It may well be that the first appearance of the sin of lust happened in the garden just as the man and woman made their tragic choice. As Eve considered the enticements of the serpent, she observed that the fruit was, among other things, “a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with something being pleasing to look at. But Genesis 3 is the record of history’s most infamous sin. So, we may safely conclude that Eve’s longing look upon the fruit in delight was done with a lustful eye. It was a covetous glance; a longing to have something that was not proper for her to possess.
Because Eve was born without a sin nature, her sin of lusting for the fruit (or more specifically what she believed the fruit could give her) was a deliberately chosen sin in response to an external source of temptation. We call that a “temptation from without.” We, however, are in an even more difficult predicament than our first mother. Having been born with a natural preference for sin, we are quite capable of producing lustful desires on our own without any external source egging us on. We call that “temptation from within.” Consider the words of James 1:14–15: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (emphasis added).
The New Testament word for lust is epithumia, which means “desire.” Of course, not all desires are bad. Indeed, there are examples in the New Testament of epithumia being used positively, such as when a qualified man appropriately “desires” the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1). But epithumia is often used to refer to sinful desires, so epithumia is also rendered as “lust” and “passions,” as well as “desires.” Lust is the desire for anything that is sinful, such as illicit sex, intoxication, ill-gotten gain, revenge, or anything else that God forbids.
Lust may also be applied to the way in which we desire something that is not in and of itself sinful. In other words, we may lust when we desire a good thing in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. It is not sinful to desire a spouse. But it is sinful to desire another person’s spouse. It is not sinful to desire to be compensated justly for legitimate labors. But it is sinful to desire riches to satisfy our materialistic appetites or because we crave worldly security. It is good to rest. But the sin of sloth is what happens when that desire becomes twisted. You get the picture. Lust is both a desire for the wrong thing and a wrong desire for an otherwise good thing. Lust, in all of its forms and expressions, is without exception sinful and, therefore, represents a sort of mutiny against God.
In Ephesians, Paul lists epithumia as belonging to those sins that characterize life outside of Christ when we “once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of our body” (Eph. 2:3, emphasis added). In Titus, we are told that prior to our conversion we were “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3, emphasis added). A life given over to such sinful desires is wildly inconsistent with the Christian life.
Peter refers to lust (passions) as a way of contrasting the life of the Christian with that of the unbeliever: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14, emphasis added). “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, emphasis added). He tells us we must no longer live for “human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2, emphasis added).
In rebuking the religious leaders who opposed Him and His mission, Jesus said that their “desires” (lusts) were the same as their father Satan (John 8:44). Jesus locates the origins of lust within the evil heart of Satan. Not surprisingly then, lust, or worldly desires, often choke out the seed of the gospel in the human heart (Mark 4:19). So lust takes aim at the church’s efforts to gain a hearing for the gospel.
Lust deserves our aggressive opposition. We must flee from it when it comes from outside of us and kill it when it gurgles up from our hearts. Lust is bad for us the way all sin is bad for us because it tells us that poison is sweet and dying is living. May we make full use of the God-given means of grace (Scripture, the sacraments, Christian fellowship, and prayer) to wage war against lust just as surely as lust wages war against us. May we look to Jesus and treasure Him in our hearts. His power and loveliness are far greater than anything with which the world can tempt us. Jesus’ promises are better by far than the mocking promises of worldly desire:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1–4)
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.