Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the best-known psychiatric diagnosis of this decade. It essentially identifies a past traumatic event that refuses to stay in the past but intrudes into the present as if it just happened—or is happening. And like so many psychiatric diagnoses, it seems to exist outside of Scripture’s reach.
The problem is that we tend to access Scripture by way of a concordance. For example, the words fear, anxiety, anger, and shame appear in Scripture, so we can quickly find relevant verses. But there is no concordance that lists PTSD. As such, we assume Scripture is interested in other matters, and we look elsewhere for help. This should concern us because it looks like the most pressing matter in a person’s life is met by divine silence.
An alternative is to listen even more carefully to the person who is suffering. The diagnostic category of PTSD is not the final word that dictates a prescribed plan of help; it is an invitation to understand the actual experience of the person. In the hands of a relatively skilled helper, those personal descriptions can be linked to clear themes in Scripture. Then, hope comes to life as God speaks meaningfully.
Here are three themes that usually accompany PTSD.
Listen to someone’s description of PTSD and you hear a person who is emotionally overwhelmed now by an event that was overwhelming earlier. Scripture, of course, perks up to such matters. It describes many threatening and overwhelming life events. God has determined that his people will not be spared the tragedies of the world. So we, indeed, go through dangerous terrain and deep waters (Ps 18:16; 23:4; 69:1; 130:1). It’s the Old Testament wilderness being reenacted. But Jesus has been through this wilderness too (Matt 4:1–11) and gives us his Spirit, so we can follow him through it.
Traumatic events come at us in different ways. What unites many of these experiences is that they are encounters with death. Either we came close to death or we watched death overtake someone else.
With this experience, it would be hard to find anything noteworthy apart from Scripture. Life and death are its dominating themes. Will death win? Will it have the last word? If it does, we are left with immoveable fear. Or will the God of life break through into his disordered creation and exert his rule of life and bring death to death? Here again we might have many questions, but the important point is that Scripture is dense with God’s words to those who have been in death’s shadow.
A less featured aspect of some PTSD, though very important, is the presence of immorality, wickedness, and evil in the past events. You might discover it in a comment such as “It shouldn’t have happened.” For those in the military, this could refer to what they witnessed or it could describe what they actually did. A moral code that a soldier once embraced has been violated. For others, it could be their experience of ungodly oppression and iniquitous victimization. This is certainly the case with sexual violence. Somebody has done something very wrong.
Here again, God speaks and speaks often. He opposes the arrogant persecutors and brings their evil to an end (Jer 23:1–6). He assures us that there will be righteous judgment and we can trust him (1 Peter 2:23). He invites us to respond to him through psalms that are constantly identifying enemies while we remember that things are not always as they seem—he hears the cries of the oppressed and will comfort them.
All this is not to say that our care for those who reexperience past horrors is as easy as quoting Scripture. It is to say that God says much to those who have experienced soul-crushing trauma. Our desire is to be the importunate friend (Luke 11:5–13) who persists in asking the Father for the Spirit who reveals to us the riches of his Word, so we can give it to others.