Over the past decade, since the Christian Courier website has been operative, many times I have received mail from obviously sincere people professing devout faith in the Christian religion and the conviction that the Scriptures are God’s revelation to man. But they are perplexed and troubled by their own problems—deep problems. I would even characterize some as tormented, and especially with the problem of sexual self-stimulation (commonly termed masturbation). The word generally is defined as: “Stimulation of the genital organs to a climax of excitement.”
I have responded to many of these requests with biblical instruction, and in so doing have become quite weary of the repetitive and disagreeable chore. From these exchanges I have drawn two conclusions. (1) There is a need to write something on this subject. It is rarely discussed in Christian literature. (2) The problem obviously is a common one—even among those who are attempting to live by Christian principles. Thus, without over-burdening the reader with this extremely distasteful theme, I will address it briefly.
I must say at the outset that unfortunately it is the case that some, held in high regard in the world of Christendom (some of whom I admire for several of their moral stands) have, in my considered judgment, compromised biblical truth on this issue. They allege that just because the New Testament does not explicitly condemn the practice by name, no one can oppose it legitimately.
For example, in one of his books, the well-known Dr. James Dobson declines to emphatically condemn masturbation on the ground that the Bible is silent about the practice (1978, 86-87). He does counsel that it is unwise if it produces feelings of guilt. Another writer states: “The Christian cannot oppose masturbation on the grounds that . . . Scripture specifically condemns it” (Vincent 1971, 174-176). This is an extremely weak position.
Many feel that masturbation is acceptable for teenagers as a means of sexual gratification rather than engaging in “unsafe” sex. It is viewed either as a “harmless” indulgence, or else the “lesser of two evils.” That is about like saying that smoking marijuana is a lesser evil than sniffing cocaine! These rationalizations, though doubtless well-intentioned, are wholly pragmatic, with no apparent recognition of biblical principle.
I must add, however, that I do not subscribe to the view that several have advanced, that masturbation is the equivalent of “fornication,” and therefore is a just cause for divorce and remarriage. And Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28 cannot be manipulated to that end. (See my article Is Lust the Equivalent of Fornication?.
The problem with many, regardless of how sincere they are, is that they are “religious legalists.” By that I mean they feel free to operate in a wide range of what they call “freedom.” If there is not a specific command condemning their actions, they feel they are at liberty to proceed with almost anything. Therefore, because the Bible does not explicitly condemn gambling or cheating on a test, these actions must not be viewed as violations of the will of God. Or, on a more “scientific” level, it is alleged that nowhere do the Scriptures overtly censure “human cloning” or “artificial insemination by a donor (AID).” One must recognize that the Bible can condemn a practice in principle. Elsewhere I have observed:
[E]ven though the Scriptures contain the guidelines for making correct ethical decisions, the instruction, from the nature of the case, cannot always be explicit. If the Bible is to be a perpetual and universal textbook for conduct, its teaching must be set forth largely in principles that will be applicable under all circumstances. The devout person will study the Scriptures to identify these principles (Jackson 1994, 49).
Here are some of the principles the dedicated Christian must ponder when considering sexual self-stimulation.
(1) The practice scarcely can be indulged without thoughts of sensuality or “lasciviousness” (Galatians 5:19; see Thayer’s definition of “lasciviousness” – 1958, 79-80).
(2) Masturbation is a self-centered practice that does not acknowledge that sexual gratification has been designed as an act to be shared within marriage. In his first Corinthian epistle, Paul declares that if a person “burns,” i.e., burns “with sexual desire” (Danker et al. 2000, 899), and feels he cannot exercise “continence,” i.e., “sexual restraint”—the control of “the sexual impulse and its satisfaction” (Kittel 1964, 342)—he can pursue a companion for marriage. Otherwise self-control is to be mastered.
(3) Self-stimulation is enslaving. Virtually all of those who have contacted me, bothered about this practice, have stated: “I have tried to stop, but I cannot.” Dr. Jay Adams, a professional counselor who has written dozens of books, says that “masturbation can get such a hold on a child that it can almost drive him out of his mind.” Again: “(c)ounselors regularly see young people (Christian youth) who are so tangled up in the masturbation problem that they hardly can think about anything else but sex all day long” (1973, 399, 400).
The rationalization defense, “I can’t stop,” is the same complaint of many drug-addicts, drunkards, gamblers and a variety of other self-indulgers. A strong faith in God, and an intense desire to repent, resolve many issues.
In a context that deals with the eating of meats (but proceeds to the general use of one’s body), i.e., whether one is permitted to eat certain meats, or to restrain—in a cultural environment where the eating of meats (e.g., pork) was considered “unclean”—Paul declares his fundamental liberty. Yet under certain circumstances, he will refrain from forbidden meat on the ground of expediency, i.e., when others could be offended, having their consciences violated, and thus be lost (1 Corinthians 6:12ff; cf. 8:11; cf. Romans 14:15).
In this general discussion, the apostle declares: “I will not be brought under the power of any [thing]” (1 Corinthians 6:12). The Greek verb is exousiasthesomai, a passive form, with this meaning: “I will not be enslaved, mastered, or overpowered by anything” (Fee 1987, 253). The principle here has a broad application, including the practice under consideration in this article. In fact, it is not without significance that Paul’s affirmation is within the larger context of sexual indulgence and restraint.
There are several things that honest souls need to know, and work seriously on, if they would overcome this problem, or any similar one, and live pure in the sight of Almighty God.
(1) They must cultivate a love for God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). Love is the motivating power behind faith and obedience (Galatians 5:6). You can only do this by immersing yourself in the Scriptures and coming to appreciate their authority and value in your personal life. When Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:1ff), he appealed to “it is written” as his shield.
(2) Study a wealth of Bible texts on self-control, temperance, etc. A good concordance, e.g., Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, can provide a list of passages relating to these topics. A comprehensive Bible dictionary, or a dictionary of Bible theology, can be very helpful on these themes as well.
(3) Become convinced that you really can do all things in him who is able and willing to “strengthen” (the idea of putting power into something) you (Philippians 4:13). Develop confidence in the Lord by coming close to him through the study of his Word every day.
(4) Talk to God in prayer. Plead with him to help you overcome this weakness. He loves you and wants to assist you and lift you out of spiritual slavery.
(5) Find a Christian friend (perhaps an elder, deacon, or minister), or a parent with whom you may confidentially talk. Confess your weakness and ask for encouragement as you fight the sexual battle. Friendly confidants can be a powerful and wonderful source of strength.
In view of the total package of biblical evidence, the Christian will abstain from this self-centered practice. I will close by quoting Dr. Franklin Payne Jr., a physician and professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta, and one who also reveres the authority of the Scriptures and has studied these issues seriously. “Although masturbation is not explicitly called a sin similar to homosexuality (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10), the spirit of the law does clearly cover it as a sinful practice” (1985, 170).