In our English language lust is most often associated with finding someone sexually desirable. If a man looks at a woman and thinks “she is hot” or “I would love to have sex with her” this is thought to be him lusting after her. But in the Bible this is not what lust means. Lust is not finding someone sexually desirable but rather it when we allow our sexual desire to turn into a desire to unlawfully sexually possess(or use) that person.
Lust is actually synonymous with covetousness in the Bible.
To covet or lust after someone or something Biblically speaking is the desire to unlawfully possess that person or thing that does not belong to us.
The two Greek words for lust and covetousness are used interchangeably in the New Testament. See these two passages which illustrate this fact:
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust[Epithumia], except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet[Epithumeo].” Romans 7:7 (KJV)
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after[Epithumeo] her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 (KJV)
Notice how in Romans 7:7 we see Epithumeo translated as “covet” but then in Matthew 5:28 we see it translated as “lust”. This type of interchangeable translation of these Greek words helps us to see the synonymous nature of lust and covetousness.
So what do Epithumia and Epithumeo mean?
Like many words in the Greek language these two words take on negative or positive meanings based on the context in which they are used. If they are used in a positive sense then they simply mean to passionately desire to possess someone or something that is good. If they are used in negative sense then they mean to passionately desire to UNLAWFULLY possess something.
Here are positive uses of these two words:
“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire[Epithumia] to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” – Philippians 1:22-24 (NIV)
“And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire[Epithumeo] to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.” – Luke 17:22 (KJV)
What do I mean by “unlawfully possess”
To “unlawfully possess” someone or something in the sense of lust or covetousness does not mean a person has to have some plan worked out to actually possess that person. Possession does not even have to mean “ownership”. What is can mean is simply “to unlawfully make use of” someone or something.
If I find my neighbor’s car desirable there is no sin in that. Even if I imagine myself drying down the road in it there is still no sin in that. But if I allow myself to obsess about his car to the point that I now have gone from finding his car desirable to now desiring to unlawfully possess(or make use of) his car then I have sinned. I further compound this sin of covetousness when I start to fantasize about how I could sneak a ride in his car when he is out.
In the context of a “desire to unlawfully possess” a person in the area of sexuality I mean “to make sexual use of their body”. This does not have to mean you want to have a permanent relationship with them – it could be a one night stand that you desire to unlawfully have with them.
The desire to unlawfully possess someone sexually is the desire to fornicate with them.
Fornication is any violation of God’s laws regarding sexual behavior.
Here are several types of fornication that the Bible forbids:
Premarital sex (whoremongering)
“Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” – Hebrews 13:4 (KJV)
Marriage is the only place that God honors marriage and sex outside of marriage resulted in great penalties in the Scripture.
Whoremongering is when a man (married or single) has sex with women he is not married to or when a single woman has sex with men she is not married to.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” – Exodus 20:14
Adultery was the sin of a man having sex with another man’s wife.
“Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.” – I Corinthians 6:15 (KJV)
“18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…
26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.” – Romans 1:18 & 26-27 (KJV)
“No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 18:6-18 (NIV)
But isn’t thinking about sex with a person you are not married to thinking about fornication?
In most churches today because of a false teaching about what lust actually is most Christians will accept this statement being taught as true:
“If you are having sexual thoughts about a person you are not married to that is lust because you are thinking about fornication”
But if you were to ask a room full of married Christians if they had sexual fantasies about their spouse before they were married most of them if they are honest will say “yes”. Some of them will even regard that as sin – even to think about a person sexually that you are engaged to. So these people constantly condemned themselves for their sexual fantasies about their spouses before marriage.
Others will make an “exception clause” for sexual fantasy about a person you are not married to. If you have a reasonable belief that you are going to marry the person then God allows this “premarital” sexual fantasy. But in their view you are forbidden from having any sexual fantasies about any person with whom you could not reasonably having a relationship with and expect to marry.
The problem with this thinking is the equation is wrong from the beginning.
Thinking about what sex would be like with someone is NOT the same as thinking about fornicating with them.
This would be like saying if you see a hamburger on someone’s plate at a restaurant and imagine how great it would be to eat it that this is the same as thinking about stealing a bite of their hamburger.
Our imagination and even our sexual imagination and our ability to be aroused by the sight of the opposite sex is a gift from God in the same way that our arousal at the sights and smells of food is a gift from God.
For a more in-depth discussion on this topic of lust from a Biblical perspective see this other articles from BIblicalGenderRoles.com:
What does the Bible say about Lust?
Is it wrong for Christians to pose nude, or paint and photograph nudes?
Is sexual fantasy outside a relational context sinful?