Most words in the Bible that are translated “lust” mean “a passionate desire.” Strong desire can be either good or bad, depending upon the object of that desire and the motive behind it. God created the human heart with the capacity for passionate desire so that we would long after Him and His righteousness (Psalm 42:1–2; 73:25). However, the concept of “lust” is now usually associated with a passionate desire for something God has forbidden, and the word is seen as synonymous with sexual or materialistic desire.
James 1:14–15 gives us the natural progression of unrestrained lust: “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
According to this passage, sinful lust begins with an evil desire. Being tempted by evil is not the sin. Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:1). The sin begins when the evil desire “drags us away” from where our hearts need to be. When an evil desire introduces itself, we have a choice. We can reject it as Jesus did and refocus on the path God has set before us (Matthew 4:10). Or we can entertain it. As someone once said, “We cannot stop the birds from flying overhead, but we don’t have to let them make a nest in our hair.” When temptation beckons, we need to remember that we are not helpless. We can choose to give in or to resist.
The reason we are “dragged away” by temptation is that we are “enticed.” That word in the Greek refers to bait, as on a fishing line. When a fish sees the wiggling worm, he is enticed by it and grabs hold. Once the hook is set, he can be “dragged away.” When we encounter temptation, we should immediately reject it as Joseph did when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:11–12). Hesitation opens the door to enticement. Romans 13:14 calls such hesitation “making provision for the flesh.” Like the unwary fish, we grab hold of the tempting thought, believing it will delight and fulfill us. We savor the fantasy, imagine new and sinful scenarios, and entertain the idea that God has not provided all we need for happiness (Genesis 3:2–4). This is foolish. Second Timothy 2:22 says, “Flee youthful lusts.” To “flee” means to take off immediately. Joseph did not stick around to consider his options. He recognized sexual temptation, and he ran. When we hesitate, we make provision for the flesh and give it the opportunity to choose evil. Often, we are overwhelmed by its power. Samson was a physically strong man, yet he was no match for his own lust (Judges 16:1).
The next step in the downward progression of temptation, according to James 1, is that “desire conceives.” Lust begins as a seed, a thought packed with wrong desire. If we allow the seeds of lust to germinate, they will sprout into something bigger, more powerful, more difficult to uproot. Temptation becomes sin when it is allowed to germinate. Desire takes on a life of its own and becomes lust. Jesus made it clear that lust is sin, even if we do not physically act on it (Matthew 5:27–28). Our hearts are God’s domain, and when we allow evil to grow there, we defile His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19).
Wrong desires plague every human being. The tenth commandment forbids coveting, which means lusting for something that is not ours (Deuteronomy 5:21; Romans 13:9). The human heart is constantly seeking to please itself, and when it discovers something or someone it believes will satisfy, lust begins.
It is only when our hearts are dedicated to the glory of God that we can overcome intrusive desires and conquer lust. When we surrender to the Lord, we find our needs met in a relationship with Him. We must “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We must allow the Holy Spirit to keep our thoughts where He wants them to be. It helps to pray daily the words of Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” When our heart’s desire is to please God more than ourselves, we can keep lust at bay.