When someone suffers an obvious injury to a leg it is clear to us that this injury limits prior capacities for walking, running, standing, and other things we do with our legs. If the injury is slow to heal, would we be likely to tell them to act as if the injury never happened? No. We can see the injury, its effects, and we recognize that recovery may be limited. We would be unlikely to judge the person for failing to run like they had prior to the accident. Of course, physical wounds will prompt spiritual concerns, from “where was God…?” to trusting God for the future even while continuing to experience pain symptoms and the inability to complete tasks that used to be easy.
But what about the wounds we can’t so easily see?
Sadly, I think we spiritualize them and do judge others for having them. Take for example a victim of abuse or trauma that results in a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. We see no obvious wound. The body looks sound and fit. So, the anxiety we see, the hesitancy to trust others, the mental confusion, the inability to sleep well…these symptoms must be primarily evidence of a spiritual problem, right?
Wrong, at least in part. While we rarely see the damage done to victims of trauma, changes to the brain are nonetheless present. Here’s a couple of things we think we know about trauma and the brain:
- The brain is an adaptable organ and use-dependent. Activity along neural pathways can become more efficient with practice (i.e., the more something happens, the easier it is for the brain to respond). So, certain pathways and structures in the brain become more easily activated
- Observing activity brain scans in those who suffered severe traumas such as child abuse, we see evidence that the part of the brain that processes emotion seems to be routinely overactive. Likewise, the part of the brain that provides conscious analysis of where we are in time and space, seems underactive when emotional processing increases. This activity problem (too much in some areas, too little in others) appears to cause individuals to relive/re-experience trauma and have less capacity (in the moment of reliving) to talk back to their feelings (analyze what is happening) or explain it to others
- Along with these structures, hormone feedback systems appear to produce fight/flight hormones in the presence of triggers
Simplistic as my points above are, I hope you can see that a person has little conscious control over these reactions in any given moment. Now, there are things that can be done to help the brain adapt and respond better, but the fact of being triggered is not the result of not trusting God.
So, consider the multiply-traumatized man in your church who reacts negatively to well-intentioned requests to join a small group or to be prayed over with the laying on of hands. Is this because they do not trust God, are sinfully fearful, or evidence of invisible wounds of PTSD? I suspect some would be inclined to assume this man had a spiritual problem. In fact he may, but the reaction he is having is most likely not that problem.
A Better Question
Recently I asked my students to consider this question: What does faithfulness look like for the Christian who is suffering pervasive panic? Does it mean an absence of fear? Forcing themselves into situations that will flood them with panic? How would you answer this question? Are the evidences of fear in your life a sign you do not trust God? Can you acknowledge fear and still trust God? What does that look like for you?