As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ron Citlau has published a review of my book Bible Gender Sexuality on the Gospel Coalition Website. I responded in that earlier post to his complaint that my book does not affirm gender complementarity. In this post, I want to take up a second complaint of his review, that my book does not have a proper definition of lust. In particular, he argues that I “forget an important, inherent dimension of lust: breaking God’s boundaries.” He goes on to quote Robert Gagnon’s book, which defines lust as the desire for anything that transgresses God’s will. Citlau concludes,
“In other words, homosexuality is lustful not just because it has to do with excessive desire. It is lustful because by participating in homosexual behavior a person dismantles one of God’s most important sexual boundaries.”
This sentence reveals the crux of the problem I am trying to address, and confuses two distinct issues. Citlau seems to agree with me that homosexuality is viewed in the ancient word, in fact, as marked by excessive desire. That seems to be the function of the word “just” in the quote above. But he then goes on to add (seemingly) a second reason why homosexual behavior is wrong, in his view: it dismantles a divinely intended sexual boundary. I note first of all that the language has shifted, from desire to behavior. The question of homosexual behavior is an important one, but it’s not the one I am addressing, when I speak of “lust.” Lust is a problem, before one ever gets to behavior, according to the teaching of Jesus (see Matt 5:28). Citlau collapses these unhelpfully.
But let’s focus on the two different dimensions of wrongful desire that I speak of in my book: such desire can be excessive and/or misdirected. But are these two things simply to be equated with each other? Is every desire for something that is forbidden, no matter how small or passing, an experience of lust? Robert Gagnon seems to think so, in the quote that Citlau cites. Citlau apparently agrees.
I do not agree. The starting point for my disagreement has to do with the use of Greek words, so some of you will need to bear with me in a little more technical discussion. The Greek words that are commonly translated with the English word “lust” (the verb is epithumeo, and the noun is epithumia), are not always used negatively in the New Testament. For uses of the same verb to reflect intense positive desire, see Matt 13:17; Luke 17:22; Luke 22:15 (of Jesus himself); 1 Tim 3:1; Hebrews 6:11; 1 Peter 1:12. For positive uses of the noun form, see Luke 22:15 (of Jesus himself); Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 2:17. To put it differently, in English the word “lust” always has negative connotations. The same is not true for the Greek word. The same Greek word can be positive, negative, or neutral. What all the usages of the Greek word have in common however, whether they are positive, negative, or neutral, is that the word is characterized by a particular intensity of desire. This is not a peripheral meaning of the Greek word; it is the central meaning, and the only meaning of the Greek word that is consistent, whether the word is used positively, negatively, or neutrally.
So an ancient reader would never assume, simply by seeing the word epithumia, that the word always meant desiring something that was forbidden by God. If that were the case, texts like Luke 22:15 would make no sense at all, because Jesus declares himself to have an intense desire, using the same Greek word! But an ancient reader would certainly assume that, whenever the word epithumia appeared, it was a reference to particularly strong desire. The reader would judge by the context whether that strong desire should be interpreted as positive, negative, or neutral. I take it as a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation that the starting point for the meaning of words is how they would be understood by their first competent readers in the ancient world.
So Gagnon and Citlau may be correct in their expounding of the meaning of the English word “lust,” (though even on this I would have qualifications—see below), but they have not adequately engaged the full range of meaning of the Greek words used in Rom 1:24-27. For the Greek words translated “lust,” the central meaning connotes excessive or intense desire, and the context of Rom 1 suggests that this intense desire is also in violation of the will of God. But in the context of the ancient world, a desire is not “ruled by passion” because it is misdirected; it is misdirected because it is “ruled by passion.” Or as I say in the book, if behavior is not characterized by excessive desire in the Bible, it may still be morally wrong, but it cannot be characterized as “lustful” (p. 168). And as I also try to argue in the book, this focus on excessive desire raises a different sort of question, particularly when we see gay and lesbian Christians who seek to discipline their desires in the context of life-long commitments. Are these also necessarily and unavoidably characterized by excessive desire, and therefore lustful, in the original sense of that word? It seems at least a question worth asking.
Nor is this simply a technical, lexical matter. Even for heterosexual marriages, “lust” can sometimes occur, even if the object of my excessive or self-centered desire is my spouse. Or to put it more technically, desire can be excessive, and therefore lustful, even if it is not directed toward an object forbidden by God. Excessive desire is its own problem—a problem that lies at the heart of Romans 1. Paul argues that when humans abandon the worship of God, desire loses its proper place and proportion, and self-centered behavior goes wild. Humans who abandon the true worship of God are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Rom 1:29-31). If that is not a description of desire gone amok and excessive, I don’t know what is. We cannot define lust only or even primarily in terms of its wrongful object. At the heart of lust (even in English) is the excessiveness of desire, an excessiveness that is only properly restrained and focused by the true worship of God.
The absence of lust does not necessarily make behavior acceptable to God. But in the ancient world, the absence of excessive desire means that even wrongful behavior cannot be termed “lustful.” Sinful behaviors may be motivated by anger, rebellion, hatred, confusion, or any other of a myriad emotions. Not all sinful behavior is lustful. Not all “breaking of God’s boundaries” is lustful. Yet Paul speaks of same-sex behaviors in Rom 1 as “lustful.” This necessarily means that these behaviors are marked by intense desire. In this context, the presence of excessive desire is at least a necessary part of what makes these behaviors wrong. To downplay the importance of excessive and self-centered desire in a discussion of lust does not clarify things.