Engaging in sexual fantasy to heighten our sexual desires is a good thing. But, I know, there are some readers who would disagree with me for a variety of reasons, and this is why this article will be a tad lengthy, hence in more than one part. As a practicing Christian, I know from experience that this topic is a hotbed of controversy for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, so I’d like to address their concerns first. And then, we can get to the fun stuff of fantasy.
Fantasies come from our imagination and imagination is a God-given gift. It is part and parcel of who we are as human beings. Fantasies by definition are imaginary, make-believe, about scenarios that are, if not completely impossible, at least improbable. Fantasies are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. What becomes of our fantasies is up to us. We are not always responsible for our thoughts. We are, however, responsible for our actions. That said, are we in Mister Roger’s “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” or are we on Mr. Rourke’s Fantasy Island?
Christians and Fantasizing
YES! We Christians are allowed to fantasize and I’m happy to tell you why. There is no edict in Sacred Scripture that forbids desire or fantasy. Did you get that? It’s important. There is no edict in Sacred Scripture that forbids desire or fantasy. No, not one.
The scripture that you’ve likely had drummed into your head since you were pre-pubescent to shame you away from healthy sexual desire and fantasy is Matthew 5:27. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Often, pastors and priests use this verse to warn against adultery — and rightly so. Infidelity is bad whether you’re a Christian or not. But, some people interpret this verse as meaning Christians aren’t allowed to even think sexually about someone they are attracted to. Yikes. All too often Church teachings are interpreted to equate sexual thoughts with actual sexual sin. And this idea, my friends, is wrong and incredibly harmful to the mental health of too many Christian men and women.
The problem with that translation of Matthew 5:27 is that the word translated as “lust” in this passage is the same word used for “covet” in The Ten Commandments. “[Y]ou will not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17). Coveting is so serious a sin because it is wanting something that already lawfully belongs to someone else. It is not wanting something like what another has; it is wanting the exact thing. Imagine reading the tenth commandment as “Do not lust after your neighbor’s house; nor lust after his wife, nor his servant or maid, nor lust after his ox, nor his donkey.” Should we really equate the word “covet” for “think about sexually” here? No.¹ There is a difference between natural sexual desire and coveting (wanting to possess what belongs to another as your own).
I could discuss poor theology and really crappy translations all day, but one only need contemplate the fact that there are literally tens of thousands of different denominations all under the same Christian umbrella to know that poor theology and really crappy translations exist. Besides that, it’s not my intent to prove how wonky centuries’ old translations of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic are. My intention is to tell you, quite truthfully, that Christ Himself never condemned being “horny” — through arousal, desires, fantasies, or otherwise. In fact, even a cursory glance at First Corinthians, chapter seven, proves that Saint Paul assumes we’re going to be sexually aroused and desire others. Of course we are! It’s how God designed us. As sexual beings. And while we’re discussing chapter seven, it’s interesting to note that Saint Paul admits in verse 25 that “Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord.” Mull that one over for a minute or ten.
Christians and Masturbation
I bring up masturbation here is because it is usually accompanied by desirous thoughts or fantasies. Masturbation, or stimulation of one’s own genitals for sexual pleasure often, though certainly not always, to the point of climax, is a perfectly normal and natural act. However, another tradition that is taught, but not once mentioned in Sacred Scripture is that of masturbation as sin. Early church fathers used the story of Onan in Genesis 38 to preach against believers using coitus interruptus [the “withdrawal method” of birth control] in particular, and masturbation in general. According to the church, every sperm possible — because the church had no control over what happened with nocturnal emissions of sperm — was to be implanted into the wife’s womb. Keeping in mind that the mission of the early church was to encourage its members to “go forth and multiply,” it makes sense that they thought this was a really great scripture to use to scare the hell out of people from wanting to limit their family size via contraception.
So, the early church preached against what it called the “Sin of Onan” — and many Western churches still do, although they do not all agree on exactly what that sin is. The Catholic Church still preaches today against onanism which is, in the strictest sense, contraception, as well as against masturbation to climax. When Protestant denominations started branching out, they too continued preaching against the “Sin of Onan” as against contraception and masturbation. It wasn’t until Protestant denominations determined that contraception was no longer sinful (circa 1930), that they dropped the contraceptive concept of onanism to be an edict against masturbation alone. Because sperm was no longer sacred, masturbation as a “selfish act of lust” became the focus of the sin; but as you will see, these views are slowly but finally changing, too.
Careful reading of the story in Genesis 38 shows that God killed Onan because he refused to follow Mosaic law for levirate marriage and give his dead, older brother’s wife an heir because he was selfish and wanted to be the firstborn heir to Judah’s fortune. In verse 9, Onan withdrew his penis from (his sister-in-law) Tamra’s vagina before ejaculation and the “spilling [of] his seed lest he give his brother an heir” occurred. In verse 10, “the thing which he did displeased the Lord” and his subsequent punishment for sinning (i.e., God slew him) was not because he chose masturbation, nor was it likely for employing the withdrawal method; his sin was more likely in disobedience to his father’s command, for not following Mosaic law, or it was due to his inordinate and unlawful greed.²
As I’ve noted, some Western churches, especially those of Evangelical origin, still preach against masturbation; but due to the abundance of scientific and medical evidence that masturbation is a medically healthy and psychologically normal act, more churches are electing to forgo the topic of masturbation altogether. Dr. James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family,” has even gone on record contending, “The Bible says nothing about masturbation, so we don’t really know what God thinks about it. My opinion is that He doesn’t make a big issue of it… So I would encourage you not to struggle with guilt.”³ Wow and yay! I hope this helps those of you who are struggling with shame concerning masturbation to understand that you are not alone in your struggle. Sexual self-exploration is healthy and normal and is not immoral. You are okay.
¹ For further in-depth reading, please see theologian Jason Staple’s finely detailed article “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1
² Read Genesis 38 in its entirety for a better understanding of the context of the story.
³ Dobson, James C. (2000). Preparing for Adolescence: Growth Guide. Delight, AR: Gospel Light.
* Compulsive masturbation, like other compulsive behaviors, can be signs of an emotional problem, which may need to be addressed by a mental health specialist. There is no shame in seeking help from a professional. ♥