In the post made on October 16, 2016, I defined “the world” as “sin in its organizing mode.” The world is the way our lives individually, socially, and in culture become organized when sin is given space to work out its chaotic logic.  First John 2:15-17 lists “the lust of the flesh” as one of the three organizing principles of “the world.” Today I want to ask how the lust of the flesh orders, that is, disorders, the world. The lust of the flesh refers to any desire to experience pleasure by means of one of the five senses, though usually we narrow it to taste and touch. Specifically, we will deal with the lust for sexual intercourse, which is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the term “lust.”

Every human society from the most primitive to the most civilized legislates rules for who may have sex with whom and under what conditions. Such acts as incest, child molestation, adultery, and rape may be defined differently than modern western societies define them, but properly defined they are forbidden in all societies. Warrior societies may permit engaging in forced sex with slaves or conquered enemies. In some tribal societies, giving your wife for sex with a male visitor of the same status is understood not as facilitating adultery but as an act of hospitality. Prostitution is permitted or overlooked in many societies, ancient and modern. And in many cultures the rules for men are much looser that those governing daughters and wives.

As we can see, even “the world” regulates sex. Why? Because sex is a powerful and irrational force! And unregulated by reason it can destroy individuals, families, and societies. It often provokes jealously, inflicts emotional wounds, evokes anger, and sometimes ends in violence. But the world is not stupid and suicidal. It insists on some order. It will not allow individuals to pursue their lusts without restraint.

Why then does John criticize the world for ordering itself according to “the lust of the flesh”? Clearly, John is not implying that “the lust of the flesh” is the only ordering principle the world uses. He lists two others, “the lust of the eye and the pride of life.” And we should not take John’s list of three ordering principles as exclusive of others. Everyone wants to live, be safe, and have friends. Nor is John saying that there is no light and nothing good in the world. The flickering light of reason keeps the world from falling into complete moral chaos. But as John looks at the world from the perspective of the bright light of Jesus Christ, he can see that the world orders itself to accommodate “the lust of the flesh” as much as it can without destroying the social fabric.

In other words, the dominant restraining principle that sets limits on the two lusts and pride is social survival, that is, the traditional and legal order that enables a society to function economically, culturally, and militarily. What makes a social order “the world” in John’s sense is that its principles of order have validity only for this life. Everything is organized to provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. A society can exist and thrive economically, culturally, and militarily, even if it allows individuals to engage in prostitution, promiscuous sex, homosexuality, adultery, pornography or any other avenue of sexual pleasure, as long as these activities do not lead to violence or in other obvious ways threaten the integrity of society. This is the bottom line of the world. And it is this order that John rejects.

But John—and the New Testament as a whole—insists that Christians must order their lives by a higher principle. The Christian rules for who can have sex with whom and under what conditions are not designed simply to enable the social and political order to function culturally, economically, and militarily in ways that provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. That higher principle is love of neighbor enlightened by God’s self-giving love as shown in Jesus Christ. When we see how much God loved our neighbors and us, we will love God in return. And we will love our neighbors in the same way God loved us. Who is our neighbor? Every human being we meet! Love gives only what is good for the beloved, and we learn what is good for our neighbors from God.

Sex is powerful, and, if it is not ordered and disciplined by a higher principle, it is destructive, very destructive. Christianity insists that the drive for sex be subordinated to the principle of love of neighbor, as defined by the quality of God’s love.  In this light, you can see why Christianity limits sexual union to marriage. Marriage in the Christian sense is a life-long bond, made before God and human witnesses. It surrounds sexual union with promises of exclusive love and loyalty. It welcomes children and provides stability for them. Marriage is not merely contract agreeing to keep each other satisfied sexually. It is a multidimensional partnership for all of life. The marriage promises to protect husband and wife from the pains of jealously and insecurity. Sex becomes more than a means of pleasure or pride or power. In marriage, the power of sex is turned to a constructive use. It becomes a means of reinforcing and deepening the bond of love and of giving us the emotional certainty that we are loved and will never willingly be abandoned. It protects each person from superficial physical attractions to other people.

Perhaps a society that allows prostitution, promiscuous sex, adultery, pornography or other avenues of sexual pleasure can continue to perform its basic functions. Perhaps it can function even if it aborts (kills) millions of unborn children every year. Perhaps it can deal with diseases spread by promiscuous sex. I don’t deny it. But such societies and the individuals within them follow the way of “the world.” “The love of the Father is not in them.” No one who has sex with a prostitute seeks her highest good. You don’t have sex with a prostitute because she needs the money or love. You cannot be seeking to love people as God has loved you if you “hook up” with them for mutual exploitation. Nor do you love yourself as God’s has loved you when you do such things. You have to disengage sex from love to engage in promiscuous relationships. Instead of expressing deep and lasting love, sex becomes an occasion for hurt, jealously, cruelty, emptiness, and insecurity. Society may survive, but many individuals will not.

Christianity is much stricter than the world in its rules for sex. And it is often ridiculed as being sexually repressed or obsessed or both at the same time. The next time you hear this tired refrain, you will know how to respond. Christianity has a “stricter” view of sex because has a higher view of sex, and of human beings and their dignity. The world expects less because it thinks less of us. We are valued only as means to the survival of the society. Beyond that, we can live as self-destructively as we please and pursue our irrational lusts as we wish. The world doesn’t care. But Jesus teaches us that we should not use each other as mere occasions for pleasure or pride or power. We are to love others in the way God loved us. You should not toy with the most tender and vulnerable sphere of  another person’s heart with the powerful and dangerous force of sex unless you love them truly and they love you truly and you have made this known in formal, binding promises.


  1. Rich constant

    Just to start.
    Idolatry can be stated this way.
    We can either use our bodies and our reality, in reality and social environments,
    And a social environment change.
    Also does the idea of idolatry change.
    I think this is called our anthropological stance and culture through time.
    “I no longer want the fastest camel in the desert”
    Nor do I want last year’s Audi A8

    Enhance intimacy with all of the above.
    At what point do we serve the tool, for the purpose intimacy with God in our brother.
    Sex, as I told my children when they were growing up is like the $400 bicycle I bought them when they were 10 and 11 years old.
    over a period of a year, the bicycle was no longer a cherished present.
    It had become a tool to use and abuse.
    This analogy is the same analogy that I used with them about indiscriminate sex partners and masturbation.
    It becomes nothing more than a tool a means to an end.
    And the end that is meant to bring intimacy in the very Act AB Euphoria between two loving people sharing and caring for each other.
    Has been demeaned to the point that are no longer matters who or what you’re with.
    The meaning of being fully human the way that God created us has been lost.
    well that’s a start off the top of my head.
    Blessings Ron
    I’d say it breaks the ice anyway


  2. nokareon

    Atheist Richard Dawkins has gotten much mileage out of a sound bite zinger rhetorically wondering why the omnipotent God and creator of the universe would “give a d*** who you sleep with.” The perspective that you share is so, so important in our modern American world that takes precisely this societal-functional approach to sex and even marriage. On this view, why would it matter to *you* (i.e. “you cisgender, heteronormative, Christian, and probably white male”) whether two men or two women can be legally married? And in the world’s system, there really isn’t a reason why it would, as long as it is socially functional. More and more, I see the strands coming further and further apart in modern America—those who have a high sex-ology and those that have a cheapened, democratized one.

    Now for an interpretative question: Do you think it is hermeneutically dangerous to default to reading sexual desire whenever the terms “lust,” “desire of the flesh,” “lust of the flesh,” and similar terms appear in the New Testament, particularly in Paul and the Gospels? This is something I’ve long wondered about, actually, and I would be curious to get your take on it.


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I think that is probably at the heart of what is meant by “the lust of the flesh”, though it would of course include gluttony and sins of excess. The human lack of power to discipline and rationalize the irrational desires of the body shows up here in the most dramatic and destructive way. Paul in 1 Corinthians seems to see sexual sin (pornea, fornication) as in a class of its own. I don’t think this has anything to do with a body-denying attitude on Paul’s part. To the contrary, I think it is because he holds sexual union to be something very powerful and special, created for divine purposes (children, love, and as an image of the union of Christ and his people); and to use it purely as a means of pleasure without regard to love, children, family, and marriage, with no consciousness of God, strikes him as pollution of the sacred. To give oneself over to lust for sex in any form with whomever is to turn oneself over to demonic powers and pagan gods. And I think secular society’s criticism of the Christian view of sex betrays a shocking shallowness of understanding human nature, a debasement of human dignity, and a complete misreading of human potential for love and joy.


  4. nokareon

    Got it. As you infer, my concern stems from manifestations of American-Christian Platonism/Gnosticism, ones that would deny and disparage the body intrinsically as the chief source of sin and temptation—and especially sexual desire. But as you say, there is no need to read Paul’s remarks that far or in that direction. (For example, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” becomes on this reading -> “You cannot go to heaven if you are still subject to sexual desire and temptation.”)


  5. Richard L Constant

    My daughter-in-law was journaling having a couple of issues my grandson now is about 3 1/2 months old now and so I thought it was time to send them a thought or three.
    About their vocation as parents.
    U might want to call this putting on a set of glasses refract out deceiving information that is all around us.
    “Utwo young one’s have experienced major Changes in your lives over the last 4 months.
    Stress and stress related
    Feelings will always happen
    Center on the Lord center on loving each other.
    That Becomes The Clay that Liam will model his Little Life from .You wonderful kids Are his Image bearers.
    He will be the best part of U Both…
    Be Blessed
    Be Greatfull


  6. rich constant

    Romans 5:18

    I kinda see 5:18 this way.
    remembering the other verse (to turn a number) gospel/before the foundation (R1:18…)
    God saw possibilities of GOOD…also the probabilities’ of ciaos (evil) through random free will.
    I do not want this long … a given Chris I will keep concepts brief and let you go.:-)
    what we are actually dealing with is cleansing. the new temple for the father to dwell in
    life / death
    fixing gods very good
    blood is the life and life is the blood …INTENT,,,
    perfect life / imperfect temple
    perfect faith / imperfect(flawed) creation(temple)
    actions obedient Faithful, good / actions Disobedient unfaithful evil
    faith hope love / Doubt ambivalence idolatry
    imaging The VERY GOOD / continue mythology alone separate (Idolatry)



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