“My mother caught me!” lamented George Costanza, in an episode of the TV show Seinfeld. Of course, he was referring to being caught masturbating. That episode famously brought to light a subject that remains difficult to talk about. Whether you are young or old, male or female, married or single, you likely have some experience with masturbation. Your experience may be one of shame and embarrassment over your habit of masturbation – a habit you have fought to overcome. You may be a single person who uses masturbation as a way to experience sexual release, or a married person who feels guilty for hiding your habit from your spouse. Does masturbation have a place in the life of Jesus’ followers?
If we listen carefully to what the bible says, we will find that when it comes specifically to the topic of masturbation…God is silent. (Genesis 38:8-10 has been cited as a biblical argument against masturbation; however, the context makes it clear that God was punishing Onan not for masturbation, but for failing to fulfill his obligation to produce an heir for his brother.) That’s right – you could read all 1189 chapters in the bible, and not once does the bible mention masturbation. That’s significant, given the fact that the bible deals with a whole lot of topics, many of which are just as personal, and just as explicit as masturbation. What that means is that we have to be careful about making blanket statements about masturbation being a sin.
That said, however, it’s important to recognize that masturbation is not God’s ideal plan for us. God designed us as sexual beings. That means that we are created with sexual desires that are as deep and unique as our personality. But God also created our sexuality to be communal; that is, our sexuality is meant to be a way that we share the most intimate part of ourselves with our spouse. Sex finds its fulfillment not in orgasm, but in the experience of vulnerability and intimacy that we experience with the one to whom we are bonded for life. The apostle Paul wrote about sex, “the wife’s body dos not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). In that context, Paul was urging Christians to give themselves sexually to their spouse, because they are in essence, one flesh.
When it comes to masturbation, this means that there is a sense in which it falls short of God’s ideal for our sexuality. Solo sex is focused on my needs, my gratification, and my pleasure, perhaps to the exclusion of my spouse. Thus, to borrow again from Paul, masturbation may (in some cases) be permissible, but not necessarily beneficial.
Once upon a time, it was taught that masturbation would lead to a whole host of physical problems: blindness, impotence, hairy palms, or an inability to orgasm. Of course, these myths now sound absurd. Yet there are ways in which masturbation can be harmful by leading us into sin. Masturbation often – though not always – can foster lust, especially when it is accompanied with pornography. Men in particular are prone to sexually explicit thoughts which may involve images other than his wife. Masturbation can also damage our relationships when it is used as a substitute for intimacy; after all, it’s quick and easy to have an orgasm on your own, if you aren’t concerned for the needs of your spouse. So, a habit of masturbation can become an easy substitute for the challenging yet necessary work of intimacy in marriage. Masturbation can also become addictive. When it becomes something you cannot stop, despite repeated efforts, or when masturbation takes precedence over sex in your marriage bed, it has become a cause for concern.
Suppose you find that you are able to masturbate occasionally without falling into the trap of lust, and suppose that, if you are married, you enjoy a healthy sex life with your spouse. Can masturbation serve a helpful purpose? There may be several ways in which it can, assuming that (if you are married) you are hiding nothing from your spouse.
So, what should you do about masturbation? In general, it’s necessary to consider whether or not you are honestly able to masturbate without lusting. If pornography is regularly a part of your masturbation, or if you have frequent sexual fantasies about people or situations that include people other than your spouse, or situations outside the biblical bounds of sex, then your masturbation habit is harmful. Beyond this, there are specific factors to consider, depending on whether you are single or married.
There are a few things that you need to consider. First of all, openness and honesty with your spouse are key. If you masturbate, but you cannot tell your spouse, or if there are aspects of masturbation that you keep hidden, then masturbation is hurting yourself, and your spouse. A healthy conversation would include talking about under what circumstances you would find it acceptable to masturbate. Do you give your spouse the opportunity to have sex with you, before deciding to masturbate? Does your desire to masturbate stem from a deeper issue in your marriage (sexual refusal, lack of intimacy, or other emotional pain, for example)? If so, masturbation is only serving to cover deeper issues that ought to be addressed. But if you can agree to be open and honest with one another, and if you can set healthy and biblical boundaries that you can both agree on, masturbation may be acceptable in your marriage.
If you are single, may masturbation play a part in your life? As a single person, you are no less a sexual being than a married person – and this is a part of how God has made you. Although masturbation is not the ultimate goal of our sexuality (whether we are married or single), masturbation may be a permissible way for you to manage your sexuality. Of course, this means that, like married people, you need to be careful to avoid lust that can be a part of masturbation. You may also need to reflect on if or how masturbation will be a factor in a future marriage. Is masturbation becoming an addiction? A means of stress relief? Will these patterns need to change after you are married? At the same time, masturbation can be a cause for significant guilt and shame, especially for single people. You may struggle with feelings of unworthiness or that you are somehow damaged goods. Some of this guilt may be false guilt – believing that you have sinned, just because you masturbate. From that sort of guilt, you can live free of shame, since God says nothing about masturbation. Some of the guilt may stem from your struggle with thoughts that are lustful, or with what seems like an addiction. Even here, we can be assured that there are no sins beyond the reach of God’s grace. God knows of your past, and your present, but that doesn’t change how he sees you, through Christ.
If masturbation is causing you to lust, if it is replacing sex in your marriage, if it has become a habit that you have trouble breaking, what should you do? As difficult as it may be, the most helpful option would be to confide in someone you trust – a pastor, a close friend, a counselor, or a mentor. They can help you by asking you every few days how you are doing, and by encouraging you, and praying for you. They can help you form a plan to get through a day or two at a time, and they can be there for you when you fail. If masturbation is causing pain in your marriage that isn’t resolved, speaking to a marriage counselor can help you work through this area. Again, one of the assurances that we have in the bible is that our Savior is not one who is unfamiliar with our temptations and struggles, but one “who was tempted in every way as we are, yet was without sin.” Jesus can relate to our weaknesses. And because he knows our weaknesses, and because he has conquered sin, he is for us both an advocate who defends us before God, and a Savior who gives us strength to break sinful habits.
Masturbation is a tough topic to tackle. At best, it’s embarrassing to talk about, even with our spouse – and at worst, it can be a cause for guilt and shame. Yet it remains a very real matter for nearly everyone. God’s word says nothing specifically about this subject, which gives us freedom – within boundaries – to find the place that it may have in our life.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra