Is masturbation a sin?

Ah, the dreaded M word. When a question begins, "I am sorry this is so gross, and I'm sure no one has ever asked you about this before, but…" I can tell what the question is going to be about without reading any further. Countless people have asked us, and continue to ask us, if masturbation is a sin. There is an old joke, "98 percent of people masturbate--and the other 2 percent are lying." While 98% is an exaggerated figure, in recent anonymous surveys, over 70% of men and over 40% of women admitted to having masturbated at some point in their lives. With these stats in mind, it continues to surprise me to hear from so many people who think they are the only ones struggling with masturbation.

The Bible nowhere directly mentions masturbation or indicates that it is a sin. The one passage many people point to is Genesis 38:9-10, which mentions Onan "spilling his seed." In some languages, the word for masturbation is a variation of the name "Onan," such as "onanie" in German. However, in the text, Onan is spilling his seed because he does not want to produce an heir on behalf of his deceased brother. Onan's act was a sin because of his motives behind the act, not because of the act itself. Further, the passage describes actual sexual intercourse, not masturbation. A second passage people sometimes point to is Matthew 5:27-30, which speaks of lusting after a woman and then states, "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." While I can see the parallels between masturbation and what Jesus was talking about, I seriously doubt masturbation is what Jesus was alluding to.

Another thing that amazes me about questions related to masturbation is how many people worry that it is such a terrible sin that God will never forgive them. We literally receive questions, "Is masturbation an unpardonable sin?" In addition, we receive questions along the lines of, "I watched 8 hours of hard-core internet porn and then masturbated. Will God forgive me for masturbating?" The fact that a person could think that masturbation is a worse sin than watching hard-core pornography shocks me. In a situation like that, masturbation is simply the result of extreme overstimulation of the sex drive. The core sin that needs to be dealt with in that situation is pornography.

Is masturbation a sin? Yes, in the vast majority of instances, I believe masturbation is a sinful act. It is, perhaps, more precisely, a result of the sin of lust. Masturbation most often occurs when a person is thinking sexual thoughts about someone who is not his/her spouse. The "lust of the flesh" (1 John 2:16) is the sin. Masturbation is simply the result of the sin. The closest parallel I can think of is an act of violence that results from someone who allows anger and rage to fester and build. Is the act of violence a sin? Of course. But the act of violence would not have occurred were it not for the sinful anger.

The question then arises, is there ever a time when masturbation is not a sin? To that, I cannot give a definitive answer. The best I can do is maybe. What about a husband/wife who is separated from his/her spouse for a long period of time? What if a man has to masturbate for an infertility test or artificial insemination/in-vitro fertilization procedure? Is masturbation still a sin if it is done entirely without any lustful/immoral thoughts/desires? In situations like these, my answer has to be, "it is between you and God (and if married, your spouse)."

S. Michael Houdmann

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Is masturbation a sin?