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Father Knows Best: Is masturbation a sin?

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Do you have a question about life, love, or faith? Submit it online, fill out the form below or email it to melfert@stjohns-cathedral.org.

Hey Rev! 

I’m living in the same home with my wife. She and I have been separated for four years. But now we’re living back in the same home for our daughter who is in college and we want to provide her with a home and support. My wife and I have no longer love each other, and we have no plans of getting back together. We sleep in different rooms. 

Is it a sin to masturbate? I’m a man with needs but I don’t want to sin. I’m doing my best to repent and looking to be truly a soldier of Jesus Christ with all my heart. 

– Anthony

House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429132Dear Anthony:

Before I get to your question, I’d like to say something to you:

Thank you.

Thank you for what you are doing for your daughter, Anthony. By sharing costs and responsibilities with your wife while your daughter goes to college, you are helping her to complete a degree with as little debt as possible. In doing so, you are giving her a gift that will echo across her life.

Earning a degree with little or no debt is going to let your daughter say “yes” to vocational opportunities that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, it is going to let her think about buying a home way sooner than she otherwise could, it is going to maximize the likelihood that, should she have children of her own, they will never know poverty. By making this gift to your daughter even though your marriage has died, you and your wife are sacrificing a lot. That’s a big deal. I’m grateful to you.

And now let’s move on to your question: Is masturbation a sin?

No.

A sin is an act of selfishness, it’s an act of destructiveness. A sin is something that fractures your relationship with your neighbor, that makes you smaller and more angry and more afraid, that turns you away from the big love that the Christian tradition calls God. Unless your masturbation is pathological in nature — unless, Anthony, you are masturbating instead of going to work or washing the dishes or paying the bills — it doesn’t do any of those things.

Research and anecdotal experience alike tell us that masturbation is a healthy, normal, and just about universal way that people express their sexuality. And the Gospel witness is that, while Jesus spends a lot of time talking about how you and I treat poor people and sick people and prisoners and immigrants and strangers, he is entirely uninterested in the question of whether or not his disciples masturbate.

As more than one wise person has taught us (and as my friend Lauren reminded me – the next couple of paragraphs are more or less plagiarized from an email that Lauren sent me), if you want to make the world kinder, a pretty good way to begin is to be happy. Happiness includes giving yourself pleasure, it includes treating yourself kindly and lovingly. It includes self-pleasure of the sexual kind.

When we befriend our bodies and, in particular, when we befriend our sexual longings, we become more compassionate towards ourselves and towards others. When we touch ourselves with genuine pleasure rather than that horrible mixture of guilt, self-loathing, and compulsion that poisons so many of our experiences with sex, we are committing a radical act of love that is desperately needed in this broken world. When we touch ourselves with that genuine pleasure, we remember that God celebrates the body in the incarnation. Ron Rolheiser puts it this way: “in becoming flesh, God legitimizes skin, praises skin, enters it, honors it, caresses it, and kisses it.”

All that is to say, Anthony, that it’s time for you to stop worrying. Your masturbation isn’t troubling God. It doesn’t need to trouble you either.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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4 comments

  1. Great response Martin, though I’m not sure about calling God the “Big Love” lol, is that a tv show reference to the polygamists?

    One added thought, in reference to your comment about Jesus not caring if his disciples masturbate. He did say: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matt 15:19-20)

    We can defile ourselves out of the heart.

    I’d also have to question your claim that mastubating is “a radical act of love that is desperately needed in this broken world.”

    Doesn’t that sound a bit megalomanic?

  2. I sure do enjoy our ongoing conversation via this website, Eric! Given that we live in the same town, I hope that it works out for us to visit in person one of these times.

    Yes, I agree that we can defile ourselves out of the heart and, in particular, that there is such a thing as sexually destructive behavior. I’m going to say that masturbation doesn’t qualify as defilement, however. I had thought about adding – but ended up cutting for reasons of length – a paragraph about how much preferable masturbation is to sexually using or exploiting another person.

    Should I admit that I live under a popular culture rock? I have heard of “Big Love” the TV show, but I didn’t know what it was about. I guess that term might be the wrong shorthand for God!

    And maybe the turn of phrase that about “radical love” is hyperbolic – I’ll have to think about that. I am struck by how many really angry and afraid and alienated people don’t like themselves very much. That does makes me suspect that, when we find a way to be generous and loving with ourselves, it becomes easier to be generous and loving with others.

  3. Oh how I love seeing the two of you have dialog in this site. Think of the two people whom have had the most powerful spiritual influences on your whole life. Go on, do it. Living or dead…

    Now imagine the two of them having conversations you can be a fly on the wall of. That is what I get here, and I love it!

    You two MUST meet. At the shop. It’s practically equidistant and walkable for both of you. Make it so!

    My only other comment dovetails off of Martin’s last statement. There is a pervasive theme in evangelical circles that practically anything that is pleasing to self is bad, sinful, indulgent, etc. so a comment like yours gets seen from that perspective it can actually undermine your credibility to some readers because it actually encourages a behavior that is outside of evangelical canon. I would say to those folks that Martin’s meaning can be accepted in at least on a practical level in that, well, if you’re not constantly berating yourself for failing, you’re more likely to be a nice person. If you allow guilt to rule your life you probably won’t have a lot of extra love lying around. This is self evident. And what if being steeped in guilt doesn’t actually drive better behavior, just less confidence? So then stop looking at it practically and start looking at the outcomes from a spiritual standpoint. If the fruit of a belief is an abundant life, it probably comes from a good tree. If the fruit of a belief is guilt and despair, is that a good belief? Does that belief come from a good tree or a bad one that needs to be chopped down and burned? That is in fact the Lord’s very own litmus test that he taught his followers to use directly. Because he knew he couldn’t write rules about how to handle yourself in every circumstance and specific context so he offered principals for operating instead. He didn’t write a protocol for what to do if your gay son has cancer and no heath insurance. He said just LOVE and as long as you do that you’re doing the right thing.

    So if we look at the guilt that comes from NOT FOLLOWING UNWRITTEN RULES and measure it with one of the principles we were given, we can see that guilt is a shitty tree that makes very stinky fruit. Chop it down and dig up its roots. Burn it. Because it doesn’t add any value.

    Self-loathing about mastrubating never helped a soul. Breaking bread with a stranger that turns into a friend always lifts of a soul. So why isn’t our work of discipleship actually about helping people feel content about themselves so they have room to love? Like actually tilling the soil so that there is a good place for seeds to grow in?

  4. Reverend !
    when I read your comments on Anthony’s question , a sense of great relief showered me from head to toe as myself have been having the remorse , the pledge to repent every and each time I masturbate , however what do you say about a person who likes to search the net for pictures or movies of women wearing crucifixes, in other term getting greatly excited from looking at sacrilegious acts, blasphemy pictures although he thinks himself a good Christian, he earnestly prays every day, he knows well that he loves Jesus,he loves the mercy of Jesus, he attends to the mass almost daily or regularly. this same man recognizing the guilt or sin he is committing he calls on Jesus everyday seeking for Jesus help asking him to change this person weakness at the time of the temptation to a solid resistance in order to fight and fight and win this temptation, yes asking Jesus not to get angry at him but instead to heal him , to strengthen him in body,soul and spirit.
    I thank you and appreciate yr comments.
    May GOD JESUS BLESS YOU FOR EVER

    JC

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