God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World

Written by Scott Harrower Reviewed By Rachel A. Ciano

Scott Harrower’s God of all Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World is a profoundly thoughtful, empathetic, and theologically engaging work that seeks to draw together trauma studies and the self-revelation of the triune God of the Bible. Harrower’s professional work in emergency medicine, ministry, and theological research and teaching places him at a helpful nexus to write on the intersection of trauma and Christian faith. The book aims to “explore how God the Trinity engages with horrors and trauma, and what people can hope for in light of this” (p. 1). This aim leads to a clear, central thesis: recovery from trauma is significantly more attainable when God in Trinity is an acknowledged and integral part of that process; that is, when the trauma survivor is keenly aware of the triune God’s knowledge of them, love for them, and presence with them by his empowering Spirit.

The book’s strong structure aids this central thesis, and Harrower builds his argument carefully. Part 1, “Horrors and Skepticisms,” examines horror as a theological concept. Harrower concludes that horrors are, in essence, the antithesis and absence of shalom and its requisite elements—flourishing, wholeness, and hope. Part 2, “Horrors and Interpretation,” addresses issues raised in examining horror and responds by looking at interpretations of God’s involvement in the world via two readings of Matthew’s Gospel—a “horror-attuned” reading and a “blessed” reading. Finally, in Part 3, “Horrors and Trinity,” Harrower works through the essential elements for recovery from trauma, as set forth in Judith Lewis Herman’s seminal work Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). (It is also worth noting that Herman is a colleague of Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma [New York: Viking Penguin, 2014]). Herman’s work is a foundational text in discussions about the nature of trauma and what is required for recovery to be possible. Herman identified the recovery of safety, the recovery of the survivor’s story, and the recovery of community as the three essential elements for healing from trauma. Harrower takes these categories and brings the triune God into the conversation, seeking to demonstrate that God in Trinity addresses and provides for safety, story, and community, thus making it possible for God to restore a trauma survivor. Even by suggesting that recovery is possible, he diverges from some who work within the trauma space. However, Harrower argues that a person who knows the triune God is better equipped to recover from trauma, have their skepticisms about God addressed realistically, and find hope to live meaningfully in the future.

God of all Comfort makes two distinctive contributions to the discussions surrounding trauma and recovery. In part 2 of the book, Harrower recognizes that a traumatized person interacts with the world through the lens of their own trauma. All people bring different interpretive grids to the reading of literature, including the Bible. Acknowledging the reader’s perspective and drawing on literary studies in the horror genre, Harrower utilizes trauma hermeneutics to first offer a horror-attuned reading of Matthew. However, the book concludes that this approach is “not sufficient to redress the pervasiveness of horrors and their traumatic and overwhelming effects, nor the skepticisms that arise” (p. 116).

Given the limitations of a horror-attuned reading and its inadequacy to assist a person moving through trauma to recovery, Harrower seeks to address the central pastoral and theological question postulated by another theologian who connects trauma and theology, Serene Jones (Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009]). Quoting Jones, Harrower asks, “How do people, whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace?” (p. 116, italics original). Harrower answers this question by unpacking the personal ways in which the triune God, through seen and unseen, direct and indirect means, restores people from these horrors and their accompanying trauma. To do this, he examines a counter hermeneutic, a “blessed perspective” of Matthew’s Gospel—a perspective that God himself enables through the work of his Spirit which helps people understand who he is, and how he is restoring human life (pp. 117–34). For example, Peter’s change of perspective in Matthew 16:13–20 suggests that God may change other people’s perspectives too, “despite great internal or external resistance” (p. 123).

The second distinctive contribution is in part 3, where the book brings together Trinitarian theology and trauma studies to address a perceptively identified research gap concerning a lack of deep engagement with the nature of how the triune God and addresses safety, story, and community for trauma survivors. Harrower argues that knowing and experiencing God in Trinity provides a fuller, more complete framework for healing from trauma. In doing so, he resists a superficial approach to trauma, and a glib, reductionistic biblical exegesis that results in “thin” theology. Instead, the book wisely accords to the areas of trauma and theology the weight they both deserve. “Trauma is complex and entails ongoing brokenness, which is precisely why we need to be reminded that everyday and all day our starting point is the profound assurance that we are accepted by and special to God” (p. 188, italics original).

God of All Comfort is carefully researched and engages with a wide range of scholarship, demonstrating that Harrower could easily have said much more on the issue. Some of these strands are picked up and developed in a more recent work by Joshua Cockayne, Scott Harrower, and Preston Hill (Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches, New Studies in Theology and Trauma [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022]). The extensive bibliography and footnotes open a world for readers who want to delve deeper into the book’s many astute observations, critiques, and interesting rabbit holes. While it is pitched at an academic level, this is fitting given the strands of trauma studies, literary approaches, philosophy, and theology that are brought together. Moreover, as a deeply theological, trauma-informed study, what this book offers survivors of trauma and those who work with them and care for them is unique.

However, those who would presumably benefit most from this book—people who are seeking God’s face amid horrors—may struggle to engage with it, given that trauma can affect a person’s verbal functioning and ability to process words and information. Perhaps a follow-up book that makes this vital work more accessible to those in most need of it would be a wonderful gift to both the church and the world. In addition, a more developed response to recovery when horrors have occurred within Christian institutions (briefly addressed on pp. 191–92; c.f. pp. 46; 202; 213–14) would prove helpful. If, as Harrower suggests, the church can be a place of healing, then the complexities of a person recovering safety, story, and community in a similar context to where horrors occurred needs further exploration. The triune God is the starting point for recovery, however how a person integrates, or reintegrates, into a community of people in whom God’s Spirit dwells bears further reflection.

In the end, the reader will leave the pages of this book knowing that God is indeed the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3) who has power to heal horror-makers and trauma survivors alike. This truth offers the glinting diamond that those recovering from trauma are after—real hope for the future.

Rachel A. Ciano

Rachel A. Ciano
Sydney Missionary & Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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