People who experience trauma often find themselves in situations in which they are abused again. This is especially tragic when we understand that people who experience trauma have a very difficult time trusting anyone, let alone trusting anyone intimately. And trust really is necessary in order to heal.
During the months I dated my husband and in the early years of our marriage, I tried to push him away. I picked fights. I tried to make him leave. I honestly did not know how to let someone love me. I didn’t even believe I could be loved. Not really. Not fully. Not without earning it somehow. I just figured he would abandon me at some point because that’s what men did. I had no healthy picture of what a faithful husband was or what it would be like to live in that reality. I finally told him how afraid I was that he’d leave me and his response was exactly what my wounded heart needed to hear: “I am not your dad.” It’s so simple, but to me it was everything. He could tell me that he loved me, but I didn’t really believe him. He could tell me that he wasn’t going to hurt me, but I didn’t really believe him. Because my dad lied to me all the time. He never kept his promises. He never followed through. But my husband, in saying something so simple, said it all. And that opened a place in my heart that allowed me to trust. He really did love me. Just because I’m me.
My understanding of God’s love for me was marred in much the same way. When I was a little girl, I would sit in my room and cry, listening to the fights, the anger, the hate in my home. And I so desperately wanted out. I so desperately knew I needed someone to save me. I remember the Lord being very close to me there, in that room. He knew my heart, he knew my tears, and he knew my pain. Intimately. He didn’t take me out of that place, but he did put the truth into my heart that I was HIS. However, I had no idea what that meant or how to live it out. I didn’t know how to trust him any more than I knew how to trust my earthly father. I didn’t know how to live like a believer, free of anxiety and fear or full of joy. All the things I was told believers know and do. Now I understand this differently, as the way my brain was organized and changed due to trauma. But then I just felt lost. I never doubted the Lord, but I didn’t know how to fully believe him either.
It is most generally the case in life that we do what we know. A few years ago, a friend asked me to get something out of her refrigerator and I saw avocadoes in the bottom drawer. I looked at her and said something about how avocadoes aren’t supposed to go in the fridge. Duh. And she looked at me and said if you put avocadoes in the fridge, you can stop them from turning brown after they ripen. Duh. I never knew. And to think of the hundreds of dollars of avocado money I wasted before I knew. And those poor avocadoes that got trashed before their time. But now I know and I can’t unknow what I know. And I understand all of the more important areas in life that sentiment also holds true.
I think of trauma education in churches in the same way. Most people in churches just don’t know how trauma affects the brain or why people who have been traumatized act / react the way they do. They’ve never been taught and therefore, don’t understand why traumatized individuals can’t “just get over it.” I believe this is part of the reason churches tell abused women to let their husbands come home. Or to work things out with the man who demeans them, pushes them around, hits the kids. He said he was sorry, after all. He got some counseling. He says he’s a changed man. The wife refuses, files for separation or divorce, and gets charged with sinning against God because God hates divorce. Or she is pressured into allowing her abusive husband’s return because she’s a sinner too, after all, just like him.
As much as situations like this and others make my stomach turn and ignite an angry fire within me, I have to believe these churches can change. I have to believe these churches will change. Because the head of the church is Christ himself and he is the author of renewal and restoration. I’m not an expert in this area in the least, but I do know what it’s like to be in church and be me. I do know what it’s like to sit in a congregation week after week, church after church, and feel like the things that shaped me, for better or worse, are simply not addressed outright. I do know what it’s like to live through childhood trauma and struggle with reconciling what I believe to be true about the Bible, and how I “should” act or react to situations, with what my mind, which has been shaped by that trauma, is prone to do.
I believe there are healthy churches with pastors and elders who truly love the Lord and want to be good shepherds. I believe many of them are willing to learn about trauma and willing to change. So this is for them and for you, church goer. For you to know how to reach out to someone who may be hurting. For you to see them and listen to them and show them you care. Even if no one has ever cared for them before, you care. And that could make all the difference in the world to that fellow image bearer of God. I’ve had to learn the same things along the way. And I’ve had to learn, more importantly perhaps, to extend grace where understanding is severely lacking. And for the churches who have a trauma or counseling or abuse ministry, thank you. I’ve seen the work some of you do and I’m grateful. You give those of us who have been abused great hope that every church can one day be a refuge.
There are several areas in which I believe churches could better relate to believers who have experienced trauma. These areas are not comprehensive; I’m sure I’ve missed some critical issues that have been addressed by others or need to be addressed. I’m not looking for utopia. I’m not looking for perfection. I am, however, looking for improvement in areas I believe many churches should want to do well. To better love their people. Christ’s people. His church.
A focus on the Ideal
Most conservative churches approach their congregation from what “should be” rather than “what is.” They speak to them from the viewpoint that they have one father, one mother, and grew up in one happy family. That those parents loved them and nurtured them. Taught them how to live in this world and, in many cases, how to love God and others. This preaching from the ideal is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s actually a testimony to the goodness of God’s word and the beauty of living according to Scripture. There are ideals set forth in scripture, created by God for our good and our joy. And churches are right to speak of them to their congregations.
However, churches also need to outwardly speak of the fact that there are people in their congregation who grew up in or are currently living in very different circumstances. If they focus only on “what should be”, they leave those of us who have experienced life in a very different way feeling very alone. We don’t know how to relate to such a perfect picture. We don’t know how to speak about our experiences when everyone else seems to have lived such a different life. This tends to lead to those of us who have experienced trauma being half honest or half present during Bible study or book group discussions on familial issues, parenting, etc.
I recently talked with a woman I just met at church about her upbringing. She mentioned something about her family and I just started asking her questions, genuinely interested in her story. She shared freely, but often said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this” because she didn’t talk about it much, and then mentioned I was “just easy to talk to.” During part of her story, tears welled up in her eyes and I could tell the pain of her upbringing and subsequent adult years in her family was very close to the surface. It struck me that all I needed to do to hear it was to ask. I didn’t know her at all, certainly not as well as many others at church, and yet she shared her pain with me.
To me, that is real church. That is part of bearing burdens. That is part of fellowship. People in the seats around us are united by the sacrifice of Jesus’s life for their sin, yes. We are united by a shared understanding that living a Christian life means laying down that sin and obeying the Word of God. We are united as one body, but within that body there are many individuals with families and experiences that are far from the ideal. We should want to know each other so deeply we’re able to speak of those things that hurt us, understand how they’ve shaped us, and encourage each other in healing the pain they’ve caused, so we can be truly free in the life Christ wants us to live.
This post is continued with Trauma and How the Church Can Be A Healthy Place of Healing (Part 2)