One of my best friends in the world preached for me last night at Broadcast last night. In what must have seemed like sheer spite, the text I gave him was Philippians 2:1-11, which deals with the humility of Christ. He knocked it out of the park. One of the things he said was this: “Low self-esteem is just the other side of the coin called pride.” He explained that self-hatred and a pitiful me type attitude is strictly a pride issue. This really struck a nerve with my student ministry. See, in our group of only about 35 students, we have a surprising number that deal with the temptation to cut themselves.
I have a hard time believing that. Who would want to do that to themselves? Why? What’s the gain?
That’s the conversation I had with one of my leaders last night. We both had a hard time understanding what would cause someone to hurt themselves on purpose. Through our discussion and my friend’s message, I believe I was able to gain a little bit of biblical insight into this horrifying and devastating issue.
The best I could tell, the earliest (maybe only) biblical reference to a person cutting themselves is in 1 Kings 18. In this story, Elijah challenges the prophets of an idol-god named Baal to an epic throw down. You’ve probably heard the story before. The prophets would summon their god and Elijah his…and whichever god/God showed up and accepted the sacrifice would win. The prophets of Baal went first. We know that their god is a farce and, not surprisingly, he did not answer. Elijah’s God, the Almighty God, did answer, proving that He is the only God. It is a wonderful story, but the section I want to address is what all the prophets of Baal did to try to capture the attention of their false god. Check this out:
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:25-29)
These false prophets cut themselves in order to gain their god’s attention. It didn’t work.
You might be saying, “What in the world does this have to do with teenagers cutting themselves today?” I know there is plenty of clinical research that reveals reasons why someone might cut themselves and I readily admit that I am no expert on this issue. Believe me, I am quick to refer when I encounter problems like these that are outside of my pay-grade and experience. But I do believe that this passage of Scripture reveals something on this important issue.
My preacher friend pointed out that self-hatred is inward-focused. It is one definition of self-centeredness. If you hate yourself or suffer from low self-esteem and self-loathing, everything is about you. Your world is focused on yourself.
One common explanation for cutting is that it helps the cutter become aware of the fact that he or she can still feel. If your god is yourself…if you are your idol, cutting is an attempt to gain your own attention, just like the prophets of Baal striving to gain the attention of their idol.
Another explanation is that the cutter is starving for attention. Often, they will tell others or leave their scars uncovered in plain view. I have had a friend send me pictures of their scars so that I could see. They wanted me to know. See, if your idol is attention or getting people to notice you and value you, or other people in general, you do anything to gain that attention. You’ll do anything to get noticed. Just like the prophets of Baal.
Put quite simply, cutting is a symptom of idolatry. When you cut yourself, you are desperately trying to capture the attention of your idols.
But please notice verse 29: “No one answered; no one paid attention.” False gods are exactly that. False. They are created. Romans 1 explains that we, in our human nature, are quick to make a tragic exchange. We trade our true worship of the Creator for the things He created. How silly is that? How does that make sense? Colossians 3 challenges us to live like we are truly resurrected with Christ. We are to wage war against our flesh. We are to fight and kill our idolatry. We must recognize that God Almighty is the one true God and we already have his attention! As followers of Christ, we are free to approach His throne of grace with confidence! He is listening. And He tells us in His Word to wage war and to kill our idols. Let’s return to worshiping our one true God.
Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)