Not surprisingly, my article, “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?” stirred up a certain amount of controversy. A reader’s comment on that article led to this follow-up article: “Can You Masturbate Without Lusting? What about Matthew 5:27-30?”
Recently a reader named Boluwade Kujero left a comment—or should I say, a guest editorial!—on the follow-up article. He took exception to my characterization of conservative Christianity’s stance on masturbation, and questioned various statements I made in the article and in its comments section. His comment is much too long to copy into this article. You can read it here.
To fully understand the current article and what it is responding to, I recommend that you read both earlier articles if you haven’t already, and then read Mr. Kujero’s comment.
Or just charge on ahead. Your call.
In response to his comment, this is the third installment in what has now become a series on masturbation.
Here are my main objections to conservative Christians’ usual position masturbation:
- They have made a strict law against masturbation when there is no such law in the Bible, thus laying a heavy burden, hard to bear, on people’s shoulders (see Matthew 23:4).
- They have made good and evil a matter of stark blacks and whites, overlooking or denying the shades of gray in between. They have tarred even mild wrongs with the same terribly black brush, causing unnecessary guilt and discouragement for many people.
In so doing, they have made the path toward salvation and spiritual life more burdensome and difficult—whereas Jesus Christ said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)
We humans are fantastically complex creatures. Conservative Christians have attempted to boil all that complexity down to simplistic formulas and non-Biblical teachings. Unfortunately, their human-made laws don’t work very well. In fact, they make life unnecessarily difficult for people who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and cast their heavy burdens at Jesus’ feet.
Their hard-line, non-Biblical stance against masturbation is a perfect example.
Words, meanings, and “lust”
In responding to Mr. Kujero’s statements and questions, rather than dealing in detail with all of his analysis of specific words and their definitions, I will focus on the major substantive issues he raises. Words and definitions are, of course, important. But the purpose of words is to point to realities. And unfortunately, human words and languages are an imperfect means to do that. In every language particular words get used differently in different contexts. If you focus on words and definitions, it’s easy to pick holes in everything that anyone writes or says. But if you focus on the realities that the words are pointing to, the meaning and message will come through much more clearly.
Having said that, it is important to understand that the Greek word ἐπιθυμέω (epithymeō), commonly translated “lust” in the Matthew 5:27–30 passage and elsewhere, comes from words meaning “to burn with passion for, to ardently desire.” In Romans 13:9 it is used to translate the commandment, “You shall not covet” given in Exodus 20:17 as part of the Ten Commandments.
“Coveting” is not mere fantasizing about having something or someone that we know we can’t have. It is not dreaming pipe dreams and building castles in the air. Rather, it is a burning desire to actually get and have that something or someone for ourselves. It is the sort of burning desire that will cause us to actually try to get that something or someone if we can.
The Ten Commandments forbid coveting as the final commandment because coveting is the burning desire that leads us to commit all of the other sins listed in the Ten Commandments, such as killing, committing adultery, and stealing.
In short, if our inner thoughts don’t lead us to act upon what they desire whenever we can find or make an opportunity to do so, it is not coveting. It is mere fantasizing. And mere fantasizing is not breaking the commandment against coveting.
For the same reason, mere fantasizing about a woman is not lusting after her and committing adultery with her in one’s heart as Jesus describes it in Matthew 5:27–30. The word Jesus uses there makes it clear that he is speaking of a burning desire that will lead us to act upon it if we can. Specifically, the lust that he is speaking of is one that will drive us to commit adultery with the woman if we possibly can.
It is this desire, and the intention to act upon it if possible, that causes it to be “adultery in one’s heart.”
Adultery in the heart and gouging out eyes
One specific response to Mr. Kujero: He suggested that in the section in the previous article on masturbation titled “Lust comes from the heart, not from the eye or the hand,” I was saying that Jesus was speaking only hyperbolically, not literally, about committing adultery in one’s heart, and that I was dismissing the whole idea of committing adultery in one’s heart.
But that section does not say that adultery in one’s heart is merely metaphorical, nor was it meant to imply that. For those who commit adultery in their heart, it is a very real thing, and a serious issue.
In that section I said, rather, that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically and metaphorically when he told us to gouge out our eye or cut off our hand if it causes us to sin. He was not actually commanding us to physically maim ourselves. None of his disciples took his words literally, and physically maimed themselves. As explained in that section of the article, Jesus makes it clear elsewhere that sin does not come from one’s eye or hand, but from one’s heart. So the offending “eye” and “hand” he speaks of are not our physical eye and hand, but rather our mental “eye” of wrong thinking and our mental “hand” of evil intentions.
Since Jesus was talking about inner adultery, it only makes sense that the eye we must gouge out and hand we must cut off when they cause us to sin are our inner eye and hand, if and when they have become corrupted.
Fantasy vs. lust
I do understand that there is a difference between thoughts that just pop into our head and thoughts that we actively cultivate in our mind. This distinction certainly is important. We can’t control the thoughts that pop into our head. Having a bad thought occur to us does not make us guilty of it. But if we enjoy and actively cultivate a particular thought or desire, that’s a different story.
And yet, even more important than the distinction between passive and active thinking that Mr. Kujero makes is our intention and goal as we entertain particular thoughts and desires in our mind and heart.
As explained more fully in the article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?” both our actions and our thoughts take on their spiritual character based on our intentions and goals as we engage in them.
In the case of premarital sex, if the people involved have the ultimate desire and goal to be in a committed, faithful, monogamous marriage, then their premarital sex is not so serious and damaging. But if they have no respect for marriage, and their desire and goal is to get as much sexual pleasure for themselves they can with as many different partners as possible, then their premarital sex is very serious and highly damaging both to their spiritual life and to their future prospects for a good and healthy marriage.
Similarly, our thoughts and fantasies are serious or minor depending on our intentions and goals.
Not all sexual thoughts are “lust” as the Bible uses that word. As explained above, “lust” as used in the New Testament is a synonym for “coveting” in the Old Testament. It is an active, burning desire and intention to act upon some thought or idea in our mind, such as stealing something that belongs to someone else or having sex with another man’s wife.
Fantasy is not the same as lust because people engaging in various fantasies, including sexual fantasies, often have no intention or goal of actually carrying them out in real life. Even if they may cultivate a fantasy of having sex with someone they know (which generally isn’t a good idea), they may be very clear in their mind that it would be immoral and sinful to actually have sex with that person.
We humans are complex creatures. We have many conflicts and contradictions in our thoughts, feelings, and desires. That’s part of being human.
And it is very possible for us to entertain and engage in forbidden fantasies in our minds, but forbid ourselves from acting upon those fantasies not only because it’s not possible or we’d get in trouble if we did, but because we believe that it would be morally and spiritually wrong, and contrary to God’s commandments.
That is the difference between fantasy and lust:
- Fantasy is engaging activities in our mind that may or may not be moral and ethical if we actually did them.
- Lust is actively desiring to do things that are immoral, unethical, evil, and sinful, so that we will go ahead and do them if we can.
Lust leads us to figure out and plan ways to carry out our wrong desires. Mere fantasy does not.
To the extent that conservative Christians make no distinction between fantasy and lust, they have misunderstood the meaning of lust as that word is used in the Bible. They have also ignored the critical element of having the goal and intention to act upon a sexual fantasy if the opportunity arises.
So yes, it is perfectly possible for someone to fantasize having sex with a person they know, and yet have no intention of actually having sex with that person because it would be against their moral code and their conscience.
Is it a good thing to indulge in fantasies about having sex with someone you know?
But as a mere fantasy, without the intention of acting on it, it is not lust as Jesus uses that word in Matthew 5:27–30.
Women have fantasies—and lust—too
Most of the prohibitions against lust, coveting, and adultery recorded in the Bible are addressed to men:
- “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” (Exodus 20:17)
- “Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes? Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet? So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.” (Proverbs 6:27–29)
- “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
Accordingly, in much religious literature women are presented as innocent victims of men’s lust. And unfortunately, quite often they are.
But not always.
The reality is that women have sexual fantasies too. And many women have lust, as used in the Bible, too. And just as many women as men commit adultery. After all, who are all those men committing adultery with?
Does the Bible really mean to prohibit coveting, lust, and adultery only for men?
Although the language of the Bible primarily addresses men, in keeping with the custom of the cultures in which it was written, it also presents cases in which women are guilty of the same things.
The Bible even tells the story of a woman who was the sexual aggressor and a man who was her victim:
Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”
But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. (Genesis 39:6–10)
Because Joseph spurned her sexual advances due to his own moral code, she turned on him, framed him for attempted rape, and got him thrown into prison. You can read the whole story in Genesis 39:1–20.
It is a fantasy to think that men are evil and women are innocent when it comes to all things sexual.
Women, too, are sexual beings. And women, too, have sexual fantasies and desires, some of which are healthy and good, and others of which are destructive and wrong.
Further most women are quite well aware that they are objects of sexual desire for men. In fact, if it happens to be the right man who desires her, she will have no problem with it at all! As for the rest of those schmucks who drool over her, well, a woman learns to deal with them as well.
Is it evil for men to desire women, and fantasize about them?
I certainly hope not. If it were, the human race would die out within a generation. And I don’t think that’s what God wants.
It is normal, healthy, and natural for heterosexual men to sexually desire women, just as it is normal, healthy, and natural for heterosexual women to sexually desire men. It becomes unhealthy and destructive only when a man or woman presses sexual advances on an unwilling partner, or engages in adulterous or highly promiscuous sex.
And yes, it is quite possible for a man or woman to fantasize about having sex with an acquaintance or co-worker while having no intention of actually having sex with that person.
Is it good to do that?
Not if we continually engage in lurid, explicit sexual fantasies about particular people we know. This can easily develop into a destructive obsession that makes it impossible for us to have a good, healthy, and respectful friendship or business relationship with them.
But the reality is that we humans, both men and women, are going to fantasize about having sex with people we know. And if we leave it at that, recognize that it’s a mere fantasy, let it go, and get on with our life, it simply isn’t the sort of lust that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:27–30.
What about married people?
If the person having the fantasies, desires, and lusts for other people is married, the situation is different.
The two previous articles deal mostly with masturbation and the accompanying sexual fantasies as an outlet for the normal sex drive of people who are not married and not in a sexually active relationship.
If a person is married or is in a committed, sexually active relationship, and is continually fantasizing about having sex with other people, then that marriage or relationship is in serious trouble. That’s especially true if it’s more than mere fantasy, but an active desire to have sex with other people.
Marriage is based on mutual love, commitment, faithfulness, and trust. And the love part includes sexual desire for one’s marital partner.
What is sex anyway?
Physically, sex is the closest two people can get to one another. That’s why it is an expression of the spiritual union of two people in marriage. A truly married couple is spiritually as close to one another as two people can get. And they express that spiritual closeness in the physical act of sexual intercourse.
The underlying reason that sex outside of marriage is frowned upon by the various religions of humanity is that spiritually speaking, sexual intercourse is the physical expression of the inner spiritual union that is the core reality of marriage. If two people are not united in their souls, then the physical act of sex is empty, hollow, and a false representation of a relationship that doesn’t actually exist between them.
By the same token, if two people are truly, spiritually married to one another, they will have no interest in sex with anyone but their marital partner. They feel a sense of oneness with their partner that they feel with no one else. In the normal course of events this spiritual oneness will express itself in a healthy and fulfilling sex life in which the two become physically one with each other as well.
Of course, no one is perfect. And no marriage is perfect, either. Even happily married people may occasionally drift off into thoughts and fantasies that are not quite legit—especially at times of great stress in their marriage.
But if a married man or woman regularly fantasizes about having sex with someone else, and especially if he or she is continually thinking about and desiring to have sex with someone else, then that marriage is on the rocks. Most likely, it is effectively over as a real marriage. If social or financial issues don’t get in the way, divorce will follow before long.
This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If a married man or woman is actively desiring sex with someone else, then he or she is committing adultery in his or her heart. And the act of adultery is likely to follow, destroying the marriage in the process.
In other words, Jesus was not talking about mere sexual fantasies that are nothing more than fleeting fancies. He was talking about an active, adulterous desire that if allowed to run its course will result in actual, physical adultery. If one or both married partners have that sort of lust, and they don’t turn back from it, their marriage is doomed.
But even within marriage, not all fantasy, and not all masturbation, flows from that sort of adulterous desire.
What if a married couple is temporarily separated because one of them is away on a trip? Is it wrong for them to fantasize about having sex with their husband or wife, and masturbate to that fantasy? If they masturbate while having phone sex with one another, is that “lustful” and wrong? I think not. It is simply an expression of their love and longing for their partner when she or he is not physically present.
Further, as pointed out in some of the articles by doctors and psychologists linked in the first article on masturbation under the heading, “Does masturbation damage your health?” when married couples are having sexual difficulties, sometimes fantasy and masturbation can help them to relax, overcome some of their personal issues with sex, and warm up to a healthy sexual relationship with their partner.
Even within marriage, fantasy and masturbation aren’t always driven by adulterous lust. Sometimes they are a normal and natural part of building and maintaining a healthy marriage relationship.
Masturbation does not always flow from lust
Conservative Christians commonly consider masturbation to be always sinful because they believe it is always an expression of lust. However, based on what has been presented so far in this article and in the previous two articles, I believe they are very much mistaken. Masturbation is not always an expression of the lust that is prohibited in the Bible. In other words, masturbation is not always driven by a burning desire to have adulterous or otherwise forbidden sex.
In fact, as the first article in this series points out, masturbation commonly serves as a healthy and harmless outlet for the normal sex drives of people who are not married and are not in a committed romantic and sexual relationship. In providing a healthy outlet for those drives, it commonly helps people to avoid falling into the sort of lust that the Bible condemns.
Ironically, as also pointed out in that article, conservative Christians who impose a blanket prohibition on masturbation—a prohibition that the Bible does not impose—are making it more likely that the people who listen to them will engage in fornication or even in adultery. With no acceptable outlet for their sex drives, those drives will build up in most men and women, and in many teenage boys and girls, until they will sleep with someone. And it probably won’t be under very good circumstances.
In fact, young people and adults alike often engage in masturbation precisely because they do not want to violate their religious and moral beliefs about sex and marriage. Far from lusting as the Bible uses that word, and committing adultery in their heart, they are actively seeking to preserve themselves sexually for marriage—or at least not to do too much damage to their future prospects for a good and healthy marriage.
Specifically, they are masturbating precisely so that their sex drives will not lead them to have promiscuous or adulterous sex.
Are they having sexual fantasies while they’re masturbating?
But as covered above, most often the fantasies people have while masturbating are not lust as the Bible uses that term. Most of the time they are mere fantasies, and nothing more. They are not driven by an intention or goal or burning desire to actually have sex with the people they’re fantasizing about.
Are they sometimes? Yes, absolutely. And if they are, then Jesus’ words apply to them. But are they usually? I don’t think so. People who have the sort of burning desire that Jesus was talking about will not be content with masturbation, but will find ways to have sex with an actual person regardless of any moral issues.
Further, the fantasies people have while masturbating aren’t necessarily about an actual person. People commonly create a fantasy partner in their mind’s eye that isn’t anyone they know or have ever seen, but rather is a vision of their ideal woman or man. This fantasy partner may be imagined more or less explicitly. But basically, it is their imagination of a hoped-for future partner.
In other words, the fantasies that many people have while masturbating are embodiments of their intention and goal to one day be in a loving, committed, faithful marriage relationship. They are the opposite of the adulterous lust that Jesus was talking about.
Yes, of course, some of the fantasies people have while masturbating are pretty bad.
But not all of them are.
And that’s the whole point.
While masturbation may flow from the sort of adulterous lust that the Bible prohibits, it doesn’t always flow from that sort of lust. Far from it.
Most of the time, for most of the people who engage in it, masturbation flows from the normal sexual drives and desires that normal people have. And the fantasies that accompany masturbation depend on the character of the person’s sexual and marital desires, intentions, and goals. If their ultimate goal is to be in a healthy, committed, faithful marriage, then masturbation—together with the usual sorts of sexual fantasies that men, women, and teenage boys and girls commonly have—can be a normal, healthy way of keeping themselves on track toward that goal.
In short, just as I said in the earlier articles, masturbation is not always sinful, nor does it always, or even usually, come from lust of the sort that Jesus condemns as “adultery in one’s heart.”
Though masturbation certainly can get out of hand for some people, most of the time, as most ordinary people engage in it, masturbation is a normal and healthy outlet for our normal and healthy human sex drives when they cannot be expressed and satisfied within a normal and healthy marriage or romantic relationship.
For further reading:
- What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?
- Can You Masturbate Without Lusting? What about Matthew 5:27-30?
- How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth
- Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?
- What does the Bible Say about Pornography? Is Pornography Sinful?
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?