Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of H. Norman Wright, Matt Woodley, & Julie Woodley's new book, Surviving the Storms of Life: Finding Hope and Healing When Life Goes Wrong, (Regal Books, 2008).
Trauma will hit you in our fallen world – whether it’s something that makes headlines, like a disaster or terrorist attack, or something more personal, like abuse, a loved one’s death, or an accident.
But no matter what kind of trauma you suffer or how it affects you, there’s hope in Christ. He knows what trauma is like; He suffered it while dying on the cross. Jesus cares about what you’re going through, and He’ll help you heal.
Here’s how you can heal from trauma:
Recognize the possibilities. Your story doesn’t end with the trauma you’ve suffered. A better future is possible for you. You’re much more than just a person who suffered traumatic events. You can be a survivor. You can recover with God’s help. And God can even turn your trauma into a redemptive source of blessing in your life and the lives of other people.
Deal with your anger. Admit the anger you feel as a result of the trauma you experienced. Ask God to help you stop expressing it in destructive ways and start expressing it in healthy ways. Use the energy in your anger to accomplish something constructive, like working to help solve the problem that caused your trauma (for example, if you were abused, reach out to others who have gone through the same type of abuse, or if a drunk driver killed someone you loved, support organizations that fight drunk driving). Release your anger by writing about it in a journal, or in a letter to the person or people who traumatized you (but don’t mail the letter). Be honest with God about the anger you feel; doing so releases its power over you, giving you the freedom to pursue healing.
Deal with your guilt. Evaluate your guilt and ask God to help you discern whether or not it’s legitimate. Legitimate guilt has a purpose, showing you where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to change. If the guilt you’re suffering from is legitimate, you can do something about it. Admit what you’ve done, confess it, make restitution if possible, and embrace God’s forgiveness. If you’re suffering from guilt that doesn’t have a redemptive purpose, recognize that it doesn’t come from God and ask God to free you from that guilt and move on with your life. Remember that what’s past is past. Don’t blame yourself for not being able to react or respond in the best way when you were traumatized; trauma impacts your judgment. If you did the best you could at the time, that’s enough.
Deal with your fear. Confront your fears, identify them, and notice how often they occur. Remember what you used to fear, and how you overcame it. Put your fears in perspective by studying and memorizing Bible passages that describe God’s power to handle all that scares you, as well as those that mention His promises. Ask God to give you His peace.
Deal with your depression. Realize that no one is immune to depression, and that it’s not a sin for a Christian to be depressed. Evaluate your thoughts by: recognizing and identifying what you express to yourself, understanding that many of your thoughts are involuntary and automatic, distinguishing between ideas and facts (keeping in mind that just because you think something doesn’t mean those thoughts are true), and whenever you discover that a particular thought is not true, state exactly why it is inaccurate or invalid. Admit your feelings to another person who can help you. Cling to God’s promises and choose to be faithful to Him, even when you don’t feel like it. Trust that He will reveal His strength through your weakness.
Deal with your grief. You need to express the grief you feel rather than expecting it to go away or trying to fix it or get over it without work. Working through grief is a slow but necessary process. Keep in mind that everyone grieves and heals differently, so don’t compare yourself to others or compare your loss with theirs. Remember that grief isn’t logical or predictable, so expect to be surprised by how it wells up in your life sometimes. Don’t try to rush through your grief. Pray for the comfort Jesus wants to give you, remembering that He grieves with you. Don’t try to get your life back to the way it was before your trauma; accept the fact that life won’t get back to normal. However, you can create a new normal for your life as you recover. Hold onto your memories, but let go of whatever you need to let go of in order to move on – like regrets, unfulfilled expectations, anger, a routine, or the lifestyle you used to have.
Tell your story. Get the story of what you’ve gone through out, instead of denying it, repressing it, trying to walk through it alone, or hoping it will just go away if given enough time. Face the story of your trauma and share it with God and at least one person you trust. Acknowledge that you’re carrying pain from past events; become completely honest with God about your sin, brokenness, rage, sadness, and hurt; and find safe people who will listen to your story (such as a friend, small group, therapy group, or Christian counselor). But be sure to share your story on your own terms, without giving into any pressure from others. Remember that you can choose what to tell and how and when to tell it. After you tell your story, invite God to come into your story.
Renew your faith in God. Trauma may have uprooted some of your basic assumptions about life that you had taken for granted before the trauma: like that life is fair, that the world is a safe place, or that people are trustworthy. Trauma might also change the way you see God, shattering any assumptions you may have made about Him that don’t reflect reality. Remember that everyone in our fallen world must confront trauma, but God suffers for us and with us in the midst of it. Although, one day, the world will be healed once and for all, at this time in history you need to search for God at work in this fallen world. Cling to God’s promise in Romans 8:28 that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
Embrace your identity in Christ. Trauma may scramble some of your basic assumptions about who you are. It can bring you face-to-face with your inadequacy and incompetence; assault your view of the world so you move through life with less confidence and security; and cause you to feel strange and damaged, which could lead you to cut yourself off from the relationships you need with other people. Instead of taking on the identity of a victim, however, find your true identity in Christ as someone who is deeply loved by God. Bring your shame and guilt to the cross, trusting Jesus to handle it, and resting assured that, in Him, you will never be condemned. Face your brokenness and let it make you aware of how much you need God’s mercy and help. Ask God to pour out His strength into your life through your areas of weakness. Expect God to reverse the negative power of your trauma and change it into positive power that will be a conduit for His love and healing to flow through. Remember that God will complete the good work He has started in your life. Ask Him to eventually even use you to bring healing to other traumatized people as well.
Write for healing. Use writing as a tool to help you explore and work through issues related to your trauma. Describe what your life was like before the traumatic event, what specifically is different now, what ideas you have to make your life more the way you want it to be, and what dreams you have for the future. Reconstruct the traumatic event in a factual way, as if you’re watching a movie. Include details about what you’re feeling and thinking as you watch the movie in your mind. Evaluate how the trauma has changed your life and challenged you. Then write a future report on yourself in three years, describing what you’d like to be like and how you can rely on God to make the necessary changes in your life between now and then. Remember that, no matter how much trauma has affected you, the last chapter of your life hasn’t been written yet – and with God’s help, there is much good coming.
Help your kids heal. If you have kids who have been traumatized, help them heal. Don’t fall apart yourself, speculate on matters about which you’re not sure, judge what ought to be or should have been, interrogate your kids with constant questioning, clam up, overreact to anger your kids express, or withdraw support from them. Instead, d allow them to talk, show warmth and acceptance, listen well, respect their privacy, show understanding, make helpful suggestions, be there when they need you, encourage them to express their emotions, give them opportunities for creative expression, correct their myths and magical thinking, allow them to respond to trauma in their own ways (not necessarily as you do), normalize their reactions and feelings by reassuring them, encourage them to be patient with themselves, and return them to their normal childhood routines as soon as possible.
Build a healing church. Let your gratitude for the healing you’ve experienced in your own life motivate you to help other people who have gone through trauma. Do all you can to help build a healing environment at your church, where traumatized people can feel safe to come to pursue God and fellowship with other believers. Accept one another; listen to people’s stories; be willing to cry, hug, and pray with hurting people; and serve people by working to meet some of their practical needs. If you’re a pastor, talk about trauma openly and declare God’s power to heal people from it. If you’re a small group leader, refer people to trained counselors to help find deep healing, while still encouraging them as you can within the context of your small group. If you’re a worship leader, choose songs and Bible passages that help people focus on the healing power of the cross. Plan Communion often, and give people time to pray about their past traumatic experiences. Be patient with people who don’t change right away, just as God is patient with you.
Adapted from Surviving the Storms of Life: Finding Hope and Healing When Life Goes Wrong, copyright 2008 by H. Norman Wright, Matt Woodley, and Julie Woodley. Published by Regal Books, a division of Gospel Light, Ventura, Ca., www.regalbooks.com.
H. Norman Wright is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist. He served on the faculty of Talbot School of Theology at Biola University’s Graduate Department of Marriage, Family and Child Counseling. He is the best-selling author of more than 70 books including Communication: Key to Your Marriage and Always Daddy’s Girl. Norm and his wife, Joyce, have been married more than 40 years and live in Bakersfield, California.
Matt Woodley is senior pastor at The Three Village Church in Long Island, New York.
Julie Woodley, a certified trauma counselor, is founder and director of Restoring the Heart (http://www.rthm.cc/), a ministry for those who are wounded through life events.