Sexual Attraction vs. Lust (Again!)


I struggle to understand the sin of lust. Of course, I understand that it is wrong to intentionally pursue sexual gratification outside of its proper context within marriage, or even to intentionally crave sex outside of this context. What I don’t understand is the difference between healthy sexual attraction and lust. It seems to me that some amount of sexual attraction is just an essential part of a romantic relationship- it is part of what differentiates a romantic relationship from a mere friendship. And that seems to me to mean that each party feels sexual desire for the other party. But since romance precedes and leads to marriage, that would seem to mean that it is ok to have sexual desire before marriage. Of course, that desire needn’t be a desire for sex here and now and could rather be a desire for sex in the context of a future marriage. Perhaps that is what makes the difference between healthy sexual attraction and lust.

But here is the question- is it acceptable to intentionally foster the latter form of sexual desire (i.e. the desire for sex in the context of a future marriage) before one is married? If not, I am confused. I am confused because it certainly seems ok to intentionally cultivate romantic feelings for someone with whom one hopes to get married. But if sexual desire is an essential part of romance, then it would seem that it is also acceptable to intentionally cultivate sexual desire for the person one *hopes to *marry (and therefore has not yet married).

Now, I should note that I am aware that (a) merely passive desires and (b) desires that are engaged in without knowledge of the gravity of the sin do not constitute grave sin. My question is not, “Do acts of lust where (a) and (b) hold constitute grave sin?” Rather my question is this, “Is it acceptable to intentionally foster a certain kind of sexual desire before marriage- i.e. a present desire to be sexually intimate in the context of a future marriage? Or do all acts of sexual desire prior to marriage constitute instances of the sin of lust? If so, then how does one ever decide on the right person to marry, and how does one cultivate a sense of romance with someone whom one is courting? What is romance if not inherently based on sexual attraction, and what it attraction if not based on desire?"

Thank you, and God Bless,



How does one “foster” a friendship (romantic or otherwise)? By spending time, by engaging in mutual interests, by communicating, by wanting and doing good things for another. All good, with a good end, and proper in the context of a developing friendship.

I do not understand what would be the means, and the good end of fostering “sexual desire” while not married. Sexual desire may arise, it can be acknowledged, and then we move on. The time is not yet right to pursue it.

And I don’t know that I agree that sexual desire is an essential part of romance, though it may commonly be present. But should it be present…see the previous paragraph.


Thank you, Rau, for your reply. However I still have lingering curiosity as to how to resolve my original question.

The original question can be re- worked in the following, potentially more helpful way. Marriage is an essentially sexual type of relationship, yes? But of course, there is no sin in wanting to be married before marriage. But that means that before marriage there is no sin in wanting to have a certain kind of sexual relationship (i.e. a marriage) with someone. But is that not a form of sexual desire? Or is it just a form of sexual desire that is acceptable, since it is a desire for the only kind of sexual relationship that is acceptable to God?

Thank you!


Sexual desire need not be sin or lust. You wrote previously of “fostering” sexual desire, which struck me as self-obsessed, and I suggested desire may arise and can be properly acknowledged.

There is no ill in recognizing a sexual relationship as part of the good and desirable aspect of marriage-an intrinsic aspect of marriage in fact. And there is no ill in desiring that relationship as PART of marriage, entered into for the right reasons.


Thank you for your reply. If I may ask, why does the term “foster” strike you as self- obsessed?

Often what is said in reply to questions about the difference between healthy sexual desire and lust is that if a sexual desire arises, it can be acknowledged but not pursued. But this is not the way we think about the desire to marry. We don’t say, “If a desire for marriage arises that is fine, but don’t go intentionally fostering i.e. harboring it!” And so my question seems to be pretty natural, because if it is acceptable to intentionally foster, facilitate, or give rise to the desire for marriage, then it would seem that by that very same token it is acceptable to intentionally foster, facilitate, or give rise to a certain kind of sexual desire before marriage. I don’t see how I would formulate that point without using the term “foster” or some analogous term, and consequently I don’t see how I could have formulated my question without using such terminology either…


please note that it is not part of my point that marriage is only about sexuality. I’m just asking a question about that aspect.


What does one do to foster sexual desire?


I don’t know. But how does one foster a desire for marriage without fostering a desire to be sexually intimate within marriage, if sexual intimacy is, as you say, an “intrinsic aspect” of marriage?


I understand “fostering a relationship with a person” which I described earlier. The relationship seems to be the appropriate object of the verb.

You say you don’t know what you’d do to foster sexual desire, yet you also say you can’t avoid it!

BTW - I understand desiring marriage, and taking steps to seek it out. Is that fostering a desire for marriage? :confused: I guess the expressions you use just don’t resonate with me.


Ok, let’s forget about the term “foster” and use instead the synonym “cultivate”. Imagine that two people- a man and a woman, of course- are engaged to be married. The romance between them, however, has died down significantly, and with it the strong desire that they once both felt to marry one another. This couple seems to have reached a crossroads, where they have two options- either they try their best to cultivate the desire to marry that they once had for each other, or they call off their plans for marriage and go their separate ways.

What this example brings to light is that the desire for marriage doesn’t necessarily just “happen” to two people who play entirely passive roles in having marital desires for another- each party plays an active role in keeping those desires alive, and if they don’t then it seems unlikely their relationship will get very far. At the very least, I can certainly say that it is morally acceptable for the two parties to play such active roles in “cultivating” the desire for marriage, or in keeping that desire alive.

Does that make sense? Now, here is the question. If (a) it is acceptable for two parties to actively cultivate the desire for marriage- to keep that desire passionately alive within themselves- and (b) sexuality is an “intrinsic aspect” of marriage, then doesn’t it follow that © it is morally acceptable to actively cultivate- in the sense of cultivation discussed above- the desire to be sexually intimate with someone (in the context of a future marriage), and to cultivate said desire before the time of marriage?

I hope that is clearer.


Like Rau, I’m not really sure what you mean.

But I’ll try to say something about this…

When dating, we will prepare well for an important date. We get dressed up, try to look our best. We may even wear an appealing fragrance. This is all with the clear aim of making ourselves more attractive to the other person. So in a sense, yes we are trying to cultivate that natural sexual desire men and women have for each other.

It is not wrong for me to do this, nor for my date to do this…within the boundaries of modesty of course. But let’s say I find myself feeling very attracted to my date. That’s OK. I may look at her and think “she’s very attractive, I could see myself marrying her” (after gettign to know each other better, ascertain compatibility, etc). That’s OK. I may then have a thought in my head that involved us being along together, perhaps it’s our wedding night and we are starting to undress each other. This is where a line is crossed. The thought at this moment is a mere temptation, not yet a sin, and I must do my best to put it out of my mind. But if I choose to engage the thought, I choose to take it further, I choose to “cultivate” it, I have crossed into lust.

So as per the above there are real differences between sexual desires (attraction, romantic affection) and deliberate sexual thoughts (eg undressing your date in your mind). The former is how God designed us and good (within bounds of modesty). The latter is the sin of lust.


The clarity of the thing you propose now, and prior was not a problem to understand, just how it relates to reality. Cultivate and foster are I think equivalent in this context.

In your scenario, if the relationship has faded as you describe, perhaps there is a signal in that? Would one respond by “cultivating” sexual desires, or desire for marriage, or review the breadth of one’s feelings towards and about this person? One does not marry a particular person because marriage (generically) is an attractive proposition or solely because sexual desire can be fulfilled that way, but because one views a particular person as the right person for them, and they feel the same towards you.

“Morally acceptable” pertains to acts (and thoughts). You’ve not explained yet what you would actually do to (consciously) cultivate sexual desire, or desire to marry.


I think I might understand what you mean. You want to be married and want to have a healthy and active sex life within that marriage. Yet you aren’t currently married, so when does normal desire for sex become a sin? The simple answer is that lust is defined as an inordinate desire for something…could be food, could be sex. Inordinate, not to be confused with the natural desire God made us with. The idea is to not allow sexual thoughts to become overly important. All things in moderation. Understand to the best of your ability as a single person who you are as a sexual being, but don’t entertain impure thoughts. Of course we’ll think about sex and what flips our switches, but don’t invite those thoughts over for the afternoon. Naturally have those thoughts, acknowledge them, understand them, and then move on to something else.


Lust is often compared to fire:,“16 Two sorts of men multiply sins, and a third incurs wrath. The soul heated like a burning fire will not be quenched until it is consumed; a man who commits fornication with his near of kin will never cease until the fire burns him up.
17 To a fornicator all bread tastes sweet; he will never cease until he dies.
18 A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, “Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The Most High will not take notice of my sins.”
19 His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun; they look upon all the ways of men, and perceive even the hidden places.” Sir.23:16-19. Like a fire it flares up from within,lust invades the senses,excited the body, and takes hold of the heart. Lust is restless- it creates an insatiable desire to satisfy the body and it’s senses. It promises gratification and peace, but only adds fuel to the flame. In it’s restless pursuit of satisfaction,lust drowns out the voice of conscience and dulls sound thinking. Eventually,it exhausts the spirit and it’s prey is consumed. This is the image of lust similar to Jesus. While the men in Sirach have already committed adultery, Jesus takes a huge step back. Before adultery is committed in the body, He says,It is committed in the heart, through our eyes. The very way we LOOK reveals what is in our heart. Lust is a form of adultery. Because both violate the true meaning of the body. Both cheapen sexuality and reduce the body to an object. Is a lustful glance really that harmful? Prov.6:27-28 says “27 Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?
28 Or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched?” Sexual desire can be a destructive force. In order for it to become the positive and creative power it was meant to be it must be transformed by Christ. And it is through that transformation that love can fully flow from the heart. -JP (theology of the body)


This is a very good example and I hope that the OP will read this for understanding. In all circumstances, one should keep guard over one’s thoughts no matter the subject matter because a wandering imagination often creates anxieties from hypothetical “what-ifs” which many times have no basis in reality and also causes worries over whether one has sinned or not. The result of this is that one risks losing a childlike trust in God’s all-loving providence. His plan is always best and comes at the right time in the right way. One can be assured that if one takes care of God’s business in the present moment (i.e., serving God and neighbor as needs arise from moment to moment), God will over-abundantly supply for every concern of that individual. And, no one who hopes in God is disappointed (Rm 5:5).

Like the OP, I struggle with temptations towards lust and often become confused by thoughts related to sexual desire. I respond by keeping vigilant guard over my thoughts. So, when I find that my mind is starting to wander onto “what ifs” and other hypothetical scenarios involving persons to whom I am attracted, I turn my thoughts to God in prayer about the matter, if needed, or redirect them toward thoughts about some other morally neutral thing. This is a struggle for me and many times I find the “undressing” scenario arising quickly in my imagination. Yet, with God’s grace, He is helping me gain better control over my thoughts in this area.

I will pray for you all. Please pray for me.



MJJean, this is a great explanation. Thank you.


You are welcome! Glad to be of help.


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