Sermon on the Mount: How to Cut Off Your Hand
The problem with most Christian discussions of sexual ethics is that they’re usually heavy on the “why” and light on the “how to.” But in Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus is pretty serious about the importance of doing something. Objectification is not okay. We get that. But quite a bit of my unredeemed body doesn’t care.
So how? How do I steer myself away from the impulses toward non-holistic sex and toward managing my sexuality in a way that mirrors the faithfulness of God? As a guy who was single, then not single, then single again, I’ve experienced this issue from a lot of angles. It’s a tough nut to crack.
Apparently Paul didn’t have that problem. But he recognized that most people do (1 Cor. 7:5-7). For them, his advice was, “Get married” (1 Cor. 7:8-9). To which I respond, “That’s great, Paul. Do you have any names or contact information?”
The truth is, being married helps. But those who are not married can’t wait on that as a cure-all. You are establishing how you manage your sexuality now. After the honeymoon phase, the habits you’re building now will continue to be your default method for managing your sexuality.
So what else you got?
Jesus’ advice involves a machete.
“If you 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” (Matt. 5:29-30). To which I respond, “Okay, good brainstorming session. Other ideas?”
Now, Jesus is the boss. I want to take what he says seriously. Whenever he says something I don’t like, I don’t want to whip out the “that’s figurative” card so I can ignore him.
But this is clearly figurative. Seriously, how you not gonna sin with one eye? Was the other one just not paying attention? But if we say this is figurative, that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. What do we do to avoid sexual immorality? Jesus says, “Whatever it takes.”
Jesus does point toward starting very early in the process—at this “looking with intent.”
This is when the objectifying, mating section of our brain initially gets triggered. In the previous article, we mentioned the possibility of dialing this down. This means engaging the part of the brain that can see the big picture. The trick is to humanize. I find focusing on faces helps. Faces are hard to de-personalize. Especially eyes. In fact, you can get pretty far in life learning to look people in the eyes, smile, and say, “Hello.” In terms of “looking,” just that small verbal exchange of saying “Hi” does wonders to put things back on a human level.
If nothing else, I have a phrase I’ll repeat to myself: “She is a person, with her own hopes, fears, and dreams. And she needs Jesus, just like me.” That last bit about Jesus really helps. First, aside from your spouse, it is impossible to be genuinely concerned for someone’s spiritual well-being and to want to bang them at the same time. Second, you’re inviting Jesus into that moment. He’ll put it right. Do all this enough, and it can become a habit. You create new neural pathways so that your default response is to keep things on a human level. You train your brain to go places you actually want to go.
That’s good stuff for dealing with the survival brain’s primal focus on keeping the species alive. But, while the survival brain is very interested in sex, it usually isn’t in charge of it. The emotional/social brain is. That’s a problem because the emotional/social brain doesn’t make choices; it runs scripts. The scripts it follows are concerned about belonging and status. So, if your emotional brain is in charge, your sex life will recapitulate every dysfunctional lesson life has taught you about how to connect with someone and where you find your value.
Like with the survival brain, the key to re-framing these things is to become aware of them.
In the simplest case, this means learning to recognize your triggers—those circumstances in which you are most vulnerable. For me, stress and self-pity have been huge triggers. If that’s where my head space is at, I’m in trouble.
On a more complicated level, this means unearthing all the messages you tell yourself about connection and value. This may require counseling, because this stuff usually runs deep. For instance, it’s appalling how many people had terrible dads. As a result, their sex lives are about self-defeating ways to either get masculine affirmation or affirm their own masculinity. The truth is that our value and connection is in Christ, but we all need help owning that truth.
Then there’s the internet—a perfect forum for very intelligent people to try and reduce us to our basic drives so that we will reliably consume their product. When it comes to porn, they don’t have to try that hard. As I tell my kids, “If it’s one person versus the internet, the internet almost always wins.”
The worst possible strategy for dealing with the internet is to pretend that you will just exercise “self-control.”
You won’t. In nearly every corner of the internet, people are actively, deliberately trying to trigger a “hormone dump” in your pre-conscious brain. And the deeper you go into a “hormone fog,” the less you have access to your agency.
You can waste your time beating yourself up about it and hoping to “do better” the next time. Or you can leverage where you are strong to support yourself where you are weak. Exercise your agency where you can in order to manage circumstances where you probably can’t. Ulysses had it right. Have your companions tie you to the mast before you pass the sirens.
So I bought a new modem just so I could run all my WiFi through one of the free content-filtering Domain Name Servers (DNS) from CleanBrowsing.org. I subscribed to some accountability software and some app monitoring software. I even had a friend set the “screen time” password on my iPhone. Is this system iron-clad? Maybe not. But it definitely shifts the cost/benefit analysis. Higher cost, less benefit. That alone provides a “speed bump”—time to try and get myself back into the right head space.
Getting my technology set up that way took time. It cost money. It made researching for the previous article really hard. But short of stabbing my eyes out, I’m not sure how else to take Jesus seriously.
But the single most powerful tool I’ve come across for managing my sexuality is confession.
Like it or not, it’s in the Bible for a reason (James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). I proactively confessed to my wife-at-the-time once, and that carried me through the last three years of our marriage and two years beyond. Confession is powerful. The running theme in this article is that hidden dynamics which seem inevitable can be overcome when they are brought into the light. Telling someone your deepest failings may feel like cutting a hand off, but it has the power to set you free.
At the end of the day, you’re not going to eliminate your sex drive entirely. Even eunuchs sometimes experience sexual attraction. (Yes, I checked.) At times, your brain will want to go down those pathways. Resisting does not feel natural. It means deliberately denying your brain dopamine that you know is available. In his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May calls this “walking through the desert” (p. 133-130).
The good news of Jesus Christ is that you don’t have to go through that desert alone. Paul may not have struggled in this area, but Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). He walked that desert his entire life. In fact, Jesus is still waiting to consummate his relationship with his bride (John 14:2-3; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:6-9). How do we manage our sexuality appropriately? Only by walking next to Jesus, wherever that might lead.
How do we manage our sexuality appropriately? Only by walking next to Jesus, wherever that might lead.