It’s one thing to hear or read Berg’s teachings through the ears of one who has sinned—for example, one who has traumatized another. It’s quite a different thing to listen or read through the ears of one who has been sinned against, that is, the oppressed.
North Korean defectors can tell us what it’s like to live with daily extreme trauma. Here’s one, for example:
Other people have also lived with daily extreme trauma. If you care to become trauma informed, which I talk about in this blog post, you can meet and listen to a trauma survivor sitting down the row from you at church . . . that is, if they’re still trying to go to church.
After all, for just one example, the child pornography business is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States alone. Do you really think no adult survivors of child pornography have tried to find answers in the churches? The traumas they endured are different from the traumas of North Korea, but are also devastating. They often feel alone in the horrors they carry, but they need to be heard and understood.
It’s not likely you’ll encounter a North Korea defector. But the child pornography survivors are all around you.
Because many of my friends have been traumatized, I often get to hear about the “noisy mind” or the “chaotic brain,” which I understand to be an aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jim Berg’s Quieting a Noisy Soul addresses this very problem.
Jim Berg’s counseling teachings
Jim Berg’s name may not be well known in the larger conservative evangelical world (being, as he is, a Bob Jones University independent Baptist fundamentalist), but his counseling principles—an obvious combination of nouthetic counseling (called “Biblical counseling” by its proponents) and Gothardism— do represent much of mainstream counseling in the larger conservative evangelical world, such as the Sovereign Grace circles, the Gospel Coalition and Desiring God blogs, the vast majority of conservative Christian counselors, the halls of most of the conservative Southern Baptist seminaries and several of the Reformed seminaries, and the counseling practices of the majority of conservative evangelical churches. In fact, I’ve critiqued other similar teachers on this website several times (a few examples of which are here and here and here).
The commonality they share is that their style of counseling seems evidently designed to keep the abused silent and unhelped, as they are shamed and blamed for the problems they face as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced.
It’s one thing to hear or read Berg’s teachings (critiqued at length in the GRACE report on Bob Jones University and discussed further at the BJUGrace blog) through the ears of the one who has sinned—for example, the one who has traumatized another. It’s quite a different thing to listen or read through the ears of the one who has been sinned against, that is, the oppressed.
But for a nouthetic “Biblical counselor” or a Gothardite, there is no difference. Everyone who comes for counseling must repent of their sin and strive to change. That’s all there is to it.
I’ve spoken with many people who have been counseled through Jim Berg’s method, even people who have been counseled by Jim Berg himself. The BJUGrace blog has several testimonies from such survivors, such as this one.
In his series Quieting a Noisy Soul, an outline of which you can see here, Berg describes the problem, the cause of the problem, and the solution.
The problem is the noisy soul, since that’s what this book is about.
The cause of the problem is your sin, since this is nouthetic counseling and Gothardism.
And the solution comprises several things: determining to change, meditating on Scripture, repenting, learning to be content, forgiving, getting grace through humility, and others.
The Problem: The Noisy Soul
Berg says the experience of noise in your soul comes from “the pressures of life.” He names what he says are some major sources of noise: fear, discouragement, despair, anger, frustration, bitterness, hatred, lust, greed, guilt, shame, possessions and positions, obsessions and addiction, entertainment and recreation.
Examples of areas in which we feel the pressures of life that he mentions are marriage, work, church, children, hobby, garden, and relatives.
People who are living with what we might call “normal everyday” stresses, like perhaps a garden that isn’t growing the way it should, might agree with his assessment.
These pressures, he says, cause us to respond with our emotions (which he defines as body sensations triggered by body chemistry changes). Those emotional responses show that there’s a problem with our thoughts, which originate in the heart. For example, I suppose, a person whose garden isn’t growing the way it should might feel a sense of frustration, and then might express that frustration by venting about all the hours he’s wasted trying to get it to grow.
Though Berg doesn’t say this, I know from those who have counseled with him that he, like most nouthetic counselors, considers “emotional responses” to be bad, and believes that we should instead be ruled by reason or intellect, which he calls here the “thoughts.” I’ve written about that teaching more particularly in the blog post “Reason trumps emotions? 90% of evangelicals say yes.”
But there is something sinister at work when we look beyond the “normal everyday” stresses to people who are actually still living with daily cruelty, oppression, and trauma, who are hearing that their emotional responses need to be brought under control through their thoughts.
This is far more common than the “normal everyday” people might think. It happens in abusive marriages (often even in abusive marriages that have ended, by means of the churches and the court system). It happens with young adult children who are being abused by one or both of their parents. And you might be amazed at the stories of some who are living double lives, sometimes even trying to get counseling while they are actively being trafficked by boyfriends, husbands, pastors, fathers, or others. “Normal everyday” people might roll their eyes at this example as hyperbole, but this is not nearly as rare as they might think. You may even know someone in such a situation, without realizing it, because they’re either too afraid or too dissociated to tell.
Besides the significant problem of counselees who are in current danger, there is also the phenomenon of people who carry childhood trauma that has not been healed. Again I’ll return to those who were used in child pornography, many of whom are trying to find help in the churches. The presenting problem might be something like “I’m always anxious,” but the deeper problem is far from simply having uncontrolled negative emotions. The deeper problem is an unhealed wound from extreme childhood trauma, which even hearing about might give nightmares to people dealing with “normal everyday” stresses.
On the campus of Bob Jones University and in the surrounding community, Jim Berg himself has counseled people who endured extreme childhood trauma. (I know this because they have talked to me.) He diagnoses this problem the same as every other problem. There is no difference.
Berg then explores the reasons a person can’t handle what he calls “the pressures of life.” . . .
The Cause of the Problem: unbelief and guilty conscience
The primary cause of your problem of the noisy soul, says Berg, the root problem, is unbelief. Your heart, he says, is turned in a direction of unbelief, away from God. (In other words, as Bob Jones Sr used to say, “No doubt the problem is with you,” which I’ve found out many abusers love to say to their victims.) According to Berg, your
unbelief leads to
discontent, which leads to
anxiety and anger, which lead to
The reason I find this path of reasoning troubling is this: First, I know that even the most earnest Christian can have lies we believe without realizing it, lies that need to be exposed with the light of God’s truth, lies that we’ll gladly turn from as soon as we understand them for what they are. I’ve found this to be the case many times in my own life, and have been very thankful for their exposure.
But to say that we believe some lies that need to be rooted out is different from saying our root problem is unbelief.
The problem of unbelief is a very real one in the heart and mind of one who is not a child of God, but the redeemed, by definition, are believers. We believe what God has said about Himself and about us. We need our beliefs to be refined, to be sure, but we are basically believers.
In the congregation at large, there may be unbelievers, that is, the unsaved. But Berg is writing to believers, to Christians. To tell a believer that the reason for his or her emotional turmoil is basic unbelief is confusing and wrong. A person with a sensitive conscience will take this rebuke to heart, and because they do believe in God but still struggle with the “noisy soul,” they’re likely to enter into the ugly cycle of self-condemnation.
Berg later says there’s another cause for the noisy soul besides unbelief. When a soul is noisy, he says, it’s primarily because of the agitations of a guilty conscience.
Some people do have guilty consciences because of actual sin, and in that case they need to repent of their sin and make things right. (Some people, on the other hand, have hardened consciences, and their sin never bothers them.) But some people struggle with guilt when in fact they did nothing wrong. In these cases they need to be encouraged and helped by being led to Jesus the Healer, rather than told to repent of their sin.
But Berg has determined (as this blog post describes) the cause of the person’s problem without thinking he even needs to listen (except in order to pinpoint specific sins to repent of). He has determined that everyone with a “noisy soul” has the same problems.
Other Causes of a Noisy Soul
With all of these things in mind, I’d like to offer just four other possibilities as causes of the noisy soul.
Grief. While I was working on this blog post, I received word that a friend’s teenage son had been killed in a tragic accident. My soul became noisy. I thought about my friend, all of this boy’s siblings, the future he’d never have, the future they’d never have together, the trauma they had all endured already. I spent hours weeping for them, thinking of the blackness of grief they’d experience for weeks and months and years to come. My grief was noisy. Their grief may be silent now, too deep for words or tears, but it may be very noisy in the days to come. It may look very messy. It may sound, like mine has, like “What do you think you’re doing, God?”
My husband sat with me and let me cry loudly into his shoulder. He didn’t tell me my problem was unbelief. It wasn’t. I knew God was there to ultimately see them through their grief. But grief is a valley to be walked through with Him, and will take different amounts of time for different people. (For a great and tragic loss like this one, it can often take family members as long as three to five years.) Grief is not something to be chided against as a problem of unbelief.
One time I posted a paraphrase of Psalm 13 on Facebook: A prayer for a friend who is struggling against the child-molesting, child-abusing ex-husband who shares custody: How long, O Lord? Will You forget her forever? How long will You hide Your face from her? How long must we take counsel in our souls, Having sorrow in our hearts day after day? How long will her enemy exalt himself and triumph over her? Consider and answer us, O Lord our God; Give light (life) to her eyes, or she and her children will sleep the sleep of death, And their enemy will say, “I have overcome them,” And their adversary will rejoice when they are shaken. BUT I have trusted and been confident in Your lovingkindness and faithfulness; My heart shall rejoice and delight in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me. That’s from Psalm 13. I’m having trouble getting to the last part today–sort of stuck in the first part. Maybe David took a while to get from the first part to the last part too. Anyway, that’s where I am today. It’s a day for weeping.
A prayer for a friend who is struggling against the child-molesting, child-abusing ex-husband who shares custody:
How long, O Lord? Will You forget her forever? How long will You hide Your face from her?
How long must we take counsel in our souls, Having sorrow in our hearts day after day?
How long will her enemy exalt himself and triumph over her?
Consider and answer us, O Lord our God; Give light (life) to her eyes, or she and her children will sleep the sleep of death,
And their enemy will say, “I have overcome them,” And their adversary will rejoice when they are shaken.
BUT I have trusted and been confident in Your lovingkindness and faithfulness; My heart shall rejoice and delight in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
That’s from Psalm 13. I’m having trouble getting to the last part today–sort of stuck in the first part. Maybe David took a while to get from the first part to the last part too. Anyway, that’s where I am today. It’s a day for weeping.
God is with us in our weeping. Instead of telling others to repent of their unbelief and guilty conscience in grief, we can sit with them and love them.
Confusion. I think especially of those who endured childhood abuse or neglect, who carry embedded lies from the time they were very little, expressed either through actions or overtly. “You’re a worthless piece of garbage,” “you’re just always in the way,” “God can’t rescue you from us,” or even “Satan is more powerful than Jesus.” They become Christians—believers—later in life, but those lies are embedded from very young childhood. This would be an example of a need to Christians to help someone who is a true Christian, who is at the core a believer, to find embedded lies, all the while assuring them that they are in fact, a beloved child of God.
Trauma. When a devout Christian woman has just been date-raped, for example, her soul will be noisy. She will likely suffer from severe anxiety, depression, and many other strange feelings that can overlap with grief and confusion. Her problem isn’t unbelief, and to tell her so will only increase her depression. She needs loving support and reassurance from the people of God.
Dissociation. This one is somewhat related to the others, but needs to be mentioned separately. When a person has undergone very extreme child abuse, as is the case with anyone who was used for child pornography, there’s the likelihood of extreme dissociation. That means different parts of the person will be carrying different memories of childhood trauma. Internally, this person’s soul can be very noisy, even with the possibility that the primary presenting part of the person has no memory of the abuse. She (or he) can hear several thoughts going on at the same time, can feel different reactions at the same time, can be triggered by incidents without having any idea why, can feel anxious or depressed with no understood cause, and can have many other strange symptoms that might, by a nouthetic counselor, be interpreted as a “noisy soul” of unbelief.
But the real problem in this case is that this person is carrying trauma so deeply and so . . separately that it has been dissociated from memory. This needs to be uncovered and healed, usually with the help of someone who has been trained in such things. I have reason to believe our churches have many, many such people sitting in the rows, feeling isolated, and longing for help. While the nouthetic counselors are telling them to repent of their sin and just start believing, they are carrying the deep needs of an explosively shattered heart. Rather than being told what they just need to start doing, they need to be told that there is a Healer who can reach into the places of wounding and heal each of these shattered and separated parts and bring them together into wholeness.
But for Jim Berg and others like him, the problem of the noisy soul is always a sin problem. There is no room for the deep trauma that causes the shattering of soul sometimes known as dissociation. There is no room for non-sinful confusion or grief.
There isn’t even any need, really, to try to understand a counselee’s perceived problem, because the answer for them is always clear. It is your sin. That is the cause of the problem. Your lack of faith, and your guilty conscience. He clearly states that when our soul is noisy, we have to admit that we’re guilty of unbelief, we have forsaken God, and we have minimized, covered, blamed-shifted, and made excuses.