Defining Lust

Chocolate lust. Double the vice.

Along with a lot of other “progressive” Christian bloggers, Amy Mitchell of Unchained Faith has weighed in on purity culture. I share this one here particularly because it gets to a serious matter of biblical interpretation which fuels a lot of the harmful purity culture rhetoric in our churches. Here’s the passage at play:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e]28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

Here’s the key point from Amy (emphases mine):

As it happens, the Greek word is the same word as the one for “covet.”  Now, I’m sure that at least some of my fellow feminists know that, and that’s why they’ve defined “lust” as obsessive, objectifying, or possessive.  But I’m going to argue here that the reason it bothers some women that (again, men) might fantasize about women they’ve seen has nothing to do with whether or not those men actually want to have sex with them.  It has more to do with the objectification.  That’s a valid argument, to an extent, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus said.  The specific thing being warned against is not objectification but possession–the desire to have or own something that does not belong to you–and a general approach to women which includes the intent to possess.

That’s an important distinction to make.  There is a big difference between being aroused by a sexy person on the beach (and even fantasizing about it later) and going to the beach with the intent to troll for people to fantasize about.  In the former, it’s a response to an unanticipated stimulus; in the latter, it’s an intentional search for the stimulus.  Intent matters–it means something.

She points out that she is not a biblical scholar and she did have to look that up, but I can confirm that many other scholars have made the same point. A couple of years ago I read Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition. It was fascinating largely because in some respects we’ve made Jesus far more lax than he probably was (e.g. divorce), in others far more strict (e.g. “lust”) and in others we just completely miss some of the context of what he was saying altogether (e.g. “let the children come to me” was dangerous because it could invoke charges of pederasty).

In any case, I remember what this book said. It pointed out that sometimes Christians use lust to say at least 3 different things (Amy gave more variations but it’s generally the same ideas):

  1. Sexual attraction/desire. Even if it is a fleeting thought or an unconscious erection, that still counts as sinful lust by this definition.
  2. The willful entertaining of sexual thoughts (i.e. fantasizing). This group admits that sexual attraction is normal and healthy but wants you to reject those thoughts right away.
  3. The intent to own that other person for your pleasure, a statement that took on particularly strong meaning in a context where women were property. Amy makes that distinction clear above.

All of the above of course carry the exception of your spouse or maybe some other context of committed consensual relationship (depending on who you ask).

The author of the book made it clear through some exhaustive analysis of the Greek as well as the parallel passages in that section of the Sermon on the Mount that the third is by far the most likely that Jesus meant.

Now, like Amy, I’m not saying that it is therefore a good idea to fantasize about someone other than your significant other. There is a valid point there that this in itself could be objectification of the fantasy target, and objectification is never a good thing. I’m just saying that strictly speaking this isn’t what Jesus was talking about. Before we accept this fact, the church is probably going to keep its sometimes-obsessive purity culture ways of discussing sex and all the problems that come with those ways.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Amy Mitchell

    Thanks for linking my post! This topic started becoming of interest when I was in grad school studying health science, actually. When I started comparing what I was learning about sexuality education and human experience/biology, it just didn’t seem to fit with what I had learned in church. It became even more pronounced when we started attending a very conservative evangelical church. I couldn’t reconcile the two, so I began to look for theology that made more sense–something that didn’t ignore reality in favor of black/white rules. This was not to justify my own behavior but to protect my kids from developing shame-based thinking in regard to their bodies. I’m glad that other people are examining the subject, and I hope it leads to healthier spirituality and interactions.

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