Bringing Self-Harm Habits Into the Light

The Rich Relevance of Scripture

Princess Diana is one of the most famous persons who struggled with self-injurious behavior. Self-injurious behavior often occurs when a person is despairing or grieving one of life’s circumstances in a fallen, sin-cursed world.

This type of behavior is a complex maladaptive way of responding to life’s disappointments. It is a means of escape from deep hurts like the death of a loved one that unbelievers have utilized for thousands of years. Therefore, it is not a new, modern problem, but an ancient one that continues today (Lev. 19:28; Lev. 21:1-6). For this reason, we can find answers in the Scriptures to address the heart behind these destructive behaviors.

A Form of Escape

To most, self-injury seems odd: why would you want to hurt yourself? That doesn’t make sense to most people and often why self-injurers keep this issue hidden for years. Experiencing deep hurt and choosing not to turn to Christ, counselees use self-injurious behavior as a place of refuge and escape. Self-injurers may have other means of escape like alcohol, drugs, comfort-eating, spending money, sexual sin, and the like, but self-harm is often the preferred first option.

It is often stated by counselees struggling with self-harm habits that they desire to transfer “emotional pain” into physical pain that they can “understand.” Not always, but often, blood appears as a result of cutting and similar self-harm behaviors. That blood is reported to “bring relief” when the cutter sees it.

This statement leads me into a natural presentation of the Gospel and the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. No one’s blood can really atone for sin and bring true relief in this life or the next other than Jesus Christ’s blood shed on the cross.

Self-Injury as “Addiction”

“When most people think of addiction, they tend to think of the behaviors related to drug and alcohol abuse, but not self-abuse, self-injury, or “cutting.” However, self-injury and cutting involve a natural, drug-like, euphoric effect that provides an escape experienced after the temporary physical pain.”[1]

What many people do not understand is that the patterned, habitual behavior of cutting feels good to the self-injurer. Obviously, there is real pain at first but it is short-lived when the body’s natural mechanisms for pain relief designed by God kick in. The “drugs” involved in the “addiction” of this sort are within the self-injurer’s own body.

The use of addictive substances and the practice of self-injurious behavior produce the same intended goal of escape, and the heart attitudes of both are often the same. Even though the pain relief response is a God-given phenomenon, the cutter is seeking hope, help, and relief from a source other than God Himself—which is true of any “addiction” and idolatrous desire—seeking from an outside source that which only God can truly provide: comfort, security, hope, relief, eternal pleasure.

God’s desire is that we seek first His Kingdom by obeying His commands for His own glory despite our emotional state. We are to lead our emotions and our hearts—not follow them (Prov. 4:23).[2]

The Only True Hope

A key principle in all types of biblical counseling, which becomes especially important when counseling a self-injurer, is encouraging the counselee to bring the issue into the light. John 1:1-5 states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (ESV).

The ESV word “overcome” in the verse above in Greek is katalambano, a word that has no exact equivalent in the English language. It has a dual meaning both to apprehend and to comprehend, and literally the word means “to lay hold of with the mind” and “to understand, perceive, learn, comprehend.”[3]

In John 1:5, God is communicating to us that the darkness has no ability to apprehend, overcome, or even comprehend the light; therefore, when a self-injurer has experienced a deep hurt, abuse, or grief, the self-injurer must acknowledge the hurt of being sinned against by bringing it into light. The light of truth is where the darkness has no power.

Fear, shame, and many other experiences motivate a self-injurer to keep their behaviors secret, but John 1 offers inestimable encouragement to the believer in Jesus Christ enslaved to this type of “addiction.” Proverbs 28:13 reminds: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (ESV).

After the source of the hurt is recognized, the self-injurer must address his own sin. For example, the hurt experienced from abuse is likely not their fault but their response to that hurt is sinful when it involves self-harm (I Cor. 6:19-20). Only when a counselee learns to repent of their self-reliant, idolatrous heart is there real hope.

Is the counselee unable to accept the truth of the past, allow Christ to redeem it for His own glory, and trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God? Is the counselee trying to temporarily “fix” his pain in his own strength with his own methods of self-harm? Is the counselee looking for his own blood to bring pain relief rather than the blood of Christ? These questions and more must be asked to get to the heart motivations of the “addictive” self-injurious behaviors.

Counseling the Hard Cases

Self-injury is an age old problem and not surprising to God. The local church is the body of Christ and has the only answer to offer hope and help to hurting and hardened souls. We cannot ignore self-injurious behavior in the local church; we must rather encourage those struggling to bring the issue into the light so that Christ may be glorified.

As biblical counselors, we cannot be overwhelmed by the difficult-to-understand and often perplexing problem of self-injury. Instead, we must:

  • Trust God.
  • Offer real hope through Christ.
  • Address the heart biblically with probing questions and God’s Word of truth which will discern heart issues (Hebrews 4:12).
  • Be gracious to the counselee struggling with the temptation to self-injure.

Join the Conversation

How can you help those who struggle with the temptation to self-injure become aware of the power of Christ available to them?


[1] Shaw, Mark, Hope and Help for Self-Injurers and Cutters, Focus Publishing: Bemidji, MN, 2007, p.3.

[2] For a more complete explanation of this God-given biological process of pain relief from within the body obtain a copy of my booklet Hope and Help for Self-Injurers and Cutters from Focus Publishing (1-800-91-FOCUS).

[3] Strong, J. 1996. The exhaustive concordance of the Bible (electronic ed.) Woodside Bible Fellowship: Ontario.

Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw has 22 years of counseling experience working in a variety of settings including faith-based residential programs, dealing with issues surrounding “addictions” of all types, and supervising staff positions. His experience in the biblical counseling field began in 2001. He has written 14 published works including The Heart of Addiction; Relapse: Biblical Prevention Strategies; Divine Intervention: Hope and Help for Families of Addicts; Addiction-Proof Parenting; and Hope and Help for Self-Injurers/Cutters. He also co-authored a chapter in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling (2013).