A Biblical Counseling View of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Posttraumatic Growth Development (PTGD) as it is presented in the Life of the Apostle Paul

     On one hand, many know about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it is described in the DSM-IV-TR. For instance, the shell shock experiences of returning World War II veterans support such conclusions. On the other hand, many do not realize that Posttraumatic Growth Development (PTGD) exists as well. For instance, the growing body of research at UNC-Charlotte and the University of Pennsylvania undergirds the accuracy of the idea of PTGD. Even so, it is remarkable that the Apostle Paul in A.D. 56, while writing his second epistle to the Corinthians, graphically describes both conditions from a theological perspective.    

     Paul outlines for us a biblical description of PTSD in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 where he writes as the ESV translates it, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”  The notes that follow highlight the picturesque language that is used in the Greek New Testament here:

1. Affliction = thlipsis = “extreme pressure” (sounds like stress to me)

2.  so beyond our strength = normal coping skills don’t work

 3. utterly burdened = “weighted down” like a ballast in a ship (overwhelmed)

 4. that we despaired of life itself = despaired means “without a way” (the tunnel vision of feeling hopeless, hapless and helpless)

 5. Indeed (emphatic, we felt = the puzzling “ourselves in ourselves”, which certainly describes “powerful emotions” (resounding terror)

 6. we have received (perfect tense) “he continues to feel it” (quite graphic! Still ringing in his ears!)

 7. the sentence of death = the sentence of the death (graphic and particular)

Remember this is the Apostle Paul experiencing these extreme reactions and he already wrote 1 Corinthians 10:13 yet still is pushed beyond his limits . . . why would we expect anything different in our own lives or in the lives of those we counsel?

The biblical good news here is that this posttraumatic stress disorder of Paul’s life turns into posttraumatic growth in Christ by the power of God. Here is a short list of those areas that brought him healing under the banner of God’s almighty power and love:

1. He focused on his outward call to help people like the Corinthians instead of cocooning to a position of isolation from others (Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:6, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. “)

2. He focused on sharing the transparency of his emotional-psychological responses through the trauma but not disclosing the specificity of the gory details (It still baffles biblical scholars as to what Paul is referring to here. Perhaps, this is a good thing because we tend to fixate on details rather than finding out what is the best way to deal with trauma.)

3. Focused vertically toward God and not horizontally toward the trauma. (Again he does not delve into the account of the horrors rather he states his theological conviction in 2 Corinthians 1:9 as to why this happened to him “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God . . . “)

 4. Focused on theological answers instead of psychological ones. (He doesn’t say “Boy, I found great psychological closure here” but even better applies sound, biblical theology to his situation when he adds, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Closure comes when we take joy in the ultimate promises of God that they all find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ our Lord as 2 Corinthians 1:20 declares.)

 5. Focused on future deliverance thoughts knowing the God was sovereign being the Bishop and Guardian of his soul (see 2 Corinthians 1:9-11).

Although there is much to exegete further from this text, it is plain that Paul went through a transformative spiritual process after his traumatic episode.

      Therefore, the biblical record bears witness to both types of conditions. It presents a realistic picture of PTSD as well as provides the hope of PTGD. The question emerges from such a bible study, “How do we help people move through the rough process of PTSD to a robust pasture of PTGD as biblical counselors?”  Those answers must wait another post but for sure the biblical text of 2 Corinthians offers plenty of beautiful gems of holy, healing and hope-filled wisdom in that regard.

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