Content warning: This article contains discussions of trauma, including injury and PTSD. It does not constitute professional mental health advice.
President Henry B. Eyring’s district president once counseled him, “‘Hal, when you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.” The pews of the church are filled with members whose bodies bear the burden of trauma from hard experiences. Some suffer without speaking about it to anyone. Tears slide silently down their cheeks over the sacrament tray, or they weep when they return home from worship. Even if we never see their tears, those who live with trauma are there, all around us. Perhaps this is you.
Jesus’ divine mission included reaching out to those who were especially traumatized. Until she touched the hem of his cloak, the woman with an issue of blood suffered the trauma of an incurable chronic illness for twelve years, spending all her money on physicians who could not cure her. Jesus’ response to her was, “Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace” (Luke 8:43–48). Her inability to be healed was a matter of inadequate medicine, not an insufficient faith. He dispelled his disciples’ moral suspicions about a man with congenital blindness, saying, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents” (John 9:3). Jesus did not stigmatize anyone for a disability. To the Samaritan woman at the well who carried cultural, religious, and relational trauma, he offered living water and revealed himself as the Messiah. Instead of beholding an adulterer, Jesus led a believer in a Messianic dialogue about salvation (see John 4:1–29).
It is not easy to perceive trauma unless we know what we’re looking for, and developing a discerning eye and compassionate heart for trauma survivors has the potential to change how we minister in the church.
The term trauma has a very specific meaning beyond what people usually think of when they hear the word. When talking about how the body of Christ can become more trauma-informed, the specialized definition is illuminating. Trauma is not simply something stressful or a discrete bad event that happened. Rather, trauma is an experience of the nervous system that is caused by a startling or injurious event. The body continues an uncompleted protective stress response after it is situationally useful.
Psychologist Peter A. Levine, an expert in the field of trauma healing, writes, “Trauma is the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering. When I use the word trauma, I am talking here about the often debilitating symptoms that many people suffer from in the aftermath of perceived life-threatening or overwhelming experiences.” How our bodies perceive danger is the key. What would traumatize me might not traumatize you.
Not all stressful or bad experiences cause trauma. However, even a seemingly insignificant event can provoke a trauma response in the nervous system. Dr. Levine continues, “Perhaps the most important thing I have learned about trauma is that people, especially children, can be overwhelmed by what we usually think of as common everyday events. . . . The fact is that, over time, a series of seemingly minor mishaps can have a damaging effect on a person. Trauma does not have to stem from a major catastrophe,” although it can.
Trauma can be caused by many kinds of events, subtle or startling, fleeting or lasting. As in the case of poverty, or abuse, or systemic racism, the effects on the nervous system are continuous. Surviving an avalanche or an accident happens once but can have long-term consequences. In PTSD, the brain’s fear responses become compromised, and new trauma can resonate with old trauma, causing the nervous system to seek safety by preparing to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. Trauma happens as a result of many more situations than active combat.
Trauma can be interpersonal, including emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual abuse. Likewise, intergenerational trauma is passed down genetically and can be felt in our bodies. Secondary traumatic stress can occur when doctors treat people who have gone through disturbing events or when we watch an upsetting story on the news. Physical injury to the brain can also inflict trauma. Adverse childhood experiences can result in developmental trauma, which affects the size and functional connectivity of the brain and which has behavioral, physical, and mental health consequences into adolescence and adulthood.
Trauma is a common experience, Dr. Levine says. Trauma is personal and often invisible. He notes that the effects of trauma can be barely perceptible or entirely debilitating and that these effects can be a stable part of someone’s experience or surface intermittently because stress triggers them. “In short,” he says, “trauma is about loss of connection—to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us.” Trauma is collective, too. Large events, cultural practices, and the structure of organizations can cause trauma to be felt in entire groups of people.
Seeing Jesus as a Trauma Survivor
I feel that one of our most pressing roles as disciples of Christ is to expand our understanding of trauma and to respond empathetically to the brothers and sisters in our congregations who are suffering with its debilitating effects. Everyone has different capacities when they meet trauma in themselves and others. However, it’s always possible to grow in our capacity to perceive and respond appropriately to trauma in the one and in the many. Jesus serves as an example of someone who understood trauma intimately.
From the perspective of Jesus as an individual human being, Jesus had the full mortal experience. He developed like we all do, from grace to grace. At the very least, I imagine he experienced growing pains. In addition, his cross-section of identities and life experiences gave him a unique perspective on various kinds of trauma. He was raised by a man who wasn’t his father and so he had the social experience of being perceived as another man’s child. He was a refugee whose family fled religious violence while he was an infant, an adverse childhood experience. He was born into poverty. As the Son of God, being raised by mortals, his identity was entirely unique in the history of humanity.
There are other questions about his embodiment to which we don’t have answers, such as, was Jesus neurodivergent? He was certainly intellectually and spiritually gifted. As he grew from boy to man, did Jesus experience cognitive dissonance as he tried to square his spiritual knowledge with the brokenness of the world and the weighty destiny he pursued?
Jesus suffered the most recognizable trauma in the days of his persecution, when he bled in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told his disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark:14:34), as apt a description of trauma as I have read. In my own way, I have felt deathly sorrow. Jesus was alone, with no friends to witness his suffering. The disciples slept for their own sorrow, while beaded sweat dripped like blood from Jesus’ face. The crushing weight of the suffering cosmos flowed through him.
His death on the cross was cruel. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says, “The utter loneliness and excruciating pain of the Atonement begun in Gethsemane reached its zenith when, after unspeakable abuse at the hands of Roman soldiers and others, Christ cried from the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” God withdrew his Spirit to let Jesus feel the heft of spiritual death. Trauma feels like forsakenness, desperation, being beyond aid. Trauma takes sufferers into utterly forlorn corridors, where God may be experienced as absent, in spite of every effort to feel divine connection and hope. Belief is an inadequate bridge to healing when a hurt nervous system is involved.
As Latter-day Saints we use emblem to describe the sacrament symbols and Jesus’ scars. The word emblem descends from Latin, emblema, which was a decorative inlay, a mosaic, a tessellation, or a raised ornamental work. Behind the Latin stands the Ancient Greek emblema, an insertion, from the verb meaning “to put in.” Christ’s humanity and his full identification with our trauma and human suffering are carved, like art, into his palms. Our suffering is inlaid in his flesh eternally. Jesus’ resurrection signifies more than simply a bruised survival. It represents a boundless celebration of being made whole-with-wounds in the post-traumatic aftermath of extreme suffering alone.
Jesus’ scars beckon us to an understanding of how we can emulate his mindfulness of trauma. As the resurrected Christ, Jesus chose disabilities that identify him forever with the limitations caused by trauma. These scars are part of Jesus’ eternal embodied state, and indicate a continued memory of and tenderness toward the experience of trauma. If Jesus is unashamed to memorialize and gently hold our deepest trauma woundings in his very hands, by seeking to compassionately understand and accommodate the trauma of those around us, we likewise follow Him.
Looking through a Trauma-Informed Lens
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, spoke to The Fuller Symposium on the Integration of Psychology and Theology in 2020. In her talk Dr. Bryant-Davis explains, “When some church people see our wounds, their response is, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ . . . ‘Why is she talking like that? Why is he acting like that? What’s wrong with them?’” On the other hand, she says, “A trauma-informed person sees your wounds and asks a different question. They ask, ‘What happened to you?’”
Taking the trauma-informed perspective even deeper, she combines it with a cultural and spiritual awareness: “When you are culturally aware and trauma-informed, you ask the question, ‘What happened to you and your people?’. . . . ‘How has your faith been shaped by your trauma?’ And, ‘How has your trauma shaped your faith? . . . When you’re a trauma survivor,” she said, “you might have some doubts.”
The world looks and feels less safe when someone is carrying a burden of trauma. Just because someone enters a church building does not mean they do not bring their trauma with them. They cannot wish, pray, or study it away, either. They are seeing the world through the nervous system lens that their trauma has given them, and that includes their experience of faith and the church environment. Even churches, places that many consider to be safe and healing, can be unsafe for (or experienced as unsafe by) trauma survivors. Trauma isn’t a spiritual problem. Rather, wounds to faith or the practice of religion can reveal the imprint of trauma within the nervous system.
Making Room for Trauma Healing at Church
It is possible to heal the effects of trauma with specialized care. Peter Levine affirms, “In working with trauma for over three decades, I have come to the conclusion that human beings are born with an innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening—a portal opening to emotional and spiritual transformation.”
For my part, I don’t believe it is necessary to make trauma instructive. Learning happens naturally after any experience, and we inevitably make meaning from deeply hard things. Trying to find meaning in trauma, though, has actually been damaging for me at times. The natural and convincing feelings that arise with trauma—alienation, doubt, shame, lack of self worth, fear of God’s punishment—are my brain’s injured attempts at interpretation, not accurate reflections of my soul’s status before God. I’ve seen that the meaning of my experience is that I have trauma, and it’s not always something I can or need to interpret. It’s never appropriate for anyone to say what someone else’s trauma means. In my opinion, the individual needs to decide what to make of their trauma, restoring a sense of agency where it has been taken away from them.
Many things happen on earth that should never have happened. The only salvific suffering belongs to Jesus Christ. Because of this, I believe what Peter Levine says. The journey of healing with trauma is an opportunity to find wise depths as we heal. In a trauma-informed body of Christ, we embrace those who may be perceived as weak but who are actually just hurt. They are those with hands that hang down. Living with trauma is walking around with open wounds, and it is a neurological disadvantage and disability that requires extra support.
Ministering to trauma, then, requires sustained care and “chronic empathy.” It requires carefulness to not inflict deeper wounds with impertinence or judgment. As Sister Sharon Eubank said, “Let’s not judge each other or let our words bite. Let’s keep each other’s names safe and give the gift of mercy.” What looks like socially unacceptable behavior (standoffishness, inactivity, taking offense, gregariousness, rudeness, gossiping), for instance, may simply be hints that people carry unresolved trauma. Trauma is never an excuse for abusing others or for permitting abuse to happen, though, and it is crucial to maintain healthy boundaries while extending compassion and understanding.
If the disciples had been able to bear Jesus’ trauma unfolding in the Garden of Gethsemane with open eyes, I believe they would have. For our part as disciples in Christ’s church, we can strive to be awake and responsive, as is safe for our own nervous systems, to the trauma of those around us. The work starts with us, on the inside, and we can learn how to respond better when people are having a hard time or sharing their experience that they are having a hard time (even if it’s because of people’s actions within the church!). Here are a few practical takeaways to start the conversation on how the church can improve to be more trauma informed.
- We can educate ourselves about the many types of trauma, including racial, familial, medical, gender, socioeconomic, and religious.
- Trauma can be experienced at church, just like anywhere else. The responsibility to heal is not on the individual alone. We also need to seek to create communities where trauma is no longer perpetuated. When someone reflects a need for the church to be more trauma informed in certain areas, we can listen, learn, and believe them. We can facilitate meaningful change by speaking up when policies, activities, and topic presentations are potentially traumatizing or marginalizing. We can ask, how can we mitigate the effects of trauma on survivors?
- We can avoid making assumptions about trauma based on someone’s appearance. People who look fine are suffering with trauma all around us. Trauma can last long after an event, and we can remember that when someone is hurting.
- Suggesting someone else’s pain is purposeful is improper and can cause them to feel unseen and disbelieved. We can avoid implying or stating that someone needs to learn a lesson from their trauma. Instead, we can simply listen and reflect their experience back to them.
- Trauma is very private. We can ask non-invasive questions and work on boundaries around wanting to know the details of a tragedy. We can believe that someone’s experience is as bad as (and likely worse than) they are saying it is.
- For someone with trauma, invasions of personal space or sudden restrictions on their body can be retraumatizing. We can live by the principle of consent. A simple way to ask someone whether they are okay with physical contact is, “Hug, handshake, or wave?” We can accept their answer graciously.
- We can recognize that the pulpit is not the place to work out trauma. We can learn to identify when we need therapeutic help to deal with a disturbing event. As a courtesy, we can give a content warning before we tell the details of an accident, illness, bad relationship, near-death experience, suicide, mental illness, or death of a family member or friend. We can use neutral, as opposed to graphic, dramatic, or inflammatory language.
- We can actively make church disability friendly by researching accommodations and consistently making them available. These include wheelchair ramps, closed captioning, sign language, and activities that everyone can participate in, whatever their disabilities.
- Trauma survivors are strong and are truly doing the best they can. Even if people are looking as hard as they can for help, it might not be available. We all need patience as we learn to heal what is unhealed in us.
New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says, “You don’t have to go through a security gate to get to Jesus. People touch him. He reached out and touched children. His accessibility is one of the most powerful messages of Christianity.” We can respond in kind to trauma survivors by reaching out with the knowledge that the roots of trauma are not personal or spiritual failures. We can learn to speak more gently and approach others more respectfully. We can actively create systemic, institutional, and interpersonal safety. By doing these things, we emulate Jesus as the Savior.
If you have suggestions for how the church can be more trauma-informed, please feel free to share in the comments.
“The Neurobiology of Trauma,” Dr. Arielle Schwartz (article)
“Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma,” Bessel van der Kolk (scholarly article)
The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk (book)
Peter Levine on Being Human Podcast (podcast on YouTube, 1h) cw: birth trauma, attachment trauma, triggers
“What is religious trauma?” Michelle Panchuk (video on YouTube, 2min) cw: sexual trauma, war, PTSD
“Distorting Concepts, Obscured Experiences: Hermeneutical Injustice in Religious Trauma and Spiritual Violence,” Michelle Panchuk (scholarly paper) cw: abuse, religious trauma, spiritual violence
 Henry B. Eyring, “Try, Try, Try,” Ensign, November 2018,
 Peter A. Levine, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body (Sounds True, 2012), 7.
 See “Defining Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress.”
 Levine, Healing Trauma, 19.
 Levine, Healing Trauma, 9.
 “That Joseph had become Jesus’ legal guardian and was not considered His biological father seems apparent in at least one passage: ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ Here Jesus is known as ‘the son of Mary,’ not of Joseph. The convention of the day would have been to call a person by his father’s name, the ‘son of Joseph,’ not by his mother’s” (See S. Kent Brown, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, and Dawn C. Pheysey, Beholding Salvation: The Life of Christ in Word and Image [Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 2006], 23).
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Liahona, March 2008
 See Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were with Him,” April 2009.
 https://www.etymonline.com/word/emblem; https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/emblem.
 “Thema Bryant-Davis on Interpersonal Trauma and the Bible,” FULLER studio on YouTube, April 24, 2020. Accessed January 7, 2021.
 Levine, Healing Trauma, 7.
 See this Twitter thread by Sigrid Ellis https://mobile.twitter.com/sigridellis/status/902885323356741634?lang=en
 Sharon Eubank, “By Union of Feeling We Obtain Power with God,” Ensign, November 2020.
 Blake, John. “Passions over ‘prosperity gospel’: Was Jesus wealthy?” CNN. December 25, 2009. Accessed January 21, 2021.