Is masturbation a sin for Christians?
Despite our sexually-liberal society, masturbation remains for many an "off-limits" topic, especially among Christians. Masturbation (or self-gratification, as it is sometimes called) is traditionally considered a sin, but because it's a taboo topic, many in the church have never received frank and godly instruction from scripture on the subject. As a result, men and women live in quiet desperation, struggling with temptation and guilt without knowing for certain what God expects and without the opportunity for godly counsel.
Most of us were 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 to learn that Scripture is utterly silent on the topic of masturbation.
If masturbation is a sin in all circumstances, why doesn't God's word clearly say so, especially since the behavior is so common in the human experience? In fact, virtually every other possible sexual practice is mentioned somewhere in scripture (even bestiality!), yet absolutely nothing is said about masturbation. (An often-cited example of masturbation from the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38:9 is actually an example of coitus interruptus, not masturbation.)
Consequently, the absence of a specific prohibition against masturbation in the Bible forces us to consider the possibility that believers possess a degree of personal liberty in this area, though not without significant restraints and cautions. To understand what (if any) liberty we may have to engage in masturbation, we must first 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 love for 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.
Under these terms, the sexual act of masturbation could be acceptable within the context of marriage provided the spouse has agreed to allow the practice and presuming it furthers the love of the marriage for both parties. Examples of masturbation as a healthy and acceptable practice within a marriage include as a substitute for intimacy when separated from a spouse, as an act of foreplay before sexual intercourse with a spouse, or to satisfy a sexual urge while a spouse is physically incapable of intimacy, among other possible examples. In all cases, the act should be done with the full knowledge and consent of the spouse, so that every sexual act within the marriage is shared.
Despite these potentially legitimate uses of self-gratification, a Christian must appreciate the dangers of this practice in general, especially if it becomes a regular 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. Even before marriage, an addiction to frequent masturbation may set unrealistic expectations and poisons intimacy in a future marriage relationship.
In some cases, over-reliance on self-gratification leads to the need for greater levels of stimulation to achieve sexual satisfaction, leading to sexual dysfunction in the marriage and other, self-destructive behaviors or sexual temptations. All of these outcomes are the consequences of sinful, selfish choices, illustrating the although masturbation can be acceptable in some situations, it also has the potential to produce unintended and serious negative outcomes.
For any Christian struggling with an 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).