Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cutting and Self-Injury: Some Biblical Considerations

* The following is a piece I wrote in response to a question of whether the Bible really is against cutting.  This was written to respond to a specific question and not to give a full pastoral approach to this issue.  I would recommend the book Inside a Cutter's Mind: Understanding and Helping Those Who Self-Injure by Jerusha Clark with Dr. Earl Henslin for a fuller discussion.  As will be obvious, I'm writing in response to a married Christian woman.  

I want to attempt to provide a Scriptural approach to “cutting.”[1]  I think it’s important to define cutting.  We are not talking about a medical doctor doing surgery with a scalpel.  Cutting is the deliberate damaging of the body to provide relief from mental, spiritual anguish.  One author states it this way:

The majority of sufferers…cut or burn because they seek relief from seemingly uncontrollable pain or deadening numbness.

Later she writes:

People who engage in self-inflicted violence are usually not trying to end their lives; instead, they are attempting to find temporary relief from their pain.  Self-injury is most often used as a survival technique rather than an exit strategy.[2]

I think it’s important to understand not only what cutting is, but why someone might be engaging in cutting.  The Bible speaks to both actions and internal motives.  So even if there is not a specific verse that speaks about modern day cutting the Bible has a great deal to say about the internal states of our hearts and motives.

What I attempt to do below is to look at various Scriptures that are relevant to the issue of cutting.  It’s important to look at all of Scripture.  The passages below should be taken all together.  I don’t think any one of them specifically deals with cutting but taken all together we begin to see God’s mind on our bodies and how to view them.  We can then ask, “Is cutting consistent or inconsistent with this picture that God gives us in his word?” 

1.     Leviticus 19.28  (also Deuteronomy 14.1-2)  “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

I realize that this verse is not directly speaking to contemporary cutting--you are obviously not doing it “for the dead.”  This commandment speaks of cutting and tattooing as a religious acts in seeking other gods.  What I would point out, however, is that this issue of cutting comes up in an idolatrous context.  It doesn’t appear in the true worship of the true and living God.  I am going to argue, based on the evidence, that God is a God of healing.  The other religions are to some extent motivated and energized by the evil One and he is one who is destructive.  That is why we find in the religions surrounding Israel practices that undermine the value of humans.  Think, for example, of child sacrifice.  The pagan nations surrounding Israel engaged in this destructive behavior whereas God told his people Israel not to do this.  The true and living God is a God of life and his worship practices reflect that.  Yes, blood sacrifice is needed but God graciously gives the animal sacrificial system which points to the ultimate sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.  Watch for this pattern--where does cutting show up in Scripture?  What we will see is that is shows up in places where idolatry and the evil One reign--not in the midst of the true worshippers of God.

2.     1 Kings 18.28  “So they cried out with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them.”

Again, this is a context of idolatrous worship and not directly relevant to contemporary cutting.  Yet, again, notice where cutting does show up in Scripture--among those who don’t know God and are enslaved to a false system of religious belief.  God provides detailed instruction for his people in the Old Testament on how to worship him and these instructions do not include the cutting of the body.[3]

3.     Mark 5.1-20: Jesus and the man with many demons (Legion)

Verse 5: “Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.”

In the Old Testament we’ve seen that false religions (motivated and empowered by demons) has the cutting of flesh involved.  Here we see when someone is in bondage to the demonic there is, again, the cutting of flesh.  This behavior is marked out as “out of the normal” and when Jesus casts out the demon the man is “clothed and in his right mind” (v. 15).  Presumably has stopped cutting himself.  Can we really imagine him sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to Jesus and still engaged with cutting himself? 

I think we begin to see a principle here.  Jesus said that the “thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10).  Jesus referred to the devil as a “murderer” (John 8.44) and he is also referred to as “Apollyon” which means “destroyer” (Revelation 9.11).  Cutting is a destructive way in which to seek relief.  It fits with the kinds of lies the evil One tells. 

4.     1 Corinthians 6.15-20

There is some crucial teaching about the physical body of the Christian here in these verses.  We need to recognize that the context is about combating sexual immorality.  But in the process of speaking about this issue the Holy Spirit through Paul states important truths about the physical body.  Here a few of the items worth noting:
a.     “your bodies are members of Christ” (v. 15)

Paul reasons from this that we shouldn’t take our bodies and make them members of a prostitute.  What we do with our bodies intersects with Christ himself.  The same would seem to go for cutting.  For a Christian to cut themselves is, in a sense, to cut Christ’s body.

b.     “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19)

The body is not some optional piece of meat to be discarded or overlooked.  Our physical bodies are the dwelling place of God’s Spirit.  This leads to a positive concern for the body.  Does the Holy Spirit want his temple cut?

c.     “you have been bought with a price therefore glorify God in your body” (v. 20)

We have been bought by the blood of Jesus and this has implications for how we are to treat our bodies.  We do not belong to ourselves—we belong to Jesus as his blood-bought and redeemed people.  Cutting is not consistent with Christ’s loving ownership of us.

5.     1 Corinthians 7.3-4 “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

Again, this passage doesn’t discuss cutting in particular but the principle spoke of here is applicable.  For a married couple there is a sense in which their body is not their own—it belongs to the other.  There is a fundamental union that includes the body.  The context is obviously that of sexual intimacy within marriage but the principle seems to be applicable to cutting.  You are not just cutting your body.  You are cutting what the Bible says belong to your husband.  As a married woman you cannot think of what you do your body as merely affecting you.  You are united to your husband.  Because he loves you your husband does not desire that you cut your (and his) body.

6.     Ephesians 5.28-29 “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church”

We see in this passage a presumption that there is a natural inclination to protect one’s body.  This is right and good.  Furthermore, a husband is to be like Jesus.  He is to nourish and cherish his wife as Christ does the church.  Can we really imagine Jesus “cutting” his bride so as to punish her or numb her?  Your husband is seeking to nourish and cherish you (including your body) by helping you not to cut and you are expected to let him love in this way.

7.     There a number of questions that should be asked about any activity we engage in as Christians.

a.     Can this activity of cutting be pursued in faith?  According to Romans 14.23 Paul writes that “whatever is not from faith is sin.”

b.     Can the activity of cutting be pursued in the community of Christ?  Does this activity increase your love for the body of Christ?  The classic passage is, of course, 1 Corinthians 13.4-7.  Would it be loving for you to desire others to be cutting themselves?  I think the answer to that question is, “no.”  Would it be loving of the congregation for them to desire that you cut yourself?  Again, I think the answer to that question is, “no.”

c.     Can the activity of cutting be seen as consistent with walking in the Holy Spirit and his fruit?  Galatians 5.22-23 lists out the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control…”  Work through that list one item at a time and ask yourself whether cutting is consistent with each aspect of this list.  For example: “Is my cutting indicative of self-control?  Is my cutting consistent with the joy of the Lord?  Is my cutting consistent with the peace of God reigning in my heart?”  I find it hard to believe that cutting can be a Spirit driven and guided activity.  The Spirit is life (Romans 8.10) and promotes that which is consistent with life.

d.     Is the activity of cutting oneself a way to glorify God?  1 Corinthians 10.31 states: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”  Whatever you do—including cutting.  Is cutting a way to glorify God?  Can you honestly and sincerely pray, “Lord, I am about to cut myself for your glory.”?

Again, like I stated at the beginning, none of these verses by themselves says, “Thou shalt not cut” (although the texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy come close!).   The point is that by taking all of Scripture together we can begin to understand God’s heart on this issue.  Once we begin to understand what cutting it and why it is done I think it’s fairly clear that such an activity is inconsistent with the character of our heavenly Father who loves us and gave his Son for us.

[1] Another attempt at a scriptural look at cutting and self-injury is found here: http://www.self-injury.org/scriptureandsi.html
[2] Jerusha Clark with Dr. Earl Henslin Inside a Cutter’s Mind: Understanding and Helping Those Who Self-injure (Think, 2007), pp. 21, 42.
[3] The one point at which God does command cutting in the Old Testament is the circumcision of males as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17.10-14).  This is different from the on-going cutting engaged in by the pagan nations surrounding Israel.  This is a one time cutting to be done to an eight day old male baby.  The purpose and reason for this cutting is given by God.  He speaks to the what and why of this cutting.