taking the words of Jesus seriously

There is a growing conversation around masturbation and relationships. It’s a good thing to have this discussion and I suspect the openness of it is a generational thing. Of the material I’ve written and the messages I’ve spoken, I’m confident I’ve never opened anything with the line that begins this paragraph.

People have always engaged in masturbation (for some the terms auto-eroticism and self-gratification may be a bit less jarring). But we haven’t talked about it, asked questions about it nor have we thoughtfully considered the motivations and consequences of masturbation. The church’s approach to this topic has usually been don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and if it does come up the answer is no.

If we thoughtfully read the bible and reflect on the ways of Jesus, it becomes clear that our sexuality is a good thing, a God-given thing. Because sexuality is so personal, so intimate and so super-charged, it’s always important to keep this framework in mind: sexuality is good, it reflects something in humans of the divine and our Creator has opinions regarding our use of his good gifts.

We’re wired by our Creator for connecting with others, for intimacy. God is a mysterious and wonderful being of three personal expressions. God is a community, a being of extraordinary intimacy. Humans, being made in the image of their Creator, are made for intimacy, both with our Creator and with our fellow creatures.

This realm is disordered, however, so things don’t always work as intended. Humans don’t function as designed. So there really shouldn’t be any surprise that with something as powerful and intimate as sexuality we’d get our wires crossed. For some of us, sex is a fairly selfish pursuit of transitory pleasure. But for many others, sexual connecting is really an exploration of the transcendent, of looking for something meaningful beyond ourselves. As G. K. Chesterton is famously quoted, “Any man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

The Purpose of Sex

What is human sexuality designed for? Certainly procreation. But is it’s only other use pleasure? It’s greatest purpose is intimacy, the expressing and receiving of love. Ideally, I think, the erotic expression of our sexuality is meant to help bind two people together in a mutually giving and receiving relationship.

A good Christian ethic of sexuality goes like this. God gives us life. Life lived with God at the center is the very best way to live. God always leads us to loving, honest and integrated living. So living out our sexuality with God means using our sexuality in self-respecting, God-respecting and other-respecting ways. We seek to experience and express our sexuality in ways that honor and are fully integrated with our healthy core values.

But we live in a world that doesn’t work right. And many of us struggle with sexual brokenness. Given that, how do we think about masturbation and healthy sexuality?

Listening recently to Nate Larkin’s Pirate Monk Podcast, I heard an engaging interview with Jamie Wright (theveryworstmissionary.com). She was discussing teaching kids about premarital sex. When she was young, the church so over-emphasized avoiding premarital sex, the message was clear that sex before marriage was one of the very worst mistakes a person could make.

At the same time, the culture Jamie grew up in minimalized sex before marriage to the point of saying it was no big deal, really had no consequences. Just be safe. But Jamie feels that neither extreme position was true. And I think we can say the same of masturbation. It’s not the worst thing a person can do, but neither is it consequence-free.

Masturbation and Some Legitimate Concerns

If we assume a generally positive stance towards auto-eroticism, we need to become concerned when we find ourselves using it compulsively. It’s one thing when we masturbate to explore our bodies and discover our emerging sexuality at a young age. Or even when we utilize it as a release from intense sexual arousal when we have no partner with whom we can be sexual. It’s an entirely different matter, however, when we masturbate as a recreational activity that crosses the line into compulsive use.

What do I mean by compulsive? When we need to do it more often, it’s becoming compulsive. When we are continually looking for different stimuli (images or fantasy) to become aroused, it’s becoming compulsive. When we bypass genuine, healthy interaction with others to be alone and masturbate, it’s becoming compulsive. When we experience negative consequences, hide it from those close to us or promise ourselves we’re going to cut back yet still engage in it, it’s become compulsive.

And once sexual practices have become compulsive, we will need help finding our way to health and freedom.

Which leads to another concern regarding regular use of masturbation. A primary function of human erotic sexual expression is to develop our connection with another human being. But masturbation is all about me; there’s no you. I may use the thought or image of you, but you won’t even know it. It’s a solo act. The crescendo of sexual experience usually settles around connecting, but that doesn’t happen with masturbation because there is no one to connect with except me.

If Jesus doesn’t address masturbation, he clearly talks about lust. “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) When we compulsively use masturbation as a method of self-soothing, emotion regulation or self-gratification, we almost always use the image or thought of others to achieve arousal. That is using someone else for our gratification. It is lust, a selfish, unhealthy use of our sexuality.

There is one more significant concern about masturbation. Much of our contemporary masturbation practice utilizes pornography and we need to think about this honestly.

Masturbation and Pornography

I have four thoughts why porn use is counter to healthy human sexuality. First, looking at porn is seeing something very personal, very intimate of another person, but it’s not mutual. There is no exchange, and no genuine intimacy. It’s one-sided.

Second, if we are aroused and then climax sexually using porn, we experience a neuro-chemical sequence that is disjointed. Part of the sequence is intensely pleasurable (dopamine) followed by another part leaving us wanting to be held (oxytocin) but we’re alone. We’re not bonding; we’re isolating.

Third, for many of us this solo, porn-induced neuro-cocktail becomes a preferred experience. We become attached to non-attaching sexual experience. And when we become compulsive consumers, our appetites become progressive. Contentment with healthy intimacy is replaced with soul-starving consumption.

And fourth, we have to carefully and honestly consider how pornography is produced. People are hurt, used and abused in porn production. There is a correlation between the demands for porn and sexual trafficking. Something beautiful and God-given gets flipped into something evil and destructive. Porn production and consumption moves us from the light and into the darkening gloom of the shadow-life.

God and Our Sexuality

Having said all this, it’s important to approach this topic of masturbation with a spirit of grace and openness—both towards others and ourselves. Instead of focusing on behaviors, think about motivation and the meaning of our existence. Like our spirits, our sexuality is a created, blessed gift, complex and complicated. We really are wonderful beings capable of wonderful things.

Certainly we are easily given to mixed motives, easily given to selfishness at the expense of others. And so with our sexuality, it’s important to be kind and caring of ourselves, kind and protective of others. Jesus cautions us not to judge each other. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

Ultimately, the higher plane is that of love. Love which is selfless giving to others, not taking for ourselves. Love does not necessarily mean pleasure. But neither is love harsh and controlling. So we drop shame, we shun self-condemnation, we ask for help.

One of the many wonderful things about Jesus is he’s so good at striking the balance we need between the reality of our own brokenness, selfishness and fears and the wonder and contentment of what doing life with him can become. Whatever our struggles, Jesus gets us.

So the writer to the Hebrews (2:11) puts it this way: “Since the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Dr. T. C. Ryan, author of ,  is a speaker and pastor, retreat and seminar leader. He leads two recovery groups, one for clergy and one for men in the church he and his wife currently attend. He blogs at tc-ryan.com, and you can learn more about his ministry on his  or on Twitter @tcryanone

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