Creating a home for hope amidst hurt
Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck. Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold. I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me. I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched. My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me.
Wednesday evening I walked into the house after a very grueling and traumatic day. I went to the front door to check for the mail. In the stack of junk and bills was the latest copy of Leadership Journal. Each issue of this journal is always dedicated to a particular theme. The theme of the issue was boldly printed across the journal’s cover: TRAUMA. How did they know?
Oxford Dictionary offers the following technical definition of Trauma: “Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis.” The key thing that differentiates trauma from just ordinary struggle or crisis is that trauma transcends our normal coping mechanisms. Your boss wants that report today rather than next week: that’s a struggle. You don’t have enough money in your checking account to float a bill: that’s a crisis. But, those are typically things that you can manage with the skills you already have. A natural disaster that takes your home, incidents or patterns of domestic abuse that cripple your marriage and dignity, the sudden loss of a loved one by violence: these violate our basic ideas about the world and call into question our assumptions about our lives and safety. These are traumas, and they leave us raw and vulnerable. In the midst of them we may not know how to escape—or even if there is an escape.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, which has done significant research on trauma, points out, “Life in a fallen world will always involve trauma. Avoidance is not a strategy.” What we need is effective ways to cope and recover. When handled well, Kinnaman says that traumatic events can become occasions for significant spiritual growth and transformation. I think this is part of what Paul means when he says that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). God never promises that only good things happen, but he does promise to redeem our most grievous circumstances for his purposes.
Given the ubiquitous nature of trauma, at some point in our lives someone we know will be in trauma, and as their friend or family member we will have an occasion to be involved intimately in their recovery, helping them to access God’s promises for healing and redeeming, and to see the way out. But, how we respond makes a big difference. If you find yourself in a position to help, consider the following advice:
- Be near and listen. There are often not answers in the midst of trauma, and even if there are answers, those at the center of the crisis probably won’t be able to rationalize or understand. There are no “right words.” Just knowing that you are there with them can create a sense of safety.
- Pray. Prayer isn’t about fixing the circumstances or explaining to God what has happened. According to Todd Billings, a seminary professor who was diagnosed at 39 with an aggressive cancer, praying for someone in trauma is about “joining the suffering in crying out to a gracious and powerful God, acting as living testimony to God’s promise in Christ that darkness will not have the final word.” When it comes to this kind of prayer, honesty is the best policy; platitudes like, “We trust you, O God,” will be disingenuous if the grieving person is angry at God. Ask the traumatized person what you can pray for. Don’t assume you know what they want or need. Then, just offer their feelings, needs, and requests before the Lord. From your relative place of security, you can trust that God will hear and respond faithfully.
- Prepare. Become familiar with the Christian perspective on death and pain. Admit the tension that we often experience between faith in God and human pain. Even those with firm hope in Jesus will be saddened, grieved, and hurt in the face of loss. The Psalms offer helpful insight to these tensions; Jesus himself prayed them in the depths of agony. Don’t short-circuit the grief/healing process with hackneyed sayings like, “Just have faith.”
- Seek shelter. To draw near to someone in trauma is akin to walking out onto a bald hill where a whirlwind rages fiercely. You will be swept up in it if you stay there too long. Take time to retreat for shelter. Pray. Worship. Seek counsel. These will strengthen you so you can be a source of strength when again you draw near to the vulnerable.
Truly traumatic experiences have a way of always being with us, but when dealt with well, hope can be found. As Delbert Hillers wrote, “People live on best after calamity, not by utterly repressing their grief and shock, but by facing it, and by measuring its dimensions.” This is ultimately our ministry with those in pain, to help them see and understand it for what it is. Only then can they see God’s presence for what it is: a treasure at work in the clay jars that are our lives, redeeming, healing, restoring, and making whole that which was broken.
Thank you for being the sort of community of faith where traumatic experiences become occasions for experiencing the redeeming power of God.
Yours in Christ,
February 28, 2020
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