Sticks and Stones
By Sylvia Cortez Masyuk
Words do have the power to affect and deeply wound us.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. Many of us can recall a parent or friend using this phrase when we were young to combat verbal bullying. However, we all know that words do have the power to affect and deeply wound us. Ironically, the words we use can hurt those we are trying to comfort, particularly those experiencing trauma. Sadly, this often occurs in places least expected—communities of faith.
Chad was a handsome young teenager who loved surfing, skateboarding, and hanging out with friends at the beach until a horrible surf accident severely injured him. Chad was lucky to be alive but traumatized. Chad regularly relived his trauma, battled chronic pain, gained weight from medications, and became only a shadow of his earlier self. He could not shake the violence of what had happened and how it had changed him. Chad was surrounded by a loving Christian community who cared deeply for him and wanted him to improve. He met with therapists. But no one could help Chad transform his pain and suffering. Trauma had ruptured his life to such an extent that trauma recovery felt impossible, despite how much others wished that for him.
Sometimes, our attempts to comfort others with the good news of the gospel can be deafening to those enduring the long and challenging process of trauma recovery. Our words and even the violence of our silence or absence can result in unintended bullying when we attempt to rush trauma victims toward recovery. Proverbs 25:20 says,
Like vinegar on a wound
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
Though surrounded by love, all family and faith community efforts were somehow insufficient. Chad committed suicide. The unresolved trauma in Chad’s life and many others begs for a re-examination of our trauma responses. As Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger notes, “Believers who have survived trauma stake their very lives on the power of the gospel to heal.” As the Body of Christ, we all eventually stake our lives on it.
Why was hope so elusive to Chad? Are there any words that would have helped Chad? Were the Christian doctrines he held helpful in any way? And what is the role of the church for those struggling with trauma?
Unfolding trauma studies have concluded that post-traumatic recovery can be a difficult and long journey, and many survivors never experience a full recovery (a concept not without complications). Churches proclaim freedom in Christ, transformation, and wholeness. So perhaps it seems counter-intuitive that our congregations include persons who cannot experience joy in these ways and struggle to navigate community even after they have found salvation. Churches are glad to welcome the broken-hearted but expect them to eventually be mended. What happens when people do not experience healing and recovery?
Trauma is a serious issue we are still learning to recognize in ourselves and others. Trauma almost always precedes questions of theodicy — if God is good, why does evil exist? So the church must learn to honor the experiences and questions trauma survivors bring as they move toward healing. But theodicy is not at the core of trauma recovery.
Research has concluded that trauma recovery requires safety, remembering, mourning, and reconnecting to the world. This process often proves to be challenging in many faith communities. Christian narratives that sound beautiful and inspiring to many may not compute for those wrestling with trauma. On a bulletin board of a church Sunday School class were the words from the gospel of Luke, “With God, nothing is impossible.” A couple of days later, an anonymous person secretly tacked this note underneath, “But not for me.” This is the silent cry of trauma survivors who often cannot reconcile hope and lived experiences. Trauma survivors may be in our midst, but that does not mean they are moving toward healing. So what can faith communities do? There are at least three things. We can watch our words, listen to their words, and accept the absence of words.
First, we can watch our words by determining whether our theology is trauma sensitive. Church language is rife with challenges for trauma survivors. The language of wholeness and perfection may seem impossible for survivors whose trauma makes them feel bodily irreparable. Concepts like forgiveness, providence, and hope can be minefields for those navigating violent, traumatic experiences. Carelessly using language to cover over pain and traditional narratives of redemption that have no meaning for trauma survivors, may re-traumatize people. We also destabilize their experience of church as a safe space that can understand or at least hold the dissonance they experience. Trauma is deeply destabilizing. These are a few ways particular doctrines do not work in their traditional form for persons experiencing trauma. Or perhaps they ask something of the trauma survivor they cannot give at the present point in their journey. And church communities will be ill-equipped to engage trauma victims if they are fixated on a skewed narrative of the gospel. Instead, we can reimagine doctrines that honor lived experiences and reflect embodied experiences in scripture, such as acknowledging that Jesus’ resurrection included his wounds, a significant image for trauma survivors. To focus only on triumphalism, Shelly Rambo warns, often shuts the door to very ordinary experiences such as doubt, fear, anxiety, and sorrow, not to mention injustice or violence. The dissonance trauma survivors experience from this language may lead to isolation and, ultimately, disconnection from God, others, and often their own bodies. Incapable of connecting with others, they remove themselves from an essential element required for trauma recovery — community.
Furthermore, the church has a rich text filled with trauma, suffering, and longing that we can tap into and learn from. The church can highlight these traumas and resist softening or covering over realities that are difficult to tackle in the gospel narratives. Seeing trauma inherent in scripture is paramount for trauma survivors. The church can proclaim the Good News and engage in the wisdom work of holding space for trauma survivors.
Second, we can listen to their words should they be willing to share their story or ask questions. A negotiation occurs with memory as the survivor attempts to make sense of what happened to them. But they cannot do this work alone. A caring person must come alongside, to listen and be a witness to the story. Helping to bear the unbearable is vital and is an act of creation, as healing and remaking occur in that space. As Hunsinger notes, a person begins to move toward healing when they can weave together a meaningful narrative about the trauma they endured while remaining emotionally connected to themselves and the person serving as a witness.
Third, we can accept the absence of words by offering embodied practices. Because our bodies remember the trauma, we know that trauma recovery does not merely entail cognition or talk therapy. Trauma is first felt in the body, and if healing is to take place, it may first need to occur in the body and not the brain. For those in pastoral ministry, this means paying more careful attention to bodies and embodied practices in the church that are critical to trauma survivors. Theology alone will not transform the trauma survivor. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but doctrines alone do not necessarily heal us.
Serene Jones argues that the rituals of the church, such as the Eucharist, are infused with trauma. Many trauma survivors, who often initially have trouble finding the right words for their experience, may find more comfort in embodied spiritual practices that do not require direct interaction—recited prayers, singing in unison, and participating in the Eucharist, to name a few. The Eucharist, in particular, is rooted in a story of trauma. When we come to the table, participants become bodied believers together and are re-membered, an act of particular importance to trauma survivors. The eucharist is an embodied practice we do with our bodies as the body that shares the same hope for life and resurrection. Traumas rupture. But we can move toward healing through ritualized practices.
Tragedies many of us face affect us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. So, part of the church’s task is to bodily address the deep pain and suffering of those we walk alongside. This work requires sustained practices that shape our language, thoughts, and behavior to help reframe lived experiences. Language is problematic for trauma survivors, and our words can never be Band-Aids we use to cover human experiences. Because trauma survivors are in our midst, we must learn to watch our words, listen to their words, and accept the absence of words. When this occurs, our theology and liturgies, formed alongside bodily practices, can help us address, engage with, and may even transform our wounds.
Rev. Sylvia Cortez Masyuk is currently enrolled in the NTS Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Formation program and lives and ministers in Kyiv, Ukraine with her husband, Volodymyr.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love