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Can Self-Inflicted Pain Help You Get Closer to God?

Can Self-Inflicted Pain Help You Get Closer to God?

 The Bible’s Viewpoint

Can Self-Inflicted Pain Help You Get Closer to God?

MOST people recoil at the idea of self-inflicted pain. Yet, worshippers who have tormented their bodies with such practices as self-flagellation, extreme fasting, and wearing coarse hair shirts that irritate their skin have been celebrated as examples for the God-fearing. Those practices are not merely vestiges of the medieval past. According to recent news reports, even prominent modern-day religious leaders have engaged in self-flagellation.

What motivates people to worship in such a manner? In the words of one spokesman for a professed Christian organization, “voluntarily accepted discomfort is a way of joining oneself to Jesus Christ and the sufferings he voluntarily accepted in order to redeem us from sin.” Notwithstanding the claims of religious leaders, what does the Bible say on this subject?

Cherish Your Body

The Bible neither recommends nor condones worshipping God with self-inflicted pain. In fact, the Bible actively encourages God-fearing people to care for their body. Examine the way the Bible describes the affection between a husband and wife. Alluding to the way a man would naturally treat his own body, it exhorts: “Husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies . . . No man ever hated his own flesh; but he feeds and cherishes it, as the Christ also does the congregation.”​—Ephesians 5:28, 29.

Would the injunction to love one’s wife as one’s own body have much meaning if worshippers were expected to brutalize their body during worship? It is obvious that lovers of Scriptural principles are expected to cherish and even have a measure of love for their own body, and this wholesome love for oneself should be extended to one’s marriage mate.

Fittingly, the Bible contains many principles that help its readers cherish their body. For example, the Bible speaks of the benefit of moderate exercise. (1 Timothy 4:8) It reveals the medicinal value of certain foods and  alludes to the ill effects of a poor diet. (Proverbs 23:20, 21; 1 Timothy 5:23) The Scriptures encourage people to stay healthy because doing so allows them to be as active as possible. (Ecclesiastes 9:4) If Bible readers are expected to protect their health in these ways, how could they also be expected to harm their body?​—2 Corinthians 7:1.

Should Christians Reenact Jesus’ Suffering?

Still, some organizations mistakenly focus on the suffering endured by Jesus and his early followers to encourage self-torment today. But the suffering described by God’s servants in the Bible was never self-inflicted. When Christian Bible writers pointed to Christ’s suffering, they did so to encourage Christians to endure persecution, not to cause their own persecution. Thus, those who torment their body are not imitating Jesus Christ.

To illustrate: Imagine you see an admired friend being reviled and struck by an enraged mob. You notice that your friend endures the attack with a calm, peaceful spirit, not striking back or returning insults. If you wanted to imitate your friend, would you start striking and insulting yourself? Of course not! That would be imitating the actions of the mob. You would simply try to avoid retaliating if you came under a similar attack.

Clearly, then, Christ’s followers are not expected to inflict pain on themselves as if they needed to mimic the enraged mobs that tormented and sought to kill Jesus. (John 5:18; 7:1, 25; 8:40; 11:53) Instead, when they suffer persecution, they are to imitate the calm, peaceful way Jesus endured hardship.​—John 15:20.

An Unscriptural Perversion

Even before the Christian era, the Scriptures governing Jewish life and worship prevented the Jews from doing anything that harmed their flesh. For example, the Law explicitly forbade the Jews to cut themselves, a practice that was evidently common in ancient non-Jewish nations. (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 14:1) If God did not want the body cut, neither would he want it scarred by whips. The Bible standard is clear​—intentionally harming one’s own flesh in any way is unacceptable to God.

Just as an artist wants his work to be respected, Jehovah God, the Creator, wants his creation the human body to be respected. (Psalm 139:14-16) Actually, self-mortification does not bolster one’s relationship with God. Rather, it cripples it and perverts the teachings of the Gospels.

The apostle Paul, writing under inspiration, stated of such oppressive, man-made doctrines: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23) The practice of inflicting oneself with pain is truly of no use at all in helping one get closer to God. Rather, the requirements of true worship of God are found to be refreshing, kindly, and light.​—Matthew 11:28-30.


● How does God view the human body?​—Psalm 139:13-16.

● Can tormenting your flesh help you to combat improper desires?​—Colossians 2:20-23.

● Is true worship meant to be burdensome or harsh?​—Matthew 11:28-30.

[Blurb on page 11]

The Bible standard is clear​—intentionally harming one’s own flesh in any way is unacceptable to God

[Picture on page 10]

A pilgrim crawls painfully toward a church

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