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The Holy Spirit’s Healing for Spiritual Abuse
“God intends the believer’s devotional life to be boldly tri-personal in its shape.” So writes Dan Peters in his master’s thesis Communion and the Trinity: distinct relations with Father, Son and Spirit. Paraphrasing a bold statement from Donald Macleod, Peters explores the reality that Christians have “a relationship with each person of the Trinity which they [do] not have with the other persons of the Trinity.”
If a believer’s devotional life is intended to be “boldly tri-personal in its shape,” it follows that soul care and healing should be as well. Continuing last week’s newsletter, I want to explore what it might look like to encourage distinct communion with Father, Son and Spirit for those who have endured spiritual abuse. In this and the following 2 weeks, we will do this by reflecting on some Trinitarian aspects of chapter 10 of the Gospel of John (which I have previously explored to define spiritual abuse and Christ’s response as the Good Shepherd to institutional religious abuse).
Trinitarian meditations usually follow the biblical and creedal flow of Father, Son and Spirit. I want to try something different here and start with the Holy Spirit and his role in addressing one of the deepest wounds of church abuse exemplified in John 9:34-35 where the healed blind man was “cast out” by the Jewish leaders.
Timothy Patitsas has said that “trauma is a deep excommunication, and thus the unraveling of your very being, which is constituted only through interpersonal communion.” We can try and unpack this description conceptually, but trauma survivors know what I’m talking about. If this is true of trauma generally, how much more so when the wounds of trauma are inflicted by the church? When church is intended to be God’s family, the organism in which our new selves are constituted in communion with brothers and sisters through union with Christ, what happens when that communion is shattered by institutional betrayal? It is a communal shunning and a shattering of self. Or as Patitsas writes elsewhere, “trauma is essentially an ‘unknowing’…Knowledge of the other is cut off and prevented, because the union has been torn. With this separation, the other becomes something apart. The soul is isolated, and no longer knows even itself.”
Understanding this aspect of trauma made these words from Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse stand out:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15)
In other words, re-knowing, re-communing, is part of God’s healing work for the spiritually abused who have been unknown by the community of faith.
While we could reflect on the roles of Father and Son in this healing re-knowing, I believe we are invited to see the Spirit’s work here as well. How is that, you ask? It’s in the little phrase “just as”, which invites us to ask how the reciprocal relating of Jesus and his sheep resembles the reciprocal relating of Father and Son. Of course, that requires a second question: how do Father and Son know each other?
Whether we look at the eternal intra-trinitarian life of Father and Son, or the Son’s human knowing of and being known by the Father, in the middle of that knowing is the Holy Spirit. In what theologians call the immanent Trinity, God in himself, the Father’s knowledge of the Son, and the Son’s knowledge of the Father, is so infinitely, blissfully full, that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son in their eternal mutual understanding and love. Amazingly, the Son assumed our human nature and lived a created life of Spirit-filled faith in the Father. Whether in heaven or on earth, the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father in the fulness of the Spirit. This is why part of the mission of the Spirit is bringing God’s people into fuller knowledge of, and being known by, God:
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 ; cf John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:10-14; 1 John 2:20, 27).
What does the Spirit of truth work within us from his indwelling presence? Or more to the point of this reflection, how does the Spirit of truth work within us? By doing what he does as the Spirit of God. He is the one who proceeds from the reciprocal knowing of Father and Son, the one among the divine persons for whom “fellowship” is the most appropriate designation of grace (2 Cor 13:14). The Spirit brings God’s children into the joyous, knowing fellowship of Father and Son. And for spiritual abuse survivors, that is a ministry of re-knowing that heals traumatic unknowing. To see this a bit more clearly, we end with a brief look at Romans 8:26-27 in light of John 10:14-15.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Here we can see the similar themes of Spirit, knowing, as well as bringing the unknown into the known. A large component of trauma healing requires speaking the unspeakable. That is a work which God’s Spirit is uniquely eager to help. He does that not simply by giving words where we have none (although that is a deep grace), but also by bringing those who have been unknown by spiritual abuse into the safe knowing of the Trinity.
In God’s grace and timing, the Triune fellowship which the Spirit brings to survivors is also fellowship with the other sheep in God’s flock (John 10:16; 1 John 1:3). But that is not the emphasis here from the Good Shepherd for those wrongfully cast out by the church. The deeper grace is God himself, knowing and being known by Father and Son in the Spirit.
If you have been harmed and cast out by those you thought were shepherds, Jesus wants you to know so much more than just himself as your Good Shepherd. He also wants you to know the Spirit of Truth, who, although he may be the “shy member of the Trinity” as Sinclair Ferguson has put it, is nevertheless to be known and worshipped as God. And that means the Spirit wants a relationship with you, a relationship where he can bring you back into the fold of God’s love and show you how deeply you are seen and known by the Father and by his Son Jesus Christ. It is a being seen and known greater than any traumatic unknowing you have suffered.
Quote from Hilary of Poitiers
“Let us therefore make use of this great benefit, and seek for personal experience of this most needful Gift [the Holy Spirit]. For the Apostle says, in words I have already cited, “But we have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is of God, that we may know the things that are given unto us by God.” We receive Him, then, that we may know...This Gift is with us unto the end of the world, the solace of our waiting, the assurance, by the favours which He bestows, of the hope that shall be ours, the light of our minds, the sun of our souls. This Holy Spirit we must seek and must earn, and then hold fast by faith and obedience to the commands of God.”
How do you invite the Spirit to pour out God’s welcoming, re-knowing love within you? Perhaps it’s a time of prayer, or writing, or walking in nature. Would you take some time this week to “seek for personal experience of this most needful Gift”?