When Are Desires Healthy or Twisted? A Brief Look at the Word Epithymia

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A study of the HSR (Human Sexuality Report) reveals that the word desire is used multiple times in both positive and negative senses.

In the attached PDF, I did a search of the Greek word epithymia [alt. epithumia] and noted that the English word translated desire / passion / lust / longing / covetousness [as by the ESV in this case] has both positive and negative connotations. I also listed a synopsis from the Complete Word Study Dictionary [CWSD] by Spiros Zodiates. I then attempt to make a few observations.

Summary observations on the word epithymia.

The positive

Just as Zodiates notes, the word can have the general sense of longing. In our words, we might use it as "I can't wait to see you." In a sense, this describes a certain emptiness in our heart when we miss a relationship. This affirms what we know generally of humans, namely that we seek intimacy, community, and security. In and of themselves, they are part of our makeup in the image of God, and in a pre-Fall state, all of them would have been expressed perfectly. As well, just as the church father Augustine noted, all of us have been created with a God-shaped vacuum, and "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee." However, after the Fall, these legitimate desires have been subject to being twisted. This is the subject of the next section. 

The negative

As one reads through the uses of the word epithymia in these lists of verse, one cannot help seeing a pattern, which we might call 'B.C' and 'A.C.' In other words, before Christ, and after Christ.

The Holy Spirit-inspired writers of the New Testament speak of the BC dynamic as:

  • (Eph 2:3) All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
  • (Eph 4:22) .... put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,
  • (Titus 3:3) ...we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves....
  • (1 Peter 1:14) As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

Thus we see that the addressees all had a before Christ state, which is described by the fact that they lived "among them at one time" and also acted like the non-Christians who gratified their cravings and in effect they were followers or might we say disciples (in a perverse way) of it thoughts and desires. The BC state is also described as "the old self" which was part of "their former manner of life" (that is the settled way of doing things, in which they were enslaved to their passions and both foolish and living in their "former ignorance"). It is this BC way of doing things, according to the New Testament writers, that must die, if one is truly to be considered in the AC camp, namely those who profess union with Christ and take on the name Christian.

The New Testament writers also predict that times would come when advocates of straddling the BC and AC state would appear. It assigns a list of very pejorative words to them, as if to say, "avoid such people as they will kill your soul."

Here are a few descriptors:

  •  (2 Tim 4:3)...teachers to suit itching ears
  • (2 Peter 2:10)...indulgers and despisers of authority...bold and willful
  • (2 Peter 2:18)...enticers
  • (2 Peter 3:3, Jude 18)...scoffers

The antidote to the way of life of the BC state

If one scans through the list of the uses of the word epithymia, one sees that when it is used in the negative sense, there is frequently a strong verb that goes along with it. These strong verbs leave no room for negotiation, as in, "I can feed the epithymia of my BC state, and at the same time I can declare that I have the identity of the AC state." Rather, we see the following words:

  • (Rom 13:14)...make no provision)
  • (Gal 5:24)...have crucified the flesh
  • (Eph 4:22)...put off your old self
  • (Col 3:5)...put to death
  • (2 Tim 2:22)...flee
  • (Titus 2:12)...renounce
  • (I Peter 1:14)...do not be conformed
  • (I Peter 2:11)...abstain

When one reads this list, the picture of a former cocaine addict might come to mind. This person needs to avoid the cocaine, but more than that, even needs to avoid the gateway triggers that make them want to take cocaine. That might be as simple as avoiding a drink of beer, or going to a social event which would pre-dispose them to falling back into it.

Yet, in the New Testament, this is not a self-improvement campaign, but rather a very strong dependence on the spiritual tools that are available to those who are in Christ. Thus we read of replacements and alternatives for these twisted desires in the following:

  • (Rom 13:14) ...put on the Lord Jesus Christ
  • (Gal 5:16) ...walk by the Spirit and you will not...
  • (Gal 5:24) ...and those who belong to Christ have...
  • (2 Tim 2:22) ...pursue righteousness, faith love and peace., along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart
  • .(Titus 2:12) ...to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age.
  • (I Peter 1:4) ...as obedient children...
  • (I Peter 4:2) ...so live for the rest of the time...for the will of God

Conclusion

As much as theologians know that there are perils for doing word studies, I hope that this bird's eye view of one New Testament word will provide us with both the positive and negative views of the word epithymia. What we see is that legitimate desire can easily be twisted for the Devil's purposes as he is a master of taking what is good and perverting it.

We can also see that the New Testament makes no provision for a chameleon BC / AC kind of Christian who is actively and consciously feeding their illicit desires and claiming to be united to Christ as the same time. It is certainly a thing of grace, that Christ empowers his children who desire to live in obedience to his commands with Spirit-empowered tools to live a victorious Christian life.

A few questions for reflection

  1. Some have reduced the word epithymia only to illicit sexual passion, can you see any problems with such an approach? What might they be?
  2. If a denomination has those who are actively promoting a 'BC-AC' manner of life,  how should they be described?
  3. As much as some have objected to the use of the word "clear" in the HSR report, could we consider the teachings of the New Testament on the word epithymia anything less than clear?
  4. How will our knowledge of the NT use of this word affect our discipleship programs, our teaching, and our preaching?
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