Most Christians, male and female, labour under the misconception that it is sinful for a man to look at a woman with “appreciation” and even to become sexually aroused by that looking (there is no similar prohibition for women). They mistakenly believe that such looking is sinful and adulterous. But how can it be sinful when this characteristic is God’s inbuilt design and thus common to all males? Part of being male is that we respond in this God-ordained way to females. “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made….My substance was not hidden from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously [skilfully] wrought in the lowest parts of the earth” (Ps 139:14-15 KJV).
So what did Jesus mean when he said: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 KJV). Three of the most popular modern versions, namely NRSV, NIV and NLT, translate similarly vaguely and therefore insufficiently and thus perpetuate the problem. It may have been clear enough in 1611 when the KJV was first printed but we speak differently now and many words are not used as much or in the same way as they were back then, so we don’t get their true meaning. In the matter of heart-adultery the true meaning of Jesus’ words has not been made clear; consequently Christians have understood the passage to mean that if a man looks at a woman and likes what he sees he has “committed adultery with her already in his heart”. To paraphrase Augustine: “A man can’t help seeing a woman. It is the second look that constitutes the sin”. Sadly, most of today’s Christians seem to agree with him.
And Christian men have languished in despair as they are lashed with a guilty conscience because they can’t help feeling attracted to women, can’t stop noticing women as they go about their day, can’t stop getting aroused at the sight of a pretty face or a nice body outlined in tight or skimpy clothing.
Clarity at last
However, the problematic verses are now being more clearly translated in other modern versions and we’re thankful for their clarity of meaning. I’ve set out below how some of the modern versions translate “looketh on a woman to lust after her” (KJV).
“…looks at a woman with lustful intent” (ESV).
“…looks at a woman and wants to possess her” (GNB).
“…looks at a woman with lust for her” (Amp Bible 2015).
“…looks at a woman with lustful intent” (Amp Bible 1987).
“…if you look at another woman and want her” (CEV).
“…looks at a woman and wants to sin sexually with her” (NCV).
In case you missed it, the key idea in the passage, is “intent”. Jesus condemns looking at a woman with sexual desire for her, the particular woman he is looking at. He did not mean that simply seeing a woman who appeals to him is heart-adultery. Most men, especially Christian men, don’t look at a woman and wish they could have sex with her; they don’t try or plan to seduce every – or even any – woman they see. So the conclusion could conceivably be drawn that there’s nothing wrong with having a bikini-clad woman, or even a Playboy centrefold, pinned to his workshop wall, or wherever.
Heart-adultery has intent at its centre; looking is just perving at a woman which provokes a pleasant and natural response, but that is as far as it goes. And, if by some unlikely chance, she was to offer herself to him, he, being a godly man and faithful to his wife and marriage, would refuse her.
So, again, what Jesus condemned was the intent or desire to have sex with her, to seduce her. Even if he’s only looking at a picture or video of her and wishes he could have sex with her, this too constitutes heart adultery.
But most men who look just like what they see. Men also like to look at cars but they don’t intend to buy or steal one – they just like to look and admire. To expect that a man walk through a shopping centre and not see at least one woman who catches his eye is unreasonable and unrealistic. And his wife, if he’s married, need not feel threatened by it. His response is innate to his identity as a male. And being a Christian doesn’t remove that aspect of his nature or being. As one non-Christian guy, a married work colleague in my department, said on the subject of “admiring” women (i.e. perving), “I’m not dead”. He summarised the situation perfectly.
And if, for example, a married man gets sexually aroused whilst, say, watching a sex scene in a movie (a common part of many movies), or even simply seeing a woman in the street who has an effect on him, if he’s married, he can go to his wife and get into bed with her if he feels the need. This is not adulterous; it is not “using” his wife; it is the lawful and God-ordained means of expressing his sexual desires without sin and in accordance with God’s plan (1 Cor 7:2-7). The same principle applies to the wife if she’s been aroused by a particular man or men, whether in the flesh, movie, or online. The wife is there for her husband’s safety; the husband is there for his wife’s safety. The husband’s body is not his own but his wife’s; the wife’s body is not her own but her husband’s. They have mutual responsibility to each other. And they are to have sex frequently in order to prevent the other from falling into the sin of adultery (1 Cor 7:1-9).
Just think how different the course of history would be if King David, when he laid eyes on the beautiful and naked Bathsheba as she bathed, had masturbated on the spot – his situation was the voyeur’s dream – instead of having her brought to him where he wickedly seduced her.
So, men – give yourselves a break. Accept that God made you with these attributes and don’t lay unnecessary guilt on yourselves. And women – stop feeling threatened if your man notices women; stop castigating him if he does. It’s not a reflection on you or an indication that you’re not enough for him. He’s a male – that’s what males do. It’s an innate part of what masculinity is. Be thankful to God for who and what he is. And don’t pretend that you haven’t noticed the odd “hot” man here or there. Let neither be afraid to share with each other that you think this or that person is handsome, beautiful, hot, or whatever. If you’re comfortable with the place you have in each other’s heart, you should be able to do that and not feel threatened when your spouse tells you. But do it with respect and care.
For reasons why Christian men can and should masturbate, see my related article on this website: “Masturbation is not intrinsically sinful: Reasons why Christian Men Can and Should Indulge”.