Scripture and Trauma

August 2nd, 2021
Available from Cokesbury

Preachers and listeners alike are processing traumatic stress and experiences caused by COVID-19, deep interpersonal fissures, and rampant injustice. The Bible is a powerful resource. It testifies to God’s loving presence and intervening power amid suffering and the resilience of God’s people over time. The following interpretive tools emerge from reading the Bible with awareness of trauma and can be used in preaching to create healing connections between the experiences of those with soul wounds and scripture.

1. Scripture as a source of language for trauma

Trauma survivors often struggle to find language to talk about their experiences. Biblical poets and authors have described numerous wounding and traumatic experiences that preachers can harness to bring voice to the pain survivors experience. Biblical language is less charged as it is removed from the actual traumatic event and steeped in the Christian tradition as the language of faith in worship, proclamation, and prayer.

In the face of soul-wounding trauma, the Babylonian exiles processed their experiences through description and poetry. 

Psalm 137 speaks evocatively and directly about the pain of exile. 

Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,

   crying because we remembered Zion.

We hung our lyres up in the trees there

   because that’s where our captors asked us to sing

   our tormentors requested songs of joy:

“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.

But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you,

   if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.[1]

Preachers can assist in this practice by blending our discussion of the biblical text and our world in such a way that we put biblical language in the mouths of present-day figures. For example, by using Jeremiah, preachers may allow the prophet’s words to be our words as we suffer: “I can’t stand the pain! My heart pounds, as I twist and turn in agony.”[2]Similarly, God’s promises to Jeremiah in his calling can be extended to us, “My power will make you strong like a fortress or a column of iron or a wall of bronze.”[3]

2. Assigning blame

A significant part of the journey to healing traumatic wounds is making sense of what happened. Often this involves finding a cause, someone or something to blame. Highlighting this same practice in the Bible allows preachers to lift it up as a normal response. 

In the Old Testament, those who experience deeply wounding traumatic experiences tend to blame themselves or God. Both responses are normal and can be stages in moving toward healing. Because they unfold in a nexus of God’s relationship with people, wounding experiences recorded in scripture explicitly invite God to be an active partner in processing these wounds. 

Blaming God 

Some psalms call God to account for not holding to promises made toward David and David’s line. Psalm 89 starts by recalling God’s gracious acts on behalf of Israel but moves toward calling God to keep God’s word to David, 

You’ve canceled the covenant with your servant.

   You’ve thrown his crown in the dirt.

You’ve broken through all his walls.

   You’ve made his strongholds a pile of ruins.

All those who pass by plunder him.

   He’s nothing but a joke to his neighbors.

You lifted high his foes’ strong hand.

   You gave all his enemies reason to celebrate.

Yes, you dulled the edge of his sword

   and didn’t support him in battle.

You’ve put an end to his splendor.

   You’ve thrown his throne to the ground.

You’ve shortened the prime of his life.

   You’ve wrapped him up in shame. 

How long will it last, Lord?

   Will you hide yourself forever?

How long will your wrath burn like fire?

   Remember how short my life is!

Have you created humans for no good reason?

   Who lives their life without seeing death?

   Who is ever rescued from the grip of the grave?

Where now are your loving acts from long ago, my Lord—

   the same ones you promised to David by your own faithfulness?[4]

The move to blame God when terrible things happen has a long scriptural tradition. While Judah’s unfaithfulness may be partly at root, blame too rests with God if God does not act to restore David’s line. Blaming God does not signal a lack of faith. While it may make us uncomfortable, we must trust that God is big enough to handle these anguished cries. It is not the preacher’s job to defend God. Blaming God for not acting signals a strong belief in the power of God and trust that God will act to bring justice, although it is not in our power to force God’s hand. Preachers who cry out to God to be faithful to God’s promises stand in a long scriptural tradition.

Self Blame

Amidst the horrors of Assyria’s invasion and the complete destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the prophet Hosea offered a traumatized community a way to make meaning of their situation.[5] Prevailing religious thought at the time held that worshipping and making sacrifice to as many gods as possible would ensure greater safety and prosperity. However, Hosea’s proclamation named Israel’s promiscuous worship as akin to adultery in a relationship with Yahweh, whose covenantal relationship with Israel was in part defined by being their only God.[6] Hosea’s explanation of their horrible situation attributed their loss and suffering to their own actions. 

While it is often troubling for loved ones, self-blame can be an effective temporary coping skill for survivors that can help restore a sense of agency and empowerment to those who have suffered in situations over which they are powerless.[7] Naming this as a normal response in the sermon can be helpful. For example, in a section dealing with trouble—a preacher might talk about a traumatic event and say, “You may spend your waking hours running through the events of that day and imagine that you could have done something differently and prevented this.” 

Viewing self-blaming texts as a form of prayerful confession can be a helpful theological means to maintain a sense of human agency while moving on from self-blame toward releasing painful or wounding experiences into God’s hands. To make this move in a sermon, a preacher may speak of the grace of releasing our past actions or inactions into the hands of God and give voice to God’s response, “I hold all the days of your life in my hands. I forgive and love you.” 

3. Focus on the power of God

The stories in Genesis can be read as stories that emphasize God’s power, which is sometimes displayed in challenging ways. As in the case of God’s hand in the disasters in Genesis, God’s provision in cases of barrenness, famine, and landlessness is offered in divine freedom. The exilic editors who lifted up these themes may have been working “pastorally” to sustain survivors in the wake of deeply wounding trauma. 

Preaching texts that highlight God’s power and provision can sustain us today, particularly when preachers vary the stories they use when making application to our world. Doing this demonstrates that God’s provision doesn’t always come in the ways we might expect. Preachers will want to avoid endings that wrap up too neatly. Life rarely unfolds like a Hollywood movie. While we certainly want to preach hopeful sermons, those in our midst with fresh wounds keep us honest. For example, a miraculous birth may not happen for those struggling with infertility, but opportunities to serve as parents or parental figures may come through other means.

The extravagant promises of God in Genesis testify to the deep hope of early exilic editors. God’s power to create the world out of nothing and to create again in the wake of disaster means that God can gather up the scattered and broken nation of Judah and make them a people again.[8] God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants surpass the threats they experience. God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, a safe and bountiful homeland, a name that will be remembered, and blessings that flow through Abraham’s offspring to all the nations.[9] This same God can also bring healing and new life to broken people and situations today.

4. Typology 

In sermons, biblical references to wounding experiences can extend a safe means of processing for survivors who may relate to wounded biblical figures as types of their own suffering, while also providing a window into trauma for listeners who have not experienced soul wounds. 

We can find a similar typological pattern in the New Testament. Early Christians used scriptural figures as types to help process trauma. For example, they connected Jesus with Isaiah’s suffering servant.[10] The figure of Moses may have also been a helpful type for the followers of Jesus when interpreting Jesus’s death. Just as Moses “died on the threshold” of the promised land “so that his followers might move forward,” Jesus died on the threshold of salvation so that his followers might move forward.[11] Both Moses and Jesus also lacked a known gravesite where later generations could pay homage.[12] Scripture brought meaning and hope to the early Christian community following Jesus’s crucifixion. 

Preachers can utilize these texts in a similar manner today, allowing biblical figures to stand in as types for those who have suffered deep wounding experiences. The evocative power of preaching biblical figures as relatable ancestors of the faith means that pastors can refrain from naming explicit wounds that they know are present in the congregation. The lives of biblical figures provide a safe distance and buffer that allow for processing and meaning-making around trauma without reopening or irritating the tender places in listeners’ lives.  

5. Cross and resurrection

While some biblical texts can be read typologically as a means of connecting with those who live with soul wounds, we can also read with an eye on deep hope connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that reaches through the biblical context to help sustain wounded people today. 

It is hard to overestimate the role of the Apostle Paul in shaping Christianity. Paul had personal wounding experiences and wrote to communities who had also experienced trauma, yet his letters are also deeply hopeful and bear witness to the power of God to transform lives. 

Like leaders today, Paul struggled with wounding experiences during his ministry. Paul writes to the Corinthians and Galatians about some form of illness or personal weakness. He references a “thorn in the flesh,” which others may have perceived as a hindrance or weakness for ministry.[13] Opponents also persecuted Paul through beatings, stoning, and imprisonment. Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians offer a brief account of his suffering in ministry.[14] Where others saw physical weakness and suffering as a detriment to his leadership ability, Paul’s way of understanding the cross of Christ allowed him to turn weakness into strength in Christ and suffering into glory in Christ.[15] Paul enfolded his own experiences of suffering into the experience of Christ on the cross and saw this as a pattern to be followed by other Christians as he invited others to imitate him or follow his example. The way of the cross has become the way to live as a follower of Christ in a broken world. And the resurrection of Jesus places a boundary on suffering and nurtures faith. Preachers can follow Paul’s lead by putting the cross and resurrection in conversation with traumatic wounds throughout scripture and in our world today.

[1] Ps 137:1-6.

[2] Jer 4:19 (CEB).

[3] Jer 1:18 (CEB).

[4] Ps 89:39-49.

[5] Carr, Holy Resilience, 26, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33–34.

[7] Ibid., 32–33.

[8] Ibid., 310.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Carr, Holy Resilience, 163–65.

[11] Ibid., 167–68. Carr is drawing on the work of Ellen Aitken, Jesus’ Death in Early Christian Memory (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004), 69–71.

[12] Ibid., 170.

[13] 2 Cor 12:7-10; Gal 4:13-14; Carr, Holy Resilience, 189.

[14] 2 Cor 11:23-29.

[15] See also Carr, Holy Resilience, 190.

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