How to determine whether your sexual desire is holy

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.

John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 56

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.


  • Don Johnson

    I think that what Denny claims is true is a dangerous teaching in that will lead to unnecessary condemnation of members in the body of Christ that believe it for the simple reason that it claims one can control something (in this case, sexual desire) that is not always under one’s control. I am heterosexual and find I am attracted to some women, but it is not a conscious decision, and I choose not to act on those that are not with my wife. I think trying to make a sin from something that is not a choice is a way to make people crazy.

  • Brian Gaskin

    Then please explain Matt 5:27-30. As you know, Don, sin has effected everything on earth. The verse shows our need for a savior ever more as the law is not enough and Jesus says our thought life is where he should live. It is pretty obvious in verse 29-30 and also earlier Matt 18:7-9 that Jesus understands we will have sinful desires. He just doesn’t say that we can use that as an out.
    I will leave you with 1 Cor. 6:18, I know you said that you have not acted on it but it would be easier to flee the temptation than to say I can restrain myself from acting on my desires.
    Grace and Prayers to you Brother.

    • Don Johnson

      On Matt 5 and Matt 18, how many believers do you know that have plucked out their eyes or cut off their hands? Jesus is speaking in hyperbole about lust, which is different than desire.

      Jas 1:14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
      Jas 1:15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

      James makes a distinction between desire and sin, yes desire can LEAD to sin, but is not sin in and of itself.

      I agree we are to flee from sexual immorality.

  • James Bradshaw

    “That is why Solomon enjoins his son to celebrate sexual desire when it is directed toward one’s spouse”

    Isn’t Solomon the same guy who had several hundred wives and just as many concubines? I’m not sure we should be looking to him as a model of sexual restraint.

    For those who take vows of celibacy, what is the situation? Since they are unmarried, any sexual desire is necessarily sinful? How does one repent for something one has little or no control over? You can’t very well be sorry for something you didn’t choose. Further, how successful have attempts to entirely eradicate the sex drive been?

    • Giauz Ragnarock

      I’m not really answering your question, but some people are born with varying degrees (all the time no desire, rare desire, desire for only certain specific person(s), only romantic without sexual desire, etc) of no sexual desire whatsoever (asexual people). For asexual people who are married, the lack of desire for their spouses poses its own unique problems compared to the majority of people who have to police themselves to maintain fidelity.

  • Chris Ryan

    This reasoning here conflates desire with lust. The two are distinct, as any dictionary will attest. Jesus doesn’t say that sexual temptation is sin, He says that lust is sin. Lust is much, much more than simple sexual desire. Consider the equal sin of coveting that 50″ TV Best Buy is selling. There’s a big difference between wanting a 50″ TV and coveting it. Likewise there’s a big difference between sexually desiring a woman and coveting her. The former is temptation, the latter is sin.

  • Brian Gaskin

    Well I would err on the side of caution and say that if you find yourself “desiring” thing and telling yourself that it’s ok because it isn’t lust, then your probably lying to yourself. That is why a strong local church presence in your walk is so important. The body can help you see sin that you are blind to and help call you to repentance.
    Jeremiah 17:9 tells us how much the heart can be trusted in these matters.

    • Chris Ryan

      Its as serious to add new sins as it is to subtract old sins. This we know from both Deu 4:2 and Rev 22:19 among several other scriptures. Saying that temptation equals sin is as wrong as saying that homosexuality does not equal sin. The Word is perfect as it is.

  • Mitch Dean


    “diagnostic questions that you should ask yourself when dealing with sexual desire”

    This sounds like an entirely unrealistic and unworkable concept. Looking at these questions above, I can’t imagine that there exists any sort of “holy desire” that would meet these standards.

    I’d be willing to bet that if folks, especially men, are being honest, they are not thinking about marriage when they are thinking about acts of sexual intimacy. I’m sure many think about engaging in these acts with their wives and that is great. But, when sexual desire occurs most guys basically just think “wow, I’d like to…” And, for a married guy, these thoughts can be about his wife or someone else and it’s nothing to blame him for. What matters is what he decides to do about it.

    So, it sounds like you’ve now find something wrong with the guys who might think about engaging in sex acts with women other than their wives (pretty much all married guys) but who make the decision to remain faithful. All of a sudden, fidelity isn’t good enough any more.

    And for the singles, what guy thinks “wow I’m thinking about as long as it’s after the wedding”? How is that realistic?

    Also, I am certainly no theologian so can you help me understand how this passage from Philipians where Paul is saying “dwell on these good things” translates to a way to condemn people who have a certain sexual desires that may not fit within your framework? I ask because (after looking at several versions) I can’t see any reference to marriage or family or any other contextual clue that seems to indicate that this is about sex or sexual desire. Again, I have no background in theology and I fully recognize that the connection may not be accessible to a lay person.


  • Bridget Platt

    As Don referenced above in James 1:14-15, there is a distinction made between desire and the consummation of that desire which results in sin. If improper desire alone was sin (be it sexual or otherwise), we would all be sinning pretty much non-stop. Examples:

    -Desire to be lazy and skip prayer/Bible in the morning – but put God first instead.
    -Desire to ignore the friend in need because it will take my precious time, but help him.
    -Desire to snap back at my husband about something, but encourage him instead.
    -Desire to eat another helping of food when I’m full (gluttony) but refrain.
    -Desire to lash out in anger with my words at a driver who cut me off, but instead pray for him.
    -Desire to complain about circumstances, but refrain.
    -Desire to gossip, but refrain.

    The only way I can see these desires becoming sin is if I set my heart to mediate on and day dream about them. Same with sexual desire.

  • Ben

    I’ve been terrified to post this to any blog on this subject but now I feel I must. The reason being that if it worked for me perhaps others might at least think about it. Because of my SSA, I was, and continue every three months, to have chemicals administered to take away my libido and sexual impulses. It’s called chemical castration. I can’t tell you how good it is not to have to constantly monitor every SSA though and then repent of it every 5 minutes. The cycle was vicious. I finally have my sanity back.
    I have no libido or really any sexual thoughts of acting with anyone. It feels like my sexuality is gone and it’s wonderful.
    The down side is that I must have these chemicals administered every three months for the rest of my life. But I just thank God that this was possible.

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