spiritual PTSD

A little background

While doing my Ph.D. at Duke, I worked for a few years as a research associate at UNC (not as crazy as it sounds, we only really fight over basketball). Our project established a program to deliver important life skills training to military reserve families preparing for, experiencing, or recovering from deployment. (click here for the ELSMF website) The second module covers financial planning (basically, we gave them for free a lot of the same stuff Dave Ramsey sells at a premium, but that’s a post for another day). Because these workshops were all day events and because adults don’t learn effectively sitting still for 8 hours straight (who does actually?), we included a number of fun activities to get participants participating and to reinforce the concepts we were talking about. One of these was a balloon juggling game, where the class got into circles of 4-8 people and tried to keep a number of balloons in the air at the same time. We would write things like “rent” or “car payment” on the balloons so each represented a monthly bill. Once they got good at juggling these, we would randomly toss in things like “root canal” or “transmission repair.” It was fun and got the point across.
Except this one time, when we were meeting in a large hangar. It was common for some balloon popping to happen, and this time was no exception. But there was one difference. One of the participants had already been deployed and was there preparing to go again (multiple deployments has become all too common) and when the balloons started popping, he sank to his knees, starting shaking badly, and wound up almost in a fetal position on the floor. The combination of the popping and the echoing of the room made it sound like small arms fire. I had read about PTSD, but this was the first time I had seen such a clear-cut example of it. After that workshop, we ordered cases of small beach balls with our logo on it to avoid such triggers in the future.
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is the human brain’s method of dealing with an event that is too traumatic, too violent, too dangerous to be dealt with by normal coping mechanisms. Like the way the body can wall off a ruptured appendix and create an abscess to contain the toxins, the brain walls off the traumatic memory from the rest of your psyche. This allows a person to continue to function rather normally, even though the stress of the trauma has not been dealt with. But the memory is still there and quite well preserved, waiting only sound, smell, or visual cue to plunge the person right back into that moment of terror. Your heart starts racing, you begin to shake and sweat, your legs go out from under you. The full amount of fear you felt during the trauma comes back, without warning, in full force. It can be quite debilitating. PTSD can happen to anyone (though certain genes may make a person more susceptible) but it is an especially big problem for U.S. military personnel. It doesn’t have an expiration date either. There are Vietnam vets walking around today who still suffer from it.

Spiritual PTSD – or PTSD with religious triggers

I was talking to my cousin Kimberly Knight (click here to visit her wonderful blog) last week and she was describing how reading John 1-3 made her feel, well sort of like the balloon popping guy. At least, as she described it, the image of him is what floated up in my memory. I suggested to Kim that, having lived through a great deal of trauma where Bible verses have been thrown at her like bullets – intended to wound, intended to hurt – it is entirely possible that Scripture itself has become a trigger for her, calling up old feelings of pain and hurt, abuse and trauma. Kim graciously offered this explanation of how she felt:

“As I read the first few verses of John I was struck to my core, like never before, how utterly insane the text is. Not only did I experience it as some of the worst writing I had ever encountered but all of a sudden I had zero emotional connection to the words on the page. The strings of words seemed ludicrous and I felt a dark laughter welling up in me that nearly compelled me to throw the thing out the window. How on earth is this our story? Why in the hell do we believe this crap? I can not tell you why I find these words, written by men, redacted and canonized by men, strained through the colander of power and politics by men, is worthy of our time and effort. The only answer I have right now is that I do believe in God, I do believe that the nature of God is revealed in the Incarnation and I do know I have experienced Love that comes from an endless source outside of myself – in spite of myself – that I can only comprehend as Divine.”

I don’t know if I’m using PTSD as a metaphor here or suggesting that some sort of dynamic exists along a continuum of human psychological responses, so this is a form of PTSD, and I’m not sure the distinction even matters. If you have experienced spiritual trauma, Kim’s description most likely resonates with you. I know other people who cannot set foot in any church at all (or for some, one church in particular) without experiencing the same sort of fear, pain, and emotional upheaval. Others can’t handle singing or preaching, others can’t deal with reading or listening to the Bible. All of these basic things we engage in as part of our faith have become triggers for people who have been deeply wounded by the body of Christ itself. If this describes your experience, then I have a few suggestions for you. Kim found them helpful. I hope you will too.

Putting Scripture in its place

If the Bible itself is a trigger, and the way it gets abused I’m afraid this is going to be most common, then the first thing to do is put it in its proper place. If you have come out of a faith expression that is abusive (and if you haven’t come out yet, for goodness sake, come out – run), you were most likely taught to think about the Bible in way that is not healthy. I don’t just mean not healthy for wounded people, but really bad for anyone. I have explained before how the Bible is not the Word of God (click here to read that), but actually Jesus himself is the Word of God (click here to read that). This might sound like semantics, but it is really a huge difference. All that talk of inerrancy and infallibility only serves to turn the Bible into a weapon to be used against people. It allows the interpreter to hide their act of interpretation, pretending that their skewed take on Scripture is a meaning you have to buy into, even if that causes you great pain and trauma. The Bible is not a weapon. It is not to be used to go on the attack. Followers of Jesus don’t attack. We don’t have an attacking God, we have a crucified God. Scripture is (and yes, I’m taking this from Pope Paul VI, click here to read it) the record of apostolic preaching, it conveys to us what the early Christian leaders preached and what Israel experienced in its life with God. It’s not a magic book. And it’s not a weapon. The only time in the Bible where we find someone using Scripture as a weapon is when Satan uses it to attack/tempt Jesus. Anytime someone uses it to attack you, you can leave that conversation. You don’t have to let them trigger your pain. That is not the path to healing.

The path to healing

This is tricky, but I do believe that the source of your healing will be Jesus and we primarily know about Jesus from the Bible. So the source of your triggers and the source of your healing might be the same. Being aware of this is an important step toward healing. And you are already aware. Your triggers are part of your self-defense system. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Let them do their work. At one point, Kim said to me, “I know that’s not how I should feel about the Bible.” I responded with wisdom from one of the greatest theologians ever – Mr. Rogers. Maybe the most important thing he taught us is that there is no such thing as “should feel,” or “don’t let yourself feel,” or be ashamed of how you feel. You feel how you feel and how you feel is always legitimate. Respect how you feel, press in and understand how you feel, and then govern your action in ways that honor how you feel and your ethical commitments.
Let me put it this way. I ran on the treadmill Monday. I woke up Tuesday and my left foot was hurting (it’s still hurting). My plantar fasciitis is acting up again. If I ignored this pain and ran again, it would get worse and I could really hurt myself. If I let the pain cause me to not work out at all, then it has debilitated me. The first approach does not respect the pain. The second approach does not respect the commitment I have to exercise. So Tuesday I rode a stationary bike, and today I will swim laps. Thinking of your spiritual pain in terms of physical pain can help you develop an approach to healing. Here are some specific steps:
  1. Take a break. Your spiritual pain is like my foot pain. You have to pay attention to it. Give it the respect it deserves – the respect you deserve. Sometimes when you have a physical injury, the best thing to do is rest. It’s okay to take a break. From church. From reading the Bible. From all of it. Ridding your life of religious noise might be exactly what you need to do. God is often found in silence. Healing is often found in quiet. Recovery almost always requires rest.
  2. Do something different. Once you are ready to reengage, don’t just go back to same abusive environment you left (did you run yet? Stop reading and run already!). Remember, the Bible is our record of apostolic preaching. So find some preachers who convey the Gospel for you without inducing triggers. Not every preacher has such vicious interpretations. Not all churches are so hateful. If you can find a loving, virtuous community, try it out. See how it goes. Podcasts are also good. Find a few preachers who speak truth into you in a healing way. How will you know? Pay attention to how you feel. The Spirit of God lives in you. You will know. Especially if you have given yourself some silence.
  3. Focus on other parts. With my foot issue, it will probably be a good idea to spend some time working on my upper body and give my foot more of a break. You can do the same sort of thing spiritually. I think part of what really got to Kim was the high Christology and assumptive language in the first part of John’s Gospel. There are times when we need to hear that, but there are other times when we don’t. We have four Gospels, plus all the other parts of Scripture, for a reason. Sometimes you might find hanging out with the gritty, very human Jesus in Mark gives you just what you need. Or the laments of the Psalms. Or the crazy stories in Judges. Once you can put the Bible in its place and you’ve given yourself some silence, then you may find healing in unexpected places in the Bible. But if it hurts, stop.
But what about doctrine? What about heresy? Am I suggesting these things don’t matter? Well, that’s more than I can get into here (this post is already ridiculously long), but doctrines and creeds are quite often used as weapons too. But no weapon formed against will prosper. If it leads you to Jesus, then it can’t be bad. If it helps you get to a place where the great news about Jesus brings healing to your heart, mind, and spirit, then that is enough. There are pastors and churches in a variety of faith expressions that lead people to Jesus and to his healing power. And there are pastors and churches from those same faith expressions that wound and abuse people. Your triggers will protect from the abusers if you pay attention. The lack of triggers will help you identify the healers.
I have to make myself not cry every time I think about the guy who couldn’t take the balloon popping. I wanted to hug him and tell him how sorry I am that our political leaders put him through that senseless hell. I feel the same way about you. I am so sorry the body of Christ has been so awful to you. I am so sorry that the instruments of healing have been used to cut, wound, and abuse you. I hope, I pray that you will experience the healing power of Jesus.

4 thoughts on “spiritual PTSD

  1. I would use the term “religion trauma.” All religions tolerate a form of fundamentalism that abuses people in the name of God. The landmark studies by Marty and Appleby underscore that reality (not the abuse; the fundamentalist phenomenon).

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Jeff. On one hand I agree with you. I started to call the post “PTSD with religious triggers” but that sounded too wordy and didn’t get close enough to the center of what I wanted to point out. Which is the other hand. The trauma we’re talking about here can come from religious fundamentalism, but it can also come from immoral, abusive actions that don’t relate to doctrine at all. I left out all specific examples for that reason, to leave open the variety of expressions church abuse can take. The common thread here is that it results in deep wounding, in my opinion spiritual as well as emotional wounding (I’m not even sure how you separate the two), so that finding a path of spirituality is made difficult because of the injury inflicted. Which is why I went with spiritual.

  2. this is my story. (i wrote ‘stumbling toward faith’) i describe the trauma in great detail, and put every single hard question out there. my solution was to do all 3 above. i’ve been hanging out with the UU’s for 3 years now, and only get triggered every now and then in 3D life. (online, i still get triggered by it all the time)

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing Renee (I tried to add the accent, but I don’t know how, sorry). This was one of the things Kim and I talked about. She gets so many vicious attacks on her blog that I think it makes the triggering worse even in other areas. Kim is very courageous and sees this as part of her duty to the kingdom of God, but I do worry about all the exposure to mean people being mean. Maybe adding a fourth – come up with strategies for dealing with and limiting online exposure to flack would be good. But honestly, I don’t know how to recommend that. Online stuff winds me up a lot too.

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