Self Abuse?

Question
Could you send me some info about the topic of masturbation? I am interested in the biblical approaches to this subject as well as in practical guidance for pastors and Christian workers.
Answer
In fact, the Bible never directly addresses the issue of masturbation. Throughout history, most Christians have condemned masturbation on one of several bases, including but not limited to: 1) the sin of Onan; 2) nature; and/or 3) lust. I'll treat each one of these approaches below.

1. The sin of Onan
In Genesis 38:7-10 we learn that Judah had a son named Er and a son named Onan. Er was married to Tamar. Because Er was evil, God killed him. Judah then commanded Onan to impregnate Tamar in order to raise up an heir for Er. Onan slept with Tamar, but every time he had sex with her, he spilled his seed on the ground. For this sin, God killed him.

Many have interpreted this to mean that spilling one's seed in a manner not designed to result in pregnancy is a sin. This is the same argument used against contraception. However, the Bible does not teach that Onan's sin was spilling his seed in and of itself. It was simply the means by which he prevented Tamar's insemination.

Some (such as the Roman Catholic Church) argue that spilling his seed was the crime for which God killed Onan. They base this on the following facts: 1) God killed Onan for his crime; 2) the punishment for failing to have a child by one's brother's widow was far less than death; 3) the punishment for failing to obey one's father was likewise not death; and 4) death was the appropriate punishment for many other sexual sins which were not designed to inseminate (homosexuality, bestiality, etc.). Based on these facts, many conclude that Onan's sin was not failing to raise up a child to his brother, but rather was engaging in a sexual act not designed to inseminate. Masturbation, sexual intercourse with contraception, oral sex, homosexuality, bestiality, and many other sexual practices fall into this category. The problem with this argument is that it does not sufficiently account for the data.

First, in the levirate situation, the purpose of sex was specifically to raise up a child to one's brother. In fact, Genesis 38 does not even say that Tamar was Onan's wife, but rather that she was his brother's wife. The only reason that Onan was permitted to lie with her was to get her pregnant. The fact that Onan eagerly engaged in sex with Tamar but refused to give his seed to her indicates that he was in effect committing adultery with her. When the Law was later instituted, adultery was a crime punishable by death (Lev. 20:10).

Second, the Law contains no statutes condemning or even concerning contraception, masturbation, oral sex, or many other sexual acts not designed to inseminate. If these acts were really so heinous to God that they were punishable by death, it would seem that this should have been important enough to find its way into the Law.

Third, there is no biblical evidence that the Israelites ever put anyone to death for masturbation, contraception, oral sex, or similar non-adulterous and non-bestial acts not designed to inseminate. In fact, there is no evidence (putting aside the disputed Onan incident) that the Israelites considered these acts wrong at all.

Fourth, the Law does mention times when a man's seed might be wasted, but never attributes anything worse than ceremonial uncleanness to it (Lev. 15:16-17,32; Deut. 23:10). It even mentions that when a man has a seminal emission he must bathe and wash his clothes (if necessary), and that he is unclean until evening (Lev. 15:16-17). There is no mention of death or punishment, and even no clear description of "seminal emission." Often this is understood to refer to noctural emissions that occur while a man sleeps, but it is possible that it also refers to emissions that occur when a man is awake. If the latter is the case, then the passage would seem to place masturbation on the level of a woman's period, not on the level of sin.

2. Nature
Some argue that masturbation is wrong on the basis of nature. That is, in a fashion similar to the argument based on Onan's sin, they argue that God did not design the human body and reproductive system to work in this manner, that God's general revelation in nature condemns the practice. This is a tenuous argument at best. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary. For example, many human beings learn to masturbate without ever having been taught it or having heard about it. It would seem to be their "natural" impulse. Moreover, human beings are naturally equipped with the necessary body parts to accomplish masturbation (unlike most animals). It could be argued on these bases that it is natural. Moreover, most Protestants reject the idea that what is natural is necessarily what is good -- especially in light of our "sin nature." This is simply a poor ground on which to base the argument against masturbation.

3. Lust
This is the argument that has the most going for it. It can generally be argued that acts of masturbation involve the sin of lust.

Now, we have to be careful to recognize that the sin of lust does not include every instance of sexual arousal or attraction. It is not a sin to be sexually aroused, even by someone to whom you are not yet married (Deut. 21:10-13; Sol. 1:1ff.); it is a sin to revel in being sexually aroused by someone who is married to another, or with whom you only desire fornication (Matt. 5:28).
So, if an act of masturbation expresses the sin of lust, then that act of masturbation can be condemned as sinful. But this argument cannot condemn acts of masturbation that do not give expression to the sin of lust. For example, a man or woman who masturbates while thinking about his or her spouse would not involve the sin of lust. An act of masturbation motivated by thoughts of one whom a person could rightly hope to marry might also escape the condemnation of this argument. Acts of masturbation performed for physical pleasure apart from any particular thoughts of lust would also escape condemnation by this argument.

In conclusion, there are some acts of masturbation for which the Bible has no real condemnation. Now, in saying this, we should not downplay the real evil of the sin of lust that is involved in many acts of masturbation. Nevertheless, we should also refrain from condemning what the Bible does not condemn. I would say as gently as possible that while our social inclination and tradition might be to condemn all acts of masturbation, our inclination and tradition might not be entirely biblical on this point.

I believe that masturbation is probably a near-universal practice, especially among younger males. Many have probably been made to feel that they are in constant sin as a result of their failure to control their behavior by their own will power. This can be very damaging to their understanding of their relationship to God. Rather than rejoicing in him, they feel oppressed, guilty, hypocritical, and dirty. Some even doubt their salvation because God has not freed them from what they consider to be a "besetting sin." Certainly, some of their guilty feelings are based on a proper understanding of the sin of lust, but not all. I think we need to be careful not to damage those individuals who are not caught up in the sin of lust, especially so that we do not drive them to despair and shame that tempt them into real sins of lust.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.