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Is Trauma Ever a Good Thing?
On the redemption of our suffering and the courage to tell the truth
“You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good” Genesis 50:20 MSG
“More is gained in the Resurrection than is lost in the Fall.” Bishop Ken Ross
I bolt awake. The light is dull. I know it must be early. I roll over and look at my phone. 4:24 am. The nightmare that terrified me out of sleep still pulses inside my body. I am there, still in the dream, and not yet here. I’ll spare you the details of my subconscious horror. I know it’s not real but reality has done little to chase away its terror.
I take deep breaths.
I’m not falling back asleep anytime soon, I think.
I remember that my Crossfit box holds a class at 5 am. I ease out of bed and dress and head out the door. And once there, in the sweat and agony of the work out, I find the nightmare gets worked out of my body. After the class, I feel more grounded, alive, and excited for my day. The sun and the birds perform their early morning stage show. What a night and day difference. And I never would have worked out today had a nightmare not bolted me awake. What had started so awful, even haunted with evil, put me in a place to do something to care for my body and being. And now the day had been made good.
I read a story not too long ago about a woman whose husband cheated on her—sadly, not an uncommon story. I normally don’t read these kinds of stories to avoid making clickbait of people’s trauma. But the title got me to read, which was a direct quote from the wife taken from the article. “This affair turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to our marriage.”
Wait, what? I cringed. She just called her husband’s sexual betrayal a good thing—even the best thing. We are warned about this in the Bible, not to call evil good. And it struck me: She’s conflating trauma with the hard work she and her husband did to heal it. Those two things are not the same. And that is actually what the article is about, all the hard work they did to heal and grow as people.
I do believe God redeems pain, as hard as it is some days to believe it. The story goes that somehow in the end, he heals our trauma and wounding and loss. Man, I am looking forward to Jesus actually wiping away every tear because I have a lot to shed when I see him. And even now, we get to experience tastes, even feasts, of healing and redemption of pain. But not fully. Paul seems to know this tension when he writes in Romans 8 that “all things work for good” and yet acknowledges we still long for this redemption “with groaning too deep for words.”
But the redemption of God does not preclude us from naming the harm. In many ways, to name the awful things in our own story and life is the very thing we are called to do. Listen to Isaiah’s warning in full text:“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). Literally, do not sugar coat things. When we are honest about our trauma, we make room for the power of God’s redemption and healing. You cannot heal what you haven’t named. You cannot forgive what you haven’t named. You cannot break free from what you haven’t named.
The story of Joseph stands as a profound example of this. His jealous brothers capture him to murder him. He begs them to stop. At the mercy of one brother and the happenstance of a passing caravan of traders, they decide to traffic him as a slave instead. He faces a sexual assault attempt, years of false imprisonment, threat of death, and an enduring estrangement from his family. Its brutal. I cannot even fathom the trauma.
Miraculously, he survives it all and even more he rises to power for his integrity. The hand of God sews good amidst his suffering. So much so that he becomes second in command, ruling over a nation and preventing mass starvation during a famine.
And here, due to the famine, he sees his brothers again face to face. His trauma is so great that he can’t contain the pain. He leaves the room to weep. Surely he missed them so much. And yet, I have to imagine he was overwhelmed, too, with the traumatic flashback to the day they terrorized him. These are deep wounds.
He plays them for awhile to really find out what is in their hearts. But after he finally reveals himself to them, this is how he tells his story. It’s this Joseph that says, “What was intended for evil, God has made for good.”
Read that slowly. Here is what he is not saying, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Nope. He says it was evil at its heart. No covering up the truth. But God has redeemed it. God has brought much good from it. That is not Joseph (or God) calling it good.
Good came from it because God moved on Joseph’s behalf. And Joseph clung to God in the midst of overwhelming suffering. That’s the good. It’s what came of it. Not what it is at its core.
I do not believe trauma is ever a good thing. But here’s the wild truth: While facts of our stories don’t change, the meaning of a story can change. What we once held as pure trauma can be a chapter in a larger story of redemption. Indeed, that is God’s promise.
You never have to say that what happened to you was a good thing. Don’t conflate the hard work and the faithfulness of God to redeem stories with the fallenness and evil that brought so much pain and suffering. This is how God redeems trauma, not by some masochistic mind trick. But by shaping the meaning differently.
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Soon, I get to share with you about a book I’ve been writing The Sex Talk You Never Got, which releases next June 11. I’ll tell you all about it and give you previews. Stay tuned!
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