The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.– Psalm 34:18
When violence, physical or emotional, is witnessed or perpetuated against someone, trauma is often the outcome. The spirit and sense of one’s very being become crushed.
For Christians, of course, trauma is of great concern. Jesus came to heal and to bring justice, as well as to invite us into his perfect eternal kingdom, where pain and sadness no longer exist. Jesus is the one who takes dead things and brings them to life:
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:17).
We are promised life through living water.
Therefore, all the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and violence all around us are opportunities for our faith to provide a haven. They are also opportunities for the church to be an incubator where the very being of our personhood might come back to life again. Unfortunately, trauma is often ignored or hidden, even in the church.
Approximately 60% of the US population has experienced at least one traumatic event and 1 out of 3 will develop PTSD. It is highly likely you or someone you know has experienced trauma: physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual.
As a Clinical Certified Trauma Professional, I spend my days walking with men, women, and children who have experienced some type of trauma. There is one type of trauma that I am seeing more of that people may not be as familiar with—betrayal trauma.
If someone close to you has ever broken your trust, you’ve probably felt the sting of betrayal. Regardless of the infraction, betrayal can leave wounds. But betrayal trauma goes a step further, leaving deep wounds that can feel impossible to heal because you’ve been betrayed by someone or group you trust. Betrayal trauma is a type of trauma that refers to the pain and emotional distress that occurs when a trusted institution, loved one, or intimate partner violates someone’s trust. Betrayal trauma may occur alongside things like gaslighting and lead to anxiety and depression. However, through the grace of God and good therapy you can heal from this trauma.
Types of Betrayal Trauma
There are four different types of betrayal trauma.
- Parental: When a parent or caretaker, someone you depend on for your needs to be met, abuses you or fails to protect you from harm.
- Intimate Partner: When the person doing the betraying is your intimate partner. This can take place when your partner is having an emotional affair or a physical affair. If one of the partners has an active sexual addiction, there is often betrayal present.
- Institutional: When an institution impacts you in a way that is in direct opposition to what they portray themselves to be or their stated mottos and goals. This can also occur when the institution protects the perpetrator instead of supporting the victim or “whistleblower.” This may include a religious institution, educational institution, the military, healthcare systems, etc.
- Interpersonal: When a trusted friend, peer, or individual betrays your trust.
Betrayal trauma occurs when a person or an organization that you depend on goes outside your expectation of them in a way that is hurtful to you. The amount of trauma caused has to do with the impact on you. If your car gets rear-ended in traffic, your level of trauma may not be as profound as if you were to find out that your spouse of 20 years has been carrying on an affair with your best friend.
Betrayal trauma is the trauma that results from betrayal by a trusted person or institution. Betrayal trauma theory seeks to understand how an individual will interpret that betrayal and store it in his or her memory. This theory predicts that the more necessary a person or institution is deemed to be in a person’s life, the more likely there will be an “unawareness” or “blindness” to that betrayal. Third party observers are often left wondering, how can they not see what is happening?
We can’t blame those who are the victims of this type of trauma because too often they are unable to see it until the pain is too profound, and the damage is done. But, as Christians, we can do much more than we currently are to help in the healing process.
How can the church be The Church?
1. Be a caring community.
There is one fundamental way in which the church as the Body of Christ can be critical partners to the mental health community in a survivor’s healing journey. Trauma survivors need to be seen, valued, and connected to a caring community. The church is called to be the living body of Christ, and that is spiritual work. Because trauma survivors need to feel safe, the church commits itself to provide shalom love and gracious hospitality.
Any kind of trauma changes the body so that the traumatic experience gets trapped inside a person. The church can create an environment that gives the individual body a chance to heal. The church and her leaders need to learn to be listeners, receiving the stories of trauma survivors. Just simply listening and bearing witness to the truth of another’s experience is a significant step in the healing process.
It’s not easy to be a listener. It can feel very heavy. But we must remember that Christ’s Light is unquenchable—and darkness can not overcome it. And that is the gift the church can give back to those in need.
2. Refuse to excuse or explain away abusive power.
Every church should develop policies that assure no tolerance for any type of sexism, abuse, or bullying. The church should have the highest ethic for treating people with respect and have the highest motivation for protecting the vulnerable. When we, as Christians, live our lives reflecting our beliefs, we become a true refuge. If we show tolerance of evil, either through our actions or words, we perpetuate the trauma and potentially drive someone away from God.
3. Have a relationship with the mental health community.
Churches that are advocates for trauma survivors preach the Gospel and have a collaboration with mental health experts. There are many things churches are good at, but mental health counseling is not one of them. Too often, spiritual leaders step out of their lane into areas they need to refer out. But when a church finds good Christian therapists who are clinically licensed, they are exhibiting the love of Christ but ensuring the best for the ones in need.
4. Encourage people to talk to Jesus about their pain, trauma, abuse, and healing.
It’s so heartbreaking to talk with those who have experienced betrayal trauma and they are unaware they can rely on God’s strength. Churches should encourage constant communication with God. And it’s truly quite simple to have prayers and verses available to give to those who are in need but don’t know where to even begin.
- A trauma victim’s prayer: Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings, I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by. Psalm 57: 1
- A trauma victim’s hope: God sustains me in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; God shields me, cares for me, guards me as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guides me. Deut. 32: 10-12a
In Colossians, Paul wrote to those who believe:
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Col. 3:3-4)
The trauma survivor is not crushed. Within the survivor is a life hidden with Christ and in God. That is a powerful reminder of the hope and healing that comes from God Almighty. The church can provide sanctuary, a place hidden with Christ in God for all who have suffered from any type of trauma.
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.” — Psalm 107:13-16