Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Itch: Its mysterious power may be a clue to a new theory about brains and bodies.

Annals of Medicine

The Itch

Its mysterious power may be a clue to a new theory about brains and bodies.

by Atul Gawande June 30, 2008

Scientists once saw itching as a form of pain. They now believe it to be a different order of sensation. Photograph by Gerald Slota.

Scientists once saw itching as a form of pain. They now believe it to be a different order of sensation. Photograph by Gerald Slota.

It was still shocking to M. how much a few wrong turns could change your life. She had graduated from Boston College with a degree in psychology, married at twenty-five, and had two children, a son and a daughter. She and her family settled in a town on Massachusetts’ southern shore. She worked for thirteen years in health care, becoming the director of a residence program for men who’d suffered severe head injuries. But she and her husband began fighting. There were betrayals. By the time she was thirty-two, her marriage had disintegrated. In the divorce, she lost possession of their home, and, amid her financial and psychological struggles, she saw that she was losing her children, too. Within a few years, she was drinking. She began dating someone, and they drank together. After a while, he brought some drugs home, and she tried them. The drugs got harder. Eventually, they were doing heroin, which turned out to be readily available from a street dealer a block away from her apartment.

One day, she went to see a doctor because she wasn’t feeling well, and learned that she had contracted H.I.V. from a contaminated needle. She had to leave her job. She lost visiting rights with her children. And she developed complications from the H.I.V., including shingles, which caused painful, blistering sores across her scalp and forehead. With treatment, though, her H.I.V. was brought under control. At thirty-six, she entered rehab, dropped the boyfriend, and kicked the drugs. She had two good, quiet years in which she began rebuilding her life. Then she got the itch.

It was right after a shingles episode. The blisters and the pain responded, as they usually did, to acyclovir, an antiviral medication. But this time the area of the scalp that was involved became numb, and the pain was replaced by a constant, relentless itch. She felt it mainly on the right side of her head. It crawled along her scalp, and no matter how much she scratched it would not go away. “I felt like my inner self, like my brain itself, was itching,” she says. And it took over her life just as she was starting to get it back.

Her internist didn’t know what to make of the problem. Itching is an extraordinarily common symptom. All kinds of dermatological conditions can cause it: allergic reactions, bacterial or fungal infections, skin cancer, psoriasis, dandruff, scabies, lice, poison ivy, sun damage, or just dry skin. Creams and makeup can cause itch, too. But M. used ordinary shampoo and soap, no creams. And when the doctor examined M.’s scalp she discovered nothing abnormal—no rash, no redness, no scaling, no thickening, no fungus, no parasites. All she saw was scratch marks.

The internist prescribed a medicated cream, but it didn’t help. The urge to scratch was unceasing and irresistible. “I would try to control it during the day, when I was aware of the itch, but it was really hard,” M. said. “At night, it was the worst. I guess I would scratch when I was asleep, because in the morning there would be blood on my pillowcase.” She began to lose her hair over the itchy area. She returned to her internist again and again. “I just kept haunting her and calling her,” M. said. But nothing the internist tried worked, and she began to suspect that the itch had nothing to do with M.’s skin.

Plenty of non-skin conditions can cause itching. Dr. Jeffrey Bernhard, a dermatologist with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is among the few doctors to study itching systematically (he published the definitive textbook on the subject), and he told me of cases caused by hyperthyroidism, iron deficiency, liver disease, and cancers like Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sometimes the syndrome is very specific. Persistent outer-arm itching that worsens in sunlight is known as brachioradial pruritus, and it’s caused by a crimped nerve in the neck. Aquagenic pruritus is recurrent, intense, diffuse itching upon getting out of a bath or shower, and although no one knows the mechanism, it’s a symptom of polycythemia vera, a rare condition in which the body produces too many red blood cells.

But M.’s itch was confined to the right side of her scalp. Her viral count showed that the H.I.V. was quiescent. Additional blood tests and X-rays were normal. So the internist concluded that M.’s problem was probably psychiatric. All sorts of psychiatric conditions can cause itching. Patients with psychosis can have cutaneous delusions—a belief that their skin is infested with, say, parasites, or crawling ants, or laced with tiny bits of fibreglass. Severe stress and other emotional experiences can also give rise to a physical symptom like itching—whether from the body’s release of endorphins (natural opioids, which, like morphine, can cause itching), increased skin temperature, nervous scratching, or increased sweating. In M.’s case, the internist suspected tricho-tillomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder in which patients have an irresistible urge to pull out their hair.

M. was willing to consider such possibilities. Her life had been a mess, after all. But the antidepressant medications often prescribed for O.C.D. made no difference. And she didn’t actually feel a compulsion to pull out her hair. She simply felt itchy, on the area of her scalp that was left numb from the shingles. Although she could sometimes distract herself from it—by watching television or talking with a friend—the itch did not fluctuate with her mood or level of stress. The only thing that came close to offering relief was to scratch.

“Scratching is one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any,” Montaigne wrote. “But repentance follows too annoyingly close at its heels.” For M., certainly, it did: the itching was so torturous, and the area so numb, that her scratching began to go through the skin. At a later office visit, her doctor found a silver-dollar-size patch of scalp where skin had been replaced by scab. M. tried bandaging her head, wearing caps to bed. But her fingernails would always find a way to her flesh, especially while she slept.

One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain.

Itching is a most peculiar and diabolical sensation. The definition offered by the German physician Samuel Hafenreffer in 1660 has yet to be improved upon: An unpleasant sensation that provokes the desire to scratch. Itch has been ranked, by scientific and artistic observers alike, among the most distressing physical sensations one can experience. In Dante’s Inferno, falsifiers were punished by “the burning rage / of fierce itching that nothing could relieve”:

The way their nails scraped down upon the
Was like a knife scraping off scales from
carp. . . .
“O you there tearing at your mail of
And even turning your fingers into
My guide began addressing one of them,

“Tell us are there Italians among the
Down in this hole and I’ll pray that your
Will last you in this task eternally.”

Though scratching can provide momentary relief, it often makes the itching worse. Dermatologists call this the itch-scratch cycle. Scientists believe that itch, and the accompanying scratch reflex, evolved in order to protect us from insects and clinging plant toxins—from such dangers as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes; from tularemia, river blindness, and sleeping sickness, transmitted by flies; from typhus-bearing lice, plague-bearing fleas, and poisonous spiders. The theory goes a long way toward explaining why itch is so exquisitely tuned. You can spend all day without noticing the feel of your shirt collar on your neck, and yet a single stray thread poking out, or a louse’s fine legs brushing by, can set you scratching furiously.

But how, exactly, itch works has been a puzzle. For most of medical history, scientists thought that itching was merely a weak form of pain. Then, in 1987, the German researcher H. O. Handwerker and his colleagues used mild electric pulses to drive histamine, an itch-producing substance that the body releases during allergic reactions, into the skin of volunteers. As the researchers increased the dose of histamine, they found that they were able to increase the intensity of itch the volunteers reported, from the barely appreciable to the “maximum imaginable.” Yet the volunteers never felt an increase in pain. The scientists concluded that itch and pain are entirely separate sensations, transmitted along different pathways.

Despite centuries spent mapping the body’s nervous circuitry, scientists had never noticed a nerve specific for itch. But now the hunt was on, and a group of Swedish and German researchers embarked upon a series of tricky experiments. They inserted ultra-thin metal electrodes into the skin of paid volunteers, and wiggled them around until they picked up electrical signals from a single nerve fibre. Computers subtracted the noise from other nerve fibres crossing through the region. The researchers would then spend hours—as long as the volunteer could tolerate it—testing different stimuli on the skin in the area (a heated probe, for example, or a fine paintbrush) to see what would get the nerve to fire, and what the person experienced when it did.

They worked their way through fifty-three volunteers. Mostly, they encountered well-known types of nerve fibres that respond to temperature or light touch or mechanical pressure. “That feels warm,” a volunteer might say, or “That feels soft,” or “Ouch! Hey!” Several times, the scientists came across a nerve fibre that didn’t respond to any of these stimuli. When they introduced a tiny dose of histamine into the skin, however, they observed a sharp electrical response in some of these nerve fibres, and the volunteer would experience an itch. They announced their discovery in a 1997 paper: they’d found a type of nerve that was specific for itch.

Unlike, say, the nerve fibres for pain, each of which covers a millimetre-size territory, a single itch fibre can pick up an itchy sensation more than three inches away. The fibres also turned out to have extraordinarily low conduction speeds, which explained why itchiness is so slow to build and so slow to subside.

Other researchers traced these fibres to the spinal cord and all the way to the brain. Examining functional PET-scan studies in healthy human subjects who had been given mosquito-bite-like histamine injections, they found a distinct signature of itch activity. Several specific areas of the brain light up: the part of the cortex that tells you where on your body the sensation occurs; the region that governs your emotional responses, reflecting the disagreeable nature of itch; and the limbic and motor areas that process irresistible urges (such as the urge to use drugs, among the addicted, or to overeat, among the obese), reflecting the ferocious impulse to scratch.

Now various phenomena became clear. Itch, it turns out, is indeed inseparable from the desire to scratch. It can be triggered chemically (by the saliva injected when a mosquito bites, say) or mechanically (from the mosquito’s legs, even before it bites). The itch-scratch reflex activates higher levels of your brain than the spinal-cord-level reflex that makes you pull your hand away from a flame. Brain scans also show that scratching diminishes activity in brain areas associated with unpleasant sensations.

But some basic features of itch remained unexplained—features that make itch a uniquely revealing case study. On the one hand, our bodies are studded with receptors for itch, as they are with receptors for touch, pain, and other sensations; this provides an alarm system for harm and allows us to safely navigate the world. But why does a feather brushed across the skin sometimes itch and at other times tickle? (Tickling has a social component: you can make yourself itch, but only another person can tickle you.) And, even more puzzling, how is it that you can make yourself itchy just by thinking about it?

Contemplating what it’s like to hold your finger in a flame won’t make your finger hurt. But simply writing about a tick crawling up the nape of one’s neck is enough to start my neck itching. Then my scalp. And then this one little spot along my flank where I’m beginning to wonder whether I should check to see if there might be something there. In one study, a German professor of psychosomatics gave a lecture that included, in the first half, a series of what might be called itchy slides, showing fleas, lice, people scratching, and the like, and, in the second half, more benign slides, with pictures of soft down, baby skin, bathers. Video cameras recorded the audience. Sure enough, the frequency of scratching among people in the audience increased markedly during the first half and decreased during the second. Thoughts made them itch.

We now have the nerve map for itching, as we do for other sensations. But a deeper puzzle remains: how much of our sensations and experiences do nerves really explain?

In the operating room, a neurosurgeon washed out and debrided M.’s wound, which had become infected. Later, a plastic surgeon covered it with a graft of skin from her thigh. Though her head was wrapped in layers of gauze and she did all she could to resist the still furious itchiness, she awoke one morning to find that she had rubbed the graft away. The doctors returned her to the operating room for a second skin graft, and this time they wrapped her hands as well. She rubbed it away again anyway.

“They kept telling me I had O.C.D.,” M. said. A psychiatric team was sent in to see her each day, and the resident would ask her, “As a child, when you walked down the street did you count the lines? Did you do anything repetitive? Did you have to count everything you saw?” She kept telling him no, but he seemed skeptical. He tracked down her family and asked them, but they said no, too. Psychology tests likewise ruled out obsessive-compulsive disorder. They showed depression, though, and, of course, there was the history of addiction. So the doctors still thought her scratching was from a psychiatric disorder. They gave her drugs that made her feel logy and sleep a lot. But the itching was as bad as ever, and she still woke up scratching at that terrible wound.

One morning, she found, as she put it, “this very bright and happy-looking woman standing by my bed. She said, ‘I’m Dr. Oaklander,’ ” M. recalled. “I thought, Oh great. Here we go again. But she explained that she was a neurologist, and she said, ‘The first thing I want to say to you is that I don’t think you’re crazy. I don’t think you have O.C.D.’ At that moment, I really saw her grow wings and a halo,” M. told me. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And she said, ‘Yes. I have heard of this before.’ ”

Anne Louise Oaklander was about the same age as M. Her mother is a prominent neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York, and she’d followed her into the field. Oaklander had specialized in disorders of peripheral nerve sensation—disorders like shingles. Although pain is the most common symptom of shingles, Oaklander had noticed during her training that some patients also had itching, occasionally severe, and seeing M. reminded her of one of her shingles patients. “I remember standing in a hallway talking to her, and what she complained about—her major concern—was that she was tormented by this terrible itch over the eye where she had had shingles,” she told me. When Oaklander looked at her, she thought that something wasn’t right. It took a moment to realize why. “The itch was so severe, she had scratched off her eyebrow.”

Oaklander tested the skin near M.’s wound. It was numb to temperature, touch, and pinprick. Nonetheless, it was itchy, and when it was scratched or rubbed M. felt the itchiness temporarily subside. Oaklander injected a few drops of local anesthetic into the skin. To M.’s surprise, the itching stopped—instantly and almost entirely. This was the first real relief she’d had in more than a year.

It was an imperfect treatment, though. The itch came back when the anesthetic wore off, and, although Oaklander tried having M. wear an anesthetic patch over the wound, the effect diminished over time. Oaklander did not have an explanation for any of this. When she took a biopsy of the itchy skin, it showed that ninety-six per cent of the nerve fibres were gone. So why was the itch so intense?

Oaklander came up with two theories. The first was that those few remaining nerve fibres were itch fibres and, with no other fibres around to offer competing signals, they had become constantly active. The second theory was the opposite. The nerves were dead, but perhaps the itch system in M.’s brain had gone haywire, running on a loop all its own.

The second theory seemed less likely. If the nerves to her scalp were dead, how would you explain the relief she got from scratching, or from the local anesthetic? Indeed, how could you explain the itch in the first place? An itch without nerve endings didn’t make sense. The neurosurgeons stuck with the first theory; they offered to cut the main sensory nerve to the front of M.’s scalp and abolish the itching permanently. Oaklander, however, thought that the second theory was the right one—that this was a brain problem, not a nerve problem—and that cutting the nerve would do more harm than good. She argued with the neurosurgeons, and she advised M. not to let them do any cutting.

“But I was desperate,” M. told me. She let them operate on her, slicing the supraorbital nerve above the right eye. When she woke up, a whole section of her forehead was numb—and the itching was gone. A few weeks later, however, it came back, in an even wider expanse than before. The doctors tried pain medications, more psychiatric medications, more local anesthetic. But the only thing that kept M. from tearing her skin and skull open again, the doctors found, was to put a foam football helmet on her head and bind her wrists to the bedrails at night.

She spent the next two years committed to a locked medical ward in a rehabilitation hospital—because, although she was not mentally ill, she was considered a danger to herself. Eventually, the staff worked out a solution that did not require binding her to the bedrails. Along with the football helmet, she had to wear white mitts that were secured around her wrists by surgical tape. “Every bedtime, it looked like they were dressing me up for Halloween—me and the guy next to me,” she told me.

“The guy next to you?” I asked. He had had shingles on his neck, she explained, and also developed a persistent itch. “Every night, they would wrap up his hands and wrap up mine.” She spoke more softly now. “But I heard he ended up dying from it, because he scratched into his carotid artery.”

I met M. seven years after she’d been discharged from the rehabilitation hospital. She is forty-eight now. She lives in a three-room apartment, with a crucifix and a bust of Jesus on the wall and the low yellow light of table lamps strung with beads over their shades. Stacked in a wicker basket next to her coffee table were Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” People, and the latest issue of Neurology Now, a magazine for patients. Together, they summed up her struggles, for she is still fighting the meaninglessness, the isolation, and the physiology of her predicament.

She met me at the door in a wheelchair; the injury to her brain had left her partially paralyzed on the left side of her body. She remains estranged from her children. She has not, however, relapsed into drinking or drugs. Her H.I.V. remains under control. Although the itch on her scalp and forehead persists, she has gradually learned to protect herself. She trims her nails short. She finds ways to distract herself. If she must scratch, she tries to rub gently instead. And, if that isn’t enough, she uses a soft toothbrush or a rolled-up terry cloth. “I don’t use anything sharp,” she said. The two years that she spent bound up in the hospital seemed to have broken the nighttime scratching. At home, she found that she didn’t need to wear the helmet and gloves anymore.

Still, the itching remains a daily torment. “I don’t normally tell people this,” she said, “but I have a fantasy of shaving off my eyebrow and taking a metal-wire grill brush and scratching away.”

Some of her doctors have not been willing to let go of the idea that this has been a nerve problem all along. A local neurosurgeon told her that the original operation to cut the sensory nerve to her scalp must not have gone deep enough. “He wants to go in again,” she told me.

A new scientific understanding of perception has emerged in the past few decades, and it has overturned classical, centuries-long beliefs about how our brains work—though it has apparently not penetrated the medical world yet. The old understanding of perception is what neuroscientists call “the naïve view,” and it is the view that most people, in or out of medicine, still have. We’re inclined to think that people normally perceive things in the world directly. We believe that the hardness of a rock, the coldness of an ice cube, the itchiness of a sweater are picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.

In a 1710 “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” the Irish philosopher George Berkeley objected to this view. We do not know the world of objects, he argued; we know only our mental ideas of objects. “Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures—in a word, the things we see and feel—what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas?” Indeed, he concluded, the objects of the world are likely just inventions of the mind, put in there by God. To which Samuel Johnson famously responded by kicking a large stone and declaring, “I refute it thus!

Still, Berkeley had recognized some serious flaws in the direct-perception theory—in the notion that when we see, hear, or feel we are just taking in the sights, sounds, and textures of the world. For one thing, it cannot explain how we experience things that seem physically real but aren’t: sensations of itching that arise from nothing more than itchy thoughts; dreams that can seem indistinguishable from reality; phantom sensations that amputees have in their missing limbs. And, the more we examine the actual nerve transmissions we receive from the world outside, the more inadequate they seem.

Our assumption had been that the sensory data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and so on contain all the information that we need for perception, and that perception must work something like a radio. It’s hard to conceive that a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is in a radio wave. But it is. So you might think that it’s the same with the signals we receive—that if you hooked up someone’s nerves to a monitor you could watch what the person is experiencing as if it were a television show.

Yet, as scientists set about analyzing the signals, they found them to be radically impoverished. Suppose someone is viewing a tree in a clearing. Given simply the transmissions along the optic nerve from the light entering the eye, one would not be able to reconstruct the three-dimensionality, or the distance, or the detail of the bark—attributes that we perceive instantly.

Or consider what neuroscientists call “the binding problem.” Tracking a dog as it runs behind a picket fence, all that your eyes receive is separated vertical images of the dog, with large slices missing. Yet somehow you perceive the mutt to be whole, an intact entity travelling through space. Put two dogs together behind the fence and you don’t think they’ve morphed into one. Your mind now configures the slices as two independent creatures.

The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals. When Oaklander theorized that M.’s itch was endogenous, rather than generated by peripheral nerve signals, she was onto something important.

The fallacy of reducing perception to reception is especially clear when it comes to phantom limbs. Doctors have often explained such sensations as a matter of inflamed or frayed nerve endings in the stump sending aberrant signals to the brain. But this explanation should long ago have been suspect. Efforts by surgeons to cut back on the nerve typically produce the same results that M. had when they cut the sensory nerve to her forehead: a brief period of relief followed by a return of the sensation.

Moreover, the feelings people experience in their phantom limbs are far too varied and rich to be explained by the random firings of a bruised nerve. People report not just pain but also sensations of sweatiness, heat, texture, and movement in a missing limb. There is no experience people have with real limbs that they do not experience with phantom limbs. They feel their phantom leg swinging, water trickling down a phantom arm, a phantom ring becoming too tight for a phantom digit. Children have used phantom fingers to count and solve arithmetic problems. V. S. Ramachandran, an eminent neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has written up the case of a woman who was born with only stumps at her shoulders, and yet, as far back as she could remember, felt herself to have arms and hands; she even feels herself gesticulating when she speaks. And phantoms do not occur just in limbs. Around half of women who have undergone a mastectomy experience a phantom breast, with the nipple being the most vivid part. You’ve likely had an experience of phantom sensation yourself. When the dentist gives you a local anesthetic, and your lip goes numb, the nerves go dead. Yet you don’t feel your lip disappear. Quite the opposite: it feels larger and plumper than normal, even though you can see in a mirror that the size hasn’t changed.

The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.

The theory—and a theory is all it is right now—has begun to make sense of some bewildering phenomena. Among them is an experiment that Ramachandran performed with volunteers who had phantom pain in an amputated arm. They put their surviving arm through a hole in the side of a box with a mirror inside, so that, peering through the open top, they would see their arm and its mirror image, as if they had two arms. Ramachandran then asked them to move both their intact arm and, in their mind, their phantom arm—to pretend that they were conducting an orchestra, say. The patients had the sense that they had two arms again. Even though they knew it was an illusion, it provided immediate relief. People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open; phantom arms in painfully contorted positions could relax. With daily use of the mirror box over weeks, patients sensed their phantom limbs actually shrink into their stumps and, in several instances, completely vanish. Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently published the results of a randomized trial of mirror therapy for soldiers with phantom-limb pain, showing dramatic success.

A lot about this phenomenon remains murky, but here’s what the new theory suggests is going on: when your arm is amputated, nerve transmissions are shut off, and the brain’s best guess often seems to be that the arm is still there, but paralyzed, or clenched, or beginning to cramp up. Things can stay like this for years. The mirror box, however, provides the brain with new visual input—however illusory—suggesting motion in the absent arm. The brain has to incorporate the new information into its sensory map of what’s happening. Therefore, it guesses again, and the pain goes away.

The new theory may also explain what was going on with M.’s itch. The shingles destroyed most of the nerves in her scalp. And, for whatever reason, her brain surmised from what little input it had that something horribly itchy was going on—that perhaps a whole army of ants were crawling back and forth over just that patch of skin. There wasn’t any such thing, of course. But M.’s brain has received no contrary signals that would shift its assumptions. So she itches.

Not long ago, I met a man who made me wonder whether such phantom sensations are more common than we realize. H. was forty-eight, in good health, an officer at a Boston financial-services company living with his wife in a western suburb, when he made passing mention of an odd pain to his internist. For at least twenty years, he said, he’d had a mild tingling running along his left arm and down the left side of his body, and, if he tilted his neck forward at a particular angle, it became a pronounced, electrical jolt. The internist recognized this as Lhermitte’s sign, a classic symptom that can indicate multiple sclerosis, Vitamin B12 deficiency, or spinal-cord compression from a tumor or a herniated disk. An MRI revealed a cavernous hemangioma, a pea-size mass of dilated blood vessels, pressing into the spinal cord in his neck. A week later, while the doctors were still contemplating what to do, it ruptured.

“I was raking leaves out in the yard and, all of a sudden, there was an explosion of pain and my left arm wasn’t responding to my brain,” H. said when I visited him at home. Once the swelling subsided, a neurosurgeon performed a tricky operation to remove the tumor from the spinal cord. The operation was successful, but afterward H. began experiencing a constellation of strange sensations. His left hand felt cartoonishly large—at least twice its actual size. He developed a constant burning pain along an inch-wide ribbon extending from the left side of his neck all the way down his arm. And an itch crept up and down along the same band, which no amount of scratching would relieve.

H. has not accepted that these sensations are here to stay—the prospect is too depressing—but they’ve persisted for eleven years now. Although the burning is often tolerable during the day, the slightest thing can trigger an excruciating flareup—a cool breeze across the skin, the brush of a shirtsleeve or a bedsheet. “Sometimes I feel that my skin has been flayed and my flesh is exposed, and any touch is just very painful,” he told me. “Sometimes I feel that there’s an ice pick or a wasp sting. Sometimes I feel that I’ve been splattered with hot cooking oil.”

For all that, the itch has been harder to endure. H. has developed calluses from the incessant scratching. “I find I am choosing itch relief over the pain that I am provoking by satisfying the itch,” he said.

He has tried all sorts of treatments—medications, acupuncture, herbal remedies, lidocaine injections, electrical-stimulation therapy. But nothing really worked, and the condition forced him to retire in 2001. He now avoids leaving the house. He gives himself projects. Last year, he built a three-foot stone wall around his yard, slowly placing the stones by hand. But he spends much of his day, after his wife has left for work, alone in the house with their three cats, his shirt off and the heat turned up, trying to prevent a flareup.

His neurologist introduced him to me, with his permission, as an example of someone with severe itching from a central rather than a peripheral cause. So one morning we sat in his living room trying to puzzle out what was going on. The sun streamed in through a big bay window. One of his cats, a scraggly brown tabby, curled up beside me on the couch. H. sat in an armchair in a baggy purple T-shirt he’d put on for my visit. He told me that he thought his problem was basically a “bad switch” in his neck where the tumor had been, a kind of loose wire sending false signals to his brain. But I told him about the increasing evidence that our sensory experiences are not sent to the brain but originate in it. When I got to the example of phantom-limb sensations, he perked up. The experiences of phantom-limb patients sounded familiar to him. When I mentioned that he might want to try the mirror-box treatment, he agreed. “I have a mirror upstairs,” he said.

He brought a cheval glass down to the living room, and I had him stand with his chest against the side of it, so that his troublesome left arm was behind it and his normal right arm was in front. He tipped his head so that when he looked into the mirror the image of his right arm seemed to occupy the same position as his left arm. Then I had him wave his arms, his actual arms, as if he were conducting an orchestra.

The first thing he expressed was disappointment. “It isn’t quite like looking at my left hand,” he said. But then suddenly it was.

“Wow!” he said. “Now, this is odd.”

After a moment or two, I noticed that he had stopped moving his left arm. Yet he reported that he still felt as if it were moving. What’s more, the sensations in it had changed dramatically. For the first time in eleven years, he felt his left hand “snap” back to normal size. He felt the burning pain in his arm diminish. And the itch, too, was dulled.

“This is positively bizarre,” he said.

He still felt the pain and the itch in his neck and shoulder, where the image in the mirror cut off. And, when he came away from the mirror, the aberrant sensations in his left arm returned. He began using the mirror a few times a day, for fifteen minutes or so at a stretch, and I checked in with him periodically.

“What’s most dramatic is the change in the size of my hand,” he says. After a couple of weeks, his hand returned to feeling normal in size all day long.

The mirror also provided the first effective treatment he has had for the flares of itch and pain that sporadically seize him. Where once he could do nothing but sit and wait for the torment to subside—it sometimes took an hour or more—he now just pulls out the mirror. “I’ve never had anything like this before,” he said. “It’s my magic mirror.”

There have been other, isolated successes with mirror treatment. In Bath, England, several patients suffering from what is called complex regional pain syndrome—severe, disabling limb sensations of unknown cause—were reported to have experienced complete resolution after six weeks of mirror therapy. In California, mirror therapy helped stroke patients recover from a condition known as hemineglect, which produces something like the opposite of a phantom limb—these patients have a part of the body they no longer realize is theirs.

Such findings open up a fascinating prospect: perhaps many patients whom doctors treat as having a nerve injury or a disease have, instead, what might be called sensor syndromes. When your car’s dashboard warning light keeps telling you that there is an engine failure, but the mechanics can’t find anything wrong, the sensor itself may be the problem. This is no less true for human beings. Our sensations of pain, itch, nausea, and fatigue are normally protective. Unmoored from physical reality, however, they can become a nightmare: M., with her intractable itching, and H., with his constellation of strange symptoms—but perhaps also the hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone who suffer from conditions like chronic back pain, fibromyalgia, chronic pelvic pain, tinnitus, temporomandibular joint disorder, or repetitive strain injury, where, typically, no amount of imaging, nerve testing, or surgery manages to uncover an anatomical explanation. Doctors have persisted in treating these conditions as nerve or tissue problems—engine failures, as it were. We get under the hood and remove this, replace that, snip some wires. Yet still the sensor keeps going off.

So we get frustrated. “There’s nothing wrong,” we’ll insist. And, the next thing you know, we’re treating the driver instead of the problem. We prescribe tranquillizers, antidepressants, escalating doses of narcotics. And the drugs often do make it easier for people to ignore the sensors, even if they are wired right into the brain. The mirror treatment, by contrast, targets the deranged sensor system itself. It essentially takes a misfiring sensor—a warning system functioning under an illusion that something is terribly wrong out in the world it monitors—and feeds it an alternate set of signals that calm it down. The new signals may even reset the sensor.

This may help explain, for example, the success of the advice that back specialists now commonly give. Work through the pain, they tell many of their patients, and, surprisingly often, the pain goes away. It had been a mystifying phenomenon. But the picture now seems clearer. Most chronic back pain starts as an acute back pain—say, after a fall. Usually, the pain subsides as the injury heals. But in some cases the pain sensors continue to light up long after the tissue damage is gone. In such instances, working through the pain may offer the brain contradictory feedback—a signal that ordinary activity does not, in fact, cause physical harm. And so the sensor resets.

This understanding of sensation points to an entire new array of potential treatments—based not on drugs or surgery but, instead, on the careful manipulation of our perceptions. Researchers at the University of Manchester, in England, have gone a step beyond mirrors and fashioned an immersive virtual-reality system for treating patients with phantom-limb pain. Detectors transpose movement of real limbs into a virtual world where patients feel they are actually moving, stretching, even playing a ballgame. So far, five patients have tried the system, and they have all experienced a reduction in pain. Whether those results will last has yet to be established. But the approach raises the possibility of designing similar systems to help patients with other sensor syndromes. How, one wonders, would someone with chronic back pain fare in a virtual world? The Manchester study suggests that there may be many ways to fight our phantoms.

I called Ramachandran to ask him about M.’s terrible itch. The sensation may be a phantom, but it’s on her scalp, not in a limb, so it seemed unlikely that his mirror approach could do anything for her. He told me about an experiment in which he put ice-cold water in people’s ears. This confuses the brain’s position sensors, tricking subjects into thinking that their heads are moving, and in certain phantom-limb and stroke patients the illusion corrected their misperceptions, at least temporarily. Maybe this would help M., he said. He had another idea. If you take two mirrors and put them at right angles to each other, you will get a non-reversed mirror image. Looking in, the right half of your face appears on the left and the left half appears on the right. But unless you move, he said, your brain may not realize that the image is flipped.

“Now, suppose she looks in this mirror and scratches the left side of her head. No, wait—I’m thinking out loud here—suppose she looks and you have someone else touch the left side of her head. It’ll look—maybe it’ll feel—like you’re touching the right side of her head.” He let out an impish giggle. “Maybe this would make her itchy right scalp feel more normal.” Maybe it would encourage her brain to make a different perceptual inference; maybe it would press reset. “Who knows?” he said.

It seemed worth a try.

The search for higher yields includes finding the trade-offs

June 13, 2008

The search for higher yields includes finding the trade-offs

Savers and investors are scouring the markets for better-performing assets because the yields of most interest-sensitive investments—such as money market mutual funds, certificates of deposits (CDs), bonds, and bond funds—have declined in recent months.

As part of that search, they should consider their options:

  1. Lower their investment costs.
  2. Take on more risk.
  3. Sit tight.

The first option is a good idea in any market cycle. The second one involves trade-offs. The third deserves consideration by all long-term investors.

Lower cost, higher yield

The easiest way to squeeze more from an investment is to simply lower your costs.

"Every dollar you pay in expenses cuts into net performance," says Martin Riehl, principal of Vanguard Asset Management Services™.

Of course, choosing the lower-cost strategy means knowing what your costs are.

For mutual funds, the expense ratio is a key factor. Consider a hypothetical comparison of $100,000 invested in a money market mutual fund with an industry-average expense ratio of 0.86%, versus the same investment in a low-cost fund with an expense ratio of 0.20%. Because the difference in costs over the course of a year—$860 for the average-cost fund, $200 for the low-cost fund—would be $600, you'd be paying more to get the same yield even if the performance of the two funds was the same.

Looking for a competitive CD rate?

Through Vanguard Brokerage Services®, you can invest in and research corporate, municipal, Treasury, and agency bonds; CDs; and other debt securities from across the domestic market. Plus, you can take advantage of Vanguard Brokerage's competitive commissions and fees

Read more »

Also keep transaction costs in mind. If you use a brokerage to purchase individual investments, such as bonds, funds, or CDs, keep an eye on costs by choosing a firm that features low commissions and fees.

Higher risk, higher yield

The second alternative recalls a truism of investing: the link between risk and potential reward. "If you try to boost your yield from fixed-income assets, you should be aware of the additional risks you will face," says Mr. Riehl.

Among the risks you may encounter:

  • Liquidity risk. This refers to the ease with which you can convert an asset into cash. Take, for example, bank CDs, which you can purchase through a brokerage firm or directly from an issuing bank. Although CDs typically offer relatively enticing interest rates if you hold them to maturity, you'll likely pay a penalty if you redeem a bank-bought CD early. You can't redeem a brokered CD early, but you can sell it—and face interest rate risk and likely incur a fee.
  • Interest rate risk. This refers to how the value of bond funds, individual bonds, and CDs purchased through brokerages declines when interest rates rise (and vice versa). A bond, bond fund, or brokerage CD with a shorter maturity has less exposure to interest-rate risk than one with a longer maturity. (You typically would favor longer maturities if you're seeking greater yield.)
  • Credit-rate risk. This refers to the possibility that a bond issuer will be unable to pay interest or repay the principal on time or at all. For example, the U.S. government won't go bankrupt, but a corporation can—and that additional credit-rate risk helps inflate yield. You can seek higher yields by favoring corporate bonds over government bonds of the same maturity.

So, if you’re intent on chasing higher yield, be aware that you’ll probably have to accept more of one of these risks.

Tradeoff: Risk vs. yield

Tradeoff: Risk vs. yield

More credit risk: Government funds -> Corporate funds

More Interest rate risk: Money Market funds -> Short-term bonds (maturity 1-5 yrs) -> Intermediary-term bonds (maturity 5-10 yrs) -> Long-term bonds (maturity 10+ yrs)

Gov. Funds: 1.65%, 2.41%, 3.71%, 4.37% (MM, short, intermediary, long-term)
Corp. Funds: 2.05%, 4.92%, 5.80%, 6.35% (MM, short, intermediary, long-term)

Sources: Lipper Inc.; Lehman Brothers.

1Average Government Money Market Fund

2 Average Money Market Fund

3 Lehman 1-5 Year U.S. Treasury Index

4 Lehman 1-5 Year U.S. Credit Index

5 Lehman 5-10 Year U.S. Treasury Index

6 Lehman 5-10 Year U.S. Credit Index

7 Lehman Long U.S. Treasury Index

8 Lehman U.S.Long Credit A or Better Index

An eye on the wrong ball?

The third option may seem counterintuitive, but it can be particularly suited to long-term investors: Sit tight.

Your long-term portfolio should be based on the types of bonds—in terms of maturity and credit quality—and allocation of assets among stocks and bonds that you would feel most comfortable with, regardless of interest rate movements.

"Before you search for higher yield," says Mr. Riehl, "don't lose sight of the fact that the interest rates shouldn't be the primary driver of your long-term investment plan if your assets are properly balanced among diversified pools of stocks and bonds, and cash reserves—that is, cash you don't plan to spend. In such a portfolio, bonds and other interest-sensitive investments serve primarily as a buffer from the volatility of stocks."

You can see an aspect of the buffer effect over the short term. As noted above, bond prices move in the opposite direction of interest rates. That is why the total return of stocks dropped –6.1% while bonds climbed 6.9% for the year ended May 31, 2008.


  • Stock returns are measured by the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Index; bond returns are measured by the Lehman U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.
  • An investment in a money market mutual fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. Although a money market fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in such a fund.
  • Mutual funds, like all investments, are subject to risks. Investments in bond funds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk.
  • Industry-average expense ratio of money market mutual funds is for non-institutional taxable funds at year-end 2007. Source: Lipper, Inc.
  • Bank deposit accounts and CDs are guaranteed (within limits) as to principal and interest by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is an agency of the federal government.
  • Vanguard Asset Management Services are provided by Vanguard National Trust Company, which is a federally chartered, limited-purpose trust company operated under the supervision of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
  • The hypothetical example does not represent the return on any particular investment.
  • Vanguard Brokerage Services is a division of Vanguard Marketing Corporation, Member FINRA.

Saving for retirement: One investor's success story

June 5, 2008

Saving for retirement: One investor's success story

At age 59, José is living a retirement beyond his expectations.

His lifestyle isn't lavish, but his time is his own. He'll have paid off his home mortgage in a few years. And with savings in excess of $650,000, he feels secure financially. "I wake up in the morning and have to kick myself to see if it's me," the New Mexico native said.

How did he do it? Largely through diligent saving and disciplined investing in his 401(k) account.

A modest beginning and a desire to learn

José (not his real name) began saving through his employer's retirement plan when he was in his mid-30s. "Back then, I didn't really know what a 401(k) was," he said. He learned the basics from an on-site presentation by Vanguard, which administered the plan.

He started small, contributing 1% of his salary. "$15 every two weeks," he recalled. "Then every time I got a raise or bonus, I added it." With additional income coming from two separate pensions as a result of military service, the computer systems specialist was ultimately able to sock away nearly 20% of his salary each year. Employer contributions to his account added even more.

José began with just one stock fund, a riskier option than other single-fund alternatives, such as balanced funds. But he felt comfortable with his choice, given his lengthy time horizon and understanding of risk—a perspective that was quickly tested on Monday, October 19, 1987, when the stock market plummeted 23%.

"I thought, 'Holy smokes, I'm dead,'" he recalled. But he stayed the course and in two years saw his savings surpass their pre-"Black Monday" levels. "That showed me the importance of investing for the long run," he said.

He continued to educate himself about investing, through books and As his assets grew, he diversified his portfolio with bond funds and added broad-market index funds. He kept a 70%/30% stock/bond allocation into his early 50s.

"Soul-searching and number-crunching"

Then, the unexpected happened: José was laid off. "I was 54 and not thinking about retiring," he said. "I did a lot of soul-searching and number-crunching."

With his modest lifestyle, military pension income, and the cushion of his sizable retirement savings, José realized that he could, in fact, retire. He recently ran his plan by Vanguard® Financial Planning Services to make sure he was on solid footing and to get advice on paring back his portfolio risk.

"We helped José get to a 60%/40% stock/bond mix that he was more comfortable with and simplified the portfolio to four funds, which lowered its overall expense ratio and made it easier for him to manage," said Michele Mazzerle, a CFP® professional at Vanguard. "Given his income, living expenses, and savings, he's in good shape."

José could begin tapping his 401(k) this year, but he doesn't plan to. He is extremely satisfied with how his savings have added up. "I thought it was going to be a great big deal to save, but it really wasn't," he said. "To be where I am today is really something."


  • Mutual funds are subject to market risk. Investments in bond funds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk.
  • Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.
  • When taking withdrawals from a 401(k) before age 59½, you may have to pay ordinary income tax plus a 10% federal penalty tax.
  • Vanguard Financial Planning Services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Plan for a Roth IRA conversion in 2010

Plan for a Roth IRA conversion in 2010
Special tax savings opportunity for higher income taxpayers

A little bit of advance planning with a Roth IRA conversion can reap big financial rewards down the road.

Tax law enacted in 2006 allows for a special planning opportunity that arises in the year 2010, but only if you take the right steps now in order to take advantage of it.

The Roth IRA is different from a regular or Traditional IRA. Unlike Traditional IRAs that are typically fully taxable when distributions are taken, the Roth IRA provides for completely tax-free distributions once certain conditions are met.

Also, Traditional IRAs are subject to required minimum distribution rules (RMD), which require RMD distributions in the years following the year in which a taxpayer turns age 70 1/2.

These RMD rules force older taxpayers to take out distributions even if they don’t need to or want to take distributions.

The Roth IRA is not subject to the RMD rules, so older taxpayers can take tax-free money out of their Roth IRAs if they want to, or they can choose not to take distributions as they see fit.

The ability for the growth of assets within a Roth IRA to be fully tax-free is a huge benefit.

It is such a tremendous tax benefit that Congress decided higher income taxpayers should be disallowed from contributing to Roth IRAs.

Current tax law prohibits taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income (AGI) in excess of $100,000 from participating in a Roth IRA conversion.

Other rules disallow contributory Roth IRAs for single taxpayers with more than $116,000, or married joint filers with more than $169,000, of modified AGI.

But relatively new tax law has created a special planning opportunity that comes to fruition in a couple of years. A change was made in the tax law pertaining to Roth IRA conversions made in the year 2010.

The change, effective in the year 2010, eliminates the income limitation requirement that taxpayers have less than $100,000 in modified AGI. This change allows higher income taxpayers to do a Roth IRA conversion in the year 2010.

What this means is that higher income taxpayers can begin planning now for a Roth IRA conversion in 2010. Higher income taxpayers should seriously consider funding a Traditional IRA for the tax years leading up to 2010.

Consider the following example. Jeremy earns well in excess of $100,000. He also participates in a qualified retirement plan (401k plan) at work. Because his income is over $100,000, under current tax law Jeremy is not entitled to do a Roth IRA conversion.

Also, Jeremy is not entitled to make a deductible Traditional IRA contribution because he participates in a qualified retirement plan at work. However, Jeremy is entitled to contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA.

So, Jeremy funds $5,000 (with the catch-up provision, $6,000 if he is over age 50) into a non-deductible Traditional IRA for the tax year 2008.

Jeremy’s wife, Susan, also funds $5,000 (or $6,000 if over age 50) into a non-deductible Traditional IRA for the tax year 2008.

Jeremy and Susan also fund an additional $5,000 each (or $6,000 each if over age 50) to non-deductible IRAs for the tax year 2009.

Now, Jeremy and Susan have a combined amount of $20,000 ($24,000 if over age 50) in non-deductible Traditional IRAs. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume that both Jeremy and Susan are under age 50 for the rest of this example.

Because of good investment results, the $20,000 they invested in non-deductible IRAs has grown to $24,000 by the year 2010.

Jeremy and Susan then implement Roth IRA conversions, converting their non-deductible Traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs.

They pay taxes only on the $4,000 gain in their IRAs at the time of conversion. Also, the new law gives them an additional advantage in that it allows them to pay the taxes on this gain over two tax years—one-half in 2011 and one-half in 2012.

Many years later Jeremy and Susan both turn age 59 1/2 or older. At this time their Roth IRAs have a combined value of $100,000.

They decide to take full tax-free distribution of their Roth IRAs. They owe no taxes on the $76,000 in gain they realized.

If the money had been in Traditional IRAs, the gain would have been taxable. Jeremy and Susan are in the 35-percent tax bracket at the time of distribution.

They realize that their wise planning years earlier to take advantage of changes in the Roth IRA conversion rules has saved them over $25,000 in federal and state income taxes.

The rules for handling Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs are so complex that many times you need expert advice and counsel to make informed decisions and avoid pitfalls and tax penalties.

Your particular goals, objectives, facts, and circumstances may dictate steps and decisions that are not readily apparent because of the complexity of the rules that may be involved. We recommend that you seek expert guidance regarding your IRA decisions.

George M. Hiller, JD, LLM, MBA, CFP® is the founder and president of the George M. Hiller Companies, LLC, an investment management, tax, estate, and financial planning firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a member of Kingdom Advisors, a network of Christian financial professionals. ©2008 Crown Financial Ministries Privacy Policy

A Christian Perspective of Self Defense

A Christian Perspective of Self Defense
by Larry Fox

Links to other Fox Ventures pages: Home || Study Notes & Articles
Links within this article:
Old Testament
Is killing a person always murder?
Capital punishment
Use of deadly force
New Testament
Jesus' defense of himself
The apostles' response to threats
The new covenant
Peace is not always possible
What about revolt?
A perspective of life and self defense

Self defense is obviously a very controversial topic among Christians, with many godly people on different sides of the issue. It is a multi-faceted and complex issue, and there are Christians whose spiritual maturity I respect who take opposing stands. While scripture shows that I should pattern my life after those who are more mature in the faith -- the themes of discipleship and mentoring are strong in the New Testament -- it is also clear that I am ultimately responsible for my own growth, maturity, attitudes and behavior. Because of this, it is understandable there are so many different Christian perspectives on self defense. My conclusions are governed by my personality, my level of spiritual maturity and my interpretation of scripture.

Many questions immediately come to mind that need to be addressed. Should I defend myself and my family, and what forms of defense are appropriate? Do I defend passively or aggressively? With or without force? Should I defend or protect others? Should I prepare for possible emergencies, such as storms, civil unrest, economic turmoil and political instability? What is my responsibility toward others in these situations?

This article is the product of my own Bible study and research regarding self defense and is an attempt to clarify my position on the topic. Admittedly, this is a very long article, and I regret its length. But the issue is both complex and controversial, so I am trying to be thorough in my investigation, looking at as many relevant scriptures as possible.


We will point out the difference between the emphasis of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament. In particular, the covenants of the Old Testament were primarily about earthly existence, while the New Testament emphasizes the development of godly character and eternal reward.

We will see that the Bible prohibits murder, but not killing, and that the ownership and use of weapons are not prohibited. It seems the issue of self defense is less related to "defense" than to "self."

Godly character traits and attitudes receive the greatest attention in the New Testament; in particular, humility and agape. We will conclude that humility prohibits us from seeking vengeance, but not law enforcement and justice. There may be occasions in which humility prohibits you from defending yourself, however.

Agape, on the other hand, almost demands that you sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others, whether that involves working to meet their basic human needs, interests and desires, or actually giving up your life to prolong theirs. So defending another person, especially a family member, is not only appropriate but required of godly character.

Old Testament

I think it is important to begin by looking at the Old Testament, though we are not under Old Testament law, because it reveals much regarding God's standards and perspective. The Old Testament very clearly states that God created man in his own image and intended for him to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-28). Man's ability to make judgments and govern derive from his godly image and delegated authority. As we will see, man's God-like nature also leads to very strict standards regarding the treatment of people.

Is killing a person always murder?

This issue seems to be at the root of many people's opinions regarding self defense. If one believes killing is synonymous with murder, then it is never appropriate to use deadly force, even in defense. This is a common argument against private gun ownership, for example.

God said to Noah, "from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (Gen 9:5-6). So God created a system of capital punishment to be implemented by mankind; man was to take the life of whoever sheds another man's blood. Because God made man in his own image, murder becomes a crime against God and demands capital punishment. There is no provision in the Old Testament for attempted rehabilitation of a murderer.

In the Ten Commandments, God did not say, "You shall not kill" but, "You shall not murder" (Ex 20:13, Deut 5:17). The Hebrew word specifically refers to murder and is never used of executing a criminal or slaying an enemy in battle.

God clearly distinguishes between killing and murder.

Capital Punishment

God specified more than one form of capital punishment in the Mosaic Law. Stoning was the most frequent mode and usually involved participation by members of the entire community, including the witnesses (Deut 17:7). Such public execution probably served as a strong deterrent, because people not only viewed executions by stoning but participated in them.

Offenses punishable by stoning included sacrificing one's infant to Molech (Lev 20:1-5). This passage even includes a warning to those who knowingly permit someone to sacrifice their child. Death by stoning was the punishment for anyone who was a medium or spiritist (Lev 20:27), who blasphemed the name of the Lord (Lev 24:15-16), who performed manual labor on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), who worshiped other gods (Deut 13:1-11; 17:2-5), who was a stubborn and rebellious son (Deut 21:18-21), or who committed adultery (Deut 21:22-24).

The sword was also a common instrument in capital punishment. For example, at Mount Sinai, when the people worshiped the golden calf, God directed Moses to have the Levites kill the people by the sword (Ex 32:26-28). After Israel occupied the Promised Land, if a community fell into idolatry, every person in that town was to be put to the sword (Deut 13:12-15).

Death by burning was specified if a man married both a woman and her mother (Lev 20:14) or if a daughter of a priest became a prostitute (Lev 21:9).

There were many other situations in which people were to be put to death. For example, showing contempt for a judge or priest who stands ministering to the Lord (Deut 17:12). If a person owned a bull that had a habit of goring people, but did not keep it penned up and the bull gored someone to death, the owner must be put to death unless payment is demanded of him instead (Ex 21:28-30). Death was warranted for anyone who intentionally killed someone (Ex 21:12-14), who was a sorceress (Ex 22:18), who had sexual relations with an animal (Ex 22:19), who attacked his parents (21:15), who kidnaped another (21:16), who cursed his parents (21:17), who struck a pregnant woman causing her to lose the child (21:22-25), who committed incest (Lev 20:11), who committed homosexuality (Lev 20:13), or who raped a woman (Deut 22:25).

God mandated capital punishment for a variety of offenses in the Mosaic Law.

Use of deadly force

God pledged to give the Israelites victory against their enemies. They were to annihilate the people who dwelled in the Promised Land (Deut 7:1-2; 20:16-18). They would kill their enemies even if outnumbered (Lev 26:8, Deut 20:1-4).

They were to have judges rule in cases involving bloodshed (Deut 17:8), which suggests not all bloodshed was to be punished. This seems to allow use of deadly force in defense.

If a thief was caught breaking into a home at night, the homeowner had the right to kill the intruder in protection of his family and property. But if the incident occurred during the day, presumably when the homeowner could properly judge the intruder's intentions and the intruder could see the homeowner was present and willing to defend his household, the homeowner could not kill in defense of his household (Ex 22:2-3).

New Testament

We must realize that the Old and New Testaments are very different and have different purposes. The Old Testament was an earth-based covenant primarily focusing on human earthly needs for physical provision and protection. It's blessings and curses were physical and psychological in nature, relating to crops and herds, safety from enemies, physical health, sense of peace and so on. The old covenant related to a person's earthly existence.

The New Testament, on the other hand, is a new covenant that focuses primarily on repentance and spiritual development rather than physical existence. Repentance literally means changing one's mind -- changing one's attitudes, perspective, values and standards -- which will cause one's actions to change. In the new covenant, there is much less emphasis on physical existence because the focus has changed. It has been said the old covenant blessed a person on earth, while the new covenant prepares a person to leave the earth. The new covenant recognizes that God intends to use hardships and difficulties to help a person repent -- change their attitudes, perspective, values and standards -- and develop them spiritually with godly attributes.

Where the old covenant required obedience to a set of laws and promised protection from enemies, the new covenant requires loving one's enemies and blessing those who abuse you. The old covenant promised wealth and prosperity in exchange for obedience; the new covenant examines our stewardship, how we use whatever we have. The emphasis changes significantly from old covenant to new, and that is why we cannot assume all the Old Testament statements about protection and self defense are relevant to those of us under the New Testament. For that reason, we will look almost exclusively at the New Testament.

The New Testament says very little regarding enforcement of public justice; the emphasis instead is on personal behavior. Even Jesus' Sermon on the Mount addressed individual responses to injustice, not the state's responsibility for legitimate law enforcement, including the protection of its citizens. In his teaching on the mount, he upheld the authority and validity of the Old Testament law, as we see in Matthew 5:17-20:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

The Greek word translated "abolish" also means destroy or throw down. Jesus said he didn't come to destroy, throw down or abolish the Old Testament Law and Prophets; instead, he came to fulfill them, which means he shows us their ultimate expression. That is why he shifted the emphasis from external adherence to a set of rules to development of godly character. Regarding the Law, consider Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:15, that Jesus abolished in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. At first, this seems to contradict what Jesus said, that he didn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Paul uses a very different Greek word, which means to destroy, nullify, fade away or abolish. So did Jesus abolish the Law or not? No. The context of Ephesians 2:15 is Christ destroying the wall that separated the Jews from gentile believers. A main purpose of the Jewish law was to serve as a barrier to separate them from gentiles. Paul does not say Jesus abolished the law as the word of God or as a moral guide. The part that was abolished was the law as a set of regulations that excludes gentiles from God's blessings or forces them to become Jews. The moral instruction of the Law is still relevant. Christ came to fulfill the Law; the moral code was still in place, but the secondary purpose of the law and ordinances (to separate the Jews from gentiles) is set aside or made useless.

Jesus repeatedly referred to the Old Testament Law. In Matthew 15:1-6, he quotes the fifth commandment and part of the Law (Ex 21:17). In Matthew 19:16-19, he quotes several of the ten commandments and part of the Law. He even discussed which was the greatest commandment in the Law (Mt 22:34-40). His greatest emphasis was on performance of God's will, which was the basis of the Law. In Matthew 5:21-48, for example, he contrasts the letter of the Law with God's intent, which is more exacting than the Law. Again, in Matthew 19:3-9, he clarifies God's intent in one item of the Law, which greatly affects a person's understanding and use of that item.

From this we can conclude that Jesus did not do away with all the provisions and requirements of the Old Testament, but he drastically changed the way we should view them. That is why this article will focus on New Testament scriptures relevant to self defense, in an attempt to understand God's intent for us.

Jesus' defense of himself

The New Testament stresses the importance of Christians becoming Christ-like, or like Jesus. The term "Christian" describes a person who is like Christ; originally, it was a derogatory term meaning "little Christ." Let us examine Jesus' life and teachings as they relate to the topic of self defense, including one's reputation and physical safety. The following verses are presented in the order in which they appear in scripture and are not grouped by topic.

  • Matthew 2:13. When Jesus was a young child, an angel of the Lord appeared to his father, Joseph, in a dream and warned him to leave the country because Herod wanted to kill Jesus.
  • Matthew 2:22. Again, Joseph learned in a dream that Jesus' life was in danger, so he moved to another area.
  • Matthew 4:2-3, 11. After Jesus had fasted forty days, he did not use his powers to provide for himself; instead, angels attended him.
  • Matthew 8:23-26. Jesus and his disciples were in a boat when a furious storm suddenly developed. Jesus was unconcerned for his own safety and was asleep. When the disciples awoke him, he reprimanded the disciples for being afraid, then rebuked the storm and it became calm.
  • Matthew 12:14-15. The Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus, so he left the area.
  • Matthew 12:24-28. Jesus corrected the Pharisees who accused him. He knew they were plotting to kill him.
  • Matthew 12:34-37. He harshly rebuked the Pharisees. Was this in retaliation for their accusations? No, but to correct their error and stubborn refusal to accept what God was doing.
  • Matthew 16:21. Jesus knew he would suffer many things and be killed by the religious leaders.
  • Matthew 26:50-54. At Jesus' arrest, Peter used a sword to defend Jesus. Jesus told him not to and he healed the man Peter injured. It was time for him to die and he was ready. He could have asked God for protection, but he did not (verse 53). His statement, "all who draw the sword will die by the sword," is often quoted today as a rejection of the use of weapons. But in another account of this incident, Jesus' point in having Peter put away his sword was his willingness to submit to arrest and death, rather than avoiding the use of weapons (John 18:11). If Jesus were a pacifist and opposed to any use of weapons, why would he allow his disciples to own them? In none of the gospels does Jesus rebuke his disciples for carrying weapons (swords). Jesus told Peter not to use his sword because (1) Jesus must be arrested, and (2) Peter was acting in the flesh rather than recognizing God's will.
  • Matthew 26:62-64. Jesus did not defend himself when accused. Also see Matthew 27:11-14.
  • Luke 4:4:28-30. A crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he walked through the crowd to escape.
  • Luke 13:31-33. The Pharisees warned Jesus Herod wanted to kill him, but he was unmoved.
  • Luke 19:11-27. In a parable, Jesus describes a king who killed those who opposed him. Based on our understanding of scripture, the king in the parable represents Jesus himself when he returns to set up his kingdom on earth.
  • Luke 20:9-16. Jesus tells a parable in which a landowner killed the tenants who killed his son. Notice the response of the people who heard the parable: "May this never be!" Jesus' position regarding death was stricter than the teaching of the religious leaders of his day.
  • Luke 22:36-38. Jesus instructed each disciple to get a sword, even if he had to sell his cloak to buy one. They had two swords among them, and Jesus said that was sufficient. He clearly was not opposed to the possession and use of swords, yet he indicated two swords were sufficient for the 11 disciples; they obviously were not heavily armed.
  • John 7:1. Jesus avoided an area because the Jews there were waiting to take his life.
  • John 7:30. The Jews tried to seize Jesus in the temple courts, but "no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come." In other words, they wanted to and tried, but were unable. See also verse 44.
  • John 7:32, 45-46. The religious leaders sent guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards were strongly influenced by Jesus' teaching and did not arrest him.
  • John 8:20. No one seized Jesus (though they really wanted to) because his time had not yet come.
  • John 8:59. The Jews picked up stones to stone (kill) Jesus, but he hid himself and slipped away.
  • John 10:39. The Jews tried to seize Jesus, but he escaped their grasp. There is no mention in any of these incidents of Jesus struggling or defending himself. This alone does not mean he did or didn't. Scripture also never says he put on his sandals, either.
  • John 11:7-10. Jesus went back to Judea where the Jews had tried to stone him. His reply to his disciples about daylight may indicate they will be safe if they go when the time is right; or his reply might indicate a complete lack of concern for safety, even in broad daylight.
  • John 11:53-54, 57. After the official governing body (the Sanhedrin) decided to kill Jesus, he avoided public exposure until it was time for him to die.
  • John 12:36. Jesus hid himself from a crowd after speaking to them. This was after the chief priests and Pharisees gave orders for people to report if they see him so they could arrest him (John 11:57).
  • John 18:10-11. Same incident as Matthew 26:50-54.
  • John 18:22-23. An official struck Jesus and rebuked him. Jesus did not retaliate, but stood his ground.
  • John 18:36. Jesus said his disciples would fight to prevent his arrest, except his kingdom is spiritual; the same is true today. By implication, it's not wrong to fight about matters of this world.
  • John 19:6-12. Pilate was afraid to condemn Jesus and looked for a reason to let him go, but Jesus would not directly answer his question; probably because a direct answer would have encouraged Pilate to release him, which would abort the crucifixion.
Note that when Jesus was arrested, he told his disciples he could call on his Father, who would put legions of angels at his disposal to protect and deliver him. This certainly was true during his torture and execution, but Jesus submitted to the process because that was his purpose in coming to earth.

The Apostles' Response to Threats

Especially after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, the apostle's lives also were in danger. We see them facing many hostile situations, including people who tried to take their lives because of the gospel. Let us examine some relevant scriptures to see how the apostles responded to such threats. Why must we look at so many scriptures? God considered it important to record all these instances for our benefit, so we should benefit by reading them.

  • Acts 4:3, 7-13. The religious leaders seized Peter and John, put them in jail overnight, and the next day questioned them. Peter spoke boldly, filled with the Holy Spirit, apparently unconcerned about his safety. He knew these same people had crucified Jesus a short time before and openly rebuked them for doing so.
  • Acts 6:8-7:60. Men from one of the synagogues seized Stephen and took him before the Sanhedrin, the religious court, for questioning. Stephen boldly rebuked the religious leaders, who became furious and had him stoned to death.
  • Acts 8:1-4. Immediately after Stephen's execution, great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem. Believers were imprisoned and many scattered to other regions.
  • Acts 9:23-25. The Jews conspired to kill Saul (Paul), but his followers helped him escape.
  • Acts 9:29-30. Saul (Paul) debated with the Grecian Jews, who then tried to kill him. When the other believers heard of this, they sent him to another area.
  • Acts 12:1-10. Herod arrested some believers and had one of them, the apostle James, executed. He then arrested Peter and put him in prison. The church responded by praying earnestly. The angel of the Lord then released Peter from prison.
  • Acts 13:50-51. Paul and Barnabas were teaching and many people believed in the Lord. But certain people stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from the region. They responded by shaking the dust from their feet in symbolic protest and went to another region.
  • Acts 14:5-7. There was a plot to mistreat and stone Paul and Barnabas, so they fled to another region and continued to preach.
  • Acts 15:26. Paul and Barnabas clearly risked their lives for the Lord.
  • Acts 16:22-28. Paul and Silas were severely flogged and thrown into prison with their feet in stocks. During the night, they were praying and singing hymns to God, when a violent earthquake opened all the prison doors and everyone's chains came loose. Paul and Silas were then able to minister to the jailer and his family.
  • Acts 16:36-39. The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas released from prison, but Paul announced that they had violated his legal rights as a Roman citizen. He insisted the magistrates personally escort him out of prison, which they did because they were alarmed at breaking Roman law. This shows it is appropriate to stand up for legal rights, including when the cause of Christ is involved.
  • Acts 17:5, 10. A mob rioted against Paul and Silas; they slipped away at night.
  • Acts 17:13-14. People stirred crowds up against Paul, and the believers sent him away.
  • Acts 18:6. A crowd opposed Paul and became abusive. He shook out his clothes in symbolic protest against them and left.
  • Acts 18:9-10. God assured Paul and told him not to be afraid.
  • Acts 18:28. Apollos "vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ."
  • Acts 19:8. Paul spoke boldly and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God.
  • Acts 19:29-31. A mob seized Paul's traveling companions, and the believers prevented Paul from addressing the crowd.
  • Acts 20:3. There was a plot against Paul, so he changed his plans.
  • Acts 20:22-24. God had warned Paul repeatedly he would experience prison and hardships, but he considered his life worth nothing compared to finishing his task.
  • Acts 21:1-13. Agabus prophesied Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles. Paul responded he was ready even to die for the Lord.
  • Acts 22:25-29. Paul invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid being flogged. Notice Paul merely asked the soldier standing next to him whether it was legal to flog a Roman citizen who had not been proven guilty; he did not make any threats or demand appropriate treatment.
  • Acts 23:1-5. Paul severely rebuked members of the Sanhedrin for violating the law by ordering to have him struck. Then he backed down when informed the man giving the order was the high priest; Paul honored the position of the high priest.
  • Acts 23:6-10. Paul invoked his background as a Pharisee in his defense before the Sanhedrin, knowing it would be divisive.
  • Acts 23:11-18. The Lord told Paul he would go to Rome. When Paul discovered the Jews were plotting to kill him, he sent word to the commander of the centurions guarding him. The issue was his going to Rome to testify about Jesus (23:11), not his personal safety (21:13).
  • Acts 24:5-21. Paul was falsely accused before the governor and he gladly defended himself. When Jesus was falsely accused, he did not defend himself because his trial would lead to the fulfillment of one of his main purposes in life: death on the cross. Paul knew he would go to Rome, so he was free to defend himself.
  • Acts 25:6-12. Paul acknowledged the state's right to execute him if he was guilty. He defended himself and invoked his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:2-3. The believers were Paul's seal (proof) of apostleship, his defense to those who judged him. Self defense against accusations is not always wrong.
  • 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. Paul listed his hardships, but never condemned those who did these things to him nor sought revenge. He accepted these hardships as part of his life purpose.
  • Philippians 2:17. Paul was being poured out like a drink offering, referring to spilling his blood as a sacrifice. Also 2 Timothy 4:6.
  • Philippians 3:10-12. Paul wanted to experience or share Christ's sufferings and death, which lead to the power of the resurrection. He set his eyes on the resurrection, accepting the fact that hardship and death are prerequisites. He also recognized that those experiences perfect him, which motivated him to press on toward Jesus' purpose for his life. Rather than avoid hardship and death, he embraced them because he knew their benefits. We see this same attitude in Hebrews 12:2; for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross and its shame.
  • Colossians 1:24-25. Paul suffered physically for the sake of the church and became its servant. He did not protect himself but instead rejoiced in his opportunity to serve the church through his sufferings.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9. Paul and his companions expended themselves for other believers, rather than protect themselves. His toil and hardship was for the benefit of other believers.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15. The believers suffered persecution from their own countrymen.
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:4. Paul and his companions were destined to suffer great trials.
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:7. Paul and Timothy suffered distress and persecution.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:4. Paul boasted about their perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials they were enduring.
  • 2 Timothy 1:8. Paul urged Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel.
  • 2 Timothy 4:6-8. Paul faces death with confidence; his work is completed.
  • Hebrews 10:32-34. The believers stood in the face of suffering; they accepted insult, persecution, prison, confiscation of their property. They accepted these joyfully, knowing they had "better and lasting possessions." They did not defend themselves or protect their belongings at any cost.
  • Hebrews 11:32-39. Commends people for their faith. Some were delivered or victorious; others were rejected, abused or killed. All are honored for their faith, regardless of the outcome.
  • 3 John 9-10. A believer opposed John and gossiped about him. John will "call attention to what he is doing," addressing the evil behavior, not defending himself.
  • Revelation 11:3-7. The two witnesses destroy anyone who tries to harm them. After they have completed their work, they will be killed.
The New Covenant

Now that we have examined Jesus' and the apostles' responses to threatening situations, let us consider Jesus' teachings about what we should do.

  • Matthew 5:10-12. You should consider yourself blessed if you are persecuted because of your righteousness, if people insult you, or if people persecute you because of Jesus. This doesn't imply either retaliation or defense.
  • Matthew 5:21. Not only are we prohibited from murdering (see above, "Is Killing a Person Always Murder?"), we are not to even be angry with someone or treat them with contempt.
  • Matthew 5:25-26. If someone is taking you to court, settle the matter in advance. The context presumes you are guilty of the charge ("You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.")
  • Matthew 5:38-41. You are not to resist an evil person or withhold what they demand. Some insist "turn the other cheek" is limited to a slap on the face and is not relevant to dangerous attacks. We must keep "turn the other cheek" in context, however, which includes "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (verse 44). The examples Jesus gives in these verses of people asking or requiring things of you are all legally legitimate actions: filing legal suit; the Roman law allowing soldiers to require a civilian to carry their armor; asking or borrowing from you.
  • Matthew 5:44. You are to love your enemies and pray for (not against) those who persecute you. Your sinful nature's tendency is to reward those who are good to you and retaliate against those who treat you badly. Instead, you are to deny your sinful nature's demands by doing good and blessing those who intend you harm.
  • Matthew 6:25-33. This requires a complete realignment of your priorities. Your sinful nature's priority is to take care of yourself. Instead, God's kingdom and his righteousness must be your top priorities, and let God take care of you as he deems appropriate.
  • Matthew 10:16-20. Jesus sent his disciples out as sheep among wolves; that is, defenseless. They were to be "shrewd" (Greek word phronimos ); that is, thoughtful (giving thought to their ways), rational, clever, prudent and wise (in considering and preparing). They were to be "innocent" (Greek word akeraios); that is, give careful thought to their ways and be prudent in what they do, but be free of guilt. He told them, "be on your guard against men"; this is self-explanatory, because he said they would be arrested and beaten. He also said this all would have a purpose: they would have opportunity to speak in behalf of Jesus before authorities and leaders. He did not mention running away or protecting themselves, but he also didn't say not to.
  • Matthew 10:21-22. Jesus told his disciples, and by implication all other believers, they would be hated and killed because of the gospel, even by their own family. He did not say whether they should defend themselves. But he did place great value on standing firm to the end.
  • Matthew 10:23. If persecuted in one place, his disciples were to flee to another.
  • Matthew 10:28. Do not be afraid of those who can only take your life; that is, don't be afraid to die.
  • Matthew 16:24-25. Any disciple must deny himself (reject self-centered interests) and take up his cross (embrace or carry that which has the potential to destroy you). Self defense is not an option; be prepared to lose your life for Jesus' sake. Based on this verse and John 12:25, anyone who loves his earthly life (preoccupied with it, tries to protect himself) will lose his life (eternal life, based on the next statement). Conversely, anyone who hates his life (comparatively speaking) and is willing give it up for Jesus' sake will have eternal life. Also see Matthew 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:25.
  • Matthew 18: 15-17. If another believer sins against you, you should talk to him one-on-one. If he does not listen, which means you are unable to resolve the issue, take another believer or two with you and try again. If you are still unsuccessful, take the issue before the church (presumably the church leadership, those who have the authority to state how the offending brother should be treated).
  • Matthew 19:19; 22:39. Love your neighbor as yourself, which requires love for self. The Bible presupposes a level of concern for one's own well-being and uses that as a standard for treatment of others. For example, consider the Golden Rule: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
  • Matthew 21:33. In a parable, Jesus described a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a wall around it and built a watchtower. That is, the landowner built protection for his vineyard, which was a common practice. Jesus did not suggest this was inappropriate, therefore it seems acceptable.
  • Matthew 24:15-18. When people around Jerusalem see the abomination in the holy place, they are to flee immediately.
  • Matthew 24:43. If a thief might steal from you, it is appropriate to protect your possessions. This is such common sense, Jesus uses it as an example of being ready for his return.
  • Luke 12:11-12. Do not worry about defending yourself when you are accused or arrested because you are a Christian.
  • John 10:1-15. Jesus portrays himself as the great shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He portrays his followers as sheep he protects and cares for, who cannot do this for themselves.
  • John 16:2. Believers will be killed for their faith; their killers will believe they are justified in killing them.
These are the teachings and sayings of Jesus relevant to the topic of self defense. Now we will consider other New Testament verses.
  • Romans 12:12. Be patient in affliction; that is, accept it and don't reject it or try to stop it.
  • Romans 12:14. Bless those who persecute you, rather than curse them (the natural response). This clearly prohibits retaliation, but maybe not self defense.
  • Romans 12:17-21. Do not repay evil for evil. As much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, but allow God to respond to the other person as he considers appropriate. On the contrary, if the person who wishes to do you harm is hungry or thirsty, give him what he needs. Again, this clearly prohibits retaliation. If self defense is appropriate, these verses will definitely affect your motive.
  • Romans 16:20. The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. The God of peace doesn't cave in to those who seek to overthrow him or rebel against his kingdom. Instead, he crushes them (see Jesus' parables in Luke 19:11-27 and 20:9-16). Because we are part of God's kingdom and Satan's targets, God will use us to crush him. Notice God calls us to be at peace with all men, yet it is appropriate to crush evil.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:1-7. Disputes between believers should be judged by other believers; it is better to be wronged or cheated by another believer than to take the dispute before unbelievers. This doesn't say we shouldn't try to resolve the dispute (defend our rights or property, for example); only that we should find other believers to judge the dispute.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:24, 33; 12:7, 25; 14:4-5, 12. Repeated emphasis on what benefits others rather than yourself; that is, be less concerned about your own well-being. This is consistent with the themes of humility and agape.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:30-32. Paul endangered himself "every hour"; he "died daily." He fought "wild beasts" in Ephesus, probably referring to the riot incited by a silversmith who made a lucrative living making shrines of the local deity (Acts 19). Because of Paul's faith in the resurrection, he was willing to face death every day.
  • 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. Paul suffered great hardships in Asia, pressured beyond his own ability to endure. The purpose of that pressure: he had to learn not to rely on himself, but to rely on God alone. General observations: (1) God's work is evident most often at the limits of our ability; he may wait until we get to end of our rope before intervening. (2) Past deliverance gives us confidence that he will deliver us now and in the future. (3) God uses troubles to overcome our independence. He never gives us anything that will make us independent of him. We must be trusting and dependent as little children toward him, and he must be our strength and safety.
  • 2 Corinthians 1:12. A contrast between worldly wisdom and God's ways and grace. This is a frequent theme in the New Testament. Worldly wisdom says you must be strong to protect yourself and defend your rights. In many cases, it is wise to identify the worldly way then do the opposite. God's ways seem foolish to the worldly perspective, because spiritual truths and principles cannot be grasped by human intellect (see 1 Co 2:13-16). That may be the case with the issue of self defense.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 16-18. "Jars of clay." We are fragile containers, easily destroyed, always given over to death for Jesus' sake, so (1) the all-surpassing power is shown to be from God, not us; and (2) Jesus' life may be revealed in our mortal bodies. Paul was humanly overwhelmed but sustained by God's power, outwardly wasting away (by appearance) but inwardly renewed continuously. From his perspective, he was hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. But these are light and momentary troubles, comparatively speaking, achieving an eternal glory. Look past the temporal, and fix your sight on the eternal.
  • 2 Corinthians 6:4-10. This passage contains a long list of Paul's' hardships. But he makes no complaints and no mention of trying to protect himself. Why not? Because of his perspective of mortality (2 Co 5:1-8). Also, these were hardships directly related to his ministry and service to God. So the question becomes: How much of your life is service to God (or should be)? Answer: You never stop being a Christian, Christ's ambassador, a minister of reconciliation, God's representative to a world dying in sin. Therefore, your perspective should be the same as Paul's, even if not in full-time ministry.
  • 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul delights in personal weakness because his weakness makes room for Christ's power to rest on him.
  • 2 Corinthians 13:4. Jesus was crucified in weakness -- without self defense -- now lives in God's power; the same will be true of us.
  • Ephesians 5:25, 28-29. A husband is to give himself up for his wife as Christ did for the church; this includes sacrificing himself to care for her and protect her.
  • Ephesians 6:10-18. This passage describes the "armor of God." Notice that only the sword is an offensive weapon; all other armor described is defensive in nature. This implies there is nothing inherently wrong with defending yourself.
  • Philippians 2:5-8. We are to have the same attitude as Christ: he did not consider his personal status or rights worth defending, and sacrificed himself for the benefit of others.
  • 1 Timothy 5:8. The context is providing for widows in need. If this includes providing food and clothing, it certainly also includes protection from assault or abuse.
  • 1 Timothy 6:17. Those who are rich must not be arrogant about their wealth or put their hope in it; they are to put their hope in God alone. This is a general principle: Whatever you consider your resources -- provision, defense and so on -- you must put your hope and trust in God alone, not your abilities or resources.
  • 2 Timothy 2:23-26. Avoid arguments and quarrels; instead be kind to everyone and not resentful, gently instruct those who oppose you. These instructions are specifically for Christian leaders, but are relevant to all of us. Arguments and quarrels happen when we defend our position and try to prove ourselves right.
  • Hebrews 2:10, 18; 5:8. Jesus suffered when tempted and became perfect through his suffering. Becoming like him involves suffering in a variety of ways, and one of our strongest temptations is to defend ourselves. Some may argue that self defense is a human need, not a temptation. From a Christian perspective, God has pledged to protect us far better than we could protect ourselves and even use suffering to better us. While self defense may not be wrong (that is, a sin), choosing to trust God exclusively will cause the natural human need for self defense to become a temptation in much the same way that fasting causes eating to become a temptation.
  • 1 Peter 1:5-7. We are shielded by God's power. A natural interpretation might be that God will shield us from life's troubles, but in reality God uses our suffering in trials to prove our faith genuine and to bring praise, glory and honor when Jesus is revealed. If we try to protect ourselves from trials, we abort this process.
  • 1 Peter 4:1-2. He who suffers in his body (flesh) is done with sin. The main purpose of suffering is to help you defeat your sinful nature, so reject evil human desires and live by God's will. Protecting or defending yourself reinforces your sinful nature rather than defeat it.
  • 1 John 3:16-18. Christ's example was to lay down his life for us and we are to lay down our lives for our brothers (other believers). This passage refers to sharing material possessions, so it's not just referring to dying for another. We are to love with actions and truth rather than words. It is appropriate, even commendable, to sacrifice your own life to defend another. In fact, doing so is a proper response to the sinful natures of both the defender and the defended: the defender overcomes his self-centered desire for self-preservation; the defended does not have to defend himself and must accept the blessing from another.
Considering the New Testament emphasis on developing humility and agape, and on crucifying sinful nature with its self-centered demands, it seems we must reject our natural tendency to defend or protect ourselves out of selfish interests. Instead, we are to be willing to do whatever is best for others, sometimes avoiding danger so we can serve more, at other times facing danger and voluntarily sacrificing self if doing so benefits others. Consider a secular example: a person may be willing to risk his own life in military service to protect family, community and country. Even the world considers this honorable. Jesus also sets an example: he knew his purpose on earth included sacrificing his life for the benefit of mankind enslaved to sin, yet he preserved himself to continue teaching and serving until it was time for his death. It is significant that Jesus apparently knew how, when and why he would die (Jn 13:1; 12:32-33; Lk 9:22; Mt 10:28; Jn 3:14-17); we do not know unless God shows us.

Many of the scriptures we have examined relate to our interaction with other individuals; some relate specifically to interaction with other believers. But as we have seen, there also are statements in scripture about believers joyfully accepting imprisonment and confiscation of their property. We must realize it was the government that imprisoned the believers and seized their property; not thieves, not individuals. Even when individuals persecuted Christians, the persecutors often had the support of the government. Is it possible the issue in those instances was submission to authority rather than self defense?

Peace Is Not Always Possible

Though we maintain that perfect peace will come on the earth only through God's direct intervention, scripture is very clear about our responsibility to introduce peace to this world. God is the God of peace (Rom 15:23; 1 Th 5:23; Heb 13:20), we have peace with God through Jesus (Acts 10:36; Rom 5:1) and he has called us to live in peace (1 Co 7:15; 2 Co 13:11). In his discussion about not paying back evil for evil and the taking of vengeance, Paul says, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Rom 12:18; also Heb 12:14). If there is something we can do to avoid arguments or violence with others, then we are to do so.

This does not mean, however, that we are to consistently allow evil people to do whatever they want, simply to "keep the peace." For example, Proverbs 25:26 describes a righteous man who gives way to the wicked as a polluted well. If we are aware of someone's evil intentions that will bring harm to others, we certainly would not seek peace by giving in to their demands. For example, you do not turn your child over to a child molester just to "keep peace."

Similarly, some Christians feel that the western world should not disarm because this would allow totalitarian countries to take over and destroy the lives of millions. This is an issue of self defense, rather than an issue of faith alone. Because some individuals, groups or nations are clearly bent on dominating and abusing others, maintaining the peace at times may be impossible without a strong defense.

So "peace" cannot always be the Christian's response, due to the evil intent of others. For example, the term "tough love" has become a popular description of our responses to another's sin. In scripture, we see that Paul did not allow the immoral brother to continue influencing the Corinthians, though they may have felt it would keep the peace to allow him to remain. Instead, Paul said to expel him (1 Cor. 5:13). To another church, Paul instructed that if a person refuses to work, he should not receive the community's support: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Th 3:10). And if someone did not obey Paul's instructions, the church was not to associate with him to make him feel ashamed (2 Th. 3:14). The apostle John wrote that we are to refuse to welcome a brother who is teaching a different Christ (2 John 9-10). These are corrective actions intended to eventually restore the peace between spiritual brothers, but the short term effect to is disturb the peace. Jesus himself, who brought us peace with God, stated "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10:34). He then shows that the gospel will sever some relationships and create enemies within a person's own household. Yes, God is the God of peace and we are to live at peace to the extent possible, but as long as we live in a sin-dominated world that is hostile to our God and his kingdom, we will not always have peace. It is clear from these scriptures that our actions must occasionally and briefly disturb the peace so that long-term peace can be restored.

The New Testament is clearly a handbook for the individual, not a dissertation on the operation of government. As Americans, we recognize that a primary duty of the federal government is to provide for the defense of the populace. Likewise, God protects us so we don't have to protect ourselves; and he does a much better job of it. It appears this is a case of God requiring individuals to have very different responses than governments or even groups.

As with all systems of law, we see that a spiritual law may be superseded by another under certain conditions. In the natural realm, we understand that the law of aerodynamic lift can supersede the law of gravity under certain conditions, allowing an airplane to fly. I suggest we must see the law of peace superseded under certain conditions by other spiritual laws. Thus it occasionally is necessary for us act in self-sacrificing love, for example, even using non-peaceful means, to protect a principle or another person.

I think many people mistakenly believe that peace overrides all other factors, that we must do anything necessary to maintain peace. But that is not so; Jesus and the apostles certainly didn't do that. The New Testament clearly states that love overrides all other factors, but it does not say that about peace.

One of the biggest arguments against Christians defending themselves is that we are called to live in peace. It is clear from the scriptures and principles we have just examined that peace will not and cannot be the overriding issue in all situations. There are times when a Christian must knowingly and deliberately break the peace to achieve a higher good. This in no way condones anarchy or a hostile nature. But God's kingdom and his righteousness (his work and his character; Mt 6:33) must be our highest priority, and this sometimes requires us to respond non-peacefully to a sinful world. Peace is not always possible.

What About Revolt? [An excerpt from the author's article on civil disobedience]

The existence of an oppressive government does not justify an individual's rebellion. But does it justify a united revolt? Are men justified in pledging their lives to protect others, dying to save others from oppression? Some would argue the Maccabees were wrong to revolt against Roman rule in 66 AD, that their defeat is evidence of God's disapproval. Some would argue the American colonists were wrong to revolt against British rule, that it was wrong to kill British troops in defense of the colonists' perceived rights.

But is it really wrong to be willing to sacrifice your life to protect the innocent, to defend their freedom, to throw off the oppression that threatens to crush them? Is not self-sacrifice for the benefit of others the basic definition of agape? Is violence never justified? Even in someone else's defense? Or is it only appropriate to stand by and watch someone being abused?

I think refusal to protect or defend another reflects a complete misunderstanding of agape, one of the most fundamental and obvious characteristics of godly nature. The only question in my mind relates to the use of physical force to protect or defend another.

A perspective of life and self defense

Consider the following verses and what they say about believers in non-peaceful situations.

  • Philippians 1:20-26. "To live is Christ and to die is gain." Paul was ready to die, but he was willing to stay for the benefit of others' progress and joy in the faith.
  • Philippians 1:27-28. Do not be frightened in any way by those who oppose you.
  • Philippians 1:29. The believers at Philippi were allowed to suffer for (on behalf of) Christ, as Paul had.
  • Philippians 4:6. Don't be anxious (fearful) about anything; present your requests to God, by implication entrusting the results to him.
  • 2 Timothy 2:3. Endure hardship as discipline.
  • 2 Timothy 3:12. "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted."
  • Hebrews 12:7, 10-11. Endure hardship as discipline, which is unpleasant for a time but produces long-term benefits of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
  • Hebrews 13:13. Let us be willing to bear the disgrace that Jesus bore: a torturous, humiliating death.
  • James 1:2-4. Because you know having your faith tested develops perseverance, you can consider it pure joy to face many kinds of trials. This is turn leads to maturity and completeness.
  • James 1:12. Consider the man who perseveres under trial to be blessed.
  • 1 Peter 2:20-23. We may suffer for doing good, because God has called us to this. Jesus served as our example: he was sinless and without deceit, received people's insults but did not retaliate. He suffered without threatening those who abused him.
  • 1 Peter 4:12-14. Rejoice that you participate in painful trails, anticipating the revelation of the Lord's glory in you now, not just when he returns. If insulted for the Lord, you are blessed and the Holy Spirit rests on you.
  • 1 Peter 4:19. If you suffer according to God's will (in a manner that pleases him), commit yourself to him and continue to do good.
  • 1 Peter 5:7. "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."
  • 1 Peter 5:10. After God has allowed you to suffer a little while, he will restore you. He will use your suffering as a tool to develop godly character in you.
  • 2 Peter 2:9. The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials; this implies God's ability to do so. The grammar can mean God can cause us to avoid trials; it can also mean he can cause us to survive and exit our trials. The best interpretation may be that he can do both.
  • Revelation 12:11. The Bible honors those who do not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
  • Revelation 13:7. The beast was given power to make war against the saints and conquer them. So, who could give such authority? Satan has the power to kill, but is limited by God's authority. God makes his people victorious and protects them. So who could give the beast authority to conquer the saints, if not God? If God allows believers to be conquered or killed, should they defend themselves?
  • Revelation 13:10. Some believers go into captivity, others are killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness by the saints.
  • Revelation 13:15. Those who refuse to worship the beast's image will be killed. This says nothing about whether they defend themselves.
These verses violate our natural desire to defend and protect ourselves from hardship. They clearly show that God has control of all kinds of hardships and uses them to bless his people. And for that reason alone, we should consider it joy and rejoice that we are privileged to suffer as Christ did. If we find ourselves in one of those situations and choose to fight the circumstances, would we not be resisting that which God wants to use to develop us?

Acts 14:22 says "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." So if hardships are part of the process, how should we respond to them? Accept them as part of the process. Jesus said if someone wanted to follow him, "let him deny himself [and] take up his cross." It is neither appropriate nor desirable to defend yourself from something that helps you enter God's kingdom.

When a known danger existed, Jesus and the apostles generally avoided the danger; unless that particular danger was part of their mission. Jesus went to Jerusalem, knowing he would be crucified. Paul went to Jerusalem knowing he would be arrested.

Romans 8:28 is a very interesting and important verse: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." It would be easy to interpret this to mean that God causes everything that happens to us to be good. I think that is a wrong interpretation. The phrase, "in all things . . . works," is from a Greek verb having the same meaning as the English word "synergy." Synergy means the combination of two or more items has a compounding, not just additive, effect. For example, one shall put a thousand to flight and two shall put ten thousand to flight, not just two thousand; that is synergy. That is the concept in Romans 8:28. Though everything that happens to us may not in itself be good, the combined effect of all that God allows us to experience will produce a compounded benefit.

We see a similar effect in Romans 8:36-37. On one hand, we face death all day and are to consider ourselves as sheep to be slaughtered. Yet there is a paradox in Christianity, because in all these things we are more than conquerors. If God causes everything to benefit us, who can do us harm? He synergistically compounds the effects of our experiences (both wonderful and catastrophic) to benefit us. As a result, we are more than successful, more than conquerors, benefitted more than could be expected from the experience itself. That does not make our hardships any more pleasant, but it does enable us to face them with confidence.

Let us consider how this might work. If in a situation you exercise your sinful nature, maybe by struggling to protect your belongings, you receive the results produced by your sinful nature and thwart the benefits of righteousness you could have gained. If someone seeks to do you harm, and out of concern for your own well-being you choose to defend yourself, you have invoked your sinful nature. Doing so produces results compatible with the sinful nature, such as conflict, harm and loss. If instead you trust God to take care of you, he will work this experience together with all your others synergistically for your long-term benefit. If you are willing to experience loss and suffering, this allows God to work for your benefit and make you more than a conqueror. How can you be more than victorious? One way is to receive all the benefits of total victory without having to produce the victory by your own efforts.

As we focus on defeating our own sinful nature (which is our responsibility, with his power), God is free to govern everything else that affects us (which is his responsibility). Because God honors the free will he gave us, if we choose to control our circumstances, he usually backs off and allows us to experience results of our efforts and the spiritual laws that work against us. If instead we entrust ourselves to his care, we allow him to work according to his power and glory, and the spiritual laws work to our benefit. Keep in mind that our covenant is not earth-based as were the Old Testament covenants. So our covenant benefits are not limited to the temporal or natural. In an earth-based covenant, we could expect results similar to Job's: his final result was greater prosperity (same number of sons and daughters as before, but twice as wealthy, very long life). In our new and better covenant, we are able to use tangible resources to create (lay up) intangible, spiritual, more valuable treasures. From this perspective, we should become willing to not defend selves, to accept tragedy and keep going. This defeats our sinful nature and allows God to do what is best for us in the long run.

Self defense is an area of concern among believers. It is controversial, and there are many mature and devout people on each side of the issue. Each of us must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Php 2:12), which suggests we will not all respond to these issues the same way. Each must find out what pleases God (Eph 5:10), and what he wants you to do in a given situation may be very different from what he would expect of me. Each must have a personal relationship with the God of all creation. This is not a matter of cookie-cutter Christianity, in which all of us behave and appear exactly same way. It is reasonable therefore to expect each believer to have a little different response to the question, "How much should I depend on God to do everything for me, and how much should I do on my own in a manner I believe pleases him?"

We buy clothes primarily for modesty and protection from the weather. We buy or rent homes to protect ourselves from weather, animals and people who might harm us. We buy insurance to cover potential health and medical expenses. We invest in retirement funds to provide for future needs. We expect protection from credit card theft and fraud. We lock our homes to protect ourselves and our belongings. Why do we take all these protective measures? Because we don't trust God to protect us? Do we protect our children from drug dealers and pedophiles because we don't think God can or will? Should we get flu shots? Should we stop killing bugs, fleas and mosquitos that can spread disease? Should we not be concerned about cooking meats and eggs to correct temperatures to kill parasites and bacteria? Should we stop washing our hands and cleansing food utensils? Should we not take food supplements to protect our bodies from illness or malnutrition? Should we protect our children from dangerous animals or circumstances? The point is this: We take a variety of measures to protect ourselves from circumstances, animals and people who might harm us. We consider these prudent measures, not lapses of faith.

One thing that should distinguish a Christian from others is the conviction that God provides protection that surpasses our ability to protect ourselves. This conviction motivates some of us to simply not take measures others consider essential, or to be unconcerned if we cannot afford them. What would your reaction be if I decided not to get health and medical insurance or go to a doctor, but instead put full confidence in Jesus as my healer? Would you consider me naive? Or would you consider me more spiritual than yourself? Or would you conclude that I simply had different convictions? (For your information, I have good medical insurance.) If it's wrong to protect ourselves, should we disable safety devices in our vehicles, such as seat belts and air bags? Again, how do we care for ourselves in a way that is both responsible and honors God? If it's wrong to protect ourselves, maybe we should have the same philosophy as the Muslims, who believe that whatever happens to them is Allah's will, so they don't concern themselves at all with safety. Do we really believe it's always wrong to protect or defend ourselves? Or are we saying it's okay to protect ourselves a little bit but not a lot, or from little threats but not big ones? Or do we believe it's inappropriate to protect ourselves from other people, but okay to defend ourselves from everything else? If that's the case, why do we lock our doors? What do we really believe?

On one hand, self-defense is a strong motivation of our sinful nature, which is inherently self-centered. My sinful nature or flesh wants to do everything possible to please myself, protect myself, promote myself and pamper myself. Crucifying my sinful nature involves rejecting its self-centered demands. On the other hand, self defense is responsible behavior, such as taking prudent measures to protect ourselves from harm. I don't think we can say that all forms of self defense are either right or wrong for all Christians. I also don't think we should criticize or judge other believers for defending themselves or for refusing to do so.

One concept that's basically lost in western culture is covenants, yet we enter into covenants without realizing it. Our relationships with our spouse and God are covenants. In a covenant, you do what you can but rely on your covenant partner to help you. For example, in other cultures it is common to make a cut on one's body representing a covenant and to produce a permanent visible scar. If threatened by someone, you could show the covenant scar as a sign the assailant will have to deal with your covenant partner, too. Often this is enough of a deterrent, and the assailant will leave you alone.

Old Testament covenants with God included the provision that God would protect his people from harm. Old Testament covenants focused on earthly existence and material blessing. The covenant of the New Testament is very different and superior to those of the Old Testament. It is a spiritual covenant rather than material one. In the New Testament covenant, we become members of God's family, not just recipients of his blessings. We participate in God's kingdom, not just observe his works. God lives within us, rather than just visit occasionally. In the Old Testament, material prosperity was a sign of God's blessing. In the New, the poor are considered blessed because they recognize their dependance on God. These are very, very different covenants, so we need to be careful about using Old Testament precedents for such issues as self defense. Jesus said, you have heard an eye for an eye, but I tell you turn the other cheek. There is a fundamental difference. The emphasis of the New Testament is on attitude rather than works and it requires specific attitudes in all believers: humility and agape.

In the context of self defense, humility suggests you should not protect yourself, strongly rejecting the demands of sinful human nature, which claims the right of self protection. In the new covenant, self-orientation is associated with sinful nature, which must be crucified or put to death. In the new covenant, we are told to deny self and take up our cross; figuratively, a cross is that which threatens great harm or destruction. The new covenant puts a premium on agape, which is self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Considering the attributes of humility and agape, it seems a proper response to threat is not to protect self, but to give self to protect others; both of these counter the sinful motivation to protect yourself.

As we cited earlier, Romans 14:19 states we should make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Does condoning criminal activity or withholding punishment lead to peace? Does allowing someone to steal or commit violence build them up according to scripture? The issue of self defense is rarely black and white; usually it is a question of which principles to follow in any given situation. Remember: there are times when one principle or law must supersede another.

Consider Ephesians 5:25, which says husbands should love their wives as Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for it, sacrificing himself to preserve it from death to sin. Would God hold a husband responsible for not intervening in his wife's behalf if her life were in danger? Jesus told his disciples a person cannot exhibit greater love for others than by laying down his life for them (John 15:13). This usually applies to sacrificing your own desires and interests, even your needs, for the benefit of others; but it also includes giving up your life for them. This kind of self-sacrifice includes such efforts as trying to bring a life-threatening situation under control, even if it means dying in the process of saving others. There is no room for cowardice in self-sacrifice.

I read an article while researching this topic that said we should not protect our family members, but entrust them to the Lord's care. The authors said that we are to regard our own bodies as living sacrifices, belonging to our Creator, so we are to view the mortal bodies of our loved ones in the same way. I wonder if the two ladies who wrote this article would want their husbands to stand by and do nothing as they get assaulted by thugs. Would they not want their husbands to love them enough to provide for their needs, including protection from disease, malnutrition, weather or thieves? The authors also quoted Matthew 10:37, which says that anyone who loves his relatives more than he loves Jesus is not worthy of him. It seems to me this verse is making a contrast; it does not say I should hate my family members and stand back passively, allowing them to be attacked or killed. It says I should love Jesus more than I love those who are closest to me on this earth.

Another article I read advocated learning martial arts for self defense, rationalizing that Satan will use any means to eliminate a believer, and a dead believer cannot fight the devil. I suggest, instead, that God is not dependent on us to defeat the devil. Jesus defeated Satan by dying on the cross and rising from the grave. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. All powers eventually will submit to him or be crushed by him. In the meantime, Jesus is still in control even if it appears evil is winning. The kingdom of God is a matter of power, but that power is spiritual authority, not human muscle or cleverness. If we put our confidence in marital arts or gun ownership or any other human-centered defense, we are thinking like the world and are already defeated. Jesus is victorious, with or without our participation and involvement. Those who look forward, as I do, to God's kingdom ruling the earth in righteousness and destroying every trace of evil will have to wait until Jesus returns. Because until then Satan is still prince of this world and evil still reigns. We cannot defeat evil with human force; that effort in itself would be a work of our sinful nature, an expression of the very thing we would be trying to destroy. The spiritual principle we are to apply is this: overcome evil with good, not greater effort by sinful human nature.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, we read that the mortal body is temporary, and grossly inferior to our future eternal body. Being in a mortal body is separation from the Lord, and we would prefer to leave our mortal body and be with Lord. This has rather obvious implications for defense of the mortal body. When faced with a death threat, maybe our response should be, "Make my day! Send me home!"

In addition to the article I read about Christian martial arts, I also found Christian articles about private ownership of guns; articles strongly in favor and articles strongly opposed. Gun ownership is currently a civil right in America, and any right given by man is tentative. It may become illegal in America to own any type of firearm; it already is in an increasing number of previously free countries. To me, the issue is one of human nature, rather than the existence of a certain type of weapon. People kill people, whether they use traditional weapons, poison, automobiles or their bare hands. Because secular society will not and indeed cannot address sinful human nature, all attempts -- and I repeat, all attempts -- to eliminate crime by eliminating weapons will fail. From a human perspective, some consider private ownership of weapons a deterrent to crime and tyranny. From a Christian perspective, our confidence should never be placed in our own abilities, yet we are wise to take what we consider prudent measures.

He who fails to dress properly in freezing weather, claiming Jesus is his healer, is naive if not foolish. If God specifically tells him to go out without proper dress in a particular instance, that is a different matter. But to be presumptuous is to act foolishly. As Christians, we lock the doors of our homes. We keep our car keys in our pockets or purses, not in the ignition switch. Do these actions demonstrate lack of faith? No, they are prudent measures while living in a sinful world. Yet our confidence is ultimately in the Lord, not our prudent measures. If the government passes a law making household locks illegal, nothing really changes; our confidence ultimately is in the Lord. And under such a law, if anyone entered our house to take our property, whether a criminal or government representative, should the nature of our faith change? What if the person, either a criminal or government representative, intended us physical harm? Should our perspective change? My point is this: if our government strips us of any means to protect ourselves, whatever the motive might be, our perspective must not change. Christianity is relationship with God Almighty and is independent of the civil government under which we live. Civil government may influence the outward expression of our relationship with God, but can never take it away.

The Old Testament included a law regarding the use of deadly force against an intruder in your home, and the issue was the conditions under which the homeowner killed the intruder. Defending family and home was not the issue; use of weapons was not the issue; even killing the intruder at night was not an issue. The issue was whether the homeowner killed the intruder during the day, when he could better judge the intruder's intention and the intruder could see the homeowner was present and willing to protect his household. Displaying a weapon and being willing to use it can be and often is a deterrent. The right of the homeowner to defend his household was granted under specific conditions in the Old Testament. The New Testament does not clearly take away that right, which suggests it still exists.

Those totally opposed to weapons may cite the absence of swords or their use in the New Testament after the Day of Pentecost. Scripture also doesn't refer to sandals after the Book of Acts, but we can be certain believers continued to wear them. Swords were common in those days, so if it were wrong for believers to own or use swords, we can expect scripture to clearly say so; but it doesn't.

The New Testament includes incidents involving soldiers, which were perfect opportunities to oppose killing of any kind, but such opposition is absent. In Luke 3:14, soldiers asked John what they should do; this was a perfect opportunity for John to tell them to resign from the military or not to kill. But he responded by telling them not to extort money or accuse people falsely, and to be content with their pay. In Acts 10, we see Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian regiment, a devout and God-fearing man. An angel appeared to him in a vision, did not rebuke him for being a soldier, but instead indicated his prayers and gifts to the poor were special to God. The angel directed him to send for Peter. This lead to Peter overcoming his religious bias against non-Jews and to the first gentile believers being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Imagine: professional warriors being told to be content with their pay and being honored by God for their prayers and gifts to the poor!

The Old Testament Law recognized the legitimate human need to defend self, family and possessions. The reality is that we live in a hostile, dangerous world. The New Testament doesn't negate any of that and Jesus' teachings and parables even allude to weapons and defensive actions. But the new covenant is far superior to all of the old covenants; the old covenants were flawed, in part because they were oriented to earthly existence and didn't provide means for overcoming sinful human nature. The focus of the new covenant is reconciliation of man to God, which includes death of the sinful nature and development of godly character; these have eternal benefits. So the New Testament doesn't invalidate the Old; rather it supersedes the Old. Self defense is not prohibited under the new covenant, so you won't lose your salvation if you protect yourself and yours; but self defense may be an inferior response. There may come a time when you are faced with a threat, and you put your guard down because you know this affliction will be light and momentary compared to the long term benefit of rejecting your sinful nature's demand for protection. "Death to my sinful nature!" is always an appropriate response to hardship or danger. Why do you suppose Jesus set such an example? He was showing us the most effective way to overcome the sinful nature that enslaves us: deny yourself (the demands of your sinful nature), take up your cross (embrace that which is intended to cause great harm) and follow or emulate him.

The New Testament repeatedly tells us that God protects his people from harm. So why are so many believers persecuted and killed? We have mentioned several examples of a person living until his work is completed (Jesus, Paul, two witnesses of Revelation 11). I object to remarks that someone died before their time, or that Satan took someone's life. I really cannot imagine God having to apologize to someone for not protecting them from Satan's attack, allowing them to die prematurely. Either Jesus is Lord of all and knows how to protect his people, or the Bible misrepresents him. To think that Satan can steal someone's life before God is finished with them is to foolishly accuse of God of having less power or authority than Satan, or of not paying attention to what is happening to his people.

Let me offer some tentative conclusions. A person's position on self defense seems to be related to his spiritual maturity, to what God is requiring of him, and to the character God gave him. Scripture does not specifically prohibit a person from defending himself or his family from physical threat. Defending yourself is a natural instinct; some would argue it is natural to sinful nature. I don't think we can say self defense is any worse than any other self-centered action. We saw scriptures earlier that showed Jesus and Paul both avoiding danger until their tasks were completed, then they willingly gave up their lives. God calls us to deny ourselves (the self-centered demands of our sinful nature) and take up our cross (embrace that which is intended to do you great harm). As a believer grows in humility and agape, his emphasis shifts to serving others and self defense seems to become less of an issue because he so deeply trusts God's care, provision and protection; that should be the goal for all of us.

Defending yourself is not among the sins listed in the New Testament. Defending one's family is not only proper but expected. Defending one's spiritual brothers and sisters is proper by the same token. Defending one's neighbor should be an expression of "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lk 10:27); this applies to a person in need, regardless of their spiritual condition or even whether you know them. How can you love someone as yourself if you offer him no assistance in an emergency? To stand by or walk away would be similar to the ways of the Pharisees, whom Jesus rebuked in the parable of the good Samaritan.

I see two fundamental character traits advocated in the New Testament: humility and agape. Humility is an attitude that considers yourself not to be more important than others. Agape is self-sacrificing love, a love that considers others' needs and interests more important than your own. Is protecting yourself from assault compatible with agape? I don't know, but humility might be the key in self protection. Is endangering yourself to protect others compatible with agape? Certainly, in fact this is almost the definition of agape. We see a similar point in Philippians 2:29-30, where Paul commends a believer who almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to help Paul. So maybe the question of self defense has less to do with "defense" than "self."

In many of the articles and books I read, the authors tried to show that godly character would prevent a person from responding to an attack or using violence as a defense. Several used the scriptural reference to "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" as support for their pacifist position (2 Co 10:1). There is no question that Jesus was meek and gentle. But on occasion he became very un-gentle: publicly rebuking the religious leaders, using physical force to drive merchants from temple, maybe even using force to knock down those who came to arrest him before his crucifixion. Two of his parables referred to his killing those who oppose him (Lk 19:11-27; 20:9-16). His appearance on a white horse in Revelation 19:11-13 is not what we consider a gentle image: he judges and makes war, his eyes are like blazing fire, his robe was dipped in blood. So an accurate understanding of the words "meek" and "gentle" is important.

There are two Greek words we need to examine, which are translated "meekness" and "gentleness" in 2 Corinthians 10:1. One word (epieikes) refers to what is right or fitting, equable, moderate, reasonable, or gentle. Jesus has a gentleness that only one with full power may display. The weak want to assert themselves, but the Lord has absolute authority and power, yet he does only what is appropriate. This gentleness is clearly not derived from weakness; on the contrary, it describes a moderated, gentle use of overwhelming force when appropriate. The other Greek word (prautes) is applied to mild objects, tame animals, gentle or pleasant people, kind or lenient action. Like the other word, it has meaning only if the subject has great power or strength. Consider a tame horse, which has great strength but is under the control of its rider; that is meekness. The meekness of Christ has significance since he is King of kings and Lord of lords yet chooses to invite and persuade and even rebuke when appropriate, but not threaten. Keep in mind Jesus' gentleness and meekness on earth were relevant to his mission. He came to earth to defeat Satan by living a sinless life and offering himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. He could have called thousands of angels to his defense, but did not. He had authority to invoke overwhelming power, but did not because doing so would have violated his mission. That is gentleness and meekness. This is the same Jesus who destroyed the earth with a flood, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, who drowned Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea. This is the same Jesus who will return as conqueror, destroy the armies that oppose him and throw those who reject him into lake of fire for eternal torment. He does not assert himself with arrogance, nor does he flaunt his power or brandish it for personal advantage. He is under control and yielded to the will of his Father. This is the meekness and gentleness of Christ.

Many would have us believe that meekness and gentleness mean we should never exhibit strength, but should be content to be the weakest and lowest. Instead, as we have seen, meekness and gentleness are relevant traits only if the person possessing them has great power and strength. Many would point to Jesus' use of a little child as an example, implying we should be devoid of power or ability. Instead Jesus used little children as examples of trust and dependence, not the absence of strength or ability.

Let's assume you are walking by yourself when someone steps out of a shadow, pushes a pistol or knife into your ribs and demands your money and jewelry. Your self defense options are very limited and you have a major disadvantage: the element of surprise and a great imbalance of power. Common sense indicates you have no alternative; submit out of weakness and hope to recover your possessions later. The godly trait of humility would cause you to choose not to protect yourself or your possessions.

Assume, instead, that the assailant is much smaller than you and is only carrying a small stick. Common sense says you have an advantage and can probably resist successfully. Humility again might dictate that you choose not to protect yourself or your possessions. Notice that your response may be the same, regardless of the balance of power, because the issue is not whether you can successfully resist. The bigger issue is whether you honor or reject your sinful nature's demand to protect yourself and possessions. It certainly is not worth risking major injury or death trying to protect a few material possessions.

Other questions then arise: Should you report the theft to police and provide a description of the assailant? Some would say you should not, because that represents asserting your sinful nature to get your possessions back or seeking revenge. Others point out that the issue changes. At the moment of the assault, the issue is self defense. But afterward, you are trusting the police to do their job of protecting society by administering justice and punishing the criminal. As I write this in the comfort and security of my home, considering this hypothetical situation, I suggest it is appropriate to aid the police in their job of administering justice. The alternative is to condone injustice. If the assailant is caught, however, it is appropriate to press charges (assisting the system of justice which protects society) and pray the experience will benefit the assailant in light of his or her eternal destiny. It is your decision whether to report the theft and pursue justice.

Someone broke into our home several years ago and stole valuables that could be converted easily to cash. We reported the incident but never recovered anything. I must recognize that if a similar situation occurs in the future, God may direct me to not even report the incident as an opportunity to reject my sinful nature's desires; that's entirely possible, but I would expect that to be the exception. Generally I believe it is appropriate to pursue justice, but we always need to consider our motives and what God requires of us at the time. Some may think it's hypocritical to claim humility prohibits self defense but allows helping the police enforce justice. I believe it's possible for humility to help the police, and leave the results in their hands and God's. Humility is willing to relinquish control to another.


In this article we made an in-depth examination of scripture to look at the various aspects of self defense and to avoid basing our conclusions on a few isolated verses. We recognized the uniqueness of the New Testament, the new covenant through which we are reconciled to God. We saw that the covenants of the Old Testament were primarily about earthly existence, while the new covenant emphasizes the development of godly character and eternal reward.

We saw that the Bible prohibits murder, but not killing. We also saw that the ownership and use of weapons are not prohibited. But it seems the issue of self defense is less related to "defense" than to "self."

The New Testament says not to defend yourself when someone takes legitimate legal action against you requiring you to do what the law requires, or simply asking to borrow from you. You also are not to defend yourself against actions by the government; this issue is dealt with in greater detail in the author's article on civil disobedience. This is different from someone who breaks the law trying to do you harm, because it is appropriate to defend yourself against illegal actions. However, you must pray for those who persecute you, and bless those who intend you harm.

In conflicts between believers, have other believers judge.

While it may not always be appropriate to defend yourself, scripture encourages you to care and provide for others, which includes defending them and giving your life for them.

Godly character traits and attitudes receive the greatest attention in the New Testament; in particular, humility and agape. We can conclude that humility prohibits us from seeking vengeance, but not law enforcement and justice. There may be occasions in which humility prohibits you from defending yourself, however.

Agape, on the other hand, almost demands that you sacrifice yourself for the well-being and benefit of others, whether that involves working to meet their basic human needs, interests and desires, or actually giving up your life to prolong theirs. So defending another person, especially a family member, is not only appropriate but required of godly character. In my opinion, suggestions that we must be weak and pacifist are based on misinterpretations of scripture or unfortunate translations of the original text. The New Testament presents Jesus and Paul as examples. Both were very powerful and bold men who were not reluctant to publicly confront those who opposed the work of God, and who willingly sacrificed themselves for the benefit of others.

We will not see everything the same way, nor will we act exactly the same, especially with regard to something as controversial as self defense. And that does not mean one person is right and the other is wrong. Instead, what we believe and do is based on the unique character God has given each of us, our spiritual development, our interpretation of scripture, and what God requires of us in a given situation. The real question is this: What is God requiring of me?

The simple fact is that the New Testament does not make a clear, universal statement prohibiting self defense. I think this indicates that God allows us and even expects us to take different positions on the subject, because we all have different God-given purposes in life.