Childhood trauma severely limits one’s imagination of the self and the world, causing victims to define themselves by their past experiences. Central to the healing process is a restructuring of one’s imagination of self and the world. In her book Trauma and Recovery, the psychiatrist Judith Herman describes hope as the final stage of recovery for people who have suffered long-term or complex traumas. She suggests that hope enables a trauma victim to reconnect with ordinary life. When a trauma victim can begin dreaming of an ordinary life, she says, that person is ready to begin reintegrating with community.[1] During this final stage of healing, I believe the Christian imagination can enrich and guide trauma survivors’ journeys, strengthening their identities in view of the kingdom of God and our place in that kingdom as children of God.

In order to understand the potential contribution of the Christian imagination to the trauma recovery process, we must first consider how trauma shatters a victim’s sense of self and the world. Childhood trauma robs victims of their sense of safety in world. The perception that the world is a dangerous place radically alters a child’s sense of self: to protect themselves in an unsafe world, child victims become adult-like, or even parent-like, when they are still children. They innately understand that vulnerability could put them in more danger. To admit their pain could lead to more pain.

The victims’ premature adoption of adulthood often requires taking on responsibility for others even as they are unable to cope with their own struggles. As a consequence of focusing on the problems of others, many child victims never learn healthy ways to manage their own needs and responsibilities. They know how to offer help, but they don’t know how to ask for it. Ironically, this means that as adults, some childhood victims of trauma cope by pretending to be weaker than they are. This is their cry for help, their attempt to get the help in the present that never came in the past.

While childhood trauma victims are developing coping mechanisms to survive in a dangerous world, they are missing out on the playfulness and curiosity that constitute a healthy childhood. Trauma replaces playfulness with seriousness, curiosity with apathy and fear. Victims spend their energies anticipating danger and protecting others instead of playing games and stretching their imagination and dreams. Why explore a world that will only reveal more danger? What is the value in learning when life’s lessons are always difficult? Why take risks when just being one’s true self is risky enough?

Childhood trauma leaves victims anchored in these questions, in a fragmented, guarded view of the world and the self that is difficult to shake. But the Christian imagination offers victims an alternative imagination of world and self that can sustain and kindle the hope required for the final stage of trauma recovery. The Christian imagination offers a vision of a safe world under the care of a protective, attentive God in which they can live into a new identity as God’s children. This God offers a future worthy of hope and a world full of promise

The Christian imagination envisions a world where all of creation is held in the arms of a God who lovingly creates and cares for all things. While humans have responsibilities within the world, the ultimate responsibility for all things rests upon God’s shoulders. God is protector, provider, and caregiver; God is parent to all. As Divine Parent, God hears the cries of God’s children. What’s more, God longs to heal the suffering that causes those cries. The Christian imagination envisions a god who, as the Creator of All, can handle the fullness and strength of a child’s troubles and emotions. God, the Divine Parent, is fully available to love and care for God’s children. God’s children are never an afterthought, a nuisance, or a threat. And notably, the Scriptures reveal that God promises a future of flourishing for all of creation (Heb. 10:23–25)—especially for those who, like trauma survivors, suffer so much.

Within this Christian vision of a safe world overseen by a loving, attentive God, trauma victims can begin to explore a new imagination of self and the world. Rather than casting themselves as lonely protectors or as helpless victims, they can imagine themselves as children—God’s children. When survivors understand themselves as children in a safe world under God’s care, they can begin to reclaim many dimensions of self and community that trauma stole from them.

Karl Barth’s reflections on our identity as children of God further demonstrate how child trauma survivors can begin to live into the world differently with the help of the Christian imagination. In Ethics, Barth writes that as God’s children we are “released from the seriousness of life and can and should simply play before God.” In the peace of God’s house, childhood trauma survivors can know a safety that they never knew as kids. Responsibility for the future is in God’s hand, where, rather than worrying about his or her safety, a child’s sole task is to “be what you are. . . . Live in gratitude. . . . [Y]ou are the child of God [and] you already stand at [God’s] side, triumphing over the contradiction and the limits of your existence.”[2] Survivors can experience childlike play and joy through laughter and creative activity as God’s promise of care elevates, frees, and releases.

Barth expands on our understanding of God’s children at play through his exploration of humor and art. Both humor and art, he suggests, are practices of hope in a context of pain. Humor and art “define human action as something that is done gladly, voluntarily, and cheerfully.” Yet they “would not be what they are if, precisely as joyful action, they were not sustained by an ultimate and very profound pain.” As survivors embrace a new identity as God’s children, they can begin to practice humor and art as responses to their suffering. If Barth is correct, then these practices can help survivors exercise hope for a better future. Indeed, Barth describes humor as “fluid, its antithesis being that which is dry and frozen.”[3] Laughter can be a crack in the ice of a traumatized imagination that has been frozen by past trauma.

Art, like humor, reveals our longing for a different future. Emil Brunner in The Divine Imperative suggests, “Art is always the child longing for something more.”[4] Artistic creation aims to convey the unheard of, to express that which has never been, and to give shape to the impossible. Art gives us a glimpse of that impossibility, and through such glimpses, it can help survivors set their sights toward something far beyond the reality of the world as they know it. This glimpse can change trauma survivors and fuel the hope they need for recovery and abundant living.

The Christian worldview offers trauma survivors resources to imagine themselves as God’s child in a hope-worthy world; in this safe world, they can live into God’s promise of care through practices like humor and art. And yet, this new hope always unfolds in the context of great sadness. A trauma survivor knows pain that is profound in its depth and scope of impact. It is possible—as humor and art may help the trauma survivor see—to complete the trauma recovery stages and to experience great inward change in regard to one’s traumas, but that does not mean the journey of healing is over. Trauma survivors may no longer carry the weight of shame, but they will remember when they once did. They will share themselves with others while still remembering the hurt they once suffered. And so the Christian imagination promises a new vision in the midst of the persistence of the world’s brokenness.[5] Full redemption is not here yet, but amid enduring struggles and pain, the Christian imagination and the practices of humor and art can help trauma victims to begin to see and experience glimpses of the full redemption promised to them. Barth writes that these glimpses of redemption will come not as a “constantly burning light . . . but probably shining forth only like lightning in a dark sky . . . to rejoice in when it is there and not to be surprised when it is not.”[6]

Even when the trauma survivor’s hope seems fleeting, God’s promise for God’s children remains. God’s promise of protection and flourishing persists. Even in the midst of trauma healing, that promise can enable God’s children to play. Laughter and artistic creation can continue as important practices for, and outcomes of, healing. The journey of trauma healing may be long, but God’s promise endures forever.

The theologian John Navone assures us that one day we shall truly see ourselves as we are seen by God, know ourselves as we are known by God, and love ourselves as we are loved by God.[7] One day the darkness, tears, and suffering will end. Yet even now those who have suffered trauma can begin to reimagine their lives with hope through God’s promise and presence. They can claim new identities, not as trauma victims or survivors, but as children of God.

[1] Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992), 155.

[2] Barth, Ethics, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (New York, NY: Seabury, 1981), 504 and 500–1.

[3] Ibid., 506, 507, and 510.

[4] Brunner, Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics, trans. Olive Wyon (London, UK: Lutterworth, 1937), 499.

[5] Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 500.

[6] Barth, Ethics, 503.

[7] Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 18.