Trauma, Counseling, and the Christian

by John Ellis

Forgive me. While these are very deep waters, I am merely dipping my toes. Those who possess the desire for a full plunge will find their longing unfulfilled by the end of this article. So, again, forgive me if you’ve packed your scuba gear and spear gun in hopes of challenging yourself with the possible terrors of the deep. You’ll have to be content with a few nibbles of your toes by meaningless minnows.

With that caveat out of the way, let me add another one. I am not writing about trauma and counseling in the abstract. Trauma is something I’ve experienced in my life within a church family. It’s a reality that has confronted me and, frankly, continues to haunt the narrative beats of my life. One day, maybe, I’ll say more. No doubt, opening up in detail about my pain, especially in reference to an evangelical church (and complementarian wars), would go a long way to building an audience and securing myself a book deal. But as I wrote here, I am no longer pursuing a career as a writer. Because of all that, with this article, my goal is to enable readers to begin (emphasis on begin) to see the glaring flaws and often errors in many conservative evangelical church’s approach to mental health and counseling.

Trauma changes you, existentially(spiritually) and physically(spiritually). My knowledge of the psychology of trauma is probably best described as thin, but I do know that trauma affects our mental state(s) and our physiology. This is why trauma therapies are an important, if not necessary, component of healing for those who’ve experienced trauma. Unfortunately, many conservative Christians are suspicious, at best, of trauma therapy. At worst, many conservative Christians, taking their cue from their pastor or favorite blogger/author, believe trauma therapy to be a rebellious usurpation of the authority of pastors and a denial of the sufficiency of the Bible. I’m going to lightly tackle the rejection of non-“Biblical” counseling in two ways: the misunderstanding of the sufficiency of the Bible, and the Neoplatonist dualism driving the suspicion – the two things are related.

For many conservative Christians, mental health issues can be reduced to sin issues. Because of this, they argue that so-called “Biblical” counseling is the only appropriate response to trauma. An improper proof-texting of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 undergirds much of the rejection of trauma therapies. Writing to Timothy, Paul says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Being disconnected from verse 15’s “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” enables the anti-(non-“biblical”)counseling preachers and teachers to bludgeon their listeners and readers with a seemingly high view of the Bible as opposed to the low view of the Bible’s sufficiency displayed by those who encourage people suffering from trauma (or mental health issues, in general) to seek professional help from a counselor/therapist who is trained in actual mental health medicine. A reductio ad absurdum may be helpful.

When the sufficiency of the Bible regarding mental health is trumpeted to me, I often want to respond: Yes! This is exactly why the first thing I do when boarding a plane is to ask the pilot where he went to seminary.

Obviously, that would be a pointless thing to do. A pilot’s ability to safely fly a passenger jet is not predicated on whether or not he went to seminary, much less if he went to my theological camp’s approved seminary. But my absurd response serves to highlight that the word “everything” in “the Bible is sufficient for everything” is a bounded set. The Bible is sufficient for something(s) specific, not for a universal everything. And verse 15 makes clear (as does the entire Story of the Bible) that the context is soteriological, including the sanctification of Believers. At this point – sufficient for the sanctification of Believers – is where those who disagree with me will cry, “Aha! Exactly, John. Secular and/or non-biblical counseling attempts to deal with areas of sanctification.” Okay. But that’s a misunderstanding of how trauma and other mental health issues affects us. On one hand, I could rightly claim that the Believer’s sanctification is wrapped up into all things: the designing of our house; the teaching of math to our children; those who undergo heart surgery. You see, and I’m unaware of anyone who believes otherwise, but the Bible is not sufficient for architects. It isn’t sufficient for math teachers. Nor is it sufficient for heart surgeons. And it’s also not sufficient for mental health professionals. It is sufficient for all things pertaining to our being saved from our sins and reconciled back to our Creator out of a relationship of wrath and into a relationship of blessing with Him.

As I’ve already written, trauma changes us. Like how a hard fall breaks bones, trauma breaks parts of us. It alters how our brain’s synapses fire. Through very real processes (read: not spiritual in the immaterial sense), it warps our view of the world and our relationship with others. Left untended, trauma’s negative effects worsen. And those effects are far-reaching and anthropologically holistic. Just like God wants you to go the emergency room when you break your arm, He also wants you to go to a qualified and competent mental health professional when part of your mind is broken.

The philosopher John Searle, who was not a Christian, helped keep me out of the ditch of monism on one side and out of the ditch of dualism on the other side when it comes to the philosophy of the mind. Monism says that the mind can be reduced to the material – to the body – so much so, that the mind doesn’t exist. Our brain exists, in materialism’s view, and that’s it. Dualism, on the other hand, divides humans into two aspects – the mind and the body. As a result, most dualists, even when they try not to do so, end up creating a hierarchy that elevates the mind as superior (and more important) than the body. In doing so, Neoplatonists (including Augustine) embrace, to varying degrees, Plato’s forms. This also makes it difficult to see how the mind and body function together. More importantly, the Bible doesn’t teach an anthropological Neoplatonist dualism.

Helping me see the contra-Biblical anthropology that adheres necessarily to Neoplatonism’s dualism, Searle challenges the notion that the mind and body are separate. At the same time, the famed philosopher scoffed at the notion that the mind can be reduced to the body (he most often uses the terms “mental” and “nonmental”). There is something very real about the mind (the mental) that appears to be separate from the body (nonmental). But the appearance of a sharp separation is a product of perspective and not reality. What happens to the body affects the mind. Likewise, what happens to the mind happens to the body. Whatever ways we want to parse out the differences, it’s apparent that the two are not only intimately connected but are connected in ways that preclude sharp distinctions – whether the distinctions push us to a Neoplatonist dualism or a materialist reduction into one. It may be a paradox, but while the mind and body are not the same thing, they are also not divisible – at least, they’re not supposed to be divisible. Dividing them is death.

Much more can be said about that but, frankly, I don’t think I need to. A holistic anthropology is likely intuitive for many of us, and the Bible bears this out. Death is the separation of the body and the soul (mind), and a violation of God’s intention. When Jesus warned us not to fear those who can kill the body, he added that we should fear the one who can throw both body and soul into hell. The mental/spiritual anguish Jesus endured in the Garden of Gethsemane was evidenced through his body’s extreme reaction of sweating blood. Likewise, when we experience psychologically trauma, our body bears the scars. Likewise, our mind bears the scars of trauma inflicted on the body. Sadly, though, our intuitive understanding of our holistic anthropology is undermined by those who insist that trauma can be dealt with almost solely (if not solely) by pastors.

Trauma comes with high costs. It demands payment from all aspects of the lives of those who suffer under its scourge. And none of us are strong enough to stand up to trauma without professional help. And like the heart surgeon, trauma requires treatment from mental health professionals who have been gifted by God to image Him as they help hurting image bearers heal from the mental and physical effects caused by trauma. And most pastors are not sufficiently trained in trauma therapy.

I’ve seen firsthand how trauma affects people and churches. I’ve seen and heard how the rejection by pastors of legitimate counseling and therapy adds to the trauma. People I know and love have been harmed and changed by trauma, but their refusal to break away from a contra-biblical perspective on counseling and therapy is adding to the heartbreak and pain of not only themselves but those around them.

It’s not a rejection of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to recognize that you need help from mental health professionals when suffering under the effects of mental health issues. It doesn’t undermine the ecclesiastical authority of your church to seek healing from a therapist when trauma has invaded your life. The failure to receive legitimate help will not only hinder your healing but may very well assure that you become the instrument of hurt in those whom you love. I’ve seen that very thing happen.

Yes, trauma is ultimately a result of sin (as is everything that is wrong with this world) but that doesn’t mean that the solution is merely found in forgiveness (or repentance), nor does it mean that your pastor is qualified to help you find healing. If you’re suffering from mental health issues seek professional help. And, likely, your pastor is not qualified to be considered professional help.

Soli Deo Gloria

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