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By Dan Allender
The church pianist arched her back and stretched her arms in preparation for the opening hymn. The man in front of me didn’t miss one movement. His wife, painfully aware of the object of his gaze, jabbed him in the side, he shot back angrily, “I wasn’t looking at anything.” His remark seemed well-rehearsed, perhaps from countless other occasions of being caught stealing looks at attractive women. The couple’s hurt and anger betrayed the endless cycle of accusation, defense, guilt, effort, helplessness, and failure so often associated with struggles of lust.
Lust is a battle for us all. Christians — both men and women — have struggled with it for generations. Many have measured their or others’ spirituality on the basis of their freedom from lust. Yet for all the interest focused on lust it would seem that we ought to be far clearer about the problem and its solution. What exactly is lust, why is it so hard to change, and how can we deal with its power to shape our lives?
The Color of Lust
Most people have come to equate lust with sexual desire. In many cases in Scripture, lust does refer to illicit sexual desire (I Pet. 4:3). Consequently, if we are not struggling with illicit sexual thoughts or behavior, we assume we are free from lust. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The word in the New Testament that is translated “lust” means strong desire. The word can be used to describe a legitimate, godly desire. Jesus said to His disciples: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk. 22:15). Elsewhere Paul said he strongly desired to depart this life to be with the Lord (Phil. 1:23), and yet he also strongly desired to be with his friends (1 Thess. 2:17). Strong, passionate, eager desire or lust is not inconsistent with God’s purpose for our lives.
On the other hand we know from the Bible and from experience that strong desire, or lust, can be immoral and destructive. I spoke to a thirty-five-year-old man, “Craig,” who had fought an obsession with pornography since he was eight years old. He was alternately victorious and then overwhelmed by his lustful desires. His occasional lapses endangered his ministry and threatened his relationship with his family.
But this man’s battle with lust was not confined solely to sexual pictures and mental images. In fact, his lust manifested itself in workaholism, extreme absorption in hobbies and reading, and an obsessive desire to please others. To focus too narrowly on his sexual lust would have caused us to lose the bigger picture of his battle with addictive desires.
“Diana” was struggling with the desire to have a fifth child. Every time she saw a newborn baby, she ruminated and obsessed about how to convince her husband. She lusted after being pregnant. Her battle was not sexual, but I would suggest she had just as great a problem with lust as the man who struggled with pornography.