Counseling Traumatized Men: 15 Directives for Reformed Pastors
I am hoping you might be able to help me or point me in the right direction. I first became aware of who you are from your interview on Doc and Devo. And then I started following you on your own podcast. One topic that has really hit home is Male Trauma. But not for me, for my husband. He is the definition of trauma. While his mother was pregnant with him his father was unfaithful and they got divorced. He is the youngest of 4 boys and his mother was single for a few years. She remarried and the man became abusive towards the boys when they lost a child between them. For 10 years one of his brothers raped him. On a very frequent basis. When he got the courage to tell his parents he was 11. And they did nothing to protect them or separate the boys. His dad however began to be verbally abusive and physically as well. Even breaking his wrist.
Fast forward a few years, he enlisted in the Army and was training in their Special Forces job and ended up being tortured and beat down and physically broken. Which has made him only be able to do a desk job for the rest of his life.
I think a common sin that men face is lust and he was heavily addicted to porn. By God’s providence he hasn’t watched it in a year and a half. But what is happening now is he is have dreams about porn or about being unfaithful. And that is affecting his walk with Christ. He won’t even touch his bible. Feels unworthy to even pray. And then in our marriage... well I think you could probably imagine the damage that has caused there too.
The reason I am reaching out is we are on the cliff of disaster. Like I’m not sure we will make it one more day let alone make it one more week, month or year.
We attended a newly calvinistic church that when John shared his testimony with him they basically ran us out of the church. He attempted suicide when this happened. Praise God he was unsuccessful. We have since been plugged into a more mature Reformed Baptist church but it has been hard to open up and get help.
We can’t white knuckle this anymore.
I am desperate as a wife to help him. But I am drained. We have 4 children 4 and under and I stay him with them. Not to mention my own baggage.
Would you please be able to help me support and encourage him in ways that will actually help? I don’t know who more to do. We have been together 4 years now.
Most survivors of abuse fall into one of two camps with reference to Reformed theology. The first is they develop an unhealthy attachment to Reformed theology because it conceives everything in black and white. Everything is pushed to the extreme. It takes the concept that humans are sinful and construes it as total depravity—man has no moral power outside of saving grace. This resonates very well—hauntingly well—with the adult survivor’s tendency to viciously hate oneself. The same goes for the doctrine of divine sovereignty—he is in the Reformed view meticulously sovereign over every detail. Even the abuse. And Reformed theologians may make distinctions between primary and secondary causes, between God’s active decree of an event, and his passive permission, but these sorts of rationalizations don’t quite do enough to erase the straight line between God and the abuse experienced by the survivor.
The other camp that survivors fall into with reference to Reformed theology is a disgust for its doctrines—a disgust that carries a logic that mirrors the unhealthy attraction many survivors have to Reformed theology. This disgust is obsessed with the fact that Calvinism insists on such a tight, causal relationship between God and history. They hear John Piper say that our only response to God in the wake of suffering is a sense of our deserving such suffering for being sinful. For example, Piper says that our only acceptable posture before God in the midst of life-threatening violence is: “Guilty as charged.” Some survivors feel a sense of disgust and anger about this notion. And others find refuge in it.
The purpose here isn’t to critique Reformed theology. The purpose isn’t to say that survivors of abuse can’t become Calvinists in a healthy way. The purpose here is to give pastors guidance who have abuse survivors in their congregations. How can you, as a Reformed pastor, deal with abuse survivors who may have an unhealthy attraction to, or disgust toward, the doctrines which distinguish your particular genre of religious belief? How do you counsel them, and weep with those who weep, while walking the tenuous line between compromising your convictions and bulldozing survivors with those same convictions?
TIP: For those interested, I have written my dissertation on this very question, which will be coming out soon with Fortress Academic publishers. And you can subscribe to my mailing list in the show notes (or click here to get notified) to get an update when that comes out.
Are Reformed pastors supposed to change their theology for the sake of the traumatized? Ought they to refrain from speaking theologically about trauma at all? Can they say anything in accordance with their convictions which isn’t prima facie harmful?
First, we will sketch brief guidelines for you, the Reformed pastor, who encounters an attendee or parishioner who is traumatized, male, and has negatively internalized the content of Reformed theology so that he finds it disturbing. We will first outline some generic advice about practices from which you, as a Reformed pastor, should refrain—followed by practices which you might conduct—though neither sketch represents an exhaustive or comprehensive list of dos and don’ts.
1. Withhold Evaluation.
Regarding practices from which you ought to refrain— First, withhold evaluation—praise and critique—until you have certified your understanding of the traumatized Christian’s experience by asking: “Is such and such what your experience is like?” Only when you have received multiple affirmative answers to this question can you proceed to make basic presumptions. Evaluating emotions before they are articulated, processed, and established with a solidaric openness to truths they communicate will only complicate the emotions and obscure what truth they have to speak. Create a nonjudgmental space in order to facilitate their most accurate articulation—it is only in this context which evil can receive its proper and full prosecution.
2. Buy Clara Hill’s Helping Skills.
Second, read the book Helping Skills by Clara E. Hill for basic tactical wisdom in counseling. Filter all theological insights through this book’s strategies for effective therapy. Unless you have built a strong relational bond of trust with the individual, seek always to ask intentionally before you speak: “What strategy am I using to ensure that my speech is both professional and informed?”
3. Presume Your Incompetence.
Third, do not assume that you are sufficiently competent to provide counsel for the traumatized Christian. If you are not a licensed counselor, do not presume to be one. Your office as an ordained minister of the gospel makes you a representative of God and the church in a way that is both sacred and highly specialized—do not confuse sanctity for competence. Licensed mental health professionals rely upon complex procedural training in order to effectively treat these very specific issues. The training one receives in seminary does not straightforwardly or obviously translate into trauma therapy as any specific strategy or process.
4. Don’t Overpromise on God’s Behalf.
Fourth, do not promise that God will heal trauma. And, especially do not make the fulfillment of this promise contingent upon proper faith in God. God offers no such promises, nor does he hang promises of psychological healing upon certain acts of faith. Even when the lamb appears in Revelation, he appears as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Do not seek to erase or eradicate with theology that which God does not erase or eradicate. Furthermore, “healing” has become a buzzword in Christian circles that emphasizes cure over care without any sense of what one’s objectives for recovery are, and far less the optimal process options for achieving those objectives. Tropes such as “Christ can heal you” are lazy genericisms that likely require years of work to earn—this is the sort of simplicity that for many must be attained on the other side of complexity, so to speak.
5. Don’t Become a Theological Bully.
Fifth, if the traumatized Christian finds Reformed theology disturbing, do not reduce his disturbance to a misunderstanding of Reformed theology. It is very likely that his misgivings about the system are rooted in a bad experience with a Reformed institution first of all, which then served as a prompt for the negative internalization of the ideology itself. This does not undermine the legitimacy of their misgivings—that all misgivings are personal rather than logical—instead, existential disturbance represents a unique amalgam of logical and social concern. This disturbance ought to give you more pause about engaging in apologetics with the person, not more license.
6. Don’t Avoid Hard Questions.
Sixth, if the traumatized Christian is disturbed by doctrines of meticulous providence and total depravity, which are, even if true, extremist construals of the concept of sin and divine control, do not insist that he ought to focus on other doctrines, and that his misgivings about these doctrines are merely harmful preoccupations that ought to be engaged after he has recovered from trauma. Give him permission to be disturbed, legitimize his negative internalization, and try even to express sympathy with his disturbance. You will establish a more sturdy therapeutic alliance with the traumatized Christian if you can learn how to find his misgivings about your ideology as reasonable as possible.
7. Don’t Compromise Your Theology.
Seventh, do not pretend that you do not believe the things that disturb the traumatized Christian. In other words, just because the traumatized Christian may negatively internalize doctrines you cherish, this does not indicate that you must pretend they are necessarily negatively internalized. Instead, recognize that the fact that you are a Reformed pastor limits the amount of direct theological care you can provide. You can choose to speak more generically than you might with someone who has positively internalized Calvinist doctrines in such a way that does not make your language inauthentic, but which supplies common terms you can use with the traumatized Christian—language such as prayer, grace, and mystery.
Now, regarding practices which you ought to conduct—First, you ought always to perform counseling with a sensitivity to the individuality of the person with whom you are speaking. Any generic wisdom ought to be held in an open hand. Approach every counseling situation with a posture of openness to the reality that you may not fully understand this person’s situation until after several hours of nonjudgmental listening.
9. Give Them Permission to Leave with Your Blessing.
Second, give the traumatized Christian permission to leave the church. He doesn’t need your permission, but it will remove any notion that his decision to leave is one of self-exile. If he desires to leave, let him leave. Do not insist that leaving the church will result in the loss of salvation or community. Nothing good will come of guilting or scaring the traumatized into social compliance. This too squarely mimics the behavior of abusers. Instead, assist them in the cultivation of autonomy however possible, including the offer of continued friendship without ideological requirements.
10. Represent the Church.
Third, be mindful of your role as ecclesial representative. The traumatized Christian may have certain misgivings or resentments toward the church which you must bear, fairly or unfairly. Do not become defensive or resentful about these feelings, but rather take the opportunity to act as an advocate on behalf of the traumatized Christian, and to call evil the defensive, critical, and often martial impulses of the Reformed church. Bear responsibility for the corporate body you represent, and act as those who have failed ought to have acted.
Fourth, pray to God on behalf of the traumatized Christian. Pray for his physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Pray that God would help him to rediscover a vibrant faith, social belonging, and daily purposefulness. Pray for opportunities to encourage and befriend him. Pray for wisdom about how best to be a safe place for the traumatized while retaining your confessional identity.
12. Ask a Knowledgeable Parishioner to Start a Group.
Fifth, ask a traumatized Christian who is both mature and informed about these issues to lead a recovery or support group in your church. There are more of these groups for women, but very few groups for traumatized men. Enabling a group such as this is a practical way to supply the traumatized Christian with a sense of ecclesial belonging, a social epicenter for the legitimation of their experiences within the church, and a public gesture of acknowledgement and alliance with the traumatized. It communicates: “You have a special truth that not all of us can understand, yet we share an indissoluble bond in Christ.”
13. Hold Special Services for the Traumatized.
Sixth, hold special services which integrate liturgies of lamentation for the evils which have occurred, protest to God about his relationship to abuse, and imprecation against abusers, or other trauma-specific ecclesial construals, into your church calendar. Do not end these liturgies with a view toward the “greater good” wrought by abuse. Evil needs to be named as such, and a theological habit of always couching lamentation, protest, and imprecation, in “But God meant it for good” represents the very theological handicap about which many survivors are suspicious, especially in Calvinism.
Those who possess an inability to end a liturgical or ecclesial act without explaining how it’s really a good thing is fall under the curse of Isaiah: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” This, along with the willingness to publicly support recovery groups in the church, will serve as an open and active gesture of positive support on your part. Many survivors may be untrusting, but that is the nature of uncommon and uncomfortable endeavors. The gesture itself is an open door which they may walk through if it remains open long enough to look trustworthy.
14. Be Patient.
Seventh, be patient with the traumatized Christian. If he has a hard time with Reformed ideas, and he wants to stay in the church, do not excommunicate, discipline, rebuke, or stigmatize him for his struggle. If he at one time professed Christ as Lord, trust God’s pistic resilience on his behalf to honor the guarantee God has irrevocably placed within him. God has deigned not to act severely or swiftly against doubt, so act likewise and take Jude 22 seriously: “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).
Finally, endure with the traumatized Christian in their suffering and sense of ecclesial exile. Be understanding. Be empathetic. They will be struggling with symptomatology that you will want to rebuke. Recognize the limits of your competence. Recognize that you don’t understand the whole picture. What looks like high-handed sin from your perspective is actually part of a bigger story, and is operating under more complex rules than a simplistic, straightforwardly moralistic account of human behavior can manage. As you recognize the limits of your competence in dealing with the traumatic aspect of a traumatized Christian’s experience, you will be more hesitant to rebuke, more willing to delegate, and more compassionate in your prayerful relation to a process that exceeds the competence afforded you by seminary training or previous pastoral experience.