Living Well and Wisely with God and His People While Coping with Trauma
Miguel was brutally beaten up by his brother-in-law and another relative. Since that time—which Miguel can’t fully remember nor bring himself to talk about—he has struggled to maintain healthy relational attachments with his own wife and children because he fears that they, too, will one day turn on him. Low energy levels mean that he no longer goes to the gym, does not have any interest in seeing his friends, and doesn’t go to church either. He just wants to live under the radar, where no one can see him and be a threat to him. Miguel also feels like a doormat, sensing that anyone could walk all over him at any time; the fact that his boss is a bully only serves to reinforce these beliefs.1I am glad to thank my colleague Lindsay Wilson for a discussion that greatly enriched this article. For his excellent commentary on Job see Lindsay Wilson, Job – the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans 2015). Laura Thierry, who also works on trauma and hagiography, also provided very constructive insights for the paper, and I am very grateful to her too.
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Once a devout Christian and Sunday school leader, he simply does not bother to talk to God or even think about him anymore. He reasons that what happened to him is evidence that God either does not care about him, or simply can’t do anything to prevent people suffering from random horrors.
This isn’t the first time he has been assaulted either; in fact, from Miguel’s perspective, his life has been a long struggle to thrive in the context of neighborhoods, families, and workmates who constantly try to knock him down. Claudia and the kids worry about Miguel, and are becoming very frustrated with him; they want their old Miguel back, but he seems to have died on the night of the assault.
A storm seems to have ripped through the family. Miguel isn’t coping with trauma well; he seems to live with wounds that can’t be healed. These words, the “storm” and the “wound,” describe the experience of most survivors and their families. They are the key metaphors that therapists, pastors, and religious studies writers use to describe both the experiences of traumatic events as well as their consequences in the lives of survivors.2Shelly Rambo, “‘Theologians Engaging Trauma’ Transcript,” Theology Today 68, no. 3 (2011). “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation 69, no. 1 (2015). All Bible references are from the NIV, 2011.
Traumatic events are defined by medical and psychological science as overwhelming and fearful situations in which people sense their life is in danger. Medical categories such as PTSD and complex PTSD describe the consequences of traumatic experiences; symptoms affect a person’s memory, energy levels, relationships, sense of self, and sense of safety in everyday life.3The work on trauma, its symptoms, and recovery is dependent upon Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (London: Basic Books, 2001). Here I also restate and expand points made in Scott Harrower, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World (Eugene, OR.: Lexham Press, 2019). Sadly, most people reading this article will have witnessed or experienced the storm and the wound.
Horrors in the Hebrew Bible
What do the Scriptures, especially the Hebrew Bible, have to say about the nature of traumatic events, the survivor’s life in the midst of ongoing traumas, and life in their aftermath? What does living well and wisely—positive coping with trauma—look like in the wake of horrific suffering? Stated theologically, what does living well and wisely with God and his people look like after the storm and the wounds of trauma?
A lot. A near-overwhelming focus of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Scriptures written after Christ, is on trauma and the struggle to live in its wake. Individual as well as corporate traumatic events are laid bare before the reader, their grotesque reality a continual challenge to faith in and life with God. These traumatic events, which I refer to as horrors, have powerful resonances with contemporary ones.
For example, consider the horror of the Levite’s unnamed concubine, who is sexually assaulted to the point of death in Gibeah, described in Judges 19. In the story, the concubine’s husband gives her up to a mob to protect himself from being sexually assaulted himself. After night-long sexual violence at the hands of a gang, she is left at his door. She is dumped on the ground, and dies soon after. Her corpse is cut up and sent to the tribes of Israel as a rallying call to punish the injustice done to her and to rid the people of this kind of horror-making.
This is a story of the unjust death of one person, which exposes the perversion and evil that has shaped, and is also at work in, a people group. Everyone who is part of this people group is involved in one way or another: it may be as perpetrators, or as those who hand the woman over to a desecrating fate, or as those who may want to cover up the incident, or those who are unsure what to do; it may be as those who want to investigate, go to God, purge the evil from within, then work to somehow bring about restoration and healing for the surviving communities in the wake of what has happened.
This kind of event sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? I can recall recent stories in both India and the USA about the traumatic death of one person, whose suffering is also a group issue. The nature and character of the nation is called into question by horrific acts and the traumatizing effect they have on the people as a whole. Immediate issues come to mind: these include what to do when the shame cannot be covered up and when the social structures that contribute to the event are revealed. Looking further afield, we can ask how this event can be prevented in the future, and what restoration might look like. Both the immediate and longer term questions need to be asked and answered in communion and covenant with God—the One who is holy, loving, and good.
Stories of Trauma as God’s Vocal Chords
Dealing with these realities is very hard, and cannot be done alone. Fortunately, God’s Spirit has inspired and preserved important stories of trauma and recovery through which to speak to us. These stories serve as God’s vocal chords, by which he draws our attention to align with his sadness over the world’s situation, and over our own. He helps us realize that trauma is a near-universal experience for most human groups, yet it is a universal experience from which he does not flee. God is with his people and available to them even as they are near-consumed by horrors: “All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me . . . But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me” (Ps 22:17, 19).
These narratives also speak about role models and sources for coping during and after horrors—these stories include those of individuals and groups. For example, the Hebrew Bible also gives us a number of “inside views” into living in the midst of overwhelming and fearful experiences. The story of Job is perhaps the preeminent example of this. Despite the worst of losses and the worst of friends, Job is not abandoned by God (nor is God abandoned by Job). Job never receives an answer to why he, his children and his wife suffered as they did, yet he does receive assurance that God knows about his griefs and is providentially at work in unseen ways. The reality of God and the hidden works of God sustain Job, and enable him to persevere in righteousness and faith even when no human being seems to faithfully persevere with Job himself.
In similar ways, the stories of Noah, Esther, Jonah, David, and Daniel equally witness to disaster and distress. Though they do so quite distinctly, these narratives speak of a world that is riddled with suffering, dread, and the struggle for righteousness in the face of atrocious evils. Stories about groups—the nation, tribes, or smaller kin groups—also witness to disasters. The Book of Lamentations does not shy away from the reality of horrendous evils, such as mothers cannibalizing their own children.4“Horrendous evils” is McCord-Adam’s classic term for describing the worst evils we can inflict on one another. Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999). It is hard to think of a more traumatic experience for a parent. This would not be a stand-alone event for the mother; a larger catastrophic history of smaller horrors would lead up to eating one’s children.
Coping with Trauma over Time
It is not unusual for me to feel sick as I write on the traumas and horrors that the Bible describes. I find them overwhelming. There is only so much I can handle in one sitting, I have to stop and take stock, time and time again. In a sense, the need to pause is an important effect that the Holy Spirit achieves in us when we listen to Scripture’s laments. These laments, prayers, and stories of trauma lead me to question God just as the original authors did. The Spirit uses these stories to slow us down, to take the time to deal with what has happened or is happening to us.
This effect is part of the way that wisdom literature makes us slow down and process life as it really is.5Wilson, Job – the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, 27. God takes his time with us as the Spirit helps us mourn and lament what we have lost and are losing. By helping us pause and ruminate, the Spirit helps us grieve, and adopt the words of the psalms: “I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago (Ps. 77:3–5). So the Scriptures can be our words as well as God’s vocal chords through which He speaks to us.
Horrors and the Man of Sorrows
The Scriptures are full of stories of pain and suffering, and this is heightened in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. There is a sense in which the saddest and most traumatic story in the Bible is the story of Jesus. He was the only perfectly good, just, merciful, and wise person ever to live. His childhood is spent on the run, a stranger in a foreign land. Once he begins to be wonderfully helpful to others, he is met with demonic and human resistance. Again and again people try to manipulate, dupe, and set him up to fail. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, yet he is treated appallingly. The Light of the World was actively resisted with hate and passively resisted by abandonment. Finally, Jesus was betrayed, tortured, unjustly tried, abandoned, mocked, crucified, and suffocated to death.
As darkness descends on the scene of Jesus’ death, we too can feel overwhelmed and sick. Perhaps humanity really is without hope. We, horror-makers that we are, may never recover from the loss of God, ourselves, and each other, as described in Genesis 3. What about God, though? Does God only sing a dirge through the Scriptures? Can we only respond to trauma with scriptural laments and our own?
There may be seasons of life when these are the only kinds of songs we can hear and hum. In fact, there may be seasons of life when the Spirit has to do all the crying out to God for us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Rom. 8:26). Does God merely comfort us because he cannot act to overcome evil though He wants to? Does He actually do anything about trauma? Can He stop us from being horror-makers? When our own lives are lived in the wake of the “storm” and the “wounds” of trauma, keen attention to the disasters and trauma described in the Bible might lead us to the conclusions that though God may want to make a difference in our lives in the wake of national and personal trauma, he cannot do so.
Fortunately God’s voice is like running waters: it has many flows and eddies within it. God speaks to us about being friends of Jesus, children of God, heirs of a kingdom, alive in the Spirit. While coping with trauma wounds, survivors may find new life and growth after the storm. There is much more to be said about what the Scriptures tell us about trauma on one hand, and about the recovery of memory, energy, safety, self, and community on the other. The big point is that the divine and human authors of the Scriptures recognized the near-universality of personal and group disasters and trauma. These authors do not minimize the grief and shame that God begins to heal. Amid the storm of trauma, and the apparent silence of injustice, God does not remain silent.
Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Harrower, Scott. God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World. Eugene, OR.: Lexham Press, 2019.
Lewis Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. London: Basic Books, 2001.
Rambo, Shelly. “Spirit and Trauma.” Interpretation 69, no. 1 (2015): 7–19
———. “‘Theologians Engaging Trauma’ Transcript.” Theology Today 68, no. 3 (2011): 224–37.
Wilson, Lindsay. Job – the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans 2015.
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