Myth #1: Looking at an immodest woman is lust
There is a big misunderstanding about what “lust” is. The English word “lust” is translated, in the New Testament from a Greek word that means “to set the heart upon, that is, long for (rightfully or otherwise)” (Strong’s Dictionary). The King James Version translates it as “covet, desire, would fain, lust (after).”
Jesus used the same Greek word in this verse: “And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15, KJV). This verse could have been translated, “With lust I have lusted”, except that the context is not about lust. This is also why we read, “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31, KJV) But wait! God said “Do not covet”! Well, this could also be translated “But earnestly desire the best gifts…”
In Romans 7:7, Paul explains, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” This is because “lust” and “covet” come from the same Greek word.
So what is lust? Lust is desiring evil—something that God does not want us to desire. It has the connotation of not merely having a fleeting thought about it, but longing for that which is forbidden.
With this understanding, we turn to Matthew 5:27-28 and read, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Note that first of all, the lust is not in the look. Rather, the man gazes on the woman because of his lust. He looks at the woman with evil desire. For example, David gazed at Bathsheba and lusted after her. She was not his wife, and he was not her husband. He had no right to desire her, but he coveted her anyway.
There are various ways that a man could lust after a woman. A married man could look at a woman, married or unmarried, and desire to have her as his wife. An unmarried man could look at another man’s wife and covet her to be his own wife, or desire to commit fornication with his girlfriend. A man, married or unmarried, could look upon a woman and desire to rape her. All of these are examples of lust.
However, it is not sin for a man to look at a woman and think that she is pretty or attractive. Nor has God said that a woman is responsible to dress in such a way that men will not lust after her. It is not a sin for a man to look at any woman, regardless of how she is dressed (or not dressed). And God has never said that looking at certain women will tempt men to lust.
Throughout the rest of this article, the “lust” I will be referring to is specifically the lust Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:27-28. One can lust for many things other than a woman—for example, a fancy house, a fancy car, money, a better job, etc. At the end of this article, I will explain how God tells us to deal with lust—and it applies to any kind of lust, not just sexual lusts.
Myth #2: Seeing/looking at certain body parts is lust or will cause a man to lust
I read one woman’s story about causing her cousin to “stumble”. She leaned forward in front of him and happened to see his eyes dart toward her chest. She realized that the neckline of her blouse was low enough that he had been able to see her breasts when she leaned forward, and she felt very guilty for having “caused” him to “stumble”.
I don’t know what happened within that boy’s head when he saw cleavage. He was only ten years old. But this much I know: she did not cause him to sin.
This particular myth goes with the previous one: a misunderstanding about what lust really is. The myth says to women, “If men see any cleavage, undergarment, or maybe even shoulder, they will lust after you!” It says to men, “If you look at any part of a woman between her neck and her knees, you have lusted after her.”
Think about this: in some parts of the world, the people wear very little clothing or none at all. If it were a sin to see someone else who is naked or partially naked, we would have to let those people go to Hell. But God has never said that it is a sin to see certain parts of the body.
It is not appropriate for men to go around staring at women’s bodies. Women hate it—even women with cleavage showing. But just seeing—or even looking at—breasts, thighs, belly buttons, shoulders, whatever, is not lust.
Myth #3: Sexual attraction is lust
I want to tread carefully here, because sexual attraction and lust can be related. However, sexual attraction, by itself, is not lust. God made us to be attracted to each to ensure the propagation of the human race.
This is especially true between single people. When a single person is sexually attracted to a member of the opposite sex, there is nothing wrong with that attraction. After all, think of it in this context: should an engaged couple be sexually attracted to each other? Should they be looking forward to the wedding night? Of course! Should they allow their sexual attraction to turn to lust and end in pre-marital sex? Of course not.
And there is the difference between sexual attraction and lust. Sexual attraction, used properly, helps to draw a man and woman together into a lifelong, intimate union where each cares for the other and gives up their own desires to please their spouse. Lust, on the other hand, results in each party seeking to have their own desires fulfilled—a sure recipe for divorce (if they ever make it to the marriage in the first place).
Myth #4: Sexual desires, feelings, and thoughts are lustful
This myth goes along with the previous one. However, it is a little different, but it forms the basis for the previous myth.
The purity culture in which I grew up taught me that sexual desires, thoughts, and feelings were wicked, dirty, or improper. Nobody said, flat out: “If you desire sex, that is lust!” But the overall impression that I got was that my sexual drives and desires were bad.
Again, sexual desires can turn into lust. A man’s sexual desires, for example, can lead him to rape a woman. But the innate desire for sexual gratification is not a sinful desire—because God never said it was! God condemns lustful sexual desires—desiring to commit sexual sin—but He has never said that sexual desire is sinful. On the contrary, sexual desire is a God-given desire, to help us follow the instructions He gave Adam and Eve at the beginning of the world: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Myth #5: It is normal for men to lust after women
Sin is not normal. Sin is common, but it is not how God intends for us to live.
If we are talking about unsaved men, then, yes, it is probably normal for them to lust after women. They are walking in the flesh and following Satan, and they lack the grace of God to prevent them from lusting. They can try to control their thoughts—and there is no excuse for criminal sexual activity—but without the power of the Holy Spirit, they will probably fall prey to lust.
For the Christian man, however, sin is not normal. Will he be perfect? No. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses…”, indicating that we will repeatedly have to come to God and ask for forgiveness for our sinful mistakes. But brothers in Christ, if you struggle with lust, that is not how God wants you to live! You are not condemned to stay there! What’s the answer? Read on.
Myth #6: Lusting after the opposite sex is something that only men do because they are visually stimulated
After all, Jesus never specifically said that women should not look on men to lust after them. And it is true that men seem to be the ones who have the biggest problem with porn.
However, statistically, this assumption is wrong. A survey by Cosmopolitan magazine found that about 29% of women said they watched porn “daily” or “once every few days”. Closer to home for some of my readers, a survey by the conservative Mennonite blog Radi-Call found that 23% of female respondents were or had been addicted to porn.
This means that in many homes where the mom controls the Internet filter, the fox is guarding the henhouse. It also shows that women can be visually aroused, not just men.
Lust is not just a male problem.
Myth #7: If a man lusts after a woman, it is her fault
When Jesus said that if a man looks at a woman to lust after her, he commits adultery, He gave no corresponding statement to the women: “And ye, women, see to it that ye do not tempt men to lust after you.” He placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the men.
Guys, I don’t care if a woman strips in front of you and tries to entice you to have sex. It is still your responsibility not to lust. Be a man and don’t blame the women for your own sin.
Myth #8: A woman’s dress can cause a man to lust after her
If this myth were true, Jesus would have been putting men under a horrible burden in Matthew 5:27-28. If they didn’t stay away from “immodest” women, they might be forced into committing mental adultery. How awful of Jesus not to have given the women some responsibility!
Nobody ever says that a woman can force a man to lust after her. Yet, I have repeatedly read articles stating that immodest dress can cause men to “stumble” (i.e., lust). The term “cause” essentially means “force” or at least “make”. In other words, when you boil it down, these people claim that a woman can force a man to lust after her—that if a woman dresses a certain way, men will lust after her.
Guys, here’s the truth: no one can force you to lust. No one can “cause” you to commit mental adultery.
Ladies, you do not need to worry that you will unknowingly “cause” some man to lust after you. Seek your Heavenly Father’s will in how you are to dress, and you will glorify Him.
Myth#9: By dressing modestly, women can help men not to lust
There are no statistics to back up this claim. (At least, not that I can find.) Unfortunately, in fact, the opposite is true: modesty does not help to prevent lust, and possibly increases the chances of lust. (2023 Update: at this point in the original post, I referenced a source that is not available. For more on this topic, please see this post from A Better Way, and also this follow up.)
In addition, modesty standards inadvertently emphasize to men how sexy women’s bodies are. They tell them that not only are bikini girls and nude models something to fantasize about—women in long sundresses or tank tops and shorts are as well.
Many people have perpetuated this myth. They cite anecdotal evidence in support of it, but the hard factual evidence says otherwise. If it were true, the Arabic countries with high modesty standards should be good, moral places. Instead, the evidence points to an incredible amount of rape and other sexual crimes in these countries.
Myth #10: You can conquer lust by “trying harder” and following spiritual disciplines
Brothers, let me assure you of something: if “trying harder” can enable you to stop lusting, Jesus didn’t need to die. By yourself, you will never attain complete victory over lust.
God tells us, “For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I thought that I could become a better man on my own. It wasn’t until God brought me face-to-face with my inability to make the necessary changes on my own, that I turned to Him for help and began receiving His grace to be the man He wanted me to be.
Don’t think for a moment that by following someone’s formula, such as fasting, praying, Bible reading, Scripture memorization and meditation, church attendance, accountability groups—in short, any “spiritual discipline” that does not require the power of the Holy Spirit—you will gain spiritual victory. Even an atheist can memorize Scripture and participate in accountability groups.
You may feel too dirty to come to God for help. You may feel that you’ve gone too far, that God doesn’t care about you. Maybe you have backslidden to the point that you think Jesus wouldn’t want to take you back.
These are all lies. The Good Shepherd is still pursuing you in love, seeking to bring you back to the fold again. You are not beyond repair. God will meet you where you are and redeem you if you will turn to Him. He assures us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) ALL unrighteousness. A-L-L.
Your transformation may not be immediate. It may take time as God lovingly works with you to throw out the bad and bring in the good. But this I can assure you from personal experience: it does work. God will cleanse you from unrighteousness and heal your wounded spirit if you will turn to Him, confess your sins, surrender your life to Him, and seek to know Him and follow His will. If you still lack complete victory, keep on asking Him for it. Ask Him to give you complete victory over lust—or whatever sin you are fighting.
One point is worth mentioning here: make sure that you are actually trying to gain victory over true sin and not merely a man-made “sin” that God has not called sin. God will help you to overcome sin, but He will not give you victory over non-sin.
Have you fallen prey to any of these myths? I certainly did. Ask God to reprogram your mind and your heart to His way of thinking, so that you can follow Him, and Him alone.
Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)