Jesus uses extreme images in teaching how we should live the Christian life. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:27-30, he taught this:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lusfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, 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 sin, 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."
Jesus’ point is decidedly not to recommend acts of naive self harm, as though gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand will keep our minds from impure thoughts. Rather, by these shocking images of harm he is helping us to see that we need a righteousness in the area of marital faithfulness that surpasses that of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. He is interested in his disciples’ outer life to be sure. But he is also just as keen to address the inner life because that is the root from which the fruit of behavior comes.
It strikes me that the images Jesus uses are intended to compel us to ask ourselves whether we, in response to his teaching and with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, are consciously and seriously engaged in strategies for self preservation in how we relate to our spouses and think about those who are not. What do we allow and forbid ourselves and how does this affect our actions and our thought life. Are we living with a conscious and serious intent?
The story of Aron Ralston is a shockingly powerful modern illustration of the dynamics that stand back of Jesus’ teaching.
Ralston is the young climber who became trapped in a three foot wide section of the Blue John Canyon in Canyonlands National Park in Utah when an 800 pound boulder shifted, pinning him by his forearm. After four long days his water ran out. On the sixth day he knew that he would die in the canyon. Help had still not come. So, he committed himself to an extreme resort that, when the story got out, shocked the world and made him an instant celebrity.
Ralston cut off his own arm.
Applying a tourniquet just below his elbow, he did the deed with his own knife. No anesthetic; no going back. He then rappelled sixty feet to the canyon floor and hiked out some seven miles before a rescue helicopter spotted him and rushed him to a medical center.
At a press conference, when he was asked what it felt like to cut off his own arm, reporters were shocked by his reply.
He said, "My self-amputation was a beautiful experience because it gave me my life back." (my emphasis added).
Ralston’s action, like Jesus’ images, was not about self harm. Rather, it was about self preservation.