Lust and the Problem of Thought-Policing

By Soffie Hicks from Wales (Lust) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Soffie Hicks

Rachel Held Evans’ recent post on Elizabeth Smart and purity culture gave many of us a lot to think about.  I don’t always read the comments on her blog, as there are often so many and it can be tough to wade through them.  But after I posted a comment myself, I received this comment in reply.  Essentially, the person responding to what some of us had posted was trying to make a case against masturbation based on the idea that sexual fantasy is wrong and equivalent to “lust.”

This is something I believe bears examination because Christians (particularly of the conservative evangelical flavor) have an unhealthy relationship with the word lust.  I’ve seen just about every interpretation of the word, and it makes me cringe nearly every time.  I have to stop myself from leaving comments on Christian blogs that say things like, “You need to go back to high school health class” or “I recommend a good physiology lesson” or “Please just check before you try to parse the word” or “You’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?”  If I had a dime for every time I saw one of the following “definitions” of lust, I’d be living on my own tropical island:

  • Lust is a desire to possess someone
  • Lust is sexual fantasy
  • Lust is being sexually attracted to someone you’re not married to
  • Lust is always an unhealthy reaction
  • Lust is an overblown desire
  • Lust is making someone an object
  • Lust is obsession

Deep sigh.  No, no, no, no, no, no, and also no.  All of those have been used as tools to control people’s sexuality, including by progressive Christians.  On the more liberal end, many feminist Christians use the word lust to mean that if one is sexually aroused by seeing an attractive person, one should not then take that home and fantasize while masturbating.  (And I would go one further–they usually mean men should not do this because it’s “creepy.”)  Meanwhile, on the conservative end, it’s been used for pretty much everything under the sun, from policing women’s clothes to policing boys’ erections.  Any sexual practices the church dislikes often get lumped into the lust category.  Oh, you’re attracted to people of the same sex?  Lust!  Oh, you had a sexy thought about your boyfriend? Lust!  Oh, you got hard in the middle of math class? Must have been lust!

None of those are the dictionary definition, nor are they found in the Bible.

According to the dictionary, lust is intense desire, and it isn’t limited to sex.  One can lust for power or food or money as well.  Additionally, it isn’t always negative, though in Christian circles it certainly has been used that way.  For example, one might describe an exuberant person who lives to the full as having a “lust for life.”  In that context, it’s intended as a good thing.

As for what the Bible says, that’s another matter entirely.  Jesus’ comparison of lust and adultery has been used to club people over the head every bit as much as the anti-gay “clobber” passages.  In fact, it’s been used both to rob women of their agency (by blaming lust on “immodesty”) and to shame men for so much as glancing at a woman in a bikini.  Among more progressive Christians, it’s been used in roughly the same way, unfortunately, with the added bonus that some feminist Christians seem to have a particular inclination to believe that if men just control their “lust” then violence against women will stop.  (Sadly, since “lust” is not the root cause of violence against women, I fear that’s a losing battle.)  Lust is equated with a power differential and a desire to reduce people to objects for our own pleasure.

Not being a Biblical scholar, I had to look it up.  As it turns out, the word “lust” is probably not an accurate translation for what Jesus meant when he said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28 NIV)

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 at 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.

We need to stop thinking about God as some kind of Cosmic Thought Cop, and we need to stop policing each other.  The way it looks to me is that both ends of the Christian spectrum seem to have an unhealthy obsession themselves with controlling other people.  Stomping your feet and demanding that people stop having sexual fantasies about actual humans is cut from the same cloth as expecting people to never have any sexual thoughts until they are properly married, and then only ever about their spouses.  In both cases, it’s not about anyone’s behavior or intent, it’s merely about the pictures in their heads.  We can–and should–have a conversation about whether what’s in one’s thoughts might translate to behavior.  But it won’t be productive until we stop trying to control every last brain wave that we find personally bothersome.

For more on this topic, I suggest reading “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1.  It’s pretty straight cis male-centric, though, so keep that in mind as you read–not everything in there is universally applicable.


3 thoughts on “Lust and the Problem of Thought-Policing

  1. Amen. Amen. Amen. Thank you.

    A couple of years ago, I read a book called Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition. It was a fairly academic book and at that point I hadn’t studied Greek yet, but I do remember the take-home point of its discussion on this passage. That point being, of course, essentially what you’ve said here. He broke down how we could define lust in one of three ways: sexual attraction/desires, the allowing of sexual thoughts/fantasies (most Christians are probably here), and sexual intent to possess what isn’t yours. He quickly dismissed the first as not only practically impossible but also that there was no way that Jesus meant that based on the Greek and the parallel commandments given near it. He left a bit of room open for the possibility of the second but clearly argued that the Greek pointed to the third. It helped a lot in freeing me from a huge load of shame.

    • Exactly. A couple of years ago, when I still assumed that Jesus meant the second definition, a friend asked me why so many Christians seem to think God cares that deeply about thoughts versus actions. This is the only set of verses that even remotely seems to imply that God’s policing our thoughts, and even that’s sketchy. Yet I heard for more than 20 years that if so much as had a “wrong” thought about anything (not just “lust”) that God was angry and/or disappointed in me. I’m pretty sure that, like most conceptions of Hell, this comes not from the Bible but from Dante or Milton.

  2. Pingback: Defining Lust

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