What is Lust?


When does desire for something become lust?

Most words in the Bible that are translated "lust" mean "a passionate desire." Strong desire can be either good or bad, depending upon the object of that desire. God created the human heart with the capacity for passionate desire so that we would long after Him and His righteousness (Psalm 42:1-2, 73:25). However, the concept of "lust" is now usually associated with a passionate desire for something which God has forbidden, usually equated with sexual or materialistic desire .

James 1:13-15 gives us the natural progression of unrestrained lust. It says, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."

According to this passage, lust begins with an evil desire. Being tempted by evil is the not sin. Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:1). The sin begins when the evil desire "drags us away" from where our hearts need to be. When an evil desire introduces itself, we have a choice. We can reject it as Jesus did and refocus on the path God has set before us (Matthew 4:10). Or we can entertain it. As someone once said, "We cannot stop the birds from flying overhead, but we don't have to let them make a nest in our hair." When temptation beckons, we need to remember that we are not helpless. We can choose to give in or to resist it.  

 The reason we are "dragged away" by temptation is that we are "enticed." That word in the Greek refers to bait, as on a fishing line. When a fish sees the wiggling worm, he is enticed by it and grabs hold. Only then can he be "dragged away." When we encounter temptation, we can immediately reject it as Joseph did when he was tempted by Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:11-12). Or we can hesitate while we consider all the implications. That hesitation allows us to be enticed. Romans 13:14 calls such hesitation "making provision for the flesh." Like the fish, we grab hold of the tempting thought, believing it will delight and fulfill us. We enjoy savoring the fantasy, imagining scenarios, and entertaining the idea that God has not provided all we need for happiness (Genesis 3:2-4). 

2 Timothy 2:22 says, "Flee youthful lusts..." To flee means to take off immediately. Joseph did not hang around considering whether or not to give in to sexual temptation. When we hesitate, we are making provision for the flesh by giving it the opportunity to choose evil. Often we are overwhelmed by its power.

The third step in the downward progression of temptation, according to James 1, is when "desire conceives." Lust begins as a seed, a thought packed with wrong desire. If we allow the seeds of lust to germinate, the Bible warns that they will sprout into something bigger and more powerful. Temptation becomes sin when it is allowed to germinate. Desire takes on a life of its own and becomes lust. Jesus made it clear that we do not have to physically act on lust for it to be sin (Matthew 5:27-28). Our hearts are God's domain and when we allow evil to grow there, we defile His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).

Wrong desires plague every human being. The tenth commandment forbids coveting, which means lusting for something that is not yours to obtain (Deuteronomy 5:21; Romans 13:9). The human heart is constantly seeking to please itself and when it discovers something or someone that it believes will satisfy it, lust begins. It is only when our hearts are dedicated to the glory of God that we can overcome intrusive desires and find those needs met in a relationship with Him. 

We are told to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). We must allow the power of the Holy Spirit to keep our thoughts where He wants them to be. It helps to pray daily the words of Psalm 19:14: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer." When our heart's desire is to please God more than ourselves, we can keep lust and covetousness at bay.

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