Why Christians need to talk about masturbation

OK, so I’ve got your attention. Why on earth would I bring up something that so many would seem so distasteful and to others so banal? That’s why. Contemporary views about masturbation, even among Christians, highlight something of the moral and ethical change that has taken place in western culture over the last forty years or so. In our churches there can now be a huge diversity of beliefs on issues of sexuality. Because most of these topics are so visceral and emotionally charged it’s hard to even begin discussion. But, perhaps because masturbation seems to be less of an attack on a personal identity, I think it gives us a starting place for discussion of Christian sexual ethics. I think it also gives us some pointers as to how we might begin to address other subtler or more visceral topics within the larger debate. Furthermore it gives some insights into the Christian nature of love and our own spiritual formation.

To be clear, in this particular post I’m not pushing more accountability among Christians about masturbation, although this may well be helpful. Rather, I’m suggesting that it gives us at least one remaining topic, related to sexuality, that we might be able to think about logically and Christologically, without everyone getting so angry and emotional that the conversation devolves into a mud slingling context. Therefore, it may give us some clues as to how we can handle the larger debates we find swirling around us, for which most of us feel ill equipped.

As this is an informal blog I won’t use academic references. However, I do think it’s important to say that these ramblings are a synthesis of ideas from Jon Tyson (Church in the City, New Work), Mark Sayers (‘This Cultural Moment’ podcast), Glynn Harrison (‘A better story’), Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’) and, probably, Tim Keller.

Previous generations of western Christians, such as those born before the 1980s, would generally have seen masturbation as something that is ethically or morally wrong. Why? Because, they may say, it perverts the sanctity of human sexuality as designed by God. A Christian of these generations may also appeal to the Bible as an authority, to say that masturbation takes something that the Bible promotes within marriage, sexual satisfaction, and re-orders it outside of marriage. Jonathan Haidt points out that previous generations would often have appealed for morality to things such as ‘sanctity’ or ‘authority’, and some conservatives may even today. Previous generations would also have held a more corporate sense of morality, which balances the well-being of an individual with the well being of the community. On these grounds it may be pointed out that sexuality should be expressed within marriage, as marriage is a bedrock of a society and the best way to raise children. Certain things are right, because they’re better for society as a whole. Or so the argument goes.

But this framework is lost to the age we live in. Authority can no longer be appealed to because authority is seen as the thing we’re trying to free ourselves from. Authority, tradition and institution is seen as coercive, even abusive, by nature. As a result, a young Christian finds themselves in a culture which appeals, morally, to things such as ‘care’, ‘fairness’ and ‘oppression’. Within such a framework, based exclusively around the freedom, rights and satisfaction of the individual, masturbation could never be ‘wrong’ in any moral sense, in fact it could be viewed as quite helpful. Why? Contemporary western culture may say that an individual’s need for self expression, sexually, might be met through such individual satisfaction. In fact, to deny your inner desire could even be damaging or repressive, someone may argue. Anyway, what’s it got to do with me what another individual does in their own time? There’s no longer much sense of ‘society’ as a whole, so as long as no-one’s getting hurt it doesn’t matter.

How do people with these opposing world views even begin to speak to one another? And, bearing in mind that all cultural moral frameworks have blind-spots, how can Christians of either generation find Jesus’ way in all of this? After all, Jesus practices and preaches both justice and care for the individual and an appeal to the authority of the scriptures. In Haidt’s language, Jesus appeals to moral taste buds from both ‘the right’ (conservatism) and ‘the left’ (progressives). And surely, part of the Church’s witness to the world is that young and old can talk, debate, relate and learn from one another.

Perhaps the most helpful approach I’ve heard is the concept of spiritual ‘formation’. This is an ancient Christian understanding, grounded firmly in the Bible, that many of our churches have forgotten. The idea goes a bit like this: we are all being formed, spiritually, all of the time. Throughout the day, every day, we are engaging in practices that will either make us more ‘other loving’ (based on the Christian concept of ‘agape love’) or form us in another way. The other main option in contemporary western culture is probably ‘self love’, which I think often quickly turns into ‘self hatred’. But it’s clear that the Christian aim is to become more like Christ, who laid down his life for others. Agape love, ‘other-love’ is our aim. Christians believe that Agape love leads to the flourishing of both society and the individual. It is the pattern set by God in Creation and Christ in incarnation and atonement, thus appealing to both views of morality.

So the question is: are your daily practices forming you into a person that is loving others more or less? Are your daily habits forming you to be more like Christ or into a different image? For example, using and engaging in social media throughout the day. This is a formation practice. A very strong one. For many people it’s the first thing they do in the morning, the last thing they do at night and the first thing our dopamine addicted brains turn to at any possible moment in between. It will be forming us whether we like it or not. So, for you, what is it forming in you? Agape love? Worship? Or narcissism and anger? Patience or impatience? Is this formative practice growing your love for God and making you more like Christ? It’s possible but quite unlikely!

Let’s apply this concept now to Masturbation. When you or I have a desire for sexual satisfaction how we act on that desire will ‘form’ us. I would suggest that acting on masturbation forms us gradually into the kind of person who wants instant gratification and takes it without consent. After all, the images used for masturbation, whether in your mind or on a computer screen, don’t have to consent. On the other hand, the practice of submitting your sexual desires to God, i.e. not masturbating, begins to form in us self control, patience and consideration of others. This means that when we are functioning in relationship with another person, whether sexual or non sexual, our formation instincts have taught us to honour the other persons’ desires, not just our own. We are remembering to see a person as a person. We are learning to be patient. We are learning to submit our desires to God and to others.

C.S Lewis, of course, puts it brilliantly:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself . . . ‘

So perhaps the question we should be asking, when it comes to sexuality issues such as masturbation, and other much more emotionally charged topics, is how is this practice forming me? Or As Jon Tyler says, there are two questions: How am I being formed and who am I becoming? These questions can really help us stand back and examine our daily practice in a huge variety of ways. Are your daily practices, routines (disciplines?) helping you grow in agape love?

When, instead of being marched through each day by our impulses and desires, we turn back to the ancient Christian formation practices of praying for others, meditating on God’s word and Creation and pursuing Christian virtues in our lives, these normal Christian practices can have a radical and transformative effect on our mind and relationships. The Holy Spirit begins to form in us the ‘mind of Christ’ and an attitude like that of Christ Jesus. All from a conversation about masturbation!

Are you too free?

A friend recently recommended a podcast to me called ‘This Cultural Moment’. In the episode I listened to an Australian church leader, Mark Sayers, discussing what he called the Western postmodern ‘system’ (to paraphrase) and how it’s impacting us. I found it incredibly illuminating in terms of society as a whole, but also for Christian church culture in the UK.

Here’s a brief summary and some additional thoughts:

All of us want ‘human flourishing’. We all want ourselves and those around us to thrive. In order to do this, Sayers suggests, we need three ‘tanks’ flowing into our life system. We need the (i) tank of freedom, (ii) the tank of meaning and (iii) the tank of relationships. Humans need all three of these tanks to flow into our lives to thrive, grow and flourish.

There are some cultures where freedom is extremely suppressed to the detriment of a society and it’s individuals. History is littered with authoritarian regimes that suffocate human life by removing it’s freedom. But that’s not where we find ourselves. For many of us in Britain our freedom tank is full, in fact it’s overflowing and probably bursting. We have so much individual freedom and choice that it often brings on a sense of anxiety. Personally I can feel this if I ever try to clothes shop online. Trying to choose from 108 pairs of jeans in my size is completely overwhelming, to the point where I prefer to just wear my old ones and deny my need for new ones!

This overwhelming surplus of choice overflows into potential relationships, through apps like tinder, certainly into our choice of entertainment and even into church life. But the effect on the other tanks is detrimental overall. Sayers suggests that our ‘freedom’ has become so extravagant that our ‘meaning’ and ‘relationship’ tanks are running dangerously low, leading to deep unhappiness for many.

You see, freedom is great but at some point too much freedom limits relationships and meaning. Committing to a relationship, whether ‘romantic’ or a friendship, limits your freedom. Choosing to spend time with one person means that you can’t spend time with others. But commitment to a relationship is something that most people find brings happiness into their lives. After all, God designed us to love others. It’s a huge part of what we’re made for. Similarly, choosing to care for someone when they’re struggling requires sacrifice. We limit our freedom to serve another but find that our ‘meaning’ tank starts to fill up.

Sadly, in many churches we are simply echoing our culture’s deficits. We create consumer cultures which require little commitment or sacrifice so people feel very ‘free’ but eventually their expression of faith feels shallow because their relationship and meaning tanks are running low. As individual Christians we may want to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of God’s grace but soon find that when this doesn’t work itself out as actual allegiance to Jesus, sacrifice and loyalty, we wonder why we’re not growing in our faith.

What’s the answer ? Perhaps it’s time to start intentionally limiting your freedom, for the sake of your overall flourishing. As Sayers points out, most of us seems to understand this when it comes to Sport. Nobody expects to be a world class football player without limiting their freedom by spending hundreds of hours practising and seeking guidance. So is your current ‘system’ working for you? Or, like most of us, is your freedom tank bursting and overflowing while relationships and meaning feel illusive.

For Christians we can begin to address this by simply living out our allegiance to Jesus. Submitting our freedom to him, in relationships, sexual ethics, work, time etc. Giving time to read the bible, where we wrestle with life’s meaning, and praying each for others. We could sacrifice the freedom of our time on an evening to serve other people: a youth group, a community project, something for others. We could commit more to fewer relationships and choose to go ‘deep’ through something like a prayer triplet. In fact, when we start thinking about our Christian growth in terms of giving and sacrifice, not consumption, it’s amazing the meaning and transformation we can experience! What if we really committed to a church that we attend? What if we worked hard there to serve others and give of ourselves, contributing sacrificially and building deep relationships. What if we choose, like Christ, to sacrifice our freedom for others? Perhaps Jesus knew a thing or two about human flourishing? Perhaps it is better to give than to receive?

Better than heaven (part 2)

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If, as I suggested in part 1, many Christians have drifted unknowingly into a vague future hope in heaven that misses the big picture, what can we do to address this? How can we return to the ultimate hope of resurrection and new creation and does it really matter?

I think the first thing to do is to rediscover the New Testament’s language of eschatology. Simply reading 1 Corinthians 15, or 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, and then returning to passages like Romans 8, is very powerful. Turning to key passages like Isaiah 65 and 66, Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 12, before re-reading Revelation, can be very illuminating. Knowing that passages such as Mark 13 and Matthew 24 are based on Daniel 7:13, and therefore have much so say about Jesus’ ascension and the temple’s destruction, not necessarily Jesus’ return, is helpful.* I think that reading the New Testament in the context of Genesis and Exodus, and the context of Exile, is also important. Of course, this is just a starter but gaining confidence in the central Christian Hope of a God who rescues, resurrects and is making all things new, is powerful. It allows us to pray ‘Come Lord Jesus’ alongside the early church, with faith and passion. We can have a great hope that God has not abandoned this world and our co-work with him now matters.

Secondly, I think we can return to the passages about Heaven, now in their proper context. The Bible seems to talk about the believer’s spirit going immediately to be with God and sometimes the word heaven is used for this. In John 14 Jesus talks about going to prepare a place or a room (mone), and in Luke 23 he promises ‘paradise’ to the thief on the cross. Paul talks (Phillipians 1:23) of a desire to be and be ‘with Christ’. In other words, the biblical picture seems to one of the believer going to be with God, to a wonderful but temporary place of rest. But we mustn’t confuse this with the ultimate hope: that Christ will return and bring everything under his rule; The defeat of sin and evil and the death of death is the ultimate Christian hope; The brokenness of creation restored, a new creation, a new ‘heavens and earth’.

But does it matter? Is it ok for most Christians to have a kind of child-like ‘folk Christianity’ view of heaven and not understand the true Christian hope. I think it really does matter. Personally, understanding that God’s plan is to right all wrongs brings me much more peace and reassurance than a vague belief in a disembodied existence that has nothing to do with this life. And it starts to speak to us on so many levels: What we do in this life matters. We are not waiting to just escape and disappear, as if all this is a warm up. Instead we are called to work with God now, for the renewal of his creation. It teaches us that the physical world matters and that stewarding creation is important. Although new Creation will indeed be new it will also, in some way, be a renewal of what is. We are not just waiting for God to come back and ‘nuke the planet’ to start again, so environmental matters matter.

The hope in a future physical reality also means that our bodies matter. Western culture has generally moved towards a vague gnostic belief that only ‘what’s on the inside matters’ (This is really pushed in Disney films. For example, see Mary Poppins Returns ‘A cover is not a book’). Christianity doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thinking. Instead we are called to work with our hands, care for the world, care for the sick, and see our physical bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The physical is important. We are both physical and spiritual beings.

So how do we respond? I know that during my own studies when presented with suggestions that my current world view or biblical understanding may not be right I’ve been tempted to freak out, resist the new ideas or throw out everything I thought I knew! The process can certainly be disconcerting. But we don’t need to do that. However, we do need to continue to wrestle with the Christian hope from the New Testament texts, not just settle for popular ideas. I urge you to read afresh through some of the chapters I’ve suggested above: Pray, read, discuss, listen, read again.

Does our belief about the future matter? Well, Christianity is, on the one hand, a belief set on a past event (Christ’s bodily resurrection). This is our firm foundation. But this is a past event that has huge implications for our future (our bodily resurrection). On the one hand the biblical writers call us to trust in God for the future and hold fast to our hope, on the other hand much of what’s said about that future is less clear than we’d like. Reading the Bible well means learning to hold these tensions and trusting God for what we can’t know. Reading the bible well also means holding in view the big picture, which includes the story of Israel and humanity, not just me. Reading the Bible well means continuing to read, seek, discuss and debate and, ultimately, to place our faith in Jesus, that what he did in his resurrection and ascension changed everything on a cosmic level. Anything less is just not big enough.

*It also helps to know that the Greek word ‘erchomai’ means both coming and going. Context helps us see that the ‘coming of the Son of Man to the ancient of days’ is actually about Jesus’ going to the father, based on the vision in Daniel 7:13-14. In other words, it’s usually about his ascension not his return. ‘Parousia’ is the word usually used for his coming.

Better than Heaven (part 1)

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In the last nine months I’ve thought a lot about the Christian Hope. Starting some Theology modules, preaching through the Apostle’s Creed and walking with people through death and grief has made me look more closely at what the Bible and Christian tradition says about our future hope in God . Would it surprise you if I said that most of us focus on the wrong place or, controversially, that Heaven is actually not our ultimate hope?

For example, the ‘Apostles Creed’ (a statement of Christian Orthodoxy general accepted by the world-wide church over the centuries) does not mention heaven as our hope. The word is mentioned, as the place to which Jesus ascended, and this is a hugely important idea which we often ignore. But ‘heaven’ is not mentioned in the creed as our future hope. In stead, ‘Jesus’ return to judge’ and ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ are the focus. Why is this? Why doesn’t it talk about going to heaven when we die like many preachers do?

We could look at other church creeds or survey the current theological landscape to see the same thing. ‘So… errr… where is Heaven?’, we might ask. And while we’re at it, ‘What does Heaven mean? Is it actually central to the Christian Hope? And what is our ‘resurrection’ and why is this all so confusing? Here’s my attempt to clear things up a bit. Obviously in an attempt to simplify things I run the risk of oversimplifying, but I will do my best to summarise what I’ve seen as I’ve recently studied in the Bible, tradition and current New Testament scholarship. Also, I might be wrong!

In the Old Testament there is a hope that God will overcome death and sin, rooted in Genesis 3. The Exodus story presents a God who rescues and beats his enemies. The Hebrew narrative, in general, shows a people trapped in sin and death, unable to be the true humanity that God called them to be, unable to fulfil his mandate. Sin leads to exile and exile leads to a prophet cry for a new dawn in God’s plans. This dawn is seen in visions such as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones coming to life, Daniel’s picture of resurrection and eternal life and Isaiah’s many visions of a new creation. There is a deep cry within the later prophets that God’s plan has not failed, he can still rescue his people and that this rescue will lead to many nations also being re-united with God. So where is heaven?

Heaven, put simply, is where God is. The Old Testament presents the paradox of a world sometimes in touch with heaven, through the temple or the Ark of the Covenant, but clearly not the same as this world. There’s continuity and discontinuity. Transcendence and Immanence. The Jewish people did have a strong sense of the place where God is (called Heaven) but, because Jesus’ arrival took place in a prophetic and cultural context, the main central first century Jewish hope was ‘resurrection’ and ‘new creation’. Yes, many reflected and meditated on the mystery of God’s glory and presence (Heaven) but the hope was for God to come and rescue: rescue from Roman rule; rescue from pagan oppression; rescue from sin and shame. In summary, we often think of the Christian hope as going to God but really it’s God coming to us. This is where incarnation is so closely related to salvation and eschatology.

And so, when we come to read Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s letters and other writings such as revelation, this is the focus. Yahweh will come to rescue, God has not given up on his creation, he will put everything right and defeat the enemies of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15, for example). So why do modern Christian focus on ‘going to heaven when we die’ and rarely speak of resurrection and new creation? That’s a big question, but here’s a few thoughts.

Firstly, the New Testament does indeed speak of a temporary place in God’s presence for those who know him, before the resurrection of the dead. To this we will return. Secondly, there has been a strong tendency in the last hundred years or so for evangelists to simplify complex bible teaching into a ‘heaven and hell’ dualism, without explaining anything else. Churches have often neglected to teach further into this perhaps because it can seem quite complicated and confusing. Thirdly, the effect of neo-platonic Greek thought meant that many Christians came to think in more of a Greek philosophical mindset than a Hebrew one. The big picture in platonic thought is of a divine source of everything and to whom everything will return. This was useful for Christians such as Origen who wanted to converse with philosophers and bring some credibility to Christianity. And there are close parallels but also some important differences with the Biblical picture of God. Finally, there have been whole cultural movements which have sought to divide natural from supernatural and led to a common kind of simplistic folk Christianity which prefers a simplistic view than the hard work of grappling with scripture.

I’ve also often wondered if the origins of the Pentecostal movement in the awful context of African-American slavery may also have, understandably, emphasised a desire to escape, rather than believe for redemption now. Perhaps the songs from this movement, and it’s rapid growth, have had more of an impact than we realise. Having said this, I’ve not come across anything written by anyone else that has seen this link, so I may be wrong. So, bearing all this in mind, do what do we do? Do we abandon speaking of Heaven? In part 2 I will explore how we might construct a more biblical view of heaven and new creation…