One of the toughest things about relationships is that different feelings don’t have nice, neat boundaries. The emotions we feel blur at the edges. Excitement can feel a lot like fear. Loyalty can morph into jealousy. And what we sometimes think is “love” is really "just lust." With the world today making everything about sex, that’s an especially common line to cross. But we can’t just put love in one box and lust in a completely different container. Human emotions don’t work that way. So how can we tell the difference between loving someone and lusting for someone?
As always, the best place to start is with the Bible’s explanation of love and lust. When Scripture encourages us to “love,” it uses Greek and Hebrew words meaning things like honor, appreciate, support, and help (Ephesians 5:25-29). The Bible’s ideal for love is something selfless, supportive, and sacrificial (1 Corinthians 13:4-11). On the other hand, “lust” is entirely associated with sex, sexual pleasure, and selfishness (Matthew 5:27-28; Romans 1:24). That gives us a good start on knowing the difference. (Also see: What is lust?)
Using those biblical definitions, we can craft a test for when our emotions seem fuzzy. Evaluating our feelings based on biblical definitions can give us a pretty good idea of whether or not what we feel is love or just lust. The key question for this test is:
This is an easy question to ask but often very difficult to answer honestly. Even in today's sex-soaked world, we know we're supposed to appreciate a person for more than their physical attractiveness. And when the urge for sex takes priority, we’re tempted to pick out some safe, bland, cliché response to "What do I love about this person?" then use that as an excuse to indulge in lustful thoughts or behavior.
That's why, as you examine your thoughts and emotions, it’s extremely important to be as totally, brutally honest with yourself as possible. Don't answer how you think you should, but rather as you truly feel—even if you don't like the answer. You may reveal a truth about yourself you never knew. Then again, it may help confirm what you only hoped to be true.
What comes to mind when you see this person, when you think about them, when you spend time with them? Remember, don't just insert what you think should respond with, but rather what you actually feel.
Do you immediately remember great conversations you’ve had, their generous acts, their personal accomplishments? Do you recall moments of bonding, friendship, and laughter? Do you immediately get warm fuzzies over how they care for you, how they encourage you, or something about them you admire?
Or is their personal attractiveness the first thing you think of? Do you linger on thoughts of their facial features, how they wear their clothes, what their body is like? Do you think about their willingness to be physically affectionate, intimate, or to have sex? Are your thoughts dwelling upon actions related to sex or sexual thoughts?
What makes this evaluation even more difficult is that "love" versus "lust" is not quite an “either/or” question. That’s why the question at hand is about something being “just lust.” Because you can love someone and experience lust for them. They aren’t opposites—one is just a sinful, warped version of the other. Physical attraction between men and women is part of how God designed us (Genesis 1:28).
It’s normal for positive, legitimate love to also inspire physical—even sexual—attraction. Being sexually attracted to the person you love is completely natural. And it's important to note that sexual attraction does not necessarily equal lust. (Also see: Is it sinful to look at an attractive person?)
Lust is when we dwell on sexual thoughts for personal pleasure or allow them to override our respect for a person. When we love someone, we appreciate them for who THEY are and want to do things in service to THEIR best interests. When we lust, our appreciation extends only to what WE desire and how we want them to do things to please our OWN interests.
Lust means valuing someone the same way we would value property, such as a car, a cell phone, or a tool. Lust literally de-humanizes a person, because lust doesn’t care about the heart or soul. Lust is only concerned with what a body can do to satisfy sexual urges.
Did you answer the question "What do I love about this person?" with brutal honesty? Did you find that your thoughts about them are primarily physical or sexual? If so, then what you're feeling is probably "just lust." Coming up with a few banal things like “I like their laugh” or “they’re so smart” or “they're nice” doesn’t mean you actually love anything about them. If something about the person's heart stands out immediately—without a sexual component—then that’s more likely to be actual love and not "just lust."
Part of life is knowing how to control our own weaknesses. Lust is a very powerful thing, and it likes to fool us (Proverbs 11:6). Sexual attraction is one of those areas where the lines start to blur, and that is an extremely good reason to be sure what we feel is love before we allow sex to scramble our brains (Matthew 26:41).
Many, many people have come up with lame excuses for why they “love” a person, when the truth is that they’re "just" sexually attracted to them. That’s why it’s so important to be on guard against giving in to temptation or putting yourself in danger of temptations (Ephesians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:13). The more time you give yourself to be sure you really love the person, the more likely you are to make right choices.
"So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." —2 Timothy 2:22
The Bible’s ideal for love is selfless, supportive, and sacrificial. Love honors, appreciates, supports, and helps. Lust is entirely associated with sex, sexual pleasure, and selfishness. Lust is only concerned with what a body can do to satisfy urges. While it's natural to eventually be sexually attracted to someone you love, sexual attraction is one of those areas where the lines start to blur. Be sure what you feel is love before you allow lust and sex to scramble your thoughts and emotions.
Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.