September 9, 2015

'The First Cut is the Deepest'—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—it 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 percent of females and 7 percent 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 comes 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 re-enacting abuse, worship, cleansing, protection, distorted self-image, or even control (to name but a few reasons).

Is it the latest Fad?

Self-harm isn’t new, as we see in 1 Kings1 8:28: “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 a practice that has 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 behaviour 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 that 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. There are Christians who self-harm, and this a can bring with it 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 Truth for the believer
I am Guilty – I must be punished We can find forgiveness in Christ and what he has done not in what we can do
I deserve this All God’s judgment has fallen in Christ. He took our place and paid our debt. We are forgiven because of Christ
Hurting myself is the only way I can stop the feelings Share the pain with the one who loves us. Turn to him
This way I gain control over. . . . The Lord is in control he can be trusted
I’m ugly, dumb, fat, hideous, unlovable. . . . 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 too 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 behaviour. 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. It’s going to be a long walk beside them, and we must always act with the same gracious, patient, and long-suffering love that our heavenly Father extends to us in Jesus.

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