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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.
Before I get to your question, I’d like to say something to 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?
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.
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.