This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Although masturbation (solo sex) is a nearly universal behavior, it is rarely discussed in the church. However, the increasing support in the media for solo sex as a healthy activity means the church must begin to address it. The moral legitimacy of this behavior has long been debated in Christian circles. To arrive at a biblical conclusion, we need to go beyond prohibitions to consider the positive teaching on sexuality with its profound theological implications. God intends sexuality to teach us what it means to be made in His image and, more importantly, what it means to be in relationship with Him. When we understand the design of biblical sexuality, coupled with the nature of Christian discipleship, it is clear this is not a legitimate sexual activity. The central New Testament passage discussing sexuality in marriage makes clear that the focus of marital intimacy is satisfying my spouse — not my personal pleasure. In this way, our sexuality should reflect the larger call of discipleship to self-denial and love for others. There are obvious, painful implications for single people who do not have a God-honoring outlet for their sexual desires, but this creates an opportunity for deeper fellowship with Christ who, through His incarnation, poignantly understands unsatisfied human longings. Couples need to consider how biblical sexuality governs their behavior in the marriage bed and consider how self-pleasure violates the call to bless their spouse. Finally, parents need to get out of their comfort zone and face challenging conversations with their children in order to shepherd them through the media minefields of the twenty-first century.
The embarrassed cultural silence once surrounding masturbation (solo sex) has been replaced with loud, affirming voices. From an early ‘90s Seinfeld episode in which all the characters (including Elaine) acknowledged their inability to refrain from this behavior to recent medical studies1 affirming the potential health benefits, masturbation has gone mainstream with much acclaim. In the Christian community, many traditions have wrestled for years whether masturbation is a sin, with prominent voices on both sides. The debate exists largely because it’s a sexual behavior without a condemning biblical “proof text.” Although there isn’t a specific prohibitive passage, if we have a robust understanding of God’s design for sexuality, it’s clear that there is no space for masturbation in the life of a Christian. In addition to the absence of a biblical prohibition, the Christian leaders affirming the practice express their reticence to call people to the pain of living with unsatisfied sexual desires. This is a hard, radically countercultural teaching, and no tender-hearted pastor or priest wants to call his people to suffering.
SOLO SEX DOESN’T FIT THE BIBLICAL PATTERN
To begin, we need to step back and consider the Bible’s positive teaching on sex. Because we are made in the image of God, there is deep, theological significance to our sexuality that must inform every practice. Through this aspect of our personhood, God shines a unique light on what it means to be His image-bearer, and the depth of His love for us. Briefly, when God created us in His image, He created the sexes. The interplay of pronouns in Genesis 1 is the first hint of the glorious unity and diversity within the Trinity that develops as Scripture unfolds, ultimately revealing God as Father, Son, and Spirit. This means God existed in relationship from eternity past. Love predated creation. The created universe is the overflow of God’s Trinitarian love, and He designed humanity to reflect this wonder. This is why the first “malediction” in history is God stating, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18 ESV). As image-bearers, humans need to live in community to reflect their three-in-one, relational Creator.
Most importantly, gender and sexuality point to God’s desire for relationship with us. God’s glorious plan for marriage/sexuality points beyond itself to our ultimate, eternal union with Him. After discussing marital roles, consider Paul’s astounding conclusion, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32 ESV). God created us with a romantic impulse so we would know His passion for us behind it all! Sexual desire, romantic longings, and the drama of marital intimacy point us to the amazing truth that Jesus’ love for us has the passion of a Lover.
Therefore, God’s design for sexuality is not simply about permissible versus out-of-bounds behaviors. Hopefully, this brief sketch highlights the deeper truths of sexuality. Considering masturbation specifically, two things must be at the forefront: (1) because of our image-bearing, the Bible teaches sexual activity is reserved for marriage. It’s designed to be inherently relational, an aspect of deep knowing and intimacy with another, providing a context for the bearing and rearing of children. (2) In that context, the goal is giving wholly to the other, providing pleasure and joy in the deepest act of mutual vulnerability. This is particularly clear from 1 Corinthians 7:1–5, the only “how to” passage in the Bible prescribing sexual activity.
God designed sexuality to be like every other aspect of the Christian life: turning away from selfish desires to honor God with my body and use it to serve another. Sex in marriage should reflect the New Testament ethic in general. Describing discipleship, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ESV). Much more than a proof text for the atonement, this is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to follow Him.
Multiple passages proclaim the Christian life is freedom from living for self. We live foremost for Christ and secondarily to love and bless others (see Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:14–15; Phil. 2:3–4; 1 Pet. 4:1–5). Jesus promises only when we live according to this pattern do we truly find life. (All four Gospels include this teaching. See Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; and John 12:25.) Living for “self” guarantees that true life and peace will elude us. This is particularly true of our sexuality. Ephesians 4:17–19 gives a chilling assessment that living for our own sexual desires signifies a “turning away” from God, leading to ever-increasing depravity and sexual insatiability.
Obviously, masturbation fails on both counts. It is a solitary activity, not rooted in relationship. There is no opportunity for deepening intimacy and knowing of another. Further, far from selfless service, it is a snapshot of selfishness. This behavior proclaims, “What matters most right now is that I experience the greatest pleasure possible.” This is radically counter to the call of discipleship.
FALSE COMFORT VS. “THE GOD OF ALL COMFORT”
This self-centeredness highlights another problem. Many Christians justify masturbation because our culture elevates sexual desire to a physical “need.” But here’s the hard truth: no one ever died because they didn’t have sex. This is not to say that living with unsatisfied sexual desires is easy! We should have great compassion for singles living in celibate faithfulness to Christ, and couples faced with the challenge of differing levels of desire. Sex is a wonderful gift from God to be received with thanksgiving but never to be worshipped.
Are Christians just too uptight about sex? Isn’t this repressive? No, we believe God invented pleasure and gave us the capacity to enjoy it in wonderful ways. But, He also prescribed the way pleasures should be expressed, and all pleasures can entice our hearts to supplant the Giver, worshipping the gift instead.
This is a key problem with masturbation. Most therapists agree that it is a means of self-soothing and finding comfort. Additionally, there is a growing realization that the constant novelty of internet porn (frequently accompanying masturbation) is incredibly addictive and destructive to relationships.
Solo sex is the goal of much pornography use. It’s critical to understand that internet porn is a whole new beast that even secular researchers2 identify as deeply problematic. One troubling outcome is men in their twenties and thirties are now the largest-growing demographic struggling with erectile dysfunction. Programmed by constant novelty and thousands of “partners” available online, a real woman isn’t as exciting. One young man, struggling in his fledgling marriage, described to me his use of internet porn like an à la carte menu: “Tonight I’ll have some of this and a little of that.” No individual can compete with the composite of hundreds of others. And there is a constant drive to find more stimulating images. For many, this becomes an enslaving addiction coupled with the false comfort of solo sex.
But God declares He is the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3–4). He wants to meet us in our sadness, loneliness, and frustration. He promises to satisfy “you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:5 ESV). There is a danger when we turn to things of this world to soothe the ache in our soul. Jonah 2:8 warns, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (NIV). When we embrace false, fleeting comforts to satisfy the deep longings of our soul, we will not find lasting peace or joy.
Now, desiring comfort is not bad. But we must seek comfort in ways that can facilitate a deepening fellowship with God (like a walk in the woods, beautiful music, enjoying nutritious food). A helpful gauge of whether your pursuit of comfort is drawing you closer to the Giver of good gifts is the lens of 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.” Does the activity lead you to engage God and give thanks to Him? Can you engage whatever pleasure/comfort self-consciously as a Christian?
We must carefully tread this road, avoiding the historic pitfall of heaping shame on those struggling with masturbation. If we’re honest, the issue is virtually universal for all of us at some point in our lives. We should show compassion because we can empathize, but we never want to shrink back from calling out sin for what it is and inviting people to return to their First Love, the One who promises pleasure forevermore at His right hand.
We need to acknowledge that this is hard teaching! It’s extremely challenging to live with unsatisfied desires, and many remain single though they long for marriage. The church needs to take this seriously and not dismiss the challenge of chastity or the crushing loneliness many singles face.
If you are in that place, I want to offer some encouragement. First, Jesus understands! He knows the challenge of living chastely having faced every temptation. Consider this: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18 ESV). He knows temptation is painful. He’s suffered through it Himself victoriously — this means He knows the exact grace you need in the midst of temptation, and He’s filled you with His Spirit to empower your obedience. The deeper reality is that you’re not alone in the middle of the night, suffering with raging desires. By His Spirit, Jesus is a present help in your trouble.
Further, there’s a reason why Jesus encourages singleness for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:12), and Paul reiterates that he prefers Christians remain single (1 Cor. 7:6–8, 25–35). It’s not because the Bible is anti-sex. Paul wants Christians focused on building the kingdom, and he writes this anticipating what he’ll say five chapters later: since the church has been formed, we are joined together as the Body. Notice the “one flesh” language! Marriage no longer needs to be the answer to the malediction of Genesis 2:18. It should be oxymoronic to refer to a lonely Christian. Especially in suburban America, may God give us grace to exalt the singles in our midst and be committed to “make a home for the lonely” (Ps. 68:6 ASB). Intentional steps must be taken to enfold singles fully into the local church.
And there are practical considerations here. Masturbation intensifies a self-focused sexuality based on getting “my needs” met. But emphasizing personal pleasure is the exact opposite of God’s design. He intends couples to discover the joys, to plumb the depths of pleasure together, learning the mystery of one radically “other,” not having selfish expectations of how my spouse should make me feel. Admittedly, all couples need to grow in practicing God-honoring, selfless sexuality, but masturbation shapes expectations, placing singles in a more challenging position should they later marry.
Similarly, a married person is defrauding his/her spouse through masturbation. A healthy sex life takes work in marriage, requiring selfless emotional and spiritual investment, as well as learning to physically serve someone designed very differently from oneself. Learning to give pleasure to each other in physical intimacy is an outward manifestation of how we are to grow in our knowing of each other emotionally and spiritually. Our sexual differences are part of the joy and wonder that point to the greater reality of our union with Christ, who is radically other. Masturbation selfishly takes the easy road of personal gratification at the cost of deepening oneness and intimacy.
This raises another issue: is it OK for couples to utilize technology for virtual sex while physically separated? This fundamentally twists the design of selfless service. The goal is to be together, united physically as you are emotionally and spiritually. God created sexual expression to be a kind of relational glue in marriage. Only my spouse can provide this amazing pleasure. It is a unique gift binding us together because each is dependent on the other for its provision. It requires a spouse to generously give of him/herself. Even if your spouse is eager for you to experience pleasure remotely, you can’t escape the reality that you are alone in the room, ultimately pleasuring yourself. Self-stimulation by definition is focused on self, even if your spouse is on the other end of the phone or FaceTime screen.
Periods of long separation are difficult and not ideal for marriage. But God gives more grace. He calls all of us to live chastely — for some that means total abstinence, and for others that means patience, times of fasting between feasting.
Despite how uncomfortable this may be for everyone, parents must speak to their kids about masturbation. First, most parents are confronted with a child’s exploration of his/her genitals at a young age. Much could be said here, but how you respond is crucial! You must never shame your child. At very young ages, perhaps the best thing to do is distract and redirect. As they get older, share how God created our genitals for something special in marriage, opening the door to have positive discussions about God’s design.
Parents must acknowledge the majority of teens are wrestling with masturbation. Are you willing to be vulnerable and discuss your own history with them? You can’t read Proverbs 5–7 without an awareness that the father addressing his son understands the lure of temptation. We see this particularly in chapter 7, which uses vivid detail, appealing to all the senses, depicting a scenario that would deeply entice any young man. The father clearly “gets it.” Honesty with our children includes not shrinking back from the reality that sin is incredibly alluring, even to us. Although you will always be their parent, the teen years are a time to begin maturing the relationship, having side-by-side adult conversations, not speaking down to them as children.
This is an invitation to a deeper level of discipleship with your teens, calling them to a fuller understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, pointing to how He wants to meet them in the pain of their unsatisfied desires and empower them by His Spirit so they learn the critical truth, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” because in my weakness “the power of Christ [rests] upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9–10 ESV). And, as your wise parenting indicates, it is a time when teens can learn that the Christian life and growth in holiness requires community. There is no significant sin struggle (or life stress) that God wants us to face with Him alone. He placed us in the Body for a reason. This issue can help them begin considering ways they turn to false comforts to cope with the challenges of life (what the Bible calls idolatry), and learn to bring their pain to God and others.
Further, some parents view masturbation as a behavior that doesn’t hurt anyone. We must realize that every time we break the first great command, we also break the second. With sin, there is always collateral damage. If God has a spouse for your child, this behavior will shape expectations for marital sexuality. And there’s a disconnect between how private behavior impinges the ability to interact with others publicly, shaping opinions and perceptions. An inner fantasy world — especially when amplified by pornography — relegates other image-bearers, loved by God, to objects for my personal consumption. We must realize there will be fallout in our relationships and interactions as a result. The Bible implies that the unseen spiritual bonding occurring in sexual behavior has corporate ramifications,3 and because Scripture describes the members of Christ as one interdependent Body, we need to take seriously the impact of personal behavior on brothers and sisters in Christ. Ephesians 4 picks up the same metaphor describing how the Body reaches maturity, “builds itself up in love,” only “when each part is working properly” (v. 16 ESV). If we minimize the effect of masturbation, we are failing to warn appropriately our children to “put off” sinful behavior, and give the critical call for them to “put on” the person God created them to be in their relationships and service to the rest of the Body. Of course, as you warn your children of these dangers, it’s most critical to help them connect the reasons they turn to false comforts in order to medicate pain, loss, frustration, and anxiety.
As discussed above, pornography is a major factor in masturbation, and the destructive power of internet porn cannot be overstated. Those unwilling to guard technology are abdicating a significant parental role in twenty-first-century America. There are helpful tools to guard your home network and data-plan devices. Loving your children means doing research and taking necessary steps. Neglecting this is like leaving pornography DVDs laying around your family room, or even inviting a pedophile over to babysit.
UNSATISFIED DESIRES AND ULTIMATE HOPE
Whether single or languishing in a sexless marriage, living with unsatisfied desires is incredibly painful, but reminds us that this world is not our home! Our culture encourages instant gratification and sees “waiting” as foolish. But woven throughout Scripture is the image of sowing and reaping, waiting on the Lord, believing in what is unseen — this is what it means to live by faith. Scripture constantly points us beyond satisfaction now, urging us to stake all our hopes in the age to come. I can live with unsatisfied desires because the day is coming when we’ll know pleasure forevermore at His right hand. Pleasures beyond our ability to conceive — that we’ll need a resurrection body to experience. That’s why this is such a critical aspect of Christian discipleship. In some way, God asks all of us, “Will you wait on Me? Will you trust Me?” If you’re being called by God to sexual “fasting,” there may be no sweeter example of your life as a “living sacrifice,” especially in a culture that mocks and maligns because you choose to not indulge. There’s a reason why Scripture ends with the book of Revelation; we need to know that in the end Jesus wins, and the sacrifices made for His sake will be rewarded forevermore. He’s promised we can’t begin to imagine what He has in store for us in eternity (1 Cor. 2:9).
I love C. S. Lewis’s illustration: describing a young boy’s response to hearing about sex for the first time, the child asks, “But do you get to eat chocolate?” It’s the greatest pleasure he knows; he can’t imagine a pleasure that wouldn’t include chocolate. When real life begins in the new heavens and earth, none of us will lament the lack of sex in this life. It will be laughable compared to the ultimate joys we’ll experience meeting our ultimate Bridegroom face-to-face.4
David White is director of Targeted Discipleship at Harvest USA, a national organization that exists to bring the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ to people affected by sexual struggles and sin. He is also a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary.
- Jennifer R. Rider et al., “Ejaculation Frequency and Risk of Prostate Cancer: Updated Results with an Additional Decade of Follow-up,” European Urology 70, no. 6 (2016): 974–82; available at https://www.europeanurology.com/article/S0302-2838%2816%2900377-8/fulltext.
- Gary Wilson, “TEDx: The Great Porn Experiment,” May 16, 2012, TED video, 16:28, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSF82AwSDiU&vl=en.
- See 1 Corinthians 6:15. Editor’s Note: Further helpful resources include Joe Dallas, The Game Plan: The Men’s 30-Day Strategy for Attaining Sexual Integrity (Thomas Nelson, 2005); Ellen Dykas, ed., Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness (New Growth Press, 2013); Matt Fradd, The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography (Ignatius Press, 2017); David White, Raising Sexually Healthy Kids (New Growth Press, 2017).