Tag Archives: Theology

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.

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

Is God eternally traumatized?


The first words of Alwyn Lau’s “Saved By Trauma” essay remind us that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation and center point for all of Christianity.§ Without the cross, there is no Christian faith.

The Christian faith is centered around the historical trauma of the suffering, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Christian theological reflection starts from and eventually relates back to the work of Christ. Indeed, for some theologians, the resurrection points back to and affirms the cross. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Christian pronunciation is essentially “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) ontologically entrenches trauma, destabilization, and anxiety at the heart of kerygymatic [sic] proclamation. (p.273)

Sit with that last sentence a bit. Christianity is at its core or essence a faith wrapped up in trauma. Yes, there is an all-important resurrection, but a resurrection cannot happen without a traumatic story (false-blame, injustice, torture, abandonment, and death). If Christianity is ANYTHING, then it is a faith that takes seriously the impact of brokenness.

So then, Lau makes an important next point about what a Christian theology should provide:

Theology proffers a distinct vocabulary to talk about personal and interpersonal wounding and trauma; the Christian community approximates a traumatic community. (ibid)

Victims of trauma ought to find great comfort and help from Christian leaders and communities because they observe a community that really gets their experience, both by word and deed.

Are we that community?

Or, are we a bit more like Job’s friends? Consider Lau again,

 Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement–and God’s eventual vindication and endorsement of his views over against that of his friends–demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. Job refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and “causes” of his suffering. (p. 274)

To become a safe community for victims of trauma, we must continue to highlight that God and trauma are put together (albeit willingly) for eternity in the abandonment and death of Jesus on the cross. In this God takes trauma (injustice, torture, and death) into his own being–no longer does it exist in creation.  Again in the words of Lau, we need a “theology of Holy Saturday” if we are going to show that “hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity, and despair; the joy and the Lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death, and sin.” (ibid)

“If God’s being cannot be comprehended without factoring in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ…” (p. 275) then consider this statement:

“If indeed God suffers in the cross of Jesus in reconciling the world to himself, then there must always be a cross in the experience of God as he deals with a world which exists over against him.” (quote of Paul Fiddes in Lau, p. 275)

God is defined by trauma. But he, unlike creation, is not weakened by this trauma. Rather, Lau encourages us to see that “the God self-revealed  and depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a begin who, out of love for the created order, chose the trauma of death as a central facet of God’s self-definition.” (276) In an immeasurable act of love that had been present in God from eternity past, God chooses self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death. And since this love is not temporal, then neither is God’s character ever without the knowledge and drive to reconcile a people to himself–even through trauma.

So what? What if we really understood God’s experience of trauma?

  1. The church would follow her head in the care of the most vulnerable even at the cost of her own comfort and safety. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt 12:20, quote of Isaiah 42:3)
  2. The church would regularly make room for lament (individual and corporate) as acts of faithful worship. Like Thomas, we need to see the wounds that remain in the risen Christ.
  3. Hope would be illustrated in her ability to equally cry out about the “not yet” part of God’s present kingdom even while she looks for the “already” present redemption and healing. There is as much hope in Psalm 88 and Lamentation 3 as there is in Revelation 21.

 

§Lau, A. (2016). Saved by trauma: A psychoanalytical reading of the atonement. Dialog, 55, 273-281.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Gospel, trauma, Uncategorized

Are all sins equal? The dangers of leveling all sins


There but for the grace of God go I.

Humility requires that we do not think too highly of ourselves; that we do not think ourselves better than anyone else. We all struggle with the same weakness–the desire to love self more than neighbor and to be our own god. We are all easily deceived, born into sin.

And yet, the evidence of humility is not equalizing all sins. Sadly, treating all as human has led some Christians to believe that it is wrong to point out the sins of others, to seek justice after wrongdoing. The error in thinking goes something like this:

  1. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all deserve judgment. No one can earn God’s love.
  2. God’s love is a free gift for all, not based on merit.
  3. Therefore, we must treat all sinners the same; that grace means the same treatment for all.

But ask victims who have heard this stated something like this and they hear, “since we’re all sinners then the way you were sinned against is no different than the way you sinned against God.” So, if there are no differences, then what happened to you (victimization) is no different than what happens to anyone.

Get over it. That is the message we send to victims when we level all sins.

So, consider this question: Does Jesus differentiate between sins? Do some sins result in more judgment and consequence? What about how he speaks of those who hinder the little children from coming to him? How does he speak to those who understand the depth of their sin vs. those who deflect or deny their sin?

Some years ago I was speaking to a large gathering of church leaders about the care for victims and sex offenders. I suggested that sex offenders did not have an automatic right to attend worship but that we could find meaningful ways to bring worship to sex offenders. One leader stood up and accused me of making multiple classes of sinners and ignoring the sin of victims (in his mind they would forever control the lives of the offenders thereby becoming abusive to the offenders). He claimed that I did not believe that God can restore and redeem the worst of sinners. This leader believed that all sin is forgiven (as do I) and thus all consequences should also be erased.

Leveling sins actually harms both victims and offenders. If consequences are erased, then offenders risk remaining unaware of unique temptations, unaware of how they may follow Zaccheus and pay back above and beyond what the Law requires. Victims continue to have little to no voice because what happened (and continues to happen) to them is just commonplace.

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

The Sin of Categorizing Failures: Why Our Explanations Often Fail


We all do it. We categorize sins and failures to explain why they happened. This habit is not new. Our first parents did it. Adam and Eve knew of their choices and yet laid the blame at another’s feet.

We do it too, whether for ourselves or for others. We hear of the sins of others and provide a ready explanation.

He’s a jerk…she comes from a dysfunctional family…he has a chemical imbalance…a disease…low self-esteem…narcissism……

When we think about our own failings, we also provide simple explanations to categorize the problem:

I was tired…You made me…I forgot the Gospel…I just loved you too much…I didn’t love myself enough

Usually these explanations and categorizations fail. (Who was it who said that every complex problem has a simple, neat but wrong answer? Mencken?)

 Why do we categorize in simple but incomplete fashion? 

In short, it serves a purpose. It enables us to communicate something we find important. Yes, we may lay blame on others or remove blame from self, I don’t think that is our first or only goal. What we really want to do is point out a factor we fear is going to be missed by others.  Consider these two examples:

  1. A christian leader is revealed to have an affair. How will we categorize it? Some might focus on the impossible pressures of ministry. Others might focus on a pattern of arrogance and narcissism. Still others might focus on childhood trauma.
  2. You falsely accuse someone of wrongdoing. How will you categorize it? Talk about your history of being mistreated? Talk about misunderstanding the facts? Talk about having a demonic influence? Talk about a psychological illness?

These explanations may well carry some weight. They may be, in part, true. I would suggest that our motivations for emphasizing one reason over another has much to do with comfort. It settles matters. It avoids blame. It separates things we love from things we hate.

What to do?

When listening to our own explanations or those of others, I think it might be best to use this blog entry by Ted Haggard penned after the recent suicide of a well-known preacher and preacher’s son. You’ll recall that some years ago, Ted went through his own public hell after evidence of misconduct including same-sex activity and meth purchase was released to the public. The purpose of Haggard’s writing now is to identify false theology behind the reasons why we Christians jump to conclusions about the reason for moral failings,

In the past we would try to argue that Evangelical leaders who fall were not sincere believers, or were unrepentant, or that they did not really believe their Bibles, or were not adequately submitted. And in the midst of these arguments, we KNOW those ideas are, in some cases, rationalizations.

It is much more convenient to believe that every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core. They think the Earth is flat. Everyone is either completely good or bad, everything is either white or black, and if people are sincere Christians, then they are good and their behavior should conform.

Not so. There are more grays in life than many of our modern theological positions allow. It would be easy if I were a hypocrite, Bakker was a thief, and Swaggart was a pervert. None of that is true.

Haggard then explains that the problem is that we buy too much of the legalistic view of sin/holiness (A pharasaical view) and do not apply the Gospel of repentance and faith in a fallen-in process life. Actually, he doesn’t quite spell it out what it should be but points to the fact that we too often just label our failing leaders as sinners without seeing our own sin.

True, but maybe we can do better than this. What if we

  • Listen first and validate. What does the explanation given  reveal about what you or others think or feel?

Notice this from Ted about his own scandal (all emphases are mine)

The therapeutic team that dug in on me insisted that I did not have a spiritual problem or a problem with cognitive ability, and that I tested in normal ranges on all of my mental health tests (MMPI, etc.). Instead, I had a physiological problem rooted in a childhood trauma, and as a result, needed trauma resolution therapy. I had been traumatized when I was 7 years old, but when Bill Bright led me to the Lord when I was 16, I learned that I had become a new creature, a new person, and that I did not need to be concerned about anything in my past, that it was all covered by the blood. I did become a new creation spiritually, but I have since learned that I needed some simple care that would have spared my family and I a great deal of loss and pain.

Contrary to popular reports, my core issue was not sexual orientation, but trauma. I went through EMDR, a trauma resolution therapy, and received some immediate relief and, as promised, that relief was progressive. When I explain that to most Evangelical leaders, their eyes glaze over. They just don’t have a grid for the complexity of it all. It is much more convenient to believe that every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core.

Seems Ted is trying to tell us that sexual orientation doesn’t tell the whole story; sin doesn’t do the story justice. But note he calls it only a physical problem, a trauma problem. He actively rejects it as a spiritual problem. Why? His entire being had a problem. He can’t really compartmentalize himself in this way. But by emphasizing the physiological, he communicates that we Christians far too quickly just stop at the problem of the will. Ted’s problem was more than just not believing the Gospel. There were far more complex factors in his heart and life, apparently far more than Ted knew or let on to himself.

Point taken.

  •   Consider additional factors. What am I ignoring or minimizing?

Since Adam and Eve, we minimize our own failings and maximize those of others. So, if we are going to find more accurate explanations for failures, we had better acknowledge some of the (not so) little gods we have served all these years. They may not show up on a psychological exam, but we all have them.

  • We want power, prestige, control, accolades
  • We want protection, love, purpose
  • We want our weaknesses to be hidden and our strengths to be cherished by others

The problem isn’t that we want these things. Rather, it is that we fail to acknowledge that we use them to excuse, dismiss, or cover our actions from examination–from self, from God, from others.

  • Look at all the partsBe honest to self and God but look to Him for the right response.

Too often we look at self or other in all-or-nothing lenses. Either we are all victim or all perpetrator. The truth is everyone is full of parts. Part of us want holiness. Part of us want to look holy but practice sin. Part of us does a good thing to serve another and another part does the same thing to get praise. This is what the Apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 7.  Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop with the split. He continues in chapter 8 to point us to the fact that the power of sin is broken giving us the freedom to do good and the Holy Spirit’s help.

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Why do some spiritual leaders abuse power?


The topic of spiritual abuse has been in the news of late. In looking at the problem of cover-ups of sexual abuse within the church, we can see that not only bodies are violated and harmed, but spiritual abuse also happens to victims, their families, and those in the community who know about the abuse but are coerced to remain silent and still. Of course spiritual abuse happens outside of sexual abuse. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most of spiritual abuse happens apart from sexual abuse.

As I defined it in an earlier post, spiritual abuse is: the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Over at www.whitbyforum.com, Carolyn Custis James is blogging each Monday about the problem of spiritual abuse. You can see the first post here along with the topics she’ll look at over the next 6 weeks. Today, she will be raising some questions about the abuser and I may comment on her site as I can [note: this is written earlier and if all happens as planned, I am traveling in Rwanda today]. For those of you who don’t know of Carolyn, she is the author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

What Do We Know About Those Who Abuse?

The truth is we do not have empirical survey evidence for those who use spiritual tools to harm or manipulate others. But, we can say something about the kinds of reasons why someone might want to coerce and manipulate. We know things about this activity because we all have participated in coercive acts. We have used others for our own purposes. In the words of an old Larry Crabb book, we have chosen manipulation of over ministry to those we love. So, in this way, we can learn a bit about why some try to control others by looking at why we try to control others:

  • Fear. We fear losing control, having someone disrupt our plans. We worry that we will be left, abandoned, rejected. We worry that what is important to us will not be cherished and valued by others so we seek to control the outcome. Notice that much of what we want as outcomes are good things. In spiritual matters, it is not good for people to do things that dishonor God. So, we may try to force our kids or parishioners to do what they ought to do. But force violates the picture of love God gives us in the Scriptures. He does not force us to come to him. He draws and woos us.
  • Love of Power. We must admit that we sometimes control others because we like seeing the evidence of our own power. Ever had someone trying to do something to you and you wanted to prove that you could beat them at their game? Maybe you thought, “I’ll show you who’s the boss around here!” This is nothing less than a love of one’s own power. God gives us power. Power is not wrong. But the use of it to serve self (even if in the name of God) is an abuse of power. Spiritual leaders have power of words and these words can be easily used to glorify self.
  • Efficiency. Power works. It gets us what we want. If the outcome is good, then the means seem good. End of story. Spiritual abuse works. People fall in line. They remain orderly and do not disturb church leader’s good goals.
  • Ego. Self is part of why we treat others as objects. We think about self, needs, desires, wants, and expectations. The stronger the ego, the more confidence we have that our way of seeing the world, our expectations, our outcomes are the right ones. And the stronger our confidence, the deafer we become to other ways of seeing the world. Narcissism sometimes operates out of fear (see bullet point 1) but also operates out of arrogance and pride. We become blind to others, insensitive to needs of others. Ego in ministry is a worship of self in place of worship of God—a God who illustrates sacrificial leadership! 
  • Habit. I would argue that many of us engage in controlling behaviors without much thought at all. It is habit or learned behaviors from others. It is said, rather crassly, that starving people tend to starve others. It means that we who have been controlled or manipulated tend to learn the habits of controlling behavior (like tug-of-war, it is natural to pull back in the opposite direction). But in doing so we may become controlling ourselves. So, many are unaware that they may be attempting to control others. Spiritual abuse has been passed down in the name of godly leadership and so many are just doing what they learned from others.

 What Can We Do From Inside The System?

There is little that we can do to stop others who want to abuse, especially when they are knowingly predatory. However, much of the above motives do not fall into intentional abuse—even the love of power. In the cases of naïve or unthoughtful abuse, we can bring truth to light in a couple of ways:

  1. Validate: “What?” you might be asking, “Won’t that encourage them?” On the contrary, validation often opens the validated to conversation and dialog where bare confrontation leads to defense and counter-attack. So, if you see someone who is seeking a good end (e.g., obedient children) but using coercive means, try to validate the good goal even as you suggest alternatives or point out that the means seems to be control oriented or objectifying.
  2. Raise questions: What outcomes are you seeking? How do you think the manipulated person might be feeling? How might you convey concern for the person as well as the situation? How might a good goal become perverted in the intensity by which we seek that goal?
  3. Say ouch. Sometimes just saying, “I’m hurt” can signal to some that they have over-stepped boundaries.

Not all should stay inside an abusive system. But, for those who feel they can stay, these are some of the things they can do. I would love to hear what else others have tried.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, conflicts, counseling, Psychology, Uncategorized

The priority of relationships in the mission of God


I teach at a missional seminary. You might wonder what “missional” is all about. Well, I’ve tried to articulate why missional is all about redemptive and redeeming relationships. Such relationships change the ways we relate to those we seek to serve, whether here in the U.S. or in any other part of the world. To read a bit about how missional relates to serving others in Africa, read this post over at the Biblical Seminary faculty blog. It came out on Halloween but Hurricane Sandy made her appearance a few days earlier so I doubt many saw this.

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Filed under Biblical Seminary, christian psychology, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology, missional

Is All Counseling Theological?


Why do we have to study theology? I don’t need that to be a good counselor?

These are words I have heard from students studying counseling and/or psychology in both university settings and seminaries. What would you say?

Biblical and theological training in professional programs?

Most Christian institutions offering counseling or psychology graduate programs require some level of theological engagement. Otherwise, why exist? Some do so via specific course work while others embed the theological or biblical material into classic counseling courses. At Biblical, we do both. We require traditional counseling courses such as Marriage & Family, Helping Relationships, Psychopathology, Social & Cultural Foundations, etc. In these courses we explore counseling theory and practice from an evangelical Christian psychology perspective. We also require students to complete courses like, “Counseling & the Biblical Text” and “Counseling & Theology: Cultural Issues” where they engage biblical texts and theological study as they consider how it forms counseling theory/practice and shapes the character of the counselor.

Is all counseling theological?

Yes. And David Powlison in the most recent CCEF NOW magazine (2-4) talks about this very fact. Here are some choice tidbits,

…counselors deal with your story. In fact, they become players in that story. By word and deed, even by their line of questioning, they inevitably offer some form of editing or rescripting, some reinterpretation of your story.

Counseling is inescapably a moral and theological matter. To pretend otherwise is to be naive, deceived, or duplicitous.

…all counseling uncovers and edits personal stories…. All counseling must and does deal with questions of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, value and stigma, glory and shame, justification and guilt.

All counseling explicitly or implicitly deals with questions of redemption, faith, identity, and meaning.

Thus, if value-free counseling is not possible (the very questions we ask lead clients in one direction or another), then it stands to reason that every counselor ought to explore the theologies (doctrines, interpretations, beliefs, etc.) he or she brings into the counseling room. Who is God? How does God operate? What is the purpose of the Bible? Does it have anything to say about my life, my attitudes, my relationships? What is sin? What is my purpose in life? What does God think about my suffering? And on we could go.

But counseling is NOT theologizing

But lest you think that Christian counselors spend a great deal of time plying clients with the right answers, on sin hunts, or catechising clients, let us remember that exhortation rarely makes for good counseling. In fact, most clients are well aware of their sins–even those who do not call themselves “believers.” And those who have correct theology are not less likely to have trouble in their relationships or less likely to struggle with racing thoughts or depression or less likely to get caught in addictive behavior.

Instead, good christian counseling consists mainly of,

  1. loads of stimulating questions designed not to get the “right” answer but to awaken the client to how they think, act, believe, relate, etc.
  2. Short observations to stimulate more critical understanding of the personal narratives being written, and
  3. Collegial exploration and practice of new narratives, perceptions, and behaviors.

Wait, just what is Christian about these three points? Couldn’t unbelieving counselors agree with this list? Sure they could. What makes these three activities Christian is the submission of both counselor and client to core convictions and practices of Christ followers.

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, Christianity, counseling skills, Doctrine/Theology, teaching counseling, Uncategorized

Surprised by peace? Surprised by suffering? What do you expect?


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What is your baseline perspective on life? Do you tend to believe that life should work pretty well and are surprised when suffering and pain enter your life? Or, do you tend to believe that life is hard and are surprised and pleased when it is not so hard or when you have moments of peace?

Perspective is pretty much everything. If you are driving during rush hour and you expect that traffic will be really bad but it turns out to be better than you feared, you probably feel great. But, if you were thinking your drive would take you one hour but it took two, you probably feel a bit frustrated. Both drivers might travel exactly the same amount of time but have opposite perspectives.

Expectations shape our feelings and perceptions of how life is going for us. Now, I am NOT arguing that if you just think happy thoughts, you won’t be bothered by problems in this life. No matter your perspective, you will suffer. To think otherwise would be denial of reality. But behind most of our “this is not fair…why would God allow this…I’m not sure I want to believe in a God who allows pain to happen” kind of comments are some assumptions and expectations that reveal what we believe life should be like.

Consider these assumptions or expectations. See one that gets you?

1. Life should be fair and should work. This could be called the Jonah perspective. Yes it should. But since sin entered the world, it isn’t. Instead of blaming God, might we not want to notice how many times in life, things are fair, just, and good? Might we not want to see that God is giving us better than we deserve? How might that mindset modify our general view of God’s care for us?

2. I have sacrificed much for God, why hasn’t he given my good and decent desires)? This one is similar to the 1st point but focuses along the lines of Psalm 73. Fairness is seen along the lines of righteousness. The good guys get blessings and the bad guys get suffering. If we hold this expectation then it is common to feel gypped when we don’t get our good desires met.

3. Suffering is something that is temporary, something to get through. This is an American viewpoint. We can overcome obstacles, we can heal the sick, we can fix problems. Once we get our education, get married, get the job we wanted, get our 401Ks then life will be good.

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Filed under Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Insight, suffering

Coming to Peace with Psychology I (Review)


I’ve arrived as a blogger! No, I’m not getting paid to write and I’m not getting millions of hits each day. But I am getting a new perk. Someone has seen fit to send me complimentary books just in case I might wish to review them here. Free books! Do you know how cool that is? To an academic and book lover, it is just about the best perk ever.

[I guess this is a good time for a disclaimer. I only review books I find interesting. And even if the book comes wrapped in Ben Franklins (this one wasn’t for some reason), I promise to tell you what I really feel about the book]

Today, I received Ev Worthington’s new book, Coming to Peace with Psychology: What Christians Can Learn From Psychological Science (IVP, 2010). You may be familiar with Dr. Worthington’s work on marriage enrichment, marriage and family therapy, and forgiveness. This is my first experience with him writing about the relationship of psychology and Christianity. Here are a few of his thoughts from the introduction and the enclosed “Author Q & A” about why we might need a new book on this topic:

  • “In this book I will claim that we can know people better, and even know God better, by heeding psychological science.” (p. 11)
  • “People have been integrating theology and psychology for years, but a vast majority of the integration has come from psychotherapists. Only a small minority of integrators have been psychological scientists…. While psychotherapists try to generalize about human nature on the basis of the clients they have seen and the models of helping they were trained in, psychological scientists measure the whole range of people–those 15 percent who were clients with some psychotherapist and about 85 percent more who are not.” (Author Q & A)

Wow. He lays down the gauntlet. The problem with previous integration has been the emphasis on anecdotes from therapists. If only we had more integration models by scientists. In fact, he is right–to a degree. Much of integration is highly theory driven. But is that bad?

[Rabbit trail: What are the common “sins” of theologian integrators? Clinician Integrators? Research Integrators? Theologians put far too much emphasis on their constructs and exegesis; clinicians put too much emphasis on “what works”; researchers put too much confidence in p values. In fact none have the corner on the market of truth. But again, Worthington’s book may be very helpful. He is right that both clinicians and biblical counselors fail to interact deeply enough with psychological research. Either they dismiss scientific methods by pointing out its weaknesses or they generalize from a small data point into a grand theory even though the data cannot bear the weight of the theory.]

Let’s hear some more from Worthington about the direction of his book:

  • His theses: Psychological science helps both Christians and non-Christians (a) understand God’s creation in human beings, (b) know about God more because the study of image bearers points to God, and (c) live more virtuously. (p. 13)
  • So, he sees psychology as a common grace to refine us all. This is very interesting. Usually integrative literature has cited common grace as what allows humans to rightly perceive. Here, the discipline IS common grace.
  • The relationship between psychology and Christianity is an “emerging marriage”– one that has possibilities of conflict and yet greater intimacy.

Finally, you might be interested in just what approach Ev Worthington will take in connecting psychology and Christianity. In the past some have described integration as a recycling project, a filter to get rid of non-Christian worldviews, a recasting effort, or a perspectival or level of explanation project. He mentions two: filter and perspectival approaches. The filter tries to have theological/biblical constructs as interpreting science. He finds this problematic. The perspectival model tries to separate the two disciplines as different ways of knowing.

So what does Worthington suggest? A new model he calls a relational approach.

That’s enough for this post. Next post I’ll make some comments on his first section (where he addresses some of the problems in previous integration by pointing to some psychological science).

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, philosophy of science, Psychology