Why Do Christians Harm Themselves?

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He approached me before a talk I was giving on self-harm, an older man, white-haired and polite.

“I’ve been a Christian for nearly 40 years. I’ve seen a lot. But this! Cutting and burning and all sorts; terrible, just terrible. Young girls, trying to kill themselves? We didn’t have it when I was their age. Why are they doing it?”

I sympathize with this man’s emotions of bafflement and despair. They’re understandable. But I don’t believe his views are accurate. So, let’s examine his questions. As we do, we’ll see that self-harm is an ancient scourge and something that we can all understand, at least at some level.

“Girls are trying to harm themselves?”

Self-harm is “an act which involves deliberately inflicting pain and/or injury to one’s own body, but without suicidal intent” (Babiker, The Language of Injury). It affects men, women, and children, from all races, cultures, and backgrounds (including Christians).

Self-harm has links to suicide, but the two are not the same. Those who attempt suicide are trying to end their life. Those who are self-harming, guided by horrific and wicked lies, are trying to make theirs better. On a deep level, those who self-harm are trying to heal themselves — through punishing themselves. They are treating one sort of pain (emotional) with another (physical). The behavior seems like a contradiction to others, but the temptation may not be as foreign as it sounds.

Imagine that you’re running late for a meeting and have lost your house keys. How might you respond? On the outside you might seem calm. But internally you can hear yourself saying: Idiot! How could I have done that? I’m so stupid. Why do I keep making the same mistakes? Berating ourselves doesn’t make the keys suddenly appear and it certainly doesn’t get us to our appointment any sooner.

If our spouses or friends spoke to us in this way, we’d challenge them. Yet we are routinely tempted to tell ourselves the same things — sometimes worse. Perhaps you can relate to self-harm more than you realized. Of course, there are degrees of self-harm; and most of us won’t qualify for a diagnosis. But as Christians, we are especially aware of and awake to brokenness and sin. We know that, apart from Christ, all sinners will seek to make life work outside of God. Self-harm is just another example of a universal problem — and not a modern example, but an ancient one.

“We didn’t have it when I was young.”

The prophets of Baal slashed themselves before their God (1 Kings 18:28). The man inhabited by demons injured himself while he lived alone among the tombs (Mark 5:1–20). The 5th century Stylites exposed themselves to the elements for decades atop pillars. Catherine of Siena, a 14th century nun, whipped herself with chains and deprived herself of food and sleep. She died of starvation, but was revered for her holiness.

The practice of self-harming as a misguided form of self-healing or self-redemption is as old as history. It’s been around since sin and shame entered the world.

“Why are they harming themselves?”

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame. As soon as they sinned, the guilt they felt produced something deep and insidious: shame. This was not mere regret over their actions, but disgust at themselves.

Shame is a powerful emotion — and it needs a powerful cloak. We see this first in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve disobey God and are ashamed when their sin is exposed. First they hide behind shrubbery, then behind excuses and accusations. The deeper their shame, the more covering they needed. Adam lashed out against Eve (and God! Genesis 3:12), because anger is often strong enough to temporarily cover shame.

We are all tempted, like Adam, to deal with shame in unhealthy and ungodly ways. And while some of us vent our anger on others, some turn it upon themselves. Like an ancient religious ritual, we lift up a sacrifice and do violence to it. We wash, prepare, and ritualize it, and we cut it up and pour out our anger upon it. We worship it and we destroy it; we sanctify it and we scapegoat it. We look to self-harm for redemption. We purge our flesh and we sacrifice it. We fetishise it and destroy it, punish it and care for it — all at the same time.

Self-harm is a human antidote to shame. As one friend told me, “Every time I cut, I was trying to save myself.” In other words, it’s a deeply spiritual problem.

How to Respond to Self-Harm

The self-harmer might look like they’re trying to die, but they’re actually trying to live. It’s not their scars that are so crippling, but the fact that they’re trying to make life work outside of Christ. It is a survival instinct wired into every one of us, whether or not we’ve harmed ourselves.

As Christians, we should be able to understand the dynamics of self-harm more than others. We recognize that, apart from sovereign grace, we are not only stuck in our sins, but we choose them (John 3:19). Self-harm is a mixture of bondage and indulgence, and only the gospel will heal its wounds.

Because of the gospel:

We don’t stand aloof from the problem. We’re all sick sinners and we’re all desperate and hopeless apart from Christ.

We don’t panic. Self-harm is nothing new and nothing beyond God’s saving power (2 Corinthians 3:5).

We don’t retreat. We are called to engage with our broken brothers and sisters in love. As churches, we partner with professionals; but we also keep pointing back to Jesus.

We don’t cast ourselves as ‘fixers.’ Self-harm is a complex issue of the heart, so the solution requires far more than telling sufferers to stop. Again, self-harm is a powerful mixture of choices and chains, so it requires both grace and truth. As we seek to help others, we recognise that recovery is often a long-term process, with backwards steps along the way. In all of this, Jesus is the rescuer, not us.

We don’t focus on ourselves. Our problems go far deeper than anything that rituals might fix. Our solution lies outside of ourselves, in Christ.

We don’t despair. The gospel has power to change and reach hearts, not just behaviors. Broken people need a Savior who is broken for them, and, wonderfully, by his wounds — his! — we are healed.

In seeking freedom from shame and self-harm, we look to Christ’s broken body, not to our own.