Jesus and Sex, Part Six: Flying Solo? Masturbation, Porn and Lust in the Life of The Single Christian

The topics of masturbation, pornography and lust are uncomfortable for a lot of people. They’re not the sort of things someone usually talks about in public. But no Christian discussion of sexuality would be complete without mentioning these things, and getting some sense of what Jesus has to say about them.

Roman Catholic doctrine considers masturbation “unnatural” in the exact same sense as homosexual activity – since it doesn’t lead to procreation, it’s a perversion of the sex instinct – even if done in the context of marriage.

Among Protestants, opinions are divided. Some see masturbation as a sin (when done alone) because it’s outside of marriage – and also because of its close connection with lust. Others see it as a sort of “safety valve,” where excess sexual energy can be released in a way that’s less harmful than adultery or promiscuity. And there are many views in between.

It’s important to note that the Bible does not mention masturbation directly. While we can assume it would have been frowned upon in ancient Israel (where procreation was essential to the survival of the tribes, and any waste of a man’s “seed” was a grievous offense), there’s nothing in Scripture that implies the act of masturbation (in and of itself) is a sin for everyone in every circumstance.

The biblical writers are, however, pretty clear on the subject of lust. Jesus addresses this in the gospel of Matthew, where He says to His disciples, “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” (Matt 5:27-28).

The word translated here as “lust” is epithumia, a word usually translated in Greek literature as “desire.” But this isn’t desire of just any kind; it’s an inflamed desire bordering on obsession.

The word literally means “to turn upon” something or someone; to fix one’s gaze on something so intently that it becomes all a person can see or think about. It’s very similar to the sin of coveting.

When Jesus speaks of “looking at a woman with lust,” therefore, He’s not talking about a passing glance or simply thinking, Wow, she’s hot!

He’s talking about an intentional and prolonged stare, where the viewer watches the woman’s every move and enjoys the arousal that results from it. It’s a way of objectifying a person, seeing them as nothing more than a nice “piece” for personal enjoyment.

This kind of behavior is very common, and most women find it irritating, if not offensive – unless it’s specifically invited. (This is hard for many men to understand, since men aren’t usually bothered so much by it. In general, we don’t mind being seen as a “piece of meat,” and may even take pride in it!)

But looking at others with lust isn’t as harmless as many may think. Over time, it can make the receiver feel unappreciated as a person; and lust can be very addictive and progressive, leading a person to view others in more and more degrading ways.

All this leads me to conclude that pornography is not something a Christian should be involved with (though we should make a distinction between erotica – the celebration of sexuality in a context of love – and pornography, which celebrates sex in its most illicit and debased forms).

Genuine pornography is degrading to everyone involved, men as well as women. It thrives on humiliation and contempt, using misogyny, racism, and even violence to help the viewer “get off.” It’s also progressive, tempting the viewer to crave more and more extreme scenarios.

But lust isn’t limited to such overt forms. Certainly we should avoid watching porn or ogling strangers in public places; but there are subtler forms of lust all around us – such as the use of sex to sell various products. Indeed, it often seems like our culture is drowning in sex, but starving for love. How can this be changed?

The only cure for lust that I know of is love. When we experience genuine love from people of the sex or gender we’re attracted to, it’s much harder to objectify them. And the more we experience God’s love, the more this becomes evident in our lives.

In the words of Dallas Willard, “Intimacy is a spiritual hunger of the human soul, and we cannot escape it. This has always been true and remains true today. We keep hammering the sex button in the hope that a little intimacy might finally dribble out…but intimacy comes only within the framework of an individualized faithfulness within the kingdom of God” (The Divine Conspiracy, 163).

As we walk deeper into the mystery of God, we begin to see others as God sees them. We begin to see through the exterior, into the hopes and struggles of the soul. We begin to love others as if they were our own brothers or sisters, or even our children. It’s pretty hard to exploit or objectify someone once we reach this point! But how do we get there? I can’t really say that I know.

One thing seems clear to me, however – punishment is not the answer. As Christians, we shouldn’t be making people feel guilty for their sexual desires or fantasies – many of which are completely outside of their control. And while we certainly should speak up against all the ways people are objectified, we should also be sensitive to the struggles of those addicted to porn or other lustful habits.

Finally, we should not be legalistic in how we approach these things. It’s not the outward act of masturbation that’s the problem; it’s the lust of the heart that often accompanies it (and yes, it’s possible to masturbate without lust. It all comes down to what sorts of things we fantasize about, and who is involved).

In any case, attacking people for such things doesn’t really help them.

What if, instead of condemning singles for fantasizing about strangers, Christians were known for helping them find suitable spouses? What if, instead of spending so much time and energy fighting porn, we showed people more loving expressions of sexuality? What if, instead of sentencing people to hell for their lust, we showed them the sort of love that leads to heaven?

 

(Coming Next – Jesus and Sex, Part Seven: The Last Taboo? When Sexuality and Spirituality Mix)

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