“UGLY.” In seven slices with a razor-blade up her arm, Lauren summarized her life. I’ve done youth work for over a decade now, and self-harm is something I struggle to ‘get’. Why would this popular, vivacious, and attractive girl take to carving up her body? Upwards of one-in-five adolescent females self-harm, with males now comprising up to 35 percent of overall cases. ‘Cutting’ is common. And cutting is confusing.
More times than I care to remember I’ve sent youth group leaders in with first aid kits to patch up teens who’ve cut while hidden away in the toilet block. I’ve spent countless hours talking with girls like Lauren about their addiction to self-harm. One girl was hospitalized after inflicting 60 cuts to her upper arm and thigh in a night.
Why do they do it? Well, choose your theory. From a biological perspective, cutting induces an endorphin rush, implicated in addiction. From a psychological perspective, cutting concretely expresses pain when psychic distress is overwhelming or one feels numb; anger turned inward on the self in this way can produce an emotional catharsis. From a sociological perspective, cutting can help a powerless teen gain a sense of control, and elicit support and care from others.
But what about a spiritual perspective? This same literature almost reluctantly reports that cutters cut to punish themselves for being bad and failing to live up to some ill-defined standard. “UGLY” is an aesthetic label pointing to a deeper dissonance within Lauren: she senses her whole life is deformed. In almost every instance of self-harm, I’ve heard girls describe a kind of release and almost primitive placation that comes with the shedding of blood. A totally non-religious adolescent even used the word “cleansing” about how she felt when that red-fluid flowed. What should we make of this?
Perhaps another primitive practice will shed some light. While working through a course on world religions, I was struck by the almost universal practice of “atonement.” In most ancient tribal religions, people would regularly placate—or propitiate—the gods with sacrifices; the bigger the transgression, the greater the slaughter. A white lie?—then slaughter a chicken. Stepping on sacred ground?—then slaughter a bull. You dishonoured the gods and took a life?—then sacrifice a life. Almost without fail, blood is the key ingredient in placating the gods.
Granted, this seems barbaric. But we recognize that when rules are broken—or worse, a relationship is severed—some form of costly “placation” is essential. We know that some sacrifice must ‘make up’ for when we ‘fall short’, whether a spouse offering flowers for forgetting the anniversary, or a gang offering a guilty member to be beaten for infringing another gang’s territory. In the lecturer’s words, “We sacrifice what is important to us, and a rough equivalent of us.”
Interestingly, tribal religions typically recognize some “Sky God” who created all that is, and with whom we have lost relationship in the distant past. So, the focus shifts to placating the local and lesser gods with ever-escalating blood sacrifices to pay for infringing their ill-defined standards.
Ancient ‘cutting’ then, makes more sense than its modern counterpart. As we watch contemporary and fictive portrayals in movies like Apocalypto and Clash of the Titans, we can see a kind of barbaric logic to the Mayan and Greek spilling of blood in human sacrifice. In contrast, Lauren is agnostic and morally relativistic. Like nearly half of Australian youth, she isn’t convinced that there is a God from whom she is relationally severed, or that there are any objective standards to transgress.
Yet “the voice on the skin” doesn’t lie. All the biological, psychological, and sociological theories in the world will never get to the heart of the problem. For Lauren, as with us all, has fallen short of the standards of a just God. Inbuilding her life around something other than God, her life has been bent out of shape. She is broken, and she breaks. She is severed in relationship. And “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” From a spiritual perspective, this toying with death and letting of blood is of one piece with ancient efforts to placate the gods.
What, then, can be done? Let me suggest something radical. The “Sky God” is different. The need for atonement is real. But unlike these lesser and demonic gods, the Creator of all is not hungry for our sacrifice. Instead, in love, this Sky God has taken the initiative to step into our blood-thirsty world. And on the Mountain of Crucifixion, this God—made known through Jesus of Nazareth—has offered a one-time sacrifice that covers all our failures. He absorbed all our “ugliness” so we could be made beautiful again. He shed His blood so we wouldn’t have to. And when we accept His perfect placation, then the Laurens of this world can lay down their razor-blades of self-harm and disapproval, and find life to the full in relationship with the God who also bears scars. This is truly good news for cutters old and new. In the words of Robert Low’s stirring hymn,
What can wash away my sin? …
What can make me whole again? …
Oh! Precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.
 Victoria E. White Kress, Donna M. Gibson, and Cynthia A. Reynolds, “Adolescents Who Self-Injure: Implications and Strategies for School Counselors,” in Adolescent Psychology, 5th ed., ed. Fred E. Stickle, 178-183 (Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill, 2007).
 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “World Religions,” Regent College Audio, session H07 on Tribal Religions.
 Janice McLane coined this phrase to describe self-mutilation, in “The Voice on the Skin: Self-Mutilation and Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Language,” Hypatia, Fall 1996.
 Hebrews 9:22, TNIV.