Restoring Pastors to Ministry After Affairs? Possible or Impossible?


In recent weeks there have been sad and public accounts of pastors removed from their positions after being caught having sex with someone not their spouse. These pastors (mostly men) are gifted speakers, writers, and leaders. They are good at what they do. It seems is a shame that they no longer use those gifts to lead God’s people. It is also a shame that God’s good name and the spouse/kids are dragged through the mud.

But can there be redemption? Could the pastor who loses integrity regain it and with it regain a pastoral position again? After all, we are all sinners and no pastor ever is without sin. Indeed, it seems God uses those who are moral and ethical disasters to lead his church. There’s David the rapist and murderer, S/Paul the terrorist, Abraham the liar, and Peter the wishy-washy, self-protective and impulsive “rock” of the church. Certainly, if God uses these people to write huge portions of Scripture and to build the church then why can’t a pastor who strays also be used by God?

No reason…any some possible reasons at the same time.

First, let’s call “affairs” with congregants what they are–pastoral sexual abuse. Now, not all sexual activity between a pastor and a congregant are the same. Having sex with a person you are counseling is not the same as developing a relationship with someone who is a bit more your equal. And yet, both would still not be an affair but an abuse of the position of pastor since the pastor has the obligation and moral responsibility to protect the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep.

Reason 1: The greater the misuse of power, the less likely a power holder should get that power back. An accountant who steals money is less able to return to being an accountant than a painter is returning to another painting job who happened upon some money on a desk and took it.

Stories of redemption in the Bible aren’t road maps for what should happen today. They tell us much about the amazing grace God bestows on sinners, but they don’t tell us what we should do when we encounter a fallen pastor. In fact, if we want to stack up the restored leaders in the Bible against the cursed leaders, I think our few positive examples of restoration would be vastly outnumbered by the stories of permanent removal. And on top of stories, we have some very serious warnings about bad shepherds (Jer 23, Ezek 34, 44, Matthew 23). The Ezekiel 44 passage denies false shepherds from ever speaking for God ever again but does show kindness in allowing them to help out with the sacrifices.

Reason 2: Human gifting does not necessarily lead to spiritual authority and leadership. Value to the kingdom continues even if “ministry” is only that of behind the scenes support services.

Finally, desire for the position is not always evidence of readiness. Recall in Acts 8 that there was a magician name Simon who wanted the ability to cast out demons like the apostles. He must already have had some capacity as he was famous. But he wanted more. He wanted the position of power. When confronted he begs for mercy and help.

Reason 3: Tears, passion, vision, and drive are not enough of a reason to place someone back into public ministry.

Now, none of these reasons are enough to always say no to return to pulpits after sexual infidelity. While a return may not be probable, it can be possible. Every situation is unique. That said, unless the disgraced pastor has evidenced many of the signs of repentance (taking full ownership, accepting consequences, giving up control over recovery process/submitting to the work of therapy, seeking accountability, pursuing utter transparency, and not placing demands to return to the position) for a long season, it is doubtful that a return to leadership is right. Frankly, one of the best signs of repentance is not being so worried about reputation and not seeking a return to a previous level of ministry.

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Filed under adultery, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, pastors and pastoring, Uncategorized

Do Psychotropic Drugs Cause Violence and Aggression?


There are no adequate words to describe the recent racially-motivated mass murder of nine church members by a 21 year old, yes disturbed, male. Grievous…insane…terroristic…nothing truly captures the gravity of the situation.

As the details of the shooter’s life begin to surface, there have been several reports that the young man was taking Suboxone, a prescribed medication in the opiate family to help avoid the massive withdrawal symptoms from things like heroin or abused narcotic painkillers. As a result, there are a number of articles touting a connection between Suboxone use and aggression.

But do psychotropic drugs cause violence?

At best, we only have correlations between aggression and drug use. Thus, we need to be very careful when we blame violence on the ingestion of substance, whether prescription or otherwise. Correlations do not tell us causation. Even when we have a direct positive relationship (e.g., increased use of substance A followed by increased behavior B), we still do not have enough to say that there is a direct cause.

Correlations between prescriptions usage and violence do exist

There are a few studies that indicate a correlation between prescription drug use and violence. However, the relationship is connected mostly by those who stop taking their medication. It may be that the cause of violence is the noxious side-effects leading to a dis-use of the med resulting in an increase in psychiatric symptoms. So, do psychiatric symptoms correlate with increased violence? One study completed on a large psychiatric inpatient population determined that the rate of violent behavior one year post psychiatric hospitalization stood at about 27%. The numbers go higher if the person also has a co-morbid substance abuse problem (interestingly, men and women have about the same rate of violence but male violence tends to have more victims).

Certain medications seem to encourage more anger, aggression, and violence. Opiates tend to have a mollifying effect. People who use them may feel euphoria or calmness at first. As the narcotic wears off, there may be in increase in anxiety, pain, or agitation. There are, however, some who report increase angry and violent thoughts. One particular study suggests that prior personality factors may influence aggressive responses in an individual.

Suboxone is one of those drugs used to combat opiate abuse. Itself an opiate, if taken for a long period of time it becomes the addiction without the euphoria. The goal of the medication is to get off the opiate onto Suboxone and then slowly taper on Suboxone to the point that opiates are not longer needed.

There is little evidence that SSRIs and other psychotropics cause or even encourage violence. What is true is that violence, like everything else, is a multifactored event. Those prone to addiction, isolation, delusion, paranoia, impulse control problems may have increased risk to resort to violence. Those with particular personality features may be prone to violent responses. Certainly, environmental factors are also in play: culture, education, economic resources, history of victimhood all have potential impact on the choice to use violence to solve problems. And finally, faith and character (which itself is developed due to nature/nurture) plays a significant role in how we see others and whether we afford them with kindness and compassion.

If nothing is to blame, is there anything we can do?

It is good to resist the impulse to blame any one thing for the cause of violence. However, it is legitimate to take each of the factors commonly present in violence and to examine them one-by-one to see how we may intervene. Talk about gun availability and gun cultures. Talk about mental illness. Talk about medication (mis-use, over-use, adherence). Talk about racism and prejudices? Talk about poverty. Talk about substance abuse. Look for small ways that we can intervene and begin to change the way we talk about violence in our society. Look for the micro-aggressions and decide to stand against them early and often.

Will we always have individuals bent on destroying others? Yes. But, let us be known for being peace-makers.

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Why study professional counseling at a seminary?


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 thbts_0314_l_bts_cnslngtxt_rede 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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June 15, 2015 · 10:58 am

Lamentations as Comfort for Trauma Victims? Consider Lamentations as a Teacher for Counselors


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).

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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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Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling

Evil Hours (David Morris): A Must-Read for Mental Health Professionals


A bit ago, I blogged on David Morris’ new book, “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and his NPR interview. [You can read my previous post here.] Having just finished reading the text, I want to highlight a few more insights about the book.

Morris does an excellent job describing his experience of trauma and then expanding to the history of PTSD and its impact, both on those going to war and those who have experienced civilian traumas. For those who wonder why Vietnam vets struggle more than WWII vets, Morris helps reveal the falseness of that belief in the beginning of chapter 5.

But the most important chapters of the book are chapters 6 through 9 where he examines therapies designed for PTSD, how research protocols designed to help us know which treatments work best may harm, how drugs and alternative interventions (e.g., yoga) may help and how to think about posttraumatic growth.

Though these chapters are his experience, I would highly recommend every MHP to read these chapters. Skip the first chapters if you must (you should not!) but these are paramount if you are going to work with traumatized individuals. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Following protocol for therapy can harm a patient. Don’t get me wrong, research IS necessary. But when a protocol is harming a patient, it is important to make sure that research goals do not become primary over the needs of the one who is in need.
  • Prolonged Exposure, the gold standard treatment, has a HUGE drop-out rate. Somewhere around 54%. That should give us great pause. Surgery hurts. PE is like surgery but repeated opening of a wound. The dropout rate should tell us that imaginal work can re-traumatize. There are other methods that may work just a well but do less damage in the process. I think about the changes in the last 10 years for breast cancer. We are discovering that not everyone needs bilateral breast removal to survive. Not everyone needs 30 days of radiation as radiation at the time of lumpectomy may work just as well for some patients. So, we must be less fixed in our minds on treatment protocols and be considering if the patient can improve with less radical treatment options.
  • Cognitive therapies are good but over-emphasize think right = feel right. Such work could ignore the moral complexity of life, especially for those who have moral injuries.
  • The person of the therapist is more important than the treatment modality. This is not to say that the modality is of no consequence. Rather, that good interventions live or die on the capacity of the therapist to be truly human with clients.
  • Recovery must be done in community. Gutting it out alone does not work.
  • Alternatives, like yoga, works for some far better than talking, but shouldn’t be sold as a cure-all.

…yoga stands out as a uniquely effective treatment, precisely because it insists that people shut up and start listening to their bodies. Yoga works to correct the central lie of Western philosophy, which goes all the way back to Descartes, who said that the body and the mind are distinct entities that exist independent of each other. (237)

However, Morris acknowledges that yoga is, “ridiculous”, even “moronic.” Though he is also quick to say, “In the Marine Corps, we had a saying: ‘If it’s stupid but it works, then it isn’t stupid.” (238). “Placebo, wishful thinking, whatever. I’ll take the help where I can get it.” (246, discussing the mixed evidence for EMDR). Yet, be wary of proponents of any one treatment as a cure. They prey on desperate people.

The bottom line is that there is no ‘magic bullet’ for PTSD, and claims to the contrary should be taken with more than a grain of sand. (240)

  • Growth happens but not apart from ongoing trauma symptoms and changes. Too often we expect recovery to mean the removal of symptoms. But, there is no going back. Identity changes, just as it would if you lost your spouse and then got remarried. Growth needs to be observed and underlined, but not assumed to eliminate strong, continuing reminders of trauma.

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On having substantive conversations about race relations


Maybe it has always been this way, but it seems harder these days to have substantive conversations about race relations. I think the same struggle exists when you try to talk about sexual identity, gay marriage and anything else that is a hot button issue today. Does it seem that way to you?

In the realm of race relations, we have dueling images (Baltimore burning v. images of a black man being beaten by police), dueling sound bytes (Baltimore mayor portrayed as giving permission to rioters “space to destroy” property v. Franklin Graham’s “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else, Listen up” comment) and dueling diagnoses (racist cops v. thug culture). These seem to generate much emotion and quick reaction but little in the way of deep conversation and understanding.

Who should we blame?

It is easy to lay blame at the feet of ideologically-focused cable “news” programs. Their incessant demand for sound bytes and finding “breaking” news requires that they pump up anything that might be controversial to keep the viewer on the channel. But the only reason these stations need to do this is because of the proliferation of choices from where we get our news. If the show doesn’t deliver, we’ll find our news elsewhere on the television or, more likely, online.

We could also blame twitter and other micro-blogs that allow us to make a point in less than 140 characters. These formats provide “data” but without context enable us to believe we have facts when we only have a single data point.

But in truth, we need to lay most of the blame at our American culture’s feet. We want sound bytes. Like fast food, we want ready-to-consume information pre-packaged and simple. And we are an increasingly angry culture, angry and feeling lost in a sea of divergent opinions. Maybe this is because the comfort we once had living in a homogenous society where everyone appeared to think and believe like us is no longer present.

What can we do?

First, let’s be honest, in some settings and with some people, we may not be able to have substantive conversations about race. The environment may not be right, the other person(s) may not be interested or able due to their pain. In these cases, let us follow the advice of Solomon and remember there is a time to keep silent (Eccl 3:7a). Of course, if  you do remain silent, remember not to gossip about it later.

When we do decide to try dialogue, let us endeavor with God’s help to do the following:

  1. Be quick (first) to listen. Our temptation is often the opposite. We have much to say and we want a hearing. Follow the admonition of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19-20).
  2. Listen to the story behind the opinion. Sometimes we jump to debating facts, especially when those facts are part of the other’s experience. We may be quick to dismiss experience as anecdotal. Yet, the story of pain, confusion, and racializations are worthy of our attention because we are listening to the life and challenge of an image bearer.
  3. Give the best interpretation of what was said. When emotions run high, it is easy to react to things we hear that sound wrong to us. When trust is low, it is likely that we will provide the worst possible interpretation rather than the best. 1 Cor 13:7 reminds us that love “believes all things.” So, give the best possible interpretation of what was heard. If you aren’t sure what the person meant, ask, but do so without thinking you already know the answer. Assume your partner has truth to tell you.
  4. Avoid equalizing pain. Sometimes we fear giving credence to another’s opinions for fear of negating our own opinions. It is quite fine to acknowledge systemic abuse against one people group in one sentence without needing to equalize pain by pointing out an opposing fact (even if it is true). When we try to equalize, our dialogue partner will likely believe we have just negated their point.
  5. Avoid using some impersonal extreme case you heard to make your point. While extreme personal stories need to be listened to and cared for, we can be tempted to tell of an extreme case or fact to make our point. Remember, there are fringe stories but these fringe stories rarely tell the main problem. However, if you believe the other side is using an extreme case, don’t jump on your dialogue partner but listen for substance that you can agree with.
  6. Be willing to confess corporate sin. Both Nehemiah and Ezra confess sin that is not really their own but owned by all of Israel together. Be willing to own and confess the sins of your “people” even if they are not your own sins.
  7. Underline shared truth and shared goals. While you may disagree on most things, be on the lookout for where you can agree and highlight shared truth or goals.
  8. Finally, determine one way to move the conversation to action. Dialogue and understanding are good. Action is better when we work together. Find one thing you can do with your dialogue partner.

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Do we have a theology of trauma?


Over at the BTS faculty blog (here), you can read my post about the need for a theology of trauma. I wrote it a few days ago and coincidentally it was published today as I was listening to Dr. Robert Schreiter teach on trauma in the biblical text. He described the bible as bookended by trauma (death of Abel in Gen 4 to cosmic trauma in Revelation) and the move to read the bible through the lens of trauma.

So how would you articulate a theology? Click my link above and see if you agree/disagree.

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Making the Church a Safe Place for Trauma Victims: WRF Plenary Address


 

 Here are the slides from my plenary address given on March 26, 2015 in Sao Paulo to the World Reformed Fellowship General Assembly. #WRF2015 WRF GA 2015 Presentation

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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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