Wednesday, March 13, 2013

He Asked Me the "M" Question

Please Note:  This essay contains material that some of you might find discomfiting.

Regular readers of my blog know that one of my best friends is in prison.

He had been a co-worker, and then a friend, and then he did a truly stupid and illegal thing, and now he's starting his third year behind bars, with about six more to go.

He's unsaved, and he's gay.  Yet we'd forged some common bonds over the way we view our society, and humanity in general.  He respectfully disagrees with the basis of my worldview - faith in Christ - and I respectfully disagree with the basis of his worldview, which is atheism.  Some relationships never get past that vast disparity, but for whatever reason, we've been surprised to find areas of common agreement.

You're likely aware that many gays base their worldview on their sexual orientation.  But this is something both my friend and I agree upon:  we consider sexual orientation to be a woefully undependable and irresponsible focus.  Few heterosexuals base their worldview on their sexual orientation, and the ones who do tend to mimic the same problems gay-centric people display: the objectification of people for their sexual attributes, promiscuity that exposes one to physical and psychological illnesses, and general debauchery that mocks love, interpersonal relationships, and personal integrity.

My friend may be gay, but he's not flaming, because his sexual orientation doesn't define him.  His atheism does.  He's also a graphic designer of Italian descent who loves good food.  Being a lover of good food, he's being driven crazy in prison, where the menu is decidedly marginal.  And speaking of going crazy, although being gay doesn't define him, my friend is still a sexual being, and without being too graphic about it, he's expressed to me that he's developing certain frustrations in that area as well.

Believers in Christ like myself have generally not been raised to discuss sexuality out in the open.  Even in home groups, or in private conversations, if any sexually-related topic ever comes up, we usually end up hurriedly finishing each other's sentences so we can avoid being as explicit as we otherwise could be.  It's not that talking about sexuality is wrong in and of itself, but even when the subject matter is one of objective consideration, and not sordid lewdness, most of us hope the least amount of imprecise words suffices as information.

Meanwhile, believers in Christ are also to maintain a witness to the incarcerated, no matter their crime.  But, since sex comprises a significant portion of prison life - and we're not talking conjugal visits here -  the prisoners to whom we minister are not going to have the same inhibitions with certain topics as you or I might have.

Take masturbation, for example.

OK.  There.  I've said it.  I've typed it out.  A word I never thought I'd put into this blog.

But my friend is struggling with it.  He's joined the "Christian" group in his prison, because being part of that group helps explain to other prisoners why he might act differently than guys in the facility's general population.  It's for his own physical protection, pure and simple.  It's a charade, but so far, he thinks he's been able to pull it off.  He's told me that numerous times, chuckling at the irony of a self-professed atheist taking a Bible to chapel services in jail and singing praise songs he's never heard before.

The problem with being an atheist hiding out in a Christian group in prison is that my friend knows nothing about our theology and doctrine.  So when one of his fellow inmates from chapel told him that masturbation is a sin, and that God would kill him for "spilling his seed on the ground," my friend - apparently covering all his bases - wanted to know the truth.

If God does exist, might He kill my friend for masturbating?  After all, considering his situation...

What would you say?

"Um, ah... we don't talk about that."

"Um, not necessarily, but that's all you need to know."

"Um, I think so, but I really don't want to look into it with you."

Frankly, I don't believe God arranged this friendship for me to backpedal on legitimate questions like this from my incarcerated friend.  If I'm confident that the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses every area of life, and it is the solid foundation upon which I can build my worldview, then God has an answer for this question.  And I need to know what it is.

So here - after considerable hesitancy on my part - is what I wrote back to him:


Of all the topics you could have picked, from Heaven to Hell, the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, or women wearing pants in church… you pick masturbation?

Actually, your friend from chapel is somewhat correct, in that the Bible does say a person who “spent his seed” on the ground was killed by God. The passage is Genesis 38, if you want to look it up.

However, upon reading the passage, it’s easy to see that it’s not talking about masturbation, but the custom at the time of a brother performing husbandly duties on the widow of his deceased brother, so that she will have offspring to care for her in her old age. The only Social Security they had back then was one’s children. God killed this man for refusing to perform what, in the complex ways of the Old Testament, was expected of him. This man would go ahead and have sex with his late brother’s wife, but he didn’t want to sire any children through her, so he intentionally and utterly foiled the procreative process.

Now, regarding your question, of all my years attending church, listening to sermons, reading the Bible for myself, and exploring what a variety of evangelical writers have had to say on the subject of sex and sexuality, I’m not aware of anything in the Bible that explicitly says men and women are not to masturbate.

However, how one masturbates could be sinful.

I know you want to be blunt, and I suppose little of what I say would offend you. So here goes: the reason God did not design the normal penis or vagina to provide unilateral sexual satisfaction for its owner is because these organs function as procreative elements of biology, as well as pleasure centers. They’re supposed to be used solely within the intimacy of a one-man-one-woman marriage to not only produce offspring, but provide a unique bonding experience that only those two people will share their entire lifetime. In other words, you will derive some pleasure from “beating off,” as you say, but not as much pleasure as God intends for conventional sex between a husband and his wife.

This is one reason why many evangelicals not only oppose homosexuality, but think they have the right to be rude and hurtful towards gays. We’ve talked about this before: while I believe that homosexuality is a sin because it goes against God’s design for our sexuality, there are many sexual sins within heterosexuality that are equally bad, dangerous, and offensive to God, yet evangelicals treat those far more lightly.

One of those sins is pornography. Like I said, it’s not clear in the Bible that masturbation itself is wrong. But how you masturbate could be. And pornography, which is the debasement of the human body and God’s purpose for sex, not to mention the objectification of people for their looks rather than their personhood (sexuality is not intended to define people), is a sinful way of achieving arousal.

Arousal, stimulation, ecstasy, and all the other emotions and physical manifestations of sex are not wrong in and of themselves. But God made them to be used and enjoyed within the confines of the Biblical marriage bed. Or countertop, or sofa, or back seat. It’s how one achieves that arousal that could be wrong.

Unfortunately, few of us know how to achieve arousal unilaterally without some form of sexual perversion, like pornography, or lusting after somebody we find attractive, or with whom we desire to have sex but shouldn’t. I suppose a spouse could masturbate in their hotel room if they’re on a trip and fantasizing about their spouse who isn’t physically with them. And I suppose a single, never-married person could masturbate simply by learning how to maneuver their organ in just the right way – but without sinful thoughts as stimulation. But I’m not stupid enough to think these non-sinful ways are how most people achieve satisfaction from masturbation.

Does that answer your question?  I hope so, because thinking through and writing this explanation has really exhausted me! 

Oy vey!

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