When I was harming myself, I didn’t see it as a problem, but as a crutch. Without it, I couldn’t walk. Take it away, and I’d stumble and fall.
I didn’t choose self-harm like you’d pick out a scarf or a book; in fact, I felt ashamed of it. But it was the only thing I’d found to help me manage my pain. When I was feeling too much, it numbed me. When I was numb, it helped me to feel. It protected me from harming myself in worse ways. It distracted me, comforted me, and offered me relief. In a terrifying world, it was something I could control. I didn’t see it as a problem, but as a solution to many other problems, far darker and far larger than I could cope with.
As contradictory as it might sound, for the self-harmer, self-harm is self-help. So if we’re going to overcome self-harm, we need to embrace the help that God has given us elsewhere — help that does not scar us any further, but slowly begins to heal us. To get there, we first need to face the false promises that self-harm makes to us.
Self-harm makes promises that it cannot deliver. It promises freedom, but leads to more slavery. Self-harm is a staff that keeps us standing when we’re heavy with pain, but it’s a staff that eventually splinters beneath our weight (Isaiah 36:6).
Self-harm presents to us a host of false promises. When I self-harm, I’m taking charge of my feelings. I’m punishing myself and I’m distracting myself. I’m making my emotional pain visible — and therefore real. As I bind my external wounds, I can bind my internal ones too. As I own and punish my external body, I can repress my internal distress. Perhaps I’ve been hurt by someone I love, so I hurt myself to help myself. My scars make me feel real — like I exist, like I matter. They’re words written on my body that I’m unable to speak.
But none of those promises is true. In reality, harming myself may deliver a sense of relief and release, but it is quickly replaced by more shame. I fall back into old patterns of sin and condemnation. I have to go further and further into self-harm to get the same emotional result. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Unlike self-harm, the promises that God makes to us are always true, and the help he gives brings us real healing. We can think about the help God gives us by considering three bodies: the crucified body that saves us, the spiritual body that heals us, and our own physical body that’s redeemed.
The Crucified Body That Saves
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul addresses the false gospel of “severity to the body” (Colossians 2:23). He does so by putting Christ at the center of our thinking and worship.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Colossians 2:11–13)
Paul reminds us that Jesus is the sacrifice. We don’t put our flesh to death; he does — on the cross.
What saves us is not a cutting by human hands, but a spiritual circumcision done by Christ. In him, the old self is put off (Colossians 2:11), because in him we die and are raised to new life (Colossians 2:12). Self-harm cuts us off from life and community. But as Christ is cut off for us, we are brought into a new connection with God and others.
When I self-harm, I look to my own body for healing; the gospel reminds me that it is Christ’s scars that save. Self-harm centers me on me; the gospel centers me on the sacrifice of Jesus. Self-harm is about dealing with shame in my own body; the gospel reminds me that Christ takes my shame on his body. “With his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
The Spiritual Body That Heals
Christ has a physical body, which was crucified and resurrected for us. He also has a spiritual body, the church. The battle against self-harm requires both. In the body of Christ — his community of light — we learn to emerge from the shadows and from self-covering.
In his book Cutting, non-Christian counselor and psychotherapist Steven Levenkron encourages a self-harming patient, Simone, to speak her pain instead of writing it on her body. He says, “Your words can build a bridge. Your bad feelings can travel over that bridge, away from you . . . to me” (80).
Steven’s offer to be a bridge holds out a large appeal. As Christians, we hear echoes of the gospel here. We know that the true bridge is the Lord Jesus; he has taken our sin on himself and put it away forever (Colossians 2:14). But in community, others remind us of this gospel truth through words of forgiveness and love (Ephesians 4:15, 32). Their encouragement can serve as the bridge that connects us even more deeply to Jesus.
When I’m isolated and alone, I am overwhelmed by my feelings and failures. It’s like static electricity that needs to be discharged. Self-harm is one kind of discharge. But in a fellowship of grace, my feelings and failures can be shared and carried by others. A community of the word brings healing and grace, and words take the place of violence.
The Physical Body That’s Redeemed
We’ve thought about Christ’s body, but what about our own? The Scriptures tell us that our bodies are temples filled with the presence and love of Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:19). Sometimes people can use this truth as a weapon to induce feelings of guilt. But in reality, it’s a liberating truth.
By self-harming, I treat my body like it’s a scapegoat. In Jesus, I treat my body as a temple. The difference could not be more profound. Instead of doing violence to my body — making it a victim of my anger — now I can remember that the Spirit is at home in me. In Christ, my body is no longer a place of embarrassment and guilt, but of glory. It’s a sanctuary, where God can be seen and enjoyed.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
Jesus gave his body for me. He became the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin. My body can never be that. It must never be that. But now that Christ has redeemed me, my body belongs to him. Once, I hid it and hated it and hurt it. Now, God himself takes up residence, transforming a place of shame into one of honor.
None of these truths is a silver bullet to quickly and cleanly “solve” the problem of self-harm. Self-harm is complex, and recovery is often a process, requiring professional support as well as soul care from pastors, friends, and family. But for those who are trapped in the cycle of self-harm, there is grace, truth, and most of all, hope. In the context of loving community and prayerful worship, there is balm instead of blame.