I discovered it when I was 11 years old. I don’t exactly remember how I discovered it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it was called at the time.I remember reading about something called “masturbation” in the newspaper, in a question to Dear Abby, of all things. I didn’t know what it was, so I looked up the word in the dictionary. “Oh, so THAT’S what I’ve been doing!” (For anyone under the age of 25, “newspaper” and “dictionary” are these paper things we used to read before there was Google.)
Growing up, it was reinforced to me – by every authority figure in my life – that masturbating was wrong. Anything you did that was sexual, before you were married, was wrong. Don’t do it. End of discussion.
So as a young boy with a body that was turning into a young man, and who felt horny an awful lot of the time, I faced a dilemma. I was a rules-follower, not just because of moral conviction about the rules, but more because I didn’t like the consequences when I got caught breaking them.
The answer to my dilemma was clear. Keep doing it and work hard to make sure no one finds out. And for the next 27 years, masturbation was perhaps the one thing I did more consistently than anything else in my life. Rarely would I go more than 2-3 days without it. There were periods when I would try hard to abstain and would sometimes go 2 weeks. Other times – and this was much more normal for me – it was an everyday ritual.
I don’t know if you know this, but when you do something over 5000 times, it tends to become a habit. Or, in my case (and many others’), an addiction.
Masturbation was the first sexual activity that I became addicted to. Although I don’t know exactly when I was addicted, I know that by the time I married Stacey at age 21, my 10-year history with masturbation was stronger than my relationship with her. That’s a tough thing to admit, but it’s true. I had more history with it than I did with her. Even so, I was convinced that once I got married, it’d be easy to give it up. I was painfully naïve.
Turns out, getting married didn’t flip some magical switch and take away my compulsion. Throughout the years as my addiction worsened, crossing line after line of behaviors I swore I’d never do, masturbation was always a constant. When I added pornography, fantasy, and adultery to my story, they didn’t replace masturbation. They simply added to it.
In 2009, when my sexual addiction and all its accompanying sinful activities were exposed, I experienced something unexpected. Everything was out in the open. Nothing was hidden…God had made sure of that. And even though the exposure brought consequences and pain, it brought even more freedom. That was the unexpected part. For quite some time I didn’t experience the same temptations. I didn’t feel a compulsive need to act out through masturbation or otherwise, and I felt – for lack of a better term – delivered.
In a sense I believe that’s exactly what had happened. God had delivered me from the overwhelming power of addiction. But it wasn’t through snapping His fingers and zapping the lust out of me. It was by showing me that I’d been believing all the wrong things – about Him, about me, about my situation – and showing me real, true things to believe. Now I could see how the gospel applied not only when Jesus saved me from hell, but how it applied to my daily struggle against sin and the flesh. He had delivered me from my stupor of believing “This is as good as it gets, and I’ll never change.”
However, this deliverance wasn’t a “one and done” type deal. I still possessed the ability to choose whether to continue walking in the freedom God had provided, or to return to sexual sin and addiction. I was free, but my flesh wasn’t gone. I had the capacity to put it in the ditch again. And over the next several months after my “honeymoon period” of recovery, I began to experience again familiar thoughts about masturbation.
Thankfully, one gift God gave me and Stacey through this was a wonderful therapist who helped keep us grounded in what was real. She helped me see and remember that recovery from sexual addiction was not instant or easy, and that triggers and temptations are completely normal. She helped me understand the value of living one day at a time. The thought of going the rest of my life without masturbating was enough to make a person hyperventilate. But the thought of “I can make it through today with Your help, God,” seemed a lot less overwhelming. And one day at a time has turned into quite a bit longer…by God’s grace I’ve abstained from masturbation since 2009.
Easier Said Than Done
Giving up the habit of masturbation isn’t ever easy, but for many of the men with whom I walk in recovery, there are reasons it continues to be a real struggle.
- Some of their marriages have ended in divorce.
- Some of them are separated from their wives for a significant period of time, with no definite end in sight.
- Some of their wives have been so traumatized by betrayal that they haven’t gotten to the point where they feel safe engaging sexually.
- Some of them are not married.
- Some of them are gay but believe that having sex with other men is a sin and does not honor Christ.
For all of these men, masturbation eventually (and frequently) becomes the last option they have for sexual release that doesn’t seem clearly or blatantly sinful. And it is a topic that comes up pretty often. Men who are committed to recovery often ask the question, “Can I say I’m sober if I masturbate?”
I would imagine that some of you reading this are saying, “Um, duh, NO!” But try to understand how it may not seem so cut and dried to a person recovering from sexual addiction.
A Case for Masturbation?
Here are some of the things I regularly hear from men in recovery:
- “There are times when I feel so preoccupied with sexual thoughts, it seems like masturbating is the safest way to relieve that pressure.”
- “Compared to all the other stuff I’ve done, masturbating doesn’t seem nearly as serious.”
- “After experiencing sex in marriage, and now being divorced, it seems impossible to go the rest of my life without having sexual release. At least with masturbation I’m not committing fornication or adultery.”
- “I always think about my wife when I masturbate, so I don’t lust sinfully.”
- “I need sexual release, and this seems like a pretty harmless way to get it.”
- “The Bible never says that masturbating is a sin.”
I’ll say two things about all of these thoughts on masturbation. One, I understand all of them; in fact, I think there’s at least a small measure of validity to each point. Two, I think that all of them miss the deeper issue behind masturbation and every other sexual struggle we experience.
What do I mean? I think in most discussions about masturbation we tend to ask the wrong questions and make the wrong assertions. As with many moral issues, as Christians we tend to ask “Is it OK to…” and fill in the blank. A lot of the time, we’re looking for some spiritual authority to tell us that what we want to do is OK to do. We’re looking for permission. We make arguments that focus on why it’s not wrong.
But what if even though something may not be provably wrong, it could still not be what is best? What if everything isn’t black and white, but even in the gray we could be honest and admit that a struggle with masturbation isn’t really about masturbation? Well, if not that, then what is it really about? What if it’s about determining what we truly need? Here’s a foundational question to consider:
Is it God’s job to define and meet our needs, or do we count on ourselves for that?
So for the remainder of this post, let’s operate under the assumption that there could be a way in which a person could masturbate without sinning. I know that isn’t a stipulation that everyone reading is willing to make, and that’s OK. But for the sake of argument, let’s just SAY it was possible. But rather than basking in that liberty, let’s focus on why something not technically sinful still isn’t God’s best for you or me.
Junk Food vs. Steak Dinner
It’s an analogy you’ve probably heard. Tell a hungry kid that if he waits a couple hours he can have the best steak dinner he’s ever had. Then hold out a bag of Skittles and see what he chooses. Almost without fail, the kid chooses the candy. Why? Because he’d rather have something tasty now than something better later. Even if the something now is less satisfying and bad for him.
We hate waiting. We hate unresolved tension. And these are things that are often connected with masturbation. We feel stressed, and we want that stress to go away. Whether that stress is related to marital conflict, work pressure, or something else, we want a release valve. Often, that’s masturbation. But is release from the tension what we really need?
In his phenomenal book Surfing For God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle, Michael John Cusick recounts a story told by Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser, about a class that Rolheiser had attended in grad school. In a lecture about sexuality and morality, one of the students had asked the professor if he ever masturbated. Even though the priest was irritated at the student for asking a personal question like that in a public setting, he decided to answer it. After admitting that he sometimes did, and that he didn’t necessarily think it was either right or wrong, he said this. “I’m a better person when I don’t because then I am carrying more of the tension that we, all of us, should carry in this life. I’m a better person when I carry that tension.”
Cusick goes on to write,
“Carrying tension in this way is not an ascetic act of self-denial; it is an act of love. More often than not, when men masturbate, they cut off or detach from their souls. After the immediate ecstasy and release of tension, they experience a weakened sense of strength for having spent themselves. This occurs not only on the physical level, but on the emotional and spiritual level as well.
Of the hundreds of men I’ve counseled about their sexual addictions, not one has told me that after masturbating he felt stronger, more confident, and more vitally connected to the deep part of his soul. Debates over whether or not masturbation is a sin totally miss the point. The crucial question is not whether masturbation is right or wrong. The question is, as it is with any thought or behavior, does it hinder our spiritual, emotional, and social maturity? Does it stand in the way of love?”
Given the choice of the candy now (masturbation) or the steak dinner later, how many of us are willing to carry the tension that comes with waiting?
But What is the Steak?
What do we say to the man who has no spouse, and no indication he will have that option? If he’s supposed to deny himself the “junk food” masturbation, does that mean he’s destined to starve to death? When does he get his steak dinner?
But what if the “steak dinner” isn’t sex with a spouse? What if it isn’t sex at all? What if we’ve been elevating sex to a place that belongs to something else?
Something like intimacy?
I looked it up. The word “intimate” is defined as:
“Associated in close personal relations; characterized by or involving warm friendship or a personally close or familiar association or feeling; closely personal.”
It’s no wonder that the word is often used in a sexual context. There’s no closer physical form of personal relations than sex. But nowhere in the definition above is anything physical mentioned. In fact, on the site where I pulled these defining phrases, the one describing sexual relations was #6 on the list.
My point? There’s a LOT more to intimacy than sex. And I believe that intimacy is what we’re really looking for.
I want to have close personal relationships with people. I want to experience warm friendship. I want to be closely personal with people in my life. And it’s possible for me to experience this with multiple people in an absolutely appropriate, non-sexual way that doesn’t betray or compromise my relationship with my wife. And in a way that God uses to meet relational needs for an unmarried person.
In his work Living in Love, Gerald May wrote,
There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. We are often unaware of it, but it is always awake. It is the Human desire for Love. Every person in this Earth yearns to love, to be loved, to know love. Our true identity, our reason for being is to be found in this desire.
Could it be that by masturbating we’re actually trying to fulfill a deeper desire than just having an orgasm? That sexual release, although a beautiful representation of intimacy, is not itself the be-all-end-all of intimacy? And that by doing it, we’re depriving ourselves of something deeper and better that God desires for us?
The Candy is Easier
So why do we so often settle for the candy instead of the steak? There are so many reasons. One can simply be that we never get beyond thinking that sex is actually the thing we’re hungering for. We never get to the point where we see that true intimacy goes beyond sex. That true intimacy can never be achieved through the isolated act of masturbation. That we don’t need sexual release, we need relationship.
Another reason is that intimacy requires vulnerability and risk. We can’t achieve a relationship with someone that is “closely personal” without allowing ourselves to be fully known. That’s scary.
Michael Cusick tells another story in Surfing For God about how he made it all the way through high school without ever going to a dance, or even on a date. It wasn’t because he didn’t like girls or desire to have relationship with one. It was the risk involved in putting himself out there. He writes,
“Unwilling to put my budding masculine strength on the line by pursuing any kind of romantic involvement, I played the role of the safe guy. One of the guys who could relate to girls as a friend, make them laugh, but never be expected to move toward them romantically. As long as I was the safe guy, I could have my cake and eat it too.
A few times in high school I got close to pursuing girls I liked. But just when my confidence reached a certain point, I would find myself inescapably drawn to porn. I would masturbate, and then I would ultimately lose any sense of confidence that I had anything to offer a woman. With my regular intake of soul steroids, I steadily chipped away at my manhood, convincing myself that I didn’t need a girlfriend. Even though, deep inside, I desperately longed for one.”
A third reason we settle for the candy is because intimacy also requires us to let go of the powerful force of selfishness that so often rules our lives and decisions. If we’re honest, we admit that the reason we usually masturbate is because we just want to! We know how it feels, and we want that feeling. Denying ourselves stinks and is nowhere nearly as fun as sexual pleasure.
In a letter to one of his readers, C. S. Lewis discussed the dangers of masturbation as it relates to self-centeredness. He wrote (and the emphases are mine),
“For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another…and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.”
Where Do I Go From Here?
If you’ve decided – or are even now considering – that masturbation may not be helpful or even healthy, and want to move away from having it in your life, it raises an obvious question. How in the world do I stop? Here are a few thoughts that, although definitely not an exhaustive list, could help:
- Don’t beat yourself up. Even though I maintain that masturbation isn’t a healthy activity to have in your life, shaming yourself when you do it helps nothing. If you genuinely feel God convicting you not to do it, you should listen. But at the same time realize that stepping away from a behavior that is so familiar (and possibly addictive) isn’t going to be easy, and your goal should be progress, not perfection. If you currently masturbate every day, and a month from now you’re masturbating twice a week, that’s progress! Accept it as that, take time to appreciate the work God is doing, and commit to continue to show up each day and allow Him to keep bringing the change you desire. Remind yourself along the way that small changes are evidence that big changes are possible, and that God almost always brings about change through a gradual process (Romans 12:2; Philippians 1:6).
- Tell yourself the truth. It helps to see masturbation as what it most basically is – a desired release. You feel tension and rather than resting in it, you want to satiate it. You’ve told yourself for years that you need sexual release. Begin to tell a more accurate truth: you want sexual release. That’s not a bad want, but it is just that – a want. Sex isn’t a need. It is possible to go without it, and not die from deprivation. A friend of mine who helped me early in my recovery would often talk about one way he knew that sex was a want and not a need. He’d remind me that Jesus lived his entire life on earth fully human as well as fully God, and he never had sex. Being honest about what represents a need versus a want is important, because how do you give up something you believe you can’t live without?
- Get help. Masturbation isn’t exactly a common topic to bring up with other people, and so this part could be tough. But it’s important to recognize both the negative power of living an isolated life, and the positive power of living in community. Struggling in secret virtually guarantees that the struggle will continue. It is extremely difficult to break an unhealthy habit alone. Allowing a few safe people to know about your struggle (or even just one) brings it into the light. When struggles are brought into the light they lose much of their power. We begin to be able to see hope that we weren’t able to see on our own. When we confess our struggles to another person, we allow them to respond to us with grace and unconditional love. We begin to experience healthy intimacy in our relationships, a sense of being connected. Which is really and more deeply at the heart of what we want and need.
- Consider professional help. If you believe your struggle with masturbation (or any other sexual form of acting out) is out of control, and you suspect or know that you’re dealing with an addiction, you should also connect with a qualified therapist. This is someone who can help you learn more about what has driven the addictive behavior, and how it connects with deeper root issues you may not have considered. This is not something to do instead of finding community, but rather in addition to. Recovering from unhealthy, addictive sexual struggles requires an all-in approach that includes honesty, accountability, community, and counseling.
If we can help, either by answering questions or by recommending helpful resources, please let us know.
Greg Oliver was a worship pastor for 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in January of 2009. Since then he has been on a journey of recovery, coming to know God better and experiencing His grace like never before. He and his wife Stacey have experienced deep healing & restoration within their marriage, and through the ministry of Awaken they walk with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders to help them experience connection and healing in the midst of sexual brokenness.