Scripture and Self-Injury

Note: It can be daunting to realize how much God requires of us! As we look at what is commanded, though, we need to remember something important and wonderful: God never commands Christians to do anything that he doesn’t give them the strength to do. This strength comes through relationship with him by means of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives (Philippians 2:12-13). Look to that strength for help as you read the information below.

Old Testament

In the Old Testament, one of Israel's major problems was that they picked up the religious habits and practices of other nations. Think of it like ancient peer pressure; instead of getting drunk or doing drugs, they worshipped other nations' gods. The problem was that God, the One True God, had told them how to worship him and had forbidden them from being loyal to any other gods. That's the factor at play in many of these verses.

The Law

In his commentary, Wenham says, "The underlying principles of the law, not specific application, should bind the Christian."1 Let's keep that in mind as we look at these verses.

Leviticus 19:28
Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 21:5
Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies.

Deuteronomy 14:1-2
You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.

What's going on here?
Since God created man in his image (Genesis 1:27), man shouldn't harm that image by scarring his body.2 Shaving the head, tattooing, and cutting the skin were pagan mourning practices,3 but since those were part of pagan religion and since they didn't show respect for God's creation,4 God wanted Israel to stay away from them.

What can we learn?
We should take care of our bodies and not deface God's creation. This principle is upheld and even strengthened in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 6.


1 Kings 18:28
So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until the blood flowed.

What's going on here?
Prophets of Baal (a false god) are desperately trying to get their deity to listen to them.5 (You can read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:16-40.) Note that despite all the prophets' efforts, Baal never responds.

What can we learn?
We don't have to do anything special or extra to get God to listen to us. Actually, God is the one who seeks us, and all we need to do is respond. Self-injury is not a way that God has opened for us to be closer to him. In fact, anything that we need to do to be right with God can be found in Scripture.6

The Prophets

Jeremiah 16:6
Both high and low will die in this land. They will not be buried or mourned, and no one will cut himself or shave his head for them.

Jeremiah 41:4-5
The day after Gedaliah's assassination, before anyone knew about it, eighty men who had shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves came from Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria, bringing grain offerings and incense with them to the house of the LORD.

Jeremiah 47:5
Gaza will shave her head in mourning; Ashkelon will be silenced. O remnant on the plain, how long will you cut yourselves?

What's going on here?
All three of these verses are talking about mourning. Verse 16:6 is part of a prophecy about mourning, verses 41:4-5 are about mourning for the destroyed temple,7 and verse 47:5 refers to the mourning that the Philistines will do because of an impending catastrophe.8 The mourning rites of self-cutting and head shaving, which were associated with pagan practices, were forbidden in the Torah.9 Unfortunately, since self-cutting and head shaving were common mourning practices in the ancient world at large, the Israelites picked them up somewhere along the way.10

What can we learn?
We need avoid picking up culturally accepted practices that are not allowed in the Bible. God doesn't want us to worship or serve him by doing things that he's forbidden.

The New Testament

The Gospels

Mark 5:2-5
When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
(Read the whole story in Mark 5:1-20)

What's going on here?
Some have said that Mark 5:5 means that all self-injurers are demon-possessed. It's pretty clear that this is a classic case of demon possession, but is it a classic case of self-injury? No. A look at this man's story shows that it's much different from the misguided pilgrims in Jeremiah 41:4-5. Even in Scripture, self-injury happens in different ways and different forms.

What can we learn?
About this man, Cole writes, "It was also probably part of his 'treatment' to drive him away from inhabited areas, to find in graveyards on desolate hillsides his 'isolation block.' But isolation, whether self-chosen or enforced by others...meant only that the destructive force of evil, instead of turning outwards in outbreaks of violence, vented itself on the patient, in acts of senseless self-torture, as stated here."11 Although most people left this man alone, Jesus came to him and showed compassion towards him. There is certainly something to be said for the ministry of presence, of being with people who are hurting. Whereas many people would rather leave hurting people alone, Christians are called to walk in Jesus' steps, bringing light to places of darkness.

The Letters

1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

What's going on here?
In this passage, Paul tells the Corinthians why sexual immorality is improper for believers. Morris makes clear, however, that verses 19-20 apply to much more than sexual conduct.12 We used to be slaves to sin, Barrett remarks, but now we have been bought by Christ's sacrifice and have become his slaves:13 Romans 6:15-18 shows us that slavery to Christ is true freedom. This verse also emphasizes that not only the spirit but also the body is called to honor God.14 Since the body will one day be resurrected, it is important,15 so we should not abuse or mistreat it.

What can we learn?
This verse sets a very high standard for life and conduct: believers are to act in a way that would not dishonor the temple of God.16 We are called, by the help of the Spirit, to honor God with all that we are.


God made our bodies (Genesis 1:27), and if we are Christians, the Holy Spirit lives in them. Therefore, a proper Christian life involves care not only for the soul but also for the body--even while the body must be kept under control and used to serve the Lord (see comments on 1 Corinthians 9:27). Self-injury, then, is prohibited for Christians because it violates the principle explained here: that the Lord's holy people are not allowed to deface God's image in themselves.

Does this mean that Christians never self-injure? Of course not. Both Christians and non-Christians struggle with self-injury. The wonderful and glorious truth, however, is that Christians believe and trust that Jesus' death on the cross has already paid the penalty for all the sins they will ever commit. Moreover, they have died with Christ and are dead to sin. The life they now live here on earth they live by faith in order to please God (Galatians 2:20, Romans 6:1-13). Does that mean ending self-injury? Yes, it does. But because of the Spirit's help, the Christian won't be doing it alone.


  1. Gordon J. Wenham, "The Book of Leviticus." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, R.K. Harrison, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 36.
  2. Wenham, "The Book of Leviticus," 272.
  3. R.K. Harrison, "Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1980), 201.
  4. Harrison, "Leviticus," 210; J.A. Thompson, "Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1974), 177.
  5. Donald J. Wiseman, "1 and 2 Kings: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1993), 169-170. Wiseman discusses this ancient practice in his commentary.
  6. See, for instance, Chapter I, section 6, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, also found in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Book of Confessions (New York: Office of the General Assembly, 1983).
  7. J.A. Thompson, "The Book of Jeremiah." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, R.K. Harrison, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1980), 659-660.
  8. Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, "Jeremiah 26-52." Word Biblical Commentary, David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1995), 301.
  9. Thompson, "The Book of Jeremiah," 405. The verses to which Thompson refers are discussed above: Leviticus 19:28, Leviticus 21:5, and Deuteronomy 14:1-2.
  10. John H. Walton, interview by author, 2 November 2004.
  11. R. Alan Cole, "The Gospel According to Mark: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 156.
  12. Leon Morris, "The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary." The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 99.
  13. C.K. Barrett, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians." Black's New Testament Commentaries, Henry Chadwick, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1968), 152.
  14. Barrett, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians," 152-153.
  15. 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), 263.
  16. Morris, "The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians," 99-100.

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