Understanding and helping those who self-harm

October 14, 2016

She sat in my office stiff and straight-backed, looking down at my desk as though something was keeping this 16-year-old girl’s rapt attention. She twirled her hair. She bit her lip. She looked at her shoes. She fussed with the sleeves of the sweater she was wearing, in August, in Florida. She was doing anything to avoid my eye gaze. She had no idea that I was as nervous as she was when I offered her a water bottle, a piece of chocolate, a Coke or anything that might build a bridge between the two of us.

I was one week into my new position in girls ministry; the walls in my new office were bare and still smelled of drying spackle and fresh paint. I desperately wanted to reach out to her, to crawl over my desk and scoop her up and hug her and tell her that Jesus sees her pain. But I waited, knowing that this needed to be in her timing. And I prayed for a breakthrough as we began to dig through the layers of conversation, attempting to lead her to the real reason we were gathered in my office. And then it happened. She said, “Miss Kim, I just hurt so much. That’s why a few years ago, I started cutting.”

In the first three weeks of being in girls ministry, I had nine different girls tell me about their issues with cutting. I remember thinking to myself, “I knew this was a thing, I just didn’t realize it was the thing.” But it was, and it’s still the issue that is growing in sickening popularity among our society today. It has grown to such proportions that as godly women engaged in our culture, we can no longer live uninformed. As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, cutting and other forms of self-harm have reached a critical status. We must be a part of the educated community so that we can meet the need that self-harm isn’t filling.

Understanding the scope

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) states that each year, one in five females and one in seven males engage in self-injury. According to the statistics released by the NCHS, approximately two million cases of self-harm are reported annually in the United States. This number only reflects cases reported and documented by medical facilities.[1] That means there are more.

Most websites and medical journals report that the average age of self-harm begins around 12 to 14 and continues well in to their 20s.[2] I remember reading all of these statistics and being floored. I was tempted to compartmentalize it into those places of my brain that handle only raw numbers and figures, but I realized that these stats represented real lives, real faces. Some of these records represented my students, my friends’ daughters or, one day, my nieces. So, I kept reading.

The terms self-harm, self-injury or self-abuse refer to the act of purposefully harming oneself and is oftentimes called “cutting” or “blading.” There are also other forms of self-harm, such as skin burning, pinching, puncturing, anorexia, bulimia and even hair pulling. It is important to understand that most people who engage in self-harm are not suicidal, but rather they are attempting to self-soothe, express emotion or release pain or stress.[3]

Understanding the pain

For those who don’t have this impulse to self- harm, it seems impossible to understand. How could hurting yourself lead to feeling better? There actually is a physical reason that people return to behaviors like cutting. Aside from the destructive emotional coping mechanisms, physical pain does something for the body. When the body is in pain, it releases endorphins to counteract the physical effects of discomfort, giving the brain a naturally induced high. This feeling can become addictive, and before she knows it, the individual wants and needs this rush of opiates to feel normal.[4] But that doesn’t always explain the “why” behind engaging in self-harm. After all, a girl’s heart is the place we are so desperate to reach in the first place.

The comments I heard most often were, “I just wanted to be able to feel something. Even pain is better than being numb”; “It makes me feel better”; “It’s a way to relieve stress”; “No one understands”; or even, “I deserve it.” I remember meeting with a girl about cutting, and when she left, I went to my car and ugly cried until I thought my heart would burst. Listening to these beautiful precious souls talk about the emotional pain that they were experiencing and the lies that the enemy told them about who they are made me want to crawl into the throne room and just grieve.

Understanding the cycle

Each girl that I spoke with had a reason—a legitimate one, in her mind—for self-harm. The triggers usually began with stress and isolation. They usually did not see another way out or an alternative for coping with whatever was looming ahead. Most people engaged in self-harm express feeling very alone. They were reluctant to talk to people about the real reasons for their pain and would isolate to avoid doing so. These precious ones have also become masters of disguise and hiding in plain sight. But deep inside, there is pain and hurt or lies that are waiting to surface when stress is triggered.

Dr. Edward Welch, who serves as the director of the School of Biblical Counseling and professor of practical theology, says, “Anything that arouses unwanted emotions can trigger the cycle of self-abuse.”[5] And so the cycle begins with an emotional trigger, a stress that causes the impulse to seek distance and relief from these feelings. If the person has previously engaged in self-harm, there will most likely be a built-in desire to return to that behavior. Without appropriate coping mechanisms, the desire for self-harm grows, and self-injury becomes the response simply because it works. There’s temporary relief from the unwanted emotions, followed quickly by shame and guilt over the behavior of hurting oneself.

The greatest challenge is that the circumstances that drove the individual to self-injure usually haven’t changed, and the feelings have only been abated for the short term. There has not been any real healing. This is where you, as a believer, come in. If the Lord has placed you in a unique opportunity to minister to girls or women who engage in self-harm, you know the secret of freedom found in Jesus Christ alone.

Understanding the call to minister

So now that you are informed, the most natural questions are, “What do I do? Where do I go from here?” I’d like to encourage you with a few things:

  1. The Word of God is the first place to start. The girl or woman you are ministering to who may be dealing with self-harm needs help, but please remind her (or yourself, if you are engaged in self harm) that she is not beyond the power and scope of God’s great grace and healing. We all need to be reminded of the promises of God. Psalm 4:1; Psalm 107: 1-9; Psalm 94:14, 17-19; Romans 5:20 and 1 John 1:9 are some of my favorite places to start. Let’s go to our Source for the ultimate encouragement!
  2. It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all of the help that they need. Guiding them to understand their need for a supportive community is key in beginning the process of healing.
  3. If you have personal experience with self-harm, don’t hide it in shame. Tell your story and use it to express the glory of redemption and healing that can be found in Jesus Christ. Often times, a girl will feel more comfortable sharing with someone who she can make a personal connection with.
  4. Be aware of the prevalence of the idea of self-harm. If you work with students or have teenagers in your home, they have been exposed to it. The next generation is already engaging with this topic.
  5. Telling someone to “just stop” isn’t helpful. It usually doesn’t make sense to them and can come across as belittling and cold. In their mind, it doesn’t work like that; there is a reason for their behavior. Offer to walk with them in the journey and desperately pray for them as they fight the lies of the world.
  6. If the person is a minor, you must involve their parents. Unless the parents pose an imminent danger to the student, it is their right and God-given responsibility to know and love their child through these moments.
  7. If you are the parent, please seek to be as understanding as you possibly can. This is not your fault. You are not to blame. You haven’t failed. There may be areas of growth in your relationship with your son or daughter that the Lord will have an opportunity to improve through this journey. Love them. Pray with or for them and bring both of your hearts to Jesus so that the Great Physician can do his work.

Self-harm is a problem, but it is not the ultimate problem. There are root issues associated with all of our behaviors. This is true for all of humanity. We are each in desperate need of our Savior, who graciously wrapped himself in flesh and died to set us free. We must be brave women who dare to look these things in the eye and reach for our sisters in Christ who may be in crisis. We doesn’t need to be afraid—not of this issue or any others that we face in our cultures today. Scripture reminds us that we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37). We must be willing to reach across the divide, stick our hands in the broken places and speak hope into the life of another.


  1. ^ Claassen, Cindy and Kashner, Michael. Self Harm in the United States: What we can learn from National and State-level Medical Datasets. National Center for Health Statistics 2012 Data Conference. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/ppt/nchs2012/ss-32_claassen.pdf
  2. ^ Kerr, P. L., Muehlenkamp, J. J., & Turner, J. M. (2010). Nonsuicidal self-injury: A review of current research for family medicine and primary care physicians. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 23(2), 240-259.http://www.jabfm.org/content/23/2/240.full
  3. ^ Welch, Edward. “Self-Injury: When Pain Feels Good.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. Winter 2004. 34-41
  4. ^ Stanley, Barbara. Sher, Leo. Wilson, Scott, Ekman, Rolf, Huang, Yung-yu, Mann, John. “Nonsuicidal Self-Injurous Behavior, Endogenous Opioids and Monoamine Neutransmitters.” J of Affect Disord. 2010 Jul; 124(1-2): 134-140.
  5. ^ “Self-Injury: When Pain Feels Good,” 32

Kimberly Whitten

Kimberly Whitten is a recent student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary pursing a Masters of Divinity in Women’s Studies. Kimberly has a background in ministry, serving on staff at Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., for nine years until God called her to Texas on this new adventure of seminary. She has a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24