What’s the Difference Between Lust and Love?
Why oh why do we men and women have such strong attraction for each other? Given all the difficulties that this attraction creates (and which I’ve mentioned in this blog series) wouldn’t it be safer and more moral if we could just remove the part of our endocrine systems that provokes such a state of attraction in us? Would it not be better to gouge out the source of this attraction – as Jesus says of our lustful eye in Matthew 5:29 – and throw it away?
You may have felt that way the last time you were rejected by someone you really liked. It hurt. And maybe that was the moment you started growing cynical about love and started opting for fantasy. Or maybe that was the moment you began to see your sex drive as incurably immoral and decided to banish it from your next relationship. When our longings for romantic love run aground, we often choose one of those two paths: love diminished by fantasy, or love diminished by fear.
But the bible reveals the source of this powerful attraction: our Creator. Listen to Genesis 2:21-24
So the LORD caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was
sleeping he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh.
Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the
man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of
my bones and flesh of my flesh….” For this reason a man will leave his
father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one
So the powerful drive for union between male and female is intended by our Creator. God literally created a hole in Adam that only a woman could fill. He is incomplete without her, and he longs for her. (Hopefully she longs for him too – though scripture doesn’t indicate this!)
We need to validate this strong attraction for each other because so many feel ashamed of it. Some are ashamed because they have allowed their sex drives to become unwholesome; some are ashamed because they have been victims of sexual abuse; and some are simply afraid of being by rejected by the one to whom they are attracted. But the strong attraction itself is not cause for shame.
A helpful question is to ask: “At what point does attraction become lust?” In other words, at what point does attraction cease to be a catalyst for authentic love and become something God does not intend? The dictionary definition of lust doesn’t help us. The Oxford Dictionary defines lust as “very strong sexual desire.” But it’s not the degree or intensity of desire that denotes lust. Read the Song of Songs sometime and you’ll see what I mean. No, strong sexual desire (for one’s spouse) is approved by God. Rather it is the object of the desire that can become perverse.
In authentic sexual love, the object of desire is your spouse. But notice the nature of that desire: authentic sexual love desires to nurture and pleasure your beloved’s body in such a way as to build him or her up. This can be done in simple ways that have nothing to do with climax such as massaging tired feet or holding hands. But climax is also a way to nurture your spouse’s body and also should be pursued.
By contrast, the object of lust’s desire is oneself. This is what makes lust such a lonely pursuit. In lust one desires to pleasure one’s own body by exploiting someone else’s body. Women don’t always have the same kind of physical urge that lust provokes in men, but women too can use sex to bring an equally morbid satisfaction of vanity or power or self-esteem. The point is that in lust we focus on our own pleasure.
So if one is a considerate unmarried lover, could that not be authentic sexual love? No. Why? Because though the lover nurtures and pleasures the other, the sexual interaction does not build the other up. In fact it ultimately wounds them! There is no commitment to continue nurturing that person in months and years ahead. When the pleasure is gone, the nurturing will cease. So in the end the sex partner is still merely a commodity to be used. This is one reason why intercourse can only legitimately take place within a life-long covenant.
But my definition of authentic sexual love raises a question – a sheepish one. If my love is focused on my spouse’s nurturing and pleasure, what about ME? This is not necessarily a selfish question. But it points out both the fragile and the poignantly beautiful nature of sex: we must trust that our spouse will desire to nurture and please US. Remember the metaphor of the afterlife as a table of sumptuous food but no utensils except four-foot-long forks? In hell, each person tries and fails to feed themselves because the forks are too long to navigate into one’s mouth. But in heaven, though the situation is the same, everyone at the table is feeding each other. So it is with sex. We cannot feed ourselves, we must trust that our spouse will feed us. This is why sex entails vulnerability. And, potentially, great beauty.
Another question: is any form of sex permissible for non-married people? This is a good question, and one which parents of teens must put real thought into. Technically, holding hands is sex – it’s nurturing and pleasuring someone else’s body in a way that (potentially, anyway) builds them up. It is an intimate and thrilling experience. Can people who are dating hold hands or kiss?
That’s a different topic for a different blog.
The point I’d rather end with deals with the point of origin for lust in our hearts. One can say, of course, that our sin nature is the point of origin. Yes, but that’s too general a statement to be helpful. And yes, lust begins with exposure to lust. But I think lust becomes truly potent…. at the point one becomes cynical about love.
Think of rejections you’ve experienced. They do hurt, don’t they! And it takes resilience to bounce back and try again for love. Some of us choose not to bounce back. Hearts really can get broken, and rejection can cause cynicism to invade a vulnerable heart. At that point, fantasy become so much easier than wistful longings and fading hopes. Think of the disfigured Phantom of the Opera who kidnaps the lovely Christine and, when she rejects him, is forced to examine the wound which inspired his lust:
This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing,
This mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing.
If we would be cured of lust, we must first courageously admit the love for which we long. Our fallen American culture teaches that that love must be sexual or romantic love. But here’s the hope: we can come to realize that no sexual intimacy, no matter how legitimate, can occupy the throne of our lives. That place only God can occupy. This is why single people who have found in Christ their deep soul satisfaction often do not need sex.