A few years ago, Dr. Diane Langberg gave a talk about ongoing trauma experiences, when there is no “post” in the posttraumatic stress disorder. When there is no after trauma yet (e.g., ongoing domestic violence, living in a war zone, etc.), what kinds of help and hope might a survivor hold on to? Is there anything that can be done?
Category Archives: Abuse
A few years ago, Dr. Diane Langberg presented on the topic of shame at the 2014 Community of Practice hosted by the American Bible Society. She describes the toxicity of shame as a distinct part of trauma, especially betrayal trauma. You will learn about the cognitive phase of shame, kinds of shame experienced and how the response to shame takes one of 4 common forms (i.e., withdraw, avoid, attack self, attack others).
Make sure you watch to the end as she shares some insights to how God understands and responds to our problem of shame. See how Jesus enters in to our shame.
[Previously published April 2015 at http://www.biblical.edu. The faculty blog no longer exists there thus re-posting here]
We live in a world shaped by violence and trauma. This week that I write 147 Christian Kenyan university students were killed because of their faith. Such horrific forms of violence shock us. But they shouldn’t given that in our own country violence and trauma are everyday occurrences. While some of our local brothers and sisters face actual death, all of our communities are shaped by soul-crushing abuse and family violence. Take the most conservative numbers we have—1:6 males and 1:4 females have experienced sexual assault before age 18—and realize that a large portion of your friends and acquaintances have traumatic experiences.
In a congregation of 100, 20 of your fellow church members are walking around with invisible wounds of sexual violence on their bodies and souls. And that number says nothing about those walking around with other invisible wounds, such as caused by domestic violence, racial prejudice, sexism, bullying and the like. Were we to include these forms of interpersonal violence the number would likely reach 70!
As my friend Boz Tchividjian asks, what would the sermons and conversations look like if 20 of our mythical congregation of 100 had just lost a house in a fire or a child to premature death? Wouldn’t we be working to build a better understanding of God’s activity in the midst of brokenness rather than passing over pain as a mere hiccup of normal life?
Yet, we continue to imagine trauma as some sort of abnormal state.
Ruard Ganzevoort tells us that, “When one looks at issues like these, we must conclude that our western societies are to no less degree defined by violence and trauma, even if everyday life is in many ways much more comfortable” (p. 13). Thus, Ganzevoort continues, we must “take trauma and violence not as the strange exceptions to an otherwise ‘nice’ world” (ibid, emphasis mine). He concludes that while we have a strong theology for sinners, we have a less articulated theology for victims.
What if we were to read the Bible in such a way to build a theology of trauma for victims? What would it look like? I would suggest that Diane Langberg’s maxim sets the stage quite nicely: the cross is where trauma and God meet. Jesus cries out due to the pain of abandonment by the Father. Since we do have a high priest who understands our trauma (Hebrews 4:15), we can read the entire canon from the frame of trauma—from the trauma of the first sin and death to the trauma of the cross to the trauma just prior to the coming new heavens and earth.
Key Themes in a Theology of Trauma
Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma highlights a few key themes beyond the foundation of a God who Himself knows trauma firsthand in the unjust torture and death of Jesus:
Anguish is the norm and leads most frequently to questions
When more than 40% of the Psalms are laments (and that doesn’t count the primary themes of the prophets!) we must recognize that anguish is most appropriate forms of communication to God and with each other. But we are not alone in the feelings of anguish. God expresses it as well. Notice God expresses his anguish over the idolatry of Israel (Eze 6:9) and Jesus expresses his when lamenting over Israel (Luke 13:34) and cries out in questions when abandoned by the Father (by quoting—fulfilling—Psalm 22).
Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Peace happens…in context of chaos
Psalm 23 comes to the lips of many during times of trouble as it expresses peace and rest during times of intense trouble. Shadows of death yet comfort; enemies around yet feasts. Peace happens but rarely outside of chaos and distress. Consider Jeremiah 29:11, frequently quoted to those going through hardship to remind them that God has a plan. He does have one, but recall that the plan was to live in exile among those who see the Israelites as foreigners and second-class citizens!
The kingdom of God in the present does not promise protection of bodies
Try reading Psalm 121 aloud among those who have survived genocide or been raped repeatedly by soldiers. “The Lord will keep you from all harm.” Really? You lost 70 family members? You cannot maintain your bladder continence due to traumatic injury to your bladder? Where was your protection? Our theology of God’s care must take into consideration that He does not eliminate disaster on those he loves. Recall again the trauma wrought on those God chose to be his remnant. They were the ones ripped from families and enslaved by the Babylonians.
God and his people are in the business of trauma prevention, justice, and mercy responses
The kingdom of God is not for those who have pure beliefs. The kingdom of God is for the poor in Spirit, the persecuted, those who provide mercy and those who hunger for justice (Matthew 5). True or pure religion is practiced by those who care for the most vulnerable among us (James 1:27). Jesus himself is the fulfillment of healing as he claims Isaiah 61 as fulfilled in his personhood and mission (Luke 4:18-21). We his people are the hands and feet to carry out that binding up and release from oppression.
Recovery and renewal during and after trauma likely will not eliminate the consequences of violence until the final return of Jesus Christ
Despite our call to heal the broken and free those enslaved, we are given no promise that the consequences of violence are fully removed until the final judgment. Rarely do we expect lost limbs to grow back or traumatic brain injuries to be erased upon recovery from an accident. Yet sometimes we assume that traumatic reactions such as startle responses, flashbacks, or overwhelming panic should evaporate if the person has recovered. A robust theology of trauma recognizes we have no promise of recovery in this life. What we do have is theology of presence. God is with us and will strengthen us guiding us to serve him and participate in his mission to glory.
There is much more to say about a theology of trauma for victims. We can discuss things like theodicy, forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation. But for now, let us be patient with those who are hurting as they represent the norm and not the exception. And may we build a missional theology of trauma, not only for victims, but also for all.
 Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.
This weekend, Foundations Christian Counseling is hosting a 2 day conference, Counsel From the Cross at Spruce Lake Retreat. I will be speaking Friday night (8 pm) on “The Cross, the Church, and Trauma: Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” Use the 2nd link above to register for the day or the weekend.
Starting Tuesday, The Mission: Trauma Healing ministry of the American Bible Society will livestream its 2017 Community of Practice. You can link up here. Conference begins at 8:30AM EDT.
Here are a few of the notable plenaries
- Tuesday 11 AM: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trauma, By Diane Langberg, with Phil Monroe
- Wednesday 9 AM: The Exploitation of Power in Cultures, By Sherwood and Judith Lingenfelter
- Wednesday 3:30 PM: Your Power as Facilitator, By Phil Monroe with Diane Langberg
- Thursday, 9 AM: How to Empower People who have Lost Their Power, By Michael Lyles, MD
- Thursday, 11 AM Power in Trauma and Healing in Rwanda, By Baraka Paulette
There are other presentations but these are some of the key presentations on the topic of power. Hope you can make it online.
There is a serious problem within protestant evangelical Christianity. We love right preaching and teaching more than we love right living. We love power and authority more than sacrifice and submission. We love honor over humility. We love being led by popular leaders who make us feel good more than following the despised and rejected One—who has no “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isa 53)
We want King Saul over young David.
Of course I do not accuse all protestant Christians nor all leaders with this charge. And yet, we must all own this problem together. It is not merely the Catholic Church that has covered up abuse or used power to protect itself. While the system of the Catholic Church enables a wider and deeper cover-up, we have all of the same issues on a (slightly) smaller scale.
A picture of a true leader of God’s church…and the opposite
Leaders of the church are to be representatives of Jesus, individuals set apart to be under-shepherds. They are to care for the flock. And what do we need? We need teaching, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke in their proper times and measures. But most of all we need our leaders to be images/examples of our true Shepherd.
Quite simply, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11) and who feeds, carries, and gently leads (Isa 40:11). Of course this is a picture of a powerful leader. Only one with power who knows right and wrong can choose to sacrifice rights and become smaller for the purpose of care of the most vulnerable.
But we have a pattern of enabling self-promoting leaders of the flock. These want to be listened to, respected and followed for their own sake. Sure, they may speak of the Gospel of grace, but how do they live it? How do they treat the ones who have the least power? How do they handle criticism? Do they even have a Paul (wise older leader with a track record of being willing to encourage and also say hard things) to speak to them as he did to Timothy? Or would they tolerate one who spoke to them as Paul did to Peter when he acted out of accord with the Gospel (Gal 2:11f)?
It seems that when we do see brokenness in our leaders we tend to excuse it, especially when their gifts are attractive and the ones revealing these flaws are expendable.
Consider this warning
What makes Jesus angry? The New Testament records a few instances of expressed anger: Money changers, self-righteous religious leaders, hindering children, and the pain of death (Lazarus). We see it most clearly in his language toward the religious leaders when he calls them “brood of vipers…white washed tombs…hypocrites.”
What are these leaders doing that evoke Jesus’ just anger? Matthew 23 provides some answers.
- Everything they do is for show to receive the praise and honor of followers
- They seek power and control. They (try to) decide who can be in the kingdom; they seek converts who will work for their interests
- They develop special rules that support their apparent position of authority
- They makes a show of sacrifice yet forget the most important values: justice, mercy, and faith/submission to God
- Their public and private selves do not match—the outside looks great but inside is abominable
It does not matter if they deliver well-crafted and biblically sound sermons. It does not matter if many flock to their ministries. If their motive, efforts, and tactics (public and private) do not match God’s character of a good shepherd, their good human gifts of are no value. Even worse, they deserve rebuke (Ezekiel 34; Jeremiah 23) and even removal from speaking for God anymore (Ezekiel 44).
The true problem?
There have always been false shepherds. There always will be false shepherds. But, what enables them to stay in positions of power is that we allow it. G. Campbell Morgan minces no words when he highlights the problem of false shepherds.
Now the false in religion stands revealed in Christ’s contemplation of these men [described in Matthew 23], not only in the case of the men themselves, but in the case of the people who are under the influence of such men. The false in religion in the case of the people is due to failure to discriminate between the human and the divine; and consists of submission to unauthorized authority.
Morgan, Gospel According to Matthew, p. 273†
Why do we fail to discriminate between human and divine? We overlook “foibles” because we know our own hidden sins. We fear being ostracized and losing our position in the inner-ring of power. We ignore the words of victims in order to maintain the appearance of health in the system. We love the image of redemption (the happily ever after restoration) more than the long slog of obedience. In short, false shepherds cannot maintain or increase power unless we protect and enable them.
The beginning of a solution
Let us repent of these our sins. Let us study anew what we and our leaders are to be like. Let us listen to the ones we call expendable when they speak about abuse of power. In the words of my former pastor, let us pray to God for better leaders than we deserve and to be the kinds of undershepherds we are called to be in God’s wide kingdom.
Consider these previous posts on related topics:
† My thanks to Dr. Diane Langberg for pointing me to this quote in Morgan’s commentary.
What is more important to your church when it fails abuse victims? Gospel-driven behavior or reducing liability
Over the years I have had the opportunity to walk with church leaders through the difficult waters of abuse, whether done by leaders or done by congregants. One of the first conversations I try to have with those tasked with responding to the situation is this: What core values do you want to shape your response? Another way of saying this could be, “At the end of the day, who do you want to be, who do you think Christ calls you to be?
These values do not tell you what to do. They do not give you steps. But, they will help evaluate if a particular response is moving towards or away from those values.
If we don’t start at this point, then a couple of other values will control the conversation and control the decision-making: limiting legal liability, damage control, reputation management, and the like. These are understandable but do not comport with Gospel-driven responses to abuse.
Consider this fictional case.
A decade earlier a youth pastor is caught engaging in sexual activity with a teen. The church does not name it at sexual abuse and allows the youth pastor to leave and does not tell the congregation why he left. All this was done for complex reasons: lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation, desires to protect the victim (requested by the parents), and desires to protect their own identity. Years later, it is discovered the youth pastor has gone on to abuse more children in two other settings. Through a variety of reasons, the church is confronted for its failure to handle the situation properly. They are publicly accused of misconduct. The leadership of the church calls their attorney and their insurance company and get the strong advice to not admit any wrongdoing. Instead they are to make a bland statement and initiate an internal investigation (some of the leaders now were not there ten years ago). The report is issued some time later with policy changes made public. While it reveals “mistakes were made” by one of the leaders no longer present, it offers regret but falls short of an apology or indication that the church bore any responsibility for the subsequent abuse experiences.
What core values shaped the church’s response?
What would a church response look like if shaped by deep apology and behavioral repentance? What would it look like if the church considered the plight of the victims and their needs? Would they feel a responsibility to support their recovery? What if they cared more for kingdom values more than worrying whether they would be sued?
Sometimes, times of trouble reveal which god we really serve the most. And sometimes it is not very pretty.
It doesn’t always go badly. I do know a number of churches who opened themselves up to increased liability in order to speak truth about their failures. Take heart. It is possible!
The first words of Alwyn Lau’s “Saved By Trauma” essay remind us that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation and center point for all of Christianity.§ Without the cross, there is no Christian faith.
The Christian faith is centered around the historical trauma of the suffering, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Christian theological reflection starts from and eventually relates back to the work of Christ. Indeed, for some theologians, the resurrection points back to and affirms the cross. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Christian pronunciation is essentially “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) ontologically entrenches trauma, destabilization, and anxiety at the heart of kerygymatic [sic] proclamation. (p.273)
Sit with that last sentence a bit. Christianity is at its core or essence a faith wrapped up in trauma. Yes, there is an all-important resurrection, but a resurrection cannot happen without a traumatic story (false-blame, injustice, torture, abandonment, and death). If Christianity is ANYTHING, then it is a faith that takes seriously the impact of brokenness.
So then, Lau makes an important next point about what a Christian theology should provide:
Theology proffers a distinct vocabulary to talk about personal and interpersonal wounding and trauma; the Christian community approximates a traumatic community. (ibid)
Victims of trauma ought to find great comfort and help from Christian leaders and communities because they observe a community that really gets their experience, both by word and deed.
Are we that community?
Or, are we a bit more like Job’s friends? Consider Lau again,
Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement–and God’s eventual vindication and endorsement of his views over against that of his friends–demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. Job refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and “causes” of his suffering. (p. 274)
To become a safe community for victims of trauma, we must continue to highlight that God and trauma are put together (albeit willingly) for eternity in the abandonment and death of Jesus on the cross. In this God takes trauma (injustice, torture, and death) into his own being–no longer does it exist in creation. Again in the words of Lau, we need a “theology of Holy Saturday” if we are going to show that “hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity, and despair; the joy and the Lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death, and sin.” (ibid)
“If God’s being cannot be comprehended without factoring in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ…” (p. 275) then consider this statement:
“If indeed God suffers in the cross of Jesus in reconciling the world to himself, then there must always be a cross in the experience of God as he deals with a world which exists over against him.” (quote of Paul Fiddes in Lau, p. 275)
God is defined by trauma. But he, unlike creation, is not weakened by this trauma. Rather, Lau encourages us to see that “the God self-revealed and depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a begin who, out of love for the created order, chose the trauma of death as a central facet of God’s self-definition.” (276) In an immeasurable act of love that had been present in God from eternity past, God chooses self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death. And since this love is not temporal, then neither is God’s character ever without the knowledge and drive to reconcile a people to himself–even through trauma.
So what? What if we really understood God’s experience of trauma?
- The church would follow her head in the care of the most vulnerable even at the cost of her own comfort and safety. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt 12:20, quote of Isaiah 42:3)
- The church would regularly make room for lament (individual and corporate) as acts of faithful worship. Like Thomas, we need to see the wounds that remain in the risen Christ.
- Hope would be illustrated in her ability to equally cry out about the “not yet” part of God’s present kingdom even while she looks for the “already” present redemption and healing. There is as much hope in Psalm 88 and Lamentation 3 as there is in Revelation 21.
§Lau, A. (2016). Saved by trauma: A psychoanalytical reading of the atonement. Dialog, 55, 273-281.
In breakout format, Darby Strickland presented on this topic today at #CCEF16. She defined emotional abuse using the word oppression instead. She defined it as a pattern of coercive controlling and punishing behaviors whereby one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other. Oppressors enslave others, but tend to self-justify behaviors. The oppressor tends to be entitled (people are there to please them; people should sacrifice for their well-being). They tend to dominate others and threaten as a means of control. Oppressors are willing to wound to keep control (which Darby reminds us is the opposite of how Jesus wields power–he was willing to be wounded for others). On the other hand, oppressors tend to be self-deceived, lack remorse and blameshift when accused.
Sometimes abuse is misunderstood as an anger problem. But the reality is that the root is self-worship and control. The only thing that matters are their words, their rules, their emotions, and their physical and sexual needs that must be obeyed. It is “enforced worship.”
Darby then explored emotional abuse in particular. Symptoms include a chronic pattern of rejecting, neglecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, belittling, deceiving, blaming, ignoring, shaming, and threatening. She also talked about “gas lighting” which is the attempt to make someone think that something that did happen never happened. Within emotional abuse is also spiritual abuse. The use of Scripture, doctrinc, or position of leadership to abuse. It can be subtle but it lording power over others, demanding submission, and use Scripture to shame.
Darby pulls no punches when she describes behaviors by oppressive and abusive men (yes, women can do this as well, but this talk is focused on the experience of oppressed women). It is destructive to souls and does not reflect any part of Jesus Christ. She was equally clear on the destructive impact on victims. Eccl 4: the dead are happier than the oppressed.
What does God say about oppression?
- Not your fault. Evil comes out of the heart of the one doing it: Mark 7. You might be a stressor by just being a person.
- You do not deserve this. (Victims and leaders look for reasons, like Job’s friends). Heb 10:17. Your sins and lawless deeds I will not remember anymore. God is your rescuer, not your punisher
- It is not a marriage problem. Luke 6:45 shows us that evil comes out of the evil person’s heart. It is not merely some interaction problem. Do not ask the oppressed to serve the oppressor more. It emboldens oppressors.
- Oppression violates God’s design for marriage. It is not to be submitted to but rather brought into the light. He tells the head to reject control for self sacrifice.
- God sees your suffering. Jesus sees and knows oppression too.
- God cares about your safety. Do you think that God cares more about you keeping your vows than he does about your safety?
- God’s desire is to rescue you. I will rescue my flock and they show no longer be a prey (Ex 34:22)
Draw near to God through laments; he does not ask you to forget your suffering. Learning to lament is a process. It may not be “sanctified speech” when you first start to speak. That is okay, just begin to speak. Listen for the content, less focus on the tone. Then, you can ask God to help shape your expression. To counter the shaming words, remember who God says about you. “Remember who Jesus is because he is everything your oppressor isn’t.” He woos you, he does not demand subjection.
She closed with Proverbs 12:18: The words of the reckless pierce like swords. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
You might find it interesting that Darby chose to not take questions at the end. Her reason is that knowing that 25% of the christian world has experienced domestic abuse. Thus, she expected a number of victims in the room. She felt that taking questions might subject some, inadvertently, to further pain. (She was willing to take questions afterwards in private).
I very much appreciated her strong words to identify the pattern and indicate the primary concern for care for the victim. I know she has written and spoken on the topic of working with oppressors. This was not that talk.
Anyone in a power position recognizes the possibility of abusing that power. Bosses can take advantage of vulnerable employees, parents can abuse children, and church leaders can manipulate parishioners. I start with the assumption that most church leaders do not want to harm their parishioners. I would go even farther that when spiritual abuse does happen, most leaders don’t see what they have done/not done as abusive. Rather, they act with the intent to maintain good order, prevent further sin, and the like.
to get caught up on what spiritual abuse is, take a look at these posts:
The church in her leaders who wish to avoid falling into acts of spiritual abuse may want to consider the following preventative steps:
- Study the Character and Leadership of Christ. You know that tired but true adage, you will better recognize counterfeits if you study the real deal. How does Jesus wield power? How does the true Servant Leader treat the most vulnerable? Sinners? Pray that God will show you where you or your leadership team look more like the world than of your head, Jesus. As a part of this study, invite someone who has experienced spiritual abuse to tell you about their experience. What was the damage done, the impact?
- Identify Risk Factors. Life has risk. We try to minimize unnecessary risk and make wise choices when risk cannot be mitigated. While usually it is better to reduce risk, sometimes risk is essential to save life. There are a few risks that need to be acknowledged that increase potential for spiritual abuse: Having all male staff/elders/deacons may increase risk for women who have little voice in church policy, hierarchical leadership with little oversight by others increases risk of abuse. So, it is helpful to churches to review church discipline policies, pastoral care procedures especially in regards to the most vulnerable members of the church. There is a reason why churches have child abuse policies–to recognize vulnerabilities and to ensure protection. A similar review would help reduce the likelihood of incidence of spiritual abuse.
- Develop Continuous Assessment and Learning. In medical and mental health fields, professionals are required to complete continuing education. In addition, many practitioners participate in agency-wide case consultations. The consultation is designed for mutual learning and input. A counselor presents a case and takes questions and recommendations from peers. What if church leaders held these kinds of “grand rounds” where those tasked to work with an individual or family presented the basic facts, the agreed upon goals and “interventions” tried. The audience of other elders and/or pastors could ask questions and offer alternate hypotheses or responses. If you have ever worked on a problem, you know that getting another set of eyes on the problem can sometime stir a new perspective. Encourage at least one group member to ask questions about the parishioner’s experience of help. Of course, confidentiality is a must and so be sure that the leadership can keep matter private.
- Review Difficult Pastoral Cases. Seek External Feedback. No matter how wise and spiritual your church leaders are, they do not have all the expertise they need to handle any and every case. In the case of difficult and protracted marriage conflict, be willing to seek expert opinion outside of the church. Seek outside consultation when there has been abuse in a relationship and there are power differentials. God has given some people expertise in understanding major mental illness, trauma, and relational dynamics. Invite these individuals into session meetings to help guide the response the church makes. This can be done in ways that maintains complete confidentiality.
These are simple and general measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of abusing spiritual power that leaders have over congregants. While you may think such abuse is extremely rare, our call to be like our head Jesus demands that we hoist no millstones around the necks of vulnerable members.