One of the most common questions I get from the trauma-affected children I serve is, "Why did God allow [insert really awful, tragic experience] to happen to me?" I imagine it's a question that most pastors, ministers, chaplains, and those Christians who share their faith with others face. It's fundamentally a relational question, not a theological one... and that's important to remember. The question is seeking the reason why a God who is Love could allow something that is experienced as anything BUT loving. (see 1 John 4:7-8)
I found that the best thing I can do is to recognize the profound hurt and struggle that lies within all of us who have ever wrestled with that question, "Why?"
We see how Paul dealt with the unresolved struggles in his own life when he states:
“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10)
I can recognize now after many years of processing, reflection, and prayer, that God was able to express a strength through my weaknesses and build a stronger character within me through some of the traumatic experiences I went through. I would think that many reading this could also see where God has built a certain strength or resolve within an area of hurt, woundedness, or pain. This is not simply the worldly wisdom expressed in the popular saying, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” but a wisdom that comes through suffering and an insight gained into what really matters to you that rarely comes from a life of ease.
There is a phenomenon referred to as “Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome.” First studied in the 1990s, psychologists have been attempting to define what it is about the difficult process of recovery from a traumatic event that challenges a person’s core beliefs that can leave a person more resilient, and sometimes even thankful for the “gift” they have received in seeing the world more clearly after their traumatic experience. To evaluate the extent to which someone has achieved this kind of growth after trauma, psychologists often use various self-reporting surveys and scales. One such survey is called the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PGTI) and was developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun, which they first reported on in the Journal of Traumatic Stress (1996 Jul; 9(3):455-71). They sought to measure positive responses in five key areas that they believed would show post-traumatic growth:
- Appreciation of life
- Relationships with others
- New possibilities in life
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change or renewal
I believe that you can likely perceive how going through a life-threatening, traumatic experience, and coming out the “other side” might impact each of these areas. Pain, such as that experienced by Paul (referenced in the Bible passage earlier), has a way of focusing our thoughts and actions on what is truly important and lasting. Elizabeth Smart, the "girl who was kidnapped" in the YouTube video embedded in this post, found victory in realizing those that had terrorized her "no longer had any power over her" and that she could go on an live a happy life. Furthermore, she could take her trauma and use it as a catalyst to be an advocate for others.
The role a church or fellowship can play in helping those in the midst of their own pain and traumatic experience is to hold out hope for them that they, too, can experience a sense of growth as God redeems even their suffering. The beauty of the Christian story is that we are all part of a much larger narrative, and we can walk with one another through the most difficult struggles and provide companionship that makes the journey a little easier to endure.