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Trauma in the Bible: How scripture moveth us in sundry places

04 September 2020

Recognising the presence of trauma in the Bible can transform the way in which it is read, especially by those who have suffered, says Megan Warner


Lamentations (1450) by Petrus Christus (1410-76)

Lamentations (1450) by Petrus Christus (1410-76)

ELIZABETH BOASE and Christopher Frechette write, in the introduction to their landmark collection of essays on the use of trauma as a hermeneutical lens in biblical studies, Bible through the Lens of Trauma (SBL Press, 2016), that three dominant disciplinary strands currently inform biblical trauma hermeneutics: psychology, sociology, and literary and cultural studies.

Psychology contributes to our understanding of the effects of trauma on individuals and on those processes that facilitate survival, recovery, and resilience. Sociology provides insights into collective dimensions of traumatic experience. Literary and cultural studies open pathways for exploring the role of texts as they encode and give witness to traumatic suffering, and construct discursive and aesthetic spaces for fostering recovery and resilience.

Perhaps, inevitably, given the influence of these discrete bodies of scholarship, it is not possible to point to a single method of trauma hermeneutics; rather, Boase and Frechette identify a “framework” for using trauma as a focus for the reading of biblical text, in which the insights from each of these disciplines inform one another.

This framework allows today’s readers to gain fresh insights into the background of the text, and, in turn, to make new or richer meaning of the text itself. Some examples may serve to illustrate this: an insight into the tendency of traumatic experience to overwhelm the psychological capacities of individuals, which might cause a traumatic event to fail to be integrated into an individual’s memory, but to be stored instead as jagged fragments in the body, helps to explain why some of the more violent prophetic material, for example, lacks coherent narrative but is instead characterised by gaps.

Boase and Frechette argue that an appreciation of the impact of trauma can help the reader to fill in some of these gaps. On another front, an appreciation of the impact of collective trauma can assist the reader to identify, in the text, how the adoption of a “chosen trauma” influences both further events and the manner of their reporting. Alternatively, the same background knowledge may assist the reader to identify those features of the text that point to literary strategies of survival, resilience, and meaning making.

The employment of trauma theory as lens, then, can enrich understanding of the world behind the text, and of the world of the text itself, but what of the world in front of the text — the world that the reader herself brings to her reading?


AN APPRECIATION of the impact of trauma upon the history of our scriptures may impact both how a trauma survivor reads biblical texts, and how ministers of religion, pastoral carers, therapists, spiritual directors, family, and friends approach biblical texts with survivors of trauma. When it is recognised that nearly all of us are survivors of trauma to one degree or another, this means that using trauma as a lens can unlock gifts, and help to avoid traps, in the reading of biblical texts in a quite significant manner.

What difference does it make to recognise that our scriptures are informed by trauma? I suggest four specific differences. First, that it means that readers can have confidence that biblical stories are robust.

The biblical books are not in any sense trite or fragile. They come out of the experience of individuals and communities who have gone through the most painful and violent experiences that life can throw at human beings. They are written against a background of famines, wars, enslavement, political power struggles, natural disasters, forced migrations, and apparent betrayal and desertion by God. The irreverent tags that we sometimes attach to the Bible — “nice”, “conservative”, “boring”, and “irrelevant” — even when we don’t mean to, are mostly unwarranted and inaccurate.

When understood against its own contexts, the Bible is none of these things. It understands suffering. And that means that the biblical stories, letters, poetry, etc. that make up the Bible are resources for ministering in the context of trauma in which we can have confidence.

When read, sung, enacted, performed, or prayed with sensitivity and imagination, these biblical writings can be the most profound resource for ministry with traumatised people and congregations. They meet traumatised people where they are.

Second, I argued that reading the Bible through the lens of trauma lets us know that we are not alone: when we read biblical stories we know that our trials and tribulations are not unique. As unimaginable as some of today’s disasters may seem, God’s people lived through comparable experiences during the biblical period, and we have their stories.

We can, therefore, read to have the “company” of others who understand the depth of the pain of our experience. We find this “company” not only with the biblical characters whose stories are told in the text, but also with the generations of Jews and Christians who have read and studied and taken solace from those stories over two millennia or more.

Even if we may be physically, emotionally, or spiritually isolated in our own lives, reading these stories tells us that we are not unique, and that our individual story can be situated in a rich and thick history of the experience of God’s people, all of whom are “with” us through our and their relationship with the text.

Third, I suggested that the Bible offers us what I called “a language and a literature of suffering”: the Bible offers language to those who have no words. The British Old Testament scholar John Goldingay describes the psalms as “150 things that God doesn’t mind having said to him”. When there are no words, the psalms can step in and fill the gap.

The Bible also offers a literature to those who have no stories. I suggested above that trying to live without stories can be excruciating, and that trauma can make storytelling difficult or impossible. Here is a set of stories (robust, pre-loved, and authorised) that can become our own stories and function as a foundation for our identity-building, even after the most disorientating and destructive experiences.

Finally, I suggested that the Bible models resilience: storytelling is an important element of building resilience. Specifically, what is important for resilience is preparedness to be flexible in the telling of one’s story, allowing it to shift and develop with changing experiences.


IF YOU have lived through an experience of suffering, you may have found that the story that you told about yourself before the experience was not one that you could tell afterwards. Perhaps the story didn’t allow space to acknowledge the reality or pain of the experience of suffering, or you might have felt that you were a completely different person afterwards, so that your early stories no longer fit you.

Hospital chaplains tell me that their ministry is all about encouraging and helping people to tell their story in a new way — a way that takes account of illness and suffering, as well as wellness, but that also sees a way ahead to some form of peacefulness and acceptance of what the present is, and what the future may or may not bring. This retelling of one’s story needn’t involve dramatic change.

It is best when the resulting story resembles a tapestry or carpet into which new experiences are woven, influencing the colour and pattern of the whole, but without making it an entirely new carpet. One of the ironies of Christian attempts today to “follow the Bible” and to do what “it” says is a tendency to overlook the Bible’s own inner processes of development and revision, which ensured that the revelation of YHWH to the Israelites continued to speak to successive generations. The Bible is profitably understood as modelling, across its various books and genres, a practice of retelling which has proved remarkably resilient.

It may be helpful to explore more closely some of the particular gifts of reading the scriptures through the lens of trauma with trauma survivors, as well as some of the pitfalls to be avoided.

Trauma survivors may benefit particularly from exposure to the tradition of “lament” which underlies a good deal of the Old Testament “writings” in particular, and which has been largely lost by Western societies, and even by Western Churches. Notable texts in this regard are the lament psalms (which constitute the largest single-genre group among the psalms) and Lamentations itself.

Scholars of the impact of trauma on congregations argue that the sign of a congregation that has recovered (to the extent that recovery is possible) from the trauma caused by a disaster that it has suffered is the ability to say “This happened to us — and there is still good in the world.” Both elements of this sentiment are important.

One of the features of trauma response is an inability to comprehend the disastrous event that caused it, or to incorporate the disaster into one’s sense of reality and sense of identity, or even to acknowledge it at all. This is the body’s self-preservation response to the “overwhelm” caused by the disaster. It comes into play in both individuals and groups.

This element of trauma response tends to be magnified in cultures that frown on what they deem to be excessive displays of emotion — as in England, for example, where the pressure to “carry on” and keep a “stiff upper lip” has the effect of discouraging public, and even private, displays of anger, rage, and grief.

The acknowledgement of disaster and the full expression of its associated emotion are necessary — but often difficult in a country such as England. Further, writers about lament routinely lament (sorry!) that churches are often very bad at acknowledging painful events. In some Anglo-Saxon church traditions, in particular, it is common to choose not to “interrupt” liturgy by alluding either to internal or external disasters, but instead to paper over the awkwardness with praise songs and preaching.

Similarly, most of us have been to excruciating funerals at which any mention of the less edifying elements of the deceased’s life, or manner of death, is resolutely avoided. This tendency is beautifully summed up by Kathleen Norris in a short poem, in which she observes that our response to Jesus’s having nails pounded into his hands has been to wear hats to church.

One of the real needs of the trauma survivor is authenticity — in their own speech, actions, and surroundings. Trauma survivors need (to get to) a place where they can know and speak their own truths, however difficult. Lament is a way of combining authentic speech with resistance against the system or circumstances that caused the injury.


RECOVERY from trauma tends to be characterised by an ability to hold together the disastrous experience, and hope for the future. During the worst periods following a disaster, survivors may be so consumed by their reaction that they may be entirely unable to countenance or picture a future that includes elements of joy or hopefulness.

Ironically, in the first few days after a major disaster, the period that scholars term “the heroic phase”, survivors may be supernaturally buoyed up by a combination of adrenaline, shock, and thankfulness to those who rally round to offer comfort and support. This period cannot be maintained for long, however, and, after a major disaster, disillusionment inevitably sets in, for a period of weeks, months, or years.

During this period, there may be flashes of joy or hopefulness, but not in a sustainable way. The survivors of a major trauma know that they are reaching the end of this “disillusionment phase” when they can begin to hold the reality of what has happened together with a sense that life can also contain goodness.

Although survivors can be assisted in their recovery by the support of warm, compassionate, “less anxious” others, there is nothing that anybody can do to speed up the process. Recovery is an organic process, and a person or group cannot be cajoled or managed into recovery, and any attempt to do this will be counter-productive.

Laurie Kraus, David Holyan, and Bruce Widmer write that in a congregational context the disillusionment period can usefully be termed “the valley of the shadow of death”. The only way through the valley, they maintain, is through it.

As frustrating as it might be for well-meaning others, the best physician for a traumatised person is the traumatised person themselves. In the light of all of this, the gifts of the psalms, and other biblical laments, including those in Lamentations, are remarkable.

The practice of lament offers to the traumatised person (or group) agency, outlet, witness, and escape from the identity of victimhood. The biblical laments, found particularly in the psalms, offer still more. Here is a collection of 150 unexpurgated, often satisfyingly unedifying, authorised things with which God doesn’t mind being doorstepped.

The psalms assure us that letting our upper lip droop, or curl, and letting God have it is not like failing to wear a hat to church: rather, it is quintessentially faithful, because it proceeds from the understanding that God is the place where such anguish should be taken, and that God can take it.

For the trauma survivor lacking the language or the narrative to tell their own story, and speak their own emotions, what’s more, the psalms (which have a tendency to be helpfully vague) provide the language, the story, and the emotions that may be needed to express the inexpressible. They also provide the other thing most needed by the survivor of trauma: a witness to their suffering.


GABOR MATÉ suggests that “trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” This need is expressed clearly in Lamentations 5, in which the men of the city plead with God to “see” them and to witness their predicament. For the individual, railing at God in the privacy of their room, the witness is God.

For those who lament in the context of congregations, or in small groups, the witnesses include those others present. A number of writers on lament recommend small-group practice in particular, suggesting that a small number of group members provides the ideal balance between being witnessed and being able to build and develop strong relationships through the practice.

Another element of biblical laments further fits them for use with and by traumatised people. Biblical laments typically hold together acknowledgement of injury (and its accompanying emotions) with a sense of hope, trust, or praise. Very often, lament psalms, for example, move towards expressions of these — usually, although not always, at their end.

Sometimes, these movements from despair to hopefulness happen quite abruptly (Psalm 13 is a good example), so that scholars have long puzzled over the general pattern by which lament psalms move towards hopefulness, or expressions of faith or trust in God, and have suggested possible explanations for the phenomenon.

There have been many such explanations, but those currently attracting the most support offer a psychological explanation for the shift: the very act of praying the words of the psalm, before witnesses, these explanations suggest, causes an emotional shift in the person praying, so that by the end of the psalm the person has genuinely moved to a place in which hopefulness, trust, or praise feels right.

Certainly, people today who pray with the psalms report experiencing shifts of this kind, or suggest that the sometimes jumbled presence of hope and despair in many of the psalms matches their own inner state, as well as helping to reshape it. Similarly, those who undertake the exercise of composing their own psalms according to the pattern of the biblical laments sometimes report the experience to be life-changing.

The gifts of the biblical laments, then, are rich indeed for the person who has undergone a traumatic experience. However, the gifts do not come without the need for caution. The presence within most of the lament psalms of elements of joy and hopefulness (Psalm 88 being a gloriously and relentlessly miserable exception) means that use of the lament psalms with traumatised people should be undertaken with care.

Just as a person cannot be cajoled from the “disillusionment stage” too early without suffering further damage, so a traumatised person should not be expected to speak words of hopefulness or trust in God before he or she is ready. To push somebody too quickly into expressions of positivity and well-being could be the cause of re-traumatisation.

Once again, the traumatised person themselves will be the best judge of their own readiness. A helpful practice might perhaps be to work with a single lament psalm, encouraging the person to engage with only as much of the psalm as seems appropriate at any given time, and working up to an expression of all the elements of the psalm only when to do so feels right.

A similar note of caution may be sounded with respect to the subject-matter of the various psalmists’ complaints. Some of the more violent or bleak psalms may, in fact, be unhelpful, and cause further traumatisation. As always, the traumatised person — unpressured — will be their own best guide in this.

Finally, it is to be hoped that it goes without saying that “pastoral” approaches should, wherever possible, avoid commending to the traumatised person biblical passages that highlight theologies of punishment, so as to suggest that the person brought the disaster upon themselves.

If it is the case that the traumatised person themselves has a personal theology of divine punishment and retribution for human wrongdoing, this should be respected where possible, and gently challenged only when the person clearly has the capacity for this. One of the effects of trauma is the shattering of previously held assumptions and certainties. A traumatised person will not be helped by the well-intentioned dismantling of yet more aspects of their world, even if those aspects might be judged to be less than ideal by others.

Our world, of course, is not unique in being prone to disasters small and large, and nor was the world of the biblical writers. Recent scholarship has shown us the extent to which disaster and the responses of trauma caused by it have shaped our scriptures.

This new understanding of the background to biblical texts makes them especially rich for readers today who live with some degree of trauma response — that is, all of us. For those ministering with, or caring for, the survivors of traumatic events the scriptures are a valuable resource, albeit one that is best approached with care.


This is an edited extract from “Bible and Trauma” by Megan Warner, in The Bible and Mental Health: Towards a biblical theology of mental health, edited by Christopher C. H. Cook and Isabelle Hamley, published by SCM Press at £25 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £20).

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