Why do we resort to masochism? We all want to be happy! How then do we explain self-mutilation and other forms of self-punishment? When we look only at sadomasochistic sex or at people who cut or torture themselves, we’re tempted to regard these phenomena as pathological. However, when we recognize the full range of masochistic behaviors, we’re forced to seek a more global answer—perhaps one based upon our common humanity and having a common rationale. I’m going to try to identify the thread that ties all of the individual manifestations of masochism together.
First of all, let’s take a look at a form of masochism with which most of us are familiar. Masochism seems to be at work when we silently endure painful relationships, ones we need not endure. How does this work? We feel guilty about something and therefore want to atone or compensate for this guilt by enduring the discomfort. Strangely, there seems to be a subconscious life-script, an inner logic that requires us to transact a mysterious deal: we pay the price by enduring the discomfort, and we receive a reduction in guilt.
Similarly, according to this hidden contract, after having paid the price of suffering, we entitle ourselves to enjoy the things that are more important to us, like sex. Likewise, I had my own script that determined what pleasures I could enjoy. Over-consumption would make me feel guilty. Consequently, if I restricted myself to a three minute shower, I was entitled to feel that I was a good and worthy person. If I exceeded the limits that my legalistic script imposed upon me, I’d have to compensate with some form of saving-the-planet. Similarly, when I’d get an “A” on a test, I’d feel worthy and entitled to buy a chocolate milkshake. However, if I failed to receive the “A,” the milkshake wouldn’t have felt quite right going down. Somehow, I understood that my coveted sense of worthiness came at a price. Either I would have to earn it or suffer for it. Hence, we are in bondage to an uncompromising slave-master.
In many religions (or perhaps all), self-denial and/or self-flagellation have become the staples for everyday righteousness or feelings of OK-ness. Sometimes they take the form of puncture wounds or walking on hot coals or even knives. As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther endured walking on his knees, walking barefoot in the snow and long periods of sleeplessness in a vain attempt to prove himself to God. The faithful prove themselves by what they suffer.
In other religions self-denial is accomplished by making costly sacrifices, sometimes human, in order to earn the favor of their deities. As the plague stalked Europe in the 1300-1400s, a flagellant sect arose. They thought that the plague was a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment. Therefore, the flagellants paraded through Europe whipping one another, convinced that this would earn God’s favor. And for this, they received high grades from their admirers.
Masochism takes many forms. Benedict XVI writes about another form of masochism. He notes how Western culture, en masse, has turned against itself and its own Christian heritage:
“This case illustrates a peculiar western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure…Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage.” (Quoted by Jean Bethke Elshtain, First Things, March, 2009, 36)
Self-castigation is subconsciously understood as a reasonable payment for self-validation, a necessary defense against shame. It works something like this: “I am a good and worthy person if I champion the interests of others and am willing to criticize my own traditions.” (It is not my intention to devalue good deeds, but rather their self-righteous motivations!)
Can we ascribe all of these phenomena to pathology or to the idiosyncrasies of a limited number of cultures? Obviously, there is something more global taking place. Ordinarily, it would have been more in keeping with our pleasure-seeking nature to believe, “I make my gods happiest with me when I’m thoroughly enjoying myself”? However, this type hedonistic religion always seems to give way to its more masochistic forms. Why? Why haven’t we become more proficient in rewriting our scripts to eliminate the necessity for pain and to maximize pleasure? Why has this mysterious script proved itself so impervious to editorial “improvements,” especially in view of the encouragement given to hedonism by our permissive age? Evidently, there is something else indelibly taking place in humanity’s game-plan. This is why human history consistently testifies that we are more than ready to pay the price of self-mutilation and self-deprivation.
I don’t think we’re ready to answer this question until we have expanded our inquiry to include the sister of self-denial—self-indulgence! They both address the identical problem of shame and unworthiness and seem to be opposite sides of the same coin. Writer and psychotherapist, John Bradshaw, points out that these opposite responses are both shame-generated:
“The most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the super-achieved and the underachieved, the Star and the Scapegoat, the “Righteous” and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.” (Healing the Shame that Binds You, 14)
Interestingly, both self-indulgence and self-denial are closely associated in the practice of Eastern religions. Some of their practices attempt to dry up desire and lust through the fires of self-mortification, like rain evaporating on hot Florida asphalt. By extinguishing desire, they hope to transcend the “world of delusion.”
However, the opposite teaching of self-indulgence is often taught as a more appealing alternative. Instead of trying to burn away their desires, some gurus teach radical self-indulgence. As one Hindu mystic commented, “Fasting will only increase desire, and you will only think about food. Instead, consume as much honey as you can, and you won’t desire it anymore.”
The Doors’ Jim Morrison had a similar outlook. As is the case with all of us, his sense of shame wouldn’t be silenced by self-denial. Instead, he believed that it had to be saturated by self-indulgence until it fell apart, like a soggy paper towel. He was convinced that this would result in freedom and spiritual purification:
“Sensuousness and evil is an attractive image to us now…It’s like a purification ritual in the alchemical sense. First you have to have the period of disorder, chaos, returning to a primeval disaster religion. Out of that you purify the elements and find the new seed of life.” (Quoted from Hungry for Heaven, Steve Turner, 96)
How do we explain self-mutilation and self-indulgence in the same breath? Is there a common thread connecting them? All humanity experiences guilt and shame. Counselor John Bradshaw claims that these feelings are so powerful that they are life-controlling. Guilt and shame tell us that there is something the matter with us and compel us to do something about the disturbing alarm they sound. We therefore resort to denial, self-mutilation, self-indulgence, drugs and even workaholism to convince ourselves that we’re really worthy people in the face of our persistent shame. We cut ourselves and for a few moments feel that life, once again, is good. (Clinical studies have shown that after an act of self-mutilation, cortisone production, directly associated with stress, is reduced.)
We deprive, afflict, and sacrifice ourselves for good reason. But why should self-castigation make us feel better? We are created in the image of God. Therefore, we are highly moral creatures, and we are painfully aware when we violate our internal God-infused rule book. In addition to this, we also have a sense that there must be retribution for the infractions. We’re then confronted with two choices: either we confess and seek the mercy of the One who created the rules or we deal with the problem ourselves. If we have a problem with God, we usually deal with the problem ourselves. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did. They covered their sin and shame with fig leaves—hardly an adequate solution. We, however, do the same thing. Instead of fig leaves, we cover ourselves with good deeds, accomplishments or self-affliction. We convince ourselves that we are fully able to pay the price for our guilt and shame. And we often do such a good job of this that we actually become convinced of our own righteousness, superiority and entitlement.
But an entitlement mentality is a lethal poison. Because of their self-inflicted punishments, the flagellants convinced themselves and others that they were even more spiritual and entitled than the priests. Consequently, they entered the cathedrals, driving away the “less worthy” presiding priests, sometimes even beating them.
Guilt and shame cause such psychological turmoil that we can’t ignore them. We feebly erect a wall of denials and self-righteous rationalizations in a vain attempt to shield ourselves against their indictments. However, we find that they are like inflated balls, which inevitably resurface no matter how valiantly and persistently we fight to keep them submerged.
Are we condemned to vainly pursue an unattainable freedom from these slave-masters? Have we become servants of denial and image management to hide the painful truths about ourselves? It would seem so. If we need to feel that we are significant and worthy people and our unalterable script tells us we’re not, we have a problem—a fatiguing quest after the transient feeling of worthiness.
The Biblical faith affirms that we do have a very real problem—God (and even our God-given human nature) has been offended by both our sin and our inadequate, self-absorbed attempts to atone for our sin through self-righteous acts and justifications. We have covered ourselves with fig leaves in the form of accomplishments hoping that this would obscure the offense and silence the guilt and shame. When this failed to work, we ran from God and refused to meet Him in the light of true confession. And we have been running ever since.
However, He paid the price through mutilation by our human hands so that we wouldn’t have to suffer mutilation at His hands or even our own hands. If we are convinced that Christ has paid the price for our sins in full and that nothing will separate us from His love and forgiveness, then the sense of guilt and shame and the need to continually prove ourselves is neutralized.
Bradshaw claims that “By being aware of the dynamics of shame, by naming it, we gain some power over it” (23). He’s right if by “being aware of the dynamics of shame” he means understanding that we have a real-live sin problem that only grace can adequately address. We do have to “name it” by confessing it, not in denying it or by covering it over by self-atonement or good deeds. Good deeds do play their very vital role, but not as a ploy to deny our guilt. As rain falls from clouds, so must forgiveness come from God. Any attempt to forgive ourselves is nothing short of masturbation and a refusal to grapple with the objective offense of our sins.
Martin Luther subjected himself to the most extreme and painful disciplines trying to earn God’s love. However, in the midst of his studies, the concept of grace and reconciliation through Christ suddenly came alive as never before. In his Commentary on the Book of Galatians, he wrote,
“Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather murmured against Him…Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, “The just shall live by his faith” [Rom 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the doors into paradise.”
Luther discovered something that many of us have discovered—the Word of God is transformational! It and the God who gave it are the necessary antidote for masochism in its various forms. I still don’t enjoy taking long showers, but I no longer experience the need to prove my worthiness by keeping them under the three minute limit. In contrast to the reassurances of many psychologists that I was a “great guy,” it was only the Word of Christ that was able to convince me of this and free me from my internal shackles.
When we reject the gift of God’s righteousness procured on the Cross, we condemn ourselves to endlessly purpose our own righteousness, like Sisyphus self-condemned to push his boulder. When we fail to receive this payment for sin, we likewise sentence ourselves to lives of masochism, endlessly trying to pay off a debt that is far beyond our means to ever satisfy. Consequently, we are always paying, always pushing, always trying to prove ourselves.
In retrospect, I find it so remarkable that Jesus’ death on the Cross is the only antidote for humanity’s obsessions. It’s also the perfect piece to complete the jigsaw puzzle presented by our confused lives. Pleasure seeking, denial, and masochism each had failed to fill the gap. This forces us to ask the question, “Why is there is such an incredible fit between this Bible-centered event that occurred 2000 years ago and my mental well-being?” Perhaps, Christ is the missing piece!