Question 5 of 15 from the Q&A in David Powlison’s essay, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.

5. Is the phrase “lusts of the flesh” useful in practical life and counseling?

Apply the term to twenty-first-century experience, redeeming the evasive language people substitute. People frequently talk about what they want, expect, wish for, desire, demand, need, long for. Pop psychologies typically validate these needs and longings as neutral givens. Little do people realize that much of the time they are actually describing sinful usurpers of God’s rule over their lives: inordinate desires, lusts of the flesh, cravings. They just aren’t interpreting their experience rightly.

For example, listen to children talk when they are angry, disappointed, demanding, contrary: “But I want. . . . But I don’t want to. . . .” In our family we began teaching our children about the “I-wantsies” before they were two years old. We wanted them to grasp that sin was more than behavior. For example, analyze any argument or outburst of anger and you will find ruling expectation and desires that are being frustrated (James 4:1-2).

The language people typically use day to day gets you into the details of a person’s life, but it usually comes with a distorted interpretation attached. Wise counseling must reinterpret that experience into biblical categories, taking the more pointed reality of “lusts, cravings, pleasures,” and mapping it into the the “felt needs” that underlie much sin and misery. The very unfamiliarity of the phrase is an advantage, if you explain it carefully and show its relevance and applicability. Behavorial sins demand a horizontal resolution—as well as vertical repentance. But motivational sins have first and foremost to do with God, and repentance quickens the awareness of relationship with the God of grace.