If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off
It was Jesus who said if your hand is causing you to sin, you should cut it off. Still, I’ve never known anyone to take Him at his word. I know people, quite a few, who pride themselves on “reading the Bible literally.” But none of them has ever read this text literally. Not one, faced with this stark command, has ever chimed, “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it.” There are just too many of us with both hands and eyes intact to conclude otherwise.
Not all Scripture is meant to be taken literally. But all Scripture is meant to be taken seriously. And though I’m convinced—as are you—that Jesus does not intend anyone to self-mutilate, I’m also convinced he expect us to obey him at all points.
So here’s what I think he means: when it comes to sin, don’t give yourself an inch.
Sin’s a trickster. It’s insidious and pervasive. It has a way, as Paul laments in Romans 7, of seducing us to commit the very thing we abhor, or to neglect the very thing we adore. I’ve known many men trip back into pornography or substance abuse or some other destructive sin they’ve sworn to all and sundry—wives, children, pastors, friends, God, themselves—that they’re done with. But they never really dealt with themselves ruthlessly. Somewhere, somehow, they gave themselves an inch.
God warned Cain, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7). Master it. That’s a plainer way of saying cut off your hand, pluck out your eye. Don’t give yourself an inch. Deal with yourself without mercy. Refuse half-measures and easy-outs. Don’t minimize, rationalize, blame others.
Just deal with it. Now. Fully.
Which is good and right. But as a man and a pastor—which is to say, someone who struggles with my own sin and who helps others struggle with theirs—I’ve found it’s not enough just to deal with sin. It’s not enough just to master it. It’s not enough just to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye.
What’s also needed is to graft in new hands and new eyes.
Removing sin is only half the work. Replacing sin with virtue is the work fully met. To master sin and not also master virtue is a recipe for defeat. It’s a plan for disaster. If seven demons worse than the one cast out invade a house devoid of Spirit, so seven sins more deadly than the one cut off ensnare the man devoid of virtue.
I think that’s what the Apostle Peter was writing about in his second letter. There, he promises that God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” He tells us that through God’s promises we can “participate in the divine nature andescape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:3-4; my emphasis).
God’s given you all you need to live sin-free! What man after God’s own heart—what man in his right mind, even—doesn’t want that?
But watch what Peter says next: For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love (2 Peter 1:5-7; my emphasis).
Peter understood (as well he might) that mastering sin, though necessary, is incomplete. To “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” is no small thing. That’s how you avoid looking like the devil.
But then what? How do we fully “participate in the divine nature?” How do we go all the way and end up looking like Jesus? By adding virtue to our faith. In fact, by making every effort to do that.
Peter names seven virtues—goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. That’s the number the church historically landed on for its list of deadly sins—pride, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust.
Seven for seven. That’s a happy coincidence. Or maybe not. Maybe seven is just the right amount—exactly the number of “hands” and “eyes” we need to replace the ones we’ve cut off and plucked out.