Masturbation. The topic isn’t mentioned in the Bible. This is curious since God is neither shy nor concerned about offending us in how He addresses sexuality throughout Scripture. Likewise, it is reasonable to assume that masturbation is not a modern phenomenon, but that men and women in the Old and New Testaments struggled with it too.
I’ve interacted with hundreds of single men and women who battle intense sexual longings and temptation. You may have a history of sexual exploitation that opened the door to masturbation. Or maybe you are trying your very best to walk with integrity through a minefield of sexual temptation. The Bible reminds us in passages like Psalm 103:13-14 and Hebrews 4:15-16 that God is gracious towards us and understands our weaknesses. Might He have provided masturbation as an acceptable form of release for the single Christian?
The masturbation debate
The topic of masturbation is often shrouded in a cloud of shame — shame for past behavior, shame for having sexual desire, and shameful memories of getting caught in the act. A blanket “yes” or “no” to the question of masturbation fails to grapple with the deeper issues of what it means to honor God with our sexuality. As such, whenever we run into issues of Christian living without clear teaching from Scripture, we need to press more deeply into principles the Bible does teach. Here are a few things to consider.
- God’s design for sex matters.
We will never understand God’s plan for our sexuality without embracing the concept of covenant. A covenant is unlike any other relationship. It is a life-long commitment based on two peoples’ character.
God created marriage to be a sacred covenant between a man and a woman. Like every other covenant we read about in the Bible, the marriage covenant has a sacred symbol to seal, remember, and celebrate. Sex is the bodily symbol of two lives covenanted together as a metaphor of Christ’s covenant with the Church (see Ephesians 5:31-32). Any genital sexual expression that is not a celebration of covenant falls short of why God created sex.
You might argue that masturbation isn’t sexual sin because it doesn’t involve another person; in fact, some single women up the ante with sex toys that simulate the sensations of intercourse. But when we understand the connection of sex to covenant, we realize that masturbation is, at best, an incomplete expression of sexuality. The covenant of marriage is hard work! God has given a husband and wife the journey and experience of sexual intimacy to celebrate that hard work. The dopamine, adrenaline and oxytocin a brain releases during sexual arousal and climax helps a husband and wife bond as they weather the challenges of marriage. You may have learned to use masturbation like a drug, to release those chemicals and hormones to make life more tolerable. But to intentionally pursue sexual pleasure outside of marriage as a way of coping with life is a misuse of the gift of your sexuality.
- Your thoughts matter.
For most people, masturbation is paired with sexual thoughts, fantasies, or pornography. Jesus is extremely clear in Matthew 5:28: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This truth applies to men and women, single and married. What you think about sexually has spiritual consequences. If masturbation involves any form of thoughts or images of someone (even imaginary) you are not in covenant with, you are nurturing lust in your heart. We must recognize this as sexual sin.
In today’s porn-saturated world, it’s unfortunately normal to have memories, images and thoughts that plague us even in our dreams. But they don’t have the right to control us; we fight temptation with the power of the Spirit. As Martin Luther once said, “You can’t keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Masturbation often nurtures sexual thoughts, intentionally using them for the purpose of sexual release.
- Your conscience and convictions matter.
In his letters to both the Romans and Corinthians, the Apostle Paul emphasized the importance of conscience. If you are convicted by the Holy Spirit about the issue of masturbation, you need to act on that conviction.
However, Paul did state that on some issues of Christian living, different people may have different convictions. Masturbation that does not involve lustful thoughts, images or fantasies may be one of these issues of personal conviction and thus be perceived as an acceptable way of managing overwhelming temptation. But for most, I’d argue it feeds unwanted sexual desires and creates relational and spiritual distance. Case in point: Some research shows that masturbation may increase sexual desire instead of curbing it. This appears to be true particularly for women, suggesting that it is an ineffective way of managing your sexual desire.
Sexual maturity, not just morality
Not surprisingly, most people I counsel want me to definitively answer the question: “Is masturbation a sin?” While this is an important question, I think we need to plumb deeper to get to the underlying issue involving the heart.
The fact is, God’s will for you is not only that you would be a sexually moral person, but also that you would be a sexually mature Christian. True sexual maturity does not come from experimentation and exploration, as our current culture supposes. Instead, it means growing to understand and steward the gift of your sexuality for God’s glory. Masturbation is not simply an issue of morality; it is also a question of maturity.
Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I thought like a child, reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” If not expressly sinful (again, there is no specific verse we can point to), masturbation is an immature form of sexual expression. There should be a maturity difference between the 14-year-old, hormonally charged new believer and a 30-year-old who has walked with the Lord for many years.
What does it look like practically to mature sexually as a follower of Christ Jesus? Here are a few questions to ask yourself as helpful guideposts:
Are you increasing in self-control and other fruit of the Spirit?
Masturbation is not a long-term solution to sexual desire and loneliness. Your relationship with God should result in a growing sense of surrender to the work and power of the Holy Spirit in every area of your life. As you mature, you will increase in your ability to endure 30 minutes of intense temptation. This is not only true for sexual temptation, but also that urge to gossip, overeat, or tell a lie. Relying on the Holy Spirit, you are less vulnerable to giving into what your flesh longs for.
Do you have a safe place to talk about sex?
Sadly, it’s not easy to find Christian resources on sensitive topics like this one. The silence among Christians around sexuality can be deafening. It makes you believe you are the only one who struggles. In truth, most of those in your small group and social circle battle some form of sexual issue. It may not be the same as yours, but you are not alone. Discipleship happens when Christians share the journey of pursuing Christ in all areas of life, including sexuality. You need a trusted small group, mentor, counselor or friend with whom you can honestly share struggles, questions and failures.
Are you developing genuinely intimate relationships, including friendships?
We live in a culture that consistently sabotages our attempts to form significant relationships yet serves up sex as a viable alternative. You can live a fulfilled life without sex, but the same cannot be said of intimacy. For many, masturbation and other forms of sexual release mask their deeper longings for connection, love and belonging. You can have your calendar filled with meetings and gatherings while starving to be known and understood by another person. Maturity means recognizing your longing for intimacy beneath what you may experience as sexual desire. Mutually supportive and accountable same-gender friendships are a great place to practice vulnerability, companionship and care.
Have you addressed wounds and shame from the past?
I know women who began genital self-soothing as young children in direct response to sexual abuse or other trauma. To tell such a person to “stop masturbating” without addressing the underlying pain is not only counterproductive, but piles shame upon shame. Jay Stringer’s award-winning book “Unwanted” eloquently explains how past trauma often feeds our unwanted sexual desires. Your healing journey is an indispensable part of sexual maturity. Honoring God with your sexuality is not simply about avoiding sin, but ultimately involves inviting Him as Lord into every memory, every desire, and every aspect of your heart.
The message of the Bible is a call for us to know, love and glorify God with every area of our lives. If you truly want to know what God thinks about masturbation, ask Him. He is not shocked by your question, nor will He withhold His answer to you. Our gracious God longs for His children to honor Him by saying “no” to sin and also by saying “yes” to growing in wholeness and holiness.
Copyright 2022 Juli Slattery. All rights reserved.