Trauma and Union with Christ (Part 4)

All Christians have a larger story than the one they experience in the day-to-day routines of life. We belong to a grand narrative being written and told by a Sovereign Lord. Appropriating Christ’s story as our own allows sufferers of trauma to find hope and meaning beyond their experiences.

Understanding Metanarrative Appropriation

Metanarrative is the fancy word for an overarching narrative or interpretation which frames and grounds a person’s beliefs, giving meaning to their various experiences. For the Christian, Christ’s story of death, burial, and resurrection is that story. Romans 6:1-14 speaks to the appropriation of that story in the believer’s life. We have explored in past weeks two specific ways to apply this story to our own lives: (1) Cognitive appropriation, which explored our identity in Christ; and  (2) Behavioral appropriation, which explored our imitation of Christ in lifestyle. This week I will conclude the series by considering our metanarrative appropriation of Christ’s story. This appropriation invites believers to see the larger picture which can guard against despair and hopelessness in the aftermath of trauma.

Psychologists speaks of “psychological distance” as a means of managing our emotional responses to pain and suffering. The term refers to creating a bit of space between ourselves and the sorrows we come in contact with, attempting to interpret each instance of sorrow in light of our whole life experience. “Psychological distance involves mentally separating oneself from the immediate situation and taking a broader perspective or seeing the big picture” (Heshmat, “Seeing the Big Picture can Promote Self-Control”). While Psychological distancing can be effective, the goal for believers is not to create distance, but to develop deeper bonds and ties to this larger story through integration. We do not want to disconnect from what we feel, but rather reinterpret what we experience through the lens of Christ’s story. His life, death, burial, and resurrection is the grand metanarrative.

Finding Meaning

Nearly all sufferers of trauma will ask those major metaphysical questions: Where was God when this happened? Why did God allow this? How can God really care for me if He allowed this to occur? There is no simple answer to these question, and Biblical Counselors should not feel pressured to try to explain why God allowed the trauma. It’s not possible for us to know God’s reasons, and any attempted explanations will leave us with great dissatisfaction. But, an individuals search for meaning in the aftermath of trauma is important. Counselors may not be able to give meaning to the immediate experience, but there is still a larger meaning to life, one rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In an article for The Biblical Counseling Coalition on this subject, I previously wrote about the ways in which Christ’s own experience of trauma transforms ours. I wrote:

Jesus did not have to suffer and die, it was His choice. He did so in order that He might transform brokenness, to set all things right. He came in order to begin the process that will one day conclude in the resolution of all brokenness. His trauma gives hope to all the brokenness we experience. His trauma promises that trauma will not always last. There is meaning beyond my experience because Christ experienced suffering in order to end it once and for all (Isa. 25:8). (“Trauma and the Significance of Meaning“)

Within the larger story, then, trauma does not get the last word. It does not have the right to govern a life and determine its conclusion. It is one piece of a larger story being told by God. We may not always understand the path and authorial decisions being made, but we can know that there is still more to the story and that this aspect will fit somewhere in the unfolding narrative.

The Effect of Metanarrative Appropriation

Metanarrative appropriation will do several key things, then, in the life of a trauma survivor. It will, first, reframe their experience of suffering. It reminds them that suffering is not meaningless even if we don’t understand it. It reminds them that Christ does not wash suffering away, but He does transform it. Secondly, it will also place them into a relational frame of mind, reminding them that life is ultimately about the glory of God (Phil. 1:20-21; see also Rom. 14:8), not about self.  As Eric Johnson writes:

Christianity’s focus on the biblical stories of God with others, concentrating on the story of Christ (in four Gospels!), helps believers to interpret themselves and their story in a larger relational context. Ultimately, it is not about me and my story but him and his story! Yet, at the same time, his story profoundly communicates the relative importance of my story, since my story is woven into his and uniquely expresses his glory, enabling Christians legitimately to break out of the solipsistic impasse of our fallen, auto centric predicament. (God & Soul Care, 151).

The meatanarrative of the gospel remind us that we exist for God’s glory, and yet it also validates our story as a unique contribution to the exaltation of Christ. As we are conformed to His image we add our voice to the storytelling of Christ’s glory and beauty. Our suffering, then, is not about us but about the glory of God, and yet it does validate our unique voice. In relation to this last point, and thirdly, we see that metanarrative appropriation also reorients us away from autocentrism. The world lives with the illusion of personal autonomy and independence. We are the authors of our own story, and we live to fulfill our own dreams, we are told. Self-actualization and self-realization are the keys to healthy living. The Scriptures tell us otherwise; the Bible places all humanity in subjection to God and tells our story as a subset of His larger design. Metanarrative appropriation serves to dismantle autocentrism and replace it with Christ at the psychological center of our lives.

A Theodramatic Exercise, then, will seek to utilize the framework of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to remind us of this larger story. The framework might look something like this:

Death – Christ’s death gives purpose to my suffering, even if I don’t see it.

Burial – The life I had envisioned for myself is gone.

Resurrection – The life I now live, I live for Christ and His glory.

There is a reorientation that gives us a new vision of the future, one full of meaning and hope.

Suffering and Hope

Paul explores how Christ’s gospel narrative gives us hope when he describes suffering as a means to our own growth and maturation. In Romans 5:3-5 he writes about “rejoicing in suffering” because suffering helps us to grow, but ultimately he says it leads to hope because God’s Spirit of love has been poured out into our hearts. We read:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Metanarrative appropriation extends to us hope because our story, as painful as it may be at times, has a larger purpose: the glory of God. Yet, that glory is not isolated from our own experiences of growth and personal gain. As paradoxical as it sounds, suffering leads to greater hope in the love of God.

Conclusion

It’s important for counselors to know that they are working towards this goal, it is not the starting place in trauma counseling. Many, many things must be done on the front end of counseling. Previous blogs have spoken of anchoring, of grieving the past, and of processing traumatic events. Counselees with traumatic memories will need help fighting triggers and traumatic memories. Trauma counseling is a long process. Yet, ultimately we want to move towards this goal of appropriating a believer’s union with Christ, for there is much hope and help found in this truth.

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