What we think of as self-harm today—behaviors like cutting or burning—is generally not the same type of self-mutilation we read about in the Bible. Much of the self-mutilation in the Bible was related to pagan idol worship. But we do see biblical occurrences of self-harm being related to demonic oppression, which can certainly still be the case in some situations today. Whatever the cause of self-harming behaviors today, biblical truth is helpful and relevant. Those who are self-injuring and those who have a friend or loved one struggling with self-harming behaviors can find truth, hope, and encouragement in God's Word.
In the Old Testament, self-mutilation was a common practice among false religions. First Kings 18:24–29 describes a ritual in which those who worshiped the false god Baal slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom. Because of the traditions of pagans, God made a law against this sort of practice. Leviticus 19:28 says, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD." In the New Testament, cutting oneself was associated with someone who was possessed by demons (Mark 5:2–5). It was characteristic of behavior caused by evil spirits.
Self-harm as we generally talk about it today is deliberate harm to one's body as a way to deal with emotional pain, anger, or frustration. Some describe feeling numb and harming themselves to at least feel something. For some the physical pain induced by self-injury functions as a brief release of emotional pain or other emotional energy. For others, the physical pain is a distraction from emotional pain they are feeling. Some use self-harm as a means of punishing themselves for a perceived fault; for others, the harm is related to feeling a sense of control over one's body, emotions, or life circumstances. Some people self-harm a few times and stop; for others, it becomes a pattern of behavior. Though self-harm is usually not done with suicidal intention, the intensity of the harming behavior can increase. While the act of self-harm may temporarily resolve the emotional angst, the relief is generally short-lived. Guilt and shame often follow. (www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/self-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20350950, accessed 1/28/2021; and www.covingtonbh.com/disorders/self-harm/signs-symptoms/, accessed 1/28/2021.)
You might recognize self-harming behaviors in someone by noticing scratches, bruises, burn marks, or cut marks on his or her body. You might see patterned scars as evidence of past harming behavior. You might also notice he or she wears long sleeves or pants even in hot weather. Too, you'll likely notice emotional signs such as difficulty in relationships or talking about feeling hopeless or helpless. Self-harm tends to be more associated with teenagers and young adults, but it occurs in all age groups and genders. Self-harm is often associated with disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar, post-traumatic stress, borderline personality, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. If you think someone you know is self-harming, take the behavior seriously. Gently talk to them about your concern and suggest they seek help (such as from a professional Christian counselor, school counselor, or medical care provider). If your child is self-harming, you can also talk with his or her school counselor, pediatrician, or other medical provider. (ibid.)
Clearly, self-harm is not a healthy coping mechanism and is not God's desire for people. Self-harm does not and will not resolve the underlying issues that prompt the behavior. So, what will help?
First, this is not a journey to walk alone. It is important for people engaged in self-harming behaviors to seek help (for instance, from a Christian counselor). Though it can be scary, it can also be helpful for the sufferer to confide in a trusted friend or mentor who can encourage and aid in healing. If your child is struggling with self-harm, you, as the parent, may also need some support through the journey. Try not to take your child's struggle personally. Extend compassion and mercy before anger and disappointment. Do not hesitate to reach out to trusted friends, or even a counselor, who can encourage you as you support your child.
Next, it will be important to recognize what is prompting the behavior so that the truth of God's Word can be spoken into the situation. Self-harm is often a symptom of not being able to adequately cope with one's emotions or the result of past abuse or trauma. It may also be a symptom of spiritual oppression. God is more than big enough for our emotions. He sees and understands our pain. Tuning our minds to the truth of who God is and the way He sees us helps us to navigate life in a fallen world. God is also big enough to free us from any spiritual oppression. In fact, only He can do so, thus turning to Him is paramount.
The biggest step of healing is to put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior if you have not already done so. On our own, we are separated from God and without hope. But God provided a way for us to be in relationship with Him—Jesus Christ (John 3:16–18). Jesus is fully God and fully human. He lived a perfect life. He died on the cross to pay the price for our sins. Then He rose back to life, proving He is who He says He is and that His sacrifice was sufficient payment for us (1 Corinthians 15:3–7; Philippians 2:5–11). When we put our faith in Him, we become a child of God (John 1:12–13). All the things we have done that go against God are forgiven (Ephesians 1:3–10). Not only that, but we are given the Holy Spirit to live inside us (Ephesians 1:13–14). God invites us into relationship with Him. In Him our lives have meaning and purpose. We still endure the hardships of this world, but we know that one day God will make the world new (John 16:33; James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–9; Revelation 21—22). We have hope that we will be with Him throughout eternity. We also know that He is with us every day of our lives (John 14:15–21, 26–27; 16:12–15; Matthew 28:20). We are not alone!
Even people who know Jesus as Savior struggle with difficult emotions and negative ways of dealing with them, like self-harm. But we need not be ashamed. God sees the pain, and He can help us through. We need to remind ourselves of who God is and who we are in Him. We find out who God is and what He says about us by reading His Word. For example, see Genesis 1:1, Genesis 16:13, Exodus 3:14, Psalm 103, Psalm 136, Psalm 139, Hebrews 13:5–6, 8, Isaiah 40, James 1:16–17, 1 John 4:8–10, and Revelation 4. The Bible also shows us how we can pour out our emotions to God. We can bring our pain to Him in prayer. See Psalm 42, Psalm 46, Psalm 62, the book of Job, the book of Lamentations, 1 Kings 19, Habakkuk 3, Luke 11:9–13, Hebrews 4:14–16, and 1 Peter 5:7, for example. God also gives us the family of believers to encourage us and walk alongside us (Galatians 6:2, 9–10; Hebrews 10:19–25; Romans 12:15; James 5:13–16; John 13:34–35). So reach out to fellow believers for support.
Also important will be finding practical ways to stop engaging in the harming behavior. Things like praying, journaling, doing artwork, going for a walk, calling a friend, taking a shower, or simply allowing oneself to cry can be helpful replacement activities when the urge to harm oneself arises. A counselor can help you come up with a good plan to help curb the damaging behaviors while also helping you learn better coping mechanisms for emotional stress.
Self-harm is a serious issue, but it is not insurmountable. Healing and recovery are possible with God along with the support of loved ones, medical professionals, and trusted spiritual advisors.