Freedom From Masturbation
The article “Is it OK to masturbate?” is never out of the top three most-read articles on the TFT website. But the topic is rarely addressed biblically and so we can find ourselves conflicted by feelings of shame, confusion and self-justification.
Because of the taboos that surround discussing masturbation, many of our beliefs and feelings about this subject were probably formed in our teenage years. Perhaps we’ve been left in a place of shame after being discovered experimenting with our bodies by a parent. Messages from our culture, parents, peers and churches vary from the licentious (“It’s a perfectly normal and healthy release”) to the absurd (“It will make you go blind”) to the shaming (“You’re dirty”) to the unbiblical (“It’s the worst sin”).
Most people probably need to become less paralysed by shame about the act of masturbation and experience more guilt about the heart attitude that justifies it.
What does the Old Testament say?
The Old Testament has a couple of passages that are sometimes cited on the issue of masturbation. Genesis 38:8-10 is likely to be a passage that criticises Onan more for his lack of willingness to father children for the wife of his dead brother than for his being seen to masturbate and spill his seed on the floor.
Moving on to Leviticus, listed in chapter 15 are all sorts of discharges from the body, including emissions of semen being mentioned. The emission of semen could come from an involuntary act such as ’a wet dream’ or from a voluntary act of masturbation. What we do see is that the emission itself is considered normal because it is mentioned along with a woman’s menstruation, although all such emissions are considered ceremonially unclean. However, Jesus teaches that it is really a person’s heart that makes them unclean rather than physical emissions (Mark 7:14-23).
In Song of Songs, we are encouraged not to awaken love until it is ready (Songs 2:7), and the correct context here for awakening is the presence of the Beloved.
What does the New Testament say?
Jesus makes it clear that lustful thoughts are the same as adultery (Matt 5:28). Some have speculated that He is alluding to masturbation when He says in verse 30, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”. Maybe He is. But let’s return to verse 28 where He’s explicit that we need to turn from lustful thoughts. To put it crudely, this is a matter of the heart more than an act of the hand. I wonder if we could go as far as to say this: those who look at others with lustful intent have already masturbated about them in their hearts?
Perhaps the reason that the Bible is quiet on masturbation is because God is more interested in the lustful thoughts that normally precede the act itself. Some Christians would argue that the occasional act of masturbation without lust may be acceptable to release an ’unbearable pressure’ – whilst this may be theoretically true, we must remember that our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), so allowing this argument to gain traction in our hearts and minds can soon establish a lustful habit. But the question we really need to be asking ourselves is this: what have we allowed our eyes and minds to dwell upon that fed this sexual pressure in the first place? It’s surely no excuse that our minds were lust-free during the physical act itself, when we have been feeding our minds with lustful thoughts in the hours and days beforehand. When this happens, we have allowed our minds to be “lured and enticed by [our] own desire” (James 1:14b). These secret thoughts and habits may have become such familiar ’friends’ that we may not even realise that we have welcomed them into our hearts and minds.
The New Testament’s Greek word for sexual immorality is ’porneia’. Some might restrict this to the list of sexual vices that has its background in the holiness code of Leviticus 18, which does not include masturbation. Others would read it more broadly, as any sexual activity outside of marriage. In this latter reading, porneia is a rejection of God’s design for sexual relationships, namely the marriage relationship between one man and one woman.
God made sex for relationship
Solo sex turns one’s focus inward upon oneself, rather than looking to another’s pleasure and thereby getting pleasure back, which is what God designed sex to be.
Masturbation is often associated with addiction to cybersex and pornography (including the ’bottom-shelf’ magazines that many would not class as pornography). Don’t convince yourself that you can keep a porn habit under control – it will ensnare you (Proverbs 7:21-23).
When we go down the route of solo sex, we store up problems for the future. If marriage is a possibility for the future, then years of solo sex will programme our bodies to experience sex as entirely self-focused. This will be hard to unlearn in a sexual relationship with a spouse, where we will need to focus on and respond to the other person.
Note that some couples legitimately masturbate one another as part of their love-making – this is completely different from solo masturbation because it is other-person focused and within the right context for sexual activity.
What if I’m a lifelong single person?
God did not design sex to be a solitary experience, but to be shared. Is marriage to someone of the opposite sex a possibility for you? If so, that is a good thing and something for which to seek wisdom.
If you expect to be single long-term, perhaps because no suitable marriage partner is available or because of a lack of opposite-sex attraction, then remember this: God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Cor 10:13). This promise holds even if hormonal cycles lead to increased sexual pressure at certain times of the month. Seize hold of this promise, meditate upon it, and ask the Holy Spirit for the fruit of self-control. Contrary to popular belief, you can be contented, flourishing and living life to the full without being sexually active! Check out the lives of Jesus and Paul if you find this hard to believe.
Are we being honest?
Do you find yourself justifying this behaviour to yourself? Do you persuade yourself that it is not wrong if it does not lead to an orgasm? Do you say it’s not really self-pleasuring because it is just ’releasing the tension when it builds up’? Do you hide from Jesus until the act is finished and then (probably out of guilt) quickly ask for forgiveness until the next time?
Jesus should be involved in all aspects of our life and no areas should be so shameful that we exclude Him. We need to be honest with ourselves and with God. Masturbation rarely remains a long-term habit just for releasing tension. It becomes solo sex.
Some of us are addicted to ungodly sexual activity. Some of us have a fantasy/thought life that is not under control. We fan the flames of desire through what we choose, watch at the cinema or on YouTube, as well as the magazines we read and the music we listen to. In an age when sexual images are so readily available, we cannot easily filter some, but we can turn away from others. We are responsible for fanning the flames of desire in the things we feed to our minds and our eyes (James 1:14-15). Be clear on your boundaries – make a covenant with your eyes not to expose them to lustful temptation (Job 31:1).
Remember this verse: “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.” (Philippians 4:8). Whatever we are habitually/regularly dwelling on in our thinking – even as an undercurrent working away in our unconscious – that thinking WILL become the behaviour that we act upon (Col 3:10). So, it is all about challenging and changing the things that are occupying your thinking throughout the day. Practise these principles. They work.
Self-control is not a word that this society likes to hear. But it will be a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (Gal 5:22-23). We need to develop this discipline in our lives as children of God. If we do not learn self-control through denying ourselves the immediate gratification of self-pleasuring, then we will only have to revisit it in another area.
If you have been masturbating for a while, it is going to be difficult to reverse what the physiology of the body seems to be compelling you to keep doing. But don’t give up. Sin is no longer your master (Rom 6:13-14). You will need the help of the Holy Spirit to regain an inner purity and self-control to live a life that pleases God (1 Thess 4: 1-8). Freedom from masturbation, like any addictive behaviour, does not come from ’white-knuckling it’ at the point of greatest pressure. With God’s help, freedom comes from identifying and turning from every ’little’ lustful glance or thought as soon as it enters our minds. Over time, the sexual pressure will reduce and the act of masturbation will feel less compelling. You might find it helpful to keep a daily log of your thoughts and behaviours, using the RAIN acronym:
Recognise what you are doing.
Acknowledge and don’t deny what you noticed yourself doing.
Investigate why you are doing it at this time and choose a healthier alternative. Is it when you’re tired? Maybe you need to go to bed earlier. Is it when you’re lonely? Try phoning a friend.
Non-Identification: move away from the thinking/glance immediately with a distraction strategy and ask the Holy Spirit for help.
For many people, their guilt over masturbation weighs heavily upon them, having tried to stop for such a long time. It’s important to recognise that breaking a habit like this, often driven by shame and isolation, may need help from another trusted person: perhaps a trusted friend, an accountability partner or a counsellor. Although it will feel awkward to admit to this struggle, without help we are likely to battle in vain, as with so many addictions.
Don’t let this struggle disqualify you Don’t feel you need complete victory over patterns of masturbation now before you step into what God has called you to do. Wouldn’t we challenge Christians who claimed they have to master their swearing or overeating before God can use them? God is in the habit of using flawed and fragile people just like us (2 Cor 4:7), so let us be inspired by Biblical characters such as David or Rahab, who made themselves available to God despite their sexual sins.
While mature obedience may be some way down the road for us, we must ensure that our direction of travel has changed. It’s OK to stumble in the right direction. A slip-up does not take us back to ’square one’, but we should use it as an opportunity to reflect on the depth of our repentance.
So, let us reject Satan’s accusations of unworthiness. Keep turning to God. Bring your struggle before Him. Seek His forgiveness and His freedom. And then respond to Jesus’ call to serve Him with a clear conscience.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend, under the title, "Freedom from Solo Sex".