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The Truth About Lusting: Why We Need to Reframe the Conversation about Men, Sin, and Attraction

If you notice a woman is beautiful, is that a sin? Are you lusting after her in your heart?

If you read many best-selling marriage books, you’d say yes. If you notice a woman, then you’re tempted to undress her. That temptation makes you focus on body parts, which is lusting! You need to resist that temptation! So you need to not look at her body. You need to “bounce your eyes”, as Every Man’s Battle tells you. You need to control your thoughts.

But what if that is actually wrong? What if lusting doesn’t work that way? What if that’s “criminalizing”, for lack of a better term, life?

This month I’ve been talking about sex ed for adults, and we’ve looked at what we can learn about God, sex, and the genders from how He created our bodies. We talked about the theology of the clitoris and the theology of the penis.

Today I want to talk about something I’ve been planning to do for ages, and that’s debunking the idea that noticing a woman is beautiful means that you are lusting and therefore sinning. I truly believe that one reason that men are so paranoid about lusting is because they’ve been put in an impossible situation, making them paranoid and hyper-vigilant (if they’re trying to be good) or making them give up at trying to be good and deciding that lust is a natural thing and women need to get used to it. Both extremes are wrong, but both are caused by the same mistaken teaching.

Here’s what it comes down to:

Do you believe that a man can notice a woman is beautiful or is nicely shaped but then do absolutely nothing else with that information? 

Many would say no. I say yes.

It really comes down to definitions. What is lusting?

We know that lust is a sin. Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-28:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

A few things about this verse. It does not say that everyone who SEES a woman has committed adultery. It says that a man who LOOKS with lust at a woman has committed adultery with her. “Seeing” is noticing. Seeing is not wrong. Seeing is inevitable. Looking, however, is a deliberate action. But looking, in and of itself, is also not wrong. It’s looking with a certain attitude–with lust–that crosses the line. And lust is a desire to have sex with her, or to fantasize about her sexually (like undressing her in your mind).

It is not that he sees.

It is not even that he looks.

It is that he looks with a specific purpose–to ogle her and fantasize about her.

Sexual attraction is not the same as lusting.

Lust is a deliberate act. Sexual attraction is a hard-wired state of being over which we have no control. Sexual attraction falls under the “seeing” side of the equation. Lust falls under the deliberate side. A person can find another individual attractive and not have that have any bearing on their thought life, their fantasy life, the condition of their marriage, anything.

I mean, I can watch a movie and see that Ryan Reynolds is a good looking CANADIAN man. I find him attractive. That does not mean I have ever, even once in my life, pictured him naked or wanted to have sex with him. My husband can go see Wonder Woman in theatres with me and say that the women were attractive (though he also said that the older Amazons were more attractive to him than Gal Godot), but similarly, it does not mean that he pictured them in any sexual way.

Finding someone attractive does not mean that you are mentally cheating on your spouse. Noticing someone walk by does not mean you are lusting.

Fixating on that person and fantasizing about them does. 

This dude is deliberately looking. The guy in the pic above just sees her in the restaurant. Can you see the difference?

Deliberately Lusting after a woman at work

Temptation is not lust. And you can withstand temptation!

When someone is sexually attracted to someone else, yes, they may be tempted to undress them in their minds. They may be tempted to fixate on certain body parts. But that temptation is ALSO not a sin. What is a sin is to give in to it. Jesus Himself was tempted, but He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).

The antidote to lust is to see women not as objects but as people. That’s how Jesus saw women. He sat down and had conversations with them, even though that was extremely taboo at the time. In ancient Israel, a man talking to an unrelated woman would have sexual overtones and would be seen as shameful. But Jesus rejected that idea, and simply talked to women. He sat down with the Samaritan woman by a well when it was just the two of them. The disciples were shocked when He did this. But He valued the woman, and had something He wanted to say to her. And interestingly, it was to that woman to whom He first outrightly confessed that He was the Messiah. Look at this passage from John 4:25-26:

“The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Paul called women his fellow co-workers and co-laborers in the gospel, and mentions many of them by name. In Romans 16, 10 of the 29 people mentioned are female. Paul mentions a deaconess (Phoebe); an apostle (Junia); women who risked their lives for the gospel and others who worked hard for the gospel (Priscilla and Mary) among others. If Paul could work with women when it was taboo, and Jesus could speak with women alone without lusting, then it is possible to be with a woman and not lust.

And what does Paul say about temptation?

You can withstand temptation! You can take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). And that means that men can go through life without lusting.

I believe that we make the temptation to lust far worse because we conflate it with attraction, and then we make men and boys hyper-vigilant.

It’s like the pink elephant phenomenon. As soon as you tell someone, “don’t think of pink elephants!” what’s the first thing they do? They think of pink elephants.

If we raise men and boys saying things like,

You will be sexually attracted to women, and when you see women, you’ll be tempted to undress them in your mind. And that temptation is everywhere! Every cleavage on display is something that could easily lead you down the road to destruction. So you must be sure that you don’t fixate. You must not be tempted or give in to temptation. You must not notice a woman’s body, or you will quickly go down that slippery slope and you’ll be lost.

Well, what’s a guy going to do when he’s out in public? He’s going to be paranoid.

One of my commenters a few years ago said that her husband couldn’t go to the beach with the kids because it was too tempting to lust. When we’re at the point where men can’t take their children to the beach, we’re in trouble.

I remember reading one book from a Christian perspective about the difficulty with lust that men go through that women will never understand.

I read that book with an open mind, but the first chapter left me feeling horrible about my marriage. It was intended to give women an idea of the tremendous pressure that men are under in our over-sexualized culture, and it followed a man throughout his workday.

I’m going by memory here, and I could be wrong, but I recall the book talking about how he’s driving to work and he sees a scantily clad woman on a billboard, and he has to try not to look at it. At work, he’s very worried going in the staff meeting, because he knows a female co-worker will be there and she often leaves several buttons undone. He’s worried what will happen if she sits across from him. At Starbucks for break there is a voluptuous woman, and he’s trying so hard not to stare and not to think of her that way. This goes on all day, and at the end of the day he’s so excited to get home and see his wife so that he can try to forget about all these women in his head, but when he gets home she’s too busy and doesn’t really care about his kisses and advances.

The main message was that men, when they go out in public, are very, very scared and stressed by the women all around them. It also said that a husband will very rarely admit this to his wife.

So I asked Keith, and I said that he could be honest with me. My husband works in an almost all-female setting, with mostly female doctors, female nurses, and even female patients (it’s usually the moms of patients who bring in the kids). Did he really live with that level of stress? Was life almost unbearable for him?

He thought I was kidding at first. I asked him if was scared to admit the truth to me (as the books implied that men often are). And he said that, no, being out in public is not scary, and he honestly can’t imagine it being scary for anyone over the age of 13.

Now, my husband could hardly be described as low libido (if that’s not sharing too much information). But this is simply not his experience. It should be noted, however, that he did not become a Christian until he was 18, and so he did not grow up with this message about lust that most Christian teen boys hear.

This hyper-vigilance and fear of women is, however, a very real part of many Christian men’s lives.

And I believe it’s because they’ve been taught that sexual attraction is a sin, or that it’s such a slippery slope to lust that the best thing to do is to fight against noticing women altogether.

This does a great disservice to men, who live in bondage thinking that they are sinning when they are not. It also impedes them from being able to have healthy relationships with women, as Jesus and Paul had, because women are always a threat to them.

If I look only at her face, does she think I’m deliberately avoiding her body because I’m noticing it? But if I don’t look her in the eyes, will she think I’m checking her out?

Instead of just enjoying getting to know her or having an interesting conversation, he has to be vigilant.

But this is also very harmful to women, because we are always sexualized. How can women have healthy relationships with men if men always see them as a danger? And what if women start seeing other women as threats to their marriage, because we are taught that men are always checking out other women? We’re also taught that because men lust all the time, and they have such a struggle not to notice us, that we have to dress in such a way that they wouldn’t notice. Their lust then becomes our fault. (I wrote here how the “Don’t Be a Stumbling Block” argument doesn’t actually hold up biblically.)

Instead of the biblical example of Paul and Jesus having lots of relationships with women that were totally platonic, in too many Christian circles men are taught that women are dangerous and to be avoided for your own spiritual health.

When we equate noticing with lusting, it’s no wonder that we call lust every man’s battle.

The better message is a simple one:

Talk to women. Treat them like people. Think about the whole person, not the body part. And do not entertain sexual thoughts about a woman you aren’t married to.

I hope this is a freeing message!