We are bound up by powerful psychological needs. A leading culprit is the need to punish ourselves - masochism. This impulse is so powerful that it lies at the heart of much that we call “religion.” Why? Guilt, shame, and the pervasive sense that we are undeserving are so powerful, that we have been forced to seek out various strategies to alleviate these feelings. According to Wikiversity.org:
· This may be a motivating factor for cases of some religious activities, physically or verbally abusive relationships, self-harm, obsessive emotions, abstinence and castration, and typical masochism.
We fail to realize how pervasive and powerful is the masochistic impulse. We also tend to fail to understand its logic. It is not about the pain but what self-punishment can accomplish:
· People may put up with pain just to receive a corresponding pleasant experience, but not actually take pleasure from the pain itself (Klein, 2014; Sandler, 1964). In these cases it is the end state of achievement that is desired, not the journey which involves the unpleasant sensations. Pain that is endured for the sake of the goal, which would not be engaged in if the goal could be achieved another way, may not be considered truly masochistic (Klein, 2014).
· For some, masochism may be a way of avoiding or atoning for feelings of guilt (Baumeister, 1988; Haliparn, & Haliparn 2004; Katz 1990)…If a person feels guilty, and that they deserve punishment, suffering may seem rational, but some masochists may feel this guilt without justification (Goldstein, 1983). The feeling of deserving undesirable sensations may lead people to put themselves into situations which they know will be likely to have undesirable consequences, such as physically or emotionally abusive relationships (Haliparn, & Haliparn, 2004).
It seems that all religious groups contain sects that have practiced self-depravations and self-immolations, including whippings and cuttings, as attempts to become acceptable to the deities. This has also been true of certain “Christian” groups. In “A History of Torture,” George Riley Scott, meticulously catalogues these perversions:
· Early Christians deprived themselves of the necessities of life: eating such poor diets that they suffered physical illnesses, living in squalid and unhygienic conditions in remote places. They flagellated themselves and allowed their wounds to become infected. They chained themselves to fixed objects. They lived for years on top of tall pillars. They walled themselves up in tiny, dark, infested holes. Sometimes they wore nothing at all except perhaps a girdle of thorns. Such practices passed into traditional monastic life, which established standardised privations known as "the discipline". Monks, nuns and others were frequently scourged, either routinely or for minor offences. Saint. Kevin spent his days either standing naked in one of the frigid lakes of Ireland, or hurling himself naked into a patch of nettles. Either way, like many other saints, he seemed to have preferred life without his clothes on.
As the plague stalked fourteenth century Europe, 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.
However many examples of self-punishment might be found within the annuls of Christianity, these examples represent the exact opposite of the Christian faith. Christ paid the price for our sins so that we no longer have to pay for them:
· In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation…For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21; ESV)
As the “righteousness of God,” we need not continue to pay for our sins. We are already righteous in the eyes of God. No more self-atonement! Jesus paid the price in full. Therefore, to punish ourselves represents a denial of what Jesus had accomplished for us on the Cross! Without this knowledge and assurance, masochism will continue to dominate our lives. The late Christian thinker, Rousas Rushdoony, provided several examples of this psychological captivity:
· Alcoholism is a well-known form of self-punishment, and marriage to a known alcoholic is also Masochistic. For example, when an alcoholic husband quits drinking the major problem is very often the wife, who has now lost her "cross to bear". Her behaviour can become bizzare and erratic as she seeks a new form of self-punishment. Having now "lost her cross"; she may drive the man back to drink again to regain her "cross".
Masochism (self-atonement) expresses itself in many different ways. According to Rushdooney, even good deeds can reflect the quest for self-atonement:
· Playing the role of "public saint" in order to "atone" for private guilt. "The more unpleasant the role, the more desirable its function for purposes of atonement...Self conscious burden-bearing, public works of virtue, worrying and fretting, worship or penance, all serve as devices for self-atonement, as forms of do-it-yourself salvation."
Self-atonement can even become the mindset of a nation:
· Larger group concentrations featuring co-operation between Masochists is not unknown. As a matter of fact, entire nations and groups of people can be involved in "collective guilt" or "national guilt". (Rushdooney, “The Politics of Guilt and Pity,” Fairfax, Virginia. Thoburn Press. 1978).
Most plainly, we see this in Germany, which has led the way in opening their doors to Muslim refugees. As one German put it, “We want to make it plain that we are no longer Nazis.” Many Germans still feel that they have to pay a psychological price of self-atonement for their past sins, even if it costs them their destruction.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote about another form of masochism – self-atonement. He noted how Western culture, en masse, has turned against 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.
Hence, the Western intellectual establishes his virtue or “manhood” by self-denial, by rejecting his own culture. Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali Muslim turned atheist, shares this insight:
- In certain countries, "left-wing," secular liberals have stimulated my critical thinking and that of other Muslims. But these same liberals in Western politics have the strange habit of blaming themselves for the ills of the world, while seeing the rest of the world as victims. To them, victims are to be pitied, and they lump together all pitiable and suppressed people, such as Muslims, and consider them good people who should be cherished and supported so that they can overcome their disadvantages. The adherents to the gospel of multiculturalism refuse to criticize people whom they see as victims. Some Western critics disapprove of United States policies and attitudes but do not criticize the Islamic world, just as, in the first part of the twentieth century, Western socialist apologists did not dare criticize the Soviet labor camps. Along the same lines, some Western intellectuals criticize Israel, but they will not criticize Palestine because Israel belongs to the West, which they consider fair game, but they feel sorry for the Palestinians, and for the Islamic world in general, which is not as powerful as the West. They are critical of the native white majority in Western countries but not of Islamic minorities. Criticism of the Islamic world, of Palestinians, and of Islamic minorities is regarded as Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Self-castigation is subtly and 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.” Underlying this is the awareness that there is something wrong with us and that we deserve to be punished.
We seem to have an internal and inescapable script defining what it means to be deserving and worthy. This script demands that we pay for these necessary commodities through various forms of self-sacrifice, a punishment for our sins.
Instead of seeking the forgiveness and reconciliation that can only come from the One who has died for our sins, we seek to establish our righteousness through our own suffering. This was also Paul’s understanding of Israel:
- Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith [in Christ], but as if it were based on [their own] works. (Romans 9:31-32; ESV)
This is also what Adam and Eve did. Instead of confessing their sin to God, they were determined to cover it themselves. However, fig leaves cannot adequately cover sin and guilt. Why not? Essentially, we were designed for a healing relationship with the Divine. However, we feverishly attempt to neutralize our pain, our awareness that something is not right within, with a variety of substitutes. Although masochism, self-denial, and even good deeds might provide temporary relief, they will never provide the freedom that only our Lord can provide.