By Denver Cheddie
Is masturbation a sin? Whoever has never had a “lustful thought”, be the first to say yes. How do we deal with such thoughts? In the light of Matt. 5:28, believers seem to be walking a tight rope everyday of their lives. But I believe lust is a very much misunderstood word and concept. It is precisely such a misunderstanding that caused Christians in the past to seclude themselves to living in caves apart from civilization. Perhaps this misunderstanding still prohibits Catholic priests from marrying. And it is this misunderstanding that leaves believers with the condemnation that they commit adultery every day of their lives.
I will argue, in this article, that
When asked if masturbation is a sin, most “experts” would reply that the act is not wrong of itself, but the thoughts associated with it are (Matthew 5:28 is usually quoted at this point). Therein lies the first misconception concerning lust - equating lust with thoughts. Lust does not mean thought. The most common words translated as lust in the Bible are epithumeo, epipotheo, and orego. They all mean to desire, to covet, to long for intensely, to set one’s heart upon. The idea of intent or volition is strongly present. Consider 1 Tim 3:1
If any man desires (orego) the office of a bishop, he desires (epithumeo) a good thing.
Clearly both Greek words are being used interchangeably i.e. they are synonymous. No one who desires to be a bishop, sits and fantasizes all day about being a bishop. He actively pursues the calling. He does whatever he has to do to achieve his goal. The NIV translates orego here as "sets his heart on". And since epithumeo means the same thing, in this context, the word lust means "to desire with intent". It does not mean "to form mental images". It's the same word epithumeo that appears in Matt 5:28, which will be discussed later. Essentially, someone who has erotic thoughts may not necessarily be guilty of lust.
Others say that masturbation is an act that flows from an evil heart of lust. Therein lies the second misconception - that lust is always bad. Suffice it to say at this point that the driving force that motivates people to masturbate is the same driving force that moves husbands and wives to have sex with each other. Let's face it, lust (sexual desire) is a very important part of sex. Lust is actually used in a good way in Matt. 13:17; Luke 22:15; 1 Tim 3:1; Heb. 6:11; and 1 Pet. 1:12. It is also used in a bad way in Matt. 5:28; Rom. 7:7; 13:9; 1 Cor. 10:6; and James 4:2.
Anything we desire is a lust. What makes it good or bad is the object of that desire. If we desire to be ministers of the Gospel, that is a good lust (1 Tim. 3:1). If we set our hearts on our neighbor’s wife, then that is a bad lust (Rom. 7:7; 13:9 cf. Ex. 20:17). Lust is actually the same word as covet in the Greek (Ex. 20:17). We can covet our neighbor's stuff, or we can covet earnestly the best gifts (1 Cor 12:31). Just like adultery and fornication are perversions of God's gift of sex, lust is a perversion of the sexual desire God gave us. Just like sex is only wrong if we have it with the wrong person, lust is wrong if we desire (covet) someone who is not our spouse.
The most pertinent scripture in this discussion is Matt 5:28.
whosoever looketh on a woman to lust (epithumeo) after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (KJV)
The NIV translates this verse,
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
The NIV's is an unfortunate translation because the word epithumeo appearing in the verse is a verb (to lust) not an adverb (lustfully). The operative word is not look, but lust. Jesus is not talking about how a man looks at the woman or thinks about a woman, but about a man lusting after a woman (looking being an instrument of lusting). That makes a world of a difference in the true meaning of the verse, the true meaning intended by Jesus. He is addressing lust not fantasy.
In Matt. 5:28, I do not believe Jesus was speaking to teenagers who were at their sexual peak and were entertaining many erotic fantasies. That simply does not fit the context of the sermon on the mount. It is hardly likely that Jesus, in the middle of his tirade against the Pharisees, would throw a punch at teenagers. He was primarily addressing married men who had desires for women other than their wives. That same desire should have been directed toward their own wives (Prov. 5:19, 20). The lust Jesus spoke of was a determined desire to attain some outside woman, not a mere fantasy. Some of the Jews divorced their wives for this very reason. The very desire to do it was as bad as the act itself, Jesus said.
The IVP commentary on Matt. 5:28 defines lust as "the deliberate harboring of desire for an illicit relationship." It goes on to say that "Jesus refers not to noticing a person's beauty but to imbibing it, meditating on it, SEEKING TO POSSESS IT" [emphasis mine]. The idea of purposeful intent is present.
Matthew 5:28 is very similar to Proverbs 6:25.
Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids.
Proverbs 6:25-29 speak of lusting after a woman's beauty in one's heart. But even in this context, that woman is someone else's wife (vs. 29). This is talking about a strong desire to go out and have relations with someone. It is talking about the desires which eventually lead to the act of adultery. That lust is described as taking fire in your bosom and walking on hot coals. It is the kind of lust that WILL result in one getting burnt. That does not describe sexual fantasies. It describes something much much stronger than that. Sexual fantasies are merely thoughts with no intentions attached. The difference between fantasy and lust is the difference between imagining yourself driving a BMW and coveting your neighbor's BMW. They're not quite the same thing.
Proverbs 24:9 states "The thought of foolishness is sin (KJV)". But modern translations replace the word "thought" by "planning", "scheming", or "devising". Passive thoughts are not sin. It is intentions which are sinful (Acts 8:22). For example if I said, "I thought of going to the mall yesterday", that does not mean that mental images of me going to the mall flashed across my mind (passive thought), but rather that I planned to go to the mall (intent). It is the planning of foolishness that is sin, not the mere thought of it. Similarly the lust Matt. 5:28 discusses is a purposeful intent to have someone who is either not your wife or someone else's wife. This is what David was guilty of in 2 Sam. 11:2-4. David was not just fantasizing about Bathsheba, he had purposefully planned to get her. Sexual fantasy is simply not the subject of discussion in Matt. 5:28.
2) because of fornication, let each man have his own wife ... 9) if they cannot contain, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul addresses single people struggling with sexual desires. Interestingly, Paul’s answer to them was not to repent of their carnal ways, but to marry (1 Cor. 7:2, 9). If Paul had a problem with people masturbating, that does not come across in 1 Cor 7. He said that if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry, which is better than burning with passion (vs. 9). Paul never condemned them for lacking self control, but just gave them an escape out of it. But self control for what? The very same verse gives us the answer - self control to avoid burning passions. What is burning with passion? Burning with passion is that strong desire couples have to make love to each other. Burning with passion is not the same as having sexual fantasies. You need self control to avoid getting too close physically in a relationship. If they could not contain themselves any longer, then they should marry. That ties in perfectly with verse 2, where he says that people should marry to avoid fornication. That was the problem with burning passion - it leads to fornication. Paul never said that they needed self control to avoid masturbating or fantasizing. It is burning passions they needed to beware of.
I do not believe that masturbation, with all its related thoughts, is a sin. I believe that sexual fantasies are normal. Masturbation is merely a means of fulfilling that desire while not yet married. In the light of what the Bible teaches (or does not teach), I cannot honestly call masturbation sin. For single people struggling with temptation, I personally believe that masturbation is better than fornication. In fact masturbation releases sexual energy which builds up over time, and this in turn may make one less tempted to commit fornication.
Here are a few questions to masticate for those who still insist it's a sin to masturbate, even if it cannot be proven from the Bible.
The belief that masturbation is a sin hinges on an presumed correlation with adultery, which itself hinges on a specious interpretation of Matt. 5:28. I have attempted to provide an alternative interpretation of that scripture which I believe is more in context with the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of scripture. The bible does not seem to think that masturbation is a serious issue.
You are trying so hard to avoid calling masturbation what it is – gratifying the flesh.
People seem to think that gratifying the flesh means to do something which feels good physically. If such is the case, then eating ice cream and cake would be gratifying the flesh. Gratifying the flesh means fulfilling the sinful desires of our unregenerate nature (flesh). The flesh and the body are not exactly the same thing, although there is a relation. The works of the flesh include the sexual sins as well as other things like envy and heresies, which do not necessarily feel good. If you think masturbation is gratifying the flesh, then you have to prove (not assert) that masturbation is a sin or a work of the flesh. You, unfortunately, do not have the bible to back you up.
Sexual desires are not works of the flesh unless they lead to fornication and adultery. Sexual desires are physical mechanisms that God placed within the human body to encourage procreation. Adam and Eve had sexual desires before the Fall. When a man does not ejaculate for 3 days or so, erotic thoughts begin to flood his mind. That’s a physiological fact about men. That’s his body’s way of trying to get his sperm out. As soon as he ejaculates, those desires just plummet. That’s a natural functioning of the male anatomy, not a work of the flesh. The flesh wants him to go and have sex with someone who is not his wife. Masturbating is not fulfilling the lust of the flesh. But ironically masturbating can actually help him deal with those erotic thoughts.
There are many things the Bible does not say, but that does not make them right.
I never said that masturbation was right. I said the bible does not call it a sin. What’s interesting though is that people like myself would be called liberals because I’m not afraid to interpret the bible in a non-traditional manner. A liberal is really someone who disregards the bible in favor of other authorities. A liberal would say something like, “The bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong, but those scriptures are outdated.” That’s what a liberal would say. Therefore I am not a liberal. But then you have these hyper-conservatives who make doctrine on what the bible does not teach. One disregards what the bible clearly teaches, the other bases his beliefs on what the bible does not teach. Which is worse, you tell me. If the bible does not call it a sin, on what basis are you calling it wrong?
God has given us a conscience to know what is right and wrong. When people masturbate, it’s not condemnation they feel, it is their conscience telling them it is wrong.
Contrary to popular opinion, our conscience is not an infallible source of doctrine. In fact your conscience is anything but infallible. Read Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8. People have weak consciences and strong consciences, depending on the level of knowledge they have. Some people feel convicted if they eat meat, others don’t. Is eating meat a sin because some people feel conviction? No, it is a sin for them. Conscience does not tell you what is right and wrong ABSOLUTELY, but what is right and wrong FOR YOU. If all you know about masturbation is that people say it’s wrong, and you’ve never studied the scriptures for yourself, is it any wonder you feel conviction. Get knowledge. But according to Rom 14, if your conscience convicts you when you masturbate, then FOR YOU it becomes sin.
Masturbation is the same thing as burning with passion, which Paul spoke against in 1 Cor. 7:9.
Paul did teach that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. Is this what masturbation is? Clearly what Paul talked about in 1 Cor. 7 is something which exists in the context of a courting relationship. Paul's advice to such couples was to get married. If you were to be consistent with Paul, do you teach teenaged boys that if they can't help masturbating they should get married? No you don't. Instead you tell them to stop thinking "lustful thoughts". This tells me that even you know that masturbating is not the same thing as the burning with passion Paul spoke of. Paul's solution to passion was not restraint, but marriage.
Passion is simply the burning desire couples have to make love to each other. This passion may lead to masturbation. For example, if a couple engages in a heavy make out session, but don't have sex, the guy may be so turned on that he would masturbate when he gets home. But would it be any less passion if he did not masturbate? But masturbation does not have to be fueled by such passion. There is the normal male sex drive, which operates even outside of any romantic relationship. Sexual desire may be stirred up by couples getting too close, or it may churn up all on it's own. Masturbation may or may not be in the context of passion. It is the burning passion couples need to beware of.
What's interesting though, is that Paul never even called burning with passion a sin. Fornication is a sin, and he suggests that couples should get married to avoid fornication (1 Cor. 7:2). Burning with passion is only a danger zone in that it may lead to fornication (unless they got married), but Paul did not condemn it as sin. Paul never said that those who can't control their passions should repent and crucify the flesh. He said they should marry. In fact Paul strongly implies that the ability to be free of any sexual passion is a gift that not every one has.
Masturbation reveals a lack of self control, which is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23).
Would you also say that sex in marriage reveals a lack of self control? In 1 Cor. 7:5, Paul intimates that Satan may tempt even married people for their "lack of self control", thus they should have regular sex with each other. Paul is saying that married people should have sex as a solution to their lack of self control. But if self control is a fruit of the Spirit, why is it OK for married people to lack self control, but not singles? Why didn't Paul condemn the lack of self control as a work of the flesh and tell them to crucify it? Is this the same Paul who said "make no provision for the flesh"?
Adultery and fornication are works of the flesh regardless of one's marital status. Both married and single people are capable of adultery and fornication. But Paul recognized that sexual appetites need to be fulfilled (1 Cor. 7:5). Therefore, self control cannot mean a total denial of sexual appetites, otherwise we have an inconsistency. If you believe that the need to masturbate reveals a lack of self control, then you must logically conclude that the need for marital sex also reveals a lack of self control. The bible never says that when you get married, you no longer need the fruit of self control. So it's the definition of self control that now becomes important.
The KJV's translation of self control is temperance. To be tempered means to be moderate, not extreme or excessive. Temperance or self control is best understood as not being controlled by our passions, desires and appetites; not a total denial of them. We need self control to MANAGE our passions. Paul presents marital sex as a tool to help married people manage their lack of self control. In other words, God does not expect us to have self control in a vacuum. He gives us "gifts" to help us achieve self control. I maintain that masturbation is actually an effective way for singles, especially teenagers, to control their sexual passions. If masturbation were a sin, then Paul missed a really good opportunity to say so in 1 Cor. 7.
If masturbation is a legitimate means of fulfilling your God-given sexual desires while not married, then why not allow unmarried men and women to fulfill these desires by having sex?
The difference between masturbation and fornication is simple. The bible expressly forbids one of them, and is remarkably silent on the other. Personally I find it hard to be loud in areas where the bible is silent.
I can't imagine that God is glorified when we fantasize about sexual thoughts. Masturbation should be done without the fantasy. Colossians 3:2 warns us to set our minds on things above not on things of the earth.
This is a very fair comment. But doctrine is not based on what we can or cannot imagine. Did Jesus masturbate? Did Paul masturbate? I don't know. The bible didn't say. I'm not even sure if Jesus ever brushed his teeth. But we can't formulate beliefs on what we imagine to be the case, especially when the bible is silent on an issue. Whenever you get some time, read 1 Corinthians 8. I imagine that before this scripture was written, people would have just assumed that eating food offered to idols was a sin. I mean how could it not be a sin? It was offered to idols for crying out loud. Idols! In fact in Acts 15:29, there was a decree from the apostles that gentiles should abstain from food offered to idols. So there you have it. Preachers were telling you not to do it, and everyone just imagined that it was a sin. Yet when you read 1 Cor. 8, Paul's take on the issue was a 180 degree revolution. He told them that an idol was nothing, and eventually it was a conscience issue. It was not black and white, it was grey. My point is that we should not presume to know what God knows. What we imagine to be true may be wrong.
Colossians 3:2 could be made to say anything we feel like, if we ignore the context. If you say that sexual fantasy is "of this earth" as opposed to something that is "above", then why not say the same thing about marital sex and marriage as a whole? Jesus made it crystal clear that marriage is ONLY for this earth and has NO eternal value (Matthew 22:30; also 1 Corinthians 7:29). Marriage is a perfect candidate for something that is "not above" but rather "of this earth". But the context of Colossians 2 and 3 clears all of this up. At the end of chapter 2, Paul is chastising the Colossians for adhering to man made (earthly) rules for achieving righteousness after they had already come to Christ.
Col 2:20 - if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations...
So when Col 3:2 tells us to set our minds on things above and not things on the earth, it means that we do not achieve righteous living by following man made rules but rather by living in the resurrected life that Christ gave us. That's what it means. It draws a contrast between the resurrection life (true spirituality) and religious life (man made spirituality). This scripture does not say what you want it to say.
If you do not believe that sexual fantasy is wrong, do you also believe that pornography is not wrong?
Good question. I do believe pornography is wrong for the following reasons. 1) It entails the enjoyment of other people’s sins of fornication. 2) It promotes the treatment of women which is less than respectful. 3) Pornography is a perversion of normal sexual desires. It does not create those desires, but rather feeds off them and perverts them. Pornography is much more than a mere expression of normal sexual desire.
Masturbation is wrong because when a man does it, it deprives his wife of that pleasure which should have been for her (1 Corinthians 7:5).
1 Corinthians 7:5 rightly states that husbands are not to defraud their wives, and vice versa. But I think that this is an argument borne out of desperation, because only a small percentage of marriages actually report such a problem. In the vast majority of marriages, it is the wife who is usually less sexual and often not in the mood, and as a result the husband finds himself with little other choice. Think about it. Doesn’t the fact that a married man has to masturbate tell us something about that marriage situation? How many wives actually complain that they want to have sex, but because their husband has already masturbated, their need goes unmet? How many wives really have that problem? Come on! The majority problem in marriages today is that the husband wants sex, but the wife is not in the mood. If however, there really is a marriage on this planet where the wife is deprived because her husband jumped the gun, then in such a case masturbation becomes wrong, not a sin, but wrong. I just don’t understand why a husband whose wife is so erotic would actually need to masturbate. That would be every man’s dream.
The story of Onan teaches us that it is wrong for a man to “spill his seed”.
Although the word onanism has become synonymous with masturbation, I omitted any discussion on Onan from my article on masturbation for the following reason: I didn’t see how any serious student of scripture would conclude that God killed Onan because he masturbated (Genesis 38:8-10). First of all, Onan did not masturbate. He was commanded to have sexual relations with his brother’s widow to raise an heir for his (deceased) brother. Because the heir would not be his, but his brother’s, he withdrew and ejaculated on the floor. Onan actually had sex with the woman. At what point did he masturbate? Onan was more guilty of contraception than masturbation, but God judged him for disobedience.
And what is this nonsense about spilling your seed being wrong? Talk about missing the point of the scripture. God killed Onan for disobedience, not because he spilled his seed. If spilling your seed is wrong, then using a condom is wrong because the seed ends up in the bin. Wet dreams would also have to be wrong. In fact, regular sex would have to be wrong too, because at best one sperm out of millions actually finds its target – the rest eventually die just as if they were spilled. What people don’t get is that sperm is meant to come out. If a man does not masturbate, it will come out during a wet dream. But it will come out.
The fact that people have to resort to this extra-biblical line of argumentation just proves my point. The bible does not teach that masturbation is a sin.
As if I haven't already made my point, consider Leviticus 15:16,18
16 If any man has an emission of semen, then he shall … be unclean until evening.
18 Also when a woman lies with a man, and there is an emission of semen, they shall … be unclean until evening.
Verse 16 speaks of an emission of semen other than during sex, e.g. masturbation and wet dreams. Why do I say that? Because verse 18 specifies when the emission is during sex. But according to OT standards, an emission of semen was considered unclean whether or not it occurred during sex. The rest of the chapter goes on to discuss how a woman was unclean because of her “customary impurity” (her periods). My point is this. Why do you single out the “spilling of seed” during masturbation and call it wrong? Why not also call the emission of semen during legitimate male-female sex wrong? Why not call a woman spilling her blood a sin? They are all equally unclean by OT standards. The bible places them all on the same moral plateau.