The difference between admiration and adultery can be only a flip of one's mind. It's the contrast-so Jesus warned us-between an appreciative glimpse of another self and a look of lustful desire. For modernity-in much of the Western world, at least-this distinction has all but vanished. The applauding glance is the initiatory moment of a covetous sexual signal.
In Jesus' day even a pagan might know the difference between an appreciative look and looking upon a woman "to lust after her" and thereby committing adultery "in one's heart" (Matthew 5:28). Jesus' counsel was not for carnal believers only.
In our day much grooming, dressing, and preening aims not simply to escalate attractiveness but seeks also to promote appetency. The goal of good grooming is not alone to elicit a compliment, but seeks to encourage approving identification.
I recall a summer evening when walking in a fashionable Boston residential area. My companion was a personable Christian college president, and our conversational topic was not really sex, money, or morality. Suddenly out of an apartment entrance stepped an attractive woman not only picturesquely dressed but alluringly so.
My companion stopped mid-sentence to make a philosophical observation. It is sometimes difficult, he volunteered, not to cross the line between appreciation and desire. The remark was not intended as a transitional moment of humor, but rather as serious commentary on human nature.
The lack of serious reflection on human nature and its propensities-more particularly on humanity's deep need of righteousness and grace-betrays our generation to misjudge its current spiritual and sexual plight.
Our generation considers the enlisting look to be quite normative. Radio accommodated the lustful voice; television accommodates not only the lustful look but profane speech and unchaste dress. We have yet to see what the Internet era will accommodate. The coming judge of all humanity warned that "by your words you will be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned" (Matthew 12:37).
No one will expect these comments to restore fallen humanity to sinless perfection. I don't claim unblemished virtue. Nor do I regard transgression and forgiveness as actualities reserved for others only. That "all are sinners" need not be doubted. But that some take the high road and help to keep the moral temper strong encourages others to emulate them.
It is a fact of American political life that some of our national leaders have earned a shoddy reputation for profanity, vulgarity, and delinquency, while others have left to us a legacy of moral decency and ethical power. Our times cry out today for the exemplary spirit of a president like Lincoln and of a congressman like Everett Dirkson.
It may seem puritanical even to try in our age to draw a line between liking and lusting, between pleasure and indulging in sexual longing. When in Scripture the Holy Father said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17), he expounded "pleasure" in ways that our generation needs to comprehend anew.
The current discussion of private virtue and public morality is rife with confusion. Many are prone to deny any significant linkage between the two. It should be apparent that a politically naive leader of personal integrity may not be the best qualified ruler; in fact, he or she may be a governmental catastrophe. But does that imply that a moral scoundrel may serve as the ideal ruler?
May not the populace for good reason distrust a ruler or leader whose integrity they have come to doubt? Will not sound government be best assured by a ruler who combines qualities of personal integrity and political skill?
A ruler whose personal life precludes effective use of a bully pulpit needlessly sacrifices a potent instrument for rallying the citizenry to critical moral imperatives. The ruler who lives as if he is above the law can hardly be expected to make an effective appeal to the law of God in the crisis-times of a nation.
In the present loss of moral fiber the citizenry needs national direction that escapes confusion over the sanctity of marriage and the home, society and the law, and the role of love and justice.