What is Lust?

engaged couple ready to kiss

The New Testament speaks pretty clearly on the subject of lust being unhealthy and/or sinful. The obvious go-to Scripture for this can be found in Matthew 5:28 where Jesus Christ says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NASB). Jesus indicates a hard line, beyond the externals the old Law had focused on. The Law was all about actions, while Jesus was all about the internals: the mind, will and emotions that drove the actions. This line is brilliantly clear, and I don’t know a man who has never broken this rule.

In fact, the issue is so universal, so constant, we Christians tend to interpret all New Testament references to lust through this lens. However, I think we do a disservice when we do this. I don’t mean to diminish the dangerous sin Jesus was addressing, but the New Testament speaks about lust in such a broader sense. This anecdote is only one narrow view of lust.

Lust Defined

Merriam-Webster’s defines lust, as a verb, as having “an intense desire or need.” As a noun, we’ve got two definitions: (1) usually intense or unbridled sexual desire, and (2) an intense longing.

The Greek word most commonly translated to “lust” in the New Testament is epithumeō (or its derivatives), which means to long for something or to set the heart upon a thing. Two other New Testament words have similar meanings (epipotheō and orexis).

Only one New Testament word has direct ties to lust as we typically think of it (regarding sensuality): hēdonē. This word is seen in James 4:1 and 4:3.

Bigger Picture

The truth of the matter is that lust itself is merely intense desire and isn’t fixedly tied to sexuality at all. Sexual desire is to lust what apples are to fruit. It’s just one form of many.

It is the context of Christ’s comments in Matthew 5 that provides the tie to sensuality: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her…” This desire is framed in the “usually intense or unbridled sexual desire” definition. However, most of the times lust is mentioned in the New Testament, it actually refers to desire in general. When sensuality is intended, the context will reflect it as seen in Matthew 5.

To interpret the warnings of Romans 6:12, 1 Corinthians 10:6, Galatians 5:25, 2 Timothy 2:22, Titus 3:3, James 1:15, 1 John 2:16, Jude 16, and many other Scriptures with the narrow scope of sensuality is to miss the bigger picture. For example, lusts of the flesh can include food, and lusts of the eyes can include materialism. Yes, we can apply these to the narrow scope of sensuality as well, but to do so exclusively is to miss the point of the message.

The Problem with Lust

When we have a desire with that level of intensity, it’s easy to unintentionally manufacture idolatry.

Lust is warned against not because it is inherently sinful. After all, it is attributed to God in a holy way in James 4:5. But when we have a desire with that level of intensity, it’s easy to unintentionally manufacture idolatry.

Look at America’s waistline and see how this lust of the flesh has made us idolize our food (as seen also in Philippians 3:19), even as we vehemently condemn the lust of the flesh seen in pornography and adultery.

Lust fulfilled can easily become self-seeking and/or addictive, regardless of what is desired. We should be guarded when it comes to our desires lest they begin to rule over us.

Deadly Desire

I don’t agree with many of St. Augustine of Hippo’s teachings, but there is much wisdom in others (I’m a “chew up the meat and spit out the bones” sort of guy, more than willing to receive truth from sources I often disagree with). He once wrote, “The soul lives by avoiding what it dies by desiring.”


There is something lethal about unchecked desire, and we can apply this to even the good gifts God gives us.

In his excellent book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey tells of a colleague named Paul Brand (the two of them worked together on Fearfully and Wonderfully Made) who attended a health conference in the 80’s and noticed a pattern emerging with the urgent health concerns being discussed. Yancey writes of Brand:

It struck him that the primary health issues were lifestyle-related: heart disease and hypertension related to stress, concerns associated with a toxic environment, AIDS contracted through drug use and sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, emphysema and lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking, fetal damage resulting from maternal alcohol and drug abuse, diabetes and other diet-related disorders, violent crime, automobile accidents involving alcohol.

Stay devoted to serving your Lord so your lust cannot ever be your master, and keep your lusts in check with your Lord’s rules. That’s why they’re there, to protect us from conception.

Consider God’s law a spiritual condom.

Yancey notes these “endemic, even pandemic” issues are no less an issue today, saying, “Studies at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta show that two thirds of deaths prior to age sixty-five can be traced to the very same list of behavioral choices.”

Some of the choices are tied to sensuality-lust, but all fit into the general-lust category well enough to just further highlight the truth in James’ warning: “Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15, NASB).

What is lust? Intense desire.

Is lust sin? Not by itself, but it’s the seed of sin, seeking out a will to conceive with, making sin babies that mature into death grown-ups.

How do we keep lust from conceiving? It’s not by ascetically avoiding desire. Rather, we must remain vigilantly mindful of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:24, dealing with a particularly powerful lust: “No man can serve two masters.”

Stay devoted to serving your Lord so your lust cannot ever be your master, and keep your lusts in check with your Lord’s rules. That’s why His rules there, to protect us from conception.

Consider God’s law a spiritual condom.

Originally posted 2016-07-15 08:00:42.

About Phil (251 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.