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Pastoral Care and the Trauma of Life: a Reformed Evangelical Approach

March 15th, 2017 | 21 min read

By Guest Writer

We’re pleased to publish this guest feature from Patrick Stefan.

Hello. My name is Patrick and I’m going to trust you with a story. I don’t know you, but my hope is that you are reading this piece for the right reasons—to be challenged and to grow. Last week I was challenged by an article written by Paul Maxwell, and I want to speak to it. But I think you need to know something about me first, namely, I think you should know how I came into the world of Reformed evangelicalism. There are two stories: there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.

I was raised a Pentecostal, diligently attended church in my childhood, moved into broader forms of evangelicalism in my teens, and when I finished high school in 2001 I walked straight into the US Marine Corps. In 2003, I was 19 years old and walking through the sands of Iraq with a rifle. I was a kid, really, who had a pregnant wife at home while I waded through more death and destruction than anyone should ever have to. I came home from the war in the summer and my whole life had changed. The safe world in which I grew was now peppered with memories of fear and danger.

At least I had my family though, and I would see them all together only a few weeks after my return for my wife’s baby shower. My big, Hungarian family would get together, laugh, and drink champagne while we eagerly awaited the first Stefan boy from my generation. I remember how safe I felt that day. It was a brief respite from the anger, disappointment, uncertainty, and fear that plagued me. We returned home that night, to Camp Pendleton, and the phone rang. I was on crutches from an injury so I hobbled to pick it up. It was my father, and he asked me to sit down. He told me that my mom was leaving him for another man. My heart fell into my gut as I stared at the faux-wood closet in front of me, and I broke down in tears.

Three weeks separated my return from war and my family’s disintegration, and in the span of those three weeks every point of stability that I was raised with had been ripped out from underneath me. Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public. I had always gone to church, but I was never really into theology until that year. In 2004, for some unexplainable reason I began reading theological books voraciously. I set out to attain more and more information in the attempt to find the ever-elusive platform of certainty. During my quest to figure out which opinions were right and which were wrong, I stumbled upon Reformed evangelicalism. It was a whole community just like me, I thought. It came replete with a large cache of literature full of opinions on any question you could ask.

I largely kept my secrets to myself. There were times when I would slowly begin to peel back a layer but quickly got the impression that I shouldn’t have any problems with the past. Perhaps my impression was a result of my own fear or the discomfort of my conversation partner, but when I would begin to peel back those layers with pastors or friends the conversation would close. I thought theology was supposed to be a panacea to emotional angst. Perhaps I was misguided, but there were no voices telling me differently. So, instead of healing, I went to seminary.

“Is Reformed Evangelicalism a Place for the Traumatized?”

Paul Maxwell’s article asks an important question: “Is Reformed evangelicalism a place for the traumatized?” Now, to be certain, this is a good question for anyone within the bounds of Reformed evangelicalism, but more specifically it is a question I’m intensely concerned with. I’m now a pastor of a Reformed church, but I’m also a combat veteran. I continue to serve in the US Army as a Chaplain and in that capacity, was part of a Combat Stress Control Team from 2012-2014.

Some definitions would be helpful before we begin; specifically, what do we mean by trauma? The American Psychological Association provides a helpful definition:

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.1

I greatly appreciated Maxwell’s article. His analysis was perceptive and self-reflective, and his questions were challenging. In many ways, I have seen the Reformed community replicate Maxwell’s analysis. We can often circle the wagons and set out for the hunt so as to maintain security through a feigned sense of intellectual superiority.  And yes, as Maxwell points out, many times the battle plan itself is just a paper-thin veil covering a scared and hurting person. I have no qualms with Maxwell here. I do have some (minor) critiques of his piece that I will reserve for the end, but the bulk of this article is intended to build on his observations.

In other words, Paul, I hear you and I’m deeply sorry you had those experiences, but I think Reformed evangelicalism has within it the tools necessary to become the place that you envision, and I want to explore how that might happen through Reformed evangelical pastoral care.2

The Reformed Doctrine of the Fall

In my office I have two large brown chairs with brass buttons on the front of their arms. If those two chairs could talk to you they would tell you many painful stories. They would describe the countless tears that have fallen on their arms, and the many tissues stuffed between their cushions. They would describe what substance addiction does to a man, how death cracks the hardest shell, and what childhood sexual abuse can do to someone who, now grown, looks like she “has it all together” but hurts inside. They would tell you what it is like to be sitting in the presence of someone who can’t imagine living another day because the memories of the past haunt them, and they would describe the time when I sat in them for hours, silent after a visit to the psych ward in the hospital. I’ve only been in ministry for six years, but in those years I have counseled a wide range of people: adults who grew up in a traditional Reformed home, children who were adopted, soldiers with a range of backgrounds and experiences, neighbors in my blue-collar town who have banged on my door at midnight in tears, and people beside me at a local pub I frequent.

But there’s something else those chairs would tell you if you pressed hard enough. They would tell you that on the other side there was a pastor who wept with them, prayed for them, and loved them. I’m not a trauma expert, nor am I psychologist and I don’t pretend to be. I’ve made counseling mistakes that I deeply regret, but ultimately I’m a pastor who loves people. While Maxwell makes many important critiques to which we should listen, I’m also a pastor who believes that Reformed evangelicalism can and should be a place for the traumatized, and not to re-live trauma through unhealthy practice. Rather, in the archives of our tradition, there is a rich theology that speaks directly to the traumatized.

Trauma is not simply an isolated event that occurred at a moment in time. It is a disruption of the survivor’s larger narrative of life. Trauma makes us question the larger stories that inform our understanding of the world we navigate. Robert Niemeyer suggests that the richest literature in studies of trauma recovery concerns the reconstruction of a destroyed narrative.3 In other words, an important component for resilient survivors of trauma is the reconstruction of their life’s narrative in the aftermath of the traumatic interruption. When this happens, the victim turns into a strong survivor. Through re-storying his life, he gains agency and strength. The pastoral role is one of walking beside a child of God and helping him see the event as part of a larger picture. And that, I propose, is where the Reformed evangelical tradition can stand tall.

When I sit beside a fellow image-bearer who has peeled back the layers of false security to reveal the pain of trauma in the past, near or far, I always begin with one point from our theological tradition: the fall. It seems simple, and it is, but Reformed theology, better than any other in my estimation, captures the depth and breadth of the fall. Sure, we champion it as a necessary component to our doctrine of election, but it is much more than that. The fall reminds us that we require a God who can change our hearts before we can desire Him. It reminds us that we are helpless and need a God who sends his own son to live a life beside the traumatized and who ultimately became a victim of this world’s injustice.

But a careful articulation of the fall informs us that it is not merely our spiritual condition that has been affected by Adam, it is also our bodies, our experiences, our emotions, our psyches, and our intellects. We are fallen creatures who wade through this fallen world looking forward in hope for new creation, when the chaotic sea will disappear alongside the tears and pain it produces (Rev. 21:1-4).

The Reformed emphasis on the doctrine of depravity and the need for the second Adam cannot be content with living in seminary halls, nor should it become ammunition in a battle of egos. Our emphasis on these two core doctrines must make it into the pastor’s office to sit in the brown chair and begin the process of carefully untangling the emotional knot that trauma has created. We live in a fallen world that groans out for redemption (Rom. 8:22), and while God can redeem your trauma, He did not create the evil that produced it.

Trauma Changes the Brain

Trauma is not an intellectual problem. The research of Bessel van der Kolk clearly demonstrates the intimate tie between the mind, body, and brain in traumatic events. In moments of danger our brains are designed to release hormones that cause the body to respond (fight or flight). In a normal situation, adrenaline is released and quickly dissipates when the threat is nullified so that the body can return to normal. The natural neurological response is disrupted in cases of severe trauma and PTSD.

Van der Kolk comments: The stress hormones of traumatized people, in contrast, take much longer to return to baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli.”4 In short, the brain affected by PTSD becomes stuck in a “fight or flight” mode and causes the body to remain in defense mode against a threat that lives in the past: “traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives . . . being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”5

Here is where Maxwell’s critique of some strains within Reformed evangelicalism is at its strongest. A traumatized individual will naturally gravitate toward situations that utilize their desire to fight or flee because the trauma that was experienced externally is now constantly re-lived in the body, which van der Kolk aptly calls the new battlefield.6 This battle might cause one to flee relationships and healthy situations, or enter a new fight that will utilize the body’s response to past trauma.

If we create an ecclesial culture that privileges infighting, ridicule, and egotistical battles for the sake of “truth” then we are likely to attract the traumatized who are looking for a fight to mask deep internal turmoil.7 Many of our disagreements quickly wind their way down to a war of theological labels which are always overly-simplistic and lack nuance. These theological labels quickly become the armies with whom we ally ourselves and for whom we establish outposts and beachheads on the internet and blogosphere.

An ecclesial culture that replicates a battlefield will attract the traumatized, use them in the battle, and then fail to help them when they understand that their desire for a fight came from a deep place of hurt and pain.

When Theology Doesn’t “Work”

We Reformed folk love our theology. I’m a biblical scholar by training and my research concerns the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, but I’m still Reformed so when I spin my chair around and look at my library, I smile when I see eleven shelves dedicated to theological issues. There is a danger, though, in our love for theology. The danger is forgetting that important doctrine we talked about earlier: the fall.

Theology is not math. Indeed, life is not math. We can’t cram two numbers into the calculator and wait for it to spit out the answer. Trauma always contains an ounce of mystery, the “why” question. Why did that boy have to be born to a father who would beat him day after day? Why did that girl have to walk down that alley on that night? Why did that driver have to fall asleep at the wheel? There’s no theological calculator that can spit out the answer, as badly as we want one. Sometimes, all we can do is ask “why?”

Asking “why” is not sinful, nor is it a mark of weak faith. The Psalmist frequently reminds us of this truth. I always reference Psalm 42 when sitting beside someone in pain. It reminds us that sometimes the head and the heart don’t match. Sometimes we can know the theology, but not feel the presence of God. Sometimes, God feels absent and while we know that we will rejoice in him again, in the moment tears are the only food we have.

If we miss the gravity of the fall, and the complexity of this creation we will want to search the books to find an answer. Like Job’s three friends, we think, there must be something behind the curtain. There must be a solution, a quick fix, a remedy, and it must be in the knowledge we have attained. Out of our discomfort with trauma we can implicitly tell the survivor to close it up and get on with your life because we “know” that God is in control; we “know” that he works all things out for the good of those who love him; and we “know” that he calls us to not worry. But knowledge doesn’t fix the fall, it only helps us situate ourselves in it.

Knowledge is the idol I have to trash daily. It’s the one that always finds its way back onto my shelf. It’s clever though; it masquerades as godliness, then it whispers in my ear and tells me how great I am. How smart I’ve become. It even gives me evidence of this by pointing to everyone around me in comparison. It’s a nasty little thing, and if you’re not careful it will consume you. It will take the painful experiences that you have gone through, cover them up, and use them for infighting and self-destruction all the while destroying a brother or sister for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). It will convince you that you’ve mastered the world, then it will shatter you when the fall hits back and you feel the sting of trauma. When we are confronted with trauma, ours or another’s, theology will situate us and remind us of our hope, but it won’t take away the pain in the present. And that’s OK.

Sitting in the Dung Heap

So what do we do? In these moments, it’s tempting to explain the reason for the experience, to provide answers and fix the situation like Job’s friends. Indeed, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were condemned for opening their mouths, and explaining Job’s suffering. However, they started out on the right foot. They heard of Job’s suffering and at great cost to themselves “they made an appointment together to come to grieve with Job and comfort him” (Job 2:11).8 For seven days they sat with him in silence, while he grieved.

The Apostle Paul calls us to mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). He doesn’t call us to fix them, to tell them the right answers in their sufferings, or to ask them to get on with their lives. Sometimes, there is no way to “fix” the suffering. In cases of severe trauma, the memories will never go away as they are now part of the fabric of your life. God can redeem those, provide agency and strength to the survivor, and bring good from the pain, but the pain from the past will always sting a little, or a lot.

In trauma, we must walk beside our brothers and sisters, standing with them as they grow in the Lord. The office of the Pastor and the home of the parishioner should be one in which we can open our hearts, show our struggles, and slowly heal together. In war, healing takes place after the battle when you return home to a place of safety. Healing occurs when we can let our guards down, explore the bruises that this fallen world has left on our bodies, and weep together. If our ecclesial community is a constant battlefield then there is no space for this to happen.

Pastoral care for the traumatized means recognizing our limitations. It means theologically situating ourselves in this fallen world, and being present for the survivor. I can provide all the answers from my eleven shelves of theology books, but sometimes the trauma will still haunt the night. Pastors must know their limitations, and be OK with those limitations. We cannot let ego block the road of healing. Sometimes we must work with a trauma therapist in the provision of pastoral care alongside clinical care.

God has given us many gifts through therapeutic models which help a trauma survivor heal. Pastoral care is an important component to that healing process, but it is not the only component; just as pastoral care is vital to a parishioner with cancer, but it is not the only component. It is OK to have limitations when dealing with trauma, and we must know what those limitations are for the sake of God’s people. The woman sitting across from me in the brown chair is not an idea I must master, or a challenge with which I must wrestle, she is a broken child of God who needs me to point her to a suffering savior.

Broken and Alive

As trauma and pain are slowly woven into our tapestry of life, this fallen world quickly becomes apparent. This world can break us and leave the pieces all over the floor. Through pastoral care God gives us the privilege of sitting beside his hurting people to weep with them and walk beside them as they gain the agency to put the pieces back together. One of the greatest privileges of the pastoral call is to invite this image-bearer to the table of her Lord and give to her the broken body of the suffering servant.

In the Lord’s Supper, God reminds us week after week that he knows how hard this world hits. He underwent enough pain, torture, and emotional angst to make the DSM lose its spine. When we meet Christ at the table, our suffering and trauma are acknowledged. The broken image of God can hold in her hands the broken body the Son and weep with the savior who wept. God incarnate gave himself up for us by enduring the violence of this world, so that we might have a High Priest who can sympathize with our trauma (Heb. 2:18; 4:15).

In the Lord’s Supper, we receive an affirmation of justice, an acknowledgement that the trauma we experience is not the way God created this world. The death of Christ was an act of injustice by this world, but it was done so that God might justify us. The broken body of Christ was a result of our fallen condition, so that Jesus can establish the New Heavens and the New Earth.

The irony at the table is so rich it cannot be missed. Christ is risen, he physically walked out of the tomb and resides in the heavens, and yet when he gives us the only physical representation of his presence in our life, it is a representation of brokenness. In the Supper, I show the bread, the intact body of Christ to the traumatized, and I rip it open and give them the meal of their savior.

We look in hope for our inheritance; we long for the resurrection of the dead when the pain of trauma will pale in comparison to our blessings. So, when the survivor of trauma eats the bread and drinks the cup, he can affirm that what happened to him was wrong, it was the result of the fallen world that consumed his savior. He can name his trauma as he swallows the bread, and look to the resurrection when he will not be able to compare his sufferings with the glory that is to be revealed (Rom. 8:18).

Moving Forward

I began writing this article because Maxwell’s piece riled me up. It stoked the fire of my past experience and made me look to times when I, too, have been enlisted into the fight. But as I come to my conclusion, I think Maxwell has painted Reformed evangelicalism with far too broad a brush. Perhaps my trauma lured me into a world of certainty and battle, but it is precisely at that point when God placed me on my path of healing. From my first reformed pastor who always tempered me when I came into his office with an “us vs. them” mentality to another who helped me learn how to love my wife after years of not loving her; from one professor who taught me to listen to voices of our theological past and present, to another who showed me the beauty of the gospel on every page of Scripture, God has used Reformed evangelicalism to bring me to a point of healing. I just didn’t realize it.

It wasn’t until a philosophical hermeneutics professor in my PhD program encouraged me to write out my trauma through the mode of biblical scholarship that things came together. In the midst of tears and anger and a supportive wife, I wrote. And when I finished, I saw the pain of the fall through the complexity of apocalyptic literature. In that moment, I knew what grace was all about. It’s not a battle flag that we fly to prove superiority, but a healing balm to a broken person. It reminds me that I am flawed, hurt, and broken along with all the people I minister to. But God allowed this world to unjustly torture and murder him so that he could promise me an inheritance in the resurrection, and give me his broken body as nourishment while I wait.

Patrick Stefan is the pastor of Rochester Reformed Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY and an Army Reserve Chaplain for the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion. He is also a PhD Candidate at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology where he studies New Testament and Christian Origins.

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