Does Childhood Trauma Affect Our Relationship With God?

Does Childhood Trauma Affect Our Relationship With God?

On April 20, 2019, I started posting information about Adverse Childhood Experiences on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram.

On March 22, 2020, I started adding posts centered on Bible verses which I found meaningful, helpful, and insightful to my personal and spiritual life. I saw it as an addition to what I was doing, not a pivot to something new.

Then, on August 17, 2020, I started adding some thoughts to each of the Bible-centered posts. Most of them made only implicit reference to the verse, but each of them addressed what I thought was a practical application of the verse. I had hoped that my daily posts were (and still are) inspirational and helpful.

And then a good friend asked me not long ago why I was mixing both “secular” and “sacred” on my social media. It was a good question and came in response to my lamenting that I wasn’t receiving quite the traction in my business which I had hoped for in 2020 (COVID not withstanding).

He said, “Donald Miller [of the StoryBrand framework] makes a good point — ‘if you confuse, you lose’ and that may be the case for you in 2020. Don't get me wrong, I support your doing what you believe in... but I also see a mixed message when I see your posts about faith and biblical references and then see your posts about trauma-informed leadership.”

Yeah. He was right. Good point.

And then I thought about what another good friend often said about me when we worked together, “You’re just a little bit different.” 

Maybe I am different. Maybe I don’t hold to the conventional wisdom of how social media is supposed to work. Maybe I don’t write blog articles the way they should be written. Maybe I’m not growing my business the right way because I continue to send mixed messages. Maybe I won’t be successful. 

Then again, maybe I need to lean in harder and be more explicit in the connection that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and childhood trauma.

Maybe I need to focus not only on our physical and mental well-being, but also on our spiritual well-being. These conversations and thoughts happened around the same time the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health electronically published on November 28, 2020, the article “Childhood Trauma and Experience in Close Relationships Are Associated with the God Image: Does Religiosity Make a Difference?” 

Now when it comes to reading scholarly journal articles, I will wholeheartedly agree: I am a little bit different. I really enjoy the research of finding the articles and then spending the time reading them. 

While I don’t need scientific evidence to tell me that trauma can impact a person’s spiritual life, I did find the conclusions by the authors to be informative in our discussion of the impact of ACEs and childhood trauma. 

For this discussion, I don’t think your religious beliefs or preferences really matter. What does matter is that we understand that each of us has an image of God in our mind.

We may be hard pressed to describe Him physically, but we can describe how we see Him emotionally based on how we believe He acts (or doesn’t act). As I share with you some of the multiple authors’ insights from the journal article, I would like you to think about what you know about physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

Then think about how human relationships, especially with a father or father-figure, are affected and see if you agree with the authors’ conclusions when it comes to a person’s worship of, relationship with, or picture of God.

  • “[Sexual abuse victims] were less likely to feel loved and accepted by God. Furthermore, the survivors described God using negative attributes (e.g., wrathful, judgmental, uncaring) and reported negative feelings and difficulty in accepting God’s love and kindness.
  • “We found that both the religious and nonreligious respondents who experienced any kind of childhood trauma were less likely to describe God as loving, always present and forgiving. Similarly, those who reported anxiety or avoidance in a close relationship were less likely to describe God as forgiving or just. Furthermore, the nonreligious respondents who experienced a childhood trauma were less likely to report God as absolute or fatherly and more likely to describe God as critical.”
  • “In line with the findings of other authors, it may be assumed that survivors of a childhood trauma experience a negative self-perception, feelings of shame and being unworthy and that they transmit their negative feelings to a spiritual dimension. The victims’ sense of being loved and accepted by God can be disrupted, and they can have difficulty in believing in God’s love. Furthermore, they may question God’s power and justice and underreport God as absolute or just.”

 There are other worthwhile findings in the article, and I encourage you to read it if you are interested in such things. 

Why am I sharing these findings and ideas in my weekly blog? 

For two reasons: First, ACEs and childhood trauma have a complete and total impact on every aspect of our life. If we only look at the physical, we discount the mental and spiritual. If we only address the mental, then we minimize the physical and spiritual. If we only address the spiritual, then we negate the complete person who, for those who believe, were created and made in the image of God. 

Second, when you meet someone, when you work with someone, or when you attend religious services with someone, unless you have developed a personal relationship you may have no idea the struggles your friend, co-worker, or fellow congregant is dealing with.

You don’t have to have faith in God to have faith that all people should be treated with respect. People who suffer with illnesses and find release and peace from the abuse of substances, people who don’t work well with others in a business or social environment, or people who never find happiness in personal relationships because they feel unworthy, unloved, or undervalued are the people most in need of what you can offer! Because you are trauma informed, you have insights that only a few have.

Because you are interested in and seeking to be a trauma-informed leader, you are in a position to lead when others simply follow the same old paradigms. You have the ability to sit with people and listen to their concerns or to sit in silence and offer a comforting presence.

And, if you believe in God, you can show them a God who does care for them, who loves them, and who wants a relationship with them. In fact, you may be the person whom God has sent to them in their time of need. 

Today, I would like to close with words from the prophet Jeremiah: “I called on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.” You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.” (Lamentations 3:55-57, NIV).