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Recognizing and Working through Trauma on the Field

One of the most popular podcasts we’ve done is the one on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD affects more people than we realize and missionaries are not exempt. In fact, they’re much more exposed to it than most will ever let on.

All missionaries experience culture shock and culture stress. While uncomfortable and inconvenient, these come with the territory when you’re a missionary. They’re new when you first arrive on the field, and learning how to navigate them takes more mental and spiritual energy than most are usually prepared for. They never go away, one just learns how to navigate them more easily and naturally. Time management, wise planning, and intentional resting help keep the missionaries and their families in balance.

On top of the normal stress that comes from adapting to and living in another culture, the number of missionaries exposed to trauma producing events is increasing. As places without a gospel witness begin to get exposed to the teachings of Jesus, political, cultural, and religious resistance rises.
When the Arab Spring hit in the Middle East, missionaries from our church were pulled into the chaos that resulted from the instability. Missionaries were targeted by extremists and criminals, executed in the streets, and kidnapped by thugs and sold to Al Qaeda. As a minister to missionaries, it was my job at the church where I worked to provide missionary care, prepare reports for pastoral staff, and plan emergency extraction if necessary.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs defines posttraumatic stress disorder as “a mental health problem that some develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.”
Missionaries experience traumatic events they never see coming. Not only do you need to be aware exposure to trauma is a reality, you need to have an emotional and spiritual framework in place for processing trauma and the grief that follows.

If this happens to you on the mission field, you need to be aware of the symptoms that result. You relive the memories of the event, experience mood swings like never before, and your behavior is affected. You might not notice it at first, but those you’re in regular contact with will notice increased agitation and outbursts. Once you become aware, the natural tendency is avoidance and isolation. This causes you to be ineffective as a missionary on the field.
Walking through trauma and the grief that follows creates an indescribable sense of loss. Deep within, you’re looking for something you’ll never have again. This has a tremendous impact on behavior and decision making.

When you become aware of this and you take an honest spiritual inventory of your life, you’ll discover that the Lord has been preparing you your whole life for the trauma you’re walking through right now. But you have to die to your own self-will before you’re in a place to be productive with this information. That’s why Romans 12:1-2 is so crucial:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

One translation says, “…don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by this present age.” In this present age, there is trauma and grief. In the age to come, every tear is wiped away. We have great hope. New Testament theologian N.T. Wright often asks those who listen to his lectures, “How would you live if God were running the show?” The obvious response is, whether we can wrap our minds around it or not, God is running the show.

Here’s the application? Start behaving like it. No matter how you feel, live like God is running things in your life. This is where healing begins.

Here is one of the most succinct, logical ways I’ve ever seen something said about the relationship of feelings to actions:
“Of course, feelings are good and natural allies of willing. Good feelings motivate good willings, and bad feelings motivate bad willings. Good feelings also follow good willings, and bad feelings (guilt, anger, resentment, impotence, fear, self-hatred) follow bad willings. That’s why God gave us feelings; as motivators and as rewards (and punishments).”
-Peter Kreeft, How to be Holy p13

The Lord did not bring you to the mission field to create a situation where you’ll be isolated from others. Trauma has become a significant part of your journey and it creates a deeper well of empathy to draw from as God’s agent of healing and good news. Your own healing from trauma is the byproduct of carrying out the missionary work God has called you to.

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