Trauma impacts a person’s sense of time, experience of the body, and ability to communicate. As such, Biblical counseling that seeks to be helpful must be able to demonstrate how God addresses each of these elements that trauma impacts.
Over the next few weeks I will give some introductory remarks on God’s response to each element. This is not a comprehensive treatment plan for trauma counseling, nor should it be read that way. Trauma counseling is highly complex, but these posts can serve as a touch point and starting place for Biblical counselors. This week I will begin by looking at God’s response to trauma’s impact on time.
God and Time
God speaks to the issue of our haunting memories. Time can feel nebulous to the sufferer of trauma. The past is constantly intruding into the present. A traumatic event can take on a life of its own making it feel as though it is dislocated from the past. There is hope in turning to God, because after all, He operates outside of time. He is above time and refers to Himself as both the “beginning” and the “end” (Rev. 22:13). Time is in His hands.
Christian faith does not erase past suffering. Instead of erasing the past, the gospel offers the redemption of it. We see this hinted at even in the Old Testament. So, the Prophet Joel encourages Israel of God’s redemption of the years gone by of failure, grief, and devastation:
So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten (Joel 2:25a)
God doesn’t erase the past, but he seeks to redeem it. To restore to us, and to heal us, and even to use our past for good (Rom. 8:28). So, God may not erase our past but He may use it to do something new. Through our past and our painful experiences He opens new doors and new avenues to experience His grace, to serve Him, and to live a new life. Our baptism testifies to this idea of new life arising from death (Rom. 6:4). Jesus, in particular, understands the enduring nature of past trauma. The gospel is rooted in the continuing intrusion of the crucifixion of Christ. His death continues to have implications in our present. Yet, His past pain has redemptive significance.
Beyond redemption, the Bible points us to trust God more than our memories. Our memories are not reliable. We remember events incorrectly, or we remember events as if they are present realities, or we don’t remember events at all. Our memories change over time, they are influenced and reshaped. Our minds are not perfect store houses of truth. We must not, then, blindly trust our memories – no matter how reliable they seem. We want something more reassuring than our own fallible minds. We want a more solid place to stand and rebuild a life, and that place is found in Christ. We might pray with the psalmist:
from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I (Ps. 61:2)
God is more reliable and more stable ground than our memories. We must learn to cling to Him, to cry out to Him. One particular way we can do this is by seeking to reinterpret our experiences.
Memories are always interpretations. There are no memories of cold hard fact. We interpret everything we remember, even sometimes altering it to fit our paradigm of the world. In the experience of traumatic memories we are making interpretive decisions about the circumstances of our lives, past experiences, and present threats. A part of our redemption includes the introduction of a new interpretive lens. Christ redeems our past in part, by giving us a new lens through which to view it. Greg Gifford has keenly observed PTSD as an “interpretive phenomenon.” He speaks to this interpretive issue:
What I suggest is that PTSD is an interpretive disorder, meaning that the way one perceives the threat determines their response to the threat. To say it another way, the interpretation of the circumstances determines the response to the circumstances. (Helping Your Family Through PTSD, 21)
An example helps. Gifford points to the distinction between open heart surgery for a doctor, and any other context where a man’s chest is torn open. A level of interpretation is happening here. Or consider another example. We often view the death of a young man differently than the death of an older man. We view the one as unfitting because of youth, and thus make an interpretive decisions that impacts our response to the passing. So, as we think about how to help people with traumatic memories, engaging individuals at the level of interpretation becomes a viable avenue for aid.
The gospel gives us a new interpretive framework, inviting us to reflect on God’s sovereignty and on Christ’s redemptive work for us. So, Paul writes to the Philippians encouraging them to think differently. On the heels of talking about anxiety, Paul directs the Philippians to different thoughts:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (4:8)
The gospel invites to see a bigger picture, to interpret the experience of our trauma in light of the goodness, beauty, and greatness of God.
This, of course, is not a simple process. People do not choose to have intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, amnesia, or nightmares. Good counselors don’t want to blame sufferers for their symptoms. But we can learn to believe God, even against and over our own intense emotions. Effective counselors seeking to help victims of trauma can speak with full confidence that God is able to enter into time and address their temporal dysfunction.