If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
Jesus' comments about Hell naturally make us shuffle our feet and shift our glances. When He associates Hell with particular sins though—like we've heard in weeks past about anger, and now more recently about lust—we perhaps feel even uneasier. Does Jesus really mean that even the incipient forms of flagrant sins pave the way to Hell? Can anger as the seed for murder and lust the seed of adultery really be morally equivalent to their respective blossoms which carry the fragrance of death?
Permit me an unsophisticated syllogism—you know, one of those statements that goes like "if a is to b, as b is to c, then there may well be some correlation between a and c." I think it may help us move toward the heart of our Lord's severe words.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his 1960 work, The Four Loves, this famous comment:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal . . . .The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
His argument is clear. Love, its splendors well documented, is intrinsically a gamble because it always and everywhere risks being unrequited. No one who's sought to love can ever be guaranteed it will return in kind. And that is as it should be, for only if one is willing to risk loss can they ever hope to be admired and, in turn, loved. Making themselves vulnerable to rejection accords them a dignity and honor those who eschew such risks forsake. Hell, where no love finds purchase, is therefore the only place where one is, so to speak, insulated from the risks associated with love. So Lewis provides the first premise of my syllogism: in Hell alone are you entirely insulated from love.
As for the second premise, consider Roger Scruton. He contributed an essay entitled "The Abuse of Sex" to the Witherspoon Institute's 2008 research project, The Social Costs of Pornography, (a project we've referenced before). While others tallied the damage done by pornography to marriages, families, and workplaces, Scruton narrowed his focus to its effects upon the selves who allow its ubiquitous fuel inflame the fires of lust. Pornography, he argues, is:
a form of sexual pleasure from which the interpersonal intentionality has been surgically excised. [It] takes hold of sexual desire and cuts away the desire. There is no real object, but only a fantasy, and no real subject, since there is nothing ventured of the self. To say this is an abuse of self is to express a literal truth.
The abuse of sex, he argues, is, among other things, an abuse of self. And though Scruton makes no explicit theological connection to those correlating forms of abuse, such abuse is ultimately an affront to the God who gave us the pleasure of sex and the dignity of self as good gifts to enjoy and by which to honor Him.
Part of that effrontery toward God centers on the fact that the lust pornography feeds literally de-personalizes sex. Lust denudes the desired person of their fullness and turns them into something less than a person in the mind of the person who desires them for their sexuality only. But lust also removes all risk of rejection for the person who's doing the desiring, thereby shriveling their very capacity to love. So the second plank of my syllogism goes something like this: lust is the practice of seeking a pleasure divorced from the requirements of love and therefore also the presence of love itself.
Which leads to the conclusion—the punch line, if you will—of these two premises.
If Hell is the place stripped of all love;
and lust be the practice of stripping love from desire;
then if lust isn't a direct path to Hell it's at least a preparation for it.
I think the conclusion holds on the premises alone, but we could easily make that case on other counts.
If the path to Hell is paved with deceits innumerable; and the lust incited by pornography is itself a self-deceit. Then lust is a preparation for Hell.
If Hell is that existence in which we are entirely enslaved to what diminishes and savages; and lust enslaves us to desires that deplete and devastate, then lust, as it titillates, actually familiarizes us with the climes of Hell.
But you might infer something ironic from these syllogisms about the pornography-lust connection.
It may be its own kind of proof for the existence of God.
For in light of how pervasive it has become, of the commensurate destructiveness it has wrought, and of how ineradicable our propensity for it seems—then only Christ is sufficient, not just to restrain our instincts toward lust, but actually renew our hearts toward true love! Jesus' stringent command, as one theologian put it, sends us back to the introduction to His Sermon: blessed are the poor in spirit—those who recognize their corruption and impoverishment. . .for theirs is the kingdom of God—in their humbled repose they may finally discover new life!
We may certainly take immediate and decisive steps now to stem the tide of lust's destruction: as Luther quoted one church father, "I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair or from biting off my nose." Yet, only by looking to Him whose example clarifies what purity is and whose cross confirms His love for us can we ever hope to turn from lust and embrace true love.
May God help us see the lust we think all too human to be entirely inhuman.