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.