When Your Faith Becomes a Trauma Trigger

Timothy Isaiah Cho
4 min readJan 15, 2021

People who have experienced spiritual abuse have ultimately undergone a traumatic experience with long lasting effects. Many experience symptoms that are parallel to if not identical to what we see in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People may experience trauma triggers that set off their PTSD. These triggers can be anything from sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts that remind a victim of the original traumatic event(s) and bring them back into a state of fear or helplessness. In fact, the study of neuroscience has posited that our brains actually create a lasting imprint of the memories of trauma. Indeed — our bodies keep the score.

From what I’ve gathered from my own experience, conversations I’ve had with other victims, and several studies on the topic of spiritual abuse, it is quite common for spiritual abuse victims to develop trauma triggers that are connected to Christian practices. In other words, their faith can become a trauma trigger. For example:

  1. Someone who has experienced spiritual abuse in a Reformed church context that used theological precisionism as a form of bullying, ostracization, and manipulation may have experience PTSD symptoms by simply hearing people having a theological discussion.
  2. Practices of prayer and daily devotions may trigger trauma for someone who experienced abusive tactics from the hand of a pastor they looked up to for guidance and advice on spiritual formation.
  3. Hearing a certain worship song or hymn being played may trigger someone who was spiritually abused at a church that frequently played that song during Sunday worship.
  4. The way a church leader dresses may remind someone of the way an elder dressed in the church who spread slander and gossip behind their back to make the congregation distrust them and push them out.

As studies in PTSD show, while some of these trauma triggers are obvious, others are incredibly subtle and can go on for years unnoticed. Victims may experience years of spiritual depression and feeling like God is infinitely far away without realizing that it may be because the trauma they experienced made Bible reading and prayer a trigger. They feel helpless or angered suddenly when someone starts talking about the gospel, even though in their hearts they know and love the Lord. They question their intentions and feelings, when all along, it may be trauma triggers that have been connected to practices of their faith.

I think this is exactly who Jesus has in mind when He told His disciples, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). Jesus knew how twisted things could become when the gospel is mishandled by spiritual abusers. The practices and habits that are meant to be means of grace become liturgies of dearth. That which should give life, hope, and peace become twisted to become associated with pain, fear, and hopelessness.

But there is hope for healing. Studies in neuroplasticity show that our brains are able to be wired and rewired throughout our lives. Our brains are dynamic organs that can develop new patterns of thinking, new memories and associations, and new abilities. God has made our brains in such a way that they can bounce back — though not magically and instantly. There is hope for change and healing.

Even more so, a part of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification is to heal us and make us whole again. Though not perfectly in this life, the Holy Spirit can rewire us and reshape us. He can slowly liberate us from the shackles of spiritual abuse so that we can begin to feel the embrace of the Father and the warmth of the light of his face again. Through the people of God, the Holy Spirit can help us walk victoriously though wounded as we bear one another up and bind up each other’s pains.

Finally, in my own life, I am constantly reminded of Wendell Kimbrough’s song “Eternal Weight of Glory” whenever I come to a dark place and can’t seem to get the reminders of spiritual abuse I’ve experienced out of my head and heart. Perhaps it may be of help to you as well.

All our pains will be transfigured,
Like the scars of Christ our Lord.
We will see the weight of glory,
And our broken years restored…

Every year we thought was wasted,
Every night we cried ‘How long?’
All will be a passing moment
in our Savior victory song

If you have experienced spiritual abuse, I highly recommend that you speak to a counselor and/or therapist who is trained to provide you the help and hope you need to heal.