The Triggered Series

At Gateway Church in Austin, we tackled the subject of how we so often get triggered.

From the Gateway website:

“We get triggered around political issues, emotional battles in marriages, or fear evolving out of the latest news report. In contrast, we desire to be loving, kind, patient, joyful, and self-controlled people. Yet, we all experience things that trigger us. We find ourselves overcome with negative emotions. Anger erupts at a co-worker about an interruption. Impatience screams at our children for spilling milk. We react like we’re being physically attacked when our spouse asks a simple question. Or, maybe, we sink into despair from just one negative comment.

When a present circumstance should not produce such an intense emotional response, it’s a symptom that you’re being triggered. No one wants to be easily triggered. It hinders us from living in the life God intended for us.”

The Four Messages in the Series (Video/Audio, Notes, and Next Steps):

Humbly Seeking
Signs, Lies, and Wonders
Living Free

My Story of Recovery and John Burke’s Steps to Get Un-triggered

When I was a kid, my Dad worked as an air traffic controller which is genuinely one of the most stressful jobs you can have. You mess up at work, people could die!  It was a perfect job for him though because he was sitting all alone in the dark telling people what to do. His personality loved that kind of control! So my Dad was on edge quite a bit while I was growing up. We had some amazing moments together too, and one of the things I remember him laughing at the most was watching movies where people completely lose it! My Dad would laugh so loud he’d start crying watching Tom Hanks lose it in The Money Pit or Steve Martin lose it in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It’s funny on film, but it’s not funny in real life.

My Triggers

Unfortunately, I began to realize I had some issues with being triggered after getting married. My sweet wife Deborah has had to put up with me and my issues.

I don’t understand my wife sometimes. One of the most unusual times was when Deborah was pregnant.  She had the most bizarre cravings.  For almost every night over the course of two weeks she had to eat at Tacos Mexico in East L.A..  Just when I thought I couldn’t handle one more night of carnitas, she said “I am craving a whopper from Burger King.”  

I was so excited to eat anything besides Tacos Mexico that I blurted out, “Great!  There’s a McDonalds right around the corner.” “

No, I am craving a Whopper from Burger King.”  “Oh, well, there isn’t a Burger King anywhere near here, how about Jack-in-the Box?”  

“NO!  I am craving a Whopper from Burger King!”  

As sweetly as I could I suggested “What about In-N-Out, those are the best burgers on the planet!”  

“NOOOOO! I am craving a Whopper from Burger King!!!”  

Finally I lost it!  Deborah, do you know what your problem is, you always have to have it your way!! 

Nice date, Deborah was staring at me and then said: “You are so handsome, but (you never want to hear what comes after a but in that situation) you look so much like you did when you were an infant.”

A few weeks ago, Deborah came with me to a wedding I was officiating. I was surprised at how quickly we had gotten through traffic so I mentioned I hadn’t thought we’d get there so soon. Deb responds: “well we aren’t there yet.”

What does that mean?

You know we could get lost or get a flat tire.

Wow! My wife looks at the Glass Half Empty and cracked.

 During our trip to Hawaii celebrating our 25th anniversary, Deborah said: “You know, we’ve had a great life together.” 

I said: “well it isn’t over yet”

Genetics and Generational Struggles

As Deborah and I raise our kids who are now 17 and 20, so many unhealed wounds have been kicked up. Just watching the film Blinded by the Light on Friday, both of us were just sobbing at the end. It’s fascinating how we grow up in wonderful families, and yet all families have wounds and dysfunction. 

You can end up spending the rest of your life trying to find healing to things that happened 30 or 40 or 50 years ago! 

We allow our past to haunt us and harm our present.

My parents seemed way more strict than most of my friends’ parents. I seemed to always be in trouble. As an act of rebellion I grew out my hair. It was the late 1980s so I thought I looked great! PIC  But I thought yelling to get your way was how to live life. My college roommates didn’t agree, and then later my wife didn’t like my controlling and angry style. 

I love my parents! They are amazing people to whom I owe so much!

It wasn’t until I was here in Austin when we did a series through the 12 steps that I finally found freedom in this area. You see, when things did not go my way, I got mad. I would feel disrespected. I would become bitter. 

Bitterness in your heart creates doubt in your mind. Bitterness cannot be contained. It spreads and begins to affect every relationship – not just the one with the person who hurt you.

Nelson Mandela said:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it hurts the person who hurt you.”

It was easy for me to emotionally cut off people or avoid people or demean people behind their backs.

Steps to Get Un-Triggered from John Burke:

1. Spot the Symptoms Early 

The goal is to get better and better and realizing when you’re getting triggered, and do these things sooner.  Once your Amgdala hijacks your brain and you get flooded, it’s too late. When you feel intense emotion, your muscles start to tense up, your heart may start beating faster, your mind is racing to protect you. 

2. STOP De-escalate, Re-engage the Rational Brain 

First you must De-escalate the amygdala and give time for hormones to dissipate that hijacked your brain. 

This has two parts: De-escalate Yourself, and if you’re in conflict with another, De-escalate the Situation.

De-escalate Yourself – remember, when you’re feeling triggered, you’ve never felt so right, but you’ve never been so wrong. Your thinking, relational brain is not in the driver’s seat—your Limbic, survive at all cost brain is running the show. And depending on how emotionally hijacked you are, it may take 20 minutes for the hormones and chemicals the Amygdala signaled the Hypothalamus to release to subside. 

So if you’re in an argument. Just say “I need to take a break for 20 minutes, then we can try again. Let’s both try to emotionally de-escalate.”  

Whatever the situation, if you can take 20 minutes, go for a walk, or just go somewhere to be alone and pray—say “God, I don’t know what’s going on, but you do, calm me down.”  

Jesus promised this to all His followers: 

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. – John 14:27

Then you want to Re-engage your thinking, relational brain. Here’s how, ask yourself and ask God: “What’s going on inside of me?” 

 You can’t just stop the emotions, but you can engage your objective brain—your neocortex—and asking an observational question and thinking or writing observations—that hooks your neocortex back in.  You want this part of your brain back online because it cares about truth and relationship—the Amygdala and Limbic brain only cares about protecting you. It senses a threat—but it may not be a real threat in the present tense—it may only be reminding you of a past threat, and the painful memory not yet healed, and that’s causing a reaction.

3. Search for Lies, Agreements, and God’s 3rd Story perspective

Here’s how evil works in the world to steal, kill, and destroy. Evil propagates through unhealed wounds, lies or agreements, and triggered reactions.– Jesus said “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy.”

We can hear things in our minds that are not true, agree with them, and that agreement actually shapes how we interpret and see reality and react. 

Here’s how evil works to steal, kill, and destroy.

Evil propagates through unhealed wounds, lies or agreements, and triggered reactions.

You can replace the lies that evil sows in the fertile soil of unhealed wounds! 

You can replace them with God’s truth! 

God is overcoming Evil in and through us—if we let him in.

Remember, you have a perspective the 1st Story, others have a 2nd Story, but only God has the 3rd Story perspective that is Captial T Truth that makes sense of all our little “t” truths.

1). Write down agreements. 

I listed agreements that I may have believed (or still believe). It’s not that easy to discern agreements because you’ve been deceived so you may need to get a few spiritually mature friends who know the Bible well. They know what God says is true. Bounce off of them some of the beliefs guiding your actions. I did this with a Volunteer Leader and some close Pastor friends who are my Spiritual Running Partners. 

See, God’s Word promises that He wants to lead you into life, freedom, joy, peace, hope, trust, love.  

So any thoughts trying to set against these things is probably NOT from God.  

So I took inventory on some of statements going through my head that kept moving back into a victim mentality. 

It’s embarrassing to admit, but these were thoughts I was hearing: 

  • “No one will help you.”
  • “Your value comes from how hard you work.”
  • “You made a huge mistake moving your family because of all the trials you’ve had.”
  • Or this one which surprised me because it sounds so positive at first. When it comes to worrying about the future: “Nothing has ever happened as bad as you fear, but nothing has ever happened as good as you hope.”

So once I rejected what God said was true, and started agreeing with lies, it was open season–I could be manipulated by evil.  

The antidote to lies is the truth!

“No one will help you.” I was surrounded by great people who wanted to help!

“Your value comes from how hard you work.” I was loved by God, family, and friends who don’t even know what I am doing at work!

“You made a huge mistake moving your family because of all the trials you’ve had.” 

Trials are not to punish us—that’s another lie—God may allow trials, but with the goal of strengthening us in Him to fight evil with His love.

“Nothing has ever happened as bad as you fear, but nothing has ever happened as good as you hope.” The Scriptures say that God can do more than we could ever ask or imagine – not less!

The Scriptures and other followers of Jesus can help us know the Truth when we are believing in the lies.

2). Write down God’s truth.

Jesus said, “God’s Truth is the antibody to the lie.” 

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32 

A verse I memorized as a new follower of Jesus has always been one I go back to:  

“I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
 I will strengthen you and help you;
 I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:9-10 

So this is what He had said was Truth, 

God tried to tell me “I have chosen you, I have not rejected you.”  

God said, “Do not be dismayed, I am your God.”  

3). Renounce the lie.  

Tell God out loud that you renounce this lie (say what it is), and you agree with His truth (say what He says).  There’s something powerful about verbally renouncing these lies outloud, and breaking those agreements.

4). Make a list of Daily Beliefs.

You maintain health by abiding/soaking in the truth.  Going over these daily beliefs that are God’s truth helps you fight off those old lies—that keeps you spiritually healthy and joyful. 


When you’re triggered, it usually connects to a Core Need that feels threatened. 

We all have Core Needs—they’re good. They’re from God, and if this earth perfectly followed God’s will, those Core Needs would be met in all of us as we perfectly Love and follow God to help us Love others. But God’s will is not done on earth as it is in Heaven—that’s why Jesus told us to pray for it.  

  • Validation (respect, appreciation)
  • Loving Connection (companionship, belonging)
  • Autonomy (you can make choices for yourself)
  • Value (worth, status,)
  • Safety (stability, peace)
  • Comfort (pleasure, fun, rest)
  • Purpose (meaning in life)

Start asking when triggered, what’s the Core Need that feels threatened?  

4. Let God Heal the Wound  

Several years ago I interviewed Jamie Schwarz about the 12 steps. I don’t have a picture from that day, but I do have this picture from 2015 when I was interviewing Jamie and her husband Corey when we were raising the funds to move into this building. I realize I look incredibly short compared to these two, but it’s just the angle of the picture that Kenny Green took who is now our Central Campus Pastor. Even still, Kenny couldn’t help but edit this picture giving me a hobbit head.

But I show a picture of these two because they have been a significant part of my healing! Jamie shared about how going through the 12 steps is not just for alcoholics or those addicted to drugs. She shared how the 12 steps are simply spiritual disciplines that can help us overcome anger, a short temper, bitterness, the struggle to forgive, anxiety, selfishness, or any habit or hurt that keeps derailing us.

Corey now leads our Open Share on Wed. nights at 6:30pm – Jump in any night and find healing.

Jamie leads all of our Recovery and Restore efforts – overseeing our team that helps with Grief Share and Boundaries and the 12 Step Studies and Open Share. See more at

For me, it was going through the 12 steps in a step study that completely changed me! For the first time, it was like my head and my heart were connected! I began to discover peace and joy and love like I had never experienced it before! It was like my life had gone from black and white to glorious HD or 4K!

I went through the 12 steps once on my own and once with a group of 2 others. Both helped, but going through the step study helped me understand that this is not just a workbook you go through but a new way to live life.

Often we share the story of the first time we discovered that the 12 steps are spiritual disciplines, but you must know this is something I go through on a regular basis. As you grow in freedom you work through the steps daily and throughout the day.

Have you ever heard someone say that they had to work through the steps? Something happened and they had to work through the steps. Ever hear that?

Let me give a brief overview.

Steps 1-3 are about making peace with God

We admit we are powerless and that God is powerful so we surrender to Him.

Steps 4-7 are about making peace with ourselves.

We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 

And then Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 

This was transformative for me! I remember working through my inventory and feeling so much shame and fear. What if my sponsor judges me or looks at me differently. I knew my sponsor would keep this confidential, but I didn’t want my relationship with my sponsor to suffer or change for the worse.

After I walked through my inventory, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I literally felt like I may have lost weight! Like weighed less on a scale!

Having been someone who heard others share their moral inventory, I can tell you. They have felt the same. I have seen some guys leave the room, and they just looked different! They had more light and life in their eyes!

Steps 4-7 are about making peace with ourselves.

After we create and share our moral inventory then we humbly asked God to remove all these defects of character and to remove our shortcomings

Steps 8-9 are about making peace with others.

We make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Then we made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Steps 10-12 are about living with peace.

Working the 12 steps is a new way of living!

5. Form a New Habit to Respond to God’s Spirit

Spend time in solitude 

(carve out 1-2 hours) to just be quiet, alone, and uninterrupted praying and talking to God. Pray the prayer of David, 

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 

Ask God to search your heart and show you if there’s any unhealed wound from the past, or if there’s something you’ve done relationally that needs mending.  Ask, and sit quietly calming your mind and listening.

Do the Grocery Store Test

If you turned down the aisle in the store, and there in front of you was [fill in the blank], but he/she didn’t see you—your first inclination would be to turn around before you had to meet eyes with them.  Don’t evaluate why, just write down that name. 

There’s a wound there—something that needs healing.  Just write down their name—what they did to you or what you did to them–in a bit we’ll talk through what to do with it.

List every person or event that might possibly have wounded you

When we first moved here, I was really excited but the honeymoon did not last long. It was the coldest winter on record followed by the hottest summer on record. My family – who all wanted to move here – all wanted to move back to Los Angeles. Our entire extended family (other than a couple of cousins) lives in Texas. This is where we grew up, but our hopes and expectations for seeing family more didn’t pan out as we hoped. They are all busy and we got busy with life.

And even in ministry, I found myself frustrated with everyone around me. In a city where only 13% attend church (and where it felt like half of those who attended church attended more than one), Austin seemed disinterested in faith. At first, all of my frustration for our lack of progress was pointed towards others. I found it far easier to blame others for all the conflict and the lack of growth.

I started Humbly seeking, asking God to show me, and I sought out a counselor. Some of you might know him. His name is Michael Warden.

Now, I was asking him for help with regaining momentum in ministry. He kept wanting to talk about my core values, my personal mission statement, my shadow mission.

I started realizing: I wanted to talk about everyone else, but he wanted to talk about me. 

You see when everyone is the problem, you are actually the problem.

You can switch jobs, change up relationships, even move cities, but the problem is as my best friend growing up Craig used to say: everywhere you go, there you are.

I began to realize that I could continue to blame others for our circumstances or I could begin to take responsibility of every part of my ministry that I could. 

I began to realize: I have now lived apart from my parents longer than I had lived with my parents. When are they no longer responsible for the way I live my life? Now I realize we can have generational issues passed down to us – even genetic predispositions. Even still, I had great parents so why was I so prone to excuse my behavior because of the way I was raised now that I was in my 30s at that point in my life? In our 30s or 40s, we should be moving to take full responsibility for how we live our lives – no longer a victim to our childhood.

Over the next several months, I worked on defining my personal core values, my mission statement, and even my shadow mission statement. 

I asked colleagues to do a 360 degree evaluation of me and my leadership. 

I began to work on what used to be blind spots – my workaholism, my people-pleasing tendencies, my anxiety, my control issues, and my tendency to micro-manage using the 12 Steps to overcome anxiety, I began to make tremendous progress. 

About that same time something significant happened that really helped me. Neil Anderson came and spoke to our staff.

Neil Anderson has written books like The Bondage Breaker and Victory Over the Darkness. At this point he was semi-retired, but he was willing to come to our church because of the unique mission we have to be a place where people can truly come as they are.

He led us through an exercise similar to a combination of steps 4 and 9.

He wanted us to list the names of people who had hurt us, or there was some rift, or I’d hurt them maybe. 

Now I am not a very reflective person so this was not something I was used to doing.

He guided us to then forgave and released all need for justification or retribution or showing them how much it hurt—all that—I put in God’s hands. I let it go.  

I did that one by one for each memory. 

Then I asked, “Is there anything I need to do to live at peace with this person?” 

  • Some I felt He said: “Yes—go try again.” 
  • Some in person. Some via email or a phone call.
  • Some I felt I’d done all He wanted. 
  • If they’re hard-hearted or dangerous just forgive.  

This happened again when working on step 9 and making amends.

Forgive and Release 

It took awhile to do all the assignments God gave me, but it was miraculous how much Joy and strength and love started returning to my Soul.  

Jesus taught us “But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” Mark 11:25 

That makes sense—Jesus came to give us life, overflowing, abundant, love joy and peace—but we have to accept his forgiveness for the wrongs we’ve done, and we have to follow His lead in forgiving others and living life in order to experience His life in our Spirit.

A Free Upgrade

When our kids were in middle school, there were certain advantages. They started sleeping in. They got ready for bed on their own. They were more and more independent. We could even go out on dates and leave them at home on their own. We would just ask Caleb to babysit Trevi and then we would go ask Trevi to babysit Caleb. It works out great pretty much every time – except for the one time it didn’t.

Several years ago, we were at a coffee shop close to downtown and near our house when we got a disturbing phone call. Trevi was quite upset! She was so upset I couldn’t understand what she was saying or what had happened, so I told her to calm down and say it all again. I still couldn’t figure out the problem, so I promised her we were on our way. 

Once we got home, we discovered the problem. Her cell phone screen had shattered. It wasn’t cracked. It was in pieces. Apparently, the kids got into an argument, Caleb pushed Trevi harder than he intended and the cell phone in her back pocket flew out onto the floor and shattered. Literally shattered. I have never seen a screen in so many pieces!

They were both incredibly sorry for what had happened. They were apologizing to each other and to us. Even still, Trevi was really upset. I kept trying to calm her down and explain that her phone was already due for an upgrade. I had been aware of that little fact just in case this very thing happened. I hadn’t told her because she was fine with her current cell phone. She was so upset, she could not be comforted. In fact, she was getting more and more upset with me because I wasn’t getting upset. I could not explain how all was ok. I could not explain how everything was going to be fine!

After several minutes of hugs and attempts to bring comfort and encouragement, I was finally able to explain: I am not upset because you have a free upgrade for your phone.  Since she rides the bus to school every day, we loaded up the car to get her a new phone she could use the next day.

All was right in the world!

That night, a thought from God popped into my mind: “This is how you are with me.”

I have to admit. That thought was not an encouragement nor was it what I wanted to hear. As I debated with God in my mind on how I am nothing like an 11 year old girl, another thought came to my mind: “Then why do you struggle to trust me?”

About that same season, I had taken the Spiritual Growth Path Assessment as part of our Life Group model for the first time. You have probably heard about us mention the power of being intentional about our spiritual growth with others in a life group. Together we helped each other grow using the Scriptures and focused on themes like Faithfulness, Generosity, Spiritual Gifts, and many others. We call these spiritual outcomes.

When I took the Spiritual Growth Path assessment my lowest score was for the outcome known as “Trusting God.” I debated with others in my life group on that result. I believe in Jesus! I have helped start churches! I have helped people follow Jesus and helped people grow in their faith!

What I discovered in this process was that sometimes I told God what to do rather than asking Him for what He wanted to do in my life and through my life. Our conversations were one way! He couldn’t speak to me because I wouldn’t stop talking (when I finally came around to praying at all).

All the things I try to fix and all the ways I want God to work, all along He had something better. I was settling for anxiety and anger, and God had a free upgrade for me all along. All I had to do was stop and listen.

When I have been stuck spiritually, part of what has helped me grow in my faith at Gateway and in years past has been acknowledging I need to grow. Celebrate small incremental steps. Compare yourself with where you were not with others.

The closer we grow to God the more we realize how far we have to go to become like Him.

Are you too proud to ask for help? Are you too proud to see areas in which you are stuck? Are you too proud to trust God and others so you try to control your circumstances and the people around you?

You see we grow in different areas faster than others. Have you hung out with middle schoolers much? Some have size 12 shoes even when they are 5 feet tall. Some have their adult teeth even though they still have a baby face. You see 4’8” boys dancing with 5’8” girls at the dance.

We may be mature in one area, but we are quite immature in other areas. We may be great at hearing God’s voice, but we still have a lot of work in forgiving others. We may be great at serving people in need, but we still have a lot of work in generosity.

Some of us are not as mature as we think we are. As a result, we are stuck. When we get stuck, we blame others. We blame our life group leader, our ministry leader, our parents, our pastors, or even God.

Humble yourself and ask God to speak to you. Ask Him to give you an open heart to hear His voice and even hear from others who you may have stopped listening to.

Our path towards growth remains humility and walking in step with the Spirit.

Trust God. Listen to Him. Acknowledge areas needing growth.

Just acknowledging what’s still there unhealed is a courageous step of faith.

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