Lust is an important part of Bible stories like David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:2-4) and Jesus Christ’s teaching on adultery (Matt. 5:28). It also plays a significant role in contemporary society, from fashion trends to social media to corporate advertising. These facts lead many Bible readers to ask what lust is.
Lust is a sinful desire, expressed in thoughts, feelings, and physical cravings, that yearns for sexual fulfillment. Instead of experiencing intimacy in ways that please God, lust is an unhealthy and unholy mental, visual, or bodily craving that doesn’t love and respect others but exploits them.
What is the difference between a good craving and a bad one? Are all sexual desires sinful? What are some wise first steps to overcome lust? What do the Old and New Testaments say about lust? What do the Hebrew and Greek words mean? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, see What is Sodomy in the Bible? to learn more.
Lust Is Desire That Sin Has Corrupted
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines lust as an “intense or unbridled sexual desire.” Like the dictionary definition, lust has evil undertones in the history of Christianity. For example, in Roman Catholic teaching, it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, along with pride, covetousness, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth.
Pastor and theologian Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “Lust involves any strong desire, craving, or want that opposes the holy will and command of God. Lust perverts, twists, and defiles all that is good and beautiful, and this is particularly true with sexual or carnal lust.” 
According to the Bible, in its sinful expression, lust is a desire that has gone astray because of sin. Not all desires, including sexual ones, are sinful, according to Scripture.
Author David Powlison explains, “The evil in our desires often lies not in what we want but in the fact that we want it too much. Natural affections (for any good thing) become inordinate, ruling cravings. We are meant to be ruled by godly passions and desires.” 
When pursued and experienced in holy ways, they please and glorify God. Yet when sin corrupts desire, and lust is the result, it’s selfish, unloving, exploitative, and offensive to God.
The English word lust didn’t always have a completely negative connotation. In older forms of English, people used the word to describe positive or negative cravings expressed in thoughts or actions. This usage reflects the nature of Hebrew and Greek words for lust in the Bible, which can be used either way.
Lustful actions start in a person’s thoughts and with their eyes. An impure thought can lead to a sinful look and vice versa.
If a person, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can be self-controlled in their thoughts and guard their eyes against impure images, they are prepared to resist temptation and overcome sin.
Memorizing two verses and consistently praying about them is an excellent first step toward pursuing and experiencing intimacy as God intended. Both involve self-control, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23).
(1) The first is to be self-controlled in thought and imagination. 2 Corinthians 10:5 reads, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (ESV, emphasis added).
(2) The second is to be self-controlled in sight. Job 31:1 is an example of this. “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (ESV).
Christian theologian D.A. Carson writes, “Imagination is a God-given gift; but if it is fed dirt by the eye, it will be dirty. All sin, not least sexual sin, begins with the imagination. Therefore what feeds the imagination is of maximum importance in the pursuit of kingdom righteousness (Phil. 4:8).” 
Also, see What is Coveting in the Bible? to learn more.
Lust in the Old Testament
Proverbs 6:25-26 is representative of the Old Testament’s teaching about lust: “Don’t lust for her beauty. Don’t let her coy glances seduce you. For a prostitute will bring you to poverty, but sleeping with another man’s wife will cost you your life” (NLT).
Old Testament writers mostly wrote in Hebrew. One of the main Hebrew words translated as “lust” is avah (אָוָה). It means “to incline” or “desire.” Avah can express holy desires or unholy ones. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance lists its semantic range as covet, greatly desire, be desirous, long, or lust after.
When modern Bible translations use the English word “lust” to translate avah, it’s because the context of a passage gives it a negative connotation. Yet, avah can also be translated with words like “want,” “crave,” and “desire” and have sinful connotations. The context of a passage determines the meaning of avah.
An example of avah describing sin is Psalm 106:14, which says that the generation God freed from slavery in Egypt eventually forgot his good works and “lusted exceedingly in the wilderness” (KJV, NKJV).
The NASB says, “became lustfully greedy.” Other translations use the word “craving” (NIV, ESV) or “desires” (NLT), which have negative connotations in context.
However, avah is sometimes used positively in the Bible. In these cases, modern translations avoid the word “lust.” For example, Proverbs 10:24 reads, “The fear of the wicked will come upon him, and the desire [avah] of the righteous will be granted” (NKJV, emphasis added).
Other translations also say “desire” (ESV, NASB). Translating the word “lust” would confuse many readers.
Also, see What is Circumcision in the Bible? to learn more.
Lust in the New Testament
1 John 1:26-27 is representative of the New Testament’s teaching on lust. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (NASB).
The New Testament writers wrote in Greek. The most common word translated as “lust” comes from the Greek word epithumia (ἐπιθυμία), meaning a desire, passionate longing, or lust. Like the Hebrew word avah, the Greek word can have positive or negative connotations depending on the passage’s context.
An example of a negative connotation is Romans 1:24, where Paul writes, “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves” (NKJV).
Other translations also say “lusts” (KJV, NKJV, NASB). Another one says “sinful desires” (NIV), and yet another says “shameful things their hearts desired” (NLT).
An example of a positive connotation of the Greek word is in Luke 22:15, where Jesus uses the word to describe himself: “Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire [epithumia] I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer'” (NKJV).
Translating epithumia with the English word “lust” would confuse English readers because Jesus’ desire is pure, holy, and righteous.
Also, see Where is Purgatory in the Bible? to learn more.
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