A Force Against Love
By WTM Staff
5 min. Read Time
Published December 1st, 2020
In contemporary culture, lust seems conspicuous among the seven deadly sins. It stands out in our culture. Historically, Christians have stood radically opposed to this emotion. Jesus Himself compared it to adultery. However, the Christian witness surrounding lust has largely been ignored and dismissed. This is perhaps because many Christians fail to see the true nature of lust and speak out against it without knowing why it might be counted as “deadly.” After all, lust is a private sin. What is the harm in it? The danger in lust, however, comes precisely from the fact that it is private. The true deadliness of lust comes from its perversion of love.
Love, in its essence, is a relational phenomenon. For love to be love it must be shared. In the language of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, the essence of love is in the I-Thou relationship. Love is reciprocity. Love is not selfish, it gives freely without cost. Love seeks the good of another and puts others’s needs before one’s own. Lust, in contrast, is a parasite seeking to gain the benefits of love without relationship, reciprocity or generosity. Lust is selfish and individual. Lust is a private sin that happens in an individual heart. Lust takes, it does not give. Lust is for the benefit of the individual at the detriment of the other. This surely is an ugly picture of love and can find no place in the story that God is trying to tell with the world. This is the danger of lust. It is a perversion of love. And so the church has rightly stood against it.
It’s no secret that the Western Church has had a difficult time navigating human sexuality--and little wonder. Given the geographical and cultural diversity present within Christianity from nearly the very beginning, there’s been plenty of time for wide expression of interpretation and practice to develop. Where there are people, there will be questions regarding sexuality. Castrating himself for the Kingdom of God, Origen of Alexandria (perhaps the most profound Christian philosopher until Augustine) clearly had a different working picture of the place of human sexuality than most Western-minded Christians today. This is a (somewhat) humorous example of an extreme which may sound preposterous today, but demonstrates a pole of explored practice in Christian society. Since the dawn of the Church, believers have been asking questions of how chastity (lust’s corresponding virtue) should be pursued. Part-in-parcel with this question is the discussion of lust.
Per Thomas Aquinas, “the sin of lust consists in seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason. This may happen in two ways. First, in respect of the matter wherein this pleasure is sought; secondly, when, whereas there is due matter, other due circumstances are not observed.” What might be taken from this, broadly, is that the way in which we go about our sexual activity matters. Lust is found in the details--in both the means and motivations of our longings. As we have already described lust in terms of perversion, Aquinas’s definition begins to expand this notion to encompass lust as the improper pursuit of love in both where we look and how we go about it.
But what of the Church today? Specifically in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, how do we continue to perceive and address this specific sin? Embracing the received definitions of giants such as Aquinas, how might we look to a future that better rejects the incursion of lust in our immediate and corporate settings?
We have been inculcated in a Christian culture that primarily deals with love in terms of platonic attachments. In our fight against the dangers posed by lust, we have begun to speak of love in the terms of the neutered. The depths of our experience as sexual beings is replaced with tepid worship songs which can only describe love in terms of the familial. We have exchanged lustful expressions for empty demonstration. Evacuating love of its robust content to save itself from lust then becomes its own undoing. We no longer find ourselves in a culture where the Songs of Solomon exists beyond a short, gruelling, and embarrassing Sunday morning special.
A poorly executed response to lust has contributed to an anemic and facile presentation of love in the Evangelical Church. Instead of looking to the right applications of love in both mode and means (in the spirit of Aquinas’s definition), we have articulated a position of silence, and in doing so, ignored the profound image and gifting of sexual longing which essentially draws us toward the heart of God, whether we name it or not.
Perhaps it is time for us to reexamine--and articulate--our failures to love. One way to accomplish such a love is to reexamine our understanding of lust. Without such distinctions, the church could never move forward with Christ’s Great Commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 22:27-40 ESV).
 Saint Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine (Translated by John K. Ryan, Online) Book 2; Chapter 2; Paragraph 4.
 See 1 Cor. 13
 Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: a Global History of Christianity (Yale University Press, 2014). 58.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 154.