Paul described God as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). With so many people traumatized, sad, and needing someone to listen to them, those who have received God’s comfort can do much to be agents of healing.
I think society has learned the importance of ministering to people who are emotionally and mentally affected by calamities. Now professional counselors are rushed to places where disasters have taken place. While this is needed, the experts also realize that there is great value in the friendships of laypeople who are known by the affected persons. These are the people who can minister to others in a more natural setting over an extended period of time.
What is most urgent is to give back to affected people, as much as possible, what they regarded as a normal life before the tragedy struck. One of the most important jobs that the expert can do is get people back into their “normal” relationships with their families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It is in those relationships that they will find strength.
Our role in helping traumatized people may simply be one of being with them and listening to them. But the urgency of getting them back to a normal life may often necessitate talking to them as well. Listening alone may not be enough.
Experts have found that some things that are quite normal in ordinary counseling situations should not be done with people who have gone through severe trauma. For example, it’s standard practice in counseling to ask hurting people to talk about their pain and what caused it. But with trauma counseling this should be done only when the person is ready, which may be much later. Talking about the trauma prematurely may trigger emotions that they cannot handle.
Some fairly extreme reactions like intense fear, depression, withdrawal and silence, anger, sleeplessness, shock, nightmares, and crying are normal human responses to tragedy. In most cases, these symptoms will pass with time. We should therefore try to be understanding and reluctant to come to quick judgments about their behavior. Ministering in this way is patterned after the model of Christ, who left heaven, came alongside us, and understood our lives better than we ourselves do.
Following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, my friend Dr. Arul Anketell, who is a medical doctor now ministering fulltime with other people in the medical field, encountered an old man in a refugee camp. He had typical symptoms of a severe heart attack. Arul called another doctor and upon examination they concluded that he was not suffering from a heart attack at all. This man had lost several family members in the tsunami. They talked and prayed with him and soon found that he was not only cleared of his symptoms but was also deeply interested in getting to know about the God to whom the doctors had prayed.
I know of children who are afraid to touch water since the tsunami. I went to a school where a teacher told me that they would like to reopen soon. But the parents didn’t want to send their children to the school because it’s fairly close to the sea, and because they don’t want to be separated from them— even for the brief time they would be in school. Such situations require much understanding and skill.
Even relief workers were in need of comfort. What they experienced was emotionally draining. When I first went to one of the places that was seriously affected by the tsunami, I wanted to weep because of the strong impact it had on me. A colleague went to a similar site shortly after the tsunami hit and was confronted with dead bodies and incredible devastation. It wasn’t long before he had to go to his van so he could weep privately.
Exposure to devastation can profoundly affect our minds and emotions. This calls for sensitivity to the needs of caregivers. They must be given opportunities to share their pain with others and to be exposed to the comfort of the Christian community and to the comfort of God.
I think one of the greatest truths for Christians ministering to wounded people is that when God became a human being, He suffered many of the same things that those who face tragedies suffer. As a child, Jesus narrowly escaped a violent death, and His family had to flee their motherland and be refugees in a strange land. He was rejected by the people He came to help. His earthly father probably died when He was young, and because He had at least four younger brothers and an unknown number of sisters to be supported (Mk. 6:3), He didn’t receive a formal education. This is why the religious authorities regarded Jesus as uneducated (Jn. 7:15). This is a handicap that many children face today if their family encounters tragedy. Jesus knew the pain of being tried and condemned unjustly and executed as a criminal by one of the cruelest methods invented by humankind.
When I was less than 10 years old, something very embarrassing happened to me. In my desperate state, the first words that came to my mind were, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Much later it struck me that I knew these words because they were spoken by God incarnate, Jesus Himself (Mt. 27:46). He went through the pain we go through. This truly is a God with whom suffering humanity can identify.
The greatest need of people is to have a relationship with the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). In our busyness of relief efforts, we must never lose sight of the need people have to receive God’s salvation. We must remember, however, that God never manipulates people into accepting His message. He reasons with people about His way of salvation (Isa. 1:18). We must therefore be careful to ensure that people do not accept Christ simply because they received aid from Christians. They should accept Him because they believe in their hearts and minds that, through Jesus, God has provided the answer to their deepest needs.
Times of disaster provide us with unique opportunities to practice our Christianity. When a disaster strikes, Christians need to ask, “What should I be thinking at this time? And how should I respond to this crisis in a Christian way?”
Other Related Booklets From RBC Ministries:
• When Tragedy Strikes (CB042)
• Why Would A Good God Allow Suffering? (Q0106)
• How Can I Live With My Loss? (CB921)
• How Much Does God Control? (Q0109)
• Where Can We Find Comfort? (Q0303)
• Knowing God Through Job (SB141)