Is Masturbation a Sin? Is It Bad For Me? What Does the Bible Say?
One of the questions I’ve been asked most: “Is masturbation a sin?” This is not surprising being that more than 78% of adults report masturbating on a regular basis. This is an important question to tackle. However, this question isn’t as easy to answer as some people might think.
Is masturbation a sin? The Bible does not explicitly label masturbation a sin. However, masturbation is not the ideal way for people to satisfy their sexual urges. Masturbation may not be specifically labeled a sin, however, masturbation potentially fuels impurity and lust, and it is clearly outside of God’s ideal design. Also, there are several negative ramifications of masturbation that we ought to avoid.
Furthermore, asking whether some specific thing is a sin might not be the ideal approach. People often ask: “Is masturbation as sin?” But a better question would be: “Is it wise for someone to masturbate?”
There are actions and activities that the Bible may never explicitly label as sin, but yet can be unwise. Masturbation is certainly in that category.
In this post, we’ll explore the arguments related to masturbation, we’ll look at what the Bible says, and we’ll examine the potential negative effects of masturbation.
What is Masturbation?
While you probably already know what masturbation is, other things can sometimes be lumped in with it that probably don’t belong, so I want to bring some clarity.
Masturbation is the act of an individual, in isolation, pleasuring themselves and satisfying sexual urges and desires.
This does not include a man and woman, in the confines of a Christ-honoring marital relationship, consensually pleasuring each other with their hands. Such actions within marriage do not fall into the category of masturbation.
What Does the Bible Say?
There is no passage in Scripture that directly condemns masturbation. If we are going to be good and honest Biblicist, we must acknowledge this. However, the Bible does talk quite a bit about human sexuality. Those passages absolutely need to be a part of this conversation.
In the New Testament we see various instructions that are pertinent to this conversation. We are commanded to:
- Offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1)
- “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18)
- “Glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20)
- Not “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16)
- Not allow “even a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph. 5:3)
- “Put to death” any “sexual immorality” or any “impurity” (Col. 3:5-6)
- Think about whatever is “noble” and “pure” and “lovely” and “admirable” (Phil. 4:8)
- Set the “example” in purity (1 Tim. 4:12)
- “Abstain from the passions of the flesh” (1 Pt. 2:11)
- “Imitate good” (3 Jn. 11)
It’s very odd that some people read this list of Biblical exhortations and still think: “Yeah, sure, masturbation is fine.”
In addition, the Bible commands us to pursue wisdom and apply it to our lives (cf. Job 12:12; 28:28; Ps. 37:30; 107:43; Pr. 1:7; 3:7; 4:6-7; Mt. 10:16). When we examine masturbation, there is significant evidence that engaging in such self-pleasure is unwise because of the potentially harmful effects.
The Bible helps us see that sexual desires are part of God’s design for mankind. Sexual urges are not (usually) inherently sinful. These desires are designed by God to be met within the framework he created, that is, consensual intimacy between a man and woman within a covenantal Christ-honoring marriage.
God created sexual desires and the marriage bed is the place God designated for those desires to be satisfied. Masturbation is an attempt for a person to satisfy his or her sexual desires outside of the framework that God designed for humans.
God created sex. This is a gift from God to humanity—one of his many gifts to us. Therefore, we ought to refrain from seeking to satisfy ourselves outside of the framework that God designed for us. God made us, he knows what’s best, therefore we ought to submit to his ways.
Stop asking: “Is it sinful to satisfy my sexual urges by masturbating?”
Start asking: “How would God prefer my sexual urges be satisfied?”
God’s answer: “Within the bounds of marriage!”
Ask: ‘Is This Good For Me?’
Think of it this way. I have a sweet tooth, a craving for sugar. I especially love donuts and cookies. But I recognize that eating lots of donuts and cookies is unhealthy. Eating too much sugar will harm my physical body.
So, I could ask, “Are Oreo cookies sinful?” But it’d much be better for me to ask, “Are Oreo cookies the ideal way for me to satisfy my cravings for sugar?”
In fact, God has provided a way for my sugar craving to be satisfied. God gave us fruit, and not only does fruit satisfy my sugar cravings, but fruit offers nutritional value too. Foods like Oreos and donuts offer no nutrition and their processed sugars will contribute to various health issues.
Masturbation is like Oreos and donuts, it seems to satisfy the cravings in the moment, but it offers no nutritional value and has negative ramifications.
Even if someone could make the case that masturbation is not sinful, that does not necessarily mean that it’s a good thing. The apostle Paul reminded us: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23 ESV).
Rather than asking, “Is this sinful”? instead, I should be asking, “What’s the best way to deal with my cravings?”
Best Advice to Manage Sexual Urges
I was recently approached by someone looking for advice. Their friend had recently become single (at no fault of her own) and this newly single woman, who happens to be an overseas missionary, was struggling with her own sexual cravings.
My friend asked: “Should she masturbate? Or should she abstain from masturbation and risk falling into sin with a man and destroying her ministry?”
Well, first, this is what we call a false dichotomy. My friend presented this situation to me as if there are only two pathways: either masturbation or falling into sin later on. I said, “You know, there’s a third option. How ’bout not masturbating and not falling into sin later? How ’bout self-control?” She was annoyed with my answer.
I then point her to 1 Corinthians 7. The apostle Paul actually addressed this issue in his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul said: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9 ESV). The apostle Paul’s advice to those who felt like they’d eventually fall into sin… Get married!
The advice some people might give is, “Well, you don’t want to fall into sexual sin with another person, so go ahead and masturbate.” But is that what Paul said? No, that’s not what he said.
Paul did not say, “Well, to the unmarried persons, it’s good for you to remain single, but if you’re struggling with self-control, go ahead and take care of it yourself.” No, that’s not how the passage reads. Paul made it clear, he’d prefer they remain single, but if they lack self-control, then they should marry.
Whenever we are facing a situation, of any kind, where someone asks for our advice, we want to be sure to seek to give advice that the Biblical authors would give. We want to give all persons the same type of advice that the apostle Paul would have given. How would Paul have addressed my friend? Well, that’s the way we ought to address her too. The best advice for someone in that position is to have those sexual urges satisfied through marriage.
Lastly, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16-26). If we “keep in step” with the Spirit, then the Spirit of God will be at work in our lives, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit, which includes self-control.
If we have a vibrant spiritual life, if we are praying regularly and engaging in spiritual disciples, then we can be confident that the Spirit will give us the grace, the strength, and the self-control that we need to manage our sexual urges in a Christ-honoring fashion.
If you are lacking self-control in your life (whether it be related to managing your sexual urges or something else), then you might want to honestly consider whether or not you’ve been keeping in step with the Spirit as the apostle Paul commands us to do.
But It’s the Lust, Not the Act Itself, Right?
I’ve heard some people say, it’s not the act of self-pleasure itself that is sinful, but the lustful thoughts that often accompany masturbation—so their conclusion is that, so long as a person masturbates without the lustful thoughts, then it’s perfectly okay.
I’ve spent many years in ministry to youth and young adults, and the last several years in Christian higher education. I mention that to underscore that I’ve talked to a lot of teenagers and young men about this. And, as a pastor, I’ve talked to a lot of adult men about this too… and, oh yeah, I’m a man, with my own sexual urges too. Let’s be real… Let’s be honest… Is it really possible to masturbate without lusting? Really???
Can someone indulge in self-pleasure without thinking some sinful thoughts? Without craving something that does not rightfully belong to them? For the vast majority of people, the answer is a resounding “no!”
Masturbation, while maybe not being explicitly labeled a sin on it’s own, often creates the temptation to sin by cultivating lustful urges within us. Maybe there are some people out there who can masturbate without indulging in lust, but if they do exist, those people are in the minority—a very, very small minority.
There is no doubt that lust is sin. Jesus said: “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” (Mt. 5:27-28 ESV).
Lust is sin. And for the majority of people, masturbation without lustful thoughts is impossible.
In addition, masturbation is often tied to the use of pornography. Obviously, watching other people have sex is sinful, and there have been literally dozens of studies published over the last few years that have proven that the use of pornography wreaks significant havoc on the human brain.
Onan’s Sin: Does Genesis 38 Condemn Masturbation?
One of the passages of Scripture that some Christians have used to condemn masturbation is Genesis 38. To understand Genesis 38, we first must consider the cultural context of the ancient world.
In the culture, in which the events of Genesis 38 are taking place, if a man died, it was his younger brother’s responsibility to take his brother’s wife as his own and bear children for his brother.
In Genesis 38, we read that Judah’s son Er had been married but died (due to his own wickedness). The responsibility would have then fallen to Er’s younger brother, Onan. It would have been Onan’s responsibility to raise up offspring for his brother by taking Er’s wife.
“Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went into his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also” (Gen. 38:8-10 ESV).
Some Christians throughout history have looked at this passage and come to the conclusion that any action that “wastes the semen” is wicked in the sight of God, which would include masturbation. However, this is not the point of the passage.
What Was Onan’s Sin?
God was not angered by Onan’s actions merely because Onan “wasted his semen.” No, there’s much more going on here. God is angry with Onan because he has refused to take on the proper responsibility.
Onan went ahead and had sex with his brother’s wife; he had no problem enjoying the benefits of his brother’s death. He had sex with her multiple times. However, each time he had sex with her, he intentionally ejaculated on the ground, to intentionally avoid pregnancy.
So, with Onan, we see that he was willing to enjoy the benefits, but refused to actually fulfill the responsibilities that were given to him. In life there are certain benefits that only come when you are willing to take on responsibility.
As Uncle Ben once said to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility!”
Does Genesis 38 Condemn Pre-Marital Sex?
While I don’t think using Genesis 38 to condemn masturbation is a good handling of the passage, I do, however, think Genesis 38 could be used to condemn pre-marital sex. Sex is a gift from God for married to enjoy, an instrument of bonding between a man and his wife. And if a man is going to enjoy the gift of sex, he should only do so after he has rightfully taken on the responsibilities of being a husband.
Any man willing to have sex with a women without taking on the role of being her husband is doing exactly what Onan did, enjoying the fruit and benefit of marriage without taking on the responsibilities of marriage. If God was angry over Onan’s actions, how do you think he feels about people having sex outside of marriage?
Does Genesis 38 Condemn Birth Control?
Genesis 38 is sometimes used as an argument against birth control. Some people have argued that birth control “wastes the semen” and therefore is wicked in God’s sight. However, this is not what Genesis 38 is asserting.
The issue with Onan is not that semen is being wasted; the problematic thing in Genesis 38 was Onan’s refusal to take responsibility. This passage isn’t mainly about Onan avoiding getting his sister-in-law pregnant. The central issue was his irresponsibility and refusal to act like a man. Using this passage to condemn birth control is odd.
Furthermore, sex is not merely for procreation. While procreation is indeed a very important aspect of marriage and sex, it’s not the only reason God created sex. As we examine the book of Song of Solomon, we see God giving us a picture of lovers which reveals that sex is for pleasure.
Sex was created by God for married couples to enjoy; building emotional and spiritual connection between husband and wife.
Important to note, there are indeed some types of birth control that would be wrong; some result in some form of abortion or may cause physical harm to the woman’s body, so God would certainly condemn some of those types of birth control.
In addition, many people have selfish (or sinful) reasons for not having children, and that ought to be addressed too. So we ought not give a blanket endorsement to all forms of birth control; some forms should not be seen as acceptable or permissible for Christians.
However, the act of avoiding pregnancy is not explicitly condemned in Scripture. We ought to be careful not to label something sinful that is not explicitly labeled sinful in the Scriptures. It is not sinful for a married couple to avoid pregnancy for a season of life, as long as they have good and wise reason.
God’s Design for Sex
Sex is a wonderful and beautiful thing, designed by God, for a man and a woman to bond together in marriage. The connection that is created by sexual intimacy in marriage is supernatural in nature, and one that we cannot be fully understand.
Sex is designed to serve one another in marriage. It is to serve your spouse by bringing them pleasure, not for your own.
Masturbation does the opposite. Masturbation is self-seeking and looks to satisfy your own desires independent of your spouse. Not only that, but it can have a devastating impact on your sex life and your marriage over all.
The more you masturbate, the more your body grows accustomed to that type of stimulation. This may make it harder to be stimulated by sexual intimacy with your spouse and cause tension in your marriage.
Someone else approached me recently regarding our current culture and God’s design. People start developing these sexual urges in middle school and their early teenage years but our culture doesn’t make it easy to follow God’s design in that way during those years.
In this case I agree, I don’t think we were meant to be single in our 30s, however, sin has twisted things away from God’s ideal. This is the case in a lot of areas of our lives and societies, but that does not mean that we then get to ignore God’s commands and ideals; just because things in our culture aren’t in-line with God’s ideal design does not mean that we ought to settle for something subpar.
Does God Really Expect People to Say ‘No’?
Some people will ask, “Do you really expect a single person to manage their sexual desires? Do you really expect they’ll say ‘no’ to having their sexual desires satisfied?” Yes, I do. Why? Because God does! I didn’t manufacture this expectation. God expects holiness.
The Bible commands us to “Be holy!” (1 Pt. 1:16 ESV).
The Bible commands us to exhibit self-control (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7; Ti. 2:11-12; 2 Pt. 1:6).
And if we remain committed to following God’s ways, he promises to always give us a way out of our sin.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13 ESV)
In addition, as this article has already asserted, if a person feels that they cannot maintain self-control, then they ought to follow the apostle Paul’s advice… Get married!
Does Masturbation Break the 10th Commandment?
The apostle Paul’s teachings on sex (cf. 1 Cor. 7) make it very clear to us that sex is something a married person gives to their spouse—it is a man’s gift and service to his wife, it is a women’s gift and service to her husband. Sex belongs to the married persons.
The tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17 ESV).
To covet is to want something. This commandment is specifically forbidding the act of wanting something that rightfully belongs to someone else. Anytime you long for something or want to have something that does not rightfully belong to you, then you have broken this commandment.
The satisfaction of sexual urges belongs to married peoples. Singles persons are not entitled to having their sexual urges satisfied. The Bible never says that each person is guaranteed the right to have orgasms.
Therefore, if you are single, and you are desiring to have your sexual urges met immediately, then you are longing for something that you are not entitled to have—something that does not rightfully belong to you. Masturbation is the manifestation of your willingness to act upon that inappropriate coveting.
Do Health Benefits Justify Masturbation?
One of the topics that usually comes up in this conversation is the idea that masturbation can have some health benefits. The claims that have come from some researchers that masturbation is valuable are often idiosyncratic or hyperbolic or both.
Let’s be clear, there has never (not ever) been any study that has proven the health benefits of masturbation. There are, however, published studies that show the value of orgasms. Orgasms have various health benefits.
But, let’s get real… you can live a happy life without orgasms. Your life can be fulfilling and joy-filled without orgasms. And there are plenty of ways in life to feel good or relieve stress beyond orgasms. Arguing for masturbation because orgasms are a necessity is absurd.
Of course, if you really want to experience orgasms, that’s perfectly fine, then do what the apostle Paul advised… Get married!
The Positive Impact of Not Masturbating
New York Magazine ran an article outlining a movement of men choosing to stop masturbating—and not for religious or Biblical reasons. These men reported that giving up masturbation had many positive effects on their lives, most notably a boost in confidence.
Another study showed that men who have given up masturbating have healthier and more consistent testosterone levels, better willpower, better focus, more motivation, less stress, better moods, and improved sexual health.
Masturbation Can Be Addictive
Masturbation’s effects on the brain are very complex and are still not fully understood by biologists and psychologists. If a person uses masturbation to escape stress or mental problems, they can get addicted; the addiction is not all that different than addiction to substance abuse in that it transforms a person’s way of coping with stress.
Many medical professionals avoid the term addiction when discussing masturbation because it has not officially been recognized as an addictive behavior by the American Psychological Association, however, medical professionals have certainly observed patients and clients that seem addicted to self-pleasure. Most medical professionals have opted to use the term “compulsive masturbation” to describe this pattern. It would be very wise for us to be careful with (and probably avoid altogether) any behavior that can easily become addictive.
What About the Male “Build-up?”
There is no good argument for the health value to masturbation. There is, however, one very real physiological issue for men to manage that is often mentioned when masturbation is being discussed.
The physiological issue for men to deal with is the need to release the “build-up.” That’s a physiological reality. However, we need to be careful with this. Sometimes when we say these types of things, we inevitably just end-up (unintentionally) giving people the excuse they feel that they need to indulge in their sinful desires.
Again, let’s get real… let’s be honest… how many men are choosing to masturbate “for their health?” How big is that category of men, really?
Honestly, we know why people masturbate—for pleasure, not health. When we say things like, “Masturbation has health benefits” we simply run the risk of helping people feel justified while they engage in a behavior that is outside of God’s ideal design.
God Created a Solution for the “Build-up”
God actually created a solution to this problem of build-up: nocturnal emissions (or commonly known as “wet dreams”).
When a man is not experiencing orgasm regularly, once every few weeks, his body will release that build-up for him as he sleeps. God already thought this out, he created men with the solution. There is no reason to tell men to pleasure themselves for health or medical reasons.
My advice to men: If you are experiencing orgasms regularly because of masturbation, it may be challenging at first to stop—very challenging—but over time, if you stop having orgasms through masturbation, your body will begin to do that release on its own.
If you find yourself struggling greatly, or as Paul called it, “burning with passion”, then you ought to take Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7… Get married!
Side Note: According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, some women experience nocturnal emissions too, but seems to happen far less frequently in women than with men.
Do It Less, You’ll Want It Less
One other important note from physiology: The less frequently a person orgasms, the less that person will want to orgasm. It’s not all that different than sugar: The fewer Oreo cookies I consume, the less I’ll desire them.
If I can minimize the intensity of my desire for sugar, the easier it’ll be to manage those sugar cravings. Similarly, if a person can lessen the intensity of their desire for sex, the more manageable those desires will be.
If a man stops masturbating, therefore has fewer (or ideally zero) orgasms, eventually his body will expel the build-up via nocturnal emissions. And then, over time, his body will begin to produce less semen and sperm cells—there will be less of a build-up.
With regular nocturnal emissions, there will be less physiological tension and overall less desire (cravings) for sex; the sexual urges will be less intense, making them easier to control.
However, if a man insists on masturbating and never exercises self-control, his body will continue to produce semen and sperm at higher (or increased) levels. Which will cause him to want to orgasm more often, which will make the sexual urges more common and more intense, making it harder to be self-controlled, making it far more likely he’ll eventually sin in some way, either via lustful thoughts or the use of pornography or with a sexual partner.
Conclusion: Pursue the Ideal
The Bible never explicitly condemns masturbation, not even in Genesis 38. However, we can assert, with confidence, that masturbation is not the ideal! Masturbation is not God’s plan for how to have our sexual urges satisfied, and masturbation has some detrimental effects too.
Some people may say that masturbation is not sinful, but the act of self-pleasure is certainly unwise. Dozens of times in the Bible we see commands related to wisdom, we are commanded to act with wisdom. Masturbation is unwise, therefore, we obviously ought to refrain.
Masturbation is subpar, it is inferior to God’s ideal design. If we truly want to please God and find our satisfaction in him, then we ought to pursue the very best that God has designed for us. Don’t ask, “Is that thing sinful?” Instead, ask, “What is God’s ideal?” And then go pursue that!
Image of “Uncle Ben” courtesy of wegotthiscovered.com.
- TENGA Co. Ltd., “World’s largest masturbation survey uncovers how traditional views of masculinity prevent men from having fulfilling sex lives & relationships,” https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/worlds-largest-masturbation-survey-uncovers-how-traditional-views-of-masculinity-prevent-men-from-having-fulfilling-sex-lives–relationships-300638644.html.
- Emily Witt, “Hands Off,” New York Magazine, April 12, 2013, https://nymag.com/news/features/anti-masturbation-2013-4.
- Dr. Earim Chaudry, “The Effects of Not Masturbating,” Manual, November 22, 2021, https://www.manual.co/health-centre/masturbation/the-effects-of-not-masturbating.
- Addiction Resource, Masturbation Addiction: Psychology, Effects, and Statistics, https://addictionresource.com/addiction/masturbation.
- K.L. Derbyshire and J.E. Grant, “Compulsive Sexual Behavior: A Review of the Literature,” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4(2) (2015): 37-43, https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2006/4/2/article-p37.xml.
- International Society for Sexual Medicine, “Do women have wet dreams?,” https://www.issm.info/sexual-health-qa/do-women-have-wet-dreams.