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Is Masturbation a Sin?


By Mark Sandford 

and John Sandford


Some have misperceived that John Sandford condones masturbation. A discussion about the subject was originally found in Transformation of the Inner Man on pages 288-290. There, John linked masturbation to idolatry, said it was an issue about which we need forgiveness, and suggested a prayer we can pray in order to put an end to it. Most readers understood that to mean that John believes masturbation is a sin. However, some readers found the context of those statements confusing. For that reason, I helped my father revise the wording. The improved and clarified wording can be found on pages 135-138 of Letting Go of Your Past, copied here for the reader's convenience, with a few key phrases:

Many come to us confessing an obsession with masturbation. We treat that condition quite oppositely from all the others we have described. Usually what has occurred is that a child, growing up in a tension-filled home, coming into puberty, learned that the experience of ejaculation (for a man) or climax (for a woman) brings a great feeling of release and peace. When the need for relief from tension is coupled with the power of a repressed no-no, masturbation often sets in as a habit. It becomes compulsive over the years by a process of fleshly struggle and continued identification with relief. Scripture does not mention masturbation per se. It only mentions wet dreams and uncleanness (Leviticus 15:16; Deuteronomy 23:10) and the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground to avoid producing offspring for his deceased brother, whose wife he was bound by custom to marry (Genesis 38:9). The latter was not a case of masturbation, as some claim, but of interrupted intercourse.

Many take this silence about masturbation to mean it is not a sin. We disagree. We believe it is always sin, for it is an idolatrous expression of self-fulfillment, and idolatry is always forbidden by Scripture. But though in other circumstances I (John) often speak to make others feel guilty, knowing that as the route to the cross, here I act in the opposite way. This is the one time I will tell a person not to feel guilty (about the masturbation itself).

The true guilt concerns not sexuality first but idolatry. The person is using his body to find the comfort and release he should find in prayer to God. The same principle is true of inordinate smoking, drinking, golfing, fishing, or whatever we overuse to find the release we should have found in God directly through prayer. I explain to the person about identification of masturbation with relief and the power of repression and the guilt of idolatry, and then I say, “Let's find forgiveness for that idolatry and see if we can take some of the steam out of this habit by not struggling with it so hard.” I may add, “If you slip, OK, forgive yourself. But struggling with it as a no-no increases tension and gives it added power.” (Note, I never counsel the same way for any other sin, such as adultery. That simply must be stopped, whatever the cost.) This particular habit has built-in channels inside the body — reflexes that are best defeated by ignoring them rather than frontally attacking them.

The same principle was involved when I as a youth had developed a habit of cursing. When I decided to stop, the battle was on. I discovered then that the more energy I poured into the struggle, the more fuel somehow went to the habit. But when I turned to Jesus and put my eyes on him and ignored the battle, trusting His forgiveness for each slip, the battle was soon over. Fleshly struggle adds power to the problem. Rest in Jesus defuses it.

When fantasy is involved (and with masturbation it almost always is), the issue becomes morally weightier than that of inordinate smoking, drinking, or golfing. For Jesus equated sexual fantasizing with adultery: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NIV). Yet we have found that even in this case, heaping guilt will only serve to strengthen the tendency to sin. For if someone tells you not to picture a red polka-dotted monkey, what will your mind immediately picture? Likewise, if someone thunders at you to stop picturing sexual images, that has virtually created a track for your thoughts to run on. So I teach the person that the moment the temptation to fantasize or stimulate oneself arises, to recognize it but not to be fearfully concerned; just turn the eyes of the mind to Jesus and find someone to pray for in order to distract the train of the impulse from its track. In prayer I say, “In the name of Jesus I forgive each instance of masturbation, and now I speak directly to the body, loosing it from this habit. I break this identification of peace and emotional release with masturbation and say to the inner being that it is to find release now in prayer at the foot of the cross, not in physical stimulation.”
Many have returned to say, “What do you know, John, it worked! I don't have to struggle with it anymore.” Some add, “Once in a while I still slip, but it isn't a compulsion anymore. I forgive myself and don't get caught up in self-condemnation.” I plead with prayer ministers not to treat masturbation as a demon to be exorcised and not to come down harshly on the person. Masturbation is simply a bomb in the flesh we want quietly to defuse.

The following is taken from pages 118-123 of Why Good People Mess Up, by John Sandford. This book is the revised version of Why Some Christians Commit Adultery. Again, if you look closely at the original book (pp. 129-133), you will see that John Sandford saw masturbation as being connected to idolatry, and considered it a sin. But if any questions remained, the revised version is crystal clear (note the added bold print):

Masturbation is exceptionally common. I remember hearing a well-known family counselor make the general statement that 97 percent of men admit they have masturbated — and the other 3 percent are liars! Among women, the number is perhaps 50 percent. Preteens experiment with their bodily sensations and soon learn the excitement of stimulation and the sense of release that climax provides. Teenagers need physical release, but Christian conscience and teaching prohibit intercourse. That puts a strain on the body — designed to express sexually but unable to, sometimes for years after the body is ready.

Masturbation is not specifically forbidden in the Scriptures. I have not been able to find references to it in the Law, yea or nay. Nor has anyone else, to my knowledge, without twisting or stretching words.

Although Scripture doesn’t mention masturbation, we have found in our experience as prayer ministers, that masturbation is an addictive behavior that is motivated by fantasy and idolatry. Scripture has plenty to say about fantasy and especially idolatry. Therefore, it is self-defeating to address masturbation as the primary problem. If we only tried to suppress masturbation, it would be like trying to stop a speeding car by thrusting one’s hand out in front of it. But when fantasy and idolatry are removed, the engine of masturbation has little gas to run on. If Scripture did mention masturbation by name, we might be that much more apt to suppress it (without dealing with the real issues), and then condemn ourselves when that failed.

Some take Scripture’s silence about masturbation as license to declare that it is not sin and is permissible, or possibly a blessed gift from God. We do not agree. We believe it is sin. For though we might masturbate without fantasizing, how can anyone do it without committing idolatry? Doesn’t God provide less self-centered ways to find relief? Surely Jesus did not feel compelled to use this outlet. However, we do believe it is unwise to castigate those who masturbate, for this will only enlist the very tensions that led to the problem. It is far more effective to dispassionately state the truth about the wrongness of it and gently point the way toward healing.

Let’s just say here that fantasy is not in itself evil. To be able to visualize and daydream is one of God’s greatest gifts to people. Fantasy is one of God’s best gifts for enabling creativity. From this gift many wondrous inventions and scientific marvels have come. But any gift of God can be perverted to wrongful uses. When the power of fantasizing is coupled with masturbation, the sin of fornication or adultery is involved. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, emphasis added).

Whenever it is discovered that a person has been active in masturbation, check to see whether fantasy has also been involved. If so, repentance, forgiveness, admonition, and teaching must follow. The habit of fantasizing must be broken. Frequently, the person will have to be made aware that fantasizing is different from mere daydreaming, which can also be solitary yet innocuous. But because we are corporate, fantasizing always defiles the other person and is thus sinful. As mentioned before, masturbation is sin because it is idolatry. Married couples know that the aftermath of sexual climax is peace and restfulness flowing throughout the nervous system. When tension is a constant in the lifestyle of young people, it does not take them long to identify masturbation and orgasm as a way to find release and relaxation. They learn that every time they achieve climax, their bodies and emotions settle into euphoric rest. The longing for release and rest, and the identification of masturbation as the way to find it, can create the addiction.

I have ministered to a number of successful pastors and leaders who could not understand why they continued to be bedeviled by the compulsion to masturbate. Most said their spouses were fully adequate as lovers. That made the compulsion even more confusing to them. They hated themselves for it but could not stop. Again, the power of the dynamic of suppression and expression increased the force of the habit the more they struggled against it. The actual sin was idolatry. They had learned to find by masturbating what they should have obtained through prayer and worship. Most of these leaders, as adults, had developed fully satisfying abilities to pray and to enter into worship, but the addiction continued because the earlier built-in “track” of equating masturbation with release and rest was an unconscious mechanism that had never been brought to death on the cross.

Normally, people build the habit of masturbating long before receiving Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Usually, following conversion, the presence of the Lord so fills the heart with peace that for a while there is no need for any other kind of relief. But after those first few euphoric weeks or months, most Christians begin to go through desert times in their devotional life, usually at the same time pressures and tensions increase. That may cause the Christian to regress emotionally. Since he can’t find release through prayer, and tensions threaten to undo his equilibrium, it is a simple step to return to finding release through masturbation. Disgust, fear, and guilt may then lock him into the dynamic of suppression and expression, which turns the revivified habit more and more into a compulsion – which further mystifies and confuses him.

Avoid heaping condemnation on the person. Excessive guilt in this case will not find its way to the cross and so effect freedom. Rather, feelings of guilt will most likely become sidetracked into striving, thus adding more fuel to the fire. Teaching and explanation can help the person to understand how idolatry should be confessed. But then the person should be taught not to create more unresolved tension through self-condemnation. The need for physical release is not the same as the need for emotional release and rest. People must come to see that those two needs have become wrongfully joined together and that emotional release can be found in other and better ways.

The compulsion to masturbate is thus a bomb that must be defused first by understanding. I tell unmarried people, if once in a while they masturbate, not to put themselves under guilt and bondage about it. I teach them to ask God’s forgiveness. Then they should forgive themselves if they feel it is necessary (especially if fantasizing has also been involved), but then forget about it and go on living. Many have returned to testify to me that it worked; they no longer struggle with it as a compulsion. They are free of it as a habit. They may still feel tempted to seek physical release, but they will no longer feel the stronger temptation to use it to find emotional relaxation from problems.


© Mark Sandford  2018

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