Emma’s written a very helpful intro to self-harm issues just now. I think it’s especially important to say (as she does in introduction) that self-harm is a universal human problem. It’s not “the crazies over there.” You and I self-harm every day. Don’t believe me? Just take note of your self-talk next time you fail at something or get even mildly embarrassed in a social setting. You – like me – will be abusing yourself in ways you’d find shocking if it were directed at others.
None of this is to minimize the deep struggles which self-injurers face when they cut themselves with knives rather than words. But it is to say “We’re all in this together” and everyone can empathise to some degree or another.
I thought that here I’d throw in a couple of thoughts that I’ve found extremely useful from Dan Allender. His talks called “The Wounded Heart” have been foundational for my own pastoral theology (the book is good, but not a patch on the talks).
At one point he talks about the human personality, created with dignity, fallen in depravity and then adulterated with layers as we try to manage life.
Beginning from the centre, there are certain things we tell ourselves – strategies for negotiating a fallen world.
Dignity and Depravity: “I don’t want you to see how bad or how good I am.”
We say both. I certainly want to cover up my short-comings, but I also want to hide my giftings too. If you know how good I am you’ll want more of me. And I’m not sure I’ll be able to meet those expectations. And so I hide.
Shame: “I’m exposed”
I don’t need to tell myself to feel shame. At the speed of light, exposure unleashes the engulfing flood of shame.
Contempt (for others and for self). “I hate you / I hate myself.”
There are only two covers for shame – the righteousness of Christ, or hatred. If I don’t receive the covering of Christ, I take my revenge on whoever stands to remind me of my failures. God reminds me, so I hate Him. You remind me, so I hate you. And I constantly and inescapably remind me. So I hate me. With frightening ferocity.
Performance: “Here’s my long-term strategy for minimizing shame/exposure in the future.”
Because the experience of shame is so horrific, I devise schemes for avoiding it / handling it when it occurs. For all of us, we avoid circumstances in which it might arise. But if I can’t seem to escape those feelings I will hit upon a strategy for managing that shame. Sometimes these strategies will be very elaborate and all-consuming. That’s part of the (sub-conscious) plan though. I’m heavily invested in being able to handle these hellish feelings.
Self-harm might seem irrational as a response to our negative feelings, but there is some sense to it. My control-seeking flesh would love to locate the problem in me so that the solution is also in me. My horror at being exposed is thus quickly (instantly in our experience) turned to hatred and this hatred is turned on myself.
The expression of this hatred in self-harm does give relief in the short-run. I can incarnate the problem – turning the shame into a tangible target for my hatred. But in doing this I’m redefining my problems. Instead of dealing with my real problems – sin and depravity – with the blood of Christ, I localise and domesticate them: ‘I’m so stupid/I’m so ugly’ – and it’s my blood that pays.
In all this, I incarnate the problems, I take responsibility, I suffer and bleed for them. But all the while my High Priest stands before the Father, pleading His own blood for me. And Jesus says:
“Glen, your problem is not that you’re ugly, fat, weird, dumb, awkward, a loser. Your problem is wayyyyy bigger than that! No animal blood could atone for your sins. No human blood could atone for your sins. Only the blood of God could make things right (Acts 20:28). But my blood has been shed. And it totally covers you.
I have included you in my death. I have put the old you to death. You were crucified with me and no longer live. It’s all been judged. It’s all been satisfied. And now you’re risen with me, far beyond sin, death, judgement and hell. There can be no condemnation for you. You belong to me and the Father beams at you with pride.
When you feel you need to pay – I promise, it’s finished. When you feel you need to suffer – I’ve gone to hell and back. When you feel that you’re exposed – I am your covering. When you feel you’re too ashamed – you’re spotless in my sight.”
You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the Head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the flesh, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross…
20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.