What does the Bible Say about Pornography? Is Pornography Sinful?

Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1865

Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1865

Several Spiritual Conundrums have been submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life in recent months on the subject of pornography. Here are some of them. First from a reader named Tom:

I have a question I would like answered. Is porn considered sin in the Bible? Or is it just based on whether or not the star you are looking at is married, homosexual (I’m straight btw), or if you get addicted to it or not?

And from “newbeliever”:

I struggle with a desire to look at pornography, as well as to read erotic stories and to masturbate. Now, I cannot tell if all of these three things are related. Could any of those things possibly be okay, and under what circumstances? Because I believe that sexual desire is natural but not necessarily sinful, but lust is sinful, and I have trouble distinguishing between the two. Could masturbation be a way of staving off temptations to lust? Could doing things with my girlfriend function in a similar way?

When there is a temptation to sin, God always gives you a way out. Therefore, if I ever sin, it is by choice. I struggle because I feel as though if I ever look at porn, though I would try to choose not to, because I gave into temptation and could have done otherwise, God will not forgive my sexual immorality, as He seems to judge sexual immorality more harshly than some other forms of immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18).

And from a reader named Johnny:

my name is Johnny.. am a practising Christian.. but when I went to high school.. I became a porn addict and later end up in masturbation.. so one day a pastor came to our school, and started to praying to people. after a while he said that the holy spirit showed him that someone is struggling with masturbation.. so he wanted that person to come to the alter to be prayed for. I was really troubled and I refused to go to the altar. is that blaspheming the holy spirit?

The Holy Spirit revealed to a pastor that in a room full of teenagers, someone is struggling with masturbation? No way!

On that subject, please see, “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?” About blaspheming the Holy Spirit, see: “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?

And about “doing things with my girlfriend,” please see: “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?

Now it’s time to answer the question everyone’s asking:

Q: What does the Bible say about pornography?

A: Nothing.

The Bible says nothing about pornography

Yes, that’s right. The Bible doesn’t say anything at all about pornography.

That’s because in Bible times, the concept of pornography didn’t exist.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf

Yes, in ancient times there were statues of nude male and female figures in public places in some cultures, and statuettes of fertility goddesses were fairly common as well. But these had more to do with beauty, power, and fertility than with sexual arousal. In ancient times, fertility was a big issue. Having many children was critical to the survival of one’s family and clan. And if a clan’s livestock became infertile, that could spell starvation and death for the clan.

Further, photography and video hadn’t been invented, so there was no way to distribute sexually explicit material far and wide as there is today.

In short, the Bible couldn’t possibly say anything about pornography because pornography didn’t exist in Bible times. So if you hear people saying that the Bible condemns pornography, you can safely ignore them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Is pornography good or evil?

Does that mean there’s nothing wrong with pornography?

I didn’t say that!

US. Attorney General Edwin Meese III presents the report of the Commission on Pornography in 1986

US. Attorney General Edwin Meese III presents the report of the Commission on Pornography in 1986

Unfortunately, sex is a highly charged issue in some religious circles, just as it is in much of society generally. That’s at least partly because some of our most primeval human drives and needs revolve around our sexuality—drives and needs that are often difficult to control and to channel in a healthy direction. Our sexuality strikes close to our very identity as human beings.

And pornography has become so charged an issue that it’s hard even to have a rational conversation about it. It tends to devolve into a highly black and white discussion in which there is nothing but pure evil on the one side and pure good on the other—and nothing in between.

Ironically, pornography is one of the few issues on which conservative Christians and ardent feminists can agree. They both think that pornography is evil, evil, evil—though for different reasons:

  • Conservative Christians believe that people who use pornography are committing terrible sexual sins that will send them straight to hell.
  • Many feminists believe that pornography is an integral part of a patriarchal, male-dominated culture of sexualizing, objectivizing, and oppressing women.

On the other side of the issue, there are those who proclaim that the human body and human sexuality are a powerfully beautiful part of nature and of God’s creation, and who believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with viewing pictures and videos of the naked human body and of people engaging in sex with one another. In fact, they see erotica, as they prefer to call it, as a good and positive thing!

It is very difficult even to come up with a sound and sensible definition of pornography that doesn’t tar with the same negative brush many beautiful depictions of the human body and healthy human sexuality. “Pornography” is in the eye of the beholder—which prompted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to famously say, “I know it when I see it.”

If nothing else, the huge popularity of pornography in many cultures throughout the world is a testament to a vast army of lonely, sexually frustrated men and teenage boys—not to mention some women and teenage girls who are in the same boat.

Heat, light, and shades of gray

I don’t claim to be an expert on pornography. And no matter what I say about it, it’s likely that plenty of people on one side of the issue or the other are going to be upset.

However, as with other controversial issues that we have taken up by popular demand here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, we’ll press on and attempt to cut through some of the black-and-white thinking and charged language, and take a more objective and more human look at pornography.

It’s an issue that millions of people, male and female, young and old, struggle with mightily. So let’s bring in some light on the subject so that we can tone down the heat and be a little more constructive and practical. If you are “struggling with a desire to look at pornography,” I can’t tell you how to live your life. But perhaps I can offer some thoughts that may help you make your own decisions and move in a positive direction.

And let’s start by recognizing that there are many shades of gray here. As an expression of our sexual drives, pornography is neither the worst nor the best. It doesn’t involve actual illicit sexual contact with another person. But it is also far from the ideal of mutual, loving sexual intimacy within a long-term, committed, faithful relationship. And the production of pornography involves a great deal of immorality and, yes, a lot of exploitation.

The use of pornography arises when our natural longing for sex and intimacy meets our widespread inability to find that sex and intimacy in a good and healthy relationship. And it can have very different results for different individuals who view it, depending on the circumstances and the choices each person makes.

First, let’s return to the Bible.

Lust, adultery, and pornography

When Christians want to expound upon the evils of pornography, they quote Bible passages such as this one:

“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.” (Matthew 5:27–28)

Here Jesus doesn’t talk about pornography but about adultery, and about a man lusting after a woman in his heart as a form of adultery.

The Greek word here translated “lust” means to burn with passion. This is not a mere aesthetic appreciation of a woman’s beauty. It is an intense desire to have her, and to have sex with her. And it is not a mere fantasy about having sex with her. It is a powerful drive to actually have sex with her if at all possible.

The strong word Jesus uses here makes it clear that he is not talking about a man having fleeting fantasies of having sex with an attractive woman that he sees passing by. Rather, he’s talking about a driving desire that will result in a man actually having sex with a woman if he can find—or make—an opportunity to do so.

In short, Matthew 5:27–28 is talking about the type of burning inner desire that will cause us to actually commit adultery if we can. If we have that kind of desire, then as Jesus says, we have already committed adultery in our heart. It is from that burning desire in our heart that adultery comes.

Adultery vs. marriage

As covered more fully in the article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?” Jesus’ primary concern, and the primary concern of the entire Bible, is to forbid us from committing adultery. Any thoughts and desires that would lead us to go ahead and commit adultery are also forbidden, precisely because they do lead us to commit adultery.

Adultery is having sex when one or more of the participants is married to someone else.

That’s what the Bible primarily condemns. And as explained in the article linked just above, although the Bible does generally frown upon extramarital sex that isn’t adultery, there is actually no clear commandment against non-adulterous extramarital sex in the Bible.

From a biblical perspective, then, the primary question to ask about any sexual activity is whether it is adulterous, or drives us toward committing adultery. To ask the same question in a different way:

  • Does a particular sexual or sex-related activity lead us away from honoring marriage and toward violating marriage?
  • Or does it provide a possible path toward honoring marriage, and away from violating marriage?

This is the question we must ask about pornography, as well as erotic literature, and the various ways it is used.

And when we look at this question about pornography, we find that it simply isn’t a black and white issue. Rather, it does occupy a gray area between our desire for sex, intimacy, and love, and our inability to find and enjoy these things at the present time within a committed, faithful, monogamous relationship.

The reality is that our natural, biological sex drive does not wait patiently for some future time. It drives us to satisfy its desires now. And if it is put off too long, it will push us into some kind of activity in order to satisfy that drive.

The question is, what kind of activity?

Perhaps a few mystical souls are able to sublimate their sexual desires into spiritual contemplation. But most people who think they can do this are only fooling themselves. The vast majority of humankind is going to engage in some sort of sexual activity, whether healthy or unhealthy.

That powerful, impatient, God-given sex drive

Consider this. The very first commandment God gave to the male and female human beings that God had just created was:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:28)

And how do we humans go about being fruitful and multiplying?

By having sex!

So the very first commandment God gives to us humans in the Bible is that we must have sex in order to reproduce ourselves.

This gives us an idea of just how basic our sex drive is to our existence as human beings. And the modern science of biology fully confirms that not only for humans, but for every animal species on earth, the drive to reproduce is the most powerful drive there is, even eclipsing the individual survival instinct.

It is not unusual for male animals to die in the attempt to mate with available females. And it is not unusual for female animals to die in the attempt to protect their offspring from predators.

I recently watched a mother bird repeatedly fly right into oncoming auto traffic in an attempt to ward it away from her baby, which was haltingly and very dangerously walking across a busy four-lane road. (Miraculously, the baby bird did narrowly escape with its life. And the mother did avoid getting hit.)

Clearly the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is not one that God takes lightly. And pursuant to that commandment, God has embedded in the very fiber of our being a powerful, often overpowering, drive and desire to have sex.

So for the vast majority of us human beings, the question isn’t whether we’re going to engage in sexual activity. It’s what sort of sexual activity we’re going to engage in.

What sort of sexual activity?

The ideal is to engage in mutually loving sex within a long-term, committed marriage relationship. (See: “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”)

Unfortunately, for many people that isn’t one of the current options.

  • In many cultures, marriage isn’t even allowed until at least five or six years after puberty, when our sex drive kicks in.
  • Even when the culture does allow us to get married, many of us don’t find a suitable and willing partner, or if we do, social and financial circumstances make marriage difficult, if not impossible.
  • Far too many people who do get married find themselves in a relationship where either there was no mutual love in the first place, or love quickly dies, and the sex life along with it.
  • And even within marriages in which there is love, various physical and psychological circumstances sometimes make normal, healthy sexual relations difficult or impossible.

These are only a few of the many reasons why many people don’t have the ideal form of sexual activity available to them in the present moment. And no matter how often religious leaders tell us to WAIT, unfortunately that is simply not how the human animal works. For most people, attempting to suppress all sexual desire and all sexual activity until it can be done in the ideal way, under the ideal circumstances, is neither realistic nor workable.

Now don’t get me wrong. For those few people who are able to do that, it’s a wonderful thing!

But everyone else must wade into that gray area between our powerful, God-given desire for love, sex, and intimacy, and the reality that right at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the ideal of sex within a loving, committed marriage relationship is not available.

This means that for the vast majority of actual flesh-and-blood human beings, some alternative to the ideal will be necessary for at least some part of their lives.

And so, once again, the question most people face for at least some part of their lives is: Given that the ideal isn’t available, what sort of sexual activity am I going to engage in?

And the best general answer to that question is: The sort of sexual activity that is least damaging to achieving and experiencing a loving, committed, faithful, monogamous marriage in the future.

In other words: The color white (loving marriage) is currently out of stock. The color black (adultery) is a very bad option. So what’s the best shade of gray currently in stock that keeps white available as a future option?

Looking at pornography from this perspective is much more useful and pragmatic than either condemning it as a terrible, horrible evil that will send a person straight to hell or proclaiming that there’s nothing at all wrong with pornography, and we can consume it with abandon.

Pornography is a business

First, let’s consider pornography itself from a pragmatic perspective.

People who view pornography usually do it for sexual stimulation. That’s what makes it pornography.

But people who produce pornography almost always do it to make money.

To understand pornography, it is necessary to understand that pornography is a business. Both the people in front of the camera and the people behind the camera are in it for the money.

What we see when we view pornography is not people making love. And it is certainly not people who are in love with one another. Some pornography manages to come close to looking like the people in it are making love—especially with the rise of pornography produced by women, and even the phenomenon of feminist pornography.

But no matter how skillfully pornographic scenes are produced, and no matter what ideas—or even ideals—are behind it, pornography is still a business, and the people producing it are still doing it to make money.

At best, the performers in pornographic photos and videos are full adults who have chosen to make their career and their living in pornography. There are even trade organizations devoted to ensuring good working conditions and wages for workers in the porn industry. And a large class of pornography doesn’t even require the performers to engage in actual sex, but only to display their bodies in sexually enticing positions and motions.

At worst in legal pornography, the subjects are teenagers just over the legal age who are desperate for money and are lured into pornography as a “quick and easy” source of cash—only to be dumped out on the street as soon as sleazy porn producers have squeezed every bit of exposure, sexual use and abuse, and humiliation out of them, and have moved on to next fresh-faced legal-aged teenager.

And then there is the truly black side of pornography involving actual (not just simulated) coercion, or young children, or teens who are minors, or any number of other shady, illegal, and highly destructive practices. Society rightly condemns this sort of pornography. Those caught producing and consuming it are subject to severe penalties. In particular, child pornography by its very nature violates the integrity and rights of minors who are not yet of an age to give consent. Like statutory rape and child sexual abuse, it causes terrible long-term damage to the psyche of its victims.

But the common denominator in nearly all porn is that people are in it to make money. They’re doing it as a business, whether legal or illegal.

Many conclusions could be drawn from this. For our purposes, the main thing to understand is:

Pornography is not a realistic depiction of loving, healthy sex and sexual relationships.

Pornography is fantasy, not reality

People who think they are going to learn about love and sex from pornography are deceiving themselves. What they’re getting instead is a money-driven depiction of sexual poses, sexualized dances, and sexual situations that various groups of people find erotic to fantasize about.

And fantasy is not reality.

In real life, good and satisfying sexual relations require building a relationship with one’s partner. In real life, loving sex is the expression of mutual love between two people. And it becomes more loving and more satisfying the more the love grows and deepens between the two people.

Pornography, on the other hand, is all about short term, uncommitted, shallow sex. It’s about depicting sexual fantasies that have little or nothing to do with the actual love life of real-life happy couples. The people who consume pornography are drawn to it precisely because they are not engaged in a healthy, satisfying sex life. Who needs pictures and videos when they have the reality? And what porn producer would try to record or even to simulate the love life of a happily married couple? Not one who wants to make any money.

So don’t confuse pornography with love, or with making love. Pornography does have its appeal to many people. And as we’ll discuss below, it even has its uses. But it does not depict real, deep, romantic and sexual relationships. The same goes for most of the popular erotic literature out there.

Pornography gives a false, distorted picture of love and sex that can make it more difficult to form a real romantic and sexual relationship with a real person.

Why?

Because it fills people’s heads with unrealistic fantasies about sex that must be unlearned before it is possible to build a real, mutual, and satisfying sexual relationship with an actual human being.

If you do view pornography, keep in mind that what you’re seeing is people engaging in sex for money. And they’re making money by depicting sexual fantasies. You are not seeing people making love with one another. And you are certainly not seeing what goes on in a healthy, long-term romantic relationship.

All of this is contained in the very derivation of the word “pornography.” It comes from two Greek words, porneia, “prostitution” and graphein, “to write or to record.” Prostitution is engaging in sex for money. And pornography is a “written” version of prostitution—which these days especially means a photographic or video version of prostitution. It is displaying one’s body in sexual poses and motions and engaging in sexual acts for others to view, for the purpose of making money.

Is that wrong?

You can decide that for yourself.

The point here is that pornography is a business, whose purpose is to make money.

And incidentally, pornography is nowhere near as big a business as many people think it is. Compared to the major entertainment industries such as broadcast and cable television and the mainstream movie industry, it is a mere bit player. See: “How Big Is Porn?” by Dan Ackman, at Forbes.com.

In short:

Please don’t confuse pornography with reality.

Is pornography evil?

We’ve already established that the Bible doesn’t say anything about pornography. But it does say a lot about evil, sin, fornication, and adultery. So we must use our thinking minds to decide how pornography fits in with these biblical and spiritual issues.

Here are the basic principles that can help us to do so:

  1. Adultery is absolutely prohibited in the Bible, and is a great moral and spiritual evil.
  2. Promiscuity is greatly discouraged in the Bible, and is a lesser moral and spiritual evil.
  3. Faithful, committed, monogamous marriage is the ideal and the goal morally and spiritually.
  4. Other sexual activities are better or worse depending on whether they lead toward marriage or toward adultery and promiscuity.

So is pornography evil and sinful?

Clearly from a spiritual perspective pornography is not good. It is far from the ideal of loving, committed, faithful, monogamous marriage relationships. Though not necessarily adulterous, it does involve a lot of promiscuity in its production. And in its consumption it involves non-marital or extramarital sexual thoughts, feelings, and, ahem, other activities.

Certainly, then, pornography as it is commonly produced and used is tinged with evil, even if it does not necessarily violate what is absolutely prohibited in the Bible—which is adultery. So as for whether pornography is evil, the most we can say is, “Yes, but as most commonly produced and used, it is not the worst evil.”

The scale of sexual evil

Pornography does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists on a scale of human sexual activity from very good to very evil. Even if we do think of pornography as tinged with evil, we have to weigh it against the other possibilities for dealing with the not entirely resistible sexual urges that God has put into us by nature—and that we can’t always satisfy in the best way now or in the foreseeable future.

For people with ordinary to strong sexual drives, here are some possible ways of satisfying them when sex within a healthy, loving marriage relationship isn’t possible:

  • Do nothing, and let sexual dreams and nocturnal emissions take care of the job.
  • Masturbate as needed to satisfy one’s need for sexual release.
  • Engage in sex with a single partner in a faithful unmarried relationship.
  • Engage in casual sex with multiple partners, one after another.
  • Engage in casual sex with multiple partners at the same time.
  • Pay a prostitute for sex, and always go to the same prostitute.
  • Pay many different prostitutes for sex.
  • Engage in a consensual adulterous relationship with a married woman or man.
  • Engage in multiple consensual adulterous relationships with many different people.
  • Rape people through the use of blackmail, violence, or the threat of violence, or when they are too drunk or drugged to consent or resist.

Clearly there is a scale of non-marital sexual activity from very mild through horribly evil and destructive—though different people may arrange that scale in different ways.

Here are the key questions to ask about pornography:

  1. Where does it fit on the scale of mild to evil non-marital sexual activities?
  2. How does it function in relation to the other possible releases of sexual energy?

Pornography on the scale of sexual evil

The primary purpose of pornography is to provide sexual stimulation. And it is very commonly used to provide visuals and fantasies to accompany masturbation. Yes, there are other uses. Some of them are better, some are worse. But in the main, pornography and masturbation tend to go hand-in-hand.

And where does masturbation fall on the scale of sexual evil? Masturbation does not involve actual sex with another person, nor does it have any harmful effects if done in moderation as needed to satisfy one’s sexual urges. Masturbation is therefore one of the most benign, non-evil ways there is to satisfy sexual desires for which a person has no healthier outlet. (See: “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?”)

Of course, it’s not necessary to use pornography in order to masturbate. But men, especially, are visual creatures when it comes to sex. And women can and do enjoy a sexy body also.

Yes, many women and teenage girls do turn to erotic stories and sexually explicit “romance” novels instead. Many romance novels, with their narrative formula of long, teasing buildups to steamy, highly explicit sex scenes are calibrated to the sexual rhythms of women. Men and teenage boys may also go for erotic stories—though usually ones that skip the long buildup and move quickly to the explicit sex.

Still, it’s inevitable that many males and some females are going to want visuals when they masturbate.

That’s where pornography comes in.

Functionally, pornography is most commonly used as an aid to sexual self-stimulation when a sexual partner is unavailable. Or it is used when a person would prefer not to get sexually involved with a girlfriend or boyfriend for social, moral, or spiritual reasons.

And that’s why pornography, though tinged with evil, does not necessarily form paving stones for the broad, downhill road toward hell.

It can instead provide a detour away from that slippery slope by providing for sexual release that, while certainly not the ideal, at least doesn’t involve actual promiscuous or adulterous sexual relations with a flesh and blood human being.

Is the use of pornography purely innocent? No. Someone had to expose themselves sexually or engage in promiscuous or adulterous sex in order to produce that pornography. Pornography is tinged with evil—and some of it is very evil.

But we humans are not perfect beings. Not a single one of us is capable of living a sinless life. This is not to excuse sin when we could very well not sin. But as I said earlier, our sexual drives are some of the most powerful desires in us—and some of the most difficult to tame and direct into a completely healthy course.

So in the real world, real human beings must make choices about where to direct these powerful sexual drives and desires. And although pornography is certainly not the best direction in an absolute sense, for those with a normal to strong sex drive (which is most people), it might be the best available choice.

Yes, but isn’t pornography a sin?

Perhaps you are with me so far. And perhaps not.

But even if you are, you may still be thinking, “Yes, but isn’t pornography a sin? If it’s even tinged with evil, we shouldn’t use it, right?”

First, we need to distinguish between evil and sin.

Evil and sin are two distinct things. Evil is anything that causes harm in any away. Sin is intentionally doing things that we know are harmful and against God’s will. That’s why Jesus said:

If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains. (Matthew 9:41)

And:

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. (Luke 12:47–48)

In other words, sin is not an absolute standard. It depends on what we know and believe to be wrong. (For more on the meaning of evil and sin based on the Bible, please see: God, Forgiveness, Freedom, and Hell – Part 4.)

If you strongly believe that viewing pornography is evil and sinful, and harmful to yourself and others, I would strongly advise you not to view pornography. If you do, you will be violating your conscience, which is never a good thing. Sin could be defined as violating our conscience—which is God’s voice in us telling us what is right and wrong.

Remember how I said, “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder”? Well, pornography is sinful for us when we believe that it is sinful based on our understanding of God’s commandments. And if God is telling you that pornography is evil and sinful, then you should definitely pay attention to that.

If you don’t think pornography is evil and sinful, then you will not be violating your conscience by viewing it. It will therefore not cause the spiritual anguish for you that it does for people who have had it drilled into their heads that pornography is terribly sinful.

Further, many young people view pornography because they have a natural, hormone-driven fascination with sex and the human body, and they want to see what it’s all about. Of course, pornography is not the best way to learn about human sexuality. However, since there are still many cultural taboos about sex and the naked human body, it is inevitable that curious adolescents are going to find out about these things wherever they can. If it’s just a passing fascination, and they move on once their curiosity has been satisfied, then there’s little real and lasting harm from this common phase of viewing pornography, reading explicit stories, and so on.

For people who do continue to view pornography and read erotic stories, and don’t believe it’s sinful, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely innocent and not at all evil. As pointed out earlier, pornography and erotic literature are fantasy, not reality. Even for people who think there’s nothing wrong with consuming them, these fantasies can skew attitudes toward sex and intimacy, making it more difficult to engage in a healthy sexual relationship with a real, flesh-and-blood human being.

So is pornography a sin?

It is if we believe it’s a sin. And even if we don’t believe it’s a sin, it can still cause problems.

What if you can’t stop viewing pornography?

And yet, for many people that’s all academic. They find themselves irresistibly drawn to pornography.

If that’s your situation, it may be time to switch strategies.

And if you feel terribly guilty about it, and are constantly beating yourself up for continuing to view pornography, it may be time to make some modest adjustments to your conscience. Remember, the Bible doesn’t actually say that pornography is a sin. So we must use the thinking minds that God gave us to come to some reasonable conclusion about it.

According to the Bible, the only person who ever lived a sinless life was Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4:14–15). Once again, this is not an excuse to sin. But it should prompt us to have the humility to recognize that not a single one of us is going to live a perfect life. We are going to do things that aren’t very good, and even some things that are definitely evil.

The real question is: Which direction are we going? Are we going toward what is good or toward what is evil? Are we moving toward heaven or toward hell?

Pornography is not very good. But it is also not the worst sort of evil. It inhabits a gray area between our drive and desire for sexual intimacy and the common situation in which this is not available to us within a healthy, committed marital relationship.

If you’re losing the battle to completely avoid pornography, then it may be time to switch strategies. It may be time to recognize that at this point in your life, pornography isn’t going to go away entirely—but that you can still work to move your irresistible sexual energy in a better direction, and away from worse directions. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

The Bible on sexual immorality

If you find yourself unable to resist viewing pornography no matter how hard you try, then it might be time to start thinking in terms of the scale of evil rather than trying to adhere to some humanly impossible standard of absolute good.

The Bible is nowhere near as black and white about sexual immorality as conservative Christians often claim it is. And those conservative Christians commonly support such claims by quoting Bible verses completely out of context.

For example, speaking of 1 Corinthians 6:18, a few verses earlier Paul says:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” (1 Corinthians 6:15–16)

It is in this context that Paul goes on to say:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. (1 Corinthians 6:18)

What Paul is focused on here is avoiding and shunning sex with prostitutes. In other words, he’s telling us not to actually commit sexual immorality by having sexual intercourse with people we shouldn’t have sexual intercourse with.

And no, sexual sins aren’t judged more harshly than other sins unless they’re actually worse than other sins. Sleeping with a girlfriend when neither of you is married, which is not forbidden in the Ten Commandments, will not be judged more harshly than murdering or committing adultery or stealing, which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments. And masturbation isn’t forbidden in the Bible at all (see “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?”), so it makes no sense to say that it is going to be judged more harshly than sins that are repeatedly condemned in the Bible.

Pornography, also, is not forbidden in the Bible. So will it really be judged more harshly than murder and theft? The Bible’s commandments and statements about sexual immorality are aimed especially at serious sexual immorality, such as adultery, rape, and using the services of prostitutes.

Pornography, while not good, isn’t anywhere near as bad as sleeping with prostitutes, committing adultery, committing rape, and so on. And for those religious people who highly value remaining a virgin until marriage, pornography should at least be considered a lesser offense than having sexual intercourse before marriage.

It all hinges on recognizing that evil is not black and white, but that there is a scale of evil, from lesser to greater—and that this scale applies to sexual evils just as it does to every other kind of evil.

God recognizes that we are not going to be perfectly sinless. So in the Bible God steers us away from the worst and most damaging evil and sinful desires and actions such as adultery, rape, and prostitution. And God does this by moving us progressively upward on the scale of evil toward what is good.

Pornography can be a hedge against greater sexual evil

That’s where pornography comes in.

Here’s the deal: if pornography is used in moderation as a visual aid to masturbation and sexual release, then it can actually help people to avoid greater sexual evils.

This is not to say that using pornography is good. Rather, it’s saying that it can serve as a hedge against committing sexual sins that are flat-out forbidden in the Bible. For people who are strongly committed to remaining a virgin before marriage, it can even help to satisfy and release sexual drives without actually having sex with a girlfriend or boyfriend.

This is not a license to view pornography with abandon. The idea is not to let yourself loose, but to provide a necessary outlet for your sexual drives and desires so that your pent-up sexual energy doesn’t break out into worse sexual activities.

The key is keeping your mind and heart focused on the ultimate goal of being in a faithful, monogamous, loving marriage; and at the same time keeping your mind and heart turned away from adultery, promiscuous sex, and other serious violations of marriage and monogamy.

In short, if you view pornography, it should be with the clear understanding that it is a necessary evil in order to keep yourself away from serious violations of marriage and monogamy.

You’ll have to figure out exactly how to accomplish this difficult balancing act as you go along. But here are a few suggestions:

  • Don’t view pornography hour after hour. If nothing else, it’s a massive waste of time! View pornography only enough to release your sexual energy through masturbation.
  • Avoid the sleazier, more sordid forms of pornography. Steer yourself toward healthier and more positive depictions of sexuality and the human body involving full, consenting adults.
  • Take up a hobby. Join a gym or an activities club. Volunteer at a local charity. If you have extra time on your hands, find something positive to do with it. Get together with other people who enjoy the same activities you do. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.”
  • And finally, once you do have a healthy outlet for your sexual drives and desires within a committed, faithful relationship, leave the porn behind. Focus on loving your partner instead.

Remember, the idea is to keep your sexual drives and desires reasonably satisfied in the least damaging way possible for you until you can satisfy them within a loving, committed, and ideally married relationship.

You may not be able to completely control your sexual drives. You may not be able to avoid pornography entirely. But you can exert your will to gradually turn yourself away from worse forms of sexual immorality and toward ones that aren’t so bad, until you can achieve a good and healthy sex life within the sacred bonds of marriage. Don’t be too worried if you slip up from time to time. Just pick yourself up and get yourself moving in the right direction again.

RMS Queen Mary 2

RMS Queen Mary 2

Think of your sex drive as a massive ocean-going ship such as an oil tanker, a container ship, or the Queen Mary 2. You can’t turn those things on a dime. When a huge ship is going full speed ahead and the captain commands, “Right full rudder!” the first thing that happens is almost nothing. The ship keeps right on going in the same direction. It only gradually turns—and a full turn can take ten or fifteen minutes, and cover a distance of well over a mile. That’s why even when the Titanic’s crew saw the iceberg dead ahead, they couldn’t steer the ship away in time to avoid hitting it.

Your sexual drives are going to take a lot longer to turn around. You may have to keep your ship at right full rudder for months, years, or even decades to finally get yourself going in the direction you want. Don’t expect quick and easy results. Stick with it, and gradually steer yourself away from the icebergs and shoals of more serious sexual misbehavior, and toward the clear waters of a hoped-for future loving marriage relationship.

This article is a response to several spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Sex Marriage Relationships
41 comments on “What does the Bible Say about Pornography? Is Pornography Sinful?
  1. Rami says:

    Hi Lee.

    As you pointed out, the Bible does not explicitly condemn pornography any more than it does unfair internet practices- there simply was no precedent at the time for the Bible to address in explicit terms. But outside of what the Bible explicitly declares to be permissible and impermissible, might it serve us better to weigh these moral questions against the Bible’s *affirmative* statements, which in effect describe what God wants for us? You certainly do that in this article, when you mention how pornography is at odds with the monogamous marital ideal, but what does this idealized expression of human sexuality tell us about the Bible’s overall attitude toward it?

    It certainly seems that the Bible offers a wondrous attitude on human sexuality, such that a more developed pair of spiritual eyes can even see how the cosmic mystery of creation intersects at the focal point of the sexual act. Quite extraordinary. But when we contrast this attitude with pornography’s, which offers a monstrous, one-dimensional caricature of human sexuality where human beings are little more than slaves to their impulses, does that leave us with something that is so at odds with the Bible’s ideals so as to be more than just tinged with evil?

    If so, contrasting so starkly with the Bible’s ideals might be an absolute prohibition in itself.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Certainly those with eyes to see it can find high ideals of marriage in the Bible. But the reality is that those ideals are made nowhere near as clear in the plain text of the Bible as many Christians claim they are.

      Where are the lyrical passages extolling the virtues and purity of marriage, monogamy, and sexual intercourse as a spiritual act? For the most part, that is absent. In fact, acceptance of polygamy was the rule throughout most of the Bible narrative. Even in the New Testament, although there is certainly a noticeable trend toward monogamy, there is no clear prohibition of polygamy. And historically, it took five or six centuries for Christianity to settle decisively into monogamy and to absolutely prohibit polygamy. Even today there are Christian sects, mostly in Mormonism, that believe in and practice polygamy.

      It’s overstating the case to say that “the Bible offers a wondrous attitude on human sexuality.” For the most part, marriage in the Bible is a rather low-level affair that seems to have more to do with procreation and mutual material and social benefit than with any high spiritual ideal of marriage.

      This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to when he said that in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Luke 20:34-36). He meant that the low, earthly, materialistic form of “marriage” that existed in that day did not exist in heaven. What we think of marriage today—an equal relationship between two partners based on love—would hardly even be recognized as marriage by Jesus’ contemporaries.

      Our present ideal of mutual, equal, faithful marriage relationships based on love didn’t even exist until some time in the 1700s. Before that time period, marriage was seen largely as a business relationship and as a means of producing sons—and daughters as a necessary side effect. For more on this, see Stephanie Coontz’s wonderful 2005 book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Amazon link).

      Yes, there are a few brief verses in the Bible that can point those with a spiritually-oriented mind toward a high ideal of marriage. But for the most part, that high ideal of marriage was developed many centuries after the last books of the Bible were written. For the most part, the Bible’s attitude toward marriage is quite pragmatic, and not very spiritual at all.

      This might sound shocking to many Christians. But I would challenge them to find any sustained, systematic teachings about loving, faithful, monogamous, spiritual marriage in the Bible. Even Paul, who wrote some of the passages these Christians would likely point to, believed that celibacy was preferable to marriage. The reality is that there are only a few hints about genuine, spiritual marriage here and there in the text of the Bible.

      For some perspective on this, please see these two articles:

      Once again, Christians—especially conservative Christians—have a strong tendency to draw a picture of human sexuality that includes only bright, pure white and stark, black black. But that’s just not supportable from the Bible itself. When it comes to marriage, there’s really not a whole lot of pure white in the Bible. And there are many shades of gray before it gets to the stark black of adultery, which is about the only sexual act that is clearly and repeatedly prohibited in the Bible, including in the Ten Commandments itself.

      This article aims to be more realistic about those shades of gray. Without understanding that human sexuality exists on a continuum from light to dark, which includes everything in between, we simply can’t think rationally, realistically, usefully, or even spiritually about our sexual life as human beings.

      So yes, the ideal is loving, monogamous, faithful, spiritual marriage. But that is something only a few people actually achieve on this earth. Most people in real life are either on a path toward that ideal or on a path away from that ideal. And its opposite is not pornography, but willful, repeated adultery, adulterous thoughts, and adulterous desires, with no regard whatsoever for marriage, and even an antipathy toward marriage.

      Let’s be realistic, then. Let’s not paint everything in stark blacks and whites. And let’s recognize that pornography, while it falls on the evil side of the spectrum, is simply not the horrible blackness that many Christians (and old school feminists) paint it to be. It is a shade of gray on the promiscuous side of human sexuality. And if we see it that way, we’ll have a much more realistic and useful approach to it both personally and societally.

      So no, I do not believe the Bible’s ideals lead to “an absolute prohibition in itself” on pornography. I believe that the Bible is more realistic and pragmatic about human sexuality than are the vast bulk of so-called “Christians”—who mostly ignore what the Bible actually says in favor of their own human-created attitudes and doctrines (see: “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach).

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee.

        It seems hard to pair, if you’re correct, the Bible’s predominantly pragmatic attitude toward marriage with the highly exalted status that Swedenborg gives it in his own writings and Biblical interpretation.

        But I notice you remarked that the Bible ‘generally’ has such and such an attitude, and ‘almost nowhere’ does it say such and such; but I have to ask as to how often does something need to be said before it becomes reasonable to say that the Bible carries that explicit attitude? For instance, if the Trinity were explicitly defined as three separate persons, albeit once and in some obscure passage…that would still be enough to turn all other Trinitarian ideas over on their heads.

        In this case, while the Bible certainly does address the practical aspects of marriage, you have something like the Book of Hosea, in which the very idea of marriage is described as a metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel- that sounds like a pretty celestial attitude to me!

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Most of the Bible was written when humanity was in a very low spiritual state. So most of the Bible speaks to and in the context of that low spiritual state. And yet, being the Word of God, it also contains deeper, spiritual and divine meanings. It is in seeing and understanding those deeper meanings, to which Swedenborg pointed us and gave us the key, that we can see the highly exalted status of marriage that Swedenborg presents in his writings.

          As for the rest, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. The fact is that the Bible never does define the “Trinity” (a word the Bible doesn’t use) as “three separate persons.” So that’s a purely hypothetical question, with no actual basis in the Bible.

          And yes, the book of Hosea uses marriage and adultery as a metaphor for our relationship with God. But the sorts of things the Jewish people were doing to “commit adultery” against God were mostly pretty low-level and materialistic.

      • M.M says:

        Was it you that wrote on this article where it says a man came in and the Holy Spirit told him someone had a problem with masturbation and wanted him to come the alter. And it said no way. Like that’s not possible. Don’t you know that what prophets are for if you said that?

        • Lee says:

          Hi M.M,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

          The point is, it’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it that in a room full of teenagers, “someone is struggling with masturbation.” There’s no need for the Holy Spirit or the gift of prophecy to tell you that. It’s probably just a stock line that pastor uses whenever he talks to groups of teenagers.

  2. Rami says:

    To follow that up, some of the psychological complexities you detailed in this article call to mind an implication that seems to always follow when discussing them: ‘is God a moral relativist who allows for necessary evils?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      “Moral relativist” implies that God does not have clear moral values. It would be more accurate to say that God recognizes that we humans will always fall short of the ideal, and does not condemn us for being fallible and imperfect.

      • Rami says:

        Right,but it seems (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that you’re offering a ‘lesser of two evils’ solution when describing how pornography can help deal with sexual desires that could otherwise become destructive. If so, then it in effect says that it is *right*, in this situation, to *choose* something that is evil in order to bring about a good effect. Situational ethics might then be a better way to describe this, but we do have to reflect on that kind of ethical attitude and our understanding of God’s commandments.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Let me ask you a few questions:

          Do you believe that you are able to keep God’s commandments perfectly?

          Have you in your life been able to consistently achieve the moral, ethical, and spiritual ideal in every situation?

          Have you ever had to choose between the lesser of two evils?

        • Rami says:

          You probably didn’t need to await my reply before you confidently concluded my answer to be ‘no’, and with good reason, but let my supplement your conclusion by adding to it ‘NO WAY!’ This is not an endorsement of my life decisions, but it can’t be overstated how often and knowingly I have (and continue) to willfully miss the mark.

          That said, I can’t give you any specifics, but I’m sure I’ve been in a position where I’ve had (or thought I’ve had) to choose between the lesser of two evils, and if that’s true, it’s an unsettling thing to reflect on. It implies that there are times when the holy thing to do is to choose something evil, but because it’s the least evil that allows for the greatest good. Catholic moral theology addresses these scenarios with the Principle of Double Effect, but the first pillar of that idea is that the act itself cannot be evil, or must at least be morally neutral, regardless of intent.

          Another view might be that, no, that does not happen. God has not designed the universe in such a way that we will ever *have* to choose evil even as the lesser of two, as there is always a third option we know is there but simply lack the courage and fortitude to take up because it’s either too difficult or too inconvenient for us.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Yes, those where rhetorical questions. None of us is able to, or does, live a perfectly sinless life. All of us at times do things that are ethically questionable, or that are downright wrong, even at times when we know perfectly well that they’re wrong. We are imperfect beings, or in biblical parlance, we are all sinners. That’s just a reality. Once again, the question is which way we’re going.

          I would say that it’s a bit naive to think that we’ll never be faced with situations in which we must do something evil to prevent a greater evil.

          Consider the fairly common situation in which a foreign power is militarily invading our country. Now, war, and killing are evil, no matter who’s doing it. Killing enemy soldiers, even in defense of our own country and our own homes, is a terrible, destructive thing.

          I know that the commandment is often interpreted as “Thou shalt not murder.” But the Hebrew word is pretty basic. “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s because killing is intrinsically evil.

          And yet, there are times when we must do so in order to prevent a greater evil. If an enemy army is coming to destroy our country and kill and enslave our people, is it really right to stand by and do nothing, and let them do it, because killing is evil?

          No.

          There are times when, unfortunately, we must kill, even though it is evil, in order to protect ourselves and protect the innocent.

          Defensive wars are, I believe, justified, and are not sinful, but they still involve much killing and much evil. That is a classic case of choosing the lesser of two evils.

          And that’s just one of many examples in which there are no really good choices, and we must instead choose what we hope to be the least evil course of action.

  3. Rami says:

    Don’t mean to break this up into three separate posts, but in reading your article again, I’m somewhat struck by this remark:

    “From a biblical perspective, then, the primary question to ask about any sexual activity is whether it is adulterous, or drives us toward committing adultery.”

    Certainly the Biblical perspective on sexuality is ultimately broader than the contexts of adultery to which it specifically speaks? It would make sense that the integrity of marriage is what is addressed more often than not when discussing sexuality, as dating and hooking up as we know it in our modern society didn’t exist in Biblical times. And after all, you did mention that, while not as severe as adultery, promiscuity is greatly discouraged in the Bible, so would your above statement be more correct to include ‘promiscuity’ in addition to adultery as among our concerns when evaluating any sexual act?

    This kind of speaks to what I mentioned earlier as the need to take explicit Biblical allowances/prohibitions and work backwards to reveal the larger principled picture beneath them, rather than get too caught up in what the Bible says at the expense of what it’s ultimately saying.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      It’s a mistake to make absolutes out of things on which the Bible does not make absolute statements. In fact, that is precisely the mistake I most wish to point out in the article: the mistake of making everything black and white rather than recognizing all the shades of gray in between.

      In attempting to make everything a binary “good” or “evil,” with nothing in between, traditional Christians are replacing what the Bible actually says, and the complex human realities it deal with, with their own rather shallow and excessively moralistic thinking.

      The Bible is actually quite pragmatic about sexual activities that fall somewhere between faithful marriage and adultery. For more on this, see: Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?

      If conservative Christians want to make strict rules about human sexuality for themselves that aren’t actually stated in the Bible, then they are certainly free to do so. But they should at least have the intellectual honesty to recognize and admit that these are their own rules, and not anything imposed by the Bible itself.

  4. Rami says:

    Hi Lee. Before directly replying back, I was hoping you could first maybe clear up what the Bible means by adultery? The specific meaning of adultery is sex that violates the bounds of marriage, but does it also carry a more general condemnation of lust? And that same lust that Paul said was better to escape through marriage than to ‘burn with passion’ outside of it?

    If the most basic Biblical condemnation of sexual immorality rests on a fundamental condemnation of acting lustfully, then it would have far reaching implications on everything from adultery to viewing pornography.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      The simplest definition of adultery is that it is people having sex with one another when one or more of them is married to someone else. The Bible also uses adultery as a metaphor for humans violating their relationship with God through violating God’s commandments, worshiping other gods, and so on.

      As I explained in the article, the lust that constitutes adultery in a person’s heart is a burning desire that will lead the person to commit adultery if acted upon. And it is condemned precisely because it is what leads people to commit adultery. “Lust” as used in the Bible condemns us because it leads to adulterous action. If it didn’t, it would not be lust. By itself it doesn’t condemn us. But when we act upon it, that is adultery and sin, and that condemns us.

      However, in a way, that’s all academic, because if we have that lust in our heart, we will act upon it whenever we have an opportunity. So we are commanded to confront and overcome that lust in our heart, ideally before it results in our actually committing adultery.

      The lust Jesus condemned is not just any kind of sexual desire. It is a desire to commit adultery. That’s why he said that when a man lusts for, or burns with passion for a woman, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Once again, Jesus is not talking about simple sexual interest or sexual drive. He is talking specifically about a burning passion that will lead us to commit adultery, which is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

      As suggested in the article, viewing pornography may or may not be a result of that kind of burning, adulterous lust. As suggested in the article, if viewing pornography is part of our moving away from marriage and toward adultery, then it is very serious. But if viewing pornography is something we do when we would really prefer to be in a committed, faithful marriage, but that simply isn’t available to us, then it is relatively mild.

      The test of any sexual activity is whether it leads us away from faithful, loving, monogamous marriage and toward adultery, or whether it preserves for us a path toward faithful, loving, monogamous marriage and away from adultery. And the desires and choices of our heart will determine which one it is—which way we are going.

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee, and thanks for replying back. This issue may be one in which you and I happen to differ (and you don’t strike me as someone with whom that would at all create a problem with). Unless I am misunderstanding your position, I just have a hard time understanding as to why adultery is the primary and only gauge when assessing our sexual behavior. It certainly strikes me as the most serious offense, but aren’t there a number of other ways by which humans abuse their sexual faculties that deserve moral consideration? Again, you alluded to them in this article as fornication and promiscuity- acts that very much have their basis in lust- but are expressed in ways other than adultery.

        I’m also not sure as to where you find support for the idea that lust is condemned only because it will inevitably lead to adultery if acted out. It seems rather plain to me that this verse in Matthew is saying that thoughts are actions too. To not just experience a lustful impulse, but to relish, and cherish it- to covet with our thoughts, and to inwardly savor something evil. To do so amounts to adultery within ones heart, and naturally is much worse when acted upon externally.

        I agree that the passage in Matthew is not speaking broadly enough to refer to any act of sexual desire, but is it speaking so narrowly so as to only be referring to adultery? It’s important to note that 1 John 2 condemns, among other lusts, lusts of the flesh, and it seems easy to connect the dots between lust of the flesh and the concrete examples of adultery and prostitution that are mentioned in the Bible, and p. Is it possible to see this passage in Matthew, then, as not just referring to adultery, but expanding on the Old Testament law to include all acts of sexual immorality? Is a condemnation of adultery and the means that lead to it really the only takeaway from this passage?

        The Bible certainly condemns lustful behavior, but why? In this case, it seems like we can answer that question by contrasting it with the ideal of marriage, and then we see how one is a selfless, loving unification of two into one, and the other is only selfishly concerned with its own pleasure. If condemnations of lust are interchangeable with condemnations of adultery, then it gives us something to work with when assessing everything from adultery, to consuming pornography, to possibly (and I know how unpopular this is going to sound) masturbation.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          My main point is that there is a scale of sexual evil, just as there is a scale of other types of evil. Some are worse than others. It’s not that promiscuity and fornication are A-OK. It’s that they’re not as bad as adultery. So if there’s a choice between sleeping with a married man or woman and sleeping with an unmarried man or woman, then sleeping with the married person is worse than sleeping with the unmarried person.

          Do you really think that masturbation should be put on the same level as adultery? Do you really think that there’s no difference between sleeping with a girlfriend or boyfriend and committing date rape?

          We humans commonly live in shades of gray. And engaging in sexual activities that don’t actually violate marriage simply isn’t as bad as engaging in sexual activities that do violate marriage. Also, engaging in forcible sex with an unwilling person is a terrible crime, whereas engaging in consensual sex when both partners are unmarried is nowhere near as destructive, and may even be leading toward a faithful, monogamous marriage.

          Attempting to reduce everything to black (totally evil) vs. white (totally good) is simply unrealistic. It is also not in accordance with the Bible’s various statements and commandments about human sexual activity.

          It’s not that consensual, non-adulterous extramarital sex is good from a spiritual and ideal perspective. But it is nowhere near as bad as adultery, rape, prostitution, and so on.

          If you think you can live a sexually pure and perfect life, then I strongly encourage you to do so! And if you are able to do that, then congratulations! You’re in the 1%! 😉

        • Rami says:

          No, I totally get your point Lee, and at no point have I ever contested the idea that there exists a scale of sexual immortality, with some offenses being far worse than others. But that’s not what I was asking in the above post. I was asking as to why do we use adultery as the litmus when looking at our sexual behavior, if that’s just one (albeit) extreme expression of lust? Shouldn’t the idea of lustful motives instead be the gauge we use?

          And I was asking if there’s a larger takeaway from this passage in Matthew that isn’t just concerned with adultery and the specific lust that lead to it, but is concerned ultimately with the lusts of the flesh that 1 John 2 is condemning.

          I’m not at the point where I’m condemning masturbation, but I need to confront as honestly as I can, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, the notion of what lust is, its opposition to love, and what it says about the decisions it inspires us to make. Sometimes some conclusions are just unavoidable if you’re honest enough to see them for what they are.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          I responded to much of this in replies to some of your other comments.

          But basically, adultery is the opposite of marriage. Marriage is the ideal. Adultery is the corruption of that ideal.

          Ultimately it will be our motives that determine our fate. But it’s the motives that we act upon, or would act upon if given the opportunity, that really matter. We are all mixes of many motives, good, bad, and indifferent. The acid test is which ones we carry into action. Those are the motives that really count. The ones we desire, but prevent ourselves from acting upon, still have an effect. But our primary, driving motives will sooner or later express themselves in action.

          So it’s not just motives, but effective motives that we act upon when we can that matter.

          If we have bad motives, but recognize that they’re bad, and prevent ourselves from acting upon them for that reason, then we won’t be held guilty of them because we are actively repenting from them.

          So when it comes to lust, we all have it, but if we recognize that our desire to have sex with someone is wrong, and therefore don’t act upon it, we are not held guilty. And if we do act upon it, but then realize and admit that it was wrong, and commit ourselves to not doing it again, then we will also not be held guilty spiritually because we have repented of it. Real repentance is not just saying we’re sorry, but not doing it again.

          Of course, you’ll have to make up your own mind about masturbation and any other sexual activities, depending upon your own situation. I’m not advocating masturbation, premarital sex, and so on, as things we should do. Rather, I’m saying that for those who have average to strong sexual drives, masturbation is a reasonably healthy and benign way to satisfy those drives while not violating marriage, and not closing off the door to future marriage.

      • Rami says:

        To unpack my concerns that I am possibly misunderstanding your position: you drew a mental spectrum earlier with the holiness of marriage on one side, and the evil of adultery on the other*. So when you say that we need to ask ourselves if our sexual conduct is leading toward adultery, are you saying we need to ask if the act, in itself, is adulterous, or will directly lead to adultery?

        Or are you basically referring to a slippery slope, where the extreme evil of adultery is the inevitable end result of successively lustful decisions? I know this conversation is now complicated a bit by my suggesting that adultery in the New Testament means and was understood to mean a much broader gamut of sexual immortality, including but not limited to the specific act of adultery.

        *I notice your article posited certain acts of sexual violence behind adultery on the sexual evil spectrum. Should that then be our primary consideration then, or is violent sexual assault in a category of its own?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Spiritually and even morally speaking, every action is colored by the motivation behind it. Two people can do the exact same thing, yet one of them is spiritually guilty while the other is not. This applies to sexual actions just as it does to every other kind of action.

          Motivation has to do with the direction we’re going with our actions. And when it comes to sexual actions, our motivations can generally be divided up into those that are heading toward marriage and those that are heading toward adultery.

          For example, a teenage boy who has sex with a girl could feel really in love with her, and be thinking about a future with her. Or he could just think of her as “a good lay” that will be one of many “conquests” he expects to have. It’s the same sexual action. But for one it is leading downward toward promiscuity and ultimately adultery, whereas for the other it is leading—or at least can lead—upward toward faithful, monogamous marriage.

          The same analysis could be applied to just about any non-adulterous sexual activities. Which way is the person headed with it? Does the person hold to an ideal of faithful, monogamous marriage, and hope to achieve that, even if he or she hasn’t yet gotten there? Or does the person consider sex to be something you grab for personal pleasure wherever possible, regardless of the other person’s integrity, with no intent of having any mutual, faithful relationship, and with a desire to pile up as many promiscuous and adulterous sexual liaisons as possible?

          The “slippery slope” occurs when people have no particular ideal, hope, or wish for a future faithful marriage, and just sow their wild oats wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. And it especially occurs when people actively thumb their nose at marriage, faithfulness, love, and respect for sexual partners, and think that allowable sex is boring sex, whereas forbidden sex is exciting.

          All of this is yet another reason we must recognize that there are shades of gray in human sexual activity. Not only is there a whole gamut in the acts themselves, but there is a whole gamut in the motives and intentions of those who engage in them. And ultimately, it is the motives and intentions—or in more guttural terms, the burning lust or the high hopes and aspirations—within the person who is engaging in the actions that determine just how evil or good the action is spiritually, and whether the person is going up or down on the marriage to adultery scale.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          About rape and sexual violence:

          Sexual violence is a very serious violation of present and future marriages because it violates one of the core essentials of marriage: mutual consent. Without mutual consent, there is no marriage. And when mutual consent is violated by forcing sex upon another person, it destroys the inclination toward marriage in the one committing the rape and sexual violence, and does terrible damage to the victim’s ability to experience mutual, consensual, loving marital and sexual relationships now or in the future.

          Rape and sexual violence is therefore an adulterous act even if neither the perpetrator nor the victim is married, because it is a serious violation of the very foundations of marriage both in the perpetrator and in the victim.

          Obviously even mutually consensual adultery is still adultery. If one or both of the people involved is married to someone else, then it is a violation of marriage even if the people involved are acting of their own free will.

          However, mutually consensual sex among people who are not married is nowhere near as serious a violation of marriage, and doesn’t rise to the level of adultery, because it preserves that key essential of marriage: mutual consent. Mutually consensual sex in which neither person is married is still considered fornication biblically. But it is fornication that can lead to marriage. In fact, it is very common for people to have sex before marriage, and go on either to marry their partner with whom they’ve had a romantic and sexual relationship or marry someone else, with whom they then have a faithful, monogamous relationship.

          Rape and sexual violence, on the other hand, violates the marital principle by its very nature. Those who engage in it and think there is nothing wrong with it will never be able to have a real marriage because they reject the very basis of marriage.

          Meanwhile, the victims of rape and sexual violence sustain severe wounds that are very difficult to heal from because they cut so close to their core integrity as a person, and turn what should be a beautiful part of human life into a trauma and a nightmare. It is very common for victims of rape and sexual violence to be unable to engage in a mutual, happy, loving relationship afterwards. And those who are able to do so usually have to go through a very painful healing process that can take many years.

          That is why rape and sexual violence are adulterous regardless of the marital status of the perpetrators or victims.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee.

          Okay, I think I have a much better understanding of what you’re saying now. I originally thought you were referring to aduitery as it was traditionally understood, that is, sex among two people of whom one is married to someone else. But it sounds to me from what you’ve written that adultery is understood to more generally mean any sexual act that affronts the meaning of sexuality as it exists within the ideal of marriage? If so, it seems to me that adultery and sexual immorality are more or less interchangeable, as sexual immorality begins with sexual self centered-ness (lust), and lust is in every respect the opposite of the selflessness that sexuality expresses within a healthy marriage.

          So I hope I’m not stretching too far to connect the dots when I surmise that a condemnation of adultery is in effect a condemnation of lust? I ask this because I never used adultery as the measuring stick by which I evaluated sexual conduct. To me it was like trying to assess our sin of lying by whether they are leading toward murder- it’s just sounds like a highly unrealistic to me, and doesn’t pay attention to the less severe but still grievous sins it actually does lead toward.

          A broader definition of adultery is something I can entertain, but for me the basic question isn’t ‘does this lead to adultery?’ but rather ‘is this act focused only on myself or the other person?’ Basically, is it lustful? Is this thinking compatible with the standard of adultery as you’ve described it?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          I do think you’re moving in the right direction. But let’s be clear about a few definitions, distinctions, and realities.

          First, the basic meaning of adultery remains “sex among two people of whom one is married to someone else.” That is adultery’s basic, concrete definition because such an act is a direct violation of marriage. Marriage is based on mutual love, commitment, faithfulness, and trust. Having sex with someone else breaks that mutual love, commitment, faithfulness, and trust, and therefore breaks the marriage relationship.

          In other words, adultery is adultery because it flatly and directly destroys marriage. That is why adultery is the polar opposite of marriage, and it is why adultery is the measuring stick, or perhaps the opposite pole, in evaluating whether a particular sexual act is good or evil.

          Sexual immorality, on the other hand, is a broad term that can include many different actions from many different motivations. Some of those actions are very destructive of marriage, and verge on or overlap with adultery. Others are relatively mild, keep open the door toward marriage, and therefore are not adulterous. They might be termed “fornication,” but they wouldn’t be termed “adultery.”

          So no, adultery and sexual immorality are not “more or less interchangeable.” Some sexual immorality is adulterous, and some is not. Consensual sex between two unmarried people, for example, is considered sexually immoral by many people. But it is not adulterous because it is not a direct violation of marriage. It doesn’t destroy a marriage, nor does it destroy the possibility of a future marriage.

          I expand the definition of adultery to include rape because rape is a direct assault on present or future marriages. It violates one of the most central and sacred principles of marriage, which is mutual consent. And even if the victim is not married, it damages and sometimes destroys the victim’s ability to become married in the future. That is not true of consensual sex between two unmarried people.

          Oh, and of course, a person who sees nothing wrong with rape, and commits rape if an opportunity arises or is made, cannot possibly be a partner in a real, spiritual marriage. The two are diametrically opposed to each other.

          Yes, adultery does spring from lust as I believe you’re defining it: sexual desire that is driven by self-centeredness. That is the sort of lust that leads variously to adultery, rape, child sexual abuse (another act that is diametrically opposed to and destructive of future marriage for its victims), and so on. This sort of self-centered lust that cares nothing for its partners or victims is the inner reality of adultery. Adultery itself is the outward act that flows from it. So the two go hand in hand, and both are spiritually damning.

          However, that is very different from the “lust,” or really, sex drive and even love, that leads unmarried people to engage in consensual sex.

          Of course, if that sex is superficial and promiscuous, then even if it is not adulterous, it is quite destructive of the marital principle and of respect for marriage in those who engage in it, and it could be a stepping stone to future adulterous lust if the people involved do not recognize their error and put themselves on a better path sexually.

          But the common phenomenon of unmarried people who are in love with one another having sex has nothing at all in common with adultery. It may be premarital, but at its best it has most of the basic characteristics of marital love: mutuality, consensuality, love, faithfulness, and trust. Such sex is not driven by lust, but rather by love and by sex drives. And though it may not be ideal, it isn’t opposed to marriage. In the natural course of events, most people who engage in these sorts of monogamous premarital romantic and sexual relationships do get married—though perhaps not to their current partner. They consider marriage to be an ideal worth striving for, and they do get married if and when they feel they are ready for it.

          I am aware that many people no longer believe in marriage, and simply live together long-term. But keep in mind that marriage as we know it today, initiated by a wedding ceremony officiated by a clergyperson, did not even exist in Bible times. That came into being only a few centuries ago. In Bible times, marriage was more of a social acceptance that the two (or more) people were married. Yes, they did have wedding feasts in Bible times. But there was no ceremony. And the marriage was considered “official” when it was physically consummated–i.e., when the couple had sexual intercourse. So although I happen to believe that getting married is important, I also recognize that the particular way it happens in our culture is a social construct of our culture—and not everyone accepts that particular social construct.

          But back to your point, yes, the primary thing that violates the commandment against adultery is the inner state of adultery—which is lust, or sexual desire, that cares little or nothing for the other, but aims only at pleasure and power for oneself. And that is precisely what leads people to commit outwardly adulterous acts.

        • Rami says:

          Without trying to complicate things, it’s worth mentioning that, if there’s one thing sexual psychology seems to have taught us, our sexual *behavior* often has little to do with our sex *drive*, as sexuality is just the means by which we express otherwise non-sexual mindsets.

          Hooking up and sowing oats seems to have its basis in a (lustful) expression of our sex drive, when it comes to things like adultery and especially rape, I would be hesitant to classify them as fundamentally sexual, as we’re dealing with people’s violent needs to dominate, control, and transgress than we are their natural sex drives.

          So when we talk about sexual motives and intentions…boy it can get complicated in a hurry.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Yes, it does get very complicated very fast. That’s why it’s best not to attempt to judge the spiritual state of another person, even if we must judge them civilly when they break the law and cause damage to other people and their property.

          I do understand the movement toward not labeling rape as a sexual crime, but as a violent crime. However, I would classify it as a violent sexual crime, and as a terrible corruption of human sexuality in which sex, instead of being an expression of love and caring for another person, is an expression of selfishness and a desire to dominate and hurt other people for one’s own twisted pleasure.

          In other words, both the act itself and the motives behind it are corruptions of human love and sexuality. And the best and most beautiful things, when corrupted, become the worst and most destructive things.

    • Rami says:

      Hi Lee.

      Okay, I think I’ve taken in what you’ve said here. I should clarify that I’m not grouping premarital sex and lust as one and the same. I’m also not talking about lust as a black and white ‘either you only care about yourself or the other person’ idea. Much like our conversation about dominant love, I believe lust is self centered, but that doesn’t mean a person can’t behave lustfully without exhibiting care and concern for the other person in various degrees (and we see this in the ‘friends with benefits’ notion in hook up culture).

      I guess I’m just still not easy with using adultery as the overall standard by which we measure sexual acts. To me it sounds like the ‘gateway drug’ fallacy, that if you smoke marijuana you will inevitably wind up smoking crack.

      There are, I’m sure, plenty of people who have lived lustful and promiscuous lives throughout high school and college who would eventually grow up and out of it to settle down with someone they love and remain committed toward. It seems to me that promiscuity is one thing, but there might need to be an additional element that results in adultery that promiscuous people don’t necessarily have. Maybe it’s the love of taboo, or the thrill of getting away with something, but I have a difficult time insgining how sexual permissiveness is something that, left unchecked, is something that inevitably tumbles down the scale toward adultery.

      That’s why I just stick with asking if an act is self centered when scrutinizing sexual behavior, since that is the basic basis behind sexual immorality. It’s definitely a good idea to be mindful as to how your behavior affects your ability to hold down a marriage in the future, but weighing consensual, non committal sex- however wrong- against destroying a future marriage just sounds like too broad a jump.

      And now as to why this is a big deal for me: is this unbiblical of me?

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rami,

        Responding more briefly:

        Uncommitted promiscuous sex can go either way. If people continue down that track, it’s likely they will have or develop no respect for marriage, and will be perfectly happy to engage in adulterous sex. But if it’s just a phase, and as they mature they realize that uncommitted promiscuous sex is a dead end, and move on to more committed and faithful relationships, then although their former promiscuous phase might cause some lingering damage, it is repairable damage that they can move beyond toward something better.

        Another way of looking at it is that God allows us to try things our way first, because for most of us that’s the only way we learn. To a teenager or young adult, “free love,” which usually really means promiscuous, uncommitted sex, looks mighty enticing. And without actually trying it out, they’ll never learn that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.

  5. Rami says:

    And if I may trouble you to elaborate a tiny bit here: if adultery is more than just sex with someone while married to someone else, and is the end result of unchecked promiscuity, what does someone who inevitably finds themselves in a final, adulterous state look like? Is it someone who has destroyed any possibility for a healthy marriage because they’ve lived such sexually self centered lives?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Unchecked promiscuity, if not repented of, can and often does lead people toward an adulterous state and adulterous acts, because people who engage in such promiscuous sex in the end have no regard or respect for marriage.

      To be clear, “promiscuous” means, basically, “with many different partners.” Steady, long-term but unmarried partners who have sex only with one another are not promiscuous, even if many religious people see their sexual activity as fornication.

      Promiscuity is superficial because it does not build a relationship with one other person in which the love grows deeper and the two grow as human beings through their relationship with one another. Promiscuity involves jumping from partner to partner. This inevitably means that the sex is primarily physical, with little emotional content and no spiritual content because there is no relationship between the two people other than a fleeting and purely physical one.

      People who continue in that way may or may not become literally adulterers. They may or may not sleep with married women or men. But they destroy the ability to be in a real marriage precisely because a real marriage is at its core a spiritual connection and relationship between two people. And that can exist only in committed, faithful, loving, monogamous relationships.

      People who persist in superficial, promiscuous sex, and don’t eventually come to their senses and recognize how empty their sex life is, tend over time to burn out on sex. This may happen only after they have gone into more and more sordidly stimulating types of sexual activity. But it still remains hollow, and they are never able to achieve any really satisfying sex life. Adultery may be one of the things they do in an attempt to spice up and stimulate their sexual desires through engaging in the forbidden fruit. But eventually that burns out as well. We humans just aren’t built for superficial sex that doesn’t flow from love.

      So the end result of that sort of sex life tends to be impotence. And if that doesn’t happen here on earth, then it will commonly happen in the other life, according to Swedenborg. Many, though not all, people in hell lose all interest in sex. And the lower (worse) the hell they inhabit, the more likely they are to become completely impotent and uninterested in sex.

      Still, as long as a person is living on this earth, it is possible to repent, and to begin the process of rebuilding him- or herself and moving away from promiscuity and adultery, and toward marriage. For confirmed, long-term adulterers and philanderers that is highly unlikely. But it is possible if they come to their senses, recognize that the way they have been living is wrong, and decide to turn their life around.

    • Rami says:

      Sorry, I keep replying to the wrong comment.

  6. Frankly Frank says:

    Lee is cutting edge. What other religious type blog shows a nudie on their home front page to help get their point across? Ok well I mean you know he could’ve used a loin clothed big banana leafed one. I’m pretty sure the Woof’s are okay with skinny dipping too. You know comfortable with their God created bodies. Cool! lol.

    I’m also fairly certain if Billy Graham ministries did this he’d turn over in his grave. Oh wait he’s not dead yet. In that case it would cause at least an apoplectic fit.

    Can you imagine? lol

    FF

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      Haha! It is true that I was not brought up to be ashamed of my body, or of the human body in general. It is a beautiful creation of God. Yes, of course, it can be and all too often is exploited and abused. But in itself the nude human body is a pure and beautiful thing.

      About that “nudie,” I chose it for this article for a reason. When it was first exhibited in 1865, it caused a scandal and an uproar! It was not a “proper” nude. It was a painting of a prostitute, and she was brazenly looking right at the viewer rather than “chastely” averting her eyes. By today’s standards it is rather mild. But for its day, it was considered quite pornographic. That’s why it is an appropriate illustration for this particular article.

      Besides, I figure that anyone who can’t handle an artistic nude probably can’t handle the content of this blog anyway. 🙂

  7. Dave says:

    I’m late to the party, but think this contribution is worth adding. BTW- I appreciate your tone and thinking.

    One use of porn/masturbation that is rarely discussed is the use by the married man who is being sexually defrauded. He cannot become a rapist or a beggar and still function as the head and chooses to honor his vow made before God till death parts them. He is in a bad spot, he has been turned over to Satan to be tempted, the Christian community belittles his suffering, even encouraging his wife to defraud him, and he still has a God-given sex drive that is a major part of his masculine identity. There may also be children so in order to survive a marriage where he has been rejected and despised sexually and is unwilling to castrate himself and live as a gelding, (becoming a functional eunuch is not keeping the marriage bed pure) he turns to an outlet that although is not ideal, (the ideal was treacherously taken from him), but is an outlet to avoid worse sin. Such use under such circumstances is nearly virtuous.

    Also If I may add a few thoughts on Matt 5:28. It is badly translated from a dualist perspective. It would more accurately reflect Jesus’ words and harmonize with the Old Testament translated as: “But I say to you that whoever looks at another man’s wife to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

    My reasons:

    – Gune can only be another man’s wife to correspond to the use of moicheuo. It should not be all women, only those who are married. Jesus uses pornao in v 39 which would extend to all women, so he knows the difference and chooses His words carefully.

    -epithumeo wich is translated “lust” is used elsewhere by Christ to mean “longed” Matt 13:7, Lk 15:16, desired Lk 16:21, Lk 17:22, and Lk 22:15. None of these uses have a sexual connotation – in fact, they are used as a positive desire. Thus the insertion of a word with a highly charged sexual connotation is the result of prejudice on the part of the translators.

    The amplification of the law that Jesus is highlighting is coveting another man’s wife. One way this often happens is when a pastor desires the honor from the wives in the congregation that belong to their husbands. Some will belittle men, much to the pleasure of the women, or defend the sins of women and in the end, they receive not sex, but what belongs to another man none the less. This is coveting another man’s wife and is adultery of the heart. Same for counselors who assume headship of the family and authority over the husband. They have taken authority over another man’s wife and coveted her submission which belongs to her husband; this is nothing short of treachery. For too long Matt 5:28 has been used as a club to bludgeon male sexuality, it is time to fight against the mistranslation and not add to the law. In Matt 5:28, Jesus was protecting husbands and marriage, it is time to stop using to cut husbands off at the knees and enabling the destruction of marriage. Many shamefully use this verse as a basis for divorce – “my husband looked at a sexy woman, he committed heart adultery and adultery is justification to break my vows”.

    One last thought. Porn is a business, but so is anti-porn. FOr example Covenant Eyes shames men without ceasing, disparages their sexuality and then sells them software for covenant spies to be their conscience. Quite a racket!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Though I would express things differently, I do agree with some of what you’re saying, while not agreeing with other parts.

      Yes, it is very common for married men to use pornography and to masturbate when there is little or no sex in their marriages.

      However, this isn’t necessarily because they are being “defrauded” by their wives. True, some married women do use sex as a weapon or bargaining chip. And that is not a good thing. But that is not the only reason for a lack of sex in a marriage.

      If there is no love in a marriage, there is also commonly no sex. That isn’t necessarily either partner’s fault. Marriage and relationships are complex things. We can’t always predict what marriage will bring us, and we commonly deceive ourselves and one another for many reasons when we are “falling in love” with someone. And today, married women are less likely to dutifully have sex with their husbands when there is no love in the marriage. Husbands, also, who do not love their wives sometimes have little or no desire for sex with them. This is not “evil” or “wrong.” It’s just that today both men and women are more likely to think of sex as an expression of love and closeness between two people. And that is a good development. (But yes, quite often our biological sex drives do override a lack of love and cause married couples to have sex with each other even if they’re not in love.)

      There are other reasons married couples have no sex life, some of them physical, some of them psychological, some of them emotional. To tar it all with the man being “defrauded” is to reduce to stark blacks and whites a situation that has many shades of gray.

      Some women don’t want to have sex with their husbands precisely because their husbands really don’t love and care for them, and are just using them for sexual release rather than expressing love for them in the act of lovemaking. A self-respecting married woman does not want to feel like a prostitute who is getting paid by her husband for sex. If a husband insists that his wife owes him sex because he provides for her and their children, how is that different from considering her a prostitute whom he pays for sex? Unfortunately, in many marriages sex is seen by the man as a commodity to which he is entitled. Many marriages are what the skeptics call marriage: mere legalized and socially acceptable prostitution.

      In short, women are not the only offenders when it comes to sexless marriages.

      This is not to say that there aren’t women who “defraud” their husbands of sex. Women have their flaws and their sins just as men do. And some women do indeed unfairly cut their husbands off for selfish reasons. I’m simply saying that the sex life of a marriage is a two-way street. It is not always the woman’s fault if a marriage is sexless or nearly sexless. Sometimes a lack of sex in a marriage is due to real marital and relationship issues that need to be resolved between the partners. And sometimes the couple just shouldn’t be married to each other at all. This does become more complicated when they have children.

      That said, it is quite true, as you say, that many married men who do not have a satisfying sex life within their marriages, or have no sex life at all, do turn to pornography and masturbation to satisfy their natural sexual drives and desires. And that is indeed far better than either committing adultery or emasculating themselves. It is certainly not an ideal situation. But life here on earth is rarely ideal. Sometimes men (as well as women) have to choose the lesser of evils when what is good and ideal simply isn’t available. That, really, is the main point of the above article, on the positive side.

      Since this is getting long, I’ll respond in a separate comment to the biblical issues you raise.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Dave,

      About Matthew 5:27–28:

      The Greek word gyne used in Matthew 5:28 is the general word used for “woman” in the New Testament. It includes both married and unmarried women, as you can see in its definition here. When it specifically means “wife” it is constructed with a possessive pronoun or name, such as (literally) “his woman” or “Philip’s woman,” which are then translated as “his wife” or “Philip’s wife.”

      In short, the term gyne that Jesus uses for “woman” in Matthew 5:28 is not restricted to married women, but refers to women in general.

      Every other word for “woman” used in the Greek New Testament is far less frequent, and is more specialized. Jesus simply used the common Greek word for “woman.” If he had wanted to restrict his meaning to married women, he would have had to specify that by saying (literally) “the woman of another (man).”

      It is true, as you say, that the Greek word epithymeo does not always have a sexual connotation. Its basic meaning is “to have a strong desire for, to burn for.” The object of that burning desire may be something other than sex, such as money, food (for a starving person), and so on.

      However, in Matthew 5:27–28, the object of that desire is specifically a woman. So in that context, translating it as “lust,” though a bit archaic, is perfectly legitimate, just as “starving for” would be a legitimate translation when it is used in Luke 15:16 to describe the strong desire of the prodigal son to fill his stomach with the husks eaten by the pigs he was feeding.

      The common denominator is the strong desire. The specific nature of that strong desire is determined by the object of the desire.

      And yes, the Greek word epithymeo is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for “covet.” It is the Greek word that the Septuagint commonly uses to translate the Hebrew word chamad, “covet,” as in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:17. And in the New Testament Romans 13:9 also uses it to translate “covet” in the Ten Commandments. You can see more about this in my article, “Is Masturbation Always Sinful? Does it Always Come from Lust?” under the heading, “Words, meanings, and ‘lust.’”

      Like the Greek word, the Hebrew word also denotes a strong desire for something, and that something is not necessarily a woman or sex. But when what is coveted is a woman, or sex, then once again, “lust,” though a bit archaic, is a perfectly valid translation.

      So translating it as “lust” in Matthew 5:28 is not the result of prejudice on the part of the translators. It is simply a case of translating the word according to its context, which in this case is strong desire for a woman—commonly known in religious circles as “lust.”

      As I said in the linked article, this epithymeo, or “lust” refers to a strong, burning desire that will drive and impel us to act upon it if we find or can make the opportunity to do so. Coveting or “lusting after a woman” is not mere fantasizing about her. It is not even merely thinking about having sex with her. It is, rather, a burning desire to have sex with her such that if we could make it happen, we would actually do it. That’s why Jesus condemned it, and said it was tantamount to adultery. Because it is the desire within ourselves that leads to adultery in act, such that it is, as Jesus said, it is “committing adultery with her in our heart.”

      Unfortunately, traditional Christian churches have actually cheapened and lightened this word by applying it to any sort of sexual fantasy about a woman. That is why they have missed Jesus’ point. Jesus was not talking about mere fantasy. He was talking about a driving desire that will lead to committing adultery, whether with a married woman or with an unmarried woman (if the man is married). For more on this, see the article I linked above.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Dave,

      One more response to your comment:

      I agree that the general belittling of men in today’s Western society is not a good thing. However, it was probably an inevitable pendulum swing after many centuries of women being belittled, suppressed, and having much lower status in society than men.

      This “men are terrible pigs” thing will just have to work itself out over time, as the pendulum swings back and forth, until both women and men are valued equally for who they are as God created them.

      Along these lines, you may be interested in these articles:

  8. silverpen123 says:

    Hi Lee,
    As a woman, I have seen (and discussed in depth with women friends) marriages where the woman was committed and in love with her husband, where he privately engaged in pornography to the point of impotence or lowered sex drive with his wife, essentially neutering her and making her feel poorly about her body to him. To me, this sounds like an affront to the marriage, even when she has talked with him openly about why he’s not making any sexual advances towards her, yet “says” he wants sex with her, essentially depending on her to feel better with him and initiate sex (after her feeling neutered by his porn and sex drive), and her feeling less-than what he needs. Sadly, in these cases, I see porn as a problem, and it’s failed to be mentioned as a real problem for marriages and committed relationships of love. It lines up with your comment earlier about losing interest in sex here and on the other side when they burn out – or maybe rides the lines of addiction. What is your take on the matter?

    • Lee says:

      Hi silverpen123,

      Yes, that is a real problem. It’s the flipside of what a reader named Dave brought up in a comment just above. Although he used rather charged language, his basic issue was that when wives cut their husbands off from sex, their husbands will sometimes turn to porn to fill the void. You might want to read my responses to his comment as well.

      Toward the end the above article I said:

      And finally, once you do have a healthy outlet for your sexual drives and desires within a committed, faithful relationship, leave the porn behind. Focus on loving your partner instead.

      Remember, the idea is to keep your sexual drives and desires reasonably satisfied in the least damaging way possible for you until you can satisfy them within a loving, committed, and ideally married relationship.

      The whole premise of the article is that pornography, while it is not good and is generally tinged with evil, can be a hedge against engaging in even worse sexual evils when a healthy sexual relationship is not available. But if a healthy and loving romantic and sexual relationship is available, then using porn slides over from being a hedge against evil to being an evil that is a barrier to good.

      Basically, married men whose wives love them and want to have a sexual relationship with them should not be satisfying all their sex drives by masturbating to porn. That is not only robbing their wives of love and intimacy, but also choosing a rather sordid and self-absorbed way of satisfying their God-given sex drives when they could be having a good, loving, and healthy romantic and sexual relationship with another human being—namely, their wife—as God intended.

      Having said that, sex and marriage are complicated. It’s not always as simple as it appears from the outside. Some men have tried to have a sexual relationship with their wives, but things went wrong at some point and the sexual relationship got broken. In some cases their wives continually blocked and resisted their husbands and threw up barriers, or told their husbands in various ways, subtle or not, that they’re incompetent in bed—which pretty well kills a man’s desire to have sex with his wife. And if a wife is always “too tired” to have sex, what is the husband supposed to do? In some cases the two just have different ideas of what constitutes a good and satisfying sex life. For example, many men think they’re supposed to be the initiators, and when their wives aren’t particularly responsive to them when they take the initiative, but instead seem to want to be the one who initiates and controls when sex happens, that is a common turn-off for many (but not all) men.

      These sorts of things, and many others, can set up a precedent and pattern that the wife (and the husband) may later regret, but that they will have a very hard time breaking and reversing. Sometimes what’s at the bottom of a sexless marriage is relationship issues that the couple needs to work out with each other. And sometimes this requires a marriage counselor to help them through it.

      So although I’m with you that men should not be hooked on porn when they have a willing and loving partner, and that when they do have a relationship with porn instead of with their wives it is a wrong and an offense against their wives, I would also say that it’s not always as simple as that. Yes, sometimes the men are indeed just being idiots, and they need to get a handle on their life and get their priorities sorted out or they’re going to lose a woman who loves them and wants to be close to them. Other times there are more complex issues involved, and both the husband and the wife need to do some hard work to overcome whatever it was that killed their sex life.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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