Does God inflict us with suffering? Do we deserve our PTSD? If we pray for healing and we are not healed, has God abandoned us? Does it mean God does not exist? Let’s begin an examination on prayer for PTSD healing.
Questions like those above and their variations are often asked by many of us who have survived trauma and/or care about a trauma survivor.
Sometimes these sorts of questions may lead us to misplaced guilt or even rejection of God because we don’t understand what has happened or what it means. And, don’t forget: PTSD wants us to deny God.
MRIs, Computers, and Cars…Oh My!
It may help to frame our spiritual expectations in relation to our mundane, non-spiritual, expectations.
For example, I don’t fully understand the physics of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) exam or the mathematical details of how my computer functions or how turning the key in a car’s ignition will start the engine. Yet, I don’t deny the reality of these things (After a recent MRI I was told I have no brain tumors, so I am especially appreciative of MRI technology just now, even though I have no deep understanding of how it works). When we take something that is paradoxically as simple and simultaneously as complex as God, we often feel as if we should understand every iota of how God works. That is an unrealistic expectation. For an adult, it is an immature expectation.
Just because I don’t understand these processes does not mean I should quit having MRIs, using computers, or driving a car. Wisely, we don’t abandon these things just because we don’t fully and completely understand how they work. Likewise, we ought not to give up on God because God turns out to not be easily understood or as easily manipulated like a key that starts the car’s engine.
With Who or What Do We Choose to Be Patient?
It is odd that we sometimes give machines like MRIs, computers, and cars, more of our willingness and patience to not immediately comprehend their workings than we allow for the mystery of God.
Someone, somewhere, understands all there is to know about current MRI technology. But, except for Jesus of Nazareth, no person on the planet will ever completely know and understand the nature of God. Neither Moses, nor Enoch, nor the Apostles, nor later Christian Mystics ever claimed to fully understand God. None of those mentioned in the last sentence abandoned God because they did not receive something they prayed for; neither should we.
Our prayers are evidence of our relationship with God, they are not supposed to be our transactions with God.
We continue to strive to learn more about God, but it is foolish to think we understand God 100% or can compel God to particular actions. Indeed, theologically, to think we can compel God to a particular action is a form of heresy.
Wounded Bodies and Wounded Relationships
If I break my leg, I will need medical attention and probably physical therapy (assuming the insurance industry allows me to receive care). Mending a broken leg and attempting to bring it back to full strength is a time-consuming process; sometimes, the leg never fully heals (trust me, I know…ouch!). While I may follow the instructions of my doctor and my physical therapist, I may still not fully recover; even if I pray for rapid recovery. But, my prayer was not “denied” or “ignored,” it still has meaning and value.
If I suffered abuse from a spouse, sibling, parent, priest, or at the hands of an absolute stranger, it is legitimate to petition God for healing. The damage from such abuse is often both physical and spiritual.
Short of amputations or visible scars the spiritual wounds will last longer than the physical wounds.
We may need to seek out a counselor, a pastor, or a trusted friend. And, we would benefit from seeking God.
Unanswered Prayers Have Value and Worth
Whether we seek to call it a friendly conversation, psychotherapy, counseling, or prayer, we recognize that spiritual wounds can take longer to heal. Again, we may feel that our prayer has not been answered because we did not get exactly what we asked to receive. The reality, however, is that while the petitionary prayer may not have been immediately answered in the way we sought it was still an effective prayer.
Yikes! Is There Benefit in Unanswered Prayer? Yikes! How is it that I can say that a prayer that has not been answered in the way we want is still an effective prayer? It is still an effective prayer for an important reason: In every prayer we continue to deepen our relationship with God, and in this sense, in our particular experience or circumstance of surviving and healing from PTSD. If we pray we risk having a fuller experience of God.
Beware Gumball Theology
We need to be careful of “Gumball Theology” where we think we can manipulate God as if we placed a quarter in a gumball machine, turn the crank, and expect an assured result. Alas, God does not do gumballs (remember, you heard it here first!). We cannot force God to do things for us with a mechanical expectation. Saying so many prayers, or doing so many good deeds, cannot force God to act. God is not a dog we train to obey our commands and signals.
Gumball Theology is the prayer level of a 12-year-old child. The child thinks God is Santa Claus and if you just does X, Y, and Z, then he will receive a candy cane in his stocking and not a lump of coal. Viewing God as the great Santa Claus is fine for a 12-year-old child as their faith and spiritual maturity are at an early stage. But an adult is supposed to know that we cannot bribe or coerce God into particular actions. God does not obediently bark when we whistle.
Beware the Invisible Asterisk
It is right and just for us to present petitionary prayer to God. Yet, we need to make sure that there is not an invisible asterisk attached to our prayer that seeks to demand of God a mechanical response to something we have done. Honest, humble, prayer does not come with an asterisk. It comes with an ever deepening love and appreciation of the divine reality that is God.
What we need to remember here is that:
Our actions and omissions matter, but they do not compel God to act as we request or demand.
Willing to Allow God be God?
Mainstream Christianity understands God as a mystery, an ultimate reality that we will never fully understand. Even though I am a professional theologian who gets paid (peanuts) to study and teach theology, I will still never in my lifetime plumb the depths of the beauty and reality that is God. If I am honest about that I accept that while I may enjoy the beatific vision in heaven, I will never exhaust the fount of wondrous being that is God.
The Suffering Jesus as Exemplar
Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to pass him by. It did not. He was crucified. It hurt, a lot.
Early Christian prayed for deliverance from persecutions, yet many were martyred. We can legitimately pray for our own suffering to pass us by. We can legitimately pray for God to heal others and eliminate their suffering. But, we are wrong to demand it or expect God to respond like a gumball machine. Are we willing, like the early martyrs, to be a witness to the love and completeness of God?
Each of our prayers, whether petitionary where we ask for something, or prayers of thanksgiving where we are grateful for God’s redemption of us and love for us, or for any other reason are a deepening of our relationship with God. This is always a good thing. We may feel a prayer to be unanswered, but if we were honest and sincere in our prayer, then it has value.
Maturing from Spiritual Child to Spiritual Adult
As children we sometimes “loved” our parents because they gave us good things. Later we loved them for who and what they are, we love them for the relationship we have: We loved them for their love.
Similarly, a twelve year old child may “love” God based on the Santa Claus effect. Later, in maturity we seek to grow where we love God for God’s beauty, redemption, and relationship. Our spirituality does not grow from zero to 100% in an instant; it is a maturing process (see 1 Peter 2:2 and 1 Cor 3:2).
God is Eternal Beauty, Not a Gumball Machine
We will begin a deeper healing of our PTSD soul wounds when entrust ourselves to experience God as ultimate being and beauty and not as a candy-spewing gumball machine. The more we learn of God the more we love God: Why? For, God is Love (1 John 4:8). The possibility of mundane healing is always there for us and it is fine to desire it, but the deep healing of our PTSD soul wounds comes from the depths and limitless grace of realizing that God is Love and that God loves us, even me, even you.
God’s love is another reason we all have value.
(As time and health permit I will explore the issues of theodicy, prayer, love, and grace in future PTSD Spirituality essays. I will also pursue the reality of “redemptive suffering,” that not all suffering is meaningless, it can help us and others to grow…even though God does cause the suffering.
On another note: To those who have been praying for my physical health and well-being I am extremely grateful.)
Semper Pax, Dr. Z