Responding to Trauma

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In my last post, I talked about what it means to be a trauma survivor and how difficult trauma can be to heal. Today, I’m going to enumerate the ways in which the Church can respond to trauma survivors to help them find healing.

Before I delve in, let me be clear: This is a common problem. Most pastors would be absolutely gobsmacked to know how many trauma survivors fill their churches every Sunday. Current estimates put the incidence of child molestation at 1 in 3 for girls and 1 in 10 for boys. That means in a congregation of 100 people, 5 men and 17 women are likely child sex abuse survivors. And that figure doesn’t begin to include survivors of other types of trauma, such as rape, assault, mental and emotional abuse, neglect, war, abandonment and accident.

If the Church wants to get serious about helping survivors, this is what is needed:

1. Believe them.

For some reason, there’s this tendency in society to not believe trauma survivors whenever they finally muster up the courage to reveal their abuse and their feelings about it. For someone who has not experienced such horrors, it can seem unbelievable. Such evils, especially when perpetuated by people who are well-known and respected, and the resulting depth of pain may very well be beyond normal comprehension.

But know this: Most people are not capable of inventing this stuff. And trauma survivors are often keenly aware of how shocking and unbelievable their stories can sound. At times, they hardly believe it themselves. That’s why it can take years for survivors to open up about what happened to them. And when the person they confide in says, “That’s not possible” or “You’re lying,” it further damages their sense of worth, sanity, safety and connection.

On the other hand, simply believing and affirming what a survivor reveals is often the single most healing thing a person can do. It frees the survivor from their isolation. It affirms their sense of worth. It lets them know they are not crazy. Even if the confidant can’t do anything to bring the survivor’s abuser to justice, just extending belief is often enough to jumpstart the healing process.

Note: Survivors’ consistency and emotional responses can vary while recalling painful memories. Because of a tendency to disassociate, survivors may appear calm and detached while describing very horrible things. Details of the incident may change with each retelling, and survivors may have extreme difficulty maintaining eye contact. This does not indicate lying. This indicates the reality of trauma.

2. Understand that the survivor is not responsible for what happened to them in ANY way.

There is absolutely nothing a person does to deserve abuse. NOTHING. A child who asks to sleep with a parent does not deserve (and is not asking) to be molested. A woman who walks down the sidewalk wearing a mini skirt and fishnets does not deserve (and is not asking) to be raped. It is extremely common for survivors to question what they may have done to cause or invite abuse, and it literally eats away at their sense of worth. For someone else to suggest that they may be at fault or may have prevented the abuse is simply devastating. The only responsible party is the abuser. PERIOD. So when a survivor reveals their abuse, cram the “where were you; what were you wearing” questions. It doesn’t matter. They did not ask or want to be traumatized.

3. Pastors: Realize that your particular brand of theology may be harmful to survivors and be willing to make changes.

Some doctrines of the mainstream evangelical church may seem good on the surface but are often, in reality, extremely hurtful to trauma survivors. I’ve known women who have stayed home from church on Sundays where the pastor had planned on preaching about marriage, because their abusive husbands had used the “wives, submit to husbands” command in Ephesians 5 to justify oppressive attitudes and violent behavior. Recently, I spent several days fighting off a panic attack after hearing someone refer to the sin of David as “adultery,” when it really was, in fact, rape and murder. (If anyone would like an explanation of why it was really rape, I will happily provide one.) Sermons on forgiveness, on trusting God, on the purpose of pain and on breaking strongholds can also be problematic for survivors if presented in the wrong way. So, pastors, before taking to the pulpit, put yourself in a survivor’s shoes. Does your message offer Christ’s hope and comfort to the wounded? Or despair and shame?

4.  Pray for survivors in the right way.

Prayer can be very comforting and healing to survivors, so knowing how to pray for their specific needs is important. Unfortunately, I’ve heard prayers for trauma survivors that have made me (and them) cringe. These prayers were made with the implied belief that the reason the survivor was suffering was that he or she had “a root of bitterness,” was “struggling to forgive,” and needed to “trust God.” Let me be absolutely crystal: Survivors suffer because they have been horrifically wounded. Simply trusting God or forgiving the abuser does not make that pain magically disappear.

One thing I am learning in counseling is that even after I process the pain of my past trauma, there will still be a part of me that will never achieve total wholeness in this life. Developmental losses suffered in childhood cannot be regained. Like the death of one’s child, it is a “forever loss.” No amount of forgiveness on my part will fix it. However, love (and forgiveness) will go a long way to heal the broken parts that can be mended.

So when praying for a survivor, be aware that they may have already forgiven their abuser (or are trying to forgive) and may already have their full trust in God. Instead, your prayer should emphasize God’s love, care and grace for them. Ask God to surround them with His peace and to tenderly heal the broken areas. You can also ask the survivor how you can best pray for them.

5. Understand that healing won’t happen overnight. 

The Church as a whole is really bad at handling long-term suffering and grief. When people in the church first encounter a trauma survivor, they often rush right in with prayers and support to try to help. However, when the survivor is still struggling a month or two later, people become frustrated and withdraw their support. DON’T DO THIS. Survivors need consistent, loving, long-term support in order to heal. And it doesn’t have to be totally consuming. Just someone who will offer a hug, or call once a week to ask how they’re doing, or provide a compassionate ear can be enough. Dealing with a survivor’s pain can be exhausting, so people responding to trauma should set good boundaries that will enable them to provide long-term care.

6. Become an advocate for the hurting.

So many trauma survivors are without people who will stand up for their rights. There are many suffering in silence because no one will believe that the youth pastor raped them, or that their husband is beating their children, or that a respected member of the church is involved in emotional manipulation. You can do something about that. You can become a voice for the voiceless. You can fight to make your church a safe place for the hurting by holding abusers accountable and keeping them out of positions of church leadership. It won’t make you popular, but it will put you in line with the will of our Father, who commanded His followers to defend the cause of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 82:3).

4 responses to “Responding to Trauma

  1. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for this. I have suffered a great deal of trauma in my life and it has changed how I viewed God and it is something I grapple with daily. Thank you for including “accidents” under the list of trauma as I suffered a negative health reaction several years ago that has caused a soul shattering and horrific amount of suffering in my life. Thank you for being an advocate for the traumatized.

  2. This is something the Church REALLY needs to get involved with, in a big way. Healing the sick is part of our responsibility; this would better help define how we can truly help people in need.