Years ago I was at the centre of a shock few would believe could come happen in an Anglican Church; people were shouting, pointing their fingers, crying, rushing out of the service, angrily accusing me of being in the ministry for material gain and so on. Unsurprisingly this resulted in the sort of trauma that leads to flash back, sleep disturbance, edginess and so on. Typical PTSD. Allied with the fact that our youngest son has just submitted his PhD in neuroscience, any discussion on the subject of trauma is of intimate immediate interest. So there I was last Wednesday with all the clergy of our diocese listening attentively to a presentation on vicarious trauma by a doctor and his lawyer wife. What followed was a fascinating presentation on brain plasticity of plus some practical applications to help clergy deal with the stresses we so often pick up in the course of ministry. I always try to approach learning situations by consciously listening on two levels, firstly to the natural meaning of words, then to what the Spirit is saying. Since the Spirit always testifies to Jesus, the key issue in spiritual discernment is the degree naturally spoken words conform to the truth which is in Christ (John 15:26; Eph 4:21). On a straight forward level the medical presentation was entirely unobjectionable; but that the Church of God needs to hear such things witnesses embarrassingly to the spiritual crisis engulfing us today.
The help of psychological and psychiatric services is to be valued because the “common grace” of God is always at work preserving, providing for and protecting his material and human creation (Ps 104; Matt 5:45; Rom 2:14-15; 13:1). There is a domain however that belongs exclusively to the Lord. Thus when our very caring and entertaining doctor-lawyer friends started to teach us about rewiring the brain their presentation was undergirded by a host of assumptions that are incompatible with the revelation of Jesus Christ. Their presentation was a good example of the post-modern worldview dominating contemporary Western culture and often uncritically accepted by the Church. Their working assumptions included the primacy of happiness to human life, that theology is a construct; i.e. something primarily formed by the mind, that perception is reality and that whatever “works” is the closest we can get to knowing truth. Here is a one example of such principles at work.
We all have memories of the past which cause us stress and trauma. We can “scratch the CD” of these recollections by visualising/imagining them with a more positive ending, one perhaps filled with love and light. With time this technique takes away the sharp edge of hurtful memories. How though do you apply visualisation to these words of Jesus; “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” (Matt 9:47-48)? A GP friend was wise enough to acknowledge that at best all medical techniques function as useful forerunners to the work of God. Recreation in the image of God is exclusively a work of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and eternalised his humanity (Rom 8:11; Col 3:10). Only if we turn to Jesus can we be essentially transformed. Wherever the Church today takes its primary skills from the world, business, psychology etc., we are supplanting the ministry of the divine Spirit.
The Face in the Mirror
Ours is the age of the “selfie” and the narcissist; so smiling into the mirror daily as a remedy for depression strikes the right note. Or, using another seminar example from, when you feel like succumbing to road rage just place a pencil between your teeth so as to form an artificial smile thereby fooling your brain into releasing happy chemicals and altering your mood. This is the counsel of “Fake it until you make it.” The “make it” in question is stress relief. I am sure such techniques “work”, and that they have their own domain of applicability; but surely this domain should not be the Church of Jesus Christ! As one of the clergy said to me that day; “How have persecuted Christians dealt with their traumas over the centuries; they had no knowledge of these methods.” My reply to him was even more pointed; “How was Jesus healed of his trauma?” for this is the key to how the Lord will heal us.
The Face of the Father in the Son
The anguish of Gethsemane and the cross is interpreted throughout scripture in terms of Jesus undergoing trauma on our behalf; “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa 53:4; 1 Pet 2:24; Heb 9:28). Whilst the Father did not turn his face away from the Son at his point of dereliction, “My God, why have you forsaken me””, it is certainly the case that Jesus vicariously shared all our feelings of fatherlessness and abandonment by God (Ps 22:1, 24; Mark 15:34). The infinite trauma of Golgotha was not final but healed for Jesus through a vision of the face of God as Father enjoyed in his exultation to heaven. This vision of God’s countenance is likewise our place of healing (John 20:17; Heb 9:24). Paul understands this when he speaks of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…. and we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image…of glory” (2 Cor 3:18; 4:6). It was something of this glory I saw in the Spirit through the healing prayers of a priest as he used the words of Christ’s passion, and when the present pastor of the congregation that traumatised years ago tearfully confessed the sins of a church which throughout its history has rejected the challenge of the prophetic word (Heb 1:3). Yes, I still carry a measure of trauma, especially when I am in church meetings, but I know for sure, that only by looking towards heaven, by Facing Up, can we ever receive the everlasting depth of healing God in Christ so freely offers.
I see many Christians looking into mirrors other than the Word of Christ (Col 3:16). Whether it be the mirror of their own charismatic emotional excitability, the mirror of their personal knowledge of scripture, or the mirror of their aesthetic awareness of liturgical splendours, all such vehicles of reflection are being exposed as inadequate in this hour (James 1:22-24). What is rare amongst us is the presence of the power of the Lord to heal in a manner which is true to the promise of his gospel (Luke 4:18 – 21; 5:17; Rom 1:16). Such “kingdom pragmatism” certainly exposes the spiritual crisis into which we have fallen and from which no professionalising of ministerial competence can deliver us. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has made known his will to “make his face shine upon us” so that in the End we shall all “see his face” (Num 6:24-26; Rev 22:4). Only when spiritual leaders across the Church face up to their call to exhort us to lift up our faces heavenwards to “seek his face” can the spiritual renewal our nation so desperately needs be sent (2 Chron 7:14; Matt 14:19; John 17:1). For such a looking away from ourselves to Christ alone we must surely pray.