Before 2016, I’d (Cole) never heard the word in a church building.
Growing up, my experience was that we avoided the topics of masturbation and sex pretty much all together at church. As I’ve lead a LifeGroup and we walked through the Theology of Sex series as a church family, I realized exactly how unhelpful this approach is. If you haven’t read the setup article I wrote about God’s design for sex, at least give it a skim, since it sets up a good amount of what we talk about here.
In January when our church started the Theology of Sex series, I (Cole) asked my LifeGroup what they wanted to hear about during the series. One of them responded almost immediately, “Will they talk about masturbation?... churches always talk about porn and masturbation together but they’re not the same.” Another guy added, “Yeah, I know what the Bible says about pornography, but it doesn’t say much about masturbation.”
We also asked people to text in their questions during the series, and a number of them sounded like this:
- What does the bible say about masturbation?
- Is it sinful to masturbation? What if it doesn’t involve looking at pornography?
- How can God say masturbation is wrong? Isn’t it just a natural release?
- But I really want to masturbate... ?
Until we started this series, I (Cole) didn’t realize just how many people struggle with questions about masturbation. I also wrongly assumed that most of these questions came from college males. Then I realized that a large percentage of the questions were being asked by women, from middle and high school girls, to college and adult women. Some of our female LifeGroup leaders and coaches said this was the biggest issue the ladies in their LifeGroups wanted to hear about during the series. So I asked my good friend, Morgan Duke, to co-author this blog with me. She kindly said yes.
Side note from Morgan: Hey y'all! Being involved in several women's LifeGroups over the past few years, over half of the women I’ve walked with struggled with masturbation. So I pretty desperately want to help us move past the outdated and foolish stigma that “ladies don’t deal with that." Please stop pretending that porn is a male-only sport. Please stop pretending masturbation is foreign to females. And please, let’s all have conversations about the factual reality than any and all sins are liable to affect all of our lives.
If You’re Lusting
In the first blog, I (Cole) talked a good bit about lust. But we want to take a moment to look at it again. Jesus explains in the sermon on the mount that lust, at a mental level, is the same categorical sin as committing adultery. He adds that it would be better to tear out your eye or cut off your hand than to lust. He’s using a hyperbole, but the point is clear: lust is a big deal.
If you lust while you’re masturbating (and to be honest; the vast majority of us who masturbate; the vast majority of times we masturbate...it involves lust), then it’s sin. But for my LifeGroup guys, they made it clear that they didn’t want pornography, lust, and masturbation treated like synonyms. They are part of a growing pushback to the traditional assumption:
But... what if I don’t lust while I masturbate?
What if masturbation is just a physical act of relief?
What if it’s just an appetite that needs to be filled?
What if it’s unrealistic to not masturbate?
What if my doctor or my counselor or my teacher or my staff handbook at work recommends masturbation as a way to relieve stress?
All these questions represent a counterproposal to the traditional argument that masturbation pretty much always involves lust. And before we address these questions let’s reiterate a few things:
Jesus says if we are lusting while we are masturbating it is just as much a sin as adultery, murder, stealing, gossip, or any other sin.
We’d all be remiss if we don’t at least challenge some of these questions. What if our hearts are actually deceiving us? What if we’re actually just looking for ways to justify the lust behind our masturbation?
In a sex-fueled society like ours, it’s entirely possible that lust could be subtly affecting our actions more than we realize. And lustful desire for the feeling of physical orgasm could be just as sinful as lustful desire for a human being.
But the biggest problem is that even if none of these are the case, the biblical picture would still leave masturbation outside of marriage out of bounds. We’re going to group the questions into three separate categories:
- What if I can masturbate without lusting?
- What if it’s just a natural appetite?
- What if it’s unrealistic to go without masturbation? What if I just can’t wait?
What if I can masturbate without lusting?
We’ve heard lots of people argue that if you can masturbate without lusting, then that makes masturbation acceptable. Unfortunately, that’s not a very thoroughly biblical thought process.
First off, Paul says that we as Christians are not to be mastered by anything. What he means is that anything addictive to a Christian is a detriment to our spiritual vitality and health. And herein lies the problem. With or without lust or porn, masturbation is still addictive. On a biological level this can’t be avoided. Every single time you orgasm your brain releases a cocktail of chemicals that are highly addictive (some scientists have even compared orgasm to the addictive nature of drugs like cocaine and heroin). So whether or not you are lusting after an individual or an image in your mind, orgasm is always addictive to something.
The question just becomes, what are we addicting ourselves to?
So if we completely gave you the benefit of the doubt and conceded that you’d mastered a technique of masturbating without lust, the question would still remain: what is that act of masturbation and orgasm addicting you to? Yourself? Pleasure in isolation? No matter how you spin it, solitary and self-enacted orgasm falls short of its God-given intention (binding you to your spouse). No matter how we try to justify it, masturbation ends up fortifying our consumeristic individualism. And that leads us right into our next question:
What if it’s just a natural appetite?
The debate of what type of sex act is permissible is not a new debate. The people who lived in first century Corinth had a similar thought process. Some of them believed they could have sex with prostitutes because sex is an appetite just like hunger. Paul addresses this mindset by explaining that sex is far more than a mere physical appetite. This is why a victim of sexual assault doesn’t feel clean after a shower. And this is the cornerstone of why masturbation is off limits outside of marriage. Masturbation, whether lust is involved or not is always a sex act. And God’s design is for all sex and all sexual expression to exist within a covenant marriage.
God’s design for sex and orgasm is to addict you to your spouse.
God’s design for sex is to create a deeper more intimate connection with your spouse.
God’s design for orgasm is to renew the vows you made with your spouse.
If what’s happening in the bedroom isn’t accomplishing spousal intimacy then we’re missing God’s blueprint for sex’s divine purpose. When we try to say that sex is just an appetite or that orgasm is just biological we are trashing God’s incredible design for sex. In my first article, I (Cole) argued “Any orgasm outside of marriage fails to live up to its amazing design.” This is always true no matter how the orgasm is achieved.
But what if it’s just a natural process and release? Well, the truth is, God has provided a natural process for male release to occur through nocturnal emission so masturbation is not necessary. And female bodies don’t experience the same physical build-up or need for release that male bodies do.
But honestly, here’s the biggest issue. Part of Jesus dying on the cross was to release us from our natural appetites. If our faith is in Jesus, then we are no longer owned by our urges. The cross sets us free from our old selves and the desires of the flesh. Through His Spirit, God gives us the power and the self-control to fight any and all selfish and sinful craving. Paul even says that being controlled by your appetites is a characteristic of people that are not a part of God’s kingdom. Sex is a natural desire, but it’s also more than that and at the same time Jesus frees us from needing it.
What if it’s unrealistic to not masturbate? What if I just can’t wait?
What if the reality is that in a sex-fueled culture like ours, masturbation is the best option I’ve got? If I’m trying not to have sex with my significant other until we get married, isn’t masturbation the least harmful alternative?
We’ve heard these questions and many more like them from people in and around our church family. And they are real questions worth addressing, but they’re not actually compelling reasons to give in to masturbation’s temptation. Here are four specific reasons and four tools to help you fight this fight:
- Trading one sin for another is an inept way to be set free from sin. The temptation to trade sinful activity with your boyfriend or girlfriend (or with someone outside of your marriage) for a “less harmful” sexual act seems tempting, but it leaves us caught in sin’s snares. This is a religious game that completely misses the freedom Jesus offers us.
- Jesus is a better treasure than physical pleasure. The Psalmist tells us that in God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore. Jesus tells us that if we really understood how much good life His kingdom has to offer us, we would gladly sell everything we have to get it. Masturbation is a bad trade for Jesus. His relief, His comfort, His satisfaction is such that no orgasm could ever compare.
- God doesn’t promise us that the waiting is temporary. The problem with the question, “But what if I can’t wait?” is that it assumes marriage is Jesus’ plan for your life. But He never promises this. Telling yourself that masturbation is just a temporary solution that marriage will solve is both short-sighted and assumptive.
- Jesus gives us strength when we don’t have it. If you’re discouraged or running out of hope, I pray that these beautiful and powerful words written by the Apostle Peter will encourage you:
“His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires.”
God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Now equipped with God’s gospel promises, we can escape the corruption in the world. It’s a promise. We don’t have to conform to what’s normal or logical in the world. We are free to put our sin to death.
Through the gospel, Isaiah’s prophetic encouragement is fulfilled:
For those who trust in the Lord, He will renew our strength.
We will mount up on wings like eagles.
We will run and not grow weary.
We will walk and not grow faint.
The gospel says even unrealistic, hard to imagine possibilities become possible through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and the new life and new Spirit He gives us by grace.
Okay, but even if I completely agree with everything you’ve said, now what?
Maybe you’re now convinced that self-stimulated orgasm is a sin. Maybe not yet. Either way, It’s important that we continue to ask ourselves “why?”. For me (Morgan), one of the most powerful insights into the issue of masturbation was the "why" question. I once heard someone describe masturbation as a control issue, “I will choose to orgasm when I choose to, whether another human is involved or not.” Suddenly the act of masturbation became linked with a deeper heart issue and it became much, much easier to confront with truth.
What is your why?
How are you using masturbation to obtain something lacking in your life?
What do you believe God is withholding from you?
We have to daily reject the easy answer that “masturbation is the most morally/socially acceptable outlet for my sexual desire” and instead dig deeper...Why? What am I after? What am using masturbation to achieve (release, comfort, satisfaction, control, happiness, sleep, etc.)? Why? Tap into that inner 3-year-old and keep asking “why” until you grow intimately acquainted with the motives behind your struggle.
Then, invite in Jesus.
Invite in community.
Fight to remove the stigma of the word “masturbation” and have open conversations about the struggle. Anything that sits in the dark festers and rots. So whether you view this particular sin struggle as a big deal or a small one, talk about it. Bring it into the light. It’s not enough to be in community, you have to be honest. You have to trust Jesus to enable you to be vulnerable. If we are 99% known and 1% unknown then we are still unknown. And Jesus won’t rest until we are fully known; fully alive and free in the light. Push against the voices of guilt and shame.
If you are in Jesus, you are perfectly clean.
If you are in Jesus, you are completely known.
If you are in Jesus, you are already entirely accepted.
So you have nothing to fear.
And nothing to lose.
Only growth, holiness, freedom and healing to gain.
So let’s become the kind of people who understand our hearts, our motives and who daily learn to fight our sin and seek after Jesus together. Let’s be honest and hopeful. Let’s be prayerful and practical. And let’s not settle for anything less than God’s beautiful and perfect design for every aspect of our sexuality.