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God’s Grace Through PTSD

Truth in Love 437

How should biblical counselors minister the sufficient Word for hard cases such as PTSD?

Oct 23, 2023

Dale Johnson: We wanted to continue our conversation with pastor Matt Statler. He’s been the teaching elder at Sierra Vista Baptist Church since September 1 of 2019. I want to remind you he was raised in Senegal Africa, his parents were missionaries. He was exposed to the gospel early in life, God drew him at a very early age and he committed his life to Christ. He attended a missionary school there in the capital city of Dakar and he graduated in 2003. He joined The Army as a Cavalry Scout and was deployed to Iraq for four tours. Eventually, he was medically retired from the Army after 10 years told you last week about his education several degrees: a bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, an MDiv of Biblical Counseling concentration from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2019, he’s been certified with ACBC since June 1st, he’s married to Jessica, been married to her for 12 years and they are blessed with four children Edward, Silas, Charlotte and Samuel.

Last week, we were talking specifically about your story and we walked through some of the details of that story. I would encourage all of you as listeners to go back and hear that story; that’s the context of our conversation moving forward. But I want to give you just a second to give an overview of where the Lord brought you, how He brought you to the place of biblical counseling, some of the scars and even use the word shrapnel that was thrown around in your life from last week. Talk a little about that and then I want to talk about your experiences now, leading biblical counseling and doing biblical counseling.

Matthew Statler: Thanks again for having me Dale. It’s been really a pleasure to share this. It started out, I joined the Army and went through some difficult times. It was during some of the intense conflict in Iraq and that led to my response to the loss of my dad and the loss of friends and buddies and just the wartime stressors. I just started to drink and started to become more and more selfish, angry, had temper issues and was just a very miserable person to be around. My wife finally told me to get help. I jumped into the medical model that the Army offers, which is interesting. They’re big on science, but there’s a heavy dose of mysticism and Eastern medicine thrown in, so yoga, acupuncture, and some of that. I jumped into it all, I wanted to get better. My wife and I were not really tethered to any kind of local assembly and eventually the Army decided to medically retire me and as I went through the process of getting out, I started seeking what I should do. I turned to exercise science at UMHB and as I was going there, they made me get into the Bible. As I was getting through the Bible, the Lord just began to convict through His spirit and just started softening the heart of stone that I had developed. Through that process, I began to confess, repent and just turn away from these self-centered directions that I had been pursuing. I began apologizing to my wife and putting on and putting off, turning away from all that. The Lord got me into some good programs with men that loved Jesus and were veterans and were committed to the sufficiency of Scripture, that’s really where things change.

Dale Johnson: Last week, you told that you got involved in biblical counseling and even in comparison to all the things that the Army had prescribed for you in the different types of therapies, biblical counseling began to change your life. You saw the sufficiency of Scripture in a radically different way. You even talked a little bit about the changes that your wife was able to see in you, specifically, from the work of the Word in your heart and life. That’s been a motivation to you. You now serve ACBC as one of our training centers out there in Arizona. Talk a little bit about why, after all that the Lord used in your life, why are you involved in biblical counseling. Why are you still convinced, out of all these popular therapies, that biblical counseling actually works?

Matt: This is a topic that is so dear and near to my heart, I came to this church in 2019 and there were 16 people, mostly in their 70s and 80s. I began to preach the word, I really sought to revitalize this congregation. As I was doing that, I began to open up to the Community Counseling, we’re near a military base. Fort Huachuca is right here and a lot of guys who were suffering began to reach out. The beautiful thing is this is not something that their chain of command would be involved with, so that would not be a mark on their record. If they went to mental health, it could say something to their chain of command, but they come to me and they get pastoral care. It’s different. We’re a Certified Training Center now and offer some limited observation and we’re really working to expand that.

But I’m so involved in biblical counseling ministry because I think God has called me to the ministry of the Word, both in its public and its private or personal nature. And I just want to be obedient to the Lord. I think I would add that there’s a massive benefit to revitalization, and biblical counseling is a force multiplier. I have seen most of the people in our congregation now, we’ve really significantly grown. We’re seeing quite a few here and it’s because they came through the counseling. They’ve become convinced of the sufficiency themselves and are now involved in learning biblical counseling and seeking to help. We’ve almost carved out a niche here in our area as a church that seeks to care for people with difficult issues. Preaching and counseling they just benefit each other. I believe my preaching is much better because of my counseling. I think my counseling is better because of my preaching. I really can’t imagine not doing both. We’re just so convinced that the Scripture is sufficient for all types of cases, regardless of what the world labels them as “the hard cases.”

Dale Johnson: You’re walking testimony of that very thing. As I think about your story, how has your experience with biblical counseling shaped the way that you now counsel? What does that look like in the counseling room? How has your experience benefited the way you offer counsel now?

Matthew Statler: Psalm 119: 71 says, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” Without that, I don’t think there’s any hope, so it was good that I was afflicted. The first thing that I’ve noticed, having experienced war, is there’s this credibility that is already in place when people come to me for counsel. When I was going through what I did, I didn’t want to listen to what other people had to say, unless I knew that they had had a similar experience, which is just silly if you really think about it. Soldiers do not have a corner on suffering or traumatic experiences. If there’s one thing I could share with another pastor is, don’t be scared of giving biblical wisdom to men and women who have suffered intensely. What helped me was getting into the Word and the Psalms in particular. My teachers were not even trying to help me biblically, they just were trying to fulfill the class requirement. If there’s a pastor out there who is scared of giving biblical wisdom or doesn’t know what to say, don’t be scared of that. Paul tells us, in his suffering, it was for the purpose of helping others in any trial (2 Corinthians 1). We all suffer in various ways and Christians have experienced intense suffering for 2,000 years. Of course, Christ is the example, He’s the pinnacle of suffering, so we really have a lot to offer in this area. The Bible is sufficient to help us in this.

The good news for me is I don’t have to lay the groundwork with any other veteran or first responder, so I can pick right up and we kind of joke at Mighty Oaks that this is not a hug-a-vet program but a poke-a-vet program. My counseling has adopted that a little bit, where I’m not there to just hug someone in their suffering, though that’s often very needed. But a lot of times, there’s a poking that goes. When a man is neglecting his family for the sake of his trauma, I can step in and really begin to poke him and say, “I’ve been where you’ve been and what you’re doing is hindering your sanctification.” I can pick right up with the experiences and responses to the event and just jump right in. Other people may have to go slower and really hear the story out and be able to walk more carefully with someone for a longer period, but my experience is, I can jump right in and begin to cut out some of these false notions and ideas that they’ve adopted.

Dale Johnson: I think that a really key part is you walking through that really gives you a certain type of rapport. What I want to do now is I want you to talk a little bit about how you counsel those who have experienced these same types of things. We would certainly put even these types of traumatic events that people have walked through into the categories of sin and suffering, and delineating that. But as you talk through that, how you go about counseling those who experience the same type of things that you did, I also want you to mention you know how somebody like me who isn’t a war veteran, hasn’t gone through four tours like you have, but yet we believe the sufficiency of the Word is such that I can sit down with someone who’s walk through difficulty. And so I want you to talk through that. How your experience really helps you in the counseling room, but then how others can also take the beauty of the Word for the need of the moment.

Matthew Statler: I’ll tell you one thing: I’m a pastor with a full plate and I never wanted to step into dealing with this type of stuff, the trauma, etc. However, a lot of language has come up where the guys and gals that come to me for counseling have been sold a bill of goods. They’ve tried all the secular stuff, they’re either hopeless, end of their rope and they have this victim mentality and they’re miserable in it, maybe it’s easier because I don’t have to convince them that it’s not working. I don’t have to remove the unbiblical lens that they’re looking through. I can say, “Listen, what you’re believing is hindering your sanctification.” The other thing that I found is there’s a biological component with folks. They’re on so many different types of medication it’s hard for them to pay attention because their meds are interacting with things in weird ways. Some may have traumatic brain injuries which is a physical impact of the brain and they struggle with basic cognitive tasks. The hardest thing for me is finding a medical doctor who will work with me and help me in a biblical counseling way.

When someone is presenting a problem, like those associated with post-traumatic stress, sometimes a brief definition might be helpful. The way that I’ve defined it, I think I borrowed this from Curtis Solomon and Hodges; it says, “it’s a whole person responds to intense suffering that often results in significant life disruption. Anger, fear, sadness, shame and guilt are often exhibited as a result.” So I use four horizons to navigate it. One, I look at the present. I want to gather information about their relationship to Christ, their church membership, family relationships. I want to orient them to the goal of counseling: to glorify God by walking in obedience to His Word, moving them along the process to become more like Christ, which means bringing Biblical text to reorient their own goals. 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.” The intense suffering the counselee experienced is to make them more God-dependent. That means we have to remove the disorder part of PTS, so get that “D” out of there.

Then we look at the near-past, you know, what are they doing? What responsibilities are they taking? Are they blaming others for sinful behavior? I love using Steve Viars’ 4-bucket taxonomy, Putting Your Past in Its Place. And then I look at the past event. I have them tell me a little bit about what’s going on. The main thing I want to emphasize is the past event did not cause these other things, but it’s an interpretive phenomenon, we’re interpreting the event. I’ll have them walk through the Psalms, Psalm 73, and make their own lament as they go through it. That will also help me listen to how they interpret.

And then I look at the future. I want to chart the way forward. I want to combat that perpetual victim mentality. James 1: 2-4, “As we approach post-traumatic sanctification, help believers take false thoughts captive,” and obedience to Christ, like 2 Corinthians 10 tells us. Then, of course, beholding Christ. A pastor has the equipment to do that. You can take someone to the Psalms and say, “I may not have been through war, but guess what? David has. Let me tell you how David has responded to the suffering that he’s gone through. Let me show you the good ways and bad ways. Let me take you to Psalm 51 and show you how David, when he was hiding out from war, reacted and how he had all this free time because he was being so self-centered.” Sometimes I joke and say, “It’s too bad that Nathan was not trauma-informed enough to treat David more gently, but he needed to be confronted. He said he needed to be told that you are the man.” I’ve had several conversations with pastors in our community who’ve said, “I’ve never been to war. My life has been pretty easy in comparison. How do I counsel?” And I said, “Have you ever suffered?” And the guy sitting across from me said, “Yeah, I’ve had heart attacks, I’ve had heart surgery, I’ve had three kids.” All of these things involve suffering. I said, “Well, there you go. You have experienced. How did you get the comfort from the Lord in your suffering?” And he said, “Well, I went to Philippians and I began to pray through the think-list there in Philippians.” And I said, “Well, there you go, you show them the comfort that you have received.” It doesn’t have to be a one-to-one comparison; suffering is suffering, and we know our sinful heart.

Dale Johnson: You alluded to something I think is really important in some of your buckets, the way that you’re arranging information and how you’re helping people walk through. I think for somebody like me who’s never been in wartime, it gives me some anchors to grab onto to help a person walk through several difficult things. You said something to the fact that the most important thing about a person relative to their trauma is what they think about it in the moment. It’s not the fact that some traumatic thing didn’t happen to them in their past, but how are they thinking and processing that particular event right now, in the moment? I think that’s pretty critical.

The last thing that I want you to do is we have listeners, it’s pretty wide swath. Many of our listeners are counselors, I want you to speak to them here in just a second, but I also want you to speak to the guy who’s like you in 2012 or 2013, and maybe he’s come across this particular podcast. What encouragement would you give him to go and hear what the Word has to say about his particular difficulties and where he is in life right now? Also, use that as an encouragement to our counselors and how they can minister, despite what all the world says about a trauma-informed thinking and you need to be an expert in certain areas. What do we have to offer, relative to the Word?

Matthew Statler: To the “me” in 2012, I would say the promise is in Christ we are more than conquerors. There is no longer time to do what the Gentiles did in the futility of their thoughts. And now is the time to turn to the Living Word and hear what God has to say. If what you’re doing isn’t working, it is now time to try something different. So today is the day. Turn from these empty philosophies that are not helping; they may make you feel good for a few minutes or even a few weeks, but ultimately you know that it’s all vanity. Now is the time to turn to something with substance, time to eat steak and stop eating cotton candy. That’s what I would say to the “me” in 2012 is, do what you know is right and open the Word. Get with a biblical counselor, reach out to someone like me, reach out to any of the ACBC counselors across the nation. Reach out to your pastor and if your pastor doesn’t want to help you or can’t help you, get into the ACBC website and find a counselor near you. It’s a wonderful resource for that.

To the counselors, I would say Scripture is sufficient. You don’t need man’s thoughts on the way men are to be. We don’t need secular anthropology. We need biblical anthropology. There are a lot of theories out there, there are a lot of attempted connections to the biological that are just fallacious. There’s not enough scientific evidence or information. Stick to what we know: Scripture’s sufficient and you can help someone who is experiencing these things. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes. Yes, you’re going to maybe say things that are insensitive or wrong. But one thing I know working with folks who have suffered intensely. Some of them are the most forgiving people you’ll ever meet. They will forgive you, get help from you and they know that you care.

Dale Johnson: So well said, and I’ve experienced that too. I think when you have a humble disposition and you love them well and they know, “He might not know everything I want him to know, but he loves me and he cares for me and he definitely recognizes I’m in a bad situation.” Those counselees give a lot of grace. They know I’m doing my best to apply the Word to where they are in life. That actually builds rapport with that person as well.

Helpful Resources:

Trauma-Informed Counseling Booklet by Ernie Baker

Suffering Booklet by Cheryl Bell