Why the church doesn’t want to talk about trauma

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Why the church doesn’t want to talk about trauma

June 27, 2023 -

A young woman in a white T-shirt holds her head in her hands while sitting in a church pew, an illustration of having experienced trauma. © By lunarts_studio/stock.adobe.com

A young woman in a white T-shirt holds her head in her hands while sitting in a church pew, an illustration of having experienced trauma. © By lunarts_studio/stock.adobe.com

A young woman in a white T-shirt holds her head in her hands while sitting in a church pew, an illustration of having experienced trauma. © By lunarts_studio/stock.adobe.com

She was only a young woman when her first husband died.

He was an evil man and left her with nothing, except a brother who reluctantly took her in and married her. The new husband was no better than the first, and he also passed away suddenly at a young age.

Left with no money and very little options to survive, she seduced her father-in-law and duped him into a sexual relationship with her. She became pregnant and was completely ostracized and put on display in her small-town community—until she revealed who she was.

Her name was Tamar, and her story appears in Genesis 38.

Trauma is not an unfamiliar theme in the Bible.

In fact, the Bible is layered with stories of women and men who endured horrific experiences that shaped their emotional health. Many experiences are redeemed and have a happy ending, while others do not (2 Kings 2, anyone?).

Yet, despite its persistent presence in the Bible, I’ve never heard a sermon that discusses trauma and its impacts on our lives and well-being.

It’s almost like the church doesn’t want to talk about it.

What is trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”

In The Myth of Normal, Gabor Maté writes that “trauma is a psychic injury, lodged in our nervous system, mind, and body, lasting long past the originating incident(s), triggerable at any moment.”

Many clinicians separate trauma into categories:

  • “Big T” trauma occurs when major events befall someone, e.g., neglect, abuse, accidents, death of a caretaker, or racism/oppression.
  • “Little t” trauma leaves lasting results from seemingly ordinary events, e.g., bullying, harsh parenting, or lack of connection with a nurturing adult.

While the two types of trauma differ in severity of onset, both can leave a lasting imprint on our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

When the experience of trauma has become so disruptive that negative symptoms occur, a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can happen. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • intrusive thoughts or flashbacks
  • feelings of low self-worth
  • feelings of hypervigilance
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • panic attacks
  • feeling easily startled or frightened
  • zoning out or losing chunks of time
  • guilt or shame
  • irritability
  • outbursts
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble feeling emotions
  • feeling numb

Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is caused by ongoing trauma that lasts for months or years, whereas PTSD is caused by a single traumatic event.

In both cases, symptoms can make engaging in relationships extremely strained and difficult. For those who suffer from PTSD or CPTSD, it feels easier to isolate and go inward than connect with others.

Why does the church seem to minimize trauma?

Most everyone will experience trauma at some point in their lives. Not everyone will experience PTSD.

However, the experience of trauma is entirely relative to the one who goes through it. I spent most of my life believing that trauma was something only war veterans experienced. Surely “good little pastor’s daughters” who live in a first-world country with first-world amenities don’t really have trauma or lingering symptoms of PTSD. Life is hard; everyone knows that.

For years, I minimized my trauma while I experienced very real, persistent symptoms of PTSD. And the church was complicit in my trauma minimization.

Here’s what I mean.

Oftentimes, when painful circumstances are brought up, whether in a small group setting or sermon, they are met with spiritual bypassing, the church’s version of toxic positivity. This can look like offering “Christianese” platitudes such as:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Feelings aren’t facts.”
  • “Don’t go there in your mind. Take captive every thought.”
  • “God gives his hardest battles to his strongest warriors.”
  • “Stay positive. God has overcome the world. This battle has already been won. It’s over and gone.”
  • “What you experienced is here to teach you.”
  • “You should never feel lonely. God is always with you.”
  • “If you leaned on God more, or prayed more, you wouldn’t be experiencing this.”

 Masking the issue

On the surface, these statements do appear to be helpful words of advice. Many of them are true and supported by Scripture. These are the kinds of phrases that get thrown up as sermon soundbites on a church’s Instagram page. We share them with our friends who are struggling with a new diagnosis, a loss, or a broken relationship in hopes to encourage them.

We mean well—but we minimize the greater impact of the experience on that person’s life.

To the person feeling overwhelmed by symptoms of trauma who so desperately wants to be able to break free from it, moving past it is easier said than done. So the trauma sufferer further retreats inward, afraid to share more and admit how unbearable the symptoms are—and how they infiltrate every area of life.

3 reasons we don’t talk about trauma in the church

1. Talking about trauma and its lasting effects is uncomfortable.

We live in a society that celebrates working hard, pushing through, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The church at large has always tended to mimic the culture at large, so our modern church corporations thrive on busyness, push-through, scheduling, and autopilot structure. We have nonstop events and volunteer opportunities. For trauma survivors looking for activity to numb their emotions, there’s no shortage of involvement opportunities.

For example, if I always feel like I’m filling a need that others have, I don’t have to look inward to see where I’m desperately lacking support myself. After all, someone else may need more immediate support than I need. To model Jesus, I must be looking out for the interests of others and pay no attention to my own. Isn’t that biblical?

So we have a system set up for us to stay busy to keep from looking inward, where there may be underlying symptoms that make us uncomfortable. We don’t have to address our deepest pain when we are always meeting others in their own.

2. We feel the need to uphold God’s image.

We want to paint a picture of God’s goodness, His redemption, and the way He makes all things work together for our good and His glory—but symptoms of PTSD can feel contrary to that. Lingering flashbacks, hypervigilance, panic attacks, debilitating depression—these are side effects of trauma that can hang around for decades after an event, maybe even after God redeemed the trauma sufferer from the event itself. So why won’t God remove the painful reminders? Can we still trust in His goodness when trauma leaves a lasting imprint? That’s a difficult discussion to have.

3. Church leadership may be undereducated about trauma and its effects.

Dealing with trauma is not directly addressed in the Bible, and there is no manual for how to support someone who can’t pray away the nightmares and unwelcome memories. Because trauma impacts almost everyone, it is safe to assume pastors and other church leaders are also dealing with the weight of trauma’s marks.

But (and I say this out of all respect as a former preacher’s daughter and preacher’s wife) some of these leaders may be working on autopilot, pushing through their own anxiety, depression, and self-worth issues. Being vulnerable as a church leader is a dangerous thing. You don’t want your congregation to think you’re falling apart. You need to maintain some air of “having it all together,” because if you don’t—who can?

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s at the root of this entire discussion.

Trauma leaves people in a constant state of vulnerability and on high alert. Trauma keeps you from wanting to show your real self because your real self may not be the happy mask you wear at church on Sundays and in your small group. Trauma constantly threatens to expose you. Trauma wants to hide from authenticity.

However, in order to fully support those among us who struggle, we must be willing to engage the hard conversations.

We must create a safe space to address the doubts.

We should feel free to model after the prophets and lament, together.

We need to be ready to offer safe resources from local counseling centers and trauma therapists who are training in somatic healing methods that support the whole body.

We don’t need to protect God’s image. He is well-acquainted with our fears and doubts.

We can listen and validate someone’s painful experiences without spiritually bypassing or brushing over the hurt by offering a quick solution. We can be courageous and meet people where they are without platitudes.

Most importantly, we can meet ourselves there, too.

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