A Frank Talk: The M Word
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WHY TALK ABOUT MASTURBATION?
When it comes to masturbation, I want to be careful with my words. First and foremost, as I said earlier in jest, I now say in all seriousness: it is a touchy subject. People are afraid to talk about it and very often get very uncomfortable when it is discussed. Further, a frank and truthful discussion is necessary because so many, many people struggle with this issue.
If the church doesn’t address the issue of masturbation, where will people look for wisdom and answers? Google, probably, right? (By the way, I don’t recommend that method…) The fact of the matter is that since we possess Father’s Word, the body of Christ is the forum where such tough topics like masturbation need to be addressed.
Sadly, the following cartoon is a pretty decent portrayal of what happens inside the church whenever this issue comes up. The church tends to treat this issue—in fact, ‘treat the issue’ is probably the wrong choice of words—the church very often, does not treat the issue. That my friends, is a tragedy!
The church’s treatment of this subject has typically resulted in misinformation and condemnation. You know what I’m referring to, right? “If you masturbate, you’ll go blind” or, “If you masturbate, you’ll grow warts on your hands!”, and the like. That kind of misinformation is no longer as prevalent in our modern culture, but the confusion and the guilt surrounding this issue abounds.
Another misconception is that masturbation is only a male issue. Perhaps you have heard the joke that there are only two kinds of men: those who have masturbated, and those who lie. Though there may be some truth to that statement, I’ve found through my years of experience that masturbation is not only a masculine issue. Many women who have passed through our counseling office have confirmed this.
The issue of masturbation is laden with guilt and condemnation. As a speaker and counselor, I get phone calls and letters from a wide variety of people all over the country. Recently, a fellow from out of state emailed me. He wrote that since I was out of state, he felt like I was someone who was ‘safe’ to talk to. He shared with me that masturbation was the supreme struggle in his life and that he was riddled with guilt and shame because of it. It was quite obvious in talking with him that he believed he was the only one with such a struggle. Feeling isolated and alone is one of the nasty by-products of our failure to deal with this issue openly. When we believe we are the only one who struggles with such an issue, we are easy prey for the enemy to discourage us in our walk with God.
On another occasion, I was talking with a young college student and he shared with me how his Bible study handled this issue. They decided to form an accountability group to “keep each other accountable” to not masturbate. Each week when they gathered together, they would take turns and report to the others how successful they were at avoiding the “sin of masturbation”. The agreement between them was that if one of them masturbated, they had to put a dollar into the group jar, one for each time they had done it. I said to the young man, “How did that work?” And he said, “Well basically, we all lied.”
This is the typical fashion in which the church tends to deal with this issue. Since so many people in the church believe masturbation is a sin, we have to make every effort and take every step available to us to stop this behavior. If we can’t stop it, we will hide and often lie to each other to do so. Personally, I am not a big fan of accountability groups or even accountability partners. I mean, just think about the word… ACCOUNTABILITY! I don’t know about you, but for me that conjures up images of a strict finger pointed sternly, right at my nose! Rather than producing an environment of acceptance in which I might sheepishly venture forth with some semblance of honesty, that word makes me shrink back in fear.
I would much rather proclaim the need for “encouragement” groups that minister acceptance and love in the midst of pursuing the truth. I believe this is the great need for the body of Christ in every behavioral arena that might bring us into guilt and shame. Of course, the greatest need is to arrive at the truth of what God Himself says concerning this issue. Sadly my friends, we have very much failed in accomplishing that goal in this area.
As a younger man, I was one of eight individuals who had enrolled in a counseling seminar. In the course, we were talking and discussing our way through many varied topics. One particular day, the seminar leader came in and announced, “Today we are going to be discussing sexual issues, and our first topic is masturbation.” He turned to me and said, “Frank, what do you think about masturbation?” I immediately wondered why he decided to ask me first. Fortunately, he saw the surprised look on my face and clarified his question with these words, “Is masturbation a sin?”
I quickly responded, “No, it is not sin, but it can be.” Immediately, my fellow attendees launched into a verbal barrage, vehemently disagreeing. I took my Bible, held it out, and said, “It’s not in here, guys! There are a lot of other sinful things God points out, like a proud look, an arrogant spirit, lying, gossip, envy, jealousy, and selfishness. I don’t see masturbation anywhere in here. I believe that if God was all that concerned about the issue of masturbation, He would’ve put something in His word about it!” Well, the seminar leader went around the room asking each participant their opinion, to which each of the other students responded firmly that masturbation was clearly sinful. The seminar leader then quickly guided the conversation to the next topic. One of the people in the class said, “Wait a minute, sir, what do you think about masturbation? Is it a sin?” At that point he responded, “No, I agree with Frank.”
As a class we all wondered. Who was right and who was wrong? Is masturbation a sin or isn’t it? Where should we go for answers? We were all Christians, and we all had the same Bible, but we had all reached very different conclusions. After my experience in that seminar, I was challenged to dig deep into Father’s Word and find an answer for myself.
What does the Bible say about masturbation?
I believe digging into Father’s Word is the key. It’s most important because what the Bible says about an issue should also be what we the church say about that issue. In whatever arena of life where we are pursuing answers, our primary concern must NOT be what others think, or the popular opinion of the day. Our primary concern is always, what does Father’s Word say?
And here, right at the outset of this discussion, I want to be abundantly clear that my conclusion from my years of study is that Father’s Word does not address the issue of masturbation as a sinful behavior.
My friend Scott Brittin, a wonderful pastor and counselor, affirms that masturbation is not in the Bible. I particularly appreciate his approach to the situation. In a recent conversation, he remarked to me: “When it comes to masturbation, I look at a passage like the one found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7:
If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.
If God was so specific on issues to mention not taking a bird and the eggs or young, why in the world would He not mention masturbation—especially if some of us seem to believe it can cause warts, blindness, and baldness!”
But what about the “sin of Onan?”
Much of the church embraces a common error in their teaching against masturbation. They look at an obscure Old Testament passage buried in Genesis 38 and conclude that God considers the masturbation a sin. They are referring to the sin of Onan.
Now, the first thing one always needs to do when coming to a passage in the Bible is establish the context. Context is the number one rule to follow when interpreting the Bible. I would put it this way: a text without a context, is a pretext. In other words, if we don’t follow the context, we could make the Bible say just about anything we want it to say. We certainly do not want that to happen with this issue of masturbation. Guilt and shame abound in this arena and it is time we arrived at the truth of what this passage is teaching in its context.
In Genesis 38, we are told that Judah had several sons. One of those sons was Er, who had married a woman whose name was Tamar. Er did evil in the sight of the Lord so the Lord took his life, leaving Tamar a childless widow. At this point, Judah instructed his youngest son, named Onan, as per the custom of the day, to provide a child—and more importantly, an heir—for Tamar by having sexual relations with her.
And Judah (Onan’s father) said to Onan: Go in unto your brother’s wife—have sexual relations with her, marry her—and raise up seed to your brother. And Onan knew that the seed would be his (Er’s). And it came to pass that when he went into his brother’s wife that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord, therefore the Lord slew him.
Note that this context is very clear; this passage is, unequivocally, about a man and a woman having sexual relations, NOT about masturbation.
Now, the type of arrangement mentioned in this passage was called “levirate marriage.” It was quite common in the ancient world, where most societies were patriarchal. In a patriarchy, an inheritance passes from the father to the children. If a woman in that culture did not have any children, she would not receive an inheritance, and therefore be left destitute. The customs of levirate marriage called for the brother of the man who died to marry his brother’s widow and produce an heir with the surviving widow. The child born into the marriage would be considered the child of the dead brother, and that child would receive the inheritance. Out of that wealth, the child would care for its mother. This practice was sanctioned by God in Deuteronomy 25, but that is a whole other issue for another time.
Onan went to his dead brother’s wife and refused to bear an heir for her. When they were having sexual relations, he withdrew and spilled his seed on the ground rather than provide an opportunity for her to have a child. This behavior gives us a major glimpse into the character of this man Onan. Notice, he did not mind having sexual relations with his brother’s widow, he just did not want to risk her getting pregnant.
We are dealing here with a very self-centered, manipulative man. He didn’t want to preserve his brother’s genealogical line because he didn’t want his father’s inheritance divided up any further. His selfishness and greed led him to not only disobey his father’s expressed wishes but also to callously ignore the needs of his brother’s wife. By spilling his seed on the ground, he ensured that his brother’s widow would remain childless and be cut out of the inheritance. Some interpreters claim that this passage teaches that it is sinful to “waste seed.” This passage in their eyes, mandates that masturbation is sinful because it “wastes seed.” The context, however, is very clear. The issue is not wasted seed. The problem was the sinful, selfish, lustful heart of Onan.
Onan spilled his seed because he wanted the entire inheritance for himself. If he produced an heir for his brother, he would lose a portion of the inheritance to his brother’s family. If no heir was produced, the inheritance would pass to him. God decided to discipline Onan for his selfishness, greed, and disobedience, and take his life.
Do you see how God’s swift punishment of Onan was about his disobedient and abusive heart? Do you see how this passage is not about masturbation at all? It is faulty interpretation to read this passage and conclude that the act of masturbation is sinful. This portion of scripture isn’t about masturbation at all! If it was, then we should expect all masturbators to be struck dead. And let’s be honest… there wouldn’t be many of us left if that were the case.
So since Father’s word is truly silent on masturbation, how are we to handle this issue? Simply put, we need to examine the Bible further. In it, we will find definitive principles which address masturbation indirectly.
Father’s Word holds the answer.
What I desperately want you to understand is that our Father’s Word is the ultimate authority for governing our lives. We must take great care to make sure we interpret correctly what He affirms—and be careful to not add our opinions and bias to His affirmations.
In 2 Peter 1:2...“Know this: that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.” Peter is instructing us that we cannot come to the Word of God and just make it say what we want it to say. We do not have the right to do that. We have to let the Bible say what it says without adding to it. This is called interpreting the Bible literally.
“The prophecy came not at any time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
This verse teaches us that man did not write this book. God wrote this book! God wrote the Bible. He was very intentional about what went INTO the Bible—and equally intentional about what did NOT go into the Bible.
Finally, this verse also informs us “how” God accomplished the writing of our Bibles. We are told that the Holy Spirit so worked in those men that His presence led them to write what God wanted them to write. Though each author’s individual personality is expressed through their writing, each one was able to communicate the truth of God to us concerning the essential things we need to know about life.
Isn’t that exciting? We do not have to be in the dark about what is really important in this life—the Bible is a trustworthy guide for us on our journey. God Himself tells us that. We can read it in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where we are told that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
When we have questions about the various issues of life, the first place we need to go is the Word of God. In the Bible, God Himself is instructing, correcting, and teaching us what He says concerning what is right and what is wrong. In other words, the Bible is a one-stop shop for knowing how to live our lives! When we approach Father’s Word looking for instruction or teaching on a specific issue, we must ask two questions:
1. Does the Bible address this issue specifically?
2. If not, are there other principles from His Word we can apply to the issue at hand?
In other words, are there other issues that when accompanied with the act of masturbation transform masturbation into a sinful act? For this, we must again go deep into Father’s Word.