Recently, I was interviewed for a podcast on the topic of anxiety by Walt Mueller and the good folks at the Center for Parent/Youth Understandings. You can listen here: https://cpyu.org/resource/episode-39-anxiety-with-dr-phil-monroe/
Tag Archives: christian counseling
Over the years of doing therapy with Christians I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If only I could trust God more…I say I believe he is good but clearly I don’t trust him because I can’t stop being anxious.” Still others express distress that their faith in God does not change their feelings of hurt over past relational wounds and fears it will never get better.
It seems we believe this maxim: If I really trust in God, I will be at peace. I will not struggle with the brokenness around me or with the unknown future.
Is this true? Is it possible to trust God fully and experience chronic negative emotion?
Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a couple of Psalms.
Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.
At the recent #CCEF16 conference on emotions, David Powlison referred to Psalm 62:8a, Trust in him at all times, O people; He noted that this assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? David pointed us to the next line (8b) Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.
Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”
So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder
- He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
- He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
- He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
- He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
- He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong AND loving. You will remain righteous in your dealings with us.
While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.
This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a far better picture of the reality of life hidden in Christ than the false stoic (or Zen) image of being unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust (as much to remind ourselves as in bold assertion), we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.
You can see this pattern also in Psalm 42 and 43 with slight variations: Remember when I used to be out in front leading the worship but now my tears are my only food. Why am I like this? I hope in God. But I am downcast. Day and night God is loving…but it seems you have forgotten me in my oppression? Vindicate me. You are my stronghold so why is this not getting better? Free me so I can worship you…yet I am still in despair even as I hope in you.
If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.
So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your angst, might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?
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?
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
A bit ago, I wrote a piece challenging Michelle Duggar’s advice to her newlywed daughter about how to be sure to always be ready for sex.
“And so be available, and not just available, but be joyfully available for him. Smile and be willing to say, ‘Yes, sweetie I am here for you,’ no matter what, even though you may be exhausted and big pregnant and you may not feel like he feels. ‘I’m still here for you and I’m going to meet that need because I know it’s a need for you.’ ” (emphasis mine)
That advice, in my opinion, makes men out to need sex to such a degree that the lack of it will lead to bad things like porn and adultery. Sex is treated as the glue that holds fragile men in the marriage and the lack of it kills the marriage because men can’t function without it.
Interestingly, comments on that blog and other social media, by women, suggested that indeed sex is a need, not just a want.
Now, I just read a piece by a not-surprisingly anonymous blogger entitled, “How a husband can enjoy sex that is grudgingly given by his wife,” which argues much the same thing. While there are a million things wrong with his post, I only want to highlight the “need” language used in it. When illustrating how a wife might be allowed to (rarely) turn down her husband’s request for sex, he suggests she use this line with him,
“Honey, I know you really need it, but I am just really sick tonight, can I make it up to you tomorrow?” (bold mine)
And when he talks about the problem of the wife not wanting sex the way the husband wants,
But then we have the conundrum, women don’t always feel like having sex. Even women that have a healthy view of sex don’t always feel like having sex as much as their husbands do. (emphasis his)
One could argue that for some this is true, some men feel greater sexual desire than do their wives. But it is only a conundrum if such feelings/desires for sex are evidence of some innate need that if not met will lead to trouble.
Maybe from this quote you are not sure that this blogger believes sex is a need for men. Well, he also believes it is a need for women as well,
You need to realize that this is a physical need that you have as a man. You also need to realize that whether your wife knows it or not she needs to have sex too. Your marriage needs sex at regular intervals. If you don’t have sex with your wife at regular intervals, even sometimes when she is not in the mood but consents anyway, you will open yourself to temptation. You will find yourself becoming distant from your wife, because this is the primary way that you as man feel closeness with your wife.
But even if you realize and accept this truth that you need sex and it needs to happen even if your wife refuses to “fake it” and bury her wrong attitude then what?
What is probably most controversial in this blog is that he advises men to go ahead with sex when a wife is giving sex in a grudging way. He recommends that a husband not look at his wife’s face but focus on her body. You see, sex is such a need, it would be best to just muscle through it, don’t look at her face, so you can fulfill that need. Really!
Is it a need? Is it a want?
So is sex a need? Even if you believe it is a duty to provide sex to your spouse, does that make it a need equivalent to, “if I don’t get oxygen, I will die”? Will the absence of it lead to bad things? It seems that some have bought into this little formula: SEXUAL DESIRE = NEED. UNMET NEED = DANGER that will lead to temptation, straying, or some such pathology.
What do we do with single men who want to be married? Is God unkind to them?
I think our troubles begin this way: We often baptize desires as needs, expect needs to be fulfilled, are angry when they are not, make demands of others to fulfill our wants and excuse ourselves when we use illicit means to get what we want (either by outright force, manipulation, or secrecy).
Notice here the author conflates desire with need. Yes, many men and women desire sexual activity. We are designed for it so it is not surprising when we like it and want more of it. But it is also designed to be used to connect us with our spouses. And when it is used to only fulfill one person’s needs, then it is not being used as designed.
And when we see it as a need, we are encouraging men to see themselves as weak and incapable of living without sex.
Further, arguing backwards does not make it a need. For example, you could show that those in sexless marriages are more likely to cheat (example; I don’t know if this is true or not). This information still does not make sex a need. At best it can only tell us it is a powerful want.
Consider for a minute how we might respond to these two different equations:
- Sex as basic need + unmet need = ???
- Sex as powerful want + unmet want = ???
How would you conclude these two equations? The first is more likely to focus on ensuring the spouse is not selfishly withholding such a basic need. The second is more likely to be concluded by addressing the one who has the want and how they plan to address that want.
A Better Equation
Maybe this is a more accurate equation: Sex as a powerful want + partially unmet wants + brokenness (bodies, relationships, desires) = grief over losses + opportunity to rely on Holy Spirit + pursuit of loving our spouses more than ourselves. This equation better acknowledges wants, sadness the happens when wants are not met, the reality of broken wants and broken bodies but also points to a better goal of reliance on God and the focus of love more than getting something.
It is painful to have unmet wants/desires. Those desires do not have to be wrong (though we are never fully right either). But our wants are always given to God and made secondary to our command to love the other well. Yes, part of loving the other may be talking about desires and hurts. But surely let us get rid of the idea that failing to have sex leaves men or women in some greater danger than those who have sex as much as they want.
The best counselors know themselves well. No, I don’t mean that the best counselors are self-centered. Rather, good counselors understand their biases, foibles, strengths and challenges. The best counselors know themselves inside and out and notice when they start to project their own thoughts and feelings onto others.
Why is this capacity so important? A counselor must see and note the difference between yourself and the client in front of you. This is vitally important if you are going to be of any help to that person. When we fail to see the difference, we end up counseling the other person as if they were an extension of ourselves. As a result, we fail to challenge our own biases and assume what helped us will help them.
Enter writer Mary Karr to illustrate this problem from the vantage point of writing a memoir.
Mary, author of several memoirs, has written a new book on how to write a memoir. I heard her being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air program today (find the audio here) and was taken by her advice to writing students. In response to a question about how to know if memory of events is accurately described, Mary tells of how she stages a fight (unbeknownst to her students) and then asks them to write about what they saw. As you might expect, each student sees something different. Why? Because they project their own lives and experiences onto the event. Even those with perfect recall, those who can get the dialogue just right, never fail to project their own assumptions into the story. Mary reminds listeners that it is impossible not to project ourselves into our observations. “We don’t so much as apprehend the world as we beam it from our eyeballs.” What can we do about this problem? She implores that writers to,
Learn the shape of yourself. Learn what you tend to project onto the landscape so that you can account for that tendency in your life and question it…
Learn to know the shape of yourself. What excellent advice for counselors.
Just last week I met with a man with decades of cross-cultural missions work on several continents. We spoke about the best ways to help students and new arrivals succeed cross-cultural ministry. This man reminded me that the best cross cultural education is not reading volumes about another culture (as good and helpful as that can be) but learning to know oneself inside and out so as to see the projections we tend to place on “the other.”
Want to avoid hurting others? You will surely need to know good counseling techniques and methods. you will want plenty of experience differentiating between types of problems. But, if you fail to really understand yourself and your tendencies, your utilization of those techniques may not be what the client needs.
Best advice to know yourself?
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Ask your friends who you really trust to give it to you straight about your annoying habits.
- Get into your own therapy and don’t hide who you really are from the counselor.
Not long ago I was asked about the benefits of learning professional counseling at a seminary. So, here’s my initial response:
Biblical Seminary, where I teach, offers a MA degree in counseling that leads to the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential here in Pennsylvania. In fact, the graduates of our Graduate School of Counseling have been licensed as professional counselors in 9 different states (PA, NJ, NY, DE, MD, DC, TX, MI, and GA) since our licensed oriented program began in 2005.
Counseling degree programs take many forms but usually include coursework in basic counseling skills, models of counseling, human development, psychopathology, marriage and family systems, psychological assessment, group and career counseling, research and program design, and finish with practical, hands-on, supervised training at a location providing counseling services. Of course there are lots of other courses you might take such as trauma counseling, play therapy, addictions, counseling and physiology, history of counseling, and any course specifically focused on a particular counseling model or problem (e.g., eating disorders, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc.). As a result graduate programs differ from one another most often on the basis of the elective courses they offer. These differences may be the result of faculty research and practice interests.
So, you might think it doesn’t really matter much where you take your MA Counseling courses. Aren’t all counseling programs about the same? While there is some truth to this–Helping Relationships probably teaches the same counseling skills at Biblical or a state funded university–the culture and mission of the school can make a huge difference in the educational experience. Rather than put down other programs, consider these benefits from studying counseling at a seminary.
- Mission matters. Biblical’s mission is to follow Jesus into the world. I suspect most counseling programs want to graduate students who care about others, who see their calling to be one of service (vs. making the most money possible). But who are we serving and who do we represent? And WHY do we serve others? Questions like these are front and center at BTS. Our goal is not just to reduce negative mental health symptoms (as great as that is). Rather, it is to love well just as we have been loved. Notice that our mission is to follow. From our perspective, counseling is first God’s mission. Thus, the power to help others grow and change does not reside in the counselor but in the Spirit. Personally, I find this quite freeing. I have a significant role but I don’t have to be the one manufacturing change.
- Theodicy matters. We live in a fallen world. Diagnosing the cause and symptoms of a problem is good. Knowing what to do about it is even better. And yet, the existential question about who we are, why we suffer, and where God is in our struggle is on the minds of almost everyone who comes to counseling. People come to counseling because they want answers or at least find hope when answers are not available. Seminaries are well-poised to address the deep theological questions and concerns on the hearts and minds of suffering people, not merely to have the right answer to give but to struggle with and learn what hope looks like when the current scene is dark. At Biblical, we talk about building a working theology of suffering, trauma and recovery. Our work with the text of Scripture in counseling classes has little to do with finding proof-texts and everything to do with engaging God with the subject matter of our lives. Existential angst is not a new subject and so seminaries may have better access to philosophical and theological literature (think: Augustine, Gregory the Great, Kierkegaard, etc.) beyond that written by modern mental health providers.
- Character matters. A good counselor develops a solid knowledge base. Competent counselors need to know about problems and effective interventions. Counselors need to know how to read between the lines and to develop trust-filled working relationships. But I would suggest to you that the character of the counselor matters as much as what the counselor knows or can do. Seminary oriented programs provide ample opportunity to focus on developing the character of the counseling student. For example, our program’s first two goals are: live grace-based lives increasingly characterized by wisdom, the fruit of the Spirit, and love for God and community; Demonstrate a commitment to humble, learner-oriented ministry in a world marked by cultural, theological, and philosophical diversity. These goals are first at BTS because without them, the skills of counseling will not be used well. Since the human condition is one marked by blind spots to character flaws, a seminary education encourages students to look a bit deeper into their own character and see what God wants them to see about themselves.
Can you get great counseling education at a university? Absolutely! And yet, a seminary may provide you a unique learning environment to develop great counseling skills as you deepen your relationship to God.
The book of Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I have often thought it would make dramatic theatre to have it read with modern-day images flashing behind the reader connecting today’s crises with the cries from the destruction of Israel.
What if we read it as a lament about the problem of child sexual abuse in Christian communities and the resulting discipline of the Church for covering up and denying the problem for so many years?
Sadly, this small book of poetry (written in acrostic format) of five chapters, languishes in most churches. I cannot recall a single sermon preached from this book. It could stand to use someone extolling the virtues and values of this book.
Enter Chris Wright’s new commentary “The Message of Lamentations” (IVP, 2015). I received my copy today in the mail. It is entirely readable. He provides a good overview of the structure of the book, illustrates the heart of the poetic style yet never loses touch with the practical value of the cries as he proceeds to exposit the book.
Having read his introduction, here is why Chris says this book is for today’s suffering:
- It is a memorial. Even though the exile ended and Israel was restored, that “does not erase the suffering of those who went through the horrors of 587 BC.” Later he tells us, “It compels readers forever afterwards to look and listen, to remember and reflect. ‘The biblical book of Lamentations refuses denial, practices truth-telling and reverses amnesia.’ (p 35, quoting Kathleen O’Connor). No cover-up, no quick reminder of heaven to erase the pain of today.
- It is a voice. “…the poetry of Lamentations gives voice to those who were rendered voiceless in the vortex of violence.” The book lets the voiceless speak.
And that, as is well-known, is a vital part of any hope for healing from deepest trauma…. And we may want to step in with our comfort or corrections, our advice and solutions. But Lamentations simply makes us listen to the voices of the sufferers–in the profusion and confusion of their pain, the bitterness of their protest, their shafts of self-condemnation, their brief flashes of hope and long night of despair, and their plaintive pleading with God just to look and see. And if in the midst of these voices there is accusation against God, Lamentations lets us hear that too…. This book forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, allowing the words that emerge to have their own integrity and authenticity, whether we approve or not. We are called not to judge, but to witness. Not to speak, but to listen….”This is what really happened,” they say, “this is what we went through, and this is what we felt.” (emphasis mine; ibid)
Chris goes on to talk about the confession of sin in the book and makes it very clear that lamentations is not meant to be a theology of suffering and sin applied to every situation where people suffer. Surely there are proper times of confession and the book of Lamentations records the confession of sin for Israel’s rebellion. Chris goes on to point out that even if all of the suffering can be attributed to sin, such sin cannot erase the suffering being experienced. To do so would erase the reality of experience. I find counselors all too interested in sorting victims and sinners. At one level, it doesn’t matter. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it.
- It is a protest. No matter the cause, the immensity of suffering as found on the pages of Lamentations and in sexual abuse produces cries of protest. Chris denies that protest is blaming God. Rather, our protests assume God’s capacity to right all wrongs and confusion as to why it has not yet happened. He calls such protest evidence of spiritual “vertigo.” And he notices that such statements of faith and protest are seen together in the final verses of the book. “You, Lord, reign forever…Why do you always forget us…?” (p. 40)
- It is our home and we share it with God. He quotes O’Connor again. Lamentations is “a house for sorrow and a school for compassion.” Lamentations is the home for our tears and a home where God too weeps for us.
We counselors bear witness to pain and suffering. Lamentations teaches us to listen. It teaches us to express spiritual vertigo with our clients and to wait for God’s answer (notice God does not answer in this book; thankfully we have other books that do give us a direct answer).
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.
Last night in our Advanced Global Trauma Recovery Institute (GTRI) course web conference, we were discussing the weight of listening to trauma stories. This conversation spawned from our delving rather deeply into the systemic torture, trauma, and loss of identity occurring in post-WWII eastern Europe (specifically in Romania). We considered the question
What should we do when we are overwhelmed with the weight of trauma stories around the world? Especially, what are we to do when we can do little to nothing about the new stories we hear every day? How do we respond to temptations to despair?
Knowing or just information?
During the web conference, Diane Langberg pointed out the common phenomenon that sometimes we hear of atrocities but do not really know about them. We hear information on the news about various tragedies (e.g., ISIS, Boko Haram, shootings, suicides, etc.) and sometimes fail to process it. One of our students reminded us of a bit of dialogue in Hotel Rwanda between the hotel manager and an American journalist,
Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
Not far from the truth, right? However, when someone takes the time to really listen to trauma stories, something changes in that person; they are no longer able to go about their life as the did in the past. When we choose to sit with stories of pain, we gain knowledge that changes our view of the world. For example, when we take new individuals to Rwanda, we often hear, “I remember hearing about the genocide….but I didn’t know. I knew but I didn’t know what I know now.” The same thing happens when individuals are willing to learn about racism, domestic violence, gender based sexual violence and the like.
When you see something in detail, you can’t unsee it. You will be changed.
I know…now what?
Once you know, really know, the depth of suffering of a community, you are changed. That knowing often creates deep pain, especially when we can do nearly nothing about it. So, now what? What can we do? Here are a few things that may be overlooked as insignificant
- Listen. Wait, didn’t we already do that? What good is hearing more about the story if I can’t do anything about it? No, listening is part of the solution. Individuals and communities who are enabled to tell their trauma story benefit from repeated truth-telling. They benefit from “being seen and heard.” It matters that those from outside cared enough to come and hear of the pain. Do not underestimate how such listening may empower a trauma survivor to move towards healing.
- Lament. Laments are conversations with God about the brokenness before you. Whether done in private or in public, these laments help us to communicate to God what we find intolerable, to ask God to do what is impossible, and to look closely for his response. Laments hand the problem back to God. “Do something Lord!” Laments also tell victims that their pain is real and not merely an emotional weakness on their part.
- Look for seeds of healing. If you are hearing a story of tragedy, then you are also hearing a story of survival. While being careful not to dismiss losses and pain, we can also point out signs of life, of resistance, of resilience. These seeds do not deny the damage being experienced. Jeremiah’s plaintive sigh, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed…” does not undo his previous tears, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
- Do one thing. If you are in direct contact with the person who is suffering, you can check in with them, find out what would be helpful. If you are not in direct contact, then do any number of “one things.” You can pray daily. Ask not only for restoration and justice but also for God to direct your response. You can tell one person about what you have learned. You can look for ways to identify how the seeds of the same tragedy might be in your own environment and not just “over there.” You can give an alternative points of view when you hear someone speaking naively about the situation. Start a conversation with friends.
- Remember. Look to find God’s view of the situation. How does He feel about injustice, whether minute forms in us or the massive ones we see on television? What reason might God have for waiting to bring all things under his control?
This afternoon I will be speaking at Chelten Church on the topic of “Making the Church A Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” This 3 hour continuing education seminar (co-sponsored by Biblical Seminary who provides the NBCC approved CEs) will focus primarily on trauma resulting from child sexual abuse. However, other forms of sexual violence and traumas (domestic violence, military trauma) will get a bit of attention as well. If you can’t make it or wish to see what I am talking about, you can download and see the slides: Making the Church A Safe Place For Victims.
Tomorrow, Mary DeMuth will speak on a topic similar to her book. Her talk is entitled, “Unmarked Marriage.” I suspect the conference organizers will take walk-ins!