According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 15 million adults face PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) every year. This figure does not include others who have experienced trauma yet do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. One study found that up to 84% of individuals in a college-aged sample have experienced potentially traumatic events, and an estimated 9% of those suffer from PTSD. As gospel laborers on college campuses, we simply can’t ignore the unique needs of the trauma survivors on our campuses. We must educate ourselves on the challenges they face in pursuing a relationship with God so that we can be prepared to minister to them lovingly and effectively.
Let me start by urging you to acknowledge that the spiritual struggles this population often encounters are not always or only rooted in spiritual sources but rather physical ones. Trauma is an actual biological phenomenon that occurs when a person has an experience (or many experiences) that overloads the body’s nervous system and brain. Therefore, as we consider trauma, we cannot simply address the emotional and spiritual dimension of the human experience. We must give space for all aspects of healing because a perspective of a person’s whole being is required to heal trauma. Without this knowledge, we run the risk of providing support that falls short of the complexity and nuance of care that this population needs to thrive spiritually.
How Trauma Survivors View God
We can’t discuss the pragmatics of caring for those in our ministries who are navigating trauma recovery without first understanding the views they often hold about God. Our experiences always shape our understanding of God. What a survivor has experienced physically and emotionally has a direct bearing on the things they believe to be true about God.
In my counseling practice, I have traced four common beliefs that survivors hold about who God is—and who He isn’t.
God is no longer Elohim (Protector), He is dangerous.
My apartment has a smoke detector that is extremely sensitive. My husband and I often keep a kitchen chair under it so that while we are cooking, we can quickly jump up on the chair to mute the detector when it sounds. When this detector catches any whiff of heat, it sounds over and over again, relentlessly interrupting the task at hand. It becomes extremely annoying to simply prepare meals in our apartment because we have to deal with the smoke detector every couple minutes.
This concept of a “smoke alarm”, originated by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, outlines how living as a trauma survivor is much like my experience with my finicky apartment smoke alarm. A trauma survivor’s internal “smoke detector” is tripped over and over again. The brain often then has a reduced ability to tell whether danger is actually present or if it is simply a false alarm. The survival mechanism in our bodies will always prioritize safety over connection, and our body is quick to act against any threat, whether physical, emotional, mental, relational, sexual, spiritual, etc. It is a gift from God that our bodies were made to respond quickly to threats. However, in a broken world with bodies that experience decay, these biological mechanisms can experience damage just like any other aspect of our body.
Many trauma survivors have undergone events in which their protective figure—the person who should care for and protect them, such as a parent, sibling, or spouse—failed to fulfill this role. Worse, that protective figure may have been the actual source of threat and harm in their life. As a result, survivors tend to perceive any offer of protection as a signal of danger in and of itself. Their body’s internal alarm has coded outside protection as a cue that danger is imminent.
This makes relating to God, our Protector, extremely complicated, and at times torturous, for trauma survivors. A Protector God can seem anything but safe to them.
God is no longer Jehovah Jireh (Provider), He is a manipulator.
Just as protection can become a trigger for danger to someone who has experienced trauma, attempts to nurture and comfort a trauma survivor can be met with suspicion or even hostility. When a person sustains trauma, they often experience loss of goodness in some form or fashion. What should have been good, safe, and nurturing for them is either lost altogether or twisted by the perpetrator and used to harm them, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Some survivors experienced unstable environmental conditions in which they did not know whether nurturing and basic necessities would be provided or withheld. It may have been caregivers who were not able to consistently meet their needs or relationships where they always found themselves walking on eggshells. This instability creates a dynamic of inconsistency and hypervigilance.
Never knowing what to expect in relationships with others, the trauma survivor’s brain had to develop a filter for all of the positive things that come their way. The brain then orients itself to emphasize the negative and tune out the positive in order to anticipate future threats. The brain becomes suspicious of any positive, nurturing encounter because positive stimuli are no longer seen as trustworthy or safe.
Trauma survivors who face these struggles often report difficulty trusting God’s nature of goodness and His goodness displayed towards them. Instead of a Protector, they see a manipulator.
God is no longer El Roi (The God who sees); He turns his gaze away.
For some trauma survivors, the concept of a loving God who is both able to protect and provide is not difficult for them. Instead, they find it challenging to believe that God sees them and their struggles on an intimate, personal level.
This belief often arises out of experiences of abandonment where help did not come and deliverance from their trauma did not occur. In my sessions with clients, I often talk about how there is something worse than experiencing trauma, and that is experiencing trauma alone. Human beings are created to exist in community. It goes against our fundamental human nature to walk through suffering alone.
Experiencing trauma on our own injures our bodies and souls at an inexpressible level. Even so, the human body is magnificent in its ability to survive, but it often cannot continue without seriously impacting one’s ability to trust that God sees and God cares."Human beings are created to exist in community. It goes against our fundamental human nature to walk through suffering alone." -Lauren Graham #collegiatedisciplemaker Ministering to Survivors on Your Campus: How Trauma Affects A… Click To Tweet
God no longer looks on us with joy and love, but disgust.
Those who have endured trauma often experience shame and disgust with themselves as a result. An experience that violates or strips one’s personhood can produce an intense response of self-contempt. This response often elicits thoughts like..
“I am defective.”
“I am unlovable.”
“I am worthless.”
“I deserve to die.”
In order to survive, the human brain will often turn on itself, believing it is safer to do so than to face the devastating reality of being hurt so deeply and being powerless to stop it. In this situation, trauma survivors struggle in their relationship with God not because of God Himself but because their body has internalized the belief that they are too broken to be loved, enjoyed, or cherished.
How Trauma Affects the Whole Person
As you interact with survivors, keep in mind that when a person sustains trauma, their body’s survival system is never the same again. They are not asking questions to be difficult, unbelieving, or unfaithful. Their body is asking these questions because their brain is facing the colossal task of reconciling a world where trauma like what they experienced happens with a God who could possibly protect them, provide for them, or care about them, much less look on them with love and delight.
Ministering to trauma survivors begins with understanding, compassion, and patience for what has happened to them and how it has affected them rather than judgment. Trauma can break a person’s brain and consequently their view of God, and this should break our hearts for them.
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. Come back on Monday to read the second article for pragmatic tips on how trauma affects your ministry to survivors—and what you can do to lovingly counteract that.
- US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018, September 13). How Common is PTSD in Adults?. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp
- Cusack, S. E., Hicks, T. A., Bourdon, J., Sheerin, C. M., Overstreet, C. M., Kendler, K. S., Dick, D. M., & Amstadter, A. B. (2018). Prevalence and predictors of PTSD among a college sample. Journal of American College Health, 67(2), 123–131. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2018.1462824