A Theology of Sex: Masturbation and Sin

It feels awkward to write about this subject in a public forum. One might call that evidence of a prudish background, and maybe that’s true. But average Christians, and our culture at large, are asking questions about masturbation. And as a pastor I want to do the best I can to help lead people in what the Bible says, even about something as “awkward” as this. I should add that I think if Christians can work on not making these conversations so awkward then we can more readily have conversations about Biblical sexual health.

Is masturbation a sin? I remember being a young boy in high school and hearing a guest speaker talk to a group of young Christian men saying that if they could resist the urge to lust then in theory masturbation was not a sin. It might seem like a convenient answer for a room full of young men, but it is actually a view supported by  a number of respected Christian leaders. It is not my view. But James Dobson has written about it, suggesting that masturbation “is not much of an issue with God.” He writes:

It is a normal part of adolescence which involves no one else. It does not cause disease. It does not produce babies, and Jesus did not mention it in the Bible. I’m not telling you to masturbate, and I hope you won’t feel the need for it. But if you do, it is my opinion that you should not struggle with guilt over it. Why do I tell you this? Because I deal with so many Christian young people who are torn apart with guilt over masturbation; they want to stop and just can’t. I would like to help you avoid that agony.” (Preparing for Adolescence – Straight Talk to Teens and Parents).

Here is what I note about Dobson’s response: it is rooted not in a whole theology of sex, but rather in a desire to ease the guilt of Christian teens who struggle with masturbation. As a counselor I can understand the impulse, but I hardly think that is a justification for making a moral case for masturbation. But Dobson is correct to point out that Jesus doesn’t mention masturbation, and in fact no where in the Bible do we find an explicit command prohibiting self-stimulation. I take that to mean, like so many things in the Bible, the morality of the action is determined by context.

Allow me to elaborate. Sex inside the boundaries of marriage is good and right. Sex outside of marriage is declared by God to be a sin. The act itself is not sinful, it is good and right. But the context in which it takes place can make it either morally acceptable or sinful. Inside marriage it is God-honoring, outside marriage it is sin. The same principle, I believe, can be applied to the subject of masturbation. Masturbation with a spouse is acceptable, and even sometimes might be desirable. But masturbation apart from a spouse, in isolation, or in conjunction with any form of lust is sin. I come to that conclusion based on a whole theology of sex.

Some people have tried to condemn masturbation outright by pointing to Genesis 38:9. Here we read about a man named Onan who would “waste his semen on the ground.” But that passage doesn’t condemn masturbation. The passage condemns Onan’s unwillingness to fulfill his duty to his brother by providing an heir to his deceased kin’s family line. Furthermore, the passage isn’t actually talking about masturbation. Onan isn’t self-stimulating, he is engaging in intercourse with his sister-in-law and interrupting the intercourse. So that isn’t a fitting place to start if we’re going to try to understand where and how (or even if) masturbation fits into the category of Biblical sexual expression.

The place to begin, then, is with the purpose of sex. We have said in previous posts that sex has multiple purposes. First, it is designed to glorify God. After all if eating and drinking should be done for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) then so should sex. Secondly, it is designed to build unity between a husband and wife. Sex exists to encourage a unique intimacy between spouses. Finally, sex is designed to continue the human race. Sex produces babies, not much more needs to be said about that. As we come to understand this grid, then, we can lay the act of masturbation over top of it and see where it lines up.

If masturbation can be done in such a way that it is within the confines of marriage, points us to the gospel, promotes the intimacy of married couples, and doesn’t have long-term negative affects to the continuance of the human race then it is acceptable. This means that masturbation that is done with your spouse as part of your building intimacy, and which isn’t the only way you engage in sex, is acceptable. There are any number of reasons why a couple might do this, but the point is that it can be appropriate in some contexts. But if we’re honest, masturbation rarely works this way.

Masturbation is most frequently used to pleasure one’s self, apart from a spouse, and is rooted in a selfish desire to simply get to orgasm. Intimate sex requires patiently caring for the other person’s needs as you pursue sexual unity. Part of the beauty of sexual intimacy is its sacrificial nature. Good sex can’t be all about yourself. It has to be about the other person. But masturbation is often nothing more than a desire for a quick surge euphoria. It’s about getting to the orgasm as quickly as possible with no thought or regard for another person’s need. furthermore, most solo masturbation is joined with lustful thoughts. If we’re honest it’s hard to see how solo masturbation could work apart from lust. If you are able to find arousal from thinking about tractors you probably have a much more serious problem.

I think it’s wise, then, for Christians to be careful about masturbation. It may not in and of itself be a sin, but if we are not careful it may lead us to other sins. If we try to make informed decisions from a whole theology of sex then we must see that solo-masturbation does not conform to God’s ideal. It focuses on self and tempts us to lust. In certain contexts it is perfectly fine, but we are always seeking to be the most honoring to God that we can, even in our sexual expressions.

It’s not always easy to write about and discuss these subjects. But sexuality and sexual expression are an important part of how God has made us. If we are going to be faithful to him in how we express our sexuality then we must think carefully about a host of related subjects, and masturbation is one of those subjects.

Comments

  1. Pastor Dave,

    Thank you for sharing this message. I’m going to share this post’s link on my blog for our Wednesday Focus! God bless.

  2. Here are 5 questions that sum it up for me. If my answer is no to any of these five questions – for me it is sin.

    Can you masturbate without lusting?
    Can you masturbate in a way that builds oneness with your spouse?
    Can you masturbate without experiencing shame?
    Can you masturbate with a clear conscience?
    Can you masturbate without giving in to the cravings of your sinful desires and thoughts?

  3. But don’t that kill babies though

  4. Won’t the babies be killed the sperm bc they are alive?

  5. you had me a “tractor” this was a timely and balanced view and in a time where it was necessary…thank you for having the fortitude to write and share this article. It is much appreciated as are your continued efforts in his name. Kind regards D In Cincinnati

  6. Richard Norris says:

    Is it a sin if you are single?

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