Self-Harmers in the Church

“People say it’s for attention but I dinnae think so. They just feel worthless.” – anonymous Scottish female

What is the first thought that comes to mind when we say the words, “Self-Harm or Self-Injury?” For many it will be the image of a young person with prominent scars or burns on their arms. But to define the act of deliberately causing oneself harm takes in so much more than cutting and can include choking, biting, head banging, hitting, picking, scratching, self neglect, breaking bones, eating disorders, pulling out hair, scalding, removing limbs, genital mutilation, self-poisoning and so on. The list is almost endless.

A survey of Scottish young people stated that nearly 20% of females and 7% of males revealed that self-harming had been a lifetime occurrence. The UK has the highest rate of self-harm in Europe and the highest proportion of people who self-harm are statistically between 11 – 25 years of age.  Sadly, self-harm is not confined solely to youth. It is something that we are very familiar with in women across all age ranges.

One of the best visual aids I’ve seen to help us understand self-harm is the simple party balloon. The balloon is a visual image of our lives when stress come calling. Trials appear and the pressure increases inside (and our balloon is blown up). Now, there are lots of ways of dealing with that pressure. Some just let it explode in anger (your balloon explodes, making a massive noise. However, the immediate pressure has gone.

The downside is that the balloon is destroyed, made a mess and given those closest to you a bit of a fright).  Others respond to stress by going AWOL (illustrated by letting go of the balloon and watching it float away, blown around in the wind until it comes back to earth fully deflated).  Then there are those that self harm (illustrated by taking the neck of the pressurised balloon, pulling it tight and cutting a little bit of the rubber with scissors. The pressure is then slowly released, like a safety valve, from the balloon as it deflates bit by bit).

Why would someone self harm?

Many suggest it is a coping mechanism for dealing with unwanted emotional, mental and physical turmoil. Ed Welch (Self-Harm: When Pain Feels Good) says that self-harmers, “Just don’t know how to live with turbulent emotions.” But, I think it is more complex than a way to deal with emotional stress. Some people clearly do it as a form of self-punishment, others by reenacting abuse, worship, cleansing, protection, distorted self-image and even control (to name but a few reasons).

Is it the latest Fad?

Self-harm isn’t new as we see in 1Kings18:28: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed”. They believed that cutting themselves would appease their gods. In the middle-ages many Christians practiced self-flagellation as a form of worship. So, it’s been around for a while.

It is true that the stats show a rise in the number of people who are self-harming but is this evidence of a fad? Are people just doing what they have seen or heard about from friends? Most of the research I’ve read suggested that in the main it’s not a taught behavior because most self-harm is done in private. There are lots of layers and questions that need to be asked and teased out before we can simply put the rise of recorded self-harming simply down to the latest fad or a phase someone is going through. We must be careful, therefore, in our counsel not to assume it is just a phase or a fad. we must be careful of over simplifying issues and just giving people coping techniques until their perceived phase is over. I’ve heard of many such techniques, including:

Using a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut
Hitting a punch bag to vent anger and frustration
Hitting pillows or cushions, or having a good scream into a pillow or cushion
Rubbing ice across your skin where you might usually cut, or holding an ice-cube in the crook of your arm or leg
Getting outdoors and having a fast walk
Writing negative feelings on a piece of paper and then ripping it up
Keeping a journal
Scribbling on a large piece of paper with a red crayon or pen
Putting elastic bands on wrists, arms or legs and flicking them instead of cutting or hitting

The problem with these techniques is that they are simply a temporary relief or fix that don’t solve the deeper issues. Some may be helpful but Christian counsel should be concerned not merely with responses but with addressing the heart of the matter(s).

Hope in Christ

Rarely in Christian circles have I found the subject discussed with any depth. I don’t know why that is. But I do know one thing for sure: Christians who self-harm often experience an added layer of the guilt and shame that a self-harmer already experiences.

The good news is that there is hope and freedom from the cycle of self-harm in Jesus Christ. However, too often there is a disconnect between the biblical truth we profess to know and the reality of how we live.

The lie believed: I am Guilty – I must be punished

Truth for the believer: We can find forgiveness in Christ and what he has done not in what we can do

The lie believed: I deserve this

Truth for the believer: All Gods judgment has fallen in Christ. He took our place, paid our debt we are forgiven because of Christ.

The lie believed: Hurting myself is the only way I can stop the feelings

Truth for the believer: Share the pain with the one who loves us. Turn to him

The lie believed: This way I gain control over _________.

Truth for the believer: The Lord is in control he can be trusted

The lie believed: I’m ugly, dumb, fat, hideous, unlovable…

Truth for the believer: I am made in the glorious image of God!

Help Me!

Psalm 4:1, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” The Psalms teach us to call out to God, he hears.

“No matter how much sin we discover in ourselves, these is more than enough grace and mercy to forgive and change us. God takes joy in forgiving us.” (Ed Welch)

How can we help brothers and sisters deal with their self-harming? Encourage them in the following:

1. Be in the Word daily: Get to know God and his truths. Memorise scripture so that when the lies start to creep in you can remind yourself of the truth. The light of the God’s Word will always dispel the darkness of false words.

2. Pray and ask for help: Go to the source of all help.

3. Be Honest! Self-harm likes privacy and secrecy. It’s all to easy when you’re in your secret world to withdraw and hide your behaviour. Be honest with God and a good mature accountability partner. Don’t give Satan a foothold.

4. Be Wise: Change is possible but you need to be wise. Recognise your harming habits and patterns so you can flee the temptation and change your normal pattern. Work out a strategy.

5. Fail well. Old habits and prolonged, persistent behaviours are hard to change. If and when you fail and give into temptation – fail well. What I mean by this is confess straight away. Don’t hide it. All that will do is compound and probably escalate. Run quickly to God, seek and receive his forgiveness.

6. Keep on Persevering: Change is hard and messy. It’s painful and may take years. Ask God to help us to persevere in the trial.

7. Keep the end in sight: Look to the hope of eternity.

If you know someone who you suspect is self harming the temptation might be to dive in and instantly try to stop the behaviuor. To be honest it’s understandable to want to save the ones we love from harm (even from themselves). BUT, pause and slow down, talk to them and share your concerns. Behind their behaviour may be motivations you may even find familiar such as fear, desire to control, hopelessness or anger.

Seek wise counsel from your Elders or a trusted mature believer. Behave wisely and with Godly tact. Pray for them. Point them to the source of all help and entrust them into his care. Its going to be a long walk beside them and we must always act with the same gracious, patience and long suffering love that our heavenly Father extended to us in Jesus.

Originally published at 20Schemes.

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