read Matthew 27. Why do humans hurt themselves? Why do teenage girls cut themselves? Why do people commit suicide? Why do men pay women in thigh high boots to whip them? I know pain releases endorphins. But if endorphins were the only issue at stake, why not take up tennis or golf? Why not run a marathon? Why not run seven marathons in seven days in seven continents, as a Danish female lawyer recently did – the 7 by 7 by 7 – after which she said on NPR, “my knees hurt a little”? To run a marathon is a challenge. To cut and whip yourself is demonic. What is at the heart of the human capacity to hurt itself?
Why do I care? Because people that I know do these things. Why does it make me cry? Because I know they feel helpless to stop. Why do I sympathize instead of judge? Because the heart issues at stake spring from the same deep fissures we all share. There is a spiritual issue at work in self-inflicted pain. It’s a spiritual issue with which every human struggles. I would argue that behind cutting, S&M, and bondage lies a deeply misunderstood spiritual issue. It is the problem of guilt.
People think that guilt is a bad thing. They complain about “Catholic guilt.” They curse guilt as a force that leads from self-sabotage to self-inflicted pain to even suicide. They make fun of guilt. Prov. 14:9. They think that guilt itself is the problem.
The Bible teaches the opposite. The Bible says that guilt is a good thing. It is intended to lead us to repentance and new life. No one is supposed to stay in guilt. That’s not God’s way: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” 2 Cor. 7:10 (NIV).
But humans have a spiritual enemy. This enemy goes under various different names in the Bible – Satan, Beelzebub, the devil, the thief – but his goal is the same. Our enemy wants to rob us of the good, rich and fulfilling life that God intended for each of us. Our enemy came to lie, cheat and steal. Our enemy is a liar. “He is a liar, and the author of all lies,” Jesus said.
It is the enemy who teaches that the only cure for guilt is to hurt yourself. It is the enemy who lies to us when we mess up: “of course you messed up. You ARE a mess. You’re a loser. You take up too much space on the planet. How COULD you have done that? You ought to be ashamed of yourself. No one could love you. No one should love you. You deserve to die. Crawl under a rock. Do yourself and the world a favor. Go jump off a roof. Cut yourself. Hurt yourself. Maim yourself. Starve yourself. Suffocate yourself. Hit yourself. Overwork yourself. Run a mile. Run a marathon. Run yourself to death. The world will be better off without you.” I could go on. But I know you know that voice. It’s the same voice that whispers to each of us. He doesn’t whisper those things to you when you’re on top of the world. He waits. He bides his time. He goes after you when you’re tired. He springs on you when you’re weak. The enemy doesn’t play fair. He kicks a man when he’s down. He lies in wait, like a lion, and pounces when you’re least prepared.
And then he goes for the jugular. It’s no wonder that people hurt themselves. It’s only surprising that they don’t hurt themselves more.
The fact is, it’s a spiritual truth that when we do something wrong, we feel bad. It’s called guilt. We know, deep down, that we deserve punishment for our crime. No matter how many times we hear someone say that there is no absolute right and wrong; no matter how often we hear people explain that guilt is a figment of our imaginations; no matter how frequently we try to “breathe” out our guilt, rationalize it away, ignore it or bury it, the guilt remains. We are all Lady Macbeth, unable to wash our own hands clean of the spots.
The reason for our guilt is that God’s laws are written on our hearts. Another word for these laws on our heart is our conscience; we all have consciences. The Bible teaches that our consciences can be “hardened” or “seared,” but the conscience is always there. If you read about “pathological” criminals, you will find that even the most liberal of studies admits that the number of criminals who truly seem to be pathological – who really seem to have been born without a shard of a conscience – can probably be numbered on one hand. These pathological people may be lacking a conscience the way other humans suffering from mutations in their DNA lack a finger or a toe. Or they may have a conscience, but other factors like personality disorders and childhood trauma may have buried it. Or they’ve been torturing animals since before they could walk, and so when they torture a human they’re consciences have become so granite hard they could pass every lie detector test known to man. Who knows. But for the vast majority of human beings, a conscience – of varying degrees of hardness – remains a reality.
So guilt, whether we like it or not, is also a reality. The “entire world is guilty before God.” Romans 3:19. We have all broken his laws. Guilt is a “burden too heavy to bear.” Ps. 38:4. Guilt probably has a far greater hold over us than we know. The house elf, Dobby, in the Harry Potter books, expresses an image to which we all can relate. Every time Dobby does something his master has forbidden, he hits himself. “Bad elf, Dobby. Bad, bad elf.”
It is when we don’t recognize our guilt that it engulfs us. Not knowing we feel guilty, leads people to hurt themselves, in order to punish themselves for things they have done wrong. That’s the way Judas chose after he betrayed Christ. He hung himself. But there’s a more beautiful scandalous way. It’s the one Peter chose after he betrayed Christ. He wept.
No one likes to look at the cross. Personally, I think I missed about two thirds of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ because it was so gory. But even though we don’t like to look at the cross, if we stay with it, it transforms us.
The thing is, someone has to be punished for a crime. It’s just true. I can’t prove that to you. But deep down, you know it. God is perfect justice, and we are made in His image. We know wrongs must be paid for. The reason the cross looks like the worst possible thing, but is really the best possible thing for us, is that God himself took our punishment. We don’t need to whip and cut ourselves, because Jesus was whipped and cut for us. It’s that simple. And that impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. Nothing.
The thing Mel Gibson’s movie missed is that Jesus didn’t just get whipped, tortured and killed. He suffered hell. The movie hints at this: there is one supernaturally poignant moment, when the sky itself seems to weep. When Jesus cried out on the cross: MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED ME?, he was being abandoned for our sins. If God is all that is good, being abandoned by God is, well, it’s hell. When Jesus cried out: “It is finished,” he meant – it’s over, Satan. Human sins are paid for. Jesus was the true Passover lamb, the one who took our sins upon him, willingly, out of love. Jesus was the only perfect man who ever walked the earth, and so his sacrifice satisfied the demands of God’s perfect justice. Everything you’ve ever done wrong, can be forgiven. All you have to do is ask.
So when you do something wrong, don’t pretend it’s not wrong. That way leads to death. We all do it. We say the things WE do wrong are really okay, and the things OTHER people do wrong are bad. But wrong is wrong. (that, I can prove :)). We don’t get to pick and choose which sins are wrong and which are alright. You’re going to feel guilty when you do wrong, even if you try to pretend it’s right. Your conscience knows better than your mouth. So stop pretending. Admit you messed up. Look instead at the cross. God was mocked, so you no longer have to be. God wore a crown of thorns, so you can wear a crown of glory. Don’t let the enemy lie to you a second longer. Hold your head up high. God loves you, exactly the way you are. He knows your weaknesses. He knows the things that trip you up. He knows you’re going to betray him again. It’s okay. It really is. Don’t hurt yourself. Accept that God allowed himself to be hurt, so you don’t have to. Weep. Crying lasts for a night, but joy cometh in the morning, and it comes without regrets.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 17, 2011