Sexual Desire and Lust – Are They the Same? (Part 2)

Sexual Desire and Lust – Are They the Same? (Part 2)

Are sexual desire and sinful lust the same?Anguish

Summary of Part 1

In Part 1 I described my experience (and that of many men) of being conflicted between the acceptability of sexual desire for my wife, but unacceptability to have sexual feelings or fantasies at any other time. Such conflict led me to frustration. After fighting it so long I’d give in to pornographic lustful thinking. Previously I said that this frustration was eliminated when I finally realized that sinful lust and sexual desire are not necessarily the same. Let me explain!

Yes, Desire Can Be Sinful

Clearly Matthew 5:28 teaches us that to lust after a woman is equivalent to adultery.

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heartMatthew 5:28 (ESV)

But what does it mean to “lust after a woman” (or any other person, regardless of gender)?

Not All Desire Is Sinful

Let’s look at what the bible says about “desire.”

In the scriptures the Greek word translated in Matthew 5 as “lust” is used in both positive and negative ways. The word is epithumeo  in its verb form and epithumia in its noun form. By itself, the word is neutral… and may be right or wrong. The word is also translated “desire,” “earnestly desire,” “long for,” “crave,” and “covet.” Any strong desire is an epithumia.  What makes it good or bad is whether or not the thing desired  may be righteously obtained, then it is not sin. Sinful Lust then is the desire for something which may not be righteously obtained.

Consider a positive usage of the word: Jesus “earnestly desired” (epithumeo) to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15. This was a righteous desire that Jesus pursued and fulfilled. In 1Timothy 3:1 when Paul says that a person who aspires to be an elder “desires” (epithumeo) a noble task, he is using the same Greek word to speak of a righteous desire.

By contrast, in Matthew 5:28 when Jesus talks about looking at a woman “to lust after her” (KJV) epithumeo is used for an unrighteous desire, condemned as equal to adultery. This same Greek word is used to translate the unrighteous desire called “coveting” in the Ten Commandments when quoted by Paul in the New Testament (Romans 7:7). The essence of sinful lust is coveting—a desire to possess something which is not ours.

“Covet” equals “Lust” – Including the Intent to Possess

While we’re talking about lust and coveting, it’s worth noting that from a biblical standpoint, they should be considered synonymous. We may correctly think of “covet” as the word used in the Old Testament and “lust” as the word used in the New Testament. In both Testaments, the original language words are used to describe both righteous and unrighteous desires.

It is also evident in the scriptures that these words indicate not just the desire, but also the intent to possess.

I suspect that most people already think of the word “covet” as implying the intent to possess, but here’s where we make a mistake in our understanding of lust… “lust” is typically assumed to mean any evidence of a desire at all!

Or more simply:

  • Covet = Desire AND a Plan
  • Lust = Desire alone.

That notion is biblically false! The correct understanding is this:

  • Covet = Desire AND a Plan
  • Lust = Desire AND a Plan

Faulty Interpretation Leads to False Guilt!

This should help us see why it is important to understand “covet” and “lust” as the same biblical concept. If we misunderstand the word “lust” in the New Testament, we may conclude that the Bible teaches something it doesn’t really teach. And this could result in false guilt, for it would be founded on a false definition of “lust”!

So, both “covet” and “lust” imply an intent to possess the object desired. But here again, it is not the intent to possess which makes a desire right or wrong, but whether or not the object may be righteously obtained.

In summary, it is biblically accurate to draw a distinction between desires that are righteous and those which are unrighteous.

Now we are ready to talk about the difference between normal desires (not sinful) and sinful lust. I’ll cover that in Part 3.

— Pastor Bill


Other posts in this series:

Sexual Desire and Lust – Are They the Same? Part 1
Sexual Desire and Lust – Are They the Same? Part 3

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comments user

Much of your perspective on all this addictive behavior reminds me of when Jessee’s boys were paraded before Samuel, and the Spirit kept telling him, nope, no, not that one: that man sees the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.
I really appreciate drawing the line!
Thanks, guys!

With Jesus,

comments user

Let me first say that I am so thankful I found MCAG. It’s only been a few weeks, and already my wife can see a change in me. I am in the process of studying the bible to make sure that what you all are saying is correct, and so far it lines up with scripture for the most part.

I would like further clarification on this post.
You write:
“It is also evident in the scriptures that these words indicate not just the desire, but also the intent to possess.”

I can see where you get this in some verses, but it seems to miss a crucial point. In fact, I think that desire for what is not rightfully attainable is wrong, not just because it could lead to wrong actions, but because of unthankfulness for what God has provided. I can desire my neighbor’s car and have no intent to posses his car, but that desire leads to dissatisfaction with the car which God has provided to me.

Romans 13:8-9 says:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.””

Back to the example of my neighbor’s car, am I really loving my neighbor if I desire his car, even if I never plan take it from him? We are also instructed to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom 12:15). I think it’s possible that desiring my neighbor’s car (even without intent to steal) would reduce my ability to genuinely join in his joy. In the case of the car, I might be able to buy one like it, or even buy it from him, but until I have rightfully attained the car I must be thankful for what I have and rejoice for what he has. Wrong thinking on this seems so endemic that people seem to get offended if you express admiration for what they have but don’t express a desire to have something similar. My friend seemed annoyed that while I admired his sports car, I was perfectly content with my old pickup.

Romans 1:21 speaks to this from a different angle:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

It’s clear from this verse that unthankfulness for what God has provided leads to worship of creatures rather than the creator. The danger here cannot be overstated, as the rest of the passage makes clear.

So here is the basic question… is it possible to admire, and yet not desire? Is it possible to be in genuine awe of the beauty of another person’s body (male or female), and yet have no sexual desire for it? It must come back to honoring God as God, and giving thanks to him. Then I can rejoice over the beauty God as given to another, and also rejoice over my body and the body of my spouse, all while praising God for his magnificent creation.

Thanks again for what you are doing on this site.

    comments user
    Pastor Bill

    Thanks David for your perceptive comments. I believe you are right that I could have said more about how lust & covetousness leads to dissatisfaction and can impede love for our neighbours. You have filled in some gaps of the matter. Thanks.

    In response to your questions, yes I do believe it is possible to admire and not desire … to be in genuine awe of the beauty of another’s body without having sexual desire. If we have a creational view of the Creator’s finest art work, the human body, then awe rather than lust SHOULD be the results. I definitely believe there is a difference, one is good, the other not. In fact that was what I was seeking to say in my three blog articles. We can admire and hold awe over the beautiful art work of God in the human body crafted in His image. In fact, that is the right response, not lust. It is indeed the antidote to lust. Either we see the naked body creationally with awe, or we see it pornographically with lust. Unfortunately our culture (especially Christian culture) has defined the sight of the natural human body and any kind of response (even awe) as lust and therefore wrong. I believe that has unnecessarily caused many men to assume they’ve sinned, become hopeless that nothing can change, and ends in them giving in to lust. It may have started as legitimate awe but, due to misunderstanding, they experienced false guilt leading to succumbing to lust.

    But I am also saying that sexual desire is not sinful in itself. Even while seeing and admiring and being in awe of another human body I could become aware of my own sexual nature. Having sexual desire is not sinful in itself. Experiencing sexual desire when I have no legitimate way of pursuing it to final conclusion still does not mean I have lusted. Desires can come. That does not make them lustful. It is what I might do with those desire that could turn it into lust. By objectifying that person for my own personal gratification, I have dehumanized them, ceased loving them, and used them. The natural sexual desire only turns to lust when the objectification and mental (or actual) actions to possess and use takes place. Otherwise admiration, awe, and enjoyment of creational beauty is good and natural.

    Pastor Bill

      comments user

      Thanks for the reply. I re-read your three posts and now have a better understanding of what you are saying. I talked it over with my wife as well, and she totally agreed with your perspective.

      I earnestly desire purity and holiness in my life, and lust was an area where I felt the world always got the upper hand. Now I know lust is a choice, not something that can be forced upon me by our world filled with sexualized nudity. Now I fight lust by loving and honoring my wife and walking in thankfulness toward God.

      I am so thankful that I found your site. If your fundamental arguments are true, it needs to be shouted from every pulpit in America, because we have been “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7).

        comments user
        Pastor Bill

        Thanks, David, for your encouraging comments. I agree, it is something that needs to be shouted from every pulpit. Help get the message out by referring our website to others!

        Pastor Bill

      comments user

      Pastor Bill, David’s response was similar to my own thoughts. The use of the words “intent to possess”, while also sinful, misses almost all of my own sin which I commit when I long for my neighbor’s possessions without contentment. I personally would never think of making a plan to get it. I’m no wordsmith, but I hope there is a phrase which could be used to get at the sin of the heart. I agree with what you are saying here that attraction to beauty and even sexual attraction in itself is natural but lust is not. It seems that lust must be some kind of choice being made beyond the initial attraction. I have heard that Martin Luther once said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”
      Pastor Bill, the truth you said in this paragraph above: “Unfortunately our culture (especially Christian culture) has defined the sight of the natural human body and any kind of response (even awe) as lust and therefore wrong. I believe that has unnecessarily caused many men to assume they’ve sinned, become hopeless that nothing can change, and ends in them giving in to lust. It may have started as legitimate awe but, due to misunderstanding, they experienced false guilt leading to succumbing to lust” That truth has put me well on my way to experience freedom from my chains of addiction to pornography. Thank you for your work in this ministry. I just was wishing to suggest further clarity to this truth you are communicating.

        comments user
        David Martin

        Hey, DLightingGuy, thanks for your comments.

        I think your comments point to another sinful state that we really don’t talk about much in Christian circles or churches… that is “discontent.”

        Certainly, we would all agree that contentment is a godly character quality. It follows then that discontent is a failure to live as God wills for us. Consequently, it must be considered a sinful state.

        So… if seeing your neighbor’s possessions ignites (actually, “reveals”) discontentment in your heart, then there certainly is a problem, but I’m not sure the problem should be labeled “covetousness” or “lust.” On the other hand, if you harbor a desire for your neighbor’s *specific* possessions… such that you are considering ways to gain possession of them for yourself, that’s covetousness. The 10th commandment very specifically says, “your NEIGHBOR’S” possessions. It doesn’t seem to be written about a general sense of desire for the same “sort” of possessions as your neighbor.

        One way or another, of course, we all need to be focused on living life with our hearts pure before the Lord with regards to our possessions and our desires for them.

        It’s great to hear your testimony about how the truth is setting you free!

        Pastor David Martin

comments user
Daniel Bjorndahl

So if my intent is to remain obedient and to not sin, then I may view God’s creation with a pure heart?

    comments user
    David Martin

    Thanks for writing, Daniel. I apologize for the delayed response.

    Your question can be answered best by breaking it into two parts…

    First, regardless of the activity in question, it should be our intent as followers of Christ to be “obedient” and “not sin.” This is equivalent to having a “pure heart.” So, these should be a given whether we’re talking about eating, singing, talking, working, playing, recreating, or anything. The activity may change, but the desire to remain obedient and pure should be a constant in all of our life.

    So there’s a sense in which that posture towards living right before God is immaterial to what you’re really asking because if that is not in place in someone’s heart, the activity under consideration doesn’t make a difference at all.

    So, for the sake of getting to the activity in question–which is what you’re really asking about–let’s take that posture for granted.

    Therefore, your question is really about whether there is an activity–viewing God’s creative mastery on display in the human form–is inherently disobedient or impure.

    To that I say this… is there ANY beauty of God’s crafting in our world that we are forbidden to see and appreciate? Well, I think the answer to that question is self-evidently “NO!” God loves beauty… and so do we–more than any other creature on the planet (we alone bear that “likeness” to God). So when we see God’s beauty, He naturally wants us to see it for what it really is… a testament to His splendor and glory.

    So, provided you’re genuinely desiring to please and glorify God, and you are genuinely allowing the viewing of His beauty to magnify Him in your heart, then there is no restriction on which beauties you may behold and marvel at for His glory!

    The only way anyone could claim otherwise would be to assign a fabricated meaning to the human form which is contrary to the meaning God Himself assigned to it… that is, His own likeness and image.

    Having answered that way, however, I caution you to be cautious in assessing your own heart’s desires and motivations. Remaining obedient and pure is not a matter of saying the right things or declaring the correct position, it is a matter of the heart, which is capable of being quite deceitful about it’s true motives. Keep close to the Lord, listening for His voice, and seeking His presence in your every endeavor.

    David Martin

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