Hope in the Face of Trauma
Rev. Dr. Paul Suich
Romans 5:1-5 (The Message)
By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.
There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!
I have a mug on my desk with a picture of a dumpster on fire. Above the dumpster are the words, “It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine. 2020.” But it isn’t fine. A year and half later, as we approach 700,000 deaths from COVID-19, with high levels of evictions and unemployment, and ongoing necessities of getting vaccines, wearing masks, quarantines, and social distancing, everything is not fine.
What I hope…
Take a moment and finish this sentence: Today, I really hope that…
Your list probably has many different hopes. Perhaps you hope that things will go back to the way they were in 2019. Perhaps you hope that we move forward as a nation from injustice to consideration for the humanity of all people or that our nation will recover its awareness of its values and roots. You might well have hoped for the recovery of a loved one who was exposed to or has COVID-19. Perhaps your hope is that your family will be able to cope with a death, unemployment, or depression that have resulted from the pandemic.
Different Kinds of Hope
Hope comes in many flavors. Julie Neraas1 has written about seven kinds of hope (Inborn, Chosen, Borrowed, Bargainer’s, Unrealistic, False, and Mature). Some things that we hope for are transient—we think of them today, but we quickly move on—I hope that it doesn’t rain today. Many of the things that we hope for are well out of our control—I hope that the pandemic ends soon. Some of the things we hope for are actually our wishes—I hope that nothing bad will happen. But some things that we hope for have a basis in reality. As Christians, we have a hope in the future that is based in the character of God. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he says that (we do) “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Because our hope is based on the ongoing love of God for us, because our hope is based on the person of Jesus Christ, we know that God’s good purposes will win out, even if we do not live to see the end of the story. We do grieve, we do hurt, but we do not lose heart because, “We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide-open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise (Romans 5:3).”
So how do we maintain hope in the face of the trauma that has been thrust upon us? Many of the structures of our lives, the things that we have counted on, are under threat. If a family member has died, you have been indelibly impacted. We may sense that morality is unraveling, democracy is being threatened, or the path to justice is being swept away. On what basis do we hope?
If our hope is rooted and grounded in God, our hope is based on a track record of grace and resurrection. Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds of the air, but his care for us is much greater. If our ultimate hope is based on the role of morality in society, then we will be on quite the roller coaster ride. If our hope is based on the preservation of our federal-democracy, then we will be on quite the roller coaster ride. If our hope is based on God’s completing the good work that he began in us, then there will be unexpected events, even tragic ones, but we will find that God is with us, God is for us, and there is no way to separate us from God’s love. If our hope is based on God’s shepherding his people in the visible church, then imperfect people will let us down at times, but we will find grace, acceptance, and encouragement that help us remember the basis of our hope.
Depression and Hope
This year has seen a radical increase in the amount and intensity of depression experienced by children, adolescents, and young adults in particular.2 Cut off from interactions with friends, positive rituals, and meaningful achievements, and putting all of our eggs into the basket of the family, there has been a 30% increase in burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The hallmarks of depression include negativistic thinking about the future and about one’s self-worth. If you have been increasingly negative and pessimistic about the future and come to see yourself as having no or little value to others, if you have had sleep disturbances, motivational problems, and especially if you have thought of taking your own life, then PLEASE, by all means, talk to your doctor, a mental health therapist, or a suicide hotline. Untreated depression can be a lethal disease. We have a counseling ministry at First Presbyterian Church with trained mental health professionals who are Christians.
Moving Back Into Hope
Moving from depression to hopefulness will take some time, but much progress can be made in the course of a few months. Recovery will entail some personal work—taking stock of habits of thinking, physical health and activity, and sleep, some relational work—seeking support with boundaries and repairing relationships, and spiritual work—reconnecting with God as the source of hope. This will feel most daunting while you are depressed, but there are many, many people who have done this work successfully and have recovered habits of hope and healthy responses to trauma.
You may not be one of the people who have become depressed (men rarely admit this anyway), but we all need to be challenged to find were we have been placing our hope. So take some time to do some hope-work. Journal, pray, talk with a friend or small group of friends, use your artistic expression—find a way to explore what you hope for and where God is in that hope. As you explore what you hope for, take note of the different kinds of hope (Transient, Out of My Control, Wishful Thinking, Based in God’s Goodness) that you have and the kinds of which you have little. Do you have a wide variety? Have you discovered that you have closed your heart off from pain by limiting your hopes? Perhaps this is a time when you can get creative and explore new hopes that are based in the goodness and character of God. As you share what you learn with friends and family, may you become strong in hope with an alert expectancy of good, even in the face of great difficulties.
1 Check out his article on different kinds of hope at PsychCentral https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-7-kinds-of-hope#2
2 Check out the American Psychological Association’s 2020 “Stress in America” survey at https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/stress-mental-health-crisis or this article from February, 2021 on “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
Rev. Dr. Paul Suich
Dr. Suich has served as the head of the St. Andrew Ministry here at FPC Lakeland since June 2001. He came here from Augusta, Georgia, where he led the counseling ministry for ten years at FPC Augusta and had worked in community mental health prior to that. He attended the Psychological Studies Institute and Georgia State, earning a Master’s in Christian Counseling, the University of Georgia where he earned a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology, and Asbury Seminary where he earned his Master of Divinity. He grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and attended Davidson College, a Presbyterian affiliated school in North Carolina. He and his wife Cynthia (also a professional counselor) have two sons, two daughters-in-law, and one grandchild. His hobbies include photography, genealogy, gardening, and woodworking.