Sexually Pleasuring Yourself
Q: Is masturbation a sin?
A: I receive this question with a fair degree of regularity. It’s true that the Bible does not specifically prohibit it. However, I believe that Scripture generally speaks against the thoughts and feelings involved in the action.
Among Christians and many Jews, masturbation often is called “onanism,” after the sin of Onan, who would not fulfill his responsibility with Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. His was only one of several transgressions committed by Judah’s family in Genesis 38 which the Lord needed to confront.
Technically, Onan wasn’t condemned for the act of masturbation per se, but for failure to act as husband in all aspects in completing the duties of his deceased brother for his sister-in-law. It appears that his actual, physical sin was premature withdrawal in order to avoid fathering a child. Verse 9 says, “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.” In so doing, Onan experienced sexual pleasure without living up to the moral and familial obligations that sex entails.
We know that just because one feels guilty about a particular action doesn’t automatically make it wrong, since Satan would have us feel guilty about many guilt-free activities, thus burdening our consciences. Still, since masturbation normally accompanies lustful desires and erotic fantasies, it is best left alone. In other words, it may not be the action but is certainly the accompanying desire that is both sinful and hurtful to the one involved.
Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)” This includes looking with our imaginations in the privacy of our own rooms. Therefore, the sins of lust, covetousness, and adultery can all be involved in masturbation, although it may not be true that all are involved every time.
Also, masturbation may become part of a pattern of psychological and spiritual addiction. Desire for self-gratification can outweigh a relationship with the Giver of all good things. It can lead one to avoid establishing and maintaining good relationships with others of the opposite sex. In short, while someone may argue that masturbation isn’t always wrong, you cannot convince me that it’s the most right thing to do.
I’m going to let Martin Luther have the final word here. In explaining the 6th Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” he wrote, “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse. (Small Catechism)” I fail to see how masturbation and the accompanying imaginations of the heart are at all “chaste and decent.”
Meaning of the Sixth Commandment quoted from The Small Catechism by Martin Luther, a public domain text.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Expanded from newspaper column #143:3