In the last few posts, we have been looking at an important question that comes up for many victims of abuse: “Am I losing my faith?”
We’ve had a brief look at some of the impact of depression and anxiety. These conditions can express themselves in a huge variety of ways. Our aim here is not to diagnose, nor to investigate fully, but just to open the door to confidence and reassurance.
The turmoil of trauma and mental health issues that might relate to it don’t indicate a loss of faith. We know for certain even Jesus experienced overwhelming feelings.
Even Jesus experienced overwhelming feelings
“My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death,” he said1.
The impact of post-traumatic stress
Let’s take a brief look at the impact of post-traumatic stress.2
You might be surprised to discover that around 6% of Australians experience PTSD each year.3
It’s likely that a number of people we read about in the Bible experienced post-traumatic stress. PTSD as a term has only been in use since the 1970s – certainly not in Biblical times. But what we do see clearly are many expressions of deep anguish and distress, including loss of sleep and other symptoms. Plus we see circumstances in which PTSD might arise: war, actual or threatened loss of life, and abuse.
PTSD is incredibly difficult to live with. A sufferer is likely to experience severe anxiety, nightmares, and strong memories of the trauma that can intrude in a moment. A person who suffers from post-traumatic stress might also experience a sense of isolation, and a strong urge to avoid trauma-related situations. How might these affect a person’s experience of their relationship with God?
How might PTSD affect a person’s faith?
One question to consider is: what situations might be triggering? If harm has been done in a church or ministry environment, just talking about church might cause distress. In the same way, even talking about God might raise traumatic feelings and memories. If the Bible has been used to weave spiritual abuse into other forms of abuse, then engaging with the Bible might also cause distress.
So, a person who has been harmed may well want to avoid church, the Bible, God, or Christian people. (Or any people.)
Avoiding those people and situations because of the distress they cause is then an expression of PTSD – not a sign of loss of faith. One could imagine that those around this sufferer might well want to encourage them to engage with “Christian things”. And the heart rate of the victim might rapidly increase at that point.
Why might their heart rate increase? Because the conversation might remind them of past trauma that floods back, creating anxiety. Or because they anxiously want to avoid going back into a situation – or even a conversation – that reminds them of their trauma. Because they feel unsafe.
Even if the abuse or other harm they suffered didn’t take place in a church or Christian setting, the idea of going to church might still cause severe anxiety. It might be just the idea of going outside, or of being around other people. Certain sights, sounds, or smells might trigger a panic attack or make them feel like a panic attack is imminent. Going to the supermarket or going to church might be equally hard. And “hard”, might well mean “impossible”.
So how can we help?
Some of the values that can help us be truly caring are:
- prioritising listening and respect,
- being patient,
- being gentle,
- being humble learners.
It’s really important with any significant mental health issue to stay in your lane. If this person is not your client as a mental health professional, it’s important to recognise your lack of understanding and the nature of your role as a person who cares.
The last thing we want to do is add harm to someone who is already traumatised. Pushing our agendas without respect is more likely to increase a person’s sense of isolation. If we really knew what life was like for them, we wouldn’t push.
Am I losing my faith?
If you wonder, “Am I losing my faith?”, we believe we have good news.
One downside of avoiding situations might be loneliness, and that can also tap into your sense of isolation. If you are inclined to feel isolated from other people – it seems like feeling isolated from God might occur pretty easily.
“I am forgotten like those who are dead,”6
“In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight.’”7
Heman the Ezrahite said,
“You have taken from me friend and neighbour—darkness is my closest friend.”8
These psalms, and the many like them, are a gift to us. Not only were these sufferers welcomed into God’s family, but their songs and prayers were included in scripture as examples of how to pray. That’s affirming.
Feeling cut off from God and like you’ve lost your faith might be purely a symptom of trauma.
We are each unique. We have just had the briefest of glances at some of the multitudes of ways mental health needs might affect a person’s relationship with God and experience of what we commonly consider to be Christian activity.
One affirmation here is simply that people who suffered great anguish, and who in modern times might have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, wrote treasured parts of the Bible. Relating to those passages doesn’t mean faith is gone. It means abuse is traumatic.
Relating to God through trauma can have many complications. But what is his response to those who are traumatised or hanging on by a thread? Part of is it this:
“A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.”9
People who suffered great anguish, and who in modern times might have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, wrote treasured parts of the Bible. Click To Tweet
- Mark 14:34
- Beyond Blue’s guide to PTSD is here
- 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing
- Proverbs 4:5
- Proverbs 4:26
- Psalm 31:12
- Psalm 31:22
- Psalm 88:18
- Isaiah 42:3