Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.Genesis 3:1-6 (NRSV)
Why did the serpent choose this lie?
He didn’t tell Eve that God is really a cruel dictator or a figment of her imagination. And he didn’t tell her the fruit would give her fantastic powers, like flight or x-ray vision.
The serpent doesn’t tell big lies; those are easier to spot.
It’s the small ones that got Eve. The serpent pretending to be on her side. The idea that God might be holding out on her. The thought that there might be something better.
In his commentary on Genesis, Terence Fretheim notes the serpent asked the initial question in a way that is difficult to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to. Crafty, indeed.
Eve saw that the tree was not only good for food; it was also a delight to the eyes. These facts eventually became the center of her decision-making: If it’s good for food, it won’t hurt me. If it’s a delight to the eyes, it will give me pleasure. And that’s what is best for me.
We’ve been tempted to live that lie ever since.
I don’t think Eve was gullible, or stupid, or acted in ways that are particular only to the female population. I think she acted in ways that are particularly human.
Part of our humanity is the temptation to place whatever we think will give us the most pleasure at the center of our lives. It’s a fundamental, everyday question for each of us: is my life about me and what I think will make me feel good, or is there something more?
It’s the little lies that get us. But the longer we believe them, the bigger they can become. And the bigger the next lie will be.
I know this is especially true when it comes to relationships and sexuality, not just because I’ve experienced it in my own life, but because I’ve watched television for more than five seconds.
1,200 calories if she has fries with that
From 2005-2017, Hardee’s ran one single ad campaign. It’s an impressive feat. The only reason you can run the same ad for that long is because it’s working. If you weren’t watching the same channels I was, I would generically describe their ad campaign in those years as, “Attractive woman eats giant hamburger in seductive fashion.” (This 2017 story from The Washington Post describes its rise and fall in detail.)
What we should value most in advertising is truth. But what sells, of course, is sex. The suggestion that the women in these commercials regularly eat hamburgers with at least 780 calories and 48 grams of fat is an impressively sensational lie, right there in front of our faces. But this campaign worked for more than a decade.
(Side note: I asked my wife what she thought about these ads. Her response: “No sexy people eat at Hardee’s.” A little disconcerting, considering I eat at Hardee’s more than I’m willing to admit.)
Eventually, the ad campaign ran its course, and I think the reason why also tells us something about the lies we believe. In the story above from The Washington Post, former Hardee’s CEO and Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder said, “Young, hungry guys aren’t as affected by the racy ads with the swimsuit models because you can get a lot of that on the internet now. It’s not like it was 10, 12 years ago when we started this.”
What we can get on the internet is the accessibility to place a delight to the eyes at the center of our decision-making whenever we want. More than 28,000 people are watching pornography in any given second. Among Christians, 64% of men (and 15% of women) say they watch porn at least once a month. More than half of all divorce cases include pornography as a component.* I’d argue that all of these numbers are almost certainly higher than what’s listed here. They report low because reporting requires you to admit something you probably don’t want other people to know about you. Most of us just aren’t going to do that.
The temptation to place whatever gives us pleasure at the center of our lives and our choices is part of our common humanity. Advertising and pornography are some of the most obvious examples, but if you think about it, it’s everywhere. It was there in the garden. It’s here in our world now. And it’s there in how Jesus describes the fulfillment of the law.
Everyone Means Everyone
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV)
Our sexual ethics are most often based on what not to do. In this case, it’s adultery, one of the Ten Commandments often understood as simply, “Don’t have sex with another man’s wife.” I think most of us would agree that’s a good idea.
But Jesus takes a simple command about refraining from a specific act – a specific way to put pleasure first – and shows us what it’s really about: us.
All of us.
“Everyone who looks with lust…”
Advertising, pornography, adultery, and the rest of the list are symptoms. The disease is lust. It’s at the heart of our temptation to pursue whatever is a delight to our eyes.
Jesus, proclaiming the fulfillment of the law, speaks truth right in front of our faces: Everyone’s sexuality needs grace. Everyone.
No matter who you are, no matter who you love. Prostitutes and porn stars have a sexuality that needs grace. So do virgins. So do I. So do you. No one is immune to the temptation to pursue what’s a delight to the eyes first and foremost. Everyone needs grace.
And just as we share common temptations and a common need for grace, we share the common experience of figuring all of this out as we go. Part of that experience is discovering (and often quickly) how much we need grace. But we can do more than affirm our common need for grace. Too often, cycles of guilt and shame become common components of our sexuality. And that’s why we must communicate our shared need for grace in ways that do not perpetuate those cycles.
Everyone’s sexuality needs grace. And in the same breath as we speak that truth, may we speak the truth of resurrection: Grace is here.
Here to remind us not only of our common need, but its presence among us to meet it, abundantly. Here that we might know forgiveness and freedom so well, we share them with others. Here to remind us there is so much more to all of this than a delight to our eyes.
And in the resurrection, not just something more, but something better.
* These statistics come from Covenant Eyes, one of the best resources I know if you’re looking for freedom from porn.