Chapter Eight: Fantasy vs. Lust
In this book, we're using the word fantasy to mean the same thing as imagination,1 not a genre of literature.
Although the imagination is involved when we lust or have thoughts about sex with a spouse or potential spouse, real-life desire dominates the imagination in these cases.
Sexual fantasy, in contrast, is imaginary-only. Not only is it not dominated by real-life desire, it would be completely unwelcome in real-life. And that's what makes sexual fantasy different from lust:
Lust is real-life.
Fantasy is imaginary.
Remember that the Greek word epithumeo does not mean to fantasize. Fantasizing about sex is not lust, because it's not a real-life desire. Just because sexual fantasy often draws on the real world for ideas and imagery, that doesn't make it a desire for something real.
This difference is huge: one is actual, covetous desire, while the other is playful imagination. Let's emphasize this one more time this way:
Lust is real-life desire for forbidden sex, and sexual fantasy is a pretense that by definition is not real-life.
Imagination is part of who we are. It's part of how God designed us. While we're little children, we pretend our little stuffed bear is real, and we talk to it. A little older, and we're pretending that our dolls are having tea with us, or that our toy car is flying through the air. When we get a little older, we imagine what kind of job we might have someday, and we start imagining what married life might be like. While we're dating or going through courtship, we imagine what it would be like to be married to a particular person!
And imagination never stops, no matter how old we get! People imagine things all the time, sexually and otherwise, and imagination is part of a normal, healthy personality.
Okay, so far, so good, but there is another important characteristic of sexual fantasy we need to deal with: The unlimited range of creative concepts. In Biblically acceptable sexual fantasy, there are no restrictions on topics, issues, ideas, or even reality.
That last statement is based on the principle that sin is defined for us by the Bible, so if the Bible does not tell us something is sin, it is not sin. We know that having a real-life desire for sex with a person we are not married to is sin because the Bible tells us so. The Bible doesn't tell us whether or not brushing our teeth is okay, but we know it is because the Bible doesn't tell us it's wrong.
But doesn't the Bible have something to say about what kinds of things we should think about? Sure it does. Lots of things, in fact, and we think they're well summed up by Philippians 4:8: "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."
At first glance, you might think this means that you should not think about wild sex fantasies, but if so, you need to look at it more closely. Encouragements like this either have to include mundane things, or be in addition to mundane things. We have to spend some time in our lives thinking about brushing our teeth, going to the grocery store, and many other mundane things. For example, unless you work full time as a pastor or missionary, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about the mundane tasks necessary to do your job. Come to think of it, even people with full-time spiritual jobs have a lot of mundane tasks to take care of.
So Philippians 4:8 isn't intended to prohibit certain thoughts, it's intended to encourage us to spend at least some time thinking about things that are loftier than mundane things. We should spend at least some time thinking about heroic role-model and uplifting types of things. So this passage, and others similar to it, tell us things that are good to think about, rather than things we are not allowed to think about.
That brings us back to the principle: sin is defined for us by the Bible, so if the Bible does not tell us something is sin, it is not sin. And if this principle is correct, and then there are no restrictions on sexual fantasies, because the only thoughts the Bible prohibits regarding sex are thoughts that are based on real-life desires for forbidden forms of sex, and it does not say anything about prohibiting imaginary thoughts of any kind.
Okay, but how do you distinguish a real-life desire from a fantasy? Suppose you lie in bed and dream about a particular married man being madly in love with you, and trying to seduce you. Is that a real-life desire or fantasy? You can tell by considering what your reaction would be if it happened in real life. If the married man were to appear in your bedroom and you wanted to have sex with him, then what you were thinking was a real-life desire, and lustful. However, if that married man were to suddenly appear in your bedroom and you'd scream and run, then what you were thinking was a fantasy. It's fantasy if you do not actually want him in real-life, and instead you just want to pretend.
Are you beginning to see it? If you imagine that a man breaks into your room and forces himself on you, you may enjoy that in your imagination, but only in your imagination, because if it happened in real life it would be an indescribably horrible thing.
Remember, the "lust" Jesus condemned is a real-life desire for forbidden sex, not a pretend-world fantasy.
James 1:14-15 describes real-life forbidden desires in general terms: "...but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."
When applied to the issue of sexual desire, this passage indicates that lust, if the person doesn't stop, will end up with the person taking real-life actions to fulfill their lust. Again, that's not fantasy, which specifically excludes real-life possibilities.
Think you understand the principles now? Then let's try the most extreme example...
What if you fantasize about wanting your neighbor's husband? Is that lust? It is not, not if it's truly fantasy, because fantasy is not real-life. As long as you don't actually want your neighbor's husband, you're not coveting him, you're only pretending something in which your imagination is based on the idea of him.
Based on the principles described above, then, in Biblically acceptable sexual fantasy, there are no restrictions on topics, issues, ideas, or even reality.
So, yes, you can fantasize about having sex with a real person, even if that person is married to someone else, because it's make-believe, a pretense. In fact, in your imagination, there can be three copies of your neighbor's husband! And they can all doing different things to you at the same time... in a space ship... while it's televised... while you kiss all three at one time because you have 3 mouths... Because... it's not real!
You can pretend that you're a kangaroo and another kangaroo is humping you, because that's not real, it's imagination. Or you're a kangaroo and you're having sex with a whale, or you're a tiny human having sex with a chipmunk, or you're a full-size human having sex with a giant chipmunk.
While having sex with a spouse, it's almost universal to mix real-life desire and fantasy, and your thoughts can jump all over the place many times in just a few minutes. And there's nothing wrong with it as long as the real-life desire is always, only for your spouse.
Suppose you and your husband get into bed naked and you want him and only him actually in your bed. But while he's playing with you or moving inside you, you pretend it's a man you know from work who's doing all that. Is that okay or not? Think of the principle of real-life desire: if you opened your eyes and saw your coworker on top of you would you be thrilled or terrified? If terrified, it means your real-life desire is truly for your husband, and your husband alone, so it's okay to pretend that he's anyone, or anything.
Hey, it's imaginary! Poof, that coworker you were pretending was on top of you is now the President, and poof, now it's someone you knew 20 years ago, poof, now you're the prom queen, poof, now all your office coworkers just turned into different kinds of bears and lions waiting to have a turn with you, and poof...
Wait a minute. How can you possibly have such wild sexual thoughts? How can you possibly think so many crazy sexual things while you're having sex with your husband? Because you're having sex with your husband.
Now it's time for one more principle. If you're a Christian with a real desire to be a godly person, the only way you can have wild fantasies like that while you're having sex with your husband, is by being secure in the fact that you are with your husband. You know in reality that you are in your bed, with your husband, and that is what gives you freedom to imagine.
Think of it this way. If you woke up with a man on top of you, what would your immediate thoughts be? One of two things will happen: Either you will assume it's your husband, or you won't be able to think about anything else except determining who it is. If you assume it's your husband and when you open your eyes or hear his voice to confirm it, you just continue having sex. If you assume it's your husband but then discover it's not, you realize you're being raped and you fight and scream. And if you wake up and you're not sure who's on top of you, you're going to fight to make the person stop until your brain can make sense of the situation and figure out who it is. Why will you react this way? Because in reality, you don't want to have sex with anyone other than your husband, and because you accept having sex with your husband as a normal, safe activity.
Did you catch the implication? If you are not sure who you are having sex with, you cannot fantasize, because your entire body and all your thoughts will be in fight-or-flight mode. It is only when you are safe and secure in the certainty that you are in your husband's physical arms that your imagination is free to soar.
What kinds of sexual fantasies do people have? Here are the results of a non-scientific survey Grandma Elizabeth conducted by phone and email with 35 wives and 34 husbands who had been married at least 10 years. The questions were based on fantasies during intercourse. Clearly, the women surveyed indicated more active imaginations during sex...
Figure 27. Female Fantasies
Figure 28. Male Fantasies
1 Imagination is a complex cognitive process of forming a mental scene that includes elements which are not, at the moment, being perceived by the senses. Despite being studied since at least Plato, well over 2000 years ago, it is not well understood by science. Nevertheless, "Researchers have found that imagery plays a significant role in emotion, motivation, sexual behavior, and many aspects of cognition, including learning, language acquisition, memory, problem-solving, and perception." - Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology