I love biblical counseling. It has been profoundly impacting on my own life and it’s just one of those places where you can think endlessly, there’s always more to see and there’s always more to interact with and I love interacting with the disciplines around biblical counseling and being provoked in my thinking and sharpened and driven back to Scripture in deep ways.
One thing that I suspect if you’re a biblical counselor, you probably know well, and if you’re not, you can probably at least imagine what it’s like for those of us who have really devoted a lot of time and energy to biblical counseling and developing content is that I find that very, very often one perspective on biblical counseling out there in the broader world is that it’s kind of shallow, that it’s seen as, “Yeah, that’s great that you’re bringing this faith perspective to help people, but you make me a little nervous that you’re bringing out this Bible, this old book, when we have a lot of more current and much more in-depth information and literature out there about how people really work.”
Since biblical counseling was born, there’s been an ongoing conversation back and forth between biblical counseling and the psychological literature around it, and sometimes that conversation has been more heated and sometimes it’s been more cool. But I think fairly consistently, the message that I hear within biblical counseling from outside biblical counseling, is that biblical counseling is not as deep, it doesn’t go as far, it doesn’t offer help that that gets down to the core as much as some of the secular or psychological literature does.
I’d like to just in one very, very narrow, small way, give a demonstration of why as a biblical counselor, I get so excited about biblical counseling and how it goes so deep—deeper than something that doesn’t have the Lord Jesus Christ at its center could. It’s really that depth that I’m wanting to unpack a bit. So what I thought I’d do is I’ll pick an example of something that’s been really provoking my thinking recently, I’ll actually be interacting with a book that I haven’t even finished yet, but I’ve been really appreciating, it’s not by a Christian author, and talking about some things I’ve really appreciated from it and some ways where I would say those things in many ways, actually just point to where some of the Scripture’s depth is so profoundly important and helpful and useful.
The particular little example I wanted to bite off is from the trauma literature out there, which is one of the key places where broadly the psychological field is focused these days, and in particular, I wanted to look at from what I can hear and tell it from my own observation, one of the best books within trauma literature, maybe the best, had come out in the past decade or so, which is called, The Body Keeps the Score and it’s by Bessel van der Kolk. And actually, I got to spend some time in Holland as a child, so I have a deep affection for just the fact that he has this cool name. I mean, Bessel van der Kolk, that’s a great name right there, and so I’m not surprised that somebody with a great name would come up with a fantastic name for a book, right?
The core idea of the book, The Body Keeps the Score, is contained in the title: The things that happen to you are going to stick with you physically no matter what you do with them cognitively. So if you’ve been through something really hard and traumatic and awful, you can expect, and in fact, you’re basically guaranteed to have long-lasting physiological baggage of some sort or another from that experience. I think the multitude of ways that he goes about unpacking that (and he’s certainly not the only one to observe the connection between trauma and lasting physiological kinds of struggles and impacts and harm), but that particular insight is not one that should be at all surprising to us as Christians and it’s one that we can be profoundly grateful to Bessel and many others like him who have spent time really thinking about what is it like to go through something really, really hard, and what are the long term, lasting, maybe subtle, maybe less observable, less obviously directly connected kinds of physical impact. Anyhow, I think it’s a great example of the secular literature at its best and really making some strong and helpful connections.
Now, within that, let me pick out one or two things that I wanted to zoom in on—places where I appreciate what the book is saying and yet places where I like to talk about how the Scripture can go deeper and further. First, and I’m actually going to flip open my book here, looking at page three, this is page two and three. This is in his introduction. Let me just pull out a couple of sentences here that give a flavor of: Here’s the core goal that he is going for with folks who have experienced just horrible, awful things in their lives and are still reeling, maybe even decades later, from the impact of that. Setting up the idea, he says, “It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.” That could be its whole own three-podcast series just unpacking that sentence and thinking about the way that shame is indeed an inherent consequence of trauma and this idea of utter weakness and vulnerability and how that has profound effects.
I’m just going to jump over that. A little bit later, he talks about, here’s some of our ways to help in ways to move into people’s lives, and he says “We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives,” and I think that’s probably one of his best summaries of the implicit goal that he would have for all of trauma care.
Then he talks about talking about trauma and taking medication to help with trauma and then even having bodily kinds of experiences and practices that that can help traumatized people and talking about how there’s a complexity and a back-and-forth between the three that people need. And I just thought that core goal, that sense of: We want to help people feel fully alive in the present and we want to help them move on with their lives—that is a lovely desire and those are good things. We want people to feel fully alive and fully present. We don’t want people locked in the past. That is not where Scripture points and we certainly want people to move on and to continue to function and to be part of community and to experience purpose and joy.
All those things are good. And yet, if we think about, where does Scripture move? Where does Scripture go? It’s not simply that we would be able to move on from traumas, but it’s rather something deeper. I would talk about it in three different ways. I’d say Scripture talks about not just moving on and experiencing good in the rest of your life, but actually being transformed through our trials, having our very faith, having the very core of what we believe and our connection to the living God actually strengthened on the far side of even horrific things.
Probably the two paradigmatic examples in Scripture would be the exodus after slavery for generations in Egypt. Slavery is as miserable of a concept as you can put on the table, and then the exile—just this experience of violence and violation and isolation and communal breakdown and loss of personal autonomy and loss of connection to God, and to land, and history, and story—and everything that could possibly be taken from a person was taken from the exiles when they were ripped out of the land where they had known and lived with the Lord.
He’s saying even through these things that clearly as a category that Scripture looks at and gets, there is this hope in the midst of it and it’s not simply a hope of moving on with your new life in Babylon, but it’s actually with staying connected to the living God in the wake of trauma and being through this, in a different way for every person and every situation, but being transformed and becoming someone who is, in fact, more like Christ, someone who is more able to live with hope and strength—just the idea that there is hope in the midst of trauma for transformation.
Now, is that totally inimical to secular thinking? Would Bessel van der Kolk say, “Oh, no, people never get transformed through trauma”? Of course not. I’m sure he would agree with that. But we have a language in Scripture to think about the depth of that transformation and a transformation that’s not merely functional, but that is as deep as our soul and as long as eternity. That is profound, that’s redemption. That is something that takes us and where you end up is actually through Christ himself, through His trauma and His overcoming the grave itself and every violation that He, knowing and meeting and living with us, has this way of drawing us close and we end up in a place more profoundly, deeply good than even where we were. That doesn’t make the trauma good, it doesn’t mean that, “Oh, I’m glad I went through trauma,” it just simply means there is this inescapable reality to the depth of hope that a connection to Christ in the midst of trauma offers.
There’s also a significant concern for justice and I want to move to that in a second. But let me read a second little snippet here from The Body Keeps the Score that I found again, just provocative and helpful. It’s the idea of having—I’m over here on page 31—the idea that people need to have physical experiences to restore a visceral sense of control in their lives. Part of the awfulness of trauma is being out of control and being helpless, and part of what helps in the face of that is actually to experience control, to experience a body that is back under your own mastery.
I would say two things about that. There’s this visceral experience of control. I would say yes and Amen, right? Hopefully, if we’re biblically oriented, we would say that being able to calm down to step out of panic mode, whether that panic mode has been going on for 30 seconds or 30 years, that this is good and helpful, that there’s this right way in which being able to catch your breath, being able to physically deescalate to the point where we could actually begin to take thoughts in, begin to process what’s going on, even be able to, with some level of coherence, cry out to the Lord for help, right?
This is a good thing and I appreciate the way The Body Keeps the Score is underlining the sense of: your body is connected to your brain, your body is connected to your soul, although, of course, he doesn’t use that language, but this idea that a body that is more calmed (and he goes into great depth about different ways and suggestions he has and I’m not going to get into interacting with that material), but simply to say that on some level, at the most basic level, being able to calm down is a good thing and I appreciate his emphasis on recognizing there’s a wisdom, there’s a Proverbs-like wisdom in recognizing that calming down is helpful in facilitating a process of processing when hard things are happening or when you’ve been triggered by something years later that reminded you in some visceral way of what had happened, that having a body that feels under your control, this is not a bad thing, right?
And yet, I would say, overwhelmingly, The Body Keeps the Score does what it must do coming from a framework that doesn’t look to God as its fundamental hope, which is that it seeks to ground your sense of calmness in your own sense of control. And fundamentally, here’s one of those places where Scripture just explodes with depth and hope and help to people who have been through awful things and who are still being affected days, months, hours, years, decades later by those awful things, which is that we don’t trust in ourselves. We’re not even trusting our ability to soothe ourselves or deescalate our emotions.
Our trust and the very thing that makes it most logical and helpful to physically deescalate in a moment when we’re stressed and frantic or panicking or flashing back or whatever, is the idea that God Himself will keep us, that He can redeem us from our mistakes—even mistakes we make in a moment of panicked, post-traumatic stress kind of reactions. There is someone outside of ourselves. We have a safety that is bigger than what we can create through physical practices or medications or talking or whatever, that there’s this hope that we have that is bigger than who we are, there’s someone we can rest in and lean on and cling to who is there with us. Praying to God in the midst of a frantic panic attack is not a good idea because it’s somehow a self-soothing mantra, right, it is actually a connection to a real person: You are not alone. That is the fundamental hope that we have, that the control is God’s, it is not ours, and that is deeply and powerfully exciting.
Let me put one last piece on the table. There are a number of points where in the book Bessel talks about how he goes to various court cases and advocates for people he has counseled and is trying to work through the legal system, and occasionally it’s successful, more often it’s not. And that’s just a great reminder that justice for those who have been through trauma is exceedingly hard to come by on this earth. It is incredibly rare that you would get a satisfying verdict from a court for someone wronging you in a traumatic way. That just happens painfully, painfully infrequently. Are we glad when it does? Absolutely, yes. We delight when something on earth mirrors something in heaven, but isn’t it wonderful that the Bible actually offers us this profoundly deeper hope? I would actually say perhaps the single biggest hope that the Bible offers to those who have been through trauma is that of justice— justice on this earth and justice eternally.
We have a God who in Exodus 34:6-7 says, “I am a God abounding in love. I have this compassion for my people, but I do not leave the guilty unpunished. I will not turn a blind eye to the wrong that was done to you. It will not be gotten away with.” The final story is not that your abuser—the one who wronged you, the evil that was done that caused such damage—that will not go unaddressed. There will be a satisfying justice that will come against this evil. That hope is really hard to hang onto, isn’t it, right? I’ve spent enough time in counseling to know that you need to revisit that every week, every day—the hope that God himself will make things right and this is good, and that when we can’t see the details of how that will work out, either on this earth or in eternity, it is really hard to hope and lean into that.
But if it is true, oh, it’s so profoundly powerful. If justice really is truly, literally, meaningfully, satisfyingly possible, imagine what that means for a child who’s been through physical or sexual abuse, or someone who has been the victim of a crime but no one cared or took them seriously because of the color of their skin or because “that’s just a neighborhood where that sort of thing happens”, imagine what it means for someone in an abusive marriage, or someone who has been wrongly treated in a church and cast out and cut off from community when in fact, the person who harmed them was the one who should have been cast away or pushed out or held to account, or whatever the case might be. There is such a profound hope in the idea that “our God is the one who judges justly,” as 1 Peter 2 puts it, and that we, like Christ, really can entrust ourselves to Him knowing that where the earth’s justice system cannot go, our God will not fail.
I hope this all makes sense and that it gets you a little bit more excited about how Scripture goes deep. I want to just pray for us as we seek to love people who have been through hard things, and for you, as you have been through hard things for yourself. Lord, we just pray that You would be close to, and bringing justice to, and bringing comfort to, and bringing calmness to those who have been through awful, traumatic, unimaginably, unspeakably, horrible things. And we pray for all of us as well as we seek to love and walk with others who have been through things, maybe things we don’t even know about or don’t even fully understand, that we would be agents of Your comfort and love. And we pray this in Your name. Amen.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).