Is Masturbation a Sin?

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A couple posts back, I broke the ice about masturbation. I didn’t want to start any arguments that would bring anger or division or make anyone defensive. I tried to get everyone to relax and talk about the topic more and find common ground upon which we could all agree.

I really didn’t want to make some grand declaration, then and there, about masturbation’s “sin status.” Some people have some very strong opinions about masturbation, and anything they hear or read that runs contrary to their personal beliefs can throw them into a fury of defensive outbursts and nearsighted judgments.

Masturbation is a struggle for many people to come to terms with, and not everyone is on the same page at the same time. We can learn from each other in this.

But many people are in such a hurry to be justified by their beliefs and actions, their knowledge of good and evil, all in the name of standing up for moral excellence, that they completely miss the hidden truths and joys that can be ours by embracing the struggle.

I don’t want to just give you a straight answer here about masturbation. The issue is not directly mentioned in the Bible, and I think that is a key point that we need to take note of.

There was a time when I completely glazed over that fact. I looked for anything I could tweak and stretch out of context to make it about masturbation, because I was so desperate to be justified by law. Laws were my friend. I could understand laws. They were clear and easy to apply to any issue in life.

Laws made good weapons, too, and they gave me the right to condemn others who broke them while I held myself up to a lofty moral standard. It didn’t matter if those Scriptures and laws actually addressed masturbation or not. I made them do as I desired.

I desired to be morally excellent, proven so by biblical law. Untouchable.

Yeah, I was a dick.

Then, one of my church friends recommended The Struggle by Steve Gerali. It was a relatively short book aimed at Christian teenagers, and it was all about masturbation. It presented a brief history of masturbation in Western philosophy, science, culture, and religious Christianity, all of which was really quite interesting. If you’ve never studied the history of masturbation around the world, you’re missing out on some fascinating material.

The main point that Gerali made in the book was that masturbation is a gray area — okay for some, not okay for others — and that we need to get clear guidance from God ourselves about how to handle this issue in our own lives.

I didn’t like this message at first, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. So, I asked God to speak to me about masturbation.

This alone is something profound that not enough Christians do and something that they all should try. Who would have thought that God wanted to talk to us about masturbation? He’s not shy about it! Have you ever asked God to simply talk to you about masturbation?

Before, I had always tried to find God’s words about masturbation in God’s Word, the Bible, which is where he didn’t say anything about it. So, I put the words in his mouth, so to speak, and believed it was God saying them to me.

Again, yes, I know, I was a dick.

But after I read The Struggle, I asked God to speak to me about this issue, and I really just let him say whatever he wanted. He hasn’t stopped talking to me about masturbation since.

Now, when people say “God spoke” to them, they’d better be pretty blasted sure they’re right, lest they be held liable for heresy. And without a clear mention of masturbation found in the Bible, it’s hard to be sure anyone is right when they start saying that God spoke to them about masturbation.

Still, I’m going to try it here!

Let’s get right to the point. Leviticus 15:16-17 (NIV) says:

When a man has an emission of semen, he must bathe his whole body with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Any clothing or leather that has semen on it must be washed with water, and it will be unclean till evening. When a man lies with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.

This “uncleanness” is not a state of being guilty of sin, but rather a ceremonial uncleanness. We know this because in other verses in this same chapter and throughout the Bible, other matters that we know are not sin, such as a woman’s monthly period or having certain skin diseases, meant the person was “unclean.”

No one accuses a woman of sinning just for getting her period, and nobody accuses a man of sinning just for having an emission of semen.

Now, how does a man emit semen? There are three ways: nocturnal emission, sexual intercourse, and masturbation. It’s not clear which of these is being addressed in verses 16-17, but sexual intercourse is singled out in verse 18 and given its own instruction. This leaves us with only nocturnal emissions and masturbation as the only other two methods of emitting semen that could be addressed in verses 16-17.

Are nocturnal emissions and masturbation different things? Yes. One is involuntary; the other is voluntary. But this passage in Leviticus makes no distinction between them in the effect they have on a man or his moral integrity.

If the Bible does not call nocturnal emissions sinful, neither than we. It appears quite clear that masturbation is lumped into the same category here as nocturnal emissions. How then can we say that masturbation is sinful? To say so would be to put words in God’s mouth that he never said.

So there, I’ve said it: I believe masturbation is not a sin.

But simply giving us the right answer on an issue like this is not all that God wants to say to us about it. His goal is not for us to just score a 100 on the “what’s sin and what isn’t” test. What he’s looking for is relationship — people who welcome him into their messy lives to live with them and they with him.

So what if masturbation is okay … or a sin? God didn’t tell us directly either way in the Bible. But it’s a part of my life! This issue matters to me and has been a long-term struggle I’ve faced most of my life, as I know it’s been for most other guys, too! And God said nothing directly about it when he knew he could have.

It took me a while to understand — I’ve only come to this realization in the last several months — that sometimes God hides the answers so that we’ll have to seek him, so that he can answer us in a special way, at just the right time, in an intimate relationship with him.

By the time we find the answers we’re looking for, we won’t care so much, because in the process of searching, we will have found deeper intimacy with God himself.

Now, I know a lot of people reading this are going to want to talk about lust and the terrors of porn and what safeguards we should implement to keep ourselves pure. I’m going to address all of that stuff in future posts.

Let’s just understand right now that we could argue about masturbation till our fingers fall off, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing in the Bible that gives any clear answer about it. We’d be better off spending our time pursuing a deeper relationship with God, letting him speak to us about masturbation, and patiently loving each other no matter what page they’re on in their struggle with it.

Have you ever asked God to speak to you about masturbation? How does it feel to imagine that God actually wants to talk to you and help you deal with an issue rather than just check your answers to see if you’re right? What conclusions have you reached about masturbation?

* Photo courtesy screendmon, Creative Commons.

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  • mike

    Can one live without masturbation? It’s what I asked God. Clearly, masturbation is a sexual thing that arises as a result of a sexual “passion” as in 1 Corinth. 7:9 and that passion has to climax somehow and for me it was masturbation for years.
    And I could justify it because the passion was to me natural and seemingly uncontrollable by me.
    BUT, I always felt guilty afterward. Why, I asked God did I feel guilty as if I had sinned.
    Now, it’s true the Bible doesn’t mention masturbation directly but an argument out of silence is always dangerous and in legal terms cannot be used to settle an issue for if masturbation was an option by God for this uncontrollable passion He would have said so, but He didn’t.
    But what did He say? In Matt. 19, Jesus says at the beginning it was heterosexual marriage where the one flesh union was consummated (sex) and led to children. And celibacy was the only other option allowed requiring “God’s help” to live as eunuchs i.e. nothing sexual. Here masturbation was not given as another option by Jesus. This is further expanded by the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinth. 7:9 where again regarding sexual passion the only option for climax is marriage. Again masturbation is not given as an option for those with uncontrollable passion.
    So for me, my guilt feelings came from utilizing an option which wasn’t given by God. BUT, I would say to God isn’t there freedom now? I don’t have to live according to any law God. It’s grace and even Paul says that “everything is permissible” 1 Corinth. 10:23. But, not everything is beneficial and sexual sins hurt more than other sins. Paul warns us of that earlier in 1 Corinth. 6:18 where sexual sins are committed against the “body” which is the temple of God. God lives in our body and our spiritual worship is to give our bodies to God (Romans 12:1). Hence, my guilt of using my penis to worship myself instead of God. There is only one spiritual way to worship with my penis and that is in heterosexual marriage. And so, Paul tells us to marry. Otherwise, God living in our bodies gives power by the Holy Spirit to put out the fire of sexual passion and I don’t have to masturbate. Now that is freedom!

  • bluzhawk

    Kevin, love the approach of relationship over rules, that it’s not about figuring things out on our own, or even understanding the bible, apart from the heart coming to Jesus. And the best thing about being in Christ isn’t being right, it’s being alive. That’s the measure I use for things I can’t figure out from the bible, is my spirit alive or has the thing I allowed myself caused this block to fellowship with God and a deadness inside that I’m no longer able to go on.
    What conclusions have I reached about masturbation? I really like it. But can’t escape that it’s for all the wrong reasons. There was a time I thought I could divorce the act from sexual thoughts and just jerk off in a mechanical way with no lust involved. And you can, or I could, but I felt less human. Masturbation apart from passion feels worse. And being an SSA guy, the passions unleashed kill my fellowship with God. As much as I’d like it, I can’t square up a pure passion for God with the passions of masturbation. And it’s not just the negative that it’s sin that’s wrong. Sin isn’t mainly about crossing the line and doing evil, it’s about missing the mark of what’s best. There’s a verse in Romans that says that whatever is not from faith is sin. And if faith is the heart actively laying hold of God in Christ, I’ve never been able to masturbate from faith. And when I’m living by faith, living is better. Life is flipped and it’s not about not masturbating, or not lusting, or not 1 million other things I shouldn’t be doing. . . “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” It’s positive. In all the ways that matter, living faithful feels better than masturbation.

  • Ashley Lavergne

    interesting. like you said there are a lot of other factors in this – lust and all that – so much so that it´s not something that´s easy to answer. it was also a struggle most of my life in the form of addiction and I know that for me it wouldn´t be healthy, just like a former alchoholic probably shouldn´t drink. but I never really though about if it were possible masturbate in a way that isn´t lustful or sinful until very recently. something to think about

  • Grateful for your thoughts and perspective, Kevin. I hope to pen my own post on this topic soon. Maybe next week? It’s been on my heart for a while now, especially since I’ve started attending these weekly recovery meetings for sex addicts. I don’t necessarily disagree with your belief that masturbation ISN’T a sin, but like Mike commented and like others probably feel, I struggle to disconnect the lust from the act of masturbation itself. When I find myself reliant on this act to fall asleep, start my day, find peace, I enter an isolating world of hurt. Since going to these recovery meetings, I haven’t succumbed to masturbation in well over a month now, and I do feel freer and less consumed as a result. For me, I’m finding that it’s more freeing to talk about masturbation rather than perform masturbation itself. Just my three cents!

    • Brian

      I agree with a lot of that. I think Kevin is right that masturbation isn’t a sin and I think it should be done in moderation and not compulsively. It’s such a grey zone though that no one wants to talk about sadly. But like you said, talking about it can be more liberating than the act it’s self.

    • mike

      “I enter an isolating world of hurt” Well captured!
      The act whether entered into out of boredom, seeking a pleasure, or for comfort from some storm would end up not making me stronger but lonelier, feeling emptier, and not built up. From my days with drugs it was like looking forward to a fix but ending up feeling worse.
      But, I can’t generalize and extrapolate to how others experience it. Many don’t experience it that way. Have they just rationalized it? Convincing themselves this is all good? Or have they just numbed themselves and just move on after the act? I did try everything to convince myself all was well. But it never was. The fact remains voluntary orgasm was meant to be shared and only in a loving marriage does it always feel so right and edifying. The lack of sharing outside marriage reminds of one’s aloneness and in marriage reminds me of my selfishness and my narcissistic behavior that I hate.
      And yes, lust for me ALWAYS is tied to masturbation. Well because it makes the orgasm so much more powerful! And the hangover so much more empty. Sad that… But looking forward to your muse on masturbation Thomas.

    • Kevin Frye

      Right. Many people have trouble disconnecting masturbation from whatever other sin or issue that’s tied it to. I have to be careful to not go too far and say that everyone should jack off all they want. We need to practice wisdom and self-control. Just because masturbation isn’t a sin doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for us all the time. Eating doughnuts isn’t a sin, either, but we really need to limit how many we eat. They can do us quite a bit of harm, actually, and a lot of people can’t control themselves and end up getting addicted, eating for comfort, etc. The doughnuts were never the sin, but how and why the people ate the doughnuts made it harmful, possibly even sinful for them. I see masturbation as the same kind of thing. It would be better to abstain than to lose control.

  • mistaken identity

    Great post, Kevin! And it is great to know that the God of the universe actually wants to talk to us rather than check off that bogus list as did the fake God of my youth. I hadn’t considered the Leviticus passage but came to the same conclusion as you. As Thomas asserts, if masturbation is leading us into isolation or lust it is wrong and sinful. CS Lewis writes very persuasively about the danger of misusing a drive that God intended to bring intimacy for worshipping at the altar of self. Of course masturbation can be practiced when it is not about isolation or lust. What about the husband who is practicing edging so that he can be a better lover for his wife? What about the wife who lost her husband two months ago and masturbates to recall the good thing that God gave them both? I have personally witnessed good Christians condemn them both as sinners. God condemns neither. Keep writing, Kevin. God does want to be intimate with all of us. God wants to be intimate with all the young men who are struggling with issues of sexual identity. And these silly lists that we all make obstruct God and condemn those young men to a seemingly endless struggle where there is no assistance from our Great Deliverer.

    • Kevin Frye

      You bring up some very good points which I plan to address in another blog post about masturbation in the near future. Thank you!

  • mistaken identity

    If we are going to be Biblical about this, can we do so without considering the wisdom demonstrated in Acts 15? Most know the passage. Some in the Christian community wanted to burden gentile believers with forced circumcision. It seemed so right to them, and they were fervent about their belief. They were suspect of others who did not share their views. It was a very important part of their relationship with God. How could it not be just as important for everyone? Paul and others battled this idea fiercely. Their wise and compassionate take was that the church should not “trouble” the new believers with a false to do list. They declared that they could not lay a greater burden on the new converts than the few “necessary things.” This was a very, very short list. Those who opposed them and modern day legalists were and are horrified by the brevity of that list. Fornication was on the short list. Please do not attempt to lump masturbation or oral sex or sex toys or whatever else is passing as pseudo righteousness these days onto that list. If we choose to ignore the wisdom of Acts 15, perhaps we should consider the stern warning of Revelation 22:18 before we are tempted lay greater burdens on our younger or older brothers by insisting that our experience be their own. Is anyone familiar with the Steve Taylor song, “I Want to Be a Clone?” Seems applicable.

    • Kevin Frye

      There are also Romans 14 and Colossians 2 to take into account on this matter. Thanks for mentioning Acts 15. 🙂

  • Malcolm

    If masturbation is always a sin, then the Bible would say so. God had no trouble spelling out that incest, sodomy, and bestiality are sins. I’m sure that He didn’t just forget about masturbation. Many will argue that you can’t masturbate without lust. While it is true that lust does oftentimes accompany masturbation, I believe that it can be done without lust. In addition, if one uses it properly, I think that it can be an aid to sexual purity. The reality for most guys is that if they have gone for several days without ejaculation, their thoughts are difficult to control. This could lead them into pornography and further sexual sin or, if nothing else, masturbation with lust. I think that it is better to periodically empty one’s mind of all thoughts except for the physical feelings that one is experiencing and masturbate so one can better control their thoughts and urges. That said, masturbation can become compulsive and addictive. If you feel like it is a sin for you, then you shouldn’t do it. If you feel like you don’t need it to control yourself, then don’t do. However, don’t condemn your weaker brother who needs it to control himself.

    • Barry Smith

      For some reason, in almost every post I feel like Malcolm is writing exactly my thoughts and I agree with your perspective. I have discovered that not all masturbation is filled with lust. I can masturbate focusing simply on the good feeling and getting a release. I also agree that it can become compulsive and addictive. The Bible is not specific on masturbation and I believe that for some it may be sinful but for others it may not be. We must extend grace to one another and not judge the motives of other guy’s hearts.

  • Bryon

    I agree but I’m most impressed with how you funnelled the argument down to talking to God. I’m preparing two workshops, each about those topics; sexual sin and talking to God. There are probably more people out there who believe that God does not talk to us and that to think such a thing is heresy, or at least insane. I think the fear of Him not speaking back is the real issue, but in reality it is likely we won’t hear Him, or want to hear the tough answers. At any rate, Paul said “All things are lawful [that is, morally legitimate, permissible], but not all things are beneficial or advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life].” 1 Cor 10:23 AMP. In marriage, masturbation can hinder sexual relations. When single, it can allow a person to be satisfied with self-pleasure rather than seeking another person. It is also difficult to masturbate without fantasizing, which is a sin to lust. I think these are good reasons to discuss it with God and to ask whether it is helping or hurting. I think God has grace too and understands where a person is in that process, but He is always asking for something more from us. Currently, it is easier to look at porn than fantasize, and masturbation is an addiction. I think God would be fine with me masturbating if I could stop looking at porn or fantasizing, but those are my ways of becoming aroused, so not likely going to happen. Thanks again for such craftful writing and for drawing us to the real issue, a relationship with God/Jesus.

    • mike

      You’ve it nailed Byron: ” but He (God) is always asking for something more from us.”
      Masturbation for a season, but most likely not masturbation for life! From my own experience with life with God: He is merciful very merciful with us. He know how much we can bear at any and every moment. But, He is not safe. As Susan found out in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: “…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. And so, we risk God’s discipline if we don’t talk to Him about masturbation and heed what He says.

      • Bryon

        I agree wholeheartedly.

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  • Steven Michael

    It needs to be looked at in the greater context of the purpose of the sexual faculties and their relation to the marriage bed (even in those rarer cases where people can masturbate w/o lusting over other people). If I were to see masturbation as morally neutral, I would have a hard time condemning any other kind of sex outside of a traditional marriage just because it is someone else’s body that is doing the stimulating rather than my own.

    Of course, that’s not to say that God is not merciful or that He doesn’t understand addictions and other circumstances that lead us to masturbation (or any other sin).

  • Alan Gingery

    Whether you are doing it now or not, everyone has masturbated at one time in their life and everyone has to come to grips with this. Thanks for your practical advice, Kevin:

    Talk to God about it and see what he says to you!

    I was challenged in a book I was reading to look at the cultural, moral and religious teachInge that I received directly or indirectly about sex and related topics such as masturbation. (See my comments on Tom’s post.). And though this book was written by a non-Christian author he gave advice that was helpful to me as a Christian. Was this God speaking to me? Yes, I think so–all truth is God’s truth and he can use non-Christians to speak his truth.

    Sex is really quite a beautiful gift from God, but so many of us have listened to “other voices” tell us what is right and what is sinful, that we bring such a guilt trip to sex, that we don’t enjoy the gift. Sex isn’t dirty and all too often we have associated guilt and shame with sex, so that we don’t enjoy it in the context of the act of marriage where we should find great pleasure with our spouse.

    I agree with you Kevin, that God nowhere says M is sinful. Lust, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, etc. are all mentioned. Did God just accidentally slip up and leave M off the list? Ha ha! Don’t think so.

    Is it possible to jack off and not experience lust (which the Bible does say is “sinful”)? Not easy, but I think it is possible! That has been my experience! I let a non-Christian guy challenge me to jack off without any outside stuff (porn, chats, sexting, visual triggers, fantasy, etc,) so I could experience pleasure without the guilt and shame that I had always experienced and associated with M.

    Is my experience universal for every guy? No way! But I hope every guy will wrestle with his God and seek God’s direction about sex and M for his own life. And that starts with a spirit that is teachable. There is a lot of stupid thinking about sex that comes from bad religious teaching or from immoral culture that should be challenged. Ask God! See what he says! He might just surprise you and fulfill your life in unexpected ways concerning this amazing thing called sex.

    • Kevin Frye

      I’m always grateful for your thoughts and wisdom, Alan. I agree with everything you said here. So many people these days have come to believe that, since masturbation and lust, with all of its triggers and branches, are so often used together, they must be one and the same. But what does that say about people who have sex only in immoral ways or while watching porn? Do immorality and porn make sex itself sinful? No way! The act is still good! It’s the immorality and porn that we need to get ride of. I have found a lot of reassurance in the Bible’s teaching that we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our minds must be renewed. That does not mean that, once renewing our minds, we’ll no longer have a sex drive. We’ll just be able to manage our sexual urges in holy ways, unpolluted by mental immorality.

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  • I never asked God about masturbation. I am still getting used to the idea that I can call Him “Father”. Before I thought of myself as his pet f@$$ot, only loved at arms length. I have known I was SSA for 35 years now and accepted it 28 years ago, but I didn’t start dealing with it in earnest till January of 2016. I am doing good just to be celibate towards men (12 years now), and dealing with it through masturbation, but not so much as I have begun combating an addiction to porn. I hope to be free of masturbation eventually, but for now, it’s all I have.