In recent years, the world has borne witness to countless heart-wrenching scenes of war and conflict across the globe. The images and stories emerging from war-torn regions, more recently in Gaza, Syria, Sudan and Ukraine, have left us all deeply moved and profoundly affected. These devastating events not only stir emotions in us but also highlight the urgent need to support those who have experienced trauma in war.
Why is this important for us as Christians? Sadly, many of the most affected people groups in the world are also among the most unreached. In our efforts to be salt and light in these areas, we have to face the reality that we will be coming face to face with many people who have been affected by the disarming consequences of war. Others of us will meet survivors in our cities, towns, villages and churches as they seek to take refuge, find safety, build new lives for themselves and their children.
While it’s challenging to stand by and helplessly watch apparently preventable disasters like this unfold, we can make a difference by getting along side people, supporting them, providing compassion and practical assistance and introducing them to the One who makes all the difference to our world. The One who makes all things brand new.
War Trauma: A Silent Battle
War leaves an indelible mark on the lives of those who survive it. The horrors of war can manifest in various forms, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and a myriad of physical and emotional scars. Families are torn apart, homes are destroyed, and communities are left in ruins. Survivors don’t always have the words to describe the myriad of emotions that they are feeling. Grief, anger, shock and trauma can become trapped in their bodies and start to manifest in as other symptoms that may initially appear to be unrelated. Specific symptoms and their severity can vary widely from person to person, but here are some of the more common physical and psychological symptoms that may present:
- Sleep Disturbances Insomnia, nightmares, and night sweats can be prevalent among those with war-related trauma. They may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep due to recurring traumatic memories.
- Hyper-vigilance Individuals may be constantly on edge, feeling hyper-alert to potential threats. This state of hyper-vigilance can lead to chronic stress and physical tension.
- Fatigue Trauma can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, leading to severe fatigue. Individuals may have low energy levels and difficulty concentrating.
- Muscle Tension The stress of war trauma can manifest in physical symptoms such as muscle tension, pain, and headaches.
- Gastrointestinal Distress Stress and anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal issues, including stomachaches, diarrhoea, and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Physical Health Problems Prolonged exposure to traumatic stress can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses and exacerbating pre-existing health conditions.
- Flashbacks War survivors may experience vivid and distressing flashbacks of traumatic events, making them feel as if they are reliving the experience.
- Intrusive Thoughts Intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event can intrude upon daily life, causing distress and anxiety.
- Avoidance Many individuals try to avoid reminders of the traumatic event, including conversations, places, or situations that may trigger memories.
- Emotional Numbness Some people with war trauma may become emotionally numb, finding it challenging to experience joy, love, or any positive emotions.
- Anxiety and Panic Attacks Anxiety is a common symptom, and it can lead to panic attacks characterized by intense fear and physical symptoms such as a racing heart and shortness of breath.
- Depression War-related trauma can trigger symptoms of depression, including persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of hopelessness.
- Difficulty Concentrating Individuals may struggle with focus and memory due to the persistent thoughts and emotions related to the trauma.
- Anger and Irritability Survivors may experience intense anger, irritability, and outbursts of frustration, often as a way to cope with their emotions.
- Social Withdrawal Some may isolate themselves from friends and family, finding it difficult to connect with others or trust people.
- Guilt and Shame Survivor’s guilt is a common feeling, with individuals blaming themselves for what happened or feeling ashamed of their actions or reactions during the war.
Experiencing a combination of these symptoms is a normal response to extreme stress and trauma.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, we urge you to seek professional help from a mental health therapist or counsellor who specialises in trauma.
How We Can Respond as Churches
However, supporting individuals who have experienced trauma from war is something that we can all play our part in. After all, we know the One who offers us ‘a hope and a future,’ the One who knows the way to beauty from ashes, fullness of joy and everlasting life.
Here are some practical things we can all do.
Offer a Safe Haven While we wholeheartedly endorse the need for fully trained professionals to help trauma survivors, churches can also provide a safe and supportive environment for survivors of war. They can open their doors to individuals seeking solace, prayer, or a listening ear. Creating a welcoming atmosphere can be instrumental in helping survivors feel that they are not alone in their journey. Sometimes, it is just good to talk. Informal support groups may also help people to connect with and to help others who have been through similar situations. Helping other survivors may help to rebuild their lives, find a sense of belonging in a community that understands and to discover a new sense of purpose.
Offer Practical Support Find ways to use your churches’ resources and networks to help survivors in your community. Help them to navigate bureaucratic systems or connect them with organisations that can further help when your church’s resources run out. Demonstrating the love of Christ in this way makes a powerful impact. Another meaningful way that you can help your church to engage is to raise awareness, raise funds and raise prayers for war-torn regions in distant lands, especially if those distant lands have representatives in your church or in your local area. Praying for war torn countries in your Sunday gatherings and raising funds to send aid opens hearts and minds to God’s love and compassion, whether that’s the hearts and minds of those inside or the hearts and minds of those outside your local church community.
Offer Truth We have many gifts that we can give to survivors of war and all of our greatest gifts are found in Christ.
Whatever people are going though and have faced, it’s vital that we remind them that war was never in God’s plan. That God doesn’t favour one people over another and that we read in the bible, that God is on the side of the weak, the helpless, the marginalised, the oppressed, the defenceless, the widow, the orphan. To those, he gives special attention. Special mention. He offers to be our refuge, our place of safety, our solid rock, our healer and our guiding light. He promises beauty from ashes. He promises rejoicing in the morning.
And what does God require of us?
“He has told you, mankind, what is good. What does the Lord require from you, except to carry out justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
“For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (1 Corinthians 5: 14-15)
I am reminded of a lady who fled war torn Syria, and while crossing the boarded into a neighbouring country, encountered Jesus along the way. In her words, she lost everything. Her home, her country, her family, her career, her livelihood, but now she feels richer and more blessed than she has ever felt. Although she barely has enough money to get by each day, she wouldn’t trade any of the riches, comforts or security of her former life for the joy and eternal life that she has now found in Jesus.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”. (2 Corinthians 5:18)
God calls us to be people of compassion, to open our hearts, to get close enough to feel and to not be afraid of the things that are on God’s heart and the depth of other people’s pain. To weep with those who weep, and in time, to rejoice with them too (Romans 12:15). We must open our hearts, and in opening our hearts, we can make a way for God’s good news bring peace, hope, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.