Trauma According to Paul: Resilience in Relationships

PART 2 (Read Part 1 here)

As discussed in Part 1, trauma is very real and has been throughout history. We are equipped for survival in the present, but once the danger is past, it is not always easy to move forward “as usual.” Yet, we read of Paul’s accounts of being beaten, imprisoned, stoned and left for dead, and each time getting up again, going to the next city where the same risk awaited, and again speaking the gospel boldly. He even insisted on going to Jerusalem after being told by multiple sources that it was a dangerous place to go! As he left a group of leaders in Miletus, he reminded them of how he served the Lord,

“with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews… And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:19, 22-24, NASB).

Why did the realistic cause for fear not seem to deter him or in any way incapacitate him? When nearer to Jerusalem, after another prophesy of him being bound and delivered to the Gentiles, his friends begged him not to go.

Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13, NASB).

Like his friends, most of us would try to dissuade someone we cared about from walking directly into a situation where they would likely get unjustly arrested and subjected to who knows what mistreatment. But Paul was at a place where he was convinced that any suffering, even death, was worth living in service to Jesus.

Paul’s Resilience

Some people, especially those who have supportive people around them, a well-grounded faith, and good coping mechanisms, recover to their normal state after enduring trauma, or even grow from the experience. They may show courage, feel challenged, have more determination and readiness to respond, show a desire to help others, and grow deeper in their faith as they learn to depend more on God. Paul was one of those people. He encountered his own weakness, but showed resilience, bouncing back from where he was in conflict and fear. He found comfort through people like Titus and strength in His relationship with Jesus. In the same letter listing his tribulations, Paul described coping in the midst of trials (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, 16-18, NIV):

The Apostle Paul. 1633. Rembrandt.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body… Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul recognizes the reality of earthly struggles, and the toll they take on our bodies. But he sees them from a different perspective, an eternal one. Our time on this earth is minuscule when compared to eternity; likewise, our “troubles” in this sinful world pale in comparison to a promise of permanent participation in the Presence of God (however difficult it is to even imagine). When the tough questions seem to have no clear answers, this perspective is where I find hope.

Preventing PTSD, Nurturing Resilience

Most of us will face some form of trauma or loss in this life. So how do we become people like Paul, with his high capacity to deal with trauma? His resilience is evident and his perspective is inspiring. The fundamental factor is relationships. Our relationship with Jesus is foundational; when learning to consistently draw near to Him on a regular basis (not waiting for calamity to do so), we develop a strong source of sustenance. He invites us to abide in Him (John 15), not just visit Him on Sunday mornings. When Paul went through a period of ongoing torment (a “thorn in the flesh”), rather than erasing the difficulty, God promised that His grace is sufficient, and His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12). Even when our struggles are ongoing, we can find strength in Jesus.

Our relationships with others are also critical. Paul had people around him like Timothy, Barnabas, and Titus who were consistent sources of support. He found encouragement from various people in the churches he had planted (read the greetings at the end of his epistles). He also recognized his own role as a source of comfort to others who faced suffering, not by minimizing their suffering but by sharing it with them, just as Jesus has shared His suffering and His comfort with us (2 Corinthians 1). We’re not called to stoically endure hardship by ourselves; we are called to carry each other’s burdens (which means being willing to share our own burdens).

Research consistently supports the importance of a relationships in recovery from trauma. According to Iacoviello and Charney, a supportive social network is one of the six psychosocial factors that promote resilience.[i] Another is listed in the broad idea of “embracing a personal moral compass,” which includes positive core beliefs, altruistic behavior, faith/spirituality, and purpose in life. These can ultimately be found in Jesus, illustrating the incredibly valuable nature of our relationship with Him. Other factors include optimism, corresponding with Paul’s statement of the joy he found and his encouragement for others to rejoice and “count it all joy,” and cognitive flexibility, as evident in Paul’s eternal perspective to reframe the trials. The remaining two are active coping skills and attending to one’s physical well-being,[ii] which both require intentionality, often well-supplemented by encouragement from others.

Preventing PTSD is not about averting danger or other forms of trauma. It is about becoming equipped to handle the potentially traumatizing circumstances we may encounter. Like Paul, we need to have our priorities straight: putting Jesus first and living for Him. Experiencing His love can then overflow into our relationships with others. We all have plenty of room for growth in these relationships, and often need for healing there as well. But this is an area where we can be proactive. Consider today what you can do to draw nearer to Jesus and improve your relationships with others. Deepening relationships will not only strengthen your resilience to trauma, it will have a positive impact on every part of life!

[i] Iacoviello, B. M., & Charney, D. S. (2014). Psychosocial facets of resilience: Implications for preventing posttrauma psychopathology, treating trauma survivors, and enhancing community resilience. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5, 23970, doi:

[ii] Iacoviello, B. M., & Charney, D. S. (2014). Psychosocial facets of resilience: Implications for preventing posttrauma psychopathology, treating trauma survivors, and enhancing community resilience. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5, 23970, doi:

1 comment

    • Kathy S on February 10, 2020 at 12:26 pm
    • Reply

    Very good discussion of trauma reaction in Paul. It’s also important to note that Paul’s perspective was not as a victim but as a “willing participant “ in what would come his way. One difference between Paul’s trauma and trauma generally experienced by most is that he expected it. Part of the vulnerability to PTSD is the shock to the brain of the unexpected traumatic event. Paul’s understanding of his call and the words of warning from the Holy Spirit and friends was God’s grace in preparing him for trauma. Paul also understood that the hateful violence perpetrated on him was not directed at his person but at his message.
    All these factors played a part in Paul’s reaction to traumatic events.

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