Trauma and the Significance of Meaning

August 9, 2017

“How could he?” It was my counselee’s constant refrain. Her husband’s sins were horrible, and though she had known about them for nearly a year now, the shock of it all was still strong. Some friends and family were annoyed at the repeated phrase and insisted she needed to get over it by now. But when you’ve suffered trauma, the repeated words are a significant indicator of effort. Repetition in the life of a trauma victim is an effort in finding meaning. Meaning is found beyond trauma in the person and work of Christ.

Repetition Is a Search for Meaning

Trauma is emotional distress caused by the recurrent tormenting memory of a horrific event witnessed or experienced. We can identify forms of traumatic memory in the lives of war veterans and victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or a serious auto accident. It can be associated with emotional or psychological abuse, threats to life or safety, and significant forms of intimate betrayal. Trauma destroys a world; in some sense it upends an entire way of living. Because of this complete alteration of life, victims are often overwhelmed by the uprooting of significant life meaning. As a result, victims are desperately in search of meaning.

Repetition is part of the quest for explanation. The woman’s phrase, “How could he,” was not an outburst of rage, though it was surely accompanied by anger. It was a plea for understanding. “How could he” meant, “This is not the man I married.” “How could he” meant, “But he used to be so loving towards me and the kids.” “How could he” meant, “This must be a mistake; a nightmare.” “How could he” meant, “God where were you?” The repeated phrase was an attempt to make sense of something that was senseless. It was an attempt to find meaning compatible with the way she had previously seen the world.

Diane Langberg, an expert in trauma counseling, notes the role that repetition plays in the life of victims. She writes:

Survivors will say the same things over and over – “How could my father do that to me…” They will be repetitious in dealing with their emotions – “I am so angry that…” And they will repeat their losses again and again – “I cannot believe so-and-so is dead…” Expect it, and learn to sit with it. The magnitude of the trauma is so great that repetition is necessary. The mind cannot imagine what happened. It cannot hold such a thought. Bearing the intensity of emotions is impossible and so the feelings must be tried on again and again. These are attempts to bear what cannot be borne. They are struggles to integrate into life what does not fit because there are no categories. Be patient, and then be patient some more.[1]

Repetitions are an attempt to find meaning and should not be ignored. The goal for counselors is to help victims look beyond the meaning of the specific moment to the larger and greater meaning.

Christ’s Trauma for Our Trauma

The temptation for many people is to seek to explain the “why” of trauma. We want to offer a reason for why God allowed the awful events to occur in the life of the individual. We believe that a sufficient explanation will provide the victim the necessary freedom to process their grief and move on. There is, however, no sufficient explanation. What reasons can be given for rape, war, or abuse? Yet the presence of trauma doesn’t mean that there is no meaning at all. While we can’t always point to a specific explanation for the personal trauma we can look to significant meaning beyond our experiences. Counselors want to point people to the great meaning found in the gospel.

The gospel story involves the suffering of the very Son of God. To tell the story of Jesus is to tell the story of a traumatic event. Jesus is betrayed by his closest friends. He is mocked, stripped, beaten, and publically humiliated. He is falsely accused, wrongly condemned, and when He speaks truth no one believes Him. His attackers spit on Him, pull His hair, and call Him names. He is alone, left in darkness, and abandoned even by His own Father. Jesus knows the experience of trauma, the suffering of betrayal, violation, and violence. If anyone knows what it means to suffer, it is Jesus. He can relate. In fact, the post-resurrected Christ still carries in His body the scars of His trauma (John 20:24-29). He speaks eternally to victims by continuously holding out hope. Christ isn’t washing suffering way, He is transforming it.

Jesus did not have to suffer and die, it was His choice. He did so in order that He might transform brokenness, to set all things right. He came in order to begin the process that will one day conclude in the resolution of all brokenness. His trauma gives hope to all the brokenness we experience. His trauma promises that trauma will not always last. There is meaning beyond my experience because Christ experienced suffering in order to end it once and for all (Isa. 25:8).

Repeatedly Pointing to Christ

Good counselors know the importance of meaning. We ought to move slowly and carefully with victims of trauma. We are not attempting to explain the “why” of their specific devastating experience. There is no good “why” that we can offer. We are attempting, among many other things, to point to hope beyond the experience. Meaning for life comes as victims see and experience the transforming grace of God which redeems even the worst trauma. He redeems it not by making it go away, but by enduring His own scars for all eternity; by wrapping trauma up into glory (Rom. 8:28). So when victims of trauma repeat their shock again and again, good counselors don’t dismiss or rebuke them. Rather they seek to point them, again and again, to the meaning that Christ’s trauma provides.

Questions for Reflection

Since repetition can turn sinful, how have you learned to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy repetitions of hurt? How have you seen the gospel help trauma victims?

Dave Dunham is Pastor of Counseling and Discipleship at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI.

[1] Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2015), 88.

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