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Spiritual Boundaries: Internalizing the Trinity
In previous posts on how the Trinity heals the trauma of spiritual abuse I adapted Shannon Thomas’ stages of healing from psychological abuse (see especially Awakened by the Father, and Spiritual Despair). In this post we will explore the need for the growth of internal boundaries through the distinct work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel and epistles of John.
The fourth of Shannon Thomas’ stages in Healing from Hidden Abuse is the formation of boundaries, a critical component for spiritual abuse survivors. Boundaries are a form of protection that limit ongoing harm from a toxic individual, family or community. They are highly unique and individual, not one-size-fits-all. The healing journey includes progressively greater acts of empowerment and agency, and as Thomas explains, this is often where survivors get paralyzed.
“They don’t know where to go from this point. They have enough knowledge to recognize they need to do something big with their situation, but the options completely intimidate them. I have watched some survivors run back to their abusers and try to pretend they don’t know it is a harmful environment. Denial is a powerful human component that cannot be ignored in the context of psychological abuse.”1
While boundaries have a necessary external aspect, they must also be internal. Nowhere is this so desperately needed as in healing from spiritual abuse. Why? Because the supposed internalized good in the spiritual voice of shepherds and faith communities turns toxic (or is gradually realized as toxic). It is the synagogue leader — the reputable man, the teacher upheld as worthy of imitation — it is his voice that “will put you out of the synagogues…think[ing] he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).
This kind of damage strikes at the deepest core of personhood. I believe John gives us important teaching about the Trinity and the kind of divine grace needed for such trauma. To better understand that, we will consider a psychological concept to help us understand the process of internalization.
Bringing the Outside In
Our knowledge of God is analogical, and one of the central analogies John uses to bridge our human experience to knowledge of God is family, and specifically parenthood.
As explained by various schools of psychology, including psychoanalytic, object relations, attachment, self psychology, and social cognition, human development includes a central dynamic process that moves from external to internal. While this quote from Dan Siegel is originally a question, I believe it works as a statement:
“[C]hildren’s early relationship experiences with contingent communication and reflective dialogue facilitate the development of an ‘internal voice’ that addresses the self from a third-person perspective and helps integrate a sense of coherence…[similar to] the internalization of interpersonal dialogue, as Lev Vygotsky has suggested.”2
To use a concrete example, our son has been on a rough journey the past few years, including being at a new school this year. His therapist encouraged him to practice telling himself, “I’m Judah Hann and I can do hard things.” This started as an external statement, stated by both the therapist and my wife and I. He is gradually internalizing this, with hope that over time he comes to hear this as his own voice. What started as a mere echo of the voices of his therapist and parents becomes an integrated belief leading to confident courage.
This process, ingrained into the very structure and function of parent-child relationships (and to a lesser degree many human relationships), is a helpful analogue for daughters and sons of God. Indeed, this dynamic is only present in human relationships because it images the inner family of the Triune God.
“God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One in Many and the Many in One, is disclosed in Scripture as the Family of God. God is the Original, creation is the copy; God is the fundamental Theme, creation reverberates with variations on the theme.”3
Read in this light, Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room Discourse of John 14-17 gives great comfort for survivors of church trauma. The Spirit listens to the voice of Jesus and carries his words close to the children of the Father.
The Ideal Teacher for Trauma Survivors
Jesus tells his disciples multiple times that he is leaving them. And yet at the same time he says,
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:18-20).
How is it that Christians will be brought in to such intimate connection to the Father and the Son? By the sending of the Spirit. Jesus prepared his disciples for a transition from an external physical relationship, to an internal spiritual relationship. The movement from the Son’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension prepared the way for the sending of the Spirit, whose work is characterized by interiority:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
Not only does he bring God’s presence within believers, he takes the external voice of the Son and teaches it in an internalizing way:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
While many commentators focus here on the Spirit’s work inspiring the apostolic testimony of Scripture, surely there is more going on here.4 John uses the same word for “bring to remembrance” in 1 John 3:10 where he says he will “call attention to what [Diotrephes] is doing” (NIV). The Spirit “calls attention” to all that Jesus said. More than mere mental focus, the Spirit helps believes dwell mindfully on the Word of God. As spiritual abuse survivors can testify, that is often a very difficult activity.
Anointed Teacher for Anguished Questions
When read through the lens of spiritual trauma, it strikes me that the Holy Spirit’s interior teaching work is also expressed in the context of false religion, toxic soil that feeds abusive leaders. We see this Spirit-internalized teaching in 1 John 2:20-27 where the Spirit — that is, “his anointing” — bestows confident knowledge which protects from deceptive teachers.
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:20, 26-27).
In John 16:13, just after the passage mentioned near the beginning of this reflection about excommunication from synagogues, Jesus says,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).
Jesus’ promise that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth”, is a much needed ministry in the face of abuse by religious leaders. This harm creates questions about religion itself that cut to the core of one’s heart:
Whose voice do I listen to?
Whose voice is true?
What does God say about what happened to me?
What does God say about me?
The Spirit is uniquely intent on healing these cognitive wounds inflicted by false teachers, whether they be false in doctrine or false in life. Indeed, false doctrine and false life in teachers are both damaging, and both lead to painful questions. John gives us a helpful example in the story of the man born blind. As we’ve studied before, in John 9:28 the religious leaders “reviled” the man, and in 9:34 they said to him, “you were born in utter sin.” This is verbal and spiritual abuse. How could this not lead the man to wonder if those things were true, apart from the intervention of the Good Shepherd?
Harmful words have a way of worming into our minds like an earworm, a song that drives you insane because you can’t get it out of your head. They attach, they leech, they poison, and at their deepest level, they start sounding like our own voice. It may start with the angry yell of an abuser saying, “You’re worthless! No one will love you!” But unhealed, we start saying the same to ourself. We internalize that external voice to the point of identifying with it.
In the psychoanalytic school of psychology, this internalization process moves through three stages:
incorporation: non-differentiated enmeshment with aspects of an Other5;
introjection: forming an introject or internal object of an Other, a more stable but still separate representation, like being able to have an imagined conversation with a parent/mentor/spouse/pastor/counselor in a stressful situation;
identification: “the most mature and deepest form of other-internalization and involves an alteration of one’s self-representation, so that it resembles the Other.”6
Eric Johnson describes this process from a Christian theological perspective as “the internalization of a healing, deepening relationship with the God of Scripture.”7 The Trinity knew that his children would struggle as long as his Word remains on the outside. While the public reading of the Word of God is indeed sharp and potent, spiritual abuse survivors need something more. They need the voice of the Good Shepherd in Scripture coming to them directly by the Spirit, sometimes even apart from any human voice for a season. All they need to do is abide:
But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him (1 John 2:27).
There is no prescribing what this abiding should look like.
Sometimes it might be a desperate prayer: “Am I truly a son or daughter? After what your representative did to me, that really feels like a lie. Can you help me know that is true and no lie?”
There is meditation, prayerful chewing on the Word, which I’ve written about here (and part of a longer series). “Meditative prayer is the closes actual approximation to trinitarian communion human beings can have.”8
There is centering prayer, taking a single word and using that as an anchor for 10-20 minutes. Maybe one word is all a survivor can swallow.
Speaking of swallowing, there is the abiding of the Lord’s Supper, allowing the Spirit to nourish us with the body and blood of Christ.
There is singing, lament, crying the anguished questions of the Psalms.
There is simply listening in silence.
Underneath all those means and modes of abiding is the promise of our Shepherd:
But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:4-7).
While it would be wrong to transpose the “advantage” of Jesus’ physical absence onto the experience of spiritual abuse, I believe there is an analogous connection. Like the disciples being dependent on the physical presence and voice of Jesus, Christians experience disorientation from spiritual abuse because of the disconnection it forms with teachers, mentors, and church communities. The trusted voices are no longer trustworthy and no longer present for nourishing edification. When that happens, it is natural and good to search for safe shepherds who will teach and feed the Word. But the teacher that spiritual abuse survivors most need is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, with whom they have a distinct, unique relationship. He teaches only what he hears from the Son, and nothing else. No mixture of pride, seeking self and glory, no manipulation, no lies or deceit. Only God’s beauty, goodness, and truth.
Quote from Joshua Cockayne, Scott Harrower, and Preston Hill9
Quite often people try to push their own agenda, and have their ways with others, sometimes violently and at other times subtly. It is hard to say “no” and maintain appropriate boundaries with others, especially when there is a power imbalance in the relationship. One of the main ways by which God helps us establish and maintain healthy and life-giving boundaries with others is by fortifying us from the inside out. Though we may feel hollowed out and worn away by trauma, Christ the King dwells in us by the Spirit. Jesus’ spiritual presence inside us is also a living force, full of his vital energy and influence. With Jesus’ life within, survivors are not alone as we try to maintain boundary and integrity with other people.
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Healing from Hidden Abuse, p. 127.
The Developing Mind, 2nd Ed., p. 366.
Royce Gordon Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John: A Thematic Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 11.
The easy proof for this is 1 John 2:27 (see below) which includes the phrase “teaches you about everything,” very similar to John 14:26, “teach you all things.”
A common metaphor for incorporation is eating, ingesting an Other. While this is considered a primitive form of interpersonal internalization, it’s striking that Christians actually practice this symbolically in the Lord’s Supper. Could there be a connection?
Eric Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care, p. 514.
Foundations, p. 513.
Foundations, p. 514.
Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches, p. 71-72.