Must we leave our trauma at the door?

Two wings of the Evangelical church tend to suffer from a bit of stereotyping.  On the one end are those frequently accused of focusing so much on the emotional aspect of worship that they forget exposition and doctrine, requiring you to leave your brains at the door. At the other end are those who are strongly focused on doctrine and exposition but at times can be accused of requiring you to leave your emotions at the door.

Sometimes, people seem very willing to play into the stereotype and so the other day, we had the incident of the pastor and broadcaster who tweeted claiming that we should not show empathy.  Well, in the context of other things he has been tweeting about, things become clearer.

I’m not sure if he is just having a general go here at something he perceives to be a problem in the world.  In my experience, even those struggling with deep emotional pain don’t tend to be going around accusing everyone in the church now of being to blame for things done to them in the past.  However, I guess it might be possible with a specific pastoral incident, in which case the pastoral wisdom of lashing out against one parishioner on social media is questionable.

It is worth stepping back and reminding ourselves what we mean by “trauma.”  We use the word to refer to injury, usually it describes a sudden and severe injury that needs immediate treatment.  A blow to the head or a broken leg might be referred to as trauma.  We also describe events as traumatic referring to the shocking and severe emotional impact they have to.  Witnessing a terrible accident or a brutal crime might be described as traumatic.  This can lead to immediate and severe  emotional reactions as someone reacts in distress, that can work its way out in tears, panic attacks and even collapse. 

When we see someone exhibiting longer term emotional and physiological responses to a traumatic event, we begin to talk about Post Traumatic Distress Disorder. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, sweating, trembling and even pain.  This is something seen in servicemen and women affected by the horrors of conflict (referred to as shell shock in World War 1). It is now reconginsed that many soldiers shamed and sentenced as deserters and cowards in past wars were probably suffering from PTSD.

So, there are likely to be people in your congregation experiencing the ongoing affects of past trauma. This could well include those who have been subjected to serious abuse, sexual assault and other criminal attacks against them.  It could also include those who have experienced bullying and abusive behaviour within the church from pastors, elders, other church members etc.  Dare I say it, for all those reasons, the pastor himself may be suffering from post-traumatic affects. 

If I can add one further thing in.  Whilst I’ve not seen cases where people have immediately blamed the whole church and dragged them into accusations for past sin, I have seen situations where people react in extreme emotional ways to people and contexts in the here and now because they find themselves reacting, even subconsciously to stuff they experienced in the past. A room setting, a similar voice or facial expression etc, all of these things can trigger past emotions.  This may well be happening subconsciously. 

I find it helpful to explain things this way. I also know people who experience severe chronic pain affecting much or even all of their body.  Often they become so sensitive that even any physical contact, someone putting an arm on them for example is experienced as pain.  They are unable to to detect the source of pain and so every contact is felt like it is the cause of pain and even as an attack.  In the same way, when someone is experiencing chronic and overwhelming emotional pain, they may not know its source and so even attempts to help may be experienced as emotional wounds.

So now we come to the pastor’s comments.  I want you to notice that they start with something that is true, move to a false, misleading and in fact heretical application of that truth and conclude with bullying abusive and narcissistic behaviour. I hope that this is just shock jock stuff to get a reaction on social media because if this is in fact how he behaves in church then that is very dangerous indeed. This is not how a pastor should talk and act.

The truth is that Jesus has endured all the trauma needed to accomplish our salvation. He died on the Cross and paid the penalty for our sin. That is obvious.  However, this is then translated into a proposition that therefore people should stop dragging their trauma into the church. You will notice that this is because the pastor believes that when people come into church with trauma, they also inflict it on others.  And I guess it is true that there is a risk that when people are hurting and don’t know what to do with that hurt, then others get hurt too. However, they rarely turn up intending to hurt others, they turn up carrying deep pain and grief and don’t know where to turn.

The reason I say that this application, in effect an instruction to leave your trauma at the door is false is as follows. Imagine if he had written

“Jesus suffered at calvary, he was whipped, beaten a crown of thorns on his head. ‘With his stripes we are healed.’ He suffered enough for your salvation. So don’t turn up with the mangled and distressing injuries and physical deformities. It’s awaful for other people to look at you. “

As well as being offensive, the implication that we should be free from these physical injuries, illnesses and deformities because of what Jesus went through on the Cross is recognised as false teaching. It’s part of the prosperity gospel, the belief that I should not suffer physical or financial poverty. Sadly, some people who would recognise how wrong that is insist that we can claim emotional prosperity.

The reality is that people still suffer and struggle with severe emotional distress. The good news is that even whilst we don’t always see instantaneous healing, it is possible to find comfort, hope and even learn to be holy and to thrive whilst suffering. This is part of the growth and sanctification which happens following salvation.  However, people have got to start somewhere and the starting point is that the church should be the exact place where they csn come with all the mess, with those open weeping wounds of emotional trauma and find true comfort.

So, finally we end up being told “Get over yourself.” To which I want to reply to the tweeter “No, you get over yourself.”  It is not about his, or my need for our churches to be tidy and respectable,. It’s not about people coming and thinking “wow what a wonderful pastor, look at how perfect and sorted his congregation are.  It is about Jesus and that means we need to get out of the way with our own reactions and allow the one who is the friend of sinners, the true healer who binds up the broken hearted to welcome the trauma victim and to get to work.