Is masturbation good or bad?


Now, wasn’t that helpful?

The truth is, masturbation is never mentioned in the Scriptures, regardless of how many horny men and women seeking to wish a simple “yes” or “no” into existence (and claim it to be God’s irrefutable answer) throughout history wish it were.

To use classic XXXChurch language, “floggin’ your dolphin” has been debated, ignored, and flatly proclaimed sinful on unbiblical grounds, with the majority of us (including myself) shaking our we-know-better fists at the sky and rebuking God (which is never a great idea) for not having addressed every conceivably possible stroke (ahem) we might take in this life.

So let’s lay a common misconception to rest (or, at least, one that has been misconceived in the past). Early rabbis mistakenly interpreted a text in Genesis 38:6-10 about a guy named Onan – who was said to have “waste[d] his semen on the ground” – to mean that he was masturbating and ejaculating all over the ground. A verse or two later, God killed Onan. Apparently, following some sort of deductively valid reasoning, I can therefore claim that if you masturbate, God is going to kill you, which is, at best, wonderfully humorous. (Although, I suppose, since all sin leads to death, it’s also entirely frightening – but that’s a different tangent entirely – and we haven’t even defined masturbation as sinful yet). The point that I just made is not even the point that I’m getting at, which is that Onan wasn’t killed for masturbating – he was killed for not fulfilling the custom of a levirate marriage after his brother died and left his wife widowed – which required that Onan step in, be a man, and make babies with his brother’s widow so that his lineage might be carried on. Onanism, therefore, was not the sin of masturbation, it was coitus interruptus in direct disobedience to God’s decreed will that Onan should not just take sex from his brother’s wife, but give her children so that his brother’s lineage may continue for future generations.

So that section is out.

I’ll admit that I’ve landed on both sides of the coin over the years, and while we can’t make a blanket statement which calls all masturbation sin when God does not, we do have Biblical basis for rejecting its common accompaniments – pornography and lust, addiction and slavery (“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” – 1 Cor 6:12). Are we choosing to live out the “passions of our flesh” and “desires of the body” instead of pursuing the “immeasurable riches of his grace” which saved us, as is spoken of in Ephesians 2? Is masturbation accompanied by a distancing shame? Is it accompanied by the objectification of men or women? Does it build up a false idea that sexuality is only about self-gratification, rather than a mutual bond and pleasure as shared by “two becoming one?”

If you want to know the truth, I feel rather insecure writing on this topic, because where pastors, churches and even ministries like ours have been known for counseling people away from masturbation, there are instances where it is acceptable (in marriage, for example, with your spouse, or with permission from your spouse, etc). I have also heard many single people argue that they can masturbate without lusting after another man or woman and, if I am going to be entirely transparent [which I feel is necessary so that whoever you, reader, may be, hopefully my sincerity will at least be trustworthy (although one can be entirely sincere and entirely wrong), and you can take my “truth” back to the Bible and check it there], there have been times in which I have legitimately believed taking part in this act, sinlessly, was possible.

However (before everyone gets on here and cuts my head off, or I get kicked out of the XXXChurch team), always erring on the side of caution, I would say that I am quite prone towards self-deceit in the name of doing what I want, as we all are. The question should never be “how far can I go before I have gone too far?” or “what actions can I participate in while still towing the line between acceptable and sinful?” The question should be: “How can I be more like Jesus?” I wonder if masturbation meets that end?

We are treading on thin ice above murky water with this topic, and while I am not seeking to be liberally wishy-washy with what is a very serious concern, I do not want to speak as though I were God and, 1) condemn someone unjustifiably or 2) enable someone who is in sin. A frivolous world will scoff at even a second thought given to sin associated with a “normal” action, and a religious legalist will gasp at even the thought that masturbation could ever be permissible.

I will end with a quote that I have since adopted as what I consider the best argument against masturbation (or fixing / habituating yourself towards any sort of potentially-permissible-yet-not-necessarily-profitable action). Since the majority of masturbation is directly related to pornography (which is inarguably sinful, destructive, and a slew of other things that lead to death), I would challenge you to take this Christian biopsychologist’s research to heart, and pray about what you are habituating yourself towards – the true Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate fulfillment of joy and pleasure, or some sort of false, functional savior, who would trick you into settling for instant gratification in the form of cheap counterfeit pleasure.

“As we fall deeper in the mental habit of fixating on these images, the exposure to them creates neural pathways. Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography… When sexual images come through the visual system they stimulate sexual arousal. When there is a male performer, they can (via the mirror neurons) vicariously participate in the sexual act. If they arouse themselves and masturbate to pornography, they now begin to set in place a neurological habit. The images, arousal, masturbatory act and ejaculation are all associated with one another. This is how pornography addiction and sexual compulsion is built from scratch. It involves the visual system (looking at porn), the motor system (masturbating), the sensory system (genital stimulation) and neurological effects of orgasm (sexual euphoria from opiates, addictive dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and reduced fear in the amygdale). They have now begun to store this pattern as a reinforced neurological habit.”

  – William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.)

I think that after years of participating in the bickering, my focus must come back to this: does masturbation glorify the Lord? C.S. Lewis may put is best in The Weight Of Glory: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

May we settle for nothing less than the pursuit of righteous purity that God has designed in order to gift us with incomprehensible joy.