Anything pertaining to sexuality has a component of nervousness, making it a breeding ground for all kinds of theories on why it might be wrong or sinful. The fact is that the Bible says nothing about masturbation, except possibly Song of Solomon 5:2, where some have inferred that her hands on the lock and fingers dripping with myrrh was such an act. Some have said that Onan was struck down dead for masturbating (Genesis 38). However, a careful reading of that text would show that the sin was not in masturbating but in violating his duty to raise up a son for his dead brother (based on the custom of levirate marriage) by engaging in coitus interuptus (pulling out before ejaculating and spilling his semen on the ground). Some have cited the text “avoid fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” However, that text could refer to a wide range of sins with no direct link to masturbation.
To the idea that single Christians should not read Song of Solomon because it might be a masturbation trigger, I find it absolutely absurd to restrict any part of the Bible from any believer. Song of Solomon makes clear the need to distinguish between erotica (from the Greek word eros pertaining to sexual matters) and pornography (from the Greek word porneia referring to sexual immorality from whence we get the word fornication). In contrast, an increasing number of commentators suggest the Greek is not so much about the sight of a bikini-clad fraulein as it is about aggressively going down the mental path toward an illicit act.
Ultimately any discussion on masturbation must deal with Matthew 5:28 and what it means by looking at a woman lustfully. The common interpretation is that any eros without immediate fulfillment in marriage is sinful lust, a conclusion easy to draw from most English translations. If you see a bikini-clad fraulein, pull your eyes away immediately, and then desperately hope and pray that you don’t experience any arousal from such a sight. However, to say Matthew 5:28 prohibits masturbation by unmarried people is merely an inference, a procedure fraught with risks. It is better to seek out clear and literally constructed texts when expressing a strong doctrinal position. History is littered with fanatics who made too much of inferences and symbolic texts.
One key Greek word found in this passage is epithumeo, which denotes willful desire toward a particular target rather than casual admiration. Given that the word “lust” has become limited in English primarily to sexual desire (rather than desire in general, a meaning it still carries in German), its use in that text is an unfortunate translation. It is also worth noting that the word epithumeo is also used positively (e.g., Luke 22, where Jesus intensely desires to eat the Passover with his disciples). It is far more plausible to say that Jesus was, in essence, reaffirming the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” than to put Himself in conflict with the Song of Solomon. That is fully consistent with the idea of sin beginning in the heart with the deed as only the outward expression of such. If somebody masturbates to the fantasy of someone else’s spouse, that would obviously be sinful, or likewise if a person masturbates over the prospect of a one-night stand with a prostitute. However, without intention toward a sinful act (fornication or adultery), there is no sin in someone pleasuring oneself to relieve tension and possibly receive a religious experience in the process. This website has some fine stories of solo sex being an act of Christian worship.
One of the problems is the legacy of St. Augustine, who at one time had been very promiscuous. Unfortunately, after his conversion, he still carried that baggage, rendering him unable to comprehend the normalcy of sex in the marriage relationship. Instead, he thought of it as something that needed to be restrained, except possibly for procreation. One manifestation of that attitude can be found in our hymnals. Although most hymnals have a few hymns about love in marriage, you never find any hymns making any reference to the sex act. Naturally, in that way of thinking, any sexual feeling without immediate fulfillment in marriage would be seen as a sin. Such prudery has no foundation in the Bible. In Genesis, we read that Adam knew his wife Eve and that Isaac took Rebekah into his tent. While we rightly admire Augustine’s contributions to our understanding of soteriology, whereby God works salvation, we must also understand the great harm he caused with his warped ideas on sex.
As far as myself, once I overcame the problems of wrong ideas, I came to see what a wonderful blessing self-pleasure can be. When witnessing a baptism or receiving communion, I feel a surge of energy in every nerve fiber, frequently resulting in getting off when I get home. Another fact I discovered when a counselor read the Bible to me: it often triggers visions of a woman in an explicitly sexual manner. The only restraint induced by hearing the Bible was to put such libido into perspective with the idea of ultimate fulfillment between husband and wife and pray for God to open the door for me to experience it in marriage.
If reading Song of Solomon makes you want to pleasure yourself, go ahead and do so. (On one occasion, accidentally opening to Song of Solomon 7 caused me to take a rocket launch.) If other parts of the Bible inspire you to take such a flight, do that as well. There are two reasons why masturbation might be sinful. The first one we discussed earlier in fantasies over an obviously sinful act. The second would be to deny another person fulfillment in marital sex if you start to prefer masturbation over the real thing. Paul touches on that in 1 Corinthians 7. However, it can be a God-pleasing way to recognize that we were created as sexual beings and understand how we can use it as part of God-pleasing worship.
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