Christian Reflections on Lust, Modesty, and Beauty (Part 6): What is Lust?

ModestyJesus has no patience for lust. He doesn’t mince words about how one should deal with it: If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you…if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you (Matt. 5:29-30). Jesus takes lust seriously, more seriously I’d say than most of us. It’s not that Jesus is in favor of self-mutilation, after all one-eyed and one-handed people can still lust, yet his words do direct us towards drastic action against sin in our own hearts and lives. It’s important, then, that we clearly understand what lust is, if we are going to be able to take the kind of action that Jesus mandates. The church must be able to carefully, Biblically, and intelligently answer the question, “what is lust,” if we want to appropriately help each other fight against it.

An initial step must be defining the term properly. The Bible speaks of lust and greed in very similar ways. It does so because lust is a particular manifestation of greed – one directed towards the desire to possess and use another person. So, in the Ten Commandments, God warns Israel not to “covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant” (Exodus 20:17). We often associate greed and covetousness with a love for money, but the Bible partners it with a host of things, even sexual immorality. So, Paul says to the Ephesians:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:3-5)

Paul speaks here of sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness. The three terms represent different ways to speak of the same sin issue. Sexual immorality and covetousness are easily associated in Paul’s mind because lust is a form of covetousness. Lust, then, is not merely attraction, nor even arousal; it is the desire to have, to possess, to take for yourself what is not rightfully yours. This is why the Biblical authors can on occasion use the word “lust” in more broad ways as well. John may speak generally of the “lusts of the flesh,” and “the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16), and Psalm 68:30 speaks of those who “lust after tribute.” Lust is far deeper than merely the act of recognizing the attractiveness of another. It is even far deeper than being aroused by another. It is a wicked intent to have, to possess, to use, even if only in the mind.

This distinction is significant. In our efforts to be faithful to Scripture we have tended to broaden the scope of this category beyond what the Scriptures say. As a result of this broadening we have discouraged many men and women. If all attraction and all arousal are lust, plain and simple, then many of us will be left wondering what we can do to fight this monster. After all, attraction and arousal are largely biological and chemical. They can, of course, be initiated by our thought life, but they can also be completely detached from it. Fighting against lust is challenging enough, fighting against this broadened category of lust is nearly impossible.

Not surprisingly this broadening has resulted in hosts of extra-biblical rules. The hyper-vigilante, in an earnest desire to be Biblical, go around setting all sorts of ground rules to try and protect themselves and others from “lust,” by which they really mean attraction and arousal. They hand out guidelines for what women can wear, and what men can watch, all in an effort to shield us from the realities of attraction. So, for example, women should not have curves. Long, baggy, dresses that conceal their physique are deemed most appropriate. There should be nothing suggestive of the fact that they are in fact women. And men, for their part, should find no woman attractive or beautiful, with the exception of their spouse. To do so is automatically deemed lusting after her. All beauty must be hidden. We’ve discussed this element already in a previous post, but the reality is if we have no category for beauty, attraction, and arousal except the category of lust then we will inevitably be forced to view all of it as inappropriate. Thus we have no other recourse except to create rules which must be governed by legalist police. That lust is about something more akin to “possession” is an important distinction.

Lust is at its core selfish. It wants to take, keep, and use whatever it finds most desirable. Alan Noble writes about a man who for thirty years has been taking pictures of women’s behinds without them knowing. It’s the most blatant example of the reality of lust. It’s a desire to possess, to have for yourself what does not rightly belong to you. Noble describes all lust in similar language, saying:

When I “look lustfully upon a woman” I’m not just getting some sexual thrill at visual stimulation, I’m longing for validation through ownership. If I could only have that beautiful woman, then . . . . (“What I Learned About Lust and Beauty from a Flickr Voyeur”)

If my attraction leads me to want to have or to use, if it can be described in the language of greed and covetousness, then it has crossed the line. It has become lust. This gives us a very helpful, narrow, and focused understanding of lust. Another friend speaks of the distinction with some poetic clarity. In conversation about this distinction he wrote to me saying:

Beauty is the admiration of something grand. Lust is the desire to take and own. Beauty is shared with all for the sake of its beauty. Lust is kept for oneself. Lust grasps. Beauty gasps.

It is possible to appreciate beauty, to find someone attractive without automatically devolving into the area of sin. A trip to the art museum helps us grasp this distinction. For at the museum the human bodies on display inspire awe and wonder, not a desire to own and have. We may appreciate beauty and attraction without sin. In fact, God has designed the world to work this way.

When we speak about attraction and arousal we ought to recognize that we are speaking about a biological reality. Again, attraction and arousal can most definitely be initiated and/or driven by our thought life (particularly lustful thoughts), but often they are not. So, for example, research has found that when a woman is most fertile she is more inclined towards the stereotypical “sexy guy.” So, Mary Bowerman at USA Today reported on 2014 research regarding the “biology of attraction,” saying:

One, a UCLA analysis to be published Feb. 24 in the Psychological Bulletin, looked at dozens of studies on more than 5,000 women to see if there was evidence across the studies that women’s preference in a mate shifts during ovulation. It found that when women are ovulating, they are more interested in men with masculine bodies, symmetrical facial features, dominant behavior, and certain body odors. This attraction to men with more masculine characteristics doesn’t last all month, just during the height of fertility. (“The Biology of Attraction: Women Have Urges Too”)

Our bodies are designed by God to recognize beauty, to be attracted, and even to be aroused. They do this by natural impulse apart from any lustful intent. We need to be careful, then, that as we speak about and define the category of lust we do not broaden it in unhealthy and unhelpful ways.

We can and must fight lust. We cannot fight attraction. We should not fight beauty. By lumping all three realities together under the category of sin we are doing damage to Christian men and women everywhere. There are beautiful and attractive people in the world. They do not need to hide or look less attractive (whatever that would mean). Nor should we be so concerned about the potential attractiveness of others. In fact, by focusing our energy on fighting attraction and beauty we are actually dealing less with the reality of lust than we might think. By focusing our attention on lust as a desire to possess we will be more equipped to actually deal with, confront, and resist sin. This distinction is significant. To fight lust we need to define it properly.


  1. […] we have discussed a host of issues related to the concept of modesty. We’ve discussed beauty, lust, and responsibility. We’ve noted the sliding scale of human evaluation, the important roles of […]

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