Is masturbation a sin for Christians?
Masturbation can be the "off limits" topic in the church, especially among men. The question of whether masturbation (or self-gratification, as it is sometimes called) is a sin is a legitimate and important question, yet because it is a taboo topic, many in the church have never heard a frank and godly answer from scripture. As a result, many men and women live in quiet desperation, struggling with temptation while desiring counsel.
Many Christians are taught from a young age that masturbation is wrong and sinful, especially since the act is typically associated with lustful thoughts or pornographic images. When we turn to our Bibles for counsel on this topic, however, we're likely to be surprised. Scripture is utterly silent on the specific topic of masturbation.
This forces us to ask if the Lord considered masturbation a sin in all cases, why doesn't His word clearly speak against it, especially since the behavior is so common in the human experience? In fact, virtually every human sexual practice is mentioned somewhere in scripture (even bestiality!), yet absolutely nothing is said about masturbation. (A supposed case of masturbation often cited in the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38:9 is an example of coitus interruptus, not masturbation.)
Consequently, the absence of any specific biblical mention of masturbation in the Bible (much less an injunction against the practice) forces us to consider the possibility that God's children enjoy a certain degree of personal liberty in this area, though not without significant restraints and cautions. As we contemplate the possibility that a Christian possess a degree of liberty to practice masturbation, we first must distinguish between the sexual act itself and the thoughts and motivations that lie behind the act.
Any physical act can be good or evil, depending on our heart's intent. In the case of masturbation, the sexual act itself is a natural function of the human body, neither inherently good or evil. Theoretically, masturbation can be used in a healthy, loving way as part of marriage or in an immoral, sinful way to satisfy fleshly lust.
The difference between good actions and sinful actions depends on our motivations and our circumstances. According to the Bible, sexual activity is a physical expression of love reserved for the marriage bed. In the context of marriage, virtually any sexual act is permissible, provided it is performed with the consent of and for the love of our spouse.
On the other hand, if we engage in a sexual act apart from marriage or in a way that hurts our spouse, we sin. Even the sexual act of masturbation can be acceptable within the context of marriage provided our spouse has agreed to allow the practice, and it furthers the love of the marriage.
Numerous examples of masturbation as a healthy and acceptable practice within a marriage exist, including as a substitute for intimacy when separated from a spouse, as an act intended to stimulate greater sexual attraction within the marriage, or as a release to calm a husband's or wife's sexual urge when the spouse is physically incapable of intimacy. In all cases, the act must be done with the full knowledge and consent of the spouse, so that every sexual act within the marriage is shared knowledge.
Still, a Christian must appreciate the dangers of this practice, especially if it becomes routine. Jesus declared that impure sexual thoughts are equal to improper behavior (Matt 5:28) and that sin lives in our hearts long before it manifests itself outwardly in our actions. Therefore, by the time we entertain a desire to do the wrong thing, we have already sinned in our hearts, and therefore we must give careful consideration to whether indulging in masturbation, even in the context of marriage, will invite unwelcome, sinful thoughts or lead to other sinful behaviors.
For example, it may be difficult for a husband or wife to masturbate without entertaining inappropriate thoughts or relying on pornographic images. The practice may become all-consuming, leading to secrecy and deception within the marriage. Spouses who engage in masturbation regularly may become dependent on self-gratification to the exclusion of intimacy with the spouse.
In some cases, over-reliance on self-gratification leads to the need for greater levels of stimulation to achieve sexual satisfaction, leading to sexual disfunction in the marriage and other, self-destructive behaviors or sexual temptations. All of these outcomes are the consequences of sinful, selfish choices, illustrating the truth that although masturbation can be acceptable in some situations, it also has the potential to produce unintended and outcomes.
For any Christian struggling with unhealthy reliance on self-gratification, the best remedy is personal prayer combined with seeking counsel and accountability from godly, caring Christian friends and leaders. The negative impacts of sexual sin can be long-lasting and far-reaching, and we should not underestimate the challenge of confronting the practice and healing the wounds it leaves behind. If you are experiencing such a struggle, we strongly encourage you to seek godly counsel together with your spouse (if you're married).