Category Archives: biblical counseling

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. 

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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.

 

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GTRI featured in an online, free journal


Our Global Trauma Recovery Institute is featured in the most recent issue of the EMCAPP Journal for Christian Psychology Around the World. Pages 172-211 include an overview of GTRI, two essays by Diane Langberg (The Role of Christ in Psychology; Living to Trauma Memories) and one by me (Telling Trauma Stories: What Helps, What Hurts).

The journal also contains an essay by Edward Welch (www.ccef.org) where he muses his development as a biblical counselor, explores the matter of emotions and some of the stereotypes of biblical counseling. The journal also includes a large number of essays about Paul Vitz as well as a number about the Society of christian Psychology.

Take a look!

 

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Video: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse in Christian Contexts


This video was shot last October during a conference in South Africa cosponsored by the World Reformed Fellowship and North West University. In it I cover these objectives:

  • Understand common practices of offenders
  • Develop policies to hinder predatory behavior
  • Avoid poor reactions to allegations known to compound injury
  • Provide care to all parties

I’m thankful to Boz Tchividjian of GRACE who allowed me to use some of his material since he could not be present to deliver it himself. If you are interested in seeing Boz’ far more eloquent work, check out videos at the GRACE site or, even better, click the link to the right of this entry and purchase the 5 hour video he and I filmed in 2012.

Link for video here. Link for accompanying slides here.

Want more resources? I encourage you to watch the other videos from this conference, especially the powerful one by Jim Gamble that should NOT BE MISSED (Thinkuknow) and another by Diane Langberg: http://wrfnet.org/resources/media

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Video: Making the Church a Safe Place for Trauma Recovery


In October I represented Biblical Seminary’s Global Trauma Recovery Institute at a conference co-hosted by the World Reformed Fellowship and North West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Previously I posted the accompanying slides here. Now, WRF has made available the video for this presentation. Presentation runs about 30 minutes plus a Q and A at the end with another speaker.

Main objectives of the video?

  • Understand the experience of psychosocial trauma
  • Make the church a safer place for those who have been traumatized

Link to video here.

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New book of meditations for counselors by Diane Langberg


In our Lives FirstI want to point out and recommend a new collection of meditations designed for counselors and written by Dr. Diane Langberg. This ebook In Our Lives First: Meditations for Counselors (Kindle version first, Nook version to follow) consists of 40 meditations, each with quotes from some of Dr. Langberg’s favorite authors and with questions for you to ponder.

Dr. Diane Langberg (pictured above in the banner of this blog) is a practicing as a psychologist for the past 4 decades. Regular readers of this blog will know her as one of the leading experts in all things related to PTSD, trauma recovery, and christian counseling. For years she has been writing books and articles as well as speaking around the world on matters near and dear to her heart. For those of you familiar with Dr. Langberg, you may recognize some of the stories and ideas in the meditations. Many of these have appeared in some form in her Christian Counseling Today column or in her lectures.

If you are a people helper (professional or lay; clinical or ministerial) and have ever felt burned out by the work you do, I highly recommend these meditations. As Dr. Langberg tells us, the work must be in us first.

*******

Bias alert: I helped edit this volume. I do not gain any monetary benefit from sales. 

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The power and perversity of labels


English: Photo of Paulo Freire

[Previous version published  in 2006]

That was great!

You are a liar!

We humans have powerful tendencies to label and categorize. It may be something that Adam passed on to us. Notice that Adam got to name the animals as he saw fit. I suspect that being made in the image of God provides us an innate drive to name things as they are?

But what happens when things don’t fit our categories? We either have to expand our definitions or shove square pegs into round holes.

  • The color line comes to mind. Those who are biracial face the repeated question, “What are you?” And the “one drop” rule still is holds power: one drop of African heritage blood in your recent ancestry makes you “Black” in this country.
  • How about those who don’t fit gender stereotypes. I’ve heard the pain of many who were accused of being gay because they didn’t fit someone’s image of a man or a woman. These labels were so powerful that they caused confusion. “If being a man means…(fill in the blank), then I must not be one. Maybe I’m gay.”

The Counselor’s Power to Label

Counselors hold tremendous power when as they label, especially those who represent both the counseling and the Christian worlds. We label right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous. We label idols of the heart. We want our counselees to see themselves and God in proper form. We see how distortions in labels (e.g., God doesn’t love me; I’m incapable of changing) harm and we want to provide healthier labels.

But, HOW and WHEN we label may be more important than whether our labels are actually correct. The temptation for counselors is to label too quickly, before the counselee is ready. If that happens, the counselee is passive and the counselor’s label is just one more among a chorus of opinionated acquaintances.  

Take a look at how Jesus interacts with sinners and self-proclaimed holy men. Who is he more likely to label? Who does he engage with deep questions? What are his means for helping others see themselves? Notice how the Pharisees were quick to label what was authentically Jewish and what was not. Notice that the Lord seems less interested in that and more interested connecting to others. He was not neutral about sin. However, he engages others in novel ways to show them the righteous path and their need for a savior.

Who Does the Labeling Matters

I’ve been enamored with the late Paulo Freire, a liberation theologian from Brazil. He describes how unthinking, impoverished, people become empowered when they are given the power to name things (problems, solutions). They do not, he says (in Cultural Action for Freedom), learn by being filled up with words and labels by dominant culture individuals. If this were the case, then counseling would only be a matter of memorizing the right words and phrases. No, counseling is a dialogue where the counselee is an active, creative subject in the process of change. In Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation, (by Freire and Faundez), they say,

I have the impression…that today teaching, knowledge, consists in giving answers and not asking questions.

The same could be said about counseling. It is the asking of questions that encourages us to search for answers. Without questions, we may never redefine the problem. When we counselors label (whether we are talking about DSM labels or right/wrong labels) without engaging  the client in the process, we rob them of their words.

What Can We Do?

Freire suggests a three-step dialogical model that may work also in building an effective counseling relationship: Investigate (ask exploratory questions, examine beliefs, myths, etc.), Name (code and decode, a process of un-naming and naming what is going on), and Problematize (identify problem and solutions).

Avoid the Temptation to Give the Gift of Your Knowledge

Freire says that gifts given by oppressors only perpetuate injustice. If the “gift” of your knowledge perpetuates the divide between the counselor (the healthy/wise one) and the counselee (the sick/naive one), then your gift may only serve to perpetuate their illness. This does not mean you should never speak or offer advice. But ask yourself, “does the way I speak to clients encourage and energize (all the better if in the form of a pushback) or cause passivity?

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The Power of a Counselor’s Words: Guest post over at biblical.edu


I’ve been thinking and musing about the power we counselor’s wield with our words. To be honest, I do so without always being aware of the impact. It is so easy to say, “that’s abusive” to a victim with the idea that I am validating her experience without realizing I have just crushed another part of her life.

So, if you want to read some of these musings and a gentle corrective to those of us who call ourselves biblical counselors, click here to find the blog I posted for October 18, 2013.  [posted prior to leaving for South Africa]

 

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Pastoral Counseling for Sex Offenders: 3 Dos and 3 Don’ts


As the church does a better job in understanding the epidemic of sexual victimization (1:3 women, 1:5 men report unwanted sexual contact by age 18), the church also faces the challenge of understanding how to care for sex offenders in the community. Gone (hopefully!) should be the days where a congregation just ignores offenders and acts as if their sins are in the past needing no further follow-up. And we don’t want to swing to the other extreme of making it impossible for sex offenders to be part of the church community. Rather, the church will best represent Christ to victims AND offenders when it exemplifies the grace of limits to offenders.

The local pastoral counselor (whether in the church or in a para-church organization) will be called upon to participate in the care and counsel of a sex offender. In preparation for this eventuality, every pastoral counselor should embark on their own continuing education. Read books (start with the difficult book Predators by Anna Salter), meet your local ADA who prosecutes sex crimes and find out what is required of offenders after they leave prison, find local clinicians who specialize in treating the various kinds of offenders (e.g., adolescents, adults, Internet based, those who have been incarcerated, etc.)

Dos and Don’ts

After improving your understanding of the nature of sexual offending and the available resources, consider these three dos and don’ts in order to avoid some serious pitfalls

  • Do treat them as fully bearing the image of God, just as you would a victim of a sex crime. Your relationship with the offender should not be a barrier to their ongoing growth and sanctification. Do you share the same mercy and grace as you would to someone you may feel more compassion? Do you see them as less human? Your compassion should lead you away from an adversarial or judgmental approach to them (this does not mean you won’t be firm or even skeptical!). Accusations, no matter how accurate, rarely lead to transformation in another. Instead validate their feelings and experiences. They will have lost much: friends, family, finances, standing. While it came at their own hand, you surely want to validate this experience.
  • Don’t treat all sex offenders the same. Recognize differences between adolescent and adult offenders, Internet only offenders and direct contact offenders. You do not want to have a one-size-fits-all approach for supposed fairness reasons. If you don’t have training in understanding these differences, do not assume you already know how to counsel these individuals. Get training, supervision, and consider referrals.
  • Do assess on a continual basis. As with all clients, a competent counselor never stops assessing for treatment readiness, commitment to change and growth, commitment to the grace of restriction, insight and more. Does your client show a growing evidence of empathy towards victims and the community? Does your client evidence a thirst for community supports and accountability (vs. passive acceptance)? Does your client give evidence of being solely focused on personal experience; give evidence of resistance and bitterness that others do not offer blanket trust?
  • Don’t use words, time, or other factors in determining growth and repentance. Far too frequently, churches use the right words, a few tears, and the passage of time to indicate when they reduce oversight over an offender. These are not good indicators of change! In addition, do not confuse repentance with a requirement for reconciliation. Do not neglect the matter of restitution but do not hold requirements of victims to return to a former level of intimacy with the offender. Not all that is broken in this life can be fixed in this life. Do not fall prey to the fantasy that all things are restored and reconnected in this life. Yes, our God can work miracles, but he also gives grace to us to continue with our thorns in the flesh.
  • Do set specific goals. Whenever we provide counseling for chronic issues, it helps to set goals that can be evaluated even as there may be a long road still to go. A competent counselor agrees upon goals with a client. Some of these goals might include (a) growing in empathy for others, being able to sit with the experience of others without bringing up one’s own, (b) deepening Gospel understanding about sin and impact of evil without either despair or superficial repentance, and (c) accepting limits and little trust as a way of life.
  • Don’t be caught off guard by common concerns of the offender. In my experience, offenders often have these questions that repeat on a fairly regular basis: Where can I worship? When can I come to church? Why can’t I worship with my family? When will I be done and be treated like anyone else? Doesn’t [victim] bear some blame? Why does [victim] get to make decisions about my worship? Why am I treated as a leper?  These questions are important and being prepared for them means the counselor can more likely respond with compassion and clarity. This can only better serve the offender and reduce the bitterness that comes from unanswered questions.

 

Additional links to check out:

1. Church Ministry to Sex Offenders 

2. Sex offenders vs. Sex Abusers?

3. Search “sex offender” in search box in the upper left for more blogs on this topic

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AACC 2013: Narcissistic Leaders and Systems


Today, AACC’s World Conference begins at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. This morning, Dr. Diane Langberg and myself will be running a pre-conference workshop entitled: Narcissistic Leaders and Organizations: Assessment and Intervention. I will start us off with a meditation from 1 Kings 1 (ideas I first heard from a sermon by Phil Ryken last year). We will review current explanations of narcissism as well as an emerging model that may be helpful for those who are trying to move beyond seeing narcissists as only arrogant and exploitive.

Can a system be narcissistic?

Yes. Here are some of the features.

  1. Leader exudes god-like status and does not share power; surrounded by yea-sayers, unwilling to tolerate disagreement, accept mentoring and willing to scapegoat others when failures arise
  2. Constituents gain self-esteem/identity from the organization and love of the system is the highest priority; insider status provides immeasurable value
  3. There is an approved way of thinking, one must take sides for/against; constituents justify dictatorial behaviors of leaders
  4. No toleration for admiration of competitors
  5. Inability to assess own weaknesses

But, here is a most interesting fact: most collective narcissistic systems are NOT filled with individual narcissists! There is something  “in the water” that brings non-narcissists together to develop these 4 features (as written about by Golec de Zavala and colleagues in 104:6 of the the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology):

  1. Inflated belief and emotional investment in group superiority
  2. Required continuous external validation and vigilance against all threats of loss of status
  3. Perception that intergroup criticism is a threat and exaggerated sensitivity to any form of criticism
  4. Intergroup violence can restore positive group image (violence may be verbal as well as physical

Why teach counselors about narcissistic systems?

Counselors often interact with church and parachurch systems by consulting with the system, counseling leaders, or advocating for an individual client. It is good to be able to (a) recognize some of the unhealthy egocentric patterns (blind spots) leaders and systems develop, and (b) offer help to individuals and systems that do not get the counselor sucked into the system or unnecessarily alienate the system. I have had the opportunity to work with a significant number of churches and have learned that there are ways to help and ways that I can get in the way, especially if I begin to attack a long held belief system. For example, if parachurch organization A has had a string of CEO/Board conflicts, then I as a counselor may have to navigate some long cherished beliefs about the system when asked to consult on their next hire.

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