Trauma and Union with Christ

“The most important habit that doctrine forms is neither linguistic nor conceptual but imaginative” (Vanhoozer,The Drama of Doctrine, 377). The gospel gives to Christians the ability to imagine a new interpretation of life (past, present, and future). It puts us within the framework of a new narrative. For those who have experienced significant trauma this is particularly important. The doctrine of union with Christ is a vital doctrine for helping victims transform the plot line of their subjective stories.

If the early stages of trauma counseling involve matters of stability and grief, the later stages turn attention to reframing their suffering story in light of God’s grand narrative of redemption. The goal here is not to erase the pain of the past, but rather to understand that pain in light of the gospel. Biblical counselors are not attempting to “make it all better,” nor is a counselee called to simply “get over it.” Rather, we are attempting to understand this specific component of an individual’s story in light of the larger story that God is telling about them and the world. As part of that process of reframing good counselors want to develop the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ, and apply that doctrine to the unique experiences of a trauma victim.

Romans 6:1-11 presents us with the framework for reinterpretation of our stories. Paul casts the believer’s life in terms of their participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So, we read:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self[a] was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

In this text, Paul presents us with a principle, an explanation, and a command. He begins with the truth that the believer is “dead to sin.” We are not bound to either commit sin, nor are we enslaved to the sins committed against us. There are always consequences for sin, to be sure, but sin itself does not own us. We are not obligated to obey sinful desires and impulses, nor are we trapped and dominated by what others have done to us. We are “free from sin.”

Paul explains that this is a reality for believers because they are united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. As Christ died to sin, was buried, and rose to newness of life so we too can experience victory and overcoming through Him in our own experiences of this world. We are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), our “old self” has been crucified “in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” There is freedom because we are united to Christ.

The apostle concludes, then, with a command: consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. We are instructed to live in light of this reality, to fix our minds on it, remind ourselves of it, to believe it to be the truth. Meditation upon our union with Christ has immense power to help us live differently. This paradigm becomes influential in understanding, or reinterpreting, our own personal story. Because we are united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection we can reinterpret our own stories in light of victory, overcoming, sanctification, and hope.

Trauma dramatically impacts our personal story. It reshapes the plot line of our lives, and the internalized perception of self, the world, and God. Eric Johnson calls this an individual’s “basal inner drama,” which “becomes the narrative frame within which all future episodes are interpreted, usually as confirmation of their earlier story” (God & Soul Care, 148). The gospel transforms this basal inner drama as Christians appropriate the story of Christ. Johnson writes:

Christian counselors are to help their counselees make conscious connections between Christ’s story and theirs so that they increasingly identify with him, a process that continues throughout life. As a result, the believer’s identity comes to be characterized more and more centrally by their union with Christ rather than their past, their abuse, their family of origin, their sexual orientation, or their creational strengths or disabilities. Their core sense of self comes progressively to be shaped by the knowledge that, more than anything else, they are a “follower of Christ.” (146)

This process of re-imagining is what might be called a Christian Psychodramatic Exercise.

The goal in this exercise is to think about what a story of overcoming in Christ might look like when applied to a specific challenge in a counselee’s life. This can happen as believers appropriate their union with Christ at three levels: identification, behavior, and metanarrative. A brief exploration of each might be helpful, and so in the coming weeks we will look carefully at each component.

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