Trauma and Union with Christ (Part 3)

Pain from the past never justifies sinful behavior in the present. Traumatic pasts and traumatic memories do tend to tempt survivors with all sorts of sinful responses, and yet God does not excuse any disobedience. Still, effective counselors must acknowledge the immense complexity of obedience for those who have suffered from trauma. Anxiety, cognitive impairments, dissociations, and self-defensiveness are understandable responses and can often be developed without intention. How do we help people grow and change in the midst of this difficult situation? The believer’s union with Christ can be appropriated at the behavior level in order to open up new ways of responding to life.

In this series we have been exploring the various ways that our union with Christ can be uniquely applied to the life and experiences of a trauma survivors. We’ve seen already how it can be appropriated at the level of identity to reshape how we see and understand ourselves. In this post it is worth exploring how this union can be appropriated at the behavioral level to help us change our responses within life. Romans 6:1-11 remains the key text helping us to see our association with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. These three elements of Christ’s salvific work become the grid through which all of us, even trauma victims, can view our own lives.

Behavioral appropriation, refers to our ability to imagine different responses to ongoing trouble by thinking along the lines of our association with Christ. In the words of Eric Johnson:

Christianity’s central therapeutic story, of course, is Christ’s death and resurrection, so meditation on one’s union with him in those events is transformative, along with the incorporation of one’s own sin, suffering, and struggles into those events. One can also imaginatively rehearse better ways of handling ongoing challenges (e.g., a difficult coworker, the stress of child rearing, or regular temptation) mindful of one’s union with Christ. (God & Soul Care, 148)

Rehearsing better responses can become an actual exercise that invites counselees to imagine scenarios where the respond in a Christlike manner. Counselors can even reenact these scenarios with counselees in session, giving them an opportunity to practice the rehearsal and reframing of their responses.

This approach to behavioral evaluation is deeper than the WWJD model. It reminds us of the actual power and grace we have because of our union with Christ. As Paul says in Romans 6:

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 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. (v. 5-6)

Union with Christ destroys our enslavement to sin so that we are free to live differently. Christlikeness is not an imaginative game or a bracelet you wear, it is an actual tangible possibility for those united to Christ through His death and resurrection. Trauma victims can tap into this power as they grow in their confidence of its truth.

The story of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection serves as the grid through which we can evaluate our behavior and envision a new behavioral response in the future. So, Paul tells us that we are no longer to “live in sin.” This is inconsistent with our new identity. We must “walk in newness of life.” An evaluation might look something like this:

Death – Christ died in order to free me from sin’s power

Burial – I do not have to respond to my past by seeking revenge, harboring bitterness, or freezing in fear.

Resurrection – In Christ I have the power to respond differently to my pain and past

New Life – I can entrust vengance/justice to God and trust Him with my life.

The emphasis in this grid is on Christ’s death, not a victim’s. Trauma comes with a sort-of death, to be sure, and we saw that emphasized in the “Identity Appropriation.” Here, however, the death of Christ is the focus because it opens up to them new ways of living. As a Biblical counselor, I want to focus on the freedom He has granted to them through His conquering sin on their behalf.

Suffering, even traumatic suffering, provides Christians with unique opportunities to model Christ on earth. By looking to our union with Christ we can explore how Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection empower us to live different lives. We can utilize this framework as a lens to contemplate different responses. The hardwork of applying these different responses in the moment is still a challenge, but by meditating on the options before us we are doing preparatory work. Meditation alone does not change us, but it is a vital first step towards change. As we learn to see our behavior through the lens of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ we can evaluate it Biblically, and prepare to respond differently as we move forward.

We are learning to live, as Paul tells us in Romans 6, as “new selves.” Living this way takes intentional thought and ongoing practice. We must think about all our behavior in light of our identification with Christ, in light of the integration of our story and His. “The Christian’s new self is realized by a Christ-saturated consciousness, that is, by knowing and evaluating more of oneself, one’s activities, and one’s relationships in relation to union with Christ, so that they become ‘Christologized,” united experientially to the resurrected Lord of the new creation by faith…” (Johnson, 525).

Union with Christ does not change the trauma that individuals have suffered, nor does it erase the damage that has been done. It does open to us, however, a new way of living even in the aftermath of traumatic events. Fighting sinful responses in the aftermath of trauma is extremely difficult, and counselors will need to be patient and compassionate. Yet, there is hope that even trauma victims can develop new responses. As their story becomes more intertwined with His they will find that a “fellowship” in His sufferings leads to a participation in His resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11). That resurrection empowers them to walk in newness of life.

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