Pornography, shopping, countless hours wasted on entertainment, social media scrolling that hardly gives us anything…
The age of the Internet is an age of huge potential and opportunities for mission, networking and activism, but it is also an endless sea of temptations and distractions right at our fingertips.
We often take the latter path, even when we don’t want to. I’m sure most of us clearly can relate to Paul’s words:
“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19)
I myself have struggled with this for a long time. But as the title of this blog post suggests, a simple tip from Jesus Christ himself in his amazing Sermon on the Mount has been a game-changer for me.
And it might not be what you expect:
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 5:29-30)
Jesus gives this advice as he teaches on fighting sexual temptation. I took this to heart and now I look like this:
Jesus the Mutilator?
Seriously though, what is Jesus actually saying here? If he’s talking literally, then most of us have a lot of limb-chopping to look forward to, as we often fall for temptation. But if he’s speaking figuratively, what else does he say in the Sermon on the Mount that isn’t supposed to be taken literally?
I’ve encountered several Christians who believe that we are not to actually love our enemies or generously give because Jesus obviously doesn’t want us to cut off our hands.
“We’ll have the picknick tomorrow. It’s raining cats and dogs outside.”
The latter sentence is obviously a non-literal expression. Does that mean that your friend does not literally want to have picknick tomorrow? No! We shift between literal statements and hyperbolic idioms all the time.
Now, how do we detect what’s what? Hyperbole is often extremely bizarre when taken literally. So when Jesus talks about people having beam logs in their eyes (Matthew 7:5) or getting camels through needles (Matthew 19:24), those sayings belong to a different category of speech compared to when he tells us to love God and people.
I think it’s obvious that his suggestion that we should cut off our right eye and hand belongs to this hyperbolic category as well. Think about it: how would your right hand literally cause you to sin? Why was the left hand innocent? What about your right eye? Sure, if you don’t have eyes you can’t look at porn or read a satanist book, but Jesus specifically talks about cutting off one eye – the right – instead of both.
As Alexander Jones (the Bible scholar, not the crazy conspiracy theorist) notes in his commentary The Gospel According to St. Matthew: if Jesus would actually want us to cut off our limbs he wouldn’t just be talking about the right ones.
The Power of Physical Limitation
So if Jesus isn’t advocating that we should look like one-eyed pirates to avoid sin, what is he actually talking about? A lot of Bible readers don’t seem to understand this. The only thing they get away from this passage is something like “sin is bad, therefore avoid it.” While that’s true, it’s hardly an advice that can transform someone’s life.
I find this hollow reading of the Sermon on the Mount quite common. “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44) is reduced to “be kind to people outside of combat and actual danger”. “Do not store up treasures on earth” (Mt 6:19) is reduced to “be as rich as you want but try to focus on God” (an interpretation totally contradicting the point Jesus is actually making). “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1) is reduced to “be kind to people and avoid prejudice”.
While we, in theory, hold Jesus to be the Ruler of the universe and the Lord of our lives, in practice we often reduce his commands to the level of a fortune cookie.
When hyperbolically telling us to cut off hands and eyes, Jesus is not merely saying that we should stop sinning. He’s telling us how to reduce temptation to sin. Again, the context is sexual temptation. In verses 27-28, Jesus points out that adultery in our hearts starts already when we look at someone lustfully. Then he immediately procedes to the gouging out of eyes.
Jesus’ point is that we should take action to physically make it harder or even impossible for us to experience the temptation in the first place.
While this might seem like a no-brainer, it’s striking how often we either forget about this or simply ignore it. A friend of mine once shared how she had a huge problem with addiction to pornography. She had struggled to resist the temptation so many times, and repeatedly failed. She joined a missionary organization that was taking the Gospel to unreached people groups with a ship.
All of a sudden, she wasn’t watching porn anymore for two very practical reasons: she was sharing a room with someone else, and hardly had any Internet connection.
These physical restrictions tipped the scales so that it suddenly was easier for her to abstain from porn than to watch it. And we human beings tend to prefer to do easy things, regardless if they’re good or bad.
This is why a common advice in the anti-porn community to those struggling with addiction is to not bring your phone to bed or to the bathroom. It’s why popular anti-porn apps block websites and send your browser history to people you trust.
You can set this up while you’re in self-control, and later when temptation knocks on the door there are traps and fences that make it much harder for you to act upon that temptation, thanks to the preemptive action of your past self.
It is astonishing how often we dismiss the power of physical limitation, relying on willpower alone. We convince ourselves that we need our phone next to our bed as an alarm clock (even though that alarm works even better to wake you up if it rings in another room) and that we will simply abstain to watch crappy videos this time… and yet we do it, over and over again.
This is because willpower is a resource, and when we’re tired we don’t have much of it left:
Jesus’ advice has made me realize the power of physical limitation in many different areas of my life. On work days, I now have the habit of either blocking social media or turning my Internet off completely before lunch, as I want to focus on reading, writing and creating.
In a similar manner, I’ve realized that I’m much more prone to nurture valuable habits when I make it physically easy for me to do them. By setting up my environment so that it requires almost no effort to do good stuff, and a lot of effort to do bad stuff, I now live a much more fruitful life than I did just one year ago.
I’m not perfect by any means, but I find myself much more seldom saying “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
What About the Spirit?
Some might view this as a stale, bureaucratic way to deal with temptation, rather than just praying for more spiritual fruit and let the Holy Spirit bring an invisible armour of self-control without us needing to take any action.
And sure, when Jesus is being tempted by the devil in the desert to turn stones into bread, our Savior hadn’t exactly adapted his environment to resist this temptation much more easily: on the contrary, he had been fasting for forty days (Matthew 4:1-4). Sometimes it can be good to flip the tables and see how well we can uphold self-control when the odds are against us.
But in the case of us not yet having reached this literal God mode of resisting temptation, we should cut off whatever makes it possible for us to fall for it. This is why the apostles are often cautioning church members to spend time with false teachers (2 John v. 10), and why Paul says that if a husband and wife choose to be apart from each other for a time so that they can focus on prayer, they should put a time limit on this separation “so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:5).
This is in no way in opposition to being led and filled by the Spirit. It’s simply recognizing that while the Spirit constantly wants to do good, bringing out the new creation in us that is “like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24), we shift between saying yes and no to the Spirit.
Using physical limitation means that I let my Spirit-filled new creation be in charge even in my weaker moments when my old, fleshly self wants to take over, simply because my new creation has foreseen this. Physical limitation allows me to say an even bigger YES to the Spirit in that I let him guide my life choices even when I walk in the valley of shadow.
So here’s something for you to think about: what kinds of psycial limitations can you put up in your life to prevent bad habits and promote good ones?