I grew up hearing Matthew 5:27-28 quoted to me as a young man.
27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.Matthew 5:27-28
It was mostly verse 28 that was drilled into our young minds. The interpretation implied for us was that if you look at a girl/woman and have any sexual thoughts, then you have committed adultery (the sin second only to murder!). The idea taught was that while the original law of Moses prohibited adultery, Jesus was expanding on that law, prohibiting even looking at a woman with lustful desires.
Well this obviously took a toll on my young mind, especially in my mid teen years where just about anything could trigger a sexual thought. One could argue that lust is much more severe than just a sexual thought, and it is taking it to an extreme, but that difference was never explained to us as 14 year old boys in Teachers Quorum. In my mind, any sexual thought outside of marriage was lust.
I did some calculating, and I probable “committed adultery” about 1452 times in my high school years. This would include almost daily while sitting by Susan in social studies my freshman year. All Fridays when the cheerleaders would wear their cheer outfits to school when there was a game that night. And I shall not forget Algebra 2 with Mrs. Whitman.
So you all can imagine my delight when I found out that Matthew 5:28 had been misinterpreted!
The Greek word that was translated as “lust” in Matthew (epithumeô) is the exact same word that was translated as “covet” in the 10th commandment
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.Exodus 20:17
When you learn that in Greek there is no distinction between “woman” and “wife” (same word, gynē), then it becomes even clearer that Jesus was not expanding on the definition of adultery, but was just reiterating that the Law not only prohibits adultery, it also prohibits coveting (your neighbor’s wife) with the same severity.
Wow, this has sure been a load off my shoulders!
What has been your experience with this verse in a Mormon context?
Is this still taught today to the YM, and do the YW ever get the lesson (maybe in an LGBTQ friendly manner since it is only looking at women)?
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
My Jr High and High School years were in the 1970s. I don’t remember a lot of guilt lessons being taught to us young men about mental adultery, but what I do remember is A LOT of guilt lessons being taught to the young women about how they were “the guardians of young men’s virtue”. I remember a particular 1977 General conference talk by Elder David B. Haight called “Young Women – Real Guardians”. He was lamenting the fact that some young men were not serving missions because of immorality. I specifically remember that talk because I had just entered the mission field. In that talk he put the young women in charge of young men’s moral behavior.
Which New Testament translation is it that says:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her can blame the woman cause she was not guarding your virtue.”?
Even as a 19 year old, I questioned that and vowed to not put that kind of unfair burden on my daughters if I were to have daughters. And I vowed to teach my sons, if I were to have any, to take responsibility for their own actions.
It’s been nearly 46 years since that general conference talk, and, sadly I still hear that kind of weak-spined, female-blaming philosophy.
My thought was the same as MattMan, that while as girls we didn’t get shamed as much for our normal thinking, we got shamed for our very being. If we existed as sexually attractive beings, then we were walking porn. AND, at the same time we were taught that we had to be modest/sexy (whatever the blank that is) so that we could snag a husband because the most important, no the only important thing we had to do was be sexual beings and produce children. But somehow, we were supposed to be attractive, without, you know being attractive.
So, it was very shaming, because we were constantly nagged about covering up our tempting bodies, told we were chewed gum if we ever so much as let a boy touch us.
But somehow, the leaders never imagined that we girls were sitting in the gym at Young Women’s lusting after the boys who were playing basketball, in short shorts and half of them with no shirts on. Nope, we never once got lectured about our dirty thoughts while watching the 3/4 naked Young Men.
After I was married and could step back from the shame of having a body, I finally figured out it wasn’t about us as young women at all. It was about the dirty old men who were not bothered by lustful young women drooling over their sons. It was about the lustful old men lusting after us. They were the ones up front preaching and our young women’s leaders just taught us what they were told to teach us. That WE were a nasty temptation, without even realizing that we could be tempted. It was so much from the male perspective that somehow as females we were not people with feelings, but things.
My birds and the bees chat with my dad consisted of him giving me the Boyd K Packer booklet “To Young Men Only.” What a great way to learn about sex!
Packer suggests in that booklet to sing a church hymn or do physical exercise when tempted with unrighteous thoughts. I dutifully chose a favorite hymn and would do push-ups at random times. Funny thing is the intrusive thoughts would come all the freaking time. I took the teachings of adulterer in the heart and the cut off the member of your body that causes trouble wayyy too literally. I was an adulterer in my heart and it took me until I was in my mid 40s to figure out the sexual shame is a pile of ****.
I don’t know if it’s still taught, but “the natural man is an enemy to God” is still taught. Simply by existing I’m not only unworthy but I’m an enemy. Talk about setting our youth up for failure!
This is a very interesting interpretation of Matthew 5:28. I always took Christ’s introduction of the higher law in the Sermon on the Mount to be goals to work towards in life that most people will never fully achieve. They are goals that are out of reach for most mortals, but that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t try to work towards achieving them. In other words, I accepted that Christ really did teach in Matthew 5:28 that having sexual thoughts about other people was a sin, but that this was a sin that most mortals would never completely overcome, so just trying to work and improve on this goal throughout life was all Christ was really asking for here. Because of this, I never really beat myself up over the sexual thoughts I had about other people.
Another example of this way of thinking is from Matthew 28:43-44:
“43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;”
I interpret verse 44 to be something that most mortals simply cannot fully achieve: most people can’t avoid having thoughts or actions against people that treat them poorly. It’s a very worthy goal, and something that I am personally trying to do better with in my own life. However, I’m not going to constantly beat myself up or worry about my eternal salvation when I have bad thoughts about people who I feel have wronged me.
I have always felt that Christ is intentionally setting the bar impossibly high in what He is asking us to try to achieve in the Sermon on the Mount. He knows most people will never achieve these standards, but He is asking us to stretch and try anyway. Over time, we can learn and get better, even if we never fully achieve the standard.
Something I never clued into as a believer is the idea that many of Jesus’ sayings are intentional hyperbole rather than literally descriptive. He’s often exaggerating for rhetorical effect, sometimes perhaps comedic effect (see Michael Austin’s recent post at BCC). But that’s entirely lost on the members who are trained to interpret every passage of scripture as an explanation of our objective reality.
One of the most helpful salves for my traumatized adult mind has been mindfulness. And part of mindfulness is a separation of the self from our thoughts. Instead of “As a man thinketh, so is he,” it would be more accurate to say, “Every person has all kinds of thoughts, but if we allow ourselves to become passive observers of our thoughts, we realize they do not define us and can let them pass like clouds in the sky.”
I wish we taught our young men how to manage their sexual thoughts and feelings better. I don’t think even Jesus is helpful when he says to pluck out your eye—this teaches men to associate violence with sexual attraction which sometimes sadly has the opposite effect of the one intended.
Acceptance of one’s self, including all feelings and thoughts, with self-discipline but without shame is much healthier than teaching young men their natural selves are Enemies to God. This approach also allows men to have healthier relationships with the women in their lives and, of course, it takes the onus off of young women to police themselves for men’s benefit.
Talking about Sex in the Mormon Church is going to lead down a big hole and will any of it make sense? It might start with “have you noticed that girls in their sweaters look different?’ Then it will be about respect but end up with No, No, No, about doing anything. Of course there’s blaming the woman for how she dresses or leaving the impression it’s her responsibility to say No because boys are either to dumb, uncontrollable, and only have one things on their mind. Then you get married and it’s OK but only with your garments on in the missionary position. Once married and waken up to the “joys of sex,” you might start to think about the verse in Matthew 28: 43-44 because you wonder how it would “feel” with someone else. It’s not that you don’t love your wife but you wonder how Joseph Smith or Brigham Young can be so righteous to have multiple wives but if you do or even think about it, you’re condemned. Then there are all the modern fundamentalists and their lifestyle or the thought that in the hereafter it will be “legal” again yet only for men, not for women. You begin to contemplate the differences between male expectations and female expectations and how it filters into our culture with violations of human dignity, equality, social justice, and wonder if any of prohibitions are for any real reasons of salvation or are just ways to control people.
Another question, how many Mormons waited until marriage to have sex and then after marriage realized that’s more to marriage than sex. In other words to we spend so much time preaching against sex before marriage that we forget to teach about what makes a strong marriage. Should we be teaching our children prohibition of sex (which we do a lot of now) or how to build strong lasting relationships (which gets a the short end of the stick) if we want strong marriages. Finally what do we do in talking about sex after marriage? Obviously there’s what happens in the marriage but what happens if it’s outside the relationship? Is there a way to talk about it that preserves the dignity and worth of both partners and moves forward in a positive way or is it going to be blame, retribution, and payback on top of the hurt.
Talking about sex in theory is easy compared to dealing with in it reality.
How many of us heard this during our mission about looking at attractive women: “If you don’t look once you’re not a man; if you look more than once you’re not a missionary”.
Thank you, thank you Bishop Bill
Somebody should notify Jimmy Carter right away.
That teaching that we’re accountable for our thoughts caused me so much unnecessary guilt. I’ve finally gotten to the understanding that Kirkstall explained – our thoughts are just thoughts and what matters is whether or not we act on them. This teaching is so hard for people with intrusive thoughts.
Interesting post – I didn’t know about the actual translation and how it affects the meaning of the passage.
Second kudos for everyone who is throwing shade on the teaching that the natural man is an enemy to God. I despise that teaching.
I am going to give the church a reluctant amount of credit for progress on the idea that your thoughts and feelings are a sin if the doing it is a sin. They have eased up on the idea that gays are sinful just for thinking sexual thoughts about same sex people. They are now mostly recognizing that being gay is inborn and gays cannot control the thoughts and feelings, but as long as they don’t act on it they are not sinning.
I remember in high school in 1969 that we had a lesson on being homosexual was inborn according to all the science. That science was why it was later removed from the DSM. (diagnostic manual for mental illness) One of my very close friends had the same teacher, and so he brought it up at lunch. Our other friends reacted in the Mormon mindset of the time with total denial and horror, and I was the only one who agreed with the science the teacher had talked about. So, next day he pulled me aside and requested we do lunch just the two us. So, we had a discussion about how if being gay was inborn, then how could a person be sinning by the thoughts that they had. He didn’t exactly admit to being gay, but I knew he wasn’t asking for a friend. We had dated and he had kissed me, and I knew he was gay. But he was wracked with guilt about the thoughts he was having because the church was telling him that the thoughts were terrible sins. We decided that the church was just plain wrong about the whole subject of “we are guilty of doing anything we even think.” That if the desire was inborn, how could a person be guilty of that desire.
I don’t know that the talk sunk in, because he never did come out, but ran from Utah the day he was out of high school, and cut off all contact with our group of friends. I heard from friends of his parents that he died a few years later. And, yeah, I sort of blame the church for his death.
So, at least in the case of gays and their thoughts being sin, the church has backed off a bit. So, giving a smidgen of credit for the church moving from 1950s up to 1960s and recognizing gays are not responsible for same sex thoughts and feelings.
@ Janey, the idea that thoughts aren’t inherently bad has a corollary — that feelings aren’t inherently bad either. I think we’ve has this discussion in a previous thread. I grew up and went through much of my life believing that my thoughts and feelings were a problem. I had anger management issues, and being depressed was due to my sins, etc. etc. What a relief to learn that these are normal human things, and we shouldn’t judge ourselves as bad, or lacking in holiness because of them, but pay attention to learn. There are lessons and gifts that we can glean from our internal self, even the negative parts. Especially the negative parts. The adage about the natural human being the enemy of holy connection to God is wrong, evil, and taken out of context.
@Anna, imagine how much better it would be to accept LGBTQ+ kids and young adults as normal and wanted in the church and in our families. I’ve always loved the idea of gay marriage, from the first time I ever heard about it. If it was me or mine coming out of the closet, I would totally hope for the stability of being settled in a family of my own.
Thanks to both of you. You’re among my favorite bloggers and commenters here.
BB: ty, ty, ty. That verse has troubled me for the last 50 years! Now, can you work on the equally guilt-wrenching verse that also deals with thoughts in Mosiah 4?
“And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts… ye must perish.”
Woe is me, my thinking on that verse is that we do need to watch our thoughts, and weed out evil ones, rather than dwelling on them. This doesn’t mean that thoughts are sin, but just that thoughts can lead to behavior and we need to watch where our thoughts are taking us. Take adultery for example, it is way different to think that “Fred has a lovely wife,” and steer your thinking to “lucky Fred.” Than it is to think “Fred has a lovely wife,” and then let the thoughts meander into, “I sure would like a woman like that.” And then into “I want her.” And pretty soon your behavior is acting on those thoughts and you are trying to seduce Fred’s wife.
I think this is the whole point behind thoughts being dangerous or sinful is that if we fail to control our thoughts, then those thoughts can lead us into sin. So, we have to control our thinking. It isn’t bad to look at a woman and think she is attractive, and even be attracted. But if we don’t watch where our thoughts are going, they can lead us into blaming the woman for your thoughts, and resenting her or the way she is dressed. Or they can lead us into wanting something that is out of bounds, and then going after the something. I mean, we all do it. Some advertisement pops up on the internet and we can’t afford it. But we keep thinking about it, and thinking about it, and coveting it, and pretty soon the grocery money is spent on thing we don’t need, but want pretty badly. If we control our thoughts about the thing, by reminding ourselves that we may want it, but we want to pay the rent and buy groceries more, then we don’t run into trouble.
So, thoughts are not evil, but do need to be kept in line with our values.
Where Matthew 5:19 (and Mark 7:21) says “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…”, I would interpret “evil thought” to be evil machinations or evil trains of thought–dwelling on evil and planning how to execute it. It is what come out of the man that defiles him, not what goes in. So an occasional thought, or a frequent thought that is not entertained excessively, that comes from hormones is not evil in and of itself; it only becomes evil when one dwells it, cherishes it, loves it, and entertains it. I would not go so far as to say that any evil thought is always OK so long as it never leads to action, and clearly most evil actions follow evil thoughts, but I do not hold that every impure thought is always and necessarily sinful. Quite the contrary. A little speculation and a little curiosity can be good things, but all things in measure. A young man who gives himself a little relief from time to time when alone isn’t a pervert or a delinquent.
Really good insight on this one. Indeed , wanting another mans wife for your own indeed does sound much more like adultery. This is always the case. Scriptures misunderstood or out of context but thought to be understood well that we are taught and learn and beat our selves up about. Always the case..the spirit within (along with the scriptures but not below them) is the ultimate guide and they do agree when understood correctly and in context and in the original meaning . They are even logial. (wanting another mans wife for your own for instance)
No PENALTY attaches to lusting after a woman; whether it can be compared to adultery depends on whether adultery is even possible. For an unmarried young man lusting after an unmarried young woman; adultery is not possible even if they performed to their desires.
However, i have had friends that were deeply conflicted by this and believed all lust (sexual desire) was sinful in any circumstance. It didn’t stop him from lusting, it just ensured he lived a life filled with guilt and shame.