Question: "What does the Bible say about self-gratification / self-pleasure?"
Answer: Self-gratification is the act of pleasing oneself or satisfying one’s desires. Every living creature seeks self-gratification as a matter of survival. We feel hungry, so we find food. We are thirsty, so we search for water. God has placed pleasure sensors in our brains so that we feel satisfaction at the meeting of those needs. Even the act of procreation was designed to be pleasurable. God created our sense of pleasure, so seeking its fulfillment is not wrong until the means to do so crosses a line. Knowing exactly where that line is can be tricky, but the Bible gives clear guidelines that help us identify it.
Animals live primarily for self-gratification, driven by instinct and the inner workings of the food chain. One of nature’s primary laws is “eat or be eaten.” Animals mate because of an instinct woven into their DNA by the Lord to keep the circle of life moving (Genesis 1:24). But human beings were created differently from the plants or animals. God “breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Because humanity is made in the image of God and possesses the breath of God, we are not part of the animal kingdom. We have a spirit that can reason, love, intuit, and choose to be unselfish. With our spirits, we can commune with God, who is also Spirit (Romans 8:16; Revelation 3:20). Unlike animals, we have a moral compass, and we can know right and wrong (Genesis 1:27).
The term self-gratification or self-pleasure is often used as a synonym for masturbation, but, more generally speaking, self-gratification is “living according to the flesh” (Romans 8:12–13). Our “flesh” is the selfish part of us that wants what it wants regardless of moral taboos. Self-preservation propels us to eat when we’re hungry; self-gratification suggests that we eat more than we need because it tastes good. Self-preservation drives us to build houses that keep us warm and dry; self-gratification drives us to build nicer, bigger houses than anyone else has. Self-preservation draws us to sexual union with our spouses to create intimacy and bring children into that intimacy. Self-gratification seeks the sexual act for itself, stripped from its design and purpose.
Self-gratification is sinful. Pleasing ourselves should never be the driving force of our lives. We were created to please God, not ourselves (1 Corinthians 10:31). Ultimate pleasure comes as a result of crucifying our flesh and abandoning ourselves to the higher purposes of God (Luke 9:23). Living in step with God’s Spirit makes us quicker to recognize when our desire for self-gratification comes into conflict with what the Lord desires (Galatians 5:16–25). Followers of Jesus have already made the decision about whose desires should reign (Ephesians 5:10–11). When we bow at the cross and surrender our lives to Jesus’ lordship, we lay down our rights to please ourselves. We choose instead to entrust our needs and desires to the One who loves us most (Philippians 4:19).
Those who live for self-pleasure don’t realize the source of true joy. They believe that they must meet their own needs in their own ways in order to be happy. This focus often creates an attitude of selfishness as they consider their own desires more important than the needs of others (Romans 12:3; Philippians 2:3–4). While self-pleasure may include behaving in benevolent ways, that benevolence will rarely involve personal sacrifice or putting someone else’s needs ahead of one’s own. Soon, unpleasant consequences begin to stockpile in the life of someone enslaved to his or her own desires (John 8:34; Romans 6:16). When self-gratification is god, every life choice bows in worship.
God’s remedy for a life dedicated to self-gratification is the death of our old nature (1 Peter 2:24; Romans 6:1–6). The flesh cannot be refined or reformed; it must be slain in order for us to live by the Spirit. Jesus said that, in order to know Him, we must be willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Him (Luke 9:23). And He explained why: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24). Self-denial is the opposite of self-gratification, but it results in a deeper kind of joy (Acts 5:41).
The prodigal son in Jesus’ parable was bent on self-gratification (Luke 15:11–24). He got what he wanted: money, freedom from rules, friends, and the party life. But he also got what he didn’t want: consequences. When the money ran out, so did his friends and his freedom. Reduced to working in a pig sty and craving the pigs’ food, he finally “came to his senses” (verse 17). Self-gratification was not all it was cracked up to be, and the young man went back home.
Self-denial does not mean a life without pleasure; it simply means that our gaze has shifted. Self-gratification makes decisions based on the question what do I want? Self-denial makes decisions based on what would please the Lord? Decisions without moral overtones, such as what to eat for breakfast, are left to our own preferences. Even then, everything we do should be seen as an act of worship, as our whole lives are consecrated to the glory of God.
Pleasure is a gift from God (James 1:17). When we trust God to supply all we need, we can enjoy His good gifts without guilt or reservation. The closer we get to God, the more clearly we see self-gratification as a cheap substitute that comes weighted with joy-stealing consequences. Godly gratification provides a lasting joy that includes wisdom, maturity, and a clear conscience.