The embarrassed cultural silence once surrounding masturbation has been replaced with loud, affirming voices. From an early 90s Seinfeld episode in which all the characters acknowledged their inability to refrain from this behavior to recent medical studies affirming the potential health benefits, masturbation has gone mainstream with much acclaim.
In the Christian community, evangelicals have wrestled for years whether masturbation is a sin, with voices on both sides. The debate exists because it’s a sexual behavior without a condemning “proof text.” And although there isn’t a specific passage forbidding solo-sex, if we have a robust understanding of God’s design for sexuality and an awareness of what it means to be Jesus’ disciples, it’s clear that there’s no room for masturbation in the life of a Christian.
Despite how outdated this position may be, parents must speak to their kids about masturbation. Most parents are confronted with a child’s exploration of his/her genitals at a young age. Much could be said here, but how you respond is crucial! You must never shame your child. At very young ages, perhaps the best thing to do is distract and redirect. As they get older, share how God created our genitals for something special in marriage, opening the door to have positive discussions about God’s design.
The Bible always reserves sexual activity for marriage. It is designed to be inherently relational, a deep knowing of and intimacy between a husband and wife.
We must teach our children there is theological significance to our sexuality (read my article in the Spring 2017 issue of harvestusa magazine, “Just What is Godly Sex?”, and my longer article on masturbation, “Solo Sex and the Christian”, in the September 2018 issue of Christian Research Journal).
Two things are crucial to have at the forefront when talking about masturbation with your kids.
First, the Bible always reserves sexual activity for marriage. It is designed to be inherently relational, a deep knowing of and intimacy between a husband and wife. Second, the goal of sex is selfless service; it is a way of giving wholly to the other, providing pleasure and joy in the deepest act of mutual vulnerability. This latter point is particularly clear from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, the only “how to” passage in the Bible prescribing sexual activity.
God designed sexuality to be like every other aspect of the Christian life: a turning away from selfish desires to honor God with my body and use it to serve others. Sex in Christian marriage should reflect the New Testament’s ethic in general. Describing discipleship, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is more than a proof text for the atonement; it is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be his disciple.
As a solitary activity, masturbation is not rooted in relationship with another. There is no opportunity for deepening intimacy and knowing of another. Furthermore, far from selfless service, masturbation is a snapshot of selfishness. This behavior proclaims, “What matters most right now is that I experience the greatest pleasure possible.” This is radically counter to the call of discipleship described above.
Parents must acknowledge the majority of teens are wrestling with masturbation. Are you willing to be vulnerable and discuss your own history with them? You can’t read Proverbs 5-7 without an awareness that the father addressing his son understands the lure of temptation. Particularly, Chapter 7 depicts a scenario that would deeply entice any young man. The father clearly “gets it.” Honesty with our children includes not shrinking back from the reality that sin is incredibly alluring, even to us. Although you will always be their parent, the teen years are the time to begin maturing the relationship, having side-by-side adult conversations, not speaking down to them as children.
Let me point out a very real danger that has only been around for the last couple of decades: Internet porn is a whole new beast, and masturbation is the goal of much pornography use.
This issue of masturbation is an invitation to a deeper level of discipleship with your teens, calling them to a fuller understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, pointing them to how he wants to meet them in the pain of their unsatisfied desires and empower them by his Spirit. Christ wants our children to learn the critical truth, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” because in our weakness “the power of Christ [rests] upon [us]” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). And it is a time when teens can learn that the Christian life and growth in holiness requires community. There is no significant sin struggle that God wants us to face with him alone. He placed us in the Body for a reason. This issue can help kids consider how they turn to false comforts to cope with the challenges of life (what the Bible calls idolatry) and how to increasingly bring their pain to God and others.
Some parents say masturbation isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t hurt anyone. Let me point out a very real danger that has only been around for the last couple of decades: Internet porn is a whole new beast, and masturbation is the goal of much pornography use. It is overwhelmingly likely today that your child will see online sexual images, some violent and degrading, and this can radically shape their hearts and attitudes about sex and relationships. Masturbation, especially if it becomes a habitual behavior, is programming your child with a self-focused sexuality. If the Lord provides a spouse one day for your child, he or she will approach marriage to get personal “needs” met, not looking to selflessly serve another. An inner fantasy world, especially when amplified by pornography, relegates other image-bearers, loved by God, to objects for my personal consumption.
That highlights another problem. Many Christians justify masturbation because our culture elevates sexual desire to a physical “need.” But the hard truth is, no one has ever died for lack of sex. This is not to say that living with unsatisfied sexual desires is easy! Sex is a wonderful blessing, a good gift from God, but it is not a source of life. We need compassion for our children as they mature sexually and learn to live chastely.
Wise parents will tread this road carefully; we don’t want to heap shame on our children for having sexual bodies and desires.
Are Christians just too uptight about sex? Isn’t this repressive? Not at all. We believe God invented pleasure and gave us the capacity to enjoy it in all kinds of ways. But he also prescribed the ways certain pleasures should be expressed. All pleasures can entice our hearts to supplant the Giver to worship the gift instead.
Finally, most secular therapists agree that masturbation is a means of self-soothing and finding comfort. Here’s the problem: God declares himself to be the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). He wants to meet us in our sadness, loneliness, and frustration. He promises to satisfy “you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5). There is a danger when we turn to things of this world to soothe the ache in our soul. Jonah 2:8 warns, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (NIV). When we embrace the false and fleeting comforts of this world to satisfy the deep longings of our soul, we will not find lasting satisfaction or a balm for our yearnings.
Now, desiring comfort is not bad. But we must seek comfort in ways that can facilitate a deepening fellowship with God. A helpful gauge for whether or not your pursuit of comfort is drawing you closer to the Giver is the lens of Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Here’s a good question to ask your children: does whatever activity you are doing invite you to engage God and give thanks to him?
Wise parents will tread this road carefully; we don’t want to heap shame on our children for having sexual bodies and desires. It is important to affirm the inherent goodness of your children’s sexual desires as you call them to wise stewardship. Many young couples raised in Christian homes struggle when they transition to marriage: the repeated refrain of their childhood was “just wait,” but the focus on restraining the sin unwittingly sent a very negative message about sexuality. Tragically, now invited to experience this gift, some couples continue in a sense of guilt and shame.
As we call our kids to sexual obedience, the hope of the gospel must loom large overall. Their elder Brother who understands human frailty and temptation is also their advocate interceding for them, having covered their failings with his own blood. We need to make clear that sexual perfection is impossible on this side of things. God’s love and mercy in Christ must be the most consistent message we proclaim to our children! If we are honest, masturbation is virtually universal at some life season. This fact should drive us to talk with our kids openly, frankly, with compassion, grace, and practical strategies to help.
This blog post also appears in our Fall 2018 harvestusa magazine, along with other articles for parents and families.