Of all the self-destructive behaviors I had, cutting was always the hardest to explain. How do I speak about pain that had always been unspeakable? How do I answer all the questions about why I felt driven to hurt myself? How do I reconcile having inflicted destruction upon my body even while serving the Lord?
I started cutting in middle school and continued into college. I honestly can’t recall how I decided that hurting myself was the only way to feel better. I just remember feeling desperate to experience physical pain so I could get some sense of relief. I felt horribly freakish after that first time — who finds reprieve in pain? — but thought I could keep doing this as an outlet for my emotions. I didn’t know what else to do with everything I was feeling, and I didn’t think it was safe to talk about the hard time I was having.
In fact, I really didn’t even know what was going on with me. I just knew something was off with me — that I didn’t fit in with anything or anyone, and something about me was just different. I couldn’t even explain it to myself, so how could I try to talk to someone else about the emotional disaster I felt I’d become?
I spent all of the 90s cutting. I had started self-injuring to try to drown out the internal struggle that raged daily in battle. But as I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling, that I needed to distance myself from my emotions, I ended up becoming completely out of touch with them. Over time, I didn’t know how I felt about anything anymore. I knew that tragic events should fill me with grief, but I didn’t know how to feel sad. Even the death of a friend evoked nothing.
As years passed, I turned to cutting as a way to make sure I could still feel something besides fear (the only emotion that always stayed at my side). It was as though seeing blood seep from my wounds was proof that I still had to be alive.
Part of me wanted to feel again, but I was afraid of what might happen if the wall holding back my emotions broke. What if everything had been building for years behind a dam, and I drowned in the flood of feelings that had been held back for a decade? The possibility of such a tidal wave simply reinforced to me that it was necessary to cut in order to fortify the wall.
In the midst of all this, I prayed. Boy, did I pray. I asked for clarity, understanding, wisdom and anything else I could think of that might help me sort through this mess. But every time I’d start to hear from the Lord, His voice would get obscured by a maelstrom of lies.
The attacks weren’t limited to prayer, either. Even God’s Word would get twisted when I read it. As a perfectionist, I honestly thought that Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48) meant that I had to seem flawless at all costs. After all, the songs we’d crooned in Sunday school years before had words like, “Since Jesus came right in and cleansed me from my sin, I’m so happy … all the time.”
And I was tricked into thinking that those who follow Christ had to focus all their attention on serving others, that working on any personal struggles or even praying about them was selfish and ungodly. What else could Jesus have meant about denying myself, taking up my cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24)?
It was miserable. Looking back, those were absolutely the worst years of my life. As I wrote this article, I looked back through the journaling I did when I was healing from self-injury and the other self-destructive behaviors I’d stumbled into. The jumbled words were awash with confusion and desperation.
One journal entry read, “‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.’ I feel like I’m being disobedient and trying to usurp Your throne [by praying about my struggles].” It takes my breath away to see how often I believed that certain Scriptures meant something God never intended.
Thankfully, I am not still there. I live in a freedom that I could never have imagined possible. And it all started when I learned how to believe.
You see, growing up surrounded with Christianity, it was easy to read the Bible with a kind of “yeah, yeah, yeah” attitude. I knew what God said about Himself and about me, and I was pretty sure it was probably true. But I didn’t believe it — not really. Because if I really had believed God’s Word to be really true, it would have changed my life entirely. Someone who really believes that gravity really works doesn’t go leaping out of a plane without a parachute; you know they believe in the reality of gravity because of the way it influences their behavior and even their thoughts about heights and altitude.
I myself realized that I didn’t really believe God when I was doing research for a college thesis. I was reading a book that was written in the 1930s and was struck by a particular passage:
Suppose you had never seen an electric light bulb, and I tried to tell you of the unseen power inside, and you said, “I don’t believe it,” would that change the truth at all, or would it just be tragic that you did not believe the truth?Case Studies of Normal Adolescent Girls, Elsie M. Smithies, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1933.
I responded in my journal, saying, “It would be tragic, too, if you merely believed the truth yet had neither experienced nor understood truth. Truth is not here just to be believed — it is to be grasped and defended and comprehended!” It was at this point that I realized that I was living a tragic life of unbelief and was missing out on the power of God. I determined to read the Bible from cover to cover with a fresh perspective on belief so that I could truly live out the truth of God and know how to recognize lies and distortion.
The process of separating Truth from deception took years. I learned that I had not been alone in having Satan use Scripture against me — Christ Himself was attacked with Scripture (Matthew 4:5-7) — but I had to recognize when the enemy was twisting God’s Word and begin to respond with God’s truth. I had a notebook full of verses that plainly told me about God’s character and about His love for me, and I carried it everywhere in case of attack.
I began to search for God’s perspective on everything in the pages of His Word. Even more, I prayed that God would help me overcome my unbelief and learn to trust Him. I followed the directions in Deuteronomy that instruct us to talk about the Lord “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (6:7). I spent time recounting God’s faithfulness in my own life and listening to others tell me of God’s intervention in their own experiences. I learned that the commandments and laws God laid out for us are not intended to connote “rules and regulations,” but rather are privileges that allow us closer relationship with God as we obey Him to show our love for Him.
I also spent time pouring out my disappointment to God, pointing out the ways I felt He’d let me down and, in the process of doing so, realizing that I’d treated Him so often like a vending machine. I wept over the years I’d lost because of the bitterness I’d nourished as a result of the hardships I’d faced that I didn’t feel I deserved. And I praised Him for having walked with me, wept with me, ached with me — all the while whispering to my heart and yearning for me to experience the Truth.
I learned to trust other Christians and to talk about my struggles (James 5:16); I read about worrying (Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:6-8) and made a decision to believe God would provide for me (Exodus 16:4). And as I chose to believe God in small areas, it became easier to believe Him in every area of life.
It has been more than eight years since I self-injured — six years since the end of all my self-destructive ways. The years I spent lost in deception were grievous, but I rejoice in God’s faithfulness and in the way the Truth led me to more intimate relationship with the Lord.
And honestly, learning to live in belief was really hard to do. But as I practiced believing, I found it easier to believe God the next time. Just as a baby goes from walking a single step to taking a few more strides to wobbly lurching to a confident gait, my journey to believing God began with hesitant fear that He would let me down and has led to a steadfast assurance that God is sovereign and that I do not escape His notice.
It doesn’t mean that God does exactly what I expect Him to do; more so, I can relax in His plan — even when everything seems to be going haywire — knowing He’s using my life and my circumstances for His glory and that my frustrations and disappointments can drive me into His open arms. Developing belief has cause my trust in Him to take root and flourish.
I’ve come to realize that many Christians struggle with belief. We say we “believe in” God, but we live in such a way that it’s obvious we don’t believe God Himself or His Word. While unbelief does not lead everyone into cutting, it will eventually lead everyone to self-destruction because any attitude or mindset that does not lead us into greater intimacy with Christ will always pull us away from Him.
I pray that you will know the truth and believe it. Whether you struggle with self-destructive behaviors or simply feel like your relationship with God has gone stale, I pray that you will see the truth with fresh eyes and that it will ignite a passionate hunger in your soul that will only be satisfied by God Himself.
He is trustworthy. He is Truth.
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Copyright 2008 Rachel Zoller. All rights reserved..