'Masturbation is nothing to be ashamed of. It's not something to be particularly proud of, either.' (Matt Groening)
A single woman, in her forties, a staff-member in a fundamentalist church came for counseling. She'd been referred by her senior pastor, who didn't know her 'problem', and she didn't want to tell him, but she said she 'needed to talk to someone about something.' She sat nervously on the edge of the chair, briefly sketched some aspects of her history, and then paused for a long time. Eventually she stuttered: 'Actually my problem's a terrible one. My church preaches that I'll go to hell for doing this... It's the 'big M'.' 'Oh,' I said, 'masturbation.' Consider this:
'Sexual release is just as important as any kind of emotional release. Saying that you shouldn't masturbate is like saying that you shouldn't cry when you're upset or hurt, or that you should hold in anger and other emotions. I see no difference between sexual release and emotional release. Not releasing will only result in stress and health problems. And I know that I need no more stress in my life. I figure, if something helps a person relieve stress, clear their mind, and make them feel better (that doesn't hurt others, mind you), then more power to them'. (Woman on Internet newsgroup).
Or, on the other hand, this:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994 pp. 564-566) lists six 'Offenses against chastity': lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape. Masturbation (to which most space is given of the six!), 'is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action'. However, some 'psychological and social factors' may 'lessen or even extenuate moral culpability'.
Why is masturbation so controversial for most Christians? Is it simply a 'rub and tickle' that may be good for you? Or is it a habit the devil especially encourages to induce destructive guilt and/or rob us of our 'sexual purity'? How did masturbation get such a 'bad rap' from so many Christian preachers?
An Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior notes: 'No form of sexual activity has been more frequently discussed, more roundly condemned and more universally practiced than masturbation.' (They say 90% of men masturbate and the other 10% are liars. No one knows how many women masturbate: estimates range from 30% to 90%).
In my counseling practice the subject comes up, almost always without any prompting from me, at least once a fortnight. The Internet search engine Alta Vista gave me 26,714 references to the noun (only 11,585 for the verb!). So a lot of people are worried, angry, confused, guilty - or just plain thinking - about masturbation.
The Conservative Approach
For conservative Christians - Catholic, Protestant and others - 'self-abuse' is the misuse of the body, which is the temple of the indwelling spirit of God. Indeed the derivation of the word (Latin 'manus' - hand, and 'stuprare' - to defile) has a pejorative connotation.
For modern conservative Christians, the first question (and it's a good one) usually is: 'What does the Bible say?' They have probably heard preachers and campfire youth speakers quote these texts: 2 Corinthians 7:1: "Let us cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh." Ephesians 4:22: "Laying aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit." Then, if the preacher is warming to his (women don't preach on this, much) theme, he'll cite the story of Onan and some passages from Leviticus. Onan's sin (Genesis 38:4-10, 46:12, Numbers 26:19, 1 Chronicles 2:30 was not masturbation but failure to impregnate his dead brothers' wife, Tamar.
Then there's Leviticus 15:16-18. This moral/ceremonial requirement of the law has to be put into the context of Israel's purification rituals. These purification rites do not condemn masturbation (if anything, a 'discharge' is accepted as the sort of thing that frequently happens).
Summary: the Bible says nothing specifically in favor or against masturbation.
The Liberal Approach
Masturbation and pornography are not evil in themselves according to many liberal Christians. After all, it's your own body and your own private life and may be a form of very safe sex. To quote the relevant article in the respected 'Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling' (Abingdon, 1990): 'There is no evidence that masturbation, regardless of frequency, leads to physical or mental disorders. [Sneezing and masturbation] are both usually orgasmic experiences in which tensions are relieved Never has a more harmless activity provoked more harmful anxiety.'
But both conservatives and liberals may be missing the point. Conservatives may be wrong: not all masturbation is sinful. Liberals may be wrong: some masturbation may be harmful or even evil. 'Lonely' masturbation is self-isolating sex without intimacy. It disassociates the sexual act from a loving relationship, and is therefore often a symptom of a deeper problem. For Christians, I've found there are three broad issues. First, the masturbation habit has produced heaps of bad shame, guilt, confusion and condemnation in a lot of people, particularly younger Christians. The second issue is self-control - a product of the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives (Galatians 5:23, 2 Timothy 1:7). If a habit has mastery over us - particularly if it is obsessive - it can be a serious problem. The third issue is fantasizing, where we imagine general or specific scenes or persons as we masturbate. This is associated with the deadly sin of 'lust' - coveting someone else for our gratification (see Matthew 5:27-28). If a habit like masturbation becomes compulsive in this respect, it would be good to get professional advice.
This quote from evangelical counselor/author Gary Collins would represent my own general position:
'Christian counselors differ in their view of masturbation. It has been called 'sin', 'a gift from God', and an issue which is 'no big deal... on God's list of priorities.' Masturbation can... produce guilt; can be a means of escaping from loneliness and interpersonal (including sexual) relationships with others into a world of fantasy; can increase self-centeredness and lowered self-esteem; and can stimulate and be stimulated by lust... Masturbation is rarely helped by a direct determination to quit. This focuses attention on the issue, increases anxiety, and makes failure more incriminating.
Masturbation can be reduced by prayer, a sincere willingness to let the Holy Spirit control, involvement in busy activities involving others, an avoidance of sexually arousing material (such as erotic pictures or novels), a practice of not dwelling on harmful sexual fantasies, and a recognition that sin (including lust) will be forgiven when it is confessed with sincerity and sorrow... When there is open communication on the subject of sex, including masturbation... it will... not become a major problem... It's high time we stop making such a 'big deal' out of masturbation and give it the well-deserved unimportance it merits. Gary Collins, Christian Counseling, Waco Texas: Word Books, 1980, p.296,
from Rowland Croucher, The Family: at Home in a Heartless World (HarperCollins), quoted with permission. (The full text is on the JMM home page)
Shalom! Rowland Croucher
Director, John Mark Ministries - resources for pastors/leaders.
(Bookroom, library, and worldwide F.W.Boreham Trading Post)
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