"Masturbating will make you go blind." So goes the old myth. (Many myths prevail surrounding masturbation. The most interesting may have been perpetuated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who thought that a proper diet would alleviate a man's desire to masturbate, and so he fed men under his care in a mental institution a special cereal he created. Kellogg didn't curb masturbation, but did become a cereal giant and many of us still eat Corn Flakes today with no impact on our sexual desires.)
Recently, my husband and I were having dinner with a couple we greatly respect. The man is a well-studied theologian and beloved pastor. During a conversation about the overall crisis of purity in the Church at large, he referenced a Bible verse that made me wonder: "Is the notion that masturbation causes blindness really a myth after all?" I'd like to share that verse with you today, but first let's take a look at masturbation and ask the question: Is it a sin?
In Lauren Winner’s fantastic expose on sexuality in Real Sex, she reminds us that pop culture attempts to make sex fairly meaningless. She points to an episode of the hit sitcom Friends, in which Monica (portrayed by Courtney Cox) asks her new paramour, “So, we can still be friends, and have sex?” “Sure,” he replies, “it’ll just be something we do together, like racquetball.” Winner responds to this commentary with this: “It could be a tagline for our age: Sex: It’s just like racquetball. It’s no big deal. It’s just a game.”[i]
But casual sex between two people is so yesterday. Courtney Cox went on to star as editor Lucy Spiller in Dirt, the series about a smut magazine and the world of the paparazzi. In that series Cox kept a vibrator by her bed and nonchalantly uses it one night. It seemed it was just part of her bedtime routine. Shower. Put on your satin pjs. Brush your teeth. Read. Masturbate. Apparently, today sex is sometimes a solo sport. Just like Solitaire.
Is that OK?
You want to know.
A lot of you.
Probably because a lot of you are struggling.
65% of 18-25 year old females admit to masturbating while looking at porn online.[ii]
Is masturbation sin?
Well, the bad news is that the Bible offers no direct teaching on masturbation[iii]. Does that mean you don’t have any information in Scripture to direct your behavior when you feel the urge? Not at all. We have to look at other principles to answer the question.
Masturbation is a sin if it involves pornography or lust.
Christ blows the ill-fitting door off of any inkling of defense that the internal sexual thoughts we have for a man who is not our husband is OK. In Matthew 5:27, he says: “you have heard that it is said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Obviously, if it is sinful for a man to lust after a woman, it is also sinful for us to lust after a guy. If your eyes and mind are engaged in pornography or visual sexual fantasy involving a guy when you are masturbating, you are sinning. That is to say, you are missing the mark of God's design for sex.
Masturbation is a sin if it has become an addictive pattern in your life.
If you are controlled by or enslaved to masturbation, it is a sin. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (I Corinthians 6:12). The church of Corinth had been misinterpreting a teaching about “everything being permissible.” They had excused certain sins by saying that Christ had taken away all sin, and so they had freedom to live as they pleased. That’s not entirely true. Paul said that though some actions are not specifically sinful in themselves, they are not appropriate because they can lead us away from God and his appropriate intentions for our sexuality. If you cannot fall asleep at night without the ritual of masturbating or if you find yourself planning your life so you can be alone to masturbate, it has become addictive. It is mastering you. A Christian is not to be mastered by anything.
But that leaves us the gray area that many scholarly Christian psychologists and theologians have debated for years. What if you occasionally masturbate in a quick moment—and I do mean moment—with no thought of lust and without any harm to your body? Is that OK?
Let me first say that I don’t think you should beat yourself up over it more than you would another moral behavior, or consider it a “sick, vile, filthy and disgusting” secret. (Those words in quotes are the very words a young reader sent to me recently as she described her struggle with masturbation.) The great depth of shame concerning masturbation amazes me. When a girl comes to me for counseling concerning masturbation, she is often not capable of uttering the words. The response isn’t rational. Masturbation is a nearly universal act for guys, and a common one for girls. There is no need to bury yourself under a heap of shame as if it is the worst thing in the world. (Does it separate you from God more than gossip? More than overeating? More than telling little white lies? More than an obsession with having a guy?) You will survive this and so will your relationship with God.
But, the very fact that so many people feel so bad about it merits a closer look at the impact of masturbation. I think discomfort with it is a logical check and balance to protect the purpose of the marriage bed. What is that purpose? To bring us into intimate communion. The authors of the aptly named Authentic Human Sexuality describe sexual desire in the context of a drive to community.
“Deeply embedded within each one of us is a divine longing for wholeness that sends us reaching beyond ourselves to God and others. Sexual desire helps us recognize our incompleteness as human beings and causes us to seek the other to find a fuller meaning in life….Authentic sexuality urges us toward a rich sharing of our lives.” [iv]
Lauren Winner answers the “sex is a game” mentality with the same theology when she says, “a robust yet judicious understanding of the communal nature of sexual behavior requires that Christians enact both a thicker understanding of sex and a thicker understanding of community. To return sex to its proper place within creation, to revivify a gracious and salutary sexual existence, we need to root out modern and hyperindividualistic notions about sex, and come to understand the place of sex in the Christian—and human—community.”
It is this deep pronouncement of community, and the sacred—perhaps sacramental approach to sexuality, that calls me to label masturbation a missing of the mark of God’s purpose for sexual desire.
Consider that habitual masturbation could train your body to be hyper responsive to self, and make it difficult to be responsive to your husband’s stimulation if you are now married or one day will be. Self-pleasure—while it cannot be viewed as the end of the world, resulting in a complete spiritual melt-down to ground zero—must be viewed as a hyperindividualistic response to a desire created to point you to marital communion.
In full disclosure, some Christian leaders have a different opinion than myself, but most seem to suggest that when masturbation involves fantasy or porn and when it becomes compulsive it is a problem.[v] One thing we agree on: it can become addictive. An addict is one who has lost connection to his or her "Higher Power"—I believe that Higher Power is Jesus— and has instead found the power they are lacking in an addiction, a power that is available to them at all times.
This is where the idea of masturbation and blindness moves from myth to possibility. You see, I think that compulsive masturbation—and any other sexual sin that masters a person's life—blinds us from the need for and access to our Higher Power, Christ.
The verse my friend shared with me that got me thinking about this blog is found is Matthew 5:8. It reads,
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
It can be reasoned, then, that the impure in heart will have a blurred vision of God. And that, if given to enough impurity, shall not see God. They will be spiritually blind.
I find this to be true when I counsel women struggling with compulsive masturbation or any other sexual sin that has begun to consume their lives. One young women described the reason she wanted to stop masturbating because she felt like it "drives a wedge between God" and me. Many of the girls I counsel communicate something similar. What they are experiencing is spiritual blindness. As we walk more deeply in sexual impurity, we lose our spiritual vision.
How do you get it back? Tell someone. Ask someone whose vision is clear to give you eyes to see the path again. It's there. He loves you. He's waiting for you.
Another common thing women I counsel tell me is this: the best thing they ever did was to tell someone. It erased the loneliness that increased their need for masturbation and helped them to stop. Ephesians 5:13 reads, "Everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes light."
If you're struggling with compulsive masturbation, your vision of God is at risk. As is your understanding of authentic sexuality. You have a decision to make. Will you continue to masturbate or will you seek to see the Master?
Some of the content in this blog is from my book titled What Are You Waiting For: The One Thing No One Ever Tells You About Sex. In the book, I trace the Hebrew language of sexuality to answer difficult questions such as "Is masturbation sin?" "What's wrong with homosexuality?" "How far is too far?"
[i] Lauren Winner, Real Sex, page 78.
[ii] Valeria Frankel, “Self-pleasuring While Looking At Online Porn: Who’s Doing It?” SELF, November 2009, page 131.
[iii] Some erroneously refer to the story of Onan, the son of Judah, who was having sex with his dead brother’s wife. (Yeah, kinda gross.) He let his semen fall on the ground and this displeased God. It displeased God because it was selfish and against he command for Onan to create offspring for his brother as an act of kindness to provide for the widowed woman. But there is no direct teaching concerning masturbation.
[iv] Judith and Jack Balswick, Authentic Human Sexuality (IVP Academic, July 10, 2008), page 41
[v] Some Christian counselors, sex therapists, and psychologists prescribe masturbation to women who are having difficulty achieving orgasm with their husbands. The theory is that a woman who understands her body and is comfortable with it will be able to communicate with her husband about how to move them towards the communal act of climax together. I have no problem with this type of assignment as the purpose is to bring the husband and wife together.