This is a Hard Teaching!
Verses that Do Not Justify Self-Injury
Have you ever used Scripture to justify self-injury? The Bible never advocates self-injury, even though some verses may seem to do that. If you've been using the Word of God to justify hurting yourself, it's time to take some verses out of your arsenal. If there's a verse that's been bothering you, and you don't see it here, please e-mail me, and I'll look into it.
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Click here for what Scripture does say about self-injury.
Click here to learn what Scripture says about atonement for sin.
2 Samuel 7:14
I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men.
That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
A fool's talk brings a rod to his back,
but the lips of the wise protect them.
He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
Question raised: If discipline is so good, why shouldn't I hurt myself to discipline myself?
Look at these verses carefully. None of these verses say that you should be the one inflicting the punishment or the discipline. To whom is that job given? To God, to authorities, and to parents. Nowhere are we commanded or instructed to shoulder this responsibility ourselves. Hebrews 12:7-11 assures us that as Christians, if we need discipline or correction of any kind, God will see to it—otherwise, the writer argues, we wouldn't really be his children! But if we are his, we can rest in this promise, knowing that God, who is good and wise, will bring us back when we are going astray. The Psalmist even says, "Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord" (Psalm 94:12), reminding us that it is good for God to have made this promise to us. Note that the 2 Samuel verse continues, "But my love will never be taken away from him..." (7:15a). This promise to David is about his son Solomon's future, assuring David that God will not sit idly by if Solomon goes astray, but that God will continue to pursue him. When God disciplines us, it is always in a context of love: God bringing us back into right relationship with himself.
Think about it: Have you ever hurt yourself to punish yourself? Give God the responsibility of disciplining you. Submit to the discipline of whatever authorities you are under (including God), and own the freedom of no longer having to discipline yourself.
Blows and wounds cleanse away evil,
and beatings purge the inmost being.
Question raised: Does self-injury really cleanse away my sin?
Although this proverb may seem to say that self-injury atones for sin, it actually says nothing of the sort. Commentators generally agree that this passage refers either to parental or civil discipline,1 both of which occur in a much different context from self-injury. The hint that suffering might be able to cleanse a person from sin is more likely an acknowledgement that severe discipline often does affect the way a person behaves in the future.2
So what can we conclude? On interpreting unclear passages of Scripture, Tremper Longman III offers two guidelines. First, when interpreting obscure passages, we should not draw any conclusions that cannot be supported elsewhere in Scripture. Secondly, we should determine the meaning of unclear verses by looking at what Scripture clearly teaches.3 Scripture clearly teaches that only Jesus Christ can truly atone for sins, and that self-atonement is unnecessary, useless, and even sinful.4 It seems, then, that this proverb is one of many proverbs reminding us that parental and civil discipline are good for society, and that the same comments from the other passages on discipline also apply here.
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
(Parallel passages in Matthew 5:29-30 and Mark 9:43-47)
Question raised: Am I really supposed to get rid of body parts to stop myself from sinning?
No. In fact, these verses have often been used wrongly to justify just that.5 Almost all of the commentators agree, however, that these recommendations are not to be taken literally. Instead, Jesus is using extreme language to make his point memorable.6 Jesus offers no guarantee that this kind of surgery—that is, cutting off a part of one's body—would get rid of the evil desires that truly cause the sin;7 the real problem is elsewhere, in the person's heart.8 This language, then, indicates that we must make whatever sacrifices are necessary, even if costly, to rid ourselves of sin9—but these sacrifices involve temptations in our lives rather than parts of our bodies. We must remember, however, that no sacrifice of earthly things, no matter how great, is sufficient to cleanse us from sin. Only Christ's sacrifice of Himself is able to do that.
Think about it: Are you holding on to anything that is a source of sin in your life? Then, if possible, God wants you to give it up. Of course, you can't get rid of everything that leads you to sin, because life in a fallen world necessarily involves certain temptations, but there are some temptations that we can and should avoid.
1 Corinthians 9:27
No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Question raised: Is Paul advocating self-injury?
No. The verb here for "beat" doesn't actually mean "hit"; it's actually the verb for "box." In this passage, Paul is using an analogy from sports.10 The preceding verse says, "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air." Rather, Paul says, "I box my body," turning the analogy on himself. What, then, is he saying? Christians must continue in the Christian life with self-discipline, not wild, uncontrolled efforts.11 As Barrett memorably puts it, "Christian life involves the limitation as well as the enjoyment of freedom."12 It is clear from Paul's writings that Paul doesn't believe that the body is evil or that it should be "beaten into submission."13 The body, however, must be used to honor God—which, as it seems, is Paul's key point in this passage.14
Think about it: Do you use your body to honor God? Scripture tells us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices; that is, we should glorify God in the way we live our lives, including in the way we use our bodies.
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Question raised: Do I have to shed my own blood to receive forgiveness?
The shedding of blood referred to here is Christ's blood, not yours or anyone else's. Under the old covenant, the blood of animals was shed again and again for purification, even though it couldn’t really take away sins (Hebrews 9:18-21; Hebrews 10:4; Leviticus 17:11).15 Christ's death on the cross was the sacrifice that ratified the new covenant, and it is the only sacrifice able to take away sins. The wonderful truth is that Christ's blood has been shed, and when we trust in him, our sins are forgiven.
Think about it: Christ's death is the perfect sacrifice that takes away sins forever; we don't need to do anything more to "pay for" our sins in order to obtain forgiveness from God.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Question raised: I know I've sinned since I've become a Christian. Does that mean I'm not covered by Christ's sacrifice any more?
About this passage, F.F. Bruce states, "The context suggests that something much more serious is in his mind than what Paul calls being "overtaken in any trespass" (Gal. 6:1)—after all, [the author] has pointed out more than once that in Jesus Christians have a high priest who can [help] them when they are tempted, sympathize with them in their infirmities, and bear gently with them when they stray from the path through ignorance."16 Therefore, the sin mentioned here can't be this type of sin at all, because the writer of Hebrews has just finished telling us about how Jesus helps us in weakness, forgives our sins, and ministers to us (see Heb. 4:14-16, 5:2, 7:23-8:2, 9:14-15, 9:24-28, 10:10-14). The kind of sin stated in Hebrews 10:26, then, is a different kind of sin altogether, described in verse 29: "trampled the Son of God under foot," that is, renouncing Christianity. It would make sense in this case that no sacrifice for sins is left, because if a person does not rely on Jesus' perfect sacrifice, what other sacrifice can save them?17 As Guthrie writes, if Christ's sacrifice is rejected, "no other adequate sacrifice remains."18
Think about it: Martin Luther once said, "When you have Him you have all; but you have also lost all when you lose Him. . . .Stay with Christ, although your eyes do not see Him and your reason does not grasp Him."19 Cling to Christ's precious sacrifice even in times of hardest struggle.
- David A. Hubbard, "Proverbs." Mastering the Old Testament, Lloyd J. Ogilvie, ed. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1989), 212; Duane A. Garrett, "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs." The New American Commentary, E. Ray Clendenen, ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1993), 179; The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 188.
- Hubbard, "Proverbs," 212.
- Tremper Longman III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 52.
- This argument is developed and supported in the article about Atonement for Sin.
- Favazza gives numerous case studies of self-amputation, also called major self-mutilation, that had some relation to this Scripture text. See Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, 2nd ed (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 103-106 (eye enucleation), 142-143 (hand amputation). On pages 114-115, he discusses the phenomenon of eye enucleation with reference to this verse.
- Donald A. Hagner, "Matthew 1-13." Word Biblical Commentary, David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 121; Leon Morris, "The Gospel According to Matthew." The Pillar New Testament Commentary, D.A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 119.
- Morris, "The Gospel According to Matthew," 119.
- Hagner, "Matthew 1-13," 121.
- William L. Lane, "The Gospel According to Mark." The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 348.
- Leon Morris, "The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 138-139.
- C.K. Barrett, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians." Black's New Testament Commentaries, Henry Chadwick, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1968), 217-218.
- Barrett, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians," 218.
- Gordon D. Fee, "The 1st Epistle to the Corinthians." The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 439. Fee notes here, "[Paul] saw the body as mortal yet as destined for resurrection. Sin does not lie in the body; hence it is not to be beaten into submission."
- Barrett, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians," 217-218.
- Donald Guthrie, "The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 194.
- F.F. Bruce, "The Epistle to the Hebrews," rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 261.
- Bruce, "The Epistle to the Hebrews," 261.
- Guthrie, "The Epistle to the Hebrews," 217.
- Martin Luther, What Luther Says, vol. 1, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1959), 149.
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