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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Living the Fruits by Control

It wasn’t my church that I attended. I just knew I was supposed to attend. It was random. I rode there in a convertible to attend a church that was so much like all the churches I had attended over a lifetime. It could have been any small church in America. It had chairs instead of pews, and the words to the songs were on the screen instead of in a hymnal, but the congregation had that multi-generational feel of all the churches that had been my home while growing up.

As the preaching began, I understood the topic wasn’t one I had considered much lately—The Holy Spirit. In my defense, I had thought about God a lot—my journey was permeated with thoughts about God, I just hadn’t spent much time separating God into parts. Maybe trying to get myself to a place of wholeness vs. lots of parts made me think about God more ‘wholistically.’ I was great with parts; it was wholeness that was challenging.

As I listened to the pastor talk about the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, it occurred to me that the Galatians 5:22 list of the Fruits of the Spirit sounded a lot like the life I had lived. My life had been an example of this list: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I had lived an exemplary life full of these fruits. I hadn’t even lived it as a ‘fake.’ I had felt all these attributes in my life—well except for joy.

Joy was always tricky because deep down, I knew there was something wrong. It wasn’t a spiritual problem; it was something much deeper. How could anything be deeper? I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was there. The church wanted me to believe it was a sin nature, but that wasn’t true because I never felt convicted by it. It was simply endless pain I never understood—I just lived above it.

I was rather lost in this train of thought as the preacher continued. Next, he put up a slide that listed all the evils that come from ‘inside a man’: coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. If the darkness inside of me were evil, then this would have been my list. It just wasn’t—but I knew that many who had experienced trauma in their lives did live out this list. I just didn’t. Why?

I can hear the chorus, “It was God!” Yes, despite my trauma, I did have the indwelling of God. I believed and trusted God from the time I was small. Despite the fact that almost all of my abuse was connected to or in the church, I never lost faith. It was truly remarkable.

There was another factor involved. I strongly believed who I was, as a person, was my choice. I studied what normal and godly looked like. I did not live out my life being the person the abuse could have made me. The effects were all there, I just learned to control and live above them. My subconscious structures were phenomenal and my ability to control myself was unparalleled. I chose to live the Fruits of the Spirit and God enabled me to do so through my tenacious controls.

It was very fortunate my dad was ‘the person’ who all research tells us is necessary in a traumatized child’s life in order to build resilience. If you see someone who is unable to climb out of the results of trauma, you know this essential piece was missing in his or her life. One person can make all the difference. This relationship provided the core strength I needed to even consider making the choices I made. Beyond this, it was my core strength and God.

This takes me down the path of considering ‘sin’ and ‘evil nature.’ This is where the church and psychology often go sideways with each other. The more I study trauma—especially that of very young children, the more I am aware that trauma changes the brain. I will eventually build a strong case for this truth, but at this point, it must be understood that because I experienced trauma at three, my brain wiring was affected in significant ways. My development simply did not happen in the ways it should have. The way my brain and body learned to survive is distinctively different from normal development. What should have been natural and easy for me became a daily fight to survive. I fought to live every single day. I also fought to live a life exhibiting the Fruits of the Spirit.

Was it possible to live a good Christian life? Yes. Did God help me? Yes. Does every human have this choice? Well yes, but not everyone has the necessary support to make the difference. We have to understand it is possible for a person to be so broken or impaired that the choices are nearly impossible—maybe completely impossible in the extreme. But for almost all, choice is possible. For the person who has experienced extensive trauma, it is MUCH HARDER! When I say much harder, I mean really, really hard. It is, ‘you really can’t even begin to understand’ hard. I am stunned by the life I lived and I now know what I hid inside myself was never my fault. I was a target from the beginning of my life.

What I think is sad is I outwardly exhibited joy—everyone who knew me would agree; but I never felt joy. I couldn’t experience joy without experiencing the depth of sadness inside me. Yes, I lived the life I was supposed to live, but I NEVER fully engaged in it. My life was something I did, never something I experienced and felt. Somehow, I don’t believe this was what Jesus had in mind when he promised to bring me abundant life. My life proves that, by control and God’s enabling, it is possible to live above even significant trauma. The haunting question is, is it necessary for it to be so very difficult?

I believe, for the Christian, mental health falls in a void between the two lists. God enables the traumatized to live above the ‘evil’ but only healing allows us to access ‘joy.’ The only way we can live the Christian life, which is expected of us—without healing, is by control. In controlling our emotions and feelings, we are unable to access joy. Yes, the control and enabling keeps us from falling into patterns inherent in the lives of those who have experienced trauma or abuse; but the control also never allows us to experience the full joy that should be ours. We can never access abundant life. (This is, at some level, true of any life in which pain has occurred—that would be all of us.)

I believe being lost in this ‘middle space’ is the place many describe when explaining how God helps them ‘live above the pain.’ The joy of God didn’t flow out of me; it was manufactured as a covering to the pain—and yes, God enabled me to live the life I desired, but it is important to note that the Fruits of the Spirit include inner qualities beyond controlling behavior. There truly is more.

Hear me out on this one: The New Testament is historically placed and contains God’s truth. We want it to be more, but it can only say what was known in the first century. During that time period, almost nothing was known about the body, the brain, and how trauma affects development. The primary way for anyone (specifically those who had been traumatized), to live the Christian life was through control via God’s enabling. The Bible is replete with passages about this. It was the only way God could enable in the first century. What if, in this day, God has given us great wisdom in treating those who suffer? What if God’s enabling now includes ways to heal the trauma through various therapy options? What if the traumatized can truly be healed?

It is pretty clear that the healing which took place in the New Testament now can happen on a daily basis in doctor’s offices and hospitals. We have no problem understanding this knowledge wasn’t available in Jesus’s time and we need to use current knowledge to heal the body. This same thinking should apply to psychiatric healing with newly developed therapies based on our understanding of the effects of trauma.

Waiting until I turned sixty to begin my journey of healing was WAY TOO LATE, but my healing may have not been possible without EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is not new but is only now beginning to be used extensively. The time frame when most of those who have suffered abuse begin to ‘come apart’ is mid forties or early fifties. I tried, but without professional help, the best I could do was take antidepressants and survive. How I wish the silence and lack of knowledge hadn’t trapped me in a place where I could not access help when I was a teenager, young adult, or all the times during my adult life when I hung on by a thread.

Control works, God enables, the Fruits of the Spirit are possible—except Joy. I had to heal to find joy. I am so grateful I did.

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