We get emails pretty frequently asking, “what is lust?” I’d been working on a post on the topic for a while, but decided to quit when I read this excellent analysis of lust by Jason Staples. He begins with a passage that is likely familiar to most Christians, and goes from there to explain what kind of behavior is normal, and what’s sinful.
(I headlined this post with a picture of Gollum because his behavior epitomizes covetousness: he not only craves the One Ring, he kills and destroys to obtain it.)
Matthew 5:27–28: Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
“You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman/wife in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Many churches (especially within Evangelical circles), emphasize this verse to men and (especially) adolescent boys, warning that if they so much as think of a woman in a sexual manner, they’ve already sinned, that they’ve already effectively done the deed with her. Such an interpretation often works hand-in-glove with the common idea that Jesus “intensified” the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, setting a higher standard in order to show that no person could actually live up to God’s standards, showing that a person could only be saved by recognizing the impossibility of righteousness and then receiving forgiveness (a complete misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount I will address at another time). So the common teaching is: lust (that is, sexual lust) is absolutely evil—equivalent, even, to the physical act of sexual sin.
Another key aspect of nearly all the common misinterpretations of this verse is a specific (mistaken) definition of the word “lust.” Specifically, many readers understand “lust” as specifically denoting misplaced or overly robust libido. For example, as one recent conversation partner explained to me, “I take lust to mean wanting something more than you should in an unhealthy way.”
Despite its popularity, this interpretation is imprecise, even flat wrong, and leads to surprisingly harmful consequences, making this verse a great candidate to start this series.