Desire can be good, bad, or neither. In the New Testament, it’s all the same word. Lust, coveting, everyday neutral desires, and even holy desires are all covered by the same Greek noun (epithymia) and related verb (epithymeō). To use any one of these English terms (lust, coveting, desire, longing) is a value judgment we must make as we translate God’s word. When we find the word “lust” in our Bible (usually meaning a sexual desire, usually with negative overtones), underneath it is a word that could just as easily refer to a non-sexual, totally innocent desire in a different context.
Here as we are about to begin the season of Lent, would be a good time to take a look at the subject of desire. When we think of Lent, we think of resisting desires that are not good for us, but the Biblical word in question covers all sorts of desire, including good ones.
For instance, at the Last Supper, Jesus literally says, “I have desired with desire to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Here this word obviously does not mean “lust,” but a much different kind of desire. In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul writes, “If anyone aspires to be an episkopēs (overseer or “bishop”), he desires a good work.” Again, this sounds like a positive desire, not a decadent one. In Philippians 1:23, Paul says he has a “desire” to depart this life and be with Christ, a holy desire!
In Matthew 13:17, Jesus tells his followers, “Many prophets and righteous people desired/longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” – here, the object of that desire is Jesus’ life and words themselves (angels have that same “desire” in 1 Peter 1:12). The Greek Old Testament speaks of “longing for your judgment” (Psalm 119:20) and says, “I long for your precepts” (Psalm 119:40). Even the Holy Spirit has holy “desires” that are opposed to what the flesh wants (Galatians 5:17).
Don’t assume that the “lusts” or “desires” mentioned in the Bible are necessarily sexual. In 1 John 2:16, John speaks of two kinds of desire: the “lusts of the flesh” (the desire for pleasure) and “the lust of the eyes” (= coveting, the desire to acquire). In Mark 4:19, Jesus teaches that the “desires for other (unspecified) things” choke God’s word in our hearts. In Romans 6:12, Paul writes, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, in order to obey its (unspecified) desires.” In James 1:15, we see that “desire” (unspecified) gives birth to sin. In 2 Timothy 4:3, we are told that in the last days, people will accumulate teachers according to their own “desires” to hear what they want to hear.
One kind of “desire” covered by the word epithymia is for food. In Luke 15:16, the Prodigal Son “longs” (lusts?) to gorge himself with the dry carob pods that he is feeding to the pigs. Similarly, Lazarus “longs” to be fed from the crumbs from the rich man’s table in Luke 16:21.
Another desire covered by this word is the desire for material possessions. The verb epithymeō is the verb used in the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” and is the standard Greek term for “coveting.” 1 Timothy 6:9 warns believers against getting hooked into “desires” for money and other treasures that are not evil in themselves, but which can easily plunge people into ruin and misery in their efforts to acquire them.
And yes, epithymia also is used for sexual desire, where it can be translated “lust.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:5, Paul urges believers that they should marry in holiness and honor, “not in the passion of desire, like heathen who do not know God.” Marriage that is based on physical desire alone is on shaky ground. And Jesus puts the moral bar sky-high when he teaches in Matthew 5:27 that anyone who looks at a person “in order to desire” him/her has already committed adultery in his/her heart.
We may ask, What’s the difference between “lust” and mere attraction? Aren’t they both forms of desire, distinguished only by degree? Yes they are, which is why it is fitting that God’s word employs a term for these that is equally ambiguous. “Desire” is good. It becomes bad only when we let it drag us into wanting what we should not have. God put within us the longing for a mate, but God also intended that desire to be channeled into a relationship with one person, a context where we can enjoy the maximum happiness of a lifelong one-flesh union (see my post, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2017/09/gods-sex-mandate-two-shall-become-one-flesh/).
It is sad that even our most innocent human desires tend to become a bottomless pit. In Memorabilia 2.1.30, the Greek writer Xenophon paints a picture of pleasure as a vice that could just as easily describe desire: “O Wretch, what moral good do you know, or what good do you perceive with your senses? One who does not even wait for the appetite (epithymia) for pleasant foods, eating before hunger, drinking before thirst; and so that you may eat pleasantly, seeking out skillful cooks; and so that you may drink pleasantly, procuring expensive wines; and who in summer runs about seeking snow; and so that you may sleep pleasantly, not only provides soft beds, but also supports to the couches.”
In God’s new creation, we look forward to the resolving of every good desire. No more “I want” in heaven. But it won’t be a place full of “goodies on steroids.” What we wanted down here, was only a poor substitute for the true joys for which our hearts have longed. Let’s get a grip on that glorious truth, as we move forward into this season of Lent.