HealingMarriageRelationships 9 minutes to read

Is my spouse’s struggle with lust, pornography, or other online behaviors biblical grounds for divorce?

If you’re married, you have probably thought about this question at one time or another. I think we all have. We wonder, “What would I be able to endure, and what would cause me to close off my heart and leave the marriage?

As a sexual integrity ministry, this is one question we often hear. Every day, Pure Desire helps couples who are dealing with the painful effects of lust, pornography, and infidelity in their relationship. It is truly remarkable to see how some marriages can overcome a destructive pattern of one spouse’s affairs. At the same time, it is truly heartbreaking to watch some couples divorce over emotional or mental infidelity. The level of behavior by the addicted spouse isn’t the determining factor of whether or not the marriage will make it.

But for some spouses, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 become a benchmark or standard that permits divorce if lust or pornography are involved:

But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:28 (NLT)

Is this what Jesus intended? In this blog, I hope to articulate a biblical response to this line of thinking.

As a disclaimer, let me be clear: this blog isn’t meant to be a comprehensive coverage of this idea or a definitive statement on divorce. Every marriage is unique and the challenges couples face are vast. Books should be, and have been, written on this topic. What I offer is an outline of my understanding of what we learn from Scripture.

First, let me address the fact that Jesus refers almost exclusively to men throughout this passage in Matthew 5, part of his message called, “The Sermon on the Mount.” Scholars widely agreed that Jesus was simply using the vernacular and speech of the day, not directing his comments only to men. His words “men” and “husbands” throughout this passage could be interpreted today as “people” and “spouses,” as many translations have written. His teaching here is not to men exclusively, but to all humanity.

With that in mind, let’s look at where Jesus starts this teaching—the context of the passage. Rather than focusing on Matthew 5:28, we need to understand why this verse is tucked into a much longer teaching about how we follow and observe the Law of God in Matthew 5:17-48. Early in this discourse, Jesus proclaims, “Unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisee, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

Almost immediately, we are given a verbal clue that Jesus is employing a literary device known as hyperbole. Hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration used to make a strong point. This is like when a parent says, “Do that and I will ground you for life!” We don’t actually intend to ground our 14-year old daughter for life (although we might feel that way). What we are expressing is how seriously we feel about their behavior. In this verse, Jesus is already pointing to the fact that righteousness is beyond our ability.

In rather frank terms, He goes on to describe how we should view anger. Simply focusing on the 10 Commandment’s injunction against murder, Jesus broadens our view of murder in a shocking way: 

But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. 

Matthew 5:22 (NLT)

Yikes. I’ve had no problem in my life of avoiding murder. But being angry at someone? Calling them an idiot? Guilty. Yesterday I found myself cursing at someone who cut me off in traffic. According to Jesus, I deserve hell.

So, I pose this question: Is Jesus intending that we treat anyone who hates another person as a murderer? Or, is he using hyperbole to help us see the extreme action we should take to deal with hate in our heart? This is his call to action—our physical behaviors aren’t the focus, but the condition of our heart.

Jesus then goes on to say this, which is the point of our discussion: 

But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So, if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be throw into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be throw into hell.

MATTHEW 5:28-30 (NLT)

Wow. That sounds pretty extreme, Jesus! But I would again ask you, was Jesus intending to create a society of one-handed, eye-less people? Or is he underscoring our need to take extreme measures to deal with current sin in our lives rather than risk missing out on heaven?

Now, let’s put these two passages together—the one about anger and the one about lust.

THE STARK REALITY IS THAT IF WE BELIEVE PORNOGRAPHY IS GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE, WE MUST ALSO BELIEVE THAT HATE IS GROUNDS FOR A MURDER TRIAL, AND CURSING SOMEONE IS GROUNDS FOR BEING CONDEMNED TO HELL.

Those aren’t my words. This is the full implication of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5, if we are being consistent with a literal meaning rather than hyperbole.

So was that his point? Because let’s be honest—based on his standards, wouldn’t we all need to be put on trial for “murder,” cut off a hand, or gouge out an eye at one point or another in our life? Was Jesus advocating for a world of people condemned to hell for fostering hate in their hearts?

I would argue, without doubt, no. Jesus was using hyperbole to create an awareness: not a single one of us can attain a righteousness worthy of heaven. Not a single person left to their own strength can live so well as to merit salvation. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 exposes the depth of our sin and our desperate need for him. His words should prompt us, not to condemn people to hell or divorce those who lust, but to bring ourselves wholly to him, admitting our deep need for grace and His Spirit to empower change in us.

Interestingly, Jesus then turns directly to the idea of divorce. He quotes the Old Testament law from Deuteronomy 24:1 (which, if you look at Deuteronomy is not even the point of this law) and says, “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’” In other words, for people in the Old Testament, divorce was a matter of emotion and opinion. I feel unhappy, therefore I am justified in making this decision. But Jesus confronted this wayward attitude when he addressed this same passage in Mark 10, saying, “He (Moses) wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts.

In Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to clarify, “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery.” The word here for “unfaithful” is Porneia. While this is the root word for pornography, it is NOT pornography that Jesus is referring to in this century or word usage. Not only would pictures or images of naked bodies been improbable in this time, but also the use of Porneia throughout Scripture is in reference to actual physical intercourse with anyone other than your spouse. It’s almost like Jesus knew that people would be tempted to take his previous comment about lust and adultery out of context, so he included a clarifying statement: the only biblical foundation for divorce is physical infidelity—intercourse—with another person. (Again, I am not trying to make a statement about all other kinds of divorce that have occurred in our world. I am simply trying to direct you to the record of Scripture on this topic.)

Jesus wraps up his teaching on following the law in Matthew 5:48 with these words, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” If you look at the life of Christ throughout the four stories written about him, you will see quickly that Jesus did not expect people to be perfect. He loved and forgave the broken, the sinful, and the arrogant. He called people, not to perfection, but to a perfect experience of the Father’s love that could only come through faith in him. To use this teaching as grounds for divorce over pornography is a tragic misunderstanding of Jesus’ point to all of us.

Lust or pornography in a marriage is painful.

It is deeply personal.

But lust or pornography alone is not biblical grounds for divorce.

However, Matthew 5 is a clear call to the person struggling with lustful thinking and acting. Jesus is calling that person to a life of holiness and purity that refuses to accept lust as okay and pornography as acceptable. Jesus is calling the one who is struggling to treat this sin as seriously as an affair and do whatever we must—no matter how extreme—to deal with this issue in our hearts and minds.

WARNING: 

The point of this blog is not for the offending spouse (the one struggling with lust or online pornography) to take to their wife or husband and say, “See! It’s not the same as adultery! I told you! You’re blowing it way out of proportion!” This blog is not your “get out of jail free” card. This is, instead, an opportunity for you to look at your own heart and ask for the courage of Christ to do whatever you must to eradicate this behavior from your life.

So what to do from here? Let me give you two thoughts in closing:

TAKE YOUR SPOUSE’S EMOTIONS SERIOUSLY

If they say it feels like adultery, then this IS their reality. Does it mean it IS the same as a physical affair? No—but it does mean that your spouse is attempting to communicate to you the depth of pain this behavior causes them to feel. 

I missed this point for almost 10 years in my marriage and it nearly cost me everything. I spent way too much time believing, “She just doesn’t understand,” when I needed to realize that I was the one who didn’t understand. Take their feelings seriously. Hear their heart. Let it motivate you toward deep and lasting change.


DON’T LET YOUR HURT DRIVE YOU TO DIVORCE

If you are the offended spouse, your hurt is real. The pain is real. But guard your heart from letting that pain be an all-too-convenient reason to write off the marriage. If everyone listened to this excuse, few would remain married today. However, do recognize that the reason you feel such intense pain is because your heart has been deeply bonded to your life partner. Rather than run from the pain, lean into it and seek to use it as a foundation to strengthen the relationship. It is okay to have honest, painful conversations. 

It is okay for you to ask them to stop this behavior. It is okay for you to expect change. But don’t let your emotion or opinion be the reason for a divorce. Jesus cautioned people against this 2,000 years ago and he calls us to the same today.


The topic of lust and pornography is never easy to navigate in a marriage relationship. But for those couples who are willing to face the struggle openly and honestly, the journey is truly life-changing. I implore you, if you’re not already, get into a Pure Desire group for recovery whether you are the one battling or the one being hurt by the battle. In a safe community, you can experience real healing and freedom, thus changing the trajectory of your marriage. Do whatever it takes—but please don’t gouge out your eye or cut off you hand. Jesus wants you whole—physically, emotionally, mentally and relationally.


The views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not reflect an official position of Pure Desire Ministries, except where expressly stated.

Avatar photo

Nick Stumbo

Nick is the Executive Director for Pure Desire. He has been in ministry leadership for 18 years. He was in pastoral ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, Washington, for 14 years. Nick has a Bachelor in Pastoral Studies from Crown College, an MDiv from Bethel Seminary, and is a certified Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP) through the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). He has authored two books, Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.

9 Comments

  1. frcz131

    Thank you Nick for your good and insightful article on this topic.

  2. swelljanelle

    As a spouse who has been betrayed for 47 years (44 of which we have been married), I feel the need to comment on this blog. First of all, thank you for your much needed ministry to addicts and spouses of addicts. Second, I can appreciate your interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew. I agree that some have probably used these words as quick and easy justification for getting out of an unpleasant or unhappy marriage. But, if your spouse has been betraying you for years or decades, and that betrayal has robbed you of any real intimacy – emotional and physical, isn’t that infidelity? Hasn’t he given himself to someone and something other than his spouse? Does unfaithfulness only mean physical contact? Does breaking every marriage vow not constitute unfaithfulness? If the betrayer has phone sex and/or online sex with a live person – is that not adulterous? I’m not talking about a few incidences of looking at pornography…I’m talking about decades of porn use and everything that goes along with it. I’m not planning to divorce my spouse, but I don’t think God forbids it in my situation or other women in similar situations. I know you put a disclaimer in your blog that it wasn’t intended to address every situation. My fear is that Christian women in dangerous situations with abusive husbands could read your blog and think they can’t leave their marriage because their husband hasn’t committed adultery. In my situation, I have been on the verge of suicide for that very reason. I know others who have believed suicide is their only way out of an unimaginable nightmare that is supposed to be a marriage, and have acted on that belief. I felt that this blog lacked the compassion betrayed spouses need from a group that is supposed to help them overcome that betrayal. The blog did include an acknowledgment of the pain that betrayed spouses endure, but honestly, I was offended at what came across as a minimization of pain that is all-consuming and completely devastating. I have been waiting to get into a Betrayal and Beyond group but this blog has given me pause. I don’t need a group leader to tell me I don’t have justification for divorce. Of course I understand the goal of your ministry is to help heal marriages, and indeed, I believe that is what God desires for us, but marriages can’t be saved if individuals can’t be healed. I also believe that God does not demand that we stay in a relationship where there is ongoing abuse. Just my opinion.

    1. Avatar photo Nick Stumbo

      Dear SwellJanelle,
      Thank you for your very balanced, thoughtful, and honest response! It sounds like you have been living in a very difficult situation, and I am sorry for all of the pain that you have had to endure. I appreciate your thoughts here and want you to know that I am listening. One line in particular gave me serious pause. You said, “what came across as a minimization of pain that is all consuming and completely devastating.” That is the last thing I want to do! Can you help me see where in the blog I did this? Was there a particular sentence or phrase, or was it the overall feel of the blog? I don’t want to minimize in any way how painful this situation can be.
      The situation you are describing feels, to me, like a very different situation than the blog addresses. In reality, this blog is much LESS an answer to the question “Is Porn Adultery” (to which I would say, yes, it is a form of adultery), and much MORE of an answer to the specific question, “According to Matthew 5, is Jesus saying that any porn/lust/fantasy is Biblical grounds for divorce?” In answering this question, I would have to consider the lowest factor- if a spouse looked at porn or lusted just ONE time, does the other spouse have a Biblical “right” to pursue divorce if they so choose? To which I would say (and did), no that is not the intent of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. Jesus, in Matthew 5, is actually speaking to the guilty party- the sinner- and telling them that their response to the sin of lust should be as severe as if they had committed physical adultery.
      Your situation, however, sounds to me like a spouse is involved in sin that is 1) persistent, 2) willful and 3) unrepentant. And by unrepentant, I don’t just mean “feel bad”- I refer to an unrepentant person as someone who is unwilling to turn from their sin and walk in a different way. I agree that this situation is an “unimaginable nightmare”. At what point could or should this person pursue divorce? I think that is a question best answered on a case-by-case basis, with the help of their friends and godly advisors. The issue here has grown beyond lust/fantasy/porn to be a deeper issue of the heart.
      As to whether or not Betrayal and Beyond is right for you- I believe you will find that this group is extremely helpful in addressing pain, understanding the trauma that you are in, seeing the impact of addiction in multiple ways, and also give you a community of caring women who are taking the same steps. I believe it would give you- or any spouse- the clarity and confidence needed to make a good decision about the future of the marriage- whether they stay or go. Perhaps it’s also helpful to know that I didn’t write any of it- the workbook is written entirely by Diane Roberts and is currently being re-edited by two women on our team, with input from APSATS.
      Thanks so much for your brave, honest feedback. I appreciate it, and apologize for how my words contributed to your pain.
      Grace and peace-
      Nick Stumbo

  3. [email protected]

    “DON’T LET YOUR HURT DRIVE YOU TO DIVORCE” : There’s a huge difference between hurt and harm. One instance of finding my spouse’s porn use and telling him that it hurts me, would leave me “hurt” (shock, sad, scared, confused, vulnerable) to recover from.

    However when he refuses to stop, it become much more than just “hurt” for women. Dr. Henry Cloud says, “There is a big difference between hurt and harm. We all hurt sometimes in facing hard truths, but it makes us grow. It can be the source of huge growth. That is not harmful. Harm is when you damage someone.”

    Repeated hiding of porn use is also deception – deception is emotional neglect and even emotional abuse. Secrecy will destroy the security of a relationship. Repeated use of porn, even though you know it separates you from your wife, causes your wife emotional damage – and in some cases trauma. Repeated porn use is abuse.

    That’s not simply, hurt, that’s harm, and deserves separation so she may lean into prayer, the Word and God’s voice reminding her of her worth. She’ll need it. Divorce might have to be the final healthy boundary that she employs, to keep her from further damage and trauma. That separation boundary now gives him a clear choice to choose recovery. His behavior after that, is cold, hard data about his willingness or ability to protect the relationship.

    No one can tell me what I experienced was only, “hurt”. It was trauma and damaging. To not acknowledge that, or tell a woman her emotions aren’t “appropriate to the situation” is invalidating and a form of gaslighting.

    A man’s refusal to stop using pornography even though he’s informed of what it does to his wife, is the informed choice he makes, to knowingly traumatize his wife. That’s a hill I will die on.

    1. Avatar photo Nick Stumbo

      Yes, I absolutely agree. It is an entirely different situation when someone’s porn use is persistent, willful, and unrepentant. The harm done is horrible. I feel that is ‘another level’ of circumstance beyond what I was addressing in this blog. Thank you for the insights.

  4. lmjohnson

    “Lust or pornography alone are not grounds for divorce.”
    I’m wondering how often we find that lust or pornography alone are causing the problems in the marriage. In my experience and according to my observation, lust and pornography are most often coupled with sexual and other forms of abuse, emotional withdrawal from the marriage, and, frankly, outright adultery in the physical sense (not to mention that online affairs in which the porn-addicted spouse is engaging in cybersex and vicious slander of the betrayed spouse are just as devastating.) So maybe “pornography and lust alone” don’t constitute grounds for divorce, but then again, maybe Jesus was making the point that unfaithfulness in one’s heart is unfaithfulness, period, and it might be wise for both spouse to treat it as such. Automatically grounds for divorce? No. But extremely serious, and not to be minimized.

  5. lmjohnson

    “Lust or pornography alone are not grounds for divorce.”
    I’m wondering how often we find that lust or pornography alone are causing the problems in the marriage. In my experience and according to my observation, lust and pornography are most often coupled with sexual and other forms of abuse, emotional withdrawal from the marriage, and, frankly, outright adultery in the physical sense (not to mention that online affairs in which the porn-addicted spouse is engaging in cybersex and vicious slander of the betrayed spouse are just as devastating.) So maybe “pornography and lust alone” don’t constitute grounds for divorce, but then again, maybe Jesus was making the point that unfaithfulness in one’s heart is unfaithfulness, period, and it might be wise for both spouse to treat it as such. Automatically grounds for divorce? No. But extremely serious, and never to be minimized.

    1. Avatar photo Nick Stumbo

      Yes, exactly! That’s a great way of stating it. I hope it didn’t come across in any way that I was minimizing porn use or lust. That is not my intent. Thanks for the comment!

  6. KM12

    Hi, Nick – First, I appreciate your ministry. I have heard you speak in a few videos, and I am sure that your heart’s intentions with this article were good. But, I have to be honest with you, I’m disappointed by it. For one thing, I’ve come to realize that you had already posted said article in 2018, and received a lot of negative feedback then. To post it again seems unwise. Like one commentator said in 2018, “It splits hairs and isn’t helpful for the audience it’s geared towards.” Given most of the women who are in this audience of readers have been in a relationship with a sexual addict (which means there has been ongoing, unrepentant sin for some length of time, and most likely with porn), it is just not well thought out with them in mind or communicated in a clear enough way. Furthermore, when you say above that “this blog is much LESS an answer to the question “Is Porn Adultery” (to which I would say, yes, it is a form of adultery), and much MORE of an answer to the specific question, “According to Matthew 5, is Jesus saying that any porn/lust/fantasy is Biblical grounds for divorce?””… well, for one thing — then maybe it would have been best to not title it as such because it definitely comes across that you are implying porn is not the same as adultery (which contradicts the statement you made above, saying it IS a form of adultery). And, for another thing, when you say “Lust or pornography in a marriage is painful. It is deeply personal. But it is not biblical grounds for divorce” … well, it very well may be in some cases. So, again, this is just splitting hairs and not well communicated given your audience. I believe that maybe what you are intending to say, is – one moment of lust or one time, or maybe even a few times, of slipping into pornography are not alone grounds for divorce… and while I would agree with you in that, your audience is not thinking that way given what most of them have been through. I speak as someone who has been dealing with my husband’s sexual sin (with porn specifically) for 12 years, and it has been an extremely long battle (even being in counseling or recovery that whole time) in which I have chosen to stay and continue to work through it, and praise God He is finally (more recently) getting to freedom… but I truly believe I did have grounds for divorce based on his lack of willingness to give it up for so long and that it is adultery/the breaking of our marriage covenant. And, yet, in every situation, each person has to decide what they feel the Lord is calling them to. I pray that you will pray about this and how maybe it is not as well explained or sensitive to partners as it could be, and how in the future it would be better to not talk about it in such absolute terms such as “It is not grounds for biblical divorce” and instead “It very well may be grounds for biblical divorce, depending on the situation.” This would probably bode much better with your audience, and be more accurate. The Covenant Eyes article, referenced in the 2018 comments, does a good job of being more careful to explain that it is not a black and white matter and that pornography can definitely be grounds for divorce. Thanks for being open to our feedback.

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