I’m Paul Jeon, senior pastor of NewCity Church in Vienna, Virginia, and I’ll be guest preaching at CSPC this Sunday. Here’s how God’s been at work in my life to help me live deeply.
Jesus says to be as innocent as a dove but as crafty or sharp as a serpent. Over the past couple decades, one area where that’s really come to the fore for me has been learning how to approach a mixture of mental illness and trauma in the lives of my congregation and many other people close to me. Growing up, we weren’t well-to-do, but I knew my parents wouldn’t abandon me and we always had food to eat. But as I started ministry in Philadelphia, I began seeing other people’s experiences more and began to think about them. I’ve seen pastors are often ill-equipped to minister well to people with mental illness and trauma. If you only categorize mental illness or uneven responses to trauma as sin, it’s like saying to a blind person, ‘Okay, you’re a sinner’, without recognizing they’re also genuinely blind. I’m starting to better appreciate that there are also physiological, biological and neurological components at work. God’s been growing me to develop a more sophisticated approach; treating trauma as a very real phenomenon that changes people and should therefore instruct the way we minister to them. God’s shaping some of my thinking through this bestselling book you might’ve heard of: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. The author talks about how the brain literally begins to rewire itself through trauma. Whether you go through PTSD as a Vietnam vet or you’re molested by a family member when you’re four years old, he says there are interesting parallels in how the way the brain reshapes itself. Even if the source is different, the effects seem to be similar.
I can see close-up examples of this at NewCity. Our church is multi-ethnic with a high immigrant population, particularly from Korea. If you think about it, I’m second generation Korean, but my parents were first generation. And they weren’t just first generation- they were children of the Korean War; many of them orphaned. That was a traumatic experience when they were still in South Korea. Then, when they immigrated from Korea to the U.S., they had to acclimate to an entirely new culture -suffering racism and discrimination, which is another form of trauma. And on top of that, Asian culture has traditionally been very shame driven. You don’t acknowledge things like depression. So now you have this second generation that’s been raised by people who’ve gone through all this trauma. It’s yielded an Asian American culture whose people are generally academically and professionally successful- and that’s because the narrative has always been, ‘Work hard. Your parents sacrificed.’ So on the surface, when I meet many Asians, they’re very successful from a worldly sense. But they haven’t developed emotionally and relationally. As a pastor, I have the unique vantage of not just seeing that but experiencing it. Many have experienced fathers who (unlike my own) were abusive, absent, or alcoholic. Consequently, their relationships with not just the pastor, but with all people in authority like elders, can be very complicated. A typical Reformed person might look at it like, ‘Well, because of sin, we’re all rebellious by nature- we just don’t want to submit to authority.’ And there’s truth in that, but what I now perceive is that there’s also something different about certain people- it’s very personal, very extreme.
I have three pretty concrete ways this deepened understanding of trauma is shaping me and my church. First, my wife suggested years ago that because I’d been in ministry 20 years and have been through a lot, why not talk to a psychologist? She was very specific- she suggested a psychologist vs. just a Christian therapist. I wouldn’t say the experience in and of itself was necessarily beneficial for me. But people have been very taken aback by the way I talk about it somewhat casually- not very different from, ‘I went to talk to my accountant.’ Especially in my context, being open and not being overly concerned about any shame that might be attached, I’d get questions like, ‘Well are you okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, probably not. I’m very broken, but it’s not bad to talk to people.’ There’s power in being heard- so much of the value of therapy is that just having someone to talk to is good in and of itself. So I think being able to model that -‘Yeah, I’ve seen a psychologist; I have counselors’- and not making a big deal in the sense of it being shameful, that’s important. Second, I’ve become wiser in ministering to -or just dealing with- people who are very unstable and troubled, and I’m realizing that’s one of the ways to actually love them. It’s not necessarily that I don’t engage them altogether, but I’m much more careful. The example I’d give is: Even though you love your children, you won’t be completely raw with them about every aspect of life. That’s part of loving them. We live in a culture that talks about transparency and authenticity, but there is wisdom in being selective about how much you share. I’m first discerning people much better so that I can minister to them much better. Thirdly, our church is becoming more intentional about offering classes on all this. This fall, I’m going to be leading a class about initial reflections on trauma from a theological perspective. We’re just going to put it out there and say, ‘This is a safe place to talk about these things.’
I’ve been thinking about writing a little book called The Limits of Theology in Pastoral Ministry. Think about it: If you had an issue with your toilet or if your child had an ear infection, you wouldn’t call your pastor, would you? Now I want to be careful to avoid the error of saying pastoral counseling is useless. No, I still think pastors who counsel and some of the biblical tools they use -looking to reveal idols of the heart, that sort of thing- are very helpful. But when you read what I consider the best literature on psychology and psychiatry, they all say the mistake you don’t want to make is to be reductionistic- to oversimplify our examination of causes and avenues of relief. Even in The Body Keeps the Score, the author’s take is so interesting. He says up to this point, we’ve really minimized the physiological and neurological components of human behavior. Yet when he offers a proposal, he says we can make the equal mistake of thinking, ‘Just drug people up.’ He says that’s exactly the same kind of error. So he talks a lot about how Eastern cultures have mastered the art of breathing exercises to deal with trauma, and how that’s known to change people’s physiological makeup as well. So I think that we, at the risk of syncretism, need to have a higher appreciation for the limits of theology. We can teach what the Bible says and give a Christian worldview of how to think about things. But we should also be open to partnering with experts outside the Church. We have to do a better job of knowing our limits. We need to be willing to say, ‘Maybe the depression here is more than just idolizing your career. Maybe there is a genetic component there.’ Who knows if I’ll write this book? But it’s definitely on my mind. The more we appreciate people for the complex mysteries they are, the better we in the Church will be able to help them.