Trauma is a certain kind of suffering — the kind that overwhelms one’s ability to cope. A whole class of wounds that cripple. A wound that buries itself deep in our consciousness. A tragedy too heavy for us. It happens in the past, but asserts itself over and over in the present.
The trauma of combat and the trauma of abuse have similarities, but are not the same. We are focusing here on trauma related to abuse which, despite often happening so close to home, requires wartime metaphors to make sense of the tumult in our minds and hearts.
How do we faithfully navigate the overwhelming wounds and unpredictable triggers as believers?
Trauma for Christians
Some Christians have been trained to think that proper believers will not continue to experience traumatic symptoms for the rest of their lives because of Christ’s liberating work. On the other hand, hope and freedom are withheld by other well-meaning Christian counselors who insist on our “need to process” — the need to focus exclusively on our trauma, the need to speak at length about the pain, the needto obsess over it, the need to become preoccupied with our wounds — the notion that only in giving ourselves over to our trauma can we be free from it. One is cruel optimism; the other is an incurable diagnosis. Both are forms of false witness.
Both are things professionals say. Both things amateurs say. Depending on the circumstances, both remotely accurate, and both totally false. So how do we know what to believe about ourselves, and about God? The church seems to walk precariously in these situations between two serious trenches: 1) teaching that Christ insists on a certain kind and pace of recovery for the wounded, or 2) insisting that lifelong psychological trauma is so much a human experience that God cannot help much.
There are countless stories of churches blanching traumatic experiences and ongoing distress with reductionistic redemptive strategies, undercutting and offending the legitimacy and necessity of true lament. There are countless other stories of parents’ relationships with their children utterly destroyed — not to mention seeming relationships with God — because a counselor was overly fixated on the trauma. For these reasons, the term trauma is heard both too little and too often in our day — too little in addressing the profound wreckage of abuse, and too often as the controlling, decisive narrative in our story.
Five Gifts from God to the Traumatized
How can we speak of Christ without overpromising with well-wishes that may not come true in this life? How can we name trauma without excusing someone entirely for awful patterns of sinful and destructive symptoms? How can we address trauma with clarity and honesty without letting it control or consume us? How can Christians faithfully and lovingly speak theological truth about trauma? Here are five things God gives the traumatized.
1. God remembers evil.
God remembers the evil that caused our traumas. He will not forget the life of our lost loved one, the transgression of our abuser, the brutal pain of violence, the shock and awe of loss, the aching regret over wounds for which we’re responsible. One day, he will bring all of it into the light with crystal clarity and perfect justice. Genuine trauma is done a disservice when the wound is hidden. Satan wants you to hide and deceive. God wants you to come to him with every honest, painful detail.
Trauma is mitigated first of all by calling that which is evil “evil,” and that which is devastating “trauma.” Its effects are only able to be survived and minimized when the whole tragedy has first come into view. The past will not be whitewashed for the sake of protecting the privileged. The men or women, the kings, the powerful, the institutional leaders, all those who abused power for their own personal gain — all evil acts will be properly labeled as evil, and remembered as the perpetuation of trauma.
2. God tells stories of trauma that would be easier to forget.
Glossing over the darkness for the sake of a redemptive story only perpetuates trauma. Calling the smallest signs of functionality “healing” and “progress” can actually undercut real healing and progress by minimizing pain and loss. The process of recovery is not typically immediate. Accurate self-assessment and self-honesty, as much as it is possible, is what places us within God’s true story about us, not trying to contrive redemptive emotions and improvement before they truly come.
God speaks about our trauma with precision. No ambiguous talk of “darkness,” “shame,” or “chains” will accurately describe the transgression of abuse, or the self-harming cycles into which it throws its victims. Not crassness. Not oversharing. Not shouting it from the rooftops or bulldozing every conversation with its weight. But God does encourage and embrace nuance.
The narratives in the Old Testament are awkwardly full of details. Like peering at surveillance footage, God inspired the authors to exposit the events with brutal accuracy. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). A Levite and his concubine (Judges 19). Amnon and Tamar (2 Samuel 13). These are ugly, awful stories about traumatic experiences among God’s faithful ones. God didn’t intervene to prevent the abuse. God didn’t micromanage the suffering, or give the victims a clean and quick “recovery story.” And yet he still put them on stage in his redemptive story.
Judah and Tamar interrupt the Joseph narrative. The Levite and his concubine interrupt the final cycle of Judges. Judah and Tamar interrupt David’s saga with Bathsheba and Absalom. God interrupts the stories of redemption with short stories of lives interrupted by trauma, some that are never resolved for us.
3. God speaks specifically to the depths of our suffering.
God gives us words for abuse. Massive portions of the Bible were written in poetry, because mere prose cannot communicate the pain and struggle and emotion that poetry can.