Pope John Paul II projected a warm, grandfatherly image to the adoring public who flocked en masse to hear his homilies or watched on TV from home as he traversed the globe. So there was no small shock when a recent book revealed that the pope, who died in 2005, whipped himself with a belt and sometimes lay prostrate all night on the floor.

The pope apparently did not want aides to investigate his sleeping habits, going so far as to make his bed appear used by tossing around the sheets. Yet Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who is presenting John Paul II's case for canonization, detailed the behavior in an Italian-language book, Why He's a Saint: The Real John Paul II According to the Postulator of His Beatification Cause. Oder explains that the pope believed these acts of penance would affirm God's primacy and help him seek perfection. While self-inflicted physical suffering is unusual among Catholics, other notables have pursued holiness in this manner. Mother Teresa wore a cilice, a strap secured around the thigh that inflicts pain with inward-pointing spikes. Catholics are quick to point out, however, that these practices bear little resemblance to the bloody, masochistic flogging so graphically portrayed in the movie based on Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.

So how do Catholics explain self-flagellation, a practice so foreign to Protestants, let alone non-Christians? Several writers have defended the late pope. Writing for the National Catholic Register, Jimmy Akin faults a "pleasure-obsessed culture" for portraying the pope's behavior as repulsive.

"Self-mortification teaches humility by making us recognize that there are things more important than our own pleasure," Akin writes. "It teaches compassion by giving us a window into the sufferings of others—who don't have a choice in whether they're suffering. And it strengthens self-control. As well as (here's the big one I've saved for last) encouraging us to follow the example of Our Lord, who made the central act of the Christian religion one of self-denial and (in his case) literal mortification to bring salvation to all mankind."

Indeed, the pope believed suffering brought him closer to Christ, according to Oder. For precedent, the pope appealed to Colossians 1:24, where the apostle Paul writes, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." With no parallel in the New Testament, this verse has vexed biblical commentators for centuries. Surveying the Old Testament apocalyptic literature, Peter O'Brien understands "what is lacking" to mean that God has appointed a measure of suffering before the end comes. Paul's suffering on behalf of the Colossians, whom he never even met, helped to fill that gap. The suffering he endured for the sake of the gospel in his apostolic ministry united him with other Christians and even Christ himself, who suffered untold anguish on the Cross.

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Yet for all the hardship he bore (2 Cor. 11:16-32), Paul did not harm himself in pursuit of this union. Suffering found him, and he even pleaded unsuccessfully with God to relent (2 Cor. 12:7-10). God allowed this suffering in order that he might demonstrate his power in Paul's weakness. Whether we seek suffering or not, aging does the same by inflicting hardship on nearly all of us. Does our theology prepare us to endure? As John Paul II aged, Parkinson's disease visibly ravaged his once-vigorous body. He even considered resigning, something no modern pope has done, even though Catholic bishops usually retire at age 75. Politics Daily columnist David Gibson points out that the agonizing end to John Paul II's life deserves more attention than his private suffering.

"In the end, all of the revelations about flagellation and such may be more of an unfortunate distraction from the testimony of the pope's final years, when he struggled against a growing paralysis but continued to write and travel and appear in public and show the zest for life he always had—a kind of self-mortification that was also a powerful public witness for those who were similarly aged or infirm."

Still, we should understand the late pontiff's self-flagellation as part of a more comprehensive Catholic theology. According to Chris Castaldo, author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, John Paul II's views can be found in a 2002 homily he preached about St. Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin priest famous for his self-flagellation. Today you can still visit Pietrelcina and see gory traces of his self-affliction. Honoring this saint, John Paul II quoted Galatians 6:14: "But may I never boast except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ." According to the pope, Pio showed the redemption of Christ by conforming to the Cross.

"Is it not, precisely, the 'glory of the Cross' that shines above all in Padre Pio?" Pope John Paul II asked. "How timely is the spirituality of the Cross lived by the humble Capuchin of Pietrelcina. Our time needs to rediscover the value of the Cross in order to open the heart to hope. Throughout his life, he always sought greater conformity with the Crucified, since he was very conscious of having been called to collaborate in a special way in the work of redemption. His holiness cannot be understood without this constant reference to the Cross."

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Protestants recoil at mention of collaborating in the work of redemption, because believers have been sanctified by the once-for-all offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross (Heb. 10:10). But perhaps we may still resonate with the spiritual benefits of self-denial. Though we reject self-flagellation as a misguided effort to relate to Christ, we may pursue other disciplines prescribed by Scripture to express our need for God. Maybe the best example is fasting, a common Old Testament practice assumed by Jesus as a means of connecting with God (Matt. 6:16-18). But just as our age scoffs at self-flagellation, so also many skeptics consign fasting to the over-zealous.

"Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting," Don Whitney writes in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. "Few disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream culture as this one. But we cannot overlook its biblical significance. Of course, some people, for medical reasons, cannot fast. But most of us dare not overlook fasting's benefits in the disciplined pursuit of a Christlike life."

Do you want to strengthen your prayer life? Discern God's leading? Find an outlet to express your grief to God? Confess your utter dependence on God? Whipping is not necessary, but self-denial is a vital means of Christian growth. As Jesus prepared for his earthly ministry, he fasted. His example compels us to do the same.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns available on our site include:

Theodicy in Light of Eternity | Theologians see hope for the future based on the past. (Jan. 25, 2010)
Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch | Powerful endorsements bolster John Sailhamer's new tome on the Bible's first five books. (January 11, 2010)
My Top Ten Theology Stories of 2009 | Counting down the events, debates, and books that shaped evangelical theology over the past year. (December 28, 2009)
When the Pastor Suffers | Matt Chandler comforts an anxious church following his Thanksgiving seizure. (December 14, 2009)