Scripture speaks in depth to human suffering, but does its reach extend to trauma?
Trauma usually identifies an event that has brought death close. This is why it first entered into our consciousness through war. The shell shock of WWI and WWII has given way to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for veterans of Vietnam and more recent wars. PTSD has since expanded to include those who experience the consequences of rape and sexual violation, life-threatening accidents, violence, and other abuses of power.
PTSD identifies traumas that don’t seem to fade. Although many difficult events in life such as the death of a loved one don’t really fade, PTSD is used to describe events that intrude into daily life by way of complex emotions rather than simple grief. You can feel numb, you avoid anything that could possibly be similar to the inciting event, you feel depressed and hopeless, or you feel restless, irritable, hypervigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once. In order to quiet the incessant turmoil, many turn to drugs or alcohol and some try to take their own lives.
But PTSD or trauma is not a categorically different kind of suffering with different rules for help. The words of Christ and message of the gospel continue to be the deepest means of help and care. The Lord invites us to speak of our misery in all its facets. When we are speechless, he gives us one psalm after another as a way to describe the condition of our souls, then he invites us to say more. He speaks with authority against evil and injustice. He speaks forgiveness and reformation to those who might have been accomplices, and acceptance and honor to those who have been shamed. He assures us that nothing can separate us from his love. He takes the sting out of death. He infuses life with hope and meaning as we live for the One who died for us.
In other words, Scripture’s reach does extend to trauma. You will find the most profound depths of help here, not elsewhere. But as with all of our care for those who are hurting, proceed with wisdom. This means that you seek help from other people if you lack experience or time. Yet even then, you seek out the struggling person as you are able, know the person in such a way that he or she feels understood, and bring Scripture close as you pray.
Have you ever thought, “If only I didn’t have this pressing deadline, I could spend more time in prayer”? Or, “Once I recover from this illness, then I’ll be able to concentrate and study God’s Word”? Or, “If I could just line up a retreat day (or better yet, a week of vacation) then my walk with Christ could be renewed and refreshed”? Or, “If only the kids were out of diapers, I would have more time to pursue God”? Or, “If only the kids were out of the house, I would have more time to pursue God”? Or “Once I get through the whirlwind of Advent and Christmas, then I’ll be able to slow down and savor God again”?
I’ve thought that. Perhaps you have as well. You might call this phenomenon “just-around-the-corner spirituality.” That is, the idea that once you can get beyond present circumstances, your relationship with God will be able to grow deeper. If I can just get around this next corner, then I will be able seek after God in an undistracted and more wholehearted way. The problem is, I rarely (if ever!) round the next corner to this new and blessed world of undistracted communion with Christ! It looks like I’m stuck with today as the context of growth in my relationship with God.
But the writer of Psalm 118 has no problem living with today in view. He’s not plagued with just-around-the-corner spirituality; he’s not feeling stuck with today like it is merely a hump to get over to a better tomorrow. He exclaims, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v.24). Easy for him to say, you might think. But this call is not uttered from a serene mountaintop retreat. The psalmist’s exhortation comes fresh from the whirlwind of battle: “Out of my distress I called on the LORD” (v. 5a); “All nations surrounded me” (v. 10a); “They surrounded me like bees; they went out like a fire among thorns” (v. 12a); “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling” (v. 13a).
In this case, the psalmist experienced situational relief from his oppressors—“the LORD answered me and set me free” (v. 5b). So is he just oriented to the Lord now because he’s turned the corner circumstantially? I doubt it. All along he has been carried by the conviction, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (v. 1, 29). This exclamation brackets and structures the entire psalm. This conviction drives his ongoing prayer, “Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!” Today—with its hardships and blessings—is the context in which the psalmist exercises his faith.
Paul says something similar in Philippians 4:11-13:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Do you hear what Paul is saying? The blessed and contented life is not somewhere around the corner where we can imagine living in the perfect spiritual greenhouse to nurture growth. It’s right here, right now, as we learn to experience the sufficiency of Christ’s strength for us in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not automatic. Paul had to learn this, as do we.
Tish Harrison Warren, in her wonderful book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, quotes Annie Dillard on the importance of today: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” These words remind Warren that “today is the proving ground of what I believe and of whom I worship” (p. 23). Yes, today is where the action is, not the supposedly “greener grass” around the corner from today.
So, are you frustrated today? Overwhelmed? Discouraged? Wrestling with discontent? Don’t wait for things to get better. Run to Jesus today—right now. Tell him what’s going on. Remember his steadfast and enduring love. Ask for his help and strength to walk in his ways. There’s no better moment to do so. Remember—the ideal context for Christian growth is today. Don’t miss what God is up to this very moment in your life, even as you rightly hope for a day without mourning, tears, or pain (Revelation 21:4).
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “helplessness.” Or, you might say I’ve been pondering the different ways in which we find ourselves “helpless” in this life. For example, I am acutely aware of my helplessness as I watch my son learn the subtleties of playing defense in basketball. For myself, I notice how helpless I am to stop my hairline from receding. On a more global scale, I feel helpless as I watch all manner of ecological or political foolishness. But though I notice things like these from time to time, as a counselor, helplessness is something that I see and feel on a daily basis.
In a way, I’ve resigned myself to it. Helplessness is continually present in the counseling room because we are often powerless to determine the outcome of our problems. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a wayward child, the death of a loved one, chronic pain, being marginalized, receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or attempting to reconcile with an estranged family member—our ability to accomplish our ends, alleviate our suffering, or change our situations can be extremely limited.
Scripture speaks to this. It validates our lack of control and even admonishes us to not assume the certainty of our plans or abilities (see Psalm 103:14, James 4:13-17, and Proverbs 19:21). In light of this, we could be tempted to adopt a posture of fatalism and hopelessness. But in the wisdom of God, helplessness does not lead to hopelessness, and powerlessness does not lead to fatalism. Though Scripture speaks of our limitations and utter dependence as creatures, it simultaneously proclaims God’s power and love. It is God’s power to act and his love for his people within their helplessness that mingles hope with helplessness.
Psalm 31:21 wonderfully captures this relationship:
Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
The imagery used by the psalmist in this verse is that of an extremely dire circumstance: the besieging of a city. It is the perfect illustration of helplessness because a besieged city is surrounded by an attacking enemy and cut off from all resources. There is no escape and no control—the only thing to do is wait. But note that while the setting is ominous, the focal point of the verse is positive, even uplifting. It speaks of God as the one who wondrously shows his “steadfast love” to his people when they are in a place of utter helplessness. So though besieged and helpless, the psalmist was not hopeless. Paul proposes the same thing in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and then again in Romans 8:35-39: Because of the love of God we do not lose heart, for nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
In counseling ministry, this reality plays out every day. Sometimes the helplessness that I feel is due to a situation that I know is impossible to fix or change. Other times, the helplessness I feel is due to the complexity of the problem in front of me and I’m not actually sure how to help. Or, I experience helplessness when I know exactly what needs to happen, but I am powerless to bring it about for the person.
While the helplessness I feel may be more or less pronounced, more or less devastating, more or less urgent, in all cases, my hope as a helper, and the hope of those I am helping rests in the God who shows his steadfast love while we are helpless. Psalm 31:21 teaches me to humbly accept my limitations in ministry to suffering, struggling people. In light of this I do not lose hope, for our God is the God of the besieged, the God who is a hope for the helpless.
Alasdair Groves and Mike Emlet sit down and talk about Psalm 42 and 43.
Sandra McCracken shares her story by way of the Psalms and her experience as a songwriter. The Psalms teach us how to pray and sing our emotions. The Psalms follow us through life, giving words of hope and sorrow and joy in every changing circumstance. The songs we sing help us give voice and inspire us to have a more honest conversation with God.
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I had the pleasure of spending some time in the UK last spring and at one point, traveled underground in London via the Tube. I was repeatedly reminded, by both signs and recorded announcements, to “mind the gap”—the space between the edge of the platform and the edge of the subway car door. Awareness of the gap and taking appropriate precautions was crucial to avoid injury. I didn’t want the headline to read, “Clumsy American Pays Penalty for Not Minding the Gap”!
The writer of Hebrews describes a different kind of gap that we ought to pay attention to as well. In the first two chapters, the author highlights the supremacy of Jesus Christ over the angels. He quotes Psalm 8 as a capstone to his argument, stating that God crowned Jesus “with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet” (Heb 2:7b-8a). Hebrews 2:8 continues, “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control.” Yes and amen! This is an encouragement that the One who sits at the Father’s right hand reigns over all things.
But then, the writer tells us about the gap: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” Yes, Jesus is on the throne and all things are subject to him, and yet, the writer says, this side of glory we won’t fully experience the reality of that. There is a gap—a space between the way life is and the way it should be. We notice the gap when we see something painfully wrong. So when tired, hungry refugees crowd into a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mosul, we are right to say “this is not the way it’s supposed to be.” Or we might notice it when a husband leaves his wife for a co-worker. Or when we are impatient with our children instead of displaying gentleness and kindness. Gaps abound—in our lives, in the lives of our friends and fellow church members, and in the world around us.
How do you respond to the gaps in your experience? I know what I do. Too often I careen between two extremes—give up or fix it. When the gaps are too large, too overwhelming, or too painful I am tempted to give up, numb out, and live in a place of functional despair, as if to say, “this will never change.” On the other hand, sometimes the gaps move me to a panicked flurry of activity as if I have the power to fix all that is wrong in my life and world. But both of these options are self-oriented ways of responding to the real and distressing gaps in our experience. Both miss Jesus.
Yes, it is true in many ways “we do not yet see everything in subjection to [Jesus].” But the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “we [do] see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb 2:9). What is the writer saying? Acknowledge and face the gaps. But do so with Jesus at the center of your gaze. He has tasted death—the ultimate gap—for you. This is why he can say, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Looking to Jesus gives us hope and courage to pray,
Lord Jesus, I am so troubled by the gaps I see in the here and now. May your perfect reign extend more fully to the brokenness and sin in my world. Teach me what it looks like to endure patiently and to act justly as your ambassador today.
More succinctly we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So how do you mind the gaps of life between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ? Don’t simply stare at the gap, debating how to leap across it (or not). Don’t simply look down at your own two feet. Look up instead to the One who entered history to walk amidst the countless chasms of this fallen and bruised world. Look to the One who ultimately overcomes the gaps through his life, death, and resurrection to glory.
This year we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the JBC (1977-2017).In his editorial, JBC’s senior editor David Powlison recounts how it was also forty years ago that he had first direct exposure to biblical counseling practice. He observed as John Bettler (CCEF’s co-founder) counseled a young man. “I was won over,” Powlison says, “by witnessing how skillfully, lovingly, and relevantly biblical counseling could touch a struggler.” Hear more about this experience and how CCEF continues to be persuaded that conscious Christian faith, deftly applied, is what makes our counsel faithful.Download the Free Editorial
Children, in all their uncensored glory, are mirrors for our souls.
My three-year-old grandson was just out-of-sorts. This particular day was harder than usual. He cried for no apparent reason. He was peevish with his siblings. Nothing brought comfort. We had seen this a couple times before and knew that there was no benefit in talking about it. His turbulent emotions left him seemingly unable to reason. Insight was useless. But his mother tried all the same.
“Jackie, what is it that you want?” The question was largely rhetorical. But for some reason, the question settled into his overtaxed mind. He stopped crying. He actually thought and then answered.
“Mommy, I want . . . I want . . . EVERYTHING.”
By our standards, his everything was minimalist. He wanted his misplaced toy ambulance, the police car his brother seemed to be hoarding, and a doughnut. Maybe a few minutes on an iPhone. Nothing more. The adult list is much longer. He is certainly a mirror of our humanity. If you were to summarize us in a word, it would be “desire.” We are people of desire, of wanting, of longing.
The common word for desire in the New Testament is epithumia. Along with agape it might be the one other Greek word worth knowing. Its range extends from natural desires such as for food and good things such as the desire to be with Jesus, to selfish or evil desires that ultimately reveal a temporary sympathy with the Devil. The challenge is to have “desire under control,” be increasingly consonant with the heart of God, and desire him more than anything on earth.¹
Our challenge today is that we want EVERYTHING. Our aim is for souls that are tamed because of God’s grace in Christ. Through that grace we learn contentment and joy.
¹Luke 15:16, Philippians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 10:6, 1 Corinthians 7:37, Psalm 73:25