The Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation has a series of “minibooks” (usually no more than 30 pages) dedicated to specific counseling related topics. This week we are reviewing “It’s All About Me: The Problem of Masturbation.”
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Winston Smith has been counseling for more than 15 years and is the author of a variety of CCEF resources related to marriage and sexuality. His minibook “It’s All About Me” attempts to tackle the questions “What’s the harm of masturbation?” and “What can I do to stop?”
Smith’s goal is to help the chronic masturbator examine his or her internal world – the world of imagination. This, Smith says, is where the problem and solution starts.
Old Arguments Against Masturbation
Some of the church’s arguments against the practice of masturbation focused on the physical act itself. This line of argument stretches Scripture to the breaking point.
About 250 years ago, masturbation was known as the sin of “onanism,” stemming from the story in Genesis 38. When Onan’s brother died he was culturally obligated to have sex his sister-in-law so she would not die a childless widow and leave his brother with no heir. During their intercourse he chose to pull out of her and spill his semen on the ground instead. The story says nothing about the solo act of masturbation but about the Onan’s stubborn disregard for his brother’s family.
There are no cases of solo masturbation mentioned in the Bible. The only place where a form of masturbation is mentioned is in the love poem, the Song of Solomon, where the two lovers poetically describe acts of mutual masturbation during love-making (2:3,6; 4:12). So as far as the Bible is concerned, there is silence on whether the physical act of masturbation is sinful.
Why the Fantasies Behind Masturbation are Wrong
In “It’s All About Me,” Winston Smith addresses the subject of masturbation from a different angle: from the perspective of fantasy.
He has readers examine their own sexual fantasies and ask, “How do the people populating my fantasies relate to me? What are their attitudes in my fantasies? How do they behave towards me in my fantasy world?” Much of the time, the fantasies are less about those people as much as they are about the person who is fantasizing. In your sexual fantasies, you take center stage. The plot and characters revolve around you. It is the world where all the characters are you-centered and play to your desires for pleasure, power, or control.
Smith calls this habit of fantasy “playing god.” “No matter how widely your fantasies may vary,” Smith writes, “in every instance you play god with people. You reduce those made in the image of the true God to mindless robots who serve your whims.”
In the typical biblical counseling fashion, Smith’s goal is to help readers to understand the “idols of the heart” (Ezekiel 14:1-8). In this case, masturbation becomes the way we eroticize self-idolatry: We are turned on by a fantasy world where we are gods.
Like it or not, our fantasies and the activities of our heart reflect the truth about who we really are. “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19). This, Smith says, is the real harm masturbation fantasies cause: they train the mind to be self-focused, pleasure-seeking, and escapist. This runs contrary to the attitudes of love and service that are modeled for us in the life of Christ (Philippians 2:6-8).
In other words, what makes the fantasies behind masturbation wrong is that they are attitudes that run in the opposite direction of Christlike love: a love that was willing to lose its life for others.
Creating New Habits of Love
Smith talks about how we can build a new internal world based not on selfishness but love. He talks about the necessary steps of confession to God, repentance, and accountability to others. But for Smith, repentance from masturbation is not merely about turning from a mere physical habit as much as it is about building new habits of love.
Repenting of lustful fantasies means we turn from our internal worlds of selfishness and turn towards Jesus who can teach us to love as He loves. Smith writes:
The Bible says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:10–12). God has shown us perfect love in Christ, so we learn how to love from him. If you want to learn how to love, then become a lifelong student of Jesus.
This isn’t just about kicking a bad habit. God promises that, as you live a life of love by trusting in Christ, God’s love will become visible through you. What could be more meaningful than making God’s love visible to others? This same passage helps us to see how special that love is: God’s love is sacrificial. He puts our needs first even though it costs him a high price. Your basic compass heading for love is to do what is best for others even if it costs you. Your initial sacrifice will be your own comfort and lusts. When you are tempted to escape, look around and notice what others need in that moment and serve them.
I highly recommend this quick and cheap resource for your church. It is an ideal discussion-starter for youth groups or men’s groups who are dealing with this subject and don’t want a massive book to read.
I think this is a very challenging as much as controversial topic, but needs to be heard. The scripture that says..’as a man thinks in his heart, so is he’…, says a lot especially where our imagination goes down the wrong road. Another scripture about if you lust after a woman in your heart you commit adultery, bears a thought of masturbation while the thought is happening in video role play in the persons mind. Simply put people who masturbate make themselves as a god, therefore worshipping satan and at the same time break three commandments. You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only; You shall have no other god’s before Me; Do not commit adultery. It also says in scipture that if you break one of the commandments you break them all. Where is the conviction to Obey. Obedience is beter than (self serving) sacrifice.
@Shane – Great thoughts. It is amazing how much the 10 commandments come into play in this issue.
I’m surprised by this review. It contains quite a bit of unnecessary Bible eroticism (complete with references) that some could find triggering. Additionally, to say that the Bible is silent on masturbation is a little off the mark, isn’t it? I thought Jesus taught that to look at a woman with lust in our hearts was sinful. Since masturbation is fueled by lust, it’s a stretch to say the Bible is silent on the subject.
@Wes – Thanks for your comment.
First, as for the Bible being silent about masturbation, I hope this review makes perfectly clear that the Bible is not silent about the issue of lust and fantasy. It speaks clearly about these things. Masturbation is, if you will, the typical fruit of such sinful fantasy. The point is this: the Bible does not depict or describe the action of solo masturbation, but it does speak often about the fantasies that commonly drive masturbation. In this excellent little book, Winston Smith chooses to focus on those heart-level motivations rather than making the more surfacey (and incorrect) statement that the Bible condemns the outward action.
Often, we run into people who were taught as children and teens that the action of masturbation is sinful, taught to “white-knuckle” their way through temptation, only to be disenchanted with those teachers later on when they searched in vain for any Biblical statements about it. In short, for those who want to stop masturbation, the goal is not about trying to quit the action itself as much as it is about renewing one’s mind and heart. Actions will follow. Trying to do things the other way around is like plucking bad fruit off a bad tree: the tree needs to change before the fruit can be good.
As for the “Bible eroticism,” I had hoped the references were faithful to the text of the Bible. Please let me know if you think I’m in error on something. Also, I didn’t not want to be any more “erotic” than the Bible itself, so if you feel I have stepped over the line, please let me know so I can adjust my words. When I write about sexual topics, my goal is to speak as frankly just the Scriptures do. The Bible is frank without being crass, crude, or perverted, and I pray I’ve done the same. I hope my words have been no more “triggering” than specific Bible passages about the same subjects.
Can you elaborate a little more for me on this?
I heard one pastor say that as long as your fantasizing about your wife, it’s ok to masturbate on occasion.
@BWC – Interesting idea. I think the problem in this case isn’t lusting after a forbidden person but building a habit of self-focused sexuality. Healthy and godly sexuality is about giving to your spouse, about oneness, about intimacy and connectedness. When someone gets it in their head they can masturbate while they think about their wife, it could easily become a habit of thinking that eventually causes problems. I won’t say it is immoral, outright. I will say one should first examine the reason why it is needed. Am I retreating to fantasy simply because it is “easier” than pursuing intimacy with my wife? How could i more constructively use my sexual energy to engage in intimate conversation and activity with my wife?
I have struggled with wondering if it was right or wrong for sometime…and if there were acceptable occasions for it. In example: Husband is on a buisness trip and they have phone sex? Or Wife is on bed rest while pregnant and Husband needs release? If they are not thinking about other people, is it wrong? Just wondering what your thoughts were on this aspect of it. (There are some things you just don’t ask your parents…)
@Sue – Good questions. Personally, because I think the issue has to do with one’s fantasy life and habits, not the physical action of masturbating, I don’t a couple engaging with each other through masturbation is problematic. For instance, in his book, Porn Again Christian, Mark Driscoll addresses this question:
I think Driscoll’s treatment of the topic is right on.
Thank you for your reply Mr. Gilkerson. I have been in churches where christian women let “everything” hang out on top and wear mini skirts and I have been in churches where the dresses touched their ankles and it was almost a sin to kiss your husband in public. So obviously everybody’s idea of what’s “Christian” is different. And anything about sex is taboo. So it’s hard to find godly answers when the Bible is silent on certain things. Thanks again, you were very helpful!
@Sue – Thanks. As for the subject of modesty, I have written some on that topic. Read my, “One Man’s Take on Modesty.”
what would you suggest as a key first step to turning the problem of masturbation around? any thoughts?
@Mark – First, I’d take a look at this book and see what you think. It’s very short and has some great pointers. Second, I would constantly remember that masturbation is a habit of body and mind. The physical habit has been created over time: specific times, places, and occasions have become comfortable occasions for masturbation to happen. So change your physical routine in some way. For instance, if masturbation typically happen at night, in bed, in the the shower, etc. then do something that changes your mental habits during those triggering moments. Pray, meditate on Scripture, etc. But always remember that it is lust that fuels masturbation: the physical act is the fruit of lustful thoughts. Make your primary aim examining how you view women, how you fantasize about them. This is the habit of mind that must change if we are ever to get a handle on masturbation.
I believe I have continued on the guidelines you have suggested, and I continue to struggle with masturbation.
Do you believe a reason is because I have not allowed the Lord to minister to my heart in regards to the women I had relations with before I became a Christian?
In His Grace,
@RDJ – There can be a number of factors. First, if you are single, perhaps Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:2 is fitting. Second, if you are married, it might be a good idea to explore ways to increase emotional intimacy with your wife. The more we equate sexual pleasure with a specific person, the more we guard against the mental habits associated with “solo sex.” Third, I recommend really investigating the specific triggers (both circumstantial and emotional) that often precede masturbation.
Let me give you a for instance: For me there is something about being alone at night that is a trigger for me. I believe part of the reason is it was a pattern I established for myself in my adolescence. Another reason is I have recognized that one of my mental habits has been to segregate my day into “me time” and everything else. Most of my day, I spend at work serving my boss or at home serving my family. When the lights are low and I’m all by myself I notice this tendency in me to say, “Okay, its ‘me time.’ I can do whatever I please now,” which quickly turns into tempting thoughts. I’ve had to develop a new habit of thinking. When I am alone, I have had to very consciously recognize that lie as it enters my mind and redirect my thoughts to God’s truth: the truth that all of my time is God’s time and I am never truly alone. This habit has taken some time to develop, but it has been worth it. (And no, I’m nowhere near perfect at it.)
Your triggers might be totally different.
Past relationships could be a factor in this, but I would hope you could clarify exactly what you mean by the Lord “ministering to your heart” about these past relationships. What exactly would you be asking the Lord to do? Forgive you for past disobedience? Alleviate your guilt or shame about something? Being more specific you can be really clear in your prayers to God about what you are asking Him to do.
Instead of committing fornication,is it sinful to quench your sexual urge with masturbation?
@Anny – Yes. Not the masturbation specifically, but the lustful thoughts that attend it. As Jesus says in Matthew 5, “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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
My husband says that when he is looking at a pic of a woman, other than myself and masturbates, that he is just looking not lusting after the woman. I told him that if he masturbates he is lusting and that if he is just looking he won’t masturbate. I believe his thinking is warped and that he is trying to convince himself that he is not in the wrong. What is your take on this?
If a man needs a visual stimulus to be aroused (or needs to fantasize to be aroused) then he is using the image stir sexual desires. It is one thing if masturbation is a non-fantasizing activity (and for some men it is), but for someone who needs to fill his mind with images in order to reach a climax, then those images are objects of sexual lust for him. I would have a hard time understanding it any other way.
Depends on what one means by “lust”. The basic meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible is “desire”, whether desire for good, or desire for something forbidden. When the desire is likely wrong, the translators render the word “lust”; when it is a good or neutral desire, they render the same word “desire”. It’s not a sexual word or a moral term.
Your husband is simply saying that he is not wanting to have sex with the woman whose image he has enjoyed. His aim is orgasm not sex. Men don’t associate orgasm with relationships. So, no it’s not lust, it is sexual arousal. If there was intent on his part to try to meet her, or if he was doing this because he was dissatisfied with you, then his motivations would be suspect.
Your Greek and Hebrew is a little off. There are actually multiple words that are translated “desire.” “Lust” is not typically a desire for the wrong things but more of an inordinate desire, whether is be for the right or wrong things.
I once heard that no one has ever died from refraining from masturbation. Sexual fulfillment is not a life or death need in the same way that food and water are. Our culture keeps pushing this idea that we are all sexual animals that will die if we don’t satisfy ourselves somehow but it’s a lie. What would happen if you refrained from both fornication AND masturbation? Masturbation is not a way out of the “greater sin” of fornication with another person. Masturbation is a sin too and as the cliche saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.
And as a personal testimony, masturbation doesn’t satisfy me; it only leaves me hollow and aching for something more, something with another person. I would say that masturbation would be the thing that would actually lead to fornication and premarital sex instead of freeing from it.
Thank you for this article, it is so refreshing to see that mature adults are stepping out and talking about this issue! Satan has held masturbation as one of his dirty minions for far too long and it’s time we start standing up against this issue!
WOW! as in overwelmed…..I have struggled with this habit since I was a teanager and I remember it started happening when I was all alone with myself and my sexual urges were so strong.
the habit just took set in my life. (and sometimes still do)
I just got one of the urges thats why I’m here.
I always feel guilty after masterbation.
I feel helpless sometimes against it.
I have tried all the stuff that you all mentioned.
its a battle everyday for me.
can someone help….or just help me to pray.
Refering back to what you had said about changing the tree before changing the fruit, this is what i got from that. You have to change the way you think, your thoughts, and fantasies will change along with whats in your heart. So my question Luke, is how do you renew/change your thoughts and how do you control the temptation. Also, what are you suppose to do when you need release?
There are many things one could do to change/renew their minds. First, saturating the mind with truth is a must. This means daily exposure to God’s words and meditation on those truths (and by meditation, I don’t mean something passive, but something engaging and active, something that involves the imagination). Second, we need to change our perspective on the seriousness and power of sin. For me, I’ve found the biggest mind-changing thing I can do is catching glimpses of temptation very early and then stating very clearly to myself my intentions for purity. “This is the beginnings of a lustful thought. This is sin. This sin will stop at nothing until it has captivated my mind. I am choosing to direct my thoughts to something pure, holy, good, and wholesome.”
I know some men who actually list out their reasons for purity and the recite those reasons to themselves every morning as a way to center their mind on what really matters. (One guy I know has a recording of his voice reciting 33 biblical reasons for purity, and he listens to it on his iPod every morning.)
That said, old habits are hard to break. The key is not to give up when you run into failure.
As for needing release, we have to trust God to take care of it. God is the Lord of our bodies, not just our minds. We need to pray, “Lord, take care of any physical or hormonal issues in my body so that my body is not a beachhead of sin.” As I’ve started doing that, I’ve noticed that I have nocturnal emissions more often, which is the body’s natural way of releasing excess hormones.
The only reason we feel this is an insufficient way of release is because of our habit of masturbation. In societies where masturbation is not commonplace, nocturnal emissions are.
I really enjoyed reading the post on your website masterbation is something I struggle with is there anything that would help me need more info?
I recommend buying the book this post recommends.
Your comments I read are good and to the point . I am a single lady and that lust spirit comes to me in a season. I need to find out also what triggers it. I be alright and here it comes. Can you help me.
The reasons for this could be varied. No doubt, the powers of darkness are at work to tempt us. This is why it is important to pray and enlist the help of praying friends and spiritual leaders. Moreover, it isn’t just spiritual powers, but our own sinful hearts at work. This is why we need to be continually asking God to show us any evil way in us (Psalm 139). I highly recommend you check out the book Finally Free by Heath Lambert. It will give you a great perspective on this subject.
I have a lot of difficulty fighting temptation. During the day my lustfull desires aren’t active. But at night, My urge to masturbate strikes and it has been a struggle for me for years. I need help
Have you purchased this book yet? I think it might be a help to you.
I really wanted to get rid of lust and masturbation but whenever i see temptetaions and i feel like these guys really has something lustful thoughts in the way they look at me it just brings me back to being sexually aroused. I really hate it when i know i have to deal with people like this and i cannot get rid of all those haughty eyes or gestures they do. I tried to be stiff and strict so they may feel intimidated to approach me but if i get too friendly they might also use it to their advancement on any indecent acts. Hope you give me a feedback on this
First, it is important to define what lust actually is. Lust is not a desire for sex. Lust is coveting or sexually craving what God forbids. When you find yourself tempted and sexually aroused, first, it is important for you to recognize the goodness in it: that is a desire you were meant to experience. Next, it is important to retreat from the thought and redirect your mind to God’s truth. Here are some articles that will help you with that:
End Porn Addiction: 5 Secrets to Walking in the Spirit
How Do I Kick Masturbation Addiction
3 Biblical Strategies for Fighting Lust
My struggle as a christian. As a christian who was devoted to God. I begun to lose the intimacy in which I previously had with God during my conviction. Even though, I used to read my bible, pray and be involved in evangelising, I became negated as a christian. I felt that my prayers God’s hears them no more because of this sin (pornography and masterbation) in my life. Spiritually I became dull and negated, I read my bible but I was deaf to hear it and to obey, why? Because I have violated my conscious. The Holy Spirit convicted me, but I grieved the Holy Spirit, I neglected the conviction of the Holy Spirit and kept on falling into this sin. Each and everytime when I sleep or wake up, those porn video’s are riverberating in my mind. As a result of that, I fall again and again though the Holy Spirit does evokes verses in my mind. But I violate them. O wretched man that I am, who will salvage me from this body of death? John MacArthur once said,” Sin has two folds effect, that it present effects it robes man’ joy and brings guilty. And it future effect it condems the soul forever”. This sin of porn has brought five detriments in my life; 1. Lose of assurance of salvation 2. God hears my prayers no more 3. Lose of christian power and passion for soul winning to Christ 4. Lose of the leading of the Holy Spirit 5 God and Christ has been defiled because of my sins, and likewise me I’m embarassed. At this present moment, I’m working to overcome this sin. The bible says in (Romans 6; 6,11,12,13,14) “…that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin… Reckon yourself to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus… Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lust… Do not present your members as instrument of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from dead…” Each and everytime I replace this thoughts with a sermon, reading my bible, other christian books and as well as praying to God, acknowledging my sins and plead for His mercy. It is a long term assessment to get rid of that sin in your life. If you are not a believer and you struggle with this sin, come to Jesus and confess it to Him, because you must apprehend that the reason why you keep on struggling with this sin. It is because you are still not born again,not regenareted in the heart . You are still a slave of sin, you are “Total Deprave”. Only Christ can help you with this secret sin. As I’ve said early, come to Him, confess it, repent from it and lastly forsake it. The book of (Proverbs 28;13) says” He who covers his sin will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy”.
The biggest problem with masturbation is that it undermines your wife’s ability to control you through sexual refusal. Nothing undermines a chronic refuser quite like an alternative outlet. Every condemnation of marital masturbation must be accompanied by an equivalent condemnation of sexual refusal and sexual gatekeeping. For single guys, don’t get married unless you get a signed pre-nup that stipulates regular sexual relations for the duration or the marriage.
So if you Could do it without porn or fantesies it woul not be a sin?
Hi, Lary – I think it’s a steep slope, but this post explains some important distinctions: https://www.covenanteyes.com/2013/01/14/masturbate-without-lusting/
I hope it’s helpful.
Peace to you, Chris
Dear Luke Gilkerson, thank you for this post, its an eye opener – and I particularly find the comments from people and your apt answers expository. God bless you