Processing painful emotional memories can turn a world upside down all over again. Often for victims of trauma the recall of traumatic memories is more like reliving the experience than simply remembering it. This reality means that those who talk about their painful past will often find themselves emotionally and psychological overwhelmed as they speak. Good counselors know that they must provide victims of trauma the tools to stabilize their emotions before dredging up the past. To do anything less would be to re-traumatize victims. God is our model in stabilizing symptoms for effective counsel and care.
Asking counselees to dredge up their painful past without providing them tools to navigate their emotions in the aftermath of sharing is one of the most insensitive things a counselor can do. It is to ignore the well-being of a counselee for the sake of solving a problem. In our counseling training we often talk to students about the difference between “caring for people” and “treating problems.” In the first approach we are concerned about the individual’s well-being, we have compassion, and we seek a process of counseling that incarnates Christ’s love for them. In the second approach we merely want to “fix” the issue and send the counselee on their way. In trauma counseling a “fix-it” approach will only further compound the pain of a sufferer. Instead we want to look to God who demonstrates the beautiful concern for stability before moving on in counseling. God does this most beautifully in the case of Elijah, as told in 1 Kings 19.
Elijah’s life has been more than just threatened as the chapter begins. The Queen, the most powerful person in the land, has issued a guarantee that she intends to kill the prophet (v. 2), and to do so within 24 hours. The prophet is so terrified he runs, and doesn’t just flee town, but the text tells us he runs a full day’s journey into the wilderness (v. 4). He is crushed, depressed, hopeless, and even wants to die. ““It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” he says. The man is terror-stricken and despairing.
Now, Elijah had just seen, in the previous chapter, God do the most amazing and unimaginable thing. He watched God consume a soaking wet sacrifice, and the altar it sat on, without the prophet even lifting a finger to get the fire started. Fire straight from heaven came to humiliate the false prophets of Baal and to testify to God’s own power and authority. But in this moment Elijah cannot remember that; he is overwhelmed by the threat issued against Him. He is stunned, shocked, and confused about life. After all, shouldn’t God’s demonstration of power have swayed the all the people to repent and believe? But it didn’t, and so the prophet is devastated and confused. Certainly, Elijah needs to be counseled. He needs to be encouraged to trust God, to believe in His power and control, to remember all that God has recently done. But God does not begin His care of Elijah with any psychoeducation. Instead, He starts with stability.
The text points to God’s compassionate care of the body first. We read:
5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8 And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
Twice, the text tells us, God encouraged the weary man to sleep, eat, and drink. He wants first to provide him the physical strength he needs to go further on the journey. He wants to provide him stability, rest, nourishment, and clarity. We all know by experience how hard it is to process when we are tired, now imagine that tiredness is more than just physiological. Elijah is utterly distraught and destroyed. He is ready to die. That is not just physical exhaustion, that is emotional/psychological. And God’s first response is not to give the man an Ed Welch book, as helpful as that might be. It is not even to quote Scripture to Him, as necessary as that will be. It is not to tell Him about the truths of God’s character, as fundamental as that will be. Rather, God begins by encouraging him to rest and eat. God cares about stability. Stability first.
Why is this so important for victims of trauma? Because traumatic memories can be described as the terror of the past invading the present. This means that recalling memories often creates the experience of living through them all over again. Some victims can experience the same level of threat, lack of safety, terror, and even pain that they felt in that previous moment. They can become paralyzed by fear, fall prey to full-blown panic attacks, and become stuck in an experience that isn’t presently happening. These are common symptoms of what is sometimes called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Providing tools for stability helps a sufferer stay in the present, regain control of their thoughts and emotions, and avoid becoming stuck in a traumatic memory. A good counselor will provide space during a session to practice stabilizing before leaving – this is not the kind of exercise you simply leave to the counselee after the session. God models this practice for us, and Biblical Counselors want to strive to imitate our Lord. He is, after all, the “wonderful counselor,” and He demonstrates His compassion for victims of trauma by prioritizing stability. Next week I will explore two important tools for helping to provide stability.