I love the way that they’re describing this—talking about how Christ’s affliction becomes a good remedy for those who are facing self-affliction or self-harm. Join me as we listen in on their discussion about the remedy that the Scriptures give us to self-harm and self-affliction.
Sam Stephens: Bryan, thanks for joining us on this episode of Truth in Love, Christ’s Affliction as the Remedy for Self-Affliction. I think some of our listeners may not be familiar with the term self-affliction. Can you give us a definition of that term and some examples of what that may look like?
Bryan Gaines: Self-affliction is in essence self-harm or self-injury. It’s doing intentional damage to your body. It’s commonly referred to as NSSI, non-suicidal self-injury. The main example people hear about is cutting; about 80 percent of those who self-harm have at some point cut. Other examples would be hitting or punching oneself. Sometimes someone will take a hammer and hit their body—sometimes even breaking bones. I had one counselee who literally hit his head on the desk so hard that he knocked himself out. Others that are somewhat common are burning and hair-pulling (and Keith Palmer actually did a great Truth in Love episode with ACBC on that). Others that would probably be classified as self-harm would be eating disorders—anorexia and bulimia. And I would even put substance abuse in the category of self-harm as well.
Sam Stephens: In your experience as a minister, are there any types of people who are more prone to struggle with self-affliction than others?
Bryan Gaines: Certainly. Statistically about 3 to 38 percent of people self-harm (the statistics all over the place as far as who actually self-harms), and most of those would be adolescents or young adults. That’s where the majority of it takes place, but not always. This past week, I had someone share with me that a loved one struggled with anorexia and got to the point where all she consumed (as far as a food substance) was alcohol. As a result of that her body shut down and after two days in the hospital, she actually died from it. She was in her 60s. It’s not just something that young people do—it can be across the board.
Typically, those who have known affliction or been abused earlier on in life are more prone to struggle with self-harm. My experience has been that those who have been verbally or physically abused as they’re growing up—maybe they’re told they’re unwanted, made to feel unwanted, or have been sexually abused—are more likely to struggle with this.
This is a universal problem. This isn’t just something that happens in the United States. It may more prevalent here, but twice a year our church goes down to Guatemala. We work with a home there for children and young people, and there are all sorts of instances of self-abuse. We’ll have people come in who were left in the dumpster as infants and found by someone else. We had one lady come into the home and her face had been burned. In fact, her whole body had been burned. She explained her story to us, and she was basically made to be a sex slave to someone and he burned her so that she wouldn’t be desirable to anybody else, and also so that everyone would know who his girl was.
She was rescued from that and brought to this home. Others come into the home with their heads are shaved and that is a symbol that they are basically a sex slave and belong to somebody else. They’re rescued out of that and they come in. Many of those girls are 11-14 years old. Several of those girls come in pregnant—and they’re pregnant by someone who has abused them. Those are some common examples of people who would be perhaps more inclined to self-harm.
Sam Stephens: You’ve mentioned several different things that could make someone more prone to self-harm, one being a history of abuse and those types of treatments, which are frankly hard to listen to. But in addition to those, what other factors would compel someone to engage in this type of behavior?
Bryan Gaines: If we think big picture, Jesus said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We all do what we do because of what we want, or we seek to get away from what we don’t want. This ultimately is worship. Some examples of that to try and tie this in—think of Elijah on Mount Carmel where he challenges the prophets of Baal, and 450 of them come in and they seek to have Baal bring down the fire on the altar.
After hours of doing this with obviously no success, Elijah begins to mock them and taunt them. 1 Kings 18:28 says they then cut themselves “as was their custom.” Self-harm ultimately is rooted in idolatry—not looking to the one true God where there is true hope. They looked to an idol that was powerless. This idol was made by the hands of man. There was no real hope there. Instead of running to God, people will run to other things trying to find some help.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul says, “For the love of Christ compels us” or “controls us,” depending on your translation there. Rather than being compelled by the love of Christ—looking to Him, savoring who He is, finding their satisfaction and joy in Him—they’re compelled or controlled by their thoughts and emotions. They’re compelled to listen to the lies they’ve been told and lies they told themselves. Their emotions flare up, and as a result of that, they then seek to escape those things and they seek to do so obviously by self-harm.
This usually becomes a pattern. Rather than looking to Christ as they as they ought to, they want to get away as quick as they can from these emotions, which are horrific given what has taken place in many of their lives. They respond to these emotions with self-harm that brings a sense of relief and escape from these emotional thoughts that are so hard to deal with.
The physical pain helps distract them from that, and sometimes in harming yourself, there’s even a physiological response, where chemicals are released and you actually feel better physically. There’s kind of this rush, and so they feel better. It “worked,” so to speak, but afterwards this guilt takes place and they know they shouldn’t do it. It’s not right, but it felt right. The next time that stressor—that memory or whatever it is—comes back and prompts them to do something about it, rather than looking to Christ they again go back into that cycle. It becomes enslaving.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul says, “We’re not to be mastered by anything.” They’re seeking to get control in their own lives by bringing harm to themselves and bringing their emotions back in check. Yet, in essence they become controlled by this behavior.
Sam Stephens: Would you say in a sense that attempts at self-harm are attempts to reimagine the image of God in man? We’re now creating ourselves in our own image, marring the image of God even further through our actions and behaviors. Do you think there’s a relationship there?
Bryan Gaines: Yes, I think that has been that the plight of mankind ever since the garden, where the serpent tempted Eve and Adam to doubt God’s goodness and they sinned. We were created to glorify God. We were created to represent Him. Yet, because of the sin in this world, we struggle to to know the joy and purpose that God intends for us to have, being made in His image.
All these things we’re talking about are basically a God-replacement. Rather than looking to God and seeking to reflect His image, His glory, and His goodness in our lives, there is an effort to seek the things only God can provide in an idol.
I think Augustine said it well, “Our hearts remain restless until they rest in God.” I think self harm is an extreme illustration of that.
Sam Stephens: That’s a great way to think about it. This can be some pretty intimidating stuff and potentially things that are unfamiliar to some of our listeners, so to bring it again down to a practical level for our listeners, could you give us a few suggestions for how to actually counsel someone who self-harms?
Bryan Gaines: I think as with any counseling session, the first thing I want to do is gather data. James 1:19 says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” And so what we want to do when somebody comes who self-harming is really seek to listen and understand. We can’t possibly know all that they’ve gone through. So it’s vital to really get to know them.
For instance, if a teenage daughter is caught—or confesses, perhaps to her dad—that she’s been self-harming, the dad may be confused. He may be angry. He may say something like, “That was really stupid. Stop it!” And that’s not going to be helpful. What we want to do in response is found in Ephesians 4:15, “speak the truth in love.” We want to seek to understand what is going on in their heart. What are their thought patterns that would have led them to do this? Rather than being compelled by the love of Christ, they’re compelled by these thoughts and lies.
Practically, we want to help them think about truth. Philippians 4:8 says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We certainly want to help them do that. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “take every thought captive.” We want to know what thoughts they are thinking that lead them to self-harm. We want to identify those and we want to replace those lies.
Whether the lie is, “I must do this,” or “I need to have relief and this is the way to do it,” or “I’m all alone in this struggle.” Whatever those things are, we want to help them look to Jesus in the midst of every single one of those struggles. A typical lie would be that self-affliction is necessary for relief. And they can really believe that, “This is it, this is the only thing that works. I don’t know where else to go.” Yet Jesus said in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” There is rest. There is ultimately relief, there is peace. There’s purpose in Jesus.
Another lie they may struggle with is that self-harm is necessary to regain control. Their life may feel like it has been out of control—people have controlled them, as far as what’s been done to them. They need to realize that ultimately they don’t need to regain control in their own strength and their own wisdom. Rather, they need to look to the God who is sovereign over all things, who is in control.
While as far as we know Joseph didn’t self-harm, he was imprisoned and falsely accused. The conclusion of the matter for him is, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” Help them look to God in His providence and His wisdom. Ultimately, we know, as Paul said in Romans 8:28, that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. That good is that God would use even the sufferings and the afflictions that we have to become more like Christ. Help them to see that through God’s Word.
Another common lie is that there’s no real hope for change. “Life has been hard all along. I have not responded to this well. I have tried to break free of the cycle. There’s been guilt in the cycle, and I just can’t do it.” Well in one sense, it’s good they realize that they can’t do it on their own, because we need to look to Christ. John 15:5 says, “Apart from him, we can do nothing.” Philippians 4:13 says that in Him—in His strength—we’re able to do what is pleasing to Him. Often people who self-harm have very little to no hope. And so they need to be taken to passages like 1 Peter 1 and told about the living hope, because Christ—who was harmed not in His own self-affliction, but by others, put to death upon a rugged cross—conquered sin and death and resurrected, there’s a living hope. He is now at the Father’s right hand. He is our advocate. He is our High Priest. He is the propitiation for our sins. It is in Christ that we are freed from the guilt of sin, that perhaps they have committed an act of self-harm. But also they can know how to forgive, because Christ has forgiven us. In Christ, in the gospel, is everything that they need. We need to point them to Christ.
I think that brings up one more lie, which is: “No one understands. I’m all alone in this.” Because of that lie, they will often do this in secret. Anywhere from a church bathroom to a playground in the corner. Usually after they’ve gotten in this pattern, they will have the means to harm themselves with them, or they know where to get it. They feel they’re all alone. But again, that’s a lie because in Christ we are never alone. He never leaves us as His children. He never forsakes us. Psalm 23 is a great place to go and camp out. He makes us lie down in green pastures and beside still waters, but also He is with us through the dark valleys. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, His rod and staff, they uphold us. To know as Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Christ is with them. He is for them. He who began a good work will bring it to completion. He is the author and Perfecter of their faith.
Because of Him they can resist this urge, these emotions, and as they focus in on Christ and who He is, those affections, those emotions then begin to compel them to no longer harm themselves, but look to Him who was harmed for their sake.
Sam Stephens: Bryan, thank you for helping us to see this very difficult matter through a beautiful lens—through the sufferings of Christ and who He is as our Lord and Shepherd. I know our listeners appreciate it and so do we.
Bryan Gaines: Thank you.