Trauma and Union with Christ (Part 2)

The believer’s union with Christ is a key doctrine that can help to alter our perception of self in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. The doctrine is useful in that it intertwines our story with the story of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Biblical counselors can help a counselee reinterpret their story in light of His, as a counselee learns to apply this doctrine at the levels of identity, behavior, and metanarrative. In this post, we will explore the concept of identity appropriation.

Human identity is shaped around certain narratives and themes. Sometimes these are genuinely healthy narratives and themes. At other times, these themes are distortions of the truth, overemphasizing one aspect or another. At still other times, they are outright lies and falsehoods that we have bought into. A person’s identity is usually a mixture of elements, but each shapes a person’s perception of self, the world, and God. But for a believer, the story of Christ is the true story about us and our world. Biblical counselors can help counselees appropriate the identity of Christ by relating His story to “aspects of their internal world: their beliefs, feelings, attitudes, memories, and motives” (Johnson, God & Soul Care, 147).

Paul tells us that our “old self” was crucified with Christ, and that we are now new in Him. The more we become convinced of this the more it directly impacts our experience of sin and suffering. So, for example, when I feel shame from past trauma the appropriation of my union with Christ reminds me that I am not defined by what has been done to me. I am not defined as “broken” or “damaged,” but rather I AM a “follower of Christ.” Shame can be progressively dismantled as I rest in my union with Christ. Paul teaches clearly that in union with Christ I am not “enslaved to sin.”

A counselee can use the grid of Death, Burial, Resurrection, and New Life to help analyze their self-perception and remind themselves of the truth (Rom. 6:1-11). To begin with, however, a counselee may need to identify the current belief structure that is feeding their false identity. Perhaps it would look something like this:

Death – I have been assaulted and am therefore broken and unloveable.

Burial – who I used to be is dead and gone. I can never go back to the life I used to have.

These are true statements. They reflect the genuine experiences of a suffering individual and are expressions of genuine loss. Yet, there is more to their story, and viewing that story through the lens of the gospel provides a basis for reshaping their identity. A story told through the framework of the gospel might look like this:

Death – I have been assaulted.

Burial – The person I used to be and the life I used to live is now gone.

Resurrection – The person I am, however, is not defined by the sins of others or the painful experiences I have had. I am first, and foremost, a follower Christ. Jesus has made me new.

New Life – The scars I possess do not prevent me from living a new life in Christ, for His glory and my joy.

The gospel story provides me with a way of evaluating my self-perception and reshaping it according to my union with Christ.

The integration of these truths is not a simple one-time task. The process of appropriating my identity in Christ is a regular occurrence. As negative self-evaluations, and self-perceptions emerge a counselee must confront them again and again with the truth of the gospel story (Rom. 12:2). The more confrontation is done the more appropriation is likely to happen. Rewriting that “basal inner drama,” as Eric Johnson calls it, requires regular practice. As the faulty self-perception floods emotions and thoughts again, counselees will “need to remind themselves of their union with Christ, then surrender to Christ the negative feelings aroused by their basal inner drama, and finally, bring in a positive emotion shift based on their union with Christ’s resurrection and communion with God” (Johnson, 148). This takes time and practice, but it is possible to reshape our story around His.

How we understand ourselves is a crucial element of healing from traumatic events. Trauma destroys our sense of self, but the gospel has the power to heal identity. The believer has amazing therapeutic tools within their union to Christ. As they learn to tell their story through the lens of His story, and view themselves through the lens of Him, they can truly grow and change. If we are identified with Christ we are “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17), and as “all the fullness of deity dwells” in Him, so too in Christ may we be brought to “fullness” (Col. 2:9-10).

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