Masturbation…It’s a Christian Problem

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Woody Allen once said that masturbation is like having “sex with someone I love.” The statement was made about the same time the Catholic Church restated its views on masturbation in its Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics (Persona Humana, 1975). Briefly put, one might say that the Church’s teaching directly opposes that of Woody Allen. In a nutshell I would paraphrase the Declaration to say that masturbation is like sex with someone I learn to hate.

I was confronted with the drastic difference between these views at a time when masturbation was discussed as a form of “autoeroticism” or “self-satisfaction” in my high school biology classes. Make no mistake, neither Woody Allen nor the Church were ever discussed. In fact, no moral judgment was made at all. All sexual activity was discussed strictly under the idea of gaining understanding of the functioning of the human body. Surprisingly, the entire project addressed only the physical organs. At no time did we talk about the operation of the human mind, the imagination, love, hate, or desire. Don’t even think about bringing God into the discussion.

Allen was right when he brought love into the discussion of sexual activities. So did the Catholic Church. Love, correctly understood, is the proper context for all sexual activity even though, as C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves, sexual experience can occur without love. In the case of masturbation, Allen’s statement exhibits a particular kind of love that is perhaps best characterized as make-believe. It is shaped by two misconceptions: first, that love of self is an acceptable context for sex, and second, that sex is a sufficient manifestation of love. I say “sufficient” here, because sex, in the right context, is a manifestation of love, but it is not a complete manifestation. Sex alone always remains an incomplete manifestation of love. Thus, just as problematic as Allen’s statement is the popular euphemism for sex as “making love.” The question of masturbation finds its most potent implications in our understanding of love and its proper context.

In the history of Christian thought, Augustine offers a classic description of love when he states that love is not love unless you love someone (On the Trinity, VIII, 12). The point being: someone other than yourself! Love of oneself is seen as imperfect and ultimately unacceptable as an image for God. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), cannot exist only in his love for himself. Augustine here paints a picture of love as relational and as requiring a relationship with someone other than ourselves. In this sense, masturbation is a celebration of one’s own love of self. One is satisfied with oneself and content with one’s own love. For a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth.

The biblical Scriptures show that it is important to love yourself, since we are to love others in the same manner we love ourselves (see Lev 19:18 and its frequent use in the New Testament). Yet, this love is not a simple one-on-one relationship. the love of a Christian is not a simple line from one person to the other. Rather, it is always a triangular desire. It is only in the fact that God is love that human beings can also understand and direct their own love for themselves and for others. We love because God first loved us. For Christians, therefore, masturbation is fundamentally a theological concern about the right ordering of desire.

Masturbation presents the Christian with a theological dilemma: how to reconcile love of self and love of God in the sexual activity of the human person. One alternative is to shut God out of the picture. As I have stated previously, we keep God out of the bedroom. Theology does not engage sexuality. The other alternative is to excuse our actions in one form or another (“God does not care” or “This does not affect my salvation”). In any case, we suppress God. More precisely, we suppress our love for God. And by the same token, we suppress our love for ourselves and for others. The Catholic Declaration emphasized this point when it rejected psychological and sociological factors as the sole explanatory powers for accepting or rejecting masturbation. The problems of masturbation as a habitual practice lie deeper. Christians who continually practice masturbation find themselves in the way of their own love for God and others. Masturbation becomes a form of self-gratification when no such gratification seems warranted. Studies show that the frequent response to this insight is guilt and often the resolve to discontinue one’s practice. As it has become habitual, however, many Christians find themselves caught in a loop between masturbation, guilt, and resolve. In this loop they learn to love themselves less and less. Masturbation becomes sex with someone we hate.

How do we respond to this problem? It is precarious to discuss this aspect, since there seem to be only two sides in the issue: those who practice masturbation and those who do not, and few want to locate themselves squarely on the first side. If recent studies are correct, then masturbation continues to be the most prevalent form of sex. Period. If I am correct that masturbation is ultimately a theological problem, then we are justified in saying that masturbation is one of the most significant theological problems of our time. Were do we start to find a solution? Who should be engaged in the process? What does it take to overcome the problem? And what exactly do we see as the end result?

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Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Monday, May 3rd, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Faith & Culture, Family Life, Renewal Studies, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to “Masturbation…It’s a Christian Problem”

  1. thesauros says:

    That’s a pretty good post. Thank you.

  2. sympathetic says:

    I agree with the premise that masturbation is the substitution of love of self for love of others (including love of God), so my question is a practical one. How can Christians resist the temptation to masturbate? Since it is such a private act, it is difficult for Christians to hold themselves accountable for this kind of activity. I especially sympathize with the unmarried, since they have no acceptable outlet for their sexual yearnings.

    Can it be said by setting our affections on things above (Col 3:2), this type of temptation will lessen, since our desire for God will master our desire for self-gratification?

    Or do you have other suggestion for those who struggle with this problem?

    • The practical question is an important one. Can you imagine a pastor speaking on a Sunday morning to the congregation and giving instructions on how to avoid masturbation? What should we say? The answer is not simple. Putting your mind on things above is important, but practically that means a lot of things: prayer, meditation, reflection (on God, on oneself, on one’s desires, on one’s self-realization, on temptation, on the power to overcome temptation). It includes an honest assessment. It includes discipline. It includes commitment. In each person’s life, the exact configuration of these aspect might look different. The important thing is that the journey to freedom from the compulsion begins with God.

  3. Marc S says:

    Since masturbation is not overtly addressed anywhere in Scripture, it is especially important to see this volatile issue in a proper theological and philosophical context. So I appreciate how you did just that–especially in light of the relational nature of love and the relational nature of the imago dei in all of us. When seen in the context of relational covenant love (as opposed to a more gnostic paradigm of the body where it is viewed as a necessary, materialistic evil that’s only good for pragmatic functionality).

    • Alex Brodine says:

      Marc,

      I agree with you in your appreciation for setting this issue in a wider theological context, but I disagree that this issue is not addressed anywhere in scripture. I see Jesus speaking to this issue once, probably mindful that there were ladies and children in the crowd. See Matthew 5:27-30. What lustful activity involves your eye and your right hand?

      • Marc S. says:

        Alex: Of course I agree with you that Matt. 5:27-30 can be directly associated with masturbation, but to say that Jesus is specifically referring to that here is a stretch–especially since He’s speaking in hyperbole in this passage. And by inferring that Jesus is directly implicating masturbation with the dangers of hellfire is to infer that all masturbation done at any time, any where by anybody is sinful–even when there’s no porn or lustful thoughts present (which has been the case for many people, even though still a minority). The real issue Jesus addresses is the lust in our hearts–and ANY action associated with lust becomes a culprit. But I will think more on the Matthew 5 passage and ponder it further…thanks, man!

  4. Mike Marcano says:

    This is my first time at the School of Divinity’s new blog, and I have found it to be quite facanating – discussing theology via revelant topics! Dr. Vondey, your blog something I wish the local Church would spend more time discussing. It is at this reference (the Church) that I believe we can start to see some of the answers to the questions you posed at the end of your blog. When open relationships exist, which are rooted in Christian fellowship, where each party can share their struggles with one another, we will be able to identify what issues are present, and aim to bring freedom. In addition, the Church should be able to provide practical solutuions with regard to issues such as masturbation, yet most churches are void of such solutions. In the end, if the Church doesn’t live up to, what I believe is their duty, then ultimatly the believer is responsible for seeking out what is right/wrong with the issue, and then taking necessary action. But that is certianly difficult to accomplish without the support of others.

    In your blog you stated, “Studies show that the frequent response to this insight is guilt and often the resolve to discontinue one’s practice,” – I’d be interested knowing where to find those studies.