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"Delighting in Lust"?

“a justifying faith is a lust-fighting [not lust-delighting] faith.” Continue reading . . .

In the most recent issue of First Things there is a review by David Nolan of Robert Zaretsky’s new book, Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard, 288 pages). James Boswell was born in 1740 and died in 1795. He is most known for his two-volume, Life of Samuel Johnson (published in 1791).

I don’t know much about Boswell. Nor have I read the book by Zaretsky. But something in the review caught my eye. I have no idea whether or not Boswell was born-again, but Zaretsky believes that he was. Zaretsky describes a conversation between Boswell and the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Boswell pressed Voltaire about his beliefs concerning immortality and eternal life. Voltaire finally conceded by saying: “I suffer much, but I suffer with Patience & Resignation; not as a Christian – But as a man.”

Zaretsky follows this with an intriguing and rather disturbing statement:

“Boswell himself suffered as a man, especially from the gonorrhea he contracted in the course of a too-active social life. But unlike Voltaire, he also suffered as a Christian. Boswell was riven with contradictions: delighting in lust and analyzing his sexual performances with a variety of women, yet speaking often of virtue; self-analytical to a fault and anxious, yet socially capable and successful; religious from birth, yet attracted to the atheist and deist thinkers of the day” (emphasis mine).

As I said, I don’t know much about Boswell and I’m not familiar with the circumstances that led to his “Christian” profession.

But I’m disturbed, to say the least, that Zaretsky would describe him as “delighting in lust.” According to Boswell’s biographers, he contracted venereal disease no fewer than 17 times! Although he married his cousin in 1769, he was persistent in his pursuit of prostitutes. After each infidelity, he would apologize to his wife with tears and beg her forgiveness, only then to return to his chronic adultery. His wife gave him four sons and three daughters, and he was the father of two other children as a result of his extra-marital affairs. He was likely an alcoholic and may have been addicted to gambling.

When I saw Zaretsky’s comment my mind immediately turned to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30.

“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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matt. 5:27-30).

Jesus is not forbidding men to “look” at women or women to “look” at men. Rather, he forbids them looking in order to lust. It isn’t his purpose to condemn the normal attraction that exists between men and women. We admire beauty in God’s creation wherever it appears, even in the human body. To recognize, acknowledge and compliment beauty is no sin (it may even be a duty). But to look upon another human being with the express purpose of fantasizing illicit sexual activity or mentally and emotionally gratifying a sexual desire is out of biblical bounds. Jesus has in mind using a woman’s “visual presence as a means of savoring the fantasized act” (Willard, 161). He’s focusing on the look which longs to possess for expressly sexual purposes. It would appear, then, that our Lord has deepened the 7th commandment, the prohibition of adultery, in terms of the 10th, the prohibition of covetousness.

The word “lust” in English connotes sensual and sexual overtones but lacks the thought of possessing inherent in the prohibition. This may be why Jesus refers to the “hand” in v. 30 in connection with “lust,” i.e., to lust after another’s wife is in a real sense to steal. Adultery, either in act or attitude is theft: it is taking to yourself, either physically or emotionally, a person who has not been given to you in marriage.

The main point of the illustration is that we must deal drastically and radically with sin. “We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out” (Carson, 44). We must never toy with sin or press its boundaries to discover how much we can get away with before we transgress. In the case of adulterous lust, if your eye leads you astray, “tear it out.” If your hand is the culprit, cut it off.

On July 22, 1993, The Minneapolis (MN) Star Tribune reported on the story of Donald Wyman who, two days earlier, suffered a terrible accident. While clearing land a tree rolled onto his leg, crushing the bone and pinning him to the ground. He cried loudly and for a long time, but no one was near to hear or help. He concluded that the only way he would survive was to amputate his leg. He made a tourniquet from a shoe string and tightened it with a wrench. He then took his pocket knife and cut off the injured leg just below the knee! He crawled to a bull-dozer, drove another quarter mile to his truck, then somehow maneuvered it a mile and a half down the road to a farm house, from which he was then rushed to the hospital. He lost his leg . . . but he saved his life. Radical sacrifice indeed!

So how do we know that Jesus does not mean literal mutilation? A simple illustration will help bring clarity. Consider John and his relationship with Mary, his administrative assistant. John has always been stirred by Mary’s beauty, but recently his gaze has turned to lust.

Taking Jesus’ words literally, John proceeds to cut out his right eye. Thinking that the problem is solved, he returns to work after a period of rehabilitation only to find that now his left eye has lusted as well! So he cuts it out too. He now comes to work with a seeing-eye dog. He’s not as efficient at his job, but he’s convinced that he’s been obedient to Christ and is beyond lusting after Mary. But then he hears her voice and illicit desire rages yet again in his heart. So he lops off both his ears! He again returns to work, not a pretty sight, to say the least. Confident that it won’t happen again, he walks by her desk . . . and smells her perfume! Lust rages once more. So he cuts off his nose. Not even that solves his problem, for as he gropes through the office in his self-inflicted blindness, his hands accidentally brush up against Mary’s body and his flesh is stirred yet again. So he (somehow?) cuts off his hands. It is only then that John realizes he still has a mind and Mary’s memory lingers vividly.

I know it’s a silly story. But it makes the point. The problem is not with our body parts or our physical senses. The problem is with a corrupt and deceitful heart. Our external members are but the instruments we employ to gratify the lust that emerges from within. What our Lord was advocating, therefore, “was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught” (Stott, 89).

How, then, are we to respond to the sexually seductive and stimulating things we encounter in the world, in the media, and at work? We are to act “as if” we were blind. Says Stott,

“behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: don’t do it! Don’t go! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin” (89).

If need be, run away! And as you do so, fix your mind on things above. Focus your heart on the promise of a superior pleasure in Christ. Ponder the joy of that river of delights that never runs dry.

John Stott has some excellent advice for us in this matter. He recognizes that it is not his, or anyone else’s, place to lay down laws or man-made rules in an attempt to enforce Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he writes:

“To obey this command of Jesus will involve for many of us a certain ‘maiming’. We shall have to eliminate from our lives certain things which (though some may be innocent in themselves) either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. In his own metaphorical language we may find ourselves without eyes, hands or feet. That is, we shall deliberately decline to read certain literature, see certain films, visit certain exhibitions. If we do this, we shall be regarded by some of our contemporaries as narrow-minded, untaught Philistines. ‘What?’ they will say to us incredulously, ‘you’ve not read such and such a book? You’ve not seen such and such a film? Why, you’re not educated, man!’ They may be right. We may have had to become culturally ‘maimed’ in order to preserve our purity of mind. The only question is whether, for the sake of this gain, we are willing to bear that loss and endure that ridicule.

Jesus was quite clear about it. It is better to lose one member and enter life maimed, he said, than to retain our whole body and go to hell. That is to say, it is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worthwhile in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ” (91).

So what does all this have to do with James Boswell? Simply this: “delighting in lust” would appear to exclude someone from the kingdom of God. Not lust, but delighting in lust. All of us lust. But I pray that by God’s grace and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit we are led to despise it, not delight in it.

As John Piper has said, we must not avoid the pointed edge of this passage. “Jesus says, if you don’t fight lust, you won’t go to heaven. Not that saints always succeed. The issue is that we resolve to fight, not that we succeed flawlessly” (Future Grace, 331). A justifying faith is a lust-fighting faith! I do not mean by this," notes Piper, “that our faith produces a perfect flawlessness in this life. I mean that it produces a persevering fight” (332).

So, am I suggesting that if Boswell was genuinely born again he lost his salvation because he continued to “delight” in lust? No. I’m suggesting that if continued to “delight” in lust (rather than be repentant for it) he proves that he was never born again in the first place. As Piper said, “a justifying faith is a lust-fighting [not lust-delighting] faith.”

I can only hope that Zaretsky’s description of Boswell’s attitude toward his lust is misguided. Uncertainty prevails. But certainty is possible in one particular regard: if you persist, unrepentantly, in “delighting in lust”, you won’t go to heaven.

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