Question: I found your blog post about Pornography and Chastity, so I’m thinking you might answer this question. I’m confused about masturbation. In health class we learned that it is a healthy release of sexual energy. But in church I’m told that it is a sin and we should pray for the strength not to do it. So I ask for forgiveness for masturbating and pray for strength to resist the urge, but then I do it again. Do you think it is a sin?
Frank answers: I deal with any questions that are of interest to me and to others and for which I feel qualified to give an answer based on my knowledge or experience. Questions sent to me via the blog platform are anonymous, so I don’t know anything about you other than what you write. I’m assuming that you are a student (high school?) and probably male. You go to church and you’ve tried praying. So I assume that a relationship with God is important to you. I think you ask a question every religious adolescent wants to know, but is usually too embarrassed to discuss. So thank you very much for your question.
You are not alone in asking this kind of question. Over the years of my pastoral ministry I’ve had boys (a few) ask me a similar question. Here’s a topic for discussion proposed by a 14-year old boy that I found on an internet discussion site that shows you are not alone in your concern.
I find it hard to pray after masturbation…I am not sure if you are having a similar problem….I really want to be praying to God but its hard knowing that I masturbate… It’s even harder knowing that I will do it again after praying so it does not help my spirit. I need to know how you deal with this situation and if possible to prove that masturbation is not a sin.”
So…for you and all the other guys out there who want to pray but can’t stop masturbating, I’ll try my best to answer this question—as a pastor and theologian. In doing so, I’m going to go out on a limb—not so much in answering whether masturbation is a sin (although I might be going out on a limb on that too!) as in giving you a different way to pray.
(I realize that women also masturbate, but I have no experience of that. So this is written from a male perspective. However, my comments below about fantasizing while masturbating and the prayer suggestion at the end of the post could apply to a woman as well as a man.)
Lack of Knowledge
Let me also assure you that I had the same problem myself when I was a young adolescent. If you learned in health class that masturbation is a healthy sexual release, that’s more and better information than I received back in the late 1950s. We had no sex education or even a health class in high school. Even the medical books back then had information that has now been discredited. They said that masturbation could produce nearsightedness, pimples, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, among other things. (I know because I looked up “masturbation” in a medical book my mother had.) There had been a war against masturbation passed off as science during the late 19th/early 20th century and not until 1972 did the American Medical Association declare that “Masturbation is a normal part of adolescent sexual development and requires no medical management.” It still took time for this pronouncement to register in our society and for people to change their attitudes.
I didn’t hear anything about masturbation in my Church when I was a youth, but an encyclopedia I looked at in the public library told me that the Catholic Church considered masturbation a sin because it is “disordered sex.” The Church has taught that sex is for procreation, not self-gratification. In fact, masturbation was called “self-abuse.” I wasn’t a Catholic, but I thought this probably also applied to me. So I felt I was doomed in this world and the next but kept all this terror to myself. (We don’t like to discuss sex with our parents, do we?)
Like other young adolescents, maybe you made a solemn vow not to do it any more. But you do it. Maybe you wake up with a woodie (stiff penis). While the cause of nocturnal or waking up erections is still being studied, it happens to all males who don’t have erectile dysfunction and is actually healthy for the penis.
But you begin to stroke your engorged member and it feels good so you start wanking more vigorously and soon you are shooting a geyser of the hot sticky stuff all over yourself.
Now you think that you are guilty of two sins. You broke your vow to God to stop masturbating and you also masturbated. If you are a Catholic youth, do you confess this sin to your priest? I wonder how the confessor handles your confession.
The Practice of Confession
We didn’t practice individual confession in my church when I was growing up, although Martin Luther had encouraged it in his Catechism that I had to memorize in confirmation class. Later on when I was a pastor I made private confession available, especially during Holy Week and on youth retreats. I had some boys who came to confession and confessed that they masturbated. Confession isn’t the time to get into discussions that challenge the confession, so I pronounced God’s forgiveness and asked if they would come and talk with me about it. Then I gave them a hug and told them that God loved them.
Is Masturbation a Sin?
If we want to determine whether something is a sin we have to look in the Bible. A lot of people assume things are in the Bible that aren’t. If you look up the word “masturbation” in a Bible concordance (that’s an index of words in the Bible that tells you which verses use that word) you likely won’t find any references because the Bible never mentions it. Not even once. The Bible has a lot to say about sex, but it never mentions masturbation.
So why has it been taught that masturbation is a sin?
Because in the Bible semen, along with blood, was considered a life source and therefore one had to be careful about spilling it. Semen is called “seed.” Spilling one’s seed was considered a violation of semen’s purpose, which is making babies when joined to a woman’s egg. But the one reference to spilling one’s seed is the story of Onan in Genesis 38. He was supposed to provide children for his dead brother by inseminating his dead brother’s wife Tamar. That was the rule. It was called Levirate marriage. The purpose was to continue his dead brother’s lineage by producing blood offspring for him. But Onan spilled his seed rather than inseminating his sister-in-law. Perhaps he didn’t want his brother’s offspring dipping into the family inheritance. For this he was stoned to death. But this story can hardly be a blanket condemnation of masturbation.
In fact, seed gets spilled in nocturnal emissions (the wet dreams that boys have as they attain puberty). If you don’t discharge your semen through ejaculation, it will discharge involuntarily during your sleep (usually accompanied by an erotic dream).
In the Old Testament the spilling of semen, along with the hemorrhaging of blood during the menstrual cycles of girls, made one ritually impure (Leviticus 15). But this was not sin in the moral sense. In Leviticus there are moral sins and ritual or religious sins. Sins like discharging semen or mentrual blood made one ritually unclean, and until one was cleansed one couldn’t go into the tabernacle or temple to offer the appointed sacrifices. The way to deal with this ritual impurity was to take a bath — to clean oneself up — and to clean the stained bedding, with appropriate prayers. But the Church early on decided that the ritual law was not applicable to Christians because many of the rituals related to the sacrificial cult and the sacrifices were fulfilled in Christ’s once-for-all atoning sacrifice on the cross. While Christians believed that the moral law based on the Ten Commandments was still applicable to Christians, the ritual law was no longer applicable. That included the purity laws, like dealing with spilled menstrual blood and semen.
So for Christians masturbation is not a sin in the ritual or religious sense—although it’s still a good idea to clean yourself up after an ejaculation, isn’t it? A shower can also be spiritually refreshing if it helps you to remember that in Baptism God claimed you as his own child in Christ and still does.
Fantasy and Lust
Is there anything that might make masturbating a sinful act in the moral sense? Well, Jesus said about the commandment forbidding adultery, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 NRSV). Lust is not what God had in mind when he created man and woman. It demeans the person we are lusting after even if it is only in our minds. Lust comes from the heart, from our inner desires, and it can consume us if we desire to own or possess another person sexuality for the purpose of gratifying our own desires. The problem is that we often masturbate because our minds are fantasizing about sex with some girl (or some boy). Or we begin to fantasize as we masturbate. So the real sin is not the masturbating, but the lust that goes with it—the desire to use someone sexually for our own gratification.
But is all sexual fantasizing only lustful desire for a particular person? In my experience, I would say that it isn’t. We can make up imaginary objects of our horniness. In fact, just about everything in our minds about the past and the future is fantasy; only the present is reality. Fantasies about the past and the future, as well as the fantasies of our wild dreams and imaginations, fuel our sexual desires and activities.
So what if no lustful fantasies about another actual person are included in masturbation? Is the act then sinful? While masturbation without having lustful fantasies is hard to imagine, there’s nothing in Scripture by which we can say that it is sinful in and of itself. In fact, if it is done merely as a hedge against the temptation to have sex with someone you shouldn’t be having sex with, and because the body requires sexual release, then it could even be considered a healthy alternative to sexual intercourse.
So when it comes to sex our bodies do not cause us much trouble. It’s our minds that get messed up, and unfortunately religion and culture has often contributed to this. Because of religious and cultural views, often passed on in families, kids grow up ashamed of their bodies and what they do with them. This can linger for a lifetime even if you intellectually come to know better.
Intellectually you know that orgasm is a biological way of giving your body sexual release. From a sexual health point of view, masturbation is one of the safest sexual behaviors. As an adolescent your hormones are raging, you need release, so you stroke yourself, ejaculate, and get relief.
Control of the Body
So in and of itself, I don’t think masturbation is a sin. But it can become addictive, especially since adolescents might jerk off daily. I do think there’s something to be said for practicing self-control in all areas of life, including sex. It’s a good spiritual discipline to control one’s body through diet and exercise and sexual abstinence. You know that ejaculation results in loss of energy. You can feel it in your body. So wanking in the morning before you go to school—or, if you’re an athlete, before a big game—might not be the best time, because ejaculation relaxes the body and lowers blood pressure.
There are cultures in the world, especially in India and China, in which techniques developed over the centuries by Tantric and Taoist adepts enable practitioners to experience orgasm without ejaculation. Orgasm contributes energy to the body and retaining one’s semen retains one’s bodily energy. This is not something you’re likely to master without a guru. But one thing you can master is self-control—storing up your semen until a time when you can take your time, really self-pleasure your body by rubbing the body all over and not just your penis, and slowly built up to a really big organism and ejaculation that causes your body to tremble all over. In this way you also retain your body’s energy and arise from the experience invigorated.
An Embodied Form of Prayer
You probably won’t stop masturbating and you shouldn’t put God to the test by asking for God’s help to control a natural biological urge that you will likely give in to anyway and that an have a cleansing effect. So I suggest a different way of praying. (You brought up the subject of prayer).
In the process of masturbating you don’t want to only feed your lustful fantasies; you should also feed your holiness as a child of God. So in the moment of ecstasy, praise God for the vitality of your body. As your body subsides after ejaculation, don’t feel guilty for what you have done; feel grateful for the wonderful but mysterious gift of your sexuality. But you may also need to cleanse your mind of lustful fantasies that entered it while masturbating even as you need to clean and refresh your body externally.
I suggest a prayer that uses your body—an embodied prayer. Stand up next to your bed just as you are—naked, just as Adam and Eve stood naked and unashamed before God before their act of disobedience of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they were commanded not to eat. (It gave them knowledge they weren’t prepared to handle). So here’s the prayer form, and I make use of the Psalms which Christians have prayed since the beginning and which cover many human situations.
Extend your arms upward with your chest open (your heart turned to God) and offer praise to the God who knows you as you are because he has created you and redeems you through his Son Jesus Christ. Begin with Psalm 103:1, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.”
Then, still standing with arms extended outward, palms facing up, from Psalm 136:1 say, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his mercy endures forever.” Thank God for your life, your body, your health, your family and friends, the wonders of God’s creation.
If you had lustful fantasies while masturbating, or if your fantasies were lurid enough to be disturbing, kneel down and pray this verse from Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Then, kneeling, pray for God’s guidance in all you do during the day. Then close with the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father).
Finally, stand and bring your hands together over your heart. Incline your head or maybe bow from the waist while saying, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
Let me anticipate some of your questions. “Why would I do this?” you might ask. Because you’ve used your body for your pleasure; now use it also for God’s glory. St. Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? You were bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NRSV).
Why have such a formal prayer? Because our relationship with God is not casual; formality is required in the Pauline image of the slave serving the master (“you are not your own; you were bought with a price”).
But why pray naked? Because in our culture nudity has come to be associated primarily with sex. You are probably often fully or partially naked when masturbating. There is no shame in nakedness. In fact, it’s clothing that signifies shame. God provided animal skins for Adam and Eve when they hid from him because they were ashamed to be naked. “Who told you you were naked?” God asked. No one. But God knew that they had eaten that forbidden fruit. Like the kid who stuck his hand in the cookie jar, the evidence of the crime was on the body.
Without clothes we feel vulnerable because we cannot hide. Without the protection of clothing we cannot cover our doubts or our fears or our shame. But without covering we also stand more open to God even with our doubts and fears and shame exposed. Try praying naked and let this be a positive opportunity for spiritual growth. Praying naked reminds us that no creature is hidden from God. “…all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12-16; NRSV).
God’s blessing on you as you experiment with embodied prayer.
Pastor Frank Senn