eternity. Is temporal pleasure more important than eternal rest? Which one do you want? Is Internet pornography more important to you than heaven? Is a lifestyle of immorality more important than everlasting life? Are ungodly friendships more important to you than heaven with those who believe? If you say no, then cut off the immoral relationship. Cut off the immoral behavior. Cut off whatever causes you to sin. You must do some radical surgery and make some radical changes if you want to deal with your lust issues.
Third, repentance is how this radical change takes place. The word repent means to change your mind, turn around, and go the opposite direction. When you reverse directions in your life, wouldn’t you say that is a very radical change? This is the kind of change the Bible encourages. In Acts chapter 8:22, Peter spoke very boldly and said to a man, “Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.” Peter did not say to him, “I’m not sure if your behavior is good or bad.” No, he told him that he needed to reverse directions and repent. He needed a change of heart and behavior.
Also, notice what it declares in this text. Peter addresses this man’s thought life and the need for forgiveness for what he was thinking. He told him to pray that the thoughts of his heart might be forgiven. This is an essential tool in changing and controlling your lustful thoughts. Admit these lustful thoughts are wrong and ask forgiveness for thinking them. Why is repentance in your thinking a primary step to radically changing your behavior? Your thoughts are where lust begins. If you want to remove behavior from your life by radical surgery, then you need to deal with your thought life. You must say in your own mind, “No, I'm not going there. I’m not going to allow my mind to go there. Lord, I choose to reject that thinking and behavior.” This is exactly what Paul commands us all to do in Romans 13:14. He said, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” The word provision in this passage means to take forethought. So, how can you resist fulfilling your lusts? Take no forethought for the flesh. This is how you stumble. You allow your mind to play with the options. You think, Will I sin right now or not? Am I going to go out to the bar after work with the guys or not? Am I going to that party or not? You start to rationalize, “one drink won’t hurt.” “Smoking one joint won’t make me a drug addict.” When you start thinking in that direction and playing with the forethought of possible sin, you are caught. You need to stop it in your thinking first. That's where it all starts. You need to cut off the thoughts that lead you to sin. Repent when the thought comes into your mind. If you stop it there, you will never act on it. You won't, because you are dealing with where all the sinful behaviors originate. It all starts in your head.
4. Pray for the purifying of your heart.
If the thoughts of your heart are where lust first takes hold of you, then you need a purified heart. Remember, in Matthew 5:8, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Jesus taught that your heart needed to be pure because He knew the importance of your heart being right with Him. So, if you want victory over your lust, your heart must be purified, and the Holy Spirit will do that work. How can your heart be purified before Him? You need to pray. James said, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Ask for the purifying and purging work of the Holy Spirit to begin to convict and reprove your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. I’m sure you will sense an immediate response from the Throne of God! If you want the work to be done, ask Him to begin right now!
5. Bring your body into subjection.
When you deal with your heart and mind and allow the Spirit’s control in the radical way I have just outlined, the natural result will be your body will be brought into subjection to God. This is what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 9:27. He related to them what he chose to do with his lustful desires. He declared, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” He honestly admits his own struggle. This man was an apostle! He loved the Lord. He had a radical conversion experience, but he was still struggling within himself. However, he knew the only way to overcome his lust was to discipline his own body. The word discipline and subjection in this verse are both in the present tense. This means that Paul was actually declaring, “I am continuously disciplining my body, I am continuously bringing it into the subjection. He made clear that he believed if he did not, he could become disqualified or reprobate and turn away. That is what the word disqualified means. Have you ever seen anyone who loved Lord, who professed faith in Christ, turn away from the Lord? How does that happen? It occurs when a person does not obey this command to discipline their body drives and bring them into subjection. The word discipline means to subdue. Therefore, you must subdue your body drives. The words bring into subjection literally mean to bring into servitude. So, are you a slave to your body drives, or is your body serving your higher calling to be a servant of God? Those are your only two options. One or the other will occur. You are either a slave to your body, or your bodily drives will be brought into subjection to you. You will either be overcome by them, or you will overcome them!
6. Choose to make the body to die.
How then do you bring your body into subjection and overcome? How is that done? Paul explains the reality of the battle and how to overcome. He teaches in Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” I really like that last phrase, “you will live.” This is where real life is to be experienced. Life is when you have been set free from the power of your fleshly nature. How are you set free? Make these bodily drives to die. Remember, Paul taught, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” This work is done by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am not strong enough to control my lust, but the Spirit is able to make these desires to die. So, when the lustful thoughts come up in your mind, reject them through repentance and prayer. Then invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with His power. Ask Him to put these desires to death. Your sin nature has been crucified in Christ; it's just not dead in you. Only when you allow the Holy Spirit to come upon you will they be made to die. Every time you struggle with your lust, cry out for the power of the Spirit of God and He will free you from the power of your lust.
Now, let me explain this principle from another passage in the Scripture. In Romans 6:6, 11, 13, Paul reveals the details of how this process this takes place. Let me briefly hit the high points of this truth. If you want an in-depth study on this subject, go to our website, www.calvaryag.org and look under the Bible Studies icon, and then click on New Testament. There you will find our study on the book of Romans in written form. For now, Romans 6:6 teaches, “Knowing this, that your old man was crucified.” There is a very important truth. Your old man was crucified. Paul uses the past tense here. That means it is a completed work in Christ. You must know this truth. You must be absolutely convinced of this truth. When you know and are assured that your old man was crucified and put to death, then you will do the second thing. You will reckon yourself dead. In Romans 6:11 it says, “Reckon yourself to be dead to sin, but alive to God.” The word reckon is in the present tense which means you must continually reckon yourself dead to sin. Reckoning is a step of faith where your account what God said is true. He said your old man or old nature is dead. When you reckon it to be so, you are declaring it to be done. Jesus already conquered my old man. He conquered, but you have to reckon by faith that to be true. Do you believe that your old man is dead? You must believe it by faith. This is where prayer comes in. Paul goes on to teach in Romans 6:13, “Present your members unto God as all individuals who are alive from the dead.” The word present means to yield. This is where the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and makes that old man to die. This is how you gain victory and overcome the lusts of your flesh. Ask God to teach you how this all works. Read through Romans 6 and ask Him for a revelation of His Spirit. As you do, this is where you will find victory over your flesh.
Why does Jesus speak about divorce here in the context of lust? It is very simple. If you resolve your lust issues, you will never be unfaithful to your spouse, and thus, never need to even consider divorce. If you allow God to rule in your life, you will experience God’s satisfaction and never look outside your marriage. This is why you need to control the lust of your heart.
However, Jesus makes it clear when dealing with divorce that He is not in favor of divorce for just any reason. In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus declared His narrow view of why someone should divorce. He acknowledged what people said in that day about those who gave a certificate of divorce. Jesus said, “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
Now, this is very difficult passage of Scripture, because people read this and they say, “I don't like that. Jesus is too narrow. This view is impossible. How can anybody keep this standard?” I don’t believe this is a difficult standard. Why? Divorce is not an issue if you are dealing with your lust. If you are faithful and satisfied in your marital relationship, divorce won’t ever come up in the conversation. Why is Jesus so narrow in His view of divorce? He hates divorce! He hates the destruction that comes with divorce. He wants to encourage two people to reconcile with each other and work through the problems that have, not look for a way out.
Let me share with you a personal testimony. For more than 40 years of counseling with people, individuals have admitted to me many times the same thing. They say to me, “I got rid of my first wife or my first husband and I married this other person. But, all I did was trade problems. My first spouse had this problem ___________. My second spouse didn’t have that problem, he or she had another issue ¬¬___________” Don't do it. It is always easier to fix what you have, than to go dump the individual, then find somebody else and just have the frustration of a new problem. Allow the Lord to control your heart, and make you a faithful man or woman. Then you don’t ever have to worry about any of this.
Now I understand that there are circumstances when you are married to a person who is continuously unfaithful or is unwilling to live with you. They abandon you for some fantasy they have in their mind. This is something God understands, and this is why He allows divorce. Jesus makes that clear here in this text. He does not want people to divorce, but He allows it in such circumstances. However, I have seen people who have committed adultery, and they have been reconciled with their spouse. Both partners deal with their issue and their marriage has been totally restored and transformed. I've seen people divorce each other, reconcile, and remarry. I had a couple that I was counseling over the telephone from another city. They started reading my book, worked through their issues, and remarried after they had both committed adultery. They came up to our church not too long ago and I met them. As I talked with them I thought to myself, How amazing God's grace is to restore these two people. He can do anything if two people will humble themselves and seek His face. He can and will enable anyone to reconcile their differences.
Now, let me say a word to those of you who don’t believe than anyone should divorce for any reason. This is an extreme position that many Christians hold today because of the easy divorce they see around them. Yes, the Pharisees believed that you could divorce for any reason. However, Jesus does not subscribe to their view of divorce and remarriage. Jesus makes it clear that divorce is permitted for sexual immorality. This exception is obvious in this passage and is also given in Matthew 19:9. If someone takes away this exception, they are contradicting Jesus Christ. The Bible warns those who add to the Scripture or take away from it.
So, in this passage Jesus is referring to two professing believers where one commits adultery against the other. Divorce and remarriage is permitted in such a case. If someone divorces and then remarries another person, he or she is then committing adultery and causing the other person to commit adultery too. That's what Jesus says here. I will not change what He has said. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed the subject of an unbeliever and a believer joined in marriage. He taught that if the unbeliever said or demonstrated that he or she was unwilling to live with a believer, then the believer was free to leave and divorce. Paul said it this way. “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). Therefore, if the unbeliever departs, if they abandon you, if they go off with someone else, then you are free. The offended party is not under bondage in such cases to their marriage vows, because the unbeliever has broken his or her vows. Why would they be free from the covenant they have made? Paul makes it clear; God has called us to peace. God does not penalize a believer for the rest of his or her life because the unbeliever has departed from them.
Another issue I should address is when someone has married and divorced prior to becoming a Christian. What happens in this circumstance? The Bible declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold some things have become new.” Now, it does not say some things become new. It says all things become new. It does not say all things become new except for prior divorces and marriages. Therefore, when you come to faith in Christ and you are born again, you start all over. Why is that right and fair? It's because before you came to Christ you were blind. You were blind to what you were doing, and to the ramifications of your actions. You don't understand spiritual things. This is why Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). So, God is essentially saying, “In my book, you are new creation.”
Sometimes I have also counseled people who have divorced and remarried without biblical grounds. There had been no adultery or abandonment by an unbeliever, yet this believer has married another person anyway. People have asked me if this person living in a continuous state of adultery? Not if a person will acknowledge his or her offense and ask forgiveness. God is a God of grace and a God of mercy. In 1 John 1:9 it declares God’s promise, “If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confess your transgression to the Lord if you have violated this particular command. Ask your mate’s forgiveness for your transgression, and get it right today. You or your spouse may not have known you were breaking God’s commandment. Ask Him for His grace, and He will work in the midst of this situation you are right now.