Self-destructive behavior: a way out

How to help others love themselves


An Episode Of the television drama Seventh Heaven dealt with a teenager who discovered that her best friend was habitually cutting herself in secret and needed help in overcoming this destructive habit. The screenwriters and actors handled this difficult scenario with tenderness and honesty, showing the healing support of Christian caring and friendship.

Students: Get
JSH-Online for
  • Every recent & archive issue

  • Podcasts & article audio

  • Mary Baker Eddy bios & audio


Such programs increase public awareness of this kind of problem, and they also raise a critical question for viewers: How would you respond if you suddenly discovered that someone you knew was hurting himself or herself?

Of course destructive behavior isn't limited to self-inflicted physical injury. Sometimes it assumes subtler forms. Still, heartfelt prayer not only helps people feel cared for but also brings healing.

When a first-grader made a passing remark to his Sunday School class about suicide, his teacher couldn't imagine that the remark had any real weight of conviction behind it. So, it passed by with only a brief response. The following week, when the child brought up the subject again, it was once more dealt with lightly, at first. But the teacher discerned that the boy was reaching out for help. Throughout the next week she prayed for guidance on how to meet the needs of everyone in the Sunday School class, including this boy.

The next Sunday it became apparent that this child, whose mother had recently passed on, was becoming more and more convinced that his own death would reconnect him with happiness. The depth of his yearning was surfacing. The teacher prayed to hear and respond to the Christ, the spiritual idea of God that heals. She wanted to give the child an answer that would go beyond temporary comfort over the loss of his mother.

Turning to her Bible, she opened to the story of the patriarch Jacob, and read aloud the story of Joseph, one of Jacob's sons (see Gen. 37:1–36; 39:1—45:11). Jacob loved his son Joseph deeply and showered him with affection. This stirred up jealousy and resentment in Joseph's brothers. When she came to this point, the teacher stopped reading. Turning to the class, she said, "You know, if Jacob had known his other children as well as he knew Joseph, he would have loved them just as much."

This was a completely original thought; she had never seen the story in this light before, and knew the source of the inspiration to be God. Her prayers were answered. The boy immediately shared his feeling that his father seemed to love his brother more; but now he realized his father just needed to get to know him better. His face shone for the remainder of the class. He even sat up straighter as if some great burden had lifted. After class, the teacher was inspired to share the boy's sudden realization with his father, who was deeply moved. He quietly responded, saying, "Thank you."

The next Sunday, the child walked into Sunday School arm in arm with Dad. He was effusive with joy. He spoke of all the things they had been doing together during the week. For his remaining two years in that class, he made no other mention of death or of suicide. Today he is a healthy, happy, and secure young man.

In some cases, self-destructiveness may be a desire for attention or a wish to punish oneself for seeming inadequacies. But the real longing each of us has is to feel loved and embraced by good, God. The tender assurance to someone in need that he or she is genuinely good and is loved, really loved, by God, can invigorate drifting or destructive thinking, and enable someone to discern the spiritual message God has for that individual. Awareness of God's love can have an effect similar to a gentle fan on a smoldering candlewick; it enlivens and draws until the flame holds steady. The book of Jeremiah puts it this way: "The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee" (31:3).

Helpful words are not enough, however, without a spiritual foundation to hold them up. In the case of the boy contemplating suicide, the teacher's inspired words sprang from her understanding of God, divine Love, and her own heartfelt conviction of divine power to bring healing. More than human hope or simple kindness, her words rested on the foundation of spiritual understanding. Her intuition was open to God's directing. Instead of pat answers, she cut right to the core of the problem, lifting the child's thought to a spiritual solution.

If the individual we are trying to help is unresponsive, or even hostile, we needn't take offense or be discouraged. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures explains, "Truth is a revelation" (Mary Baker Eddy, p. 117). On the next page it continues: "Ages pass, but this leaven of Truth is ever at work. It must destroy the entire mass of error, and so be eternally glorified in man's spiritual freedom."

For his remaining two years in that class, he made no other mention of death or of suicide.

Prayer that yearns to know God's, divine Truth's, eternal view of His child as naturally good, perfect, and complete, protects the potential helper from his own thoughtless or mistaken reaction to another's destructive behavior. Prayer is the best defense against being drawn into or repelled by someone's problem—in other words, it prevents one from being drawn into the troubled thinking.

When Naaman, a prestigious army captain, was asked by the prophet Elisha to bathe in the Jordan River to cure his leprosy, Naaman's response was less than appreciative (see II Kings 5:1–14). Pride, self-will, bitterness, anger, and a stubborn refusal to cooperate bubbled up. Perhaps Elisha's instruction seemed too simple a solution. But Naaman's servants did not seem impressed by his blustering rage and resistance. In fact, their quiet, steadfast encouragement was a great support to Naaman, who finally yielded with humility to Elisha's request and was healed.

Naaman wanted to be healed, even though his words and actions weren't giving much of an indication of his heart's desire. But his eventual responsiveness, and the healing that followed, show the benefit that comes when self-destructive desires yield to the good thoughts and actions that are natural to God's children. We each—even those who are feeling self-destructive right now—include this essential goodness because we all are actually spiritual and loved as children of God. It is this core spiritual goodness and natural desire to be healed that eliminate the underlying discord that would drive people to harm themselves. Science and Health offers this tender encouragement: "Desire is prayer; and no loss can occur from trusting God with our desires, that they may be moulded and exalted before they take form in words and in deeds" (p. 1).

It's right to respond to the love and truth that God is giving to His children, His precious children, this moment, and always. It's worth listening for, and responding to, His powerful and loving and insightful message, if we want to liberate people from self-destructive behavior.

When the I is rightly placed
April 12, 1999

We'd love to hear from you!

Easily submit your testimonies, articles, and poems online.