Self-harm in the Bible

  • Question 137, from Emma, United Kingdom

    What, if anything does the Bible say in regard to self-harm? What if the reason for self-harm was something that the person had no control over and is having to deal with later in life?

    Although there are few direct references to self-harm in the Bible, there are several references to the Christian’s body belonging to God. In 1 Corinthains chapter 6, verses 19-20, Paul writes: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”

    Paul makes that statement in the context of discussing sexual behaviour and morality. However, it does illustrate the Christian idea of a holistic salvation – the body is ‘saved’ or ‘redeemed’, as well as the soul.

    Biblical references to deliberate self-mutilation are located in terms of idol-worship (e.g. the priests of Baal cut themselves as part of their invocation rites in 1 Kings chapter 18, verse 28), or in instances of ‘demon possession’ (e.g. the ‘Gaderene demoniac’ described in Mark chapter 5, verse 5). Self-harm is thus associated with idolatry in the Old Testament, and with demonic forces in the New Testament.

    Of course there is some debate as to what ‘demon possession’ as described in the gospels actually was. Among more liberal interpretations are conditions such as epilepsy, or mental illnesses like schizophrenia. However, whichever way the term ‘demon possession’ is interpreted, that fact remains that Jesus is recorded as curing it, and such healings are associated with the redemptive introduction of the Kingdom of God.

    Self-harm is, of course, an incredibly complex issue and it isn’t helpful to dismiss it as ‘demonic’. There are as many reasons why a person would self-harm, as there are people who do! However, it is widely agreed among professional healthcare workers, that self-harm is an indicator that something is wrong in a person’s life or mental state.

    In pastoral terms, as with any compulsive behaviour, self-harm needs to be treated both psychologically and spiritually. While it may be possible for a person to stop self-harming as a result of being prayed for, it may also be necessary for a person to seek counselling and support. Overcoming compulsive behaviour is often a process of recovery rather than an instant cure.

    On a final note: while the Bible references above offer some insight into the area of self-harm, they are probably not very helpful in addressing issues with a person’s life. In the case of self-harm, these issues can probably only be resolved with ongoing pastoral help and/or therapy. It would probably be wise for any reader concerned about their feelings regarding self-harm to seek help from their church leaders, trusted friends, or doctor.

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    1. Rachel Aug 16

      i was just curious as to whether someone staying in an abusive relationship would be considered “self harm”. they are not technically harming themselves, but they are staying with someone that they KNOW will harm them.

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Aug 19

      That’s more of a pastoral issue than a theological one, really. There are examples of Biblical characters who ‘fled’ abusive domestic situations (David fleeing the wrath of King Saul springs to mind when Saul was in a ‘fit of madness’ springs to mind).

    3. Paul Wheelhouse Dec 12

      Thank you for this. Another interesting one is Job 2:8. It is not entirely clear if the ‘scraping’ was because of the sores or more akin to what we might call self harm. It does seem though that the Bible understands that people who harm themselves are people that are hurting (in a similar sense to your observation on Mark 5). Although Job’s friends are not generally held up as fine examples of pastoral care, they do in 3:13 seem to get it right (initially) by sitting silently alongside Job. This could be a model we should consider.

    4. Jon the freelance theologian Dec 17

      That is an interesting reference, although it may have more to do with alleviating pain or cleaning wounds than self-harm.

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