**Content Warning: This post may be a little graphic.**
Seeing the title of this post may be a little surprising to you but it’s a topic that I’ve been meaning to cover for a long time. And since I don’t have to prepare a sermon this week I thought that this would be a perfect time to work on it.
Why did I want to cover such a topic? Because it comes up a lot more than you might think in my counselling ministry. I’ve been asked the question, “Is it okay to masturbate?” many times over the years. I’ve been asked by men, women, teens, moms, dads, husbands and wives. I’ve been asked face to face by people in my home church and through e-mail by people all around the world who have contacted me through my blog. This is a relevant and important topic and I want to try to give it a proper treatment.
But since I don’t have to write a sermon this week, instead of writing it as a block of theological prose, I want to do it in the form of a conversation.
Three People One Conversation
Corrine (40): “Hi, Pastor Al. I’m the mother of a teen boy and a teen girl and I have a really personal question for you. What does the Bible say about masturbation? My son has started to take 20-minute showers and I’m starting to find laundry baskets full of sticky clothes and I’m sure he’s masturbating. My daughter probably is too, though I’ve never caught her. It makes me angry and scared and I want to yell at them and tell them to stop, but I don’t know what to say.”
Kyle (15): “Hey, Pastor Al. I’ve got a problem. Or, at least, I think it’s a problem. I don’t know. Maybe not. I know porn is bad and I’m not supposed to have sex before marriage and stuff, but what about masturbation? My school tells me it’s natural and healthy and some websites I’ve seen even tell me it’s good for my mental health, but I feel really guilty after I’ve done it. What does the Bible say about it?”
Ted (31): “G’mornin’, Pastor Al. Actually, I’m not doing very well today. I feel sad, sick, depressed, and angry. I’ve been married for a while now, and I love my wife, but my sex life is pretty much dead. Between work, the kids, her health, our busy schedules, her period, and everything else, we basically don’t do it anymore. And the last couple times we’ve done it, she’s been so unresponsive that it’s not even enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, and the rest of our marriage is pretty good, but it’s killing me that we can’t be together. I think I’m one of those men with high testosterone because I’m literally always horny. And I can hold it together for a little while, but after a few days, it’s all I can think about. I start to get angry and have sex dreams and feel irritable and depressed. That’s when I do it and I’m so sick of that cycle. I’ve been working really hard not to look at porn, though I do fail sometimes, but what about just doing it myself so I can stay sane? Am I allowed to just get myself off in the shower and be done with it? When I do I try to think of my wife. It makes me feel better for a bit – while at the same time it makes me feel guilty too. So, what do you think? Does the Bible even say anything about that kind of stuff?”
Pastor Al: “Wow, that sounds really tough, and I’m really glad you had the courage to come to me and ask about it. Not only that, I’m really proud of you that you are asking the question ‘What does the Bible say?’ because that means you want to do things God’s way and that shows humility and obedience. That’s really good. The first thing I need to ask you is this: What’s the pornography situation in your home right now? Do you have blockers on the internet or is it wide open? Is this question really about pornography or is it about masturbation?”
CKT: “Yes, we’ve got the blockers up and all that. Our house is locked down. The only place it can be accessed is through the data on the cell phones, but we have safe-guards on them and don’t have a tonne of data so that’s not really a big issue. This really is about masturbation.”
Pastor Al: “Ok, that’s good, because it’s an important distinction. What do you know already? I’m guessing you’ve already done some googling, right?”
CKT: “Some, but there are a million websites with a million different answers, and half of the response that come up are pornographic so I just gave up and came to you. But I did learn that Christians call masturbation ‘Onanism’ for some reason. What’s that all about?”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, let’s get that out of the way. Onan was a guy in the Old Testament who was killed by God because he ‘spilled his semen on the ground’ (Gen 38:9). Some people think this means that any man who ejaculates anywhere except into a woman’s vagina is sinning, but that’s now what it means. According to God’s law, if a married man died without a child, another one of his family members was obligated to marry the widow and sire a son so that the dead man’s property would be passed down to her son and the widow would be taken care of. Onan didn’t want to obey this law because he wanted the land for himself. He was happy to have sex but didn’t want to risk her getting pregnant, so whenever they had sex he pulled out. So Onan’s sin wasn’t ‘spilling his semen on the ground’, it was refusing to obey God’s law and not caring for the widow, but using her instead.”
Pastor Al: “But definitions are still important. Strictly speaking masturbation, simply put, is stimulating yourself in such a way that it produces sexual arousal. That’s it.”
CKT: “Ok, but is it a sin?”
Pastor Al: “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s actually no Bible verse you can go to that says that masturbation is either good or bad. There are lots of verses about sexual purity, but nothing about masturbation.”
CKT: “So it’s okay?”
Pastor Al: “Well, hold on. Let’s explore it a little bit more. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to say, it’s just that there’s no ‘gotcha verse’. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for example. The ESV gives this section the title ‘Flee Sexual Immorality’, right? Here, let me read it to you:
‘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. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul starts by saying, essentially, “Jesus has freed us from the Law that forced God’s people to eat, drink, wash, travel, clothe themselves, etc. in certain ways. Jesus fulfilled the Law and opened up the world to His people to enjoy and explore free from the restrictions of the Law which only brought guilt. But that doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want. Romans 6 says that Jesus doesn’t set us free to do whatever, but instead that we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:18). That means that even though we have tonnes of freedom in Christ, far more than any Jew or other hyper-religious nuts, there are still limitations because we are not our own, we are the property of Christ and He can tell us to do what He wants. Paul talks about some of those limitations in 1 Corinthians.
We all want a ‘gotcha verse’ to make this simpler, but there isn’t one. So, since there is no Law or scripture specifically against masturbation, then that means we have to ask some more questions, and I think this passage gives us 4 really good ones: “Is masturbation helpful?” “Is masturbation dominating me?” “Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?” “Does masturbation glorify God?”
CKT: “It sounds like you are saying that it’s bad, right? It’s hard to believe masturbation is helpful and God-glorifying!”
Pastor Al: “Not necessarily. Just because something doesn’t sound God-glorifying, doesn’t mean it isn’t. People starve themselves in fasting and that glorifies God. Police officers and soldiers kill people and that glorifies God. Parents punish and discipline their children and that glorifies God. And when doctors slice people open, fill them with poison, and blast them with radiation that causes them to be terribly sick to cure cancer – and that also glorifies God. Right?”
CKT: “Well, now I’m really confused.”
Pastor Al: “Hang in there because what we’re talking about isn’t as simple as ‘Don’t steal’ or ‘Be generous’. It’s more complicated because it has far more to do with your motives than your actions.”
CKT: “Ok, so how do I figure out the motive? From what I can tell it’s just horniness.”
Pastor Al: “Well, there’s a lot happening when someone masturbates, so let’s do a pros and cons list to see what’s actually going on behind the surface of the action. So, why do people masturbate?”
CKT: “Well, it feels good. But that’s not a good reason for anything, is it?”
Pastor Al: “It’s not a bad reason though. People do lots of things just because they feel good. People eat cake, which has very little nutritional value, but I never get asked whether the Bible says it’s ok to eat cake. People skydive and surf and look at art and get suntans and swim and get massages and back-scratches and their nails done… and none of that is in the Bible. They just do it because it feels good. That doesn’t make it wrong.”
CKT: “Ok. It also alleviates pressure. There’s a bunch of pent-up emotions inside that get some kind of release afterwards.”
Pastor Al: “Sure. Anything else?”
CKT: “Some people say it’s a good way to learn about how you get pleasure so you can enjoy sex with your partner more.”
Pastor Al: “Alright.”
CKT: “And, uh… I guess it relieves stress? I know someone who couldn’t get to sleep at night unless they did it before bed because it helped them sleep.”
Pastor Al: “Well, stress relief yes, but that person may have been addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, pretty much anything can become addictive. If this person literally couldn’t stop, used it as their main source of escape, and felt compelled to keep doing it even if they didn’t want to, they were addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah. Masturbation is a powerful thing. We’ve already talked about some of the good things it can provide, like physical pleasure and stress relief, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have dangers. Just like food can make you fat, exercise can ruin your body, and work can destroy your marriage, using a good thing in bad ways can cause real problems.
That’s the next question: ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ Pastors, counsellors and mental health experts are all over the map with this topic because masturbation (especially to orgasm) has such a powerful effect. Doctors and psychiatrists will look at compulsive masturbation as a sign of potential mental, emotional, or behavioural problems. It can be a sign that there’s something happening beneath the surface that is far more serious.
When it gets out of control chronic masturbation can lead to withdrawal from life, disengaging with healthy relationships, and actually drive someone into deeper levels of depression.
God made sex feel good because He wants us to enjoy it. When our genitals are stimulated we feel pleasure, excitement, distraction, release, and our brain starts to squirt out all kinds of good-feeling chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. That’s a wonderful gift. And it works even when we pleasure ourselves privately.
The issue is that our desire for masturbation can be masking much greater problems. The reason that we get addicted or think about it all the time isn’t necessarily because we like masturbating so much – it’s because there’s something wrong in our lives and we know that spending some time alone doing that is a guaranteed way to be free from those negative feelings for a while. It works every time.
Incidentally, that’s how all addictions start. Something’s wrong with life and the person finds a substance or activity that gives them a rush and makes them forget their problems for a time. Whether it’s shooting heroin, eating until their sick, binging Netflix, thrill-seeking, or masturbating, it’s the same obsessive drive. And then it’s not long until that addiction starts to take over healthy things in their life. They withdraw from their family, friends, church, and school so they can do it more. When they are offered positive, healthy choices – counselling, nutritious food, a board game with the family, or sex with their spouse – they say no because they don’t get the same rush as they do from their addiction. That’s when things really start to spiral.
CKT: “Well, that’s scary! I don’t think it’s at the level of addiction though. I think it’s more about alleviating the pressure. After all, we all have these biological urges inside us (given to us by God, by the way) and it’s not our fault that we want release, is it?”
Pastor Al: “No, it’s not. But for every one of our desires, God has given us a way to have them fulfilled in a righteous way. It’s our sinful nature that corrupts those desires and tries to fulfill them in sinful ways. (James 1:14-17)
Say you have a desire for power. Our sinful nature tells you to dominate people, oppress them, control them. God says, if you want real power, submit your will to mine and live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Say you have a desire for riches. Our sinful nature says to steal from others, work too much, hoard your stuff, don’t share. God says if you want real riches, tithe properly, give things away, take care of the poor, and live simply, then you’ll see treasure beyond your imagination.
God gives us a desire for tasty food, we invent refined sugar. God gives us a desire for justice, we invent revenge. God gives us a desire for peace, we punish anyone who disturbs us. God gives us a natural desire for intimate relationships and sexual release, we invent pornography and spend time away from humanity wrapped in a shield of self-stimulation.
Sometimes we get depressed, anxious, afraid, lonely, or angry and we feel bad and want a pick-me-up. God invites us to cast our cares upon Him in prayer, gives us His Word to read so we can hear His voice, gives us brothers and sisters in Christ to call, gives us the beauty of His creation to walk in, a thousand things to study in the world, and worship music to sing to lift our spirits – but instead, we lock ourselves in our bathroom alone so we can play with ourselves because we know it’s an easy way to get a hit of those feel-good brain chemicals.
So, the question comes, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for the way He wants us to fulfil that desire?’”
CKT: “Ok, so I know pornography is bad, and I know there are lots of other things to do when the urge hits. And I know the importance of keeping busy and going for walks and stuff — believe me, I’ve tried! But sometimes going for a walk or listening to music or reading isn’t an option, or it isn’t helpful. And right now, in this situation, finding sexual release from a loving spouse is… just… not possible!”
Pastor Al: “Ok, so now I’m going to ask you a very personal question. What kind of thoughts go through a person’s head when they masturbate? What thoughts go through yours?”
CKT: “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but there are a variety of things, I guess. All the porn is blocked, but I’m able to find sexual comics online. They’re not real people, just drawings, so it’s not really porn. Sometimes I read sexy stories. Or, sometimes I picture my spouse doing things that I want them to do. Sometimes I dwell on those types of things for a while, but mostly I just use them to get myself started so I can get done faster. Why, is that wrong? It’s not porn!”
Pastor Al: “You seem a little defensive. How do those things make you feel? What does your conscience say?”
CKT: “Honestly, they all feel wrong. Looking at naked drawings of people having sex seems wrong. Readings stories about people having sex seem wrong. And I feel guilty about it. But what about fanaticizing about my spouse [or future spouse]? How can that be wrong?”
Pastor Al: “There’s the operative word: ‘fantasizing’. And fantasies can be dangerous. You’re right about the sex comics and stories. They’re sinful stories about sinful actions that create sinful thoughts that affect your ability to have a holy thought life. Jesus said in Mark 7:21–23, ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ and porn, sexual comics and stories are all defiling. When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8 about guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, he said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” and those comics and sexual stories are neither true nor honourable nor pure nor lovely nor commendable to others. Would you ever in a million years link to those comics on social media or give them to your small group to read? No way, right? That should tell you something.
In the same way, fantasies about your spouse are equally dangerous. That person in your mind may look like your spouse, but they aren’t, are they? They do and say things your spouse wouldn’t do or say, right? Essentially, what you’ve done, is dressed a porn star or prostitute in your spouse’s skin and have made them perform for you. And that’s damaging to your soul and your marriage. It causes resentment, bitterness, anger, and lust to swell in you because your reality will never be the same as your fantasy. It is, without question, a way for Satan to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, and you and the God who provided that spouse for you.”
CKT: “I’ve never thought of it like that.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, it’s serious business. Ok, so what have we covered so far?”
CKT: “Well, the first question was ‘Is masturbation helpful?’ and we came up with a few ways it can be like stress relief and learning about your body. The second question was, ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ which led to talking about addiction and how masturbation can be a sign of greater problems. The third question was, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?’ and that really seemed to put a nail in the coffin, didn’t it? It’s hard to see how a person can masturbate while keeping their minds totally clean and pure and holy, right?”
Pastor Al: “That’s definitely a problem. But it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. After all one could say the same thing about sports. Some people get super competitive or trash-talk or start to hate the people on other teams. Or we could say the same thing about alcohol. Some people can have a glass of wine and it’s no big deal at all. Other people know that they can’t do it because it’s a real problem for them. Just because some people get super-triggered by something doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. That’s what Romans 14 is all about, right?”
CKT: “Ok, so that only leaves the last question. ‘Does masturbation glorify God?’”
Pastor Al: “Right. So what do you think the answer is?”
CKT: “Well, based on what we’ve been talking about I would say that since there’s no verse that says God forbids it, and since there are some good things that come from it, I suppose it could glorify God when we do it. Boy, that’s weird to say out loud. But there seem to be lots and lots of ways that it can be dangerous or addictive or sinful and therefore not glorify God. Is that right?”
Pastor Al: “Pretty good! Most people wish God would be super-clear about this kind of thing, but the fact is, He’s not. God has given us freedom to enjoy this world and glorify Him in millions of ways. Some of those ways are done in relationship with others, like serving, counselling, corporate worship, teaching, being a parent or child, or being married – but some things are done totally alone. God even says in Matthew 6 that things like doing good deeds, giving, and a lot of our praying should be done in such a way that no one ever sees it. The Bible says that everything we do – no matter how wonderful or mundane, how public or secret – can be a continual, living, holy, acceptable sacrifice of worship to God – and that could, potentially also include masturbation.”
CKT: “Really? How?”
Pastor Al: “Well, let’s do a little checklist. Masturbation could glorify God if:
- You keep your mind out of the gutter and only think of things that are excellent, lovely, praiseworthy, true, etc.
- You are not addicted to it, but are being self-controlled in your use of it.
- You are not choosing it instead of other, better things like time with your loved ones, worship, prayer, scripture, church, counselling, etc.
- You’re doing it as a way to help yourself or others to be more holy.
CKT: “Wait, what? Masturbate so you can be more holy?”
Pastor Al: “Well, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 says that sexual frustration is a path to temptation and sin, right? That’s why we get married. It says,
‘But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’
The best way for a person to deal with their sexual urges is with their spouse. And a spouse should do what they can to help out. But if a spouse simply cannot do anything because they are too sick or infirm, then it seems to me that the next step is to have a conversation with the spouse about masturbation. After all, when you get married your body isn’t just your own, it’s owned by God and your spouse too.
So, if you can get right with God about masturbating, then the next step is to get right with your spouse. If they say that you can do it because it’s going to help you and your relationship, and you can do it in such a way that you’re not fanaticizing about other people or some porned-up version of your spouse, then why not?
Or, say you’re not married but in a constant state of distraction because your hormones are totally going crazy. You’ve prayed for help, read your bible, are practicing self-control, are trying to keep your thoughts pure, but your sexuality is ever-present and there’s no way to get married. There’s nothing in scripture that says you can’t masturbate. Yes, there’s a laundry list of warnings about how you can do it wrong – but that’s true about a lot of things.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution and I’m not saying it’s right for everyone. All I’m saying is that according to what I read in scripture, there is a way to masturbate in a way that glorifies God and helps holiness. Maybe, sometimes, one thing you can do to help yourself to serve God and others better is to masturbate.
Think of it like having a cup of coffee or taking an afternoon nap. You’ve got somewhere to be at 3pm and nothing to do between now and then. You’re tired but you’ve got your work done and have some free time. You’ve done your devos, had a snack, chatted with your family, and now you’re alone. You’re not bored or sad or angry or depressed, you’re not trying to escape life or create artificial joy, you just know that the 3pm event is going to take some energy. So you have a choice. Make a pot of coffee and have a couple mugs or go to bed and have a nap. Neither is wrong and you’re motives are good.
Do some people abuse coffee? Sure. Do some people sleep too much? Sure. But that’s not your problem. You’re just doing what you think is right and you know that God, your family, and your spirit are at peace with that decision. That cup of coffee or that nap will bring glory to God. Maybe masturbation can do the same thing for some people.”
CKT: “Ok, Pastor Al. I think I have some thinking and praying to do. Some of that is way outside my field of experience and I really need to chew on that. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. Please pray that I make the right decision and honour God with how I deal with it.”
Pastor Al: “Will do, CKT. Have a great day! Let me know if you have any more questions.”
I got a lot of help from:
- Butman, R. E. (1999). Masturbation. In D. G. Benner & P. C. Hill (Eds.), Baker encyclopedia of psychology & counseling (2nd ed., p. 726). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.