The Bible allows us to distinguish between two kinds of sexual desire, a pure and sinless sexual desire and an impure, sinful one. We can term these yearning and burning. Yearning is a legitimate sexual desire, the desire to explore and experience sexuality with a God-given spouse. Burning is an illegitimate form of sexual desire, the desire to explore and experience sexuality with someone who is not a God-given spouse (or, alternatively, to experience inappropriate or even perverse forms of sexuality with a God-given spouse). Sexual desire is at the heart of both, but yearning is the desire experienced in a pure way while burning is the desire experienced in a sinful way.
Yearning can be experienced by men and women, married and single. It can be prevalent or occasional, minimal or strong. It is the eagerness to respond to sexual desire in a self-controlled, God-honoring way. A husband may find himself lost in a daydream yearning to experience sexual intimacy with his wife. A single woman may find herself yearning for a husband so she can discover and experience sexual pleasure and fulfillment. These are not evil desires. They are natural, human desires. The first compels a husband and wife to enjoy sexual union while the second compels a single man or woman to pursue a husband or wife. For those who do not have a spouse or whose spouse is for some reason unavailable, yearning compels a deeper reliance on God, a deeper trust in his goodness and sufficiency.
Burning can also be experienced by men and women, married and single. It can be prevalent or occasional, minimal or strong. It is the longing to respond to sexual desire in a way that is not self-controlled and not God-honoring. A wife may find herself lost in a daydream, burning to experience sexual intimacy with someone who is not her husband. A single man may find himself burning with lust for a particular woman, objectifying her, idolizing sexual pleasure with her, as if that is his only hope for fulfillment. A married man may even badger and bully his wife to get what he is convinced he needs in that moment. These desires are evil. They are a perversion of God’s gift of sexuality.
I draw the distinction to show that there is a sexual desire that is good and honoring to God. We do not need to feel guilt for this desire or to feel that it is intrinsically wrong. It is a sexual desire that is yielded to the Lord. It is experienced, yet carefully controlled according to the Word of the Lord, channeled to appropriate ends—marriage, intimacy, or reliance upon God. But there is also a sexual desire that is not yielded to the Lord. It is experienced, yet without self-control and heedless to the Word of the Lord, channeled to evil ends. Both can be experienced by married men and women, and both can be experienced by single men and women.
This distinction matters. Owning the difference between yearning and burning allows us to see that not all sexual desire is wrong, even when experienced by someone who does not have a spouse. It allows us to see that not all sexual desire is good, even when experienced by someone who does have a spouse. It allows for sexual desire and even frustration, but without feeding it or being defeated by it. It allows for the desire for sexual nearness and fulfillment even without allowing that desire to degrade into sin.
Burning is desire perverted and unrestrained. Yearning is desire surrendered.