Jul 10

Was Jesus’ ministry “trauma-informed?” [Part 2] Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma

There is a movement that is beginning to take shape across the country when it comes to ministry settings: becoming trauma-informed. The topic concerns churches that are interested in missional engagement with the culture because there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that if we can break the cycle of adversity in childhood we can help everyone experience “life to the full” as Jesus intended (John 10:10). In part one of this series, I pointed out Jesus’ particular concern with the oppressed and those who lack hope in their present circumstance. Beyond his simply asking that the “little children come unto him,” Jesus would be concerned with the conditions that persist in our culture that perpetuate childhood trauma (Luke 18:16).

While each person internalizes potentially traumatic experiences differently, and not all trauma equates to a life-time of difficulties, clearly it is in best interest of any society to do what it can to alleviate childhood suffering, neglect, and abuse. Jesus made it clear where he stood in regards to protecting children from the evils of the world when he said it would be better off for someone to have “a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” than to cause a child to stumble (Matthew 18:6). While I particularly focus on a trauma-informed ministry approach when it comes to working with children, youth, and their families, the principles I will address are transferrable to any population. May the reader forgive my emphasis on children, because it is not only my area of ministry focus, but I sense it represents the church’s best hope in alleviating suffering by breaking the generational cycle of adversity and traumatic experience that then makes the rest of life very difficult.

In the first post in the series, I focused only the first identifier of a trauma-informed ministry: the realization of the widespread impact of trauma and potential paths for recovery. In this second post, I will look at how Jesus recognized the signs and symptoms of trauma in those he not only interacted with, but then became followers themselves of his life and teachings.

As a reminder of the full context of this point within the larger definition of “trauma-informed” practices, I will repeat part of what was discussed in my earlier post. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the concept of a trauma-informed approach would mean that “a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

A trauma-informed approach to ministry starts with the realization of the widespread impact of trauma. Certainly, if a church or ministry is not aware or is in denial of the problem posed by adversity in childhood, toxic stress, and the effects of trauma on whose they minister too, it cannot properly address potential paths for recovery and healing. Secondly, and perhaps a much more practical point to address for churches and faith-communities seeking to be trauma-informed, is the ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in those they seek to minister to!

Jesus_and_NicodemusJesus knew the tremendous brokenness of the world, and he knew the power of the Kingdom of Heaven to address the needs of people traumatized by the evil of this world and the effect of sin. Because Jesus new the pervasiveness of the effects of this brokenness, one might say that what an individual first presented in attitude, speech, and actions did not disqualify them from an encounter with the divine and an opportunity to embrace healing and wholeness. In fact, I believe it can be seen in Scripture that it is far more likely that a traumatized and hurting individual will fully respond to the invitation Jesus extends than those that may not immediately recognize their need. To flesh out this dynamic in Jesus’ ministry, I’d like to compare and contrast Jesus’ interactions with the learned Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, and the Samaritan woman at the well (you can find the full context of these stories in John’s gospel, Chapter 3 and 4). Jesus understands that both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman need something only he can offer, but his knowledge of their situation—his “recognition of the signs and symptoms” of trauma, if you will—shapes the way he interacts with them in turn. Because the gospel of John tells the story first of Nicodemus, I’ll start there. (The next post in this series will address Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman, as unfortunately this post is already long enough!!)

There is a lot that can be said about this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, but for our purposes we simply want to look at the interaction between two people and in particular how Jesus responds to Nicodemus. It should tell us something about Jesus’ interaction with people like Nicodemus and if that approach can be said to be trauma-informed. Does Jesus recognize any “signs and symptoms” within Nicodemus that might point to trauma or any other adversity? Here are a few observances:

  • Nicodemus is coming from a position of power and influence. He initiates the conversation.
  • Nicodemus speaks first, complimenting Jesus. Nicodemus attributes Jesus’ work to his having “come from God.”
  • Jesus responds by challenging Nicodemus, speaking of God’s Kingdom and the need to be born again.
  • Nicodemus, rather than admit his confusion, throws out an objection to Jesus’ statement.
  • Jesus recognizes Nicodemus’ defensiveness and a signal that he is confused and surprised. Jesus asks Nicodemus to grasp something of spiritual significance rather than focusing on just the physical.
  • Nicodemus releases some of his defensiveness by simply asking, “How can this be?” Clearly, any perceived power in this interaction has shifted from Nicodemus to Jesus.
  • Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ foundations on which he has built his self-identity: position, power, knowledge, the ability as a “ruler” to judge.

What can be gleaned from this? Well, I’d like to point out that not all people walking around with trauma, or high “ACE” scores (adverse childhood experiences like abuse or neglect), are going to present as the lowly or the trouble-ridden! There are enough socially acceptable ways to cope with stress, even toxic stress, that we might first miss someone who has deep emotional pain in our faith community. Perfectionism, high standards and ideals, and worldly success often mask deep insecurities which have their root in unsettled feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Jesus’ willingness to cut through all the fine theological discussion he might have had with Nicodemus (the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”) suggests that he Jesus is aware of the insecurities that can be masked by position and power. Certainly, we have no way of knowing Nicodemus’ childhood, but Jesus’ insistence to discuss matters of the Spirit rather than focusing on the physical impossibility of being “born again” could indicate that he sees a deeper need within this nighttime visitor than mere intellectual enlightenment.

I hope you’ll continue with me on this exploration of trauma-informed principles as they apply to the ministry of Jesus! We’ve just scratched the surface, and there is much more to investigate. Next time, we’ll finish up our look at the ways Jesus approached the traumatized people he encountered, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma in their lives by examining Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well in John, chapter 4.