A photograph of a worn Bible, open to a page with the word "desire" highlighted, capturing the essence of seeking fulfillment and spiritual yearning amidst the sacred teachings of the Bible.

What Does Desire Mean In The Bible?

Desire is a complex concept that appears frequently throughout the Bible. At its core, desire refers to a strong longing or craving for something, whether good or evil. In this comprehensive article, we will explore the meaning of desire in the Bible by examining key passages, themes, Hebrew and Greek words, and more.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: In the Bible, desire often refers to a deep craving or longing for something, whether it be a physical object, an emotional state, or a relationship with God.

Desire can lead to sin, but it can also motivate one towards righteousness when properly directed.

Desire as Craving

Desire for Material Things

The Bible warns against desiring material possessions and wealth above all else. Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

He cautions that the desire for riches can lead people astray from pursuing God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33). The writer of Ecclesiastes also concluded that the pursuit of wealth is meaningless because we cannot take earthly possessions with us when we die (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

However, the Bible does not condemn the desire for basic needs and prosperity. God blessed many righteous figures in the Bible like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Solomon with material possessions. As 1 Timothy 6:17 states, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

The key is not to make material wealth the supreme goal of one’s life.

Desire for Relationships and Emotional States

Humans naturally have a deep longing for love, intimacy, acceptance and fulfillment in relationships. However, the Bible warns that these emotional desires can lead us into unhealthy relationships and sinful behavior if we let them rule us.

For example, engaging in premarital sex simply to fulfill a craving for physical intimacy is warned against in passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5. Uncontrolled jealousy and envy stem from coveting other people’s relationships.

At the same time, the Bible affirms the godly desire for marriage, family, and community. It sees these relationships as good gifts from God when pursued within biblical principles and boundaries. As Psalm 37:4 states, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

When we find fulfillment in God first, it can purify our other desires and lead to healthy relationships.

Desire for Righteousness and God

The Bible encourages desiring and striving after righteousness – both moral purity and justice. Jesus pronounced a blessing on “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and promised they will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Rather than craving sin, believers are called to crave the things of God.

Psalm 42:1 states, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” This intense desire for God reflects how God designed humans to find their deepest longings met in relationship with him.

As Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Thus, the Bible sees the desire for God and righteousness as good. In fact, it is seen as evidence of God’s grace drawing someone to himself.

When desires are rightly ordered with God first, it brings joy and satisfaction.

Desire Leading to Sin

Coveting and Adultery

Coveting and adultery are two desires that can lead to sin according to the Bible. Coveting is an intense desire for something that belongs to someone else, like their spouse, possessions, or social status. It is condemned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17).

Adultery is voluntarily having sexual relations with someone other than one’s husband or wife. It is condemned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14) and other Bible passages (Matthew 5:27-28). According to statistics from The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, over 15% of married women and 25% of married men admit to committing adultery in the United States.

Giving in to these desires for what does not rightfully belong to us is considered sinful.

The Bible warns that coveting and adultery stem from a heart that seeks fulfillment outside of God. Instead of finding contentment in Him and what He has provided, giving in to these desires attempts to selfishly fill voids in unhealthy ways.

This can damage relationships with God and others when we use and abuse others or things to serve our desires. The Bible encourages people to pursue fulfillment in God rather than chasing after fleeting pleasures. Our hearts need spiritual reformation, not simply behavioral modification.

As sinners, we need the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform our desires and make us more like Him.


Idolatry is another desire condemned in the Bible that leads to sin. Idolatry is worshipping an idol instead of the one true God. This could involve literally bowing down to a statue or figurine made to represent a fake god.

But the Bible also talks about idolatry of the heart, where we cherish or prioritize something or someone above God (Ezekiel 14:3). Though we may not physically kneel before an idol, anything we seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and joy from other than God is idolatry.

Common idols include money, relationships, success, pleasure, entertainment, sports, hobbies, work, politics, philosophies, and more. While these things may have an appropriate role in our lives, they become spiritually unhealthy and sinful when we elevate their importance above God.

Idolatry controls our hearts, minds, behaviors, time, efforts, and resources when we look to these things rather than God as our functional savior and lord. The Bible warns against idolatry because it is impossible for idols to truly satisfy our souls or provide eternal salvation.

Only God deserves our worship and ultimate allegiance.

Pursuit of Fleshly Pleasures

The pursuit of fleshly pleasures is a desire that leads many people into sin according to the Bible. Fleshly pleasures include things like gluttony, drunkenness, sexual immorality, thrill-seeking, and partying.

While occasional celebration and enjoyment of God’s physical blessings is wonderful, consistently chasing after pleasure and comfort above all else is dangerous.

The Bible warns that the continual pursuit of fleshly pleasures reveals a heart aimed at selfish fulfillment versus honoring God. It can lead to addiction, financial ruin, broken relationships, lawsuits, diseases, and emptiness.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:19 that those controlled by fleshly desires are headed towards destruction. Rather than being controlled by physical appetites, Christians are called to be led by the Holy Spirit and pursue the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:16-24).

God cares about our well-being and provides instructions for healthy, fulfilled living that goes beyond superficial, temporary gratification.

Key Hebrew and Greek Words for Desire

Ta’avah – Strong Craving or Lust

The Hebrew word ta’avah refers to a strong desire or craving, often of a physical or sensual nature. It is frequently translated as “lust” and has a negative connotation in the Bible. Ta’avah describes intense desire for something forbidden or immoral, like coveting a neighbor’s spouse.

Several verses warn against following ta’avah which leads to sin (Exodus 20:17, Proverbs 6:25, James 1:14-15). Overall, ta’avah signifies misdirected desire and passion.

Nephesh – Longing or Appetite of the Soul

The Hebrew word nephesh conveys the idea of the “soul” or “inner being.” It can refer to one’s natural desires or appetites. In certain contexts, nephesh communicates an intense longing or craving for something (Psalm 42:1, 63:1). However, this word does not necessarily have negative connotations.

Nephesh can express natural human desires for food, water, friendship, meaning, and God Himself. This type of wholesome yearning seems to be in view with nephesh.

Epithymia – Fleshly Cravings

The Greek word epithymia is mostly translated as “lust” and means a great craving or desire, often of a physical kind. It usually refers to sensual appetite or fleshly wants (Romans 1:24, 6:12). Epithymia is distinguished from normal, natural desires and associated with intense longing for pleasures like sex, food, alcohol, possessions, or recognition.

Scripture instructs believers to avoid being driven by these cravings and to pursue righteousness instead (Galatians 5:16-17, 1 Peter 2:11). Like ta’avah, epithymia concerns misdirected or sinful desire.

Controlling Desire through the Holy Spirit

In the Bible, desire often refers to the inner longings and appetites of our flesh that can lead us into sin if left unchecked. As fallible human beings, we all struggle at times with desires of the flesh that go against God’s will.

This internal battle between the flesh and the spirit is a recurring biblical theme, perhaps most famously described by Paul in Romans 7.

Fortunately, for those who put their faith in Christ, we have been given the Holy Spirit to empower us to overcome the desires of the flesh. When we walk by the Spirit, we can experience victory over the sinful urges inside us.

Here are some key ways the Holy Spirit enables us to control ungodly desires:

The Spirit Produces Godly Desires

The Holy Spirit works from the inside out, renewing our minds and hearts to desire godliness rather than sin. As Paul wrote, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5).

The Spirit plants new holy appetites in us that replace our old sinful cravings.

The Spirit Strengthens Our Self-Control

Controlling desire requires self-discipline, and fortunately the Spirit produces that fruit in us as well (Galatians 5:22-23). As we yield to the Spirit’s leading each day, He strengthens our willpower and capacity to choose righteousness over temporary gratification.

The Spirit Reminds Us of God’s Truth

When temptation strikes, the Spirit brings scriptures to mind to remind us of our identity in Christ and God’s promises to help us overcome sin. Jesus used the Word of God to counter each of Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).

The Spirit helps us do the same when desires of the flesh flare up.

The Spirit Intercedes in Prayer

Part of the Spirit’s ministry is praying for us according to God’s perfect will when we do not know how to pray. This includes praying for victory over sinful desires plaguing us. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26).

Trying to control desires of the flesh in our own power is futile. But by walking in step with the Holy Spirit each day, He empowers us to overcome even our strongest sinful urges. Though the battle with sin remains while on earth, as believers we can celebrate with Paul, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

(1 Corinthians 15:57).


In summary, desire in the Bible often refers to a strong craving or longing for something, whether good or evil. It can lead people into sin when not properly controlled. But when directed toward God and righteousness, desire can motivate believers to draw closer to the Lord and live out His will.

By walking in the Spirit, Christians can overcome fleshly desires and experience lasting joy and fulfillment.

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