I think it is fairly safe to say that to many, whenever the phrase ‘self-harm’ is mentioned it can bring all sorts of thoughts or images to mind which in the main centre around physically injuring oneself.
Indeed, type the words ‘self-harm’ into google and you stand a fair chance of being greeted with the following definition…
“deliberate injury to oneself, typically as a manifestation of a psychological or psychiatric disorder.“
And certainly this is understandable.
After all, as a mental health activist and someone who has had personal struggles with this issue in the past, I myself have written about this kind of self-harm on numerous occasions.
And trust me they really are struggles which very few people can understand unless they are trained mental health professionals or have been through them themselves. And the feelings – such as guilt, worthlessness and isolation – which they can bring along with them can be immense. (and which very often are additional to those already felt can be crippling.
(And yes I have actively avoided using a graphic which has a high potential of being a trigger to anyone who still struggles with this issue.)
But is there another kind of ‘self-harm’ that we as Christians should be mindful of – especially when it comes to those who experience mental health issues or mental illness?
Consider this if you will…
Most Christians will readily acknowledge, and certainly the bible reading ones should acknowledge, that we are in a constant battle with ‘self’.
20 But you have not so learned Christ, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24 NKJV)
That ‘self’ – to over simplify things – could be defined as who we have become as a result of numerous influences, such as: our minds, our intellect, our education, our perceptions, our understandings, our experiences and our environments etc.
But is ‘self’ not also – in turn – therefore, an influence on; how we are, how we react, and indeed how we interact?
And if indeed we accept, as Christians, that our ‘self’ and our ‘self’ish ways are all too often contrary to how Christ would have us be. Then surely the concept of ‘self’ being ‘harmful’ can not be too great a leap, can it?
Now add to that a mental health condition which exaggerates the effects of ‘self’ or at very least reduces one’s control of the influences of ‘self’. (Because, as we have already established, ‘self’ is influenced by our mind and in turn also influences how we react and interact.) And the result is that you have a breeding ground for some very real issues here, don’t you? (Above picture courtesy of: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/discipline-vs-desire. All rights respected.)
Especially since our old ‘self’ – that ‘old man‘ – can be a hard person to change and an old acquaintance who all too often comes a calling.
I for one can tell you, that I am a Christian. And I love our Lord. And I really do seek, when able, to please Him and to live according to the spirit and not according to the flesh or according to my old ‘self’. But I can also tell you that I am also a Christian who has mental health issues and who knows only too well the impact that my ‘self’ often has on me and also on my ability to show my faith as well as on my relationships.
And I am by no means alone in this, I can assure you. And for many, myself very much included, the idea of socialising can be a very difficult thing. And thus the idea of joining or belonging to a Church can also be incredibly difficult. And this is something which is only exasperated when others within that church fail to try to understand this or to make efforts to counteract this. But of course to do so we a) have to know about these difficulties and b) have to be willing to step out of our own comfort zone, in order to encourage others out of theirs.
But for some, the idea of being a Christian is, or so it seems, seen as a solution to many – if not all – of the struggles which we can face in life. And in truth there are numerous exponents of the soft-sell ‘give your life to Jesus and everything will be rosy in the garden‘ kind of Christianity out there. But I personally am unable to buy into or to agree with such an approach or such a theology. (Picture to the right courtesy of: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Slate-Single-Coaster-Everything-in-the-garden-is-rosy-/400793278457. All rights respected.)
Mainly because my understanding of the word of God does not support such teachings and secondly because my experience in Christ also does not support such teachings.
And I think a legitimate observation and question is – “If giving your life to Christ instantly removes all of the struggles that we face in life – as the ‘prosperity ministry’ exponents would have us believe – why would Paul – under the influence of the Holy spirit – write a passage such as Ephesians 4:20-24 which I quoted above?”
The fact is that my understanding of being a Christian is that it not only seldom removes all of life’s struggles it can actually increase our awareness of them. Thankfully, by the grace of God, it does however also provide us with a new approach and a perfect source of support in dealing with them.
But even so, let us make no mistake here. Those struggles – especially when it comes to mental health issues and mental illness – do remain. Take for example such things as negative or harmful internal dialogues. Something which many of us experience to varying levels and at varying times but which are often complicated even exaggerated and exasperated by numerous mental health conditions. Where is the churches responsibility in such cases? In the case where someone experiences these very real and often constant difficulties? Surely it is to help them fight it.
And one of the most effective ways of helping someone deal with those harmful thoughts and/or voices – which ultimately come from ‘self’ – is to counter them with positive, creative and tangible evidence to the contrary.
Evidence which speaks directly into and which counters ‘self’s’ negative and harmful statements which say things like, ‘You don’t fit in.”, or “you don’t belong”. Statements like, “you’re not like them” or “They are only tolerating you because the bible says they have to.”. Statements which, as I said, many of us can experience from time to time but which can be so greatly exaggerated in effect or frequency by mental health issues. Along, of course, with all the statements and negative thoughts which appear in the image below. (Picture courtesy of http://www.lifesonion.com/changing-your-inner-dialogue/ all rights respected)
Whilst it can be argued that ‘self-harm’ has a specific meaning in this day and age, and that it therefore invokes specific images in our minds, the fact of the matter is that the ‘self’ being harmful at times, is certainly nothing new. And certainly should not be a surprise to any bible reading Christian.
But knowing that ‘self’ and thus such linked or resultant thoughts and internal dialogues are often harmful does not remove their influence on us. Any more than knowing the person who keeps picking on us is a bully removes their influence on us. And so the need for very real and very tangible support and encouragement from other believers within our church is essential.
And let there be no mistake here. Just as tangible positive support and encouragement is often vital to our survival within a church family, so can tangible negative comments, or actions from others in the church family be absolutely fatal to our survival in that church family. Something else which I can personally attest to.
So my encouragement today is not only to all those who like me really struggle with the harmful ‘self’ which as a result of our mental health issues seems even more harmful but to those who don’t experience this to the same degree.
Your love. Your positive, tangible compassion can be the very thing which helps keep someone like me within a church family.
God bless you.