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Desire, Lust, and Covetousness

An Axis Course On Sex Talk 2.0

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” – Matthew 5:27-28

Although the Bible does not directly mention pornography, it does mention lust. So what is lust?

First, let’s talk about what lust is not. Many young men and women have had tremendous burdens placed on their shoulders because someone in authority told them the word “lustfully” meant “with sexual desire.” They come away with the belief that any time they look at someone and experience any sort of desire, they are sinning. They may eventually conclude that Christianity is a religion of sexual shame.

It cannot be overemphasized that none of us would have sexual desire in the first place if God hadn’t thought it was a good idea, and given it to us. As Paul writes in a different context, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). So in the discussion about pornography, we need to locate the sin very precisely. We believe the ultimate issue is not sexual desire, or attraction, but the way porn turns our sexual desire into something degrading, dehumanizing, and addicting.

Although a bit lengthy, this quote from Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy carves the issue up well:

[W]hen we only think of sex with someone we see, or simply find him or her attractive, that is not wrong, and certainly is not what Jesus calls ‘adultery in the heart.’ Merely to be tempted sexually requires that we think of sex with someone we are not married to, and that we desire the other person—usually, of course, someone we see. But temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entered. Jesus himself came under it, experienced it, and understood it. Therefore those translations of Matt. 5:28 that say, ‘Everyone who looks at a woman and desires her,’ or ‘everyone who looks at a woman with desire,’ are terribly mistaken. They do much harm, especially to young people. For they totally change the meaning of the text and present ‘adultery in the heart’ as something one cannot avoid, as something that just happens to people with no collusion of their will. That on this reading to be tempted would be sin should have been enough, by itself, to show that such translations are mistaken… The wording refers to looking at a woman with the purpose of desiring her. That is, we desire to desire. We indulge and cultivate desiring because we enjoy fantasizing about sex with the one seen. Desiring sex is the purpose for which we are looking.

This sort of “desiring to desire” is clearly the motivation for going to a strip club, or seeking out pornography. But Willard is wise to distinguish between this and the sort of desires and attractions that young people might experience as a part of going through puberty.

In the Septuagint Bible, the word translated as “lustfully” in Matthew 5:28 is the word epithymeō. This Greek word simply means “desire.” It’s actually the same word Jesus uses about himself when he says to his disciples in Luke 22:15, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Clearly Jesus isn’t saying that he was having sexual thoughts about the Passover; there just was no different word for sexual desire. And if Jesus experienced it, clearly this can’t be what Jesus was taking issue with in Matthew 5:28.

The Greek translation of the 10th commandment uses the same word, epithymeō, when it says “Do not “epithymeō” (or covet) your neighbor’s house, ox, or wife.” The same Greek word is translated as “covet” in one place and “lust” in another. And though we usually define coveting as having a desire for something that belongs to someone else and having a scheme to obtain it, we typically define lust as any evidence of desire at all. This definition is misguided.

The tenth commandment doesn’t just say “do not epithymeō.” Instead, it specifically narrows the focus of what we shouldn’t covet to what belongs to our neighbors: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house, ox, or wife.” The real problem isn’t with desire; the real problem is when we allow our desire to turn into a plot to obtain something (or someone) we don’t have a legitimate right to obtain. We might say that sexual desire is the body’s reaction, which is normal, and what’s being prohibited in these verses is more an act of the will, when plans are made for sexual gratification which fail to respect the boundaries of marriage.

When your son or your daughter begins experiencing sexual desire, they are experiencing something good, which God has not condemned. Yes, if our desires are deliberately cultivated, enflamed, and acted on illegitimately, we can fall into sin—but we go too far when we label the desire itself as sin. False rules lead to false guilt, and false guilt keeps us from being able to accept the grace that Jesus came to lavish on us.

Action Steps

After reading this, how would you talk about the difference between desire and lust? Spend some time answering that for yourself, and take some time to write out your thoughts. If possible or applicable, discuss your thoughts with your spouse.


“Father, thank you that you have made us with desires, just as Jesus himself had desires. I pray that you would help us see how our own desires reflect your passionate heart, and help us see how to wisely steward the desires you have given us. In Jesus’ name, amen.”