The word trauma means “wound,” so a trauma is a wound to the mind, the heart, and the soul. Sometimes it’s a wound to the body as well. But it is a wound to the whole person, and it happens when suffering overwhelms what we would consider normal human coping.
We all deal with stress in our lives, and we have ways of managing that, but trauma goes beyond that. It would include things like rape, domestic violence, child abuse, trafficking, witnessing violence against others, and war. In all of these cases, the result is traumatized human beings living with recurring memories of the trauma. In turn, those memories affect their sleep, erode their relationships, lower their capacity to work, and sometimes shatter their faith or destroy their hope. Even though their wounds aren’t visible, the effects are.
And inside wounds, like physical wounds, can fester if not cared for.
Why some people don’t share their story
There are numerous things that keep people from talking about what has happened to them, such as others in the church not speaking openly, shame, and an overwhelming lack of sense of safety. Oftentimes the church hasn’t known how to respond to these sorts of trauma issues, so church leaders or other people in the church will remain silent, which makes it even more difficult for the victims to feel they can open up. Because of this, the trauma stays with the victims, and they can feel ashamed, broken and helpless, or flawed and unworthy. That makes them hesitant to tell their story.
Many trauma wounds carry a lot of shame, particularly things like rape, abuse, trafficking, and domestic violence. Because of this feeling of shame, people will carry their trauma wounds privately, and they don’t get the care they need.
Additionally, their sense of security has been damaged by the trauma, and they feel increasingly vulnerable in a dangerous way, changing the way they think and live and changing the way they do relationships. So the wound of their trauma festers and begins to infect every area of their life, and they live in a constant state of feeling unsafe.
Their sense of security has been damaged, changing the way they do relationships.
They don’t trust God anymore
Another reason some people don’t share their story after a trauma is because of the magnitude with which it can impact even solid faith. When we encounter personal evil or disaster in life, it rocks us. It can turn faith upside down. So people can begin to wonder where God was when the trauma happened, or ask why He wasn’t there to protect them or their loved ones. I once heard a client ask, “What was God thinking when my daddy raped me?” These sorts of questions come up.
People who are dealing with trauma are struggling with what seem to be two irreconcilable realities. On the one hand, we can understand a loving God and no sexual abuse of a child. Or, we can understand sexual abuse and no loving God. But it can be hard to reconcile in our minds the reality of a loving God while maintaining the reality of sexual abuse of a child. It’s the age-old “problem of evil” question, how we reconcile evil with a good and loving God.
When trauma happens, then, this “problem of evil” question becomes extremely personal and no longer theoretical. So many people who have been traumatized feel like they’ve lost the God they knew and trusted. He doesn’t feel safe anymore. As a result, opening up to a pastor or minister, someone who is a representative of God to them, may not feel safe anymore either.
4 ways to encourage trauma victims to open up
When we think about the personal nature of the problem of evil that presents itself in the midst of trauma, the answer must first and foremost be in the person of Jesus Christ. At the Cross, the reality of evil and the goodness of God met. He was assaulted by evil; He bore our sorrows. While we can share Scripture with victims of trauma, we have to bring those victims to an encounter with Christ. We have to incarnate the love and mercy of God through Christ to them.
When we do so, little by little His presence is sensed and is known by the victims. His carrying of their suffering becomes a more believable reality because we have carried it with them. So ultimately, it is the place of the Cross that provides the answer for their questions, but the path there is through the people of God, caring for, bearing witness to, and walking alongside a traumatized life.
1. Exercise patience in your response
When it comes to dealing with trauma, we oftentimes have this inclination to rush in and talk a lot in an effort to help and give them answers. In these cases, though, all we are doing is adding to the sense of being overwhelmed. We don’t want to overwhelm them in the way we respond. Speak too quickly and they are likely to withdraw again.
As long as they are telling their story, ask questions only for understanding, not for correction. Eventually, we can come back and start to draw them into the truth, but still not confront them. It has to be done gently, and we want victims to come to understanding, rather than it being forced on them. We want them to wrestle with the truth and apply it to themselves. That’s where deep change comes from.
2. Allow the victim to speak
Talking is so important to healing, partly because trauma is evil in nature, and evil teaches us lies. For instance, prolonged child sexual assault teaches the victims that they are worthless, and regardless of how many Scripture passages they read that say otherwise, they still believe they are worthless. These lies must come out into the light, in front of someone who speaks truth but also treats them in accordance with these truths. The lies must come out to someone who listens patiently and responds safely and quietly. Then, the bondage of those lies is released when the lies are told in the light and in the presence of someone aiming to be a representative of who Christ is and who speaks truth to them.
Furthermore, we typically interact with suffering people, or pain, by talking. But sometimes we don’t know how to stop, or we want to tell them how they need to change or act. Trauma needs a great deal of talking in order to heal, but the talking is not ours, it’s the victim’s. We need to be present and gentle and inviting and safe, so over time they find words to express what is oftentimes unspeakable.
3. Understand suffering
We also need to understand what suffering does to people. Suffering reduces people. It lessens their capacities, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually as well. They become less of themselves. And this is true for unseen wounds just like it is for physical illnesses. While the people may look fine, the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly.
Suffering reduces people; they become less of themselves.
4. Reduce yourself
If we want to enter into the life of somebody who is reduced, or limited by his or her suffering, we must reduce ourselves as well. We see this perfectly when we lower our voices in a hospital room. For those people suffering traumas, we want to use fewer words, quiet voices, and lots of patience and pausing, so they are not overwhelmed. This is vital to our entering in so we don’t bring further harm. The beauty of it is that in doing so, we are following Christ, who was incomprehensibly reduced from His eternal glory so as to enter in and become like us. It is Christlike, then, to reduce ourselves in the face of another’s suffering, and it is a privilege to do so.
Also consider these three articles for more information on caring for people who’ve faced trauma:
Helping the Traumatized by Dr. Diane Langberg
Responding to Trauma by Sam Hodges
10 Losses of Trauma Victims by Brad Hambrick