Category Archives: biblical counseling

Why we need a theology of trauma


[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[1] 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.

[1] Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.

8 Comments

Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Counselors, Doctrine/Theology, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, teaching counseling, Uncategorized

Over-confidence? Under-confidence? Assessing counselor tendencies


Every counselor desires to be effective, to handle client concerns and problems with competency. We do this work because we long to see others recover quickly and we do not want to get in the way of needed and desired growth. Early career counselors often feel out of their league and so seek out all the help they can get: supervision, books, essays, and peer-consultation. This is the proper way to learn and become better at our craft.

But what happens when we begin to feel competent and confident? Do we stop feeling needy? Stop seeking input? If we do stop pursuing growth and increased competency, skills and capacities will erode. We might think all is well, we’ve got this under control, but in reality we would enter dangerous territory. Imagine wanting to be an Olympic athlete and yet forgoing training.

Erosion happens.

So, should we want to feel less competent? No. The goal is not to feel ineffective nor to lack confidence in what we do. I would not want a second-guessing surgeon to operate on me. Rather, it is important to maintain regular (not obsessive!) self-examination and invitation to others to give you input and feedback.

For the possibly under-confident counselor:

Where do you feel you need help, are less competent than you would like? What are your common responses to that feeling? Who have you talked to about this problem? Where have you sought help? What continuing education have you completed? While it is good to get help to “know what to do” don’t forget that a large portion of therapeutic success is attributed to who you are in the session. Be sure to focus on your listening, and “bearing-witness” skills. Remember to be a student of the client.

For the possibly over-confident counselor:

Do you still have supervision? If not, why not? Look over your caseload. Who are you working with who you have not reviewed assessment, diagnosis and treatment plans with another (note: peer supervision can be done without revealing confidential or private information)? When was the last time you verbalized your case conceptualizations with a critical eye to the potential myopia that plagues us all? What continuing education have you completed that can revise and improve your skills?  While relationship-building skills are the most important, do not stop learning and growing in knowledge and understanding.

It is good to remember that  our skills WILL erode without attention, just like muscles with grow flabby without exercise. One such muscle for the Christian counselor is that of prayer. Consider your recent counseling activities and ask how prayer has fit into your work. Is it a perfunctory or an afterthought? Does is change depending on how you feel about your competency? What does it reveal about your therapeutic operating system (e.g., what is the source of power to change?)

2 Comments

Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, teaching counseling, Uncategorized

Entering into the Emotions of Others: Thoughts by Winston Smith


Winston Smith delivered an extraordinary plenary about how we enter into the pain of others. He began by telling the story from Good Will Hunting, an exchange between the Matt Damon character and his therapist, Robin Williams. The exchange illustrated the difference between having loads of knowledge about love or hurt and a true experience of love (or hurt). Knowledge knows nothing in comparison to experience. Winston then talked about an early counselor experience he had where he listened to a person’s pain but only critiqued it rather than entering in. He acknowledged the danger of biblical counselors to whip out a 3 trees chart and assessing them, thereby invalidating their experiences of pain. 

Instead, he suggest a better path

  1. Enter in. Really listen to them. Don’t imagine how you would feel in that situation as that will cause you to think and respond to yourself, not to the concerns and needs of the one who you want to help.
  2. Connect to their experience. Don’t go first to fixing or giving perspective. That can be helpful in the right time. When you are trying to connect, that is NOT the right time.
  3. Care. Let their grief become yours. Caring does not mean agreeing. And when you see strong responses or biases, we start to think that care means to correct. There is something true enough that you can start with their experience. 

(By the way, I find most first year counseling students really believe they are ready and willing to do these. But here’s where the challenge lies. You sit with someone and they begin telling you their pain. You convey a few connecting and caring responses and then after 5 minutes, you have nothing else to say. You are already wanting to comfort, give perspective, gently correct. We really do struggle with sitting with another’s pain. It makes us uncomfortable)

There is a cost to entering in. It will cost you your comfort. 

These 3 steps are quite hard even as they are simple. They are skills to be learned, but Winston reminds us that it is mostly hard because of something within. Why hard? You have to connect to something inside yourself that enables you to connect with them. You need to connect to fear, to grief, to despair, to rage. It will cost you something to do this well. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. 

So why would we do this? Sincere love calls us to enter in. It isn’t just a motive; love is a person. We can do this because we know and are connected to Jesus. His nature is love, willing to leave his comfort zone and enter into the world of another. He becomes one of us. Want to give the same love to others? Experience God’s entering into your world. 

He ended with 1 John 4:12: No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. So enter in with boldness. 

3 Comments

Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, counseling

What to do with our emotions? #CCEF16 


Continuing a summary of the Emotions conference, CCEF faculty member Alisdair Groves presented two plenary talks having to do with our emotions. In the first he defined emotions as the expression of what we value, desire, even worship. Our emotions are ours and they are complex responses to our histories. However, they are windows into what is most important to us. 

In the second plenary he asked what we can do with our emotions. Before giving suggestions as to what to do with our emotions he suggested two unhelpful responses: deify them or deny them. The larger culture may over-value our emotions as our self, but Groves feels the church can do this as well by expecting spiritual highs (“amped”) all the time and that life in the valley is a sign of a problem. The flip side is a stoic response, stiff upper lip. He reminded the audience that both extremes do have a valid point but skew in the wrong direction. 

So, what to do? Engage our emotions. Note he did not suggest we change them, vent them, or embrace them. More specifically, he made a couple points:

  1. Engage your body. Take care of it. Eat and sleep well. You will be better able to engage your negative emotions when you are your physical best. He quoted someone who said, “eating is the most over-used anti-depressant while exercise is the most under-used anti-anxiety tool.” 
  2. Engage your emotions in the Lord. He gave several dos and don’ts. Don’t vent. Don’t stew. Do bring your pain to God. Do connect with others over your pain and ask for their help, do insert Scripture and other goods into your life (like turning on a faucet of good clean water). Do repent. Not so much repent of your negative emotions but bring them to God and recognize you need to repent of those things that are not of God (e.g., bitterness, unforgiveness).

_______

Question for you: Do our emotions only show what we love/worship/value? (Note, I do not believe this is what Alisdair was teaching the audience!)

If I am attacked and react in fear, does this show what I worship? Or does it show I value my life and my dominion is being stolen from me? I think Alisdair is right in that often our emotions do reveal our assumptions, perceptions, and yes, our values. But I believe and I think he would believe that emotions reveal our humanness AND our imaging of God’s emotions as well. They reveal the good and bad of relationships. I would argue that emotions are to be (a) listened to, (b) accepted, and (c) evaluated from the vantage point of life in Christ. Now, that last phrase, life in Christ, needs great unpacking. It would be easy to make that mean something like, “since Jesus has saved you, your negative emotions have no place here. In everything give thanks.” That would not be an accurate picture of what I mean by Life in Christ. Life in Christ with the hope of heaven does not deny what is broken in the life. It REQUIRES lament, confusion, anger, jealousy, even as it requires hope, joy, peace, and comfort. So, our emotions reveal something about ourselves and something about God and the world he has made. 

4 Comments

Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, Desires

Emotions in the face of suffering: Thoughts by Joni Eareckson Tada


“Most people think that living with quadriplegia is overwhelming. And it is.” Speaking at #CCEF16, she says this even as she says that now, nearly 50 years later, she would not give up her intimacy and depth in Christ, deepened through suffering, in order to walk. How do we bring these two opposing experiences together.

Joni tells us there are 1 billion disabled people in the world, most living in the developing world–people who are at greatest risk of being abused, neglected, and not protected. 

She spoke of her chronic pain that grew over the years and exploded in the mid 2000s and how it robbed her of joy and capacity to do the work she wanted to do. “It (the pain) made my quadriplegia a walk in the park.” “I know I am under the sovereignty of God but now his sovereignty seemed so scary.” “My depression lifted the day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.” She said this with a smile, “Oh God, you might be taking me home now.” 

“I knew in my head that God is sovereign and that I trust him. Why can’t my emotions fall in line?” She then used the idea that in this life we experience “splashovers” of hell and “splashovers of heaven.” “There is nothing more sweet than finding Jesus in your moment of hell.” Pain tends to bring us into self-focus. But when we see the affliction of Jesus on the cross, our focus is changed. It doesn’t mean we no longer suffer but that our suffering done in and with Christ, “no longer afraid of it.” There is comfort in the promises of God even in the dark seasons. 

How can counselors convince others that Jesus is enough even if the pain is not able to be fixed? We start by counseling with compassion (being with them in their pain and suffering). When the sufferer sees they have a place in the body of Christ, that they are not isolated, this is of great importance. Spiritual community helps the sufferer to accept the pain as their own. God never intended us to suffer alone. Together, healing begins. We don’t just declare God is over all suffering, we demonstrate it through deep relationships. 

Someone who knows suffering can say things that many able-bodied people cannot say, or cannot be heard to say. Joni’s voice is prophetic for the Church. She calls us to walk with those with disabilities rather than avoid. May we listen. May be validate their pain first as we sit with them. May we never tired to hear of their difficulties. May we never put our need for assurance that “everything will turn out right” ahead of their need to be heard and loved. 

1 Comment

Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, conferences, counseling, suffering

Feeling Bad about Feeling Bad? 


This morning, Winston Smith of CCEF faculty opened the #CCEF16 conference on this topic. A few days ago I wrote about the toxicity of ruminating on negative thoughts and feelings. We often struggle even more when we berate ourselves for our reactions to life.

Winston began by asking the audience how they feel about their painful feelings. He noted that how we feel about our emotional experiences shape how we experience emotions. He finds feeling bad about feeling bad is especially problematic for Christians as they often feel that their negative things should not amount to much in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. If my anxiety only means that I don’t believe and trust God then I can only suffer more. It becomes an “inescapable feedback loop.”

If the Gospel itself only becomes a cause for greater shame and guilt, then something is off, says Smith. Instead, Smith says, “our negative emotions are designed to deepen our relationship with Christ and with each other.”

Winston took the time to look at Jesus’ emotional expression at Lazarus death (and soon to be resurrection). Jesus loses it. He is in anguish. This emotional distress reveals his divinity not merely his humanity. Notice that the good purpose of Lazarus’ death it doesn’t removed Jesus’ anguish. “What would biblical counselors say to Jesus as he wept? ‘I know Jesus that you are feeling bad but this is going to be for the good.’ Jesus is not having a moment of doubt…no, he is coming face to face with the brokenness of this world and all that it will cost him…and he is emotional and he weeps.”

Therefore, being image bearers of God require us that we experience and name negative emotions, especially in light of our experience of injustice and brokenness. And the more in tune we are with the glory and love of God we ought to feel intensification of negative feelings in response to things that are not right. We could even say that we have a calling to have negative emotions.

Jesus chose to enter into Mary and Martha’s pain. That is what love does. He concluded by telling a story about a man with a child with a serious medical problem. The man was somewhat sheepish that he felt anger, fear and helpless when the daughter was having a crisis. Winston asked, “what are you going to do for my friend? Are you going to try to fix it? No, We shouldn’t try to fix his feelings.” Let’s move beyond the “repent and repress” response to our negative emotions.

This is the opening plenary and there will be more to come. One of the areas I hope they cover is the skill of validating and sitting with the negative emotions of others. This is hard to do but an essential skill, first in order to comfort and be present with others in their pain. Second, as we learn to sit with the pain of others, we can also help teach others to be okay with their emotional experiences. The more we accept, the more we can then choose how we want to respond.

Leave a comment

Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, conferences, Uncategorized

Emotions: Why do we demean them so?


This morning I am on my way to represent my school at CCEF’s annual conference. This year the topic is “Emotions: Engaging the Expressions of our Heart.” I’ll try to post some reflections of what I hear throughout the conference.

Truth be told, emotions have gotten little consideration in the biblical/Christian counseling world. When I was a Westminster student back in the late 80s/early 90s David Powlison wrote an essay called “Crucial Issues in Biblical Counseling.” I recall one of those crucial issues to be that of developing a more robust theology of emotions. Nearly 30 years later, we still need that work to be done in evangelical circles. I’m hoping to hear some of that this week.

We evangelicals have prized thinking over feeling, as if one is less biased or less “fallen” than the other. This is not new. Early Christians worked to clarify the personhood of Jesus and shut down false views. The protestant reformation was intended to correct errors in thinking and belief that had infiltrated the Church. Thus, belief and repetition of those beliefs have been prized over listening to emotions. Right thinking is even prized, sadly, over right behavior.

One of the negative results of this problem for Christian counselors is the temptation to invalidate the feelings and experience of clients. Most counselors assume their helpful, gently corrective responses will bring a level of comfort and reduction in emotional pain. Far too frequently, the client is left feeling more alone and upset–even when they know the counselor as spoken truth. Why? Consider this made up exchange and see how you would feel if you were the client.

Client: [who feels that many overlook her competencies] I can’t believe my sister did that to me. Why would she be so hurtful and cut me out of my mother’s birthday celebration planning? I feel so rejected.

Counselor: You know, some people are like that. Really, you shouldn’t be bothered by her. Hasn’t she done this before to others? Be thankful that you didn’t have to do all that planning.

Does thinking or emotions have to trump the other? We are designed to think and feel, to experience our world through emotions and thoughts; each informing the other.

Here’s how we would know we are making headway:

  1. We stop trying to talk people out of their feelings. We start listening to what our feelings can tell us about ourselves and our world
  2. We worry less that emotional experiences are biased. We know they are but still recognize them as real experiences of the world.
  3. We look more for corrective emotional experiences than assuming that thinking always changes feeling.
  4. We know that God cares about our painful feelings and so we bring them to God, knowing that He too has felt sadness, jealousy, anger, and angst. He has compassion on us and offers us opportunities to see him in the midst of the struggle.

Sure, our feelings are not always (ever?) accurate. They need correction. They need perspective that God, Scripture, and wise friends can give. But rather than starting out with pointing out emotional or logic errors in our counselees, how about we get down in the mud and share in the experience as we walk together.

4 Comments

Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, Uncategorized

3 negative consequences of having too many options


I prefer having choices to make over not having the option to choose how I spend my time. And yet, just like any medication you might take, the freedom to choose brings with it some potentially dangerous side effects. I’d like you to think about 3 and then consider a couple of modifications about how you make choices.

Consider the differences between choosing a mate today versus 50 years ago. According to Daniel Jones (listen at the 17 minute mark), in previous generations people chose mates from close proximity–from their block, building, or neighborhood. Now, we have endless choices if we are willing to use the Internet.  Consider the differences in choosing professions. In the past, your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. Now, not only can you pursue any career, you have to choose from endless post-secondary educational schools on your way to that career.

How can having choices/options lead to negative consequences?

  • Dissatisfied. You are always wondering if there is something better out there. Again, consider Daniel Jones as he discusses online dating sites,

“…it turns you into a flaky person who is always looking for something better, that can become a kind of mania…if you have a moment of boredom, you think there are 12 more possibilities in your inbox…”

Later in the same interview, Jones tells us that the issue of today is “not labeling relationships. Based on his college student interviews, many young people today are loathe to identify someone as their partner or lover. They tend to resist labeling someone as a boy or girlfriend. The failure to accept normal labels not only lead to potential of chronic dissatisfaction but also confusion–if you don’t know when a relationship begins, ends or what it is founded upon. It would seem that commitment to a relationship would suffer if it never is named as such.

Dissatisfaction leads to comparing self against others and both lead to depression.

  • Anxious. Coupled with the tendency towards feeling dissatisfied with life, more choices lead many to anxiety. What if I made the wrong decision? What if the next person I meet would make a better spouse? What if I’m missing out on something important? Continual choice and/or rumination over choices increases the sense of importance for the choices we have.

Anxiety leads to chronic stress and chronic stress begins to break down our immune system.

  • Fatigued (cognitive and emotional). We find ways to simplify life. A colleague of mine has a system to know what to wear each day so as to avoid the “What am I going to wear today” question. We (try to) put our keys in the same place to avoid the stress of looking for them every time we leave the house. When we live with too many open choices and options, we burn more glucose and our brains become less efficient. We numb our feelings or we become edgy.

Fatigue leads to poor decision-making (impulsive, reactive, unthinking). This is why we blow diets more at 10 pm than we do at 9 am. This is why those with addictions are more likely to use later in the day than early in the morning. When we are emotionally and cognitively fatigued, we are prone to feel greater anxiety and dissatisfaction. The “gift” of choice continues to give.

Can We Do Anything About This?

Now, rest assured that I am not advocating for life to return to a place of no choice (arranged marriage, one career path, etc.). Choice has enabled me to learn about myself and given me many wonderful experiences that as a boy growing up in Vermont I never imagined. But are there ways we can minimize the common negative consequences of too many choices?

  1. Examine your view of God’s will. I meet many people who fear making a choice God does not want them to make. They fear they will somehow end up on plan B of life as punishment from God. While there are many very black and white decisions (should I cheat on my taxes? Is it okay to kill my annoying neighbor?) most decisions are not that clear. What if most of your decisions are neither right nor wrong? Whether you go to university A or B, marry person A or B is less of concern for God than we might think. Typically God seems more interested in our motives than some of our daily choices. Consider seeing God’s will as guardrails on a road rather than a pinpoint decision.
  2. Limit your decision-making time. It can be a habit of some to mull over future decisions long before the decision needs to be made. Do you find yourself worrying about the challenges of next week? While it might seem wise to think through your decisions in a thorough way, anxious rumination is not helpful. Limit when you think about big ticket future decisions. For example, if you are considering a career change, set a specific time during the week to search out available options. Then, when you find your mind mulling over options outside that set time, you can say to yourself, “I’m going to think about that during the scheduled time, not now!” When you do make a decision, use the same technique to limit when you review/evaluate that decision, thereby limiting time for “what ifs.”
  3. Challenge post decision “if only” regrets. I made a major career decision 17 years ago. I chose to become a seminary professor over an Ivy League appointment. For the first few months at Biblical Seminary I found myself wondering if I had made the right choice. I imagine this was the result of financial struggles (the other job paid double) and the overwhelming stress of creating grad courses from scratch (the other job was something I had ample experience to do). So, I could easily see that I chose the harder job for less pay. That became the truth I believed for a bit. But, the real truth is that I chose a job that had immense freedom and opportunity for growth. I would not have been able to travel the world as I do now. Of course, I couldn’t know all that then. So, work to challenge your assumptions about the future. Yes, like me, you will grieve when doors close. But remember, God is at work in providing a future for you, even in tough locations and times.

2 Comments

Filed under Anxiety, biblical counseling, counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

What does recovery look like after traumatic experiences


After trauma, what does recovery look like? Is it possible to “move on?” How can you when you can never unsee or unremember what happened to you? 

Is it possible to experience joy rather than emotional pain when remembering past or ongoing hurts? If so, just what does that look and feel like for the victim? What can be expected if I am “healed”? Can I be free from the typical experience of trauma (e.g., Hopelessness, despair, anxiety, confusion, shame, anger, loss of identity, feeling stuck but the demand to act as if the trauma did not take place, and spiritual angst over the goodness and love of God)?

As Diane Langberg has so aptly reminded us, “Trauma is the mission field of this century.” Around the world there is much openness to talk about the impact of trauma and to use spiritual practices as part of the recovery process. In Christian language, we talk about healing the wounds of the heart and one of the best programs out there is the Trauma Healing Institute’s, Healing the Wounds of Trauma. This program is based on the strong Christian belief that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures,  is in the business of healing wounded hearts. At the heart of this belief sits two important passages:

Isa 61:1-4 The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and liberation to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor, and our God’s day of vengeance, to comfort all those in mourning, to give for those in mourning in Zion, to give them a head wrap instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. 

2 Cor 4: 16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart, but even if our outer person is being destroyed, yet our inner person is being renewed day after day. For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion, because we are not looking at what is seen, but what is not seen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is not seen is eternal.  

These two beautiful passages present a picture of recovery. Good news, release, favor, comfort, joy and beauty in place of mourning and oppression. Renewal in the face of affliction. But what does this mean in real life? Does a “double portion” instead of shame feel like to a victim of sexual trauma? What does renewal and release feel like after a natural disaster? 

Prognosis for Complete Recovery?

If you suffer a serious knee injury requiring surgery, you will need time for rehabilitation. But rehab does not necessarily mean you will recover the full range of motion you once had, or that  your knee will be entirely pain free when you are finished with physical therapy. Your prognosis for recovery depends on many factors such as age, extent of injury, physical health prior to the accident, and availability of quality care. Even with the best care provided to top athletes, recovery may not lead to return to top form. For example, an Olympic skier may be able to ski again but not at a quality that allows for competitive skiing. 

What about the prognosis for spiritual and emotional recovery? Of course, just as in the knee injury example, the answer must be “it depends.” Still, considering the two passages above, words like liberation, joy, release, and renewal shape our imagination for recovery. Do we imagine complete recovery to top spiritual and emotional form, without pain and limitation? It appears to me that we sometimes imagine emotional and spiritual healing without taking consideration the reality of broken bodies and a fallen world. We are not guaranteed a pain free life or faith without distressing questions. In fact, Paul’s beautiful words in 2 Corinthians bear this out. afflicted in every way, persecuted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying around death, burdened, groaning and more. Yes, he also says not crushed, not despairing, not destroyed, but alive. But both must be considered together at the same time if we are indeed to imagine our prognosis. Recovery means comfort and lament, joy in mourning, perplexed while trusting, dying yet alive. 

Sprouts of Justice and Recovery?

Isaiah describes sprouts of justice and righteousness beginning in the recovery of the oppressed (Isa 61:11). As a gardener, I see sprouts as the beginning of hope. After planting seeds, the tiny sprouts give me hope for a later harvest but that hope is still tempered with the knowledge of the challenge of getting sprouts to develop into fruited plants. I have to be vigilant about bugs, weeds, and drought. I need to cultivate and fertilize or my sprouts will not turn into much. And even if I do everything right, the seed may be weak or the weather may mean I only have spindly or stunted plants that cannot bear much fruit. Yet, the sight of sprouts brings the hope that empowers us to keep at the gardening work. 

So, what are these sprouts of justice and recovery that victims of trauma may first see that encourage hope and further empowerment? Consider some of these: 

  • Capacity to Name Truth and Justice

Recovery begins when oppressed people find words to name injustices done to self and other. For example, a victim of domestic violence may become well aware of the subtle signs of verbal and emotional coercion, long before any physical violence. They become the canary in the mine, aware of poison that others may not yet sense. 

As this capacity grows beyond a mere sprout, the person may be able to speak the truth aloud, even with courage to say it to leaders. 

As naming capacity grows, it moves from awareness of personal risk to capacity to notice and care for the injustices others experience

  • Accepting weaknesses without hopelessness

Part of recovery requires honest reflection of the damage done. Signs of recovery include the ability to recognize limitations and working within capacity without self-hatred (though there may be lament for losses of previously held abilities). When we truly accept the “new normal” we then can stop evaluating daily life from the perspective of who we used to be

As we accept our limits, we can then begin to see the opportunities we do have even within our limitations

  • Identify resilience and new capacities in the midst of struggle

There may be new capacities we never observed before (e.g., the capacity to speak up to power, the ability to withstand rejection, increased empathy for the pain of others). We now notice these resiliences and growth as they stand on their own

Though we will not call the suffering good, we will be able to identify blessings that we have received in spite of and as a result of the trauma experienced 

Be Careful Not to Damage the Sprouts

For those who are not attempting the impossible, to “move on” from trauma and abuse, it is good to remember that sprouts are tender and can be easily damaged with too much interference. You may need to leave a few weeds you see near the fledgling plants so as not to disturb their roots or bruise the green shoots. How do we do this to the sprouts of recovery? We may unintentional limit growth by questioning why the person learning to speak the truth isn’t doing it in a even-tempered manner. Sadly, too often those in domestically violent marriages are told to stop being so dramatic and to calm down when they begin to speak about the truth of the violence they have experienced. Or, we can point out the sins of the victim as if somehow their responsive sins eliminate their right to speak up about the trauma they experienced. Or, we can hear someone accepting brokenness and accuse them of not trusting God for complete healing. 

Nurture recovery as you would a tender plant. It is a scandalous act of grace! By paying attention to safety needs, by bearing witness to trauma, by being willing to lament and to stay connected, we provide a greenhouse for such plants to grow into levels of recovery never before dreamed of. 

9 Comments

Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, pastors and pastoring, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd

Turn the other cheek? Does this apply to abuse victims?


The Christian Scriptures teach followers of Jesus to forgive as we are forgiven, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge when mistreated. Does this mean that victims of domestic violence and abuse need to, sometimes quite literally, take it on the chin without seeking protection or justice?

There are a good many resources out there right now that help teach Christians how we should respond to domestic violence and abuse. If you want some in depth argumentation why victims do NOT need to just take it, you can consider my top 3

  • Leslie Vernick (website and books)
  • No Place for Abuse (Book, and when you follow the link, notice the many suggested books on the same topic; books by Brancroft, Roberts, Crippen, and more!)
  • G.R.A.C.E (website with information about the moral requirement to report child abuse)

Rather than repeat the good advice in these resources–biblical foundations for protecting victims and calling out offenders–I want to point you to an older resource given to me in the past week. Older resource as in from 1840! Henry Burton, in chapter 22 (“The Ethics of the Gospel”) of his Expositor’s Bible: The Gospel of St. Luke discusses the application of Luke 6:27f to those inside the community of Christ as well as to “enemies.”

First he reminds readers to love enemies,

We must bear them neither hatred nor resentment; we must guard our hearts sacredly from all malevolent, vindictive feelings. We must not be our own avenger, taking vengeance upon our adversaries, as we let loose the barking Cerberus to track and run them down. All such feelings are contrary to the Law of Love, and so are contraband, entirely foreign to the heart that calls itself Christian. (p. 344-5)

I suppose his words capture most Christian teaching on what it means to love our enemies and to use the Golden Rule as our measure for how we respond. And yet, listen to his very next sentence:

But with all this we are not to meet all sorts of injuries and wrongs without protest or resistance. (p. 345)

Did you catch his point between the double negatives? We MAY and OUGHT to meet all injuries with resistance and protest. Burton goes on to answer why we should resist wrongs done to ourselves and to those around us,

We cannot condone a wrong without being accomplices in the wrong. (ibid)

There you have it. Complicity with evil, especially evil within the community of Jesus, is tantamount to approval and support of that evil act. Thus, telling a victim of abuse to “turn the other cheek” is essentially the same as abusing the victim yourself.

Burton extends his argument in the following way,

To defend our property and life is just as much our duty as it was the wisdom and the duty of those to whom Jesus spoke to offer an uncomplaining cheek to the Gentile [outsider] smiter. Not to do this is to encourage crime, and to put a premium upon evil. Nor is it inconsistent with a true love to seek to punish, by lawful means, the wrong-doer. Justice here is the highest type of mercy, and pains and penalties have a remedial virtue, taming the passions which had grown too wild, or straightening the conscience that had become warped. (ibid)

He completes his thoughts on this by reminding the reader that none of this justice seeking activity (to the point of excommunication if necessary) negates forgiving when the offender repents. We still love, we still forgive, we still treat others by the Golden Rule. But we do not avoid justice and protection seeking behavior, both for the sake of the one being harmed and for the one doing the harm. Both need rescue. The means of rescue differ for sure and may not be viewed as rescue when it comes in the form of sanctions and restrictions. But to look away from abuse and cover it up with “turn the other cheek” does not do right by the true meaning of love.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Uncategorized