It is hard to find an explicit reference to masturbation within Scripture. Joel Hesch offers a few good points: “The Bible doesn’t mention arson, child abuse, drug-trafficking, forgery, pornography, or vandalism either. Does that give you free reign to sell cocaine on the corner or demolish your hotel room when you’re on vacation?” We agree with Jason DeRouchie’s conclusion: “I believe that anyone who masturbates outside the marriage bed sins and insults God’s glory in Christ.” We plan to explain this point and why men and women should turn from sin and shame and take the path of Christian virtue. This virtue begins with an encounter with the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Here we define masturbation from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “erotic stimulation especially of one’s own genital organs commonly resulting in orgasm and achieved by manual or other bodily contact exclusive of sexual intercourse, by instrumental manipulation, occasionally by sexual fantasies, or by various combinations of these agencies.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines masturbation: “By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” This is a very broad definition, but it focuses on the stimulation of the organs by something including the internal thoughts of the mind. Essentially, it defines masturbation as linked to sexual arousal.
Planned Parenthood openly condones the act of masturbation, and even encourages it: “Masturbating is totally normal and totally healthy. Most people don’t talk about it, but almost everybody does it.” Their basic ethical principle is: well, everybody does it anyways, and then they leave it up to a personal decision. The decision to masturbate is essentially up to the person to decide. They base their ethics on relativistic ethics. And as Christians we seek to find different foundations for our ethical system.
The Deontological Problem Behind Masturbation:
We already mentioned that the Scriptures do not explicitly condemn masturbation itself. But a deontological principle can be drawn from Scripture’s condemnation of lust (Matt. 5:28, 2 Tim. 2:22, I John 2:16, Prov. 6:25, Gal. 5:16, James 1:14-15). Deontological ethics “are principle-based systems, in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values.”
Planned Parenthood encourages us to have sympathy for all those who think masturbation is dirty. They feel people have been unnecessarily shamed. According to Scripture, we believe that bodily functions are natural. Adam had semen in the Garden of Eden, and he and Eve had sexual relations. There is no reason to believe that they didn’t have the ability to orgasm. He wonders in her beauty, and she in his strength, and then they seek to fulfil God’s mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. But at the very root of His identity, Adam was a son of God.
When Adam and Eve fell into sin and therefore acted in unbelief and pride, this confused their sexuality. There were sexual consequences to their sin. One of these consequences was misaligned desire. Lust became an issue. Both Adam and Eve proceeded to cover their nakedness with leaves. Sexual sin and various forms of sexual deviancy became part of the life of God’s people in the Old Testament. In Exodus 20, God commands His people not to commit adultery, and throughout the first 5 books God lays out principles for the sexual purity for His people. When Jesus preaches from the mountain in Matthew 5, He explains the true extent of God’s command in Exodus 20. Jesus says even he who looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery. In Matthew 5:28, lust is equated with adultery.
We argue against Planned Parenthood. The primary reason people feel shame in masturbation is not because the human body or sexual fluids are dirty or that sex is dirty in and of itself. Sometimes orgasms happen at night without any thoughts or dreams, and this can even be healthy for the body. Men and women feel shame when they masturbate because they know that they fall short of the glory of God. In their hearts they had an illicit partnership with another woman (or man). This is why Joel Hesch asks men about their thoughts in the days previous to masturbation. He points out that lust can be fought, even in a sexualized culture where women “hit on” men. The problem with masturbation goes much deeper than masturbation itself: the problem is ultimately lust. Jesus’ prohibition of lust means that masturbation is highly problematic in biblical deontological ethics.
Joel Hesch also draws a strong link to God’s explicit prohibition of coveting. Masturbation is a sinful acting out on the sinful desires within, and a man or a woman will act on these desires by seeking the “peace of mind” that they think comes from an orgasm. “Failing to believe God is good and failing to trust him with your life can lead to a perceived need for fantasy or the release of masturbation.” Masturbation often acts out on the desire for what is not yours.
But to fight lust, we must move past deontology to virtues. Fighting lust is more than mere actions, in fact it is primarily a way of thinking and being. Therefore, we must consider virtue ethics as well.
Masturbation in Virtue Ethics
A virtue ethic is defined by Scott Rae: “Virtue theory, which is also called aretaic ethics (from the Greek arete, “virtue”), holds that morality is more than simply doing the right thing.” In this section we want to focus on patterns of thought connected to masturbation. Most importantly we want to understand how these patterns of thought and life can be reformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We defend and encourage the virtue of selflessness both within and outside of marriage, based on the principle of the love that Christ has for His Church. The Apostle Paul draws from the creation ordinance of marriage to speak about the love between Christ and His Church. He then draws application for this intimate relationship between a man and his wife: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Eph. 5:31-33).
The willful act of masturbation intent on arousing sexual desire outside of the marriage bed, is an act of solo sex. Whether inside or outside of marriage, it does not reflect the submission or love between Christ and His Church. A man deciding to masturbate is effectively saying that Christ doesn’t need to love His Church. A woman deciding to masturbate is effectively saying that the Church doesn’t need the love of Christ. The individual only sees himself or herself in a vacuum, they don’t recognize the need for two to become one flesh, and the glory of the union of marriage.
b. Self-control and Patience
1 Thessalonians 4:3–7 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”
God desires our sanctification. This means that we must increase in holiness. Holiness means abstaining from sexual immorality. But holiness goes a step further. It means controlling your own body in holiness and honour. It means not giving into urges like the lust of the Gentiles who don’t know God. This principle has massive implications for the discussion of masturbation.
When a Christian believes in the Name of Jesus Christ and is saved, then he or she is given the gift of the Holy Spirit. But even with the Spirit, Christians don’t live in a state of perfection yet. But when they have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit begins to produce the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5). One could call them the ‘virtues’ of the Spirit. These are the virtues in the heart of a man, each of which urge him towards godliness, or away from sinfulness, which would include the act of masturbation. Two fruits of the Holy Spirit are important for our purposes here: self-control and patience. Others are important too, but these two are the most applicable.
Christians are called to ‘control’ their bodies. Self-control is the development of an ability to control urges and desires. This could mean that an angry man controls his urge to lash out in anger. He doesn’t need to lash out in anger for cathartic release, and that anger only fuels more anger anyway. Someone who eats too much might learn to control their appetite. Self-control in sexuality is to control the mechanical urge to create arousal outside of the marriage bed. It means controlling the urge to masturbate.
Self-control in masturbation also involves the virtue of patience. Singles are called to patiently wait for the union of marriage (i.e. Song of Solomon). As Solomon’s bride says to young women (which applies to young men as well) in Song of Songs 8:4: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Masturbation with the hope of orgasm is a potential way to stir up or awaken love before it is meant to be awoken. Married couples should exhibit this patience within the marriage: “Love is patient” (I Cor. 13:4).
Ultimately, masturbation is a sin because 99.5% of the time it is conducted in the passion of lust. It does not reflect the virtues men and women are called to cultivate in their lives. A person who masturbates regularly is under the control of lust. This is why masturbation is so tied up with shame. But the virtues of patience and self-control provide a better way to wrestle with the passions that so exemplify our sinful nature. The only way to cultivate patience and self-control is through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we fight sin, then, we rely on the internal work of the Holy Spirit to cultivate these virtues from the inside. At the same time, we look to the forgiving blood of Christ; who not only forgives our sexual sins but our sinful sexual desires as well. And fight we must.
Consequential Utilitarian Ethics
“Utilitarianism is what is known as a teleological system (taken from the Greek word telos, which means “end,” “goal”), in which the morality of an act is determined by the end result.” Of course, this does not give the why for morality, but it does offer a warning. Neither does it really give the primary motivation for doing what’s right. We would argue that Proverbs is more about virtues, but Solomon warns his son about consequences: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Bill Smith writes:
As idolatrous man gives himself over to idolatry, he is given over by God to dishonoring his body in male-female sexual relationships. As this becomes the normal course of life, God eventually gives man over to “dishonorable passions.” These dishonorable passions are same-sex sexual passions; women exchanging the Creator’s design for sexual relations in order to be with women, and men inflamed in their passions toward one another doing that which is shameful with other men. These are unions that are fruitless by design. They are unions of death; death to individuals and death to society.
Lust goes primarily against the virtue of love. Thus, when lust takes root, it begins to squeeze love out. Lust sets up an idol – such as sexual pleasure – and begins to squeeze out honorable passions with dishonorable passions. We must realize that either sin is growing, or holiness is growing. There is no status quo of no growth. There is no neutral ground. A lazy man or woman is not fighting against lust and is instead giving in by masturbating.
Joel Hesch tells the story of a man whose pastor gave him the permission to masturbate since his wife would only have sex with him every 3 months – the qualifier was that he had to think about his wife when he was masturbating. With sadness in his eyes, this man told Joel Hesch that he should have never started. Masturbation only fueled his desire for sex, it compounded his lust.
Willingly giving in to masturbation is tantamount to acceptance of the sin. If sin is not fought through the battle for new virtues such as self-control and patience and true love, then it will metastasize like cancer. It will grow bigger. It will search for a new rush, a new thrill. It will see a pretty woman, made in the image of God, as an object to unclothe and release sexual desires with. Rape in the mind, if not reversed by the power of the Holy Spirit, ends in a rape culture. It will begin to make a man feel dead to the touch of his wife or a wife feel dead to the touch of her husband.
Natural Law/Human Flourishing
The secular psychologist Jordan Peterson asks the question of young people whether they stand up straighter and feel proud of themselves for masturbating. He then states that deciding to masturbate is the admission that you are a second-rate player. Another secular psychology website permits masturbation, but they recognize the close link between pornography, masturbation, and compulsive sex addiction. They even go so far to connect this to the importance of human relationships over pornography and masturbation. Compulsive sex addiction and therapy are one of the battles of our day. Winston T. Smith from Christian Counselling Educational Foundation takes a similar approach to human flourishing when he emphasizes the beauty of human relationships over the selfishness of masturbation.
We have already grounded our ethical reasoning in creation ordinances and in the path of following Christ. We have seen that human flourishing in sexuality is found within God’s creation ordinance of marriage. Solomon also says in the book of Proverbs: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” (Prov. 3:7-8) There are also good consequences to making good decisions. There is healing in the path of wisdom.
Coming to Grips With the Grace of God
We can imagine numerous scenarios where serious Christian individuals, or couples are already fallen, taken up in the sins of pornography or masturbation. Ethics must be understood in the context of Jesus’ work, otherwise every one of us is damned to Hell. There are a million situations of sin and shame and guilt including pasts of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, legalism, and cheap grace. There are many young men and women, Christian or not, neck-deep in porn habits, masturbation, and sex outside of marriage.
We emphasize strongly that no sin is beyond Christ’s healing. Even if the conscience is numbed your conscience to the weight of sin, the Christian can still go to Christ. Rev. Lane Keister states: “There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says.” As the Apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:14–15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Another important emphasis is the excessive guilt many people carry. In legalist cultures, where sexuality is a ‘do not touch’ topic, sexuality itself becomes a source of guilt. But we must emphasize that sexuality was created by God in the Garden of Eden. There are natural functions for male and female genitalia, which are pure and holy. The Song of Solomon, for example, is a celebration of the beauty in sexual relations. Christians are permitted, nay, obliged to rejoice in this. Even more important the Scripture gives a much larger picture of love than the area of sexuality. Marriage is even more glorious in its sense of companionship, support, including in areas of emotional and spiritual connection.
For example, a boy or a man should not feel guilty for a desire for marriage. Proverbs 18:22 says: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” It is a noble thing to seek a wife, contrary to the raunchy comments of young men on this issue, or the unnecessary exhortations of older men.
We read in Titus 2:11-12 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,” Those who seek this way of living should pray earnestly for these fruits of the Holy Spirit, and to fight for them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Once again, as the author of Proverbs 2:3–5 urges his son: “yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” Of course, this prayer includes action as well. As Jesus says in Mark 9:43: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
In the fight, we also recognize that it is not always good to focus exclusively on the fight. Rather we should pursue new, pure desires. First, we pursue Jesus Christ that we may know the power of His resurrection and share in His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). We pursue something wholesome (like a good wife). While a little broader, this passage from Philippians can also be applied within sexuality.
Philippians 4:8–9 “Finally, brothers, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Scripture depicts the life of true flourishing. Jesus is the ultimate good that we aim for. When our loves are “rightly ordered” towards the telos of our first Love, then we also begin to find the good of human flourishing. Psalm 128 describes the Christian family gathered around the dinner table, as a true picture of fellowship. We can love the goodness of sexuality within marriage, and the goodness of sexuality outside of marriage. The Christian can love his or her body in a wholesome way. Christians can delight in the goodness within God’s created world, and delight in serving Him and others within that world. There are good works of literature and theology, good cigars, sports like hockey and rugby, and rich whiskey. There are women who fear God and men who serve Him. And because of the work of the Holy Spirit, life (including sexuality) is possible to enjoy before the face of a holy God.