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Letter to Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family

March 29, 2007

Dear Dr. Dobson,

Warm greetings to you in Christian love.

I write to you as one who appreciates your ministry and the contribution you have made to the body of Christ. I love the ways God has used you on the Reagan Commission on Pornography, in many areas of family life, and on the moral issues facing our country.

My hope in this writing is to encourage you to reconsider the subject of masturbation so that the values for which you and Focus on the Family have stood these many years might be consistent and that, as Christians, we would have one voice and one unified message on this issue. There is no malice in my heart, but only thankfulness and appreciation for you, and the desire to simply ask you to read this letter and give it your prayerful consideration.

At Setting Captives Free, we minister to those in the grip of pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, and/or adultery. We have, to date, worked with approximately 100,000 people in the area of sexual sin. Every day, we receive enrollments from adolescents who struggle with masturbation. They are truly in bondage, covered with guilt and shame, and weakened by their continual falling to masturbation. The following comment from a young man on a recent enrollment form exemplifies what we often hear from adolescents in our courses:

I've been wondering about the area of self-gratification. Though the Setting Captives Free course believes we can be free from it, I was reading some articles on Focus on the Family's website and came across this article by James Dobson about the issue. Can you give me your feedback on it? I'm more confused than before, and just want to figure this out.

This young man is referring to an article you wrote on the subject of masturbation, which is quoted throughout my response here and also included, in its entirety, at the end of this letter.

I recognize your gracious manner in writing the letter below. It is clear that you have offered the advice you feel is good and right, and that it is not your intention to cause division in the body of Christ whatsoever. I also appreciate your recognition of the many differing viewpoints on this issue. My hope is that you will reconsider your position in the light of truth, as well as the effect our differing counsel has on Christian young people. I humbly request that you prayerfully consider how changing your position would provide true hope to many adolescents who are struggling mightily in this area.

In this regard, I ask you to consider my response to the four points in your letter. First, however, I will state that I do agree there is no medical problem with masturbation; we are not in the camp of those who seek to use fear as a tactic to promote freedom.

Now, your first point is this:

As for the emotional consequences of masturbation, only four circumstances should give us cause for concern. The first is when it is associated with oppressive guilt from which the individual can't escape. That guilt has the potential to do considerable psychological and spiritual damage. Boys and girls who labor under divine condemnation can gradually become convinced that even God couldn't love them. They promise a thousand times with great sincerity never again to commit this despicable act. Then a week or two passes, or perhaps several months. Eventually, the hormonal pressure accumulates until nearly every waking moment reverberates with sexual desire. Finally, in a moment (and I do mean a moment) of weakness, it happens again. What then, dear friend? Tell me what a young person says to God after he or she has just broken the one thousand first solemn promise to Him? I am convinced that some teenagers have thrown over their faith because of their inability to please God at this point of masturbation.

The above scenario applies not only to those struggling with masturbation, but also to those in the grip of pornography, adultery, overeating, drinking, gambling, or any habit. The argument that masturbation brings guilt should not lead us to teach that masturbation is acceptable, so that those who engage in it would not feel guilty. The argument may be made that masturbation is not mentioned in Scripture and, therefore, cannot be compared to homosexuality, adultery, or drunkenness, etc. My point is that just because a behavior causes guilt is not reason, in and of itself, to condone the behavior so people will feel less guilty. We have worked with many who vow and promise to stop viewing pornography but, in a moment of weakness, fall once again. Many have thrown over their faith because of their inability to please God at this point of not viewing pornography. Should we tell them that viewing pornography is OK, because they cannot overcome it in their own strength and through their own will power?

The question arises, then, as to what causes the guilt or the guilt feelings regarding masturbation? It must be that either the behavior itself is sinful and, therefore, those who engage in it are actually guilty, or that the behavior itself is not sinful but, rather, the teaching of some in the church have placed false guilt upon those involved in masturbation. If the truth is the former, it would be very important not to attempt to assuage that guilt with a message of "It's OK; don't feel bad; everybody does it." If the truth is the latter, it would be beneficial to spread the message that masturbation is acceptable, that we should cast off any false guilt associated with it, and that it does not affect our relationship with God.

So, my response to your first point is to say that we should not attempt to alleviate guilt in all things simply by saying, "There is nothing wrong with the behavior." I am quite sure you would not take that stand with regard to pornography, adultery, homosexuality, or any other sin that is clearly mentioned in the Bible. I feel confident that you agree with this thought process so far.

The second point in your letter is this:

The second circumstance in which masturbation might have harmful implications is when it becomes extremely obsessive. That is more likely to occur when it has been understood by the individual to be "forbidden fruit." I believe the best way to prevent that kind of obsessive response is for adults not to emphasize or condemn it. Regardless of what you do, you will not stop the practice of masturbation in your teenagers. That is a certainty. You'll just drive it underground -- or under covers. Nothing works as a "cure." Cold showers, lots of exercise, many activities, and awesome threats are ineffective. Attempting to suppress this act is one campaign that is destined to fail -- so why wage it?

I am confident you would agree that the term "extremely obsessive" or what the culture calls "addiction," is simply another word for the biblical term of "slavery." And, if you have observed adolescents for a number of years, you have probably seen how masturbation can quickly lead to this type of obsessive or enslaving behavior in some people. This is not the case with everyone but, just as there are "degrees" of addiction to pornography, with some engaging in it daily and others on a less frequent basis, so it is with masturbation.

The fact that masturbation is enslaving, probably as much as or more than alcohol, pornography, or gambling, for instance, since it involves our own flesh, should lead us to at least give consideration as to whether or not it fits in the category of "slavery," as mentioned in Romans 6 and other places in Scripture.

Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. Romans 6:19

We agree with you that cold showers, lots of exercise, and threats, etc., are totally ineffective against the power of the flesh and are most certainly completely useless against the overwhelming desire for masturbation. However, let's consider the power of the grace of God. I'm sure you believe that the grace of God is able to accomplish far more than will-power, human resolve and personal vows ever could. The grace of God and the empowering of the Holy Spirit are a "one-two punch" to the flesh, and are able to entirely melt the human heart and defeat the pull of the flesh.

Again, I trust you agree with this statement because I have heard you speak of the amazing grace of Almighty God, the deep love of Jesus Christ, and the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in a person's life. So, I think we can agree that this divine power is much more effective than a cold shower, a weak threat, or a decision to "do better." Those who try to suppress and resist the power of temptation in their own flesh end up "white-knuckling" their way to "sobriety" or, in this case, abstinence. They make their vows, grit their teeth, and hunker down to resist that which, in their hearts, they really love to do. As you have stated above, this type of campaign is destined to fail.

While I certainly agree with you that the campaign waged in the power of the flesh is destined to fail, I do not agree that we should not wage the campaign at all.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Galatians 5:16

Having seen literally thousands of people enslaved to masturbation become entirely free from it, I believe this is a worthwhile campaign in which to engage. Those who experience the amazing grace of God become free, even free indeed, to become happy captives to Jesus Christ. And then to see the amazing character that is built into these ex-captives to sin, and the powerful effect of purity these adolescents experience makes this a very worthwhile campaign. I not only believe this is a worthwhile campaign to wage, I also believe it is a winnable war. It is winnable, not through will-power, but through the power of grace and through the Spirit of God.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. Romans 6:22

Dr. Dobson, I intend no disrespect whatsoever, but I do hope you will see that the philosophy of "We can't win this campaign, so why try?" is a hopeless position. In essence, it tells someone who truly wants to be free from bondage to masturbation, "You can try if you want, but you'll never be successful, so why even make the effort?" I believe that in Christ there is always hope and, considering the numbers of both men and women we see finding freedom from slavery to masturbation and living in freedom for years afterward, we have every reason to believe that this is, indeed, a winnable campaign, if fought in the enabling power of God's grace and through the infusing strength of the Holy Spirit.

Your third point is this:

The third situation around which we should be concerned is when the young person becomes addicted to pornographic material. The kind of obscenity available to teenagers today has the capacity to grab and hold a boy for the rest of his life. Parents will want to intervene if there is evidence that their son or daughter is heading down that well-worn path.

Pornography and masturbation go together. While it is possible to masturbate without viewing pornography, it is true that anyone involved in pornography will also masturbate. I believe this is the reason that Jesus says, metaphorically, that if our eye causes us to sin to "pluck it out" and if our right hand causes us to sin to "cut it off" (Matthew 5:29-30), as the eye is the means of dwelling on lustful images, and the hand is that which is used to gratify the flesh. Jesus said we are to remove all access to that which causes us to lust, so we can't even see it, and we are to make it impossible to gratify our flesh with our hand.

If someone ceases to view pornography but continues to masturbate, he fuels his lust with past fantasies and pornographic images, which burns the images deeper into his mind. However, if someone ceases both the viewing of pornography and also masturbation, the fire of lust eventually dies out for lack of fuel. Masturbation, then, is that which keeps people enslaved to lust, for it is directly responsible for fueling the imagination.

Your fourth point is this:

The fourth concern about masturbation refers not to adolescents but to us as adults. This habit has the capacity to follow us into marriage and become a substitution for healthy sexual relations between a husband and wife. This, I believe, is what the apostle Paul meant when he instructed us not to "deprive" one another as marital partners: "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" 1 Corinthians 7:5

Dr. Dobson, we are in complete agreement with you regarding the need for healthy sexual relations between a husband and wife, and also that masturbation may wrongly be used as a substitute for the "one flesh" concept God has ordained for married couples. But oh, how difficult it is to stop a behavior formed in youth, reinforced over hundreds or even thousands of repetitions. It is so much better to help adolescents seek God for His grace in order to save themselves for their spouses, than it is for them to later try to break an ingrained habit formed over many years.

The passage you quoted obviously addresses husbands and wives, but it also has this to say to the youth and the unmarried:

But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:9

In this passage, the apostle Paul had a perfect opportunity to share that masturbation was acceptable, if it were, indeed, an option. He could have said, "It is better to masturbate than to burn." But the fact that he pointed to marriage as the only outlet for the proper expression of sexual desire excludes manual gratification of the flesh, or what has more recently been termed "masturbation."

Regarding the Bible's silence on the word "masturbation," I think you will agree that the word "masturbation" is a relatively new term, invented by the medical and psychological community. Of course this new word, invented in the last century, would not appear in Scripture. But could we not also say that the words "gay lifestyle" and "having an affair," etc., are not found in Scripture? Does the silence of Scripture on these issues imply the condoning of the behavior?

Certainly we would answer "No," because the Bible does describe and condemn the above behaviors, calling them "homosexuality" and "adultery." Could it not be that the Scriptures also describe the act where someone, in a moment of weakness, gratifies his own flesh and performs an act of sex, which was designed by God to be enjoyed between a man and a woman committed to each other within the vows of marriage, instead?

Again, I mention that had God, through Paul, wanted to teach us to relieve our own sexual tensions (or what Scripture calls "burning" in 1 Corinthians 7:9), he could have said, "It is better to gratify our flesh than to burn with desire." Rather, God clearly states that marriage is the only outlet for the "buildup of hormonal pressure" (burning). If the absence of the word "masturbation" in Scripture is to be considered, then its silence in 1 Corinthians 7:9 speaks loudly.

In summary, Dr. Dobson, I recognize that you have been used greatly by God to strengthen the family and to help us raise our children in ways that honor God and make for a happy family. For this I am grateful to you. I hope you will consider how you might also give hope to thousands of young people across the country that, through God's grace they, too, may be pure. Through the power of the Holy Spirit they can walk in victory over the cravings of their flesh, so that what could never be accomplished through trying hard, through cold showers, through threats and warnings, can indeed be accomplished by Christ living in and through us. Indeed, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).

May I challenge you today to reconsider your viewpoint on masturbation, so that you might be used of God to strengthen future families, rather than providing excuses for them to remain weak? This "Focus on Future Families" would, I believe, have wide-reaching effects, giving hope to many who believe they are currently doomed to a slave's existence.

I want to close with two testimonies we have received, both from adolescents who have taken our Bible study courses here at Setting Captives Free and have also read your article on masturbation. The first is from a young man and the second is from a young lady.

Andrew wrote:

To be honest, I don't know where I'd be without that "heap of guilt." It's probably the best thing I could have felt at the time. I think the issue of masturbation really isn't talked about enough in the church; it's simply that gray area of "You don't do this; we don't talk about it; everybody's happy" - I do agree with that. However, it should not be merely accepted on the grounds that "They're only confused teenagers, and too much stress will only hurt them." It needs to be brought out into the open, and it needs to be made known that it is a sin. Far too unlikely that any man, much less adolescent teenagers, can commit this act without formulating any sort of sexual fantasy in their minds.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:15-16

We, as Christians, are to speak the truth in love, not to speak falsities (such as, "Don't worry too much about masturbation because you're growing up and experimenting with your sexuality") even if those falsities are spoken in an attempt to love others. I honestly believe Mr. Dobson made this statement because he believes it is the loving thing to do; I respectfully disagree with his statement.

The line we must walk is speaking the truth in love, and it is not an easy one to walk. The truth is not always the easiest thing to hear, but usually it's what we need to hear. Balancing that with compassion and being sure that we do not condemn adolescents for their confusion, but being available and willing to help them is what I believe is what our Father would have us do. If I had come to Setting Captives Free only to be told that because I was a teenager, self-gratification was an acceptable practice and that I shouldn't worry too much about it, I fear to think of where I'd be now. Truth in love; there is no other way. Yes, the guilt did hurt, as did the truth that what I was doing was completely wrong and detestable to God - but the compassion, love, and care I received when I came here balanced that out perfectly, and now I'm walking in wonderful, glorious, God-given freedom.

Well, this is from an adolescent's point of view.

Blessings,
Andrew

Susan wrote:

I have been involved in masturbation for a long time. I have tried many times to stop because I knew I was not glorifying God. But I would come to the point where I didn’t care and I would watch my relationship with God going down, while wondering why. At the beginning of February, I just came to have an intense desire to get things right. I was attending a lot of classes that were talking about purity. I felt as if everywhere I was being prompted by God to get right with Him. Then a speaker from Setting Captives Free came to my class and I knew I just had to try it. I enrolled and just started getting right with God again and being in daily communication with Him. I have been pure ever since I started, and I know it is only by the grace of God. I also know that I need to take this fight one day at a time and that is the only way to be free. God has given me an intense desire for purity. I am now going into this battle equipped to live in the freedom I already possess. I am radically amputating things that are causing me to sin and I have an accountability partner who I think is essential in this fight. I am learning the importance of daily being in God’s Word.

Susan

Dr. Dobson, thank you for considering our request. It is our hope that you will reconsider your viewpoint on this subject. Either way, however, we will be happy to include your response on our website.

May God bless you and your ministry, as you seek to honor Christ.

Sincerely,

Mike Cleveland

Mike Cleveland
Founder and President of Setting Captives Free

Dr. Dobson's initial letter regarding masturbation:

I don't think you should invade that private world at all unless there are unique circumstances that lead you to do so. I offer that advice while acknowledging that masturbation is a highly controversial subject and Christian leaders differ widely in their perspectives on it. I will answer your question but hope you understand that some Bible scholars will disagree emphatically with what I will say.

First, let's consider masturbation from a medical perspective. We can say without fear of contradiction that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that this act is harmful to the body. Despite terrifying warnings given to young people historically, it does not cause blindness, weakness, mental retardation, or any other physical problem. If it did, the entire male population and about half of females would be blind, weak, simpleminded, and sick. Between 95 and 98 percent of all boys engage in this practice -- and the rest have been known to lie. It is as close to being a universal behavior as is likely to occur. A lesser but still significant percentage of girls also engage in what was once called "self-gratification."

As for the emotional consequences of masturbation, only four circumstances should give us cause for concern. The first is when it is associated with oppressive guilt from which the individual can't escape. That guilt has the potential to do considerable psychological and spiritual damage. Boys and girls who labor under divine condemnation can gradually become convinced that even God couldn't love them. They promise a thousand times with great sincerity never again to commit this despicable act. Then a week or two passes, or perhaps several months. Eventually, the hormonal pressure accumulates until nearly every waking moment reverberates with sexual desire. Finally, in a moment (and I do mean a moment) of weakness, it happens again. What then, dear friend? Tell me what a young person says to God after he or she has just broken the one thousand first solemn promise to Him? I am convinced that some teenagers have thrown over their faith because of their inability to please God at this point of masturbation.

The second circumstance in which masturbation might have harmful implications is when it becomes extremely obsessive. That is more likely to occur when it has been understood by the individual to be "forbidden fruit." I believe the best way to prevent that kind of obsessive response is for adults not to emphasize or condemn it. Regardless of what you do, you will not stop the practice of masturbation in your teenagers. That is a certainty. You'll just drive it underground -- or under covers. Nothing works as a "cure." Cold showers, lots of exercise, many activities, and awesome threats are ineffective. Attempting to suppress this act is one campaign that is destined to fail -- so why wage it?

The third situation around which we should be concerned is when the young person becomes addicted to pornographic material. The kind of obscenity available to teenagers today has the capacity to grab and hold a boy for the rest of his life. Parents will want to intervene if there is evidence that their son or daughter is heading down that well-worn path.

The fourth concern about masturbation refers not to adolescents but to us as adults. This habit has the capacity to follow us into marriage and become a substitution for healthy sexual relations between a husband and wife. This, I believe, is what the apostle Paul meant when he instructed us not to "deprive" one another as marital partners: "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Corinthians 7:5).

As for the spiritual implications of masturbation, I will have to defer to the theologians for a more definitive response. It is interesting to me, however, that Scripture does not address this subject except for a single reference in the Old Testament to a man named Onan. He interrupted sexual intercourse with his sister-in-law and allowed his semen to fall on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother, which was his "duty" (Genesis 38:8). Though that verse is often cited as evidence of God's disapproval of masturbation, the context doesn't seem to fit.

So, what should parents say to their kids about this subject? My advice is to say nothing after puberty has occurred. You will only cause embarrassment and discomfort. For those who are younger, it would be wise to include the subject of masturbation in the "Preparing for Adolescence" conversation I have recommended on other occasions. I would suggest that parents talk to their 12- or 13-year-old boys, especially, in the same general way my mother and father discussed this subject with me. We were riding in the car, and my dad said, "Jim, when I was a boy, I worried so much about masturbation. It really became a scary thing for me because I thought God was condemning me for what I couldn't help. So I'm telling you now that I hope you don't feel the need to engage in this act when you reach the teen years, but if you do, you shouldn't be too concerned about it. I don't believe it has much to do with your relationship with God."

What a kind thing my father did for me that night in the car. He was a very conservative minister who never compromised his standards of morality to the day of his death. He stood like a rock for biblical principles and commandments. Yet he cared enough about me to lift from my shoulders the burden of guilt that nearly destroyed some of my friends in the church. This kind of "reasonable" faith taught to me by my parents is one of the primary reasons I never felt it necessary to rebel against parental authority or defy God.

Well, those are my views, for what they are worth. I know my recommendations will be inflammatory to some people. If you are one of them, please forgive me. I can only offer the best advice of which I'm capable. I pray that in this instance, I am right.

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