How Does Trauma Relate to Belief in God? Some Pastoral Thoughts

I developed the following ideas from my experience at seminary and as a chaplain in a world class rehab center. I was doing both simultaneously, and it was painful for me to see the place where others had a hard time believing in God. I had to process through my experience, feelings, and perception about these things. It was not easy because everyone has different views for different reasons. In seminary it was a very political situation, because the Pacific School of Religion is very progressive, and all too often some people there move into an ideological corner. You’d be astonished how many folks there don’t believe in the spiritual world, and certainly not that there is a hell. And some don’t believe in God, or at least a Christian God.

        My interest is in the practical application of theology, so I would like to offer some thoughts on the pastoral implications of the belief that God is the cause of evil, and that God inflicts harm. I do not believe he in any way shape or form is the cause of evil, but I will address that theological question in another blog. To believe that the Lord inflicts evil in the least degree can have destructive consequences. What pastor has not heard the question in time of crisis, “Why did God allow this to happen? Why did this happen to me? Is God punishing me?”  I asked a patient recently how he expressed his sense of spirituality. He said, “I guess I don’t. My wife has Parkinson’s and I blame God for it. I am angry at God for it.”
       The feeling is understandable, but this is reasoning from emotion. The questions above are a first response when the shock of tragedy begins to set in, and one has to deal with it. Often as people begin to talk further about their feelings and beliefs, they reveal that they do not really believe God is punishing them, but they are still angry. It is normal and healthy to feel so; in fact, it is very Biblical. In lamentations the response to deep suffering is modeled for us; the people wail with complaints at him, and wrestle with what God is doing, but they are taking their feelings to him. Lamentations shows how God is big enough to handle all our anger and despair, and that these feelings are safe with him. When we open and witness our feelings to each other and to God, they are shared suffering and gradually transformed into thankfulness and love.
       There are other times that people get stuck in their anger. Reasoning that God is punishing them involves the assumption that God is inflicting evil on them; that is how it may appear and how it feels. To work with this pastoral it helps to seek to discover the root of the anger and emotion, because it is trapped emotion that drives this belief. One needs to offer deep acknowledgement and compassion for the cause of the emotion. (This is the primary factor in all of this, but not the focus of this essay). Later, at the appropriate time it may be possible to help them rethink theology from a place of loving God. There are other times though when a person does not change the feeling of anger nor their intellectual belief that God is punishing them. Lets explore how this works a little bit.
A friend approached me yesterday and we talked about his marriage struggles. He described how his wife was so emotionally attached to her family and their drama that she can’t bond with him. He has tried to help his wife’s family with their many compelling dysfunctional issues, even helping some of them by letting them live in his house. When he had to stand up to certain issues he got a lot of grief, not only from his wife’s family, but to his dismay – from his wife. He said he suffers because his wife’s love-hate relationship with her family prevents her from being able to fully bond with him. She is psychologically consumed in battling with, and trying to prove herself to her family. He said she suffered a lot of trauma in her youth and the unresolved anger around it is booby trapped with self-protect mechanisms against dealing with the pain. He said that she has even let go of her relationship with God, and refuses now to talk about God. This is a hardened place for her.
With the first shock of trauma we react from a default place of emotion, and think from appearances. The natural reaction is felt in this way: if no one cares about me, then I don’t care about you, or me. This is a cut-off, and feeds the forsaken feeling that ‘God is punishing me’. This may explain what is happening in the story above. These feelings are not necessarily bad. As I said above, often after the first shock people are put in a position to wrestle with God, and are able to incorporate a more spiritual perspective. They re-define and deepen their connection. But other times the pain of trauma is too deep, people have erected hardened barriers around it, and will not let their position be budged. Swedenborg gives us a great framework for understanding this subject. He writes:

  To think and conclude from the internal is to think from ends and causes to effects, but to think and conclude from the external is to think from effects to causes and ends. The latter progression is against order, but the former is according to order; for to think and conclude from ends and causes is to think and conclude from goods and truths clearly seen in the higher region of the mind. Such from creation is the nature of human rationality itself. But to think and conclude from effects is to conjecture causes and ends from the lower region of the mind where are the sensual things of the body with their appearances and fallacies (CL, 408). 

Feeling God is punishing us is an example of coming to a conclusion from external thinking. We see the evidence of, lets say a stroke; we appropriately feel anger and pain and loss, and from appearances conclude that God is punishing us. But this is from natural thinking. As we process the situation spiritually we can see that our experience is part of the human condition, and that God is the foundation stone that we can trust in our hearts. Healthy anger springs from the desire to find, establish and reclaim our identity. When we feel the grief there is an opening up, because grief is a form of love; it is love when there is the pain of loss. Bitter, hardened anger concludes that ‘no one cares, and there fore we are not going to care’ (although this is, of course, never true; it is either defiance, or crying out for help).
       It is my experience and observation that, quite often, the cause of the stuck place is unresolved emotion from trauma. The unresolved emotion drives a wedge between our selves and our loved ones, between God and us. To maintain the wedge requires dissociating from what we really need to deal with, which manifests in all kinds of addictions, and evasive behavior. It also causes us to use ideologies as dissociative tools, such as using relativism to justify any position we want so as to not face our self, or using the dogma of religiosity to avoid vulnerability and pain. If the dissociation becomes chronic, it causes a distancing from the foundation of our being – God. The anger and pain don’t go away, and the wedge displaces our ability to receive the Lord in our hearts. This phenomena of displacement is I think very significant. Swedenborg says it this way: To the degree we harbor evil, we cannot receive good.
      Many people have suffered trauma in their youth. The trauma could be at the hands of religion, one’s parents, political organizations, schools, relatives or any number of things. Trauma due to abuse causes a deep emotional imprint in the heart, and in the neuronal networks of the brain. It can also be added to by ones own misbehavior, which compounds self-inflicted hate and poor identity. These experiences cause disillusion, suffering, and despair. People learn strategic ways to protect themselves against these emotional scars. Even those who do a lot of processing work around the issue often don’t get to the core of it. Intense emotional experiences of injustice become internalized, held in a place where they can’t cause further pain. If this kind of emotional hiding persists the ‘underground’ emotion can displace our reception of good. The stuck emotion inside feeds-off polarized feelings from childhood that habitually and reactively dart between helplessness and omnipotence. These are drasticized childhood feelings that we regress to as a default strategy. Self-protection around the underground pain has been made a matter of survival, leaving us with un-resourced places inside, at least when it comes to certain matters. When triggered, we regress back to this place and react from it, unconsciously employing tried and true self-defense mechanisms, or escaping through some form of dissociation. The stuck person protects this emotion at all costs, even if they unconsciously hurt others. It sometimes doesn’t matter how much psychological or religious information a person has gained in their life; in fact the more they have, the more sophisticated the self-protection mechanism, and the more elaborate the intellectual framework that is used to mask it.
In this condition, deep down there is anger at others, and even deeper anger at God. There can’t help but be because God is the foundation of our being, and the true source we eventually need to humble ourselves toward to resolve it. Providentially God is always working to prevent these ill feelings from becoming trapped and unseen, where they become like poison in the blood. This is the essential meaning of the Biblical phrase to be hot or cold, not lukewarm. We are to let our love or hate of God, and each other, see the light of day where it can be worked out and removed.
       To say that God inflicts evil is not only a theological falsity, but what is worse; it inflames the negative and self-destructive impulses in the suffering person. Imagine telling someone who is struggling with the feeling that God is punishing them that God is the one who inflicts evil. If they really theologically believe that God is against them, then there is nothing that can help – end of story. Such a notion arises from external thinking. God never causes evil, but allows evil for the providential purpose of removing evil. The Lord is the redemptive force in our hearts and minds. He is the comforter; and his love is closest when we are most ill and suffering.  It is irrational to blame God for the evil that happens, because God is good itself.
        When trauma causes a gap in our psyche, we suffer a distortion, at least in some areas of perception. For instance, I was in a preaching class and a man gave a sermon on the story of how Mary came to Jesus and washed his feet with her tears. The student preacher was a talented speaker, and gave a very dramatic presentation of a traumatic event. He told of being in his room at the age of seven, and hearing disturbing noises in the living room. He desperately wanted them to go away, but they persisted. He heard thumping and crying. He stepped out of his room and into the living room. His step-dad was beating and abusing his mother. This story was very intense and shocking to hear. The preacher went on to exegete the scripture by offering this provocative interpretation: he said Mary was not there to worship and seek forgiveness from Jesus, but it was Jesus that needed to seek forgiveness from Mary.
         It seems to me most people would agree this interpretation of the text is inappropriate. It appears his interpretation was made in the image of his emotional reaction and traumatic imprint. This is the distortion of trapped emotion and trauma. It is good therapy for him in the right setting, which is not to be minimized, but that is not the purpose of the situation. In a sermon one is a servant leader to the people of the congregation, and looks to the tethering of God to make meaning of the text for the lives of the people, not ones own emotional needs. One needs to pay attention to, or seek to tether themselves to the urging of the Holy Spirit to make meaning for the sake of the congregation. We are always tethered to something, whether we know it or not, and sometimes we tether ourselves to money, addictions, people, and material ambitions, and emotions all of which can displace God. The point of this is not to judge people, but to be resourced as a practitioner in assessing what is going on, and seeing what people’s needs are. By discerning the particulars we have a better chance to be present and compassionate to the needs of our self and others.

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