People used to avoid discussing their trauma, eager not to reopen old wounds or expose their vulnerabilities. Not so anymore. Survivors recount horrific experiences and bring up trauma language in everyday conversations—even with strangers on Twitter.
This shift in how we talk about the painful things we’ve been through may be uncomfortable for some, especially those not used to considering the pervasive nature of trauma. But psychologist Diane Langberg captures well what we perceive as Christians: “Trauma is the mission field of our time.”
As a counselor and seminary professor, I get asked about what it means to be “trauma-informed” as society increasingly recognizes the enduring impact that traumatic situations can have upon people. Survivors are interested in “trauma-informed” therapists, counselors, and materials because such a term offers hope that there may be something that was missing from other forms of care. Other well-meaning individuals find the term puzzling, wondering if it is simply a buzzword of the day. For Christians, another question quickly spirals out from there: Is the Bible trauma informed?
I’m grateful the men and women of the church are asking these kinds of questions. As Christians, we want first and foremost to be biblical, and asking some variant of “What hath the Bible to do with trauma?” safeguards us from over-spiritualizing or under-spiritualizing trauma.
The Bible as a record of trauma
Let’s start by defining trauma. Broader and narrower definitions exist, each with their own merit, but trauma generally constitutes a reaction to the extreme stress caused by the threat of severe harm. If someone asks whether the Bible recognizes and records these kinds of traumatic events, we quickly see that the pages of Scripture are weighed down by all kinds of them.
Who can forget the brutal sexual violence suffered by women like Dinah (Gen. 34) or Tamar (2 Sam. 13)? Who cannot feel parental horror as infants and toddlers are killed by power-hungry, paranoid rulers (Ex. 1–2, Matt. 2)?
David’s intense rage radiates from Psalm 52 as he stares into Doeg’s extermination of the priests and their families at Nob (1 Sam. 22). Perhaps most strikingly, the prophet’s deep grief pours out from Lamentations as he looks at the mangled bodies of children—dead from starvation, the swords of the enemy, and the unimaginable hunger of their parents.
Our holy book is full of terribly unholy things. It is no stranger to the deep depths of human suffering, and this is a good thing. If the Bible did not capture the deepest, blackest, vilest sorrows that can befall people, we could not be certain that its true and precious promises apply to such situations. It’s one thing to affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd” when the sky is bright and you sit in a church composed of firm stone and majestic beauty. It’s another to affirm it when you’re tending to a nation full of women who have suffered from the rape-as-weapon assaults of a cruel army (Lam. 5:11).
But promises like “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18) and “Even though I walk through the darkest valley … you are with me” (Ps. 23:4) stand alongside the most grim and awful human situations. Trauma is not a category of human experience that places someone outside of God’s vision, God’s care, and God’s promises. There is nothing we can do or nothing that can happen to us that places us beyond the horizon of God’s help.
Other times, however, when someone’s asking if the Bible is trauma informed, they are wondering if the Bible speaks everything we need to know to offer the best care available. It’s as though they’re saying, “We use the Bible, so we are automatically trauma informed.”
Although the Bible speaks of and into traumatic situations—showing us how our bodies and souls are impacted by extreme stress (Ps. 88) and offering us the beautiful truths detailed above—it does not tell us everything about trauma care. This isn’t a knock against the sufficiency of Scripture. There are many things that are true and important and helpful—the sky is blue, we smile when we’re happy—that don’t come up in its pages.
The Bible was not written to be a comprehensive guide to all of human functioning. Like parallel tracks, these two truths exist in harmony with one another, recognizing the essential help God gives through the Scriptures that is available nowhere else and that Scripture is not the only resource God desires us to consult to understand our hurts and how we may heal.
There are helpful trauma-informed practices that don’t appear in Scripture, yet we know to be true and effective from practice and research. The Bible doesn’t explain how rhythmic breathing calms us during spikes of anxiety. It doesn’t address grounding exercises, like holding an ice cube, to engage our senses rather than disassociate from our emotion. And there’s no chapter and verse telling us how exercise can curb depression and lethargy.
But the Bible’s silence on such specific trauma-care processes is not a bad thing. The Bible speaks to the core of the person, the heart. It offers us critical things that we cannot find anywhere else—the naming of evil as evil, the comfort of God Almighty, regeneration, the power to fight sin, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a thousand others. And the Bible validates and gives us lenses to see how breathing techniques and all the rest can help people made of body and soul.
Being a Christian who is trauma informed requires a deep and thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. It also requires other knowledge that God has given us through the observation of ourselves and the world he has made. Being trauma-informed isn’t a hat tip to a “snowflake” generation’s oversensitivity. Rather, it’s based on the recognition that wounds cut deeply, and some wounds are more injurious than others. Put yourself in the shoes of someone whose youth pastor groomed them, exploited them, blamed them, and threatened them. What is it like for them to put their own children in youth group? Or imagine a veteran who tends to feel strong sense of threat when surrounded by loud noises. What’s it like for them when the congregation belts out the chorus of a hymn with gusto?
God has much to say into both situations through his Word. And his Word could also be used in a way that bypasses the actual struggle within each person’s experience. Words like “Love believes all things” or “Don’t forsake the gathering together” are certainly true; yet the damage done by past trauma creates a wake that makes these straightforward principles much choppier in application. Being trauma informed doesn’t mean that God’s Word is somehow superseded by life’s struggles; instead, it means that those life struggles are deeply relevant to the process of discipleship.
As Christians, we have something that no one else does as we offer trauma-informed care. We have a God who can bring life where there is none. We have a God who offers meaning and hope where there is none. We have a God who makes beauty from ashes. He has given us his Word and his tools to engage this vast mission field. And we, his ambassadors, show his excellence and goodness as we offer the best form of trauma care possible.
Nate Brooks serves as an assistant professor of Christian counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, and counsels at Courage Christian Counseling. He lives with his wife and three children in the Charlotte Metro.