I stumbled across a conversation on Instagram the other day where an author was talking about romance novels and how they were a big cause of encouraging women to lust. She specifically called out Christian romance novels (as well as sweet/clean), saying that just leaving sex off the page wasn’t enough.
And I get what she was saying…sort of.
But I also kind of don’t.
If you look up “lust” in Merriam-Webster, the first definition is “intense or unbridled sexual desire.” The second definition is “an intense longing or craving.” And they have a third definition that they’ve marked “obsolete” that calls lust “pleasure, delight.”
(Maybe I’m old, because I still use the phrase “a lust for life” and it definitely is using lust in that “obsolete” manner.)
Lust, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily imply sin. I believe it’s valid — good, even! — to have intense sexual desire for your spouse. The dictionary doesn’t put a moral spin on the definitions.
Of course, there are teachings in the Bible against lust. But those aren’t even specifically or only having to do with sexual desire. The Bible speaks more to that second definition — the intense longing or craving. We’re cautioned not to lust after money or status or anything, really, that isn’t a deepened relationship with God.
And this is where romance novels — Christian romance novels in particular — have a great place to show people the difference between healthy lust and attraction and unhealthy.
I do not think it’s wrong to have sexual desire and attraction between the hero and heroine of a romance novel. In fiction, and in life, sex is a beautiful, God-ordained part of marriage. You should crave your spouse physically. And that sexual craving doesn’t just turn on when you say “I do.” It’s part of what draws you together. As believers who living according to the guidelines of Scripture, you don’t act on that craving until after the “I do,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
And the fact that it’s there isn’t sin!
Take some time to read Song of Solomon. Talk about lust for one’s beloved! Maybe you and I don’t want to be compared to twin deer, but back then? Fan yourself, woman, because that’s some lusty description. There are some, even, who designate Song of Solomon as an “erotic poem.”
Erotic? Really? Well, yes. Because other languages did a much better job of giving meaning to words. In English, we have love. And you have to use context to figure out what it means. The Greeks had six words for love. Three are used in Scripture.
Agape love is the love that we should have for mankind and it’s the unconditional love God has for His children.
Philia love is often considered “brotherly love” — the love between friends. When I tell my friends I love them, this is the word I’d use if I was speaking Greek.
And also? Eros. Eros is intimate love or sexual passion. And yes, we get the word “erotica” from eros, but eros on its own isn’t sinful. Eros is the love between a man and his wife. Or, in the beginning stages of that relationship? The unfulfilled longing between a man and a woman.
Eros is something beautiful that authors of Christian romance can show. It’s the swoony feelings and electrical shocks when hands brush or lips touch. These are good, God-given feelings, and fiction should absolutely portray them! These are the feelings that differentiate between the agape love, the 1 Corinthians 13 love, that we should feel for all of mankind and the deeper layer of love that we feel for our spouse.
I would say that any healthy relationship headed toward the altar should be full of all three of those types of love. And, in fact, the progression from agape to philia to eros follows along the progression from meet cute to initial stages of dating to steadily dating/engaged. And a relationship that only has those first two? To me, that isn’t going to be a romance. Because it could just as easily be a bromance.
If, however, you (or the characters in the book) allow the lust for their partner to overwhelm and supersede their lust for a deeper, stronger relationship with Christ? That’s when the lust has become sin. Anything we crave more than Christ is an idol in our lives that we need to deal with. Sex, money, status — doesn’t matter — lust for those things that takes us away for longing for Jesus is sin we need to address.
It’s possible that the initial intent of the conversation I stumbled across was to warn against fiction that is written with the design to titillate. But, generally speaking, I haven’t run into Christian romance that does this. It might be more prevalent in “sweet” (I don’t tend to read a ton of that), but honestly, barring fiction that is truly smut and written to be smut (e.g. erotica), I don’t think authors are putting sexual attraction and action into their books to turn readers on.
Christian authors aren’t, for sure.
That said, everyone has their own stumbling blocks. Maybe reading any sort of sexual attraction causes you unhealthy lust (by causing you to be dissatisfied with your own marital relationship or, if you’re single, by leading you into a sinful imaginative life or to use of porn). Just like it’s possible that reading about rich billionaires might cause you to lust for money and decry your reality. Or reading about serial killers might lead you into the headspace where you imagine getting even with those people who have wronged you. In any of these cases, it is up to you to submit your reading choices to Jesus and ask Him to guide you to fiction that will not lead you into sin.
Provided the author’s intent was not to lead readers into these a sinful, lustful fantasy, the author who wrote the romance or the thriller or the ultra-rich hero isn’t at fault for your personal struggles. And I think we do authors, readers, and the Christian community as a whole a disservice when we say otherwise.
But I’d really love to know what you think. Do you feel that Christian romance should only have bare-bones description of romantic encounters (e.g. “And then they kissed.”)? Do you disagree with my thoughts on lust above? Or have something else to chime in on the topic? I’d love to hear what you have to say!