A month ago, I wrote a post titled Four Reasons Teens Cut to COPE, sharing my own history of self-injury as well as the four most common reasons kids and adults hurt themselves. We do/did it for control, as an obsessive behavior, as punishment, or as an emotional release. For me, it was all four; for others, it might just be one or two. To read more about the why of self-injury, see that post here.
One comment jumped out at me and warranted a post of its own in response. Todd Benkert, a Southern Baptist pastor and adoptive dad who I respect a great deal, asked:
Shannon, given that self-harm is meant to help one COPE, how does the gospel apply to this need? How do you find that Christ would address each of these reasons?
As I answer, let me go ahead and define what I’m meaning in this post as the gospel: the good news that the God who created us in his image saw our helpless sinful state and sent his Son to live the perfect life we couldn’t, die as the ultimate sacrifice we could never offer, and defeat death once and for all by rising from the dead, offering an already but not yet promise: that those who believe may already have indwelling of the Spirit here on earth but that we persist in the reality that we’re not yet living in the perfection of heaven.
Phew. That’s some meaty theology in one sentence, huh?
Key Ministry exists because of that already but not yet friction. We already have the hope of Christ – hallelujah! – but our lives are marked with the not yet realities of life, including mental illness, disability, and childhood trauma. The church exists to be a community for those who know God and to shine the light of Christ into a dark world for all, including those who haven’t yet encountered our Jesus.
Cutting is a sign of already but not yet tensions. Some who injure themselves – be it by cutting or burning skin or punching surfaces or trying to break bones or some other means – don’t know Christ. Some, however, do. How do we respond in a gospel-driven way to both groups?
First, we must be humble. Just as we, in the church, wouldn’t try to treat asthma with repentance or set a broken bone with a Bible verse, we need to understand that professional help is almost always needed for those who persistently hurt themselves. For me, this includes both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications. When someone is engaging in self-harm, the behavior isn’t shameful or unspeakable. Self-injury occurs when the pain someone is feeling internally exceeds the resources available for healing. One such resource for healing is the professional help beyond what most churches are able to offer. This need for support outside of the church is one reason why those who attend worship services regularly may still go home and bring a blade across their skin.
Historically, the church has been slow to accept medical research about the physical and neurological foundations for mental illness, trying instead to treat challenges like these are purely spiritual. I’m seeing a change in this trend, thankfully. We still have work to do, though! We at Key Ministry are able to speak into that in a unique way, as Dr. Steve Grcevich – a clinical child psychiatrist – founded our organization and has served in a variety of roles ever since. In other words, as we train churches to respond to these needs, our approach will always involve a medical understanding of the problem.
But we’re Christians and ministry leaders too. So we also understand we aren’t just bodies with physical needs but souls with spiritual ones. One supernatural need we all possess is community. So, second, we must build relationships. Some refer to this as a ministry of presence or an incarnational ministry. After all, God didn’t just wave a magic wand or look down from the clouds to meet our needs; he came incarnate, wrapped in flesh, engaging our humanity from his own. Before the disciples in John 3 asked, “Who sinned that this man might be blind, him or his parents?” the first verse in that chapter tells us Christ saw the man. Before we jump to judging a person’s current state or trying to So how can we, in the name of Christ, come alongside those who hurt themselves? respond to them, we must first see the person. This response includes affirming each individual as a fellow image bearer of God, just like we are. Christ’s response – “neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this occurred that the works of God might be displayed in him” – does that. Each of us exists that the works and glory of God might be displayed and reflected in us. When it comes to self-injury, I’ve seen many well-intentioned adults respond out of their discomfort and try to fix the problem before loving the person. This will never work!
So how can we, in the name of Christ, come alongside those who hurt themselves? We can be with them, just as Christ brought healing as he walked side by side with the people he created. We can try to understand the reasons why. We can choose not to recoil from the behavior, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and instead dwell in discomfort with our hurting friend. We can help them access the resources needed – including professional support – to help them process pain in healthier ways.
Finally, we can share the already hope we have in Christ without denying the not yet struggles in the world. In other words, our gospel can’t just be one that stands before Daniel 3 furnaces and says, “God will save me and you from the fire.” No, it must also be able to say, “We believe in a God who can deliver us from the flames (and will certainly do so in heaven) but even if he does not on earth, we can still trust him.” We can’t proclaim a prosperity gospel (that is, a false gospel) which promises full healing and riches and comfort on this side of heaven. We shouldn’t offer Christ as the antidote to pain as if the Bible promises that becoming a Christian (or continuing in faith, for those who already know Christ) means we’ll never feel pain again. Our testimonies of how God has worked in our lives can and should not only include the highlights – how Jesus made and makes things new – but also the hard truths – how life still isn’t perfect in all the ways we might like it to be because we live in a fallen world. This isn’t denying the works of God in us but rather showing the hope of a heaven in which God, according to Revelation 21:4, will wipe every tear from our eyes as death and mourning and crying and pain are no more.
When those who are hurting cut into their skin or injure themselves in other ways, they’re saying that the world as we know it isn’t right or good or perfect. Our presentations of the gospel need to acknowledge that truth, or the hope we’re sharing will seem false. When Christ showed up to ultimately heal Lazarus, he didn’t start by calling him out of his grave. No, he met his sisters in their pain, he didn’t turn away from their agony, and he wept with them. We can do likewise. Then he raised Lazarus from the dead, but? Lazarus died again in due time. The miracle didn’t mean Jesus’s friend and Mary and Martha’s brother got to skip out on pain for the rest of his time on earth. And our salvation doesn’t mean that either.
Self-injury isn’t simple. The obsessive behavior component can make the habit into an addiction that is hard to break. If we act like we can simply solve the problem by walking someone through a salvation tract, then we’re treat the gospel like a magical incantation – hocus pocus or abracadabra – for self-harm. Not only does that dismiss the complexity of cutting, but it also presents a false prosperity gospel, promising a perfection on earth that the Bible never presents.
Let’s be humble. Let’s engage others in relationship. Let’s share the full gospel – both the already hope we can all have in Christ without sugarcoating the not yet tensions we experience in this world and the promise of an eternity without pain or tears or any reason to cut anymore. And let’s do it all for the good of our neighbors and the glory of God.
Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families on mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.