Four Ways Christian Higher Education Can be a Source of Healing for Victims of Trauma
In our fallen, sin-riddled world, the likelihood of encountering trauma in one's lifetime is almost inevitable. Trauma, defined as "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience," can stem from a single event or a series of events, whether it's a natural disaster or terrorist attack, sexual or physical abuse, betrayal, a loved one's death, illness, or a tragic accident.
Trauma is a unique form of suffering; it's one that cripples its victims, causes debilitating shame, withholds joy and freedom, and calls the goodness of God into question.
When people have been traumatized, they need caring individuals to guide them out from danger -- and it's in these dark places that the light of Christ shines brightest. The Church -- and more specifically, Christian education -- has the unique opportunity to come alongside those suffering and be a voice of comfort, healing, and hope.
Dr. Diane Langberg, a Christian author and practicing psychologist whose clinical expertise includes 35 years of working with trauma survivors and clergy, contends that "trauma is the mission field of our time."
"We are the church. That means we are the body of Jesus Christ and He is our Head. In the physical realm, a body that does not follow its head is a sick body. That is also true in the spiritual realm. We are His people and I believe with all my heart He has called us to go out of ourselves and follow Him into the suffering of this world bearing both His character and His Word. And we do go – we send missionaries and the Scriptures; we provide food, clean water, education and jobs for many. And we should. We have rarely, however, seen trauma as a place of service. If we think carefully about the extensive natural disasters in our time such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis and combine those victims with the many manmade disasters – the violent inner cities, wars, genocides, trafficking, rapes, and child abuse we would have a staggering number. I believe that if we would stop and look out on suffering humanity we would begin to realize that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century."
While the human spirit is amazingly resilient and there is liberation found in Christ, trauma forever impacts its victims. How can Christian colleges and universities lovingly and faithfully come alongside victims of trauma and be a source of healing, help, and hope?
Christian Colleges Provide Biblical Counseling and Pastoral Care
While trauma can arise from any number of places, one of the most common sources of such suffering is sexual abuse.
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
- Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
- During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.
Christian apologist Josh McDowell -- himself a victim of sexual abuse -- has quoted Christian psychologists as reporting that the percentage of children who are sexually abused is the same in the secular and non-secular world - about 30 to 40 percent.
It stands to reason, then, that many of the students walking around Christian campuses today have at some point in their lives encountered sexual abuse -- and the effects last a lifetime. Because of this, Christian colleges and institutions have a tremendous opportunity to bring these issues to light and address them from a biblical perspective.
Many Christian schools provide qualified counseling services for victims as well as same-sex Bible study groups for those affected by sexual assault. Through chapel talks, classes, and special seminars, Christian schools have the opportunity to teach biblical ethics regarding sex and sexuality, reaffirm the inherent value of victims of sexual abuse, and help survivors find true healing in Christ.
Additionally, through listening, observation, and education, Christian faculty and staff can identify signs of sexual abuse and take proactive steps to prevent more abuse from happening. The truth of the Gospel and a faith-centered community can play a key role in the healing process of a victim.
Christian Colleges Provide Community Support for Trauma Survivors
Trauma often leaves its victims feeling disconnected from their communities and deeply isolated. At large colleges and universities, it's to hide among the masses. Because Christian colleges are often smaller, they provide safe, intimate, and authentic communities for students who have survived trauma. Hopefully, they will be surrounded by peers who help them tackle issues from a biblical perspective, support them as they navigate difficult wounds, listen to their stories, and faithfully pray for them.
Students at Christian institutions have the tremendous opportunity to be present and walk with the hurting, allowing others to be real with their emotions. First John 1:7 reminds us to be open with other believers about struggles, emotions and thoughts: "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[a] sin." The Bible also commands us to "fulfill the law of Christ" by "bearing one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2).
Julie Woodley, founder of Restoring the Heart Ministry, offers the reminder that survivors of trauma can heal -- but there's no "quick fix." She writes, "Trauma can appear, disappear, and then reappear in ways that we cannot control or predict. So no matter what course it takes, the wounded person needs to know that we are committed to walk beside her however long the healing may take."
Christian Education Can Help Dispel Shame by Exposing the Devil's Lies
Christian therapist Dan Allender, author of The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuser, points out that that trauma has spiritual as well as physical and emotional ramifications.
"It's not enough to know the biology of trauma. We also need to know the spirituality of trauma. The natural tendency of victims is to turn shame and contempt against themselves. And this gets exploited by the Evil One. Satan is an accuser. He fans the flames of guilt and shame with whisperings, attacks, threats, or seductions."
Shame is a distinct part of trauma, and it rears its ugly head in a number of ways. Victims of trauma may struggle with shame stemming from surviving a devastating event, undergoing physical or sexual abuse, or failing to prevent the death of a loved one.
Langberg defines shame as the "complete loss of glory" and explains that its victims often become silent, hide socially, and keep others at an arm's length. The burden of shame, she says, is a "crushing one and it has to be carried by very frail human beings who were originally intended for glory."
Yet, throughout Scripture, God pursues those hiding in shame -- first seen in Genesis with Adam and Eve -- and clothes them in righteousness, promising redemption. On the cross, Jesus became shame, embodied it, and "hid not his face."
"We, who are shamed creatures, whether by our own doing or the torment of others, are called to look and fix our eyes on this Jesus, this utterly exposed and shamed Jesus who didn't hide when he was shamed," Langberg says. "He faced shame and transformed it into glory...He spits on the shame they spilled all over him, and refused to let it define him or diminish him or destroy his work and purpose, and that work was to change shame into glory. We are there with him, all of us bearing the shame of our sin and the sins of others against us. He didn't hide; he carried shameful creatures back to glory."
As we look upon Jesus -- the great despiser of shame and the all-glorious One -- and fix our eyes on Him, she says, our shame is transformed to glory. Because Jesus Himself experienced shame -- "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5, NIV) -- He understands the pain of humanity and remembers his earthly suffering, even in Heaven: "I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain" (Revelation 5:6).
In the same way, Christian colleges and universities have the opportunity to come alongside those struggling with shame and remind them of their inherent value and worth in Christ. Christian professors, faculty and staff are called to minister to trauma survivors by validating traumatic experiences, providing professional and pastoral counseling, serving as instruments of Christ's healing, and dispelling and challenging Satan's lies.
Christian Colleges Point Trauma Victims of the Freedom Found in Christ
Jesus told His disciples that because of the reality of sin, we will face trials in this life (John 16:33). Yet, God is able to heal all wounds -- and His love is more powerful than even the deepest trauma. Romans 8:35-37 reminds us, "Can anything ever separate us from Christ's love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, 'For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.' No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us."
Treatment of certain traumas requires the expertise of mental health professionals and trained therapists. However, the support, comfort, and love that Christian colleges and institutions can provide victims of trauma cannot be underestimated. Because Christ changes the lens through which we view and interpret trauma, Christian college professors, faculty, and staff are able to confidently point victims of trauma to the hope found only in the gospel while reminding them of the truth of God's forgiveness and grace.
We live in a broken world, and many of us have experienced some level of trauma in our lifetime. In this darkness, Christian institutions have the tremendous opportunity to be a source of hope and healing for victims of trauma. By encouraging victims of trauma to fix their eyes on Christ, educators can help those suffering to take hold of their identity as dearly loved children of God and rest in the belief that He promises to "heal the brokenhearted" (Psalm 147:3).