“Is masturbation a sin?”
I intentionally did not address this question when I wrote my book for men on sexual purity. My reason was not from fear of talking about controversial or sensitive subjects, it was because I didn’t want those who disagree to tune me and the rest of my message out. I thought it would be an unnecessary distraction. Because whenever you talk about masturbation, no matter your stance, people will disagree.
After counseling men through over a dozen online small groups and fielding many questions via email from blog readers and podcast listeners, can you guess what I get asked most often?
“Is masturbation a sin?”
So it’s time to give my best effort at an answer to this question. Before I do, I want to lay down some ground rules. I am answering this question out of need in hopes of helping those who ask me, not because I’m on a crusade for this stance. I answer it humbly. I answer it in full respect to the stances that would disagree with mine. I also answer it pragmatically, as a practitioner helping guys in the real-life daily grit and grind of their private lives, not from an ivory tower of academia or ivory pulpit of pastoral preaching, nor for any delight in theoretical arguing and debating.
One more preface before I jump in: I answer this as a man who counsels men in these sensitive, vulnerable subjects, knowing full well that women struggle with masturbation as well. I by no means am assuming to be an expert on women’s masturbation tendencies, though I do believe the biblical argument I make will have application across gender differences. I trust that female readers can use discernment in applying what is directly applicable to them and to show grace to me for the parts of their wiring and struggle that I am uninformed on. I welcome female readers in to benefit from this article, with the disclaimer that my experience is as a male and in talking about masturbation habits among males.
What do others say about masturbation?
It’s helpful to begin this conversation by showing that faithful Christians disagree on this subject.
The classic view on masturbation in the conservative evangelical church is that it is always a sin. I don’t feel it’s necessary to quote names behind this view, because it feels like the predominant view in the circles I run in, and it’s not my intent to call anyone out here. I also know many individual men who I counsel who hold this view, as well as many close friends of mine. I have a ton of respect for this view.
I also think those who hold this view often don’t know that there are others out there who hold a different view. I know that used to be the case for me. I held this view and was pretty passionate about it. The sexual purity books I read in college backed up this view and I was committed to it. I remember the first time I heard a differing view from this one: I was in college and heard a youth pastor teaching his middle schoolers about masturbation and telling them it was not a sin and even gave instruction about what it was (with the teens’ parents present). I was in shock and adamantly disappointed.
I once taught a teen how I stopped the habit of masturbating and gave him instruction on how to quit like I did. How to reframe the thoughts and urges that tempted him. He then told his dad what I taught him and his dad was very upset with me. His dad was a brilliant doctor, as well as a faithful, biblically conservative, follower of Jesus. His dad told me that masturbation was a natural part of development for the male body and was God’s way of giving a man sexual release who isn’t married. He told me what I taught his son (and other young men) was heaping an incredible amount of unneeded shame on them–telling them something was a sin that God has designed their bodies to naturally do.
In his book Preparing for Adolescence – Straight Talk to Teens and Parents, biblically conservative poster boy Dr. James Dobson says:
It is my opinion that masturbation is not much of an issue with God. It’s a normal part of adolescence which involves no one else. It does not cause diseases, it does not produce babies, and Jesus does 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.
In Helping the Struggling Adolescent, Les Parott III writes:
In a life stage that is typically fraught with insecurity, anxiety, and turmoil, the search for the pleasures of masturbation may become compulsive. When this occurs, compulsiveness, not masturbation is the problem that needs to be addressed. Teens need not be obsessed with or mastered by masturbation. (p.247)
And for a view talking to male and female adults, rather than teens, here is Christian psychologist and marriage counselor Dr. Kevin Leman, from his popular book Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage:
Some of my readers might be getting red in the face right now, thinking, ‘Dr. Leman, are you asking me to masturbate?’
Sometimes I hate that word, simply because of the connotations that have become associated with it. When husbands or wives stimulate themselves to climax to avoid intimacy with their spouse or to participate in pornography or something like that, they are, in my view, acting in a selfish and destructive manner. However, when a wife is learning to respond sexually to her husband so that the two of them can enjoy a deeper and richer sexual experience, she is working toward greater intimacy, not less–just like a husband who is trying to learn ejaculatory control or who is on a long business trip may occasionally use self-stimulation to strengthen his marriage rather than weaken it. (p. 97)
I give these examples not to argue for or against them, or to give testimony for my view. I give them to show there is a diversity amongst faithful Christians when it comes to the topic of masturbation, particularly for those who have never realized such diversity exists. Whatever your view on masturbation, this diversity helps us approach the subject humbly and respectfully.
What does the Bible say about masturbation?
A primary goal of mine with a question about masturbation is to not add anything to the Bible and to not remove/ignore anything in the Bible, no matter what we may or may not have been taught in church up to this point. Let’s briefly look at what the Bible does and doesn’t say about masturbation and how masturbation is and isn’t related to lust and pornography:
- The Bible never mentions masturbation. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.
- Some fun facts about the Bible and masturbation: when Onan spilled his semen on the ground in Genesis 38:9-10, it had nothing to do with masturbation, as you will hear erroneously taught on occasion. Onan was bound by law to entering into a levirate marriage with his brother’s widow, and he refused to fulfill this duty.
- Leviticus 15:1-18 alludes to male masturbation, or at the very least to nocturnal emissions. It gives cleanliness instructions that are consistent with other non-sinful hygiene laws like women’s periods or intercourse between married couples. My point here is that if masturbation is what this text is referring to, it does not do so by condemning it as sin, but as treating it as a biological function of the human body. I’m not arguing it is referring to masturbation, but I don’t think it can be argued conclusively that it is not. It seems that masturbation would be included within the umbrella of this instruction.
- The Bible does tell us lust is a sin. See Proverbs 6:25, Matthew 5:27-28, among others. Lust simply means to long for or desire and can be applied to non-sexual things as well. In these passages, this longing and desire is sexually applied to a man or woman’s body who is not your spouse.
- So at this point, we can confidently conclude that when masturbation involves lust, the Bible says it is a sin. As masturbation and pornography often go together, it is easy to see how masturbation gets labeled a sin in the same way pornography does.
But can you masturbate without lusting? And if you can, would it be a sin? At this point, weighing what Scripture says and doesn’t say, we can conclude that if you can masturbate without lusting, then it is not a sin.
But this is not nearly the end of the conversation. At this point, we are simply laying out what Scripture says and doesn’t say, and being honest about it.
If you can masturbate without lusting, it is not a sin.
It’s black and white that pornography is lust, thus masturbation associated with porn is sinful. But what about masturbation without porn involved? Things are about to get murky.
If you are masturbating while thinking of pornographic images, you are lusting and thus in sin. If you are masturbating while thinking lustful (sexually desirable) thoughts about a woman from real life, you are lusting and sinning. This would fit directly into the thoughts Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:27-28.
If you are masturbating as a physical-act-only without thinking about another person, you aren’t sinning. (This does not mean this is a good idea or recommended, which we’ll get to in a moment).
If you are masturbating while thinking about your spouse, an argument could be made that this is not lusting or sinning. See Dr. Kevin Leman’s quote above.
I had a married guy I was counseling confess to me that he was masturbating. He was an absolute wreck about his perceived failing, sobbing in shame. He told me that masturbating was the same as sleeping with another woman and he couldn’t face the shame that he had cheated on his wife.
Masturbation is not the same as sleeping with another woman. This man had not cheated on his wife.
Let me repeat that: masturbation is not the same as sleeping with another woman.
I would never call masturbation good, but I will say loud and clear is it better than sleeping with another woman and would question anyone who disagrees.
It is also better than looking at pornography.
I’m not advocating for masturbation, but I am saying we need to stop heaping this type of unbiblical shame on it. And while better, longterm solutions are optimal and should be sought for, if masturbation is keeping you from pornography or having sex outside of marriage (either premarital or extramarital), then it is helping you more than it is hurting you.
I was counseling a divorced, single guy who just could not stop masturbating and he was really down on himself up for it. He had gone through multiple rounds of my beyondthebattle.net groups with me and had made huge strides in his overall sexual purity, with tons to be celebrated, but masturbation would just not leave him. In fact, he’d be capable of physically restraining himself from masturbating, but his mind and body, generally speaking, would literally just go crazy, in constant torment. Not spiritual or lustful torment, but physiological, body chemical torment (that I’m sure someone way smarter than me could explain scientifically). He found he’d have to masturbate to give his body the physical release it was seeking, then his brain and body chemicals would go back into normal balance. I counseled him to call this “maintenance masturbation.” He was not thinking of lustful thoughts and was not longing to masturbate, meditating on it, feeding it with images, or looking forward to it. But it kept him sane. This can be the best option for some people. If you have a better option, let me know and I will pass it along to my friend. Sometimes we have to simply give the best option available, with no perfect option presenting itself, which is often what happens when we get away from blog banter and into the grit of real life.
With this said, there are many ways that any controlled approach to masturbation can easily get out of control and put you back into the black and white “sin” category. It’s easy to say you won’t think of lustful images, but then to do so on autopilot. These lustful thoughts can also lead you back to a prior connection between masturbation and porn or other stimulating images, giving you an appetite to seek those things out. Masturbation can also become addictive, where it stops being something that is periodic maintenance and becomes something automatic or that you are dependent on. While you’ll find some like Dr. Leman who give concessions for masturbation within marriage, this is especially dangerous ground as masturbation can easily become a substitute for taking the effort to pursue your spouse, even if done with the best intentions.
I have several friends and men I’ve counseled who are dead set against masturbation. For them there is no delineation from masturbation and its accompanying lustful thoughts. For them, as soon as they make a compromise with masturbation, they inevitable get sucked in to the exact dangers I mentioned above. I fully respect this and support these men in holding them accountable to end masturbation as a habit in their lives. For those able to eliminate masturbation from their lives, this is the best option by far.
But does this mean masturbation should be avoided at all costs by everyone?
No, I don’t think so.
Does this mean masturbation should be celebrated and encouraged?
No, I don’t think so.
At the end of the day, you have to be fully transparent and honest before God about your heart and your intentions when it comes to masturbation. You have to know if you are deceiving yourself and masturbation is leading you into sin or if it is truly something that is keeping you from sin. You need to talk to God and listen to what he says.
I am not a prophet. Take my voice as one voice out there. Read books. Talk to accountability partners. Talk to a mentor. Talk to your pastor. Talk to your doctor. Discern with the Holy Spirit. One of the reasons I haven’t wanted to write on this subject is that I don’t want to lead anyone into sin. I take that very seriously. But the reason I am writing on it now is because my silence on it, and the assumption by many that it’s always wrong all the time, has led them into the unnecessary shame of legalism. And for some, its absence has led to the much greater sins of pornography and pre or extramarital sex. And then there’s others just banging their heads against the wall, trying everything they can to stop, literally going crazy, that I hope this brings some peace to.
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