Question: "Is it ever not a sin to masturbate?"
Answer: As a background, please read our article on “Is masturbation a sin?” While that article deals with the issue in a generic sense, the purpose of this article is to address the “is it a sin to masturbate” question from a very specific angle. We often receive questions that essentially give a list of excuses for why it is not always a sin to masturbate. None of the excuses/justifications are convincing, but there is one specific situation that makes the question more difficult to answer.
The question is essentially this: if a husband and wife are separated for a long period of time, and have each other’s permission to do it, and can do it without pornography or lustful/immoral thoughts, would that mean it is not a sin to masturbate? The most common situation in which this question arises is that of spouses separated due to service in the military. It is true that, if a person is used to having sex and a significant amount of time passes without sex, sexual tension increases. This physiological sexual tension can make it more difficult to resist sexual temptation, whether in the form of adultery or pornography. Masturbation can relieve this tension. So, what about this situation? Would this be an instance when it is not a sin to masturbate?
The best answer we can give is “perhaps.” Having your spouse’s permission would turn 1 Corinthians 7:4 into a non-issue. There being absolutely no pornography/lust or immoral thoughts/desires would remove the clearly sinful aspects that are almost always linked with masturbation. But, with this situation, a very important question is being overlooked. What is the alternative? What would happen if a person in this situation did not masturbate? To say that he/she would be incapable of resisting temptation is to neglect the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 John 4:4). The Bible instructs us to flee sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:13; 2 Timothy 2:22). The Bible does not tell us to find ways to make the temptation less powerful.
So, while it might not be a sin for a person in the above situation to masturbate, the Bible tells us to make decisions with more certainty than “might,” “maybe,” or “perhaps.” Romans 14:23 says, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Romans 14:5 indicates that we are to be “fully convinced” before we do, or do not do, something. The fact that “is it still a sin?” is even being asked is proof of a lack of assurance and evidence of not being fully convinced. Asking a question like “Is ______ not a sin IF…?” is dangerous at its core. While “if something is a sin, it is always a sin” is not universally true, it is much more biblical than trying to find situations in which a sin is no longer sinful.