Biblical Counseling and Past Trauma

Counseling Trauma

–by Wendy Bowman and Cam Barnard

A great question from our conference. The question was general enough that we felt two different perspectives might be helpful.

Q: Can biblical counseling, without an understanding of the deep-seated effect of trauma, work to guide someone to a place of liberty in Christ?

Wendy Bowman’s Answer:

This indeed is a raw yet very real question. Does the Word of God address suffering to the depth of the horrible and life altering trauma that so many people have endured? Yes, biblical counselling can and does speak tenderly and completely to the deep and painful and dark places of trauma. To begin with, I never presume that I, as the counsellor understand fully another’s trauma, but my Jesus, who suffered so much at the hands of many, does. He not only gives us manna (living Word) daily, but Himself to journey through the deep waters of suffering.

With that, we turn to the scriptures, and go to places like Psalm 88, and find another human who, in the depths of his own suffering laments, ‘darkness is my closest friend’. His heart cry is a gift from God, being offered to the heart of a fellow struggler, a soul that we can truly resonate with. David also recorded many Psalms where he speaks of being hunted, even by a son seeking to kill him, and after his honest soul wrestling will close with, yet I will trust You oh Lord for You alone can save me, Psalm 4. How ever do they do this? In our flesh, it is indeed, impossible, but with the Spirit, all things are possible.

As I journey with one struggling under the weight of trauma, we look to the scripture to grow to know that the character of the triune God offers the stability and stamina to stand under the weight of their burdens. We might talk about the truth that God reassures us over and over that “He will never leave us or forsake us”, even when the evil of this world seems to have the upper hand, this can serve to root us in solid ground.

The character of Christ offers much to the understanding of living victorious in trauma thus, examining His responses can be helpful. We could go to places like Hebrews 5:7-8 where we hear Christ “offering loud cries and tears in prayer and supplication”, yet remained obedient in His sufferings.

When God calls me to walk with those who suffer, I will also want to communicate the essential nature of letting the body of Christ -beyond me- share the burden they carry. Again, the bible is rich with examples of not only Christ’s tender care for sufferers, but the body of believers encouraging and caring for others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all such examples is the story of the paralytic whose friends went to great length to help him in his suffering. Ed Welch’s book, Side by side develops this well.

These are just some of the ways that I believe biblical counselling not only understands and speaks to trauma, but offers a person victory.

Cam Barnard’s Answer:

What importance does a biblical counselor place on the past?

On one hand, we are keenly interested in this past event as an important part of information gathering. For someone who has experienced significant trauma in their past, we want to understand how they are thinking about the event, how it has changed their thinking about God, about their relational communities, about themselves. All this and much more is part of being diligent in information gathering and really understanding the person we are counseling to ensure that our counsel is relevant and properly applied.

On the other hand, biblical counselors don’t believe that the key to freedom and change is located somewhere in the past. Too often in other philosophies of counseling the past is revisited again and again because the counseling methodology believes that the key to the future is found buried in the past. One very real danger in this is reinforcing a mindset in the counselee that they are unique or different from everyone else in a way that puts them out of reach of God’s help and hope. We instead want to lovingly bring a counselee to understand that everyone has a past, that everyone interprets and responds to their past, and that ultimately all we experience and struggle with is ‘common to mankind’ (1 Corinthians 10:13).  

While relevant to a loving understanding of the counselee, the past doesn’t hold the answers; the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God is what renews us and transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ for our good and God’s glory.

In short; listen carefully, love genuinely, and learn all you can while you gently refocus the counselee’s gaze upon the perfection of Jesus Christ.

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