My college professor turned out to be right.
I was filled with the typical I can handle everything, “know-it-all” mentality that grabs many of us as we leave school. I was sick of talking about the theory of ministry. I wanted to get out there and do ministry. I can only imagine my college profs with their heads in their hands worried not only about whether or not I was prepared for ministry, but even more about the poor folks who I would be working with when I arrived at my first congregation.
When I had my first teenager who was cutting herself, I knew they were right. I wasn’t ready.
Cutting or self-mutilation is nothing new. Elijah dealt with it in his famous showdown with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. The people cut themselves with swords and spears in a vain attempt to have their god hear them. In Mark 5, Jesus encounters the Geresene man who was possessed by a demon, and cut himself with stones. Similarly to the folks in these Bible stories, when teens cut themselves–or when they engage in other self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and drug or alcohol abuse–it is when they have reached the limit of what they are able to handle emotionally.
Teens hurt themselves for a variety of reasons. Some teens have no positive way to deal with the intensity of the emotions they are feeling. Whether the emotion is rage, hurt, rejection, anxiety or emptiness, the feeling becomes so over powering, and out of control, that many teens turn to these self-destructive behaviors as a relief valve from the pressures of what they are feeling. They can be a cause and effect behavior that a teen can have complete control over from start to finish, which is a contrast from what is “out of control” in their lives.
My heart shatters every time I come in contact with someone who hurts because if you are like me, you got into the ministry to help hurting kids. Whether we are paid, or volunteer, it doesn’t matter. We got into this because we would all crawl over broken glass to help our hurting kids. If you are like me, trying to help a hurting teen makes me feel as helpless and unequipped as they seem to be. Here are some tips to use in the ministry when faced with teens who are hurting and who hurt themselves.
1) Be knowledgeable. Go online and gain a simple knowledge of what these behaviors are about and know enough to begin to spot the teens who struggle with them. If you are in youth ministry odds are you can Google and Wikipedia with the best of them. In addition to the sites that are largely information based, go to http://answers.yahoo.com and search the words “teens” and “cutting”, or “teens” and “eating disorders”, etc. Generally you will not find any good advice here. What you will find are hundreds of teens talking about the subject. You can get a better sense of the kinds of thoughts going through the mind of someone who struggles with self-harm. Filter everything you read through your “stupid” meter. Remember that the true source of truth isnt going to come from the internet. Be guarded when you are in the world.
Make daily reading of Scripture a habit you can’t live without. The knowledge of the Word of God is something you can never acquire online, no matter how much you read. The devil wants nothing more than to strip your students of their hope for life, and cutting is a tool in his arsenal. Make sure you’re strapped with more than cultural knowledge.
Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak in knowledge are a rare jewel. (Proverbs 20:15)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
2) Know your own limitations. Unless you are a professional child or adolescent psychologist who happens to volunteer as your church youth group leader, you are mostly likely unprepared to handle teens that hurt themselves. The letters DCE or Rev. don’t qualify you either. Look at it like a fire. Know what smoke looks like, know what fire looks like, and know when to sound the alarm and call for a fire-fighter. Meditate on 1 Corinthians 12 when Paul is teaching on the body of Christ.
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
It is no coincidence that this concept is discussed right before 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter read at most Christian weddings. Our ability to love and care for people as a group of Christians far surpasses our ability to do it alone. Don’t think that it is up to you to help your student all by your self.
You are part of the vast body of Christ, and God has surrounded you with people with many different gifts. Trust in the Lord that there is somebody around you that can pick up for you when your gifts trail off. When I arrived at my congregation, the first thing I did was identify one of my members who is a child psychologist. We set up a relationship where I am able to call and bounce things off of her that have come up when I am in counseling with my students. She agrees to preserve confidences, and she also acts as a filter for me, helping me to decide when a problem is beyond my training and ability. She then helps identify a good Christian based counselor in the area.
3) Know when to break a confidence. We are in a unique position as youth leaders. As we show our students how much we love them, giving up our free time to hang with them, taking them on mission trips and worshiping with them side by side, we gain a unique trust where they will tell us things they won’t normally share with their parents. Students who hurt themselves many times are at the end of a very thin emotional thread. If you feel that their life or the lives of anyone else around them are in danger, you need to break that trust and bring someone else into the conversation.
Sometimes I have come out and just told students this, and asked them for permission to get them the help they need. The good news is that many times the students are perfectly fine with that. There are times, however, that I have been unable to convince a student that it is in their best interest to get some help. I have had to bring in their parents, or the authorities, and place the student’s well-being and safety ahead of the preservation of my friendship. If your gut tells you that you are in over your head, listen to it; it is right.
4) Concentrate on your calling. God has placed you in ministry where you are because He is calling you to share the love of His son Jesus to the kids of your youth group. It may take years to work though the emotional problems that lead to why a student hurts themselves. So address some of the short term needs. If you have a student who likes the attention they get from these behaviors, or aren’t getting the attention they need from home, create opportunities for them to be loved while they are with you. Create a project that uses their gifts and put them to work on it. Spend extra time going to something they are involved in at school. Invite them into your family for an event or over for dinner outside of your regular group schedule. Sometimes these behaviors are only a cry for help for a problem in another area of their life. Spending time with them regularly might help you identify what that is and get them the extra help they need.
5) Remember that God has not lost His power. We all know that feeling of helplessness we get by seeing our students hurting. You want nothing more than to jump into their lives and remove the pain they are going through. The worry we feel for our students can be as overwhelming to us as the emotions they are dealing with. Here are some scriptural truths that I would challenge you to commit to memory.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
Jesus did not lay down his life and die to see anybody or anything come in and snatch one of His children away. I think when people think of Jesus they imagine a guy who has been beaten, whipped, spit on, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross. This is not a bad thing as it is how He saved the planet. But take a minute to remember the guy He was before He let His creation do that to Him.
Remember that Jesus was a carpenter for 15 years before His ministry began in the days before power tools. Every cut He made and every piece of wood He shaped was by hand. This was a strong, muscular guy whose forearms were probably bigger than the pro-wrestlers I idolized as a kid. This is the same guy who taught at the temple, out in front of everyone, constantly outnumbered, without fear. This is the guy who made a whip and cleared the temple of a bunch of crooks, overturning tables in the process. This is a guy who is coming again to this earth in glory, defeating death and the devil, and reigning for eternity. You are not alone. You have Jesus by your side in every conversation you have with your student. Jesus isn’t going to sit there and do nothing when He sees one of His children in need.
Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29)
When you share God’s Word with a student it has power. When you tell a student that no matter how bad they think it is, no matter how much they don’t like themselves, that God loves them and will never leave them or forsake them, those words have enormous power to change lives. Whether our title is volunteer, DCE or Pastor, we can all rest in the confidence that comes when we trust in God who spoke His word through Isaiah,
So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)