Christians, like any group in society, can hold various views on self injury. These can include that it is a sign of mental illness, that it is attention-seeking, and so on, just like non-Christians. There are, however, a few specific ways Christians understand self injury, and a few questions that Christian self injurers may have about what they do.
I know that when I became a Christian I was very concerned as to whether my self injury was a sin or not. Many Christians will say that it is, because in 1 Corinthians Paul writes:
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)
The question here is whether Paul is speaking, as he does in verses prior to this one, about sexual immorality, or whether he is making a more general point. I tend to think that this verse does apply to more than simply matters of sex, because in Romans he writes
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)
I understand that God is interested in all of us, body mind and soul. He is indeed interested in our bodies and in what we do with our bodies – interested enough, and valuing them enough, that he will raise them up by his power (1 Corinthians 6:14) He does not wish us to dishonour him with our bodies, because we are not our own any longer.
But does this tell us self injury is a sin? There are two ways to define sin:
- A crime against God. Something we do, say, or think which is against the very character of God and through which we transgress his law, and his character. 1 John 3:4 says that everyone who sins breaks the law – and we know from Jesus that the law is summed up in this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) So, whatever we do that is not out of love for God and our neighbour is a sin.
- Missing the mark. The Greek word for sin is hamartia and literally means ‘to miss the mark’. In other words, we may aim for, but miss the ideal way we should be, we miss the mark as though we were an archer shooting at a target, but instead of hitting it, ploughing it into the grass. God demands perfection, but as we all know, mankind is not perfect, and we all are guilty of sin.
I would say a qualified “yes” as to whether self injury is a sin. I see it more in a passive sense – we are not actively rebelling against God by hurting ourselves and injuring our bodies, but we should not be doing these things. I am sometimes reluctant to use the term “sin” for it – I would rather say that we have fallen short of God’s standard, because saying the word “sin” brings ideas of holy retribution. I believe God does not want us to self injure but that he loves us, and cherishes us, and hates to see us hurting. Self injury is not like say, stealing, we do not go out and make a decision to commit a crime against God, to reject God and follow our own path. Yes, we need to rely on God more and we shouldn’t harm ourselves, but we are in a dreadful, unhappy state where the only thing we can think of that can help can be self harm. I would urge you to rely more on God, to cling to him as much as possible, because your body is also his body, and he doesn’t want you to be in pain. I believe we have a duty to seek treatment – but I am no advocate of condemning self injurers for it – we all know it isn’t a good thing, and people who self harm tend to be very hard on themselves, and often may think God will reject them for what they are doing. God will not reject you for self harming, though he does want you to stop – which he may make happen immediately, or he may want you to go through a longer process.
So yes, self injury is a sin, though not an awful one. The point to remember is that, in Christ our sins are forgiven, and we have a loving Father who does not want his children hurt. Once Jesus set us free, we are indeed free – from death and from the consequences of our sin. One day we will be free of self injury, too, with his help. Don’t think that God will reject you because you self harm – he will help you through it.
Some Christians will say that self injury is the work of demons, unclean spirits or similar in you. This is because of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20. This man was found by Jesus wandering in a graveyard, naked and cutting himself. He was possessed by a number of demons who called themselves “Legion” – Jesus healed him and the demons passed into pigs, which then jumped into the sea and drowned. The man was then found by his neighbours clothed and in his right mind, listening to Jesus.
There are only a few mentions of self injury (exclusively skin-cutting) in the Bible, and this is the only one in the New Testament. I will be addressing the question of the Bible and self injury more directly in another post, but would like to briefly say that because the other mentions of self injury are not associated with demons but with either mourning customs of neighbours to the Israelites or pagan worship of Baal, I do not think we can assume that all cases of self injury are demonic in origin. We know that the people of Israel sometimes cut themselves as a mourning custom (eg Jeremiah 16:6) although this was originally forbidden them as a custom of the neighbouring Canaanites (Leviticus 19:28). There is nothing in the Old Testament to state that self-cutting was a sign of demonic possession, so I do not think we can infer from one New Testament reference that it is always to do with demons.
As a fairly ordinary sort of Christian, I do believe in demons – so I do think that a person with a demon could indeed be driven to cut themselves (or run naked in a graveyard) but I simply do not believe that all cases of self injury could be said to be demonic, and I certainly think we would see more evidence than “simply” self injury to show that there were demons involved.
There are, and have been, certain Christians who practised self-injury as a sort of Godly discipline. This practise is called mortification of the flesh and is most common in Catholic Christians. The most famous people to do this today are Opus Dei, the Catholic group, who use a sort of whip, among other things, to hurt themselves. The other group are/were called flagellants and they whipped themselves frequently, as a way to get closer to God. More information on this can be found in the book “Sacred Pain” by Ariel Glucklich. One thing I would like to mention though is that first, self-mortification in this way is controversial and most non-Catholic churches do not do it, and second that when Catholics do do this, they are well-supervised and controlled, they don’t practise it in the way that self injurers do.
To conclude – I do believe self-injury is a kind of sin, although I would not want to concentrate on that too much. There are many sins, and self injury is not a worse sin than others are doing. That, of course, does not mean it is ok to carry on doing it, but it does mean you shouldn’t beat yourself up (no pun intended) about it. God loves you and does not wish you harm, even from yourself. We should honour God in what we do with our bodies – which is why I am striving not to self harm again. But if you fail, know that God still loves you, that he forgives you and he understands how hard you are trying. Just like my dad, your dad, picked you up when you fell learning to walk, so God will pick you up. Whether the journey to health is short or long, he will be there too. Although I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes.
Self injury is a bad thing and we all know it and want to stop, at least most of the time. It is not, I believe, demon possession – the majority of the time – but it isn’t of God, either. Talk to God, and get help, whether that be a therapist or a prayer chain or someone you love. He will help, and he does forgive. I am certain of that.