Jesus said it quite bluntly: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV). And for the past 2,000 years it has been listed as one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins.*
What is it exactly? And is it as bad as its membership in the infamous club of seven vices suggests?
The most basic meaning of the word “lust” is desire, an overpowering longing. It’s something that stews inside me before any kind of outward behavior is displayed. It’s a feeling that is so strong that it often convinces me it’s completely natural and an integral part of who I am. It gets mixed up with my identity and therefore sometimes is justified and defended as simply the way God made me and therefore something I can’t help. I therefore feel justified in exploring it and at times celebrating it.
But, as Jesus implies and many passages in the Bible show, it is a doorway-sin that takes me away from how God designed me to live. It also disrupts how I relate to God and others. And it all starts with the interplay of my mind and emotions. My thoughts and feelings work together to create a world within in which my desires and their fulfillment is king. Lust is a sin because it seeks to dethrone Jesus from the center of my heart.
My Right to Sexual Fulfillment?
Lust gets emeshed with how I think and feel about sex and my sexuality. For followers of Jesus who say He is their Lord, this is of vital importance. Somewhere in the recent past a trend has taken hold among many Christian believers that their sexuality is something so personal that even God Himself has no business interfering with what feels right to them. Sexual satisfaction is viewed by many to be at the core of their identity. “When I’m sexually fulfilled, then I will be a whole person and know who I am.” There is nothing in the Bible that supports this kind of thinking. And it is in such a mindset that the sin of lust thrives and easily takes over a person—mind, body and soul.
When sexual desires are given the role of determining core pieces of my identity, I am vulnerable to becoming obsessed with sex and all the ways it can be expressed. Lust is then merely a natural way of exploring who I am and what I need to do to feel complete, comforted, and OK with myself.
What is the right way for a Jesus-follower to view sex and sexuality?
First of all, I must see that my sexuality is a part of how I’m made, but it is not the core of who I am. Jesus came into the world to show us that our primary identity is that of God’s children in relationship with Him (John 1:12), not satisfied sexual creatures. Our desire to be embraced by our Heavenly Father is the longing that must be cultivated to shape our identities—not the embrace of a man or woman. God’s gift to us of sexual desire is meant to serve this core identity as His sons and daughters, not the other way around. If my sexual longings are not bowing before the guidance of God as my Father and the will of Jesus as my king, then these desires have become an idol. And idols always draw me away from who I am meant to be.
A New Normal
Thus “holy sexuality” is what I believe a follower of Jesus is to pursue. The word “holy” means set apart for a unique purpose. My sexuality and all the ways it is expressed must be put under the Lordship of Jesus just like every other part of me. Otherwise He’s not really my Lord. When my sexual desires are continuously submitted to Him and His word, it becomes clearer to my mind and emotions that they don’t define me. What God says about me becomes the definition of who I am. My sexuality then belongs to Him. My “right” to have all my sexual desires fulfilled are then laid at the feet of Jesus where all my other “rights” lie.
If I do not intentionally oppose the drive to make sexual fulfillment part of the core of who I am, lust will have free reign in my life. If not resisted, it will lead me into what amounts to worship of my sexual gratification. This ultimately leads to activities that produce deep guilt and shame that I then have to desperately fight to justify. As I pursue what I see as my inalienable right, I end up degrading my imagination, my body as well as my relationships. And it all starts in my mind. What I choose to believe about the purpose of my sexuality either takes me closer to my Heavenly Father or pushes me further away from Him.
What to do?
Like all sin (read the post), lust must be confessed and repented of. In this case, it involves admitting where you have been holding on to sexual fulfillment as your right and not as a gift from your Heavenly Father. Repentance means changing the way you think about something. This is tough in our present-day because the surrounding culture has heavily influenced and shaped what we all “naturally” think and feel about sex and sexuality. To repent here, we have to find out what God says, surrender our old ideas and take up what He has revealed is our central purpose as His children.
We have to understand God’s original intentions for our identity. Think about not ever being able to express yourself sexually in the way you want or with who you want. What do you feel? If frustration, self-pity, anger or accusations arise within, then it’s very possible that your core identity is still rooted in your sexuality and the hope for its complete satisfaction. To overcome lust, this has to change.
Explore what the Bible has to say about who you ultimately are in Jesus (1 John 3:1-3). He is holding your true identity and desiring to show you who you are meant to be. Your sexuality was never designed to bear that weight, and eventually it will fragment and crumble if left under such pressure.
You must come to understand that lust and any sexual expression outside God’s design is sin and detrimental to your wholeness because it keeps you from intimacy with the One who loves you the most. Can you believe that there’s something more satisfying than having your sexual fantasies fulfilled? Well, there is!
Ultimately, you can walk with Jesus in a way that lust does not call the shots. Seek out a community where you can be vulnerable and honest about your sexual sin and your desires that don’t match who your Heavenly Father says you are. Only you can choose vulnerability and honest accountability in this area of your life. You can’t assume that your personal feelings about your sexuality are the same as God’s. The effects of sin in the world have warped all our “natural” feelings. By choosing to submit yourself to the Bible’s clear instruction on God’s intentions for sex as well as to one or more people who hold to God’s word as their standard, you can take positive steps forward.
Though you may battle lust for as long as you live in this body, it never needs to define who you are!
*Also known as “cardinal sins” or “capital vices,” they include pride, greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony and lust. They are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural passions. For example, the sin of lust as sexual attraction and desire (which is natural) but now an overpowering impulse that has no boundaries and to which I have no choice but to submit myself.