Spiritual Healing from Traumatic Stress
In addition to the psychological and physical effects that result from exposure to trauma, spiritual concerns almost always arise. These may occur whether or not the person was active in his/her faith before the trauma. Even persons who were very strong, consistent believers may struggle in the wake of a traumatic exposure. For believers in the Lord there is hard news and hopeful news regarding traumatic stress and spirituality.
A person who has suffered direct or indirect trauma (i.e., someone close to them was traumatized) may have any of the following reactions:
- The person may ask “Why did God let this happen?!” A caregiver may need to listen to bitter self-recrimination (i.e., “If only I’d been a better …” “If only I hadn’t …”) implying that the person’s explanation as to why the worst event occurred is that God is judging that person for sins or short-comings.
- The person may ask “Where was God?!” Trauma may strain belief in a personally involved, loving, and caring God. The truth is that all Christian believers live between two poles of experience. One pole is that we bear witness by experience that God is personal, caring, and loving. Each of us can point to at least one circumstance wherein God’s love and care were evident in our lives. The other pole is that terrible things do happen in the lives of believers. Growth and Christian maturity requires that we somehow reconcile these two poles in the light of our belief in God.
- As the person works through later stages of trauma processing, he or she may show either cool indifference toward God (“God let me down in my hour of need and I’m not interested God!”) or hot anger (e.g., “accusing God”).
Working through trauma can afford an opportunity for a person to experience both healing and a deeper knowledge of God. The following applies:
- Each of us must face something in life that is akin to Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord, seeking blessing, and being “blessed” by having his hip put out of joint (i.e., a “blessing” that enters life looking more like a curse at first) (see Genesis 32:24-33:17). When this happens our previous assumptions about God are shattered. How is that hopeful news? When a person’s comfortable assumptions are shattered, the opportunity arises for that person to learn for him/herself just how deep, patient, and comforting God is. Out of such traumatic times can come deeply-held heart knowledge such as that made famous by Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place: “There is no hurt that is so deep that God is not deeper still” (see Psalm 139:1-18). Such knowledge cannot be taught, only experienced firsthand (see Job 38:1-42:6).
- In the process of learning of God’s true depth, the traumatized person may come to understand old truths about God in new ways. These include the truths that:
- God remains the same (see Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).
- God is tender (see Psalm 69:30-33; Psalm 145:8-9, 13-20; Isaiah 49:14-16; Matthew 9:36, 14:14; Luke 13:34).
- God will go to great lengths to “find” a lost sheep (see Luke 15:3-6).
- God will endure honest, bewildered questioning. The truth is not afraid of honestly-asked questions (see Psalm 22; Psalm 69, Psalm 90, etc.)
- God will endure angry accusation. Anger at God is not the opposite of faith … apathy is (see Psalm 88; Psalm 89:38-51, etc.)
- God will reveal where he was/is in surprising ways (see I Kings 19:1-13; Luke 24, etc.)
At The Antioch Group in our work with trauma survivors, we have been moved to tears numerous times as a person working through trauma exclaims tearfully “so that’s where God was! I never knew!”
How can you help?
- Weep with those who weep—at Antioch we liken the early stages—weeks and months—of trauma to sitting by the bedside of a person who has a raging fever and is saying wild things. The physicians of old knew how to “see their patients through the night,” reassuring them that the physician was with them, offering a cup of cold water, or a cool cloth on a fevered brow. In so many words, so must we. This may involve the need to sit by a traumatized friend who has some angry “choice” things to say about God.
- Avoid “Job’s friends’ errors”—Job’s friends did their “best work” when they were quietly sitting with their distressed friend (see Job 2:11-13). When they began to talk about their beliefs as to why Job was suffering, they ceased to be helpful. They tried to offer a rationale (i.e., this must be because you sinned) to a series of events that could not be rationally explained. For us to listen and to pray is far better than to duplicate this erroneous line of “help” that really does not help (see Job 3-28).
- Take care of yourself as a caregiver—there are truly such phenomena as “compassion fatigue” and “secondary traumatization” in which the helper gets warn down and traumatized by listening to and working with a person who is facing the unthinkable and the unexplainable. Be sure that you are refreshed spiritually yourself. Any of the following may help:
- Talk with your pastor and/or a close Christian friend (being careful to maintain the confidentiality of your traumatized friend).
- Listen to music of faith that speaks to you.
- Read the Words of the Faith (e.g., Psalm 91, Psalm 139, etc.)
Even though the issues facing a traumatized person are often very deep in terms of the spiritual questions that they raise, God (as Corrie ten Boom said) is deeper still. We must sit with and suffer alongside those who have witnessed or experienced that which defies rational explanation. In so doing we follow our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For general information on the effects of Traumatic Stress Disorder on adults and children, please visit The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.