When I as a new struggling Christian raised this topic with my pastor, I was told in no uncertain terms that God struck Onan dead for masturbating. At some point I read the passage for myself (Gen. 38:1-10) and discovered my pastor had mislead me.
It’s true that Onan was punished by God because he “spilled his semen on the ground” (Gen. 38:9). But he didn’t do this by masturbating. He was engaged in sexual intercourse whenever he would do this. At the last minute, the text says, Onan would pull out and spill his semen. Not only this, but the reason he was punished had nothing to do with the mere fact that he spilled his semen on the ground. He was punished because he was violating his ancient duty to procreate with his deceased brother’s wife.
The Bible actually says nothing specifically about masturbation – which itself is pretty interesting, since the Bible addresses just about every other aspect of sex. Not only this, but it’s not like masturbation is a recent invention. As a matter of fact, it’s frequently mentioned in ancient writings.
Does the Bible’s silence mean that masturbation is okay? Not necessarily. There are other considerations that come to bear on this.
For example, Jesus taught that lusting after someone in your mind is as sinful as actually having sex outside of marriage – though, of course, the social consequences of the latter are much worse than the former. This means that people who have committed to surrendering their lives – and therefore their minds – to the Kingdom must strive to purge their minds of fantasies of sex outside of marriage. And this clearly rules out masturbating the way most people usually masturbate – escaping into their own fantasy world where “anything goes.”
But what if someone was disciplined about what they fantasized about when they masturbated? What if they only envisioned sex within the context of the marriage covenant? Is that permissible?
Many notable Christian authorities — including (to my surprise) James Dobson — say yes. This is perfectly natural, they argue, and is the right way to relieve sexual tension prior to marriage, thereby helping single people stay chaste. Others, however, would say no, for even if one’s mind is fantasizing about marriage, the reality is that the person is expressing their sexuality outside of an actual marriage covenant.
I weigh in on the side of the first school of thought. But I would give three words of caution.
First, as in all areas that are ethically and morally ambiguous, it’s important that each person seeks God’s will for them on this matter. Just because something is permissible doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for your life. Out of his infinite wisdom, the Lord forbids for some what he allows for others. On matters such as this, therefore, every person must answer to God on their own (Rom. 14).
Second, I believe it’s important single people not allow masturbation to become habitual. Among other problems, habitual masturbation sets a precedent that can never be realized in marriage. Sexual tension is part of married life, for a couple’s sex life is affected by a multitude of practical factors. So, even if it’s permissible for single people to sometimes relieve sexual tension as they dream about a future marriage relationship, I encourage them to not fall into the trap of habitual instant gratification.
Finally, I believe it’s important married people refrain from masturbation, except perhaps in exceptional circumstances such as being separated from each other for long periods of time. The purpose of sexual tension is to motivate couples to pursue one another. When one partner relieves sexual tension through masturbation, it obviously undermines this motivation to some degree. As Paul puts it, people who have entered into the “one flesh” covenant have a duty to regularly have sexual relations – that is, to regularly re-experience the sign of the covenant. And anything that works against this is not beneficial (I Cor. 7: 1-5).