One challenge to embracing sex as God designed it to be is erroneous messages we’ve absorbed. Some such messages are truly heinous and harmful, others are not quite right, and plenty fall somewhere in between. This post is the first of a series that will appear now and then over the next couple of months, with each post correcting the record on a specific topic in the realm of sex.
Today let’s address myths perpetuated in the Church and beyond about lust and modesty and replace them with biblical truth.
What’s So Bad about Lust?
The word translated as lust in the Bible refers to intense longing, not sexual desire specifically. The longing can be good or bad, depending on the motives and target of your longing. For instance, it’s good to long for (“lust” after) your spouse, as long as it involves not merely physical desire but respect and intimacy. It’s bad to long for (“lust” after) the skimpily clad stranger walking down the street.
But let’s talk about the latter—when lust is misdirected and becomes sin. As Jesus said:
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Matthew 5:28
In an effort to avoid such adultery of the heart, people have suggested “bouncing your eyes,” avoiding the opposite sex, and/or insisting women dress more modestly. Let’s look at each of these.
Bouncing Your Eyes
“Bouncing Your Eyes” is the title of a chapter in the well-known book Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. It begins:
To set up your first defense perimeter with your eyes, you want to employ the strategies of bouncing your eyes and starving your eyes as well as the tactic of taking up a “sword” and a “shield.”
Let’s first consider bouncing. You can win this battle by training your eyes to “bounce” away from sights of pretty women and sensual images. If you “bounce your eyes” for six weeks, you can win this war.
The problem is that your eyes have always bounced toward the sexual, and you’ve made no attempt to end this habit. To combat it, you need to build a reflex action by training your eyes to immediately bounce away from the sexual, like the jerk of your hand away from a hot stove.
Part of me understands the theory here. After all, the verses after Jesus’s warning about lust are:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, 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 stumble, 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 5:29-31
Might bouncing be a less messy version of gouging out your eyes?
But the problem with that theory is Jesus himself. He didn’t bounce His eyes from women, and He never told His disciples to do that.From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty: "[Jesus] didn't bounce His eyes from women, and He never told His disciples to do that." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Then there’s Job statement: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1). He did not say he wouldn’t look at a young woman. He wouldn’t look lustfully.
In fact, the majority of biblical teaching is about training your eyes and mind to see beyond flesh and selfish desires. It’s about looking at someone through the ideas of a transformed believer, governed by the Holy Spirit. For example:
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.Romans 8:5-6
It’s not about bouncing your eyes, but seeing the whole person.
Sure, some are at the level of addiction/compulsiveness and might need to adopt this approach for a time. (I haven’t read the book, but even that snippet from Every Man’s Battle suggested six weeks to get things under control. Did the authors intend men to bounce eyes for a lifetime? Surely not. Hopefully not. Anyway, that book is not the point.)
Stop bouncing your eyes, gents, and follow Christ’s example. He engaged with women even of highly questionable sexual character and looked at them for the whole person they were.
Avoiding the Opposite Sex
Setting boundaries is a good idea and might include:
- not traveling alone with a member of the opposite sex
- not meeting behind closed doors with a member of the opposite sex
- talking positively in public about your spouse, so others are aware of your marital commitment
- regularly wearing a wedding ring (or having one tattooed on) to convey your marital status
- checking in with your spouse frequently through phone calls, texts, etc.
But boundaries shouldn’t mean isolation or exclusion. That is, some women have been denied opportunities in the workplace because they can’t get into the offices, boardrooms, country clubs, lunch meetings, etc. where deals and connections are. All because some guy(s) can’t look beyond her physical features to the work talents she possesses!
Moreover, if we never interact with each other, we don’t learn how to be around people of the opposite sex without viewing them as “other” or forbidden or even dangerous.
Now, I’ve personally avoided the opposite sex in some circumstances. But then, I had a bad premarital history, have admitted that I’m not naturally monogamous (I’m wholly dedicated to Spock, but monogamy wasn’t my initial tendency), and witnessed friends descend into adultery through a series of ill-advised choices. Yet, the more I’ve mulled it over, the more I believe the boundaries I’ve set are largely applicable no matter who I’m with.
For instance, put a window in your office door and meet with whomever you need to. Take that work lunch, but remain in public. Talk positively about your spouse whenever you can. Wear the wedding ring. Check in with your spouse.
If you cannot interact with a member of the opposite sex without a struggle, that’s not a red flag about them. It’s a red flag about you needing to figure out what’s up. Do you have baggage you need to work through? Should you see a counselor or join a support group? Have you matured sufficiently in your faith and honoring of others?
Insisting Women Dress Modestly
Could women insist that men dress modestly? Sure, but I’ve rarely heard that one. Instead, the vast majority of messaging on this topic could be summed up as:
Here’s another area where I kind of get it. That is, I raised two sons, and it did not seem to their mom particularly helpful for them to see a lot of images of highly sexy women or actual girls with TMI about their bodies appearing through their dress, or lack thereof. It would be nice if young women would at least understand—fair or unfair—how the way they dress can impact how they are seen.
But for every woman dressed in a very provocative way, there have been a thousand messages to women not dressed that provocatively being blamed for men ogling them!
Meanwhile, Scripture never blames the target of lust for the sin of lust. It’s the person lusting who holds the responsibility for his/her actions. Let’s revisit Jesus’s warning from Matthew 5:28:
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
That says nothing about how the woman is dressed. And Jesus encountered women likely dressed in ways that conveyed immodesty (see Luke 7:36-50, John 4:1-26, and John 8:2-11), yet treated them with kindness and respect.
Moreover, let’s look at the one and only time “modest apparel” is mentioned in the Bible:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.1 Timothy 2:910
Modesty here doesn’t refer to how much clothing one is wearing, but rather how elaborate the adornments are.
And the word translated modest in that verse is the same Greek word translated as “respectable” in this verse:
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.1 Timothy 3:2
Do you think Paul was telling Timothy that overseers need to cover up? I don’t think so. Rather, modesty—the New Testament Greek word kosmios—is about conducting yourself respectably. It means well-arranged, orderly, proper.
You know what’s respectable behavior? Not lusting after women! Hey, in that second verse, the word “self-controlled” comes right before “respectable” (aka modest).
When speaking to women, yes, I think it’s reasonable to say, “Let’s be respectable by dressing appropriately according to culture, context, and morality.” But no woman is responsible for a man sinning by lusting after her. That’s his immodesty, not hers.From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty: "No woman is responsible for a man sinning by lusting after her. That's his immodesty, not hers." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Shifting the blame and responsibility to someone else is like becoming a glutton and blaming the cook.
Are Lust & Immodesty Related?
Lust and immodesty are related in that each doesn’t show the reverence for God and respect for others we should have.
Honestly, a lot of arguments about lust and modesty would just disappear if we followed Christ’s example for how to treat one another and remembered that each of us is a unique individual made in the image of God. Let’s aim for that!
Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus…Philippians 2:4-5 (HCSB)