Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 – 1617 ), The Fall of Man, 1616, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 1996.34.1
I want to start out this post by stating that I am a Christian and to apologize if this post sounds not Christ-like. The topic is an issue that has brought me much doubt, confusion, and even some anger. I have struggled with the issue since adolescence and continue to struggle with it today. Maybe even more so today than before because I am earnestly seeking a relationship with Christ and issues weight you down and make you contemplate them in much more depth when you are a Christian and not “Sort-of-a-Christian”.
But it is an issue that rarely gets talked about, and I feel many (if not most) Christians struggle with. And that, of course, is the issue of sex, sexuality, and lust. I am hoping to hear from other’s experience or opinions that may shed some light on this topic because it has become the biggest stumbling block in my relationship with Christ, and I assume others as well, living in the 21st century. Once again, I apologize for my lack of reverence or a tone of anger, but it is honesty, and I can’t stuff or hide from what I feel.
Just to make things clear, my bitterness comes from a place of despair and frustration. I have attempted uncountable times to change, to deal with my issues and do what I am told is right by the Bible or by other people’s opinions. I may be able to stay on track for a certain period of time, but I always fail. I do want to please God, but sometimes it feels like the system is broken or not even possible. So after many heartfelt attempts and thorough prayer, I am always failing and that failure and pain may manifest itself as anger.
So ever since adolescence, I have struggled with the guilt, remorse, lack of remorse, anger, doubt, uncertainty, and confusion that surrounds the issue of sexuality. Whether that be lust, masturbation, pornography, premarital sex – they all fall into the same category for me. I believe it can be argued that they are either all sin or acceptable. Maybe not necessarily “right” or “good”, but acceptable. You can dance around the issue all you like, but there is hardly good explanation for accepting any of these issues without accepting all the others; likewise, if one is determined to be sin, you must accept the rest as sin.
The main passage that causes so much doubt and uncertainty for me is Matthew 5:27-28.
“You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (ESV)
Obviously, I can’t just throw this part of the Bible out and pretend like I’ve never read it. So I, and we all, have a big problem on our hands if the common interpretation of this passage is true. But my question is what does Jesus mean by “lustful intent”? Does that mean that any sexual thought that comes into your mind is adultery? Or is he talking more along the lines of premeditated adultery…that even if you choose not to follow through with your original plan, it is still considered adultery? Take into consideration too that he is addressing married men and specifically mentions adultery, but not fornication.
While I wrestle between the two, I tend to side on option “B”. Maybe because it’s the easier route, but also because if I chose choice “A”, I have to seriously consider believing in a God who doesn’t really make sense or a Bible that is not inerrant. Let me explain. If I accept choice “A”, masturbation is out. Yeah. Yeah. I know the Bible never specially mentions masturbation, but let’s be honest… Who can successfully masturbate time and time again without lusting? It’s really part of the act. I suppose there’s a small sect of people who can do it, but I would argue that has nothing to do with their discipline, but because of their low sex drive and / or chemical make-up.
The majority of people cannot masturbate without lust and have no desire to do so. Now, masturbation is out, as well as everything that follows. So now I’m expected not to masturbate, lust, or engage in any premarital sex from the age of around 11-28 (28 being about the average age people are getting married today), all the while being filled with raging hormones and natural urges to do the exact opposite. To me, that’s just unrealistic and unable to be achieved with any kind of success. And maybe I’m sounding a little harsh and a little angry because honestly, maybe I am. Angry at God perhaps that he would demand this and wire us up so backwards. Angry at the people who simply say to wait to have sex until you’re married, then you can do what you’ve been wanting, end of story. Now don’t get me wrong. I know they are trying to be helpful and are sincere (and maybe are even right), but that doesn’t tell you how to do so, nor explain away all the issues that come with it.
As a young teen, I can just about guarantee I would have done some very stupid, very sinful things without masturbation. The male body is set up so that it craves sex so intensely after after five to seven days without ejaculation that it is nearly impossible to even concentrate on anything besides sex. To me, that alone is enough to raise serious doubts to the common interpretation in Matthew 5:27-28.
If you don’t eat, you naturally strongly desire food. If you don’t have sex or masturbate, you naturally strongly desire sex. This ability is mostly out of our control. You can call it sin, but I have yet to crave to lie if I’ve gone days withing lying. No, sex is not necessary for survival, but it is at the essence of humanity. Yes, there people who live a life of chastity, but most are in religious vocations, and we’ve seen some of the horrors that come out of those situations. I am not mocking them; I respect those who choose that life, but I’d say that for most people it is unhealthy and unnatural. And for many of those who are chaste, they live in monasteries or hermitages. That is not conquering lust; it is simply hiding from it. I hold those in those vocations with utmost respect. I’m just trying to point out that you can’t use them as an example of success in dealing with lust.
Even at the heart of every marriage, every relationship, lust is the catalyst so to speak. If basic lust is a sin, every marriage was born out of sin, even Adam and Eve’s before the Fall. In plain terms, you are attracted to someone romantically because you desire sex from them. You can think many things are pretty or beautiful, but that does not mean you want to have sex with a piece of art, a tree, or even a friend or relative.
There are a handful of other characteristics and attributes that make one desire a partner, but from the first glance that a woman and man share, it is lust that drives them together. The end goal of any romantic relationship is sex; otherwise, we would have many close friendships, but no sexual partners. If lust and sex were not part of a romantic relationship, it would be perfectly legitimate to marry someone of the same sex if intercourse was not a necessary part of the equation.
You may argue that lusting or desiring your spouse is acceptable. But where did that desire begin? Surely, you didn’t date for months or years and suddenly when you tie the knot you magically desire to have sex with one another. No. It started from day one and has been there ever since. If it wasn’t, there would be no marriage.
When Adam saw Eve in the Garden of Eden, what was it that attracted him to her? Surely, not beauty. Adam had already witnessed great examples of God’s creations and the beauty that resides in nature. But Eve was different. She was beautiful, but it was a beauty that he didn’t just want to look at. He longed to touch her, feel her, caress her, and ultimately to have sex with her. And I’m sure it didn’t help matters that she was naked. Was that unintentional? I don’t think so. God could have given them clothes, but he didn’t. They saw each other’s anatomy and were mesmerized by it.
I can’t imagine that there were no lustful thoughts going through either Adam’s or Eve’s mind when they first met. If lust is a sin, how do you become romantically attracted to someone without it? I mean the opposite sex is great, but honestly I think both sides would agree that they are confusing and can’t be comprehended. Without lust, why would I ever choose “Jane” over “Bob”, when “Bob” and I have a whole lot more in common, think alike, act alike, etc.? Without lust, I honestly don’t know how that works. Lust is the mystery that propels us into a relationship with a person we don’t understand. It mystifies us into an attempt to discover the parts of the heart and anatomy that are different from us.
So assuming lust is a sin, how do we deal with it? The obvious answer is masturbation – a release that allows us to refocus and not give into temptation. But as I’ve already pointed out, if lust is a sin, so is masturbation. So now we’re back to square one. A 13-14 year old male is expected to just deal with this flood of feeling and desire in a healthy and God-like manner for the next 10-15 years? Maybe I’m blind, but I just don’t get it. For that to be true, I have to seriously reconsider my perception of God. Either A. he is incompetent or B. he somehow enjoys or is indifferent to watching us suffer. I don’t believe God is either of those things, which is why it is hard for me to accept that masturbation or lust are sins.
The human body peaks in sexuality during adolescence. It propels us to seek out a partner, procreate, and continue on the human race. This is good. But the timing is atrocious. It may have worked well thousands of years ago when humans were getting married in their early teens. It had to be that age because often times people wouldn’t live much longer than 20. But times have changed. We are living longer and waiting longer to get married. I think we can all agree that this is also good. I don’t think anyone can say that it would actually be much better for society if children would get married and have kids at 11, 12, or 13 years old.
The problem then is that, unfortunately, adolescence is still beginning at the same time, and even earlier than, it was thousands of years ago. Could God not see that this was going to be a problem? If lust, masturbation, and everything that goes along with it is sinful, why did God not allow our sexual desires to evolve overtime and for us to “peak” later, rather than earlier? Why would a loving God essentially punish us with a burden of sexual desire, knowing we couldn’t use it for another 10-15 years? That is essentially like taking a starving child out of a Third World country and making them live in a restaurant filled with the finest foods and telling them that this is all good and ok for you to eat, but you must wait at your table for 10-15 years to enjoy it. To me, that is torture. The promise sounds good, as does the promise in the Bible. But there is really no good, practical advice on how to sit in the restaurant starving for 10+ years without wanting the food or, in a moment of weakness, eating it.
Yes, sex can be sinful and has the possibility to be abused, but I would argue that it has a much different dynamic than any other type of sin. Sexual desire is a necessary part of human existence. Without it, the human race would not have survived as long as it has. There is no “good” lying. There is no “good” hate. There is no “good” injustice. But there is good sex. And that’s the main issue here. How do you separate good sexual desire from bad sexual desire? If we read Matthew 5:27-28 literally, I think you’re going to have a hard time ever explaining “good” sexual desire. Even if you are married and you fantasize about your spouse, building off the passage in Matthew, that is still sin and probably could even be classified as rape. Is your wife giving you permission to have sex with her at 10 am? If not, couldn’t that be considered just as bad as rape since the thought is just as bad as the action, applying the concepts from Matthew? I may be getting a little extreme, but it’s an extreme subject. If you hold a literal interpretation of the passage, there’s implications that come with it that must be explained or justified.
Young children and babies are known to masturbate or fondle themselves. I believe this hints at the fact that it is a natural part of human existence. You think we have problems now with rape and sexual abuse? Try living in a world where teenage boys never masturbate and see what happens. I’m not trying to be crude; that is just reality. When you are starving, you do whatever it takes to get food, regardless of the costs. When you have teenage boys flooded with sexual desire and no way to release those feelings, you’re going to have a bombardment of problems.
I often hear the case that we are fallen, sinful, etc. and that is why we fall to sexual temptation. In some ways I agree, but in others, it just doesn’t add up. Prayer may be our main method of defense, but how do you pray with a raging hard on, a body overwhelmed with sexual desire, and a mind that is consumed with images of naked women? That’s about as real as it gets. But it is the truth. You go a week or more without sexual release, especially as a teen, and your mind is obsessed with sex just about every minute of the day, and your penis is constantly erect.
How do you sit down and concentrate in prayer while that is going on? I don’t know and that question racks my brain and creates an invisible barrier to God. I want to please God and do the right thing, but every time I try, I become a sexual, raging animal. I no longer feel like a human being, but an animal completely controlled by the body’s natural process. I suffer when I carry out my body’s desires because I worry that I am displeasing God. But when I restrain myself, I suffer even more and turn into a person that I don’t want to be.
On either side I suffer. On either side I am flooded with confusion, doubt, anger, lust, worry, and all these emotions put a strain on my relationship with God. Maybe I am the only one in this mess, but I don’t think so. I think all of us who are truly seeking Christ struggle with these issues and are screaming silently for clarity. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but the beginning of knowledge is to doubt and question. I am just thankful that we have a loving God that understands our trials and does not silence anyone who questions him. I will continue the second part of this post concerning pornography and premarital sex in a later post, hopefully sometime this week.