Last updated on August 12, 2020
I asked about masturbation a long time ago and you told me that the Bible neither really condemns it or condones it. You also told me that I shouldn’t doubt or it would be a sin and that I should do more research about it. Well, I did (from Internet sources anyway) and there were a lot of views; in fact, too many. One said masturbation is a sin, another said without lust it is not a sin, and I don’t know. It seems like their views are based on whether they are liberal Christians or conservative or whatnot. (I don’t believe in labeling ourselves personally. I think if we are Christian, we are Christian). So once again I just don’t know how to see masturbation, and I was wondering what your opinion on it was. Also, I’m not too sure what lust really means, and what makes certain thoughts (sexual ones) bad and others OK. (For example, you said lust was desiring to sin and you would sin if it wasn’t for circumstances preventing you.) Also does watching porn really make one more likely to sin by fornication? Because watching porn doesn’t exactly give you the desire to commit fornication and such. (I’m sorry but I typed this out late at night so my brain’s not functioning that well, so sorry for being vague.)
I’m impressed that you took the time to research the topic. You are quite correct that the number of opinions concerning masturbation is huge. There are certain topics which people have strong feelings. Unfortunately, most are not able to separate their own feelings from what they learn from God. As a result, they don’t approach God’s word to see what God has to say about a matter; they look to prove the beliefs they already hold.
When I began writing the Growing Up in the Lord books, I wanted to explain in clear language why God laid out certain rules regarding sexual matters. It was my hope to demonstrate that God’s way makes sense. Obviously the issue of masturbation is related to sex and it is one people have struggled with for thousands of years.
Before getting to my conclusions, I need to cover some basics. Every action in this world can be labeled as right or wrong. Let’s use a more neutral topic for the moment. Eating can be seen as something that is right. “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Yet Satan often finds ways to twist what is normally right and make it into something that is wrong. While it is right to eat, eating poison would be wrong because poison causes harm to the body. “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (I Corinthians 6:19). While eating is right in general, overeating becomes something sinful — the sin of gluttony.
In addition, something that is right can become sin for individuals in some cases. The Bible is quite clear that eating meat is perfectly acceptable (I Timothy 4:3-5). However, some people strongly object to eating meat. From a biblical viewpoint, they are doubting what God said. But since there is no harm in not eating meat, then it is fine for that individual to choose not to eat meat. There is a whole chapter on this topic in Romans 14. What other Christians have to learn is not to force their views on other people when the views held by other people are not wrong or not harmful. That is something a lot of Christians have a hard time doing.
What I concluded (see “Is masturbation unacceptable?” for details) is that masturbation is only indirectly mentioned in the Bible. The Old Testament had laws dealing with uncleanness and releasing semen fell under the category of unclean, whether it was due to sex, masturbation, or a wet dream. What many people don’t understand is that unclean doesn’t mean it was sinful. A woman’s monthly blood flow is unclean, but it doesn’t mean she sins every month by having a blood flow. All releasing of semen was unclean, including when a husband and wife had sex. It did not mean sex between a husband and wife was sinful, it was just in the category of unclean.
God used the concept of clean and unclean to illustrate the nature of sin. The things He used were not sinful in themselves, but they served as a model for understanding what sin was like. There is an article called “Uncleanness” that talks about this in great detail if you are interested.
Wet dreams would fall under the category of unclean even though a man has no control over it. But then women have no control over their monthly blood flows either. Wet dreams are nothing more than a normal bodily function that God put in us to deal with excess semen. While it is called unclean in the Old Testament, it is never called sinful — and for a good reason. Sin is the breaking of God’s law. Wet dreams don’t break any law of God; they are the consequence of how God made us.
The problem, as I see it, is that wet dreams causes men to masturbate in their sleep. I puzzled over whether you can rightly condemn a voluntary action while justifying an involuntary action. Very few attempt to wrestle with the issue. Whatever is stated must be consistently applied to both wet dreams and masturbation.
My ultimate conclusion was that viewed independently, masturbation is not much different than controlling when bodily functions take place. By itself, it is not sinful. Whether it happens in one’s sleep or a boy discovers it when bathing, I have not found a command being violated.
However, because of the nature sexual release and the intense pleasure it brings, it becomes a ripe ground for being twisted by Satan into something that is wrong.
I have talked with many boys who have been caught up in the pleasure of ejaculation to the point that they are completely consumed in getting their next high. A few masturbate so often that they literally rub their penis raw. That is wrong for reasons similar to why overeating is wrong. It is doing harm to the body and it putting desires of the flesh as first priority in a person’s life.
“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles–when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (I Peter 4:1-3).
What is lacking is self-control (II Peter 1:6).
Because of how our bodies are designed, there is a close tie between the thoughts of our mind and physical sexual arousal. Satan exploits this by encouraging young men to think about illicit sexual deeds in order to get themselves sexually aroused so that it is easier to achieve orgasm in masturbation. Since men are visually oriented, many men seek out sexually charged images (pornography) to get themselves aroused. The article “A Look at Pornography” deals with why pornography is sinful. But I would like to add one more fact.
Because of the intense pleasure caused by orgasm, sexual acts are quickly habit forming; that is, the pathways that lead to orgasm are easily locked into place. I have dealt with numerous men who so ingrained certain ideas and practices in their head that they cannot even imagine that there is any other way. Thus you find men who think you must look at pornography in order to masturbate — because that is what they have always done. Sadly I have talked with men who think that in order to be able to perform sexual acts with their wives, they first have to watch pornographic movies! It also goes the other way around. I’ve talked with men who, whenever they become sexually aroused, have an intense desire to run out and purchase pornography.
What young men don’t realize is that when you think of sinful actions frequently, you are also lowering your defenses against those actions. As you become calloused to those sinful ideas, it becomes easier to imagine yourself doing them. From there it is only a short step to wanting to do those things, if only you had the opportunity. This is what I mean by lust: A strong desire to do what is wrong. Like most sins, it doesn’t start instantly there. It gradually slips up on you. That is why young people especially have a hard time believing certain things lead to nastier things. That is why James, after talking about the progression of sin in James 1:13-15 ends with the warning, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren” (James 1:16). It is so easy to fool yourself into thinking that if something hasn’t happened to me yet, then it will never happen.
Jesus stated, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). What makes sexual lust wrong is that the person is thinking about committing a sin. To look at a woman and desire to have sex with her even though you are not married is a sin. It is this same type of lust that makes pornography sinful. You aren’t married to the people you are looking at, yet you are causing a strong desire to have sex with them within yourself.
Finally, there is the problem of sexual passion. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (I Thessalonians 4:3-5). Actually, most of what I discussed above is focused around this passage, but I would like you to notice the phrase “passion of lust.”
The first word, in the Greek, is pathos. It refers to the things that influence your actions, in particular sexual influences upon your behavior. It is used three times in the New Testament. In Romans 1:26 it is the motivation behind homosexuality. In Colossians 3:5 and I Thessalonians 4:5 it is used in a more general sense of erotic passion.
The second word, in the Greek, is epithumia. It refers to things that you crave, long for, or strongly desire. While it is not limited to sexual things, obviously sex is an extremely strong desire. Satan uses those lusts to draw people into sin. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:15-17).
The combination of these two words in I Thessalonians 4:5 emphasizes the power of the desire. Worldly people pursue passionate lusts. It consumes their thoughts, it motivates their behavior, they become little more than animals in heat acting without reason or thought of God.
Now for many Christian men, it is difficult to separate masturbation from sinful sexual lusts and pornography because they had tied the ideas together by their past behavior. It is this reason, more than anything else, that has led people to condemn the act of masturbation as sinful in and of itself. The simple fact is that they can’t imagine anyone masturbating without sinful thoughts or looking at pornography. And for these people, I agree that masturbation is a sin (though technically it is not the act itself but the thoughts accompanying it). That is why I refer to “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:22-23).
Yet, masturbation can be done mechanically, but not necessarily on demand. While you are able to urinate, you cannot do so constantly. There has to be a period of time when the fluids build up, then urinating is easy. In a very similar way, instead of trying to pursue a course of forcing the body into sexual excitement, if you exercise self-control, the semen accumulates in your body slowly over the course of several days. Eventually need for sexual release becomes demanding, much like if you wait too long to urinate your body begins to demand your attention. When it gets to that point you will either have a wet dream very shortly or you can masturbate without much thought or effort to get rid of the excess semen. I think this puts the act back in a more proper place and I see nothing wrong with using masturbation in this fashion.
Early on you will have trouble getting your timing down as to when you need to masturbate to avoid a wet dream. That is to be expected. It takes time for toddlers to learn the timing of when to use the toilet. But you eventually get the hang of it.
I hope this long letter clarifies the matter. I generally prefer short concise answers, but if I don’t cover all the in’s and out’s of this matter I’ll have people misinterpreting what I’m trying to get across.