According to Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, the Greek word for lust “denotes a strong desire of any kind.” Though the word itself is neither sinister nor sinful, it is used with strong negative connotations more than thirty times in the New Testament. On twenty of those occasions it is modified by such adjectives as “evil,” “sinful,” “corrupt,” and “ungodly,” and even without these modifiers, the context shows it to be ungodly. THE POSITIVE The word occurs only three times in a good, or positive sense: in Luke 22:15 (NIV), where Jesus emotionally said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”; in Philippians 1:23, where Paul said: “I desireto depart and be with Christ, which is better by far”; and in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, when Paul expressed his “intenselonging” to see the Thessalonians. The intensity of the word is emphasized in two of the passages by an adverb or adjective.
We can see that in these three instances, the strong desire fully harmonized with a good and holy purpose, and with God’s will. Jesus’ eager desire to share a last Passover – the prophetic celebration of His own passion about to begin – with His closest friends is entirely consistent with His redemptive mission. Paul’s urgent wish to be with Christ is consistent with Jesus’ own wish to bring His redeemed home (Jn. 17:24). And Paul’s longing to again see the fruit of his apostolic labors also reflects the Savior’s yearning for the company of His loved ones, expressed in the same passage (Jn. 17:24; 14:3).
By contrast, all other uses of the word “lust” express an intense craving of the human heart and will. Since our fatally self-centered, fallen human nature is radically opposed to God, the word expresses the fundamental antagonism of the corrupt human will to the divine will.
In Romans 1, Paul traced the progress of sin in human society from a point where men had knowledge of God through where they rejected His authority and descended into every kind of corruption and perversion. One early consequence of the human choice to reject God was that “God gave them over in the sinful desires1 of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Rom. 1:24). Thus, “lust” is a perverse driving desire born in the human heart and culminating in overtly sinful behavior. A tragic irony: God “gives over” or abandons sinners to the effects of their lust as a direct consequence of their rejection of Him in favor of lustful abandon.
Though the word lust is not limited to sexual connotations, and does not specifically relate to sexual immorality in most New Testament occurrences, our common association of “lust” with sexual sin is nonetheless appropriate. It is significant that in the Romans 1 passage sexual excesses or perversions are prominent in the downward spiral toward total moral, intellectual and social chaos. In Scripture, as well as in history and in today’s world, sexual immorality is a frequent partner of pagan practices.2
A prominent Old Testament example of this link is the seduction of Israelite men by Moabite women at the instigation of the false prophet Balaam. The Israelites not only committed immorality with these pagan women (clearly prohibited in the Law) but were also seduced by them into participating in their idolatry (the reason for the Law). All of this resulted in a mass death sentence on 24,000 Israelites (Num. 24-25; Rev. 2:14).
Jesus recognized and addressed the menace of lust in the human heart. In His foundational Sermon on the Mount He upgraded Old Testament Law by prescribing an even more stringent behavior code: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-28).
Jesus strengthened the definition of adultery to include the desire for sexual union with a person other than one’s legitimate spouse. Who is not convicted by this? The insidious nature of lust allows one to indulge in it while convincing himself that he is not sinning, since no one knows and no other person is affected.
But James bluntly plugged that loophole when he wrote: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, afterdesire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:14-15). He clearly states that sin is born of lust in our own heart, but soon matures in the rotten fruit of sinful acts, which, in the case of sexual sin, ultimately involve another person. By saying “his own evildesire,” he makes the sin that begins in one’s heart not merely a common feature of human nature, but one’s personal responsibility and choice as well.
Jesus stated this principle when he said: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’” (Mk. 7:20-23).
We easily miss it, but even Moses’ Law decreed (in the Ten Commandments) not only, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14), but also, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21). Paul uses the Greek word “lust” for “covet” when quoting that commandment in Romans 7:7-8.
The insidious effect of this lust is seen in David, the “man after God’s heart,” who fell into crippling sin when he saw a “very beautiful woman bathing, and sent someone to find out about her.” Before long he had committed adultery with her, and tried to cover his sin by arranging her husband’s death (2 Sam. 11).
MORE THAN SEXUAL
Peter described jaded, depraved human nature this way: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning” (2 Pet. 2:14). But lustful cravings include much more than sexual urges. In the parable of the sower (Mk. 4:1-20), Jesus commented that those represented by the seed sown among thorns “hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (4:18-19).
Lusts for other things include a whole spectrum of cravings and temptations that inflame a soul’s appetites. The sinister character of these desires is not so much in their objects as in the fact that they are the impulses of a corrupt nature opposed to God, that work to defeat the effect of His Word in our lives.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
What remedy do we have for this major flaw in all of us? God, who “knows how we are formed” and “remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14) has not left us defenseless. The same grace that brings salvation “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12). Are we willing to be so taught?
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). When we are tuned in to God, inviting His intervention in our lives, He will enable us to recognize that His way of escape from temptation’s trap is precisely what we need, and to want that escape even though our humanity might see temptation as opportunity.
David seems to have learned that even his physical needs and impulses would be satisfied by God if he would seek fulfillment in God: “O God, You are my God; earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh faints for You, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). God wants to satisfy not only our soul, but our flesh as well – our physical body and human nature (His creation). Do we look to Him for that satisfaction? David’s flesh craved God the way a sun-stricken wanderer in a desert craves water. We need to learn that.
Paul wrote about this too: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13). Our sinful nature tries to convince us that we need to cater to our “appetites,” which are often base lusts.
In Mark 7, Jesus said that the evil that flows from the human heart begins with “evil thoughts.” It has been said that a man’s most powerful sex organ is his mind. Most sinful acts are conscious and deliberate, the result of a thought process – that is, premeditated.
POLICING OUR THOUGHT LIFE
The obvious remedy, then, is control of our thought life. Paul addressed this when he wrote: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). We are responsible for the occupations and wanderings of our minds. Do we really want to focus our attention on God? Let’s police our thought-life.
Paul also wrote: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). External temptation and internal lust will always connive to eagerly focus our attention on corruption and vileness that lead to outright sin. God holds us accountable to consciously focus our thoughts on Him. He will enable us for this, but we must want to surrender our will to His control. His grace that brings salvation “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions” (Ti. 2:11-14). He just needs our honest, heartfelt surrender.
Paul seems to suggest that the trouble actually begins with our physical bodies, even before our minds go to work: “I urge you … to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1-2).
Have we consciously and deliberately offered our bodies to God, seeking His satisfaction even for our physical needs, so that our bodies become vehicles for serving God’s will? Then, following that, do we surrender our minds to Him and invite Him to fill them with His preferences and priorities, His meditations and motivations, so that we think in harmony with His thoughts and goals? Disciplined, consistent, attentive reading and meditation in His Word are needed for this.
This is all part and parcel of our salvation: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5); “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2); “Set your minds on things above” (Col. 3:2). Our minds are the medium through which temptation impacts us, and our bodies (our flesh) are the primary vehicles by which we carry out temptations. Both must be submitted to God: our minds must be deliberately focused on God and His thoughts, as inspired by His Word, seeking motivation from Him; and it works best when our bodies are purposely offered to God to seek the satisfaction that only He can provide.
THE LANGUAGE OF VICTORY
Numerous verses tell us to resist lust. Let’s consider a few of them in closing.
“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to Him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13). God would not urge us to take such control had He not already empowered us to do so.
“Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Rom. 13:14). Here God gives us the perfect covering for that mind-body connection that leads to sin.
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). This self-crucifixion is inherent in our salvation, yet it requires us to deliberately appropriate it in our experience. Paul illustrated this: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The overwhelming love of Christ in offering Himself in sacrifice to save us from sin moves us to join Him, in the attitude of our mind, in His crucifixion for us.
“Flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Tim. 2:22). It is courageous, not cowardly, to run away from temptation. Follow Joseph’s example: When Potiphar’s wife “caught him by his cloak, and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’ … he left his cloak in her hand and ran” (Gen. 39:12).
“To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 24-25).
1. The italicized words indicate translations of the Greek word for “lust” or a derivative of that word.
2. This fact re-emerges in Dan Brown’s popular novel The DaVinci Code which is a textbook-like treatise on historic paganism and the sexually immoral rituals and practices integral to it.
By Bill Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org