Should we literally gouge out an eye that causes us to sin?
A reader of my blog asked: "In Matthew 5:27-32, Jesus said it is better to take out your eye and cut off your hand if it causes you to sin, because that is better than going to hell. Why, then, don’t Christians actually do that? If we take what He said as how we should live, and obey what He says, why just take the parts we feel we can do and ignore what we can’t or what we’re not willing to do?"
Understanding this statement is a much bigger problem for those of us who are reading Jesus’ words today than it would have been for the people who were actually hearing Jesus say this. Why? Because it was a common way of speaking. There are even technical terms for an expression like that (such as hyperbole). It is something that is designed to be an obvious overstatement that is exaggerated to make a point. With that understanding, “Pluck out your eye and cut off your hand” is a way of saying, “Deal radically with sin.”
What makes it evident that this is not really what Jesus wants us to do (aside from the fact that He created our bodies and we’re not to destroy them) is that it really wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. If you put out your right eye, you can still put your left eye on what incites you to lust. If you put out your left eye, you can still lust in your heart and in your mind. Can a blind person lust? Of course. Doesn’t this prove the eye per se is not the source of our sin problem? If you cut off your hand, is that going to keep you from stealing? No, you can steal with the other hand. The point is, the sin nature is not ultimately addressed through the cutting off of body parts.
The eye represents what we see. The hand represents what we do. What I think Jesus is saying here is, “Deal radically with what you expose your eyes to. Deal radically with what you handle and do, the places you go, and what you touch.”
A much better, more biblical application than literally plucking out your eye would be to turn your eyes away from sources of temptation toward evil. For example, if you are struggling with lust, then turn that television off. Don’t watch that movie. Don’t read that novel. Don’t go to the beach where girls are dressed like that because the moment you turn away from one, you’ll be looking at another. Don’t take a stroll in a mine field, stay away from it.
Taking radical steps to stay away from temptation might still seem radical to us, but it isn’t nearly as radical as literally plucking out our eyes.
The same is true with the internet. If you’ve taken all the precautions, including having a filter, but have proven you still aren’t staying away from internet pornography, then totally cut off internet access, including giving up your smart phone.
You may say, “But wait a minute. I’ve got to have internet!” No. Actually, if you look up internet in a concordance, you won’t find it in the Bible. The World Wide Web is not in the Bible, nor is Google or Facebook or Twitter. You don’t have to have these things. If it seems like it would be radical to not have them, fine—be radical! Again, it’s not as radical as literally chopping off your hand.
I encourage people to think in terms of what this means for television. There are people who should not have cable TV. Network TV is bad enough; it may just give us a limited number of options that sometimes are bad, whereas it is almost infinite when you have hundreds of channels through cable. You can always find something inappropriate in a moment of weakness.
The solution if you struggle with this? Don’t have a television. Early in our marriage, Nanci and I went for years without having a television. We have one now, because I think we know better how to use it. But we don’t have cable, and I don’t want it. I don’t want more options (even for the things that are healthy and don’t dishonor Christ) to take me away from the limited amount of time I have already to read God’s Word, to read great fiction and non-fiction, to talk to my neighbor about Christ, to reach out, and to do what God has called me to do.
So with this hyperbolic language (which is not misleading because people knew it was hyperbole), I think Jesus is simply saying, “Be radical. Take whatever steps are necessary to keep yourself away from the temptation to sin. Follow me wholeheartedly.”