Masturbation is generally regarded as a sinful activity due to its connection with lustful behavior. For more information on why that is, please read our article. In this article, we seek to address the question from the opposite angle. Is there ever a situation in which masturbating would not be sinful?
Can a person ever masturbate without it being a sin?
First, a person would have to be able to masturbate without lustful thoughts, something that is highly unlikely.
Assuming a person could do this, what about situations in which husbands and wives are away from one another for a long period of time (such as in military service) and either spouse masturbates while thinking about the other spouse? This would also have to assume that the spouses have given one another permission to do so (1 Corinthians 7:4). At best, a person could say maybe this would not be sinful. Romans 14:5 teaches, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" regarding such areas Scripture does not specifically speak against. Further, Romans 14:23 is clear that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This means the conviction of the individual believers will play a role in such a situation.
Rather than seeking a "loophole" or a way to make masturbation acceptable as a Christian, however, Christians are called to "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:1-2). Further, 1 Corinthians 6:18 teaches we are to, "Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body." First Thessalonians 5:22 says to "Abstain from every form of evil."
Scripture calls all believers to resist temptation rather than to seek ways to excuse sin. First Corinthians 10:13 is clear: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." When temptation comes, there is also a way of escape. Even when Jesus Christ was tempted after 40 days of fasting, He relied on God's truth to stand against temptation and follow God's will (Matthew 4:1-10).
So while there may be a possibility that spouses living apart from one another could masturbate without adulterous or lustful thoughts, it would seem from Scripture it is better to refrain. As the apostle Paul advised Timothy, "So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22).
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