person crying amid destruction of a city

The Psalms and Trauma

 February 22, 2023

Many say that the trauma of slaves remains embedded in their ancestors on a cellular level today. If that is true, then the trauma of slavery remained a part of the Hebrew nation throughout the Old Testament since the time of Moses. Theirs is a history of trauma that impacts their worldview. And so, trauma is present in the Psalms, the early prayers of the Hebrew people. What can we learn from the Psalms and Trauma?

Trauma in the Scriptures

That the story of the Hebrew people is one filled with trauma is apparent. Besides the time of slavery in Egypt, they experienced the trauma of being repeatedly conquered by invading forces, the destruction of their temple, and being carried off into exile.

Paul Cho, in the article, A Biblical Perspective on Trauma, states, “The Hebrew Scriptures reflect pain and sorrow and confusion that arises from experiences of trauma. We see this everywhere throughout Scripture.”

The Psalms and Trauma

Trauma is also evident in the Psalms. David, the author of many of the Psalms was no stranger to trauma. He spent a good portion of his early years fleeing for his life from Saul (Psalms 52, 54, 57, 59) and later he fled from his son, Absolom (Psalm 3). These experiences inform his Psalms.

You need look no further than the Psalms of Lament to see evidence of trauma. One third of the Psalms fall into this category. They start by acknowledging God and complaining:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long? (6:1-3)

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (10:1)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest. (22:1-2)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me. (38:1-2)

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted. (77:1-2)

To name but a few examples. Then the writers make a request and end with an expression of trust in God, thanking God in advance for what God will do.

Movement from Lament to Trust

Read through the many laments in the Psalms and you will hear the voice of a traumatized person/community. But by the end of the psalm, they are expressing their trust in God.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (77:20)

You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror. (10:17-18)

The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer. (6:9)

This suggests that the act of praying these words causes of shift from despair to hope.

What do we learn from the Psalms and Trauma?

There is power in the Psalms to help heal trauma. They express the suffering of people who have been traumatized and offer an example of how trauma survivors can talk to God.

Paul Cho goes on to tell us, “Recognizing that our pain and sufferings were also experienced by the people in Scripture makes it more proximate to our lives and our existence. To identify and recognize the laments, the anger, the emotions, and the confusion embedded in Hebrew Scripture is to say, “That’s where I can find myself connecting with this ancient Scripture.” And with that initial act of identification, one can begin narrating one’s own journey through trauma alongside Scripture. If one sees that the biblical writers began with pain and suffering and trauma, but they were able to get to a different place, then maybe the reader can journey alongside them.”

The Place of Church and Community in Healing Trauma

Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, reinforces the importance of community and having a safe place to share stories in her three stages for recovery from trauma:

  • First, establish safety for the person who has experienced trauma.
  • Second, have a place in which this person can both reconstruct the traumatic experience and mourn that experience.
  • Third, have a place where this person can reconnect to individuals and groups.

This is something that churches and other worshiping communities can offer to traumatized individuals, standing before God with others and praying together the Psalms of lament.

In short, there is a power in the Psalms. They give voice to the prayers of the community. As Cho says, “I think the book of Psalms is important because it reflects the fullness of our emotional responses to trauma and to life in general. It makes space for people to celebrate and to mourn, not only by themselves, but with each other.”

What has been your experience of praying the Psalms during times of great suffering and loss?

This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of  Still Dancingthe second book in my Dancing through Life Series.      click here to sign up

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