Jesus and Trauma (Part 2)

What must the disciples have felt like in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion? It’s hard for me to even comprehend the shock they surely must have felt. Jesus, after all, had been more than just their teacher, he was their hope. Some had bet their whole lives on Him, giving up jobs and roaming the region with Him. They had seen Him do absolutely astounding and miraculous deeds…and now He was dead. Not just dead, but killed like a common criminal. Luke 24:13-33 describes one example of this shock, and also describes the means by which Jesus comforts the traumatized. Jesus reveals Himself through the Scriptures to bring comfort and reassurance to the victims of trauma.

There is no simple formula for caring for and counseling those who have experienced trauma. The complexity of trauma and of traumatic memories requires many different tools and skills in order to be helpful. Working with victims of trauma will require counselors to know how to help victims find grounding in the moment, how to navigate traumatic memories, and how to integrate dissociated parts of themselves. It will require patience and constant encouragement on the part of the counselor. But one thing that is often overlooked in the process is helping victims to connect afresh to God. Trauma deeply impacts faith. Serene Jones rightly wonders:

How do people, whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace?

She states the challenges for such individuals plainly.

It is hard to know God when your knowing faculties have been disabled. It is hard to feel divine love when your capacity to feel anything at all has been shut down. (Trauma and Grace, viii-ix)

Yet, experiencing God’s redeeming grace is crucial for healing. For, no other love and power hold the kind of weight and reassurance as divine love and power. Victims of trauma, then, need to be reconnected (or perhaps connected for the first time) to God. They need to see Jesus afresh. In Luke 24:13-33 we catch a glimpse of Jesus self-revelation to the traumatized.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus are in shock. When Jesus appears to them they cannot even recognize his face. Perhaps they are simply dazed and tired, or perhaps they are dissociating in some form. In either case they are still feeling the ramifications of watching their beloved leader crucified. The text tells us, in verse 17, that they “stood still, looking sad.” They are discussing the events of the crucifixion from several days ago (v. 14), but they are not talking about them in the sort of energetic, outraged, and aghast manner. Their conversations appear to have been more numb, more confused, more searching. They “stood still, looking sad.”

They are equally stunned and confused by the empty tomb. They cannot process the testimony of the women and of the other men who witnessed its vacancy (v. 21-24). Perhaps their minds became flooded with rapid thoughts and emotions the more that they talked. They feel overwhelmed. All of these factors play a part in “keeping their eyes from recognizing” Jesus (v. 16). But then Jesus speaks.

Jesus begins with a unique psycho-education, giving them clarity about the death of Christ and the resurrection. Showing them God’s hand even in the midst of this traumatic event (v. 25-27). God has had a plan from the beginning to redeem humanity through the cross, through the death of His Son. God can, and indeed does use traumatic events to do amazing things. This is not said to minimize the pain of trauma, nor should verses like Romans 8:28 be flippantly applied to the violence of the world. But God’s power to redeem and heal supersedes even the worst scenarios, as is evidenced by the cross of Christ. No trauma is more powerful than God’s grace. Because of Christ we believe that healing can come to the most vile of situations and the most wounded of hearts.

Jesus adds to their comfort by not simply preaching to them, but by staying with them. The trauma victim needs more than doctrine and words, they need comfort and companionship. Jesus stays with the two men (v. 28-30). It is here, it is in this moment of fellowship, in breaking of bread, that their eyes are opened and they see with whom they have been talking. We read:

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. (v. 30-31)

Jesus reveals Himself in a simple but powerful act of breaking bread. The reader is drawn back to the scene of the last Passover meal that Jesus shared with the disciples. Here he broke bread saying, “This is my body which is given for you.” Jesus reveals himself, and his love for the disciples, through reminding them of the cross. The cross is a great demonstration of God’s love, it is to this event that Jesus wants to draw their attention as He reveals who He truly is. I can’t help but think of the moving words of the hymn “Here is Love,” which says:

Here is love, vast as the ocean
Loving kindness as the flood
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom
Shed for us His precious blood

The victim of trauma, those shocked by the horrific events that they have witnessed and experienced, can look to Christ and find that there is a God who loves them.

I love how the disciples respond once they realize it is Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy such they go running “that same hour” (v. 33) to tell the apostles of what they just experienced. They note how the more time they spent with Jesus, the time they spent with Him in the Scriptures, the greater that their “hearts burned within” them. Initially they are a bit annoyed with Jesus’ ignorance – Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days (v. 18). But the longer they are with him, and the moment they finally see Him, the more they are changed.

Reading Scripture, praying to God, meditating on the gospel will not bring some sort of immediate relief to a trauma victim’s life. Prayer and Bible study are not magical. Trauma’s wounds are deep and much must be done to help individuals grow, reconcile, and heal from their past. Yet, the longer we spend time with Christ, the longer we spend time with Him in the Scriptures, the more warmth we will begin to find. This is not a pad answer: “come to Jesus.” It is an invitation to meet Jesus as He breaks bread and points us afresh to the place of His trauma. For, it is at that place that He reveals His great love for us and the healing we most need.

Jesus’ self-revelation to the disciples is a simple demonstration of the love God has for the victim of trauma. The disciples are shocked and stunned, and because of all that they have experienced they do not recognize Christ anymore. If that’s  you, if trauma has wounded your faith, keep coming to Christ and He will again reveal Himself to you. You will need Him as you continue to process all that has happened.

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