Alypius was a Roman law student with strong moral convictions. His friends had invited him to the Colosseum to watch the gladiatorial games, but he had refused. Friends are nothing if not persistent, and young Alypius’s friends eventually won him over.
He said he would go, but that he would close his eyes when things got too gory. During the games, a roar exploded from the crowd and Alypius talked himself out of his plan. He opened his eyes. Things would never be the same.
His friend, Augustine, writes in his Confessions,
He fell more dreadfully than the other man whose fall had evoked the shouting; for by entering his ears and persuading his eyes to open the noise effected a breach through which his mind — a mind rash rather than strong, all the weaker for presuming to trust in itself rather than in [God], as it should have done — was struck and brought down.
Why was Alypius “brought down” by what he saw?
The Power of the Image
The young Roman student was undone by the violence he observed because what we see shapes what we love. “Attention leads to adoration,” says Jon Tyson. “What you look at, you long for and love.” In other words, show me what you’re looking at, and I’ll show you what you love.
Think about your favorite shows of all time — Seinfeld, The West Wing, The Office. How did they become your favorite shows? By watching them, of course. You gave one of the shows a try, liked enough of what you saw that you watched another episode, then kept watching, perhaps all the way to the end. The more you watched, the more you loved what you watched.
Jesus understood the power of images. He knew that what we take in through our eyes has the power to fill us with either light or darkness (Matthew 6:22-23). That’s why he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29).
Jesus’s statement assumes that what we look at is not detached from morality; our eyes can indeed cause us to sin.
David knew a thing or two about sight’s sway over the heart. He was led into sin after watching Bathsheba showering on her rooftop (2 Samuel 11). In Psalm 101, he writes, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless” (Psalm 101:3). Other translations render that word “worthless” as “evil.” Clearly, David knew the power of images.
What, then, must we do if we don’t want to sin with our eyes?
Take Custody of Your Eyes
Jesus employed figurative language (“tear it out and throw it away”) to explain that we must take action to avoid sinning with and through our eyes.
Catholics in the past used the phrase “custody of the eyes” to explain this concept. The idea was that one must “take custody” of their eyes, or take control of what one sees. This was their attempt to not set anything worthless before their eyes.
Instead of looking at things that degrade our souls, we can look to Jesus, who frees us from setting our eyes on worthless things. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
As we behold Jesus’s glory, we become more like him.
But how can we control what we see in a day where we’re inundated with images from TV, social media, email, and Netflix? Here are four practices for taking control of what you see.
4 Practices for Taking Control of Your Eyes
Check before you watch.
With sites like PluggedIn, Common Sense Media, or IMDB’s parent’s guides, you can easily screen what you watch before laying eyes on it. If you see there will be nudity, graphic violence, or something else you’re uncomfortable with, don’t watch it.
Look for shows and movies and books that reinforce a healthy, biblical understanding of the world. This means looking for things that fall into one of the categories mentioned in Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Check the sources above before starting that new show or watching the next movie.
Listen to your conscience.
God gave you a consciencefor a reason: he wants you to use it. Martin Luther said, “To act against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Paul wrote to his young protege Timothy:
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)
If something you see makes you uneasy, heed your conscience and flee. Turn it off. Look away. Leave the room. Instead, look at something that allows you to have a clear conscience. (This practice assumes you have cultivated a biblical, God-honoring conscience. We should follow our consciences so long as what they suggest agrees with the whole counsel of Scripture.)
Think of who’s involved.
When the topic comes up of what to watch, the conversation often centers on each person’s unique tolerance for certain kinds of material, such as nudity. While this is something to consider, we can’t overlook the object of the image.
You might not have a problem with viewing brief nudity on TV or in film, but are you comfortable with what had to happen to film such scenes? Jesus calls us to love God and neighbor. It is not loving to enjoy the fruits of our neighbors’ sinful labor.
Think of who’s involved before deciding what to watch.
Pray for integrity.
God knows you cannot withstand temptation on your own. That’s why he sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins on the cross. He made a way for sinners to be forgiven. Just as we cannot save ourselves, we cannot withstand temptation on our own.
Pray for God to help you walk in integrity. Pray for his strength in withstanding temptation and taking control of your eyes. David’s prayer in Psalm 101:1-4 can be a helpful guide.
Fix Your Eyes
After Augustine recounts Alypius’s decision to watch the gory scene in the gladiator games, he goes on to say, “As he saw the blood he gulped the brutality along with it; he did not turn away but fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy, not aware of what he was doing.”
Looking at worthless things took Alypius away from Jesus. The same can happen to us. But fixing our eyes on Jesus will take our eyes off of worthless things.
Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)