When trauma doesn't heal

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2011, at 3:26 pm

Living in the aftermath of trauma can be described as nothing less than a life of suffering. For people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the church can be a hard place to be. Well-meaning friends try to help by offering platitudes like "we're praying for you" or "you need to believe the gospel" or "give it over to the Lord," but they just don't seem to understand that the suffering just doesn't go away. Thankfully, theologians are trying to discern biblical truth for trauma survivors who live in a world full of triggers and misunderstanding.

For example, Dr. Shelly Rambo, professor of theology at Boston University, challenges Christian leaders to think theologically about trauma survivors in Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.

A traumatic event is not like a death of a loved one or being rejected by a friend. Instead it involves activities that were life-threatening, either physically or in one's perception, creating a sense of unrecognizable fear, utter helplessness, or horror. Rambo points out that trauma is a wound that "remains long after a precipitating event or events are over," and it "exceeds categories of comprehension" related to an event. Trauma is an encounter with death that exceeds the human capacity to take in and process the external world. In fact, because of trauma, what one knows about the world is shattered. What is true and safe are ruptured. "The event becomes the defining event beyond which little can be conceived," writes Rambo. Life is not the same anymore. The trauma interprets life for the sufferer. There is no life after the storm. It hovers. The rain may stop but the clouds threatening rain always remain.

Surviving post-trauma is a life of navigating one's way through a minefield of triggers that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event or events. Triggers can lead to random bouts of sobbing, irregular and disturbed sleep patterns, outbursts of anger, depression, anxiety, loss of hope, loss of interest in things once loved, thoughts of suicide, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, as well as running away from thoughts, conversations, people, places that might arouse traumatic memory. Because trauma survivors re-experience the event in ways outside of one's control, healing is not a matter of believing the right things about God. Or getting the gospel right. Time does not heal traumatic wounds. Traumatic memory is something only God can heal. The Holy Spirit must empower trauma sufferers to re-imagine their future.

Is there hope for healing PTSD in this life? Maybe. There are no easy answers or guarantees. But what I do know is that those limping around in life after experiencing trauma need people who love them enough to realize that they may never "get over it" and that their on-going struggle does not represent weak faith. Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20)!

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

Read more from this writer