Lots of Christian leaders have sought in vain to find masturbation mentioned in the Bible. It’s just not there, so perhaps we’re going overboard when we categorize it up there with murder.
When they can’t find anything on the topic, some folks point out what they consider the next best thing—mention of “unused seed.” And they take readers to the story of Onan, found in Genesis 38:6–10. Onan’s story is part of the faith-legacy of Tamar, one of the faithful women in the genealogy of Jesus.
Tamar’s husband was evil, so God struck him dead. And Old Testament levirate law said that when an Israelite man died childless, his brother needed to marry the widow, impregnate her, and name the first son for the deceased—to give the dead brother a remembered name. (Having one’s name forgotten was the absolute worst.) Enter surviving brother-in-law, Onan. Now, while Onan was perfectly happy to enjoy Tamar’s body, he wasn’t so hip on the idea of becoming a daddy. So he “withdrew” right before he ejaculated, sending his sperm to the ground.
The point of the story: um, not the evil of coitus interruptus. The point is about Onan’s heartlessness and selfishness. So he died too. Later, when the father-in-law, Judah, was widowed and failed to provide Tamar with the remaining brother, she seduced Judah in keeping with levirate law. We make her a bad-girl of the Bible, but when Judah realized what had happened, he admired her righteousness.
See how ridiculous it is to connect Onan’s story with masturbation? It’s even a stretch to link it with petting and “outercourse.” This story is about evil, about one selfish brother refusing to show kindness to another.
That said, Jesus does have some stuff to say about solo sexuality. He says lusting after someone to whom one is not married is equivalent to engaging in the act itself. And unless men and women can find a means of sexual release without actually thinking, it’s tough to justify masturbation. No, we shouldn’t make it the scarlet “M” some have made it, leading to suicides over shame. But we also shouldn’t advocate for it (though I do think there are times when it may be appropriate—such as a woman thinking about her husband away on military duty.)
I had a writing student once who revealed through his fiction that his wife left him because she preferred her own hand to his. (He later revealed the story was true.)
And I spoke at a women’s retreat in Munich two years ago where a brave woman gave a testimony about how masturbation had controlled her. Yet despite her debilitating compulsion, she eventually gained victory over her habit through Christ. It was a tough road that involved confession and personal accountability.
Self-gratification is an equal-opportunity temptation. If we even talk about masturbation in the church, we usually direct our words only to guys. Yet women also struggle. As one Christian wife shared, “I got into masturbation, phone sex, [and] cybersex” as a teen. She had discovered the password on her family’s satellite TV service.
It doesn’t help that the makers of some women’s razors have styled and marketed them subtly as sex toys—vibrators that their friends or kids won’t see and “figure out.”
If you have a teen and your daughter lingers in the shower or tub with her electric razor (with the top removed), it might be a good time to have a talk. And switch to disposables.
Incidentally, when I did research for "Sexual Intimacy in Marriage," I heard from women who started using vibrators but then found it a challenge later to receive pleasure from the “real thing.” They wished they’d never started.
It’s unpopular to treat masturbation and porn compulsions as sins rather than natural manifestations of healthy sexuality. God did make sex, and He intended it to bring pleasure and joy. But sexual gratification also has its boundaries—for our own good.
Christian counselors working with sexual issues emphasize that victory requires non-sexual intimate community, prayer, and accountability partners. Lust causes shame and isolates, so sexual compulsion usually feeds loneliness, which drives lust. The cycle can be partially remedied by Christian fellowship.
Victory is definitely possible—just not alone. Somebody trustworthy has to know. Maybe you could be that trustworthy person for someone who’s struggling. Or maybe that struggling person is you?