Spiritual Masturbation and Masculinity

By Paul Koch

In my experience, women fight differently than men. As a father of five, one boy and four girls, I have witnessed the clear difference in their strategy and tactics. My son seems to have a deep instinctual desire to fight with a physical exchange, a trading of blows to make his point. In fact, you can see the torment he goes through when he restrains from physical retaliation toward one of his sisters because he has been taught from the get-go that you don’t hit girls.

My daughters, on the other hand, engage in what I call “psychological warfare.” They play with the emotions of one another and through subtle manipulations and learn how to push the right buttons to get the desired response. Without a single blow thrown, they can reduce a sibling to a mess of tears. For some reason, those wounds seem to last far longer and be more devastating than a simple punch in the nose, Indian burn, or pink belly.

The thing is, as our technologies and modern conveniences continue to advance, we find that a man’s natural way to fight, his desire to prove his strength or courage or mastery over physical obstacles, is not only restrained but has become outmoded and unnecessary. Those traits of masculinity are then repressed and perverted. They do not go away. Rather, they are channeled to fake or virtual outlets. As I see it, we run the danger of becoming like Don Quixote, spending our days tilting at windmills while thinking we are actually attacking dragons. We play at war in video games and think we demonstrate honor and courage among our “friends” by that clever rebuttal on Facebook. And when it’s time to exercise our sexual prowess, all we need is a high-speed internet connection and a few moments alone.

In our civilized age, manhood is increasingly understood as some sort of masturbatory existence. More and more men are disconnected from the physical. We spend more time inside our own heads, and our technology makes it easier and easier to stay there.


Take my vocation as an example. I think the study of theology in and of itself has a high propensity for encouraging our masturbatory existence. Men who engage in theological study can do so in a virtual world of their own creation, or at least a virtual world of their own choosing. They can be part of very specific groups of like-minded individuals, write blogs (like this one), and make clever remarks on Facebook without ever leaving their parents basement. Theologians are civilized, and so they don’t have to fight like men. There is no real strength, courage, mastery or honor needed. Instead, they engage in spiritual masturbation, in which they make themselves feel good by being right—at least within their own heads.

Spiritual masturbation is not about engaging with others or considering new metaphors, ideas, or cultural nuances. It’s not expanding our bookshelves or challenging our preconceived notions. It’s about feeling good, justifying ourselves, and being right.

Of course, we don’t want to be wrong in our theology. We want to be faithful to the Word. We desire to confess the true faith. But this is not the end of theology. To be right is not the goal. To be right leaves you within your own head, ready to police the heretics in a virtual world. And so you sleep better knowing the dragons are slayed.

Rather, the goal of theology is the doing of the Word. It is the proclamation of the truth for the benefit of another. This ought to drive us out of our studies and away from our virtual communities and into the lives of our neighbors. A masculine theologian ought not be afraid of the other but welcome the engagement as an opportunity to exercise their skill and mastery. This is not a work of self-love, of spiritual masturbation, but genuine love for the body of Christ.

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 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 4:11-16)

Every Sunday morning as I go through my private ritual of putting on my vestments and prepare to lead worship, I pray out loud Luther’s famous Sacristy Prayer in my study. The third line goes like this, “If Thou art pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Thy glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Thy pure grace and mercy a right understanding of Thy Word and that I may also diligently perform it.” The performance of the Word, that is the goal. The application of Law and Gospel, the killing and making alive of God, this is where our strength, courage and mastery will come into play. The actual doing of this outside my own head for the sake of my neighbor is where I, or any theologian, find honor in our vocation.

In the end, I think we still need men who are willing to fight like men outside of their own heads and in the messy lives of others.

“And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”