One article in our annual February student-produced issue of OUTLOOK magazine (posted yesterday on this website) focused on the controversial subject of masturbation. Since God created us as sexual beings, all of us must be good stewards of our sexuality, which is quite a challenge in today’s “sexular” society.

A typical young male reportedly views 50 pornographic video clips a week, and females increasingly are consumers as well. Meanwhile, most pastors and teachers seem reluctant to talk about porn and the accompanying masturbation. But as the church is essentially silent on this matter of common morality, the world is not shy about educating our young people, through sex education in schools and popular entertainment in movies and music.

How unfortunate. Anything that has potential to trouble a conscience needs to be talked about—appropriately yet with clarity—from a biblical perspective. Granted that this is a sensitive topic. If you find masturbation too disturbing to discuss, you might wish to excuse yourself from reading further. Meanwhile, I’ll proceed for the sake of those whose consciences are guilt-ridden, confused or otherwise tormented on this matter. Prayerfully then, I offer the following observations in hopes that some may find them helpful.

From a medical perspective, I’m not qualified to make assessments; but I think it’s fair to conclude that traditional scare tactics regarding masturbation lack credibility. Half a century since the 1960s inaugurated the sexual revolution, we don’t see huge numbers of pornography addicts going blind, needing kidney dialysis or signing up for liver transplants. So let’s be sensible and honest in making the case against masturbation.

I will focus my observations on the moral and theological perspective. Let’s begin with the grace of God, which is our only hope of salvation. The Bible says “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). Thus, inflicting guilt upon a sexually struggling teen—or an adult, for that matter—is inappropriate. A believer’s standing with God is not dependent upon the amount of success or failure in measuring up to His moral ideal.

That said, let’s accept that there is a character ideal to which God calls us–conforming us to the likeness of Christ.  Scripture admonishes us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18). Jesus famously warned against staring at a woman [or a man, for that matter] with lust in the heart (Matt. 5:28). Obviously God’s will—His ideal—calls us to pursue purity in thought as well as deed. But we must not confuse the possibilities of victory over sin with the basis of our salvation, which is always and only God’s grace through Christ for repenting sinners. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins—and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

So, even as we “press toward the mark of God’s high calling in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 3:14), He comforts the conscience by assuring us that He knows when “the spirit indeed is willing though the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). God is more compassionate than we can imagine, and struggling believers are recipients of divine grace, not wrath. Jesus in His ministry among us was ever tender toward struggling sinners, even as He condemned their hypocritical accusers.

Based on that biblical/theological foundation, I offer for your consideration the following moral applications regarding masturbation.

To begin with, masturbation tends to depersonalize and therefore degrade sexuality by focusing on pixelated images versus sexual expression as the ultimate relational and bonding experience in marital union, as God intends it to be.

Accordingly, masturbation fosters selfishness, corrupting one’s ability to actually “make love” in the practice of sex within marriage. It is difficult, if not impossible, to flip a switch on one’s wedding night from a “satisfy me” attitude of sexuality to a “sharing with you” mindset. Pursuing one’s own “needs” (i.e. desires, demands) is a sure portend of endless marital conflict. Additionally, sexual selfishness belies God’s creation of us in His loving image when we express our own act of procreation in marriage.

Masturbation also tends to desensitize one’s ability to view people as one’s sisters and brothers, no matter what they look like; instead, they may be evaluated on their external appearance. This puts on a pedestal those who are superficially attractive and disrespects those who are homely or even average-looking, even if they are loving and faithful in character. The outcome is a popular culture in which girls in particular tend to suffer huge self-worth issues if they don’t look picture perfect in a swimsuit. (Even attractive females, from schoolgirls to mature women, often lament that they don’t match the standard set by photos of airbrushed models.)

OK, then. If pornography and masturbation are unhealthy emotionally and spiritually, how does one deal with the hormonal cravings that begin raging even before teenage years? Does God actually want teenagers and young adults to live in sexual celibacy, with unfulfillable cravings before marriage? What value could there be in self-deprivation?

I propose there is value in suffering sexual non-fulfillment as an exercise in self-discipline—which every young man and woman must learn early in life. (This may come as a surprise to those who have imagined that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness rather than to live for the glory of God and the service of humanity.) Without self-discipline, marriage partners may never survive the temptations that reassert themselves all too soon after the honeymoon. Self-restraint learned as a teen serves one well through the next six decades of life, particularly during the infamous mid-life crisis.

So there is purpose behind God’s call for us to be holy in thought, word and deed—but there is also forgiveness when we have given ourselves to God yet find ourselves falling short of His glorious ideal. None of us is perfect (Rom. 3:23). So we may be thankful that with God’s command to sexual purity comes His compassion and grace, which abound even beyond our sinfulness (Rom. 5:20). Much more could be said about immorality and how to overcome it, even as God counts us perfect in Jesus.

Meanwhile, even if we may disagree about a moral component regarding masturbation, we certainly can concur that it is better to be compassionate and reasonable than to frighten guilt-ridden souls when they fail in their sincere struggles (e.g., about re-crucifying Jesus or making angels weep). However well intentioned, such graceless warnings are not only legalistic but constitute spiritual abuse.

To summarize: If we hope to have any kind of credibility or usefulness in the sensitive yet vital ministry of promoting morality, we need to receive for ourselves and express toward others the same balance of grace and truth that characterized Christ’s own life and teaching.

That’s my take on this important yet controversial subject. I hope and pray in Jesus’ name that something here has been helpful.