Recently I read a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which chronicles the growth in understanding of a psychiatrist named Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk. Specifically, Kolk started to notice that trauma survivors, though incredibly different from one another, tended to respond to day-today stresses in similar ways. This led him to study the effect of trauma on the human body, and to find ways to help these survivors live normal lives. He shares the story of a veteran in the book that I will try to summarize here:
A man came in for counseling. He had been experiencing outbursts of anger after returning from the Middle East as a soldier. In one situation, he had suddenly lashed out at his family at a birthday party. While helping him work through that situation, Dr. Kolk discovered that the event had been triggered when he saw parents putting party favors into the children’s backpacks. While at war, he had seen at one point explosives being put into children’s backpacks and those children being used to deliver the bombs. Unconsciously, his mind had associated the children in the Middle East with the children at the party. And without really knowing why, he went into fight mode, verbally attacking those who loved him.
By the time of this counseling encounter, Kolk had discovered that trauma victims tend to respond to banal situations as if they were traumatic. As such, they would unconsciously find themselves in fight-or-flight mode, responding not to what is really happening around them, but rather as if they were experiencing trauma. The chemicals in their bodies too responded like they were going through trauma. They found themselves in a state of hyperarousal, as though they were still at war. Kolk was able to help this veteran work through and acknowledge the effects of the trauma in his life, to identify triggers, and to help him live as though he was no longer at war.
In the book, Kolk reflects on past methodologies, such as what he calls “talk therapy” and why such methods have not been able to help trauma victims. He offers scientific evidence, such as brain scans and blood panels, which have guided his practice. And he tells of the success he has seen.
The Overarching Principle
I defended a claim in my last blog: the Bible is NOT all that is needed for life and godliness. In saying this, I am not trying to diminish the value of the Bible. The Bible speaks into every area of life. And though the Bible does not teach me how to cook (for instance), it does tell me HOW to cook (for the glory of God). So, I can draw principles from the Bible and apply them to every area of life. However, this is a very far cry from saying that we have all that we need to live a godly life in the Bible. The Bible is not a field guide that addresses every situation in life.
This might seem obvious, even something I don’t need to defend. However, there are certain areas of life in which I have heard Christians defend a position that the Bible is all that is needed for that area. Bible translation methodology is one of those areas, which I addressed in the last blog. Today, I would like to tackle another area: Biblical Counseling.
Applied: Biblical Counseling
I love Biblical Counseling. In fact, Stacey is currently doing a DMin in Biblical Counseling at SBTS. Which qualifies her to write this blog post and not me. *Disclaimer* The positions represented in this post are my own. Stacey might say things differently than me, and may not even agree with everything I say.
While counseling is not my area of expertise, I have taken Biblical Counseling classes, and read a ton of books written by biblical counselors. In that reading, I have found that some biblical counselors defend a perspective that the Bible is all that is needed for Biblical Counseling. As the argument goes, counselors are dealing with spiritual and heart issues. These are not (they say) medical, or cooking, or technical issues. Therefore, it does not fall into the category of needing outside expertise. Instead, any Christian can be trained to use the Bible to deal with any counseling situation. Generally, this claim seems to be tied to a rejection of psychology/psychotherapy/psychiatry.
Case Study: Trauma Counseling
I believe wholeheartedly that the Bible applies to and gives wisdom concerning any problem or conflict we can experience. However, I no longer believe that the Bible is all that is needed for counseling. This understanding has come primarily as I have come to understand the effects of trauma on the human body and mind.
Consider with me one of the tenets of Biblical Counseling. In Biblical Counseling training and books we are taught that our goal is not to deal merely with the outward manifestation of sin. Instead, we want to understand the heart, the underlying causes of that sin. For instance, if one of my kids cheats at school, that cheating is sin and should be confronted. However, we should also ask ourselves, “what is at the heart of the sin?” And we should address not only the outward behavior, but the heart.
In the past, I would have said that at the heart of all sins is an underlying sin, or sinful attitude. For instance, through careful questioning, we might discover that a child has cheated because of pride. They were unwilling to admit that they did not know an answer because they consider themselves better than someone else. Underlying sins tend to be more general: pride, lack of faith, envy. A proud person might lie in some situations, boast in others, cheat on exams, punch someone who calls them a name, or even avoid completing a task that they don’t think they can master. If I confront such a person merely for cheating, I am missing the heart of the problem. They might stop cheating if rightly motivated, but their pride will manifest itself in some other way. Just like a weed, we have to get at the root, or the sin will continue to pop up.
I still believe in this principle, and in fact it was through seeking to understand the heart of issues that I came to see my need for help that comes outside of the Bible. The Body Keeps the Score is one book that helped me understand that trauma has not only a spiritual/emotional effect on people, but physical effects as well. These effects can be explored and demonstrated by observing body chemistry and through brain scans. Sometimes people experience trauma and later will exhibit what seems to be irrational sinful behavior. However, when we are seeking the root of that sinful behavior, it is possible that this root is not an underlying sin. Rather, there is an unaddressed trauma in the life of that person that needs to be dealt with in a godly fashion.
The above story of the soldier illustrates this principle well. Though the secular psychiatrist would not call it this, the presenting problem was that of a sinful outburst of anger. The soldier sinned in how he treated his family. But what was at the heart of that sin? Was it pride? Fear? Anger? I don’t think so. I think that the heart of his sinful reaction was trauma. Kolk says, “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” His answer to this veteran was to help him deal with the trauma he experienced by dealing with it in the light. The answer was to call this man to explore how his body and mind were reacting to the world around him. And to deal with the reality of what he had experienced in the war. Often, we lie to ourselves and try to ignore the impact of our past experiences. This therapist calls people to live in truth. What a great (albeit unintentional) use of biblical wisdom!
Counselors Need Help
CS Lewis was quoted in my previous post as saying, Christianity “was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.” It would be foolish of us to ignore the work of men and women that are exploring the wonderfully complicated brain that the Lord has given us, just like it would be foolish to ignore the wisdom of a surgeon. The Bible was not meant as a guide to the effect of trauma on the brain. Rather, the Bible should direct the way that we think about the data the natural sciences give us.
I once had a doctor tell me it was unwise to move to Cameroon because we would be exposed to so many severe illnesses. His concern for me was medical, and valid. There are few places in the world with greater risk of physical illness. It would be foolish of me to plow ahead and say, “The Bible does not speak of such risks, it just tells me to go.” However, it would be disobedient for me to cower in fear and remain in America because I will encounter fewer pathogens there. I am commanded by Jesus to disciple all nations, and malaria does not negate that command. However, we don’t have to choose between the two. I can listen to, and take the advice of the medical professional, while allowing the Bible to guide the way that plays out in my life. Specifically, for us, we have decided to get pretty much every vaccination available, take a malaria prophylaxis daily, wear bug spray, and sleep under a mosquito net…but still come to Cameroon.
I believe that this principle can be applied to counseling as well. Rather than rejecting all that the sciences have to offer in regards to neurological impacts of trauma (and other such subjects), I believe that we can listen to their findings and view them through the lens of Scripture. Christianity is not opposed to the sciences. However, it is a lens by which we must view science, and literally every other aspect of our lives. As a Christian, I must reject the claims of some scientists. I must reject any claim that man is innately good and therefore not in need of a Savior. However, the Bible does not claim that “the heart of every sin is sin.” And if research produces evidence that there are physiological or psychological roots to some sinful behaviors, I don’t want to miss it. There is no claim in Scriptures that the Bible is all that is needed for life and godliness. Rather, that he has given us all that we need. Part of what we need to be godly is other people.
The fact that we need more than the Bible to counsel is abundantly clear. This is why we have so many books/trainings/blogs on counseling! While the Bible is our guide, directing and energizing our counseling, it does not give us all of the tools we need to counsel well. It does not provide us with case studies, or accounts of the trial and error of our fellow counselors. It doesn’t tell me what to say when my child tells me they hate me. It doesn’t provide clear direction for a woman who has multiple children with a man who doesn’t want to marry her. It does not provide a procedure for someone who’s body is physically addicted to methamphetamines. The Bible has so much to say about all those situations, but is still limited. The Bible gives me the ability not to reject all outside counsel, but to discern which counsel is good and helpful.
I was deeply encouraged to read a secular book about a psychiatrist’s experiences with trauma victims. It would have been better if he had used the Bible, but it would have been worse if it had lacked scientific rigor. Kolk has many different pieces of advice that were awesome, including this statement:
“All too often, however, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. Of course, medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.”
I feel like this statement accords well with both experience and biblical scrutiny. From a biblical perspective, it means that while our body chemistry might make fighting sin hard, it cannot excuse us from our sins. If someone, for instance, has a bowel blockage, and is cursing people around him, I am not primarily going to confront the cursing. I am going to first take him to a hospital. Then, when the pain is relieved, I will help him plan and prepare for how to respond in a godly fashion to pain in the future. To only deal with the blockage will not help him the next time he is in pain. But to confront the sin without medical aid could lead to his death! The medical aid (whether medication or surgery) is not what deals with the issue, it only gets them in a place where they can deal with the issue without distraction.
Some other beneficial conclusions from his book are: 1) we need to seek to fund non-medicinal forms of dealing with trauma, 2) the arts (including music) can be excellent ways for people to deal with trauma, 3) while going through trauma deeply impacts people, it is not a death sentence and there is still great hope.
At the end of the day, I have been able to spend time and talk to both biblical counselors and Christian psychotherapists. I have found that the biblical counselors tend to have little information about what is happening in the body when people deal with issues such as: trauma, depression, anxiety, etc. On the other hand, I have talked to the therapists and found that many of them have only a Sunday School understanding of the Bible. I have asked two Christian therapists explicitly: “How do you incorporate the Bible into your therapy?” Both told me, “I don’t.”
In the past I have heard biblical counselors decry the lack of Bible used in therapy, but I propose the problem goes both ways. I believe that there is much to be gained by studying the brain, the human body, and by experimenting with different methodology in a scientific way. However, all of the wisdom that can be gained through those venues will be put to ill use if we do not allow the Bible as a director and a source of energy for our counseling. If we neglect either side, we risk minimizing our impact on those we seek to counsel.
I am not a biblical counselor and there is much I still need to learn. I am not condemning or demanding change in any particular area. I cannot define “trauma” nor describe its effects on the body more than what I have read. However, I can say that I have misused 2 Peter 1:3 in the past in regards to counseling. I have applied it in such a way to mean that the Bible is all that I need to counsel someone. I have since discovered that there is great help to be found outside of the Bible. I believe that this misunderstanding has hindered my ability to serve those around me. My goal in this blog was to help those who might have misunderstood as I have, so as to prevent them from failing in these ways. May the Lord grant us all wisdom as we seek to read and apply his Word to our lives, and those around us.