A FEW PASTORAL SUGGESTIONS REGARDING THE
LANDSCAPE OF PAIN AND HURT
Prof Wentzel Coetzer
In our first session I invited you to join me on a journey, exploring a couple of the most prominent landmarks on the landscape of those who have been through crises and trauma
In this session I would like to make a few suggestions from my own experience – guidelines that helped me very much to reach some breakthroughs
Personally I prefer an eclectic approach where you can take certain elements with which you are comfortable, from different methods and disciplines and put them together.
In my approach I also prefer to have, what Minirth and Meyer (2002:61) refer to as, a ‘directive/ non-directive approach’
In other words, that you try to ‘read’ the situation of the counselee and through experience and also through total dependence on the Holy Spirit try to discern when just to listen, just to be a soundboard, just to reflect, just to paraphrase what you hear…
But, on the other hand, when, from time to time, also to respond – a very fine balance
And this response then has something to do with what the late Frank Lake (as quoted by Hurding, 1988:376) refers to as the fundamental importance of the Greek word, kairos, – a word often used in the New Testament to denote ‘the right moment’
In this regard he points out how susceptible Jesus was to God’s timing
He then asks
… [W]hether, as counsellors, we too can ‘be endowed by the Spirit with his impeccable sense of the right time’ – in which case, the Holy Spirit can use our ‘spiritual senses’ to show some change of direction, to halt, or to move forward at once, a voice behind saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’”
In other words, godly wisdom, as well as discernment, and the ability and experience to ‘read’ every new situation and every new ‘story’
… and to know when you must just listen and be quiet and non-directive, and when must there be some response and what that response should be
I referred to ‘elements’ taken from different methods – in my case some examples would be the following:
- Inner healing combined with prayer therapy
- Elements from positive psychology
- Elements from the so-called ‘strengths perspective’
- Elements from the so called’ inner child perspective’
- Insights from the ‘growth model and recovery movement’
- Elements from cognitive behavioural therapy
- Elements from the systems theory – for instance using a genogram
- A variety of elements from trauma research – for instance:
- The importance of a trauma history
- The importance of drawing a timeline
- The importance of knowledge about the effect of stress and trauma on the brain of adults as well as children, etc.
- The importance of triggers
- A few pastoral suggestions
Often victims or counselees are pressurized to express forgiveness shortly after some of the most horrible injustices or crimes were committed against them
The problem here is that, if a Christian is the victim, he/ she will probably repeat the words that are expected from them purely on an intellectual basis
The act of forgiveness and the emotions connected to that act must however be connected to our intellect, our spirit and our emotions
This person, who is now compelled to express forgiveness on an intellectual level, may however still be wrestling with many unresolved emotions, like for instance rage against the perpetrator and even against God, plus a thousand other questions
… in practice he/ she, however, usually suppresses all these emotions and bury them very deep and then put a lid on them
So, on an intellectual and even a spiritual level he/ she obeyed what was expected from him/ her, but on an emotional level there was no way that he/ she was ready or able to do it
In the Meier Clinics they say that they had many such cases where, after for instance six months, such a person is taken up with severe depression
Previously this person had no history of depression and there are no signs of any chemical imbalance – and eventually through his/ her personal history and by filling in a detailed questionnaire they eventually discover the deeper root
It could then be a rape where a 16-year-old girl was deprived and robbed of so many things:
- Her personal security
- Her womanhood
- Her joy in life
- Her wellbeing
- Her dreams for the future
- Her inner security
- Her trust in other people
- Her trust in God
- Aspects connected to her sexual identity
- A happy marriage in future, etc., etc.
Then they first have to take her through a period of grief and mourning regarding all these things that she has lost, before the actual healing process can really start
In other words, just to demand forgiveness right on the spot, is in most cases not really helping the victim but could even cause more complications, that will have to be sorted out by other counsellors at a later stage.
After such a very intense personal trauma where the victim already informs you in the first
session that he/she is not willing to forgive, my own approach is that we do not touch this topic at all
I usually give them the assurance that I will at no stage put pressure on them and I leave it up to them to inform me when they feel that they are ready
I do however tell them that I do think it will be part of their healing process if, sometime in future, they will have the courage to face this topic, and that I will pray for them
And then from time to time I will remind them about this aspect
- The role of triggers and repeating patterns
If somebody has drawn up a timeline regarding their life history according to correct guidelines and enough questions, it is usually not very difficult to point out where certain negative repeating patterns occur over and over again
Such recurring patterns are usually connected to the same kind of triggers, and the triggers could be related to any of our five senses, whether it is sound, visual images, smell, taste, etc.
In this regard the psychologist, Babette Rothschild, wrote two very interesting books:
- The body remembers. The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment (2000)
- Help for the helper. The psychophysiology of compassion fatigue (2006).
Two other books by two other psychologists that I found very helpful are the following:
- Renee Fredrickson. 1992. Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse.
- Arlys Norcross McDonald. 1995. Repressed memories. Can you trust them? (Pastoral approach)
The triggers that keep on responding are again related to the unresolved trauma that is stored in that part of the brain where all the unresolved trauma is pushed in and stored.
The unwanted negative reactions will keep on recurring and every time it will embarrass this person – sometimes over years
When it becomes too overwhelming for some persons, they will revert to some way of dulling the overwhelming emotional pain > that could for instance be any addiction
So often the deeper root of the recurring trigger (that causes negative behaviour or fearful thoughts, etc.), is unresolved pain, trauma or a grieving process that was not worked through years ago
Usually, as soon as the deeper root is identified, the trauma can be worked through, the recurring pattern is terminated because the trigger loses its power and healing takes place
Sinclair (1993:56) makes the statement that every cell in our body has memory and then he adds:
This physical phenomenon raises many new and radical questions for our traditional understanding of memory, addiction, mental illness, emotional imbalance, and spiritual well-being.
For me it thus became important over the years to ask counselees about any negative repeating patterns and any triggers that they may have already identified
- I spoke some time ago at a retirement centre on the theme of trauma – afterwards there was time for some discussion and one of the elderly ladies asked for an explanation regarding a problem she had had for some years.
She said that some years ago she had a traumatic experience during which somebody kissed her. Since then, whenever she has to kiss any stranger (or person she meets for the first time and had not known before), she has a problem with blisters in her mouth or on her lips shortly after that, time and time again.
According to Babette Rothschild, as well as a number of other textbooks and what I have experienced with quite a numbers of counselees over the years, that is a classic example of a body memory, indicating that the original trauma connected to the kissing years ago actually became stuck, and every time she is kissed by a stranger, that part of the brain (the amygdala that stores the unresolved trauma) receives the message: “You are back in the original traumatic situation!”
God made each one of us unique and when the body memory is activated, persons
react differently – in her case it is through a blister each time – other persons may react differently.
I explained this concept to her and advised her to make an appointment with her pastor
and ask him to pray with her for the trauma connected to that original situation when she was kissed apparently against her will > and that trauma had not yet been resolved
- Identify the lies
A very big part of healing includes helping counselees recognizing lies and replacing them with the truth – in final instance the truth of God’s Word.
Regarding the previous example: whenever this lady was kissed by a stranger > the lie took over with the message: “You are back in the original traumatic situation!” > panic reaction in the body (fight, flight or freeze)
This same rule applies to any other situation that any one of us may experience
Whenever there was trauma, crisis, rejection, pain or hurt, there is a big possibility that some lie has been rooted somewhere – especially when the same negative experience repeated itself many times
In Joh 8:44 Jesus says: “Your father is the devil… and everything he says is a lie… he is also the father of all lies.”
For any highly traumatized person, unresolved trauma and the associated triggers, usually connect to a very big lie, namely the assumption that the trauma has never ended
Therefore, any stress signal could in future be an indication for this person that he / she is back in the traumatic situation again
In this regard my own approach has been to focus on counselees’ trauma-history/ timeline/ genogram in order to start right from the beginning identifying how many times a lie was projected – either verbally or non-verbally to this person – and then to list all of these incidents
Secondly, we have to talk through this list, and thirdly we have to pray through this list
Very often the incidents on the list refer to their personal identity, their personal abilities and God-given gifts and talents
They then have to distance themselves in prayer from all previous negative pronounce-ments about themselves in the past
… very often for the first time they have to discover their real identity in Christ
Most of the time an emotion like rejection is at the top of the list
In this process we are also simultaneously dealing with the unresolved traumatic experience that triggered negative emotions repeatedly over the years
… and when the lie has been cancelled out, the trigger is powerless. According to Glen Schiraldi in his book, The post-traumatic stress disorder sourcebook, the unresolved traumatic material in the brain then moves over from the amygdala to the hippocampus, where all the normal associated material are stored – and then healing has taken place
In this regard, as pastoral counselors, it can help us significantly to take cognizance of one of the neighbouring disciplines like that of cognitive therapy with its emphasis on the developing of skills for testing and modifying beliefs and identifying distorted thinking
In pastoral terms we would just say: look out for the lies!
Just to mention two or three good books:
- Chris Thurman – The lies we believe
- Paul David Tripp – War of words
- William Backus and Marie Chapian – Telling yourself the truth
- Reinette Kruger – Pastorale begeleiding van die emosioneel en geestelik verwonde persoon met betrekking tot geïnternaliseerde leuens – NWU – M-Dissertation.
- Christo Herbst – Kognitiewe herstrukturering na selfmoord van ‘n huweliksmaat: ‘n Pastorale studie. NWU – PhD Thesis.
- Dream patterns
According to the Meier Clinics adults usually dream 20 out of every 90 minutes that they are asleep, a conclusion determined from EEG patterns
Most people do not realize that they dream so much, because they never remember their dreams unless they wake up during one
Dreams are mediated biochemically by serotonin and norepinephrine – the same brain
amines that, when depleted, result in clinical depression
… holding grudges, for example, depletes these essential brain amines
Many research studies have shown that normal, mature individuals, when deprived of dream time (the so called REM sleep phases, even though they get enough non-dream sleep), begin to develop depressive or even psychotic symptoms within three nights of dream deprivation
We can thus conclude that God somehow uses dreams each night to help us resolve unconscious conflicts, or at least to dissipate some of the emotional pain tied to unconscious conflicts
Christians should therefore not deprive themselves of sleep, because sleeping and dreaming are gifts of God to maintain our sanity.
Regarding dreams, we read in Job 33:14-15:
“For God does speak – now one way, now another – though man may not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds…”
It occasionally happens that people have very clear dreams, but as they relate the dream,
it becomes obvious the dream is a product of their own mind
This is confirmed by Scripture: Eccl 5:3: “… a dream comes when there are many cares…”
But then on the other hand, as counsellors we must be aware of the fact that very often people experience dreams which are indications of unresolved pain or trauma
Therefore, I have learned that it is always worth asking about counselees’ dream patterns
Very often unresolved pain, hurt, trauma or unresolved grieving processes for the very first time surface through a dream – sometimes after many years
Renee Fredrickson in her book, Repressed memories (1992:122-127) says:
- Paying attention to the messages in dreams can enlighten us about areas of our lives that are too complex or difficult to face consciously
- Nightmares are common purveyors of repressed memories
- Sometimes it is as if there is some small detail and it is like a camera that is
zooming in onto this in the dream – this can sometimes be connected to some little detail that stuck in the subconscious during intense trauma
- Recurring dreams are an emergency signal from your unconscious – the signal
keeps repeating until you respond to the message by dealing with the issue imbedded in the dream
The aspect of recurring dreams is also emphasized by the Christian psychiatrist, Paul Meier who co-authored a book with Robert Wise on dreams, with the title, Windows of the soul (1995). They say,
- “Recurring dreams or variations thereof keep coming back until the buried issue is unearthed and faced” (p.14).
- “Rather than hiding truth, the dream asks us to trouble ourselves to learn the language our inner movie producer speaks” (p.18).
Regarding dreams in children’s’ lives the Christian psychologist, Dr Arlys Norcross McDonald (1995:141) refers to two very common themes, (and she also quotes Dr Lenore Terr, a well-known child psychiatrist at the University of California in this regard)
The two themes are the following:
- Dreams of falling (falling into a crevice or an abyss or into a deep dark pit, etc.)
- Dreams of being chased by huge animals (and I would add: especially a snake)
Dr Louis McBurney, Christian psychiatrist, wrote a book, Counseling Christian workers. He has been until his retirement at the head of a counselling centre for Christian leaders, Marble Retreat, in Marble, Colorado.
He refers to a common type of recurrent dream as that of the fear of exposure
This may take the form of showing up for exam totally unprepared. Another similar form is being suddenly naked in front of other people. Many pastors report dreaming that they stand up to preach and discover they don’t have their sermon notes. These and other dreams may reveal underlying feelings of inadequacy, guilt, fear, or sexual conflict (McBurney, 1994:247).
By learning to ask people about certain repeating patterns regarding their dreams, I have had many interesting experiences in counselling and also cues that eventually led to breakthroughs with regard to unexplainable behaviour patterns or abnormal fears or unresolved trauma
Ask about any direct correlation between physical problems and trauma
For me personally this is a very interesting field
There is again this powerful factor of the lie connected to the way in which we perceive or experience trauma or crisis
And if the lie has settled in and been rooted deep down, one of the logical results could eventually be physical problems
Because there is a close interaction between the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of man, every person does have a certain limit up till where you can absorb stress, trauma, pain and crises and then you reach full capacity regarding your emotional and spiritual boundaries
There is then just one area still available to absorb this ‘overflowing reservoir’s’ spill-over and that is our bodies
The psychiatrist, Rollo May, wrote quite a number of books focusing on this interaction between the physical on the one hand and the spiritual / emotional on the other hand (also the late well known French medical doctor and theologian Dr Paul Tournier – cf. 2012). In his book, The meaning of anxiety (1950:82-86) he says, for instance, that he often had the experience, that in proportion to the degree that an emotion like anxiety can be tolerated consciously by a person, somatic symptoms do not appear
… but when it becomes too big to be dealt with, then physical symptoms may appear and the anxiety will then disappear from this person’s consciousness
The physical symptoms are thus alleviating the anxiety without resolving the problem
… there has just been a shift in emphasis
In his book, The healing power of a Christian mind, William Backus refers to the fact that, until a few years ago, medical biologists insisted that the brain and the mind had nothing to do with the control of the immune system.
That was until Candace Pert (2003), chief of the section on brain biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health has turned this theory upside down and opened the way to a new discipline – proclaiming the power of the mind in relation to the immune system: psycho-neuro-immunology
The conclusion: the immune system is under the direct control of our brain – your brain can thus make you ill or well in a certain sense
Because this is the case, we need to remind our counselees that, what disturbs and distresses their minds, will affect their brains – and what their brains do – especially what it does for a long time – will have mighty immune-system repercussions, positive or negative.
Against this background Backus (1998:64) says this is why a new model of health and illness has invited doctors to abandon the old biomedical model of simple materialism – the idea that eventually there will be a pill for every illness
Rather, the spirit and the non-material mind will always influence the material brain and body, so that the body is to some extent the outward manifestation of the spirit and the mind.
In the Word of God something of this truth is reflected in the following two verses:
Prov 17:22: “A cheerful heart does good like medicine, but a broken spirit makes one
sick” (Living Bible).
Prov 18:14: “A man’s courage can sustain his broken body, but when courage dies,
what hope is left?” (Living Bible).
The Christian psychologist Dan Allender (2008:167) says:
It has long been known that the division between the body and the psyche is an artificial distinction. There are differences between the two, but there is a clear, though imperceptible, bridge between our inner health and our physical well-being… the fact is that physical symptoms are often a sign of deep inner struggle. It is as if the body is warring against the soul by blocking memories or dreams that would unleash a torrent of anguish. The physical armour that protects against those memories produces a rigid, exhausted frame. The body was never meant to be at war with the psyche, and when
it is, physical symptoms occur.
In this same regard the psychologist, Aphrodite Matsakis (1996:202) says that,
Unexpressed grief has been implicated in the development or worsening of
medical problems such as diabetes, heart diseases, hypertension, asthma,
cancer, and a variety of allergies, rashes, aches and pains.
McDonald (1995:152) refers, for example, to many cases of asthma that have been tied to memories of an oral rape or a choking incident – the asthma then stopped after the recovery of the associated memory.
She states that physical problems are numerous for victims of trauma – very common are for example headaches, hormonal problems, ulcers, back pain, colitis, high or low blood pressure, Crohn’s disease and allergies (McDonald, 1995:66).
Matsakis (1996:165) says, “You are as sick as your secrets.” (this is also a well-known 12-step slogan).
Against this background (and many other research supporting these few remarks; cf.
Coetzer, 2006; Ray, 2004), if somebody has been through a traumatic experience, a
standard question for me the last couple of years has been:
- “Have you become aware of any specific physical symptoms shortly after that traumatic experience that you never had before?”
- “Have you been to a doctor for a medical examination regarding this problem?”
If there is no medical explanation, but there has still been a recurring pattern of symptoms since the traumatic incident, then the next question would be:
- “What is usually the kind of trigger that activates the recurring pattern of symptoms?”
Questions like these would usually help to identify the root of the problem.
- The ‘why-question’
In most cases of intense trauma, during or directly after the trauma most people are wrestling with the ‘why’ question – “God, why….?”
I would say that one of the golden rules is not even to try to answer that question then, because at that moment there is usually no answer
Should the counsellor try to provide an answer or try to defend God, you are immediately caught in a trap
Even from a physiological viewpoint it is not wise to put too much emphasis on a spiritual issue like God’s possible involvement right at the beginning of your counselling journey with a severely traumatized victim
I say this because emotions like rage, fury and anger are part of the very first emotions after the experience of shock, trauma, intense loss, suicide, etc.
… many persons then want to blame somebody and, if there is not somebody to blame, then God is to blame
Therefore, it is usually not the right time for an in-depth discussion of possible intellectual reasons and the possible role of God etc.
The best approach would be on the other hand to assure the counselee or the victim that at this very moment there are no answers, and may be you are just as devastated and speechless as he/she
You can further assure them of your support in the days and weeks ahead and keep praying with them that the Lord Himself will eventually bring the pieces of the puzzle together in His unique way
Another important aspect to keep in mind regarding the age-old question “Why?” when emotionally affected by loss and grief and trauma, is to recognize that it is not really an intellectual question but rather an emotional lament (James, Friedman & Matthews, 2002:100)
Before we thus rush in with some big intellectual definition of death or trauma, make sure that you are responding to the real question
… at that early stage the best response would be just to acknowledge the pain and loss and assist them in recognizing, accepting and dealing with the truth of those feelings
Superficial answers and formulas usually lead to significant confusion and even rage against God
Jer 8:11: “They tried to heal my people’s serious injuries as if they were small wounds.
They said, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ But really, it is not all right” (New Century Version).
“They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound…” (New Living
During such times there is much more wisdom in less words and more listening and just being there for the victim
In this regard Rodger Hurding (1988:376) quotes John Lake as saying that,
Hurt people have a greater need to meet a God who hears and groans, who struggles for words, than a God who has much to say to them.
In his book, Counseling Christian workers, Louis McBurney (1994:241) relates an incident from the history of Dr Frieda Fromm-Reichmann – a Jewish psychiatrist who emigrated to the USA shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War when Hitler already started with his campaign throughout Europe against all Jews.
She tells a story to emphasize the importance of listening
When she first arrived in the U.S she spoke very little English. Nonetheless, a friend insisted she have a counselling session with an important friend of his.
Despite her objections the appointment was made.
She sat with the troubled man listening attentively for an hour trying to understand some of what he was saying, but really failing to do so intellectually.
She did pick up his mood and non-verbal messages and was able to make appropriate non-verbal responses
Years later she received a letter from the man thanking her for seeing him – he said that their counselling session had changed his life!
This has indeed not been a superficial treatment for somebody with a mortal wound like Jer 8:11 says – this was listening with her ears, her eyes and her total body
“And this is my prayer: that your love may more and more overflow in fullness of knowledge and depth of discernment, so that you will be able to determine what is best” (The Complete Jewish Bible)
“… so that you will be able to decide what really matters” (Common English Bible)
Godly discernment in each situation and a full realization of your total dependence on the Holy Spirit, despite all your qualifications and training and experience, are of utmost importance.
I am sure that many of you will agree that, so often at some stage during some counselling sessions, there was a certain turning point that eventually led to a breakthrough
… and in retrospect you just realized that you and your intellectual knowledge, your training, your degrees, your diplomas and your years of experience had absolute nothing to do with what eventually happened as that session developed and unfolded
So often I had this overwhelming sense that I was just privileged by God Almighty to be used at that moment to facilitate to some extent between a broken and wounded human being on the one hand, and on the other hand Jesus Christ the Heavenly Healer
During such times I just felt like an observer, and in front of me a Godly miracle was performed in terms of emotional healing with regard to which I could not take any credit at all
As Prof David Seamands (1985:131) describes it so strikingly: we as counsellors are only temporary assistants to the Holy Spirit in this whole process, and we must never forget that!
Something of what Paul is referring to in 2 Cor 4:7:
“However, we possess this precious treasure in frail, human vessels of earth, that the grandeur and exceeding greatness of the power may be shown to be from God and not from ourselves” (Amplified Version).
What a privilege – to Him all the glory!
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Backus, W. 1998. The healing power of a Christian mind. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany
Backus, W. & Chapian, M. 2000. Telling yourself the truth. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany
Coetzer, W.C. 2006. Pastorale implikasies van die liggaam/denke verbintenis. Verbum
et Ecclesia, 27(3) 2006:775-793.
Fredrickson, R. 1992. Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual
Abuse. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Herbst, C. 2012. Kognitiewe herstrukturering na selfmoord van ‘n huweliksmaat: ‘n
Pastorale studie. Potchefstroom: NWU (Thesis – PhD).
Hurding, F.R. 1988. Roots and shoots. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
James, J.W., Friedman, R. & Matthews, L.L. 2002. When children grieve. London:
Kruger, R. 2010. Pastorale begeleiding van die emosioneel en geestelik verwonde
persoon met betrekking tot geïnternaliseerde leuens. Potchefstroom: NWU (Verhandeling – MA).
Matsakis, A. 1996. I can’t get over it. A handbook for trauma survivors. Oakland, CA:
New Harbinger Publications.
May, R. 1950. The meaning of anxiety. New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company.
McBurney, L. Counseling Christian workers. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing.
McDonald, A.N. 1995. Repressed memories. Can you trust them? Grand Rapids, MI:
Fleming H. Revell.
Meier, P. & Wise, R. 1995. Window of the soul. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Minirth, F. & Meier P.D. 2002. Counseling and the nature of man. Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Book House.
Pert, C. 2003. Molecules of emotion. The science behind mind-body medicine. New
York, NY: Scribner.
Ray, O. 2004. How the mind hurts and heals the body. American Psychologist, 59 (1):
Rothschild, B. 2000. The body remembers. The psychophysiology of trauma and
trauma treatment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Rothschild, B. 2006. Help for the helper. The psychophysiology of compassion fatigue.
New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Seamands, D. 1985. Healing of memories. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Schiraldi, G.R. 2001. The post-traumatic stress disorder sourcebook. A guide to healing,
recovery and growth. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Sinclair, D. 1993. Horrific traumata. A pastoral response to the post-traumatic stress
disorder. London: Haworth Pastoral Press.
Thurman, C. 1999. The lies we believe. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Terr, L. Too scared to cry: Psychic trauma in childhood. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Tournier, P. 2012. Revised ed. A doctor’s casebook in the light of the Bible. Norwich,
Norfolk: Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd.
Tripp, P.D. 200. War of words. Getting to the heart of your communication struggles.
Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 I wrote an article that was published in LitNet Akademies, 2014, 11(2), 372-393, with the title, Pastorale begeleiding van die emosioneel verwonde tiener, in which I discussed the history of this phrase more in detail.