Appendix E: The Definition of Lust

In this section we will explore the meaning of, and difference between ‘need’, ‘desire’, ‘lust’, ‘flesh’ and ‘temptation’ in great detail. Great detail is needed for this topic because it is a crucial topic. If we have a wrong understanding of what these terms mean then we will go astray in many other important doctrines. Great detail is also needed because there are many wrong definitions for these terms floating around – definitions that lead to serious error.

Needs

Man is a created being. God did not create man as a self-sufficient being. Consequently, man has needs. A need is something that enables man to live or enables man to live well.

There are two kinds of needs: essential needs, and non-essential needs. Essential needs are those without which man will die. Air, food, water and sleep are examples of essential needs. Non-essential needs are those that are not needed for staying alive but enhance the quality of life. They may also have other functions. For example, sex, approval, affection and honor are non-essential needs. Sex also serves to propagate the human race. Both these types of needs are not involuntary (like the need for the heart to beat) – they must be satisfied by action on our part.

Desires

When our body senses that we need something it causes us to experience a desire. For example, when our body senses that it needs food it causes us to experience hunger – which is nothing but a desire for food. Desires are our body’s way of communicating our needs to us.

A desire in itself is neither good nor bad. There are two ways for us to satisfy that desire – a legitimate way, and an illegitimate way. The legitimate way is to satisfy the desire at the God-appointed time and by the God-appointed method. The illegitimate way is to satisfy it at the wrong time or by the wrong method, or both. God’s laws define the God-appointed time and the God-appointed method for man to satisfy his needs.

In the case of hunger, the wrong time would be when the Spirit of God is urging you to fast and pray, and the wrong way would be to steal someone else’s food.

Lust and temptation

Lust (noun) is the urge (or thought) that suggests to you that you should satisfy the desire in an illegitimate way. If there is no law then there cannot be an illegitimate way and hence there cannot be a lust. For a lust to be present there has to be a desire for something, and a law that prohibits satisfying the desire under certain circumstances, and there has to be the occurrence of those circumstances.

This process whereby the lust comes to the mind via a thought is called temptation. In the words of James, temptation is the enticement and carrying away of our thoughts by our lust (Jas 1:14-15).

Jas 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

If you are not capable of being aware of a particular law of God then you cannot experience the lust to violate that law. Therefore, you cannot experience temptation in that area. Therefore, you cannot sin in that area because you cannot sin unless you are tempted. That is an implication of what Jas 1:14-15 says – only when lust has conceived you have sinned.

Lust (verb) is when you decide to satisfy the desire in the illegitimate way. This is the conception of the lust (noun), at which point you have sinned (Jas 1: 14-15).

Let us explore Jas 1:14-15 a bit more.

"By his own lust" implies that each of us have lusts. Lusts are within us. They are not external to us. An external event or our perception of an external event may trigger our lust, but the lust is within us.

"Carried away and enticed by his own lust" tells us what a lust is, or more specifically, what it can do – it can carry us away (or take focus of our thoughts) and entice us (i.e. draw us to seeking pleasure in a way that God does not approve).

"Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust" tells us that temptation comes through our lusts. Since the Bible describes no other mechanism for temptation this must be the only way that we are tempted – through our lusts. Without lusts there can be no temptation. Having lusts is a requirement for temptation. One who does not have lusts cannot be tempted – at least not in the way that we are tempted.

Since Adam and Eve were tempted (Gen 3:6) we can conclude that they must have had lusts through which the temptation came. Also, since Jesus was tempted like we are (Heb 4:15) He too must have had lusts.

"When lust has conceived it gives birth to sin" clearly implies that the mere presence of the lust does not mean sin. It has to conceive before the action is considered as sin. Conception happens when we decide to go ahead and satisfy our desire in an illegitimate way.

Being enticed and carried away but our lusts is temptation – not sin. Those who say that lusts are only evil desires and therefore sinful when they pop up in our mind are contradicting Jas 1:14 which tells us that the purpose of lusts is to tempt us to do evil.

"Once sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" means that once we have sinned we suffer the consequences of sin, which is death. Note that the death is immediate, not delayed. The implication is that the wages of sin is spiritual death (a separation of our spirit from the Spirit of God), not physical death because we know from experience that we don’t die physically when we sin.

We are tempted when we are carried away and enticed by a lust (Jas 1:14). It happens in this way: a thought enters our mind, demanding that we derive pleasure in a certain way, even though deriving such a pleasure in that way is against God’s law. The thought may be stimulated by what we see, hear, smell, touch or taste, or it may just come out of nowhere (for example, a thought may enter demanding that we wish evil for a person who has hurt us). We may either ignore the thought or consider the thought. If we ignore it, it may not come again, or it may come again, and again, and again, until we are forced to consider it consciously. What it does depends on how we have reacted to it in the past. If we have consistently ignored it in the past it may not come again at all, or may come, but with less intensity. If in the past we have given in to the pleasure demanded by it, it demands for satisfaction more strongly. If we consider it consciously, we have two choices, do what it demands and experience the pleasure that results in the action, or refuse to do what it demands and suffer through the discomfort that results. The choice we make at this point determines whether we have sinned or not.

If we do what the lust demands (in the example above, we actually wish that evil may happen to the person who hurt us) then we have allowed the lust to conceive, and the result of that conception is that we have sinned (Jas 1:15).

If we refuse to do what the lust demands (in the example above, we refuse to wish that any evil happen to the person who hurt us) then we do not sin but have overcome the temptation. The discomfort we experience because we have refused to satisfy the lust is called suffering in the flesh (1 Pet 4:1,2) or dying to the flesh (Rom 6:7) or walking in the newness of life (Rom 6:4) or being crucified in the flesh (Rom 6:6).

The word ‘lust’ (verb) has also been used in the Bible as a synonym for ‘desire’. The sense of its use as a ‘desire’ is that of ‘wanting’ or ‘willing’, and not in the sense of ‘an urge to satisfy a need in an illegitimate way’. In the Bible, the word ‘lust’ (verb) has been used to indicate a desire for something good (for example, Jesus earnestly desired (lusted) to have the Last Supper with the disciples) and a desire for something bad. Most of the time it has a bad connotation. In that sense it is an evil desire, or more accurately, a desire (or urge) to do evil.

When a lust pops up in our mind have we sinned?

Based on the fact that the Bible uses the word ‘lust’ to refer to desire, some theologians say that when a lust pops up in your mind you have sinned.

However, there are places in the Bible where the word ‘lust’ is used as a noun. Examples are in Rom 6:12, where Paul tells us not to obey our lusts, in 2 Tm 2:22, where Paul tells Timothy to flee youthful lusts, and in 1 Pet 2:11, where Peter tells us to abstain from fleshly lusts.

Our lusts wage war against our soul (1 Pet 2:11). We are to abstain from them. This implies that my lust is saying, "Do wrong," and my soul is saying, "don’t do wrong," and I would have done wrong only after I obeyed the lust.

Rom 6:12 says, "Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts." This implies that temptation is the lust coming up and saying, "Obey me," and sin is me obeying the lust.

Rom 13:14 says, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts." This implies that the lust would be saying, "Make provision for me – obey me" and I should be saying, "No." I would have not make provision unless I said, "Yes."

2 Tm 2:22 says, "Flee from youthful lusts." This implies that when the lusts entice me I should flee from them, and that if I have flown from them I have not sinned, but if I have not flown from them I have sinned, and that the coming up of the lusts themselves is not sin.

A lust may either pop up as a response to our senses (e.g. we see a beautiful woman) or randomly (a thought of a beautiful woman seen some time ago pops up). We cannot always control when it pops up. So to say that the popping up of the lust is sin is to also imply that we sin under no control from ourselves.

Further, if it is true that the popping up of the lust is sin, then Peter’s command to abstain from lusts makes no sense (1 Pet 2:11). Nor does Paul’s command to Timothy (2 Tm 2:22). Nor can Paul’s command to the Romans (Rom 6:12) be obeyed. The fact that Paul asks us to not obey our lusts, and the fact that Peter asks us to abstain from fleshly lusts, indicates that the popping up of the lust is not sin, but the obeying of it is. If the lust pops up and we abstain from it we have not sinned.

Types of lusts

There are three types of the lusts (noun) (1 Jn 2:16):

  • Lusts of the flesh
  • The word ‘flesh’ here refers to our physical flesh. The lusts of the flesh are lusts that arise due to our bodily needs such as hunger, thirst, and so on, and due to our psychological needs such as affection, security, friendship, and so on.
  • The body and the soul are the avenues through which the lusts of the flesh are experienced. A man who is hungry is tempted to steal food. Such a temptation could not occur if he had no body. Similarly, a man who has been hurt emotionally is tempted to take revenge. One would not feel hurt if he had no soul.
  • Lusts of the eyes
  • These are lusts that arise due to our desire for what we see. They pertain to what we want rather than what we need. When we see something nice we desire it even though we may not need it at all. For example, you may see a nice big car and you want it even though you don’t need it because you already have a car that meets your needs.
  • Lusts that pertain to the boastful pride of life
  • These are lusts that arise due to our desire to compare ourselves to others, and to be better than others. When we desire a bigger car, a bigger home, a bigger salary than others, and do things to fulfill that desire (such as belittling others or buying bigger things just to be bigger) then we are lusting (verb) in the category of the boastful pride of life.

Eve was tempted with all these lusts in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:6). She saw that the fruit was good for food (lust of the flesh) and that it was a delight to the eyes (lust of the eyes) and that it would make her like God, knowing good and evil (the boastful pride of life).

The fact that Eve could be tempted with all these lusts shows that she had the same kinds of desires as we have today.

Example

Let me include an example to show the steps involved in being tempted and falling into sin.

Let us assume that I am short of money. As I am walking down the street I see a man unwittingly drop a wad of dollar bills. No one else notices it but me. I get the urge to pick up that wad and put it in my pocket. That is the focus of my thoughts. I am thus enticed and carried away. My lust for money is asking me to take what does not belong to me.

Now all of this is the enticement. I have not yet done what my lust has asked of me. I have not received the pleasure or benefit of the action. Until this point it is only temptation. There is no sin.

I believe that Jesus experienced all this.

Now comes the next step. I foolishly decide to obey my lust - I make up my mind to pick up the money and walk away. In doing so, I have allowed the lust to conceive. At this point I have sinned.

It is quite possible that the act of making up our mind to illegitimately satisfy our desire and the act of illegitimately satisfying our desire occur almost simultaneously.

Jesus never ever allowed His lust for money to conceive and therefore He never sinned. This is how He was tempted as we are and yet never sinned.

Flesh

The Bible uses the word ‘flesh’ in different ways. One meaning is the literal one, referring to the skin that covers our body. It refers to flesh, as in ‘flesh and blood.’ The word is used in this sense in Mt 16:17, Lk 24:39, 1 Cor 15:50, Gal 1:16, Gal 4:13,14, Eph 6:12 and Heb 6:12.

The other meaning of the word ‘flesh’ is that part of us that serves as a storehouse of lusts. The flesh can be thought of as the total collection of all our lusts (1 Pet 2:11). It includes not just the lusts of the physical flesh but also the lusts of the eyes and the lusts that result in the boastful pride of life.

For the rest of this section, unless specified, I will use the second meaning of the word ‘flesh’.

What is the flesh

  • The flesh is a part of the heart in the sense that it presents itself to us via thoughts (Eph 2:3) but is not exactly the same thing as the mind (Rom 7:25).
  • The flesh has lusts (Eph 2:3, 1 Pet 2:11, Rom 13:14) or corrupt desires (that is, urges to do evil) (2 Pet 2:10,18, Gal 5:16, Eph 2:3).
  • The deeds of the flesh are partially described in Gal 5:19-21.

Some characteristics of the flesh

  • The flesh has a will (Jn 1:13) in the sense that it can influence our behavior and actions.
  • The flesh has weaknesses (Rom 6:19; Mt 26:41; Mk 14:38) in the sense that it contends with our spirit regarding what we should do, urging us to do what is wrong instead of what is right.
  • No good thing dwells in the flesh (Rom 7:18).
  • The flesh and the Spirit (Holy Spirit, not our spirit) oppose each other (Gal 5:17; Rom 8:8). If we please one then we have to deny the other (Rom 8:4-14).
  • A thorn in the flesh is something that troubles or limits you (2 Cor 12:7).

The Christian and the flesh

  • To walk in the flesh is to be a living human being (2 Cor 10:3), but to walk according to the flesh (2 Cor 10:3), or to live according to the flesh (Rom 8:13), or to be in the flesh (Rom 7:5), or to sow to the flesh (Gal 6:8), is to be carnal, or to set your mind on the things of the flesh (Rom 8:5), or to satisfy the desires of the flesh, or to fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
  • Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:8).
  • If you sow to the flesh you reap corruption (or death) (Gal 6:8).
  • If you live according to the flesh you will die (Rom 8:13).
  • The flesh (skin and bones) must be sanctified / purified (Heb 9:13).
  • We must cleanse ourselves from the things that defile our flesh (skin and bones) (2 Cor 7:1).
  • A Christian has crucified the flesh (Gal 5:24) and is no longer in the flesh (Rom 8:9).
  • He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin (1 Pet 4:1). Therefore a Christian must prepare himself to suffer in the flesh.
  • Marriage troubles the flesh (or gives the flesh plenty of opportunity to show itself) (1 Cor 7:28).
  • Christ came in sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). That is, He came in a flesh that could potentially lead Him to sin.

It is the presence of our flesh that brings the potential of sin. A being that has no flesh has no lusts (by definition) and therefore cannot be tempted (since we are tempted when we are enticed by our lusts) and therefore cannot sin (since we sin only when lust has conceived).

Wrong definitions and their consequences

Some people have gone astray in their understanding of ‘lust’ and ‘temptation,’ and the result is that they commit serious error.

These people come to the conclusion that lusts are evil desires. They only think of the usage of the word ‘lust’ as a verb. They come to this conclusion by doing a lexical analysis of the different ways the Greek word for ‘lust’ is used in the Bible. They find that it mostly refers to evil desires and only a few times to good desires. So they (wrongly) conclude that lusts are evil desires and therefore sinful. In their analysis they forget Jas 1:14-15 and other verses that talk about the use of the word ‘lust’ as a noun.

Those who say that lusts are always evil desires (and therefore sinful) are forced to say that Jesus did not have lusts (because the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus never sinned). This in turn forces them to conclude that Jesus was not tempted in the same way as we are (because we are tempted through our lusts, and their earlier conclusion was that Jesus did not have lusts in His flesh). They say that He was tempted in the same way that God was tested by the Israelites in the Old Testament. Such temptation, they say, is ‘external’ while being tempted by our lusts is ‘internal’. They say that the testing that God endures is different from the temptation that we face – in the sense that God can be tested, but not to do evil.

Such people also have a problem translating Heb 4:15 in the normal way. They say that the correct way to translate Heb 4:15 is ‘… but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, except for sin’. instead of ‘… but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin’.

The consequences of interpreting lust as an evil desire are huge. It leads you to conclude that Jesus came in a flesh that was different from ours! This is the spirit of the antichrist (1 Jn 4:1-6, 2 Jn 1:7-11).

Nevertheless, we should know how to respond to the arguments made by such people. How do we respond to their arguments?

First of all, the Bible only speaks of one kind of temptation. It does not talk of ‘internal’ or ‘external’ temptation, even in concept. Therefore the notion of ‘internal’ or ‘external’ temptation is invalid.

Secondly, the idea that one can be tested (or tempted) to do something other than evil makes no sense. Testing is to determine whether the thing being tested is strong or not. The result is either a pass or fail. A test in which there is no possibility of failure is no test at all. All temptation is a temptation to do evil. If you do not do the evil you have passed the test. If you do the evil then you have failed the test. If a temptation is not a temptation to do evil then what is it a temptation for? Therefore the notion that God can be tested apart from evil is invalid.

So how do we explain all the verses that talk about God being tested by the Israelites?

Jas 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted by evil. It means no matter what evil you do against God no lust pops up in Him tempting Him to behave badly and thereby sin. As we saw earlier, lusts are thoughts that urge one to satisfy a desire in an illegitimate way. But because God is self-sufficient He has no needs, and because He has no needs, He has no desires that communicate those needs to Him. So if He has no desires He cannot have any lusts that tempt Him to satisfy those desires in an illegitimate way. When Scripture speaks of the Israelites testing God it is saying that the Israelites behaved badly towards God. It is not saying that such behavior resulted in God being tested or tempted to do any evil.

An analogy should make this clear. When you bring a magnet close to iron the iron piece gets attracted to the magnet. But when you bring the magnet close to plastic the magnet has no effect on the plastic. But you can still test the plastic by bringing the magnet close to it. In the same way, man (iron) can be tempted with (attracted to) evil (the magnet). But even though you can test God (the plastic) He is not tempted by (attracted to) evil (the magnet). When the Bible speaks of God being tested it is speaking in the sense where the magnet is brought close to the plastic.

God is Spirit and He cannot be tempted to do evil because He does not have a flesh (with lusts) and temptations occur only if a flesh is present.

Lastly, to read the last part of Heb 4:15 as "… except for sin" instead of "… yet without sin" is the misuse of the knowledge of Greek in order to make the verse to fit one’s doctrine rather than to make one’s doctrine to fit the verse. The Greek word ‘choris’ used for the English word ‘without’ has the sense of ‘a separation from’ and has been translated as ‘without’ 25 times, ‘apart from’ 10 times, ‘aside from’ once, ‘separate from’ once, ‘independent’ twice, ‘besides’ once and ‘by itself’ once. Clearly, the sense of the word is to convey that Christ was separate from sin, and not that the manner of temptation was separate from sin.

Further, the context of Heb 4:15 clearly is attempting to show that Christ can sympathize with our weaknesses when we are tempted. That is not possible if He was tempted differently from how we are tempted.

In view of all this, it is improper to interpret the last part of Heb 4:15 as "… except for sin" instead of "… yet without sin."

In view of all that has been said lust (when used as a noun) cannot be defined as an evil desire and cannot be considered sinful in itself. It would be more accurate to call it a desire (or a prompting or an urge) to do evil. It is the urge that suggests we satisfy our desires in an illegitimate way. If we decide to go ahead and satisfy our desires in an illegitimate way the lust has conceived (i.e. we have lusted (verb)) and the lust (noun) has given birth to sin.


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