Finding Life in the Tension

A couple months ago I was diagnosed with PTSD. I didn’t want to accept it. I wanted to be stronger than that. I wanted more faith than that.

But the body doesn’t lie. The mind can creatively form narratives that protect us from the truth, but the body remembers what it has experienced.

My breath is very shallow, my heart races, I am easily startled by noise and even some smells. I like to keep my back against the wall, to assure that no one is behind me, I hate standing in lines and I keep physical distance between myself and others.

A few days after diagnosis  I was sitting outside alone, feeling the shallowness of my breath, and I chose a simple mantra.

You are safe, I said to myself, you are safe.

My body did not like those words, while my head longed for relief, the body wouldn’t concede. Don’t you dare believe you’re safe, it said, as adrenaline rushed through my veins. Believing you are safe puts you at risk.

So, as I read through Luke 2:8-20 this Christmas, I can’t help but read in trauma.

I can see the shepherds watching their flock, content, doing their job. It would have been a day like any other day. Nothing extraordinary had happened. Nothing would have seared the memory of that day into their minds. It was dark, the sky loomed big and the stars shone bright, the air fresh and cool.

Then the angel appeared and broke into the mundane, suddenly, in full glory, changing their lives forever. What a shock that must have been. I can feel the body tremble as the shepherds must have trembled. I know that fear. Unexpected, they must have feared for their lives.

As I read, I want to giggle at the thought of the angel speaking and saying, “Fear not.” Because, these shepherds are obviously afraid, and they should be afraid. This experience is not normal, this experience is not safe, and I can’t help but wonder why the angels spoke those words. Fear not. They had to have known that making such a statement would not alleviate the terror.

It does not alleviate mine.

And I can’t help but be jealous of this band of shepherds, because their traumatic experience was coupled with such good news. “I bring good news of great joy for all people,” the angel says, and after the trumpets have blown and they get a front row seat to a holy choir, they meet the savior face to face. The sleeping baby in a manger. All peace and calm and hope.

I long for good news in my trauma, too.

It would be easy for me to draw a correlation between the hope of these shepherds and my own life. That our Messiah and Savior has come into this world as a baby, to bring reconciliation and hope to the world. He has come to set the captives free, to bring sight to the blind and save us from our bondage to sin.

All of this would be true and right and good. Yet for me it lacks the depth of my own experience. Because while the kingdom has been ushered in, it is not yet fulfilled and so I live within this tension. The tension of faith and fear, brokenness and healing, righteous yet sinful.

Fear not, the angels say. Yet there is so much to fear. There is so much to be afraid of. The smell of smoke, the sound of fireworks, a skateboard on the sidewalk, a rustling in the bushes, a touch on the back. All of them trigger a fight, flight or freeze response, tightening my body, exposing my weakness. Sparking shame.

What is wrong with me? Why am I so weak? What did I do wrong?

This is why I love the prophets and I love the Psalms: because they honor this tension we find ourselves in. This place of longing for the peace of God’s kingdom and longing for justice and longing for healing, yet we have only received in part what we will receive one day in whole. We are not perfect yet. Our faith is not perfect yet. Our healing is not perfect yet.

I find great beauty in embracing this duality. It does not diminish the power of God; indeed, it enhances it when we are honest about the struggle without holding to the shame of brokenness. That is where the hope lies. That we are broken yet loved. Sinners yet family of God. Blind, yet full of vision.

I wonder, if the shepherds’ hearts would race at the sound of a trumpet, the memory of that night forever imbedded in their bodies. They saw the glory of God and, in their fear, they received his good news of great joy. Living themselves in the duality of faith and fear, longing for the day when the Messiah returns in glory, to finally reconcile us fully to himself.

Tears wiped.

Scars healed.

Hearts open.

No fear.

In the meantime, I will hold on to hope in the God who has purpose in my brokenness and a plan to use my weakness for my own good and for his glory among all peoples. In him there is no shame, only grace.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.

Can you embrace your brokenness? How has God used your weakness for his glory? How do you honor God in your story?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


  1. Katie December 9, 2018

    Thanks for your openness Joy! What you wrote is such a good reminded that we haven’t fully arrived yet. Definitely a tension to live in. You’ve encouraged me to hold onto the hope we have in Him and trust He will use our brokenness. May God continue to lead you on a path of healing, bringing beauty from ashes.

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Hi Katie, thank you, it is a good reminder to me too that we live in a broken world as broken people, it definitely encourages hope. I trust that God will continue to work his perfection into your own brokenness and bring healing as he is doing my own.

  2. Becky December 9, 2018

    You are so brave and so beautiful. Thank you. Again.

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      I know you don’t like it, Becky, but I love this accidental picture. It’s a sleeping lioness, brave, strong, dangerous and at rest. It is what I long to be in these next years.

  3. Spring December 9, 2018

    thanks for sharing a small vulnerable part of your journey with us. I struggle with the broken parts of me. There is also the very real fear that my sharing of my own struggles will cause someone to question if we should be overseas. When I look to God, I am able to see him in both the big and small of my story. About a year ago I started to invite him in to the messiness. The broken places, and the places where I feel I am failing. I realized he isn’t surprised at the places I am in. He is willing to come into the messiness. His restoration isn’t always an easy or fast process, but I am thankful for it.

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Hi Spring, thank you for sharing. I understand the fear of sharing my brokenness too and I have found that in the sharing there can be push back from the powers that be. There is that underlying fear that believes the exposure will disqualify me from work and maybe it will, but I also have a firm belief that the healing is what will bring us deeper in relationship to Christ and the struggle gives us empathy and knowledge that will be used to encourage his people. Blessings.

  4. Spring December 9, 2018

    PS your title and parts of the post really reminded me of the video I watched with my family today for advent. One of the definitions of hope involves the tension of him coming. I think I can’t share the link on here but if you look on youtube on The Bible Project on the word study Hope, it really blessed me today

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Thank you, Spring, I have looked it up and will watch it today while I make breakfast. I was just talking with my husband yesterday about how hope can only exist in a space where there is a lack of something. You don’t need hope for what is, but for what you long for there to be.

  5. Elizabeth December 10, 2018

    I relate to having to tell yourself you are safe, and having difficulty believing it. For me, it is OCD, a glitch in the brain that forever feels I am unsafe. I have to practice telling myself I am safe! And I have to practice NOT practicing the compulsions. It can be a stretch at times but gets easier with practice. . . .

    I think there’s a real reason there are a lot of “fear nots” in the Bible!

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Feeling safe is hard to talk yourself into and it is hard to live in a constant state of ‘un-safety’. I also love how many verses there are on fear in Scripture, it’s like God knows all and he knows that we need to hear a consistent message. I found this verse yesterday, from Isaiah 35:4, “Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” I love it, because it is a call to be strong, to stand tall, to face the fears head on and not cower behind them.

  6. Ruth December 10, 2018

    Thanks for sharing this tender part of your story with us, and helping us to live in the tension. I think Christians are often so quick to run to the “happy ending,” which although true is not the only option in the Bible. Living in the tension and already-but-not-yet is so important for us and so hard to do!

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Hi Ruth, I agree, and I love how you said that, Christians are quick to run to the happy ending and can neglect the reality of the tension. Blessings.

  7. Beth December 10, 2018

    Thanks so much for sharing – it takes a lot of bravery to open yourself up – sending love and prayers your way…

    1. Joy Smalley December 10, 2018

      Thank you, Beth!

  8. Karen December 10, 2018

    Thanks, Joy, for your beautiful vulnerability with us, and living into the tension with such courage! I’m a trauma therapist and work with cross-cultural workers with PTSD, and I am sharing your words with several of them today. I know they will be heartened and encouraged by your thoughts and feelings so truthfully expressed here. “In the meantime, I will hold on to hope in the God who has purpose in my brokenness and a plan to use my weakness for my own good and for his glory among all peoples.” Yes and amen!

    1. Joy Smalley December 11, 2018

      Thank you, Karen, for sharing this! It is a blessing to me as I struggle with seeing how my own brokenness can be used to encourage others. I pray God will move with gentleness and power within you as you help others work through trauma. Blessings.

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