Masturbation is perhaps one of the most debated—and least resolved—sexual subjects in the church. The views and opinions about masturbation, its effects, and consequences (especially spiritual) have been swirling through the church probably since it first began.
In reality, it can’t be clearly said that the act of masturbation is in itself a sin, for the Bible never uses the word, nor does it imply or hint about the act of masturbation. Obviously, the Bible deals in some depth with sexual immorality, perversions, and the like, but masturbation is never spelled out as belonging to any particular category. Since Scripture is silent about it, should masturbation be classified as a sin? And if not, are there ways in which masturbation may be used to the glory of God and the building of God’s Kingdom?
The questions beg an in-depth answer. Throughout the history of the church, various voices have arisen, some decrying masturbation as self-abuse and onanism; some simply calling it something which may not be the best God has to offer but is certainly not the worst either. I believe both viewpoints are flawed. It’s in the wake of questions to which there seem to be no solid answers that teenagers have long been struggling. It’s to the children who are struggling with this issue (and to the parents and other caring adults trying to help them) that I address my comments.
Onanism? The Bible and Masturbation
Scholars have debated for years whether the sin of Onan as recorded in Genesis 38:8-10 is masturbation. It becomes clear after a careful reading of the text that what Onan practices as a form of birth control isn’t masturbation but rather withdrawing himself from Tamar before orgasm. The reason Onan is put to death isn’t masturbation but for not fulfilling a solemn duty of the brother-in-law to provide children for his brother’s widow. This is later laid down as a part of the Mosaic law (Deut. 25:5-6).
There are no Biblical passages which specifically address the issue of masturbation; so, as with other issues (such as food, drink, entertainment choices, etc.), God has allowed latitude within certain boundaries. Within those boundaries, masturbation could (and I believe, should) be seen as a healthy way of relieving the sexual tension that builds up in teenagers. I’m focusing on the use of masturbation as a God-given way for teenagers to release the buildup of sexual tensions within their bodies, as a help to controlling their thought life, and a way of honoring God with their minds and bodies. I will be focusing on males (being one myself), but the concepts about masturbation can also be appropriately applied to females. The days of assuming that “girls don’t do that” are over.
Teenage Boys: Hormone Factories
In a human male’s lifespan, there are two times when the hormone testosterone is released by his body in large quantities. The first is prenatal, when a genetically determined testosterone release transforms the fetus into a boy. The other occurs roughly between the ages of 9 and 14. This testosterone release helps transform the body of a boy into the body of a man. Because of the influence of the testosterone and other growth hormones, the boy experiences a growth spurt, broadening of the shoulders and other major muscular-skeletal changes, a deepening of the voice (which leads to the familiar teenage “cracking” of the voice), hair growth on the face, underarm areas, and groin, and maturing (in size and function) of the penis, testicles, and other sexual organs.
This testosterone “flood” is also largely responsible for the boy suddenly discovering his sex drive. Not only is his body changing at a rapid pace, but his mind is also being drawn into areas that may have been previously unexplored. If he isn’t adequately prepared, then the mind/body changes can be overwhelming and even frightening. If the boy has committed to follow Christ in his life, this flood of emotions, thoughts, and urges can also carry with it a load of guilt and shame that he may perceive as coming from God. But since the sex drive is so strong and the physical tensions so great, they find their thoughts straying into areas that they feel must be wrong. But they seem powerless to stop thinking of them. A double burden can then be imposed when this Christian boy discovers the pleasures of masturbation and feels guilty and ashamed for doing what he believes is a sin (since nobody ever told him otherwise) but is basically powerless to stop.
It’s the responsibility of parents and the church to offer our young people a sane and workable alternative to the question of masturbation—something other than a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “just say no.” We must help them see that what’s happening to their bodies is designed by God and what they’re thinking and feeling and doing is acceptable to God within certain boundaries. Indeed, it should be encouraged as a means to regulate and control themselves so they can glorify God with their bodies.
The Biblical Boundaries
What are the boundaries which the Word of God sets forth for something like masturbation? In what contexts is the act acceptable, and when does it “cross the line” into a sinful activity? These are important questions that need to be answered with straightforward honesty if we’re to give freedom to our teens to explore the sexuality which God has gifted to them, while maintaining the standards of holiness which God’s Word commands.
The first “boundary” Scripture is found in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Speaking in the context of sexual immorality (although any practice which harms the body could be defined here), Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
Since there’s no Scripture condemning the act of masturbation as a sin, it stands to reason that it’s an act which has the potential to be honoring to God and is in accord with the fact that the Holy Spirit lives in the believer. Solitary masturbation is not an act which harms the individual’s body (and in fact, the release of sexual tension can promote the wellbeing of the body), nor does it involve the joining of one body and spirit to another as is the case with sexual intercourse. Through the releasing of sexual tensions, it can act as a barrier to seeking release through immoral outlets. A part of honoring God with our bodies is doing whatever’s necessary to keep our bodies under control—and in the area of sexuality, masturbation can be an effective way of doing so.
The second “boundary” Scripture is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
In this Scripture, we have a boundary that deals with the mind and thought life. One of the difficulties with masturbation in the minds of many people is that it’s automatically assumed that sexual fantasies must be used in order to gain the amount of stimulation needed for orgasm to take place.
While it’s true that sexual fantasies can be used, there’s nothing which suggests that they must be used. The choice is up to the individual as to what they think about during masturbation. The body is designed by God to respond to sexual stimulation, but it was never designed to respond exclusively to impure thoughts. God has placed within us a wide capacity for response to various stimuli. It’s no more necessary to fantasize about the cheerleader next door during masturbation than it is to fantasize about eating a steak while dining at McDonalds. Nor is it necessary to view pornography while masturbating. The viewing of pornography is actually detrimental to the experience, since the person looking at it knows there’s no way of ever fulfilling the fantasies that he’s locked into while using pornography. And since pornography is clearly a violation of the commandment not to lust after a person, such activity introduces the element of sin into an experience that should have been used for the glory of God.
So what can be thought about during masturbation? That brings us to our final “boundary” Scripture, found in 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.” A companion Scripture is found in Colossians 3:1-2: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
It’s clear from Scripture that our thought life is to be one of purity and joy and one that’s characterized by its focus on God. This is no pie-in-the-sky theology. Either the Bible is eminently practical in how its principles can be lived out or it’s not. It’s possible to do everything with a spirit and attitude of thanksgiving to God, regardless of the task at hand. A person can focus his heart on Jesus while swinging a hammer at a construction site just as much as he can when entering the sanctuary of a church. There should be no difference between sacred and secular thought. Each thought should be given over to the control of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and should be offered to God in a spirit of gratitude and joy. The problems begin to occur when the thought life has strayed out of its proper boundaries and has embraced sinful thoughts, such as the viewing of pornography or lusting after another person.
The Bottom Line
So, given the boundaries, is it possible to masturbate without straying into sinful thoughts? The answer is yes; for God, in designing the human body, has given it the ability to respond to physical stimuli without the necessity of embracing sinful thought. And it’s all right to enjoy the pleasurable feelings that accompany the activity.
For example, when someone eats his favorite food, he is enjoying the pleasure of the feel and the taste of the food. Is it sinful to enjoy eating a chocolate bar? No. It only becomes a sin if the activity and the pleasure of eating become something which crowds out God, becoming an end to itself rather than being seen as a blessing from a loving God. At that point, any activity—whether eating, playing golf, watching a sunset, or masturbating—has been abused, and the person has fallen into the sin of idolatry. When a person masturbates, his body will respond to the pleasurable physical stimulation that it’s being given—especially teenage boys, whose testosterone and other hormone levels are at an all-time high and whose physical need for sexual release is very great.
And if the thought life is kept under control, the act becomes an experience of blessing from the Lord, rather than a shameful one. The sin doesn’t come in enjoying the experience, but rather in abusing a gift that a loving and gracious God has given.
But we’re looking for something even more here. We are looking for a way to “redeem the experience,” giving honor and glory to God for the gifts given to us. One of those gifts is sexuality and the pleasure which God has made possible in our bodies. It therefore follows that the best way to masturbate is to focus the mind on God, giving thanks for the pleasure which the person is feeling and for the gift of sexuality that has been given, as well as gratitude for the ability to gain a needed sexual release without illicit sexual contact.
How would such a view of masturbation play out in real life? Let’s explore the extended example of “Johnny,” a 14-year old boy whose body is undergoing the changes of puberty and who is a Christian, trying to live his life right for God:
Johnny is like most boys, intensely curious about his body and what’s happening to it, and about the thoughts he’s beginning to have about girls he knows. He’s heard all the guys’ locker room talk, but everything is still pretty much a mystery to him. He’s decided to commit to staying pure until he’s married; he’s even signed a purity pledge card a couple months before at a youth retreat. He’s had sex ed in his public middle school, and at the time it seemed pretty gross and weird—not anything he’d want to get into.
But now, things are beginning to change. What once was unthinkable for him, he now finds himself dwelling on every day—many times during the day. A few months ago, he’d had his first wet dream, and while he’d heard about them, when it happened it was still pretty scary, especially because the dream he’d had was something he’d be totally ashamed to admit to anyone. The dreams had come once a month or so since, but each time the dreams had gotten a little more bizarre, and it was getting hard to hide the soiled pajamas and bedding from his mom.
It was while he was alone in his room one day dwelling on the latest dream that he discovered he could bring himself to climax by rubbing his penis with his hand. It felt very good, but immediately afterward he wondered if this was something God would approve of. He had heard the other boys talking about “jacking off,” but it had not crossed his mind before to try it himself.
As the days went by, Johnny found that the tension and need for another release grew until it became almost intolerable. Although it felt so good, he just knew that what he was doing was dirty, and he should hide it from his parents. This was something they could never know about—and if they did find out, he was sure they wouldn’t ever understand. Johnny hadn’t ever really seen any dirty books or magazines—his parents would never allow the stuff in the house—nor had his parents ever taken the time to explain in a positive Biblical light what his sexuality was and what might be the best way to handle the thoughts, emotions, and desire for release.
It was at a youth group meeting that Johnny first began to realize there might be an answer to his problem. The topic was relationships and sex, and when the group split up into smaller same-sex groups, the topic of masturbation came up. Although there was a lot of snickering and laughing going on, the youth pastor was able to get the point across to the boys that masturbation wasn’t something that was sinful in itself. It only became a sin when it was used in the wrong way. On his way home from school a couple days later, Johnny got up the courage to stop by his youth pastor’s office and ask him for some advice. After hearing about the boundary Scriptures and realizing that God wasn’t going to condemn him for what he had done, Johnny began to come to a new understanding of how God wanted him to use the act of masturbation to bring glory to God. Johnny was amazed that he could thank God for the pleasure he was experiencing, and how such a focus of keeping his eyes on Jesus and keeping his thought life under control—while at the same time enjoying the sensations and giving God the praise—would be a tremendous help to him and would alleviate the false guilt he had been experiencing.
Such a view is generally not found in current Christian literature, which tends either to condemn masturbation or ignore it. Nor are a majority of parents or pastors comfortable discussing it. But I believe it’s vital that we address this issue with our sons and daughters.
How much false guilt could we alleviate, how many dangerous sexual encounters would be foregone, how much distress could we avoid, if we were simply open and honest with our children about how best to handle their emerging sexuality? We must give them straightforward options and solutions to deal with their changing bodies and their changing minds.
It’s imperative that we let them know that masturbation can and should be used as a viable, God-honoring way to deal with the stresses of their newly acquired sexuality. With a sex-saturated society all around us, we as parents, youth pastors, and other caring adults, need to give our young men and women the ability to live godly lives in the midst of a perverse culture. Masturbation, within the Biblical boundaries, helps give them that ability.
It’s time to stop standing on the sidelines, hoping that somehow our kids will get the right information and act on it in the right way. We must be proactive, getting over our own fears and uncomfortableness, and initiate discussions with our sons and daughters. We must do what is our God-given responsibility as parents and youth leaders; we must help teens navigate the stormy waters of their sexuality.
May God help us all to do so, in the right way and in the right time.
Dale Kaufman is a 21-year youth ministry veteran. He is the Youth and Family Pastor at the Free Methodist Church in Milan, Michigan.