18 Jan 2018
One of the frequently asked questions at a Harvest USA seminar is whether masturbation is a sin. There has been a lot of debate on this issue in Christian circles, largely because it’s a behavior without a condemning, biblical proof text. Although I can’t point you to a specific chapter and verse forbidding this behavior, God’s design for sexuality makes it clear that there is no room for masturbation in the life of a Christian.
As I’ve written elsewhere, there is theological significance to our sexuality. Two things are crucial to have at the forefront when considering solo sex. First, in the Bible sexual activity is always reserved for marriage. It is designed to be inherently relational, a deep knowing of and intimacy with another. Second, the goal of sex is selfless service, the pleasuring of another. 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 much 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. Further, far from selfless service, masturbation is a picture of incarnate selfishness. To engage in this behavior is to say, “In this moment, what matters most is that I experience the most intense pleasure possible.” This is radically against the call of discipleship described above.
And there are practical considerations here as well. Even if it’s possible to masturbate without the use of porn or sexual fantasy, a single person is programming him or herself with a self-focused sexuality. If the Lord provides a spouse, this individual will not approach marriage looking to selflessly serve another. The focus of sex will be getting “my needs” met. Admittedly, all couples need to grow in practicing God-honoring, selfless sexuality, but masturbation places singles in a more challenging position.
Similarly, a married person is defrauding his or her spouse through masturbation. A healthy sex life takes work in marriage, requiring selfless emotional and spiritual investment, as well as learning to physically serve someone built very different from yourself. Masturbation selfishly takes the easy road of personal gratification at the cost of deepening oneness and intimacy in marriage.
And 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 (unlike oxygen, water, food, or shelter). This is not to say that living with unsatisfied sexual desires is easy! We should have great compassion for singles living in celibate faithfulness to Christ and couples languishing in sexless marriages. The reality is that sex is a wonderful blessing – a good gift from God – but it is not a source of life in and of itself.
The reality is that sex is a wonderful blessing – a good gift from God – but it is not a source of life in and of itself
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 of the gift 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.
We should seek comfort in ways that can facilitate deepening fellowship with God. A helpful gauge of whether your pursuit of comfort is drawing you closer to the Giver or not 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.” Does whatever activity you are doing invite you to engage God and give thanks to him?
Wise Christians will tread this road carefully; we don’t want to heap shame on those struggling with masturbation. If we are honest, the issue is virtually universal for all of us at some point in our lives. This should mean we show compassion as those who can empathize. But we never want to shrink back from calling out sin for what it is. We want to invite people to return to their First Love, the One who has promised pleasure forevermore at his right hand.