Last week we published a podcast interview with Mark Brouwer about the subject of “looking vs. lusting.” Soon after publishing the post, my wife came across a post on another blog about the difference between looking and lusting. The post begins with a quote:
My husband is a very visual/artistic man and says that for him, for the vast majority of the time, looking at beautiful women in bikinis, lingerie, etc. is the same as looking at a beautiful car or art picture. He enjoys it for its beauty and it has nothing to do with his love or desire for me, nor does he use it for sexual fulfillment.
In my college and post-college years I lived with a few “artist types,” men who were and still are quite talented in the area of painting and sculpture. I remember being amazed at their seeming ability to “not lust” after staring at a naked or partially naked woman for hours in an art studio. At the time I simply chalked it up to them being different than me. Each of us has our own besetting sins, right?
Admiring Beauty in Creation vs. Idolatry
Over time I’ve also come to appreciate that there is something unique about the human body, at least compared to other objects of God’s physical creation. Reading through Genesis 1-2, the apex of God’s physical creation, after He made the moon and the stars and the garden of paradise, is the woman. After finding no helper suitable for him, Adam at last meets Eve, someone perfectly suited to be his mate, and upon seeing her he erupts in a song full of anticipation and excitement, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
Since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, Paul tells us it has been our sinful tendency to look into the created order and make idols of the things we see (Romans 1:18-23). We should be able to look at the beauty of God’s creation and clearly perceive the immortal and invisible God behind it all, and seeing Him we should be drawn to worship Him. Instead, we exchange the glory of God for “images resembling mortal man” and other visible things.
It makes sense that if the woman was the crown of creation, then in our sinful hearts images of women will often be our first pick for idols. Men and women alike are guilty of idolizing the female form. This might come out in the form of lust. Or it might come out in the form of “rating” women by some lofty physical standard.
The bottom line is this: Seeking to “appreciate beauty,” Christians should always be alert to the sinful drive in them that pulls their heart towards idolatry.
Can Men Notice and Not Lust?
I think it is possible for a man to notice and woman and not lust, but I say that with two strong reservations:
1. Often men will use the dichotomy between looking and lusting to justify their desire to play with temptation. As Christians we are meant to love what God loves and hate what God hates, which means when we detect any lustful inclination in us, the godly response should be to flee, not continue to stare under the pretense of “admiring beauty.”
Sin is deceitful (Hebrews 3:13), and men can easily fall into lust’s deceitful trap when they try to draw a hard line between looking and lusting. Paul himself spoke of a sinful drive in his bones that led him to covet or lust (Romans 7:7-11; 22-24). It was a drive so strong and that even when he wanted to do good, evil was close at hand (v.21). Men may want to do good (admire beauty), but their flesh will always seek to warp that good intention. Always. Sin may not always try to warp noticing into lust specifically, but indwelling sin is always at work in us.
I do think it is helpful to draw a distinction between noticing and lusting so we are not plagued with a false sense of guilt. The word “lust” in Scripture denotes a strong craving or desire, coveting something or someone. Some men, when they see a women that their mind registers as attractive, are easily racked with a sort of chronic guilt over the fact that they noticed someone’s attractiveness. This is not lust.
But being careful to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5), we should take note of the fact that something is attractive to us, and then quickly turn our minds, as CS Lewis puts it, to “the place where all the beauty came from,” setting our minds and affections on things above (Colossians 3:1-4). If we are married we should be very careful to guard our hearts, not letting them turn aside to the images of other women (Proverbs 7:25), but rejoicing in the wife of our youth, letting our hearts be intoxicated with their love (5:18-19).
2. There is a kind of “looking” that can also come from a sinful heart, though not the same kind of sin as lusting. A man might be able to say, “I wasn’t lusting after her, only admiring her beauty,” and say this honestly. But there might be another more subtle sin at work in this statement.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of buying into our culture’s tendency to objectify women, rating them by the size, shape, and harmony of their body parts. Men should not only guard their hearts against lust, but guard against their tendency to depersonalize women, seeing them only as physical beings. Admiring beauty in people is wonderful. But our idea of beauty must be transformed to reflect God’s perspective, not merely the ideas in our culture.
So, by all mean, admire beauty! But remember, the kind of feminine beauty that is priceless in God’s sight is not found in body shape or clothing, but “respectful and pure conduct…the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:1-6). Men, if you are going to talk up someone’s beauty, remember to speak of the qualities in a person that will last into eternity. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).
Your Wife = Your Standard of Beauty
I’ll echo what Mark Driscoll says: “Everyone should have—must have—their spouse as their standard of beauty.” We know this is true when we look at Jesus and His bride, the church. Though she is sinful and flawed, he counts her beautiful and no one else compares to her. She alone is His object of desire. We fall into lust when we compare our wives to other women, secretly wishing our wives had qualities other women have.