Epithumeo: Passionate Pursuit

Word of the Week

March 9, 2024

Epithumeō: Passionate Pursuit


. . . I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

Romans 7:7b NASB95


Which of the Ten Commandments is the hardest to obey?

For the apostle Paul, it was the Tenth Commandment:  “Thou shalt not covet.”  In Romans 7, he explained that he had a good track record in avoiding adultery and murder.  He thought he was keeping all the other commands.  But he had to admit that he was guilty of coveting.

Why was it so hard?

You could obey the other commands by controlling your actions, regardless of your inner inclinations.  But coveting is an attitude of the heart.  It’s not enough to refrain from stealing your neighbor’s property; you can’t even get emotionally attached to it!

God cares not only about what we do, but also about what we desire.

How should we respond to His commands?  Should we suppress our desires?

A closer look at the Greek word used for “covet” will provide helpful insights on this issue.

“Covet” in Romans 7:7 is the word epithumeō.  It means “to desire, long for, have a strong desire for.”  Found 16 times in the New Testament, it can refer to any kind of intense desire.  It depicts a strong emotional pull, not just a casual whim.  The starving prodigal son longed to fill his belly with the pigs’ food (Luke 15:16), and the beggar Lazarus craved a few crumbs discarded after the rich man’s lavish dinner (Luke 16:21).


Epithumeō can refer to a sinful strong desire.  When it does, it is often translated as “covet” or “lust.”

  • Jesus declared that looking lustfully at a woman is just as wrong as committing adultery with her (Matthew 5:28).
  • Paul claimed that he had refused to covet the wealth of the believers he served (Acts 20:33). “I didn’t take your money,” he said.  “I didn’t even want it!”
  • The Israelites in the wilderness “craved evil things” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
  • James denounced those who lusted for things that they could not have, resorting to violence to get what they wanted (James 4:2).


However, epithumeō also describes legitimate, godly desires.  Just look at all these examples of intense desires for the right things:

  • The prophets and righteous people of the Old Testament desired to see the fulfillment of all the prophecies about Christ (Matthew 13:17).
  • Paul announced, “If a man wants to be an overseer in the church, it is a fine work that he desires to do” (1 Timothy 3:1).
  • Our salvation is such a wonderful thing that even angels long to take a closer look (1 Peter 1:12).

And if that’s not enough to show that strong desires can be legitimate, we can look at the example of Jesus Himself.  As He gathered with his disciples for the Last Supper before His arrest and crucifixion, He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).  Literally, he said, “I have desired (epithumeō) with desire (epithumia).”  He really, really wanted to share this final meal with them.

In summary, we can see that God doesn’t want us to become people who have no strong desires.  The God of the Bible is not like the Buddhist who tries to avoid pain by learning not to have desires.  He is not like the Greek Stoic philosophers who classified epithumia as one of the four emotions that interfered with rational thought.

When I long for something that belongs to my neighbor, I am breaking the Tenth Commandment.  When I crave something that God has forbidden, I am sinning.  The problem is not the fact that I have strong desires.

In reality, God is pleased when we care deeply about His kingdom and the people whom He loves, when we pursue His glory without reservation.


Study Hint:

You can expand this study by looking up the related noun epithumia, translated “lust, desire.”  While the verb is used in both positive and negative senses, this noun (which occurs 38 times) usually refers to harmful or wrong desires.


Side Bar

This study reminds me of the well-known quotation by C. S. Lewis:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

  • C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and other Addresses


Coming Up

Do you feel overloaded?  Burdens too heavy to carry?  Next week we will look at a Greek word that describes that crushing load – and shows how to lighten it.

©Ezra Project 2024



One Response

  1. I now know that to covet can be either good or bad. We are to covet the things of the Lord, not of the world.

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