At the risk of your nodding off—I want to begin by asking each of you to close your eyes. I’m borrowing an idea from Bill Hybels and I want you to try and imagine you are at your favorite vacation place. Take yourself there in your mind. Are you there? Good! If you feel comfortable doing so, whisper to the person sitting next to you where your favorite vacation place is—where you’ve gone in your imagination.
Okay—eyes still closed—raise your hands. How many of you are imagining yourself in the mountains—perhaps overlooking the Shenandoah valley? How many of you are sitting on the porch overlooking a mountain stream? How many of you are at the beach—watching the waves crash on the sand?
Good! Keep your eyes closed. Let’s go somewhere else. Transport yourself mentally to the home where you spent most of your growing up years. This may be harder for some of you because it was a long time ago—but try. Do you remember the layout of that home—where your room was—how you decorated it? Okay—now leave your old room and go to the dinner table. Imagine yourself sitting there with your parents and siblings. Do you remember where you sat? Can you imagine your favorite meal—what it smelled like—tasted like?
Okay—transport yourselves back to Redland—and open your eyes!
Isn’t the imagination an amazing thing? We don’t have to be Walter Mitty to know that, with the power of imagination, we can go places without moving a muscle—replay pleasant memories of the past—and even project ourselves into future scenarios. I mean, the imagination is really something.
Not only can it take us places. It also stimulates our creativity. Thomas Edison would never have invented the light bulb without first imagining it. The Wright brothers would never have flown if they couldn’t picture themselves doing so.
Without imagination, there would be no great works of art—no music—no great architecture. Most of the great advances in medicine would have never happened if it weren’t for researchers who were able to imagine a cure. When we face difficult, trying times, our imagination can help us maintain a spirit of courage because we can picture things being better. Imagination also helps leaders develop a vision for the future. Imagination is indeed a marvelous gift from the hands of God.
But—there is a shadow side to our imaginations. And—if you haven’t already guessed where I’m going—well, I’ll just say you LACK imagination. The shadow side I’m referring to comes with our sin nature. I’m referring to our ability to imagine ourselves in God-dishonoring, self-destructive scenarios. We can picture ourselves doing evil things inside our minds—and still look good on the outside because no one knows what’s going on.
Jesus cites an example of this in our text for today. Take your Bibles and turn to Matthew chapter 5. Follow along as I read verses 27-30.
27 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’
28 – But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 – 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.
30 – 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.
Okay—let’s use our imaginations again.
I want to picture yourself sitting on that hillside on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus said these words we just read. Most scholars believe Jesus was standing at the foot of the hill—speaking up at the crowd in that natural amphitheater. You’re sitting in the long grass—looking down at Him. To help give you a more accurate mental image I’ll tell you that unlike our increasingly brazen culture—in Israel during the 1st century, human sexuality was rarely discussed in private settings—let alone in public. So—can you imagine the shock then when Jesus said what He said—out loud so that everyone could hear? I mean, basically Jesus was saying, “Lots of you sitting up there are feeling really righteous today, because you have never committed adultery. That is to say, you have never slept in the wrong bed. But I say to you that some have been hopping from bed to bed in your heart and mind. And, in My kingdom, that is a major problem. Some of you are regularly commissioning your imagination to sin sexually in your head and you think that’s alright. Sure, in the technical, physical sense, you’re not bed-hopping, so you think you are well within the boundaries of the law. But I want to remind you that I look at the heart—so I see what you are doing and I care just as much about the INNER person as I do about the EXTERIOR.”
Remember, as we read last week, Jesus just said, “There is more than one way to murder a guy. You can kill him with your hands, your sword, your spear or hate him to death in your heart.” And now He says, “There is more than one way to commit sexual sin. You can commit adultery in a motel room with someone who is not your spouse or you can commit it fully clothed in your living room—or any room for that matter—even right now while you’re just sitting there on the side of this hill. Whether physical or mental—both forms of adultery emanate from the same self-seeking, lustful—sinful heart.”
Well, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that when Jesus said these things some self-righteous smiles turned to frowns. Some who had heads raise in pride—now hung them in shame. Wives looked at husbands accusingly—and vice versa.
Okay—enough imaginings—let’s bring it all back to here and now. Our Lord is saying that to SOAR—to grow spiritually we need to learn to control our desires and that means controlling our imaginations.
Now—to be clear, Jesus is NOT saying it’s sinful to look at someone of the opposite sex admiringly. Jesus does not forbid the natural, normal attraction that is part and parcel of our humanity. No—what He forbids is deep-seated lust that has been stoked by our imaginings—sinful desires that we nurture and allow to consume our inner person. A. B. Bruce explains the kind of look Jesus was talking about in this way, “The look is not casual but persistent, the desire not involuntary or momentary, but cherished.” As many have said, it’s not the first glance that is the sin—but the second and the third—it’s succumbing to the urge to look again and again in our minds.
Okay—to help us all get a handle on all this I want to try and give you a picture of the full spectrum of this issue. Let’s divide this room into three parts and say the piano side will represent the side of the continuum that is GOD’S IDEAL—God’s ideal way for a man to look at a woman and a woman to look at a man. And of course, both genders can sin in this way. Both can sin with their imaginations. This middle part—will represent reality—life in 2017 because the fact is most of us don’t live the ideal, do we? Finally, the organ side will represent the life on the lustful side of the continuum—that part where people let lust rule their thoughts on a consistent basis. Do you understand the outline here? Have you got that picture in your heads? GOOD! Does anyone feel the need to change seats?
(1) Okay—let’s look at THE IDEAL—the way God wants things to be.
In His written Word God says that both men and women are created in His image. In fact, look around the room. Every person you see is an image bearer of Almighty God Himself. There is a part of God’s character, identity, personality and makeup that is resident within every person in this room—and every person on the planet.
So—when we look at someone of the opposite sex from the perspective of God’s ideal—if a man sees a woman, he sees this. If a woman sees a man she acknowledges this. Looking at someone from this perspective leads us to have a respect—a form of reverence for all people. To take it a little deeper, when we look at others from the perspective of God’s ideal we see a multidimensional person. For example, we look at someone and realize they have an intellectual side so we say, “I wonder what this person thinks about?” We look at someone—knowing they have an emotional side and say, “I wonder what this person is feeling these days? How are his or her emotional patterns working, what are their highs and lows and what are they happy and sad about?” When we look at others we realize they are RELATIONAL BEINGS and wonder, “Wonder what kind of family did this person come from? I wonder what their friendships are like?” We see that people have a spiritual dimension and think, “I wonder what he or she believes about God? I wonder if he or she has faith and what her spiritual beliefs are like?”
And—of course we also recognize that people have a physical and sexual dimension.
Of course, there is an innate attraction that comes from someone of the opposite sex. As I said, that’s normal. But the ideal is for us to look at someone from the opposite gender and see them as a whole person. When your imagination works in this ideal way of relating—men to women and women to men—then your imagination has appropriate amounts of curiosity in each of those dimensions. It’s bordered and honorable. Do you get what I’m saying? Good!
(2) Okay—that’s the ideal. Let’s move on to REALITY.
As I said, the sad truth is we don’t live in an ideal world—we live in a sin-stained world—a world where people don’t look at each other as whole people. This is due to the fact that we live in a time where we are bombarded with sexually-tantalizing images, seductive models in every form of media. You can barely open your eyes in our culture without being deluged with messages—messages that reduce men and women from multidimensional beings to nothing but sex objects. We are all victims of these messages. We don’t live in a cocoon that separates us from all that. It’s part of being IN the world.
And because of this, when a woman comes into view how does your typical man look at her?
Well, in many cases, what tends to happen is that he realizes this is a multidimensional creature and full image-bearer of God, but instead of staying there—he quickly moves on to the physical side because that’s what our culture encourages us to do. And it’s the same for many women when they see a man.
It’s the sad state of our world—a world that has come farther and farther from God’s ideal. James Montgomery Boice rightly said that “Never before in the history of the western world has fidelity in marriage been so threatened—either from within or without, or an unbridled indulgence of free sexual passions been so encouraged or so praised.”
This has become the norm—the reality—and because it has, many times when we see a stranger of the opposite sex, we forget that we are seeing a whole person—and we let our imaginations run amuck. Instead of seeing a whole individual—made in God’s image—with a family, interests, spiritual beliefs, joys, fears, etc. We let our imaginations reduce that person such that all we focus on is the physical and sexual side of things.
In the real world, we all face those choices all the time. One of our challenges as Christians is to rely on Jesus and be more intentional in how we control our imaginings—so that we keep our thoughts of others holistic and pleasing to God.
(3) Now, let’s move over to the TROUBLED side of the continuum.
This is the lustful side—the side where individuals always use their imaginations in an evil way.
If you live on this side, then when you are meeting a person of the opposite sex, you get riveted to the physical and sexual side of a person. You have a very hard time commissioning your imagination to move toward curiosity about the rest of the person’s makeup. You stay fired up about the physical and sexual side. That’s all that you are curious about. If the person is especially attractive to you, later on that night you will think even more about the person’s physical and sexual side. It might become a preoccupation for days to come. If you “live” on this side of the spectrum, you don’t care what this man or woman believes spiritually, feels emotionally or the intellectual ideas they carry around. You are keyed into the physical and sexual dimension of that person. You’d like to be involved just for gratification of your sexual desires. Your imagination works a lot creating exciting sexual escapades about the people you are meeting. You tune into just that one dimension. And if this sounds evil—it is. In fact, this is what the pornography business is all about. Basically, it exists because it allows people the privilege to just tune in to the physical and sexual side of a person—without even having to mess with what else they are made of.
Okay—those are the three parts of the spectrum when it comes to our imaginations. I know it’s not pleasant to talk about those last two parts. But understanding all this is vital to the health of our spiritual life. You can’t soar—you can’t make progress toward Christlikeness unless you learn to control your desires. Well, how do we do that? How do we control our powerful imagination-fueled desires—in a world that encourages us toward the left side of the continuum?
How can we embrace God’s loving law and protect ourselves from the destructive power of our imaginations when it comes to sexual sin? I want to suggest three hopefully easy-to-remember two-word phrases.
(1) First, discipline yourself to THINK “good.”
In other words, we must decide that the only input we will allow into our brains will be good things. We have to decide to rely on Jesus’ guidance and power and feed our imaginations only things that we know are pleasing to Him.
You know, our minds are amazing things. They record literally everything we see and do and hear. All that input becomes fodder for our imaginations—so if we want to control our desires—our thoughts—we need to be sure to feed our minds good things.
Job understood this principle. He said, “I made a covenant with my yes not to look lustfully at a young woman.” (Job 31:1) So, did King David when later in his life he said, “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes.” (Psalm 101:3) This is what Paul is referring to in Philippians 4:8 when he says, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely—whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
It’s as simple as this. If you want good OUTPUT—good INPUT is essential.
Do you remember how strongly Jesus put it? He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, poke it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one part of your body, than for your whole body to end up in Hell.” The fact is there may be some areas of our lives—areas that feed us BAD thoughts—areas that NEED to be poked out, for our own protection.
Do you remember the movie, A Beautiful Mind? It’s loosely based on the true story of Nobel Laurette John Nash. Nash was brilliant—he had a “beautiful mind” but he also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He was plagued with several delusional characters that left him unable to discern reality from hallucination. When he was first diagnosed he received medical treatment—including shock therapy and medication but it left him unable to work—so he determined to overcome his mind’s haywire imaginings on his own. Wish sheer willpower he was able to do this. He was able to resume his research and even his teaching. In 1994 a representative from the Nobel Committee met with Nash to assess his mental state and determine if he would be a suitable Nobel winner. In their conversation, Nash told the representative “I take the newer medications, but I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them. Like a diet of the mind, I just choose not to indulge certain appetites.”
Well, to control our thoughts we have to do the same thing. We have to carefully choose what we will allow in our heads. We have to choose not to indulge in certain appetites—because what goes in—will come out!
Here’s a second tactic to use in controlling our thoughts and desires.
(2) Think AHEAD.
Use your imaginations to picture what will happen if you give into sinful thinking. In fact, let me help. Whenever a person sins sexually—physically—it always begins in that person’s imagination. Sensual sins are always preceded by sensual fantasies.
Do you remember how it was with King David? He went up on the rooftop garden that night and looked down and saw a beautiful woman bathing. The Hebrew literally says, “The woman was beautiful in appearance—very.” She was young, in the flower of life and the evening shadows made her even more enticing. David’s look became a leer and mental adultery ensured. And then that was not enough. He would not be denied the real thing—even when his servant reminded him that she was the wife of Uriah (2nd Samuel 11:1-4). We all know what happened next—the sexual sin that led to deception and even murder and the death of a baby.
All that started with David’s fantasy and that’s how it always is. No physical sin has ever been committed without the person first imagining it. This is what George Jones was referring to in the lyrics of one of his songs where he sang, “We’re not exactly strangers you and I, because I’ve already loved you in my mind.” Mike Breaux, teaching pastor at Willow Creek, warns, “Remember, mental sex is like physical sex in that it only goes in one direction. You can’t go back to a lower level and stay satisfied. You always want more. A magazine excites, a movie thrills, a live show really makes the blood run. Lust does not satisfy. It stirs up.”
And it will—sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions. So before you give your thoughts full reign–imagine those actions and the cost you and others will pay if you proceed. In his book, The Finishing Touch, Charles Swindoll gives a partial list of what lays ahead for those who commit adultery:
- Your mate will experience the anguish of betrayal, shame, rejection, heartache, and loneliness. No amount of repentance will soften those blows.
- Your mate can never again say that you are the model of fidelity. Suspicion will rob her or him of trust.
- Your escapade will introduce into your life and your mate’s life the very real probability of sexually transmitted disease.
- The total devastation your sinful actions will bring to your children is immeasurable. Their growth, innocence, trust, and healthy outlook on life will be severely and permanently damaged.
- The heartache you will cause your parents, your family, and your peers is indescribable.
- The embarrassment of facing other Christians, who once appreciated you, respected you, and trusted you, will be overwhelming.
- Your fall will give others license to do the same.
- You will never be able to erase the fall from your (or others’) mind. This will remain indelibly etched on your life’s record, regardless of your later return to your senses. You can be forgiven…but your actions won’t be forgotten.
- And here’s the worst potential result. The name of Jesus Christ Whom you once honored, will be tarnished, giving the enemies of the faith further reason to sneer and jeer.
And—don’t be foolish enough to imagine you won’t get caught because you will. Regretful adulterers all over the world would say Numbers 32:23 is right on the money when it says, “You may be sure that your sins will find you out.”
You know, from day one sinners have always believed that they could get away with sin.
- Adam and Eve believed it. Did they get caught? [YES]
- Cain believed it. Did he get caught? [YES]
- Joseph’s brothers believed it. Did they get caught? [YES]
- Moses murdered a guy and buried his body in the sand. Did he get caught? [YES]
- Achan got caught.
- Saul got caught.
- David got caught.
- Jonah got caught.
- Anianas and Sapphira got caught.
- Bill Clinton got caught—a couple of times. Ted Haggard got caught a couple times.
It’s simple, sinners get caught, so don’t fool yourself. You may think you won’t. When you are sinning Satan tricks you into believing that you are invisible, but you’re not. Someone will see.
Listen to what Solomon reminded us of three thousand years ago. Proverbs 6:27-29 says, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.”
So, think GOOD—think AHEAD—and finally—
(3) Think BACK.
Use your imagination to look back in time two thousand years to that day Jesus died on the cross for YOUR SIN — MY sin. Whenever Satan dangles a tempting thought before you—instead of looking at it—look back. Fix your mental gaze on Christ hanging on the cross. Use all your fantasizing power to see His lacerated back. Remember, by HIS stripes you have been healed.
The Jewish scourging involved 39 stripes or lashes but it was Romans who whipped Jesus. Who knows how many times they did so! Surely, they left little of the flesh on our Lord’s back intact. Plus, they beat Him before the scourging. They plucked out His beard and rammed a crown of thorns down on His head. Surely when His followers remembered His appearance they thought of Isaiah 52 where it prophesied that, “His appearance would be so disfigured as to be beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness.”
So—before you give in to temptation. Think of all that. Picture Jesus hanging on the cross for YOUR sin—heaving His body up and down to breathe—dragging His wounded flesh back and forth across that rough beam. Each breath puts splinters into those lacerations. The pain would be intolerable and constant. He tries to pull away from the wood and the massive spikes through his wrists rip into the nerve endings—adding to His agony so He pushes up with his feet to give some relief to His wrists. But the bones and nerves in His pierced feet crush against each other causing more anguish. There is no relief. His throat is raw from thirst. He loses His breath and thinks He is suffocating, and suddenly His body involuntarily gasps for air and all the injuries unite in pain. In torment, He forgets about the crown of two-inch thorns and throws His head back in desperation, only to hit one of the thorns perpendicular against the cross beam—and drive it into his skull.”
I don’t know about you but I can’t think about all that—and at the same time think about that temptation. Can you?