A reader named David left this comment on my previous article, “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?”:
Thanks for the article. I tend to agree with you. Masturbation seems to be practical outlet for one’s sex drive. Since I come from a more conservative background, the typically verse used to make a case against masturbation is the one in Matthew where Jesus is warns that lusting after a woman is the same as adultery. So the argument is made: “Can you masturbate without lusting?” I would be curious if you have any thoughts on that particular verse since I have heard it used more often than the passage with Onan.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your good comment and question.
Now that you mention it, that is a common verse and argument used against masturbation in conservative Christian circles.
It looks like I’ve got some more writing to do . . .
First the short answer:
It’s a weak and superficial argument.
Does masturbation cause lust? Isn’t it actually a way of decreasing our lust so that it doesn’t flow out into evil and sinful actions?
Lust comes from the heart, not from some physical action such as masturbation. And lust has to be dealt with at its source. Blaming masturbation for lust in the heart is a bit like blaming the hammer for hitting your thumb. (“@#%& stupid hammer!!!”)
Now for the long answer.
Lust comes from the heart, not from the eye or the hand
Let’s look at the relevant verses from Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27–30)
Clearly Jesus is not speaking literally here. He is not commanding us to literally tear out our physical right eye or cut off our physical right hand, nor is he saying that these physical body parts are what cause us to sin.
For one thing, nowhere in the Gospels, or anywhere else in the New Testament, did Jesus’ followers take his advice literally, and physically maim themselves in order to avoid sinning.
But more than that, we have Jesus’ own teaching that sin does not originate in our body or in our outward actions, but in our heart:
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” . . .
“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:10–11, 17–20)
So it’s clear that in Matthew 5:27–30, Jesus was speaking metaphorically about removing any part of our character that causes us to sin:
- He used “the right eye” as a metaphor for our thinking mind, which is our mental “eyesight.”
- He used “the right hand” as a metaphor for the intentions of our heart, which is the source of everything we do with our hands.
If we have thoughts and desires that are leading us to say and do evil and sinful things, it is those thoughts and desires that we must remove from our character.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Jesus’ overall message is that our evil actions come from our heart and mind, not from our physical body. Though we can attempt to suppress evil thoughts and desires from coming out into action, the only way to fully and radically deal with them is to deal with them at their source—which is our “heart,” meaning our loves, motives, and intentions.
Applying this to the subject at hand, the act of masturbation does not cause lust, nor is it sinful in itself. Rather, it is sinful or not depending on the thoughts and motives we are immersed in when we do it. As Jesus says, adultery comes from the heart. So the important thing is not the masturbation, but the thoughts and feelings behind it.
Our built-in sex drive
Now let’s get practical.
As I pointed out in the previous article, the reality is that we come equipped with sexual drives, and a desire to have sexual intercourse.
That’s for a very good reason. Without our natural sex drive, the human race would quickly die out, and there would be no new angels-in-the-making to populate heaven. So God has provided that whatever the quality of our mind, heart, and character may be, we humans will mate and reproduce when we have the opportunity. God has provided for this by giving us the aforementioned biological sex drives, and making them very powerful in us.
As I also pointed out in the previous article, in a normal, healthy teenager or adult, these sex drives are going to keep right on driving whether or not the person happens to be married (which teenagers generally can’t be anyway), and whether or not the person is in a sexually active relationship.
So the question isn’t whether we’re going to have sexual desires and urges. The question is what we’re going to do with those desires and urges.
Suppressing them altogether just isn’t realistic or practical. Religious conservatives who preach that we must completely suppress and deny our sexuality until we are married are themselves in a state of denial about the realities of the human mind and heart.
But more than that, by urging young people and unmarried people to suppress all of their sexual desires, and close off every outlet, they are causing those natural, biological, and very human drives to build up (in people who listen to their preaching) until the sexual desires become overwhelming, and burst out into much more destructive behavior. Their harsh and puritanical preaching actually turns normal sexual desires into lust! It also causes a huge amount of completely unnecessary emotional pain, anguish, guilt, and suffering.
Jesus, in his statements about the origin of lust, is simply being realistic. He recognizes that we have these drives, and he points to their source: the human heart. And he tells us that to deal with them, we must deal with them within our hearts and minds, rather than thinking that if we simply engage in “proper behavior,” the problem will be solved.
Adultery in the heart
Jesus was also raising the Ten Commandments to a higher level.
He was saying that although correct behavior is good, it’s not good enough if we want to become truly spiritual and Christian people. We must also work on our inner motives, desires, attitudes, and beliefs.
And that is a lifelong process.
Let’s face it: we’re not perfect, and we never will be perfect. Every one of us has all sorts of wrong and destructive thoughts and desires popping in and out of our head throughout the day.
The first line of defense against them is to stop ourselves from acting on them in ways that violate the Ten Commandments, not to mention the Bible’s general discouragement of promiscuous relationships. When it comes to our sexual desires:
- We should not allow ourselves to commit actual adultery, even if we feel the “lust,” or desire, to do so. If a relationship you desire would be an adulterous one, just stay away, and don’t tempt yourself.
- We should think twice before engaging in (non-adulterous) extramarital sex, because it might lead us down a painful and depressing path. For more on this, please see my article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?”
So the real question, once again, is what do we do with our less-than-noble sexual desires?
First, we don’t go jumping right into bed with people whenever we get the hots for them. Those who operate in this way inevitably end out crashing and burning.
Suppressing our sex drive is a recipe for disaster
But completely suppressing our sexual desires simply isn’t a good solution.
Our sexual thoughts and feelings don’t go away just because we don’t act on them. Instead, they keep getting stronger and stronger, and harder and harder to deal with. That’s because they are a basic part of our character as human beings. They’re not something we can “repent” from and stop having.
If we do try to completely suppress them or “repent” from them, what might at first be relatively harmless sexy daydreaming can easily develop into full-blown, irresistible lust that sooner or later will break out in a highly destructive way. And when it does, it can wreck our lives, and the lives of others around us.
Masturbation provides a morally harmless way to release our natural sex drive without engaging in illicit or unwise sex. It allows our sexual desires to subside so that they don’t build up in us until they become a raging torrent that we can’t control.
Masturbation also provides a way to keep our natural sex drives reasonably satisfied while we work on any deeper issues we may have with desires for adulterous relationships and other types of illicit and damaging sex.
Jesus is absolutely right: adultery comes from the human heart. But the human heart is a stubborn thing. And our sexual and romantic feelings are some of the most deep-seated drives in the human psyche. Our sex drive can trump even our fear of death.
These are not issues that can just wave a magic wand over and Presto! we’re clean, pure, and innocent in all of our sexual thoughts and feelings! Rather, these are issues that we must work on within our mind and heart for months, years, and decades—in fact, for our entire lifetime. Becoming sexually pure in our mind and heart is a lifelong process. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:27–30 are a long-term spiritual challenge to us, not something we can patch up with a quick fix.
In short, it’s silly to think that not masturbating is going to somehow cause us to be less lustful in our hearts. In fact, it’s likely to cause just the opposite. With no outlet, our “lust,” or sex drive, will burn even hotter, and become even more uncontrollable. And without any outlet for it, our mind and heart will tend to stray into more and more desperate and destructive desires as we block and thwart the more healthful ways of expressing them.
In short, conservative Christians’ use of Matthew 5:27–30 as a way to forbid masturbation is not only mistaken, it’s destructive. It is likely to increase the lust in the human heart until that lust comes out in highly immoral actions that, unlike masturbation, are clearly prohibited in the Bible.
It’s no coincidence that conservative Christian preachers and politicians are regularly caught with their pants down. Often it’s the ones who shouted the loudest in denouncing lewdness and immorality who are themselves caught consorting with prostitutes, or sleeping with the church secretary or the young, naïve political intern, or engaging in other highly immoral sexual behaviors.
Perhaps if those preachers and politicians had not bound such heavy burdens, and hard to bear, on others and on themselves, they would have expressed their natural sexual drives and desires in a healthier way. Instead, they’ve imposed harsh strictures that are impossible to abide by, and they’ve suffered the consequences in the form of destroyed ministries, political careers, lives, relationships, and families.
Masturbation, lust, and fantasy
Now more specifically about the thoughts and fantasies that people engage in while masturbating:
First of all, fantasy is not reality. Daydreaming about having sex with a woman (or man) is not the same as having a real desire and intention to actually have sex with her or him in real life if possible.
People fantasize about all sorts of things, such as jumping off a cliff or murdering their boss in an especially creative way. If we acted on all of our fantasies, this world would quickly descend into a chaos that would rival the situation on earth before the Noah’s Flood, as described in Genesis 6!
Everyone fantasizes. The acid test is what we actually do in our real lives.
It’s inevitable that a heterosexual male is going to see a pretty woman and fantasize about sleeping with her. It only turns into a real problem if he doesn’t recognize that it’s just a fantasy, and get on with his life—and treat her with basic human decency and respect if he happens to encounter her during the day.
And of course, when people masturbate, they’re going to fantasize about various sexual situations and encounters. Once again, the first thing is to recognize that these are just fantasies. You’re not really going to have hot sex with that knockout you saw walking down the street yesterday.
Moving our heart and mind toward marriage
The second, and deeper, thing to do is:
- Keep your mind and heart moving away from any desire for adulterous, promiscuous, shallow, and destructive sexual relationships, and:
- Keep your mind and heart moving toward the ideal of a committed, loving, faithful, monogamous marriage.
Okay, okay, that’s two things! But it’s really two sides of the same coin.
It is the direction that our mind and heart takes, either toward or away from healthy, monogamous, spiritual marriage, that will determine whether our masturbation, and every other sexual activity we engage in, is innocent, good, and healthful or dirty, foul, promiscuous, and adulterous.
The articles about masturbation linked to in my previous article point out that masturbation can actually help people in long-term, committed, monogamous relationships to improve their sex lives and their lovemaking with one another.
Similarly, when we are not married and not in a committed romantic relationship, masturbation can actually help us to move psychologically and emotionally toward a healthy sex life in a committed relationship rather than pulling us away from such a relationship.
As Jesus said, it all depends on what’s coming out of our heart.
So here are my practical suggestions related to lust, fantasy, and masturbation:
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone fantasizes.
- Don’t act on your adulterous and promiscuous fantasies in ways that violate what the Bible actually commands us not to do. (Hint: masturbation is not actually on the Bible’s naughty list.)
- Don’t beat yourself up if you have lapses into dirty, unworthy thoughts. Just let it go and move on.
- Keep your mind and heart focused on and moving toward a healthy, spiritual marriage, even if you’re not currently in one.
- Over time, move your fantasies while masturbating away from unhealthy ones, and toward healthier ones, such as having loving, mutual sex with a future marital partner.
- And remember, nobody’s perfect. The only sinless person ever was Jesus Christ (see Ecclesiastes 7:20; Hebrews 4:14–15).
If we approach masturbation with these things in mind, always making the effort to move our mind and heart toward healthy, loving, monogamous marriage—even if it’s sometimes a two steps forward, one step back process—then masturbation can be a useful and constructive part of our overall process of overcoming the lust in our heart, and moving our heart, mind, and spirit toward the blessings of real, spiritual, loving marriage.
In other words, if we look more deeply and realistically at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:27–30, it leads straight to the conclusion that masturbation done in a balanced and thoughtful way actually helps us to cleanse our hearts of the lustful and adulterous desires that might otherwise build up, burst out, and wreck our lives both socially and spiritually.
For more on real, spiritual marriage, please see my article, “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”
For further reading:
- What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?
- Is Masturbation Always Sinful? Does it Always Come from Lust?
- How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth
- Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?
- What does the Bible Say about Pornography? Is Pornography Sinful?
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?