WHAT IS LUST (AND IS THERE ANYTHING WRONG WITH IT)?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

If you’ve been following along with the rest of the material we've published around sex, maybe you’ve bought into the idea that the way of Jesus offers the best path for your sexuality. You are compelled by what scripture and science have both revealed is the ideal sexual environment: one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. You’ve learned that the proper expression of this is marriage, not cohabitation. You’ve discovered that brain chemistry, psychology and anthropology have also revealed it is in monogamy, not polyamory or open relationships. As people continue to explore the way of Jesus and figure out their sex life, it’s usually at this point where they stumble upon the concept of lust and get stuck on it.  This word - lust – holds a crazy amount of baggage. Even just hearing the word can leave you feeling the ick. It makes your skin crawl. It’s cringe. But if we asked you to give a definition of the word, you probably wouldn’t be able to. You probably think it’s just a religious concept, as that’s where most of the baggage originates from. Perhaps you’ve even witnessed first-hand how religious institutions have demonized sexual desire in the general sense and wrapped it with this language of lust. In fact, maybe these are the only instances you’ve ever really come across the word, because people simply don’t use lust as part of their modern-day vocabulary. So we must ask... what is lust? And is there anything really wrong with it? It’s time to set the record straight, because understanding this concept is actually a critical part of our sexuality.

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LUST VS. SEXUAL ATTRACTION

Due to previous associations with the word, many people think that lust simply means sexual attraction or desire. In fact, some dictionaries define the word as “very strong (or intense) sexual desire”. However, this is all misleading. While lust involves sexual desire, it is not the same thing as sexual attraction or sexual desire. As we’ll learn, when Jesus talks about lust, he is primarily referencing the domain of sexuality that we can control. To see someone attractive and feel a level of sexual desire is innate to how we are wired as humans. Meaning, you cannot stop the near-automatic process of thoughts popping into your brain and arousal brimming to the surface when someone attractive walks past you. As science has proven, not only do we have no control over what thoughts enter our minds, but in some regards, we also don’t have any control over how our attractions and desires manifest. Lust, on the other hand, typically involves a choice and a corresponding action. It’s what we choose to do with our sexual thoughts and desires.  It’s when we see a sexually attractive person at the coffee shop and turn around for a second look. It’s when we can’t stop staring at the girl in the yoga pants. It’s when we stop the scroll on Instagram or TikTok after seeing a mostly-nude person, click their profile and feast on all their photos and videos. It’s when we log onto Pornhub and go on a long search to try to find the best scene so we can have the strongest orgasm.  Turning around, staring, stopping the scroll and logging onto a website are all actions we are taking in response to our initial sexual attraction or arousal.  This helps give context to Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:27, where he says, “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.” The Greek word Jesus uses for “lustful intent” in Matthew 28 is epithymeo and it appears 16 times throughout the Bible.  Sometimes it’s used in reference to sexual activity, but not always. However, in all instances it refers to longing for something that is not yours – whether that be someone else’s girlfriend or their money.  His use of “intent” points to what is in our control and what we choose to do with our sexual thoughts, attractions and desires.  Martin Luther, providing commentary on this passage in the 16th century said, “I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head, but I can certainly keep it from making a nest in my hair or biting it off my nose.” The way of Jesus holds that sexual desire and attraction are beautiful gifts from God, as are intimacy, pleasure and orgasms. Just read the Song of Songs and you’ll discover that sexual desire is painted in an extremely positive light. But whenever lust (related to sex) is referenced in scripture, it’s portrayed negatively. To be clear – thinking someone is attractive, being unable to take your eyes off their face and then taking action by going up to them to ask for their number is not lust. It matters what your motive and heart is in approaching them. That same scenario could play out with an attractive woman first passing by a man, sexual thoughts flooding the man’s mind, him staring at the woman’s boobs and butt for a few minutes, before finally approaching her to get her number, all with the motive of having sex with her. In this sense, the man is stripping the woman of her humanity and reducing her to a sexual object for his gratification. This is why the most accurate definition for lust is objectification.  But in the sexual climate that we’re living in, this still might be confusing to people. Why is entertaining and indulging sexual thoughts about other people wrong?  Let’s go into four primary reasons.

UNWANTED ATTENTION

At the broadest level, most people would agree that some forms of objectification are wrong, especially when the attention is unwanted. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman who likes being catcalled by a group of men sitting on a stoop as she walks by. What we often miss is that catcalling originates with lust.  It started with them finding her sexually attractive, which is normal, but then it turned into lust when they acted on that and started objectifying her in a very demeaning way. Going off our example earlier, if someone asked you for your number based on the desire to sleep with you, chances are you might feel used.  You learned that the person wasn’t really interested in you, rather what you and your body could do for them. The very phrase “to be used” means to be manipulated or taken advantage of in some way.  The worst version of this is #MeToo, when the sexual attractions of powerful men ended up damaging the lives of many women. In Hollywood, men would often pretend to be interested in the acting talents of someone, but really they were being driven by their desire to have sex with them. Men like Harvey Weinstein went to great lengths to satiate their sexual desires and violated so many boundaries along the way. In his case and many others, this led to all forms of exploitation, sexual assault and rape. Clearly, to behave like this you have to be consumed by lust.   In all of these ways, lust is dehumanizing and stands opposed to love. How is it anti-love? Well, Jesus defined love primarily as an action that seeks the well-being of another over yourself.  In none of these situations is the person consumed by lust seeking the well-being of the person they are lusting after.  They didn’t choose to be sexually attracted to that person. They didn’t choose if that person randomly entered their line of sight or workplace. But they did choose to take a particular path with their sexual attraction, and act out in ways that were appalling.

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THE MARRIED PROBLEM

Statistically, 90% of the population will get married by age 50. That means nine out of every ten people reading this right now are either married or will be married at some point in the future. Indulging sexual thoughts about other people doesn’t not bode well for your marriage, for many reasons.  On the grounds of attachment theory, science clearly shows that objectifying someone who is not your spouse is not good. It is not going to lead to the advancement of a secure bond with your spouse.  It will naturally take the focus off of your relationship, and onto your desire to have sex with another person. As Jesus puts it, you’re cheating on your spouse in your mind, which he says is essentially no different than actually cheating. Entertaining these thoughts will pollute your mind over time, and perhaps, breed dissatisfaction as you contemplate what it would be like to have sex with someone else rather than your spouse.  Sexually speaking, “the field” becomes the focus of your sexual desires, rather than the person you committed your life to. This is precisely what Jesus is getting at by equating “lustful intent” as already cheating on your spouse in your mind. It’s willfully being emotionally unfaithful and it happens everytime we use porn. His call is to not only be physically devoted to our spouses, but emotionally as well. All infidelity always started in the mind The top relationship expert in the world, Dr. John Gottman, predicts divorce with 90% accuracy and says that “pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony.” Again, it’s normal even if you’re married to be sexually attracted to other people and have sexual thoughts pop into your head, but it matters what you choose to do with them.

THE PRESENT & FUTURE SELF

If you’re single, the same principle still applies, but it requires seeing your present and future self on a continuum. The problem is that when we see them as two distinct people: who we are now and who are in the future, we live under the illusion there is no overlap. Which means that we think our habits and objectification tendencies today will have no bearing on the future. This is most obvious when it comes to the bachelor party mentality. One report says that 33% of men cheat on their future spouses at their bachelor parties. The mentality is that “I’m just getting it all out of my system” and that you will start becoming a model citizen as soon as you say “I do”. But we can’t create a clean break between who we are now and who we decide to be later. It’s impossible. One bleeds into another.  If we are conditioning ourselves into certain behaviors now, those will be the behaviors we bring into our future relationships. Remember, 90% of people will be married by the time they’re 50. This means for most of us – not all – but most, marriage is inevitable. And the choices we are making today will influence whether that marriage becomes one of the best or worst decisions we ever make.

CONSENT IS NOT KING

In our culture, consent is seen as king. As long as two or more parties agree to the sexual activity being discussed, it’s all fair-game. This is particularly relevant when people are objectifying themselves in clear and obvious ways, like through OnlyFans or even just by posting revealing photos on Instagram.  In the past, porn was largely anonymous. You didn’t know who the people were that you were watching.  OnlyFans changed that, where people make money by becoming virtual sex workers. They’ll set up Instagram profiles as “previews” of this sexually provocative content to create pathways for people to discover their OnlyFans page. On her birthday, one OnlyFans model writes to her following on Instagram, “Gift me by treating yourself ;)” In other words, if you pay for my pornographic content on a monthly subscription, I’ll get paid and you’ll get off.  If you took a poll, many would see nothing wrong with this scenario, because it involves all consenting adults. Alternatively, let’s say you are in a relationship. As we mentioned from the top, maybe you’ve bought into the idea that the way of Jesus offers the best path for your sexuality. So you’ve pressed pause until marriage. Maybe sexual thoughts brim to the surface towards the person you are dating. You’re sexually attracted to them – this is a good and normal thing. But is it possible for this to turn into lust, if you are dating them?  What’s wrong with thinking about them and masturbating? In all these scenarios where consent is involved — where all parties are inviting lust — Jesus establishes a higher standard. With the way of Jesus, consent is not king.   Consent or not, Jesus would still say that looking upon a person in this way is not loving, as they are not yours.  This type of sexual energy is reserved for your present (or future) spouse, when their body becomes yours. We read in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Even if someone is objectifying themself through OnlyFans, the way of Jesus still calls you to honor their humanity. To not see them as an object, but as someone who is so much more than their body.  It calls you to show them the highest form of respect, even if it appears that they don’t respect themselves. In the case of dating someone, they are still not your spouse. You have not taken the final step of being committed to them, at least in the most important way through marriage.  Every human is wired to need secure attachments and when we withhold the most meaningful stage of commitment, it naturally breeds attachment securities over time. That’s not loving. Dr. Sue Johnson, a global authority on relationships and attachment theory, writes in Love Sense “Many romantic partners break apart when one person starts to ask, “Are you there for me?” and cannot get a clear answer. It is one thing to accept you’re having a casual amorous adventure and another to face up to another person having a hold on your heart. Then you question how much you can really depend on that person, how strong is the devotion on his or her end.” If you zoom out on a population level, a society full of people that are objectifying others creates chaos, messy relationships and breeds insecure attachment styles.  It creates an environment where people are biologically desperate for secure bonds, but are unable to find them, because our sexual attention is spread out everywhere and we haven’t done the work to harness and prepare our sexual desires for the right context. In a society where everything goes, consent might be a good enough standard to protect against abuse.  However, it hardly protects against dysfunctional relational dynamics. If consent is the standard, it does nothing to help people harness their sexual desires and prevent them from getting out of control. Not to mention, it ignores the scientifically proven framework that is needed to make relationships succeed. The proper context to open the floodgates and unleash all your sexual energy is when you’ve both committed to each other. At the end of the day, if everyone operated with the standards of Jesus when it came to their sexuality, it would eliminate nearly all of the problems we see in modern-day society.  People would treat each other with love, honor and respect. Hookup culture wouldn’t exist. The etiquette on dating apps would be completely transformed. It would build a foundation of relational harmony so beautiful that it’s hard to comprehend.

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IS IT REALISTIC NOT TO LUST?

Even if you intellectually agree that lust is dysfunctional in more ways than one, it still leaves the question of whether it’s realistic. Is it just philosophy, or is it actually livable? Sure, if society operated by these standards, things would be much better off. But sexual temptation surrounds us everywhere. We live in a unique time in history, because of the digital age. It’s not just common – but likely – that provocative images will pop up on your social media accounts at some point. And with the way that algorithms are set up, if you click it once, it will continue to send you a whole slew of more content even if it’s unsolicited.  Not to mention that porn has never been so widely accessible.  In the back of your mind, you know that the most intense orgasm is only a click away. And when you’re lonely, anxious or stressed, this provides a soothing mechanism. Even in the wild, it’s never been more socially acceptable to dress provocatively. In previous times of history, people dressed more modestly. But in certain parts of the world, you can’t help but notice people drawing attention to themselves by letting it all hang out. You could also feel like you’re going against the wave when trying to embody this mindset in the midst of our modern dating climate. When everyone else is playing by the rules of hookup culture, how is it possible to be set apart and successful in operating differently?  It is here that we say that with Jesus, all things are possible. He says as much in Matthew 19:26. This journey begins with believing that he is trustworthy and that through his power, this becomes livable.  That might sound abstract at first, but he does not leave us unequipped. Throughout scripture, we are given a set of tools and principles that are critical for the journey. Here are just a few of them.

Eyes of grace

As we’ve learned from decades of research, shame is destructive. When we operate with a shame mindset, it doesn’t build us up, rather it just buries us further. Unfortunately, shame was a defining feature of the 1990s and early 2000s purity culture in the American church. However, from a biblical standpoint, it's clear that from the beginning of time shame did not come from God. Which goes to say, to begin this journey we need to see ourselves as he sees us – with the eyes of grace. This doesn’t mean we don’t take the issue seriously, but rather when we stumble and give into lust we don’t start shaming ourselves. Our sexual journey is a process that needs to be worked through, not something that is solved in a moment. Faltering is not a matter of if, but when. And when we falter, we recognize it for what it is, and move on. One mistake – or even a pattern of behavior – does not define your future. It’s important to celebrate the small victories, or even taking the first step of choosing to act differently when you’re in the midst of a tempting situation.  As these small victories pile up, at one point you will look back in time and realize that you have completely changed. You will recognize that the power of Jesus has broken through.

Self-binding

In Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus gives us a strategy to deal with lust and objectification, by saying “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” If you haven’t caught on, he is using hyperbole and intentional overstatement to make a point. No, he is not saying to actually cut out our eyes, rather he is saying we should go to great lengths to protect against lust and objectification. Later in 1 Corinthians 6:18, we’re told to “flee from sexual immorality”. This might sound like unfamiliar language in the 21st century, but the original Greek literally means “to avoid; to keep at a distance from” Science calls this self-binding, which Stanford addiction specialist talks about extensively in her best-selling book Dopamine Nation “It is the way we intentionally and willingly create barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice in order to mitigate compulsive overconsumption.. Self-binding openly recognizes the limitations of the will,” Lembke writes. For those who struggle with food, this is a commonly employed strategy that can work. Just don’t have cookies or sweets in the house and it will make it easier not to indulge every night. The same idea applies in the sexual domain, especially with porn. Creating obstacles will go a long way to not engaging in the behavior. On this point, scripture and science are in harmony.  Of course, this process requires that we are aware of what tempts us to objectify other people to begin with. Is it porn? Is it Instagram? Is it being around a particular set of people? Is it being in a particular situation with the person we’re dating? Walter Mischel, who is the father of scientific research on self-control, talks about the importance of advance planning in his bestseller The Marshmallow Test. In the book, he creates the idea of “If-Then” plans. If situation [y] happens, then I will do [x]. If I log into Instagram and these pictures pop up, then I will do… If I'm alone at home at night, and I have an intense spontaneous urge to watch porn, then I will do… Mischel explains that these strategies are “simple, but surprisingly powerful.. helping people deal more effectively with a wide variety of otherwise crippling self-control problems – even under very difficult and emotionally hot conditions, when they were trying to pursue important but hard to achieve goals.” Therapist Jay Stringer, in his book Unwanted, advises us to study our sexual behaviors. And when we do, we’ll start discovering patterns of when and where we’re most likely to engage in certain behaviors. “Study the predictable times, places and themes associated with your unwanted sexual behavior. When you do, you will likely find they are predictable. The most common themes I hear about are loneliness, frustration, futility and boredom.”

Rewire your brain

Advance planning and self-binding are important strategies towards rewiring our brain, or what science calls brain plasticity.  The more we feed certain behaviors and thoughts, the more common they will be in our lives, and the more that will shape the physical structure of our brain.  Which means the more we watch porn, the more we become hooked on those images and it becomes ingrained in our minds. But the reverse can also be true. Critical to understanding this process is relating to our sexual desire in the right way.  Sexual desire, like sleep and anxiety, is an “independent system” in our body.  As we've learned, we cannot control how it manifests.  We cannot control if sexual thoughts pop into our mind, just as we cannot control if we are unable to fall asleep at night or if a surge of anxiety overcomes us. But we can choose how to respond when each of these things happen. We can recognize what is feeding each of these things, and in doing so “master” them without letting them master us. Consider the example of sleep. Many people struggle with insomnia and the more they don’t sleep, the more they get desperate about it. And in turn, the desperation makes us not sleep. Instead, we first need to change the way we relate to sleep by understanding that we cannot control it. And then, we can identify what might be influencing our sleeplessness and develop a better sense of sleep hygiene. Maybe it’s looking at our phone before bed. Maybe it’s working until the last minute before going to bed. Or maybe there’s issues in our lives that are causing us to ruminate as soon as we hit the pillow. As we work on these things, we can improve our sleep. In essence, we can control how our body and mind relate to sleep, even if we cannot control the process of falling asleep itself. And over time, we find that maybe we become a person where it’s easy to fall asleep.  The same is true of our sexual desire. We start with understanding that we cannot control it. The initial thoughts of imagining sex with someone else are nearly automatic.  In the same way that desperation might overtake us with sleep, shame can control us with sexual thoughts, especially if they are unwanted. This usually leads us to try to suppress these thoughts, which only leads them to come back stronger. Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner is credited as being the founding father of the thought suppression field, conducting his first experiment in 1987.  He told participants to try avoiding thinking of a white bear, only to find the more they avoided it, the stronger the thought became in their minds. His findings have gone on to be certified as scientific fact and confirmed in many other studies. The inability to suppress our thoughts usually then leads us to form a negative opinion of ourselves, which works against us.  So instead of shame and thought suppression, we let the thoughts run their course similar to how a boat flows down a river. We go into this process without judging our thoughts and by recognizing that sexual desire is innately a good thing. But instead of lusting, we then redirect our attention elsewhere, not trying to push the thoughts out of our minds. We just let them be there. Eventually, the thoughts will go away.  Additionally, we can influence - not control – but influence our sexual desire by recognizing what feeds our fantasies – whether that be porn, social media, trauma or any of the other things we listed just above.  For example, sex researcher Justin Lehmiller did a study of over 4,000 people and he found that “Our porn-viewing habits influence who and what we fantasize about.. for instance, the more porn that heterosexual men watch, the bigger women’s breasts are in their fantasies. Likewise, the more porn that heterosexual women watch, the bigger men’s penises are in their fantasies.” Similarly, there is a long line of research that links trauma and our past experiences with what we fantasize about in the present moment.  When we distance ourselves from porn and we do the work of unraveling our trauma, the less prevalent these types of fantasies will be over time. The less we’ll be gluing ourselves to the woman with the large breasts at the coffee shop. But we need to give ourselves grace. Since we have mindlessly engaged with lust and with these mediums for so long, in addition to not dealing with our trauma, this is a process that often takes years. Eventually, if we can do the work, we will transform into the kind of people who can appreciate sexual desire as a good thing, but do not take that next step into lust and objectification.  We naturally become someone who can harness their sexual energy and unleash it for when the time is right.

Better to marry

As we learned from our blog on sex drive, when it comes to our sexuality our nervous system is like a car. Developed in the 1990s by researchers Erick Janssen and John Bancroft, the dual control model of sexual response equates to our Sexual Excitation System (SES) to the accelerator and our Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) to brakes. Some people, statistically speaking, are extremely sexually sensitive. They find themselves horny all of the time, no matter what they do. What if this is you? What if it feels non-stop? In 1 Corinthians 7:9 we’re advised, “if [you] cannot control [yourself], [you] should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” This brings up a whole host of questions to the modern person –  Should we just get married at any age to whomever just so we can get laid? Sounds extremely irresponsible and like a recipe for a really quick divorce. To be clear – that is not what the passage is saying. There are a number of qualifications that the Apostle Paul (one of Jesus’s original followers) had in mind when he was writing this passage.  First, is that the audience he was speaking to already had the foundation of following Jesus. Second, he was speaking to a state of being – i.e. extremely sexually sensitive – for a long-time. Not just a momentary flash of horniness. And lastly, he is speaking to a future goal (to marry), meaning that our aim should be to get married sooner rather than later. You still need to exercise wisdom in choosing a spouse. This is particularly relevant for those that have been in relationships for a significant period of time, especially ones where both people see a long-term future and are experiencing a strong level of attraction. But it also speaks strongly into the problems we face in our modern-day dating culture. Our generation has taken pride in the fact that the average age of marriage has been pushed back to 30.  We also have the highest rates of living at home with our parents compared to any other point in history.  The thought is that this extra time will leave us better equipped when we do get married, but this is an illusion.  In this sense, age is just a number. Just because we wait longer to get married, doesn’t mean we’ll automatically develop the skills that are needed to sustain a marriage. It doesn’t mean we’ll be any more successful than previous generations. This is often what is so deceiving about the “getting married later in life” narrative. Building your character is not a natural byproduct of getting older. You could be just as selfish at 32 as you were at 24. You could be just as prideful or emotionally closed off. There is no evidence that our modern way of doing things is leading to greater success. If anything, it’s leading to more avoidant attachment behavior and that spells doom for relationships. For most of human history, the average age of marriage ranged from mid teens to early twenties. People started bearing a heavy amount of responsibility as early as the age of 12. They didn’t have to think about “burning with passion” well into their late 20s or 30s. This is not to say that we should be getting married at 12 or 15 in modern times. But it is to say that people in their early twenties are capable of developing the skills to be mature enough to have a thriving marriage, just as someone who is 30 or 40 would be. Again, this is all speaking with a foundation of Jesus in mind, with the assumption that two people are following his vision for their life and learning how to become like him in their daily lives.  There is no sense in suffering unnecessarily in the sexual sense, just because we’ve fallen under the illusion that holding out automatically means an older age will lead to success. If this is not the case – that you and/or your partner are not currently following Jesus, then marrying at a younger age could become problematic, because you are not both developing the necessary skills that come from the guidance and leadership of Jesus. Nonetheless all these tools – seeing yourself with eyes of grace, self-binding, rewiring your brain and having marriage in mind – are all powerful ways that Jesus can work through us and help us overcome our tendencies to objectify other people. For more on sex, click here to visit our Sex Hub.

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