Recently, I read the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. It is an excellent secular book on the experience and treatment of trauma. Dr. Van Der Kolk takes you on his journey as psychiatrist learning to aid those who have experienced trauma. At the same time, he takes you on the journey of many individuals who have had to face the experience of trauma. By the time you finish reading the book your case awareness of both sides of the helping-helper experience of trauma will have grown.
If you want to know more about the leading secular treatment options for trauma – what they are, what aspect of trauma they aim to address, and how they work – this would be an excellent book to read. It has an easy-to-read, conversational tone as it develops a history of the understanding of trauma and reviews leading treatment options.
For the purpose of this article, I would like to take one quote from the book and reflect on its pastoral implications for trauma survivors. We could easily add pastors to the list of people at the end of this quote:
“After trauma the world become sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly, this often include spouses, children, and coworkers (page 18).”
What is being described here? It is the two-world experience of the person who has gone through trauma: the child who has been molested, the spouse who has been beaten, or the parent who powerlessly watched their child’s dying breath. These life altering experiences divide life into “before trauma” and “after trauma” demarcation and people into “get it” and “don’t get it” categories.
Consider the abused child. She goes to school or church. No one there knows. They talk about honoring your parents. Honor the father who raped me? It’s clear they don’t understand my world. They correct her for being distracted and not caring about the lesson. Again, how important do they think this lesson is? They don’t get my world. They tell stories about what they did on Saturday night. If I share what happened to me, it would blow this conversation up. This conversation feels dangerous.
The reality is that the teacher or friend never realizes how many ways they communicate “they don’t get it.” Their responses aren’t wrong (it is good to honor a safe parent and to focus on a lesson), but their responses reveal they live in a world of ideals that, while good, is not the same kind of world the child lives in.
What is the life lesson this child – or spouse, or parent – learns? It is better to keep quiet around people who don’t know the experience I’ve had. What is the effect of this lesson? An increase in the isolation, pain, and mistrust that this individual already feels. What is the risk of not obeying this lesson? Allowing the uninformed person to introduce more chaos into an already painful life by sloppily handling the information and, thereby, contributing to a bruised heart becoming sicker via the deferred hope that someone might understand (Prov. 13:12).
What might cause us as ministry leaders to actualize this fear? A common basis for this kind of misstep in ministry circles is the hyper-application of I Corinthians 10:13. We assume that because something is “common to man” we can reduce an experience to its lowest common denominator and apply Scripture to that base experience. This does at least two hurtful things: (1) it shuts down communication with someone desperately wanting to be understood, and (2) it communicates that God only speaks to the peak of their pain at the most garden-variety levels.
What could we learn from Dr. Van Der Kolk’s observation about the experience of trauma? It helps us better understand why the first and, in many ways, most powerful thing we do in trauma care is listen. It shows us why it is important to be as passionate about being the “ears of Christ” as it is to be the “mouthpiece of Christ.”
When we listen well, acknowledging the limits of our understanding, and patiently allow the person to convey their experience we counter the fear that we cannot be trusted or can’t understand (to borrow Dr. Van Der Kolk’s phrases). In her book We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, Mary DeMuth talks about her experience of disclosing abuse, “I healed because people in the church dared to listen to my story and pray for me (p. 133).” If you read Mary’s book, you will find the beneficial listening was not quick listening that prematurely assumed understanding and applied the Bible to a base-level emotions, but empathetic listening that was as patient as the book of Job is long.
What is happening when we listen like this? We are playing a role in helping two worlds – those who know and those who don’t – become one world again. We are showing that those who were not present for the trauma have ability to respond compassionately, patiently, with skill and understanding to their trauma. We fill the role of ambassadors of Christ, who represent the God who can be trusted with their hurt and pain without feeling the need to explain it away or rush them in the healing process.
It is from the context of living in “one world” that an individual can begin to heal from the experience of trauma. If you read the Dr. Van Der Kolk’s book, you will find that one of the primary objectives in the leading trauma therapies is to help an individual live in one world again; a world where the memory of a past experience does not intrude to a degree that causes a perpetual sense of high alert and stifles the freedom to think with imagination (another cognitive capacity frequently damaged after the experience of trauma).
My goal in this article is not to pull the “greatest hit” from a 400-page book as if trauma care could be reduced to a one hit wonder. My goal is to highlight an aspect of the experience of trauma that makes the verb counseling (interpersonal relationship) as important as the noun counsel (content of our advice) in the care of those who have been traumatized. My hope is that as biblical counselors we will strive to be as excellent a student of the experience of counselee as we are the advisements that emerge from Scripture so that we will be an ever more accurate ambassador of Christ who understands deeply (Romans 8:26) for the purpose of interceding accurately (Romans 8:27).
Questions for Reflection
- With what experiences have you lived in a two-world reality: those who know and those who don’t? How does this experience help you understand the social impact of facing abuse and trauma?
- When have you confided a highly personal experience, had it mishandled, and the been devastated because a step you took to make a difficult situation better actually made it much worse? How does this help you understand the sense of risk a trauma or abuse survivor feels as they confide their experience to you?
This article was originally posted on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog on September 18, 2019.