Our God describes a good shepherd when He says, “I will feed My flock and … lead them to rest.… I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick” (Ezek. 34:15–16 NASB). As pastors you are shepherds of God’s sheep. It is an eternally significant task and often fraught with difficulties. One of the crucial things necessary for doing your work well is that you must know your sheep. You cannot care for or guide those you do not know. I would like to help you understand some of the people in your churches in a new way.
I have spent over forty years as a Christian psychologist working with trauma of all kinds—sexual abuse, rape, domestic abuse, war, trafficking, and genocide. Given the statistics for sexual abuse alone (one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn eighteen), it seems safe to conclude that all pastors have trauma victims sitting in their pews. Most of them are silent about what they have endured. Trauma occurs when suffering overwhelms normal human coping. Those who are victims live with recurring memories of atrocities both witnessed and endured. The memories infect their sleep, destroy their relationships and capacity to work, torment their emotions. The wounds of trauma are not visible; the effects are.
Trauma has a profound spiritual impact. Trauma raises questions about who God is, His character, His faithfulness, His purposes, and His capacity to keep us. It mutilates hope; it shatters faith; it turns the world upside down. It is important that we understand these struggles and do not silence them or treat them as a failure of faith. When we silence victims of trauma and their questions, we do further damage and, in fact, become an obstacle in the work that God can and wants to do in a life battered by trauma and evil.
People who are suffering long for help and comfort. It is an open door for the church to bend down, like her Lord bent down for us, and enter into traumatized lives with real help and companionship and comfort. As we do we will begin to see, like Israel of old, the trauma wilderness in which many dwell, the valley of Trouble, becoming a door of hope (Hosea 2:14–15). The church of Jesus Christ is called to bring light to dark places, love to damaged souls, and truth about who our God is—He who entered in so that we might know Him and be like Him.
How to enter into traumatized lives
How can you as shepherds enter into traumatized lives and lead your people to do the same? Of first importance is an understanding of what suffering does to humans. If you live with someone full of cancer or battling chronic pain, you know that suffering reduces people. It lessens all of their capacities, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. They become less themselves. That is just as true for unseen wounds as it is for physical diseases. It is true for a combat vet, a rape victim, an incest survivor, a domestic violence victim, or a survivor of war. They may look fine, but the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly. If we attempt to enter into the life of someone who is reduced, limited, altered by suffering, we must reduce ourselves as well. That is why we are quiet in a hospital room. For those suffering trauma, fewer words, quiet voices, patience, and pausing so they are not overwhelmed is vital to our entering in so we do not bring further harm. In doing so, we are following our Savior who was made flesh, greatly reduced from His eternal glory so as to enter in and become like us. It is, in fact, Christlike to reduce ourselves in the face of another’s suffering. And then, when sufferers are slow to speak, slow to listen, or slow to change, our responses are to also be like our incarnate Savior’s response toward us. It is in part how those who are suffering begin to see, in the flesh, a bit of who our God truly is with His creatures when they are reduced, overwhelmed, helpless, or slow. We bring Him to them by who we are with them in their worst places.
At the same time, a truth I did not see for some time became stunningly clear to me as the years went by. God is always working both sides. I am not just present to sufferers so that they can receive comfort or grow. I am there because God is exposing to me where I am unlike Him, so that I can run to Him and have Him teach me where I am wrong and what He would do in me to make me more like Himself. It is a principle applicable to all of life. All God’s people are called to Christlikeness. Our failures in that area, which are many, teach lies about who He is and damage both us and those with whom we interact. Typically, humans react in painful situations with attempts to change the other person or the circumstances. This can be particularly true when hearing a story of overwhelming evil and suffering. We want the other person to get better so we feel better. But God uses ministry to the traumatized to change caregivers as much as victims.
Following a traumatic experience, every human being must make the heartbreaking adjustment to a new world full of losses. Human beings who experience trauma feel alone, helpless, humiliated, and hopeless. Following trauma, people turn inward, away from life, because the memories and the feelings are all they can handle. This is not wrong; it is necessary for a while. However, eventually if life is to go on, the people must return to the outside world. How can you help people face what is inside, to help them remember well and yet still be able to return to life in a way that is good?
What does healing look like?
Recovery involves a reversal of the experience of trauma. Trauma brings silence because it feels like there are no words to describe what happened. Trauma brings emotional darkness and aloneness because it feels like no one cares and no one could possibly understand. Trauma makes time stand still because we get so lost in what happened we cannot see forward and we have lost hope. There are three main things that must occur to reverse this and bring about recovery. All three must happen.
First, victims need to talk, to tell their story. They may be afraid to do so, slow to speak, uncertain of their words. But as we listen and bear witness to their trauma, we grant them dignity, safety, and comfort. Second, they need to grieve. Trauma always includes loss. The victims’ sense of self is altered, as is their way of living in this world. Trauma shatters faith and mutilates hope. There is much to grieve, so talking eventually must include tears. Third, the victims need time. Both you and the trauma victims will want a quick recovery. Such significant and deep wounds do not recover quickly. The more life-threatening the wound, the slower the recovery (obviously this is true physically as well).
Here are the words of a genocide survivor in Rwanda who lived through unspeakable atrocities and trauma. “I saw only evil. I no longer believed God to be good. The church was not a sanctuary for my family; it was a cemetery. But then you came, you listened, and you heard my broken heart. And now I think I can believe that God too is listening and hears my pain and will be my sanctuary because I have gotten a taste of Him through you.”
The Word was made flesh for you and for me. Now you and I are called to do the same for the world. When you, as a shepherd of the sheep, name the unspeakable things for your people, gently call them to begin to speak the truth about their lives and the wounds they bear. As you study and learn, you can teach your people to go with you into the dark places of great suffering in your pews and around the world.
Jesus went through villages and cities, teaching, preaching, and healing. And “seeing the people,” He was moved with compassion. They were distressed, wounded, bleeding sheep. He saw what others did not see. They were fainting, fleeced by wolves and without a shepherd’s care. In response He said, “The harvest.…” These seem to be contradictory figures, mixed metaphors. A flock of sheep wounded and fainting, and harvest. Harvest is usually about a robust, healthy, flourishing crop. Here is the deep truth about Jesus’ mission. Human need, distress, and trauma constitute harvest for Him and His workers. Where the day is darkest and need is sorest there the fields are white to harvest. Trauma—a mission field of the twenty-first century. He did not say it was hopeless, but that it was a plenteous harvest.
It is my prayer that you will lead His people to follow Him into the dark and difficult places, throwing the shadow of His great glory over the suffering of this earth.