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Biblically Informed Trauma Care

The concept of trauma is not foreign to the pages of Scripture. God is the one that provides healing, hope, and comfort.

Apr 4, 2022

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I am joined with Dr. John Babler. He has taught biblical counseling for about 30 years, and other related classes at the Seminary level. He’s a longtime faculty member at Southwestern Seminary. Now he has helped to grow the program at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m so excited about his work there. He’s been an ACBC member for many, many years. He serves actually on our Board of Trustees. He’s one of our fellows, and he has served in a lot of different capacities. One of the things I love about John Babler is, he has demonstrated that biblical counseling works in places of missional extent. He’s been a fire chaplain and he has witnessed biblical counseling work. He has been a police chaplain. He has witnessed biblical counseling work in those capacities in a missional, evangelistic way, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Dr. Babler, I’m grateful that you’re here with us to talk about this really important topic of trauma. 

John Babler: Thank you, Dr. Johnson. It’s my privilege to continue to address issues that will take biblical counseling out of the counseling room and into the community. 

Dale Johnson: The first thing I want to talk about is crisis counseling. You’ve written a book on this, Biblical Crisis Counseling: Not If, But When. Crisis counseling is something that you’ve been involved in for a lot of years, certainly in the church. You have lots of experience. You tell some stories in that book, actually. Then, as I mentioned, outside in your chaplaincy roles in both fire and police as well.

I want to talk about the issue of crisis counseling, how we think about it, and why is this important for biblical counselors who don’t specialize in crisis situations? How do they prepare to counsel those who are in crisis, because those things happen on a regular basis all around us? 

John Babler: They do happen on a regular basis, and one of the reasons I believe it’s so important for us, as biblical counselors, to be prepared and able to minister to people in crisis is that people in crisis are open to spiritual things. Crisis frequently revolves around a life-and-death type issue and they’re very open to dealing with those types of situations. I remember over 30 years ago when I was involved in hospice, and when I left hospice to teach at the seminary I realized something was missing. What I realized was missing was relationships that developed very quickly, because in the midst of hospice, when you’re dealing with life and death, I believe that the question people had in regards to a relationship with me is, could they trust me? If they concluded they could then, well, we’re dealing with life and death, and so I’d be in deeper relationships with people I’d known for a few months than people I’d known for years. So, one of the great opportunities is that people in crisis are open to spiritual things and we can often, much more quickly, move into a significant relationship.

Another thing that I think is important is that crises often come to us. While I have had opportunities to go to crisis situations, crises often come to us, and we know that from experience. There was a church in the Fort Worth area where a youth pastor went out because he heard an accident that had occurred in front of his house, and as he was trying to attend to the injured there, a pickup truck full of drunk teenagers came over the hill and struck him and killed him. That was a crisis that was brought to that church. Another Sunday evening, a mother and her young child were making the left turn into a church and were rear-ended, and both of them were killed literally in the driveway entrance to the church. So, crisis often comes to us, and if we would just look around us right now in the midst of COVID, we’d recognize what a great, I would argue, opportunity we have. We need to be good stewards of the ongoing crisis that is occurring around us through COVID-19. 

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right. As we think about crisis care, I mean, we’re mentioning opportunities to do this care, we would say, you know, “in the field, outside of the local church.” That doesn’t negate what we describe in biblical counseling as biblical counseling operating under the authority of the local church. I mean, Jesus tells us to go and as we’re going, that we make disciples. This is a part of what we encounter when we’re out in the world. We encounter these types of crisis situations. I want you to talk a little bit about crisis care because that’s been something that has evolved to some degree over time. Certainly in the secular world, as we deal with it as biblical counselors, we need to talk about how you’ve seen some of those concepts around crisis counseling and care change in some of the more recent years. 

John Babler: I think one of the most prominent changes I’ve seen is that there’s just a lot more recognition in the broader culture, as well as in the helping professions, of the significance and importance of crisis. In the midst of that as well is that recognition has grown, and there are a number of contextual factors as to why it has grown. But in the midst of that, there has kind of been a shift in the field from focusing on crisis to focusing more on trauma. So, while crisis intervention and crisis counseling, 20 years ago, would have been the terms of the day in the helping professions, now the terms are trauma care or trauma-informed care, and trauma-informed counseling. So there’s been a shift in regards to language and focus, and part of that just comes from the recognition of the significance of how traumatic events not only have a significant initial impact, but often have an ongoing impact on the person suffering from the situation as well. 

Dale Johnson: Now that’s significant and I want to make sure that we come back to that to mention this idea of trauma-informed counseling. That’s certainly been a buzzword in recent years and even some of the effects that you just described, I think, are critical and important as we do think about long-term care, that when we are impacted by some sort of form of crises or trauma, we do deal with those things in more of a long-term basis.

I want to get back to that, but first I want to just ask a personal question about some of your first exposures. You know, you don’t often just sign up to be a crisis counselor and think, man, I really love being in these scenarios and I think I want to go pursue a degree or a profession in crisis counseling. Talk about some of your first exposure and what brought you into that world and your experiences early on in crisis care.

John Babler: I think, like a lot of people, God develops our call around things that happen to us, or at least we may be able to see that a little more clearly. So, for me, the personal experience began with death within my family. My oldest brother was killed in a motorcycle wreck when I was 17 and was buried on his 25th birthday. Then ten years after that, my other brother died of an accidental poisoning. Two years after that, my mom died after having fought cancer for a number of years. So, death within my family of origin, well, pretty much wiped it out early in my life, but it was in the midst of teaching at seminary when I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot of lost people. That’s what God used to draw me into becoming a fire chaplain, working as a volunteer firefighter and chaplain for the department in the community in which I lived.

There was an incident where three firefighters were killed in a church fire in Fort Worth and one of them was the adult son of one of the ministers I was on staff with at the church in Fort Worth. He was also one of my daughter’s Sunday school teachers. Our church hosted those funerals and I helped be a liaison in that context. I made contacts and got to know the Fort Worth fire chaplain and talked to our chief. So I ended up becoming a chaplain as well. It wasn’t too many months after that when, on a Wednesday night that I had actually cleared my schedule for the next week, I thought because John MacArthur was doing a pastor’s Shepherd’s Conference in the area. It was on a Wednesday night in 1999, September 15th, that the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting occurred. That was literally five minutes from the seminary campus. It was 10 minutes from where I was that night, and I was able to respond as a fire chaplain. In the midst of that shooting, seven were killed. Seven were wounded in the midst of a See You At The Pole rally there at Wedgwood Baptist Church. The gunmen also took his own life that evening as well. Because I was a fire chaplain, I was able to actually get into the situation. A lot of pastors were standing outside saying, if there’s anything we can do, we want to help, but I had a credential and a badge that allowed me access. The first person I talked to was a former firefighter. He and his family were members at Wedgewood and he and his engine crew were the second on engine to the situation. His daughter was sitting next to him and he shared with me and he said, “I’m coming to this and it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever prayed, ‘God I hope my daughter didn’t go to church tonight.'” He said, “And when I got there, I couldn’t find her,” and he said, “So I went around and looked at all the bodies to see if one of them was hers.” It wasn’t, but as I just sat there listening to him, praying with him and his daughter, and making sure that he had communicated effectively with his wife, the significance of that type of trauma and impact was just huge. I’d been on fire calls before, but I’d never been on a call where I would have reflected on the way to the call, I really hope somebody’s not here. I hope my daughter’s not at church tonight. So that was the beginning of my introduction to the more dramatic trauma situations.

In addition to Wedgewood, I had the opportunity to respond to the Virginia Tech shooting and then the Santa Fe High School shooting. So, I’ve had had opportunities to do that as well as a number of not active crime situations, but weather events, Hurricane Katrina, those types of things. The Wedgewood Baptist Church shooting was my introduction to significant trauma response. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think that’s definitely taught you a lot. You know, you and I used to be colleagues at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, and I learned so much from you about crisis care and crisis intervention, and how to deal with those situations and really make the most impact when people are asking those types of spiritual questions. Now, I want to return back to something that you mentioned earlier about crisis intervention, crisis care, and now how the terminology is sort of shifted into what’s called trauma-informed counseling.

Let’s define that. Let’s talk about what that is. What exactly is trauma-informed care? 

John Babler: Well, trauma-informed care is rooted in the context of the greater recognition that I mentioned earlier of the existence and the significance of trauma. I believe most of that has come on the heels of 9/11 and repeated searing images and videos hour after hour, day after day, for such a time, and then our involvement in war that went on for so long and the stories that were told, and just the significant impact. The number of people that came back from the wars that had been impacted by that was very significant. With a growing number of people in the caring helping professions, specifically in chaplaincy and mental health care in the military, and then of course the emergency services with first responders as well, those emphases began to grow.

So trauma, first of all, can be defined–There’s a resource I use quite a bit from the Crisis Prevention Institute, Trauma-informed Care Resources Guide. Briefly, they define trauma as an event or series of events, an experience or prolonged experiences, and or a threat or perceived threats to a person’s well-being. The individual’s daily coping mechanisms can be negatively impacted by trauma. Subsequent behavioral responses to daily life may be filtered through this perspective. I think that’s key. It’s like the trauma becomes a pair of glasses that people put on after the trauma and they look at so many things through that filter. Then coming out of that, trauma-informed care is a framework of thinking and interventions that are directed by a thorough understanding of the profound neurological, biological, psychological and social effects trauma has on an individual, recognizing that person’s constant interdependent needs for safety connections and ways to manage emotions and impulses. Then finally kind of wrapped up in that would be the idea of triggers, signals that act as signs of possible danger based on historical traumatic experiences and which lead to a set of emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses that arise in the service of survival and safety, sights, sounds, smells, and touches for example.

Triggers are all about one’s perceptions experienced as reality. The mind-body connection sets in motion a fight, flight, or freeze response. A triggered individual experiences fear, panic, upset, agitation in contexts and situations where that would not be considered normal. So that’s just a very brief overview of focus. The idea of trauma-informed care, ultimately, desires to put a context or situation together where the person who has been traumatized is not re-traumatized through the counseling or the provision of care. So that would be the emphasis of that secular concept of trauma-informed care. 

Dale Johnson: I think that’s important. One of the things that I would be concerned about with some of that language would not be a denial of a person’s experiences, but sometimes the way that their identity becomes rooted in that trauma. So the issue of suffering is a reality in the cursed world that we live in and we all despise it. We hate it. I think we should learn to hate those things which are ultimately caused and impact us by sin, but the reality is, suffering does impact us. Trauma does impact us. We as biblical counselors need to respond appropriately without building some victim mentality or identity that’s associated with this trauma and without minimizing its impact on our lives.

So, how do biblical counselors help those who are struggling with significant trauma, the issues that they’ve dealt with, or the experiences that they’ve had that have ongoing and lingering effects? How do biblical counselors address that? 

John Babler: When you look at and begin to study in this arena, you see that a lot of people have put a lot of focus and energy, and time and money, into understanding trauma and how to address and deal with their many, many ways that the world says that it’s important or vital to respond. Many, again, chaplains, military folks, and others would say that you have to have trauma-informed care. They wouldn’t refer someone to anyone else unless they were trauma-informed. So one of the first things I think it’s important for us as biblical counselors to realize is that we don’t need to be intimidated by the world’s wisdom. We don’t need to be intimidated by that emphasis on that material.

The concept of trauma is not foreign to the pages of Scripture. Trauma does not find its way just into modern culture, but we recognize that trauma is in Scripture as well. So, one of the things I would argue we need to do is go back to basics and recognize that the Bible is sufficient for counseling and ministering to people, even those who have experienced trauma that we can’t even begin to comprehend or imagine. God is the one that provides healing. He provides hope and we are frequently given the opportunity to be a part of His providing of that healing and hope and comfort.

We need to recognize that we indeed are competent, not because of our knowledge of trauma or because of our experience of trauma, or because of a certain technique, but because of God within us, because of the Word that He has given us, because of the fact that the Holy Spirit is with us. So we shouldn’t be intimidated, and ultimately, as we think about ministering to people in trauma, I would say it should foundationally start with relationship. God first. Jesus said the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Others second. So as we deal with people who are in trauma, who again, like you said, often are encouraged by the world to find their identity in that, often in the midst of finding their identity in that they are isolated from relationships. They’re isolated from God. They’re isolated from people who care and are concerned. So we have the opportunity to help them address and deal with those issues with Scripture, with God’s help, in the midst of commitment.

One of the challenges about ministering to people in trauma who are dealing with traumatic issues is that it’s hard work. It’s not convenient. Challenges can happen at the most inconvenient times for us as counselors. So, I think one of the things that we need to do too is make a commitment to be wise in the use of our time, but to recognize that people dealing with trauma are frequently going to require more than just a one hour a week counseling time. We might need to focus on having the opportunity to involve others in ministering to them as well. 

Dale Johnson: I love this. I think it’s so helpful for us to continue thinking in this direction. For us, especially those who serve in ministry full time, I mean, you’re going to be exposed consistently to this type of crisis situation and just to understand what our role and responsibility is and what opportunity we have to have these types of spiritual discussions, to not be intimidated because of the sufficient Word that we have to minister to the deep hurts and problems that people face.

Dr. Babler, thanks for sharing some of your expertise. You’ll be able to find a recommendation to his book, Biblical Counseling Crisis: Not If But When. It talks about crisis counseling and trauma as well. So make sure to go check that out as well. Dr. Babler, thank you.


Helpful Resources

Biblical Counseling Crisis: Not If But When by Dr. John Babler