A few months ago, I wrote a short piece on the ethics of temptation and sexual desire. In short, I argue that morality of sexual desire is defined by its object. If desire fixates on something evil (i.e., adultery, fornication), then the desire itself is evil. That is why Jesus says what he says about lustful leering in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:28). If desire fixates on something good (i.e., the conjugal bond of marriage), then the desire itself is wholesome and good. That is why Solomon enjoins his son to celebrate sexual desire when it is directed toward one’s spouse (Prov. 5:18-19). Thus our desires are not amoral. Their morality is defined entirely by their object.
The upshot of this observation is that it is misguided to condemn all sexual desire as lust. Some sexual desire is holy, good, and right and should be celebrated. To that end, John Murray writes:
Sex desire is not wrong and Jesus does not say so. To cast any aspersion on sex desire is to impugn the integrity of the Creator and of his creation. Furthermore, it is not wrong to desire to satisfy sex desire and impulse in the way God has ordained. Indeed, sex desire is one of the considerations which induce men and women to marry. The Scripture fully recognizes the propriety of that motive and commends marriage as the honourable and necessary outlet for sex impulse. What is wrong is the earliest and most rudimentary desire to satisfy the impulse to the sex act outside the estate of matrimony. It is not wrong to desire the sex act with the person who may be contemplated as spouse if and when the estate of matrimony will have been entered upon with him or her. But the desire for the sex act outside that divinely instituted and strictly guarded sanctuary which God has reserved for the man and his wife alone is wrong; and it is from this fountain of desire that proceed all the evils by which the sanctity of sex is desecrated.
If all of this is true and biblical, there are some implications for us. The Bible teaches us that sexual holiness is not merely a matter of behavior but also a matter of desire. For this reason, we must resist the temptation to dismiss sexual desire as a matter of moral indifference. The Bible draws a straight line between desire and deed and holds us accountable for both. Indeed, holiness requires us to be attentive to both (1 Thess. 4:3-5). Philippians 4:8 says,
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.
This text teaches us that holiness is not merely avoiding thoughts of evil. It also involves the obligation to fix one’s attention on what is pleasing to God. In light of this, here are some diagnostic questions that you should ask yourself when dealing with sexual desire.
1. Is my desire directed toward the conjugal bond of marriage? Or is it directed to a fulfillment outside of marriage?
2. Is my desire directed toward my spouse alone? Or is it directed to someone not my spouse?
3. [For singles especially] Is my desire reserved for the consummation that only comes after my marriage vows? Or is this desire directed toward fulfillment before I take my marriage vows?
How you answer those question will determine whether the desire you experience should be celebrated or repented of. For many of us, these questions likely will expose the fact that we have many more occasions for repentance than we might want to admit. Nevertheless, we have been given everything that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). So the order of the day for us is not to be morose or indifferent, but to be humble and vigilant about our desires.