Why we need a theology of trauma

[Previously published April 2015 at http://www.biblical.edu. The faculty blog no longer exists there thus re-posting here]

We live in a world shaped by violence and trauma. This week that I write 147 Christian Kenyan university students were killed because of their faith. Such horrific forms of violence shock us. But they shouldn’t given that in our own country violence and trauma are everyday occurrences. While some of our local brothers and sisters face actual death, all of our communities are shaped by soul-crushing abuse and family violence. Take the most conservative numbers we have—1:6 males and 1:4 females have experienced sexual assault before age 18—and realize that a large portion of your friends and acquaintances have traumatic experiences.

In a congregation of 100, 20 of your fellow church members are walking around with invisible wounds of sexual violence on their bodies and souls. And that number says nothing about those walking around with other invisible wounds, such as caused by domestic violence, racial prejudice, sexism, bullying and the like. Were we to include these forms of interpersonal violence the number would likely reach 70!

As my friend Boz Tchividjian asks, what would the sermons and conversations look like if 20 of our mythical congregation of 100 had just lost a house in a fire or a child to premature death? Wouldn’t we be working to build a better understanding of God’s activity in the midst of brokenness rather than passing over pain as a mere hiccup of normal life?

Yet, we continue to imagine trauma as some sort of abnormal state.

Ruard Ganzevoort[1] tells us that, “When one looks at issues like these, we must conclude that our western societies are to no less degree defined by violence and trauma, even if everyday life is in many ways much more comfortable” (p. 13). Thus, Ganzevoort continues, we must “take trauma and violence not as the strange exceptions to an otherwise ‘nice’ world” (ibid, emphasis mine). He concludes that while we have a strong theology for sinners, we have a less articulated theology for victims.

What if we were to read the Bible in such a way to build a theology of trauma for victims? What would it look like? I would suggest that Diane Langberg’s maxim sets the stage quite nicely: the cross is where trauma and God meet. Jesus cries out due to the pain of abandonment by the Father. Since we do have a high priest who understands our trauma (Hebrews 4:15), we can read the entire canon from the frame of trauma—from the trauma of the first sin and death to the trauma of the cross to the trauma just prior to the coming new heavens and earth.

Key Themes in a Theology of Trauma

Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma highlights a few key themes beyond the foundation of a God who Himself knows trauma firsthand in the unjust torture and death of Jesus:

Anguish is the norm and leads most frequently to questions

When more than 40% of the Psalms are laments (and that doesn’t count the primary themes of the prophets!) we must recognize that anguish is most appropriate forms of communication to God and with each other. But we are not alone in the feelings of anguish. God expresses it as well. Notice God expresses his anguish over the idolatry of Israel (Eze 6:9) and Jesus expresses his when lamenting over Israel (Luke 13:34) and cries out in questions when abandoned by the Father (by quoting—fulfilling—Psalm 22).

Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Peace happens…in context of chaos

Psalm 23 comes to the lips of many during times of trouble as it expresses peace and rest during times of intense trouble. Shadows of death yet comfort; enemies around yet feasts. Peace happens but rarely outside of chaos and distress. Consider Jeremiah 29:11, frequently quoted to those going through hardship to remind them that God has a plan. He does have one, but recall that the plan was to live in exile among those who see the Israelites as foreigners and second-class citizens!

The kingdom of God in the present does not promise protection of bodies

Try reading Psalm 121 aloud among those who have survived genocide or been raped repeatedly by soldiers. “The Lord will keep you from all harm.” Really? You lost 70 family members? You cannot maintain your bladder continence due to traumatic injury to your bladder? Where was your protection? Our theology of God’s care must take into consideration that He does not eliminate disaster on those he loves. Recall again the trauma wrought on those God chose to be his remnant. They were the ones ripped from families and enslaved by the Babylonians.

God and his people are in the business of trauma prevention, justice, and mercy responses

The kingdom of God is not for those who have pure beliefs. The kingdom of God is for the poor in Spirit, the persecuted, those who provide mercy and those who hunger for justice (Matthew 5). True or pure religion is practiced by those who care for the most vulnerable among us (James 1:27). Jesus himself is the fulfillment of healing as he claims Isaiah 61 as fulfilled in his personhood and mission (Luke 4:18-21). We his people are the hands and feet to carry out that binding up and release from oppression.

Recovery and renewal during and after trauma likely will not eliminate the consequences of violence until the final return of Jesus Christ

Despite our call to heal the broken and free those enslaved, we are given no promise that the consequences of violence are fully removed until the final judgment. Rarely do we expect lost limbs to grow back or traumatic brain injuries to be erased upon recovery from an accident. Yet sometimes we assume that traumatic reactions such as startle responses, flashbacks, or overwhelming panic should evaporate if the person has recovered. A robust theology of trauma recognizes we have no promise of recovery in this life. What we do have is theology of presence. God is with us and will strengthen us guiding us to serve him and participate in his mission to glory.

There is much more to say about a theology of trauma for victims. We can discuss things like theodicy, forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation. But for now, let us be patient with those who are hurting as they represent the norm and not the exception. And may we build a missional theology of trauma, not only for victims, but also for all.

[1] Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.


Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Counselors, Doctrine/Theology, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, teaching counseling, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Why we need a theology of trauma

  1. Thank you for this lucid and much needed discussion of how the experience of trauma intersects with theology. Until my son was killed instantly and violently in an accident, I had been able to ignore the reality of trauma-its questions, its aftermath. No more. It shapes our hearts and lives, our interactions with one another and our interaction with God. The laments are a wellspring of comfort to my broken heart. Thank you also for acknowledging that we will not experience complete healing this side of Heaven.

  2. Robin A. Greiner

    Thank you for this excellent article dealing with the theology of trauma! What hope! ❤

  3. Annie Abernethy

    It’s important to understand that Godv the Father NEVER abandoned His Son, even on the cross. It’s troubling that some of us have been taught that and believe it! The beauty of Jesus’ cry from the cross of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is that Jesus was expressing his full humanity and identifying with our feelings of abandonment. The very Psalm from which Jesus quotes goes on to talk of God’s continual Presence in the very midst of trauma, and in fact affirms that He would never leave any of us. This truth of Psalm 23 is essential for those of us who have felt abandoned by God in times of abuse or trauma. Who would trust a Father who, in the most desperate hour of His Son’s life, would turn His back on him? Not I.

    • Annie, thanks for your comment. I respectfully disagree. I do not think Jesus felt abandoned. But he was, for our sake. I think you will find most theologians agree with me (though of course it is wise to consider that we are all wrong!). It is a scary thought for sure. But, we do put our trust in a Father who says there must be punishment for sin, punishment he enacts on himself. It is a mystery but it appears to me to minimize sin to say that God didn’t really abandon Jesus on the cross and it only appeared that way.

      • Ann Abernethy

        Phil, if I read your reply correctly, it sounds like you are saying that Jesus was abandoned by the Father on the cross but he didn’t actually “feel” abandoned. That sounds like Jesus didn’t “feel” the way humans feel, the way I would have felt in that moment, which is why Jesus referred to Psalm 22. After all, He is our high priest who is familiar with the very feelings of our infirmities, according to Hebrews. And as far as the power of sin, I’d rather underestimate it than the power of God’s love. This conversation is in line with a lot of rethinking of my theology that has been spurred by my contacts with Paul Young and Baxter Kruger. Very interesting stuff.

      • Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I think Jesus felt abandoned and was abandoned by the father, at least for a moment.

    • Robin A. Greiner

      Interesting point, Annie. Personally, I believe that for those moments on the Cross, it was not a Father abandoning His Son — it was a Holy Judge unleashing His just wrath on the spotless sin-bearer.
      When God’s beloved children “feel” abandoned by Him in our trials, it is merely a feeling, and we can choose to ground ourselves in Truth that our Father will never turn His back on us. It’s BECAUSE Jesus took all of the Father’s wrath FOR us that we can be assured that God will never abandon His chosen people.

  4. Pingback: Council of Counselors: Mortify Sin / Helping Parents / Sexual Abuse / 6 Basic Struggles / Theology of Trauma | Brad Hambrick

  5. David Hill

    While some of you may want to argue about matters of the Atonement, where words and definitions are very difficult, I thank you for acknowledging the emotions and desolation of trauma and suffering. Both my grown up chidlren recently died in a Grand Canyon Helicopter Accident and this is one of a very few articles which has theologically and emotionally helped me. I leave those of you untouched life’s tragedy to argue over words – I’ll try and wait until I see the Lord who alone answers all mysteries. I am thankful that the cry of dereliction was uttered – at least it shows me that I have a Savour who understands pain.

  6. Laura Ercolino

    I agree. I too am thankful that our Lord, who is God and had full knowledge of His coming victory and resurrection, in His humanity cried out for the cup of suffering to pass Him by and again in His feeling abandoned by His Father. Meditating on Christ’s very human response to trauma helps me to have patience and kindness toward myself as I walk my healing journey with Him.

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