How Should Christians Handle Trauma?
How can we better serve people who have experienced trauma? And how should we react if we have suffered traumatic experiences ourselves?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Unfortunately, trauma is not rare. It can happen to infants, children, adolescents, adults and older people. Because of the brokenness of our world, trauma is everywhere. No one is immune to it.
Lasting effects of trauma
What happens to us changes us.
This is true psychologically, of course, but it is also true neurologically, gastrointestinally and cardiovascularly. Trauma has a massive impact on the long-term health of those who go through it.
For example, research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) impacts our risk of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease. In addition, chronic inflammation is more common in adulthood among people who suffered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—even after accounting for lifestyle choices and other environmental factors (Danese et al., 2007).
Because of the brokenness of our world, trauma is everywhere. No one is immune to it.Because our world is filled with war, divorce, death, addiction, abuse and neglect, the rate of people who experience ACEs is estimated at a terrifying 60 percent (Merrick et al., 2018)—and many suspect that is an underestimation.
It’s impossible to find reasons for the things that many people have gone through in their lives.
Yet even Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, experienced traumatic events throughout His physical life. We are told that He was “despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
As a young child, Jesus was a refugee in Egypt with His parents. Sometime during His childhood or young adulthood, He apparently experienced the loss of His stepfather, Joseph. He was also rejected by many of His family members and countrymen. And that’s all besides the horrific and traumatic death He experienced at 33 years of age.
God the Father did not exempt His Son from trauma.
Trauma and resilience
For those who have experienced trauma, knowing they are at an increased risk of chronic disease isn’t exactly hopeful. However, modern research on trauma doesn’t just focus on the prevalence and health risks.
Researchers today are starting to give more attention to how outcomes can differ between people who have experienced trauma.
Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event develops PTSD.
This research was spurred on by examples of resilience among groups such as Holocaust survivors. After their liberation from Nazi death camps, many of them successfully and quickly rebuilt their lives despite their horrific experiences.
The term post-traumatic growth was coined to describe this resilient reaction in the face of trauma.
While different people might find reacting with resilience to be more difficult, it is possible. Many Holocaust survivors reported actively engaging in behaviors that helped them grow during the years after experiencing this massive trauma. Many strove to leave a legacy and work to better their communities—through activities that foster connection and a sense of purpose (Greene et al., 2012).
This doesn’t mean their lives were easy or idyllic. But it does mean that many could live meaningful, hopeful lives despite the horrific experiences in their past.
The people around them were indispensable in this process. Holocaust survivors living in Israel, for example, have had better mental health than Holocaust survivors living in other parts of the world—likely due to living in a community that supported them and understood their past.
Likewise, Christians can show love to those who have suffered by caring for them, reaching out to them and listening to their stories (if they want to share them). People who have been traumatized need to be in an environment where they feel safe, heard and supported.
Why does God allow trauma?
Why would a loving God allow trauma in our world? Why would God let trauma touch the life of His Son?
I certainly cannot give a complete answer. Understanding God’s mind will be beyond my ability until Christ’s return. But here are a few possible reasons to consider:
- Trauma can teach us that bad things happen to good people and that righteousness isn’t an easy path to a trouble-free life. If it were, people would seek it for selfish reasons.
- Trauma provides an opportunity to build resilience through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
- Trauma can help teach us compassion for those who have suffered and how we must be careful not to instinctively blame the person suffering (compare the book of Job and the story of the man born blind in John 9).
Even though we can’t end trauma and suffering in this life, we can help people experiencing it.
A time is coming when God will intervene to end pain and suffering in our world. To learn more about that time, read “The Kingdom of God Will End Suffering and Evil.”
How to help someone who’s experienced trauma
What can you do if you want to serve those who have experienced trauma? Here are a few ways to start:
- Recognize the scope of trauma, and don’t assume you can always tell who has a history of trauma and who doesn’t.
- Recognize trauma’s power in impacting someone’s responses. Seek to understand and avoid actions and words that might provoke a negative response.
- Be a part of a supportive community for those who have suffered.
How to build resilience
What if you have experienced trauma?
There is some great encouragement in the research (and in the Scriptures) about the value of resilience, a trait we can all learn. Here are a few important first steps:
- Pray for healing. Humbly claim God’s promises to uphold, strengthen and help (Psalm 37:23-24; 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; Proverbs 24:16). Even if you don’t feel like praying, kneel before God and tell Him so. His understanding and help is infinite.
- Get support from as many people as you can. You might start by talking to one person you feel comfortable with or by reaching out to your pastor or a counselor. You don’t have to tell everyone everything, but you do need to tell someone something.
- Take care of yourself physically.
- Serve others.
- Remember Jesus’ example. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) but fully relied on God, even when He was physically alone. He had the advantage of knowing the purpose of His suffering and chose that path. We do not choose to suffer, but we can still know the story’s end and our ultimate purpose.
If you’re struggling, support is available if you reach out for it.
For more on resilience and hope, read the articles “Perseverance and the Science of Resilience in Trials” and “Finding Peace of Mind.”