Christians generally focus on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-28 as the standard for moral purity: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So if this is our goal, we need to be clear about what it actually means to “look at a person lustfully.”
Let’s say you go to a restaurant. You look over to your left, and notice someone at the next table who is very attractive. Maybe they are dressed provocatively. You look at them, and their attractiveness registers in your mind. You might even notice something about their body that is attractive or alluring.
Is that lust? When does awareness and/or sexual attraction cross the line into lust?
Christians have been wrestling with this question for generations. Many wise people have written and taught about this. Let me suggest three words that are helpful in drawing the line between looking and lusting:
1. Looking becomes lusting when we stare
Intuitively we all know that there is some difference between looking at someone and staring at them. It’s one thing look at, or notice someone, it’s another to intensely watch them, to “visually feast on them.”
This is where the much maligned and often misunderstood “two-second rule” applies. The two-second rule suggests that looking at someone for a short amount of time is normal and socially acceptable. But looking at someone for more than two seconds constitutes staring and generally signifies crossing the line into lust.
While trying to legalistically apply this “rule” doesn’t work very well, understanding the principle behind it can be helpful.
Neuroscientists tell us that if we look at something intently for an extended period of time, that image gets burned into our brain, and we can recall the image later. We encounter millions of images and sensory impressions as we go through each day. Most of these we either ignore or pay such scant attention to that we can’t recall them later. They move in and out of our consciousness and aren’t retained.
But some of these images and sensory impressions make a deeper impression. They are retained if we pay focused attention to them … if we “take a mental picture.” That’s what happens if we stare at someone.
Let’s go back to the restaurant example. So you see someone who is attractive and/or dressed in such a way that catches your attention and possibly even creates a minor sexual response. But then, instead of fixating on that, you turn your attention elsewhere. You get involved in a conversation with your companion(s), and other thoughts, sights, and sounds take up our attention. It doesn’t take long for that earlier stimulus to fade, as your consciousness is filled with other thoughts and other stimuli.
But if you were staring, you were burning that image into your memory. Later that day, if you sat down and closed your eyes, you could probably call to mind that person, or that image.
2. Looking becomes lusting when we fantasize
Sometimes we do this while we stare: we build a fantasy in our minds about the person we are starting at. We imagine talking to this person, starting a relationship with this person, or doing something sexual with this person. In the later instance, way we are literally “committing adultery in our minds” as Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:28.
When we start to obsess about the person, when we spin stories or scenarios in our minds about them, then we have crossed the line into lust.
3. Looking becomes lusting when we objectify
To objectify someone is to cease to view them as a person, and instead view them as an object. We do this when we focus on a person’s body – or body parts – instead of focusing on them as a person. Then we move from relating to them as a human being to thinking about them, looking at them, maybe even evaluating them in the same detached, objectifying way we might look at a pornographic picture.
Habitual pornography users can struggle to build healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex because of this tendency. Viewing pornography trains you to objectify people, focusing on their body and sexuality. Sexual thoughts can intrude in your consciousness as you are trying to relate on a social level with someone.
You can probably see that these three words — staring, fantasizing, and objectifying — are related, and they often go together in practice. If you’re staring at someone, you might also be fantasizing about them. If you are fantasizing about someone, you might also be undressing them in your mind … objectifying them.
Obviously things like pornography, sexual chat, and erotic stories all fit into this category of lusting. They don’t satisfy our sexual desire, they feed it and create desire for more. They don’t build intimacy. They don’t bring people together. They alienate people, because they train people to objectify and fantasize, rather than to love, serve, and relate.
Our goal is to treat other people with love and with dignity as persons. When we view people primarily as objects for our viewing and critique, or view them primarily from the standpoint of potential sexual partners, we are severely limiting the ways in which we can connect on a human, non-sexual level.