By / Aug 22

This past week, I opened my computer and logged in to Facebook. I read an article about a recent shooting, scrolled past a post about a new virus, and read someone’s account of living with long COVID (long-term effects from the infection). Moving on to Twitter, I skimmed through a heated argument about the Dobbs decision, read news about famine and war, and saw several death announcements. I decided not to move on to Instagram. 

I often feel heavy and overwhelmed after spending time online, and I know I’m not alone. Someone recently shared with me how much he had struggled after reading about the Ukraine war. He saw pictures of a family being separated and began to replay these images in his mind. Lying awake at night, he considered what he would do in a similar scenario. 

Another person described her struggle with anxiety and racing thoughts. She had watched a video of a recent school shooting and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She worried about her own children. She grieved the children who were lost. The thoughts would not relent. 

Constant online access has made us daily witnesses to the grief and trauma of millions of people. Each time we open our internet browsers, we encounter news that forces us to consider issues of political conflict, theological disagreement, global suffering, financial stress, illness, and war. Many people feel a sense of tension. We want to stay informed, but too much information can leave us weighed down with thoughts and emotions that feel too heavy to bear. 

What should we do? Should we attempt to carry the sorrows and burdens of the world? Or should we distance ourselves from other peoples’ suffering to protect ourselves? Perhaps it is some of both. 

Remember those who suffer 

Scripture suggests there is something good and holy about remembering other peoples’ suffering, even when they are physically distant from us. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We honor people in their suffering by not forgetting about them. Instead of withdrawing from the world, we bear witness to other peoples’ pain and remember them in the same way we would want to be remembered in similar circumstances. 

Remembering often awakens a sense of compassion, which often leads to a desire to act. It might lead us to pray, give money, volunteer, speak up, or push for change. These are all good things. But too much remembering can lead to racing thoughts and anxiety. Overextending compassion can result in compassion fatigue. Giving to the point of exhaustion can lead to burnout. Absorbing too many stories of other peoples’ trauma can result in secondary trauma. That feeling of tension remains. 

Carry your own load 

We can break out of this tension by balancing wisdom from Hebrews 13:3 with wisdom from Galatians 6:5. A few verses after we are told to carry other peoples’ burdens in Galatians 6:2, we are instructed to each carry our own load. 

Recently, I realized that I was trying to carry someone else’s load. This person was experiencing a heavy struggle, and there were some practical ways I could help to carry her burdens. I could listen and ask good questions. I could sit with her in her grief. But I could not fix the problem. There was a depth to her emotional pain that I could not truly, fully understand. Aspects of her suffering could only be carried between her and God. I had to let go. I had to let her carry her own load. 

As we are inundated with stories of global suffering, we may be tempted to carry loads that do not belong to us. We may hold on to a false sense of responsibility that leads us to overextend ourselves in our care and compassion for other people. We may attempt to fix problems and over identify with burdens that were never given to us to carry. 

Cast your anxiety on the Lord 

The other day, after I closed out of Facebook and Twitter and went to bed, my mind remained filled with thoughts about what I had just read. What if I also get long COVID? What do I think about this or that debate? How should I respond to this person or react to that cause? 

Lying in bed, I used a strategy I often teach people who come to me for counseling. I closed my eyes and began to mentally list my concerns. I gave each concern a name and visualized myself writing it down on a slip of paper. The pandemic and fear of illness went on one slip. Images of hungry, displaced people went on another. A political post that frustrated me, a news article about a school shooting, and several death announcements each got a slip. I took each slip of paper and visualized myself placing them inside a box one at a time. I closed the box and remembered that God was right there with me. I handed him the box and prayed a short prayer, releasing my concerns to him. 

In counseling, this strategy is called containment. In Scripture, we see this idea described in 1 Peter 5:7 as casting our anxieties on the Lord. It is a way to set aside thoughts, feelings, and images that feel upsetting or distressing so we can proceed with our day. The goal of containing our thoughts and giving them to God is not to ignore or downplay important issues. It isn’t being selfish, indifferent, or ignorant in the face of suffering. Instead, it is a way to accept God’s care for us. He invites us to trust him by releasing to him the fears, problems, and concerns we cannot solve. 

What people, causes, local issues, and global concerns weigh on you today? Sit for a moment and honor those who suffer by remembering them. Perhaps choose one or two ways to carry someone else’s burdens. But then, let go. Carry your own load, and let your neighbor do the same. Release your anxieties to God. The world is not yours to carry. 

By / May 7

Mother’s Day can be bittersweet for many. One in 10 couples struggle with infertility, and approximately 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages. For many women who long to have a child, Mother’s Day can serve as a difficult reminder of what they desire, but do not have. The potential pain of Mother’s Day extends further still — for women have chosen an adoption plan for their child, single women who desire to be married and have a family, or women who have had an abortion. And others might be grieving the loss of or navigating a difficult relationship with their mother.

Waiting

Personally, Mother’s Day can be filled with conflicting emotions. I was born with a somewhat rare medical condition that prevents me from bearing biological children. The loss of that dream feels especially poignant this time of year. But I also have a desire to honor my own mother and mother-in-law and celebrate the women in my life who are mothers. Romans 12:15 is often on my lips as I navigate these tensions and seek to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

My husband and I are in the process of an international adoption from India. This Mother’s Day, I feel the strange tension of pursuing motherhood but not yet stepping into the role of “mother.” I’m waiting for paperwork to be approved, for a social worker to deem us eligible to be parents, and to be matched with a child. But I know that waiting is not in vain. 

As an adoptee myself, I’m aware that my children’s stories will contain trauma. Even if our children are adopted young, there is trauma involved any time there’s a break in the natural family. The issue of adoption and child welfare is deeply important to me. I’ve spent time and energy navigating the complexities of these issues in order to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children. While we wait, we are reading books on trauma-informed parenting, listening to seminars, and gleaning wisdom from other adoptive parents so that we can love our children well. Our waiting is not in vain.

Watching 

We’re also watching the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in India with broken hearts. According to the BBC, “India has seen more than 300,000 new cases a day for nearly two weeks straight while deaths stand at 220,000. Experts say total Covid cases and deaths in India are likely to be much higher, citing lack of testing and patients dying at home without being seen by doctors.” The images and stories we’re witnessing have caused global alarm and attention. I can’t help but wonder how many children will be orphaned because of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths. 

Praying 

As we watch and wait, we do the best thing we know how to do: We pray. We lift up our future children in prayer almost daily. They might not be known to us, but they are known to our Father, and in that, we take great comfort. We pray for their safety and protection. We pray for their biological parents and the challenging circumstances that led them to making an adoption plan for their children. We pray for the leaders in India to make good and wise decisions for their citizens. We pray for the souls of our children, that they might come to know the Lord as their Savior at a young age.

In my waiting, I often echo the words of David, “O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” Waiting can often feel helpless, but Psalm 27:14 reminds us to “be strong, and let your heart take courage” as we “wait for the Lord.” I fix my eyes upon the Lord and ask him to fill me with his strength when I feel weak. 

If you find yourself in a season of waiting right now, allow me to remind you that you are never alone in your struggle. Psalm 38:9 reminds us that “all our longing is before God; our sighing is not hidden from Him.” The Lord promises never to leave or forsake his children. He promises to be good and to set his steadfast love upon us. When you feel overwhelmed and discouraged, on Mother’s Day or any time, press into the promises of the Lord. 

By / Apr 16

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the death of Prince Phillip, Russia, the shooting of Daunte Wright, the court ruling on Down syndome abortion, current FDA recommendations on the J&J vaccine, and the no-hitter thrown by Chicago pitcher. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Chelsea Patterson Sobolik with “Explainer: What you should know about the debate in Congress about the Born-Alive bill,” Andrew Bertodatti and Lamar Hardwick with “How can churches be more inclusive of disabled person?,” and Jill Waggoner with “How learning about trauma changed my life: Learning from The Body Keeps the Score.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Gary Lancaster for his farewell episode. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dead at 99
  2. US sanctions Russia over hacks
  3. Russian troops massing on Ukrainian border
  4. Officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright charged
  5. Court ruling on Down syndrome abortion law praised
  6. FDA recommends pausing J&J vaccine after 6 reported cases of blood clots
  7. White House says J&J pause will not have “significant impact” on vaccination plan
  8. Duke University to require vaccinations for fall semester
  9. No-hitter thrown by Chicago pitcher
  10. Turner’s cheesy HR makes LA 1st to 10 wins

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By / Apr 13

He sat against the wall, looking at his phone, seeming to pay little to no attention to our discussion leader. His wife sat next to him with her arm looped through his, occasionally patting it lovingly. She was a regular attender to our class, but this was the first time I remembered seeing him. 

As our Bible study continued, the topic of mental illness came up in our discussion. I mentioned the book I was reading, The Body Keeps the Score, and explained how it was opening my eyes to the effects of trauma on an individuals’ health, behavior and relationships, and specifically, the effects of PTSD. I explained how it was changing the way I viewed many interactions and experiences, as well as the interpersonal dynamics of ministry, including small groups. 

He raised his head and said, “I have PTSD. It is hard for me to sit in this room. We’re too close. I have friends who would have never come in. And if I had thought that I would have been expected to shake hands or hug people in the worship service, I would have never come either. A lot of churches don’t think about me. I hope more people in the church read books like you’re reading.”

My mouth fell open, and my eyes filled with tears.

An exercise in compassion

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, has spent decades working with survivors, beginning during the time when Vietnam veterans were returning home. In his book, he walks us through his education, experiences, and research to explain how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain. 

Trauma is all around us. For example, van der Kolk points out that one in five Americans has been sexually abused, one in four grew up with alcoholics, and one in three couples have experienced physical violence. These are the shocking statistics of acute trauma experienced by so many. Van der Kolk’s research has also shown that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can also be devastating to individuals.

Reading this book and the patients’ accounts it features, although painful, ushered me into imagining experiences far from my own. Compassion requires imagination. After reading this book, I found myself pondering the stories and experiences of the people within my church. It was a profound emotional experience to consider how trauma has affected those I am called to disciple, encourage, and love. I was moved to tears when considering the effects of trauma on those I know, as well as those I’ve yet to find out about. 

Hope and dignity 

This book wasn’t written from a biblical perspective or to a ministerial audience, yet I was struck by the echoes of biblical themes it contained. The cohesion between van der Kolk’s scientific findings and the truths of Scripture was fascinating. One of the fundamental truths that he presents in the book is that, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.” This truth echoes the power of the tongue as described in Proverbs, Ephesians, and James. It was a reminder of how powerfully we can influence those around us, whether positively or negatively, with our words. His findings also highlighted that simple acts of friendship, kindness, community, and encouragement are critically important in people’s lives.

While dealing with both the horrific past experiences and current realities of his patients, the author maintained hope and an uncompromising ethic of human dignity. Van der Kolk’s compassion and patience with those he helps and his work are inspiring. He attributed his mindset to his “great teacher,” Elvin Semrad. He described a formative experience with Semrad during his education. “I remember asking him once: ‘What would you call this patient—schizophrenic or schizoaffective?’ He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. ‘I think I’d call him Michael McIntyre,’ he replied.” This reflects a biblical ethic of seeing and treating human beings according to their intrinsic, God-given worth, no matter their current mental and physical condition.

New practices

The greater awareness of trauma I gained through reading this book has shaped my ministry in the local church forever. I have changed how I situate myself and engage in group settings. I have a new focus on considering social conditions to make people feel safe, as well as a cautious awareness related to physical touch. I have lowered my expectations of participation in discussions, recognizing how difficult it is for some people to contribute. I also now believe understanding the deep physical and psychological effects of trauma is critical to helping others finding healing and freedom from shame. I have a desire to be more patient with others, as well as with myself.

Personally, van der Kolk’s research gave me a sense of permission to acknowledge how the experiences of my life, although not acute acts of trauma, do affect me, even in my physical body. My husband and I have ministered to people during the most difficult days of their lives as a part of local church ministry. The Body Keeps the Score helped me to articulate those experiences, understand the reality of the impact they had on me, and prioritize my own healing. This book was an encouragement for me to care for my body and my mind in more holistic ways. I am now convinced of the importance of physical activities such as exercise, breathing, and walking for my mental health. I see these as gifts from God, given to strengthen and equip me for ministry. 

The Body Keeps the Score influenced many areas of my life. It opened the door for conversation that day with a new friend in a God-orchestrated way that I will never forget. It gave me a vocabulary and awareness of trauma that has allowed me to discuss difficult things with friends and family in a new way. I pray that many Christians will read this book. I recommend it to everyone I know, but especially those who seek to disciple and minister to others. To love our neighbors well, we must have this holistic understanding of the way God made us, body and soul, and the way our experiences in this life shape us. 

By / Feb 9

The Super Bowl ads this year were a mixed bag. From Ashton Kutcher’s embarrassing Cheetos ad featuring Shaggy, to the ode to oat milk—2021 will not necessarily go down in the history books as a year for great marketing. Then again, I don’t envy the position advertising agencies were in this year. It’s hard to convince Americans to go out and buy much of anything in a year when there has been so much turmoil. 

And then, all of the sudden, there was a cinematic moment. A girl with two legs amputated below the knee, swimming in a pool that seemed to stretch to all corners of the globe, “inception” style. I couldn’t quite hear over the chatter where I was watching the game. But even still, the hypnotic sound of water, the athlete swimming laps, the glimmering blue wake, all caught my attention. There was a family, a phone call, and a smile. I wondered, still unable to hear clearly — did I just see what I think I saw? An ad about adoption? 

I re-watched the ad when I got home, and it brought tears to my eyes. Toyota chose to tell the story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, whose adoption from Russia brought her to America, and the family that helped her blossom.

This time last year, my husband and I were busy packing the car. Bottles? Check. Diapers? Check. A few good onesies, a blanket, a noise machine? Got ’em. Having been through the adoption process once before with our first son in 2017, we tried to maintain a sense of composure, and open-handedness about the future. Expectant mothers who have made an adoption plan retain the unquestioned right to change their minds and parent the baby. We planned to drive eight hours west, to Kansas City, knowing full well that we may return home with nothing more than a few hundred additional miles on our car’s speedometer. 

A few days later, a little boy was born, surrounded by a massive biological family that loves him. His biological mother didn’t give him to us; she asked us to give ourselves to him. (Read that again. The distinction is important.)

Watching the Toyota ad, I felt a surge of fear and anxiety, too. Because no matter how heartwarming I found the ad to be, there are plenty of people who oppose adoption, and who would use this ad to make predictable accusations. I hope I am wrong. But as I opened the internet this morning, I braced for the worst. 

Adoptive families have been accused of having a savior complex. Of participating in the trafficking of children. Of using their money to adopt, rather than using their money to support a single mother. Of participating in harmful trans-racial adoptions. Of using their adopted children as “props”. When adoption stories are hailed as “heartwarming,” nay-sayers often say that the story is minimizing the trauma that occurs within an adoption. 

To be fair, not every adoption story is one of triumph over adversity, like Jessica’s. There are plenty of horror stories — adoptions gone wrong, unethical agencies, etc. Those stories are prevalent and often garner plenty of attention. And I will be the first to say that it is essential to continue to regulate adoption both domestically and internationally to keep abuse and corruption to absolute zero. But for every awful adoption story, there are an untold number of faithful families doing the diligent, daily work of raising children and providing a stable, loving home where otherwise there was none.

No glossy advertisement will ever be able to make up for the trauma Jessica Long experienced, or the waves of challenges and heartache that her family — both her biological and adoptive families — have suffered. The waters she swims through are full of trauma just as much as triumph.

But we cannot as a society allow trauma to be a defining factor of our identity, and therefore rob us — or our children — of the dignity of future possibility. The future of hope. We should never let the fear of being accused of having a savior complex keep us from imitating Jesus. Critics may say we are “virtue signaling.” Let us go on living with virtue. 

I appreciate Toyota’s choice to create a beautiful depiction of hope in the face of adversity. It is a reminder that all children deserve a family that loves and supports them. No matter the challenges or traumas they’ve faced. 

It is a reminder that cynics — the critics — will never win, when compared to the great good of answering the call.

This article originally appeared in the author’s newsletter

By / Mar 17

Diane Langberg shares some ways the church can help those who have experienced trauma.

By / Nov 26

Diane Langberg discusses trauma, and how can we learn more about it.