I have loved Psalm 23 since I was given a copy of it after my grandmother’s death, when I was eight. I memorised it then, and sometimes, when I am not really able to think of things to say, I recite it to God. One line that has always stood out for me is verse 4:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I don’t know about other people but, as a woman, this line speaks to me – there are many times when I feel afraid, walking alone. I have always been taught to be wary of dark, lonely places, places described to me as those where evil may lurk, where someone may be waiting to attack me. It is in such a dark place that I was raped, once, by my then-sort-of-boyfriend. I fear evil when I walk in the darkness, but this verse tells me not to be afraid – wary, perhaps, but not afraid, for God is with me, regardless of what happens.
I would like now to speak of the opposite of this fear – of the reckless abandon with which I walk when I am ill. There is a form of self harm which I have occasionally experienced, where I will walk through dangerous areas, at night, and fear nothing. Not fear – but a sort of expectation of being harmed, a conviction that that is what I deserve, and a desire to “get it over with.” In the depths of depression I fear no evil – for evil is already happening to me. I already feel appalling, and so I cannot imagine feeling worse – even if I were to be attacked, even if I were to be raped. Even if I were to be killed. I have been known, in that darkness, to cross roads without checking for cars, to give evil looks to groups of men I was sure were drug dealers, to invite harm into my life, as a means of hurting myself, because I deserve it.
Few people talk about this type of self harm – although I have occasionally seen it mentioned. It, to me, is a mixture of self harm and suicidality, in that I want to be hurt, to release the pressure of the pain in my head, but I also accept the possibility that I might die, and that is fine too. I no longer care about my safety, but it seems like it would be better for someone or something else to harm me than to take the knife to my skin. Cleaner, more honourable. I know I have spent time when suicidal, too, hoping that something would kill me, anything from cancer to a car crash. That is the reason I started smoking – a mixture of “I hope this kills me” and “this is harming me with every cigarette, and that is good.” The other thing I do, in that state, is drink considerably. I already drink quite a bit, but when I am ill I drink much more, and more often.
God is with me, whether I walk safely or not – but I don’t think that the Psalmist recommended walking without any sort of precaution for safety. I think of Jesus in the wilderness, and how Satan knew that God was with him, and would send angels to protect him if he fell – but Jesus would not jump, because that would be putting God to the test. In the same way when we walk in this world, while God is with us, we should not put him to the test by deliberately placing ourselves in unwarranted danger. There is, of course, a difference between someone who walks in a dangerous place to spread the Gospel, to bring hope, love, and material comfort to the poor, and those who walk in the hope of being harmed.
I don’t know what to do with this impulse toward self destruction. It is still with me – in fact I self harmed again a few days ago, when I was going through a short, but unpleasant low mood. I am not free of it. Sometimes I try to rationalise it with the words of the Bible about not being concerned for our own lives, about the sinfulness of the body, about walking in darkness and fearing no evil – but I know this is not a good understanding of the Bible. The Bible speaks of priorities – that love for others is greater than love for self, for example, but it does not say that love of our selves is evil, merely that it is lesser than our love for others. The Bible speaks about the body, about not being obsessed with looking after it, to detriment of the rest of life:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? (Matthew 6:25)
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Jesus says that we should prioritise God and his Kingdom – but I when ill take these verses as a license to abuse my own body.
On the one hand I look at Psalm 23 and see hope for when things look dark, and evil, a hope that sustains me if I am forced to walk in dangerous places, perhaps to get home from socialising, or from someone’s house. On the other – a lack of any sort of concern about my safety, truly fearing no evil because I want to embrace it. I do not think that God wishes us to take no care for ourselves, for our safety, and I certainly don’t think he likes my attempts at harming myself through the actions of evil people. “As wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” Jesus said – in this case I think that that means taking safety seriously while not worrying, being anxious about it.
If you are suffering with self harm, I’d like to say that God has felt every horrible impulse we have had, yet has resisted, and that he understands us in a way most people do not. He doesn’t want us to be hurt – either by our own hands or by anyone else’s, and we should not put ourselves in the way of danger. Don’t put God to the test – and don’t hurt him by hurting ourselves.
Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Peter 1:2)
- ??? Psalm 23 ??? (soulmategodsway.com)
- Encourage yourself (womenaboutthefathersbusiness.wordpress.com)
- A Powerful Love (pocketfulofmotherhood.wordpress.com)