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What Do I Say to My Teen Who is Cutting?

What Do I Say to My Teen Who is Cutting?

It’s hard to understand, but many people who intentionally cut themselves do it to make themselves feel better. An increasingly common form of self-injury, “cutting” involves making cuts or severe scratches with sharp objects on different parts of the body. The arms, legs, and front of the torso are the most frequent targets, because these areas are easily accessible and hidden under clothing. Mental Health America estimates that almost two million Americans are self-injurers. Armando Favazza, M.D., professor and vice chairman of psychiatry at the University of Missouri, says this behavior is increasing among adolescents and young adults and spares no social class, gender or ethnicity.

As a mental health counselor and a professor at a major Christian university, I’ve come to understand that cutters aren’t seeking pain but, ironically, relief from it. For those of us who do not cut, this behavior is confusing. We seek to avoid pain, not deliberately cause our own.

By listening to self-injurers, I’ve learned that by causing themselves outward pain, they attempt to overcome inner pain. The physical pain from cutting is nothing compared to the inner torment they suffer. These young people hurt themselves because they haven’t found healthy ways to process and overcome feelings of inadequacy, rejection, grief, and depression. Contrary to popular belief, cutters aren’t seeking attention or trying to commit suicide.

Through interviews and research, I’ve discovered that cutters commonly feel a sense of worthlessness or self-hatred stemming from abuse or guilt over past failures. Young people who have been abused are prone to cutting because they believe they’re as worthless as their abusers tell them. They conclude that they deserve to be injured. Yet even without abuse, deep guilt can lead to cutting. I knew a young man who frequently cut himself because of his part in an accident which led to his younger brother’s death in a fire. He simply couldn’t forgive himself. A young Christian woman told me she “recently started cutting because I feel like I need to punish myself for things I’ve done wrong.”

Cutters also feel a need to see blood. Outflowing blood, they say, symbolizes the painful emotions leaving the body, at least temporarily. For them, if there is no blood, there is no relief. Cutters can also experience an unexpected physiological effect—the release of endorphins, pleasure-causing chemicals in the body. The combined inner peace and psychological pleasure they receive can make cutting highly addictive.

You may know or encounter someone who cuts, or may even be a “cutter” yourself. Regardless, it’s important to understand this behavior and know how to help.

Shaming cutters to get them to stop is self-defeating. They may interpret this as confirming their worthlessness, which leads to more of the behavior. Hiding sharp objects is ultimately fruitless. They will find something else, like the girl we sought to protect by taking away all her “sharps.” She just broke her CDs and used the sharp edges for cutting.

The only real solution is guiding cutters into changing their internal dialogue. Although we must address the physical consequences like infection, unsightly scars, or accidental deep cuts that require stitches or can lead to death, our main goal should be to help cutters find deep, inner healing. If they can be released from the torturous mindset of unworthiness that triggers their cutting, they will be freed from both the cutting and its physical dangers. In Flyleaf’s song “Red Sam,” truth is what can out-scream the lies cutters struggle with. This Truth is Jesus Christ.

I was recently caught off-guard when a male student told me he was a cutter and wanted to stop. He asked, “What does the Bible say about this?” Stumped, I vaguely remembered the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:5 who “cut himself with stones” and realized that cutting is not a new problem. Leviticus 19:28 describes the cutting of flesh as a pagan practice associated with worship and funeral procedures. This was clearly forbidden to God’s people. God instructed the Israelites, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut are a holy people,” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). Pagans, on the other hand, believed their gods demanded cutting (1 Kings 18:28). Throughout the Bible, cutting is always associated with paganism and the influence of ungodly spiritual powers.

It’s important to note that there is a significant contrast between the pagan and the biblical view of the human body. In the pagan view, the body is not valued, but is considered mere material the gods can order to be mutilated and abused. A biblical view, however, understands that the body is valued, being “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, who designed us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). God himself showed the highest regard for the human body when he, in the person of Jesus, took on human flesh to die for our sins and rise again in a glorified body. Those who are redeemed are told that their body is not to be “defiled,” but, being God’s “holy temple,” used to “glorify God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

If we share important truths wrongly, however, we can actually cause shame and trigger the destructive behavior. Instead, we must present them lovingly and carefully, not accusingly. We can find one of the most helpful verses for cutters in Isaiah 53.  In this poignant chapter, we see a sufferer “pierced for our transgressions (deliberate wrongs), [and] crushed for our iniquities (wrongs in general). The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (v.5).

The Apostle Peter identifies this sufferer as Jesus (1 Peter 2:21-25), and the word wounds literally refers to cuts that bleed, and describes the severe beating Christ received during the crucifixion. In the original language, the word for healed speaks not only of physical healing, but “holistic well-being of the entire self.”

Since the fall, God has required bloodshed to restore our relationship with himself. This means cutters are partially right. It takes blood to atone for sin. What they get wrong is thinking that their bleeding cuts bring healing. Only Christ’s wounds can do this. While it’s true that sin requires punishment, we need not punish ourselves. The truth cutters need is, “The punishment that brought us peace was on him (Christ), and by his wounds we are healed.”  

Sharing this truth with cutters has been fruitful. I tell them, “When you’re tempted to cut, visualize Jesus, who took your cuts and shed his blood so you don’t have to.” A former cutter told me she was cut-free since I told her “that thing about Jesus.” While this is not necessarily a cure-all, and people may need additional therapies, I’ve seen it bring healing. These truths out-scream the lies of worthlessness and the need for self-punishment. Jesus’ loving willingness to suffer for our guilt proves we’re not worthless, and the knowledge that he took our punishment is enough to bring the peace our broken souls crave.

Will Honeycutt has been a professor of contemporary issues and apologetics at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, since 1995. He lives in Forest, VA, with his wife of 25 years and their adult daughter, and enjoys teaching college-aged adults in his church.

Publication date: December 2, 2014