By Candice Watters
My now ex-boyfriend recently broke up with me because I struggle with masturbation. It has left me confused about what I should be thinking about the subject. I had been under the impression that any guy I date would probably struggle with it, so I was very shocked to have a man break up with me over it, especially because we were becoming serious with each other.
Is this something I should take way more seriously than I am?
I thought I had been taking it seriously even as I struggled with it; I repented and stopped multiple times over the years, only to fall back into it. It did not matter to my ex that I was sorry and wanted to stop; he could not accept it. But it made me wonder if this is something a Christian should be able to “put to death,” as in be able to stop it for good, knowing that we will never be perfect in this life.
Should this be a deal breaker in a relationship? Would not everyone end up not getting married since there are many who struggle with it? I recently read the Bible verses in 1 Corinthians 5 about not associating with believers who engage in sexual immorality; where does one draw the line in this regard? What constitutes sexual immorality?
Thank you for writing. You ask what sexual immorality is. Stated simply, sexual immorality is anything that is counter to God’s design for monogamous sex within marriage as revealed in His Word, the Bible. But even that standard doesn’t go far enough. The question we should ask isn’t, “Can I do this or that?” But rather, “Does this or that glorify God?” This is the topic of an excellent new book, What is the Meaning of Sex? by our friend Denny Burk.
Burk is a professor, pastor and author. His new book is one of the most helpful I’ve seen for rightly understanding what sex is for and why it matters that we understand it rightly. He says, “…you haven’t understood the gift of sexuality unless you’ve understood the creator’s purpose of it. The ultimate purpose [for sex] is the glory of God. Everything we do in our lives falls under that larger purpose, and that includes the gift of sexuality.”
In His kindness, God has told us what glorifies Him and what doesn’t. This is one reason we must make daily study of His Word part of our regular habit. If we don’t know what He commands, we can never hope to obey Him. But even knowing what’s required isn’t enough to empower us to do it, or in the case of sexual sin, not to do it.
Thankfully sex isn’t the only gift God gives His creatures, and it’s not even the best gift. In our struggles to understand sex and use it for God’s glory in the midst of our sin and brokenness, we can, by grace, realize our great need for rescue. God is perfect in holiness, and He cannot look on sin (Isaiah 6:1-7, Habakkuk 1:13). Where does this leave us — the sexually broken who stumble in many ways (James 3:2)? It leaves us in need of a great Savior.
Your question might seem an odd choice to answer so close to Christmas, but I think it’s perfect. Christ was born to die. He took on flesh and dwelt among us in order to live the perfect life we could never live and die the death we deserve. He is God’s greatest gift. And it is in Christ and His atoning death that we find forgiveness for our sin — sexual and otherwise — as well as freedom from Satan’s condemnation. Once you are in Christ, the evil one’s accusations, though they may be true, no longer have any power to condemn you. There is forgiveness at the cross. It is there that the power of sin is broken (Romans 8:1-3).
You ask if masturbation should be a deal breaker in a relationship. That depends. If it’s something you’re working to crucify, going to great lengths to fight lust and to submit your desires to the lordship of Christ; if you’ve having victory over it, then no, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. If, however, you or someone you’re dating says, “This is something I struggle with,” as in, “I feel bad about it every time I do it, but I seem to be powerless to stop doing it,” then yes, I’d say that’s reason enough to break up. Why? Because it signals a need for growth in the godliness and spiritual maturity that is necessary for biblical marriage. Depending on the situation, it may even indicate a need for saving faith in one who “has the appearance of godliness, but denies its power” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
In describing the reality of sin’s power over believers in Christ, Paul writes in Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Are you having dominion over sin, or is it having dominion over you? The answer to this question is the difference between crucifying sin and merely “struggling” with it.
You ask if masturbation is something Christians should be able to put to death. God would not tell us to “be holy as I am holy,” and to “go, and from now on sin no more” if it were not possible not to sin (1 Peter 1:16, John 8:11). You are right that we will not be perfect until we see Christ face-to-face. God doesn’t command us to be perfect, but to be holy. That means we are set free from the power of sin. It should not control us. This doesn’t mean we will never stumble, but that we ought not to be enslaved by sin. Where there are besetting sins, we must by any means necessary, fight them. My concern with your question is that little word “struggle.” It’s not enough to feel bad about this sin. There are different kinds of grief: one helpful, the other not. Paul writes,
I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
How do you know if you have godly grief? Godly grief leads to repentance, which means a turning away from the sin. Worldly grief, on the other hand, promises to stop until the overwhelming temptation returns, and the cycle of falling and feeling bad and saying “I’m sorry” begins again. Repentance means turning from your sin, and fleeing, and doing whatever is necessary to crucify it. What does it look like in our day to “gouge out your eye and cut off your hand” (Matthew 5:29-30)? (These posts from John Piper here and here, and Russell Moore here are full of help.)
In our own strength, the fight against the world, the flesh and the devil is a losing battle. But we are not left to ourselves or limited to our own strength! That is the glory of Christ’s ascension. Jesus told His disciples that He would be leaving them, but not leaving them alone:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:7-11).
It is that judgment that is of such encouragement to us, sinners forgiven by grace. The “ruler of the world” is Satan. And Christ defeated Him on the cross, breaking the power of sin in the lives of those who believe in Him and trust in His atoning death for the forgiveness of their sins.
Do you know this forgiveness? Are you trusting Christ for the forgiveness of your sins? If so, run to Him and ask for help. As long as we are alive, we must strive to flee temptation and to not give the devil a foothold (2 Timothy 2:22). The Bible is clear that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9). And so you are right to be concerned. To borrow a phrase from Strider at the start of the journey in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, “You’re not frightened enough.” I think that could rightly be said about every one of us in regard to our own sin in the face of Holy God.
I pray God will continue the work of sanctification He has begun in you and that He will bless you with a husband who is equally persuaded of the debt he owes for his own sin, even as he delights in the One who forgives and sets captives free.