**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.
The Pressure to Be Cool
There is a lot of pressure on everyone to be cool. And I’m sure that there are a lot of people here who think, “I don’t care if I’m cool or not. I’m not a kid anymore.” but hear me out. Being cool, by the official dictionary definition, means to be “accepted, attractive, impressive, and excellent”. If you read it off of the Urban Dictionary you get synonyms like “awesome, popular, great, okay with each other.”
Now, by those definitions, ask yourself again if you want to be cool or not. Do you want to be accepted, impressive, attractive, excellent, and okay with the people around you? Probably. If you’re still not convinced, let’s turn it around. The opposite of “cool” would be rejected, mediocre, repelling, and disliked. How about now?
I’ll say it again. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone to be cool. The problem with being cool is that it changes depending on the group you are in. Being cool to a group of engineers is much different than being cool to a group of musicians. Being cool in a Christian youth group is very different than being cool at a secular school. There are people who will walk through the Ottawa Comiccon and think they are surrounded by the coolest people in the world – while others, outside that group, would consider them social outcasts. There will be people who spend a year crafting the perfect cosplay outfit so they can look a character from a favourite game or movie, and will be showered with praise – but if they take that same outfit to a different place, they will feel embarrassed, rejected, and disliked.
I watched a very interesting clip this week from The Gospel Coalition called “The Idolatry of Youth Culture in Worship” which was all about pressure that churches feel to try to be cool. Churches get on this hamster wheel of trying to chase the newest song, coolest visuals, popular content, and most attractive spaces. People are attracted to these sorts of things too. They are attracted to the cool, new “worship artists” and “celebrity preachers” that are marketed to us from dozens of platforms, and it’s really tempting for a church to try to change themselves to try to be more cool.
The problem with the pursuit of being “cool” is that it is constantly changing. One documentary they referenced, called “The Merchants of Cool” which was about how hard companies are studying teen culture in an attempt to make money off of them. They go find the cool kids and try to figure out what the next, hot trend is going to be. One person they interviewed said at that one of the problems is that as soon as they figure out what is cool and they start to mass-market it, the very act of them marketing it makes it uncool. And so they are in a constant state of chasing the next trend, trying to keep up with the ever changing tides of coolness.
I’m sure you’ve felt this pressure at times to. The pressure to conform, to change yourself, to alter your habits and personality so that you will be more accepted, more admired, more attractive – and then the moment you do, it seems to change on you. You buy a new thing and show it off, but then something newer comes out. You dye your hair or get new clothes, but then the trend changes. You get good at a game, or watch a show, or try a new work technique, but then people stop doing it or talking about it because something new comes around.
Sometimes we don’t even know it’s happening. It’s like we’re the frog in a pot. We buy things, go places, watch things, and talk about things because we think we like them, but the truth is that we are doing it because we don’t want to be left out. Whether you are a senior or a teen, a tradesman or a homemaker, these pressures are ever present.
Something that is connected to being cool, but perhaps tangentially, is something called entitlement. The concept is simple. To feel entitled means you think you have the right to something. You believe you deserve something. You have a list in your mind of all the things you think you are owed. And when someone challenges this list, refuses to give it to you, or takes it away, you get angry or depressed.
For example, if you feel entitled to share your opinion at all times, that your voice should count for something, and that you deserve a vote, then when you are not listened to you feel very offended. If you feel you are entitled to a certain level of comfort, and then you feel discomfort, it makes you angry.
Think of the parent who comes home from a hard day at work. If they feel as though they are entitled to some peace and quiet, that the world and their family owes it to them, they will get very angry if you disturb them. Then there’s the couple that believes that for every dollar one partner spends, the other gets to spend the exact amount. She gets a haircut, so you get dinner out. He gets coffee at the drive through, so you feel entitled to get something for yourself.
Some people feel entitled to have the same level of access to technology as others, and not just teens. “My friends all have a big tv, so why don’t we. Our internet is so slow, all my friends have faster internet. All my friends have phones, so I should get one too.” It’s a sense of entitlement and we all have it to some degree. And if you don’t think so, just ask those closest to you what you think you are entitled to and they’ll tell you…
The problem with the pursuit of being cool or having an out of control sense of entitlement is that it gets in the way of the best things in life like friendship, love, and serving God.
To say I wasn’t very popular when I was growing up would be a gross understatement. I was a total reject, social outcast. And I’m not saying that for dramatic effect. I have some deep scars to this day that were given to me in grade school.
I remember I had this one “friend” named Karl (and I’m putting air-quotes around that word) who I would hang out with. He and I had some sort of kinship, but I have no idea why. He wasn’t a Christian and wasn’t really that nice to me. But Karl was good at sports and had an in with the cool kids. And being cool was really important to him. Here’s how it worked with me and Karl: If I was talking to him in the hallway, I always knew that if a cool kid came, he would drop me to talk to them instead. I still remember the day he actually pushed me away so he wouldn’t be seen talking to me in the hall. If there was a party at his house, he would invite me over a few hours before to play some Nintendo, set up the snacks and whatnot, but since I wasn’t one of the cool kids I wasn’t invited to the party, so I would leave his house before anyone got there. Karl’s pursuit of being a cool kid put a huge wedge in what could have been a much better friendship. It effected our conversations. It made me not trust him. Can you imagine how pursuing cool would have affected if he was trying to witness to me? It wouldn’t work, would it? It’s incompatible.
It’s the same with the sense of entitlement. The things that you believe are owed to you, if you don’t get them, will change the way you perceive and relate to people. If you get passed over for a promotion or a raise, how do you feel about the person who got it? What about the boss who you think you could do their job better? Feel friendly? Congratulatory? Or is there some resentment there.
Think of a trip to the store. You park your car. Are you entitled to a good spot? No. But how do you feel if someone double parks or is too far over the line to give you that close place? Mad. Why? Entitlement.
And then you go inside and all the karts are gone and you have to go back outside to get one. Are you owed a cart? No. But something inside you says, “I pay good money here and I deserve to have a cart waiting when I come.” You go through the aisles and people are in the way, taking too long, some haven’t showered, some are dressed inappropriately, others keep asking for your help to reach things, and then there’s a bunch of people you know that seem to want to chat with you. You came in for a can of beans and now you are totally worked up. You get back to your car and someone has dinged the door with theirs. How do you feel? Angry, right? Why? And what will you say, “Why can’t I just go to the store and get one, stupid thing without having to be surrounded by incompetent, annoying, smelly, idiotic, selfish people?!” What’s behind that emotion? Entitlement. You feel you are owed it.
Same thing happens at church. I’m entitled to my favourite seat. I’m entitled to have good sound and an easy time. I’m entitled help with my ministry. I’m entitled to an entertaining message. I’m entitled to be left alone, or entitled to expect to be asked how I am. I’m entitled to a cup of coffee and a cookie. And if I don’t get it… ?!
How do you think that sort of thinking effects your relationships? How do you think it affects your testimony? How do you think it effects your reputation? How do you think it affects your heart and your relationship with God? The pursuit of cool and a sense of entitlement will make you an anxious, hollow, selfish, lonely person.
Am I Not Free?
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 9 and let’s read it together. First, I want you to remember the context from a couple weeks ago when we talked about meat offered to idols and the moral butterfly effect. If you recall, Paul is making the case that the choices we make and the freedoms we exercise are not made in a vacuum, but will have ripple effects on those around us – many which we cannot see – and encouraged people to consider others feelings and weaknesses when they make their decisions. In this case it was the decision to eat food that had been offered to idols. A mature Christian knows that the food is just food, and there’s nothing we can eat or not eat that will bring us closer to God, but not everyone knows that. There are some that will be deeply offended, or tempted, or hurt, if they see someone do that, and so scripture teaches us to be willing to go without out of love for those around us.
Now here, as Paul continues that thought, he uses himself as an example of someone who has given up a lot of things for the sake of unity in the church and the furtherance of the kingdom of God. He’s just told the Corinthians to give up eating meat sometimes for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters, and then in verses 1-12, to drive the point home, Paul lists all sorts of things that he has the right to have, but that he’s given up for the sake of others.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
So, remember the context. Way up in chapter 8:1-4 we read about how the Corinthians are claiming that because they have the “knowledge” that food is just food, and that there really is only one God, that they should have the right to eat whatever they want. The Apostle says, “Yes, but don’t use that right, that freedom, to harm anyone else.” As verse 12 says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
And then he catches their next argument, which is what? Everyone has to deal with this, children, teens, and adults. What is our natural reaction when we look around and see a bunch of people have something that we don’t, but when we decide we want it, someone or something stops us? We argue. Our “coolness” is impacted – “But if I don’t have it, my peer group won’t accept me or will judge me poorly”. And our “entitlement” is impacted – “Everyone else has one, I’m old enough, I work hard, I deserve it.” What if it’s someone you love and trust preventing you from having it? Someone like your parents, your spouse, or God who is working against you having it? We still argue.
We lay down the same argument as Paul does in chapter 9! And that’s what Paul is doing, he’s arguing their point for him – and then going beyond their own qualifications. He says, “You may think you have the right to have that food offered to idols, but I have more right!” He is free from the law by Jesus. He has the authority of an Apostle. He has talked to Jesus face to face. He is the one who planted their church and is their leader and pastor. If anyone has the proper knowledge and freedom to eat that food, he does. But he chooses not to. Why? Look at verse 12, “… we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
And he has given up even more than just certain kinds of food. In fact there have been times he has gone without any food for the sake of the gospel. He has the right to a wife and family, as some apostles have, but knows that a for him a family would distract him from the gospel, so he goes without. And he really drives home the point that he has the right, the entitlement, to demand the church financially support his ministry, as many other travelling teachers and apostles have done, but instead he chooses to work a labour job making tents so the message of Jesus he presents to people remains unpolluted and free from attack. Though he has every right to pull a paycheck from them, he doesn’t so that no one can accuse him of greed or false motives.
He knows he has the right to do a lot of things, and there are a lot of pressures to make his life a little easier, but he also knows that taking those things has a cost. There were, and are, many false teachers who use religion, and the name of Jesus, as a way to make money and live rich – and there seem to be plenty of desperate, ignorant people that fall for it. Paul, and any missionary of worth, stays as far away from the church’s purse strings as they can, so that they can’t be lumped into that group.
In verse 15 we see Paul cut them off at their next obvious argument: “You’re just saying all these things so that we’ll send you more money!” He says, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”
You see his point. He would rather go without than leave any room for someone to see any false motives in his presentation of the gospel. His service to God, his message, the joy of seeing people be changed by the message, and all the spiritual benefits besides, are his reward.
This is a big deal today still. The question, “What are you getting out of this?” is still a major barrier for a lot of people. The accusation, “You only do this for your own personal gain!” is still a very persuasive one. And for some people, as I’ve said, is quite accurate.
Everyone falls into this kind of thinking sometimes, it’s not just full-time ministers. Paul was commissioned by God to be a missionary preacher and teacher, but this temptation hits all kinds of people. Some people serve in the church with the hope of gaining attention for themselves, or gaining a portfolio of people to sell their products to, or so they can have their own way. Some people want to be a teacher, deacon, elder, or even pastor, because they want the title, prestige, influence and authority over others. Some people tithe to the church so they can brag about it and get tax benefits. Some people pretend to care about others so they can get all the juiciest gossip. Some people play their instrument or sing in church so they can get accolades. Some people serve others as a way to build up credit in case something happens to them later, so they can cash in their chips and get help in return.
A lot of people have been burned on the church, burned on the gospel, burned on following God, because they have met Christians who were either caught having false motives and using the gospel as a means to benefit themselves, or were trying so hard to be cool that they had completely watered down their own testimony to the point where there was no discernable difference between them and someone who wasn’t saved.
Paul exclaims that he would “rather die than have anyone deprive me of this ground for boasting.” Not that he is trying to steal glory from God, but that he has a rightful sense of joy and fulfillment in being able to look everyone in the eye and say, “I have preached with no other motive than loving people and obeying God. You can check. I’ve suffered, worked, and gained nothing from anyone. No one can accuse me of false motives, because there is no evidence of it!”
Count the Cost
So, as we close today, I invite you to examine your own testimony, your own motives, your own reputation. Why do you do what you do? Is there anything in your life that hinders people from hearing you? A bad habit, an addiction, or something you’ve chosen to do that makes it so you have to spend as much time explaining that as you do trying to talk about Jesus? Is there something in your reputation that makes it so others question whether or not you are really serving God or yourself? Do you speak your own words or His? Would anyone say about you, “That person isn’t really my friend, they’re just trying to get something out of me. That person doesn’t really care, they just want another notch on their belt. That person may talk a big game about loving, forgiving, and trusting – but I know for a fact that they love themselves more than anyone else.
Jesus said that if anyone is to follow Him they must “count the cost”, because to follow Jesus means to lose everything and gain everything at the same time. Jesus set the perfect example for us. He gave us everything and gained nothing. It says in Philippians 2:5-8,
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross…”
If you are concerned about what you are entitled to, how cool you look, how accepted you are, and spend time weighing the cost/benefit to obeying Jesus in this world, then you are not going to follow Him for very long. He says in Luke 14:26-33,
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
This isn’t theory. Following God’s plan cost Jesus everything. It cost Paul everything. All the Apostles, except one, lived difficult lives and were martyred for their faith – and the one that wasn’t killed was boiled alive and then exiled.
Being a spiritual person will make you cool. Memorizing a few favourite passages and talking about how loving Jesus was will make you cool. And there are a lot of people that will tell you that once you get saved you are entitled to all sorts of worldly blessings. But that’s not the true gospel. The true message of Jesus is not one that is going to win you popularity points or gain you much in this world.
Jesus’ next line after talking about counting the cost is this:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
People need you to be salty, which means you must taste different than the rest of the world. And every time we water down the truth of what Jesus says, water down the message of the Gospel, water down the plain reading of scripture, or allow our sense of entitlement distract us from following God, we lose our saltiness and our words, our deeds, our preaching, our friendship, and our lives are only fit for the manure pile.
So, has Jesus been telling you to give up in order to follow Him more? What barrier is there between you and those you are trying to befriend, love, serve, and share the gospel with? What keeps you from fully obeying God and them from being able to receive your love?