Me, myself, and I: Christians and Masturbation

Masturbation! There, I said it!

I can scarcely imagine a subject more likely to inspire the creative use of euphemisms and awkward exercises in not getting to the point. This is especially true amongst Christians, as many of us are still learning how to talk freely and frankly about sex.

Most people, at some point in their lives, have masturbated. A study in the UK found that more than 70 per cent of men and almost 40 per cent of women had masturbated in the past month. It often starts in the confusing and hormonal teenage years, when everything is strange and pimply and uncomfortable.

Although plenty of parents tell their kids about the birds and the bees, few may have the courage to talk about what the bird or the bee does on her or his own when no one is looking. Fewer still may talk about whether or not that solitary bird or bee is doing anything wrong.

Although plenty of parents tell their kids about the birds and the bees, few may have the courage to talk about what the bird or the bee does when no one is looking.

This lack of clear guidance extends to the church as well. Often the only thing that Christians (and especially teens) hear is repeated variations of a theme: sex outside of marriage is sinful — so don’t do it. While this is true, and certainly part of a Biblical sex ethic, it leaves us with a whole lot of haziness about the issue of masturbation. Amongst those who are willing to talk about it, the attitudes range from outright condemnation to, “it’s not mentioned in the Bible, so it must be OK.”

Masturbation has an obvious association with lust — something Jesus clearly condemns — and is often a way to act on those lustful thoughts. But many will argue it’s possible to masturbate without lusting; in fact, masturbation might even be a sort of “pressure release” that helps those who struggle with leading a chaste life to get rid of the temptation, and carry on with their day.

In the anti-masturbation camp, the message is often presented from within a culture of sexual shame. Sex outside of marriage is a specially heinous sin, seemingly worse than greed, murder, and hypocrisy combined! Those who are “impure” are compared to used toothbrushes, pre-chewed gum, or a cup of water that people have spat in. Regardless of whether or not they are right about the issue, this reaction doesn’t lead to repentance but rather to guilt and secrecy; it forgets that the greedy and slanderous should be called to repentance, just as much as those who sin sexually.

Conversely, the other camp is well represented by someone like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. “It is my opinion that masturbation is not much of an issue with God,” says Dobson. “It is a normal part of adolescence which involves no one else. It does not cause disease. It does not produce babies, and Jesus did not mention it in the Bible.”

I can certainly see the draw of Dobson’s perspective. Of course most everyone wants masturbation to be OK. But this very desire should give us pause before uncritically accepting this perspective.

Doesn’t it seem oddly self-serving that the answer to the question of masturbation is exactly what we want it to be? It is crucial that we are aware of our own capacity for self-deception; after all, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Just because the Bible doesn’t mention something doesn’t necessarily give us license to say that it’s a good thing to do. The Bible doesn’t talk about fracking or clearcutting. It doesn’t mention the stock market, or whether you should vote Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat.

What it does mention is that God’s creation is “very good,” that excessive wealth is dangerous to your soul, and that a society should honour God by taking care of the outcasts and widows. These principles demand that we think Christianly about things in our world.

To think about masturbation wisely, we must look at the Biblical picture of sexuality. Only then will we be able to get a Christian perspective on this issue of self-gratification.

To start, in Genesis 1 and 2, we get our first foundational picture of sexuality.

“This at last is bone of bones and flesh of my flesh…”

“The man shall… hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

John Calvin said that, in finding Eve, Adam had found “as it were, another self.” John Paul II, in an incredible phrase, said that “man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons.” We can see, from the very beginning, that our humanity and our sexuality are pointed outwards, towards union and love.

Another very important thread in a Christian understanding of sexuality is found in Ephesians, when Paul talks about marriage: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). All through the Bible, God talks about His people as His Bride. God is the Bridegroom, and they are His Bride. Sometimes — often! — they are His unfaithful Bride, mired in harlotry. But they are always his Bride, and He is always determined to woo them back. Marriage, and the sexuality contained therein, is a symbol of this Great Wedding. It is a place of giving and of union, rather than taking and self-directed pleasure.

Masturbation perpetuates the lie that sex is for me.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “… the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This passage is a perfect example of the selfless picture of marriage painted in Ephesians 5. Even in marriage — especially in marriage — sex is not about you. Your body is for your spouse, and your spouse’s body is for you. In the act of sex, each person ought to be self-giving in love and service for the other.

Tim Keller sums it up very well by saying that “the Bible teaches that the essence of marriage is a sacrificial commitment to the good of the other.” This includes every aspect of ourselves, including our sexuality.

A friend of mine once said this: “Masturbation perpetuates the lie that sex is for me.” In considering it deeply, we can see that masturbation is precisely the opposite of the Christian picture of sexuality. It is turned inward, aimed at no one’s pleasure but your own. It trains our sexuality to be self-focused. It turns our sexuality into a mechanism for easy pleasure for us, rather than a gift to be given and received in love between husband and wife.

We serve a God whose love for us is best shown by His selfless giving of Himself, to the point of death. In all things, we are called to imitate Christ, considering others above ourselves. It is certain that we are and will remain sinners in desperate need of grace, but that doesn’t change the fact that our sexuality, just like our finances and our speech, is meant to be pointed outwards in love.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Marc Ambros.