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Jan 27 2010

Acts of Penance and Self-Flagellation

Acts of Penance - Self-Beating with a whip

Many years ago, I lived in a middle-eastern country where during a particular religious holiday (Ashura), people would go out into the streets and mourn over the death of their prophet Mohammed’s grandson.  There were a large number of foreigners living in that country, Americans, British, German, among others.  Foreigners would stay in their homes and not leave until this two or three day mourning was over.  It was not safe to venture outside.  The mourning would entail beating oneself with chains and even cutting oneself.  They even taught their young children to do the same during this time.  This was done according to this particular branch of Islam.  I now read that John Paul II would beat himself with a belt as an act of penance.  According to the newly published book  “Why he’s a saint,” Msgr Oder who is charged with the review of John Paul’s life to prepare a case for John Paul’s sainthood, stated that he had a belt in which he would take with him to the Pope’s summer residence.  A nun stated she would hear John Paul whipping himself.  She states “”We would hear it – we were in the next room at Castel Gandolfo. You could hear the sound of the blows when he flagellated himself.”

As I read this article, I could only feel sadness.  To be honest, I did not really believe those in charge of Catholicism really believed what they taught but was a means to keep the Catholics in line.  I really thought that.  I mean, how can anyone read the Word of God and come away with the teaching and believe that God wants us to whip ourselves?  No one in the bible does it.  No one in the Old Testament beat themselves and certainly no one in the New Testament beat themselves.  Christ bore our penalty on the cross.  It is done and it is finished.  For the believer, God has declared them justified under the law through the punishment Christ bore and there is no further punishment.  You can lay down your belts and whips.

As I stated above, I read the article with much sadness.  John Paul believed that if he whipped himself hard enough and caused himself enough pain, God would notice him.  He whipped himself so hard that the self-inflicted blows could be heard in the next room.  It was all so very unnecessary.  He had the bible and needed to look no further than the Word of God.  No belts or whips were needed.  It really was a sad image of a man devoting his life to a religion believing God wanted him to harm himself so that is what he did.  He whipped himself hard enough to be heard in another room.

The following video demonstrates what happens when people do not stick to God’s Word.


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  1. Margaret


    It is true that self-flagellation like that is no where in the Bible….. In a similar sense, all this sort of purposeful straying from the true word of God is seen in the Bible with the teachings of the Pharisees and Saducees….. They simply made up all sorts of rules and “laws” that they laid on the hearts of the people….. The laws they came up with did not include the kind of self-flagellation like the Catholics came up with, but they were definite hardships and impossible to perfectly keep….. Jesus condemned them all.

    Such man-made rules can only come from the evil one because they cause people to stumble in their faith, hope, and love….. Thank you for graphically pointing this out….. Hopefully, people trapped in this sort of belief will read this and come to understand the true grace of God….. They just don’t know the love of God….. There is no love in what these people do.


    1. Tishrei

      I’ll be honest, I was stunned when I read about what he used to do. It was such a sad picture — the pope in a room all by himself beating himself with a belt thinking that this is what God wanted of him.

      I guess the only difference (though certainly wrong as Jesus has lots to say about it) as far as the Pharisees’ is they kept to the law of Moses but created fence laws to protect the law. Those fence laws that they created made it a hardship and impossible to keep. Those fence laws are still in effect today and are incredibly cumbersome.

  2. Liz

    thanks for sharing this. Man made traditions this is all it is. Nothing to do with God. They may think it does but it is just not so.

    1. Tishrei

      Yeah, it is just man made traditions that they think will please God.

  3. pttyann

    It’s amazing to me the lengths people will go to prove they know God and to think they are being forgiven by the things they do,and it is so sad at how blind they are.And yet they refuse Jesus who is truth and light and life,we must just keep praying for God to help them get into relationship with Jesus before it’s to late,and that info about the Pope I did not know umm makes you think what’s really being taught in the Catholic Church.Have a wonderful day Tishrei :)

    1. Tishrei

      Thanks Pat. Like you, I hope and pray that they can come to Jesus. Also I had no idea that he was whipping himself with a belt. That was so sad when I read it.

  4. Loren

    I got a hold of a book one time about “Ascetic Monasticism in the Middle Ages” (I know, it sounds fascinating, huh :)

    Anyway, some of the practices that these people did make the Pope’s whipping himself with a belt look pretty tame. People would sleep on beds of nails, expose themselves to the elements with little or no clothing, stuff their clothes with raw straw so they would be “itchy” all day (that one creeped me out the most, I think!), and one monk even lived for several years atop a post 18 inches wide (he even slept up there and had attendants bring him his food, remove his “bedpans”, etc.). And these were some of the less morbid examples, the greater of which I shall refrain from mentioning.

    Why did these people do all of this? Because they wanted to “identify” with the suffering of our Savior. To me, it goes beyond bad taste and unbridled masochism, it is an insult to the Lord Jesus Christ. To intentionally make your own life less comfortable and then pretend that you are paying a price for your sin is actually heretical. JESUS bore our sins, HE was bruised for our iniquities, HIS STRIPES (whip-lashes) healed our sin (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24).

    To smack yourself with a belt and then pretend that you have really done something meaningful for God is ridiculous.

    1. PaulFan

      To intentionally make your own life less comfortable and then pretend that you are paying a price for your sin is actually heretical. JESUS bore our sins, HE was bruised for our iniquities, HIS STRIPES (whip-lashes) healed our sin

      Well said Loren.

    2. Tishrei

      Hi Loren,

      LOL on your comment on “Ascetic Monasticism in the Middle Ages.”

      Great comment. However, I kept thinking about the guy who lived on top of an 18 inch post. That’s INSANE. My jaw dropped when I read that. How did he bathe? (I know, it’s probably a girl thing to think about things like that). But seriously, he thought that he was pleasing God by doing something so unbelievably insane, that he earned some sort of brownie points?

      You got me thinking about identifying with the suffering of our Lord. I don’t think it’s possible (my opinion). I don’t think we can even begin to really understand the suffering He endured — we can get a glimpse of His turmoil when He was praying in the garden that He sweated like drops of blood. And then when He cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Sure we know He suffered physically (unimaginable to us) but it was so much more than that. It was the sins being placed on Him that is beyond anything we can even comprehend. I don’t think we are capable.

    3. Repent Harlequin

      “Ascetic Monasticism in the Middle Ages”

      I think I’ll wait for the movie to come out.

  5. PaulFan

    Nice article. I don’t understand the whole idea of Penance in the Catholic religion. While I do believe that we should expect to be persecuted as Christians, I can’t find anything in the bible that tells us to harm ourselves out of devotion to Jesus Christ. Of course, I also cannot find anything in the bible that tells us it is okay to pray to Mary. But I digress.

    In regard to the video and the supposed picture of Mary in the fountain, I believe these types of things are exciting to many Catholics because there is a great amount of superstition among Catholics. I believe the religion actually encourages this superstition and it self-perpetuates.

    I am sure there are Catholics who have been chosen by God to follow Jesus Christ and that they have been given salvation. As for the Roman Catholic church itself, I believe it has become the Harlot as spoken of in the scripture, leading its followers to a separation from God. But then, many Protestant churches have done the same thing.

    1. Tishrei

      When you said that you expect or believe we should be persecuted as Christians, it just dawned on me — I think the Catholics are, in a sense, persecuting themselves. And that is simply wrong and, well, dumb. All the saints in the New Testament were persecuted but they certainly did not inflict pain on themselves.

      I COMPLETELY agree with you that there are Catholics who are redeemed — but they are redeemed in spite of the Catholic teachings. From before the foundation of the world, they were chosen unto redemption. In fact, I know one such person personally. He does not pray to Mary for he says it’s not taught in the bible, does not accept that she was a perpetual virgin, and many of the other Catholic teachings. But he stays in the Catholic church.

  6. Loren

    I think that I may have unwittingly revealed my penchant for all things uninteresting in my comment :)

    ……..Maybe I should read more Grisham novels.

    1. Tishrei

      HAHAHA — too funny. :)

    2. Repent Harlequin

      One of my many fears is that in the future, say 100 years from now, people like John Grisham will be considered “The Masters” as some sort of Existential school of literature.

      Keep reading good obscure books, Loren. Future generations are depending on you.

      1. Tishrei

        I agree with Kent — keep reading those books so you can teach folks like me who haven’t read them.

  7. Claudia

    John Paul II did not harm himself with his penance. Some discomfort, yes. That is the idea of performing penance and taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus.

    It is a shame that Protestants have so misunderstood penitential practices. Can these penances be excessive, as in the middle ages? Certainly. John Paul II was very moderate in his penance. I am inspired by his Holiness. Not just his penance, but his preaching the whole message of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium, including the truth about contraception and that it obviously leads to abortion.

    That is the problem when you try to go it alone with Sola Scriptura. You find yourself reduced to name-calling. The Church as the whore of Babylon? Wow.

    1. Tishrei


      I understand that you think it’s a shame that Protestants do not understand penitential practices. I can speak for myself only, but I don’t understand it because it’s not in the bible. Picking up our cross and following is a gross misinterpretation of scripture if it is read as inflecting pain on our bodies whether through whipping ourselves or other means. There’s not a single instance in scripture that even remotely resembles self-flagellation.

      Thanks for your comment.

  8. JAC

    The inability for us to receive Gods grace thru Christ, is a problem we all share as believers. In not realizing that His grace IS sufficient for us is to remain in a place where we are sinners not quite saved by grace.(this is an insult to Christ completed work of salvation)

    1. Ed

      Well said JAC, thank you for your visit and comment.

  9. Br. Chris

    I just came across this article, and this comment is a bit late, but here are my two cents: It appears that the author and nearly all of the above commentators do not understand the nature and purpose of Catholic penance, nor actually read what the bible says about subjugating the body.

    The author writes: “No one in the bible does it. No one in the Old Testament beat themselves and certainly no one in the New Testament beat themselves.” Of course, he forgot to mention (has he not read it?) St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1 Cor 9:26-27, KJV). The word mistranslated as “keep under” (ὑπωπιάζω) literally means “to strike (under the eye), bruise, or mortify”; Paul’s point was that he mortified his body (in some way) to keep it under his control, and so should we: he was literally saying, “I beat my body and make it my slave,” which is what penance is about — learning to control our bodies and its desires, rather than the other way around. You may find specific, and (today) rare Catholic forms of penance to be extreme; but you can hardly blame those who follow a literal reading of Scripture on this, and claim “its not in the bible.” That just shows ignorance, and a knee-jerk reaction to something strange to you, without trying to learn about it or understand it. I understand this reaction, because as a former evangelical Protestant, I used to have it to. Sometime we have to be called out on this.

    Secondly, the claim (in the comments above) that this is based on some “made-man” law is simply wrong: there is no Catholic law that one must literally beat oneself; those who did this did it voluntarily, in order to gain mastery over their body and its desires. And *that* aspect comes from God’s own law, not man’s (Gen 4:7; 1 Cor 9:27). We are all obliged to gain mastery over our bodies, rather than becoming slaves of them. You may disagree with the means, but you can hardly dispute the end.

    Thirdly, as Protestants often do unwittingly, some of you are creating false dichotomies needlessly. There is no competition between God’s grace and acts of penance, any more than the act of repenting of one’s sins or doing acts of charity are in competition with grace or Christ’s work on the Cross. All such acts *require* God’s grace, and therefore depend upon Christ, to have any value at all. That is common, and ancient, Catholic teaching. Perhaps you should read up on it before criticizing. Try the Catechism: here’s a section on “merit”: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P70.HTM ; and this one on penance: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4A.HTM. You may not agree with it, but at least it would help you actually make some more informed criticisms.

    Lastly, the video is a red-herring, and has nothing to do with the topic at hand (especially since penance *is* in the bible), so I won’t comment on it.

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