Trauma and the power of community (with Michael… | God's World News

62. TRAUMA AND THE POWER OF COMMUNITY (WITH MICHAEL COGGIN)

Kelsey Reed • 03/27/2024
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Kelsey Reed
Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. At Concurrently, we approach the news through a discipleship perspective. We tackle the challenging topics in culture and current events as learners and fellow laborers with parents, educators, and mentors of kids and teens. We consider the whole person, promoting growth and knowledge, attitudes, and action in the world. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes. We welcome you to the conversation. In fact, we’d love to hear from you. Please send in your questions or comments by way of voice recording or email to newscoach@wng.org.

Jonathan Boes
Every once in a while, when we are looking for topics to tackle on Concurrently, topics that will be helpful to parents and teachers, we sometimes ask around the world offices and connect with the parents here who work with us. And when we asked some of our fellow coworkers who are also parents or even teachers. “What themes would be helpful for us to cover on the podcast?” one theme that came up—one major theme that came up—was this idea of trauma and self-care, and how we can have a healthy view of it. So, we would like to unpack those terms. Today, we see those ideas all over social media and in culture. And we want to think about: How can we specifically escape self-focus even as we do the important work of caring for ourselves and healing from trauma? So: How should we understand the idea of trauma? What can we affirm? What should we challenge? How can we understand it through a biblical perspective? And how does that help us disciple kids and teens today?

Kelsey
To help us answer this question, we’ve asked Michael Coggin, a good friend of mine from seminary days, to join the conversation. Michael has worked in the mental health field since 1995. He earned MAC and MDiv degrees from Covenant Theological Seminary in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Michael has since served in pastoral positions in churches in Missouri, North Carolina, and Alabama. As an ordained pastor and professional counselor, Michael sees it as a privilege to walk alongside people journeying towards hope and healing. In addition to counseling, he’s helped provide consultation for the creation of counseling centers, church-based counseling ministries, and church conflicts. He and his wife Sherry have helped plant two counseling centers which Michael has directed. They serve together as licensed professional counselors at their practice, Karis Counseling Services in Birmingham, Alabama, where Michael also serves as the Minister of Care at Redeemer Community Church. They are both on staff with Global Counseling Network or GCN. Besides spending time with Sherry and their four kids, Michael loves history and the martial arts. His books include Ravenous Wolves: Shepherding the Church in an Age of Narcissis, and On Spiritual Abuse: Twenty-one Lessons from the Frontlines. Welcome, Michael!

Michael Coggin
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kelsey
I already know based on our previous conversations, and just our relationship that is, gosh, going on 12 years now—

Michael
I was trying to think back, I think it’s been 12/13 years.

Kelsey
—Yes. There’s a lot of richness, both in my understanding of you and of Sherry, that I know is going to be brought out in this conversation today. And, I foresee that this is going to be both a long conversation—warning listener—but also one of those that may need a second part as we continue to unpack so many of these things that we’re not only observing in culture, but that we also experience very up-close-and-personal. So, as an educator, I always want to try to lay a foundation of what we need to know. And, so today, we’re going to be defining some key terms that go beyond the term[s] “trauma,” and “self-care” and to a list I’m going to give in a moment. But as with all learning, we hope to extend it beyond that head knowledge into shaping our hearts, maybe even our beliefs, and to maybe bring some healing to those hearts, which I know is close to your heart. I also hope it will ultimately shape our actions in this world. So, let’s dive in our terms for today. We’re wanting to sort out our thinking about trauma, PTSD, abuse, narcissism, the phenomenon of ghosting, and another one called gaslighting. And, I realize all of those are negative. To throw in a good positive one that starts thinking about our discipleship response, I also want to hear a little bit about resilience.

Jonathan
So, we don’t have much work cut out for us know, pretty basic.

Kelsey
Michael, our hope today is to correct some of the overuse or misuse or even the under use, as you have carefully pointed out to me in our previous conversations about this topic, of all of these words. Some of the questions that I’m keeping in mind are: How do we equip our children with appropriate words for these things—appropriate understanding of not only these words, but also what they’re experiencing in culture?

Michael
Yeah, that’s really helpful. I think, 1. I’m just really thankful to be a part of this conversation, because I think it’s a really important conversation and a lot of important questions to think through: How do we effectively engage our world? How do we in a grace-based, gospel-driven way, pursue the hearts of our children and those that are under our care? Whatever capacity we’re in, whether it’s as an educator or parent, a little league coach, in the world that we live in, there’s so many things moving at such a high rate of speed. I [value] taking the time to slow down, and be human beings, and have conversations, and engage really important themes and issues. And, 2. Specifically with trauma, how do we engage a word that’s being used a lot? And in one sense, I’m thankful for that. But, understanding the implications of trauma, not only for those that we’re caring but [ourselves]—communicating this way, which is really helpful: Every time we fly, we glaze over when we think the flight attendant is giving the instructions, but I think it’s something that we hear every time we’ve flown, “In the case of changing cabin pressure, put the oxygen mask on first.” We see that in scripture: to love our neighbor as ourselves. And so that’s why I’m thankful to be a part of this conversation, the work that you guys are doing on this podcast, as far as pressing into our own stories, and that God is over our story. He’s writing our stories. And how do we engage some really complicated, challenging concepts in a fallen world in a way that gives honor and glory to the Lord?

Kelsey
These terms are all over the news and maybe getting bad press. But what is it—that idea of even bad press is still, you know “press”—it’s getting attention on an area that needs to have some attention. So, I hear what you’re saying that maybe the use, or even overuse or misuse of the word trauma is still getting that word out there in front of our attention. So, help us dive into this idea of trauma. What are you seeing in terms of how it’s been used? And how would you correct that? What do we need to know about this idea?

Michael
You know, even terms of trauma or abuse, that in some ways, there’s some overlap, but just in so many ways that trauma and abuse really is a violation. And that trauma is inevitable, in so many ways, just the significance of Genesis 1 through Genesis 3, just for us to have, a biblical/theological, but also a psychological framework as we engage. A lot of these subjects that you mentioned earlier, both trauma and abuse or violation, they are a reality of living in the brokenness of this world. Trauma is inevitable for all of us. But I think in some ways, I’m thankful for that being a part of the larger conversation, I think, and sometimes, one misunderstanding of the concept of trauma is seeing more of the focusing on the event, as opposed to our body’s response. And so really, understanding trauma as a sense of a violation of our dignity that, in many ways, affects and impacts our physical bodies, and in a lot of ways even changes our brain. I mean, I’ve mentioned to you—we’ve spent enough time together in St. Louis, and we were in small group together for years. So you’re—you and Chip—are aware of my love for military history. I was able in that time when we were in St. Louis together to develop a friendship with a dear brother in Christ that about eight years ago has since gone to be with the Lord, whom I’d met when my in-laws were coming in town for one of the graduations at Covenant. And when we took my in-laws to stay with Bud and Pat McCain, who were renting a room in our house, I noticed he had all these World War II pictures of him as an 18-year-old and at that time, Band of Brothers had come out. And so, we built a friendship with this man and he eventually shared a story that when he was 18 years old, he was in the Ardennes forest. He had been there for two weeks. He thought the war was over. And then there were 25 divisions of German troops. And in that first onslaught that came to be known as Battle of the Bulge, his company commander was killed, he was fearing for his life, he could hear oncoming German tanks, and that all the pine trees were exploding from artillery shells. And he told me, he said, “Michael, for eight years after I came back from World War II, we could not get a Christmas tree.” And anytime, Pat, his wife, would say, “Hey, let’s get a Christmas tree for the family, for the kids.” He said, “Michael, I would just feel like this flood of emotion and didn’t know what it was, until one day I came home from work. And Pat was cleaning the house with Pine Sol. And I just became enraged and started yelling, and she calmly and lovingly and quietly just asked me a question, and said, ‘Bud, why is it that this smell of pine just takes you to this place?’” And he said, “I had never made the connection. It was like, ‘When was a time where I was around that smell?’” And he said, “Oh, it’s when I was 18 years old, in the Belgian forests, thinking I was, this was the last day it was going to be alive.” And we didn’t have an understanding of trauma at that point. But just that it’s not necessarily the event, but how that gets stored in our physical bodies and ends up affecting us in relationship. And in so many ways, just the opportunity, the challenge, but the opportunity for us to, press into those parts of our own story and other people’s stories, so that we can love those around us in a way that gives honor and glory to the Lord.

Kelsey
I’m already hearing things that my educator and discipleship radar is picking up. And the major thing that I’m hearing, is this, this question-asking. We’re already dipping in a little bit to response in these areas, which is not a surprise: The counselor is about asking the question, about bringing it to those deep places, and about helping equip others to be those non-anxious listeners, those active, non-anxious listeners. And so, just want to put a pin in there that the question is such a primary tool, such a helpful place for unlocking those pressures in the life of the person who’s in front of us. I’m hearing at the same time as good definition and a heart-wrenching story, I’m also hearing a tool at the same time. I just wanted to bring that out. So, continue to equip us with some of these tools. This is such excellent help.

Michael
Yeah, I think a big piece, as an adult, as a parent, one of the things I really appreciate—this is years ago—there’s a book written by Chap Clark called Hurt that I mean, it’s 20 years ago, but there’s so many things that are just still really relevant today, even though there’s so many changes culturally, technologically. But he says, a quote that has always stuck with me, is that what children need today is for adults to come to them without hidden or self-centered agendas. And I think to your earlier point, as far as that question-asking, just the significance of I would say, in so many ways, and it’s a word that’s used a lot, but I think it’s an important word—“curiosity”—for us to have a posture and a position of being curious of our own stories, and the stories of others. And I think in so many ways, as we talk about trauma and abuse, and then just human relationship, it can be really easy, especially in this age of social media to go to a comparison Olympics, or like even a trauma Olympics, where we can either go to a place of pitying other people, or a place of minimizing other people’s experiences. And then we can also do that with our own story. That so often over the years as I’ve walked with individuals and couples, people saying, “Well, I had a normal childhood or a normal experience.” And, in my time over the years, listening to stories, “normal” in a fallen and broken world—for us to really unpack what that means, where there’s more times than not experiences of abandonment, neglect, abuse—the significance of asking those questions and having that posture with those we’re in relationship with: curiosity. So, I think with that also, as adults providing that stability for adolescents and children, providing predictability, and then also promoting safety. And that’s not necessarily safety in the sense of “We have to agree.” In some ways, teaching our children that, actually, for us to love well and grow, there needs to be a place for disagreement and difference. And that’s something in our world today that a lot of times we just, equate disagreement and difference with threat and someone being the enemy. And so how do we have that posture of curiosity and pursuit?

Kelsey
I hear themes that have touch points in some of the material I’ve had a chance to listen to from Curt Thompson, this necessity for us to communicate to our children that they are seen, that they are safe, that they’re secure, and even to soothe them. But those drip with not self-pity, or a pity towards others, but a compassion. It seems there’s more fully orbed, greater dimension connected to these things than merely pitying somebody and identifying them according to the hurt places in their story, and maybe the abuse in their story, and really diminishing them as persons. So, you’re helping us to broaden our thinking. We do have stories that include hurt, there is violation that has happened, there’s trauma in our flesh, it has rewired us. But that is not the end of the story. Pity is not something that has this arc of hope towards healing. I think it just keeps you in a limited, unidimensional space. So that’s such an excellent pushback in that area. We are in a culture where we are learning so much more about PTSD, about trauma, about violation, another concern is this abuse, that I know often goes hand in hand with abuse of power, so it links to another one of our terms, even narcissism. I wonder if you would like to either pull them apart and define them separately, or show some of the way that these things interact with one another.

Michael
Yeah, I think just having the privilege of really walking with individuals and couples, and then also churches who have experienced narcissistic leadership and abuse. I think that word is used a lot. So, I think there’s again: How do we understand in a fuller way that doesn’t minimize, but also doesn’t turn people into two-dimensional caricatures or cardboard cutouts, but just to recognize—as I’ve heard, you, both of you reference on the podcast—that we were made in God’s image, and that we are image-bearers? That narcissism, in so many ways, is a trait, and it’s those seeds of narcissism in Genesis 3 that are in all of our hearts, that all of us are on a continuum of narcissism that can’t get more narcissistic than Adam saying, “I want to be God.” And in so many ways, how in my heart, like, as a husband, or as a dad, that I can deceive myself or, choose to over-function or believe that lie that I need to be all things, to all people, all the time. That’s not human, that’s not the reality of being a finite image-bearer. So, in some ways, if you were just like, “Break it down, what’s the definition of narcissism?” It’s really a fear of never feeling extraordinary enough, a fear of never being noticed, not being lovable, or having a sense of purpose. In so many ways, I think we view it as arrogance. But really what drives it is really a deep insecurity and self-hatred that gets masked as competence, that gets masked as “attractive.” And I think in so many ways, the world that we live in, I think, how we pick our leaders politically, how we pick leaders in the church, that we refer to it as a triple A: that we get drawn to achievement, attractiveness, and articulation. Does this person look the part? Are they very articulate and really good, speaking wise, and then have they achieved a lot? I’m always fascinated with the first television debate was in 1960. And all those that listened on the radio thought that Richard Nixon had won [single-handedly]. And all those who watched on TV said John F. Kennedy won, like, with no problem. And he was wearing makeup, and it was John F. Kennedy who looked the part. And just trying to understand, like in our own hearts, what, what we’re drawn to, and in so many ways—narcissism is a newer term—but the reality is very much throughout the pages of scripture, of insolent pride. Jesus talking about the yeast of the Pharisees; the reality of Saul, and him looking the part of the king, being tall. This is what we envision, what a king should be. But just someone whose heart was at a very different place. That’s something that just the trauma, and the disruption and the violation for a lot of the people that I work with, in the church—pastors, missionaries, ministry, leaders—who have this, the reality of faith, hope, and love, in so many ways, violated and damaged by people who are claiming to be brothers, but are really wolves, in so many ways, that are more concerned about their own kingdom than pointing people to Christ.

Jonathan
I really liked what you were saying about seeing the whole person instead of just a two-dimensional caricature. I feel like in my own experience, one of the really difficult things with spotting an abusive or narcissistic tendency in a leader, especially a spiritual leader, is that there’s always, for every time you encounter something you think, is that like, is that narcissistic? Is that not okay? Your brain can pull up five other times they did something good, or said something wise, or helped somebody. And I think there’s something inside of us that’s sometimes programmed to think, “Well, if somebody is abusive or narcissistic, they must be all bad.” Like, certainly, all these good things I’ve witnessed of them counteract the negative things. But, remembering that even people with abusive tendencies have those dimensions. And it’s never just that black and white, two-dimensional caricature, is that something you’ve seen?

Michael
Yeah, I think that’s well said. I mean, I think just the reality that we’re human beings, and then we’re in relationship with other human beings. And there’s a certain reality that there’s, there’s a messiness to community. And so, like multiple things being true at the same time, and so that’s why I appreciate how you’re framing that, Jonathan. I think with that: Is there a pattern? I think that’s where we bring that piece in, and I think there is a place within our circles, within Christian community—this is where I appreciate, Adam Young does an amazing job, in one of his—I think it’s Episode 72—I encourage clients to listen to it, where he unpacks, Matthew 7 and the difference between making a judgment and being judgmental. I think a lot of times for us, as believers, we feel like, “Okay, I don’t want to be judgmental. So, I’m going to overlook or gloss over, and that’s loving.” And we’re really called to speak the truth in love. The, “Lord, help me to have wisdom and discernment, and in community to be a brother and not a bodyguard.” And I think in so many ways, we see that happen a lot of times where other elders or leaders are brought in, and then there’s this sense of circling the wagons around the system, or the institution or the individual, where we’re just like, “Well, that’s just how that person is.” And I would put forth that there’s actually a lack of love going on for that person who’s an image-bearer. And I think there’s a lot of things connected to this conversation around celebrity leaders and platform and some of the dynamics that play out. But I think in so many ways, what does it mean for us to love our kids? And so that’s going to mean hard conversations. I refer to it as like rumble strips on the highway—and I’ve always wondered what the statistics were, before it was mandated that highways and the U.S. Highway System had rumble strips. All of us, every single one of us that’s on this podcast and is listening, we’re made in God’s image, but we’re also sinful. And because of that sin, we’re always going to drift and we’re made for relationship and community. In a lot of these situations with a narcissistic leader, it’s really a failure of community, which is interesting. And, Kelsey, you and I were talking briefly about this before the podcast, that’s where I really appreciate Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score—he’s just done amazing work on trauma. He said something—and from what I understand, he doesn’t profess to be a believer—but he said something to me that seems very much connected to Genesis 1-3, where he said, “What we’re seeing is that trauma is really a breakdown in community.” And when, if there the environment is there, if there’s those secure, attuned relationships, that actually helps the individual who’s walking through that broken event. And so, I think even with narcissistic leadership, a lot of times there’s a failure of other leaders holding that other leader accountable.

Kelsey
So, I’m hearing some further tools to weigh in. And one of them [is a] resource, we’ve mentioned Adam Young’s podcast at least once before in some of our episodes, but he has a podcast that is excellent. It’s called The Place We Find Ourselves. And so, Episode 72, we may even link in the show notes. But I’m hearing that The Law of Non-contradiction does not apply to human beings. We are messy: We are both good and broken, glorious and ruinous. I’ve mentioned that before in the past. And we work out our growth or maturity in community where we are, hopefully gently, held accountable where people are speaking the truth to us in love. And so, I’m hearing also, this question that we need to be asking ourselves, we may not be able to really, this is probably more rhetorical than it is something that we’re going to engage today. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: How teachable am I? And maybe another question that we need to ask is: How willing am I to make myself uncomfortable [in order] to speak truth to the person across from me as well?

Jonathan
I think, among our listeners, there’s probably some people who are really comfortable with the language of trauma and talking about what this is, how it affects kids and teens, and even parent-child relationships in and out of the church. And there are probably some [for whom] this is maybe newer language to them, or I would maybe even think maybe some people who wouldn’t have a skepticism towards this language because of ways—we haven’t gotten into this yet—but maybe ways it’s been overused in some realms, like you said, the term can get bad press. Could we step back very briefly? You talked about the impact of trauma on the brain. And I think, in Christian circles, there can sometimes be confusion about the relationship between the spirit, the soul, the brain, the mind. There can be an assumption that emotional problems are purely spiritual problems, that the body isn’t connected to them. When we talk about trauma, how would you define trauma specifically? What does it do to the brain? And I know this is a huge question, but how does that intersect with our spiritual being? Just to lay that foundation as we’re talking here for people maybe who haven’t engaged with this idea.

Michael
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think in so many ways, it’s our body’s response—trauma is our body’s response to terror, violation, abuse, and neglect. You look at the Bible and a lot of ways you see a record of trauma. I mean, you see, sexual assault with Tamar, you see murder of children by tyrants, I mean, in Exodus and Matthew 2. You see David referencing in the Psalms the killing of the priest at Nob. And so, trauma is not a category of human experience that places us outside of God’s vision, God’s care, God’s promises. But we do see in Psalm 34:18—for me as a little boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, as like a six-year-old, where am I at that point, my parents had just gotten divorced and had experienced bullying, abuse, abandonment—one of the first passages that was communicated to me was Psalm 34:18, where the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. In so many ways that you have these violations of our dignity, that as human beings, we have an enemy that wants to fragment us, that he wants to fragment us and Balkanize us in so many ways from our mind or heart or spirit, and I think I’ve seen and like my work, just where people have tended to minimize the physical body—I think in so many ways where if you were to go back 50-60 years ago, in the church, that the conversation around like mental emotional health would probably be at a different place than it is today. And I’m really thankful that it’s more normative in the churches that Kelsey and I have been a part of that, thankfully, where people go to counseling and realize the need for community and intentional, structured community to work out, just damage that has been done and how people have been fragmented. We, Kelsey, you and I both had Dan Zink as a professor that we dearly love and are thankful for him. And he would do a great job answering this question and just thankful for his friendship and ministry. But one of the things he said for years is that change takes place within the context of relationship. That we are damaged physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually in relationship, [and in relationship] healing takes place. And they also would say that we can only take someone as far as that we’ve gone ourselves. For me personally, you asked a specific question of like, how does the brain or the impact of the brain are impacted the physical like effect, like the spiritual? I would say that for that five-year-old little boy in Birmingham, Alabama, it was many years for me working out in my own story, in my spiritual relationship, like God as Father that’s in Luke 11, Jesus tells the disciples, “You who are evil know how to give good gifts for your children, when they asked for bread and water, you don’t give them snakes and scorpions.” Well, for many of us, and for probably many who are listening to this podcast, they did ask for bread and water, and they were given snakes and scorpions. And it’s very easy for that experience of the earthly father to get transferred onto a God that describes Himself as Father. A lot of the work in counseling is walking through with people, and asking questions to unpack the way they experience relationship both horizontally, but how that horizontal relationship impacts the vertical.

Kelsey
And some of what I remember—I’m so glad you brought up Dan Zink—this idea of being embodied creatures. There is this interesting mystery of being minds, bodies, spirit, heart, and the work of the educator, of the parent, of the counselor, is to seek to integrate, rather than separate these categories of being. To recognize, first of all, that they are this mysterious wholeness, that one thing impacts the other. We can see that, we can observe that what we know affects our belief, it affects our attitudes, and it works its way out into action. We see that interconnectedness but that trauma often splinters. And what specifically that role of the counselor is to help with those who have experienced trauma, to reintegrate—to come back together.

Michael
And that’s so helpful. I mean, it—just as you’re saying that, Kelsey, just brings to mind a dear couple I worked with probably almost 20 years ago, which is crazy to think it’s been that long. But a couple that I was working with in counseling, and we were talking through some of the things that we’re talking about now as far as the fracturing and the fragmenting and the importance of story as far as the emotional, physical, spiritual. This individual had owned a really successful car repair dealership in St. Louis for years. And he said, “Hey, I hear what you’re saying, but it’s just, it’s just challenging because of my family, to maybe connect these dots and just part of me wants to move quickly through this conversation.” And I said, “That’s totally understandable. But I think in so many ways, it’s”—so I was trying to grab an illustration that would resonate for him—and I said, “I think so many ways and it’s also in my own heart that I’m driving and the check engine light comes on. And there’s a part of me that wants to keep driving. And also a part of me that is tempted to put a piece of tape over the check engine light.” And he just started to die laughing in the session, and I was a younger therapist, and I was like, “Why is this so funny, did I say something?” And I asked him, I was like, “Why was that so funny?” He’s like, “Michael, I’ve worked in this profession for 17 years. Every week, I have two to three people bring in their cars with either a piece of like a Spider-man Band-Aid over the check engine light or piece of electrical tape.” And he goes, “That totally makes sense.” And I just think that, I think it’s such a part of us to want to avoid pain. And I think, connected to that, to avoid grief. And that’s just not from a death, but grieving the loss of community, grieving betrayal of someone that we trusted, grieving, maybe that we had this particular dream for ourselves, or even a particular dream for our children that that they didn’t have. And how do we eact like out of that? Or do we grieve and process like what we’re bringing into those present moments?

Kelsey
I really appreciate what you brought up a bit ago about story as a part of that integration process. And it reminds me that coming at the subjects with categories that have been given to me as an educator, that narrative and story is the way that we engage whole-person learning best. Well, it’s the same in terms of our healing process, that story, our own and even others’, helps to integrate head and heart, that movement towards healing, even in the trauma of the body, that actually really, truly occurs in a story that is able to explore greater dimension, explore the griefs, explore the peaks and the valleys. And so, I know that you are very story-oriented, and we do a lot with story on the podcast. But I know that you have some great examples of some of what is going on in these terms that is played out through some of this story. So, I wonder if you could dive into some more exploration of the terms through some of the stories you’ve brought up.

Michael
Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah, one that’s connected: I think, if I had to pick a Swiss Army Knife story, that hits on a lot of the notes that we’re talking about, a lot of the themes, actually would be the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, which I would put forth that’s actually not a Christmas movie, it’s a movie for parents and pastors, and people in ministry. So much in the character of George Bailey, you see someone that wants to be extraordinary. And someone that has these big dreams to accomplish big things, to build big buildings, to see the world. And the fallenness of the world, and I would say just pretty broken events, continue to happen throughout the story where he stays in Bedford Falls and views his life as ordinary or of no consequence. And the veil is pulled back for George. And in that he sees the impact that he’s had in community. And where small conversations that are easy to dismiss. And that’s why I even tell parents, and especially people who are in coaching or teaching that what we could see is an insignificant conversation that took five minutes—I can remember, almost word for word, a 10-minute conversation with Miss Polaicus at Highlands Day School in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was in third grade. And where she lowered herself, looked me in the eyes, and where I felt seen and where I felt cared for and knew that I was not alone. And just how God used that year and even some of those small, seemingly ordinary conversations—that I would probably guess that she doesn’t remember or wouldn’t be able to access. I ended up at Covenant Seminary based on a 10-minute conversation I had with a pastor that I’ve never talked to since, and he wasn’t even really engaging in the conversation. He was eating a pudding cup, and he was like, “Why haven’t you thought about going to Covenant Seminary?” and God used that and I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I should think about Covenant Seminary!” And I think two months after getting there, meeting my wife who was visiting from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I think in George Bailey, you see someone who views those interactions as ordinary but where they have, I would say, generational and eternal significance. And we’re at the end of the movie, his brother, who’s the Congressional Medal of Honor winner, says “George Bailey, the richest man in Bedford Falls.” And so I think, whether the definition we’ve talked about as far as narcissism, which is different, different than NPD, a personality disorder, but just that desire in all of us to be extraordinary, and the weight that we carry with that, we don’t give ourselves the freedom to fail, the freedom to be finite, that we avoid, maybe what’s our relationship with grief or curiosity? And so is it okay for me to fail as a parent or as a teacher? Or as a pastor in this moment? Can I have a growing theology of disappointment? Where the older I get, the more I look at God’s word and the life of Christ, I’m hard pressed to find very many interactions where He wasn’t disappointing someone. And so is it okay for me not to have to be more Christ-like than Christ? Is it okay for me to remove myself and—talking about self-care, like, the difference between self-care and self-indulgence—where do I see Jesus loving Himself and caring for His physical body and His humanity? I think, over the years, I’ve probably had a low view of, even though theologically I knew what was true, just passing quickly through Christ’s humanity. Like, “Okay, He’s just falling asleep on the boat, because He’s trying to like, prove a point,” as opposed to like, “No, he’s actually really exhausted.”

Kelsey
Such helpful categories. And I think we’re knocking on the door of how to develop resilience in our students or children. But before we get there, I want to see if we can pull out a couple more of these terms that are all hanging around these ideas of narcissistic behaviors. I really appreciate that you made a very small comment to say, “Hey, it’s different than NPD”—Narcissistic Personality Disorder—there is a disordered personality. But each of us might have this tendency of longing for the extraordinary in our lives, or to be to be considered extraordinary. Again, that’s not the last word for us. It’s a part of our maturity process and of embracing the ordinary. And it hearkens back to actually our first episode, that “extraordinary times” or even the longing for the extraordinary, it really requires us to hunker down and embrace the ordinary and to practice faithfulness and to see the beauty in those faithful steps, those disciplines, sometimes. But there are things that we might take on as behaviors and habits that are not those beautiful, ordinary, faithful steps. And so, before we get through to the last question, I want to talk a little bit about ghosting and gaslighting because I think these are things that we do to try to build our selves, make us untouchable, or make us feel like we can be the star of our own show—that narcissistic-type tendency. So, help us to understand ghosting and gaslighting.

Michael
Yeah, I think that’s helpful. I think in some ways, there’s some overlap. And then there’s some subtle differences between those two terms. Gaslighting, maybe start off with that: The term comes from a 1938 play and a movie that was made in 1944, which is really like a psychological tactic to, in some ways—if you’re just do a short definition—to control the narrative and control the person. And that can look like withholding information, verbal abuse. I would say I’ve seen in churches where the pulpit or staff meetings have been used to use aggressive jokes, to gaslight or manipulate the person in a way to keep them in line. And when a person says “ouch” or gives pushback to being attacked or manipulated, it’s quickly say, “Hey, you were being too sensitive,” or like, “You’re not being gracious,” or “You need to give me, trust me.” I’ve even sat in meetings and seen abuse played out and heard of this in walking with clients where there’s this invitation for absolute trust and expectation, that trust should be just freely given and should be 100%. But I think at the heart of that, too, is just really about attacking the victim’s worth. And it goes back to what we’ve talked about before: A violation of the person’s dignity in a way where their voice, their experience is deemed or communicated as less than or insignificant. And just the powerlessness of that, and the shame, where it’s almost like a carpet-bombing of fracturing faith, hope, and love, and just a really dehumanizing way.

Kelsey
I really appreciate that. And I can’t remember if I ever shared this with you, but I had an experience that, for some people, they might be like, “Oh, that’s just a blip on the screen. Don’t take that too seriously.” But unfortunately, a pastor in a place of authority, and supposed to be a shepherd—we were in a gathering together, and a dog laid down at his feet. And he said, “See, Kelsey, that’s what submission looks like in marriage.” I am not—I’m so sad that that was something that happened in my own life—but, more sad to recognize that that is the type of thing that goes on as a very small blip on most people’s radar, but it is profound in terms of our concept of self, in terms of: How are we using our authority to name? How are we doing that, as educators as pastors, as mentors, as parents? You mentioned a 10-minute conversation that was profound. A 10-second conversation can be equally as profound, and shaping of our concept of self. And this is so helpful to think in terms of: This is something we know and call gaslighting.

Michael
Yeah, I was just going to say that’s—first of all, I’m just—it’s just…that’s heartbreaking just that that was communicating just that, like just for you, that experience and just the misuse and abuse of power, and the damage that’s done. And that’s why I think it’s like for me just how thankful I’ve been for just some of the resources like Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power, the work that she’s done around gaslighting, and some of these things we’re talking about around ghosting. And just in so many ways, it’s psychological and spiritual warfare that is just, it’s just not what the Lord intends for the church or His people. We should be like John 13:34-35, we should be known by our love for one another, having His posture of washing feet, as opposed to abuse or harvesting the gifts and humanity of other people.

Kelsey
Thanks for your just kind response. And it fills further dimension as we do so—so help me: this whole idea of ghosting. Last thing before we move on to a little bit more of that response angle.

Michael
Yeah, I think with ghosting, I think there’s narcissistic ghosting where there’s this just, I’d say a withdrawal or removal of just relationship. It’s almost like, “I will give you attention, relationship, ‘love’—what they say as love—or attention, if you are in line. And if you are outside of what I deem is loyalty”—and I think a lot of these things with gaslighting and ghosting and narcissistic and spiritual abuse where there’s a demand for like absolute loyalty, which is actually really not a biblical term or concept. And we’re called to be kind and faithful. But loyalty is more of like a feudal medieval Europe or feudal Japan concept where it’s like, loyalty to a liege-lord or a king. And, and where they’re almost demanding to be treated as a king, as opposed to a brother who might be in a particular role of authority. But, that role of authority is really a role to, as a shepherd, you mentioned shepherding earlier, that the role of a shepherd is to care feed and protect the flock. And not to eat the sheep as what is talked about in Ezekiel 34 where God is like, “Hey, you’re abusing the sheep, you’re eating the sheep, and I am the Greater Shepherd, and I’m the one over this, over my flock, and I’m going to take them from you.” So, I think that can look like someone not responding to texts or emails or even ignoring people in a staff meeting. I remember as a young boy having to be a mediator between a very abusive, emotionally abusive father, and having to be 9/10 years old, calling and having to communicate certain things after my parents’ divorce. And the use of ghosting and silence on the phone, which was like a knife to the heart. Just asking a question and that being met with silence from a parent who’s the father—supposed to be a father—but also an attorney that was using lawyer tactics on a nine-year-old. And just really, in so many ways, like a taste of hell, that we were made for relationship, but just this like removal, or withdrawal of relationship.

Jonathan
Your explanation of ghosting just reminds me of an anecdote from some friends who had gone to a church for a season and had a theological disagreement with the direction of the church and left, but they ran into the pastor at an event later, and the pastor just completely ignored them, like, wouldn’t talk to them. And it’s like, they had stepped out of that loyalty context, and the relationship was cut off. Before we get into that ending section, like you were hinting at, Kelsey, I have one other question that I’d really like to slip in there—a very practical question. And I apologize for throwing this at you out of the blue. So, I’m just wondering, this is a question—I’m wondering how you would tackle a question like this, because it’s something I’ve encountered. And I feel like it’s a tough issue to deal with. So, we’ve been talking about community, the importance of community as healing for trauma. And we’ve also talked about how there can often be trauma and abuse in the church. And something I’ve heard from multiple people who have experienced trauma in the church is that—well, I’ll even tie this back into an earlier story you told about the man who, the smell of pine trees just triggered that trauma reaction in him. And I’ve heard from people who were abused in the church, and things like worship music, or the smell of incense, bring a similar reaction where it brings up all those old traumas. And then they hear pastors, sometimes, making what I would say, as a fairly biblical call to “Hey, Christians should be in the context of a community of believers, if you’re a believer, you should be coming to church.” I feel like that’s fairly biblical. But to these people who have this trauma reaction, they say, “That is a very hurtful thing for me to hear. Because when I tried to come into this context, all that stuff floods back.” And I feel like that’s just an increasingly common story I hear. When we hear things like that, how should we balance that call to community and being sensitive to those who have these legitimate trauma reactions to what may seem like innocuous things in the church or even good things in the church?

Michael
I think that’s a great question. I mean, we can spend a lot of time even—I think it’s just a really helpful question. And I’m not trying to, like evade it. But I think in some ways, it is multiple things are true at the same time that, as we look at what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be a Christian, that a big part of that is being a part of Christian community. It’s like, can you really be a baseball player and not be a part of a baseball team? But I think with that, it’s also true for me personally, having gone through spiritual abuse, just how difficult that was just even like some of the things that you’re referencing, Jonathan, for me, personally. I remember going to a church after coming out of a situation and the senior pastor was sharing an illustration. And in that particular illustration, he was framing himself as the hero of the story, and I looked at my wife and my wife was signaling to me, this signal of “You’re okay; I’m here; I love you.” But, my ears were getting red as my heart started to beat faster. And I would say, for me personally, being in Christian community that is not perfect, that is made up of sinners and people who need God’s grace, but that is marked by kindness, and curiosity and gentleness and the fruit of the Spirit and just how healing and redemptive that has been to be a part of that community. I’m in a church now serving where if someone asked me how would you describe the particular church that you’re a part of, I would say, “Kind. Pointing people to Christ and not to a particular leader.” So, I think for those listening, I would say that healing and change and more freedom to those experiences—like we talked about earlier, the quote from Dan Zink—takes place within the context of relationship. You mentioned martial arts earlier. This is something that I enjoyed that actually played a really key part, I would say, in processing and healing of a lot of different things: being around other Christians doing jiu-jitsufriends who are trying to spar with me and go for my throat. But it’s interesting, just, in that healing and more freedom, and people who, when there were things going on in my life having 15/20 texts from guys at the gym, like, “Hey, how’s your mom doing? How are you doing?” Just even seeing research and being made aware of research that’s happened at the University of Central Florida—Alison Willing who even found the impact of jiu-jitsu. And I’ve seen this with multiple clients, women who’ve been sexually assaulted, pastors who have gone through spiritual abuse within their presbyteries or systems, where this particular pursuit has led to, I would say, healing to their hippocampus. And where you have someone in a real-life situation that’s physically coming after you—and this is connected to resilience—growing to be more comfortable in discomfort. And that’s a pretty prominent phrase in jiu-jitsu, that it’s about being more comfortable in discomfort. And, as someone who works with trauma and works with people who have been abused, it’s interesting to see that, physiologically, with people when they start where it’s almost them reacting in a fight or flight, very rigid way, physiologically, and the change that happens to those people, not just from like learning a certain technique, but where their physical bodies come down, and where they can even spar and roll around with their eyes closed and not feel threatened. And what, if someone walked by and looked in the window, would look very threatening, and very unnerving. So, I mean, I think that’s a long answer. But just I think I just want to encourage that individual, just the importance of counseling. The importance of giving themselves the freedom that if there’s a particular song, that they have the freedom to get up and walk out of the church and pray. They have the ability to like, say, “This is where I’m at today. I’m going to call several of my Christian friends and just ask for prayer,” and that it’s okay for us to be human beings. And I think a lot of times that there can be some performative-like, works-based realities that impact even some of the things that you are mentioning in that question.

Jonathan
Thanks, I hear such a great combination of grace and truth in that response.

Kelsey
And, it’s another one of those things, like so many of the things we’ve talked about today, that it’s two things held in tension: Both the moving into relationship, but having the agency as a unique person with unique needs and stories, to be able to remove themselves and to make autonomous decisions, knowing that they are a valued image-bearer of God—not an appendage of another person, or of another person’s agenda. And I really appreciate what you were saying about that growth and resilience, that it’s not merely about having a life that has been handed to you, with all the comforts, and bubble-wrapped. Resilience is something that is also from moving into challenge, moving into places that require you to grow from that discomfort, this position where—maybe your hurt was a very physical hurt—you move into the physical in order to heal physically. And again, that separates it a little bit. I’ve talked about us being unified wholes, and so it’s never only the physical or only the heart. But another thing that I was thinking about as we were wrapping up, and what it means to create good categories, as we’ve done with definition, but even as we do relationally with our children: We’ve talked about these categories of really harmful, hurtful behaviors, and now we’re also hearing some more of the echoes of work that we’ve done with Amy Auten. She pointed to Gottman’s concept of “the bid” and what it means to be responding to it—constantly responsive to the bid that we are receiving from the persons across from us. And with our children, we have that opportunity all day long—even if we cannot respond immediately, because in their childlike way or childish way, they’re running into the room with something and we’re in the middle of maybe that phone call. And we say, we look at them, and we say, “Honey, just one second, I’ll be right with you.” What we’re doing is we’re actually building their categories, helping them to see what is wholesome and good. What good shepherding looks like: someone who is ready to tend to their heart, to their body, to their mind. Not saying, “This is the only type of experience you’re ever going to have of adults of other people.” But going, “This is what kindness looks like.” So, your categories are so helpful. And just reminding us that it is often a very messy process forward, but that it is a good process that we have the privilege to be in as human beings. So, Michael, I want to give you a chance for any other words that you want to share with us. And even the last bon-mot, benediction, good word for today.

Michael
Yeah, I’m so thankful for this conversation, I think just for us as individuals and our own stories, but as we come alongside our children or just others, just being reminded in the midst of trauma and suffering that God is present and in control in our suffering. Just a reminder of God’s goodness, and that He cares for us. The reality that trauma does not separate us from the love of God. And that just that opportunity to grow and be drawn closer to Him and His love and His provision. Just that the Lord and Savior that we worship, and love and who entered into enemy occupied territory to rescue us from sin and death, understands trauma and suffering. He understands relational betrayal. He understands abandonment, He understands poverty, He understands being homeless or displaced. And I think just also being reminded that our identity is not in our trauma. Our identity is not in perfectly responding or hitting every pitch as a parent. I mean, just the reality as a baseball player, those who are in the Hall of Fame fail seven out of 10 times. And so, what does it mean to live in rest in the Gospel when it comes to missing moments with our kids, to not go to shame? There’s the opportunity to circle back to do repair, and know that, “Hey, there’s a freedom for me to fail.” And, actually, that’s how we grow is by failure. And, and so ultimately, that our identity is in Christ and Christ alone.

Kelsey
We are just so privileged to have you with us today. And speaking of the opportunity to circle back, you have given us a bunch of questions that I’m going to include in the Companion guide that we create to go along with every episode that we have, so that we can unpack these ideas further, we can press into those good questions. So, listener, I want you to know there’s an opportunity to press in further to see some of these great questions that Michael has even provided for us.

Provision. That’s the name of the game. The Lord has given us so much in Himself in His word, [and] in one another. He has equipped you for the work.

 

Show Notes

How should parents and teachers understand the concept of trauma? What do we make of terms like “ghosting” and “gaslighting?” Pastor and licensed counselor Michael Coggin joins the podcast to walk us through these difficult ideas.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at gwnews.com/newsletters.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

Further Resources:

 

 

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

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