Summary of the Problem with Loss, Betrayal, and Trauma.

We all must face hardships in life, some minor and others life-altering. How we respond to these events reflects our past trauma, coping mechanisms, and worldview. Suppose we possess the tools that Christianity offers, the knowledge of our salvation, and the assurance of eternal life. In that case, we can better respond to these life events using a biblical-theological perspective that will ease our stages of grief and suffering. As in Exodus 13:17, when the Jews were in the wilderness, we must solely rely on God during our trials. When we depend on ourselves, things go astray. When we rely on God and make a path for him, the ground levels and our way is made smooth. There is no reason to wander when we follow God correctly. Our search for the Bible’s answers to loss and trauma are crucial toward living properly in the way.

Proposed Solutions to the Problem of Trauma in Christian Lives

The response to traumatic events is distinct to the individual. The resilience factor must be emphasized and is primarily a part of character and experience. Building resilience and learning how to “bounce back” is essential. As Kathleen O’Conner notes, “(building) resilience revolves around how people come to identify their sources of strength that allow them to maintain their humanity through disaster and long-term oppression.”[1]

The aspect of spiritual recovery is seldom addressed as a component in healing from trauma. One essential recovery goal is to reestablish or build a new narrative. As Frederick describes, “the process of meaning-making is an important way in which people connect with God and experience spirituality.”[2] Individuals use narratives in defining their narrative identity according to Narrative Identity Theory.[3] People use this identity to sustain a sense of self that is organizing, drawing from experiences in their lives. Using the Bible as inspiration and the miracle of salvation aids in providing a solid foundation to reframe memories and disassociate traumatic events to eliminate a visceral response.[4] We must focus on the exegesis of extracting these metanarratives as, “Much of pastoral counseling focuses in unpacking these narratives.”[5]

Thesis Statement

            How the Christian can respond using biblical theology to loss and trauma.     

Analysis of the Historical Response to Trauma in the Old Testament

Traumatic events are found throughout the biblical narratives, and some metanarratives include death, bodily injury, disease, and myriad sexual traumas. Adam and Even gave the forbidden fruit to Adam (Gen. 3:7), and they subsequently experienced the loss of innocence and shame. The first murder in Cain’s killing of Abel (Gen. 4:13) resulted in Cain’s embarrassment and bearing the mark God put on him that no one should touch him.

There is also Ham and Noah in Gen. 9:21, in which the son uncovered the nakedness of his father, additional loss of innocence. We also see Rachel’s death in childbirth (Gen. 35:16), demonstrating the fallen world’s unjustness and the loss of loved ones. We see in Isaiah 47:3 that YHWH will take vengeance on Babylon, which we must understand as increasing our capacity to foster healing for survivors of traumatic events as well as the hermeneutical circumstances.[6]

The result of the fall was alienation from God’s presence. The separation from God also produced pain, physical labor, and death. The suffering of Egypt under Pharoh’s rule and warnings about the results of disobedience (Lev 26; Deut. 27-28). Yet God promised never to destroy Israel (Lev 26:42-45), but they would be disciplined (Deut 8:5).

There is even today contention over why the Bible contains such graphic examples of violence and murder in a book meant to tell the story of God’s greatness. The sins of an individual or group which experiences alleged unjust violence also must fall under examination to justify the cause. As mentioned previously, sometimes, we are not given a direct reason. Our perspective is never as complete as God’s.

New Testament Biblical-Theological Response to Trauma

The characters of the New Testament present an abundance of traumatic experiences. Since sin prevails in this world (Rom. 3:10-12, 23) and creation (Rom. 8:20), we can expect fewer difficulties even in the modern era. Since the fall, humanity has been born into trouble.

The apostle Paul possibly had PTSD, as noted by Kenneth Jones, who speculates that Paul’s use of the perfect tense, e.g., “still a vivid memory ringing in Paul’s mind.” In 2 Cor. 12:9.[7] Paul relates the comfort in hearing the divine voice. Paul experienced the full range of emotions in his ministry, from feelings of devastation to joyful reunions. However, Paul also reminds us not to succumb to weakness and take refuge in divine grace and power.

Paul’s letters serve to provide a textual resource for suffering and the example of living and relying on the power of divine grace. Paul affirms that “one is given courage and endurance to face suffering; it is not so much being rescued our of affliction as it is receiving sustenance withing affliction.”[8] We can all benefit from the experience of Paul’s suffering and identifying through Christ’s suffering in that God’s solace is for everyone. The Bible also relates that when one Christian suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor 12:26-27).

Systematic Theological Responses to Trauma

From the secular viewpoint, our response to trauma varies greatly. How should we respond? According to our worldview? The atheist may respond by knowing that he must pull himself out of the mire. With no God or higher authority to provide comfort, all recovery has to be self-generated as the atheist dismisses the transcendent. The result is unbound independence for the non-theist. Having been given their distinct volition, the capacity for good or ill is limited only by their quest for western self-sufficiency.

A person that turns from God faces pain and loss. McMinn correctly states, “The consequences of unbounded independence are woundedness, brokenness, and pain.[9]” When the experience of self-sufficiency shows its wear, the rebellion and isolation expose the observer to a crisis. The need for God is to “Submit yourselves therefore to God, Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6-10). We must always realize the limitations of our power. To reach out for help is the beginning of this recognition.

The need to reach out for help in a traumatic crisis is the capacity to assert one’s will.[10] The lack of ability to reach out can go unnoticed even by mental health professionals as an expected holding back growth and change.

Finally, seeking aid and comfort in personal or corporate prayer is essential, but the efficacy of prayer’s benefits requires devotion. Connecting with Scripture in a meaningful spiritual sense is a crucial point and one in which we can learn from the Bible, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45).

The Christian’s Appropriate Response to Trauma

Too often in modern times, we often find a lack of response rather than an appropriate one. In his commentary on Lamentations, Parry notes the “often observed contrast between Old Testament Israel’s embrace of lament and the far more ambiguous reception of lament in the Christian Church.”[11] Ambiguity is more correctly seen as severe neglect.[12] In their efforts to please congregations, a few negative topics such as laments, recovery from grief, and tolerance of ongoing suffering are lacking in modern churches.

Church topics need to expand to include instances of suffering. Too often, the examples provided by scriptural stories quickly dismiss or ignore how the individual or collective group feels about the traumatic event.

To share in our suffering is to treat the consequences of trauma. By relating to others through telling of our trauma, we help ourselves heal from traumatic events. An essential method for Christian response is to read the wisdom of the Bible. The wisdom literature of the Psalms can function descriptively in relating the psalmists’ experiences and prescriptively and therapeutically.[13] The result alleviates one of the definitions of trauma that leaves people feeling helpless and dehumanized. We will do well to remember Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

Prayer remains the single best response in the ongoing treatment for recovery from trauma. Ninety percent of Americans pray.[14] People who often pray experience a more subjective sense of well-being than those who do not pray. Those who contextualize prayer to a more meaningful mystical experience have an even greater sense of well-being.[15]

Results of Various Responses to Trauma

Negative Response Results

Without a solid foundation in biblical knowledge, the suffering and grieving will find no relief for their afflictions. The full range of emotions that humans experience requires biblical teaching in learning how to build life skills. The writers of Psalms and the prophets knew of these facts well and provided “cases in which ritual action is most needed.”[16] Psalm 22 expresses the painful lament in ritual worship through individual and communal laments.

Left unchecked, the trauma continues to express itself over time in depression, anxiety, and psychological issues that will provoke uncharacteristic responses in sufferers. When we fail to deal with trauma, our resiliency fails us in several ways.

The author David Janzen summarizes how language becomes disconnected from the experience.[17] The result is that past and present become disconnected, leaving the trauma victim disassociated from events. The trauma victim also loses the ability to place a “framework of causality and ethics which destroys the capacity to make meaning.”[18]

Positive Response Results

The expression of laments relieves the psalmist in calling for God’s help and reduces their heart by verbally expressing experienced trauma. Collective lamentation aids the people group in sharing and coping with collective trauma. By appealing to God for aid, comfort results from evoking a response from God.[19]

Sedmak defines resiliency as “anchored in an interiority that is marked by a strong sense of identity and a confidence in one’s agency.”[20] The confidence gained by proper counsel from the Bible and pastoral sources provides the individual with the tools to redefine and build their resiliency. The result is better handling traumatic memories and dealing with future suffering.[21] The affirmation of meaning in life carries the sufferer forward through adversity and the ability to contextualize past trauma.

Application of Pastoral Theology and Biblical Counseling

According to Aten and Walker, “about half the people will experience some form of trauma in their life.”[22] However, their definition of trauma results from the standard definition of trauma as noted in the DSM-5.[23] The traditional definition of trauma fails to consider threats to psychological integrity as traumatic. Events such as emotional abuse, degradation, and significant losses or separation deserve equal consideration in the definition.

The result is the isolation of those who suffer trauma and grief. Without adequate biblical knowledge of addressing these life events, the traumatic events are suppressed, causing deep psychological distress. This leaves the majority of Christians dependent on secular and informal sources of support.[24]

Often abuse sufferers and those affected by trauma suffer a theological dissonance. They need to reconcile their ideas about God and why they were victims of trauma. To achieve this goal, it is worth including the Wesleyan experiential theology, also referred to as practical theology. Practical theology is practicing the prescriptions of the Bible and what Jesus could and should do for Christian lives. Holeman offers that “Wesley’s emphasis on practical divinity is a good fit for the theologically reflective counseling.[25]” Holeman also suggests this practical method helps the sufferer remove the barriers that block their receiving and sharing God’s love. The result allows counseling to function “as a means of grace, a process through which God can pour God’s love into human lives.”[26]

Theological Statements in Context

1. The Authority of Scripture:

The authority of Scripture is a crucial context for the Christian response to grief and trauma. Until the enlightenment, most people knew their place in the universe related to God and his creation. While this worldview lacked scientific context, the result was an implicit and confirmed knowledge of humanity’s telos. God had sent Christ to rule over the world (Matt 28:18) and understood the affirmation of the inerrant word of God (2 Tim 3:16).

In modern times the response to trauma is suppression or failure to deal with the underlying cause. Many cases of depression result from an identity crisis that Western culture encourages through post-modern beliefs. The most harmful post-modern view is that there is no objective reality. Without a locus for transcendental truths, truth, beauty, and goodness do not correlate to the modern mind. The result is the previously mentioned independent self-reliance which only uses the self to reference moral thoughts and behavior. By connecting with God in his desire to seek a personal relationship with us, our focus will be on truth. And the truth will set us free (John 8:32).

2. Marriage and Family

Human society is best seen in the microcosm of the family. When a community flourishes, so do the family and extended members. Parents have more time for children, and reduced financial pressure assures material abundance. In times of war and disease, our communities are beset with inequities resulting in lasting effects in traumatic experiences.

We can turn to Scripture to regain context on traumatic times. In Malachai 2:13-16, the prophet rebukes husbands’ sins against their wives. In the commandments, we are warned about covetousness of neighbor’s wives or property.

In Old Testament times, the Israelites were responsible for themselves as individuals (Exod 33:17; Jer. 1:5; Psa. 132:1) and as a community (Exod. 20-23). The resulting corporate identity helped maintain the integrity of their group. Modern societies would do well to imitate this social responsibility. Our mandate to our neighbor is paramount, but our family’s protection is also a requisite for dealing with trauma. Only those closest to us can provide the best counsel and comfort to heal from traumatic experiences.

Conclusion

The Christian response to grief and trauma must find its foundation in Scripture. The Bible details the full range of human emotion and offers consultation to those who historically experienced their trauma. The modern tendency to discount the long-term results of trauma must find the answer in directly dealing with traumatic events.

Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, humanity must live in the state of a fallen world. However, suffering also can lead to a closer relationship with God. In Romans 5:3, we find that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” But no suffering falls outside God’s sovereignty and power (Jer 12:1-4). Our suffering can also provide comforts through our experiences to others (2 Cor 1:3-8).

Breaking down our mental barriers to recovery from trauma remains the critical goal in the healing process. The Christan response to adverse life events is to bring our case to God in prayer, seek counsel in family and clergy, and listen intently to God’s purpose for our circumstances. The process of how we endure suffering is more important than why we suffer. Like Jesus, believers are to transform suffering actively.[27]

See also: The Canon of Scripture

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aten, Jamie D., and Donald F. Walker, “Religion, Spirituality, and Trauma: An Introduction,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 40, no. 4 2012.

Ballaban, Steven “The Use of Traumatic Biblical Narratives in Spiritual Recovery from Trauma: Theory and Case Study,” The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 68, no. 4 December 2014.

Boase, Elizabeth, and Frechette, Christopher G., eds. Bible Through the Lens of Trauma. Williston: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Broyles, “Psalms of Lament,” 388

Hartog, Paul A. “Suffering.” Edited by John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Holeman, Virginia Todd. Theology for Better Counseling: Trinitarian Reflections for Healing and Formation. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.

Frederick, Thomas V. (2009). Models of psychotherapy: implications for pastoral care practice,

    Pastoral Psychology 58.

Nathaniel A Carlson, “Lament: The Biblical Language of Trauma,” Cultural Encounters 11, no.   1 2015.

McMinn, Mark R.,  Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling, AACC counseling library Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House, 2011.

Poloma, Margaret M., and George Gallup, Jr., Varieties of Prayer: A Survey Report, Philidelphia:Trinity Press International, 1991.

Parry, Robin A., The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary: Lamentations Grand Rapids, MI: w. B.

Eerdmans, 2010 Singer, J.A., Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An

            Introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), Wiley- Blackwell. 2004.

Smith, Susan Marie, Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012.


              [1] Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, eds., Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia studies number 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 194.

              [2] Thomas V. Frederick, Models of psychotherapy: implications for pastoral care practice,

Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009), 351 -363.

              [3] J. A. Singer Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An

Introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), (Wiley- Blackwell. 2004.) 437-460.

              [4] Ibid.

              [5] Steven Ballaban, “The Use of Traumatic Biblical Narratives in Spiritual Recovery from Trauma: Theory and Case Study,” The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 68, no. 4 (December 2014): 1–11, https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAn3770892&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[6] Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, eds., Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia studies number 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 68.

[7] Ibid, 232.

[8] Ibid, 236.

[9] Mark R. McMinn, Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling, AACC counseling library (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House, 2011), 55.

[10] Ibid, 60.

[11] Robin A. Parry, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary: Lamentations (Grand Rapids, MI: w. B. Eerdmans, 2010), 206.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, eds., Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia studies number 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 143.

[14] Margaret M. Poloma and George Gallup, Jr., Varieties of Prayer: A Survey Report (Philidelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 26.

[15] Mark R. McMinn, Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling, AACC counseling library (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House, 2011), 91.

[16] Susan Marie Smith, Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 96.

[17] Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, eds., Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia studies number 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 196.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Broyles, “Lament, Psalms of,” 388

[20] Elizabeth Boase and Christopher G. Frechette, eds., Bible through the Lens of Trauma, Semeia studies number 86 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 196.

[21] Virginia Todd Holeman. Theology for Better Counseling: Trinitarian Reflections for Healing and Formation. (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.), 12.

[22] Jamie D. Aten and Donald F. Walker, “Religion, Spirituality, and Trauma: An

Introduction,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 40, no. 4 (2012,) 255.

[23] Nathaniel A Carlson, “Lament: The Biblical Language of Trauma,” Cultural Encounters 11, no.             1 (2015), 51.

[24] Ibid, 54.

[25] Virginia Todd Holeman. Theology for Better Counseling: Trinitarian Reflections for Healing and Formation. (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.), 14.

[26] Ibid, 16.

[27] Hartog, Paul A. “Suffering.” Edited by John D. Barry, et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.)