Acknowledge Hidden Trauma in Your Church

You are safe; you are loved. You are safe; you are loved.

That’s what I heard the foster dad saying over and over in a comforting tone as he rocked a terrified, sobbing baby. My close friends began fostering the infant several months ago.

Even if the baby hadn’t arrived with a bruised face, he had other signs of trauma. He became hysterical when left in a crib for a moment or when hearing loud voices. The very people who should have protected him had harmed him. Although the bruises are long gone, the pain and trauma are not.

The local church, like my friends, should be a welcoming family to those who have undergone crisis. Understanding what God created and how it has been broken, we should empathize with those who have been traumatized. Brokenness in families, experiences with disordered authority, and histories of sexual abuse leave long-term damage because good things God created have been wrongly used. As believers, we need to understand this, so we can walk patiently with those affected by trauma, helping to bind up the brokenhearted.

Broken Family

God lays out his beautiful intent for the family in Scripture: A parent is meant to love (Luke 15:11–32), protect (1 Cor. 10:13), provide (Matt. 6:8–15), discipline (Heb. 12:3–11), and teach (Ps. 32:8). God even depicts himself as a heavenly Father (1 Cor. 8:6).

But when a human parent, instead of pointing to the beauty of God, burns a child with cigarettes or abandons the family, there are profound implications for that child.

Adopted children also experience the trauma of a broken family. Adoption is a way for healing to come through healthy relationship and love, but every adoption is preceded by loss. The adopted child has lost a parent through death, abandonment, removal by the state, or another circumstance. Adopted families and churches can show love and support by giving room for the child to grieve and not rushing them in that process.

In order to help, not harm, a church must understand this loss. When they understand the effect in an adopted child’s life, the church will pray and support the adoptive family in difficulty. Friends and family can facilitate a newly adopted child’s attachment by promoting the parents as the ones who provide affection, gifts, necessities, and discipline to the child. No adoptive situation is the same, so we need to attend to each with wisdom, love, and compassion.

Marriages aren’t always exempt from trauma either. The Scriptures describes Jesus Christ as a bridegroom. A husband is meant to nourish and cherish his bride as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:25–33), but what happens when instead he harms her through emotional, verbal, or physical abuse? When the person who has covenanted to be one with you abuses you physically, there is no quick fix.

The church should absolutely be swift in securing and prioritizing the safety of a battered spouse, but the church must also be ready to walk through the long-term trauma inflicted by domestic abuse. Just because the spouse is out of danger doesn’t mean the trauma disappears.

Caring for those who suffer is always complex and specific, but you can move toward the suffering by believing them, helping them form a safety plan, giving them agency by letting them determine steps and a timeline to pursue justice, and providing needed shelter and finances.

Disordered Authority

Authority is God-given. Whether in our state and nation, our workplace, our churches, or even our homes, God has blessed us with authorities to direct us. While worldly leadership may seek personal gain, godly leadership serves those under it (Matt. 20:25–26;1 Pet. 5:2–4). Christ uses his authority for his followers’ good (John 10:11).

When an authority seeks his or her own good at the expense of others or conflates good and evil, the souls of those under authority suffer. When people experience serious injustice at work, spiritual abuse at a church, or when their life is turned upside-down by a so-called Christian ministry, they might have a hard time trusting themselves or trusting authorities. They may be exhausted from all the confusion and soul-searching. Some may even walk away from the church.

We in the church should listen to and care for those affected by disordered authority even when they can seem skittish or distrusting. Trauma has disrupted their world; show them you aren’t going anywhere. We should be ready to listen, but also be patient when sufferers are reluctant to share their stories. Abuse often trains people to believe they don’t have worth, agency, or the ability to think for themselves. So when you see their talent, gifting, or growth, encourage what you see.

Sexual Abuse

Scripture consistently pictures the sexual relationship between a husband and wife as a good gift from God. In Ephesians 5, Paul highlights the one-flesh, marital union, acknowledging that it reveals truth about Christ and the church (Eph 5:31-32). God created sex for his glory.

When what was meant to reveal God more fully is distorted, what happens? What happens when what was intended to bring oneness and intimacy is instead used hatefully and harmfully? Sexual abuse is life-shattering and alters daily practices and future relationships.

When someone shares with you they have been sexually abused, believe them. Survivors often wrongly blame themselves, so don’t ask questions that shame or blame. Weep with them (Rom. 12:15). Ask what would be helpful by way of contact, conversation, and support.

All of these traumatic experiences—broken families, abusive power, and sexual abuse—result in brokenness and alter lives. Jesus redeems these things, but everything isn’t perfect today. We should expect grief, distress, fear, and physical responses.

Rather than ignoring these situations or only briefly acknowledging them, the church needs to be prepared to meet the brokenness of this world head-on and to offer consistent safety and love. We must roll up our sleeves in Christlike service. Like my friends’ care for their traumatized foster child, this service will entail long-term self-sacrifice and loving reassurances. We can reach out our hands to the wounded in the congregation and repeatedly remind them: “You are safe; you are loved.”

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