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The Word of God Welcomes Your Words of Spiritual Trauma
Enduring spiritual abuse, like any other form of trauma, creates a tension that Judith Herman describes painfully well:
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”1
The journey of recovery requires speaking the unspeakable. That is a paradox, to be sure. But it is a paradox that finds resolution in Jesus, the Word of God, who is divinely and humanly suited to give words to survivors of spiritual abuse.
As Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “Scholars reckon that about three-quarters of the Fourth Gospel consist of Jesus’ sayings, monologues, and dialogues.”2 John’s Gospel is a dramatic presentation of God’s speech to a dark and dying world in the words and deeds of his beloved Son. While all of Scripture is the Word of God, John is especially concerned with speech and word as central to the message of Jesus.
Words are significant. They signify, sign and point to reality. Philosopher Robert Roberts describes human beings as “verbivores”—creatures that eat words—from the Latin verbum, meaning word, and voro, to devour or swallow. Words, like food, enter our bodies, are chewed, swallowed, and digested. So Roberts also describes humans as “word digesters”.3 But not only do we digest words that are spoken to us—both for good and evil—we also digest life through words we ourselves speak. This is why trauma cannot be digested apart from speech, whether in words spoken, signed, or written.
Against that background, it is interesting to note who is on the stage speaking in John’s Gospel. Which characters get the prestigious parts, the ones with all the monologues and dialogues that auditioning actors would clamor for? The lead actor we know right away: Jesus, as just mentioned, speaks for almost 3/4 of the entire gospel.4 But who comes after Jesus?
From a count of the English text (ESV), the main supporting actor is John the Baptist, with a total of 264 words. That makes sense given his central role as the first witness to Jesus, preparing the way for his advent and earthly ministry. But the Baptizer is only one of many witnesses in John. Which of these other supporting roles, these early evangelists, is given the 2nd most prominent supporting role? Is it Simon Peter, patron saint of those with the proverbial foot in the mouth? Or how about Nicodemus, who has lines in ch. 3 and ch. 7? Or perhaps the woman of Samaria, with her lengthy well-side conversation with Jesus in ch. 4? Or maybe doubting Thomas, a counter-intuitive candidate if ever there was one, but then again he has lines in chs. 11, 14 and 20. Or let’s not forget a villain, Pilate; after all, from an acting standpoint isn’t the villain the next best thing to playing the lead protagonist?
Well, it’s not Peter. Although he has a total of 116 words, the Samaritan woman says more than him, with 161 words. And while Pilate does say quite a bit, with 166 words, there is still one character who says more than Pilate but less than John the Baptist. It is the healed blind man of ch. 9.
In the Fourth Gospel, the person whom John allows the 2nd most amount of space to testify to his faith in Jesus is, as we’ve been calling him, Nathan. I counted 185 words in the ESV.
Nathan says more than any of the apostles, more than any of the Jewish leaders, more than any of the Roman authorities. Uniquely of all the characters in the Fourth Gospel, this man endured spiritual abuse, and it is an abuse survivor that says more than anyone after Jesus and the Baptizer.
Three things are true of the Fourth Gospel, three drops if you will from this ocean of trinitarian truth and love5:
John devoted more attention to systemic religious abuse than the synoptic evangelists;
John devoted more attention to Jesus as the fulfillment of the long awaited Good Shepherd; and
John devoted more attention to the words and experience of one who endured spiritual abuse.
To better see the significance of #3 we need to remember that the Fourth Gospel is apostolic testimony. Not merely that it is the testimony of an apostle, John the beloved disciple. Even more, Jesus authorized John’s testimony and sent the Spirit to breath forth the words now written.
The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, wanted Nathan to be center stage in this record of the life and ministry of Jesus. The Trinity chose this man, a sheep snatched and scattered by wolves (10:12), and gave him more recorded words than all of Jesus’ followers (John the Baptist being a forerunner, not a follower).
Have you been neglected by your earthly shepherds? Did they flee when the wolf came? Or was your shepherd himself a wolf? You can take heart that the Triune God wants you to tell your story. He wants you to feel empowered and emboldened to tell the truth, even if that is initially only to Him through the pages of your journal. When the time is right—and only you can know that, with the Spirit’s help—God also wants you to tell your story to other images of God, safe people who will reflect the Good Shepherd in giving unhurried, nonjudgmental space for your story.
How can I say that? How do I know that God’s healing grace for you includes using words in the presence of his other sons and daughters so you can more fully digest your trauma?
Jesus and the disciples were not present for the interactions between Nathan’s neighbors and the religious authorities in 9:8-34. How then did his story become known? Who told his story? John doesn’t tell us, obviously, but given how he platforms Nathan, surely Nathan was the one who recounted his harrowing tale of encountering wolves and being rescued by Jesus. In light of John 21, and Jesus commissioning safe shepherds, I imagine John the Evangelist sitting down with Nathan one day after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and asking him for the details of what happened that day:
“Could you tell me again what happened to you after Jesus healed you?”
“What did the religious leaders do?”
“What did you say to them that got them so mad they cast you out?”
“What were you feeling when they called you a sinner?”
“Do you feel ok talking about when they beat you?” (Cf 9:28 in The Second Testament)
I can even imagine John letting out a shocked “No, you didn’t! You said that?!” after Nathan, with a slight smirk, repeats his cheeky question to his religious interrogators, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” (9:27).
By all accounts, John was impressed with this man’s faith. No training, no preparation, no prominence, just a formerly sightless beggar who held his ground against a bunch of religious bullies. And so he cast him in the 2nd biggest supporting role in his Gospel.
Granted, Nathan’s story contributes to John’s overall message in many more ways than we’ve explored. But this is an important lesson for Christians today: as Diane Langberg said,
“Talking is absolutely necessary for recovery. Even though words are inadequate, they must be spoken. To remain silent is to fail to honor the event and memory.”6
Spiritual abuse survivors have special encouragement in this man’s story from John 9. Jesus, the Word of God, welcomes your words about spiritual trauma.
Quote from Diane Langberg
Talking is so important to healing, partly because trauma is evil in nature, and evil teaches us lies…These lies must come out into the light, in front of someone who speaks truth but also treats them in accordance with these truths. The lies must come out to someone who listens patiently and responds safely and quietly. Then, the bondage of those lies is released when the lies are told in the light and in the presence of someone aiming to be a representative of who Christ is and who speaks truth to them…Trauma needs a great deal of talking in order to heal, but the talking is not ours, it’s the victim’s. We need to be present and gentle and inviting and safe, so over time they find words to express what is oftentimes unspeakable.
Encouraging People to Open Up After Trauma, by Diane Langberg.
If you have a story of spiritual abuse, and haven’t opened up about it yet, are you willing to believe that Jesus will listen? Can you ask the Spirit for faith to believe that telling the truth will truly set you free?
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2022), p. 1.
Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 360.
Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, edited by Mark R. Talbot and Robert C. Roberts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).
Vanhoozer cites Robert Gundry in Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian, p. 5.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, introduction to Adrienne von Speyr, John II. The Discourses of Controversy: Meditations on John 6-12 (Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 7.
Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, p. 147.