I first self injured when I was 14. It became a bigger part of my life when I went through an acute episode of bipolar disorder (mostly characterised by depression) when I was 21/22, and I became a Christian at 22. Since then I have occasionally self harmed – though not with the same intensity as I did during that first illness. When I became a Christian, something which troubled me was the idea that self-injury is sinful, an action against God, a betrayal of God or the evidence of Satan at work in me. With time, I have come to believe that self-injury is not a sin, but is the result of sin at work in the world, as manifested in illness and brokenness among humankind.
There are two types of self-injury: culturally sanctioned, and forbidden/transgressive self harm. Culturally sanctioned self injury is commonplace, and isn’t usually seen as self harm – things like eyebrow plucking or leg waxing alter the body, cause pain, but are totally acceptable. As someone mentioned, in the middle ages, women were expected to pluck off all their eyebrows and the front of their hairline – but if someone were to do that now they would be classified as a self-injurer. Other examples are of course the unnecessary surgeries such as boob jobs which change the body for no medical reason. Our society does not regard these as transgressive and there are various theories as to why, especially by feminist writers – for more on that I would suggest reading Sheila Jeffreys.
My focus here is on the transgressive self harm, the sort that is actually called self harm! (or self-injury, self-mutilation and other terms, I tend to use the first two interchangeably). To define self-harm:
Self-harm is the deliberate act of causing oneself physical pain or damage in order to address an emotional need and bring relief – usually in ways that are hidden, always in ways that affect spiritual health.
(“Understanding Self-harm: A Biblical Model for Encouraging Recovery” Helen Ruth Thorne, Grove Pastoral Series, Grove Educational Ltd, 2011 p 4, an excellent booklet)
Self-Harm in the Old Testament
There are not many mentions of anything approaching self harm in the Bible, but there are a few mentions in the OT – which are probably the basis of condemnation of self harmers by Christians (and even society at large). The two prohibitions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the most clear statements in the Bible:
Leviticus 19:28 “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”
Deuteronomy 14:1 “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead”
The first thing that struck me about these laws is that they are speaking of something very specific. Both of them note that the self-harm is for the dead. As this review of a book on the Denver Seminary’s website notes:
these are Canaanite or, better, West Semitic customs as is evident in the Baal cycle where El and Anat both mourn at Baal’s death, and do indeed cut themselves (Ugaritic text KTU 1.5 VI 11-25).
Here, incidentally, we see the difference between culturally sanctioned SI and the forbidden sort – in Canaan, cutting yourself in mourning was not seen as SI whereas, because it was prohibited in Israel, it would have been self injury.
I do not think that the Leviticus/Deuteronomy prohibition against self injury is really against self injury as such – but against pagan practises. Reading through the Torah we can see that separation from neighbouring religions and cultures is important to God, as a preventative against idolatry in the people of Israel. I think that this prohibition is purely a cultural/religious one, to stop Israel from mourning like the Canaanite gods did, and therefore becoming open to the idea of those gods existing or being worthy of worship.
We can see that the prohibition did not really work when we look at other mentions of cutting in the OT, such as Jeremiah 16:6; 41:5; and 48:37. Here cutting yourself for the dead is seen as normative, and there is no condemnation in those passages. Evidently it had become so normal to the population, or else was overshadowed by much greater sins, so Jeremiah did not condemn them for it.
There are other reasons why the Torah isn’t keen on cutting, though. If you read through the Law it is evident that wholeness is very important. To stand before God a man had to be free from disease (Deut 24:8-9; Lev 13) and not be missing his testicles or penis (Deut. 23:1) or is from the priestly line and who has a defect (blind, lame, a dwarf, hunchbacked etc – for the full list see Lev 21:17-23) – it could be argued that God does not wish the damaged to stand before him. However this does not take into account people wounded in battle, for instance, and may represent an “ideal state” of affairs rather than the reality. It is difficult to read these passages as they seem to be very harsh against the disabled – but then I am reminded that Jesus suffered physically for us, and himself became impaired and less than “perfect” physically, and that this was prophesied in the OT, especially in Isaiah 53.
Concluding the OT section: there is no specific condemnation of self harm as we know it today, but there is a prohibition on following pagan practises, which in Biblical times included cutting oneself for the dead. However physical deformity or damage is something that is discriminated against in the Torah and especially for the priests in Leviticus, but we know that God himself became impaired, disabled for us on the cross, and that he remains in that less than “perfect” body.
Self Harm In the New Testament
There is very little in the NT at all about self harm, excepting only the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5) of which I have already written. I wrote there that I have trouble with this story as it does indeed seem to describe self harm, and it does seem to describe a man with a mental illness. I am not prepared to describe myself as demonised – nor would I hasten to describe anyone that way. I also mentioned that Jesus performed miracles for a purpose, as a “sign” to unbelievers, and that not everyone was healed, not everyone was demonised, but the gospel authors chose to focus on those people. In short I find this a difficult passage – but I would point out that Jesus does not at any point condemn the man for his self harm, but he heals him. He doesn’t condemn him at all actually, he does not describe the man as a sinner but treats him rather like a doctor would a patient.
Some self-injurers have used the NT (and some of the OT) to glorify self harm, which is not something I support. Some of Paul’s letters describe suffering in approving terms, and he does describe putting the body to death (=mortifying) which was used for many years as a justification for self harm. Yet few self harmers I have known have hurt themselves to glorify God, at the heart of my self harm is hatred of myself, emotional numbness and anxiety – I’m afraid it is rare that I can even think of God when I am in that state let alone be doing it for his glory!
One passage I would like to dwell on is the famous one in 1 Corinthians:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
There are several other versions of this, some stressing that we are, corporately, the temple of God, others emphasising that each of us individually are the temple. I have often seen this used to say that self injury is sinful because it is destroying (or graffiting) God’s temple. I think it is important that we look at the context of this verse – Paul is speaking of sexual immorality, which he says is a sin against the body – and significantly, says that all other sins are not sins against the body. Other passages talk about not joining together with pagan spouses and about how God will repay those who destroy us. Tempting as it is, it looks to me like Paul is speaking about sex, not any other sort of sin. That said, we should still honour God with our bodies – but I think Paul is being rather specific about what honouring God with our bodies actually means. I think it is a stretch to make this verse say anything about self-injury.
Is Self Harm Sinful?
I would say, no. It is not specifically mentioned in the form in which we know it in the Old Testament, in the New it is only mentioned once (Mark 5) and then is not condemned by Christ. Self harm is only connected with pagan mourning rituals in the OT, and even then there are instances of Israelites performing those rituals without being condemned.
However this is not to say I think SI is a good thing – I certainly do not think that. I do not think that God wants to see his children hurting at all, and certainly not hurting themselves. However I think that he knows why we are doing it and does not condemn us for it. I would add that, of course, self harm is not necessary in spiritual terms in that Jesus has taken our punishment (Isaiah 53:11), in Christ we have not guilt but freedom (Romans 8:2) and we are made perfect in Christ (Colossians 1). I wish I had never started self harming, because it has proven difficult to stop, but I do not think it is a terrible evil, for me it is something that helps me carry on when nothing else does. I think that God understands that, but I also think he is waiting for me to be able to lean on him better in hard times and not rely on my own flawed efforts to help with my thoughts.
http://www.bcbsr.com/survey/dlaws.html Deuteronomy Bible Survey