What the Bible has to say about PTSD

I have a heart for warriors. Anyone that knows me has probably seen my soft spot for the men and women who have put their life on the line to defend our country. So, when I see my friends suffering as a result of their combat experience, it breaks my heart. I am not a mental health expert. If you’re struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), go get professional help.

However, this blog is my attempt to offer some biblical advice to people who are struggling with what they have experienced in combat. This blog today is by no means meant to be comprehensive. Here are some of the key areas in which I’ve seen warriors struggle most often as a result of emotional or psychological trauma of combat.

I have been asked so many times about combat related stress that this blog is my attempt to try to answer some of those questions.  I’m no expert in combat-related disorders, but I’ve been in several firefights in my life.  I also have had the privilege of counseling more than a few warriors and their families who have struggled as a result of combat. 

As a Bible teacher and pastor, I’ve been asked many times to give some biblical advice to people struggling with combat stress.  The Bible doesn’t use the words Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Look as hard as you want; you won’t find it in the Bible.  Even though this modern phrase doesn’t show up in the Bible, there are some ideas in the Bible that are relevant to the symptoms for what we call PTSD today.

The rest of this blog is my attempt to offer some biblical passages that might be helpful to someone who is personally struggling as a result of his or her combat experiences.  Here are some common symptoms that people who are dealing with PTSD experience and a relevant Bible passage to help them work through these problems. 

Again, if you’re experiencing difficulty in any one of these areas, don’t go through this alone.  Get professional help from the Veteran’s Administration or from a licensed counselor.  These are some Bible promises to remind yourself of while you work through these issues with the help of a trained expert.

Memory loss

God sometimes uses the memory- even of a very traumatic event- to help his people remember his miraculous rescue. This is what happened in the book of Esther.  Esther 9:28 These days are remembered and celebrated by every generation, family, province, and city, so that these days of Purim will not lose their significance in Jewish life and their memory will not fade from their descendants.[1]   However, there are times that God allows a memory to fade because it is so painful.

I’m not sure what kind of memory loss you might be facing.  Maybe your subconscious has blocked out the memory of the trauma so that you don’t have to re-live it.  Maybe you’ve lost some memory of key events- good events- in your life.  This is an area that will require some professional help, if you want to get those memories back.  However, there is also the option that you go forward with a new life- one unencumbered by the past.

Persistent negative beliefs

No one is perfect.  All of us have made mistakes in the past.  Some of us have made major mistakes that we wish we could go back and undo.  Therefore, it’s common to have some negative beliefs about ourselves, if you only dwell on your mistakes.  The challenge is not to let the mistakes be the only thing that defines your worth as a human being. 

I think this was one of the reasons why the Bible encourages people to deliberately think about good things when these persistent negative beliefs happen.  Philippians 4:8 says, Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.

Notice this is a conscious decision made daily.  Rather than getting out of bed thinking about all your mistakes and failures or the pain others have caused you, get up tomorrow and force your mind to think about better things.  The idea here is replacing the negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

Self-blame

If you’ve made some big mistakes in life- like we all have- it’s natural to blame yourself for the circumstances in your life.  Maybe there’s a degree of truth to this.  Chances are, it’s only part of the reason why your life is going the way it is right now.  We should have a healthy degree of responsible and a realistic self-evaluation.  Rarely is one person solely responsibility for a combat-related incident.  The United States doesn’t send lone rangers off to war.  They are always part of a team. That means there is always more than one person involved in a combat situation.

Take responsibility for your actions or the decisions that you made in combat, but don’t let those responsibilities become overwhelming to you.  You can’t undo what happened in combat. The best you can do is learn to deal with the consequences in a healthy, God-honoring way.

Here’s what Colossians 1:22-23 says:  But now he (Jesus) has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him—23 if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel that you heard.  If Jesus has taken the blame for your mistakes and failures and paid completely for them on the cross with his life, why are you still trying to take the blame also?  This is double-jeopardy, and God doesn’t punish two people for the same crime.

Persistent fear

You weren’t made to live in fear.  That’s not God’s plan for your life.  Fear is one of the results of human sin in our world.  Jesus wanted to help people who were dealing with fear- especially the fear of other people.  He said this to his followers in Matthew 10:28- Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Basically, Jesus was saying, once you have settled your account of your sin with God through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, you have no one else to fear.  Think about it this way: if God, the perfect judge, doesn’t hold anything against you because you’ve been made clean by Jesus Christ, what can an imperfect human judge do to you?

Detachment

Christians are supposed to live in this world but not fall in love with this world.  The old saying is that we are “in the world but not of this world”.  This saying comes directly from 1 John 2:15.  Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

To a degree, it’s healthy for God’s people to have a bit of detachment from this natural world in which we live.  This is our way of remembering that we are destined for a different world- a world where God is king, and we will live in his presence forever.  However, people can take this detachment too far.  I think the monks did this centuries ago. They tried to completely avoid this world.  The challenge is to live in this world without becoming too attached to it.  This is a challenge that I still struggle with and most Christians I know struggle with. So, don’t get down on yourself if you’re still struggling with this also.

Aggressive behavior

Aggression can often be an indication of someone trying to control his or her environment.  Although warriors are trained to be aggressive to accomplish their military mission, when someone carries that same aggression home with them after returning from combat, it can be an attempt at control.  

It’s natural for people who don’t have a relationship with Christ to live this way.  In fact, Colossians 1:21 describes all non-Christians as hostile in their minds and occasionally in their actions.   Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds expressed in your evil actions.  Christians, however, have been changed on the inside.  This internal change makes it possible for them to live at peace, even when the world doesn’t go the way they want it to.  The next time you feel the need for aggression starting to rise up inside you, ask yourself if you’re just being selfish and trying to use force to get your way.

Self-destructive behavior

Self-destructive behavior is often an indication of someone who doesn’t like who they are on this inside.  This type of behavior is almost always an indicator that something needs to change inside you.  People often take this poor self-esteem out physically.  In other words, they do something physically to demonstrate how much they don’t like who they are on the inside. 

One of the greatest leaders in the New Testament refused to let his physical body hold him back from being the man that God called and created him to be.  He described this incredible self-control in 1 Corinthians 9:27.  Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

The answer to self-destructive behavior is self-control. -self-control that comes from an internal change brought on by the Holy Spirit.  Turn to him, and ask him to change who you are on the inside.  Eventually, this change will affect your behavior also.

Hypervigilance

Some people return from combat with a heightened sense of alert.  This is natural because it was their vigilance that made them successful on the battlefield.  It is also natural for a warrior to take a while to lose this sense of hypervigilance. Therefore, I usually suggest that it’s not bad to be on a heightened sense of alert after returning from combat.  

Did you know that the Bible honors people that are highly alert to what is going on around them?  In fact, the Bible commands God’s people to be intensely aware of what’s happening inside them.  Proverbs 4:23 says that we should be hypervigilant about the condition of our heart. Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.  Don’t worry about hypervigilance.  I recommend directing that attention to the condition of your heart, not just the environment around you.

Startle response

Just like hypervigilance, the startle response is how the human body reacts to noises of combat.  I still jump on occasion when a gun goes off near me unexpectedly. This is not a bad condition.  In fact, it can be your body’s way of saying that you’ve been through something very traumatic and the results of that trauma don’t go away quickly.

Rather than thinking there is something wrong with you for jumping when you hear a car backfire or when someone slams a metal lid, remind yourself that these are the natural results of gunshots or explosions in combat.  The greater problem is when people are jumpy for no reason. As Job 15:24 describes, Trouble and distress terrify him, overwhelming him like a king prepared for battle.

Problems concentrating

This is a psychological result of the strain war puts on the mind. Trouble concentrating might be a sign that you need to get help from a licensed professional.  I pray that you will be able to deal with the lingering effects of combat until you are able to concentrate like Psalms 2:1-2 describes. My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, listening closely to wisdom and directing your heart to understanding.

Difficulty falling asleep

Daniel 2:1 describes a time when the most powerful king on earth was so plagued with his thoughts that he couldn’t sleep.  In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams that troubled him, and sleep deserted him.  Think about it this way: if the richest and most powerful king on earth didn’t have the money or the power to rest peacefully at night, then maybe it’s okay that you can’t sleep soundly after going through the trauma of combat.

Mental health professionals can prescribe something that will help you sleep better at night.  Don’t get hooked on the medicine, though!  It’s okay to take some medicine to help you rest, but the medicine can’t make the problems that are keeping you from sleeping at night go away.  Dealing with those problems is usually hard work.  Do the hard work with a counselor, and I believe you can get to the point that sleep will come naturally.  

Nightmares

Sometimes warriors can’t sleep at night because they know they will face nightmares if they do fall asleep. In other words, it’s not the lack of sleep that is a problem.  Rather, it’s the dreams that they will have to face when they fall asleep that is the problem.

This was true of warriors in the Old Testament who knew they were about to be defeated by a leader of God’s army in Judges 7:13-14.When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling his friend about a dream. He said, “Listen, I had a dream: a loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp, struck a tent, and it fell. The loaf turned the tent upside down so that it collapsed.” 14 His friend answered: “This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has handed the entire Midianite camp over to him.”

Nightmares may be one of the most common issues that a warrior faces after returning from combat. Many times, I’ve been asked how to make the bad dreams go away.  I tell warriors that you can’t make the dreams go away.  The only way to make them go away is to never go through the experience that has left them with the bad dreams in the first place.  This is your mind’s way of dealing with the terrible things that you saw or did in combat. 

These dreams may never go away totally, but in almost every case, they do start to happen with less frequency.  I have found that the better able a warrior is to face the consequences of what happened in combat, the less severe and the less frequent the nightmares.  So, my advice to you is face while you’re awake what happened in combat, and you might not have to face it while you’re asleep nearly as often.

Emotional numbness[2]

The final issue that I want to discuss is emotional numbness.  This loss of feeling emotions is usually a necessary survival mechanism on the battlefield.  Warriors are incredibly good at reacting to a traumatic situation without experiencing the emotion that would normally go along with the event.  This ability can be the very reason why they were able to survive a terrible incident in war. 

If they were to process the emotions of the event in combat while it was happening, this would often be so overwhelming that they would be incapacitated by the emotions of the circumstances.  Usually, the emotions catch back up with the warrior later that night after the big incident is over.  And while laying on their cot at night, they “feel” for the first time what happened to them several hours earlier.

Some warriors get so scared of the emotions of the event that they are unable to bring themselves to deal with them.  If this is you, I recommend you consult a professional to help you get through these emotions in a controlled environment. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to deal with the emotions of a terrible event.  What would be wrong is never dealing with those emotions.  In fact, God describes a person who gets stuck emotionally in Romans 11:8 as a spirit of stupor, eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear.  If you’re stuck in this spirit of stupor, get professional help.

I have written a brief description of Bible passages that might help you if you’re struggling with the lingering results of a combat experience.   In truth, each one of these symptoms deserves specific attention in its own blog.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to give to each one of these areas. 

If you’re struggling with any issue in the blog, I recommend that you get help from a trained professional.  At the same time, I pray that this blog will give you some things to think about while you’re working through these issues.

Finally, let me thank you for your combat service.  If you didn’t serve our country, you wouldn’t be experiencing these problems.  However, if you didn’t serve our country, we wouldn’t be the free nation that we are today.  For centuries, warriors have borne the scars that the rest of the general population have not had to deal with.  They have done this with grace for the sake of their countrymen and women.  Thank you for bearing these scars for our freedom!


[1] All passages are from the Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.

[2] https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms

Read about Jeff’s Army career in his book.

The Road to Unafraid

Listen to Jeff regularly on his Unbeatable podcast!

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