The Difference Between Lust and Healthy Desire

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When the enemy can’t get you to fall into the ditch on one side, he’ll work hard to hurdle you into the ditch on the other. If he can’t make you overwhelmed with rage, he’ll be satisfied with weakness or cowardice. Corrupting truth into either self-righteousness or tolerance will do just fine. And he’s used the same pathway to bring confusion about the difference between lust and healthy desire.

In our oversexualized culture it’s not hard to see how unbridled indulgence in sexual lust has led to great damage. Sex trafficking, the porn industry, sexual abuse, infidelity in marriage, buying sex, sexual promiscuity, and every other imaginable deviation from God’s plan of one man and one woman enjoying sex in marriage – sex is everywhere.

But that’s only one very large ditch. What about the ditch on the other side?

Is desire equivalent to lust? What about appreciating the image of a beautiful human being? Is suppressing all sexual desire the most godly thing to do? How about intensely desiring sexual connection with your spouse? Is a single person lusting when they desire to get married and have sex? Is someone with a low sex drive somehow holier than someone with a high sex drive?

This is a slippery subject. It touches on deep wounds and even deeper identity issues about how God made us. But the gospel is good news! It has good things to say about this, and we need to pay attention.

The Core of Lust

For anyone who has struggled with unwanted or destructive sexual behavior, you know how deep the root of lust can grow. “Managing your lust” is an exhausting and often losing proposition. But the core of lust is not sexual desire.

James says it this way: “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (James 4:2-3)

Lust is not libido. As this passage in James illustrates, it has as much or more to do with selfishness or greed. It’s the sense of, “I want what I want when I want it, so I can use it and gratify myself without regard for anything or anyone else.” That’s why the phrases lust for money or lust for power are completely accurate. It has the sense of consuming, using up, and then throwing away if/when it no longer gratifies.

So you can see how imagining or treating another human being, made in God’s image, that way is so counter to the character of God, and who we are to be as followers of Jesus.  

The Difference Between Desire and Lust

If lust is not libido, what about plain desire? Would God rather we be devoid of all desire?

The short answer is No!

You may have read this C.S. Lewis quote: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)

It’s not that we want too much; it’s that we are satisfied with too little. We indulge in our little addictions hoping to dull the desire for something we struggle to articulate, the desire that won’t go away. Humans are not naturally good at delayed gratification, especially in those areas where we don’t see likely satisfaction in the near future.

And specifically regarding sex, we go after sexual indulgence when we hunger for true intimacy, knowing and being known – physically, emotionally, spiritually. And as hungry as we are for intimacy, we’re also truly terrified of it. So many reach for sex (sometimes at any cost), and may wonder why it’s never enough.

If the ditch on one side is hungrily trying to gratify every lustful desire, the ditch on the other side is trying to eliminate all desire. And that’s neither healthy nor godly.

God-Given Desire

Satan cannot create. He comes up with nothing original. Our sexual desires did not originate from the enemy; they originated from God Himself when He created us in His image.

And how the enemy has distorted them.

A beautiful woman, for example, illustrates God’s crowning creation. Adam wakes up from his God-induced anesthesia and can hardly believe his eyes. His whole being is enraptured with the sight of Eve. You can be sure he was aroused! “Naked and unashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

But in Jesus words: “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 5:28) Notice “lustful intent.” A look that devolves into “I want her when I want her to do what I want with her” (or him) – that’s lust.

How far we have fallen!

And remember that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) As a fully human man, Jesus felt sexual desire. But He did not lust.

What to Do With Desire

So now what? How do you handle desire, especially sexual desire? At the risk of making this sound “easy” (it’s not), I submit these ideas. The ongoing struggles here will be abundantly worth it.

  1. Submit your sexuality to Jesus. Our sinful nature has corrupted and marred sexual desire for most of us. The only way to separate sexual desire from lust is to daily submit your sexuality to Jesus.
  2. Seek healing. We have all been harmed sexually. Take the time to get to the root of your sexual stuff – whether you hunger for sex or hate sex. Keep working with the Holy Spirit toward becoming whole.
  3. Pursue intimacy. In marriage, that means pursuing connection with your spouse – physical, emotional, and spiritual. If unmarried, that means pursuing real love with brothers and sisters in Christ, as difficult as that often seems.
  4. Let desire grow. Yes, grow! The desire God has planted within you is designed to keep you hungering first for Him, and then for the eternity He has promised, when He will make all things right.

May the desires God has planted within you be both enlarged and sanctified, regardless of your marital status.

Your Turn: Have you tried to “manage your lust?” Can you begin to see the difference between lust and healthy desire? What are you going to do with your desires? Leave a comment below.

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