Is Masturbation a Sin If You’re Not Lusting, and It’s an Ingrained Habit Used to Fall Asleep?

Question from a reader:

Is masturbation a sin if you are not lusting anything? I feel really confused about this and am uncomfortable asking my pastors about sex. A long time ago, I tried looking up on the internet about if masturbation is a sin or not, and most of the articles said that masturbation is not really a sin in and of itself, but lust is. Most of the articles seemed geared towards men who do this while they watch pornography. Except, I am female, and I have never seen pornography in my life. I think I started masturbating when I was a kid because it made me feel calm when I was trying to fall asleep, except I did not know it was called masturbation then.

Now I feel like I keep flipping back and forth about whether or not what I am doing is a sin. I sometimes go through a phase where I stop doing this while I am trying to fall asleep because I am worried I am sinning, but it is hard to stop, and then sometimes I think maybe it is not really a sin because I don’t think I am lusting anything. Sometimes I wonder if it is a sin in a different way, like gluttony, because it is a waste of time. Maybe if I understood more about if what I am doing is a sin and why, then it might help me to stop?

Answer from Stephanie Anderson, EPM staff:

I think a question that could really get to the heart of this issue and provide some clarity is asking yourself, “Does this act point me to Jesus and help me glorify God in my life?” When I read your message, my intuition is that masturbation is actually causing you some level of mental confusion and stress, and even simply causing a distraction in your spiritual life. I also sense that you do really want to honor the Lord and do what is right, and I commend you for that!

God is clear that He wants us to honor Him in every part of our life. Scripture tells us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). God cares most about your heart and He wants you to live a life that is pleasing to Him. Doing so will bring Him glory and also bring you happiness and peace.

Most Christian articles with a strong emphasis on biblical and holy sexuality will call out masturbation as being a sin. (Such as this article from Randy.) I know that you wrote that you don’t feel lust is involved in this act. Only God can see into your heart and mind and know your motivations.

However, I would encourage you to look further “under the hood” about why you masturbate. Randy writes in his book The Purity Principle, “When we turn to masturbation, we are medicating a pain—maybe loneliness, discouragement, rejection, or fear. There is something deeper than just the obvious desire. We need to address the root issue, to ask God to meet the needs that make us vulnerable to the temptation.”

If relaxation, stress relief, and falling asleep are the issues, then it may be time to find some new tools to help with those issues. It sounds like for a while you didn’t even know what that act was called and if it was wrong. Kelly Needham explains that some women who struggle with this were “simply curious children when they discovered the parts of their body that felt good when touched.”

But now that God has brought this to light for you, this could be a wonderful opportunity to move forward with habits that will better serve you mentally, physically, and spiritually. The best thing you can do is simply talk to Jesus about this. If you’ve accepted Jesus as your Savior, then the Holy Spirit lives in your heart. He has promised to guide you into all truth (John 16:13). Ask Him to show you the truth regarding this, and where any sin might be involved, and to help you live a life that is pleasing to Him. I like how Kelly Needham puts it in this article: “Turn your energy to chase after Christ with all that you have.”

I also understand that talking about this subject with a pastor could be quite awkward. Would you consider talking with a female Christian counselor? Ingrained habits take time and focus (and sometimes outside help) to overcome, and there is no shame in asking for the help you need. You mentioned Focus on the Family—we have referred readers to their Counseling Consultation and Referrals service. They write, “The consultation is available at no cost to you due to generous donor support and will be with one of our licensed or pastoral counseling specialists.” They can also provide referrals to a Christian counselor in your area.

God bless you, as you follow Jesus and seek to honor Him. I love what Philippians 1:6 says. I hope it encourages you too: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (NLT).

Follow up from reader:

What if I am lusting something, but it isn’t clear what it is?  Now whenever I have the urge to masturbate, I have been trying to see if there is a pattern as to why I want to do this.  Last night I remember wanting to do it when I was thinking stressful thoughts about all of the stuff I had to get done.  

My church had a guest speaker talk about lust. He said that lust is kind of like when Gollum/the Hobbit is entranced by the ring and does not want to throw it into the volcano.  The guest speaker said that people can lust other things that aren’t exactly sexual, like you could lust eating a cookie.  Though, how do you know if you are lusting eating a cookie, or if you just want to eat a cookie because it looks delicious?  

Response from Stephanie:

I’m so glad you’ve been able to start thinking about patterns in your life and asking those “why” questions. I know personally that it can be painful to dive deeper into what’s behind actions or thoughts, but it’s also so important and ultimately it is freeing. Jesus said the truth will set us free.

You have such good questions about lust—they are beyond my scope to answer in a helpful way, but I know for sure that Randy highly recommends Ed Welch’s book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave. “Addiction” may feel like a strong word that only applies to drug or sex or alcohol addictions, but the book is for anyone struggling with any type of ingrained habit that controls them, and who wants freedom. Here’s more from the description:

In Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave Welch teaches that the hopelessness of the “sickness, recovery, relapse” cycle needs to be replaced with the biblical view of sin, salvation, and sanctification. The addict must face the fact that what and who he worships will control his life and that true freedom can only come through the cross.

The ministry that Ed is involved with,, is a great resource to search for articles on. The principles that are shared in this one may be of interest.

I read this verse today and I hope it encourages you: “He brought me out to a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me” (Psalm 18:19). May God’s love, mercy, delight, and empowerment encourage you today as you press on to know Him more. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.