Masturbation is not much talked about today, but pornography, abortion, and homosexuality are issues that surface almost everyday in discussions about human sexuality. For example, questions like, "Should gay marriages be allowed?", "Should pornography be banned?" and "Should abortion be legalised?" have had conflicting responses. Just as these issues are of concern to most people, especially Christians, so is masturbation an issue of concern to many Christians, especially the youth who wish they really know the Bible's position on whether masturbation is good or bad.
There are many similar and different thoughts (religious, scientific, medical, social, educational, etc.) on the issue of whether masturbation is a vice or virtue. My purpose here is to examine what the Bible has to say since it is the final authoritative word for us Christians. In addition, I will make comments on some of the common reasons for masturbating, and also look at some non-scriptural reasons not to masturbate.
Masturbation is not Onanism
Unlike homosexuality (Gen. 19:5-8; Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24, 26, 27), fornication (Acts 15:29; 1 Cor. 6:18), and adultery (Ex. 20:14; Jer. 23:14; Mt. 5:32), "masturbation is not mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures or in the New Testament." (Phipps, 1977:190)
Although the Bible contains laws (Leviticus 15) concerning the discharge of semen, nowhere in the Bible do you find the words 'masturbate' or 'masturbation' or any act(s) related to them. However, it is popularly believed that Onan's act of coitus interruptus is a masturbatory act. Phipps states that:
In medieval Judaism, masturbation came to be regarded as a grave offence. In the Talmud it is associated with Onan who, according to Genesis, was slain by God for spilling his semen on the ground. (1977:184)
Phipps wrongly paraphrases from Genesis when he states that Onan was slain by God for spilling his semen on the ground. That wasn't the actual problem God had with Onan. Onan was punished because he did not fulfil his duty to produce an offspring for his brother (Gen. 38:9, 10, NIV) by withdrawing before emission (coitus interruptus).
If Onan had used a condom (assuming condoms existed in those days) and not spilled his semen on the ground, he would still have offended God since he would be preventing Tamar from conceiving. Had he also had sexual intercourse alright and not spilled semen on the ground but given Tamar some herbs to avert the possibility of conceiving, that too would have been an offense against God since he would be denying a child to his dead brother.
In the Old Testament it was required for a man to marry the wife of his deceased brother in order for the deceased brother to have an heir (Gen. 38:8; Deut. 25:5; Mt. 22:23, 24), and in order to preserve the name of his brother (Deut. 25:6). After reasoning with the elders, a man who was not willing to marry his deceased brother's wife was spat on, and his sandals removed from his feet by the widow (Deut. 25:7-9).
From then, the man's family was called "the family of the man whose sandal was pulled off!" (Deut. 25:10) This tells us that Onan could have refused marriage to Tamar in order not to fulfil the vows that came with it (Deut. 23:22). I assume that apart from his unwillingness to raise seed on behalf of his brother, Onan was fearful of the societal stigma that would accompany the refusal to marry his deceased brother's wife (Deut. 25:7-10), hence, his acceptance of the marriage.
But as long as he agreed to marry Tamar, he was obliged to honour God's command and the vows that accompanied the marriage (Deut. 23:21). Refusing to fulfil one's vow to the Lord but rebel against Him is sin (Deut. 23:21, 23). And this was the sin Onan committedhe broke his vow to procreate an heir for his dead brother.
Onan's act of coitus interruptus was just an interruption of sexual intercourse and not a masturbatory act. It involved the spilling of semen upon reaching orgasm through sexual intercourse and not a spilling of semen through self-stimulation, in which case it would have been masturbation. It is therefore wrong to associate Onan with masturbation.
Not Mentioned in the Bible?
One may ask, "If masturbation is not mentioned in the Holy Bible, does that not mean that God approves of it?" Put in a declarative statement, such a question would read: "Since masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible, it is okay to assume that God approves of it." In other words, one will be saying that if something is not mentioned in the Bible, then it affirms that silence means consent. But to think or argue in such a manner is illogical.
Does it mean that the Bible's silence on an issue makes it right even if it is wrong? Then pornography will of course be right since it is not clearly presented in the Bible. But we all know that pornography promotes lust, fornication, adultery, and wasteful spending; and this is wrong. An act is wrong or right not because the Bible says it is wrong or right; an act is wrong or right because it is wrong or right in itself. To borrow the words of one of my lecturers; "Is toffee liked because it is sweet, or is it sweet because it is liked?" The Bible approves what is right because it is right and not that what is right is right because the Bible approves of it.
Indeed, it may look surprising how masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible but reference is made of other sexual behaviours. Nevertheless, such an omission shouldn't be assumed to mean that masturbation is a right practice. I do not agree with Phipps when he mentions that "it is safe to assume that its omission displays that its practice was of no moral ... concern to the many writers of books now called the Bible." (1977:183)
Masturbatory acts are done secretly and so probably it would have been difficult for this act to be known unless it was reported by the person(s) committing the act. The writers of the Bible may not have noticed this practice in the lives of the believers, unlike prostitution, adultery and fornication which were obvious (Jgs. 11:1; 16:1; Prov. 7:10; Jn. 8:3, 4; 1 Cor. 5:1; 2 Cor. 12:21).
Moreover, the same writers of the Bible frowned upon sexual immorality and lust, and we know that masturbation is normally associated with lust and sexual immorality. How then would they have kept silent if they knew this? The only answers to this question would either be that they were ignorant of the practice in the lives of believers because of its secrecy, or they had included masturbation in the group of sins known as sexual immorality or uncleanness.
Note that in the Old Testament uncleanness is associated with the discharge of semen or menstrual blood (Lev. 15; Ez. 36:17; 2 Sam. 11:4), filthiness (Ezra 9:11), abominable things (Lev. 7:21; 2 Chron. 29:16), dislikeable things (Deut. 24:1) and sin (Ez. 39:24; Zech. 13:1). In the New Testament all references to uncleanness where made concerning filthiness (Mt. 23:27), lust (Rom. 1:24; 2 Pet. 2:10), impure motives (1 Thes. 2:4) and sin (Rom. 6:19; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:7). In fact, to assume that masturbation was of no moral concern to the writers of the Bible due to its omission in the Bible is illogical.
Does the Bible Say Anything?
When the Bible talks about sexual immorality, it includes fornication, adultery, lust, homosexuality, and pornography. What about masturbation? To be able to determine if masturbation qualifies to fall within this category, we need to examine what masturbatory practice entails.
Even though people masturbate for various reasons such as for medical tests, avoiding loneliness, relieving anxiety, exploring one's sexuality, and relieving frustration and mental strain, the primary reason for masturbating is to satisfy sexual desire whether without sex or during sexual intercourse.
All the activities that fall under sexual immorality have the goal of fulfilling lustful desires. Masturbation does same. Even if one masturbates to release tension as some would say, there is a latent function which is that masturbation satisfies one's sexual urge; and this leads us back to the primary goal of masturbation which is fulfilling one's fleshly lusts. Hence, the individual sows to fleshly desires instead of sowing to the Spirit's desires (Gal. 6:8). This is not of God for the Bible says, "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world." (1 Jn. 2:16, KJV).
Masturbatory acts are normally associated with the viewing of pornography or any sexually explicit material, the creation of a mental picture of a nude 'object of attraction' (fantasizing) or the recollection of a sexual activity or nakedness that the person has seen. The individual thus lusts after the 'object of attraction' in his or her memory, hence committing adultery in his heart already: "But I say unto you that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." (Mt. 5:28, KJV).
Some people argue that it is possible to masturbate without viewing pornography or fantasizing. Yes, I believe this is possible. But there are still others who argue that as long as they do not lust or fantasize or release semen and vaginal fluid when masturbating, they have not sinned. The problem is they do not understand the meaning of lust, for when one responds to one's sexual desires in order to release sexual pleasure by stimulating self, it is also lusting. The Bible admonishes us to "Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2 Tim. 2:22, KJV)
Moreover, compulsive masturbation creates an addictive effect on the individual and causes the person to be mastered by it. This now takes the centre of the individual's life, destroying the fellowship he has with God. The person becomes a slave to sin as masturbation becomes an idol in his or her life and opens the door for other sinful practices (Rom. 6:16).
Derek Iannelli-Smith defines addiction as "What people are convinced of, worshiping, trusting, and looking for, to please, appease, and substitute through deception, either spiritual or self-induced, in which one's chief affections, passions, cravings and devotion decreases one's trust in, loyalty, worship and love of and to God." (Ministering to those in Pornography, Masturbation, and Impurity, www.faithwriters.com)
When masturbation takes over God's place in your life, you become an idolater since you have transferred your devotion for God to masturbation or your 'object of attraction' (Exo. 20:3-5). The Bible informs us: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10, KJV).
Sexual idolatry defiles God's temple, our body, and opens doors for demonic activities in our lives. The effect is that it steals from us the joy of living a fruitful and a spirit-filled Christian life. Instead of allowing our bodies to be defiled by sin, we should hold on to Paul's admonishment in Romans 6:12-13: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God."
Responding to the Baseless Excuses
People give various reasons to justify masturbation, but as Christians our ultimate goal is to please the Lord. Let us examine the most common reasons why people masturbate.
One reason is to maintain self-control (Brooks, 1967:822). If you are masturbating to maintain self-control, you are out of control, because already you cannot control yourself. You have just found 'a better way' of justifying your lack of control over your lustful and sexual desires. A better thing to do is to marry if you have reached maturity in life and can live up to the responsibilities of marriage (1 Cor. 7:8, 9).
But it doesn't mean that if you are struggling with lust, marriage will solve your problem. What happens if you travel without your spouse and your sexual urge beckons you? The best thing to do is to deal with lust once and for all by submitting yourself to God and putting your mind to thinking purely (Philippians 4:8), while avoiding unwholesome movies, pictures, songs, and conversations that will arouse in you sexual desire.
Another reason is to explore one's sexuality. Nature has made certain things obvious to us concerning our sexuality and this should suffice, especially for the unmarried. Exploration of your sexuality by any other means that displeases God must be avoided. There are a lot of things to learn about yourself in order to reach maturity and be prepared for life; and your sexuality is just a minute portion of it. When you are married, you can explore with your spouse as far as you can go; God designed sex to be enjoyed in marriage (Heb. 13:4).
A common excuse is, "If pre-marital sex is sinful, why not satisfy my sexual desire by masturbating?" Thus some people masturbate to satisfy sexual desire without having sex. The obvious disadvantage is that "masturbation is a lesser good than sexual intercourse ..." (Phipps, 1977:193) A more important thing to note is that these people commit sin to avoid sinning, which is unreasonable.
The right thing to do is to do right; sinning to avoid sin is wrong. These people pattern their minds to think that it is impossible to control self. Such thinking is not of God. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Rom. 12:2, KJV) Self-control is one of the fruit of the Spirit and this must be evident in the life of the Christian (Gal. 5:22).
A less common excuse is to avoid loneliness or relieve anxiety and frustration (Brooks, 1967:822, 823). Loneliness, anxiety, and frustration can be dealt with through other means such as making friends and involving oneself in other activities with fellow believers. The best medicine is to have a consistent fellowship with God: "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee." (Isa. 26:3, KJV)
Non-scriptural Reasons not to Masturbate
There is no established scientific evidence that masturbation causes harm physically or mentally (Phipps, 1977:189; Arafat & Cotton, 1974:294. See also Brooks, 1967:820). Nevertheless, physical harm can be caused when objects such as ball point pens, thermometers, etc. are inserted into the urethra during masturbation.
Compulsive masturbatory behaviour "... can become a substitute for other outlets to relieve tensions and anxieties that are not in the main sexually derived; for example, concern over one's schoolwork, rejection by peers, and uncertainties about self-worth." (Arafat & Cotton, 1974:294) This normally occurs when one has reached an addictive stage. Addiction to masturbation results from "an increased frequency of the habit and a never-ending search for new material to enhance the experience." (Cook, 2007)
In addition, masturbation deprives the individual of the quality time he needs to spend on the important issues of his life. As the individual seeks to satisfy sexual urge, attention is given to new ways of experiencing higher forms of sexual excitement. If the individual has access to the internet and is alone, it could be a place to find new material and new ways of fulfilling his or her desires. This self-centeredness makes him/her give less attention to certain details of his/her life such as family, job, finances, and time management. It puts his/her daily activities in disarray, and this creates an imbalance in his/her life.
According to Dearborn, "... some forms of masturbation ... may act as a drawback to marriage adjustment ... because the transition from that particular form of masturbation to acquiring satisfaction in intercourse may become difficult." (1952:54) He makes the following observations in females and males who masturbate:
Those girls who have denied themselves the direct form of masturbation and have used substitute measures, such as various forms of pressure, as breast rubbing, etc., often force themselves to stop just prior to orgasm because they have a fear of the orgasm itself, having conceived an idea that the wrong or harm lies in the release. In such cases or in any case where orgasm has been suppressed, the girl may have
developed a habit of non-response and may carry this over into her marital relations. Later, such a one will report that she has little or no satisfaction in coitus and lacks ability to come to a climax. (1952:54, 55)
... the male who has masturbated with a sense of guilt which has driven him to get it over as soon as possible and to suppress any accompanying fantasy is likely in consequence to find himself bothered in early marriage by premature ejaculation.(1952:55)
A possible reason for the above observations is found in Paul Cook's article, "Freedom from Masturbation", in which he warns against indulging in masturbation:
The hormones released in the brain during sexual arousal cause a bonding to whatever we are looking at and/or thinking about at the time. This can cause us to be more sexually responsive to masturbation (and its associated fantasies) than to real sex.
Dealing with Masturbation
In order to deal with an addiction such as masturbation, you need to be decided, willing, committed and obedient. God is able to reorder your life, but you are not going to experience change until you have decided to change; until you are willing to change; until you are committed to change; and until you are obedient to the instructions that lead to change. I have adapted the following steps from my book, The Dangers of Lukewarmness & Backsliding (Asante, 2009). These steps can also be applied in dealing with other addictions.
Acknowledge your faults. Stop pretending you have it all in when you know that you are not doing right. Instead of hiding behind your past successes, humble yourself, acknowledge your faults and admit your need for help. Pride and arrogance could make you lose a necessary step to overcoming masturbation. You have to come to the realization of your condition and be willing to move from there (Lk. 15:7). You need to be humble enough to realize that all you are is plain before the living God who will bring all things into judgment.
Turn from your sins. God knows your struggles and He can help you overcome them (Heb. 4:15, 16), but He wants you to come back to Him in repentance for He is ready to receive you (Isa. 1:16-18; Lk. 15:11-32). Return to God for His pardon and forgiveness and, thus re-establish the broken fellowship. Repentance is surely a great step to the regaining and the restoration of your 'life' onto eternity (Rev. 22:14).
Forgive. Forgive yourself and any other person who introduced you to this habit. Forget the negative past; do not let it hold you back. Many times, after turning away from God, we become guilt-ridden; we consider ourselves not worthy of God's grace. But no matter what we have done, God still loves us and is willing to receive us. (cf. Isa. 1:18) The Bible says that when the lost son "... was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Lk. 15:20) It didn't matter the things his son had wasted in his life; it didn't matter the filthiness of his garments nor the stench that emitted from it; he threw his arms around his son and kissed him. What a loving father! The lost son confessed that he was unworthy to be called his son (Lk. 15:19), but that was not important to the father; what mattered was that his son had returned to him. He ordered the servants to clothe him and a royal welcome party was thrown for his arrival.
Trust in the Lord. Go to God in prayer and trust Him to restore unto you the joy of His salvation (Ps. 51:12). Trust in His cleansing and power of restoration (1 Jn. 1:9). You will never find joy nor overcome guilt feelings if you do not trust in God's forgiveness (Ps. 33:21). God says, he will not remember your sins (Heb. 10:17). Can you trust God on His word? The devil will lie to you about God's promise to forgive you but you can trust God on His wordHe never says a thing and will not do it.
Cut off the bad associations. Going back to the bad friends will make you compromise on your faith. "Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Cor. 15:33). Do not give in to the persuasion and mockery of your old friends; do not visit their meeting places. Instead of sitting with friends engaging in unwholesome conversation, spend time with believers sharing the word of God. "Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way." (Prov. 4:14, 15)
Cut off the 'objects' of addiction. If you desire to overcome masturbation, you need to burn all those pornographic pictures, magazines, CDs, videotapes, books, etc. You need to cease visiting unprofitable websites. You need to delete all those unprofitable movies, games and video clips from your personal computer, iPod, mobile phone or any other electronic device you possess. Don't ever think that you can overcome such a habit by continually holding on to its "objects". You can pray all the prayer you know and even go for a deliverance session; but if you do not clear those objects that make you meditate on impure things, you would go back to your "vomit"destroy them and live! (Mk. 9:43-47)
Refill your heart. Refill your heart with righteous living (Rom. 6:13), with God's word (Ps. 119:11), and with renewed thinking (Rom. 12:1-2). Involve yourself in group Bible discussions, prayer and fasting, evangelism, and other activities that will make you spiritually inclined. Once you have stopped doing negating things, they need to be replaced with positive things, or you will give the devil the opportunity to operate in your life again (Lk. 11:24-26).
Seek the counsel of a mature believer. Find someone you can trust and share with him or her your struggles. Don't just look for anyone; look for someone who will hold you accountable, support you in prayer, and encourage you to stand firm. It could be your pastor, cell leader, or a brother or sister within or outside your congregation. The Apostle James admonishes us to "... confess (our) sins to each other and pray for each other so that (we) may be healed" (Jas. 5:16a). Sometimes, you may not be able to bear all the guilt alone. A problem shared is a problem solved. Moreover, stay in fellowship often with other believers (Heb. 3:13; 10:25). You need their support and prayers too.
Don't give up--persevere. You should understand that your zeal for spiritual things diminished gradually, giving way for fleshly desires to take over; it was not an overnight process. Likewise, regaining your spiritual height won't occur overnight. You would have to persevere and fight on. You need to continue in the healing and restoration process. Stay in the word of God; be diligent in its study and daily learning. The word of God is active. It is neither dead nor dormant; it is able to quicken your spiritual deadness. Activate prayer and fellowship in your life and develop a persevering attitude. Don't let go in the midst of storms and seemingly slow progress. With time you will catch up, because God will be leading you step by step; just follow where He leads you.
Fast and pray. There are certain habits and problems that can be remedied only through prayer and fasting with faith (Mt. 17:14-21). Sexual sins are normally accompanied by demonic activities, and so you may have to seek the support of the deliverance ministry of your church, especially to deal with the root causes of your addiction.
In all, "look unto Jesus the author and finisher of (y)our faith" (Heb. 12:2) by "cast(ing) all your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you ..." (Ps. 55:22).
Arafat, S. I. and Cotton, W. L., "Masturbation Practices of Males and Females." The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 10, no. 4, (Nov., 1974): 293-307. www.jstor.org/stable/3420380. (Accessed September 9, 2009).
Asante, M. O. The Dangers of Lukewarmness and Backsliding. Accra: Yeshua Publications, 2009.
Brooks, P. A. "Masturbation." The American Journal of Nursing, vol. 67, no. 4, (Apr.,1967): 820-823. www.jstor.org/stable/3420380. (Accessed on September 9, 2009).
Dearborn, L. W. "The Problem of Masturbation.", Marriage and Family Living, vol. 14, no. 1 (Feb., 1952): 46-55. www.jstor.org/stable/346717. (Accessed September 9, 2009).
Iannelli-Smith, D. Ministering to those in Pornography, Masturbation, and Impurity. Posted October 22, 2004. www.faithwriters.com. (Accessed July 1, 2010).
Phipps, W. E. "Masturbation: Vice or Virtue?" Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 16, no. 3, (Jul., 1977): 183-195. www.jstor.org/stable/2750540. (Accessed September 9, 2009).
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION(R).Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
Copyright(c)2010 by Michael Okyere Asante
In reprinting, no part of this article should be altered in any form.