What exactly is lust?
For years I searched for language to help my own heart, and those I pastor, articulate its precise nature. Given that it’s a sinful perversion of God-given sexual desire—selfishness entwined with one of our strongest drives—a person’s experience of lust can be simultaneously pervasive and elusive, difficult to accurately describe. So what is it about lust that makes those who indulge its impulses feel both fractured and ashamed?
Then I realized that the dynamic had been on display in my own back yard.
Stripped for Parts . . . of the Body
Years ago, while trying to get my infant daughter back to sleep, I noticed activity in the parking lot behind my house. From the second-story window, I watched a group of young men remove tires from a car on cinder blocks. Though I believe in total depravity, for some reason my initial reaction was curiosity. Midnight is an odd time to rotate tires!
As you might guess, these high schoolers weren’t rotating the tires; they were loading them into the back of their SUV and moving on to other valuable parts. As I would discover from the police around 3:30 a.m. when I identified the thieves (it was quite a night), they’d stolen the car from the next town and brought it to this “secluded” spot to strip it for parts.
The owner of the car had used it as just that: a car, a vehicle for driving to work or the grocery store. But the young men I observed weren’t using it as a car. They were using it as a one-time source for automotive components they could resell—which required not only robbing someone else of its proper use but also dramatically devaluing it, since, as the adage goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Similarly, lust doesn’t approach human beings the way they were meant to be seen—as image-bearers of an Almighty God, created to reflect his character by flourishing in relationships and work. Lust instead reduces a person to shapes, angles, and proportions, to their nearness to the body type du jour. Porn literally strips human beings for parts. With a click or swipe, online users can view other human beings, stripped of clothes, in order to view their most intimate parts.
Lust reduces a person to shapes, angles, and proportions, to their nearness to the body type du jour.
To be clear, the human body and its constituent parts aren’t bad. Quite the contrary—God declared our bodies very good and left our first parents entirely naked so they could enjoy each other without shame. In the Song of Solomon, the lovers scan up and down each other’s bodies part by part, deploying comparisons that, while sometimes lost in translation, communicate a luxuriating sensuality within their marriage.
Indeed, Proverbs 5 refers to women’s breasts as either a means of divinely endorsed delight (“Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight,” v. 19) or forbidden pleasure (“Why should you . . . embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” v. 20). The only difference is the marital status of those involved. Our bodies are God’s good creation. It’s their misuse that stems from the fall.
Stripped for Parts . . . of Life
My wife and I have been married for nearly 20 years and enjoy healthy and joyful sexual intimacy. But this is only one aspect of our life together. We also strategize parenting approaches for four very different children. We dream about the future. We process the past. We talk through how work exposes our need for deeper experiences of Christ’s redemption. Sex is an important part of our life together, but it’s only one component of our holistic intimacy.
Lust doesn’t respect this wholeness. It strips for parts, not only of the body but also of life. Lust is interested in the sexual encounter, not in holding her hair while she vomits from morning sickness. It yanks sexuality out of its whole-life context as indiscriminately as the juvenile thieves extracted the stereo from the stolen car. When nurtured and acted on, lust leaves a destructive wake of lost trust, broken relationships, and unstable homes.
Putting the Parts Back Together
How, then, do we counteract the destruction of lust? Understanding that lust strips for parts gives us a pathway for wholeness. Let me offer three steps down this path.
1. Pursue vigilance.
Jesus is deadly serious about lust. In Matthew 5:27–30, where he equates lustful looks with adultery of the heart, he calls those beset by lust to tear out the eye or cut off the hand. The lies of lust lead to hell, and Jesus would rather us lose a body part than be entirely separated from him.
That Jesus speaks metaphorically shouldn’t cause us to breathe a dismissive sigh of relief. In modern terms, limiting one’s smartphone use, utilizing accountability software, forgoing certain films or shows, and keeping one’s gaze disciplined can feel unnecessarily drastic. But Jesus commands us to limit what we see and do based on our vulnerability to temptation. No preventative measure is too extreme in the service of a pure heart.
2. Pursue truthfulness.
As with all idolatry, lust functions through deception. Lust lies, telling us that visually or physically enjoying the body of another will bring us the joy we crave. It forges paths of self-pity or entitlement to convince us we should be able to take what we want, whether on a screen or from a neighbor.
No preventative measure is too extreme in the service of a pure heart.
We must fight these lies with truth, working from the (body) part to the whole. The physical feature being fixated on isn’t a product for consumption. It’s part of a whole body meant to be enjoyed within the marriage relationship. The sexual part of our lives is inextricably woven with our psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. As followers of Jesus, our calling is to love the whole person, not to use him or her for our private lusts.
3. Pursue wholeness.
We put the parts back together when we pursue whole relationships with appropriate boundaries. Every human being I encounter is not a collection of parts but an image-bearer with a history, needs to be met, gifts to offer, emotions to express, and a role to play in healthy community.
One practical and redemptive step to seeing each person in this integrated way is through prayer. Interceding for another’s holistic good shifts my focus from fixating on what I might take to desiring their best. When I drag my thoughts about that person from the dark dungeons of fantasy into the light of God’s holiness, requesting his or her flourishing, I can escape the constrictions of consuming and “through love, serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Confessing my fixation to trusted believers sheds even more light, exposing the ugliness of my lust and enabling accountability for walking in love.
We are whole persons created to be in whole relationships. The urge to strip for parts disintegrates both our own souls and our relationships. Let’s see lust for what it is and take steps to enjoy the Creator’s beautiful design.