More about Masturbation

Sex is for Christians! Biblical Insights for a Lifetime of Purity and Pleasure - Chapter 8

PLEASE NOTE: This e-teaching is not appropriate for children, preadolescents, and many adolescents.

"More About Masturbation" graphic by David Servant

In spite of the Bible’s complete silence on the subject of masturbation, some Bible believers have been very vocal, and very negative, about it. For example, Victorian-era physician John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes and a devoted Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a 600-page book in 1877 titled, Plain Facts about Sexual Life.[1] In it he devoted three entire chapters to the causes, consequences and cures of masturbation, which he termed self-abuse, self-pollution and a secret vice. Kellogg claimed that masturbation was “the most dangerous of all sexual abuses because [it is] the most extensively practiced… nearly universal,” and warned:

It may be begun in earliest infancy, and may continue through life. Even though no warning may have been given, the transgressor seems to know, instinctively, that he is committing a great wrong, for he carefully hides his practice from observation. In solitude he pollutes himself, and with his own hand blights all his prospects for both this world and the next…

In Kellogg’s view, even an innocent baby—who like most babies discovers that touching his or her genitals feels pleasurable—could commit the damning sin of masturbation. One alleged proof in Kellogg’s mind of masturbation’s great wrongness is that the masturbator “carefully hides his practice from observation.” I wonder if Dr. Kellogg ever noticed that married couples do the same regarding sex? Or that most everyone seeks privacy when they relieve themselves? Is that because married couples think that marital sex is wrong, or that everyone believes urination is immoral? Is it not true that even the most immodest people still maintain some sense of modesty regarding their genitals?[2]

Dr. Kellogg was convinced that many illnesses were due to masturbation, including cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, impotence, epilepsy, dimness of vision, and “mental and physical debility.” How he concluded that masturbation could be responsible for so many physical maladies that marital sex would not similarly cause is a mystery. But to Dr. Kellogg, masturbation could literally drive people out of their minds:

In the insane asylums of the country may be seen hundreds of these poor victims in all stages of physical and mental demoralization.

I can’t help but wonder if the real reason such people lost their sanity was because of the enormous weight of guilt that people like Dr. Kellogg—who was certainly not a lone voice railing against masturbation during the Victorian age—saddled upon them. Can you imagine, for example, what would happen to people psychologically if they became convinced that eating food was immoral and a damning sin?

Dr. Kellogg Versus the Bible on Nocturnal Emissions

Dr. Kellogg even categorized male nocturnal emissions, “wet dreams,” as one of the consequent diseases of masturbation:

The masturbator knows nothing of this disease [nocturnal emissions] so long as he continues his vile practice; but when he resolves to reform, and ceases to defile himself voluntarily, he is astonished and disgusted to find that the same filthy pollutions occur during sleep without his voluntary participation. He now begins to see something of the ruin he has wrought. The same nightly loss continues, sometimes being repeated several times in a single night, to his infinite mortification and chagrin. He hopes the difficulty will subside of itself, but his hope is vain; unless properly treated, it will probably continue until the ruin which he voluntarily began is completed.

Had Dr. Kellogg read Leviticus 15:16-18 in the Mosaic Law, perhaps he would have moderated his view. There God said:

Now if a man has a seminal emission, he shall bathe all his body in water and be unclean until evening. As for any garment or any leather on which there is seminal emission, it shall be washed with water and be unclean until evening. If a man lies with a woman so that there is a seminal emission, they shall both bathe in water and be unclean until evening (Lev. 15:16-18).

Note that the second instance mentioned in this passage of a man having a seminal emission is framed within sexual intercourse, which clearly marks the first instance as occurring apart from sexual intercourse, and so it must refer to an individual occurrence, either through masturbation or nocturnal emission. Because neither is specifically mentioned or differentiated, it would seem safe to conclude that both are implied.

Again, note that God simply said in this passage, “If a man has a seminal emission” without elaborating on any causes. Had He wanted to, He could have specifically stipulated nocturnal emissions, as He did, for example, in Deuteronomy 23:9-11.[3] Had He done that, no one would have concluded He was referring to what might include masturbation. They would have known He was only referring to “wet dreams.” (Incidentally, nocturnal orgasms often include sexual dreams, which makes them not too different from masturbation accompanied by sexual fantasy, although the former is done unconsciously, while the latter is done consciously.)[4]

In any case, if an Israelite man had a seminal emission, he was to bathe in water, and any garment or leather that the seminal emission touched was also to be washed in water. Both the man and the soiled garment remained unclean until sundown.

The man’s “uncleanness” was obviously ceremonial or hygienic rather than moral, because (1) an inanimate object—a soiled garment—also became “unclean,” just like the man, (2) the man’s uncleanness was only temporary, and he reverted back to a “clean” status at sundown, without any required repentance or atonement, and (3) his temporary uncleanness was the same temporary uncleanness experienced by any man or woman, presumably married, who engaged in sex that resulted in a seminal emission. Their unclean status clearly had nothing to do with God’s moral disapproval.

Moreover, the Mosaic Law mentions many acts that could result in one becoming “unclean until evening,” including touching the carcasses of certain insects or animals (Lev. 11:24-28), entering a quarantined house (Lev. 14:46), or obediently gathering the ashes of a sacrificial red heifer as prescribed in the Mosaic Law (Num. 19:1-10). Thus, it would be foolish to conclude that God’s “unclean” designation that was temporarily given to Israelite men who experienced seminal emissions was in any way indicative of His moral disapproval.

All of this is to say that, according to the Mosaic Law, and in contrast with Mr. Kellogg’s views, there is nothing to be ashamed of regarding “wet dreams,” experienced by both males and females, in themselves. They are a normal feature of human physiology—for some more than others—and particularly for men when there is no other release of their increasing accumulation of semen. If nocturnal orgasms include immoral sexual dreams, dreamers only bear guilt if they have been filling their minds with immoral thoughts when awake, as nighttime dreams often reflect daytime meditations. (Remember, porn is not your friend.)

Dr. Kellogg’s Cures

Kellogg devoted many pages of his book enumerating thirty-nine suspicious signs that could alert parents that their children were masturbating. They included “round shoulders and a stooping posture,” and an “extreme fondness for unnatural, hurtful and irritating foods” such as “salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, [and] horseradish.” He warned that “pimples on the face is also among the suspicious signs, especially when it appears upon the forehead,” and “biting the finger nails is a practice very common in girls addicted to this vice.” Masturbators might also have one or more warts “upon one or both the first two fingers of the hand, usually the right.”

Suspicious parents should secure positive proof of their children’s “debasing practice” by taking measures to catch them in the act. If caught, Kellogg recommended a number of habit-breaking remedies, including a restricted diet along with abstinence from smoking:

The use of stimulants of any kind is a fruitful cause of the vice. Tea and coffee have led thousands to perdition in this way. The influence of tobacco is so strongly shown in this direction that it is doubtful if there can be found a boy who has attained the age of puberty, and has acquired the habit of using tobacco, who is not also addicted to this vile practice. Candies, spices, cinnamon, cloves, peppermint, and all strong essences powerfully excite the genital organs, and lead to the same result.

If you’ve ever wondered why Corn Flakes are so bland, perhaps now you know.

Dr. Kellogg also recommended that parents employ other remedies, such as tying their children’s hands at bedtime, bandaging their genitals or enclosing them with patented strap-on cages, or having their sons’ foreskins surgically sewn in order to make erections impossible. Beyond those cures there was also electrical shock treatments and circumcision without anesthesia:

A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision…. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice [of masturbation], and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.

For female masturbators, one of Kellogg’s cures bordered on what today is referred to as “female genital mutilation”:

In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice in those whose will-power has become so weakened that the patient is unable to exercise entire self-control.

Carbolic acid (also known as phenol) is a corrosive poison that causes burning and numbness when it comes in contact with skin. It can result in superficial or deep burns. One can only wonder about the long-term physical, psychological and marital consequences of burning the genitals of masturbating young females with acid. Incidentally, Dr. Kellogg was not considered to be a quack in his day. His patients included president Taft, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

A More Reasonable Recommendation

Thankfully, Dr. Kellogg’s Victorian views are no longer tormenting tens of thousands of his patients and readers, and more reasonable, biblical, and scientific voices have risen in his place. One of those voices belongs to Dr. James Dobson, who for decades has stood among American’s most prominent evangelical leaders. He is also a PhD psychologist, a prolific author of many best-selling books regarding family issues, and founder of the widely-respected ministries, Focus on the Family and Family Talk. In his book, Bringing Up Boys (which has sold over 2 million copies), Dr. Dobson answered a question from a parent who was suspicious that his 13-year-old son was masturbating:

Question: My thirteen-year-old son is in the full bloom of adolescence. I’m suspicious that he may be masturbating when he’s alone, but I don’t quite know how to approach him about it. Should I be concerned, and if so, what should I say to him?

Answer: I don’t think you should invade that private world at all unless there are unique circumstances that lead you to do so. I offer that advice while acknowledging that masturbation is a highly controversial subject and Christian leaders differ widely in their perspectives on it. I will answer your question but hope you understand that some Bible scholars and ministers will disagree emphatically with what I will say.

First, let’s consider masturbation from a medical perspective. We can say without fear of contradiction that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that this act is harmful to the body. Despite terrifying warnings given to young people historically, it does not cause blindness, weakness, mental retardation, or any other physical problem. If it did, the entire male population and about half of females would be blind, weak, simpleminded, and sick. Between 95 and 98 percent of all boys engage in this practice—and the rest have been known to lie. It is as close to being a universal behavior as is likely to occur. A lesser but still significant percentage of girls also engage in what was once called “self-gratification,” or worse, “self-abuse.”

As for the emotional consequences of masturbation, only four circumstances should give us cause for concern. The first is when it is associated with oppressive guilt from which the individual can’t escape. That guilt has the potential to do considerable psychological and spiritual damage. Boys and girls who labor under divine condemnation can gradually become convinced that even God couldn’t love them. They promise a thousand times with great sincerity never again to commit this “despicable” act. Then a week or two passes, or perhaps several months. Eventually, the hormonal pressure accumulates until nearly every waking moment reverberates with sexual desire. Finally, in a moment (and I do mean a moment) of weakness, it happens again. What then, dear friend? Tell me what a young person says to God after he or she has just broken the one thousandth solemn promise to Him? I am convinced that some teenagers have thrown over their faith because of their inability to please God on this point.

The second circumstance in which masturbation might have harmful implications is when it becomes extremely obsessive. That is more likely to occur when it has been understood by the individual to be “forbidden fruit.” I believe the best way to prevent that kind of obsessive response is for adults not to emphasize or condemn it. Regardless of what you do, you will not stop the practice of masturbation in your teenagers. That is a certainty. You’ll just drive it underground—or under covers. Nothing works as a “cure.” Cold showers, lots of exercise, many activities, and awesome threats are ineffective. Attempting to suppress this act is one campaign that is destined to fail—so why wage it?

The third situation around which we should be concerned is when the young person becomes addicted to pornographic material. The kind of obscenity available to teenagers today has the capacity to grab and hold a boy for the rest of his life. Parents will want to intervene if there is evidence that their son or daughter is heading down that well-worn path. I will discuss that danger in a subsequent chapter.

The fourth concern about masturbation refers not to adolescents but to us as adults. This habit has the capacity to follow us into marriage and become a substitution for healthy sexual relations between a husband and wife. This, I believe, is what the apostle Paul meant when he instructed us not to deprive or “defraud” one another as marital partners: “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5).

As for the spiritual implications of masturbation, I will have to defer to the theologians for a more definitive response. It is interesting to me, however, that Scripture does not address this subject except for a single reference in the Old Testament to a man named Onan. He interrupted sexual intercourse with his sister-in-law and allowed his semen to fall on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother, which was his “duty” (Genesis 38:8-9). Although that verse is often cited as evidence of God’s disapproval of masturbation, the context doesn’t seem to fit.

So, what should you as a father say to your thirteen-year-old son about this subject? My advice is to say nothing after puberty has occurred. You will only cause embarrassment and discomfort. For those who are younger, it would be wise to include the subject of masturbation in the “Preparing for Adolescence” conversation I have recommended on other occasions. I would suggest that parents talk to their twelve- or thirteen-year-old boys, especially, in the same general way my mother and father discussed this subject with me. We were riding in the car, and my dad said, “Jim, when I was a boy, I worried so much about masturbation. It really became a scary thing for me because I thought God was condemning me for what I couldn’t help. So I’m telling you now that I hope you don’t feel the need to engage in this act when you reach the teen years, but if you do, you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. I don’t believe it has much to do with your relationship with God.”

What a compassionate thing my father did for me that night in the car. He was a very conservative minister who never compromised his standards of morality to the day of his death. He stood like a rock for biblical principles and commandments. Yet he cared enough about me to lift from my shoulders the burden of guilt that nearly destroyed some of my friends in the church. This kind of “reasonable” faith taught to me by my parents is one of the primary reasons I never felt it necessary to rebel against parental authority or defy God.

Those are my views, for what they are worth. I know my recommendations will be inflammatory to some people. If you are one of them, please forgive me. I can only offer the best advice of which I’m capable. I pray that in this instance, I am right.

Dr. Kellogg and Dr. Dobson certainly represent the broad, historic spectrum of opinion regarding masturbation within Christian circles. That spectrum may not be quite as broad among today’s Christians, but there is still a wide divergence of perspectives. There are still those, like Dr. Kellogg, who believe that masturbation is a damning sin. Some teach that, because masturbation always involves lust, and because Jesus equated lust with heart-adultery, and because Paul warned that no adulterer will inherit God’s kingdom, all who masturbate are hell-bound adulterers.

Masturbation Apart from Lust?

The primary reason masturbation is condemned within Christian circles is its association with lust. In contrast to that view, as I wrote in the previous chapter, masturbation can be done without any sexual imaginations, although that is probably rare, at least among men. Masturbation can also be done without lust by married persons who imagine their spouse (but, as Dr. Dobson wrote, masturbation that deprives one’s spouse of sex is a marital violation). Some suggest that widows and widowers would not be guilty of lust to recall sexual encounters with their former spouses (as long as they have not remarried).

It is also suggested by some that masturbation can be done without lust by thinking of an imaginary future spouse, rather than an actual person. The late Dr. Richard Dobbins, a licensed Christian psychologist, prolific author of numerous books on family topics, and founder of Emerge Counseling Ministries, espoused that view. In his book, Teaching Your Children the Truth About Sex, in a chapter titled, “Avoiding Traps with the Opposite Sex,” he wrote:

Explain to your son that powerful neurochemicals deeply imprint in his brain the pornographic images he sees. Over time, those sensual memories will define his sexual appetites and seriously impair his ability to enjoy a healthy sex life with his wife. Be sure your teen knows that the pornographic industry is not dedicated to helping him become a sexually healthy man. The pornographer’s goal is to get rich by making your son sexually dependent on their products.

At the same time you are warning your teens about pornography and chat rooms, reassure them that their sexual urges are normal and healthy. Let them know that learning to manage a strong sex drive for several years is a challenge every young person has to face in becoming an adult. Express your confidence in their ability to do it.

Assure them that if they are thinking about making love to their future spouse when they are taking care of their own sexual needs, they have done nothing morally wrong. Teach them to view caring for their own sexual needs as a part of their personal grooming, like taking a shower, shampooing their hair, or using deodorant. Taking care of their own needs will relieve sexual tensions and keep them from imposing their sex needs on others until they are married.

Keep on telling them what you have been telling them since they were small children. Repetition is an important method of teaching. Remind them that there is nothing morally wrong about having pleasant feelings in their genitals. After all, this is God’s way of helping them anticipate what they have to look forward to in marriage.

By confining their sexual fantasies to marriage, your teens are learning to be true to the spouse they will eventually marry years before they know who that person will be. They are also building their anticipation of a healthy and exciting sex life and marriage. Assure them that if they save themselves for each other, sex in marriage will feel much better and be far more emotionally satisfying than fantasizing about it before marriage.

In the chapter that follows, titled “Discussing Masturbation and Fantasy,” Dobbins wrote:

Recent surveys in the United States indicate that about 55 percent of all thirteen-year-olds (both boys and girls) masturbate. By the time they reach age fifteen, the figure rises to more than 80 percent. About 95% of adult men and 65% of adult women practice masturbation. Many young people are confused about this practice, and some are troubled by it. So you need to talk to your teens about masturbation.

Even though the word masturbation is not in the Bible, it is a common source of guilt for people, especially for young people. Although the practice is not mentioned in the Bible, the Scriptures clearly teach that fantasizing about having sex with someone to whom you are not married is sinful (Matthew 5:28). Since only a small percentage of young people report masturbating without fantasies, your teenager’s sexual fantasies while masturbating are a cause of serious spiritual concern. Why?

God created sexual orgasm to be one of the most powerful pleasures a human being experiences. He designed your brain to form a neurochemical link between the pleasure of sexual orgasm and the fantasy you used to bring you to that level of sexual excitement. This is why the source of sexual excitement a person uses to bring himself to orgasm becomes such a critical spiritual issue. The source of sexual excitement becomes linked with the experience of sexual excitement. Explain this to your teens.

Help your teenagers to understand that sexual fantasy is a normal part of puberty. Until your children are engaged to be married, their sexual fantasies should be about marriage in general. Suppose your son asks you, “I’m really in love with Suzie. Can I fantasize about Suzie when I masturbate?”

Obviously, the answer is, “No.” After all, if your son is a typical fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, there are likely to be many Suzies before God brings into his life the woman he is to marry. Help him see that using a specific person as the focus of his sexual fantasy while he is masturbating is an abuse of that person.

However, he can fantasize about how much better his wife will be able to make him feel than he can make himself feel. At the same time, he can reinforce his determination to save himself for her.

Teach your sons to understand that when they want to experience sexual orgasm, their brains will automatically conjure up the fantasies they have learned can provide this experience for them. If these fantasies are about how good it will feel to have sex with their wife when they are married, then there is nothing morally wrong with it. If their orgasmic skills have been learned through the years by pairing orgasm with fantasies of making love to their future spouse, then they will bring into marriage orgasmic skills trained to respond to the body of their spouse.

Once your children are engaged, their fantasies can become personal. On their wedding night their spouse’s body will become their body, and their body will become their spouse’s body (1 Cor. 7:4). Then what both of them have been dreaming and fantasizing about for years can be celebrated freely without the risk of complicating each other’s life by bringing into their marriage a history of sexually transmitted diseases or pornographic habits.

Once a man and a woman are married, they will both want to train their minds to make each other the source of all their future fantasizing. As a young person, your son could only think abstractly about his future spouse when he is fantasizing about marriage. Now he can place the image of his wife as the source of his fantasies. He can remember actual love-making events with his wife, or imagine those he would like to have. But once married, the husband’s mind should be restricted to sexual thoughts about his wife, and the wife’s mind should be restricted to sexual thoughts about her husband.

When other fantasies are used, a man will bring into his marriage a need for the stimulus he has learned to depend upon for helping him reach this level of sexual excitement. So, while he is making love to his spouse, his fantasies will not be with her. They will be fixed on whatever he has trained his mind to need for sexual excitement. Any intuitive wife will realize that although her husband is physically present when they are making love, he seems to be emotionally removed from what is going on…

At the risk of being too repetitive, have the following conversation with your teenager.

Remember, when you are pleasuring yourself, it is very important that your thoughts are on marriage. If you use pornography to stimulate your sexual excitement, then you will carry the need for pornography into your marriage. Sooner or later, your wife will discover this. You will feel embarrassed and humiliated. She will feel angry and inadequate.

So, when you are pleasuring yourself, think about your future marriage. Realize that when God brings His woman for you into your life, sex with her will make you feel better than you have ever been able to make yourself feel. When you are married to her, she will love you deeply and get to know your body well enough to give you the pleasure God has designed for you to experience. Her body will fulfill your fantasies, and sexual orgasm will bond you to her.

Your fantasies of her before you meet her will only add to the intensity of that bond. By restricting your sexual fantasies to her and keeping yourself for her you won’t be thinking about what sex was like with that girl or that girl when you are making love to your wife. You won’t be using the fantasy of another woman’s body to satisfy the lust you have for pleasure. The fantasies that have sexually excited you and brought you to orgasm have always been of the wife God would eventually bring into your life. Being true to her before you know her will make it easier for you to be true to her after she is yours.

In a later chapter of Dr. Dobbin’s book in which he addresses questions asked by parents, I found the following question and answer interesting:

Q. If a person engages in self-pleasure without fantasy or pornography, with whom does that person bond?

A. Himself or herself. I have referred to this as narcissistic masturbation. Such a person usually carries into marriage the need for a secret life of masturbation that is highly likely to become disturbing for his or her spouse when it is discovered. So, why do that? It’s unnecessary in the first place. Why not just fantasize about being married? Be a good steward of your sexuality before you’re married. It will help you be loyal to your spouse.

Obviously, Dr. Dobbins believed that masturbation could serve as a preventative against sexual sin and that sexually fantasizing about an imaginary future spouse does not constitute lust by an unmarried person. Moreover, he believed that masturbation that is unaccompanied by such a sexual fantasy is perverse due to its complete self-focus.

Jesus on Lust

So what about Jesus’ well-known words from the Sermon on the Mount regarding lust being equivalent to adultery of the heart? What application do they have to this discussion?

We’ve already acknowledged that imagining a sexual encounter is not lustful if the object of one’s imagination is one’s spouse. One can’t lust after one’s spouse any more than one can commit adultery with one’s spouse. So there is at least one exception to Jesus’ decree that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust [or literally, desire] for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Although all husbands are a subset of “everyone” and all wives are women, married people cannot commit adultery with each other or sinfully desire each other.

So, are there any other exceptions? Would fantasizing about one’s future, imaginary spouse also not be lustful, as some, like Dr. Dobbins, advocate?

Although Dr. Dobbin’s viewpoint does raise some questions, I lean towards agreeing with him more than disagreeing, and I will explain why in the remainder of this chapter. Even those who completely disagree with Dr. Dobbin’s advice would likely agree that it would be better for unmarried people to fantasize about being involved in a married sexual relationship rather than an unmarried sexual relationship, and that gaining sexual release through masturbation would be better than gaining it through fornication.

I realize that those who disagree with Dr. Dobbin’s viewpoint would consider all of those things to be moral compromises. They must, therefore, advocate complete abstinence from masturbation by unmarried persons, or at least abstinence from any sexual fantasy that accompanies masturbation. Personally, I would not listen to anyone who advocated such standards who could not truthfully say that they, as an unmarried person, consistently lived up to those standards. Such prolonged abstinence for most unmarried men (and many unmarried women), would be just as difficult as prolonged sexual abstinence for married people. The God-given sex drives of unmarried and married people are not any different.

Why the Sermon Topic?

I can’t help but wonder why Jesus addressed mental/heart adultery in the Sermon on the Mount. He must have felt it needed to be addressed. Was it because He was hoping to curtail masturbation among teenagers? Or was there some other reason?

If we look at the immediate context of Jesus’ warning, we discover that directly after His words about lust being heart-adultery, He addressed the subject of divorce, also equating it, in some instances, to causing or resulting in adultery. So the consistent theme of the Matthew 5:27-32 passage is adultery. Jesus was revealing that there was a lot more adultery occurring than many in His audience realized. In God’s eyes, adultery was occurring in the hearts of men with lustful eyes and in the lives of many who were involved on some level with divorce. His words simply affirmed the full implications of the Seventh Commandment—”You shall not commit adultery”— which he quoted verbatim. That being so, it is safe to conclude that He was hoping to curtail adultery in its various forms. Keep that in mind as we continue.

Also keep in mind that Jesus was the author of the Law of Moses just as much as He was the Sermon on the Mount. During His ministry, He primarily spoke to Jews, all of whom were under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law He gave them. That being so, in His most famous sermon, in which He made numerous references to the Mosaic Law, Jesus certainly did not contradict Himself by contradicting or altering the Mosaic Law. In fact, He said early in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law [of Moses] or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17).

The Greek word translated in the NASB as “fulfill” is pleroo, which is defined in Strong’s Greek Dictionary as “to make replete, to cram” (as one would cram a net with fish), or to “level up.” The idea conveyed is filling up to the brim with more of what is already in a container.[5] So Jesus’ teaching didn’t subtract from, undo, or contradict what He had revealed in the Mosaic Law or Prophets. Rather, He added more of the same revelation. The Sermon on the Mount is a perfect example of that. In it, Jesus affirmed what was already revealed in the Mosaic Law and Prophets, and He clarified biblical concepts that had been clouded by the scribes and Pharisees.

Lusting after one’s neighbor’s wife was clearly forbidden in the Mosaic Law, and not by some obscure regulation, but as a law that earned a spot in the Ten Commandments. The Tenth Commandment prohibited coveting anything that belonged to one’s neighbor, including his wife. As I said in an earlier chapter, most men don’t covet their neighbor’s wives for those women’s culinary skills.

Of course, the Tenth Commandment’s prohibition of heart adultery follows the Seventh Commandment’s prohibition of physical adultery. So Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount what He previously said in the Ten Commandments, only using different words:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery” [the Seventh Commandment]; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart [a component of the Tenth Commandment that is related to the Seventh Commandment]” (Matt. 5:27-28).

Jesus made it clear that the sin of adultery begins even before the physical act is committed. It starts with lust. And that phenomenon did not become true during the Sermon on the Mount. It has always been true.

As Jesus elaborated, He “filled the barrel to the brim” with more revelation that harmonized with the Mosaic Law. Breaking the Tenth Commandment could lead to breaking the Seventh Commandment, so it would be wise to cut off anything that caused one to stumble into lusting after his neighbor’s wife: [6]

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:29-30).

What Jesus Did and Didn’t Say

Jesus did not say in Matthew 5:27-30 that looking at a woman with lust is just as evil as actually committing adultery. For a man to look at a woman with lust, then realize his sin and stop, would certainly make him guilty of a lesser sin than the man who actually commits physical adultery. Physical adultery, however, is always preceded by lust. So, if one avoids mental/heart adultery he will always avoid physical adultery. Thus it makes sense to remove anything that could cause one to stumble into mental/heart adultery.

Again, it’s important to note that Jesus was specifically talking about adultery. He quoted the Seventh Commandment and then expanded on it. Adultery, of course, requires two people, and at least one of them must be married. The English definition of adultery is, “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not his or her spouse.” In the context of the Mosaic Law, the definition of adultery would be expanded to, “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married or engaged person and a person who is not his or her spouse or fiancé/fiancée.

It is also important to take note that Jesus was specifically speaking to men. That is obvious from His words, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

So Jesus was speaking about men committing adultery. This does not mean that Jesus thought only men, and not women, could commit adultery or mental/heart adultery. And it does not mean that Jesus did not condemn fornication or that there is no such thing as heart-fornication. It only means that His words in Matthew 5:28 address men committing adultery.

There are only three possible scenarios, by biblical definition, that would constitute adultery by a man: (1) a married man has sex with an unmarried, unengaged woman, (2) a married man has sex with a married or engaged woman or, (3) an unmarried man has sex with a married or engaged woman. An unmarried man cannot commit adultery with an unmarried woman. If two unmarried people engage in sex, they commit the sin of fornication. Jesus was not talking in Matthew 5:27-32 about the sin of fornication; He was talking about the sin of adultery. That is what He said.

Adultery Versus Fornication

There is a clear distinction between adultery and fornication in the New Testament. Different Greek words—moicheia and porneia—identify them. Here are two examples:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators [pornos], nor idolaters, nor adulterers [moichos], nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators [pornos] and adulterers [moichos] God will judge (Heb. 13:4).

Jesus certainly acknowledged the difference between adultery and fornication. He said:

That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications [porneia], thefts, murders, adulteries [moicheia], deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man (Mark 7:20-23, emphasis added).

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality [porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery [moicheia] (Matt. 19:9, emphasis added).

Clearly, porneia and moicheia are not synonymous words, but rather, each have distinct meanings. Although porneia, which can be translated as “sexual immorality” could be referring to any sexual immorality, including even adultery, moicheia only refers to adultery. It was moicheia and mental/heart moicheia that Jesus was addressing in His Sermon on the Mount.

Finally, because adultery requires at least one married person, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:27-30 can only be referring to men committing adultery with or lusting after engaged or married women. Why? Because Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Obviously, “everyone” can only mean “any man” which would include all unmarried and married men. For an unmarried man, however, to commit adultery requires that he have sex with a married or engaged woman. Since what Jesus said applies to all men, unmarried and married, it requires that the woman in the scenario be engaged or married.

All of this is to say that Jesus was specifically warning in Matthew 5:27-28 against any man (1) having sex with an engaged or married woman or (2) lusting after an engaged or married woman, the former being condemned in the Seventh Commandment and the latter being condemned by the Tenth Commandment. Jesus was affirming the Mosaic Law, very precisely, and that will become even more clear momentarily as we dive deeper into the Mosaic Law regarding adultery and fornication.

An Objection

“But,” some readers might object, “Jesus said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust. He did not say “wife” or “married woman.”

That is true, but there are no distinctive words in ancient Greek for “woman” and “wife.” When Bible translators see the Greek word gune (pronounced goo-nay), they try to determine from the context whether to translate it “woman” or “wife.” For example, an angel said to Joseph as he considered what to do about pregnant Mary, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:20). The Greek word translated “wife” in that sentence is gune, the same word translated “woman” by NASB translators in Matthew 5:28. When Paul instructed husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church in Ephesians 5:25, the Greek word translated “wives” is gune. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful “for a man to divorce a wife” (Mark 10:2), the word translated “wife” is gune.

Translators had the same option in Matthew 5:28, and they chose “woman” over “wife.” Three verses later, in Matthew 5:31, translators chose “wife” over “woman” when translating gune.

Again, adultery by definition requires at least one engaged or married person. Jesus said that if any man, which of course includes all unmarried men, looks at a gune lustfully, he commits adultery. But for an unmarried man to commit adultery requires that the woman with whom he had sex to be married. For that reason, I think translators should have translated gune in Matthew 5:28 as either “wife” (which would include engaged women) or “married woman.” If so, Matthew 5:28 would read, “Any man who looks at a married (or engaged) woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

This is not to imply that God approves of any man looking lustfully at any woman whether she is married or not. Any and all lust is grievous to God, whether it be mental adultery or mental fornication. But lust by any man directed at an engaged or married woman is especially grievous to Him as indicated by the Tenth Commandment, which prohibits lusting after a married/engaged woman, and as implied by the Seventh Commandment, which only prohibits adultery and does not mention fornication. Fornication is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments, whereas lusting after married women is.

In any case, if Jesus was hoping, among other things, to curtail lustful masturbation by unmarried men with His words in Matthew 5:27-30, His words, interpreted accurately, are a warning against them desiring married or engaged women, who would of course be actual, not imaginary, women.

A Closer Look

Still keeping in mind that Jesus was just as much the author of the Mosaic Law as He was the Sermon on the Mount, let’s look at how adultery and fornication were viewed by Jesus before the Mosaic Law and in the Mosaic Law.

Perhaps you were shocked regarding some of the “strange stories” we considered in earlier chapters—for example when biblical men took multiple wives, obviously due, in many if not most cases, to sexual attraction. That is, they were already married to one or more women, but they were attracted to other women who were unmarried, and they married them as well, and had sex with them.

Polygamy probably seems as outlandish to you as it does to me (and probably even more so if you are female), but none of the Old Testament’s polygamists were rebuked by God. Yet when some of those polygamists, either unintentionally (like Pharaoh or Abimelech) or intentionally (like David) took another man’s wife, they got in major trouble with God. It became clear to us as we read those stories that adultery was the big sexual sin, and that polygamy was either not a sin in God’s eyes, or a very minor one. Polygamy was not considered adulterous as long as the polygamist only took unmarried, unengaged women as his wives. It seemed as if God was saying to those ancient men of the Bible, “You can be sexually attracted to and marry as many unmarried women as you desire (keeping in mind that there was always a bride price to be paid), but married women are very much off limits. They already belong to other men.”

Think about it: When God/Jesus gave the Law of Moses to Israel, there were Ten Commandments He felt were most important. It was His “Top Ten” list. One of those commandments prohibited adultery, and another forbade coveting another man’s wife. Reading those two commandments, however, in the context of the hundreds of other commandments within the Mosaic Law, we discover that an Israelite man could lawfully have more than one wife, and wives of varying stature that included concubines. God was also OK with Israelite soldiers sexually desiring unmarried foreign female war captives and taking them as wives or as additional wives. In every case, however, strange or not-as-strange, one message keeps surfacing loud and clear: Sex is reserved only for marriage—whether monogamous or polygamous. Marriage grants exclusive sexual rights. So don’t have sex with another person’s spouse (Commandment 7) and don’t even think about having sex with another man’s wife (Commandment 10). That is mental/heart-adultery.

Sex in the City and the Country

Affirming all of this is another fascinating, and somewhat troubling, passage in the Mosaic Law. Keep in mind that it must, and it does, harmonize with the rest of the Mosaic Law that God/Jesus gave to Israel. I’ve included some bracketed commentary within the text:

If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, “I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,” then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity [a blood-stained bedsheet, preserved by trusted witnesses for such an occasion, from their daughter’s wedding night that proved her hymen was broken by her husband’s penetration] to the elders of the city at the gate. The girl’s father shall say to the elders, “I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her; and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, ‘I did not find your daughter a virgin.’ But this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.” And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days. [You would think that such a man would have talked to his wife’s parents before he made his self-humiliating accusation…]

But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin [hopefully based on more evidence than a missing blood-stained bedsheet], then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you. [I’m thankful for the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery when I read passages like this.]

If a man [married or unmarried] is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. [This must be a case of consensual adultery, as revealed by the commandments that follow.]

If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man [married or unmarried] finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city [so their sex was consensual], and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. [Note that she is called “his neighbor’s wife” even though she is only engaged to be married.] Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

But if in the field the man [married or unmarried] finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her [rapes her], then only the man who lies with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out [the best assumption apart from any evidence], but there was no one to save her.

If a man [married or unmarried] finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her [rapes her] and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days (Deut. 22:13-28). [According to the law in Exodus 22:16, a man who seduces an unengaged virgin into consensual sex suffers the same penalty: “He must pay a dowry for her to be his wife.”]

Without exploring all the details of this passage from the Law of Moses, take note that we’ve just read about five sexual sins—four that could result in one’s execution, and one that could result in a monetary fine and mandatory marriage. It is safe to conclude the four that merited the death penalty were very grievous to God. It is also safe to conclude that the one that merited a much lesser punishment, although grievous to God, was not as grievous to Him as the other four. Yet all five sins involved lust and illicit sexual intercourse between two people who were not married to each other.

The difference between the four very grievous sins and the one less grievous sin was the marital status of the people involved. The four very grievous sins—that merited capital punishment—involved at least one married or engaged person who had sex with someone to whom they were not married or engaged. All four cases would thus constitute adultery in its broadest sense. Although the first case may have begun as fornication on the part of an unmarried woman (on the other hand, she may have had sex as an unmarried woman with a married man), when she married her sin evolved. She “cheated on her husband” before they were married. If as an unmarried woman she had sex with an unmarried man, she conceivably could have married him (as in the fifth case), preserving her life.

The fifth case was apparently a less grievous sin to God than the first four because it did not involve any married or engaged people. The sin described is fornication via rape. The penalty was a 50-shekel fine the rapist had to pay to the girl’s father, and mandatory marriage to her. That doesn’t make us feel happy for the girl, but having lost her virginity, she would have found it very difficult to find a husband who desired her due to the cultural importance of taking a virgin bride.

Both the fourth and fifth cases involved rape, one of an engaged woman (thus a “wife”) and the other of a unengaged, unmarried woman. Raping an engaged/married woman was a sin, not only against her, but against her fiancé/husband, and it merited death. Raping an unengaged/unmarried woman did not merit death even though it was sin against her and her father, apparently because there was no sin against a husband. The penalty was much less severe, and the sin was “repaired” to a degree by marriage.

All of this is to say that, once again, we see that in God’s eyes adultery was the major sexual sin, just as we saw in many of the “strange stories” of Genesis, just as was emphasized in the Ten Commandments, and just as was emphasized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. To God/Jesus, committing adultery is exponentially more grievous than for an unmarried man to rape a virgin, as revealed in the passage we just read in Deuteronomy. Although that may be difficult for us to understand, it is so nevertheless.

The Application

What does all this have to do with masturbation accompanied by sexual fantasies by unmarried men and women?

First, God gave all the laws we just read because they were relevant. All those various forms of adultery and fornication were being committed at times among the people of Israel. If the judges of Israel followed through on the punishments prescribed, some lawbreakers forfeited their lives. Others found themselves inescapably married to women whom they raped—women who might justifiably make their lives miserable for a long time. Who would argue that it would not have been better for such folks to have exercised some self-control, even if they had used masturbation to aid them to find sexual release? They would have saved their lives! No one was ever stoned in the Old Testament for masturbation. There were no laws against it.

Second, from all that we’ve been reading in Scripture about how grievous adultery is in God’s eyes, it seems clear it would be a very good idea for unmarried men and women to avoid fantasizing about sexual encounters with persons who are married, actual or imagined.

Third, although fantasizing about unmarried actual persons would perhaps be less grievous to God, one who does might be fantasizing about another person’s future spouse. So it shouldn’t be done. Moreover, such sexual fantasies would seem to be treating another actual person like a sexual object, similar to using porn, and a violation of the Golden Rule. (Would you want someone to whom you are not married fantasizing about a sexual encounter with you?)

Fourth, I don’t think any Christian would disagree that it would be best for unmarried people to completely avoid masturbation and all sexual fantasies if possible. It would, however, seem unrealistic to expect such abstinence from anyone who isn’t gifted by God in that regard, just as much as it would be unrealistic to expect those who aren’t gifted to be “eunuchs for the kingdom,” like the apostle Paul, to remain unmarried all their lives. Again, God has given the same sex drive to unmarried people as He has to married people. Unmarried Christians, however, are not permitted to have sex outside of marriage. Plus, Paul advised regular, consistent sex for married couples to avoid temptation. What are unmarried Christians to do to avoid the same temptations?

For those reasons and others I’ve previously mentioned, I think Dr. Dobbins’ advice regarding fantasies framed in marriage with a future, imaginary spouse is the best route, albeit an imperfect one. If we lived in a culture that promoted arranged, prepubescent marriages, we wouldn’t have to even think about these things. But here we are.

Thankfully, we have a High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15), and He also understands our sexual nature better than we do. David (the guy who had at least eight wives and ten concubines) wrote under the Spirit’s inspiration:

The Lord is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
he remembers we are only dust (Ps. 103:13-14, NLT).

I’m so glad for that!

As I promised at the start of the previous chapter, I’ve searched the Scriptures for any and all grace I can find for unmarried Christians in regard to masturbation. I know not all will agree with me, but I’ve done the best I can.

Dear Friends,

Although I am the founder and president of Heaven’s Family, the income that sustains me and my wife is primarily derived, not from gifts people give to Heaven’s Family that serve the “least of these” around the world. Rather, a special group of friends supports my teaching ministry with monthly support. My fruit is their fruit, and so I send them a personal newsletter each month. They also have an open invitation to visit my wife and I each year at our rural home in an 1890 remodeled barn near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, right in the heart of an Amish community.

One of our friends who supported us each month recently retired and had to end their support due to their own decreased income, so we need a few more new friends to step in. If the Lord is leading you in that regard, it would be much appreciated. Your monthly support will make it possible for me to continue focusing on my teaching ministry while Heaven’s Family continues to serve our brothers and sisters around the world. If the Lord is leading you in that regard, just click here to start! And thank you so very much.


[1] Playing to cultural trends, the title was changed in an 1887 edition to, Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life. It can be read at .

[2] The shame that often accompanies masturbation is sometimes pointed to as evidence of God’s disapproval. It is, however, perhaps more so evidence of cultural disapproval, as indicated by the fact that the shame associated with masturbation decades ago has significantly decreased as culture has become much more accepting. Christians who masturbate know full well that God sees them masturbating, but that doesn’t stop them, whereas if they thought any human was aware they were in the process of masturbating, they would be much more likely to immediately stop.

[3] When you go out as an army against your enemies, you shall keep yourself from every evil thing. If there is among you any man who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he must go outside the camp; he may not reenter the camp. But it shall be when evening approaches, he shall bathe himself with water, and at sundown he may reenter the camp” (Deut. 23:9-11).

[4] Also, incidentally, if God wanted to condemn, somewhere in the Bible, seminal emissions due to masturbation, these passages in Leviticus 15 and Deuteronomy 23 would have been perfect places to do it.

[5] For some examples of New Testament usage of pleroo translated in the NASB as “filled” or “filled up,” see Matt. 13:47-48, 23:32; John 12:3; 16:6 and Eph. 3:19.

[6] Most Bible readers and commentators are persuaded that Jesus was not literally advocating tearing out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand to avoid sexual stumbling, but was advocating that it is wise to avoid/remove what causes one to stumble into mental/heart adultery lest it lead to physical adultery and hell.