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Idolizing Your Pain: Scrupulosity and Christian Masochism 

 August 19, 2020

By  Jaimie Eckert

Why in the world are we talking about masochism in the context of religious OCD? ? Perhaps the word “masochism” makes you think of whips, ropes, and painful sexual fetishes. Masochism often refers to the experience of receiving sexual pleasure through pain, but it’s not always a sexual phenomenon.

Sometimes, masochism can be emotional. Masochism can be relational. Masochism can even be…spiritual.

What does Christian masochism look like? What does it mean to idolize our pain, to seek it out, to be attracted to it? And how does this relate to scrupulosity — our journey with religious OCD?

**Note: I do not do “trigger warnings” on my blog. The same things that are helpful to one person are triggering to another, and I simply can’t write trigger warnings everywhere. But on this particular post I feel compelled to warn you that I’m not going to warn you.** ❤️

What Is Christian Masochism?

Masochism, by definition, is “the deriving of pleasure from being humiliated or mistreated, either by another or by oneself.” As mentioned previously, the “pleasure” derived from pain, dominance, and humiliation is often sexual in nature, but not always.

emotional masochism

Masochistic tendencies may also show up in the emotional arena. Some of the signs of an emotional masochist include:

  • Quitting goals when things start to go well
  • Running from positive relationships
  • Leaving jobs that have a bright future
  • Abusing drugs and alcohol
  • Tolerating toxic people
  • Tolerating people who humiliate you
  • Refusing to stand up for yourself
  • Holding onto painful feelings
  • Constantly berating or criticizing yourself

None of these are necessary behaviors — they are chosen. We must ask, therefore, why would a person choose these negative, self-demeaning routes?

Emotional masochism is the suggestion that certain people derive pleasure from emotional pain. For some, it is because pain is familiar and therefore controllable. For others, wallowing in self-pity, self-justification, and self-victimization feels deliciously comforting.

But — what is religious masochism? Does Christianity have such a thing?

Absolutely.

It’s not Biblical, but the history of Christianity leaves behind a dark trail of crumbs alerting us to masochistic tendencies.

Catholic and Protestant theologians alike have argued for and against its manifestations. But yet, Christian masochism is enshrined in the hagiographic stories of martyrs, saints, and super-Christians of times past, blurring the Biblical picture of healing, restoration, and wholeness.

When I work one-on-one with clients to overcome their scrupulosity, sometimes I find a thread of Christian masochism stitching the various obsessions and compulsions together.

They struggle to grasp the idea that God wants them to get better. They don’t believe that God truly wants them to have rich abundance and enjoyment in life. They overemphasize sacrifice and repentance to the neglect of joy and fulfillment.

There’s just something so comfortable — so known — about being down and staying down.

does God want you to get better?

Signs of Christian Masochism

It’s entirely possible to seek painful, humiliating practices — in the name of God — without actually pleasing God.

That would be a real bummer, wouldn’t it? ?

Isaiah warned some religious sticklers that their extreme fasting and “afflicting their souls” wasn’t even noticed by the Lord (Isaiah 58:3-5). And Jesus said we shouldn’t be like those uber-spiritual people who fast rigorously and “disfigure their faces” in order to get attention (Matthew 6:16-18).

Here are some warning signs of Christian masochism:

  • Feeling unworthy of enjoying God-given gifts like family, friends, a comfortable home, good food, nice clothing, quality recreational activities, or innocent pleasures
  • Voluntarily staying in a “trial” when there is an option to escape
  • Seeking difficult tasks or disciplines in the name of religion, perhaps feeling better than other believers because of it
  • Refusing to take steps towards healing out of a deep feeling of unworthiness
  • Provoking doctrinal disputes and/or starting discussions that you know will humiliate you in the name of religion
  • Feeling drawn to make momentous sacrifices in the name of religion, then carrying that feeling of loss and continually reliving it
  • Allowing others to use or abuse you in the name of “humility” and godliness
  • Deriving so much pleasure from telling others about your hardships that you never take action to end those hardships
  • Believing that God is happy to see you going through difficulties
  • Believing that your pain magically serves an unrelated purpose, such as sparing others from hell, preventing your loved ones from experiencing pain, or saving the world

If any of these signs of Christian masochism describe you, you might be interested to know that this type of thinking isn’t new to the church. It’s been around for a really long time. Here’s a quick history of Christian masochism.

Then we’ll take a look at what this means for scrupulosity.

Christian Masochism – A Brief History

Throughout Christian history, masochistic tendencies have cropped up in a few main areas:

  • Extreme Fasting
  • Flagellation
  • Self-Mutilation
  • “Christian Domestic Discipline”

Some sources have used these examples of self-harm and voluntary self-victimization to criticize Christianity. But it should be remembered that there have always been voices for and against these masochistic forms, and both sides attempted to use the Bible to justify their views. Ultimately, each person must decide for themselves what seems to make the most sense according to the Biblical text.

Fasting to Death: Ancient and Modern Asceticism

What is the meaning and purpose of fasting? Jesus and the prophets fasted. The early Christians fasted. Believers all the way up until modern days have fasted.

But why? What is the purpose of abstaining from food?

the biblical purpose of fasting

In Old Testament times, fasting served a spiritual purpose. It was meant to induce a state of deep introspection and soul-searching. Skipping food for a day encouraged the Jews to repent of their mistakes and correct any moral wrongs.

Fasting did not have an appeasement function. That is, God did not take any pleasure in the people’s fasting (Isaiah 58). The ritual was not for God, it was for humans. Thus, the days of fasting were coupled with feasting. For example, the Day of Atonement involved fasting and soul-searching but was followed by the Feast of Tabernacles, a seven-day celebration that involved outdoor camping and tons of food.

By Apostolic times, the emphasis on fasting shifted. Gnosticism made its theological inroads on early Christianity and Judaism, and “the body” suddenly became an evil and unwanted thing. Only by denying the body could one’s “divine inner spark” find freedom. Ascetic practices like fasting helped in that process of mortifying the flesh.

This was the period of time in which anthropological dualism appeared. Now, instead of viewing the human being as a holistic, interconnected unit of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23), dualism said that we are made up of two separate components: body and soul. The body is bad and only the soul is good.

During the first thousand years of Christian history, fasting played a very important role, particularly for monks. They fasted to reduce their sexual desires, to show devotion to God, and to experience the suffering of Jesus. (Later views suggested that voluntary suffering could help atone for the sins of the world.)

Gradually, the biblical idea of fasting, which is the physical setup for periodic times of soul-searching and moral correction, became Christian masochism.

Many Christians died from fasting in the Middle Ages. Women, particularly, were drawn to masochistic practices like drinking the pus from oozing sores, eating scabs and lice, or rolling naked in thorn bushes. They believed this kind of voluntary suffering would mystically connect them to the wounded Christ.

These somber beginnings to Christian masochism introduced a legacy of idolizing our pain.

Flagellation: Beating Yourself to Purity

Flagellants of the Middle Ages were supposedly a sign of holiness and devotion. Traveling flagellants, who went from town to town and beat themselves publicly in dramatic displays, could induce deep emotional fervor in the watching crowds.

Their self-harming theatrics was the pinnacle of medieval piety.

After all, why would anybody whip themselves unless their soul was already halfway out of the body on its way toward heaven?

Ironically, the traveling flagellants are remembered for having carried the Bubonic plague from city to city — but such scientific stuff would have been no bother to them. They had a more important message: self-depreciation and self-harm is the path to holiness.

Christian masochism and self-flagellation

In 1349, Pope Clement VI gave the traveling flagellants a thumbs-down and excommunicated many of them from the church. But the practice continued to live on for hundreds of years. Of recent interest is the flagellation encouraged among the Missionaries of Charity (the order formed by Mother Teresa) as late as the 1970’s and 80’s.

Sarah Osborne, an Evangelical writer during America’s Great Awakening, used to self-flagellate “to remind her of her continued sin, depravity, and vileness in the eyes of God.”

You might not use whips or chains to literally beat yourself, but do you have any self-sabotaging behaviors that serve the same masochistic function?

Cut It Out: Self-Mutilation for Jesus

If Catholics are remembered for flagellation, Protestants are remembered for self-mutilation — particularly castration.

Sure, everybody remembers good ‘ol Origen, the early church father who made himself a eunuch so he could get over his lust problems. But Origen died in 253 AD. Surely nobody has been lopping off body parts for Christ since then, right?

Um, think again.

The Skoptsy were a Protestant cult in Russia from the 18th – 20th century who believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin was having sex. Their leader (who was later exiled to Siberia for his disruptive teachings) taught that the two halves of the forbidden fruit were attached to Adam and Eve’s body in the shape of breasts and testicles. Literally cutting off these body parts was a way to return to Adam and Eve’s original perfection.

Although this sounds extreme, the Skoptsy cult grew and spread throughout much of eastern Europe. The religious glory experienced during the non-anesthetized mutilations was expressed in the refrain, “Christ is risen!” while body parts were hacked or burned off.

This form of Christian masochism may have died out because of persecution, but it also may have died out because of the cult members’ inability to procreate new followers.

It was based on the underlying masochistic view that God is pleased when we harm ourselves.

Christian Domestic Discipline

A very recent movement among fundamentalist Evangelical groups is Christian Domestic Discipline.

CDD claims that men have been created as the head of the household and therefore are responsible to make sure women behave. They are authorized to use corporal punishment against their wives, including various forms of spanking.

CDD is distinguished from other forms of masochism. One proponent writes that Christian Domestic Discipline is better than BDSM because the wife cannot use a “safe word” to stop the punishment. The wife forks over “nonconsensual consent,” meaning that she consents to submit and ever afterwards may not revoke it, no matter how her husband chooses to “discipline” her.

Christian domestic discipline and sadomasochism

Another CDD blogger produced a long, detailed list of 25 “rules” that her husband uses to control her behavior. It included humiliating punishments like standing against the wall, having her mouth washed with soap, and being spanked with various instruments (clothed and unclothed). One of her “rules” even stated that she is responsible to help her husband come up with new and more effective punishments. Some CDD-ers report being slapped in the face or made to dress up in schoolgirl uniforms for behavioral infractions.

But yet, fundamentalist Christian women submit to this willingly. Why? Because of the masochistic belief that God is pleased by our pain.

Masochism and Scrupulosity

Christian masochism involves a belief, and it also involves a feeling.

The belief is that God is pleased by our pain. That He invites us to self-harm. That he is happier when we stay passively in our trials rather than seek to transform them. That passivity is better than innovation.

But there is also a feeling involved.

There’s a feeling of self-loathing that finds comfort and self-vindication while we experience pain and hardship. This is, obviously, predicated on the aforementioned beliefs.

We see ourselves as so disgusting, and we believe that God is likewise disgusted with us, that the only logical conclusion is to harm ourselves. Rolling in the thorn bushes resonates with our self-hatred and brings a sense of equilibrium between our actions and our deepest beliefs about ourselves.

It is, to a degree, pleasurable. It is pleasurable because it feels like justice.

These feelings are morbid, at best. But they are still somehow positive enough that they create a self-reinforcing loop. We believe that God wants pain for us, and we feel awful-but-good when we dig into the pain, so we get stuck there.

This can happen to any believer, but take this now to the scrupulous believer.

The one who already gets stuck in ruminative loops. The one who is already hyperaware of danger and “shoulds” and religious requirements.

People with scrupulosity are famous for punishing themselves. How much of that is from the OCD, and how much of that is from Christian masochism?

Do we idolize our pain? Do we enjoy it? Do we actually think it pleases God, and that by facing pain passively, we please God, too?

does our pain please God?

Think of the myriads of scrupulous sufferers who make vows to give up innocent things for God. Think of those who punish themselves with compulsive rituals after making minor mistakes. Think of the wallowing in confession and prayer, the stubborn insistence that the anxiety of religious OCD is God’s plan A.

Definitely. This kind of repetitive, cyclical behavior is indicative of OCD.

But could there be a sliver of Christian masochism in there, too?

I don’t have all the answers to this. But what I have noticed after hundreds of interactions with scrupulous people is that some (definitely not all) will express a very curious sentiment:

It’s not God’s will for me to get better. There is spiritual virtue in suffering passively without trying to improve the situation.

As you can imagine, this represents a formidable roadblock to recovery.

What the Bible Really Says About Suffering

The Bible differentiates between two kinds of suffering:

  1. Unavoidable suffering because of spiritual or ethical convictions
  2. Avoidable suffering caused by human mistakes or faults

Jesus speaks of the first kind of suffering in His list of Beatitudes.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:10-12

When is it appropriate to be happy about suffering? When it’s an unavoidable result of spiritual or ethical convictions. Jesus speaks about suffering “for righteousness’ sake,” and “for My sake.”

I think of people who have suffered after whistleblowing, or publishing controversial research findings, or taking a stand for racial justice. I think of religious minorities being persecuted for their faith.

Jesus says to these people, “Good for you. I’m so glad you’re standing up for what you believe is right. Don’t worry, I’m going to make up for all this suffering once you get to heaven.”

But we aren’t told to have such a positive mental construct in regard to other kinds of avoidable suffering. I like how 1 Peter 3 reads in the NLT paraphrase:

Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!

1 Peter 3:13-17 NLT

Suffering and persecution are recurring themes in the New Testament, because the early believers were experiencing it heavily. Christians were viewed as a weird cult, a minority, and were frequently martyred for their faith.

The Old Testament speaks much more of deliverance from affliction, while the New Testament speaks of enduring affliction.

enduring affliction in the NT

Today, it’s common to hear NT verses about rejoicing during unavoidable suffering applied to avoidable situations. Like, Grandpa eats himself into diabetic obesity, has a massive heart attack, and tells himself to “endure suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3).

How about escaping the suffering? How about transforming it? How about doing something other than passive acceptance?

That’s my main point for scrupulosity. If you believe it’s God’s irrevocable will for you to have this mental health disorder, I challenge you to rethink your beliefs. Ask yourself if you’re a Christian masochist. Ask yourself WHY — what’s that root cause, that root belief why you don’t feel like you have permission to get better?

Conclusion

You DO have permission to try to get better.

I can’t stress that enough.

There is nothing in the Bible that restricts you from seeking full health of body, mind, and emotions. There is nothing in the Bible that prevents you from enjoying the God-given pleasures of life.

However, if you are idolizing your pain, allowing it to define you, and sometimes deriving morbid pleasure from it, you’re not going to make progress.

You first need to give up your masochism and recognize that isn’t what the Bible means when it talks about suffering joyfully.

Beating scrupulosity is possible, and it will be easier the more you allow your entire thought process to be reshaped by Scripture. Let’s learn from the misguided masochists in Christian history and not do like them. Instead, let’s embrace the Bible’s message of wholeness and healing.

Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.

3 John 1:2

Do you see any masochistic tendencies in your experience with OCD? How have you been able to move on from that?

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  1. Very interesting take. I struggle with wondering if my thoughts are God's will. My friend, a professor at seminary, said, "why do your thoughts always say not to do things or focus on the things that hurt you?" Makes me certainly second guess. I struggle here a lot. My life has had so much suffering through natural disasters, loss of family and people mistreating me. I don't think I know how to not suffer. I don't know if I've ever lived in joyfully.

    1. Ben,

      You really captured the essence of what I’m hoping to express in this article. “I don’t think I know how to not suffer.” That’s exactly it. Just this morning during my devotional time I read when Jesus said that God is the God of the living, not the dead (Matthew 22:32). Christian masochism keeps us among the dead and dying — so no, it can’t possibly be God’s will for us.

      I applaud your efforts to seek out God’s ideal in this matter. May His blessings rest upon you!

      Jaimie

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