Are we really called to do this?
There are several New Testament passages where Jesus says things about plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand. These calls all sound pretty radical, and some might ask whether we should take such injunctions seriously or not. Here are the three texts as found in the Gospels:
Matthew 5:27-30 “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. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Matthew 18:6-9 If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
Mark 9:42-48 If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’.
What are we to make of these words of Jesus? Some Christians take pride in claiming that they believe literally everything found in Scripture. The trouble is, not everything found in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. There are of course such things as figures of speech and the like.
Sometimes it is pretty obvious. When Jesus said he was the door (John 10:7), he did not want us to believe he was a 3- by 6-foot piece of wood with a brass handle. Newer translations say “gate,” but the same applies here. He is not a hunk of wood hanging on some metal hinges. He is using figurative language to make a point. He is using a metaphor.
When we read about a woman who sits on seven hills (Revelation 17:9) we are NOT to think of a woman with a very large bottom. Here we have symbolic language being utilised. It might refer to the seven hills of Rome that the scarlet woman (the evil world system) rules over, or something else. But it is not a literal depiction.
So is Jesus using similar rhetorical devices here, or is he actually calling for amputation and the like if we want to be his disciples? He is using hyperbole. It is evident that self-mutilation is not being called for here. It is all about radical discipleship. It is about doing whatever it takes to faithfully follow Christ.
The theological term ‘mortification’ refers to putting something to death. It is about subduing the physical desires of the body, among other things. Yet as the Matthew 5 passage makes clear, it is not just the physical acts that God is concerned about, but the inward desires.
That is where the problems really lie. When King David lusted after Bathsheba it did not spring out of nowhere. He already harboured sexual lust in his heart. That is what must be dealt with, and only by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God can we begin to make any headway in that regard.
However there have been some who have taken this text literally. Some believe that Origen of Alexandria emasculated himself to deal with his lust, but there is a debate as to whether this in fact happened. But we can be sure that some believers over the centuries may have done this.
Let me offer four witnesses here: three of them noted biblical commentators, and one of them an acquaintance of mine. The last one is a guy who some years ago would call me now and then asking me questions about various issues. I would often reply by saying I had covered all this in some articles in my website.
He would keep replying that he does not have internet access, so he could not see what I had written on these matters. His reason for this was quite simple: he said he had problems with porn and lust, so he decided to NOT have any internet access.
Now that seems to me to be the perfect modern example of just what Jesus was talking about: making major sacrifices in order to not so readily be tempted and fall into sin. I always thought that guy was a champ. He took the words of Jesus one hundred per cent seriously, even at a great price.
This guy also took seriously the commitment of Job: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1). I, like just about everyone else, need to guard against what is found online. My ministry is mainly an online ministry, and I sometimes wonder if I should emulate what this dedicated Christ-follower did.
As to commentators, John Stott never goes astray. He said this in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:
The commandment to get rid of troublesome eyes, hands and feet is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech. What he was advocating was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught, and ‘mortification’ or ‘taking up the cross’ to follow Christ means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death….
Jesus was quite clear about it. It is better to lose one member and enter life maimed, he said, than to retain our whole body and go to hell. That is to say, it is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worth while in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ.
And Daniel Doriani in his expository commentary on Matthew said this:
Lust is a form of coveting, and coveting is the gateway to many sins, including adultery. Jesus shows how serious lust is when he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (5:29). This is hyperbole, of course. In all of church history, no group of Christian leaders ever endorsed literal mutilations or amputations. Indeed, the Council of Nicaea formally forbade it. Besides, if Jesus thought mutilations and amputations could actually cure evil, He would have ordered His disciples to put out both eyes, for a one-eyed man can still lust, and to cut off both hands, for a one-armed man can do terrible evil. Indeed, even the removal of both eyes would not suffice, for the memory can still “see.” The root of sin lies in the heart, not in sense organs or limbs.
The point, then, is that it is better to suffer bodily pain in the present than to suffer spiritual pain for eternity. So we can be sure that Jesus does not want us to take this sentence literally. Still, we have to decipher Jesus’ figure of speech.
Lastly, R. C. Sproul helpfully says this in terms of practical application:
As a pastor, I have to skate carefully between two things. On the one hand, it is my duty to make clear to everyone in my flock what God commands with respect to premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. At the same time, I have to be acutely conscious of people’s frailty and the difficulty of the battle for chastity – a battle, it seems, that more Christians are losing than winning. We must hold to the biblical standard while at the same time administering the mercy of God to fallen people.
Yes it is a balancing act: we are told to be perfect as Christ is perfect, yet we must admit that we all fail in so many ways. While bodily mutilation is not being called for here, a serious commitment to Christian discipleship is.