Pastor, what if I told you there was a mostly unseen enemy that is harming your flock and potentially hijacking your ministry to them?
In the late 1800s it was a massive gamble to get surgery. Many would survive the initial procedure but would contract a deadly infection from the surgery that would lead to their demise. It was so bad that at one point they considered outlawing surgery altogether.
What was happening?
While not nearly as efficient as our laser procedures in the 21st century, 19th-century surgery was not as archaic as you might imagine. They knew how to effectively do surgery. Their equipment wasn’t the problem either…well, not entirely. The tools themselves were fine but the problem is that an unseen enemy was attaching itself to those tools as well as the very hands of the doctor administering “care”.
One prevailing theory was that the culprit was the air in the operating rooms. So after an operation, they’d open the windows and have the “bad air” leave and hope that “good air” came through the windows. But in reality, what was happening was that germs were contaminating the entire operation.
The surgeons wore these aprons that were encrusted with blood. They never changed them. They didn’t wash their hands. They didn’t wash their instruments. And these operating theaters were filled to the rafters with hundreds of spectators, some of them just curious bypassers who came in with tickets to see the life-and-death struggle play out on the stage. So there was no sense of hygiene. This certainly wasn’t a sterile place.
It wasn’t the environment. It wasn’t the tools. It wasn’t even the surgeon. None of these were the direct reason why these patients were dying. It was that little invisible creatures were killing their patients.
Today’s Little Invisible Creature
It may not be entirely accurate to say that trauma is an invisible creature. In one sense we see trauma all around us. But in another sense, it impacts things of which we aren’t readily aware. A husband and wife arguing about an insignificant placement of a remote control is possibly tainted by trauma.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, argues persuasively that trauma reshapes the brain and the body. It impacts things like pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. It attaches itself to everything.
Let me illustrate by using a day-to-day example.
A man grew up in a home with quite a bit of yelling and angry arguments. He wasn’t certain what one day to the next would bring. Would it be a happy evening or one filled with things which made him fearful? Without it even knowing he was learning this, there would be certain sounds that would serve as a warning to stay in his room.
Now fast forward this story to the first few years of marriage and his wife is doing the dishes. She’s a gentle woman who would never throw a plate across the room. But she also does the dishes with vigor. Plates are rustling around in the sink, pots and pans banging against one another.
What happens to this newlywed? He is immediately afraid. He doesn’t even know why, but figures that his wife must be upset about something. Those are sounds of anger to him. And so he is put on edge and either works up the courage to ask his wife why she is angry, snaps at her in self-defense, or withdraws completely. All the while she was just moving a skillet from the top to the bottom to load the dishwasher.
Trauma attaches to everything and it is often unseen.
Enter Joseph Lister
There had been theories about germs around for years. In the 1540s it was thought that unseen germs could be causing widespread disease. But that theory had never been associated with wounds and surgery until Joseph Lister. Lister took the work of Louis Pasteur and developed a procedure of sterilization that would kill the germs on surgical instruments, doctor’s hands, and the entire room.
But his recommendations were not widely received. For one, he was a young doctor trying to teach several seasoned surgeons that what they were doing might be harming their patients. That’s a tough sell. To admit that something as simple as washing their hands could have saved lives was apparently too damaging to their pride.
In fact, many of these doctors took it as a great measure of pride to be able to wear surgical gowns covered in blood (and unbeknownst to them) many germs. They felt as if their whole industry was being questioned. Are their tools not sufficient? Is this young man trying to say that the problem is with us instead of the environment? No way!
Thankfully, Lister’s recommendations slowly won acclaim. But will we begin to take trauma seriously in the church?
Trauma in the Church
Let’s only take the trauma of something like molestation. Statistics tell us that 1 in 5 people have been molested. That means that for every 5 people you interact with in church on a Sunday morning 1 of them will have this particular trauma in their background.
Now add other traumas. Add things like living with an extremely depressive parent. Add physical abuse. Add emotional abuse. Add alcoholism or drug use. Add a suicide in the family. Add the death of a parent or caregiver. Add having to move every year or two. Add to the equation being bullied. On and on we could go…
Do you really think that people in your church have not had experiences of trauma? Do you honestly think that you are immune from trauma? No. We have all been impacted in some way. Perhaps we have not had significant trauma. But there are many within your congregation who have. And it is going to impact them.
Isn’t the Bible Sufficient?
I’ve spoken in the past about how this precious doctrine has morphed into something different than it was originally. And I’ve specifically shown how this relates to biblical counseling. I believe this is also going to impact how we handle trauma in our churches.
The Bible is sufficient to tell us how to please God. A person who has been traumatized (even traumatized by someone using the Bible in their abuse) has everything they need in the Scripture to connect them to Jesus—the ultimate healer. And there is everything in Scripture they need to know in order to please God as they walk through help and healing.
But the Bible does not claim for itself sufficiency or supremacy in all things. The Bible does not claim to be the best resource for learning to hit a fastball. It is not supreme in that regard and does not claim to be. Now, God Himself is supreme. Christ is supreme. And I suppose, we could say that He is the greatest teacher of how to hit a fastball—if that was what he was concerned with. But learning to hit a fastball is not why God gave us the Bible.
Likewise, Jesus Christ is the ultimate healer of trauma. Some day all trauma will be healed as Jesus wipes away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more trauma responses in the New Jerusalem. And the Bible is sufficient to lead us to Christ and this healing.
Do You Need to Be Trauma-Informed?
In my more thoughtful moments, I’m pretty hesitant to use a word like need. Can Christ provide significant healing through somebody who has never once been trauma-informed? Absolutely. Likewise, people did survive surgery in the 1800s. In that sense, they didn’t need sterilization.
But is that really the right question?
What if being trauma-informed is like the sterilization practices of Lister? People have trauma. Just as there were germs. And being trauma-informed helps us to recognize those things, it helps us listen effectively, it helps us know how best to apply the truths of Scripture, and even how to speak in a way to be heard. And, dare I say it, there are insights in something like The Body Keeps Score that may help provide substantial healing for trauma.
I liken this to being a missionary in a foreign land. How silly would we be to think that “speaking Bible” means you have to say those words in English and cite chapter and verse before you’re being faithful. You learn their language, you speak their language. That is what it means to be trauma-informed. It’s learning a language so that you can effectively speak the healing words of Christ.
Refusing to be trauma-informed is about as ignorant and harmful as the doctors who refused to wash their hands before surgery. I’m glad Lister won out in the realm of medicine. I hope something similar happens in the church.