You’d think defining lust would be a simple enough task. Just open up Merriam-Webster, read the definition, and you’re set. But it’s not that simple. At least there’s still a lot of confusion about what constitutes lusting. I receive questions about it fairly often.
Today I’d like to take a stab about clearing up exactly what lust means and what it doesn’t, as well as when lust is okay and when it’s not.
What Lust Is and Isn’t
Let’s start with that Merriam-Webster definition. The first entry to consider is “usually intense or unbridled sexual desire,” and the second is “an intense longing/craving,” such as a lust for power. That should rule out a few things that people sometimes want to list as lust, such as:
- noticing an attractive person
- saying someone is attractive
Mind you, these may not be wise choices in certain contexts, but they aren’t lust. These actions are no more inherently dangerous than noticing a beautiful sunset or commenting positively about a work of art.
While God prioritizes inner beauty, our Divine Sculptor also made some rather appealing exteriors. I mean, if you can’t acknowledge that the Chrises — Evans, Hemsworth, Pine, and Pratt — are good-looking men, you don’t have eyeballs. Not to mention guys named Idris. But I digress.
More importantly, let’s look at the biblical definition of lust. That’s what really matters to us, right? While there are other relevant scriptures, our concern about lust mostly stems from this verse: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Jesus says lust = adultery. Obviously, that’s a line we don’t want to cross.
Now the Greek word for lust in this verse is epithumeó. This word appears 15 other times in the New Testament. Do you know how many of those times it’s translated in the NIV as lust? None. Not a single one.
In fact, you might be surprised to see the other verses where epithumeó appears, such as:
For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it (Matthew 13:17).
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:15).
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (Romans 7:7).
For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want (Galatians 5:17).
Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1).
(See footnote below.)
As you can see, the word used by Jesus to mean lust isn’t strictly negative. It can have positive connotations as well. Epithumeó simply means a strong desire (that second Merriam-Webster definition), and the problem occurs when our strong desire is in conflict with what God intends for us to have — like someone else’s spouse.
Again, with these verses it becomes clear that lust isn’t merely noticing someone, but rather having a strong desire or longing. Lust happens when it reaches the level of coveting — when you think sexually about someone you’re not married to or dwell on their physical attributes in your mind.Lust happens when it reaches the level of coveting — when you think sexually about someone you're not married to or dwell on their physical attributes in your mind. Click To Tweet
Revisiting my comment above, some celebrities are rather attractive men. But it’s one thing to recognize that, and another thing to seek out shirtless photos or flip through images in your mind or talk up how that person turns you on. No, no, and no.
Lust isn’t gender-specific
Did you notice all of my examples focused on women finding men attractive? Because one other thing lust isn’t — a purely male problem.
Too often when we talk about lust in churches or Christian circles, we assume that men struggle with lust and women really don’t. That’s balderdash.
First of all, not every guy struggles with lust, and second, plenty of women have issues with lust. Although Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:28 about men lusting after women, it’s pretty clear throughout the Bible — in stories and other verses — that women also have issues wanting what they shouldn’t have.
What’s the percentage breakdown of how the genders struggle with lust? I don’t know. Maybe it’s 70% of men and only 30% of women, but if you’re in the group that struggles, does it really matter? Don’t you just need an understanding that improper, selfish longing happens with both sexes and that God wants something much better for you?
Desire versus physiology
Finally in this section, I want to touch on an issue some worry about: When you see an attractive person and your body responds sexually, is that lust?When you see an attractive person and your body responds sexually, is that lust? Click To Tweet
Let’s go back to Matthew 5:28: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Where does Jesus say the lust originates? It is in your eyeballs? In your groin? Or in your mind and heart?
God recognizes that we are physical beings here on earth. Having eyes that see a person doesn’t make you lust. Likewise, an erection or lubrication or a tingling in your nether regions could simply be a physiological reaction. What matters is the choice you make in your mind about how to view someone.
Now some might be saying that there’s not a conscious moment when you think, “Hey, I’m going to lust.” Rather, it just happens in a split second, as if your brain is responding to your genitals instead of the other way around.
As someone who mastered rationalization in my premarital promiscuous past, I’m just going to call you on that fish tale. Maybe you haven’t yet figured out how to interrupt the communication channel between your sexual physiology and your free-will brain, but you are making a choice and God calls you to make a different choice. He believes that — with intention and prayer and even support — you can do it, and so do I.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for having an arousal reaction that you cannot control, but own the part you absolutely can control — your decision whether or not to lust.
When Lust Is Okay and When It’s Not
Surely, after reading those examples, you can see that not all epithumeó longings are bad. Some are praised! Having a deep desire for something in line with God’s will gets a golden stamp of approval. In those cases, “lust” all you want after the thing God also longs for you to have.
Which means that lusting after your spouse is not only okay — it’s good. Deeply good. Godly good.Lusting after your spouse is not only okay — it's good. Deeply good. Godly good. Click To Tweet
Sexual desire for your husband or wife is God’s intention for your marriage. When you think about their attractiveness, when you dwell on their physical attributes in your mind, and when you look longingly at your beloved, you’re in line with God’s will.
Go read Song of Songs and how often those spouses are basically like, “Hubba hubba, I love lookin’ at you, babe!” (Loose paraphrase.) Take, for instance, just these few verses from Song of Songs 7:6-8:
How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”
Wow, that husband clearly has a strong desire for his wife. And God made sure that’s in our Bible!
So perhaps we need to re-frame how to talk about lust. To summarize:
- Lust isn’t just about sex. It’s about strong desires that can be in line with God’s will or not.
- Noticing and acknowledging beauty isn’t lust in and of itself. It has to go further into desire, longing, coveting.
- Even the sexual connotation of lust can be healthy and godly when it’s in the right context — just like sex. God blesses both in the confines of a committed marital union.
A related Greek word, epithumia, is also translated sometimes as lust (most notably in 1 John 2:16) but also more often desire — because the sexual connotation that the word lust has in modern English simply doesn’t apply to many of these verses. Thus, translators moved away from translating epithumeó and epithumia as lust between the time of the King James Version (1611) and more modern translations such as the current New International Version (updated 2011). For a full list of these verses, click HERE.