Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 4
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4. Managing Mind and Body

- enjoyment and control

  • Discipleship inevitably involves self-discipline, and spiritual disciplines have a place in discipleship.
  • In this context we are made to enjoy pleasure.
  • Our bodies are good and wholesome, but need some care.
  • Masturbation is a normal activity for most males and needs to be controlled, but is not itself a big deal.
  • Control of what fills the mind and heart is basic. Minimise lust and avoid porn.

Christians should take the body seriously and joyfully, as a positive part of being a person! The body matters and is created good (Genesis 1). We serve an embodied Lord, we believe in the resurrection of the body, we understand the body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are called to honour God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). We must avoid a false asceticism which plays down the significance and positive understanding of our bodies! We should not be negative about our bodies and their features, notably sexuality, but also the enjoyment of food, drink, exercise and recreation, all enjoyed with self-control so as to avoid lust, gluttony and sloth. 'Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving' (1 Tim 4:4). Pleasure is part of God's grace in our lives.

The practical conclusion of Paul's most important letter in the New Testament starts off: "Therefore ... offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Don't conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:1-2). The mind controls the body, and is where self-control primarily needs to occur. So for Christians that is a good expression of the proper starting point for consideration of mind and body applied to discipleship and worship.

But more broadly, what does it mean to be a male or female made in the image of God? We can avoid the challenge of that question by spiritualising the image of God aspect, but it really involves our mind and body too. This short book cannot address the question adequately, but we raise it firmly and suggest that part of our growth as Christians will lead us to find some answers for ourselves individually if we do not lose sight of the question in comfortable living. We will each find ways to explore it in reflection and discussion without having to be prompted by the travails of Job!

4.1 Spiritual disciplines and pleasures

Discipleship inevitably involves self-discipline, which many find distinctly countercultural. Spiritual discipline is a subset of this - behaviour which helps us express our commitment to discipleship to the Lord we follow. Among evangelicals today the concept has withered to something much less than it was in earlier centuries, partly because we have a fuller sense of grace, and tend to perceive strict spiritual discipline as a regime of works, or as asceticism. But in doing this we may be guilty of cheapening grace, being unduly laid back, and downplaying proper discipline as a core concept in discipleship, building cooperatively with the Holy Spirit towards godly character.

In writing to his mentee, St Paul was uninhibited on the question: "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" (1 Tim4:7-8, ASV). While this book is largely about discipleship here and now, we must never lose sight of, or hope of, the new creation to come.

The main spiritual discipline is simply in organising ourselves, and regularly reviewing our priorities in all areas of our lives. This flows to how we spend our time and money, and how we open ourselves to opportunities. A measure of self-denial is always required, but it should not become asceticism, or disparage proper pleasures of the heart, mind and body. Faith is not merely cerebral, the cognitive must be balanced by the affective.

God intends us to enjoy pleasure. Pleasure is part of his gracious provision for us. Of course seeking pleasure can be as elusive as seeking happiness, and it can also lead us astray in many ways, since we live in a fallen world where indolence, hedonism and various addictions need to be resisted. However, rejoicing in the pleasure of God's provision within proper constraints is entirely appropriate and should be celebrated. The pleasure of relationships is foremost, in line with biblical teaching about love among the brethren and more widely. But the pleasure of recreation, food and drink, art, work, play, creativity can all be major, ranging from sensual pleasures to the heartfelt. And within one particular relationship, the pleasure of sex is epic - see the comments in chapter 2 about that (2.1). And before that particular relationship, there is real pleasure in relationships leading there and also that we discuss in 4.3 below. The proper pleasure of sexual attraction to persons must be distinguished from sexual lust, and this is addressed in 2.2.

Sexual pleasure and the pleasures of eating and drinking are foundational to God's creation and are also redemptive images in the Bible, with the potential to reveal God's nature and grace. Having hearts filled with pleasures should motivate and empower godly living and worship.

Specific spiritual discipline can take many forms: most fundamentally as the daily quiet time, or time set aside to read the Bible and pray reliably. It also includes our stewardship of time and money, prioritising God's work - see chapter 6. Fasting is a significant way of telling God we are serious about being his followers. Slowing is another - regulating the pace of our daily lives so as to make more time for prayer, reflection or discourse. Self-control generally is another aspect of spiritual discipline, more fundamental than occasional self-denial in fasting or slowing. If we have had occasion for major repentance, then penance will help us avoid glossing over the matter (though it must not detract from accepting and rejoicing in forgiveness).

Some of these matters are well covered in church and youth group teaching, some are not. We have a chapter on stewardship, but fasting, slowing, self-denial and self-discipline are matters where there is less scope for many words of general applicability. They arise personally more out reflection in the light of Bible reading and fellowship. Penance is more in the church context.

The daily quiet time for bible reading and prayer is easily squeezed out by laziness and busyness. Two analogies may help to underline the need for being disciplined in regular daily bible study and prayer. One is that it's like a daily anti-virus renewal for Windows users, and guards against erosion or disabling of our operating system. Another is that it's like a daily morning shower for those of us who routinely do that. We do it because it's routine, not because we wake up feeling dirty, but it doesn't take much thought to realise that if we neglected bathing for some time we would feel and smell decidedly off!

Beyond that routine is the discipline of study to renew our minds. It will include bible study, and hopefiully, sound teaching in the church, but needs to go well beyond that into issues of the day relevant to us as citizens and matters relevant to our vocation. See also ch 12.

Fasting is an opportunity to set aside our appetites for food, entertainment or shopping, or simply desire for comfort, to remind ourselves that our dependence on God is more basic and more important. It is an active way of humbling ourselves before God, and asserting that we can master our basic desires. It is exercise in mastering sinful desires such as greed, lust, envy, covetousness, etc. It opens us to seeking God's grace in a way that goes beyond our routines of prayer and worship. It can take many forms, and be more or less rigorous, from going without breakfast foods occasionally to regular full-day abstinence from anything more than water. Fasting from Facebook and other social media is arguably an important discipline today. While it may create more time to pray, that is not its main rationale. However, prayer and fasting often do go together, each adding to the value of the other.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 Paul writes regarding marital sexual union, and mentions (v5) depriving "each other ... by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer". This is essentially a form of fasting.

The rationale of fasting may also be expressed in self-denial during Lent - the 40 days leading up to Easter. During this time we may abstain from chocolate, wine, movies or masturbation, or something else - whatever is a bit of a stretch to say "no" to for that period. Incidentally it establishes that we are not addicted to that food or activity.

Slowing is a disciplined departure from hectic routine, similar to fasting in that it may involve abstaining from certain activities. It can help overcome our addiction to busyness so that we enjoy the present moment more fully. It counters the tyranny of the urgent and cultivates patience. It can give us time to pray through the day's commitments rather than just rushing in to them. It is usefully coupled with meditation, where one reflects on some deeper truth or passage of scripture, at a deeper level than the rational mind and engaging the imagination.

Penance is something which may be best recommended by others whose pastoral guidance we have sought, rather than simply self-imposed. It gives us time to reflect and consider the changes that are needed, and prayerfully resolve our way forward.

4.1 Discussion questions:
What does it mean to you to offer your body as a living sacrifice and spiritual act of worship? What does it involve you doing?
What do you think it means to be a male/female made in the image of God?
How do you think self-discipline can avoid becoming asceticism, and freedom becoming indulgence?
What spiritual disciplines do you currently find most helpful? Which do you think would benefit you to take up?
What is your experience of fasting (or other form of self-denial, e.g. during Lent)?

4.2 Perception and care of our bodies

Relevant to the previous chapters and the next section is the way we understand and care for our bodies. Biblically speaking, Christians have cause to be very positive about their bodies as one expression of their person (with mind and spirit), and to rejoice in all their physical attributes. However, in reality some people have things about their bodies with which they are less than happy and would change if they could.  Some seem particularly concerned with body image, and even young children are now becoming obsessed with how they look and how their physical attractiveness is perceived by others. Women's magazines remind us that fashion models and television stars have body image issues.

As long as physical attributes - looks, strength, agility - have relevance to life, people will be concerned about them. Christians should resist this and learn to not be overly concerned with such bodily things, though it would be naïve to try to pretend that they don't matter at all.  But beyond accepting ourselves as we are (assuming some personal maintenance in washing, grooming and exercise), it is not smart to be careless of appearance in relation either to our social lives or the workplace. We need to display a modicum of self-discipline in appearance and be sensitive to the expectations of others while understanding that fashions in body image have changed over time and are different within various cultural groups. In a romantic relationship each should communicate their expectations and understand that the whole issue is really about consideration, not just appearance. As in all but core value areas, compromise is essential in relationships.

A particular aspect of the worldly preoccupation with body image is undue concern about comparison with others, which rather than leading to sensible eating and exercise can lead to unreasonable preoccupation with diets or physical workouts, and to psychological disturbance expressed as anorexia or bulimia. To the extent that this preoccupation with comparison is related to self-esteem it can be countered with healthy and robust interaction with others in Christian fellowship, but of course there may be other pastoral issues involved which require professional attention. However, it again underlines the need for Christians to be countercultural in key areas, and genuinely supportive of one another.

The Bible reminds us that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made"41, and that the Lord is more interested in our heart or "inmost being" than our external appearance.  So often we fall into the temptation of comparing ourselves to others, or feeling like we are competing for the attention of the opposite sex based purely on how we look.  A female living in an Australian "Big Brother" house acknowledged that in her real life she didn't mind being her size (she is actually the same size as most Australian women of her age) but being in the house had undermined her confidence in herself because the other girls were 'thin and beautiful' and she was not thin.  As Christians our self-image should not be shaped by fashion and by the expectations of others, but by our acknowledgment that we are known loved by God, who created us 'good' and gave each of us the bodies we have. The important beauty for a Christian is that which is expressed from inside the person (1 Peter 3:3-4).

But having said that, we can affirm one another more than we do, and thereby remind one another of how in some imperfect sense we show God's image. Of course this needs to be sincere and not mere flattery, let alone a pick-up line!

Being loved by God and honouring the body he has given us provides us with some parameters.  Our bodies need to be kept fit and not degraded with substance abuse of any kind - avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, overeating, drugs, smoking, etc. Being grossly overweight is likely to indicate unhealthy lifetyle as well as lack of self-control. Positively, the body should be nurtured, exercised and rested. Exercise can and should be a celebration of the physical goodness of one's body. The body should be seen as a temple of the Holy Spirit and respected accordingly (1 Cor 6:19-20). We shouldn't routinely eat to excess but be content with moderation. Drinking alcohol to excess dishonours and possibly degrades the body as well as immediately disabling us as loving, responsible people.

What about tattoos? Why do some people, including Christians, get tattoos? Is it just branding? And reaching for something permanent in a restless, transient age? Both of these have biblical precedent in the covenant sign of male circumcision. Tattoos today tend to be more obvious than absent foreskins today, but in in era of public bathing (most of history before houses had their own plumbing and bathrooms), this was usually not the case. Christian teaching and tradition would suggest that the most appropriate Christian branding is love which serves others, and the consistent, ongoing and increasing exercise of this addresses concern about transience.

Getting about seven hours good sleep each night is an important part of looking after ourselves, and it may be necessary to attend to anything which prevents this routinely. Each of us can work out what we need to function optimally, and sleep deficit needs to be made up without undue postponement.

Beyond all this, we must avoid inclining either to a pagan glorification of the physicality of our bodies, or to what might be described as an Islamic preoccupation with keeping them covered.  There is no reason that Christians should not wear contemporary fashion and look cool (you don't need to be a frump, or just plain careless of looks to be holy). Style need not mean extravagance. But we do live in community and we need to think about what we wear and how it might impact on others.  The Bible doesn't tell us specifically that women can't wear bikini tops or display their underwear, or bathe topless, but we are encouraged towards modesty and to avoid behaviour that may cause others to stumble.  Clothing needs to be chosen with an understanding of others' gaze and what may lie behind it.

A related matter is the extent to which it is appropriate to go along with being a vehicle for advertising clothing or footwear brands which carry very conspicuous manufacturers' labels or logos.

It is sometimes easy for young Christians to assume their right to wear whatever they want without actually thinking about its appropriateness within the broader Christian community - just because you can do something doesn't automatically mean you should (Romans 14:1-4).

But beyond perceptions of ourselves we need to be affirming and encouraging of one another. This is an important part of our relationship with one another and means that we explicitly appreciate one another as part of God's creation and part of his variegated church. When so much advertising features people with attractive physical attributes, we need to be careful that our perception of other people is not shaped by physique more than the beauty of personality and spirit.

As Christians, we must be thankful to God for the way he has made each of us physically, with that thanks prevailing over any insecurity which might arise from comparisons with others. If you have any reservations in this respect, it is good occasionally to stand nude in front of a mirror and thank God for every part of you. An aspect of Christian witness is admiring and respecting the body and sexuality wholesomely, in contrast to the worship or exploitation of it in parts of popular culture, and the ascetic stigmatisation of it in Islamic culture. However, along with this is the right to privacy, and some proper instinct for that, as well as understanding that public nakedness is matter of shame in many cultures.

We should be particularly thankful for our complementary anatomy! Guys are equipped with a spout to make urinating more convenient (unfair??) and, on a few occasions in a lifetime - to transfer semen most effectively. But beyond these basic functions, the complementarity of genital anatomy, coupled with the intense pleasure of orgasm, is something gloriously wonderful in achieving and enjoying the 'one flesh' union within marriage. The incompleteness of each individual sexually is a wonderful gift from our creator so that we need to be united with another, complementary, person in order to fully enjoy our bodily attributes and produce offspring.

Relinquishing some privacy and allowing our bodies to be seen is OK in appropriate contexts, though some modesty is called for, and generally speaking, seeing others nude is certainly not any visual enhancement! But Christians of all people should not be embarrassed about their bodies. We should rejoice in all our physical attributes, including those normally hidden which are shrouded in pubic luxuriance. That's exactly the way we have been made, and it is all good.

For earlier generations, same-sex casual nudity was boringly routine in semi-public contexts. In New Testament times hardly any homes had bathrooms and anyone wanting to bathe would generally use a public bathhouse where nudity was perfectly normal. Hence Paul's concern regarding Timothy's appearance 44a, whose circumcision at Paul's behest implies that he would be seen in a Jewish bathhouse, and occasion some awkward comment or worse. If first century people had had the same hang-ups about bathhouse nudity as today's millennials they would have been very smelly!

Without making an issue of it, there would seem to be a natural appropriateness to single-sex nudity in at least locker-room and domestic contexts within a broad age group. This can be an aspect of fellowship, expressive of openness and trust, a proper carelessness of others' presence and an unashamedness which is nevertheless careful not to cause offence or give rise to misunderstanding. Casual male nudity, eg in locker room, or on a late-night "nudie run", is a properly normal blokey thing, for guys in their hairy entirety, and it has been so through history in public bathhouses. 44b But the millennial generation has sexualised and stigmatised casual nudity while normalizing porn - an inversion of values.

It is remarkable and tragic that today any young person is more likely to see sexually explicit porn images than a normal, unremarkable fellow human informally in their birthday suit. It's incongruous that what is properly private and marital is very public and in your face with porn, while normal anatomy has become self-consciously and awkwardly very private. While in principle Christians should be more relaxed about casual nudity (certainly same-sex, peer-level) than anyone, simply to counter the sexualisation of what should be natural and ordinary, today's young generation is conditioned so that even same-sex nudity may have sexual, and particularly homosexual, overtones. So an innocence and freedom is largely lost due to sensitivity about sexual identity, ironically at a time when 'gay' identity has never been more accepted. Nevertheless, in family or single-sex share house situations, an open bathroom door policy has merit, and maybe nudity coming or going there, and we know of one Christian young adult household where an occasional nude day affirms openness in this respect and defies the cultural stigma. Though pornography blurs the distinction, there is a huge difference between normal male nudity and guys aroused and in operational mode - the latter is only ever properly seen by a partner in the marital boudoir.

There is also a prespective on nudity which connects with nature, or in a Christian perspective, with unspoiled parts of God's creation. This might be expressed in skinny dipping in secluded places, rejoicing in both aspects of God's creation (but not getting carried away into naturism!). An echo of Eden perhaps? Being nude in nature can give a primal sense of connection with God's creation.44c In company it is fundamentally about freedom of being, not seeing. It is a delightful freedom if it does not need to be constrained by causing discomfort or giving offence to others.

The normality of the human body in non-sexual casual, locker-room or skinny dip situations is in marked contrast with how it is in private and intimate settings, which are in fact quite different. Pornography has confused the distinction. In the last few years this sexualisation of nudity has been countered by an artist - Spencer Tunick - who has, in a strange way, done something to restore innocence to nudity. Also the various world naked bike rides in many cities counter any sexual aspect of nudity very helpfully as an occasional and fun event, though to some extent with an anti-car agenda.

So, be positive about your body, be as modest as circumstances require, but do not be embarrassed about it or ashamed of it.45 The hidden bits of half the human race will not look much different to what you admire routinely in the bathroom mirror! Sadly, what earlier generations saw as freedom, openness and trust, today's may see as a bit gay! An innocence lost!

Notwithstanding the contrary comment above, there is a place for proper modesty dictated by instinct, humility, propriety, deference and consideration of others. Whatever our own inclination to modesty, most of us prefer not to behold the genital attributes of those we encounter day by day.

One of the effects of exposure to pornography is that that individual guys can become unduly self-conscious about aspects of their anatomy which in fact are just fine and fit for purpose. This gives oxygen to a flood of spam preying upon insecurity and offering quack "enhancement", though that is more risible than becoming a serious problem at the level of porn itself. We should be no more self conscious about differences in our less-public parts than differences in the rest of our physical endowment, which in fact equips us very well for life.

There are a lot of ways to get to know and develop our bodies, in sport and other energetic pursuits as well as appreciating them in sensual pleasures such as good food and wine. We need to be bodily people as well as spiritual, with self-control in all departments.

Finally, what is the appropriate Christian attitude to the sexual equipment in and on the body God has given us? Should we abstain from any genital pleasure while unmarried, or is there appropriate solo 'sexual' activity which we can be relaxed in enjoying? Either way, we should do it with gratitude for the body God has given us and its exciting equipment.

4.2 Discussion questions:
Is body image an issue for you? If so, how do you address it?
How important is taking care with our appearance to us? How important is it to others that we take care with appearance?
How do you honour and respect others in your dress and behaviour? Do you think you could do so more?
How much do you deliberately affirm others in respect to their behaviour, dress, character, etc?
How fit would you say you are? How do you think this relates to your discipleship?
Are there occasions or circumstances when you feel free to be uninhibited regarding nudity?

4.2a Masculinity

Several people have raised with us the question of what Christian masculinity or manhood looks like for young males, in contrast with heavy drinking and serial sexual conquests, or simply egotistical assertiveness. Dysfunctional and toxic masculinity is widespread in western society, sometimes expressed in macho caricature, emotional inhibition, sex disconnected from tender intimacy, and even in family violence.17f But in the Christian context, the concern is more about timid and passive stereotypes.

More fundamentally, masculinity should be understood with femininity in relationship, with the two together being complementary and expressing together our humanity in the image of God. Having said that, there is still the question, and sometimes the angst, of what it looks like. But trying to define either masculinity or femininity on its own is fraught with dangers as many people are sensitive to what they perceive as stereotypes intended to limit or direct what men or women should aspire to. However, since there are God-given gender-based instincts which need to be spoken to and shaped according to God's intended purposes, we believe it is worth attempting, albeit with care and nuance as food for thought, rather than purporting to be at all definitive.

Masculinity as controlled testosterone coupled with love and grace starts to give us a picture. Jesus provides a role model of masculinity in the pages of the gospel accounts. But masculinity is not hard-wired into the brain in the same way as the sexual physiology discussed in the next chapter, it needs to be learned in relationship and in conjunction with developing sexuality. Ideally, fathers form close emotional connection with sons and model wholesome manhood, but often this doesn't happen. Intimate emotional connections with other males are vital as a basis for stable maturity, quite apart from the Christian context. See also section 1.3.

The perception of church as a ghetto, or more commonly as fostering the Peter Pan syndrome where guys especially get to their mid 20s without really growing up, moving out of home, and developing autonomous social, recreational and vocational characteristics, is a serious issue. Many Christian young women feel they are surrounded by wimps, and if they are energetic and competent, they find hardly any guys prepared to take them on socially - the Peter Pans of the church are intimidated. To put it more strongly, does evangelical church subculture to university age emasculate guys who have grown up safely within it?

Manhood is a psychological, social and emotional maturity which should work out spiritually in an adult male. Masculinity involves courage to live out one's values with bravery in facing the consequences, a readiness to initiate and take risks, an emotional resilience, and a willingness to do battle with injustice, especially in the absence of popular support. For the Christian that means courage to advance the Kingdom and speak truth, even, or perhaps especially, where truth is unwelcome. The opposite of this is chickening out, staying on the sidelines, and being fearful, timid, equivocal and unwilling to take any risks which might invite ridicule. In this respect it is all too easy carelessly to allow friends' expectations to shape our behaviour.

False masculinity may involve being driven and striving to prove our worth, earn respect, and win friendship. The Neanderthal boor type is less likely to darken church doors. Masculinity should never be a reaction against feminism, however much particular manifestations of that might warrant critique.

In certain contexts, masculinity may be associated with aggression or at least competitiveness, strength, stoicism and sexual assertiveness, while others may associate it more closely with honour, hospitality and care for or defence of others. For Christians, a balance of the two is appropriate, with the former characteristics kept under good control and properly directed - though certainly not be played down unduly. (The fact that 90% of jail inmates are male starkly reminds us that those characteristics do need to be controlled, and that without maturity, social connection and a sense of meaning in life they can easily produce feral outcomes.) While self-control is a fruit of the Spirit for all, Paul in writing to Titus (2:6) emphasises the singular challenge of it for young men. An important aspect of self-control for men is emotional mastery, so that feelings are regulated and controlled, but not repressed.

"Masculinity should be understood as having a core to it that is the expression (on average) of God's image in ways that male embodiment enables17c." God's image embodied in males sums up the matter and leads to a question: how does being a new human person in Christ govern our perception of masculinity within any cultural context, given that there are multiple ways of being masculine? We are fortunate in having some clear markers of godly masculinity in Jesus. These are applicable in many appropriate models of masculinity. “Healthy masculinity is the ability to take responsibility and use the power you have to care for and nurture those around you” is a good definition.17e

Looking ahead towards marriage, the desire to conquer and possess another, with sexual consummation, is not unique to males, but it is characteristic. Leading on from this, when a husband promises to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give himself up for her, he is declaring his intention to be a man of strength and self-control for her benefit and for the benefit of any children born to them. Such qualities, properly exercised in the spirit of self-sacrifice, and in relation to the partner's femininity, epitomise Christian masculinity17d.

Masculinity, the social, cultural and spiritual characteristics associated with being male, is seriously compromised by lack of real friendships and by emotional isolation, so these may need attention as discussed earlier in this chapter. Masculinity is enhanced as it meets challenges so that there is a sense of being worthy to stand in the company of peers.

Dealing with masculinity here should not be taken to imply than femininity is any less significant or important, nor to be understood purely in contrasting terms. Certainly the two should not always be in tension with one another - together they are human, and no particular masculine characteristics are unique to males. We should not try to define the expression of masculinity apart from it being complementary to femininity. But in the church context femininity seems to be less uncertain and misunderstood!

4.2a Discussion questions
What Christian models of masculinity do you observe? Do any of these have obvious virtue in your opinion?
Is the Peter Pan syndrome evident at your church? Is this seen as a problem or virtue?
What aspects of Christian manhood would you most esteem in a guy?
What do you see as deficiencies in, or hindrances to, masculinity in your social circle?
Are independence from the expectations of others and a desire to control people and circumstances proper masculine traits?
In what ways can one be masculine and yet submissive?

4.3 Masturbation: the ubiquitous unmentionable

There is a sense in which anything we might say about masturbation is too much, which is possibly why the Bible says nothing. But it is an issue for some, all the more so because of online porn.

Solo masturbation is one of the pleasures that a gracious God has made available to us pending marriage - for those who do wed. Just as he has designed sexual intercourse to be hugely pleasurable in the context of a fuller relationship driven by eros, masturbation can be seen as his provision for the mature years before marriage - the typical 10-15 years being longer than in antiquity. 'Wank and wait' has long been the default for young males - wait for sexual consummation in marriage and meanwhile use God's provision single-handed.

Masturbation is often an essential part of a young guy's sexual management from puberty to marriage. Its precise role and individual practice will change over that progression, but broadly it can both help with avoiding porn and - for many - help to enable more rational consideration of romantic prospects, in addition to simply relieving hormonal stress.

Masturbation is best seen as incidental to unmarried life, rather than a mainstream activity like sex in marriage. Thus it is to be enjoyed or abstained from according to what is most helpful to each individual. There is a wide variety of practice among godly Christians. Generally, for guys, a therapeutic wank is preferable to the discomfort and distraction of 'blue balls'. We don't think God hands out brownie points for enduring 'blue balls' when he has provided a ready means of relief.

The main thing is to start by acknowledging that God has made you as he has complete with sexual inclinations and arousal etc, so that prima facie enjoying all that within the obvious constraints is good and proper. Thus, you need to work out for you where that proper enjoyment may move over into being driven by lust (properly understood, and certainly not meaning just admiring thoughts causing sexual arousal). A further consideration is how enjoying it fully takes the heat and intensity out of thoughts which end up as lustful fantasies.

Being relaxed about masturbation can help focus attention on boundaries of behaviour and especially thought which actually do matter. What is happening in the head is much more significant that what is in the hand. It is in the head that lust must be countered and porn avoided. Sexual thoughts, daydreams and arousal are normal and proper, but progressing those to lustful possessive fantasies crosses over into sin. Corresponding to that, wet dreams and masturbation may be wholesome, or not.

For those not married, masturbation can and should be a normal and proper activity, especially for males. Like all the pleasures that God has provided, its full-on enjoyment needs to be qualified, in this case by self-control and avoiding focused lust. Masturbation that is porn-driven either immediately or from stored mental images is obviously unwholesome. See also the discussion of pleasure and self-discipline in 4.1 above and also section 2.5.

However, for many millennials, masturbation and porn are conceptually and practically inseparable. Many find that firmly resisting masturbation is helpful in closing the door to porn, and that certainly needs to be the priority. Others use it to derail the urge to open porn.

As with many good things in life, not everyone needs to choose to enjoy it, let alone full-on. Abstinence can be proper and good simply as self-discipline. Many young adults do find that prolonged (if not permanent) abstinence is helpful in disciplined, godly discipleship.

Each person needs to work out what is best for them in using and enjoying masturbation or abstaining from it, and perhaps to change their practice as they proceed from puberty towards marriage, with a focus on avoiding porn, curbing lust and maintaining self-control.

That is really all that need saying - the rest of the chapter elaborates for those who may be wrestling with the issue.

Lust or legitimate?
Nowhere in the Bible is masturbation mentioned, let alone stigmatised or condemned, which leaves it as a perfectly legitimate enjoyment for unmarried Christians. It can also be, significantly, an effective way of deflecting and disarming lust - which is where we need to focus our sex-related attention. In itself it is a proper and virtuous way of enjoying that body equipment pre-marriage.

Lust and the general question of self-control set the boundaries, which are likely to be different for each person. So within the boundaries, which are worked out usually in late teens, enjoy it if you wish and thank God for the human sexuality which this can help you look forward to expressing in the way that is designed. Enjoy every aspect of your body!

Masturbation is the normal genital enjoyment, with sexual overtones, for any single person.45c Although for Christians it has often become identified with indulging lust and sometimes associated with internet porn, we should be free to enjoy it in a godly way, without it leading us into lust or it being an expression of lust. The Bible has a fair bit to say about sexual lust, and that should be taken very seriously. We each need to be more concerned about what's in our head than what's in our hand.

This puts the focus on our minds as the frontier of sin, hence the need for this section which is deliberately in the body part of the book, not the sex part. Any sin related to masturbation is in the head, not the hand, and that opens a wide range of possibilities. The following is much more about male attitudes and activities, because that's where most angst is, but the question is certainly not confined to males.45d

Enjoying tactile stimulation and orgasm solo and privately is a normal activity in the sexual development of males especially. There is no good reason for it to be stigmatised so that it becomes overlaid with guilt and shame to the extent that sometimes happens in Christian circles. Church teaching on it is often ignorant and idiosyncratic, promoting asceticism based more on Gnostic dualism than on anything biblical.

The link with the ubiquitous availability of internet pornography is addressed in section 2.5. But here it needs to be said that the main reason that many Christians are abstinent is the persistence of mental images from previous porn access - the mental 'wank bank'. These can take a long time to dissipate. Patient restraint is a better way forward than reviving and refreshing them.

There is a wide variety of Christian conviction, approach and practice on this issue, simply becuase masturbation may be a number of things for different people on differnet occasions. It may be innocent, virtuous, helpful to sexual management, or quite unwholesome. Some young Christians prefer to abstain from it because for them it has close association with focused lust or experience of pornography. Others simply find that less of it makes life easier on the lust and porn fronts. The purpose of writing here is to put some boundaries around the activity, but not to prescribe within them.

While some people cannot see how any hormonally-stoked masturbation should be tolerated personally, others have enjoyed it full-on throughout their premarital years with godly appreciation, sublimating rather than indulging sexual lust. Some have changed from frequent enjoyment to abstinence, many to conditional enjoyment of it, finding that periods of abstinence can be empowering as a way of asserting control over what can tend to become habitual.

We hope to show that various practices and approaches within the boundaries are defensible biblically and sensibly, without going out on a limb to commend one approach or practice, nor to assert intrinsic virtue to abstinence. Unlike premarital sex, this is a grey area without clear scriptural guidance, people are different, and any single approach on this matter is never going to be right for everyone. Strength of libido is obviously one factor affecting one's approach to it. The godly instincts of those brought up in faithful families are laudable individually, but not necessarily justified or in themselves pastorally helpful if expressed in sexual moralising. Appendix 2 is a light-hearted attempt to cover the diversity of views.

Certainly masturbation is a side issue to the relationships covered in chapters 2 and 3, which is why we address it separately. Sex is about relationships, and ultimately about the union of marriage45a. We have described the one-flesh relationship of marriage for humans as part of what it is to be created in God's image. Like many things to do with our bodies, masturbation is basically biological and a significant way of enjoying one's body pending marriage, though with some important caveats discussed below. It is distinct from eros-driven human sexuality which is part of being in the image of God. Perhaps the main similarity between sex and masturbation is that both are essentially private, though not necessarily furtive or secret. But in contrast to masturbation, human sex is essentially relational, and the genital aspect fits within that and acquires real meaning from that. (see also ch 2) There is a significant transition needed from solo masturbation which is essentially self-centred and focused on orgasm to marital sex focused on being one flesh with another person and self-giving to them. The contrast between orgasm focus and one flesh focus needs to be clearly understood in the lead-up to matrimony.

But some Christians, especially young men, do find the matter a challenge for a variety of reasons. The impact of pornography on youth and young adults is a major reason, addressed in 2.5 and briefly below. Another reason is because apart from that, it is stigmatised in some churches and Christian youth groups by undue emphasis of negative aspects so that it then becomes a distraction, sometimes simplistically painted as an unjustified expression of lust and hence a grievous sin. Perspective is lost, and humour is replaced by anxiety, if not guilt and shame.

It also needs to be addressed thoroughly because there are many young Christians with a high view of sex in line with plain biblical teaching and who are prepared to save coital intercourse for their marriage, and not simply treat it as recreation meanwhile. From late teenage, most people are sexually active to a significant degree, and where Christians stand apart from that, masturbation inevitably assumes more importance than it would otherwise46. Despite that, there is no well-defined theological ethic of masturbation, as there is with premarital sex, for instance47. Recourse to masturbation can enable patience, and patience with restraint is necessary to find the right life partner without undue hormonal urgency. We see it as primarily a body, mind and self-control issue. Much depends on whether it is occasional, habitual or obsessive and how it occurs.

Biologically, sexual activity follows closely on sexual maturity. Historically there has been a much smaller gap between puberty and coital sexual experience than is common today among Christians (and of course that gap is small among those with a more hedonistic view of sex)48. Biologically and socially this adolescence and young adulthood raises the profile of masturbation and means that Christians must address it more sensibly and openly than hitherto.

Although it is a private and solo activity and therefore is not sex, masturbation will usually and properly be accompanied or preceded by sexual thoughts to some degree, and it is here that issues may arise, particularly for Christians. It is sometimes called 'solo sex', or more accurately a solo expression of sex, on this account, though anything relational is simply in the mind. But we avoid this term because there is a real sense in which masturbation is generally the antithesis of sex, since it is about self-pleasuring rather than ravishing another person. Compared with coital sex, it can seem a ridiculous activity, which is why humour is usually important in discussing it!

For younger people today the issue of hormonally-stoked masturbation is sometimes totally overshadowed by and tied up with internet pornography, and it is often that which has to be the chief reference point in considering it. But before looking at the influence of pornography, some further basic thoughts.

One problem is that when people, especially guys, most need to be able to talk about it they may find doing so most difficult. The vocabulary tends to be sin-based, which is usually unhelpful, so needs to be extended as we do here. There is a behaviour spectrum between hypersensitive hang-ups and obsessive or entirely unconstrained indulgence, especially that driven by lust, and neither gives rise to easy conversation. Both extremes are undesirable and in between there are different Christian views which can be conscientiously held, though perhaps not equally applicable to male and female.

As with any other pleasures available to us, the fact that we are free to enjoy this pleasure doesn't mean that everybody should do so, nor any of us all the time pre marriage. Abstinence for a time, or all the time, may be good for a variety of reasons - not least, asserting self-control! In saying that the activity has a proper place for most people pre marriage, we don't dismiss the virtue and benefits of abstinence which expresses restraint (rather than subcultural stigmatising). St Paul writes of short-term abstinence in marriage (1 Cor 7:5), an obvious parallel.

The lust link and porn
Lust, the intense, unbridled covetous desire desire for something, and in particular to have sexual gratification with a particular person, or even dominate that person, is a ubiquitous temptation. It is listed in the Bible among carnal attributes which need to be 'put to death' (Col 3:5-8) and needs to be countered as a high priority by Christians. It is important to note that neither established English usage nor biblical usage support using that term for normal sexual attraction and thinking about attractive people with quickened pulse or even arousal, which is an important aspect of the way God has made us. These instincts are by design properly human, and are cannot sensibly be called lust. Focused lust is when they are not controlled and cross over into intense possessive fantasies of sexual conquest.49

The proper excitement of sexual physiology and personal attraction can readily develop into focused lust as fantasies flourish, and individuals will perceive the transition point differently. Certainly it's before desire becomes ridiculous fantasy. There is an important difference between thinking warmly and positively about someone, with quickened pulse, yearning, and maybe arousal on the one hand, and allowing a train of thought which is stoking the dopamine and directed towards physical sexual indullgence on the other.

A wide range of sexual thoughts may precede or accompany masturbation, if they are benign, wholesome and not lustful, that is positive. Often those thoughts will lead to increased sexual tension, especially if there has been a wrestle to terminate a lustful train of thought, and it is here that masturbation to sublimate those inclinations can give an innocent sense of relief. For those whose minds have escaped pollution or poisoning by pornography, there is a fairly wide gap between a blank mind and real lust or genital fantasies, and in this area of thought about sexually attractive people or situations there is plenty of room for following through on sexual arousal to proper and innocent or even virtuous enjoyment of masturbation without it being lustful. But once warm thoughts progress to mentally undressing a person and focusing genitally, that crosses over into lust!

However, significant exposure to pornography closes that gap significantly, and may effectively rule it out. If masturbation is inexorably associated with lust, as for many of those who have had major teenage exposure to internet porn and become addicted to it, the advice from many counselors is that abstinence is likely to be best, at least for a few months (or even years). Certainly the scope for innocent or virtuous enjoyment of masturbation will be limited for the time being. So for anyone who has or is emerging from significant porn addiction, where masturbation is compulsive, it may need to be in the sin bin and off the agenda, since for many it inevitably brings up those images and associated lust.49a (However, lust can be aroused from a variety of stimuli, and minimizing it requires attention to those, as well as self-control on other fronts. For instance, if seeing lots of exposed flesh at the beach sends lust soaring, go somewhere else, or walk there at some other time.)

Similar to but apart from any association with pornograpahy, masturbation can be an expression or indulgence of lust. Certainly, pursuing an intense lustful fantasy to a wild masturbationary climax cannot be a proper Christian experience, any more than the same in a porn session.

On the other hand, and as commonly experienced, masturbation can be used to head off and sublimate the development of lust (or an insistent urge to open porn) when one is aroused in any sense. While orgasm does give a quick dopamine peak, it also discharges and interrupts the build-up of a more substantial dopamine fix. So masturbation can short circuit or nip in the bud that development of thought,or reaching out to porn, which some of us find hard to arrest otherwise. Similarly, it relieves sexual tension where that has built up from enjoying time with - or even just thinking about - someone you are strongly attracted to. This is a positive way in which it is frequently used. Sublimating the inclination to lust by masturbation may be good sexual management.49b Some would argue that this short-circuit is still an expression of lust, but the point is that it's a lesser expression than allowing the train of thought to develop or to be indulged in a lustful frenzy viewing porn. For those who have significant sexual experience before coming to faith, masturbation can be a helpful bridge to sorting out a new approach to sex.

An individual needs to steer between two possibilities on the criterion of minimizing lust: masturbation reviving any porn images from the past which return one to that scene, or 'getting it off' so as to diminish a condition of sexual excitement or tension and help to avoid it developing into fresh lustful fantasies or porn sessions. For different people with different libidos and experiences, minimizing lust will be achieved in different ways, sometime with masturbation, sometimes with abstinence from it.

We all have sexual thoughts which can easily get out of control to become lust or unwholesome fantasy, and that requires humble confession and forgiveness. It is the thoughts rather than any manual actions which are significant. If wet dreams are morally acceptable, then masturbation with similar thoughts surely cannot be in a different category, simply because it is voluntary rather than involuntary.51a There is no obvious moral distinction between the same kinds of sexual thoughts associated with wet dreams and masturbation. Some writers conflate pornography, lust and masturbation unhelpfully. In principle, the Christian need is to distinguish them, to avoid porn, to control lust, and perhaps to keep the hormones under control in the usual single-handed fashion so as to counter lust.

Entertaining lustful fantasies of sex with people outside the commitment of marriage is simply wrong! On the other hand, it is quite proper to be thinking pleasantly and positively about people who are sexually attractive to you, and for this to cause emotional stirring and have some physiological expression without becoming lust. It's a question of drawing the line somewhere between yearning for connectedness, relationship desire, etc and rampant lust as we have attempted to define it in chapter 2 and above. And if lust flows to fantasy-focused masturbation, that simply compounds the unwholesomeness.

Achieving greater sexual purity is a proper aim, depending on what is meant by that. If the notion depends on an unjustifiable definition of lust, for instance, misplaced guilt will make it elusive. In any case, masturbationary abstinence is much more likely to be an outcome of sexual purity rather than a means to it! Confusing or equating the two is a recipe for eroded self-confidence with unreasonable sense of shame and guilt. Massive expectations in relation to minor issues always distort perspective. It is easy for guys to be weighed down by a sense of failure or defeat in something that is intrinsically not wrong, rather than rejoicing in the way we are made and finding ways to control and enjoy our sexuality prior to its consummation in marriage. Some of these ways are elaborated in the previous chapters on sexual relationships.

For guys with high libido who find that spending time with attractive girls revs them up hormonally to an extent that social interaction is distracted or self-control threatened, then unload the gun beforehand! Quietly getting your rocks off immediately before the social engagement can allow you to focus much better on the personal and social aspects of time together, and will greatly reduce the intensity of temptation to go too far physically. It can be a valuable prophylactic before a date so you avoid being too breathless and aroused.

Our plea is to avoid making masturbation a criterion of godliness, spirituality or even self-control, as churches sometimes do, without allowing for the wide variety of people endowed with different sexual physiology and life experiences. Whether individuals find it helpful or unhelpful, innocent or lust-tainted, is up to them. Contra the conditioning of some Christian upbringing, it can be an entirely proper means of sexual management pending marriage, and good for a laugh at the same level as arising from other activities which are pursued more enthusiastically by some than others! (Porn however is no laughing matter.)

What about the Bible?

The Bible has plenty to say on sexual relationships. Sexual intercourse is a fundamental part of God's design, and in his letter to the Ephesian church St Paul puts marriage forward as an analogy of our relationship with God (Ephesians 5:25-33). This forms the obvious context for any sexual feeling or expression outside of marriage.

The Bible's teaching on self-control and what we do with our bodies is central to how we understand the matter, especially if one is seeking to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind", as we have noted St Paul putting it (Romans 12:2). "Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen" (1 Thess 4: 4-5). Elsewhere, after cataloguing all sorts of sexual immorality he also reminds his readers that the body is a temple of the Holy Sprit, so needs to be treated accordingly: "Therefore honour God with your body" 50. And more basically, where Paul is qualifying the notion of freedom in the context of sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:12): "'Everything is permissible for me' - but I will not be mastered by anything."

So, we have the mind being progressively renewed as a key consideration in the light of what was discussed early in chapter 2 (2.2) about lust, coupled with self control and the question of how we honour God with our bodies while avoiding immorality.50a Marriage has to be the main reference point about bodies and sex. So whether these passages are taken to be negative about masturbation or not depends on whether one perceives an absolute distinction between enjoying genital stimulation and orgasm in sex within marriage, and enjoying it single-handed, with thanks to God. A person's definitional conditioning regarding 'lust' and 'immorality' also bears upon the matter via the conscience.

Lust control should be the main determinant of whether masturbation is enjoyed, or whether (attempted) abstinence is better. The main Christian issue with masturbation is whether it diminishes or exacerbates lust, and no one can make a call on that except oneself, on the basis of one's own heart and mind. Certainly the brain is the main sex organ, not the bits further down.

The social angle
Masturbation may provide relief for a sense of social insecurity and difficulty in relating to people, or it may be a way of dealing with stress. If there are underlying reasons of this kind, it is important to focus on them and deal with them, not the symptoms.

Masturbation does nothing to address social needs, even if it may arise from loneliness. In fact it is more likely to divert attention from active engagement socially. Readers of this section are urged also to read Section 1.3 on Intimacy in close friendships, which talks about a more important topic, one which is often emotionally related. Even for very horny guys, heart intimacy is a more basic need than getting their rocks off. And if masturbation is driven by a deep loneliness, then it is vital to find ways of addressing that need.

Mutual masturbation with girlfriend/ boyfriend is effectively crossing over into having premarital sex, and is discussed briefly in section 3.8. Don't go there!

Body and mind
Masturbation is very much a body issue, even if mind issues control and drive it. For guys, some active enjoyment of arousal is likely helpful in keeping the equipment exercised. Wet dreams with just the semen discharge deal with geriatric tadpoles but they don't exercise the hormones and nervous system as well (or as pleasurably) as a good wank! They are on their own not much of a preparation for coital sex, physical stimulation of an erection to climax is much closer to that.51b But conversely, regular masturbation can condition us to expect sex to be all about our own self-indulgent pleasure and a quick orgasm, rather than giving ourselves to another so as to transcend selfishness. As suggested earlier, there is a real sense in which masturbation is the antithesis of sex.

Short of masturbating, we need to be able to enjoy our bodies as given by God, and not extend the self-control into a sort of psychological self-neutering. If a guy has come to believe that tactile and sensuous enjoyment of his morning erection is somehow unspiritual, then what on Earth is his understanding of God's good design? Worship would be a more appropriate response to enjoying the full complement of our bodily attributes! God has made them all 'very good', to be enjoyed with pleasure and self-control. The sensual aspects of the genitals are as 'good' as the manipulative abilities of the hand or the sensory capabilities of ears, nose and taste buds. But guard the thoughts! Except for the committed ascetic, masturbation is prima facie a wholesome and proper self-pleasuring activity for those not married.

The brain chemistry associated with masturbation means that it does establish mental pathways, so it does matter what is in mind immediately preceding or when doing it. Obviously potential marriage partners may feature highly, and it is here that the practice does become properly sexual. It can have real value in a relationship if the mental pathways affirm the beloved person, but doing it as the climax of wild fantasy about what you would like to be enjoying with them in bed would be lustful indulgence. Of course, porn images are the antithesis of any kind of positive relational thoughts.

A model of Christian practice which commends itself to us is general abstinence from masturbation, but when in a relationship doing it associated with thoughts of the loved one as a person, not in respect to any coital sex (ie as lust). This steers clear of being promiscuous or adulterous, the mental pathways are positive, and the 'me now' self-pleasuring acquires a longer and sexual perspective. (We note that this is widely approved as marital practice when partners are separated, though possibly there the dynamics of lust are not so inappropriate!)

Unless overtaken by pornography, in teenage years the hormonal urge towards self-pleasuring relief may be a more pervasive driver than well-developed sexual fantasies, and if so, there is no strong reason to see the act itself as negative in any particular moral sense. Teenage guys' systems work well with masturbation daily, but usually rather less, and diminishing with maturity. For girls we understand it is both much less prevalent and less frequent. But another teenage need is progressively to learn self-control, including lust control! It is never too early to develop masturbation routines which actually displace the tendency to lust or look at porn, and which sublimate, disarm or derail it.

Christian hang-ups about masturbation and its stigmatising may very well make young Christians more vulnerable to pornography. Just as Paul in 1 Cor 7:1-7 makes it clear that marital sex is an antidote for extra-marital immorality, so masturbation can be an antidote for premarital lust growing into sinful fantasy or more, and it can diminish the attractiveness of porn. The reason, "so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control", or disarming temptation, is just as relevant outside marriage as within it, and the application to masturbation pre-marriage seems obvious.

As the adolescent stage gives way to more mature consideration, the prospect and experience of relationships (rather than just rampant hormones) becomes a greater factor and frames the issue 51c. Self control then assumes greater importance, making it appropriate to rein in the activity - especially if it has become at all habitual or compulsive. Some Christians find that masturbation becomes less appropriate after adolescence and with the stronger development of romantic relationships, where self-control needs to be to the fore in other ways too. After teenage years especially, self-control may appropriately become abstinence.

Our main advice is: don't stress about masturbation in teenage years. Whether you enjoy or abstain, remember that what goes on in your head is more significant than what you do with your hand. Lust is the issue to focus on.

Pornography again
As discussed more fully in section 2.5, pornography must be avoided, and Christians should avoid internet porn sites like the plague. We underestimate the addictiveness of pornography at our peril. The fact that access is so easy and so private means that the temptation can be great. It has migrated from needing computer access to all sorts of portable devices. Heading it off has to be a major priority personally and as part of the mutual responsibility of fellowship.

In teenage years any porn addiction seriously distorts the process of growing up emotionally as mental pathways are reinforced to substitute genital preoccupation for social engagement. At any age it steadily erodes the ability to enjoy normal personal relationships in their sexual dimensions. Romance is displaced by voyeurism and lust. Once the attraction of porn is indulged, and addiction ensues, it can be a long way back. 52 This needs to be a key aspect of accountability relationships among young bucks! Internet accountability software is recommended even as a precautionary measure if the attraction is real, and certainly it has an important place remedially.

For young women the fundamental issues are the same, though physiologically the masturbation temptation is much less - young male arousal is very hard to ignore, the mechanics of male orgasm are simple, and habits form easily. This means also that pornography is less a problem for girls.

Self-control and abstinence
Finally, like anything else, masturbation must be subject to self-control and not allowed to become entirely habitual or compulsive. That self-control must be primarily in our minds. An undue focus on the activity itself often leads to a pharisaic preoccupation with avoiding it, rather than a biblical focus on minimizing lust.

Many guys find that masturbation is a battleground where they grapple frustratingly with the basic challenge of self-control in relation to what may have become habitual. They may experience it as the pervasive influence of the old nature in conflict with the aspirations of the new life in Christ (Romans 7:14-25). In that sense it is handling the conflict which is important, more than the particulars in themselves, but a month or two of abstinence will resolve uncertainty. Each person is different, and the 18-year old Christian guy whose supreme achievement is to get it down to once per day is in a different place from his friend whose fortnightly wrestle with lust is the frontier of temptation. Certainly self-control does not necessarily mean abstinence in this area or many others, though it should demonstrably enable abstinence.53 We should not let ourselves be ruled by rampant hormones.

Self-control is basic on a much wider front than this issue! We all accept that regarding words and actions, including behaviour towards others, also mostly regarding our appetite for food and drink. Self-control means simply what it says in most respects, it does not usually mean abstinence unless a desired activity is harmful.

Rules or principles?
Church teaching which stigmatizes masturbation - apart from the recovery stages out of porn addiction - is likely to be profoundly unhelpful in encouraging a wholesome understanding of sexuality. In fact it is more likely to exacerbate the problem with porn. Making a big deal of the matter is likely to mean that the church is self-selecting for wimps, or simply low-testosterone types - a very serious form of self-abuse at the corporate level 54.

More bluntly: Focusing on what is in the hand rather than what is in the mind is essentially Pharisaic.

The need for young adults to be able to talk reasonably openly about masturbation with peers in the church context is obvious and must be encouraged. By that we mean giving it space in public discourse and teaching, and for individuals to be able to talk and laugh about it at least with close friends. The fact that it's private doesn't mean it's unmentionable. While eschewing the contrived genre of dirty jokes, it is really good to be able to laugh about sexual matters in the context of being frank and open with close friends and accountability partners. Humour helps keep the issue in perspective, and is a great antidote to temptation.

Martin Luther or his mentor referred to masturbation as a 'puppy sin', which should not be allowed to preoccupy anyone. Today, the diversity of views and practice in the church needs to be open and talked through openly, on a biblical, balanced and rational basis. This should extend to the allure of porn, and how that relates to masturbation.

For teenage guys, apart from accountability partner(s), it may be good to talk with an older person such as youth pastor, mentor or father (mothers' role tends to be limited to making sure there's a box of tissues near your bed!).

For long-term singles, masturbation is an entirely appropriate activity to be enjoyed without inhibition, though within the same constraints of self-control, minimising lust, and avoiding porn. Or it may be better avoided for the same reasons as discussed.

Fundamentally masturbation is a normal, healthy and proper activity for single people, qualified principally by consideration of what accompanies it or drives it in the mind. For Christians, that qualification is basic - sexual lust is sinful. No-one should be dissuaded from feeling free to enjoy masturbation pre-marriage, and whether that freedom is expressed in activity or abstinence needs to be decided by the individual in the context of understanding and reflection. Many have found that a good masturbation routine helps one be a bit more objective about when to marry and to whom. But for anyone, prior porn addiction may make its practice unwise, or even rule it out.

There are several relevant truths and principles:
1. God has created us as sexual beings and that sexuality is good.
2. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit.
3. Sexual lust is a sin to be strenuously avoided or at least minimised.
4. The Bible says nothing specifically about masturbation.
5. In biblical times marriage was generally fairly soon after puberty.

Masturbation summary (mainly for guys):

  • It may be self-pleasuring in wholesome anticipation of fuller relationship, and hence sexual to a degree
  • It may be self-indulgent antithesis of sex
  • It may be to relieve sexual tension
  • It may be an escape route to sublimate build-up of lust
  • It may be an indulgence of lust, in which case lay off and grapple with that temptation head-on
  • If it often revives porn imagery, or is in any way driven by porn, stop it and default to abstinence
  • If it largely accompanies porn, the porn addiction needs to be dealt with urgently
  • Abstinence (or nearly so) is good, and may be principled, pragmatic re lust, or preventative (of porn recall) or some combination of these
  • Controlled use and enjoyment of masturbation is OK
  • In moderation, and without the boost from pornography or unconstrained lust, masturbation should be seen as a God-given tool for sexual management which is useful for some unmarried people, not necessarily all.
  • But:

  • Maintain a positive and thankful attitude to your sexual equipment and the pleasure of it,
  • Remember that self-control is an important fruit of the spirit,
  • So, curb lust.
  • For the fairer sex: we forbear from advice! But the issues are the same.

    4.3 Discussion questions for guys:

    There are a number of different ways young guys enjoy and use masturbation, or aim to abstain from it, in curbing lust and closing the door to porn. Have you worked out what sexual management strategy best suits your nature and discipleship? Have you discussed this with accountability partner(s) and submitted it to that accountability process?

    What factors affect your approach to masturbation?
    If you masturbate, can you assert your self-control by ceasing for a month or two?
    Can you enjoy sexual feelings and arousal without needing to masturbate to climax?
    Can you talk openly among closer friends about these questions? Laugh with them about such matters?
    Are you in danger of a preoccupation with masturbation which makes you less conscientious about sins like pride, selfishness, covetousness, etc? or socially withdrawn, even?
    Do you think masturbation might provide relief for a sense of social insecurity and difficulty in relating to people? If so, how can you address those issues? (it is important to do so!)
    How does being in or out of a romantic relationship affect your attitude to masturbation?
    How helpful or unhelpful do you find your church's teaching in this area?

    4.3 Discussion questions for girls:
    Have you worked out what is the best sexual management strategy for yourself in relation to issues such as lust control and masturbation? What factors affect your approach?
    Can you talk openly among closer friends about these questions?
    Do you think it would be appropriate for you to have or express a view about whether your boyfriend should masturbate or not? Do you feel that you understand the propensity of young males in this regard?
    Would you be upset if he thought about you when masturbating? Or if he didn't? Or if he thought about someone else instead?
    How helpful or unhelpful do you find your church's teaching in this area?

    4.3 Discussion questions focused on pornography experience:
    Post puberty, did you masturbate a lot before being seriously attracted to porn?
    If so, did you feel good about this, or was it a matter for significant shame and guilt?
    If you have had a serious attraction to porn, did the occasional urge to masturbate lead you into a porn session?, - or was the porn session usually the main driver of the activity?
    In fighting the attraction of porn, have you sought help, or implemented the 90-day abstinence outlined in 2.5?

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    41 Psalm 139:13-16, referring to an individual's awareness that "you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother's womb."

    44a Why would Paul have circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) if he were not likely routinely to be seen nude by his or Paul's detractors? In a first-century Jewish bathhouse, foreskins would have been frowned upon.

    44bUnashamed locker room (single sex) nudity is often considered part of team building, and there is no reason for Christians who likely have a more developed sense of fellowship to dissent from that, as long as it is not sexualised. At its most basic level, nakedness means vulnerability, hence nudity in this context is a quite significant statement of openness and trust. It is a matter of doing, not seeing. Casual nudity emphasizes common humanity and diminishes individuality. A nude person in this relatively public context is stripped of clothing-based signals of social status or image.

    44cThis is distinct from any social skinny-dipping in pools at parties, which today tends to be fraught due to sexual connotations of group nudity, or even suffer the 'gay' stigma.

    45 Immediately after the marriage passage in Genesis 2 we have the man and his wife both being naked and feeling no shame. But after the Fall in Genesis 3:7, shame enters the picture. Countering that and trusting others so that you are relaxed about letting them see you unclothed would seem to be in line with that early Genesis account and closer to the way things are meant to be.

    17c William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy - how pornography hijacks the male brain, IVP USA 2009. Chapter 6 on Masculinity is a much fuller treatment of the subject then we can provide here. In Tim Chester's book Captured by a Better Vision Gordon MacDonald is usefully quoted as identifying three cultural stereotypes defining masculinity: a real man is a hunter and provider, he fears failure; a real man is a stud, he fears rejection; and a real man is a fighter, he fears powerlessness. When men think private thoughts, Nelson, 1996.

    17d Abp Peter Jensen, The Age, 28 August 2012.

    17e Alan Stewart, Sydney, October 2020.

    17f Domestic violence is a cowardly vice which is incompatible with Jesus-minded masculinity and discipleship.

    45a The equipment and the orgasm are very much secondary to the relationships, especially when seen in terms of Gen 2:24, which is another reason why for a pre-marriage readership it is more helpful to focus on them separately here. Marriage courses are very helpful to many people, because relationships are complex. Self-pleasuring the body could hardly be simpler - a huge contrast with the fullness of sex in marriage.

    45c The La Trobe National Survey of secondary school students 2018 found that of about 5300 adolescents in years 10-12, 96% of males and 83% of females identified 'touching your own genitals' as sexual behaviour. The term masturbation was not used in the survey.

    45d In the 2014 Australian Study of Health and Relationships aka 'Sex in Australia' surveying 20,000 adolescents 16-19 years old, 30% of females said they masturbated.

    46 In contrast to some Christian material, we take the view that there is generally a significant difference between a Christian approach to masturbation before and within marriage, and we comment only on the 'before' situation.

    47 The best approach to that we have seen is Kwee, Alex W & Hoover, David C, 2008, Education about Masturbation: A male sexual health perspective.

    48 Mary was probably in her mid teens when she gave birth to Jesus and married Joseph.

    49 We have noted in ch 2 (2.2) that enjoyment of the hormonal buzz caused by attractive individuals is entirely proper, as is arousal and excitement on account of them if not given free rein. Lust is much more an expression of our animal nature. From the male side, this culminates in wanting to conquer, possess, and ravish the person with genital indulgence, maybe with fantasy of all that playing out in our minds, and often projecting an illicit liaison. From the female side, belonging is perhaps foremost. Some Christians' tendency to define all sexual thought and physical appreciation of others as 'lust' is indefensible and unhelpful.

    49a See also 2.5. Pornography commonly just revs up the hormones along with focusing the mind on those unnatural images of sexual activity, or activity employing the sexual equipment, hence furnishing food for unwholesome thought and establishing mental pathways which are inimical to real relational sex. The natural male tendency to be physical rather than emotionally relational is exacerbated, and all the things that are needed to establish a relationship which has the potential to be a life partnership are pushed to the background.

    However, for those who are countering the temptation to view porn at the same level as resisting lust: If you find yourself hankering after a porn hit and cannot counter that by removing yourself completely from the computer, then preempt the whole thing with a quick wank. With the sexual tension relieved it will be easier to behave rationally and with restraint. Used pre-emptively in this way it can significantly help recovery from porn addiction for some guys.

    49b Freud defined sublimation as the process of deflecting sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation, being "an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilised life".

    50 I Cor 6: 19-20, preceded by exhortation to "flee immorality".

    50a In chapter 2 we have pointed out that Matt 5:28 effectively defines lust, at least insofar as it impinges on marriage. To therefore suggest that Matt 5:29-30 means that enjoying the sight of an attractive girl or masturbating amounts to adultery is ridiculous, though of course in the mind and heart either may extend to being sinful.

    51a It's considered generally healthy for guys at least to orgasm at least a couple of times per week, so for unmarried Christians where sexual intercourse is not on the agenda then the alternative is obvious.

    51b Certainly absolute abstinence which is effectively self-neutering can be problematical when the wedding night comes round - a bit like arriving in China with no experience of chopsticks. But in practice it would be very rare at that extreme - only once in our pastoral experience.

    51c see Appendix 1.

    52 Porn addiction can have adverse physiological effects, including on libido, which can degrade marital relations. Also the production of porn generally involves exploitation of people, which is yet another reason to avoid it. There is software available which will report your dubious internet activity to your nominated accountability partner(s). If internet porn becomes a serious temptation this is a good tool to use. Three web sites offering this are: (widely recommended),,, also

    53 If in any doubt, abstain for a few months.

    54 All this is written with the likelihood of marriage in mind. Since most will see themselves called to marriage, the activity is considered in the context of that long-term vision and goal. But what about the single person who is called differently, or for any reason remains single long term? That is beyond the scope of this book, though we note that there is some (but not clear-cut) medical support for the health benefit of more exercise in that department through middle age and beyond than wet dreams provide.